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A queen gets his day in the sun: Music director Jim Boggess let’s it all out in “Jurassic Queen” cabaret

January 4, 2012 2 comments

Covering the Omaha arts-culture scene as I have for some 20 years I’ve met a lot of people doing a lot of fine work.  There are always newcomers to the scene, of course, whom I meet in completing assignments.  But there is a surprising number of veterans on the scene who for one reason or another or for no reason at all I miss connecting with all these years until the fates align and I subsequently meet them for the first time.  Jim Boggess is one of these.  He’s done a bit of everything in music and theater and I finally caught up with him on the eve of his doing a one-man diva show, Jurassic Queen, a couple years ago.  I think you’ll like Jim as much as I did for his warmth and honesty and absolute determination to be himself, no excuses or apologies, thank you.

Jim Boggess making friends with theatergoers, ©photo cornstalker.blogspot.com

 

 

A queen gets his day in the sun: Music director Jim Boggess let’s it all out in “Jurassic Queen” cabaret

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha Community Playhouse Music Director Jim Boggess likes big, brassy numbers. Sundays, he indulges his penchant for belt-it-out show-stoppers directing the Freedom Choir at Sacred Hearth Catholic Church. His dynamic, stand-up-and-shout lead at the piano cues the choir to make raise-the-rafters gospel sounds.

He’s been an “MGM kind of guy” since growing up in Estherville, Iowa, where his flamboyance fed off the movie musicals he watched at the Grand Theatre. He set his sights on show biz after seeing a high school production of Carousel. Being gay in a small, conservative Catholic community spelled trouble. Songs he’s written for his new cabaret at the P.S. Collective, Jurassic Queen: A One Diva Show, touch on those years.

“‘Gotta Go Away’ is about how I felt in that little town. I had to get out of there. It was not a safe place for me to be,” he said. No matter how ugly things got, he found refuge within his big Catholic clan. “My family was always wonderful to me.”

There’s a tribute to Barbra Streisand, long a figure of infatuation and inspiration. The diva’s music transported him beyond narrow-minded townies. “Listening to her when I was a kid got me through a lot of crap,” he said. He pokes fun at his over-the-top exuberance seeing her in concert for the first time last year.

One tune satirizes Catholic school. Two personal songs bracket the show. The opening title number “Jurassic Queen” defines him as “a survivor with a sense of humor who’s not afraid to talk about the amount of hair growing out of my nose.”

The closing ballad “is about never giving up the fight and about friends who are gone who can never die as long as you remember them,” he said. “I’ve lost my parents. I’ve lost friends – some to AIDS, one to suicide. I think about them every day. I miss them every day. There’s a period in you life when you really feel like you’re Typhoid Mary because everybody you know is dying. That’s a damn hard time to get through.”

 

 

The show is a declaration of what it means to be an aging gay man in America. Boggess insists it’s not some self-righteous polemic but a celebration of a rich life.

“I’ve had a helluva time and I’ve got some great stories to tell and some great songs to sing that aren’t just mine,” he said. “And I’ve got some funny stuff, too. There isn’t anything more boring than somebody coming on the stage and going, ‘I am gay and you must respect me.’ You have to have a sense of humor about yourself.”

The show also expresses the defiant attitude Boggess has cultivated. “I really just don’t give a damn what anybody thinks,” he said. “I mean, I care what my friends think but as far as total strangers and large legislative bodies I don’t.”

Omaha singer/actor Seth Fox, whose Royal Bohemian Productions is staging Jurassic Queen, said having the show at the P.S. Collective in Benson rather than a gay venue like The Max, where it previewed, makes a statement.

“It says we’re not afraid to be here and you have no reason to be afraid either,” he said. “This helps us to bring gay cabaret out of the gay bar into the mainstream. Make it less about being a gay-themed show and more about being a human interest show. Granted, some of the humor is going to cater to gay audiences but not all of it. There is something for everyone.”

“It’s not a drag show,” Boggess said. “I don’t wear a dress. I’m just who I am. It’s just me and a piano and a couple of cutouts.”

Besides, Boggess said, being gay is just one aspect of him.

“I’ve never ever defined myself by my preferences,” he said. “I define myself by the kind of person I am. It is certainly a part of me, an intrinsic part of me, but it is by no means all of me. There’s a lot more there.”

For a long time Boggess felt disapproval from the very institution that was supposed to love him unconditionally – the church.

“The exclusion of many different kinds of people made me very bitter towards the church. I never ever thought I would set foot back there again.”

But he did, finding “acceptance and inclusion” at Sacred Heart in north Omaha, where the gospel music he performs speaks to him. “It’s survival,” he said. “Show me any good gospel singer and I’ll show you somebody who’s survived.” The Freedom Choir he directs there is mostly white but they sure know how to get down with gospel.

“I’m as white as they come but I think there must have been some funny business in my family earlier because I feel a big affinity for it,” he said.

Versatility’s kept Boggess working steadily 35 years. He can sing, play, arrange and direct music. He acts. He came to Omaha in 1974, via the Mule Barn Theatre in Tarkio, Mo., to work in the Firehouse Dinner Theatre’s pre-show Brigade. He, along with Jim and Pam Kalal, formed the trio Best of Friends. Their dreams of Las Vegas revue stardom fizzled. He freelanced as music director at the Firehouse and the Upstairs Dinner Theatre. He toured two years with the Nebraska Theatre Caravan, composing two musicals with Cork Ramer. He played the pit at the Playhouse, where he also starred in La Cage Aux Falles. All of it, he said, proved “a great training ground.”

