Jerry Bauman has a passion for youth ministry. The Scranton, Pennsylvania, native said it began after he returned to the faith more than 25 years ago.
“When I came back to the Church, I was very moved by the message of Divine Mercy and the ‘Total Consecration to Mary’ movement,” he said.
So moved was he that, in 1998, Bauman began a nonprofit organization called “Teen Mercy.”
“Our mission was to reach out to kids (in the Scranton area) who were unwanted, un-churched, at-risk and unloved by society and the Church itself,” he explained of the outreach. “We would go into the housing projects and tell them that God loved them. We’d invite them to come to our weekly prayer meeting at a nearby building, which we converted into a house of prayer.”
Bauman continued, “When children feel they are loved by God, their hearts are naturally moved to come follow him and live a holy life. Many of these kids had no idea about God or church when we first started. However, over a period of 10 years, we had numerous baptisms and first Communions and other sacraments. There were many, many graces poured out upon the teens at that time.”
They did numerous works of mercy, such as visiting the sick at local hospitals and feeding the hungry at a nearby soup kitchen. They would pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet at hospital beds and give out the Divine Mercy image of Jesus wherever they could.
Bauman, a father of two boys, estimated that around 120 youth were regulars at the “Teen Mercy” meetings and ministries. After a decade of working with them, they had outgrown the program. They were graduating from high school and moving on.
In 2008, Bauman realized that his ministry needed to evolve with this changing demographic.
“I became a regular on my knees at the National Shrine of Divine Mercy, trying to discern what God was asking of me,” he said.
After a year of discernment with the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, the order of priests in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, dedicated to Divine Mercy, and his own spiritual director, it was understood that Bauman’s new mission would strictly be a street ministry, specifically a mobile one. He sold the building that held the prayer meetings and began “Divine Mercy for Youth: Operation Mercy Relief” with his own money.
“I kept having this idea [in prayer] of going into the housing projects with a food trailer serving free pizza and handing out images of Divine Mercy. I thought it was a great idea.”
But donors he could rely on in the past dismissed his pizza-and-Divine Mercy idea — except for one. “I met Jerry through our parish, and we quickly realized that we had the same vision,” explained Michael Buosante, owner of Dino’s Italian Bistro, which has three restaurants around the Scranton area. “For years I had been praying to meet someone that could help me take pizza out into the streets and help me spread the Good News.”
Bauman told the Register that it was another incredible act of divine Providence that helped this new ministry keep moving.
“I knew nothing about trailers,” Bauman recalled. “So I show up at this trailer lot and discover that an old high-school buddy owned the place. He was able to sell us this trailer that was fit for our needs at cost. Door after door kept opening for us.”
The shiny red trailer is adorned with a graphic image of Mother Mary on the front, as well as the Divine Mercy image of Christ on one side and St. Faustina, the recipient of the message of Divine Mercy, on the other. The images are big and bold.
The trailer, which is pulled with Bauman’s SUV, is equipped with electricity, a refrigerator and a pizza oven. Bousante supplies the pizza. He estimated that on a typical ministry trip, the Divine Mercy volunteers serve around eight pizzas.
Bauman noted that Operation Mercy Relief tries to get out twice a week. Upon arrival at a shelter or a low-income housing complex, Bauman and his team set up signs that state: “Free Pizza” and await hungry stomachs and souls.
“When we’re open for business, the kids come running,” said Bauman. “We serve around 30 kids at a time.”
While it’s the pizza that brings the youth to the trailer, the “real” food comes from prayer kits, which include a booklet on Marian consecration, and small Divine Mercy images that they hand out.
“We really emphasize the importance of developing their interior prayer life with God,” Bauman explained. “We teach them to talk to Jesus as a friend and to listen to God.”
Buosante, a parishioner of St. Monica Church in West Wyoming, added, “We realized, not by our design, that our approach is very biblical. We become friends with the kids, feed them and invite them to follow Jesus. In many ways, that was what Jesus did.”
Vera Miller and her two boys, Dean and Luke, have been helping out Bauman on a regular basis since January of this year. “I had seen Jerry’s truck around town and was curious,” explained Miller. “I was immediately drawn to its bold images of Jesus and Mary and Sister Faustina. These are all the things I love.” At a community gathering during the Christmas season, she finally approached Bauman and told him she and her children wanted to be a part of this unique ministry. Bauman was thrilled.
“I like to give the pizza out to the kids who have less than us,” said 12-year-old Dean. “I also like to talk to them about the Rosary.”
Miller said that she loves to see the Christian witness her boys are demonstrating. Eight-year-old Luke will celebrate his first Communion this year.
She recalled, “One bitter-cold night, we were out there, and my boys (and other volunteers) were serving pizza and hot chocolate and interacting with these kids. … As a mother, that’s neat to see.”
The red trailer alone has a powerful presence on the streets.
“Sometimes I just take it out on the road or go out to eat with it, and people are moved by the images,” said Bauman. “They have stories to tell about God or church. They want to touch the images. Some even are drawn to tears.”
Eddie O’Neill writes
from St. Louis.