If you want to perform an act of charity this summer without having to write a big check, without having to scoop mashed potatoes at a homeless shelter, without making yourself crazy on a nonprofit board of directors, here's something easy you can do:
Drive on over to the Revitalization Corps office on Holcomb Street in Hartford, walk right in, find the smoke detector and replace the battery.
Longtime Hartford activist Ned Coll, the keeper of the flame for the Revitalization Corps and, probably, the keeper of the new battery, is never going to change the battery. The smoke detector has been beeping since the Crimean War and Ned, being Ned, is more interested in saving souls and lives and such stuff than prettying up the office and changing the smoke detector battery.
The battery may never change, but Ned himself has changed a bit in recent years. For those who remember Ned the bombastic community activist, Ned the sort-of candidate for the presidency of the United States, Ned the street theater king who brought busloads of black kids to snobby private beaches just to embarrass the white folks - well, there's a new Ned Coll in town.
Ned is more spiritual. Ned is more contemplative. Ned clutches and wears and is in communion with his rosary, in a way that even believers might consider old-fashioned. If Ned confronts you on a private beach today, he is less likely to be urging you to integrate it than to open your heart to God.
The Catholic stuff was always there, but it was buried amid the community activist, political, Earth-bound stuff that got him on the front pages in the 1970s and 1980s.
Somewhere in all that, Ned experienced a mysterious, mystical, spiritual moment - complete with a vision. "I knew there was energy in the room."
So, now, the Revitalization Corps is led by an aging Ned Coll, who says the rosary every day ("Many Catholics think they are too over-sophisticated for the rosary"), with the explanation that "the more I have prayed, the more energy I have in my work."
Ah, yes. The work. Ned is still ever the activist. The tutoring of North End kids. The insistence that the young boys need male role models to compete against the allure of the drug dealers.
But now there's a bit more God in the Ned Coll sermons, the homilies that were once political and bitter. "We can't be afraid to use the word `Satan,'" he insists. "We need a greater devotion to the Holy Spirit."
Coll suggests that the Catholic Church must regain its enthusiasm for and confidence in aggressively recruiting new priests; that the church must at least seriously consider a married clergy; and that the church must market itself in new ways to overcome the impression that "it's not very fashionable for college graduates."
If there is a man behind the scenes in the transformation of Ned Coll, it is Hartford Archdiocese Auxiliary Bishop Peter Rosazza, who has known Coll since his earliest community organizing days in Hartford, when the Most Rev. Rosazza was the priest at Sacred Heart Church and, later, bishop in Hartford before moving to New Haven.
"Ned used to be much more bombastic," Bishop Rosazza remembers with a chuckle. "He had a mystical experience, and he has found peace, he is genuinely respectful; he is open to the Holy Spirit."
Of course, Ned with no bombast wouldn't really be Ned. He's refined the anger a bit, added some nuance, and comes up with this: The Hartford area has an "insurance culture" that is money-grubbing, conservative and selfish. "We're not praying, we're not reading, we can't do anything - we're not a vibrant culture," he opines.
On the nuts and bolts of major public policy issues, Ned Coll would be a lefty economic catastrophe. But the fire, the commitment, the instinct to grub around and wrestle with poverty, makes Ned a valuable fixture in the community.
He is the "faith" in faith-based community action - something too many church activists forget as they dabble in partisan politics and fill out government grant forms.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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