Consultations with a Compassionate Listener


Compassionate People Pages - making a difference in the world

Mark Bittner  (interview coming soon)
author of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Father Bruce Wellems ...
is having a profound effect on the lives of children in a community challenged by overwhelming poverty
Read article below


Gordon Fellman
author of Rambo and the Dalai Lama: The Compulsion to Win and Its Threat to Human Survival
Read book intro below

Father Bruce
- an inspiring community servant
By Paul David Roberts © 2007

Father Bruce Wellems is an extraordinary exemplar of social service, dedicated to making a positive difference in the lives of children. His parish, which sponsors an innovative cultural arts program, including several musical ensembles and a theater arts group, is setting a model for engaging young people in positive, creative pursuits, inspiring them on the road to meaningful and fulfilling lives. Hearing Father Bruce tell his story is both poignant and inspirational. Hearing the joyous music of young people who have become professional musicians under his guidance is to experience the sounds of hope.

Father Bruce Wellems is pastor of Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in a community known as the Back of the Yards. The neighborhood owes it's name to the once world-renowned Chicago Stockyards. It is situated in a heavily industrialized location and has been populated by successive generations of immigrant people since the 1800’s. American author Upton Sinclair used this neighborhood as the setting for his famous novel, “The Jungle,” published in 1906. Today the Back of the Yards is a predominantly Mexican- American community with a 90-percent Catholic population.

Bob Herbert, in an article in the New York Times on Jul 14, 2007, claims that the conditions of the boys and girls growing up in Father Bruce’s neighborhood “can fairly be compared to combat.” He writes, “Beyond the guns, apart from the horrifying fact that they might meet up with a bullet at any time, poor youngsters are suffering from a ruthless pattern of abuse and neglect that has lasted for many years.
Too few have been afforded the benefits of a quality education. Too many are left to their own devices because of an absence of after-school programs and other kinds of activities -- clubs, sports, art and music programs, summer camps -- that can enrich the lives of children and shield them from harm.”

Recently, I’ve gotten to know Father Bruce, over the phone, interviewing him for articles promoting a concert I’m producing of the children’s marimba group he is bringing to my rural mountain town in Colorado. He described his dramatic introduction to the marimba:


“I was in Guatemala in a small village on lake,” he recalled. “This was a village that was very poor, full of malaria, oppressed, no doctor, no electricity with about 75 families. The priest came to say Mass only once a year. We got there by canoe; that’s how remote this was.

“They had just brought the campesinos down from a farm to hear the Mass. It was at night and the priest was saying Mass in a small chapel when the army came. It scared the heck out of me. The priest was used to it, but I was just visiting and I had never seen sixteen year-olds with automatic weapons. I was afraid we were going to all get killed.

“When the army left, at about eleven o’clock at night, these kids brought out the marimbas. They started playing and it was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. They played until about two in the morning, the moon came out and it was an extremely powerful moment in my life. I thought, ‘oh, thank God!’

“So, when I came to Chicago I determined in my heart that I was going to get a marimba and get the kids to play it at Mass. I saw it work in Guatemala and I felt it could work in Chicago.”

That was in 1984. Father Bruce now has many children actively involved in marimba groups, playing not only for church services, but also averaging a hundred concert performance a year.

Father Bruce who was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has been working in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood since the 1984. I asked him how he developed his orientation towards community service. He explained that it evolved through his experiences in church work.

“I never considered myself as a social worker or social activist until I started to go out and get to know people,” he said.

“I was asked by an eleven year-old kid to see his brother who was shot in the knee. His brother was fourteen. At first I didn’t want to go. I had no interest in kids who didn’t involve themselves in healthy activities of the church. I thought, ‘this is a gang kid.’ But the eleven year-old, who was a member of our children’s choir, kept asking me to come to see his brother. Finally, I went to his house and there was his brother still on the couch from an operation on his knee. He said, ‘Father, I want to go to school.’ And that caught my heart.

