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Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Friar brings God's word to the poor in NYC"

From The Cornwall Standard Freeholder
By Greg Peerenboom

Christopher is the son of Robert and Pauline Kyte, a Long Sault youth who played with his three siblings in the quiet village of Long Sault. Now he has become Brother Gabriel Joseph who walks the 'hood in the South Bronx as a friar of St. Francis de Assisi.

The transformation is not in name only. Think of Friar Tuck from Robin Hood - except for the wide flowing beard which contrasts sharply with his closely shaven head.

The beard is a Franciscan tradition that originates during a time when the order was not accepted by some Catholics. The Franciscans took refuge with hermit monks and adopted their beards.

"Our area has improved a lot," said Gabriel Joseph, of the 12 blocks of inner city where the Franciscan Friars of Renewal comb the streets ministering to the destitute and disadvantaged.

"But one block from us, three kids were shot last year," he continued in a quiet but assured voice. "There's always prostitution and drug deals taking place as you walk by."

Gabriel's journey with God began like it does for many local youth. Raised in a Catholic household, he took part in Christian youth groups at St. Joseph Secondary School, then attended St. Peter's seminary at the University of Western Ontario in London, and finally, joined the youth ministry in Chatham, Ont.

Every step brought him closer to God, and to emulating his spiritual hero, Pope John Paul II.

"I was inspired by his generosity, especially during his illness."

John Paul's example was a great motivator to continue his search for spiritual fulfillment.

"That was like a kick in the pants - what are you going to do now."

During his stay in Chatham, he became acquainted with the Franciscan Friars, who had established a mission in the South Bronx in 1987 - a time when that particular neighbourhood was awash with burned out cars and rampant violence.

"They wanted to live more like authentic Franciscans," Gabriel said of a life shorn of personal belongings, devoted to three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience.

Gabriel lays his robe belt on the table, showing the three knots symbolizing these vows, which the Franciscans make after three years of study and prayer at the mission.

It's a simple but intense life.

The brothers rise early before 6 a.m. to begin three hours of prayer and mass before they begin their ministries.

Some of their tasks include upkeep of their residence - a former convent - at the corner of 155th Street and Melrose Avenue (close to Yankee Stadium) and assisting at the former school next door, which is now a combination youth centre/homeless shelter/clinic. But their faith is truly tested when the friars spread out in pairs across about 12 blocks of inner city.

While by and large the residents welcome the friars' offers of prayer, food and assistance, others are mired in their troubles. Gabriel remembers one particular incident where a homeless man tried to strike him and his fellow friar after their refusal to give money for alcohol.

"What we try to do is offer to take them for lunch and buy them a sandwich."

The Franciscan Friars of Renewal have grown from eight members to about 115. Gabriel is only one of three Canadians, but he hopes his recent visit back home with eight of his fellows from New York will give local youth another spiritual avenue.

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