He’s held his present Playhouse gig for 11 years. His devotion to theater is a love affair. “You have to really have a passion for this to survive,” he said. He lives for those rare times when everything comes together.

“There are moments in shows and in music when it goes right, when it truly is an expression of you and the other performers and the chemistry and connection between you and the audience has an undefinable magic. It’s equal parts instant gratification and pride. Those moments don’t happen all the time but, boy, when they hit there ain’t nothing like them.”

He often collaborates on cabarets headlining others, including Fox, Jill Anderson and Camille Metoyer-Moten. He felt the time was ripe for his own one-man turn.

“It’s just another side of me that I thought I’d let out,” he said.

Better do it now, he thought, at age 55. “I mean, how long will I be presentable?”

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Open Invitation: Rev. Tom Fangman engages all who seek or need at Sacred Heart Catholic Church

January 9, 2011 2 comments

In an era when Catholic priests are too often in the news for the wrong reasons it’s a pleasure to write about one who is highly respected by the church and by the community.  The following article for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) about Rev. Tom Fangman is not the first I’ve written about this priest or the parish he pastors, Sacred Heart, in a largely African-American neighborhood in Omaha, Neb.  But while those earlier pieces, which can be found on this blog by the way, deal with the rip-roaring Sunday service he presides over, complete with a gospel choir and band, and the multi-million dollar restoration of the church, this latest story focuses on him and his calling as a priest.  He’s a sweet, gentle man who has managed the difficult task of not only keeping his parish church, school, and social service center alive but thriving in a district beset by profound poverty and high crime and an area hit harder than most by the recession.  His winning ways with people from all walks of life, whether CEOs or parents just struggling to get by, is what makes him so good at what he does.

 

 

Open Invitation: Rev. Tom Fangman engages all who seek or need at Sacred Heart Catholic Church

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

 

When Rev. Tom Fangman arrived as pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in 1998, the northeast Omaha parish was already known for its humanitarian embrace.

If anything, though, this hometown cleric with a gentle, jovial demeanor has broadened and deepened the caring community he guides there by forever reaching out to others. Gladly receiving all, he asks people to give, aware that service to others heeds our better angels.

“I’ve always been a people-person,” he said from the cozy living room of the rectory he resides in behind the church. “I find so much joy being around people. I’ve just been blessed with good people in my life. Before I came here Sacred Heart was known as a very welcoming community, a place where people of all different backgrounds could go and feel a part of, a place where they feel they belonged. I am most proud that we’ve carried on in that same spirit. I know it’s a community, I know it’s a community that cares. We’ve maintained that charism.

“We’ve also been a parish that has always had a strong conviction towards social justice and serving the needs of others and providing for the poor. We are that place and we are a place that I know for certain impacts the community. We’re helping lots of young people. I’m really proud of what what we’ve maintained in continuing to do for kids.”

On a frigid Saturday morning in November, there was Fr. Tom doling out donuts, muffins and thank-yous to delivery drivers picking up Thanksgiving gift pouches for the parish’s twice-annual holiday food distribution. A record 330-some families in need received a turkey, plus all the fixings, for Thanksgiving. The operation, which runs with friendly, relaxed precision out of the parish’s Heart Ministry Center (HMC), is repeated for Christmas.

For the weekend chiller, the affable padre stood outside, bundled from head to foot, meeting and greeting volunteers, an easy conviviality and respect between the priest and his flock. Typically, he downplays his part, instead praising the large team that makes this compassionate response a reality.

“Being the pastor here is just kind of like orchestrating,” he said. “It’s recognizing people’s goodness and gifts and inviting them to offer themselves. If people are offered an invitation, they’re going to go with it. The things that happen here are because there are lots of really good people. They’re willing to get involved and to give of themselves.

“There’s lots of things I love about being a priest but one of the most exciting is when people become aware of God’s presence in their life, and no two stories are ever the same. Every person has their own journey and own ways that are revealed to them.”

 

 

He said he’s come to view his ministry as inviting people to give, whether their time, talent or treasure, in order to be of service to others. He said he’s often teased that he has a way about him that makes it impossible for anyone to say no.

“Well, there are people who have said no to me, but I’ve just kind of learned that shouldn’t stop you,” he said. “You go to the next place, you find the next person. I believe in the goodness of people. I also have high expectations of what people can do, and sometimes they really need that invitation to show that.”

Located at 2218 Binney Street, Sacred Heart serves the most poverty stricken area of the city through three nonprofit arms Fangman oversees. The most visible of these is the church, which originally opened at another site clear back in 1890.

The present stone, late-Gothic Revival church that stands today opened in 1902. Through Fangman’s leadership the parish was able to find the funds and in-kind contributions necessary for the building to undergo a $3.3 million restoration in 2009. He announced the capital campaign to fund the project in 2008. After making the case, folks responded, and within a year all pledges were secured.

More than a picture-postcard Old World edifice made new again, the church is a well-attended gathering place that draws worshipers, just as Sacred Heart counts parishioners, from all over the metro. The hospitality there is evident in the way newcomers are greeted. The Sunday 10:30 a.m. Mass is famous for its spirited celebration, complete with a rousing gospel choir and band. The animated “sign of peace” ritual includes hand shakes, salutations, hugs, kisses, as many folks circulate from pew to pew engaging each other. The fellowship resumes after Mass ends.

As a parish priest, Fangman is more than a spiritual figurehead. He’s a flesh-and-blood confessor, advisor, counselor, confidante, friend, leader, fundraiser and CEO. He serves his flock in macro and micro ways. He’s there at the most public and private, joyous and sad occasions. Hundreds of photographs of people in his life adorn every smooth surface in his kitchen, a reflection of how many he impacts and how many touch him.

“Being a parish priest lets you be involved in lots of peoples lives, from womb to tomb,” he said. “People say to me, ‘How can you be around so much sadness and death?’ I don’t know how to answer that but one thing I do know is that holiness is there in the midst of it, because that’s where love is.”

He fills multiple roles in the course of any given week: saying several Masses; hearing confessions; presiding, on average, over at least one wedding or funeral; visiting the sick; preparing couples for marriage; attending board meetings; calling on donors; and crafting his homilies.

He feels good about a lot of things that go on at Sacred Heart.

“I feel like we have a really great thing to sell, and I’m sold, I believe in what we’re doing and I’ll talk to anybody about that,” he said.

A shining example he never tires of touting is Sacred Heart Elementary School, a K-8 institution serving a predominantly African-American, non-Catholic student population. The school’s financial sustainability and operations are supported by the nonprofit CUES or Christian Urban Education Service, comprised of an “established board” of Omaha movers and shakers. Fangman is its executive director.

He said students at the small private school consistently test above average and that faculty and staff rigorously prepare students to succeed, adding that 98 percent graduate high school within four years. Mentors are assigned every student, all of whom receive work and life skills training.

Whether it’s the school, the church, or the center, he said, Sacred Heart is concerned with “addressing the whole person — body, mind and spirit.” Nothing satisfies him more than seeing the results come-full-circle in an each one, teach one way: “I get to see the goodness of people who want to make a difference, and then I get to see who receives from that goodness, and then what they do with that. Ultimately our goal is to give people opportunities. Sacred Heart is about opportunities.”

He said, “This young lady came up to me to say she grew up down the street from Sacred Heart, attended school here nine years, went to Duchesne Academy, then St. Louis University. She worked at First National Bank and she wanted to be a mentor here. To me that spoke pretty loudly about what we’re able to do, which is giving kids the opportunity to make it in life, to grow and discover what they have to offer. I want to see that continue on. I want to see those opportunities always given.”

The parish responds to social service/ human needs through Heart Ministry Center, home to the area’s only self-select pantry. Thousands receive free food, clothing, health care and other services from HMC each year. In 2002 Fangman consolidated its services on campus, raising $650,000 to build a new building.

Sacred Heart’s mission requires big money. The center operates on a $360,000 budget. The school budget is $1.3 million. Running the church/parish costs $500,000.

“That’s $2 million you have to somehow come up with,” said Fangman, adding that to secure that kind of commitment requires reaching into all areas of Omaha.

Three major fundraisers are held yearly. Holy Smokes is a pre-Labor Day bash benefiting HMC. It features barbecue, refreshments and live music. The Gathering is a sit-down dinner in support of the school. The Sacred Heart Open is a croquet tournament, battle-of-the-bands and barbecue to assist the church/parish. Two of the events began under Fangman’s watch and all three, he said, are well supported.

Thirteen years into his post, Fangman’s overdue for a transfer, but he doesn’t sense his work at Sacred Heart is finished yet.

“If I felt like we had done everything we were supposed to do, then I would feel like it’s probably time to try something new and different, but I feel like we’re on the verge of some really vital things happening.”

Whatever happens, he said, “I want to feel like I know I tried to make this a better place. I want to continue trying to get the right people in the right spots.”

To do the right thing.

Tender Mercies Minister to Omaha’s Poverty Stricken

May 31, 2010 1 comment

Omaha, Neb. is a still rather nebulous place to most Americans.  Say the name of this Midwestern city and most folks draw a blank or else associate it with the Great Plains and agriculture, and therefore as some featureless, white bread, flyover zone with little to recommend it.  Or, if they do know Omaha, it’s likely for its high rankings among the best places to live and raise a family, its strong schools, its thriving arts and cultural scene, its relatively booming economy.  Some may know it as the home and base of billionaire Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway, a total of four Fortune 500 companies, the College World Series, and a popular zoo that attracts nearly two million visitors.  Unless you live here or keep close tabs on the city, what you don’t think of with Omaha is a predominantly African American inner city with endemic problems of poverty, unemployment, and youth violence that, per capita, are among the worst in the nation.

The following story, which appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com), profiles one of many social service agencies addressing the problem of poverty through a pantry program and resource/referral center.  It reflects the harsh realities and tender mercies that many urban communities experience every day.

 

Tender Mercies Minister to Omaha’s Poverty Stricken

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

Tender mercies come in all forms. For those folks living on the margin, the difference between getting by and going hungry may be the kindness of strangers.