“I thought if somebody wants to do good for themselves and they have a willingness to better their lives, I have to be interested. So I took this kid to a high school and I found out that he just couldn’t go to any high school because there was a lot of gang activity. He’d been shot so he was afraid of other kids. I finally put him in a Catholic school.”

The boy introduced Father Bruce to some of his friends who were had dropped out of school. “I found out that sixty-percent of our teenagers from age 14 to 18 drop out of school, most of them by the tenth grade. I saw how terrific a problem this was; that it created kids hanging out on the street, without jobs, with no direction, and no programs available to them. I thought this is a good mission for the church.”

Father Bruce initiated a collaboration with the local park supervisor and together they formed groups that met regularly for athletic events. “We did basketball tournaments with them and we took them to see Michael Jordon. Out of that we started an alternative public high school and that’s been my main project, getting these kids educated and into jobs that help them with life skills. When we began, the school district administrators called me into the office and said, ‘You can’t teach religion.’ I said, ‘No problem, that’s the least of my concerns.’

Father Bruce’s philosophy is inclusive and humanitarian. “The church, to me, is like the cement that holds the bricks together. We have to be in relationship with one another and that means with other churches as well; everybody trying to help these kids, and whatever resources we can bring to it, that’s what we use.”

Having spent most of my professional life involved with public schools through musical assembly programs my wife, Carla, and I perform, I was struck with Father Bruce’s commitment to collaborating with public schools.
“Our big push has been to form a coalition made up of the public school principals. The churches are involved, the businesses are involved and the park is involved, but the agenda is driven by the principals of the schools because they will always have an interest in kids. They’re dealing with all the problems in school. They don’t have a choice; the poorest of the poor go to public schools. That’s why our parish in committed to working with the public school system.”

In Herbert’s article, he writes, “This should be a major national story, of course, and it would be if the slain children had come from more privileged backgrounds.”

It’s true that the horrors the children in Chicago and other inner cities are greatly under-reported. But besides the horrors, we also need to know more about the compassionate work of inspiring community servants like Father Bruce who are really doing something to make a positive difference in the lives of these children. 




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Rambo and the Dalai Lama: The Compulsion to Win and Its Threat to Human Survival
A book by Gordon Fellman, Brandeis University
with a Foreword by the Dalai Lama
(Albany: SUNY Press, 1998)
Rambo and the Dalai Lama suggests that the assumption that human life is based on conflicts of interest, wars, and opposition of people to each other and to nature exists as a paradigm that supplies meaning and orientation to the world. An alternative paradigm sees cooperation, caring, nurturing, and loving as equally viable ways of organizing relationships of humans to each other and to nature. Fellman sees this shifting emphasis from adversarialism to mutuality as essential to the survival of our species and nature itself.

~~ introductory essay by the author ~~
This book builds from the proposition that until now most encounters have been organized so that the point of them is to overcome the other. This is true for the most part of relations between men and women, parents and children, whites and non-whites, leaders and publics, rich and poor, labor and management, athletic teams, business firms, advanced societies and developing societies, straight and gay, tall and short, well and ill, and so on.
I call this assumption that one must strive to overcome or submit to being overcome, the basis of the adversary paradigm. It also applies to humans' relations to nature which, like people, has been constructed as an enemy to be overcome.

The ultimate expression of the adversary tendency is murder, and that collectively is war. War has usually been fought with the maximum technology available. The use of atomic bombs in 1945 suddenly and drastically cast adversarialism in a new light. For the first time in the history of warfare, it became possible, indeed likely, that in using maximum technology in all-out confrontation, overcoming the other would necessarily also mean overcoming the self; i.e., homicide became inextricable from suicide.
The threat of massive destruction by nuclear devices was complemented by another form of technological assault, the industrial degradation of the environment to the point of numerous deaths and severely damaged systems of land, water, and air needed for survival. The human tendency toward adversarialism has become incarnated in objective processes which neither created nor defined adversarialism but rather came to represent it in stark, terrifying ways.

