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Plain Talk

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

On a Friday in May, a very distraught man in his mid-40s barricaded himself in a Catholic Church in Center Moriches. He threatened police to use incendiary devices. After the police retreated, he set the church on fire and killed himself.

The first responders and Suffolk County police were extraordinary; hundreds of people reached out to the young pastor to offer help in the midst of this horrific tragedy.

Located directly next to the church was a regional Catholic school, grades K through eight. A few hundred children were locked in for most of the afternoon. They were petrified. By late afternoon, they were released to their parents.

On the Monday after this horrific tragedy, the pastor designated the 8 o’clock morning Mass as a Mass for healing and peace for the parish and school community. The entire student body assembled in the gym along with countless parishioners and community members. This gymnasium turned worship space was alive with faith and renewed hope.

The pastor began the Mass with inspiring words of welcome. After the Gospel reading, he gave an extraordinary homily that was beyond words. The students were mesmerized by his words of compassion, unconditional love, profound gratitude and renewed hope.

He asked the students that morning how many had been afraid on Friday. More than half of the student body raised their hands. The young priest did too. He said he had been really scared but had drawn on his faith and he knew he would be okay. He went on to say to this very attentive audience that it was okay to be scared but that they would be okay too; that we just need to draw on our faith! All who participated that morning left with a renewed sense of hope and a real belief that everything would be okay!

There was a young social work intern at this peace and healing service. He was a social work intern from one of New York City’s graduate schools of social work. I have known him since he was a teenager; he is an extraordinary young man but like many of his generation not without some real-life challenges.

His graduate school graduation was on the Sunday before that Monday morning Mass. I asked him how was graduation. He told me he had been really excited to get hooded since he had missed his undergraduate graduation. However, because of the tragedy in his field placement, he made the difficult decision to pass on commencement. He said, “my students need me; I think it’s more important for me to be present among them. I want them to know that they will be okay!” I was profoundly touched by the decision he made.

That same graduation weekend two young men who have battled addiction since high school are powerful examples that transformation does take place and recovery can and does lead to new life.

One young man graduated cum laude from a local liberal arts college and will begin his professional career as a quality control scientist for a pharmaceutical company. The other young man, a philosophy major as an undergraduate, graduated at the top of his class with a law degree. Both men continue to give back and express gratitude every day for the lives they have reclaimed.

The drug epidemic is a national health crisis. Those in government pay lip service to this infectious affliction; despite their inaction, people do recover, reclaim their lives and become life-giving members of our society.

These are just a few stories of hope. I am fortunate to see these kinds of miracles every day across a landscape of unnecessary human carnage!

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

Father Frank with Bill Reitzig Sr. at the Hope Walk for Addiction in Mount Sinai. Photo by Kevin Redding
Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

The political rhetoric is deplorable. International tensions are at an all-time high. Social chaos seems to rain everywhere. Despite this contentious landscape, there are still courageous men and women among us that are doing extraordinary things to make our community a better place to live.

On Saturday, April 22,, on the first anniversary of their son’s death due to a heroin overdose, a Miller Place family led the first Hope Walk for Addiction at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai. More than 600 people gathered on that Saturday morning to celebrate the belief that miracles do happen and hope does live!

What was so impressive about that morning is that it brought the young, the old, the rich and the poor, the religious and not so religious together. This national health crisis does not know a particular profile. This epidemic is infecting families everywhere; no one is exempt.

The Reitzig family was the prime movers behind this day of hope. The Town of Brookhaven and Hope House Ministries were the co-sponsors of this life-giving event. Billy Reitzig was 25 years old when he passed. He was born into a loving family. As a family, they were really connected to each other. Like many young men his age, he had his struggles but was getting help. He used heroin only once and lost his life. He was bright, good-looking and had a great job. He was well-liked in the workplace and in the neighborhood where he grew up. Unfortunately, the affliction of addiction had its death hold on him.

