One of the most noteworthy things about Father Dan Begin was that his words and his actions were almost perfectly in sync. This quality made his sermons especially powerful; if you knew him, you could hear his advice and immediately think of in-the-flesh-examples from the speaker himself. You would think, “Oh, yes. I see. That’s exactly what you do.”
My minister friend Roger (see the comments here) has recently put me on to Phillips Brooks, a 19th century preacher, who espoused the idea of preaching as “truth through personality.” Christianity. Brooks said, was not essentially based on a text or on ideas but on interaction with others. By this light, Jesus converted the disciples and followers not (or not merely) by his teachings but by his actions. Father Dan was, first and foremost, a follower of Jesus, so it makes sense that he would pursue the same model. His prime purpose was to, as he frequently said, “fix himself,” not others. He saw himself as a lifelong project—to morph into something more like Jesus all the time.
So when at Mass Father Dan preached about carrying the Gospel message with you, bringing Jesus to every situation, trying to bring a smile and lighten the load of others, you could observe him after Mass doing these very things.
I’m thinking back to a recent sermon, I think from last fall, which spoke to me explicitly about the current politics of immigration, with indignation seething just underneath the words. Father Dan was talking about the unequivocal teaching of Scripture about welcoming the stranger. There are no sub-clauses about looking out for one’s well-being, no vetting, extreme or otherwise, no hesitation or moralizing. If someone is in need you let them in. That’s it. That message is throughout Scripture.
As I listened, and pondering later, I tried to count the ways I had observed Father Dan welcoming the stranger. There are too many examples, but I’ll give it a start.
First, from my own selfish perspective. When I began attending St. Cecilia, I was in effect a church refugee. I had previously attended the Hallinan Center, the Newman center at Case Western Reserve, with a bunch of other (not to put too fine a point on it) white people. My cohort had all happened into Hallinan from varying directions. Some had an actual affiliation with CWRU, and some with the hospitals in the neighborhood. Others like me had followed friends there and found a congenial, activist, liberal congregation, mixed up with the students who attended regularly. The Diocese of Cleveland looked askance at this little outpost and felt we should instead invest ourselves in a normal Catholic parish. So they canceled our Sunday Mass, non-renewed the regular staff there, including the priest, and made it clear we weren’t a church and shouldn’t act like one.
A large group of us decided to go find ourselves another church and so began the Summer Church Tour. We visited parishes that were convenient for most of us or that friends and relatives had recommended. Apparently some pastors found this an arrogant enterprise (as I learned later from Father Dan). How dare we visit and evaluate their Masses? Anyway, St. Cecilia wasn’t even on our original list, but one of our number had tried it and liked it and suggested we add it.
At most of the churches we visited, we were unacknowledged. At a couple, the priest hung around afterward and chatted with us. At St. Cecilia, Father Dan welcomed us from the pulpit, saying something like, “Our visitors today from Case’s Hallinan Center remind us that we are all pilgrims. All of us are on a journey.” I remember tears stinging my eyes as he spoke. At the sign of peace halfway through the Mass—a perfunctory hand shake at most Catholic churches—the parishioners, mostly African-American, poured out of the pews and shook hands with or hugged almost everyone else in the church, including us. I had never felt so welcome in a church.
So that’s my first example. Father Dan welcomed us strangers to St. Cecilia, as did the congregation.
Father Dan also welcomed visiting priests. African priests frequently stayed in the rectory. He befriended them and gave them jobs and served them meals and laughed with them. More recently, a young priest named Chris worked with Father Dan at his first post-St. Cecilia assignment, and when Father Dan moved to his own churches in Bedford, he invited Chris there, too, hoping to give him a better educational and spiritual experience.
Examples back at St. Cecilia and Epiphany abound. He helped institute an annual Community Fair so that the neighborhood could stop by and get food and play games. He spoke often about the doors of our church going both ways—opening out for us to become part of the city neighborhood and opening in to welcome the neighbors in.
A Narcotics Anonymous group met in our parish basement once a month. Sometimes, our members would gripe about the dirty ashtrays and messy sinks they left behind. Father Dan would resist any suggestion that we disinvite the group. At one Parish Council meeting, he became stern. “As long as I’m here,” he said, “we’re going to have that NA meeting in our basement. No more discussion.”
Father Dan had learned the welcoming habit from his family– known for taking in outcasts, having them for dinner, and inviting them to stay for awhile. His mother encouraged her children to bring over friends who were different from them. “How much can you learn from someone who’s exactly like you?” she would ask. “Make friends with people who are different so they can teach you something!” His friend Father Paul Rosing said of the Begin home on Cleveland’s West side, “Everyone, everyone was welcome there.”
Most tellingly, Father Dan adopted and fostered children in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. They became his own children, though he would be quick to say he co-parented them with their biological parents. Their children became his treasured grandchildren. When St. Cecilia’s was closing, his fellow priests slyly cautioned him, “When you get to your new assignment, don’t start talking about your kids and grandkids right off the bat! The parishioners won’t know what to make of it!” When kids had to escape abuse or an uncomfortable or unsupportive home, or needed things an overwhelmed single mother couldn’t provide, they came to stay at St. Cecilia. Father Dan took them to school, bought their food and uniforms, interceded with the law when necessary, cooked their meals, and provided a happy home life.
The stranger, the outsider, was the exact person Father Dan was drawn to. I observed it over and over. Sometimes he’d even leave off talking to me (me!) in order to attend to someone standing alone and looking forlorn. As a Christian, he took the words of Scripture seriously, and his actions illustrated the words of Leviticus: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”