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Plain Talk

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

It’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving is once again upon us and the holiday season is fast approaching. This time of year is a time to give thanks. With all that has happened, with all the senseless loss of life because of the pandemic, we are reminded in the midst of all of that how blessed we are.

Our human landscape has changed so dramatically this past year. However, it has reminded me even more profoundly that all life is sacred, all life is fragile and we need to be so much more attentive to each other. We need to focus on all the things that bring us together rather than the things that separate us. This holiday season should be about building new bridges and not new walls.

With the election season behind us, we have an opportunity to begin a new chapter in our American journey; an opportunity to reclaim our soul as a nation, heal our wounds, stand together and celebrate all that makes us great. We are a tenacious people, diverse but extremely talented and gifted.

In the midst of all this chaos, I have continually been humbled and inspired with the random acts of kindness and compassion from ordinary people in our neighborhoods. On their own initiative, countless student groups have done extraordinary things for the poor and homeless in our larger community. The doctors, nurses, first responders and all of the support staff in our hospitals have been courageous and heroic in their response to the virus. They are a living example of what commitment to public service and community is all about.

We have an incredible opportunity to stand in solidarity with each other and work to make a better tomorrow or we can feed the divisive rhetoric that has become infectious and remain complicit by our silence.

This Thanksgiving will be my 41st Thanksgiving in Port Jefferson. I am forever grateful for these past 41 years. I have seen a community of tremendous diversity and talent stand with each other through good times and bad, always looking to build upon the goodness and kindness in our midst. This experience has inspired me to stay the course and to do my best to help make our community a better place. Every day I see miracles of hope and transformation take place because of the collaborative spirit to reach out to the most vulnerable and broken among us.

As we celebrate the holiday season, no matter what our faith tradition, let this be a time for renewed hope, a time for compassion and renewed understanding, a time for realizing that each and every one of us, no matter where we’re from or what we do, have the power to make a difference that really does count.

May we all be blessed and renewed during the holiday season.

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Chris and Christine Pendergast

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

It’s hard to believe that autumn is upon us. There seemed to be no summer. The political rhetoric continues to be out of control providing little substance on social policy and a future direction for our nation. The virus seems to be getting a second wind and a record number of young people are overdosing and dying due to heroin and fentanyl. These deaths are escalating at an alarming rate.

Despite this troubling landscape, random acts of kindness continue. Essential workers continue to be heroic and ordinary citizens are reaching out and a making a difference that really does counts.

On the morning of Oct. 14, a local hero went home to his God after a courageous life living with ALS, having spent his life working for a cure and supporting others who have been burdened with this incurable disease.

Dr. Christopher Pendergast, a retired Northport School District science teacher from Miller Place had lived with ALS for more than 28 years — a real light in the darkness. He had been a tireless advocate for research regarding finding a cure. His public advocacy is legendary.

However, what people did not know was the thousands of people across three decades that Chris touched with his selfless compassion, love and empathy. If he knew you were diagnosed with ALS, he and his wife Christine would quietly reach out to offer support.

In 1997 Chris founded the Ride for Life which touched thousands of students and people all over Long Island. He was a prolific writer and a powerful and moving public speaker.

Two weeks before Chris died, we met to talk about his last days. He was concerned about entering hospice. He felt that after 28 years of teaching all of us how to live that maybe he didn’t do enough for others! He already planned his celebration of life after his death; from the wake to the funeral mass to his final resting place. He picked out the readings, the music and the people he wanted to participate in his services. He told me he did all of this so his wife and children would not be burdened when he passed.

On the Sunday before he died, Chris came with his wife Christine to the 12 noon Mass at St. Louis de Montfort Church in Sound Beach. That was his Mass — he went every Sunday until very recently. He and his wife were catechists who prepared young people from the parish for confirmation.

That Sunday I shared with his community that he had just begun hospice. On behalf of the community, I thanked Chris for his courage and his power of example all these years. I asked the community to extend their hands in blessing upon our brother.

At the amen, they gave him a standing ovation as a way of saying thank you. On Wednesday, October 14, he peacefully went home to God. The world is a brighter and better place because Chris Pendergast walked among us!

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

METRO photo

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

School has just begun. In our county, we have a wide range of educational opportunities and experiences. Each school district is attempting to respond responsibly to all families and their children. That is a very complex and challenging dynamic because every school community is so vastly different.