Every parent’s nightmare is to bury a child. To lose a son to the heroin epidemic is beyond words. His parents would have been justified because of their unbearable loss and grief to have withdrawn quietly and suffered with their pain and profound loss in silence. Instead of withdrawing, they decided to celebrate their son’s life by becoming activists in educating and raising public awareness about this horrific national health crisis. To honor their son’s memory, they have aggressively been raising awareness and raising money for desperately needed long-term treatment beds, which are in short supply.

Countless families came wearing T-shirts; honoring their sons and daughters who have senselessly been lost to this infectious epidemic. Those who spoke that morning were challenging, inspirational and people filled with a renewed sense of hope. Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) who were co-sponsors, Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) as well as a number of other elected officials made an appearance to show their support.

In mid-April Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that millions of dollars are being allocated to provide treatment for those suffering from addiction. The more important question is when are the RFPs (requests for proposal) going to be released for that important money? Will government streamline the regulations so that that money can be utilized sooner rather than later? Treatment beds are needed ASAP!

Enough with the passive lip service alleging support; we need aggressive action yesterday. By the time you read this column, I will have buried another 25-year-old young man from Miller Place with untapped potential and possibility due to the heroin epidemic.

In addition to our urgent need for long-term treatment beds, we need extensive, comprehensive prevention education and treatment resources to support the growing number of families being infected by this horrific epidemic.

Bill Reitzig Sr. and his family are an inspiration to all who are struggling with the burden of addiction. Despite their pain and profound loss, they are beacons of hope within our community that this epidemic will end one day and the day will come when parents will not bury their children anymore due to this devastating affliction.

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

Join the community for a Hope Walk for Addiction at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai on Saturday, April 22 at 10:30 a.m.

By Father Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

That’s the headline on the cover of the April 3 edition of Time magazine. Definitely a provocative question with all that is happening in our nation and among our presidential administration. Fake facts, fake news, manipulative truth is contributing to a cesspool that is overflowing and infecting communities across our country.

Fact: Our president was elected by the Electoral College in November 2016 and was inaugurated as our president in January 2017.

Fact: The Republicans control Congress and the White House.

Fact: Presidential leadership is hard and complex!

The challenge for all of us is to seek the balance with insight, integrity and honesty with all that we do and say. An entire younger generation is hanging in the balance, waiting in the wings to see how we act and treat one another. It is critical that we lead by example and hold everyone accountable for what they say, for what they do and for what they have failed to do!

Change is disarming and difficult but necessary, if we are to grow and reach our full potential. It is frightening because we are being forced to move out of our comfort zone and genuinely look for truth and recognize that not all who lead us tell the truth. We must transcend all of our political differences and empower one another to work for the common good of all Americans, no matter what their social or political circumstance.

Our new presidential administration was elected on the principle of change, and it brings many creative new ideas that urge us to look at doing business differently. The opioid epidemic, according to our new president, is a priority social issue for his administration. Members of the administration want to confront, contain and ultimately end this lethal infection.

For more than 25 years, I have given voice to this serious epidemic issue. I have talked at more governmental task force meetings than I can count. Like many others in the trenches, I am disgusted with the rhetoric, which is on the slow track to nowhere. Every level of government promises action and has delivered little or nothing.

We need money, beds and long-term residential programs without red tape for people in need who can access it immediately before it’s too late. Every day I have to turn young people away from our long-term residential treatment program. The waiting list is growing exponentially. We try to network people to wherever a bed might be available. Today available beds are hard to come by.

Insurance companies make the issue of treatment even harder. They ask their clients who are heroin addicts to try outpatient treatment first and fail before they are willing to pay for a short-term 28-day residential program. They are failing in record numbers — they are dying! That is unconscionable!

On Saturday, April 22, the first annual Hope Walk for Addiction will take place at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai at 10:30 a.m. It’s not only a memorial walk to honor and remember a 25-year-old who overdosed on heroin by the name of Billy Reitzig, but also a community effort to raise awareness, provide education and raise funds for individuals and families afflicted by addiction. For information, visit www.hopewalkforaddiction.org.

