Applying lessons learned from Mother Teresa

MARYANGELA LAYMAN ROMáN

While his resume includes nearly four and a half years at the White House as head of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Jim Towey points to his work and friendship with a tiny nun from Calcutta as the most significant period of his life.

Towey, president of St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., was in Milwaukee March 6 to deliver the opening Pallium Lecture of the 2007 season. In an interview with your Catholic Herald, he described how his meeting with Mother Teresa and the 12 years he served as her legal counsel had an impact not only upon his life, but upon his work with President George W. Bush.

Referring to himself as a lukewarm, failing, disillusioned Catholic in 1985, Towey said he had a driving desire to meet Mother Teresa.

"I knew this Mother Teresa and she was a figure I respected from afar," he said, describing how he extended a business trip to southeast Asia to stop in Calcutta on his way back to the United States, "and I wanted to stop in and meet her, but I didn't want to be around the poor."


Dying man in bed 46 left an impact


Among outreach efforts in which he had participated was the tutoring of inner city children Towey said, but he said he never left his comfort zone.

That changed after meeting the diminutive Missionary of Charity who devoted her life to society's poor and rejected. After chatting with Towey, Mother Teresa asked him to visit her home for the dying, and while there, ask for Sr. Luke.

Towey did as he was told and much to his surprise, the nun thought he had come to volunteer. She handed him medicine and cotton and directed him to a patient suffering from scabies, a contagious skin disease.

"I know that everything that has happened is through her grace, because there wasn't the slightest part of me that wanted to touch that dying man back in bed 46 where she directed me. But I went because I was too proud to admit that I didn't want to touch this man," he said, describing the afternoon he spent cleaning and medicating the man.

Admitting he was happy to leave Calcutta, Towey said he was just as uncomfortable returning to the U.S.

Back in the states, he stopped to visit the Missionaries of Charity in Washington, D.C., and said that work with the sisters "ate up every discretionary hour I had until I got married."

Towey spent two years working full-time for the sisters — one year in Mexico and another at an AIDS home. He also worked in their soup kitchen. As legal counsel, he assisted with immigration issues and protecting the use of Mother Teresa's name from those who sought to profit from it.


Problems of poor are spiritual

"(The time with Mother Teresa) convinced me that many of the problems of the poor are spiritual in nature, that you can throw services at an addict all you want, but if you don't address why that person is sticking a needle in their arm in the first place, you've labored in vain. The government approaches where we are not addressing the root causes are doomed to fail and, in fact, many of them do to this day," he said.

Towey said that by living and working with the poor and dying, he came to realize that faith-based organizations have the potential to turn lives around in ways government never could.

"It doesn't mean only faith-based groups can do it, but America really fails its poor when it denies them a chance to access programs like that," said Towey, adding there are many excellent secular, community organizations as well.

About the time President Bush was elected in 2000, Towey said he and his family moved to Washington, D.C. to care for his ill father-in-law. Early in his presidency, President Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to allow faith-based organizations access to government funding.

When the directorship of that office opened in 2002, Jeb Bush, the president's brother and governor of Florida, put in a good word for Towey, who had served as secretary of Florida's health and social services agency and its 40,000 employees.


Appointed head of faith-based initiatives


"(The time with Mother Teresa) convinced me that many of the problems of the poor are spiritual in nature, that you can throw services at an addict all you want, but if you don't address why that person is sticking a needle in their arm in the first place, you've labored in vain.


Towey got the job and for nearly four and a half years advanced the cause of faith-based initiatives and also advised the president on church-state and compassion issues.

Although he described himself as a pro-life Democrat, Towey said, "I liked President Bush instantly and I liked this initiative. That does not mean I agree with him on other issues necessarily, but on this one, he was dead-on right. President Bush put it best, ‘Government can't love,'" he said, describing why he believes the initiative has been successful. "Government can't put hope in a person's heart or a purpose in their lives. I watched Mother Teresa and what she was able to do was love and affirm human dignity and invite individuals to change. I saw the limitations of what government could and couldn't do. The reality is if we are going to improve the plight of our poor, government is not going to be our savior."


Initiative is here to stay


Towey believes the faith-based initiative is permanent.

"I do think it's taken root in the heartland. There are over 30 governors with faith-based offices, hundreds of mayors. The reality is people who are closest to the action on the streets realize faith-based organizations play a very important role in addressing the needs of the poor," he said.

Towey said the president's executive order creating this initiative has led to the equal treatment of faith-based groups and "I'd be shocked if a successor president would come in and say, ‘Let's turn the clock back and discriminate against religious charities again.'"

President Bush's legacy will include the success of the faith-based initiative, he predicted.

That doesn't mean, however, that the initiative will not continue to be the target for groups that advocate strict church-state separation.


Court case challenges work


"I do think it's taken root in the heartland. There are over 30 governors with faith-based offices, hundreds of mayors. The reality is people who are closest to the action on the streets realize faith-based organizations play a very important role in addressing the needs of the poor," he said.


In fact, last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Hein vs. the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a case originally filed in 2004 (then called Towey vs. the Freedom From Religion Foundation) where the Wisconsin-based foundation sued to challenge the initiative on First Amendment grounds. The foundation argued that White House officials were using public money to help church-based groups win grants and contracts.

While admitting if the court sides with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, "it will grind the work of the faith-based organizations to a premature halt, because the offices would then be complying with sweeping document requests that will tie up all the employees," Towey said he believes the court will side with the Bush administration and will overrule the court of appeals.

"I'm confident that the court heard the arguments last week and it will be a dreadful precedent to allow this kind of litigation which is meant to harass and intimidate government officials and designed to thwart the public policy of a duly-elected president. I would be astonished if the court would allow that kind of precedent," he said.


Fond memories of President Bush


Towey said he appreciates his time in the Bush administration, but he doesn't miss the daily, early morning staff meetings, the pressure and being connected to e-mail 24 hours a day.

"I have a lot of fond memories of President Bush," he said. "The caricature of him in the media is nonsense. He's a smart, caring man."

Towey described a roundtable discussion he attended with President Bush where a refugee from Liberia, sobbing heavily, described her past, thanking the president for her new freedom.

"He said, ‘Don't thank me, thank the American people,'" Towey recalled. "At the end of the meeting, she started crying again, and he just held her; no cameras; no media around. Here she was a woman who a year earlier had been banished from existence, really, and here she was in the arms of the U.S. president."

He recalled other times when, after a long day on the road, the motorcade would wait for President Bush who was in the kitchen thanking the staff for their work.

"He's a thoroughly decent man," said Towey. "I get a fair amount of hate mail because of my friendship with the president so I can't imagine what he gets.

"I thank God he has a stiff spine and I thank God that he and Mrs. Bush pray," said Towey.

"I have great respect for him. Of course, I disagreed with him on certain things. I stayed a Democrat, but I voted for him both times and I have absolutely no regrets voting for him and no regrets working for him. In fact, I thank God for the opportunity to work with him," he said.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Maryangela Layman Román, "Applying lessons learned from Mother Teresa." Catholic Herald March 15, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Maryangela Layman Román and the Catholic Herald.

First published in 1869, the Catholic Herald helps Catholics understand their world and how to fulfill their role in it. As a weekly newspaper and Web site, the Catholic Herald informs, educates, challenges and provides a forum for a diversity of voices, in light of the Catholic faith.

THE AUTHOR

Maryangela Layman Román is the Managing Editor and writes for the Catholic Herald which is published out of St. Francis, Wisconsin.

Copyright © 2007 Catholic Herald




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