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Project Joseph: Teaching men to be dads

Male mentoring, Franciscan style, part of respect life efforts to save babies and souls

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Project Joseph mentors Brother Chris Handal, left, a novice of Franciscans of Life, and Joseph King, center, speak about their work with Brother Jay Rivera.

Photographer: ANNE DIBERNARDO | FC

Project Joseph mentors Brother Chris Handal, left, a novice of Franciscans of Life, and Joseph King, center, speak about their work with Brother Jay Rivera.

Brother Jay Rivera, founder of the Franciscans of Life and Project Joseph.

Photographer: ANNE DIBERNARDO | FC

Brother Jay Rivera, founder of the Franciscans of Life and Project Joseph.

HOLLYWOOD | On any given day, the activity at an abortion mill is predictable. The mother is dropped off by the father, who either drives away or sits helplessly in his car.

Just ask Brother Jay Rivera, superior of the Archdiocese of Miami-based Franciscans of Life. After weeks of volunteering at the Respect Life Pregnancy Help Center in Hollywood back in 2009, he grew deeply disturbed when it dawned on him that the pro-life movement was following the same line of thinking as the pro-choice movement — making pregnancy a mother’s issue and completely ignoring the father.

“This is the same argument of the pro-choice movement — fathers have no place; it is ‘her’ body,” said Brother Rivera, who knows the importance of being a father. He lost his wife and one of his three children many years ago, leaving him alone to raise a son and daughter while they were still very young.

“The Catholic Church is not using that language but the Church is saying, in essence, ‘she’s the one that is pregnant so she is the one we have to rescue,’” Brother Rivera said.

In an effort to change that, he collaborated with Joan Crown, archdiocesan respect life director, to create Project Joseph, a Franciscan outreach ministry for fathers of at-risk pregnancies. The project is part of the archdiocese’s respect life ministry.

“If it’s not Franciscan, Project Joseph won’t work. Every volunteer is trained to preach the Gospel according to the rule and spirit of St. Francis of Assisi,” Brother Rivera said.

Their mission is to reclaim fatherhood and save souls by saving children.

A Project Joseph client is a dad who is “on the fence.” He is led to the program through the prodding of the mothers who come into any of respect life’s five pregnancy help centers. This father will either help bring his child into the world or drive the mother to an abortion clinic, Brother Rivera said during a recent training workshop held at the North Dade Respect Life Office.

The workshop, attended by four men, was led by Brother Rivera and two other Project Joseph mentors — Brother Chris Handal, a novice with the Franciscans of Life, and Joseph King, a member of the lay community that runs Project Joseph at the Hollywood Respect Life Office.

Each of the men who attended the workshop had a different reason for volunteering.

“I wish there had been something like this when I was going through a similar situation,” said Carlos Govantes, a parishioner at St. Edward in Pembroke Pines who was introduced to fatherhood at age 18. He learned about Project Joseph in his parish bulletin and it resonated with his own life.

The program offers three levels of service: individual counseling for fathers in crisis pregnancies, group education, and material assistance for those in need. Project Joseph remains at the father’s side from the moment he enters the program until his child turns two.

During three six-week blocs of meetings, clients learn what it takes to be good dads and the importance of bonding with their children from the moment of conception. They also learn the importance of financial planning, time management, and sharing responsibility with the mother of their child. The last bloc of meetings hones in on moral issues such as faith, family, society, and government.

"The challenge is to prepare them emotionally and materially," Brother Rivera said, adding that they deliberately talk about God in the latter part of the program because proselytizing is not part of the Franciscan spirituality.

Fathers also have the opportunity to earn “daddy dollars” to purchase baby items from the Respect Life Office boutique.

“Everybody always hears about the ‘dead-beat dad,’ and part of that image we have of him is that he doesn’t care, but nothing can be further from the truth,” said Barbara Groeber, education coordinator for the archdiocese’s respect life ministry.

“It’s not that men don’t care. They have been told, ‘We don’t need you,’ and so they feel like they aren’t needed. They don’t know what to do and they have no confidence in being a father,” Groeber said. “Inside they feel, ‘I would be doing a service if I just wasn’t around.’ It’s sad because the children, the spouse, and society all need these dads, and Project Joseph is men mentoring men — men who are good fathers embracing men and saying to them, ‘We will help you be an awesome dad’… and they rise to that occasion.”

In fact, she added, “We actually have one of our men who came into the program who is now a mentor.”

In order to serve in Project Joseph, volunteers must be Catholics in good standing who follow the Church’s teachings on sex, marriage and other moral and doctrinal principles. Mentors must attend one of the life issues workshops put on by the Respect Life Ministry as well as the Virtus — Safe Environment — workshop offered by the Archdiocese of Miami.

Project Joseph mentors also have to commit to ongoing formation in theology, Franciscan spirituality and pastoral care. They are continually reminded to see every man as Christ sees him, and to approach every man as the firstborn among many brothers, in keeping with Franciscan principles.

Since spirituality is the most important dimension of Project Joseph, the training introduces future mentors to the patron saint of the pro-life movement, St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Conventual Franciscan friar who in 1941, while imprisoned at Auschwitz, sacrificed his life to spare the life of a man who had a family.

"Max shows us how far we can go to protect and defend human life," Brother Handal said. "Max is a great example of what the ‘gospel of life’ is and teaches us to be a voice of the voiceless. My hope is that his life being given up completely to the ‘gospel of life’ will inspire us on this side of eternity to bring that gospel to everyone that we meet, especially the unborn and the family that is broken apart."

Project Joseph is a “miracle of divine revelation,” said Brother Rivera, who calls “the greatest protector of motherhood.” He credits St. Joseph for inspiring him — through a dream — to create the program.

"Joseph trusts God and Mary. He is a man of great faith. Joseph is a provider, a family man. Not unlike babies marked for abortion, the baby Jesus is born with a death sentence for a crime he has not committed. It is through the message of the wise men that Joseph is told to take another route and go to Egypt. He protects Jesus and models for us the perfect family man. Joseph proclaims the sacredness of motherhood louder than any person in the history of Christianity without uttering a word. His actions speak about children, marriage and parenting, about the dignity of man and woman and the partnership of husband and wife.”

“So my prayer was answered and now I have a vision for my dads,” Brother Rivera said. “I must help them grow to become like this man, to take a dad who is lost, confused, and frightened and walk with him in the footsteps of St. Joseph."

Comments from readers

cecilia - 01/26/2014 08:32 PM
May God through the powerful intercession of St. Joseph continue to bless your work with these men and their families.
- cecilia-

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