This effort is being championed by Billy’s dad, Bill Sr., who lost his son to heroin on April 22, 2016. He could have buried his head in the sand with grief and pain, but he chose to honor his son’s life by courageously giving voice to one of the nation’s most serious health crises in this century. He and his family’s efforts are courageous and heroic and are making a profound difference. They are genuinely inspiring us to do more. Miracles do happen. I see them everyday! Hope does not abandon us; we abandon hope!

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

Nico Signore

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

The noise across the American landscape is deafening. Every day the perverse rhetoric is further polarizing our nation. This polarization is intensifying the anxiety in many communities and families around the country. It has gotten so out of hand that people are not talking to one another. The anger and disrespect is becoming infectious everywhere.

On the positive side, I have never seen more people interested in government and its social policies. More and more young people are considering public service and government leadership as career paths. People are watching the news and reading the paper much more consistently.

The media is being challenged daily to report the truth based on real facts. It is unfortunate in the age of social media that truth continues to be manipulated and misrepresented. We must support a free press and a free media and urge them to genuinely commit themselves to presenting the truth. In a free society, they are key to holding those in power accountable for their actions and their leadership; they are key in demanding honesty from all who lead us.

As a teacher on the college level for more than three decades, it continuously amazes me how little the present generation of young people know about American government and our social policies. Hopefully, the chaos in Washington will give life to a better, more informed younger generation who are willing to stand for the truth and work courageously to build new bridges of human understanding among us.

Every now and then in the midst of this chaos, I am forced to take pause and think about the fragile life and world in which we live. In early March a 14-year-old boy from Miller Place was riding his bicycle and was killed. It was documented that it was a genuine accident with no recklessness or human impediments involved. A few days after this senseless loss of life, I presided at Nico’s funeral at the Catholic Church of St. Louis de Montfort in Sound Beach. He was a veteran lacrosse player — every coach’s dream athlete. He possessed passion and energy for this sport that was extraordinary. He was small in stature but was a giant in heart and commitment to the game.

This tragic death brought an entire community together. As we celebrated his life that morning, we were forced to think about how all life is fragile, that we need to stand strong because we need each other. Nico played lacrosse since he was eight years old; it was in his blood. It was his favorite sport. However, the brotherhood that was fostered because of lacrosse laid the foundation for other human values that are desperately needed today. He and his buddies were committed and are committed to community service, to volunteering for a wide range of noble causes. Their service was done with dedication, love and passion, the same energy they brought to the lacrosse playing field.

At 14 years of age, Nico touched more people with his wit, charm, love and compassion than most of us will do in a lifetime. The world is definitely brighter and better because Nico walked, lived and loved among us.

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

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

On Jan. 20, 2017, a new and bold chapter began in American history. The 45th president of the United States was sworn in as the new leader of the free world. The America we knew is now radically changing course. It will take time to know if this new course is life-giving and if it truly is able to make “America Great Again.”

During his inauguration speech, Donald Trump spoke about giving the people back the power. The people responded the day after his speech by marching on Washington, D.C., over a million strong; with hundreds of thousands of voices walking/marching around the country and around the world.

Their voices spoke loudly about building bridges not walls and affordable health care for all that does not discriminate against those with pre-existing conditions and/or the poor. Those voices spoke about respect for women and the undocumented; for our Muslim brothers and sisters, for all people no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identification. Their voices loudly echoed concerns for civil rights and human rights.

The people heard the president’s voice; I hope that the president heard their voices and during the next hundred days responds to those important issues they spoke to on that Saturday after the inauguration.

Change is difficult no matter when it occurs. We all become very comfortable and at times complacent. The landscape of our nation is riddled with conflict and division. The rhetoric is hateful and divisive. The leadership of our nation from both sides of the aisle must come together and lead by example. The tone and language of dialogue must change. We must embrace a language that speaks of respect and integrity for every American, no matter what their social, economic or political perspective might be.

