Keeping up those rewriting skills

Jose Orta hands out fans during a vigil at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in late June in Taylor, Texas. The former medium security prison converted for family detention in 2006, has been the subject of harsh criticism from attorneys, immigrant advocates and civil rights organizations. (CNS/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

Jose Orta hands out fans during a vigil at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in late June in Taylor, Texas. The former medium security prison converted for family detention in 2006, has been the subject of harsh criticism from attorneys, immigrant advocates and civil rights organizations. (CNS/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of spending a few weeks on a story, turning it in with the expectation that it will run “tomorrow,” then hearing on the radio the next morning that the entire premise of your story is about to be made irrelevant.

Is it good news that it hadn’t run yet, or bad news that you now have to rewrite the whole thing (and here)?

Do you feel disappointed that your story didn’t get out in time to explain the problem before an announcement is made about its resolution? Or do you sigh with relief that you don’t have to put out a “stop the presses, don’t use that story, a new version is coming ASAP” advisory?

After covering the U.S. bishops’ spring meeting in San Antonio in June, I stayed in Texas a few days for a couple of other reporting projects, including the chance to cover a rally focused on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy of detaining families in a former medium- security prison in the small town of  Taylor.

The  T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility had been on my “write about this” list since 2007, shortly after ICE began putting families there and reports came out about the conditions inside. Pax Christi, Catholic Charities organizations, and several men’s and women’s religious orders had long been among groups protesting the use of Hutto to detain families.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which frequently partners with various Catholic immigration organizations, had co-written a report that led to a lawsuit against ICE, resulting in a settlement which brought some significant changes, though problems remained. My immigration sources regularly pointed to Hutto as a situation in need of more public exposure.

Maria Elena Casetllanos holds a sign during a vigil at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in late June in Taylor, Texas. (CNS/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

Maria Elena Casetllanos holds a sign during a vigil at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in late June in Taylor, Texas. (CNS/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

So I was glad my Texas trip coincided with one of the regular protest events in Taylor. I wasn’t able to arrange a visit inside, but I made some good contacts, heard the issues aired and got a firsthand sense of what the detention center is like from the outside, as well as what the Taylor community is like.

When I got back to the CNS office in July, amid other assignments, I worked on explaining Hutto’s history and the issues it presents, relying on a stream of relevant reports (by a court-appointed monitor,  by the National Immigration Law Center and the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Jusice) that came out one after another in July.  And I started trying to get background information and answers to questions about Hutto and ICE detention policy from various public affairs staffers at the Department of Homeland Security.

I wasn’t having much luck. I received a series of “we’re working on your questions. We’ll get back to you” responses. Finally, I let my contact know that I couldn’t wait any longer. I’d given them a couple of weeks already and the story was going to run with an “ICE didn’t respond” clause by midweek.

The story went to my editor, lacking ICE comment.

Clearly, I wasn’t the only reporter working on Hutto stories, though. The morning of Aug. 6, The New York Times reported on “leaked” information that ICE was that day going to announce the end of family detention at T. Don Hutto and a revamping of the entire immigrant detention system.

That was indeed what John Morton, assistant secretary for ICE, announced later that morning.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go completely back to the drawing board and our clients didn’t have to rip a now-outdated story from their page layouts just before press time.

I’d still rather not have had to redo something I’d worked on for so long. But it is kind of refreshing to be able to simultaneously explain a problem and report that someone in charge has already announced a plan to fix it.

Two Catholic leaders among nation’s top nonprofit executives

Father Larry Snyder, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities USA, and Franciscan Sister Georgette Lehmuth, president and chief executive officer of the National Catholic Development Conference, have been named to a list of the country’s most influential nonprofit executives.

The NonProfit Times’ 12th annual Power and Influence Top 50 selected the two for “the impact the have now and for the innovative plans they are putting in place to evolve the charitable sector.”

The newspaper cited Catholic Charities USA’s work to cut poverty in half by 2020 and its strong collaboration with the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican’s office for promoting and coordinating charity. 

Sister Georgette’s work to facilitate conversations between a corporation in bankruptcy and conference member clients to find alternatives that saved numerous programs from closing. Her work to promote educational collaboration between conference members and other organizations also drew the newspaper’s attention.

Also making the list were Israel Gaither, national commander, Salvation Army; Brian Gallagher, president and chief executive officer, United Way of America; A. Barry Rand, chief executive officer, AARP; Bill Gates, co-founder, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and John Seffrin, chief executive officer, American Cancer Society.

Year for Priests: No longer on the front lines

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

One of my favorite “one-liners” comes from Precious Blood Father Anthony Gittons, who wrote, “We cannot transform ourselves, but we can create the space for transformation to occur.”  Over the years, I have applied this to my life on an almost daily basis, but recently I have begun to understand it in the context of those to whom I minister — or my “audience.”

One of the very quick lessons I have learned is that, as a priest, I am no longer on “the front lines.”  As I walk around campus and around town, I am very aware that I am set apart, not because of my own actions or preference, but because that is what people need (despite the objection of some, by far I have found the majority of people want their priest to be different — to represent an alternative way of life).  The collar I now wear around my neck is a sign and at times a barrier that does not allow me to be as close to people as was once possible.  However, I do not see this as a negative; rather, it has caused me to shift the audience of my ministry.

If the ministry of the priest is modeled on Christ, then it seems my primary ministry is to those ministers who are close to me, for it is they who will go out to live and work on the front lines long after I have moved on.  Though I continue to speak to the “masses” on certain occasions, I have realized — at least for the moment — that my job is to be a minister to the ministers.  After all, this seems to speak to the spirit of Vatican II that emphasizes the role of the laity as those who bring the Gospel into the world around us (see Gaudium et Spes or Apostolicam Actuositatem).