It continues to amaze me that very simple and basic practices that are evidence-based are so complicated to embrace for a number of people in our midst. We have allowed our destructive political rhetoric to impair our common sense and basic efforts to support some very basic common-sense practices that protect all of us.

My college students both on campus and online are an inspiration. They are open and insightful. They are hungering to learn and genuinely make a positive contribution to our community that will make a profound difference in the future.

This pandemic is a powerful opportunity for us to draw closer together. It’s an opportunity to build new bridges of understanding and compassion. It’s an opportunity to challenge the bigotry and hatred that has become so infectious.

These are challenging times. We can look at these challenges as burdens that are burying us under or we can see them as opportunities for change and transformation. There are so many life lessons to be learned, if we have the courage to take the blinders off and listen.

We will never return to the life we once knew before the pandemic. However, we have an opportunity to create a new tomorrow that is rich with opportunity and possibility that can be life-giving, if we have the courage to live differently.

There are so many life lessons to be learned. This pandemic has brought families together. People are talking and connecting in ways that were never imagined. Many of us have had to rearrange our priorities. A growing number of people have become more other-centered than self-centered. I have witnessed countless random acts of kindness that have changed people’s lives.

It has been refreshing to listen to the next generation of leaders talk about making tomorrow’s America better and stronger, more inclusive and respectful; a place where diversity and difference are seen as a blessing and not a curse.

The America that my students speak about is an America filled with promise and opportunity for all, grounded in a respect for the dignity of every human person. It is an America that will not tolerate hateful rhetoric; that will respect people’s right to peacefully protest injustice and give voice to the voiceless. It is an America that empowers every citizen to dream dreams and believes those dreams can come true.

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

METRO photo

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

It’s hard to believe that schools in our community  pare opening in a few weeks. Our school administrators, school boards, school support staff and teachers are working overtime to create safe, responsible learning opportunities for all of our students.

Every school community has a unique profile based on economics, size and cultural diversity. As community members, we need to urge caution, respect and responsible and doable planning based on each of these unique profiles.

For more than 40 years I’ve been privileged to be actively engaged in both public and private education as a school administrator, junior high and senior high school teacher, and undergraduate and graduate school professor in the area of social science and clinical social work. Our schools are the heart and soul of our communities. This pandemic has impacted them in more ways than many of us fully realize.

If we listen to our students on every grade level, lack of socialization and human interaction has been devastating for so many. Many traditional social experiences from senior proms to graduations were canceled for the class of 2020. For the class of 2021, many fall sports have been canceled and/or postponed.

Our students continue to get a mixed message regarding some of the very basic healthcare provisions that are critical and that we all must practice if we want to protect ourselves and others and reduce the spread of this virus.

As we scurry to get ready for a new school year, there is another vital resource for students that might not receive the support it needs, especially with so many schools facing economic issues and cutbacks due to the pandemic. So many of our students at all levels are reporting increased stress, anxiety and depression. They admit they do not have the coping skills to manage.

Unfortunately, during these tough economic times, we too often cut services that support our students psychological and emotional needs. I feel compelled to give voice to this issue. As a veteran educator and licensed clinical social worker who runs a mental health clinic in our community, I can attest firsthand that mental health services are desperately needed both in our schools and in our community. Our outpatient clinic has a waiting list that is growing every day.

Our two community hospitals have been heroic at the way in which they have responded to this pandemic with compassion and competence. What very few people realize is that John T. Mather Memorial Hospital in Port Jefferson is the only local hospital that provides comprehensive mental health services. St. Charles Hospital is the only hospital in our area that provides competent, comprehensive detox and residential rehabilitation services for drugs and alcohol.

The issue that no one wants to address, including the people who lead us, is that there is no money in mental health services and even less money for alcohol and drug rehabilitation services. I have heard too often the bureaucrats on the corporate side of healthcare say“there’s no money in these services. We lose money.” This kind of thinking coming from corporate healthcare systems is reprehensible and is a profound violation of their Hippocratic oath.

During these very difficult times, we need more than ever greater access to mental health beds and rehabilitation beds for substance abuse not less beds. Insurance companies should not sentence people to death; our young should not be denied treatment for being unable to make payment.

Let us stand up and support Mather and St. Charles and thank them for their courageous service and loudly advocate for their support. A growing number of young people are at risk if we remain silent. He or she could be your son or daughter!

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

METRO photo

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

It’s hard to believe that we are almost at the midpoint of the summer. The pandemic has changed our lives forever. We will never be able to go back to yesterday. However, we have a powerful opportunity to build a better and safer tomorrow.

At this point in our history, it is not a time for impulsiveness and polarization; rather it should be a time for profound reflection and for building new bridges. It is not a time for building walls, but rather a time to look for more creative ways to transcend our differences and to build a stronger foundation on our American values and ideals.

By our silence, we are complicit. More than ever before, we need people to stand up and give voice to reason and to social justice for all. Individually, we need to lead by example. Our failure to do this will cost the loss of innocent lives. Simple things matter like wearing a mask in public, social distancing and washing our hands frequently.

We have painfully learned how fragile all life is and how some simple practices can make the difference.

Unfortunately, our leadership on both sides of the aisle have failed us. The pandemic should not be a political football, but rather an opportunity to come together for the sake of the common good.

It should not matter what political party is leading us when it comes to protecting all Americans. They should be courageous enough to lead us and call for unity; they should be advocating and working for healing; instead of leading the charge for divisiveness and chaos.

Every state in the union is facing the difficult decision of when and how to open our schools. The health of our children, of our teachers and of our administrators is at stake; so is the quality of American education at every level.

We need to act cautiously and deliberately and not be seduced by rhetoric that is not grounded in science and good health practices. The next generation of leadership is at stake.

Regarding our schools, let us trust our leadership, let us encourage creativity and let us think outside the box without compromising quality education. Let us be mindful if we begin with a hybrid system of learning that many of our children will not have access to tablets and the internet and not every parent can supervise at home. It takes a village to raise and educate a child.

It is time to reclaim “we the people” and build a better tomorrow for all Americans no matter their color, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or social status.

Hope does not abandon us. We abandon hope. More than ever before hope needs to become the anthem of our souls!

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Father Frank joined the Black Lives Matter protest on June 18. Photo by Drew Biondo

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

The pandemic has changed the world as we know it forever. As we attempt to go back to a new normal, many of us will not look at life in the same way. Many families are closer. So many have reassessed what is important and who is important. The workplace has changed. School, colleges, universities will never be the same.

Hopefully these new challenges will empower us to become the best version of ourselves. It has been amazing driving through Port Jefferson Village and seeing so many families sitting on their porches and lawns actually talking and laughing with each other and not texting!

In an instant, we in college education went from in-class human contact to a virtual classroom. It’s a whole new experience, a whole different way of teaching and learning.

Life is dynamic. We need to be more flexible and more willing to adapt to change. Too often we get set in a pattern of doing and thinking that is not always life-giving.

In recent weeks the already challenging landscape became more toxic with the unfortunate and tragic loss of life at the hands of law enforcement. This social unrest has given birth to the Black Lives Matter Movement. This movement has spread across the country challenging all fair-minded people to think about systemic racism and discrimination.

On June 18, students from Stony Brook University organized a Black Lives Matters protest in Port Jefferson. We were almost 400 strong as we met at the Port Jefferson train station. We walked down Main Street to Village Hall. We were White, Black, Latino, Asian and Indian chanting and talking. When we reached Infant Jesus Church, we were asked to kneel. The silence was deafening.

What was amazing during those moments of silence were two small children standing in front of me hugging each other; one was black, the other was white. When they turned around and I could see their faces, they both had on t-shirts that said “All Life Matters.” As we continued to walk, I could not help but think about that statement. Blacks, browns, documented, undocumented, Asians, Indians, Native Americans, whites, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people — they all matter.

This is a powerful moment in history. We need to confront systemic prejudice and discrimination everywhere. Most religions call us to a higher standard, but are equally guilty of discrimination, oppression and prejudice. Our schools and universities, law enforcement in almost every social entity that deals with people needs to step back and look at how they do what they do.

The social unrest confronting our nation is an opportunity for systemic change and reform across the spectrum of all human interactions; every system needs to be held accountable. No one should ever be above that standard.

When we arrived at Village Hall, the speakers thanked the police for their service and thanked all of us for standing together in solidarity. As I left, I did the same. I thanked each police officer for his or her service. I also realized that we need to see with different eyes; we need to hear and listen with different ears. As Gandhi said, we must “be the change that we wish to see in the world!”

