This summer the Diocesan Ministry Center has been the site of the Eaton Summer Reading Program. We have had children from Buffalo, youth missioners from all over the country and adult volunteers from Western New York reading, playing, singing, having fun and getting to know each other. The goal of the program is to help children from the Buffalo schools work on their reading and writing skills over the summer. Summer learning loss is one of the main factors in children who live in low income households not reading at grade level.
I have visited the program regularly and interacted with the children, the youth missioners and the adult volunteers. I can tell you that lives are being changed. The lives of the children are being enriched and doors are being opened to them. The missioners are discovering their gifts and the power that they have to change lives and the adult volunteers are seeing the immediate impact of their work in the lives of children, as well as experiencing more about the systems of poverty in our community.
We have learned many lessons from this first summer. We have had 17 children enrolled in our program and had between 8 and 12 on any given day. We had hoped to have a larger enrollment, but the smaller number of participants allowed us to give each one and individualized program and one on one (and sometimes more than one on one) attention.
Jim Eaton had a vision that the Diocesan Ministry Center would become a place where the Diocese could come together and do ministry together. My vision for the Diocese includes the Diocese of Western New York being a force for good. I see the Diocese becoming one of the organizations in our community that makes the lives of our neighbors better.
I wanted to share with you some of what I have said to the volunteers and youth missioners at the end of their week here. What follows is some of what I have said to them.
“It’s a Friday afternoon in the middle of summer, and we have come to the end of a week of Eaton Reading Camp. You the missioners and volunteers have changed lives this week.
You have changed the lives of those who were charged with running the camp. You have been the pioneers, the pathfinders, the ones who have showed us how to do it.
I hope your own lives have been changed by the friends you have made, the work you have done, the skills you have mastered and the children you have met.
Most of all, you have changed the lives of the children you taught and tutored and read with and worked with and befriended. They will never forget you, and they will never forget what they learned. You have opened the doors of life for them.
A number of you have talked to me about your college hopes and plans. When you get to college you will take an art history course. If you look through your art history textbook, somewhere in there you’ll find images of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to announce that she is to give birth to the Son of the Most High. In many of these images Mary is reading, and in some of them she slips her finger into the book to mark her place — as though Gabriel’s visit was not nearly as important as whatever she was reading.
We’d all love to know what Mary was reading that was so fascinating. The important thing here is the image of a woman reading, and so interested in what she read that anything else was a distraction.
The images of Mary the reader show us a literate, intelligent, capable woman with the world’s possibilities at her fingertips. As someone who knows how to read, she is powerful, she is in charge of her own fate, she is no one’s captive. This is the gift you have given to our children this week.
Think about what it means to know how to read! The world is open to you. Anything is possible. Illiteracy is a dark shadow, a barrier, a powerful way to control people. When we sing in one of our canticles, “To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,” I think of people who cannot read, cannot connect with the wider world, are denied the freedom and power of education.
Think of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl whom the Taliban tried to kill when she was 15 because she dared to want an education. She went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize last year for her advocacy for education and for women. She celebrated her 18th birthday on Sunday July 12. Happy birthday, Malala, and thank you for showing the world how terrified the terrorists are of a girl who knows how to read.
In the last eight months the Roman Catholic Bishop of Buffalo and I have written two joint pastoral letters — the first joint letters in history! — encouraging our congregations to participate in the economic and social renewal of the City of Buffalo and Western New York. We have focused on jobs, on income inequality, on issues of justice and race.
Literacy is at the heart of all those issues. Literacy is the foundation, the cornerstone. A child who learns how to read grows up to become an adult who can get a job, earn a paycheck, advance, make a stable home, participate in the community, vote, and raise up sons and daughters who know how to read. This is why we wanted to start our reading camp. What you have done with our boys and girls this week will benefit them, and their lives, and our dioceses and communities for generations to come.
So thank you. Thank you for spending a week of your summer vacation here in Buffalo working with our children. I am sorry we were unable to save any of last winter’s unending snowstorms to send home with you as souvenirs. I hope you have had a chance to taste some of our local culinary specialties — beef on weck, Buffalo chicken wings, and frozen custard.
I am originally from Mississippi, so I want to wish you what we in the South call “traveling mercies” as you begin your journey home. I hope you take with you memories and souvenirs, but I am more grateful than you can know for what you have left behind: your love for our children, your work with them this week, the gift of promise and hope that literacy brings.
You have done Gospel work here this week. You have brought us closer to the Kingdom of God. Thank you, each of you. You have blessed our children, and us. Amen.”