Always Father, never Dad By The Rev. Bruce Wellems
Photo courtesy of the Rev. Bruce Wellems
Wellems catches walleyes with Frank and Fabian Garcia on a recent camping trip.
The dad was standing on the sidewalk, hung over from the night before, when he stopped me as I was passing by his home. "You know, Father," he said, "you are more of a dad to my kids than I am. You really are their father." "No," I said firmly, hoping he was sober enough to listen. "You are the father of your children. They are your kids and they will never forget it. They know they have you as a dad." Despite the alcohol, I knew him as a man who cared. Somewhere along the way, life overcame him and he lost control. Still, I was not about to let him off the hook. I knew his three kids from the children's choir, which I direct. His boys, ages 12 and 13, were talented marimba players, and the 10-year-old girl could sing. But these children were angry. A father figure was not a substitute for a dad. They needed and deserved the care and encouragement of a dad. Maybe he sensed that, too. Maybe my words hit him at the right time. From that day on, eight years ago, he stopped drinking. I am not a dad, not in the strict sense of the word. I am a priest in the Catholic Church who accompanies families in their spiritual journey. I have chosen a celibate life, which means I will never father a child. Perhaps ironically, I became a priest because I was drawn to family. I believe the gospel is about family life. This is sacred work involving the very rhythm of life. When I celebrate Mass, I celebrate a family meal where we tell our family stories. My priestly dad mission is to create the value of being together as family wherever I go, in whatever way I can. I see this need often through my work in the Back of the Yards, a mostly low-income area filled with children. I offer a role model to the kids and to their parents who had no role model. My own role model is my father. Thomas J. Wellems has six kids--five boys and one girl. He is 80 and still living in New Mexico where he and my mother raised the family. He was a U.S. Army colonel in World War II, an engineer responsible for making sure the bridges were in place so that the soldiers could move forward. After the war he became a civil engineer, responsible for building schools for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. When I told my father I was going to become a priest, he said, "No, you're going to go study math and do something practical with your life." But he led me by example. He pushed organization and responsibilities. He was an active, social guy. He wasn't immune to anger. In fact, he planted a hedge between our house and the neighbors when the man next door insulted my brother. Later, it was my father who nursed the man through his cancer and helped him, literally, through to his dying day. Dad took care of the neighborhood and valued education. He pushed us toward school and made us do our homework. If he sent us to the priest, it was to talk about college plans. I see the roots of the scholarship program I started in my dad. I remember Dad taking me out to this dry gully to teach me to drive when I was 15. I got the truck stuck. I started crying and he looked at me and said simply, "You can get through this." We got out of the truck, he took a big slab of rock, showed me how to clear the sand and get the rock under the tire to get the truck moving again. He always said you keep things moving so you don't get stuck. I guess I do the same thing here. Helping these kids stuck in tough situations find a way to move forward and find their full potential. I am also a white man living in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood. And despite the differences, I have found it easy to embrace the culture because these people's lives revolve around family. And for me, family has always been the key to church life. I think of my family as an entire neighborhood and my marriage is to a big staff of caring men and women dedicated to working around the clock to help. In the Back of the Yards, there are 150 children per block under the age of 18 and six elementary schools with 1,000 kids each, five blocks from my house. Last year, there were 2,000 births in my ZIP code alone, the most of any in Chicago. Like any parent, I think that no matter how many children we have, every one is special. And while I have a tremendous respect for these parents and the fact they are working hard to give their kids a better life, often the children are undirected and lost. That's when we step in. Sometimes it means I have to learn the Chicago school system, join the Local School Council or help start an alternative public school. Sometimes it means putting together a day-care center or a parenting program or an arts program. In the past 13 years, we have created a day-care center, a folk dance troupe, a marimba band for girls and boys, a children's choir, a literary publication, tutoring program, computer lab, two book groups, five reflection groups for talking, two alternative public high schools, a mentor program for pre-teens, a health program and a parenting program as well as the Kid's Caf, where we serve food to 100 kids four days a week from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. to teach them about nutrition. The work and our organization, like our family, have grown. But no matter what, the grassroots job of getting to know each family, each child and his or her parents is important. In a way, I have a lot of the headaches of being a dad without a lot of the rewards. I deal with the problems but once the children move on, I may not hear about the successes. And yet, I don't have the same pressure as parents. It is not my job to push these children. It is really not my job to judge their actions either. I can help them see where they need to go. I can help them see the consequences to their actions. But I don't have the luxury of getting mad at them even when I feel angry. Because they are not my children, because I am the priest. They can come back to me at anytime, even after exhausting all their chances and opportunities, and my first job is to forgive and console. As a guest dad, I am there to accompany them on their journey and to listen. Sometimes I hear amazing things. Eleven-year-old Andres stood at my side insisting, "Come and see my brother, he has been shot in the knee." It was just after the children's choir practice, and I was in no mood for a home visit after directing 40 children. His 14-year-old brother was a well-known gang member. But I went to Andres' home and the first words out of his brother's mouth were, "Father, I want to go back to school." I was dumbfounded. We got him into a Catholic school. He dropped out, but eventually he earned his G.E.D. and stopped the gang activity. There is a special day in the Catholic Church, "The Presentation of the Child, Jesus in the Temple." This year our parish committee decided to highlight the children of our parish with a procession. The children would carry candles and we would offer a special blessing. About 100 children lined up, holding candles. I stood there worried about the children holding fire, and thinking maybe I should find a new committee. Anxious for the opening, a girl no more than 10 turned to me and said, "Why are we doing this?" I explained, "Because today we celebrate children--each of you is a light for us to see." Without missing a beat, she replied, "We should do this everyday." As a dad, I have to agree.
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