First basketball, then hope

Claretian Father Bruce Wellems and his colleagues at Holy Cross Church in Chicago have a special focus on "youths at risk." Everyone, including the janitor, make efforts to welcome young people at liturgies and on parish property, to encourage them to hang out at church rather than on the streets.

For Father Bruce, reaching out to neighborhood youth meant taking a walk to a park, its building covered with gang graffiti, with a basketball. Young men were drinking on a nearby bench, and still others were loitering at the corners of the park. He felt like he didn't belong there. Still, he played ball with the guys, and decided to do the same there every Thursday.

Then a miracle happened, what his Hispanic parishioners would call "Si Dios quiere" (If God wills it so). More and more young men joined in, and soon he was discussing with them issues like prison, baptism for their children, jobs, relationships with girls-all sorts of subjects.

And changes were taking place in the park. The graffiti was painted over. Shootings and fights on the park property were things of the past. As one gang member put it, "We prefer the programs."

"People ask me if I'm afraid to work with gang members," says Father Bruce. "I tell them that I didn't choose to work with gang members. The work chose me.

"Being united with others who care about and hope for these young people makes my ministry easier, more rewarding, more successful. I believe that I become a true Claretian priest when I am involved in such situations and when I am able to respond to the needs of our youth-needs that call for urgent attention."

All active news articles