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Seniors from The Stony Brook School celebrated graduation last week with a car processional. Photo from The Stony Brook School

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

A new day and a new way! The world as we know it is changed forever. Hopefully, as we slowly begin to embrace the new normal life, lessons learned will not be lost in the fragmented world.

Education on every level has changed. Time will tell if it’s for the better. Families have reclaimed and/or rediscovered the value of family life and being together. A new appreciation for the sacredness of life has emerged.

People seem to value human connecting on a whole different level, valuing intimacy over superficiality. Gratitude is much more present in big and small ways. People say thank you and express appreciation for the simple things people seem to take for granted.

This year our seniors will graduate from our high schools. Their graduation will be like no other. All the social trappings and traditions will be missing, but still we will profoundly celebrate their academic achievements. They will lead us tomorrow and hopefully change the world for the better.

During this pandemic, they have demonstrated heroic acts of kindness and compassion. They have done simple things that have made a profound difference in our community.

Seniors, as you graduate, continue to show compassion and understanding rooted in social justice. It is more important than any science formula or social platform. Remember the sunshine when the storm seems unending; teach love to those who only know hate; let that love embrace you as you continue in the world. It is the content and quality of your character that is important not merely the actions you take.

Don’t judge a book by its cover or stop at the introduction. Read it through, seeking meaning and value; everyone’s life is sacred; even those who are different from you or whom you do not like. Be more inclusive than exclusive. Don’t be blinded by those who tend to use shame, blame, and guilt to shackle people down and divide them. Set people free with your respect and nonjudgmental way.

Seniors, as you take leave, may your moral compass be grounded in integrity and respect for all human beings, no matter what their color, their race, their creed and/or their sexual orientation. May your moral compass guide you on a path that is committed to working for peace and social justice. As Gandhi once said, “be the change you hope for this world.”

Congratulations graduating class of 2020. Thanks for making our world a little richer, a little brighter and a little bit more hopeful place to be!

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

The community came out to wish Chris Pendergast a happy birthday last Tuesday. Photo courtesy of ALS Ride for Life Facebook

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

The summer is fast approaching. The pandemic continues to paralyze the world and our country. However, there genuinely is a spirit of hope that is emerging. 

People need to stay focused. Unfortunately, the mixed messages coming from Washington make it difficult at times for people to believe. We should not get distracted by their incompetence. Listen to the professional voices who know, who are reminding us to be cautious, careful and respectful.

In the midst of all of this chaos and craziness how blessed we are with the random acts of kindness emerging all over the country in every state of our union. Locally, there have been countless signs of gratitude to our medical community and their support staff, to our first responders, EMS workers and our police. We are grateful to those that are staffing our food stores and other essential services, risking their lives every day so that our lives might be safe and reasonable.

There will be a time in the future where we will look back upon this pandemic and be mindful of the life lessons it has taught us. This virus was not man-made; it came upon us because of our planet. It is a powerful reminder that we need to be more attentive to the environment and environmental issues. We need to be conscious not to senselessly pollute the air and our water. We need to be mindful of climate change and global warming and act sensibly to protect the earth and the lives of future generations.

One of the powerful life lessons we need to reflect upon is we are America, not the people who we have elected. It is time for us to lead, to stand up, to be counted and to challenge the bureaucrats to build bridges and not walls; to bring us together like so many ordinary Americans have done across the country during this time of crisis. 

I have been inspired and encouraged by the powerful witness and example of ordinary Americans sharing, caring and reaching beyond themselves to help others and expecting nothing in return!

On April 28 more than 100 cars, motorcycles and bicycles gathered in the parking lot of the North Country Road School in Miller Place. This spontaneous caravan of people of all ages and from all places came to celebrate the birthday of a very courageous man within our community, Dr. Christopher Pendergast. He is a teacher, a scientist, a researcher, a writer and a powerful symbol of hope in a world that often hovers in despair. We gathered on that Tuesday to celebrate his 71st birthday. Twenty-eight years ago he was diagnosed with ALS. He wasn’t expected to live but just a few years. His courage, his tenacity and his love of life have sustained him during these past challenging years.

Today, although very disabled, he continues to be a beacon of hope for all of us who are privileged to know him and spend time with him. He continues to raise our consciousness about the importance of ALS research and leads by example. How fitting for this spontaneous caravan with signs and balloons to surprise him and drive past his house to say thank you for his gift of life! That’s the real America I believe in.