Sara Hohnstein and her small staff with the Heart Ministry Center at 22nd and Binney in north Omaha are part of a nameless, faceless army of professionals and volunteers in the human-social services arena working the frontlines of poverty. They represent the safety net that thousands in Omaha depend on to squeeze by.

The center is a nonprofit community outreach arm of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2218 Binney St., which has been a neighborhood presence since 1902.

Where the church is an old stone Gothic Revival monolith, complete with a 124-foot spire, the center is a low-slung, nondescript building of brick, glass and steel erected in 2005. No matter, each targets the neighborhood’s needs with the same compassionate mission, one that also guides the parish’s Sacred Heart Grade School. Just as the students the school serves are predominantly African American and non-Catholic, so are the bulk of the center’s clients.

The Heart Ministry is a calling for executive director Hohnstein.

“I think ultimately what inspires me to do this is I have a real strong belief that everyone deserves to have their basic needs met,” she said. “They deserve to have food on the table, a roof over their head. It’s really the concepts of mercy and justice. I really feel like I was almost born to help relieve suffering in this world. I have a strong faith in that. I have a passion for it. I really enjoy it.”

The chronically poor most rely on helping agencies like hers for subsistence. Caught in a cycle of public welfare dependence, they are the first to seek help and the first to feel cutbacks in service.

Hohnstein said some center clients fall into a “very low income” category that finds them earning as little as $200 to $300 a month. Some are homeless.

But in this economic tailspin of downsizings, slowdowns, shortages and vanishing 401Ks even individuals and families who seemingly have it made are feeling the pinch. Desperate straits can be as near as a lost job or a missed mortgage payment. Those living paycheck-to-paycheck can ill afford any bumps. A few weeks of lost income here or a major medical crisis there, and savings can be wiped out.

More and more clients don’t fit the classic down-and-out profile. Hohnstein said her center’s “seeing a lot of new faces,” including middle class folks struggling to make it. Count Tamara and Preston King among them. Despite their dual incomes  — she’s a nursing assistant and he’s a phlebotomist — the Omaha couple just can’t provide everything their 10 children need without some outside aid.

“It’s very helpful for me and my family,” Tamara said one spring morning as she waited for center volunteers to bag her family’s allotment o groceries. Clients qualify for different amounts of food items based on income and family size. Food pantries are available by referral from school counselors, social workers, case managers. Walk-in pantries are available select days. Proper ID is required.

Hohnstein said the center is seeing the same sharp spike in demand for services reported by food banks, pantries and shelters across America. In October she said the center had 2,991 services go out — encompassing everything from food to household items to toiletries to clothing to financial assistance — compared to 1,421 service outputs the previous October.

“It has been a significant increase. The need is greater. We’re trying to do more.”

healthcenterAnother indicator of how tight things are for more people is the number of holiday food care packages the center’s providing. “We delivered 380 baskets this Thanksgiving. Last year we delivered 190,” she said. “The 380 baskets will feed 1,718 people.” The demand was so high this fall, she added, the center was unable to satisfy all the requests. She expects the adopt-a-family Christmas program will deliver baskets to about as many clients, 130 families, as last year. “However, this year we’re also a Toys-for-Tots distribution site, and that will add hundreds more children to the number we are serving.”

Thus far, she said, the economic downturn hasn’t slowed donations.

“At this point we haven’t seen our cash donations go down but they haven’t gone up either. As the need increases we need to increase our budget,” which she said is presently $250,000. “We have seen people being more generous with material donations of clothing and food as compared to last year.”

Service requests typically peak the end of any month, she said, as people get paid early and then scramble to make ends meet. “The end of the month they run out of food stamps and they just need something to kind of fill in the gap,” she said. Single moms comprise “our biggest users,” she said. “We also have a smaller but still significant elderly population. And then disabled folks that aren’t able to work for whatever reason.”

There’s a core of “regulars” who access the center’s services, which clients are restricted to using once every 90 days or four times a year.

The summer finds an uptick in pantry requests, she said, because kids don’t receive the free and reduced meals they get at school, putting more of a strain on poor households already stretched thin. The center won a grant from the Ronald McDonald House to hold a Back to School event in August that provided students free physicals and school supplies.

Food is the main service the center provides. In the last fiscal year she said 9,865 people were supplied with a week’s worth of groceries. Hohnstein said “a family of four usually walks out of here with between $70 and $90 worth of food” per visit.

With so many mouths to feed, the Kings went home with two bags full of assorted edibles. But not necessarily the groceries of their choice. Not that Tamara King’s complaining. She makes do with every last product.

“Everything we get, we eat,” she said. “You have to come up with creative meals sometimes, but it’s fun putting together the meals.”

Until recently the center, like most pantries, operated a bag system whereby clients received presorted groceries volunteers filled from the pantry’s shelves. Brand differences aside, every prepared bag contained the same mix of canned and packaged goods, including staples like macaroni, rice, cereal and peanut butter. The benefit to this approach was consistency and fairness. The drawback was some clients ended up with items they couldn’t or wouldn’t eat due to dietary restraints or personal preferences. The potential for unused food seemed a waste.

