Jim Towey has gone from working for Mother Teresa to working for President Bush.
Now the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the lawyer who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans previously served as legal counsel for Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity for 12 years. He spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake about his work and his life with his wife, Mary, and their four sons.
Where did you grow up? Tell me about your family.
I grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and attended Assumption Grade School and Bishop Kenny High School. I'm one of four children, and I was named Harry James after my father's brother, who was a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. My father was a traveling salesman. He sold advertising on pens, pencils and calendars. My mother raised us and was a secretary at the school we attended.
Did you grow up Catholic?
Yes. I attended Monday night novenas throughout grade school and early high school. My parents separated when I was 10, and from early on there were a lot of priests in my life. I used to answer the telephone at the rectory for pay, and we had a lot of priests in our home.
Did you ever think about becoming a priest?
Yes. I wasn't a model Catholic, but from 1981 to about 1990 that was constantly in my head. In 1985, when I first met Mother Teresa, she said, “Listen to God. He'll tell you what to do.” In 1997, she encouraged me to take a year to think about it. So I spent some time with the Missionary of Charity Fathers in Tijuana, Mexico. I would have loved to have been a priest, but I never felt a calling.
How did you first meet Mother Teresa?
I first met her when I was working for Sen. Mark Hatfield, (R-Ore.) He had sent me overseas to monitor Chinese refugee camps that the federal government was funding. He knew Mother Teresa, and I had always wanted to meet her, so I dropped into Calcutta to meet her. The problem was that I didn't want to be around poor people. The bargain I struck was that I would go into Calcutta for one day, meet Mother, and then on my way back to the U.S. I would go to Hawaii for five days.
I met Mother on Aug. 20, 1985. Although she was 75, she came into the hallway with boundless energy and joy. She was a tiny, cheerful woman with soft hands. Our meeting was brief, perhaps only five minutes, but she asked me if I had been to her Home for the Dying. When I told her that I had not, she told me to go there and ask for Sister Luke. I went there, with no intention of helping the poor. I thought I would receive a tour and I'd give them a $20 bill and split.
When I got there, Sister Luke thought I had come to work. She handed me some cotton and medical solution and asked me to go clean the man in bed 46 with scabies. I was too proud to admit to her that I didn't want to touch the guy, so I went to clean him. What I wasn't prepared for is that from all eternity the Lord was waiting in bed 46 to touch me back. No bells rang, no lights flashed; there was no ethereal music. I was happy to get out of the house and out of Calcutta, but when I got to Hawaii I was as uncomfortable there as I had been in Calcutta. It was very hard for me to see gardens and pineapples that were healthier and better cared for than these human beings that I had just left in the streets of Calcutta.
That led to a long-term relationship with the Missionaries of Charity, did it not?
Yes. I was hooked with the Missionaries of Charity. When I got back to Washington, I met with the sisters there and started volunteering with them. Eventually, I ended up as legal counsel handling permitting and immigration. The biggest use of my time was protecting the use of Mother Teresa's name and image. She never let her name or image be used for fund raising, saying that she preferred the insecurity of divine providence.
I recall that at our last meeting I had to bring up this issue of a gentleman who had been selling T-shirts and coffee with the picture of a cinnamon roll that resembled Mother Teresa. I asked her if she remembered sending me the news clip from an India newspaper that featured the “nun bun,” and explained to her that someone was selling T-shirts with that image. She interrupted me and said, “Sister Nirmala is now the superior general. Put her face on the T-shirt.” She could always get a good laugh at herself.
Do you have a favorite memory of Mother Teresa?
I have hundreds, but I clearly remember my first days and last days with her. About 10 weeks before she died, I attended a meeting with her in the Bronx. She was in her wheelchair and was exhausted and sick, but very much in command. Her life had been literally poured out like a libation. When the meeting was over she gave me a blessing to say goodbye. As they were preparing to wheel her into the cloister I told her that my wife and children were in the courtyard playing and asked her if she could bless them from the window. She immediately jumped up from her wheel-chair and went to the window to see them. She wanted them brought in and blessed each of them and Mary, and me. That last blessing is one that I'm relying on these days.
You spent a year as a full-time volunteer with the Gift of Peace Home in Washington, D.C. What did you learn from that time?
I saw the difference that a faith-based home could make in some-one's life. Sure these people were homeless and in need of care — they certainly were the poorest of the poor — but it was the spiritual poverty that was most striking. They felt alone, abandoned and unwanted. They felt that no one cared if they got up for the day. Some had been drug addicts and others had been prostitutes. To watch what happened when these nuns started to love them and know them by name was to watch a person reborn, and they rediscovered their God-given dignity. To see them recover that sense that they were made in the image and likeness of God was striking to me. I saw that happen over and over and over again.
During your time in politics you've worked with both Democrats and Republicans. Have you ever found it difficult to be a man of faith in your line of work?
No. I've had the opportunity to work for two men that were extraordinary Christians — Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles and Sen. Hatfield. I was very fortunate that I never saw a conflict between serving God and county. Fortunately, I find that exact same thing in serving President Bush.
You've been in your current position for three months. Are you hopeful that Faith-Based Initiatives will be successful?
I think it is being reintroduced and properly understood for what it is. I don't think the president has changed it all. There was this initial hysteria that the wall between church and state was crumbling down, but now people realize that was an absurdity. Organizations such as Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and Lutheran Social Services receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the government and have been for the past decade. The president's initiative simply wants faith-based organizations to be treated equally with federal dollars. Some groups do not want federal money. Others want to expand their services. We have found that some of these organizations do the work best. They are often in the inner cities and are in relationships with the people who are hurting.
The president feels that we should be reaching out to them. He doesn't want anyone preaching on Uncle Sam's dollar, but he also doesn't want to see religious organizations sacrificing their religious identity in order to receive funding. I'm glad to see this discussion taking place. How can we best serve the needs of our poor? By giving them options regarding services and providers.