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Photo by Kyle Barr

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

Life as we know it has radically changed forever. Unfortunately, according to the experts we are not really sure what is before us. We know that unfortunately many more lives will become infected and many more lives will be lost due to this pandemic.

On some level it seems like the world has lost its way. Our national leadership consistently seems to blur the facts and the media continues to fuel hysteria and fear. 

We need to take pause in the midst of the chaos and the fear. We need to express gratitude to those in public service, especially those who have the courage to stand up and lead us. We need to give thanks to the entire medical community that are risking their lives every day to keep us safe and healthy. We need to give thanks to our first responders, our EMS workers, and our law enforcement who are challenged every day as they attempt to keep us safe. Each of them is risking their personal health and safety on our behalf. We are blessed.

Unfortunately, at times it seems so much easier to focus on all the negativity, all of the fear, and lose sight of all of the goodness and all of the hope that is alive in our midst. Every day there are countless stories of ordinary people acting in heroic ways in the service of our community, in expressions of love and compassion for others. It would be refreshing if the news media celebrated a little more optimism and what ordinary people are doing during this time of national crisis.

Every day I am profoundly touched by what I see firsthand in our local community. Ordinary men and women anonymously engaged in random acts of kindness; countless strangers reminding us in simple ordinary ways what it really means to be a community. People reaching out and building bridges instead of walls; embracing their neighbors with a profound sense of concern and support.

As we navigate our way through these difficult days that probably will become difficult months, let us look at this time not as a burden but rather as an opportunity to become the best version of ourselves as we continue to reach out to the most vulnerable among us.

Let us try to remember that negativity and hysteria don’t change the facts; we are trying to live through the worst pandemic in our lifetime. Scaring people is not going to change the facts; constantly focusing on the negative is not going to change the facts. However, being a people of hope filled with positive energy is going to transform an unbearable situation into something we will all get through because we are a part of a community that cares, a community of balance, of compassion and of unconditional love. 

This too will pass and, hopefully, we will all be better for it.

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Stock photo

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

It is already March, the temperatures are changing, the political rhetoric continues to intensify and the nation is now facing a new health crisis, the coronavirus. 

In the midst of all of this, Christian communities around the world have begun their season of Lent, a time of inner reflection and pro activity to prepare those who believe in Jesus for Easter.

The beginning of the Lenten season is marked by the spiritual tattoo of ashes in the sign of the cross on one’s forehead. At that service, Christians are encouraged to consider three different ways to prepare for Christ’s death and resurrection. 

The first recommendation is to find time in the midst of all of our chaos and craziness to pray, even if just a few moments, be consistent and do it every day during Lent. Not just the multiplication of words, or if you will, that give me God prayer but rather, use it as a time to listen to God speak to your heart.

The second recommendation is almsgiving; traditionally understood from a biblical perspective to give money to the poor. The focus of this recommendation is upon generosity of spirit — that the giving doesn’t have to be about money but it also can be about giving your time and your talent to others.

In simple terms, volunteer in a soup kitchen or a shelter for the homeless. Po’ Boy Brewery in Port Jefferson Station collected blessing bags for the poor and dropped them off at a local homeless shelter. Most of us reading this column could commit to bringing canned goods and other non-perishable foods to a local church or synagogue for the poor and needy on a regular basis -— that is genuine almsgiving. 

The third recommendation is fasting. For many Christians, it’s the yearly opportunity to go on a diet, give up all kinds of foods that we like and by the next day break every resolution we made.

Genuine fasting is supposed to be about changing an attitude or behavior that blocks us from fully loving and forgiving one another unconditionally. I don’t think it should be a practice only embraced by Christians during Lent but rather a practice all caring human beings should consider embracing all year long as we all try to make the world a better place.

This particular recommendation might be appropriate for all of our elected officials to consider. How about for 40 days, everyone who leads us fast from name-calling, from rude and disrespectful comments, from lying and misrepresenting the truth and from being judgmental?

As many of you know, I live with 62 people in the early stages of recovery hoping for wellness. At our Lenten service this year, I suggested in regards to fasting that they consider a couple of things: how about fasting from the F curse, how about fasting from blaming everyone and their brother for your addictive behavior, how about fasting from anger and the poor me pity party? 

It’s only been two weeks … but hope springs eternal!

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.