Hohnstein sought a self-select process to give people a voice in what they receive. She calls it “a more empowering way of getting food.” That’s why the center recently transitioned to a list system that allows clients to check off what groceries they want. USDA guidelines still put a cap on the amount but within limits pantry volunteers now fill customized orders. Tracking what people select may result in better inventory control. A next step may be a shelf system that enables clients to go back into the pantry with a volunteer to “shop” and fill their own bag.

As before, clients get a choice of frozen meats and as much frozen vegetables as they desire. Fresh dairy products are offered until supplies run out. Special items, like prepared tortilla and ravioli entrees, are available in limited quantities.

The list system wasn’t in use yet when the Kings got their groceries that late spring day. Told of the coming change, Tamara said, “That’ll be even nicer.”

Hohnstein said reception to the list system, which went in effect in June, has been “awesome. In addition to the tough economy I believe it is another reason that our pantry is being utilized more by clients. They love being able to pick their own food, and we have seen that they actually only take about 70 percent of what is offered to them because they don’t want to take food that their family is not going to eat. They prefer to let people who are going to eat it have it.”

As much as the help’s appreciated, King said, it’s disconcerting to her and her husband they must seek assistance at all. “Two grown parents working full-time jobs and it’s still not enough,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Our oldest daughter’s going to college, so you know that’s more money for things we have to spend on.” Without the free groceries, she’s not sure how they’d make it. “It really helps us out a lot. It’s a blessing.”

Where the Kings are working homeowners living the American Dream and yet barely scraping by, Udale L. Barnes has more of a typical skid row story. The unemployed resident of a local homeless shelter is trying to pick up the pieces from a run of hard luck that’s left him high and dry. The center is one way-stop in his recovery.

“I’m down at the (Siena) Francis House, so I’m just looking for some help right now,” he said waiting for his food allotment. “I’m trying to get me an apartment and get back on my feet. I lost my home. So I’m trying to do the right thing now instead of being out in these streets. I’m trying to get back on that right track.”

America’s social compact with the needy is an imperfect one. For the better part of a century the nation’s turned to a hodgepodge of local, state, federal governmental programs as well as churches and social service agencies to meet people’s emergency needs for food, clothing, housing, rent, utility payments, employment and other essentials.

Omaha’s landscape for helping the at-risk population mirrors that of any community its size. A network of pantries, shelters, thrift stores and other basic human service providers operate year-round as stop-gaps people can access during tough times.

Pockets of need exist across the metro but widespread poverty among African Americans in northeast Omaha presents special challenges. Sacred Heart’s charity has always extended to the poor in its midst. As the neighborhood’s demographics changed in the post-Civil Rights era from a racially mixed working class core to a poor black majority the church has responded with new social ministry efforts. For example, its Human Needs Door Ministry opened in ‘82 to provide food and other items to families facing shortfalls or just hard times. Sr. Mary Ann Murphy headed up what was the precursor to the Heart Ministry.

In 1997 Murphy and parishioner Pattie Fidone launched the original Heart Ministry Center, located two miles northwest of the church. The center increasingly focused on families in crisis and began the holiday food basket tradition.

Sacred Heart pastor Rev. Tom Fangman led the move to relocate the center to the parish campus. By the time the new, larger facility opened just west of the church in ‘05 its expanded and formalized services included a full pantry and a large surplus clothes operation that’s since been named Iva’s Closet for its manager, Iva Williams.

Since Hohnstein came to the center in ‘07, the Heart Ministry’s continued growing to address the ever more acute poverty problem and the health issues facing the poor. She serves on a North 24th Street Providers board that focuses on better serving the area’s impoverished. The center partners with Creighton University, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and area physicians to offer on-site blood pressure and diabetes screenings and health workshops focusing on nutrition and pregnancy. The center also offers occasional life skills and employability classes.

A Grand Rapids, Mich. native, the thirtysomething Hohnstein is a social worker with a wealth of experience serving the poor. She credits much of her passion for the field to another Sr. Murphy — Sr. Mary Alice Murphy — she worked with in Fort Collins, Colo., where Hohnstein earned her master’s at Colorado State.

Hohnstein described Murphy as “a phenomenon,” adding, “She’s done some amazing work. She started several homeless shelters in northern Colorado and she started Care Housing, a 700-unit complex of affordable housing. She’s fabulous. She was my mentor and I was her protege for two years, and that really got me interested in more broad-based community work.”

The two remain connected.

“We still e-mail and talk on the phone at least once a month,” Hohnstein said. “Whenever I’ve got kind of a complicated issue here I’ll call up Sister and see what she has to say. She’s been there, done that, through and through.”

Hohnstein said the example of Sr. Murphy doing social work through the church became the model for how she, as a lay woman, could apply her professional expertise in “a faith-based” framework. When Hohnstein and her husband moved to Omaha in 2007 so he could continue medical school studies at UNMC, she took a temporary job as a hospice social worker. She liked the work but when the Heart Ministry post came up she leapt at it.

“When this job opened it was really like a perfect fit for the experience I had had in Fort Collins, and the type of work I wanted to do.”

The Heart Ministry can’t do it all though. It has finite resources to meet select needs. It doesn’t pretend to be a one-stop service center. She said “the parish community really supports us with volunteers and finances. It’s a wonderful community and it’s a great fit.”

