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The charity-in-truth continuum in Chelsea, Massachusetts


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Pope Benedict’s encyclical on social justice, “Caritatis in Veritate,” offers a new look at charity and truth, linking the two in a manner much like Albert Einstein forever changed our perception of time and space. Just as Einstein’s scientific theories proposed the existence of a time-space continuum, premised on the unchangeable limit of light’s upper speed, so the Holy Father suggests that in the unchangeable light of God’s existence there is a charity-in-truth continuum.

One cannot love while at the same time ignoring truth; one cannot be true if within one’s heart there is no love. Both charity and truth are gifts, not of our own human creation. They reflect the absolute love and truth of God, as revealed in Jesus.

A chain of recent events, centered in Chelsea, Massachusetts, made these insights more real for me.

A couple of months ago, friends in my parish, a couple, approached me after Mass. They were upset about a television program that they had watched, covering the story of a man in Europe who planned to commit suicide because he was diagnosed with ALS, or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” The couple is caring for the wife’s mother, who has the same debilitating condition. They understand the difficulties associated with seeing a loved one lose her physical capacities and require total support. They worry that people might see suicide or euthanasia as the only choice.

The couple urged me to help spread the news about an April fundraiser in Chelsea, the Walk to Defeat ALS, sponsored by the Massachusetts chapter of the ALS Association. Part of the funds raised by walkers would go to the national organization and another part would be used for the operation of a new state-of-the-art facility in Chelsea designed for patients with progressively debilitating conditions.

Run by the Chelsea Jewish Foundation, the Florence Center for Living is the first urban nursing home facility based on what is known as the innovative “Green House” model. The “Green House” movement intends to de-institutionalize care for older persons by building smaller units and creating a more home-like environment. Within the Florence Center is the first “Green House” unit in the country, opening its doors this year, devoted to ALS and MS patients.

The Steve Saling ALS Residence is named after a Boston architect who was diagnosed with ALS in 2006 when he was 38 and who will be one of the first residents. Now in his forties, Saling cannot speak or walk and what little ability he has left in his hands is growing weaker. He requires a ventilator to breathe.

Saling writes on his MySpace online page that “Despite the grim words upon my diagnosis, I instinctively knew that ALS would not be the end of my life, just a change in direction.” He adds that “I could have withdrawn from life and spent the last three years depressed and no one would have blamed me. I could have listened to my doctors and gone home to prepare to die. I could have, but I choose to accept my life the way it is. As a result, I am as happy as I have ever been and will contribute more than I ever would have if I’d remained healthy.”

Not long after his diagnosis, Saling met officials from the Chelsea Jewish Foundation and was invited to employ his architectural training to help design the ALS residence. He believes that the center “will show everyone that a vented life can be a quality life.”

I initially told my friends that I would help spread the word about the walk. However, after checking out the ALS Association, I was disappointed to learn that the organization’s national office supports embryonic stem cell experiments. Its leaders applauded President Barack Obama’s decision in March of 2009 to approve federal funds for research involving the destruction of human embryos. The association has provided grants to directly assist this immoral approach to finding cures. I could not in good conscience participate in or otherwise promote the walk to raise funds for the group.

The weekend before submitting this column, I provided my friends with the negative evidence about the ALS Association and they appreciated my concerns about the walk. Though I was apprehensive beforehand about what their reaction might be, the follow-up conversation was grace-filled.

My friends assured me that Chelsea facility is not involved in any problematic research. They suggested looking into giving donations directly to the operation of the Steve Saling ALS Residence (which I have done). I learned during the conversation that even though it is a Jewish facility, many of the patients residing in the Florence Center and Chelsea nursing home are Catholic.

I also was inspired when my friends told me, in passing, and without any intent to put themselves into the spotlight, that they are part of a group of volunteers. They are helping with the round-the-clock care of one individual with ALS who is waiting to get into the Saling Residence.

Charity in truth--even in the shadows of a devastating diagnosis, one discovers many inspiring affirmations of life. Whereas some point to suicide as a solution, others somehow find the courage to choose to live. Some respond to sickness and disability by endorsing embryo research to find cures, while others join together to help wherever and however they can without crossing ethical lines.

I have witnessed the charity-in-truth continuum in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and for that I am grateful.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

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