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The Jesse Tree, before Hurricane Ike.
Ted Hanley says Divine Mercy is the only sure, safe investment.
Among the tens of thousands of homes and businesses that Hurricane Ike damaged or destroyed in Galveston, Texas, last September, were the offices of one of the nation's most effective organizations performing community-based works of mercy, The Jesse Tree.
In the aftermath of the third-worst hurricanes to ever make landfall in United States history, Ted Hanley plied the waterlogged streets of Galveston and discovered that The Jesse Tree's three major office buildings were under 12 feet of water. Nearly everything was ruined — food, furnishings, equipment, vehicles, and supplies — lost in the saltwater storm surge.
Ted, founder of The Jesse Tree, has faced seemingly insurmountable odds before. Each time, he has turned in prayer to the Lord. Each time he has thought of Christ's words to St. Maria Faustina Kowalska: "My daughter, do whatever is within your power to spread devotion to My mercy. I will make up for what you lack" (Diary of St. Faustina, 1074).
That's been Ted's policy in the 25 years since a 96-year-old nun spoke to him through a wooden cloister grill. Her words sent aftershocks of mercy that reverberate to this day.
'Have You Ever Heard of a Novena?'
The nun, Sr. Mary Tarcisia, was a member of the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, living in Austin, Texas. At the time, Ted was completing a master's degree in architectural design and special education from the University of Texas. He was a daily communicant at the sister's chapel. Because of the exchange with that nun, Ted would become an architect all right — an "architect" of an ecumenical effort to bring the mercy of God to thousands of people in the greatest need.
"Have you ever heard of a novena," the nun asked him one day while he was helping with chores around the convent.
A novena? Of course he'd heard of a novena. He comes from Irish stock with a high viscosity in the Catholic tradition. His grandmother had shoeboxes filled with novenas.
But specifically the nun wondered if he had ever heard of The Divine Mercy Novena.
He hadn't. She was referring to the novena dictated by our Lord to St. Faustina in the 1930s (see Diary of St. Faustina, 1209-1229). She was referring to the Lord's special call to all humanity to turn to Him in trust and seek His will in our lives, to receive His mercy, and to extend mercy to our neighbors.
"Right from the beginning of the novena I just felt there was something really different about it," recalls Ted. "It awakened something in me, touched me in a way I had just not been touched before. It awakened in me a desire to know more about God's mercy and to share it with others."
Ted adopted the novena as his special devotion. He began praying the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy daily at the 3 o'clock hour, known as the Hour of Great Mercy. He began reading St. Faustina's Diary.
Pablo Picasso and Mercy?
To explain the impact Divine Mercy had on his life, he uses an analogy drawn from his days as a college student struggling with mathematics. One day Ted's professor brought in a huge copy of a painting by Pablo Picasso. Ted never liked the peculiar Cubist paintings of Picasso until the day the professor explained Picasso's groundbreaking work.
Picasso, the professor explained, was pushing our brains to think in different dimensions. In his paintings he would give the impression of more than three dimensions at play on a two-dimensional surface. That is, he gave the trained eye the ability to see the subject in dimensions that the untrained eye just cannot see.
"At that second," says Ted, "with that information, my brain crossed the threshold. I looked at what I looked at before, and suddenly it was totally changed. I saw the dimensions. I saw what Picasso was able to put on two dimensions. My brain just got the piece of information that it was lacking. And the thing that puzzled me was that every time I looked away from the Picasso painting and then looked back, I couldn't not see the dimensions. I had just crossed the threshold.
"As I was leaving class that day I was saying the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy, and all of the sudden it occurred to me that what the Divine Mercy novena had done for me was exactly the same thing, spiritually. It had taken me across a threshold, and then once the focus on the mercy of God became that piece of information that my spirituality had been lacking, things just never looked the same. Then I was able to say to people, 'It's about spiritual growth.'
"Through Divine Mercy," says Ted, "I was given what I needed to see, feel, and experience — the deeper dimension of my faith. It's like when you taste something wonderful; you just want more."
Needs of the Poor
The message of The Divine Mercy changed Ted's entire perspective of the world and his place in it. "I became acutely aware of the needs of poor people and people who are marginalized in society," he says.
