COMMENTARY: Look to streets, not statements, for Christian-Jewish progress

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.)

UNDATED _ Want to know what's really happening in Christian-Jewish relations?

For starters, look beyond the religious manifestos, pastoral letters, and ecclesiastical statements _ important as they are _ and focus instead on St. Francis House, a 10-story building on Boylston Street in downtown Boston.

St. Francis House was founded in 1984 by the Rev. Louis Canino, a Franciscan priest, with the backing of St. Anthony's Shrine, a large Boston Catholic center. Nestled among the tall buildings of corporate Boston, St. Francis House has grown in scope and fame over the years, and is today directed by Ira Grieff, a Jew who received his inspiration to serve the needy in a Long Island, N.Y., synagogue.

Each day between 400 and 600 men and women come to St. Francis House seeking food, shelter, clothing, medical, dental, and psychiatric services; English language courses, computer and employment training, as well as citizenship classes. It is the largest day shelter in New England.

Grieff graduated from Columbia University with an advanced degree in psychology and served as Director of Psychiatric Rehabilitation at New York City's Bellevue Hospital.

But following a move to Boston in the 1980s, Grieff became involved with Father Canino and the newly established St. Francis House. In May 1996, he became its executive director and supervises a full-time staff of 65, including social workers, dieticians, physicians, dentists, and teachers. "The extraordinary advances in Catholic-Jewish relations helped create the positive climate that made my appointment possible,"Grieff said."But still, with all the intense activity that takes place at St. Francis House, I sometimes need to remind myself that here I am, a Jewish man, directing a large facility that has its roots and much of its support within the Roman Catholic Church." Grieff was moved to tears last Christmas when Cardinal Bernard Law, Boston's archbishop, visited St. Francis and concluded his public remarks by turning to St. Francis' Jewish executive director."The cardinal said I was closer to Jesus than he was because both Jesus and I were `sons of Abraham,' both Jewish. It was a very touching and emotional moment for me,"Grieff said. "You know, behind my graduate degree and years of professional work, I am still the youngster who first learned about the Hebrew prophets at my synagogue in Far Rockaway. I guess I took seriously the prophets' urgent demand to aid the widow, the orphan, the poor, the needy in our midst. I don't idealize my work, but clearly those teachings from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and the other prophets formed many of my values. I know my rabbi would approve of what I'm doing." In the early years of St. Francis House, most of the people coming through its doors were white Roman Catholic men and frequently alcoholics, homeless, or addicted to drugs. But the clients have dramatically changed in the past few years."Today we see mostly African-Americans and Latinos, along with many Asians, especially Vietnamese,"Grieff said."And the government's recent welfare cuts have placed increased burdens on places like St. Francis House. We maintain 43 apartments for transients, a 100-bed safe and secure daily shelter, and we provide 14-week courses to teach employment skills, including computers. "America may be on an economic boom, but we see the have-nots who are missing out on that boom. In fact, there's more competition than ever for the low-paying jobs in our society. So that's why I always get a thrill when we have a special ceremony for our graduates, when we send them back into the world, or when our successful `alumni' return to the House for a visit. "One thing I've learned at St. Francis House is that the line between those who come here for assistance and those who give assistance is a very blurry, a very thin line. I know it's a cliche, but it's true that any one of us could be thrown out of work, out of our house, alienated from family and friends. Like many people, I've had my own tough times, so I know how important St. Francis House is." Former President George Bush often spoke of creating a thousand"points of light"to provide welfare services for America's homeless and poor. While many cynics scoffed at Bush's phrase, it is clear that St. Francis House, founded by Catholics and directed by a Jew, is an authentic point of light for thousands of people.