The leaders of our faith community, both locally and nationally, must move out of their coma of silence and not become political or feed the rhetoric of hate and divisiveness; rather they must stand up and call us to civility and to a discourse that supports and respects the human dignity and integrity of every American citizen.

Trump is our president, whether we like it or not. He was fairly elected. We must support the unity and healing he spoke about at his inauguration. As citizens, we must hold him accountable for what he says and what he does. He is not above the law. We must urge him to engage in a civil discourse about our complicated social issues and the future of our nation.

As this new chapter of American history unfolds, we have a powerful opportunity to engage and/or reengage in our democratic process. If you are not happy with the way things are, get involved; make a contribution; run for public office. Recognize that your voice counts and that you can make a difference in our nation and in our world.

Remember hope does not abandon us! We abandon hope! I am hopeful that if we all take responsibility for the future of our country, this new chapter in our history can make our great nation even greater!

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

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

As the New Year begins, we are still a polarized nation because of our politics and profoundly disrespectful rhetoric. Racial hatred and violence continues to increase. Concerns about the undocumented and our broken immigration system continue to instill fear and paralyzing anxiety among so many people from so many different ethnicities. Health care is becoming a nightmare, and no one seems concerned enough to challenge the insurance companies that are continuing to sentence so many people to premature death.

The heroin epidemic continues to be a national health crisis that falls on deaf ears. Treatment beds are not increasing and with the anticipated crisis in health care, there will probably be even fewer beds for those afflicted with this life-threatening addiction we call heroin.

Although the present social and political landscape across our nation is in turmoil, there is a profound awareness that we need to live and act differently; the American dream is not dead but truly alive! Hopefully our new president will spend his first hundred days healing and unifying our nation, building bridges and not walls with his message to make “America Great Again.”

For many of us, America is already great and for me that is best seen during the holiday season. This year I was amazed that in spite of all the turmoil nationally, people’s generosity toward others, especially those in need, has been extraordinary. Each day, I see firsthand the generosity of so many talented and gifted people. Local physicians, lawyers, accountants, social workers, psychiatrist, teachers and tradespeople to name a few who volunteered to help those who are trying to navigate the difficult landscape of daily living. Thanks to the generosity of so many hands and hearts, those they touch have a chance to keep their lives on track and move forward. Without this generosity, many people in need would lose their way.

For more than two decades, I’ve been privileged to share my insights and my observations in this space. Every New Year I make a couple of recommendations as the New Year begins. This year begins a whole new chapter for us as a nation! This past election was unprecedented. The future is exciting, challenging and probably a bit frightening — because our newly elected president is not predictable — like most of life!

Probably my most important recommendations are that we reclaim a civil and respectful discourse when discussing any issue; that we work harder at respecting all people no matter what their race, creed, color, sexual orientation or political perspective. Respect costs nothing but shapes everything. It serves no purpose to gossip or malign another person’s character and reputation.

We need to work harder at being less judgmental of human circumstances and situations that we don’t understand. We should never judge another by the color of his or her skin, the clothes he or she wears, the piercings or tattoos he or she displays or the lifestyle he or she embraces. If we judge less and respect more, the violence that is infecting our communities will be substantially reduced.

My final recommendation has to do with risk-taking. Too often we see things that trouble us and we keep silent. Sometimes that silence can be lethal, especially when it comes to our children’s social behaviors. We need to speak up and step out in regards to the reckless decision-making that a number of our young people are engaging: the illegal use of alcohol, prescription medication and illegal drugs. If we care about our children and their future, we must have the courage to risk our own comfort and do the right thing.

As this New Year begins, let us be more vigilant. Let us call our government to greater accountability to be more responsive to the needs of those among us who are less fortunate. The poor and the homeless are not invisible and government should not act as if they are. We are painfully reminded that we are vulnerable and not invincible. All life is sacred but only temporary. Thus, whatever we can do to make life better, we need to do it now for we may not pass this way again.

So, let us think and act more positively with a cooperative spirit in ways that will make our community better. Let us become the change we wish to see in the world (Gandhi). Remember, you can make a difference that really counts!

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