After graduate school, he took a government job. But he was antsy. He felt the only real rewarding work he did was during his lunch breaks when he'd give out bags of clothing and food as he made his way to Mass.
Private individuals and anonymous donors paved the way for Ted to leave his fulltime employment. In 1985, at the invitationof the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Ted founded Our Daily Bread, a community center for the homeless in Galveston. His work serving the homeless, underinsured, and indigent then led to the founding of The Jesse Tree in 1995.
The name Jesse Tree come from Isaiah 11:1: "A shoot will come up from the stem of Jesse; from his roots a branch will bear fruit."
"It's the family tree of the Christ Child," says Ted, "and it is the lineage of how mercy was revealed to mankind through 14 generations, and then the ultimate birth of The Divine Mercy through Mary."
The tree has taken root in Galveston. In 2008 alone, The Jesse Tree provided services to more than 50,000 people and distributed more than $2.5 million worth of fresh fruit and produce, more than $1 million from its pantries, and coordinated what it calls "Chronic Conditions Management" for thousands of uninsured individuals.
The goal of The Jesse Tree is to provide holistic care by integrating medical care, social services, and local ministries, beginning with the basics: the corporal works of mercy. The spiritual works of mercy come later through the help of volunteers who try to meet people's spiritual needs and help them find spiritual homes in one of the many churches in the community.
"The basics are easy," Ted says. "The more complex challenges involve truly coming to understand that poverty is a result of a lack of education, of chronic medical conditions like mental illness and addictions, and much more difficult problems like domestic violence and things that trap people in these vicious cycles."
Funded through local churches, grants, and private benefactors, The Jesse Tree has built a huge database that helps screen people and identify where they can eat, get shelter, access medical care, and have prescriptions filled. Similar programs around the country have modeled themselves on The Jesse Tree.
The database is the one thing that remained intact following Hurricane Ike. The Jesse Tree staff of 25 was able to immediately mobilize on the street using wireless laptops to assist those impacted by the storm.
"We never missed a beat," says Ted. "We opened a pantry at Holy Rosary Church. We continued our food fairs. We have done everything we were doing before the storm consistently since the storm hit."
But to recoup some of what it lost, The Jesse Tree will begin a "One-in-a-Million" campaign, seeking a dollar donation from a million people around the country in order to keep the non-profit in business. The fundraiser kicks off the Saturday before Easter.
From Bad to Worse
"Before the hurricane, things were bad here," says Ted. "Our community was really struggling with the rising number of uninsured people and unemployed people."
Then the hurricane slammed right into the island and completely destroyed more than 10,000 homes, and severely damaged another 30,000 homes, and killed 76 people.
Largely, the devastation of Galveston has received little attention nationally, which is frustrating for a city so welcoming of the refugees from Mississippi and Louisiana who were forced to flee Hurricane Katrina four years prior, says Ted.
"We in Galveston have all been crying for help for months, and no one has heard us," he says.
As a "kick off" event for the campaign, The Jesse Tree will hold an event called "Give Galveston a Hug."
"We have a 27-mile-long seawall, and we're going to ask that everyone in this region come down, stand on the seawall, hand-in-hand, and pray that we will get the help we need to rebuild this community," says Ted. "We're going to do it the Saturday before Easter because of the message of Resurrection. We're going to invite every denomination and everyone. And at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 11, we will pray the Lord's Prayer."
He asks that readers of this story pray for the people of Galveston and pray for The Jesse Tree and its ministry.
And his advice to the many people struggling economically these days?
"All of my holdings and all of my investments are secure," Ted says. "I have for 25 years invested in works of mercy, and I absolutely believe that they are secure in today's economy as they were 10 years ago when people were getting rich. The dividends they pay are eternal, and I have grown in trust. I am reminded daily that I had very little to bring to this process, but, as He promised Faustina, the Lord makes up for what we lack.
"We don't know how our lives are going to turn out," Ted continues. "I advise everyone to turn everything you know and all of your energy toward a better understanding of the mercy of God, and life will take care of itself.