Anne Notations

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

‘Stretch your hands wide’

Ghanaian Msgr. Bobby Benson with parishioners at St. Sebastian Church, Providence, on October 19.

These are grim times for many in the U.S., what with the stock market busted, banks belly-up, and joblessness at a 20-year high. In my own little family, the two male adults are without steady employment; it's been 18 months now for Michael and a bumpy year of part-time jobs for Andrés.

At church I pray that my men will find their next full-time jobs … quickly. Inevitably our priest's Sunday homily, or the announcement of some seasonal community-service project, reminds me that many are in far worse straits.

Sometime in the late 1990s, after we had started attending St. Sebastian's, a visiting priest from Ghana came to study hospital ministries in Providence and ended up living in the capacious brick rectory with Father Randall, and serving unofficially as our assistant pastor. He was Father Alex "Bobby" Benson, a charismatic man on a mission: to bring succor and hope to the impoverished people of his home country, particularly to those who suffer from the pandemic of HIV/AIDS.

In 2004: Melinda, Kevin, and friend Juliana with Father Bobby at a reception in our parish hall.

For several years we parishioners basked in Father Bobby's extroverted presence and learned to decipher his rapid-fire Ghanaian English, in which "th" sounds like "d", among other variants. Children in particular were drawn to Father Bobby, and ours were no exception: at the coffee hour after 9:00 Mass, they and their friends would swarm around the ebony-skinned priest, who unfailingly interrupted his adult conversations to lean down and respectfully greet them by name, ask about school, give them his full attention, his whole self in that moment. Children, I believe, have built-in B.S. detectors, and in Father Bobby they perceived the geniune article: a grown-up who sees the face of the divine in each person, no matter how young, small, or infirm.

Selfishly, we were bereft when Father Bobby eventually returned to Ghana and resumed his pastoral work there. Our better selves knew that Africa needed him much more than the prosperous East Side of Providence.

Every few years since then, Father Bobby has made a brief return to Rhode Island, always an occasion for our Community Outreach Committee to organize a coffee hour between the Sunday morning Masses. These visits are a win-win: We get to experience Father Bobby's charism in person once again, and he gets to hit us up for money for his life's passion: an AIDS care and respite center he founded in 1998 in Koforidua, in the eastern region of Ghana, called Matthew 25.

Matthew 25 ("What you did for one of these least ones, you did for me") is a sanctuary that provides care, information, and a place for HIV-infected people to receive counseling and engage in small cottage industries to support themselves. The center also tries to educate the community at large about AIDS to lessen the ostracism experienced by HIV-positive people. And, frequently, people come to Matthew 25 to die in the presence of comfort and faith.

Matthew 25 headquarters in Ghana.

As Father Bobby – recently promoted to Monsignor Benson – told a reporter last year, Matthew 25 aims to feed and attend to AIDS sufferers "so that they will feel loved and needed." He asked that good people everywhere "stretch your hands wide and respond to the needs of all those who need help."

Last Sunday Father, err, Monsignor, Bobby was at St. Sebastian's again. Approximately my own age, he looks older, more thinned-out than on earlier visits, perhaps because he is continually in motion: erecting new buildings, saying Mass, raising money, visiting partner parishes in the United States like ours. Kevin insisted on coming to Providence with me for the 10 a.m. coffee hour, followed by Mass: "There's just something about Father Bobby … he's so … cool," he tried to explain.

October 2008: Kevin, age 16, with Msgr. Bobby at this week's coffee hour.

"Cool" he is. We came, we hugged, we talked, we listened, we watched a slide show and a video about Matthew 25. Elderly white ladies and young parents alike fawned over the newly minted monsignor, asking questions and writing checks. Children swirled around his feet.

Handmade Ghanaian objects and cloth were for sale at the coffee hour, all proceeds going to Matthew 25.

In the end, I too opened my hands and gave a little, "a little" being all we can afford this year. Thanks to Father Bobby we are now the proud owners of a $10 woven bookmark and a $10 Ghana bracelet that fell apart as soon as I took it off at home that evening.

It's funny how being $20 poorer can make you feel richer.

Matthew 25 runs on the proverbial shoestring, and the need is immense. If you feel moved to support Father Bobby's work, you can visit the center's Web site. (Donations are tax-deductible and are managed by St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Boca Raton, Florida.)


  • Msgr. Bobby is indeed way cool, the world could do with more like him.

    I know my mum says it (mainly lack of jobs) can't always be like this, so I hope your prayers are answered soon.

    By Blogger BrideOfPorkins, at Wed Oct 22, 05:30:00 AM EDT  

  • My prayers are with your guys on their job hunt. Being unemployed is very dispiriting... not to mention problematic moneywise.

    It's true the best cure when you feel poor is to give to someone who has less.... The rabbis say even beggars are required to give "tzedakah" -- the good is not only to the recipient but to the giver, who gains dignity and grace.

    By Blogger Miriam L, at Thu Oct 23, 10:56:00 PM EDT  

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