by Tom Tracy
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (CNS) — When Franciscan Brother Jay Rivera first started volunteering at Miami-area crisis pregnancy centers, he noticed mothers inside taking classes and consulting staff while dads typically sat outside on the curb or in their cars.
In many cases, an unborn child’s life was hanging in the balance. Brother Rivera figured those fathers would have no small role in what happened in the child’s future, if the child was given a chance to be born at all.
Seven years later, after searching nationwide for good fathering curricula to emulate, his Project Joseph stands out as an extraordinary crisis pregnancy service for South Florida fathers who make their way to one of several Catholic respect life centers.
“I had one mother ask me what the fathering classes were about and I said that we help good men become good dads. We train men to plan for their future and to relate with their children,” recalled Brother Rivera. “She said, ‘Yeah, my child’s father needs that.’
“Then one day she pulled up and dropped him off like a mom dropping off a child at school,” Brother Rivera said, his characteristic chuckle pointing to a lifetime of family-rearing and real-world experiences of his own.
After the death of his wife, Brother Rivera became a single father of two children. When his youngest finished high school, he joined a Franciscan community.
Later, in Miami, after teaching autistic children for a time, he founded a community of men dedicated to pro-life work called the Franciscans of Life. Established in 2009, the group is a brotherhood of laymen consecrated to living the Gospel in the manner of St. Francis of Assisi.
The community now numbers eight, including brothers living in community at a residence in Pembroke Pines, north of Miami, and “extern” brothers who may be husbands, fathers and single men.
The brothers serve and provide formation for Project Joseph, a joint venture with the Archdiocese of Miami’s Respect Life Ministry. Project Joseph offers weekly classes and male mentoring along with access to a supply store of baby and children’s items that can be purchased with “daddy dollars” earned by attending classes.
Some of the men who attend are young teens, while others are as old as the mid-50s who admit they lack a full sense of parental responsibility.
Although not a social services agency, Project Joseph’s staff and volunteers often refer the fathers to other community resources, including low-cost or free dental services and health care.
Breaking the ice with reluctant or soon-to-be fathers is not easy, nor can topics related to abortion be broached in a blunt manner, said Brother Rivera, who directs the program.
“The whole issue of birth is an issue of justice, and I tell people that every human being has a right to be born, and to have his or her needs provided for them. If the parents can’t provide, then we help,” he said.
When dads first come, they are frightened, angry, or confused. But often, after 18 weeks of meeting with mentors and other men, they are ready to assume parental responsibility, Brother Rivera said.
“You get these dads with all these mixed emotions, none of them very positive, and you see them evolve and become adult men, and start saying things like, ‘I want to do this for my child,’ or ‘I want to do that for my child,'” he explained.
Roldan Pierre Louis already was a father when he found his way to Project Joseph. First as a client and now a volunteer, he wants more dads to take advantage of the program so they can help their child’s mother share parenting responsibilities.
“In society now, you don’t see enough fathers trying to be fathers. They leave all the weight on women. But we as guys have to set the example,” said Louis, a Haitian-American.
He said he learned about good parenting and child-disciplining practices from time spent with more experienced fathers through Project Joseph.
Joe King, a Project Joseph mentor, said he encourages the mothers to see the value of returning to the center with their baby’s father, whether they are living together or apart.
“It has been very humbling to have guys show up,” said King, a member of St. Edward Parish in Pembroke Pines.
Not all of the young mothers are keen to more fully involve the father of their future child, King said.
“I have suggested at some point that I may want to go sit in with the women and give a male point of view so the women understand that we men do think differently and our brains are wired differently,” he said.
Brother Rivera likes to tell the couples — who most frequently are not married — that every child deserves to have a mother and a father. But if they are living together, they should be married; and if they live separately, both should remain involved in parenting.
“If they are not married [and living together], what does that say to the child? That either one of them can walk away at any time? That adds stress and ambiguity to the life of the child,” Brother Rivera said.
“Parents can part company friendly but remain joined in the project of parenting, spending time with a child as mom or dad. It’s not the ideal situation, but it beats having someone walk out of the house,” he added.
“Besides, you should not marry someone with whom you are not in love. These are words that they have never heard before.”