Sometimes people show up or call seeking aid the center doesn’t have to give. Referrals are made to other helping agencies, but being turned away or redirected can be interpreted as rebuff, rejection, run-around. Yes, there’s satisfaction that comes with being a good Samaritan, but not being able to help everyone hurts.

“I think the toughest days here are the days when the phone is ringing off the hook with people that need things,” she said, “like financial assistance. Or they got evicted, and so they don’t have a roof over their head right now. Or they have kids in their home and their water and heat got shut off in the dead of winter. That kind of stuff — and we don’t have any resources to help them.

“You get one or two phone calls like that a day and you can kind of push them aside and do your job, but when you get 15-20-25 calls, and that happens very regularly in the winter, especially at the end of the month, than those types of things get a little bit emotionally wearing.”

Then there’s the reality of doing a largely thankless job that pays less than a teacher makes and that involves long hours.

“There’s just some days where everybody’s grateful, everybody’s happy and it’s fun to be working out in the pantry, and there’s other days where everybody collectively just seems to be in a bad mood,” she said. “Those are hard days to be here, especially when you sacrifice a little bit to work in a job like this and you don’t feel appreciated.”

Fortunately, she said, most “of the days here are good days.”

She also likes the fact her work entails engaging the community in many ways. She does everything from tend the pantry produce garden she began last summer to help unload and stock truckloads of food or clothes. She makes presentations before CEOs and civic groups, she attends board meetings, she leads strategic planning sessions, she fields phone calls asking for help.

All these duties are expressions of those tender mercies she feels called to give.

“We think of addressing poverty as acts of mercy and acts of justice.”

 

Gimme Shelter: Sacred Heart Catholic Church Offers a Haven for Searchers

May 31, 2010 5 comments

Sacred Heart Catholic Church

Image by bluekdesign via Flickr

I had long been aware of the rousing 10:30 a.m. Sunday service at a certain North Omaha Catholic church, where gospel music is a main attraction owing to a congregation that includes a significant African American presence and a neighborhood that is predominantly black.  The sign of peace greeting there is also famous for how it brings people out of their pews for open displays of welcome and affection — a marked departure from the usual repressed Catholic ritual. The dichotomy of Sacred Heart Catholic Church is that most of its members and visitors are white, almost all of whom live far from the church’s inner city locale, which has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation.  When I finally got around to attending the dynamic service there, I was not disappointed.  The gospel choir and band make a powerful sound and parishioners go out of their way to welcome newcomers.  The story I wrote about this place and its people originally appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com).

Gimme Shelter: Sacred Heart Catholic Church Offers a Haven for Searchers

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of this story appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

Something’s happening in Omaha’s African American inner city. Most any day on the Sacred Heart Catholic Church campus at 22nd and Binney a diverse mix of folks gets together for Mass, community service projects, school activities, Rite of Christian Initiation classes, Bible study sessions, et cetera.

Black or white, straight or gay, most Sacred Heart members live far outside this old working class area beset by poverty, unemployment and crime. They gather from all over — the suburbs, mid-town, out-of-town. Some are disaffected Catholics. Others are of different faiths. All come in search of something. The unconditional  embrace and dynamic liturgy they find lead many to make it their spiritual home.

The blended crowds qualify it as Omaha’s most integrated Catholic church. Sacred Heart’s 800 members include about 150 blacks, the majority of whom attend Saturday night service. Sunday mornings at 10:30 the 117-year-old Gothic Revival church fills for a justly famous, popular, rollicking rite that’s livelier and longer than the typical stodgy, albeit sublime, Mass. Mostly whites attend. Some blacks, too.

The SRO Sunday celebration features some nontraditional, by Catholic standards, elements, headlined by the gospel music-inspired Freedom Choir and band. We’re talking raise-the-rafters vocals and instrumentals by stand-up-and-shout, get-justified-with-the-Lord performers who hold their own with any Baptist ensemble. They’ve got it all, minus the robes — big voices, pleasing harmonies, scorching solos, hot bass lines, slamming percussive riffs and rousing piano jags.

The mostly white choir defies expectations. They know how to get down though.

“I grew up as a Baptist. I’ve been around some very spiritual choirs and I would say this one would pretty much give them a run for their money,” said Shedrick Triplett.

Frank Allen describes it as “the most stepped-up Catholic service you’ll see. It’s not this solemn, stagnant, boring service.” Fellow parishioner Johnnie Shaw said, “This is a one of a kind place, not just for Omaha. There’s nothing like Sacred Heart. It’s truly off the beaten path. Its not the traditional Simon-Says Catholic church. It’s a whole lot more than that.” “I think it’s a breath of fresh air. They do things a little differently there,” Triplett said.

Jim Chambers knew he’d found something different the first time he stepped foot in Sacred Heart and heard those sounds. “It wasn’t all that Ave Maria-type stuff. The music was more upbeat.”

Gospel’s a Protestant, not a Catholic thing. The only Catholic churches with a gospel tradition are those with significant black membership. As Omaha’s historic home to black Catholics, St. Benedict has gospel music-rich liturgies.

Music makes Sacred Heart a destination. The congregation’s hospitality, including official greeters, keeps folks coming back. The pews fill a half hour before the service, so get there early. Unlike the silence before most Masses, there’s a din at Sacred Heart. Performers jam as worshipers file in. The crowd interacts. It all feeds what Allen calls “a concert-style atmosphere.”

