“We gave one for God, one for country, one for family, and one to give away.” Justin Nelson Alphonse is from a family in southern India who converted to Catholicism several generations ago. “The Portuguese came first to India, seeking spices. Then the Dutch, the French, and the English. Each brought their missionaries. Before the Europeans, India was over 700 small kingdoms. Now we are one country.” His oldest brother serves in the army; another brought his wife into the family home; and his sister left to be with her husband’s family. When Justin was in the tenth grade, a Passionist Priest visited his class. Justin wrote him a note, “I want to preach Christ crucified in India.” Shortly after, he entered the seminary. Justin is the child his family gave to God.
Six years ago, after twelve years of seminary study and juggling ten poor parishes in India as well as several missionary appeal trips to the U.S., Justin was transferred to our country. His first assignment, an affluent parish near Louisville, KY, was a shock to a man skilled at working with the poor. Although Father Nelson will spread the Gospel wherever he is called, he seems more content in his current assignment, pastor to two African-American parishes around Birmingham. “My parishes are small. One has 175 families, the other, 90. Only 2% of African-Americas in Birmingham are Catholic.”
He shares a pair of rectory houses with three other Passionists, one from Ecuador who works primarily with Hispanics, and two from the United States. In addition to his parish work Father Nelson is responsible for Holy Family Middle School, which is affiliated with Christo Rey High School across the street. “The Christo Rey model is very successful. Every student works a job as well as attending classes. Four students, one from each grade, share a job. Every fourth day they go to their workplace instead of class, so one day all the freshmen are at work, the next day sophomores, etc.” Their earnings offset tuition. “One hundred percent of our students go to college, most on scholarship. Many wind up working in for the firms where they start. It is aimed for the poor. Parents have to make less than $38,000 for their children to qualify.”
Justin is keenly aware of the dichotomies of American society and how it is manifested in developing countries like India. “Western dreams are changing India’s cities. Software salaries are high, young people have too much money. But in the country, living is simple.” He acknowledges India’s challenges of caste and corruption. Still, he witnesses different kinds of disruption here. “In this neighborhood, we cannot go outside at night. All of our cars are broken into; I leave nothing in my car. Every weekend or two, people are shot. There’s drugs; prostitution; people drop the mentally ill on the streets of Ensley. Actually, it’s getting better. I’ve made our parish more visible, there is more respect for what we do.” I noticed that several other churches in the neighborhood had barbed wire fences around them. “We are the only church that is open during the day. People can come into our church office any time.” In addition to his pastoral and school work, Reverend Nelson has a prison ministry and an addiction ministry. “I love people and people love me.”
I asked Reverend Nelson about the dwindling number of vocations, and whether allowing priests to marry might change that. “We live in a world where people have wants and want to satisfy them. Priest life is not like that. I have many blessings. I have a house, a car, the essentials, but I don’t get to choose the house or the car or even where i live. It’s not about sex or getting married. Vocations are declining because contemporary culture does not support spiritual life.” He points to his heart. “Happiness is not out there. Happiness is in here.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“I was watching the news today. A small town in Texas is promoting tiny houses and living simply. I think we are going to live simply. In the U.S. I don’t live rich, so when I return to India I am content with what I have.”