Brothers Bring Ministry of Presence to Bertie County
Shortly after moving to Windsor, N.C., the location of one of Glenmary's newest missions, Brother Jack Henn put his experience working with the elderly to use when he began working with the residents of the Brian Center Health and Rehabilitation and the Three Rivers Health and Rehabilitation Center.
Brother Jack moved to this mission county last summer with fellow Glenmary Brother Curt Kedley to provide additional outreach to the ministry of Father Mike Langell who called together the Catholic Community of Bertie County in 2004. Brother Curt began his outreach at the Mary Alice Day Care Center, a facility in Windsor for adults with emotional challenges. "I call myself a ‘sanitation engineer,' but last week a guy told me ‘you're the best janitor we have!'" Brother Curt says with a laugh.
Approximately 30 percent of the total population of Bertie County live below the national poverty level and over 4,000 are over the age of 60—and there has never been a Catholic Church presence in this eastern North Carolina county until Father Mike arrived in 2004. The Catholic community, which shares worship space with the local Methodist church, has grown to 30-plus families, the majority of which are Filipino.
Brother Jack has taken a proactive approach to his ministry to the elderly, implementing several programs at the two nursing homes, including a current events program.
The one-hour weekly program helps the residents, many of whom are life-long residents of Bertie County, stay connected to the local community. The current events aren't lifted off the pages of The New York Times, but from the Bertie Ledger-Advance, Windsor's weekly newspaper. Brother Jack says he thought the current events sessions would be a way that the residents could stay connected and current. "It was my hope that the sessions would help them not feel so isolated," he says.
Helping people feel connected is also an important part of Brother Curt's ministry, which he calls "a ministry of affirmation." As he goes about his duties as the facility's "sanitation engineer," Brother Curt interacts with the folks at the day center, many of whom are mentally and emotionally challenged.
Brother Jack and Brother Curt didn't know where their ministry would lead them when they arrived in Bertie County. After they settled in, they spent time meeting the local people, assessing the needs they found and then determining how to use their skills to address those needs.
Brother Curt sees his ministry at the Mary Alice Center as connecting with the "hidden, forgotten people and serving the people that the community has discounted."
Brother Jack says he wanted to focus on outreach to the elderly population in Windsor because it seemed to be a population that was in need of attention. And, he says, "working with the elderly has been a personal interest." It's a ministry he began while living in Cincinnati and working in Glenmary leadership. In his spare time, he worked with the Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly and "I carried that ministry with me here to North Carolina," he says.
In addition to visiting residents of the nursing homes, Brother Jack also works at the senior center where he serves and delivers meals and volunteers with the local hospice program.
"As a hospice volunteer, I'm present to people," he says. "We'll talk, maybe I'll write a letter for them or read. Sometimes I'll help with feeding or drinking," Brother Jack says. "And perhaps, it is just a matter of sitting with them and holding their hand."
Brother Curt brings with him a long history of reaching out and working in the African-American community which makes up a large percentage of the county's population-and the Mary Alice Day Care Center.
While in Georgia, he worked to build bridges between the white and black communities in Hancock County. In Bertie County, he is also working to build relationships with the African-American community and one of the best ways to do that, he says, is to attend their church services.
Since the tradition of a professed "brother" is not common in the African-American tradition, he explains that he is seen as a minister when he visits these communities. "In their tradition and experience, ministry is much broader and generic and less defined," he says.
When he worked in Georgia and attended services in African-American churches, Brother Curt says he often was invited to sit at the front of the church with the pastor. But in North Carolina he prefers to emphasize his lay baptismal commitment by sitting in the pews with the congregation.
Brother Jack and Brother Curt say their ministries are still evolving and emerging as they discover more about the needs of the mission county.
In an area where people aren't familiar with the traditions and beliefs of the Catholic Church, Brother Jack and Brother Curt explain their work simply by saying they are with the Catholic Church and are involved in community outreach.
"It doesn't often go beyond that," Brother Jack says. "But as friendships are established, people ask more questions and I answer them. By our presence, we bring a perspective of the Church and of brotherhood to people who might never had met a Catholic or a brother."
This article originally appeared in the February 2008 Boost-A-Month Club Newsletter