It becomes one live-wire church, buzzing with a crazy energy from all the praying, clapping, dancing, singing and music making. Call it the Holy Spirit.

“You feel that electricity in the air. You feel that this isn’t just a ho-hum service,” Allen said. “It’s less formal or stuffy, it’s more fun, it’s more lively. You feel you can be a more active participant and not just an observer,” said Anne Chambers.

The hymns offer a call to surrender and action — to walk humbly with God and to serve the least among us. The Our Father’s sung in a hand-holding, communal style that ends with interlinked arms raised overhead. The sign of peace is an over-the-top love-fest with folks spilling out of the pews to exchange handshakes, hugs, kisses, well-wishes. It lasts 10 minutes.

Pastor Tom Fangman admits “it’s not for everybody. Some think it’s too much, too loud, too expressive.” Omaha’s archbishop is reportedly displeased with some of what goes on there, but Fangman insists it’s all orthodox. So does Liz Hruska, who said “it isn’t a fringe Catholic church. It’s just our worship style is a little more emotional and expressive…” She comes all the way from Lincoln to do it. One member drives in from South Dakota.

They’ve been flocking there to worship this way since the 1980s. Then pastor Jim Scholz took over an integrated parish in decline, its ranks thinned by white flight. Mass attendance was abysmal. Gospel already had a hold there, thanks to Father Tom Furlong introducing it in the ‘late ’60s-early ’70s, but not like it does today.

“It was a very conservative, quiet little neighborhood parish,” Scholz said. “Most of the members were longtime parishioners, many of them quite elderly. Physically, the place was dilapidated. I felt we had to do something dramatic.”

Scholz got the idea for spirited, gospel music-based “uplifting liturgies” from an inner city parishes conference in Detroit. He was impressed how churches in similar circumstances turned things around with the help of gospel. He saw the music as a homage to black heritage and a magnet for new members.

“What the music said was we are reaching out to your traditions and we’re trying to make you feel comfortable to come to our church,” he said.

He found a first-rate choir director in Glenn Burleigh, under whom the church’s full-blown entry into gospel began at the Saturday night Mass. The 10:30 Sunday liturgy remained ultra-traditional and sparsely attended.

“Six months later we’d gone from a Saturday service with 30 to 35 people, with hardly any music, to standing in the aisles full with a wonderful ensemble,” Scholz said. “Glenn wrote special music almost weekly for the service. People started to come out of the woodwork once the word got out. It was such a refreshing thing.

“We didn’t grow exponentially in black membership, although we did grow some. What we grew in was white membership.”

Sacred Heart’s black members appreciated the gospel emphasis. “As African Americans what sets us apart as Catholics is we were always exposed to gospel music. At home Mahalia Jackson was required listening on Sundays,” Lynette McCowen said. She added that while gospel “was already a great part of Sacred Heart, it just came to a different level (under Burleigh).”

When Burleigh was hired away by a mega-Baptist church in Houston Scholz tapped his assistant, William Tate, to take over. Tate still leads the gospel choir on Saturdays. Scholz recruited a new choir director, Mary Kay Mueller, to energize the 10:30 Sunday service. For inspiration, he referred her to The Blues Brothers.

So it came to pass the movie’s Triple Rock Church became a model for the expressive Sacred Heart liturgy. No, Scholz wasn’t interested in “people doing somersaults down the front aisle,” he said. But he wanted “to come up with that spirit.” Unbridled. Joyous. Free. “We really need to come alive here,” he told Mueller. Thus, the Freedom Choir was born.

Post-Vatican II liturgies tended to be, well, dull. “When I started there Catholic churches were playing it really safe. Non-denominational churches were full of people who left as a result. A lot of the heart had gone out of the liturgy,” Mueller said. “It was more cerebral than emotional…more head than heart. Father Jim and I were in full agreement that we wanted a joyful celebration.”

By its very nature, she said, gospel taps deep stirrings. “The goal is never to sing it the same way twice because you are never the same person…When you bring your heart and soul to a song it’s fresh and new every time.”

“I think that music cuts right to the heart of things. It’s immediate, it’s arresting, it’s accessible, it’s gut wrenching. I’m trying to move the choir more into being both quiet and big and brassy and loud, but still in a very soulful way,” said Jim Boggess, who succeeded Mueller in ‘99.

The metamorphosis that begat the 10:30 phenomenon happened gradually. A conga drum, a saxophone, a tambourine were incorporated. “No Catholic churches in this area were using percussion then,” Mueller said. “We had to take some risks.”

Among the risks was Scholz extending an open invitation for anyone to worship there. The service evolved into what one member calls “a free-for-all,” or as Scholz likes to say, “a razz-ma-tazz sort of thing.” This vivaciousness includes the marathon, effusive peace greeting — what Shaw calls “a great social celebration.” The fellowship continues after Mass. Substance is behind the razz-ma-tazz.

“I think what grabbed me when I first started going there is that everybody that walks in the door is made to feel important and welcome,” Judy Haney said, “no matter where they’re from, what stage of life they’re at, what they look like, what kind of lifestyle they lead. Gays and straights, poor and rich, black and white, it doesn’t make any difference, you’re just welcome.”