At its very core, I am discovering that ministry is relational and reciprocal.  The ministers with whom I work every day know me as Chris, with all of my gifts, weaknesses and quirks.  They are close enough to see the finesse and the nuance — things many people in the Sunday congregation do not want and are not ready to learn.  Likewise, my priesthood is shaped by them.  So much of what I do in ministry seems to concern creating safe environments for people to encounter each other and touch the Divine.  In the context of ministry, I think this is what Father Gittons meant:  “to create the space for transformation to occur.”

I should add, by the way, that these are working thoughts.  Should you have any thoughts on who the audience of a priest is, I would love to hear them!

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May and will be teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan beginning in late summer.

Click here for more in this series.

First Catholic-run pregnancy support center opens in Denver

“Being pro-life, it’s so important that we don’t just ‘talk the talk,'” said Annette Davis, a volunteer with the Gabriel Project, a pro-life outreach in the Denver Archdiocese. “We need to be there to support the courageous women who are choosing life.”

After eight years of ministry, the Gabriel Project will move into its own building, and hopes to triple the number of women it serves.  The Denver Catholic Register recently wrote about the new building and the program’s new expectations. It will be the first Catholic pregnancy support center in the archdiocese.

Debating the effects of social networking on community life

An English archbishop’s recent warning about social networking sites has been getting a lot of attention in news stories and blogs — to the tune of hundreds of Google search results.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminister told the Telegraph that the Internet and cell phones are “dehumanizing” community life, and that sites such as Facebook and MySpace promote transient relationships for teenagers and place too much emphasis on the number of friends you have.

“Among young people often a key factor in them committing suicide is the trauma of transient relationships,” Archbishop Nichols said. “They throw themselves into a friendship or network of friendships. Then it collapses and they’re desolate. … It’s an all-or-nothing syndrome that you have to have in an attempt to shore up an identity — a collection of friends about whom you can talk and even boast. But friendship is not a commodity; friendship is something that is hard work and enduring when it’s right.”

The archbishop has gotten a lot of criticism from social networking fans. Mostly, though, reaction has shown an understanding of his concern, but also an understanding of the benefits of social networking sites, wrote Luke Coppen, editor of the Catholic Herald in London, in an e-mail to Catholic News Service.

“My own view is that the decline in community life in Britain began decades ago and that online networking is a reaction to this decline rather than a cause of it,” Coppen wrote. “I imagine that our communal life would be even more impoverished if we didn’t have tools such as Facebook, Bebo and Twitter to draw us out of our solitary routines. The archbishop is right that online communities are fragile, but they are surely better than having no community at all.”

He added that the church should use online communities to draw people into the deeper community of faith.

That’s the idea at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Don Clemmer, assistant director of media relations, in an interview with CNS. The conference uses its Facebook , Twitter and blog to get the church’s message out through the most popular media.

But when it comes to personal networking, Clemmer also warned against letting online habits become superficial.

“Like so many tools, it can be used to build up or to tear down,” he said. “Relationships are supposed to be built on love and a deeper sense of authentic community.”

But if used in constructive ways, networking sites can actually enhance communities, said Bill McGarvey, chief editor of Busted Halo, an online magazine for spiritual seekers. The archbishop’s comments should not be interpreted as a ban on Facebook, but as a warning sign to be careful online.

Jonathan Wynne-Jones, the Telegraph religious affairs correspondent who wrote the original story, followed up with an Aug. 5 story about the criticism floating around the Internet.

“If people actually bothered to read the story and read the quotes they would see that the archbishop actually has an impressive grasp of modern culture and cares deeply about its future,” Wynne-Jones wrote. “Much of the criticism of Nichols derives from a hostility to the Church and a drive to have its leaders’ pronouncement pushed from the public square, no matter how pertinent their comments are. Some also no doubt comes from those who are addicted to these sites and don’t want to face the facts.”

A hospital, chaplains and acts of kindness

I was laid up, as they say, in the hospital for a weekend last month. It was the first time in more than 40 years I had to spend the night in a hospital. It was an unwelcome surprise, especially since I was able to drive myself to the Catholic hospital’s emergency room — and was expecting to drive back home once the diagnosis and treatment regimen was known.

First, they said they were going to keep me “for the day.” Before the morning was over, “for the day” was interpreted as “overnight.” One night became two, and threatened to become three, when I unexpectedly showed marked improvement in my condition as a doctor was making her rounds.

Before I could settle in my bed for very long, someone from the hospital arrived to take my vital information. One item on the checklist was religion. “Catholic,” I said. It was a Catholic hospital, after all.

About an hour after I finished a late lunch, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a chaplain, who talked with me after visiting my hospital roommate. The chaplain had the Eucharist and that was the most gratifying surprise of my hospital stay. Communion on Saturday!

And on Sunday, from a permanent deacon. And on Monday, from a third chaplain. While it may be hospital policy, these were extraordinary acts of kindness that this ex-patient will long remember.

The toughest jobs are the ones you love most

The Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., recently profiled Katie Yohe, a graduate from a Catholic high school in the diocese who, upon getting her college degree, has decided to commit a year to teaching second-graders in the West African nation of Ghana. The school is part of a mission run by the Sisters of the Holy Cross.

Katie won’t be by herself; another 2009 graduate from St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., Megan Ryan, will also go to Ghana to teach. Check out the full story.

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