After almost nine decades, James (Jim) O’Brien, 88, has lived through many extraordinary times and has no shortage of stories to tell about them. Although it may be difficult to encapsulate his experiences and lessons learned, one picks up on these common themes: the value of family and friends, of humility and humanity, of calls and responses.

The parishioner of St. Mark Parish, Sea Girt, knows well the gifts of life. Good friends have helped him develop and put into practice his vocation of building the Kingdom of God on this earth. He calls them his “compañeros” (companions) because they have walked many roads together and done even more.

Living with generosity

His work has largely been focused on development and aid to the most marginalized communities of the world. O’Brien has worked in every country of Latin America as well as various countries of Africa, whether as a Maryknoll missionary, with the Peace Corps, or as an employee and representative of the United States government.

Mr. O’Brien has been a bridge-builder and one can learn a lot from his story.

“Well, don’t go making me a saint just yet,” he says with a laugh, “but I’ve always thought that when something presents itself to you, when something appears on your plate, you have to respond.” Upon saying this, O’Brien began to name a litany of people from his life who had called or asked to do something at different times.

“’I need you to teach English classes. I need you to help with the DACA process. Jim, what do we do about this? How can we help that person? We have to do something… etcetera.

“If a person has a conscience, it’s not difficult” to do something. “My family taught me to not be selfish” with the gifts and talents one has, whether big or small. For Jim, his talent with languages has helped him to help others. “I’m a gringo from the north, but I’ve always had empathy… well, I have always seen other people as my sisters and brothers.” He continued saying, “I have had many good friends who have been examples for me to live without fear.”

A Parish United

At St. Mark, O’Brien began ministering to the Spanish-speaking community in the early 2000’s, crediting then-pastor Msgr. William J. Carton with encouraging him to get involved. “He, and eventually Msgr. Flynn (St. Mark’s current pastor), have been great supporters of the Hispanic community. They’ve been very helpful. They told the traditional congregation that these people are hurting.”

Msgr. Carton knew that O’Brien had lived in Latin America and once, after Mass, he said, “Jim, you speak Spanish. Please help us.” And so, O’Brien has done that for the better part of two decades in the parish.

There were 29 people at the first Mass celebrated in Spanish at the parish. O’Brien remembers how the parish clergy had gone out to invite and welcome Hispanic families to St. Mark Parish. O'Brien reflected, “Jump ahead (to present day), and it’s now 400 families and maybe 600 people arrive for Masses on Sunday and it is the parish of St. Mark where they are now an adopted mission of the parish.”

His ministry began as educating and forming leaders of the Hispanic Catholic community for liturgical ministries in the parish, but it evolved to respond to the daily and practical needs of the community. O’Brien, noting that there were many involved in the effort, recalled, “We helped so many people get back to the Church, to get their marriages (convalidated) and the kids for First Communion. All of those programs began.

“We got into literacy. We helped put together and train people in adult literacy. Full throttle.” So much so, that over time there were more than 100 tutors to teach English at the parish.

Though most could not speak Spanish, bridges were built between people and communities and relationships were formed.

And the ministry grew to assist people through their process of DACA or connecting them with lawyers or others who might be able to help them.

Saying Yes in Life

“Both my wife and I are children of immigrants, Irish immigrants, and so we had the ‘great’ experience of being brought up in a very low income situation,” which, for O’Brien, created an innate solidarity with the vulnerable immigrant population.

It is easy “to behave like sheep”, but, for Jim, it’s been the people who show strength in the little things that stand out as he reflects on his life. It’s the person who “raises his hand” to express a doubt or who is not scared to ask a question. For Jim, it’s the person who doesn’t understand something and asks for clarification or help.

In life, says O’Brien, “we have to respond to the things that we can respond to” whether that is something coming from one’s spouse or neighbor or niece… “whoever it is… because it can be that a quick help can change the entire direction of a person’s life.” To act in service to another can convert a moment into a turning point in someone’s life, “and for us as well.”

“To live is to change (vivir es cambiar).”

These words that come from a document of the Catholic bishops of Medellín, Colombia, in 1968 sum up Jim O’Brien’s advice to others. “To live a long life means to change frequently” the bishops go on to say.

“To live means to be open to change,” says O’Brien. “All of us are on a road of growth” and that growth does not end upon reaching any age as we grow old.