Historically, alongside the adversary paradigm and in secondary relation to it is the mutuality paradigm, based on the mutuality assumption that the other can be a friend, a colleague, an ally. Religious notions of community and love flow from this paradigm, even if they are ordinarily undercut by the adversary organization and practices of organized religion. Political systems idealize mutuality in official documents like constitutions and in politicians' rhetoric but contradict it in their behavior. The same is true in most if not all other institutions such as education and the family.
My claim is that in order to survive adversarial forms of onslaught, including the ethnic and religious strife which appears to be replacing the one over-arching conflict of the Cold War, mutuality will need to become the primary governing paradigm in human affairs and in humans' relations with the environment, inverting the historic and continuing condition where adversarialism is primary and mutuality, secondary.
My analysis attempts to provide a useful vocabulary for what I see as fundamental crises, indeed survival issues, on our planet today. It is a contemporary version of the timeless contrast between competition and cooperation. I find that in the speaking and teaching I do on this topic, people pick up the words and concepts I use and employ them immediately, and most effectively.

The central innovation of my presentation is my analysis of adversarialism and mutuality as coming in both normative and compulsive or pathological forms. By the adversary compulsion, I mean something beyond ordinary competition in sport, business, or any other social context. I mean an addiction, a drivenness that subordinates other considerations to a passion, indeed an obsession, with "winning." It is this compulsion that, for example, defines the destructiveness of political systems that forsake the political possibility of resolving real societal problems, in favor of destroying the other candidate, the other party, the other program, no matter what it may be.

I also identify a mutuality compulsion. Including in mutuality the ideas of empathy, recognition of the full humanness of the other, caring, nurturing, support, and love, I see mutuality that denies adversary inclinations as compulsive, just as I see adversarialism that denies mutuality inclinations as compulsive. Based on denial of essential parts of the self, each form of compulsion works against the possible reconciliation of humans and nature to each other in ways that can enhance human survival and well-being.
The book goes on to deconstruct both compulsions. I claim that people tend to project upon others qualities they have been taught they can not and must not face in themselves. Hence the other becomes the repository of the selfish, dirty, violent, lustful, failed, immoral parts of oneself that one denies, and as well, the nobler, communal, loving, caring parts of the self that extend beyond immediate friend and family relations and which most people feel are beyond their capacity to realize. In both cases one assumes that one ought not or can not achieve what is implied in one's desires.
Survival requires what I call reappropriation of the full range of qualities that the self is. In a chapter called "Reappropriation of the Self," I offer an analysis of the extent and nature of what can be reappropriated.
I also claim that a more fully mutualistic society is already at hand, but in minor form that is difficult to recognize until it is identified. Most people are familiar with mutuality in some contexts but so far fail to see their proliferation, their connections, and the possibility of a freer organization of society based on mutuality as its premise rather than adversarialism. In three chapters on "Seeds of Mutuality," I examine old seeds in old institutions, new seeds in old institutions, and new seeds in new institutions.

The book nears its end with an analysis of what I see as the major alternative to the destructiveness of the endless adversary relations with which we are currently saddled: globalism -- recognition of the globe as the primary unit of loyalty. I see a global culture already emerging in outline form in political values, language, economy, music, religion, and more. My goal is to analyze and to move beyond analysis in offering hope in the form of visions of mutuality and actions to help bring it about.

Believing that films speak to and reveal major concerns and phenomenological definitions of character, issues, and tendencies in a society, I illustrate many major points by way of interpretations of major motion pictures including High Noon, The Godfather, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, Rambo, Silence of the Lambs, and Strangers in Good Company. This use of films is in the tradition of Erik Erikson's work on the films Wild Strawberries and The Childhood of Maxim Gorky and is an alternative to the more conventional analysis of literature in such contexts. Some popular music lyrics are used to illustrate points about adversarialism and mutuality in popular culture beyond film. Numerous contemporary issues and events, such as reproductive rights, criminal justice, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also are examine closely to elucidate and extend the analysis.

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