As Jeannie Gaffigan endured her lengthy and arduous recovery from the surgery that removed a life-threatening, pear-shaped tumor from her brain stem (read that story here), she felt overwhelmed by a desire to work with the youth of her Catholic parish in New York City, Old St. Patrick’s. Her oldest daughter and oldest son had received the sacrament of Confirmation, and she wasn’t sure what their spiritual formation would look like from that point forward.
During an interview on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below) Jeannie explained, “Myself and another mother…decided that it was really important for this age group to have an organic youth-led plan. What did they see were the needs of society, and what did they feel they could accomplish? We started to give them a lot of scaffolding in terms of how to plan drives, and how to raise money or [collect] items for something, coat drives, and addressing needs that they saw being these young preteens and teens in New York City. So we called this group the St Patrick’s Warriors, and the model really worked.”
As time passed, the St. Patrick’s Warriors interacted with a youth group from Ascension Church called The Spirit Squad. Led by a woman named Robin Klueber, they were so large that they started a food pantry for food-insecure people in their neighborhood. They eventually crossed paths with a Jewish youth group doing similar service work. That’s when Jeannie experienced an epiphany.
She said, “In the gospel, Jesus [says to go] to the ends of the earth. In New York City, you don’t have to go to the ends of the earth. We’re in the middle of all these vibrant cultures and all these different groups of people, no matter what their background or belief system, people who are doing good. That’s very much [in line] with The Christophers: what are we doing to uplift and be a light in the darkness?”
And so, The Imagine Society was born to unite diverse youth groups from the city under one umbrella organization, almost like a youth group version of the Avengers. Jeannie explained, “Although I am Catholic and I have a Catholic youth group, I love the fact that my Catholic youth group can interact with a youth group from another religion. And also even within Catholicism, the kids from Ascension Church are from a completely different socioeconomic situation and ethnic situation than the kids in my group. So this is what the world is. The world is not just a little bubble where you’re only with your own people. We can magnify the goodness in the world [by reaching] out across boundaries. So that was the idea behind The Imagine Society.”
One of the Imagine Society’s projects was held at Ascension Church this past March 7th, and called the Image-Inn. It is essentially a pop-up shelter in which 20 homeless men are invited to receive food, shelter, and an experience of community for one night.
Jeannie said, “We had the kids from the different youth groups plan the menu, plan the decor, plan the goody bags…with a little hand sanitizer and lots of items to give to these friends that were just down on their luck. And one of the most beautiful parts of the evening was the engagement and conversation. The kids sat down at the table and brought over a cup of coffee, and brought out the [playing] cards and the Jenga, and had conversations. It was this amazing unification of all these different kids and cultures and acts of service. We got so much out of it, and it was so amazing.”
Plans for future events were ongoing when the coronavirus pandemic hit and everyone had to shelter at home. But the Imagine Society quickly adapted to the new normal and came up with ways they could still help those in need.
“We pivoted all of our activities to support the frontline workers and the victims that are most effected by this unprecedented historical crisis,” Jeannie explained. “When you do something meaningful and you think about other people, your own mental health and well-being is completely changed. It was important for all of us, the teenagers and the adults, to feel connected and feel like we were… not powerless and not victims, and that we were able to offer our support and our love in the middle of this pandemic. So if you go to TheImagineSociety.org, on the service page, you can see the initiatives that are being run hand in hand by adults [and youth].”
One initiative is #FoodForFearless, which has been “arranging meal deliveries from restaurants near New York’s busiest hospitals and dispatching production food trucks to the tireless medical teams, volunteers and first responders working around the clock to treat those affected by the virus.” Other projects can be found at https://www.theimaginesociety.org/service/.
Keeping The Imagine Society’s projects going takes money, of course, so Jeannie and her husband, comedian Jim Gaffigan, came up with a novel way to fundraise. They started a Youtube show called “Dinner with the Gaffigans,” which is exactly like it sounds. A camera livestreams dinner with Jeannie, Jim, and their five kids. And viewers are given the opportunity to donate to the Society. In addition, they invite viewers to write notes or draw pictures of support that can be emailed in to pass on to doctors and nurses in hospitals, and Covid-19 patients in ICUs and nursing homes who aren’t allowed to have family with them. These initiatives are especially important to Jeannie, whose life was saved by the doctors, nurses, and PAs at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.
Anyone who has read Jeannie’s Christopher Award-winning memoir “When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People” knows that her faith is a vital component of her and her family’s life. And while there’s no proselytizing on “Dinner with the Gaffigans,” the family begins their meal by saying grace and shows their faith in other ways.
Jeannie said, “I think that the way we approach our Catholic faith is, ‘Look, this is who we are.’ We’re not telling you you’re bad, because you’re not [Catholic]…We’re not saying that we’re going to grab you by the hair and dunk you in a Baptismal font. But this is part of who we are. This is how it is in our life, and this is like you’re coming into my house for dinner. So it’s not like saying, ‘Only Catholics are allowed.’ Not at all. It’s just like how I would be invited to a Passover dinner. You know what I mean? You don’t have to be Catholic to come to sit at our table. Then sometimes the kids do the sign of the cross backwards, and I’m embarrassed…We’re not a perfect family. We’re not perfect Catholics. But that’s what our faith is, and that’s what’s getting us through all these difficult times in our life. We have this faith that guides us. Maybe that’s inspirational to some people, maybe it doesn’t have any effect, and maybe it’s a turnoff to some people. I don’t know, but it’s just the way we are.”
(To listen to part 1 of my interview with Jeannie Gaffigan, click on the podcast link):