“The church is very open to whatever problems you may be going through or    whatever your situation may be,” Jim Chambers said. “Some people there have had their struggles in the church. Some come in with broken spirits. It doesn’t matter,” said Shaw. Haney was among those to find healing. “I was going through a real rough period in my life,” she said, “so I came here, and that was it. It’s just like a second family.” “You’ll never meet a congregation that’s more loving toward each other,” Boggess said.

Irene Kilstrom was drifting from her faith when she found Sacred Heart.

“A friend of mine said, ‘Before you decide not to go to church anymore come to Sacred Heart.’ I did and have never looked back. I really do feel it is a community. Wherever this church was I would go to it. I was in San Diego for a year and looked everywhere in that big city for anything even close to this, and didn’t find it.”

Mary Lynn Focht said she came after “some unfortunate experiences” at “very conservative, narrow-minded” churches, “and what I found here was open-mindedness and tolerance for all.”

Boggess, who’s gay, said at one time he didn’t have a home in the Catholic Church. “I felt unwanted. I’m gay, I’m a big mouth, I’m a lot of things they don’t seem to particularly care for, and I don’t feel that way anymore.” Sacred Heart, he said, “is so unlike anything I had experienced — the joy, the acceptance, the wonderful mix of people…” It all starts at the top. “The message that Father Fangman puts in his sermons — is all about acceptance, it’s all about inclusion,” Boggess said.

Biracial couple Ann and Frank Allen didn’t feel welcome at other churches. “We definitely got the cold shoulder at a couple places — one was flat out rude,” Ann said. “Sacred Heart is not like that. People are hugging you there the first day you’re there. Just a very loving, warm environment.” Frank likes how at Sacred Heart their kids “are judged by their character and not for the color of their skin.”

The Allens come all the way from Papillion. “The drive’s worth it,” Anne said.

Convert Jennifer Di Ruocco feels “welcomed,” not “shunned” as she did elsewhere. Profoundly deaf worshiper Sheldon Bernard appreciates the interpretive signing Julie Delkamiller does for the deaf and hard of hearing.

“People find what they’re looking for here — a Catholic church that nurtures them, makes them feel like they belong and they can feel a connection to,” Fangman said.

In a segregated district saddled by negative perceptions that keep many outsiders, read: whites, away, these pilgrims venture there anyway. So what’s it all about? Are they urban adventurers out ‘slumming’? Liberals assuaging a sense of guilt or satisfying a call to service? Perhaps their presence is an act of faith or a call for action in a community many write-off as hopeless.

“I guess in my case it’s an act of defiance to show people who think like that they’re wrong,” Haney said. “North Omaha gets a bad rap. If you’re prone to believe everything you see in the news, you’d think north Omaha is full of thugs and criminals. We owe it to this community” to overturn those ideas. “This area’s got its problems, but I know so many people in this neighborhood that are just outstanding, wonderful citizens. They want the best for their kids. The school provides kids a great education. Ninety-nine percent of the students are not Catholic,” said Haney, former Sacred Heart school board president.

Toni Holiday said those from outside the neighborhood who support Sacred Heart “have that sensitivity that these are my brothers and sisters.” Anne Chambers said, “I think it means they have a vested interest in that community. I think it says a lot that a church in north Omaha can bring white people in. I like that participation.”

“Many parishioners would never have stepped foot in north Omaha if not for Sacred Heart,” said Pastoral Associate Joyce Glenn. “There’s fear at first but all the scary stories we hear about north Omaha are dissipated when you’re part of the community.” “It really helps people understand to not be afraid to drive down 24th Street,” Michelle Jackson-Triplett said. “The whole north Omaha thing — we need to break through that,” Mueller noted.

Deb Burkholder admits she and husband Kent “worried” when they first went there. “Our perception has changed hugely,” she said. “I’m not going to say it doesn’t have its issues — it does. But there are issues downtown.” The couple believe so strongly in North O, the people and the parish that these empty-nesters moved from an Old Market condo to a house across the street from the church.

“We finally came to the realization that things aren’t going to change in our city unless we become part of the change,” she said.

Appreciating differences within a multicultural setting can breech barriers. Music and other ministries at Sacred Heart attempt to do just that.

“My big thing is diversity,” Haney said. “I want to be around people that aren’t like me. I want to learn from them. They have so many things to give. I’ve been to a lot of Catholic churches in Omaha and they don’t reflect the world. Sacred Heart looks like the world should. It’s made my life a lot richer.”

Glenn said interracial friendships result from the integrated church’s fellowship. “The more we can become friends,” she said, “the more color blind we are.”

Sacred Heart has an impact on the neighborhood. The school, which serves 130 students, offers employability and life skills classes to help kids out of poverty. Fangman said 98 percent of its grads go onto complete high school. Many earn college scholarships. He said the Heart Ministry Center provides food, clothing, utility assistance and nutrition-health ed classes to thousands each month.

“We’re an anchor,” he said. “I know we’re making a difference.”

The work Sacred Heart does draws much support — both in dollars and volunteers.
Then there are the throngs that gather for services and special events.

“To get that many people together every Sunday has got to be a stabilizing influence,” Jim Chambers said. “I think it’s healthy.”

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