This year’s community service award will go to Brother Al Mascia for his tireless work feeding, ministering to, uplifting and healing the community. From his bicycle cart ministry to the Song and Spirit Care’avan, Brother Al finds a way to get what’s needed to those who need it. And as he pursues this Franciscan mission, he brings together members of many faiths to do the work.
Brother Al’s interfaith story is a wonderful and winding path that begins before he was born. His family history contains a kind Jewish family that helped his great-grandmother and her children when her husband abandoned her. He grew up in New York, with Catholics and Jews for neighbors. And he knows exactly how thin to slice lox for a Sunday morning bagel.
He was, from the start, attracted to all things religious and not only from his own tradition. He entered the Franciscan order in 1982, and left after five years, staying in the Catholic seminary. For a variety of spiritual and personal reasons, he felt called to explore historic Protestantism, Christians whose denominations derived from Catholicism.
“It captured my religious imagination,” says Brother Al, whose diverse childhood was mostly devoid of Protestants. “I got interested in reform Christianity, fascinated by how they dealt with sacraments, scriptures and saints. Most Catholics have no understanding of Protestantism. Once I started to have friends in these traditions, there was no stopping the curiosity.”
In a segue that sounds much more like a continuation than a departure, Brother Al eventually became ordained and served as a Protestant Pastor, and then, after 9/11, feeling that he had completed that part of his work, he returned to the Franciscan order.
He was writing songs and travelling to Catholic parishes to sing, when a friend said ‘you have a Jewish counterpart you must meet.’
Jewish Magid (teacher) Steve Klaper and his wife Mary Gilhuly invited Brother Al to visit for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. When he entered their yard, not knowing they were an interfaith couple, he was surprised to find both a sukkah and a statue of St. Francis.
“How beautiful it is when brothers dwell as one,” quotes Brother Al. “What I find so beautiful and so compelling is how open they are to a faith that’s not their own. Mary was as committed to her Catholic faith as Steve is committed to Judaism.”
Brother Al and Magid Klaper began performing together as Song and Spirit, and on the way to a gig one night with Mary, the discussion turned to creating an institution to foster understanding and appreciation for different faiths.
“We’re really all about love here,” says Brother Al. “Tolerance is a word I use to refer to a toothache, not to another human being, not if I really believe that each person is made in the image of the creator.”
As he speaks, he skips from talking about the sayings of Jesus in the 1st century, to stating that there is more written in the Quran about Mary than in the New Testament, to explaining that Franciscan theology has to do with “the humility of God, the contraction of God, that God willfully became smaller to make way for creation.”
“There’s this vortex of prayer going on in this place,” says Brother Al. “It’s sad that the world can’t see how well we’re getting along.”
But Brother Al and Magid Klaper are exporting the brotherhood that they describe as “caught rather than taught,” crafting a weeklong experiential seminar at Westchester University in Philadelphia for 150 Jews, participating in a class called “The Jewish Wisdom of Jesus,” and bringing members of many Detroit area faith communities together to worship. Saturday nights often find them observing Havdalah, which marks the end of the Sabbath in Jewish tradition with a spice box, candle, and wine, and then welcoming in the Christian Sabbath.
“Reconciliation, healing, Tikun Olam, the advancement of dialogue, community building within the context of one’s faith,” lists Brother Al. “As a professional, I feel especially responsible for doing all I can to change that which I can.”
For more information on Brother Al, please visit the following links:
Two short video clips detailing more of Brother Al’s community work: