Sunday, May 31, 2009


Bob Lesnefsky, a graduate of Franciscan University, found musical success as the award winning Christian rapper Righteous B whose albums include “Get the Kids to Revolt,” “Sweatshop Sessions,” and “How a Wound Bleeds.” But Bob’s true passion – what he considers his vocation – is a program he co-founded called Dirty Vagabond Ministries which currently operates in Steubenville, OH, Queens, NY, and Rochester, NY. I recently had the opportunity to interview Bob on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here). Here are some excerpts:

TR: I want to focus on Dirty Vagabond Ministries because I was on your web site and I saw a description where somebody said, “If you want to know how these guys operate, think of Mother Teresa with earrings and tattoos.” So tell me about Dirty Vagabond Ministries.

Bob 'Righteous B' Lesnefsky: In the most simple description, it’s youth ministry to the inner-city church… We come into a city and make a long-term commitment to that city. We place two urban missionaries there that live among the people. The style of ministry they do we call incarnational ministry; they’re not waiting for people to sign up or show up. They’re going out to them, hitting the streets, and really everything happens in the context of that relationship.

TR: Did you grow up in the inner-city yourself? How did your vocation for this develop?

Bob 'Righteous B' Lesnefsky: I really have no idea to be honest (laughs). God kind of sucker-punched me. I definitely didn’t grow up in the inner-city. I grew up in about as suburban, white, upper-middle-class culture as it gets. Just outside of Philadelphia (is where) I grew up. But when me and my wife started doing youth ministry, we ended up at a little inner-city parish in New York. I didn’t realize how urban it was. About a year into it, we found ourselves in just a whole mess of problems with police there all the time, violence. We were about to quit and leave but something happened where our hearts were changed and we really fell in love with that kind of kid and we felt this is what we wanted to do with our lives.

TR: Give me an example of how relational ministry works with the kids.

Bob 'Righteous B' Lesnefsky: We go up to the projects or a basketball court or we show up at a park with a grill and start grilling hot dogs and feeding people. The first time we maybe just see them, get to know their name. Over weeks or years, it eventually builds relationships and develops into a friendship. It’s much more effective for me to share Christ with someone who considers me their friend than someone who I knock on their door and try to give them a five minute plug. These are people we have an authentic relationship with. There’s an element of trust that happens before we even tell them about God. They begin to see we care for them outside of whether or not they ever come to the church.

TR: Bob, on the Dirty Vagabond web site, it says, “We believe the greatest intimacy with Christ is found in the sacramental life of the Church.” A lot of these kids don’t have a foundation of faith, so how do you and your volunteers convey the relevance of the sacramental life of the Church to teens who may not have ever been exposed to anything like that?

Bob 'Righteous B' Lesnefsky: It’s difficult. We have a little storefront building; it’s called “Urban Underground.” Kids come in there, there’s a pool table, it’s kind of a fun, cool place. A lot of those kids when they come in, I’ll hear them say, “Yesterday at church…” and they’re talking about coming into our building and hanging out. In some sense, we’re like, “Uh, we’re not church.” We’re trying to bring them to the Church and Christ and the sacraments. But on the other hand, there is something true about what they’re saying. They are experiencing the sacraments in a living way in someone who’s really trying to live that out and be Christ for them...But as far as how we make that tangible, we’ve got an old school bus we drive around every day. We pick kids up. On Sunday, we fill it up and go to Mass. Afterwards we have a big family style meal. So some of it is just exposing them to (the church) which is a little jarring when you’ve never come to church. But there’s a beauty in it too that they’re attracted to.

TR: Do you think the fact that they’re lacking in a lot of worldly things opens them up to more spiritual nourishment?

Bob 'Righteous B' Lesnefsky: Yeah, I think so. I think half of the difficulty in ministry situations is first convincing people of their need. We’re one of the richest countries in the world. We have lots and lots of stuff and things to distract us. When you remove those distractions, you don’t have to spend as much time convincing them that we’re a people who are desperate for God. They’re well aware that they’re desperate. But for them, it’s trying to grab onto anything that can give them satisfaction or fulfillment for the moment. When you can point that in a genuine way (to Christ as) the person that’s going to fill that (need), it’s kind of a beautiful awakening.

TR: Bob, in everything I read about your work with Dirty Vagabond Ministries, you cite your wife Kate as helping to create everything. So tell me how did you find this incredible woman who’s so in tune with your life and your faith?

Bob 'Righteous B' Lesnefsky: It’s all God’s grace. When I met her, we were just good friends. She told me she was going to be a nun. She had already visited some convents. Somehow, we fell in love. My friends always tease me that when I die, I’m going to hell for stealing her from the convent (laugh). But she’s far more holy than I am. The thing I appreciate the most about her is that – in her holiness and in her relationship with Christ, she’s just willing to step into the adventure. She definitely has a missionary heart. She has a very simple heart and a very pure heart for God. So the rest of the stuff of the world and the things that a lot of times we feel like we need, she’s just okay without them. She’s also willing to take the risk of following God’s call wherever that’s been…She’s definitely my better half.

For more information on Dirty Vagabond Ministries, go to To download the full interview, go to

Sunday, May 24, 2009


A few weeks ago, I read an interview with author and activist E. Benjamin Skinner on the Busted Halo web site. The interview was about his new book “A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face With Modern Day Slavery.” Up until then, I was peripherally aware that slavery and human trafficking were a problem in the world today, but I didn’t realize the extent to which it goes on, or the horrific abuses suffered by those who fall victim to slave owners and traders. Ben put his own life at risk to share these victims’ stories with the world and hopefully motivate people to address this problem in a way that leads to concrete results. Here are some excerpts from my interview with Ben on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here).

TR: Ben, in the book “A Crime So Monstrous,” you share the story of a boy named Bill Nathan and how a nun named Sister Caroline helped him out. Can you tell me a little about his story?

E. Benjamin Skinner: Bill was born to a loving mother who died quite young, and had come in contact with this American nun, Sister Caroline, in Haiti in his childhood. Bill was taken in as a domestic slave (after his mother’s death) and beaten regularly. He would be whipped until strips of flesh came off of his back. If I’m recalling correctly, he was six years old when this started. He only got out when Sister Caroline caught wind of what was happening to him and sent in two men to rescue him - to actually abduct him from his captors – and to put him into a wonderful home run by a man who used to be part of Mother Teresa’s order. It was a tiny, under-funded, but safe, peaceful, graceful home called St. Jospeh’s. It’s in Port-au-Prince. Bill is now the manager of the home.

The most remarkable thing to me about Bill is that after he was rehabilitated, after he began to thrive in this home, he went back and found the woman that had forced him to work as a slave and he openly forgave her. He actually offered her money. The degree to which individuals like Bill can take their lot in life and say, “That isn’t me” and demand their humanity, but then go in and make the world a better place really underscores why it’s worth fighting slavery. These aren’t disposable people; these are people that can be survivors - and these survivors can be leaders and can radically scale up the degree to which their communities understand the basic concepts of liberty.

TR: One of the parts of Bill’s story that really stood out with me is when he went back to the house, he sees the boy there who took his place as a slave and he tells him, “Have hope. God is good.” How difficult is it for these slave children to have a concept of a good God in light of how they’re treated?

E. Benjamin Skinner: Bill’s mother had given him the gift of faith before she died. He held onto that despite the brutality that he suffered. There’s no question in my mind and there’s no question in his mind that his faith in God is what sustained him. On the flip side, I’ve talked to survivors and I’ve talked to current slaves who seem to have lost hope. I know that this does not make them disposable. It shouldn’t make them hopeless in our eyes, but it certainly makes their road to recovery more difficult.

TR: Ben, another section of the book that was really powerful to me was when you were undercover in Romania and you meet a young woman in a brothel who is in the worst condition you’ve ever seen. You’re a journalist, not an actor, so how do you keep your emotions in check when you see those kind of things?

E. Benjamin Skinner: To flesh that out, this young woman was being offered to me for sale. She was taken out of a darkened room. She had the visible effects of Down Syndrome. On one of her arms, she had raised red slashes where I can only assume she was trying to escape daily rape the only way that she knew how - by killing herself. This young woman was offered to me in trade for a used car. I went in and I was undercover and I immediately thought I have to keep in character…I said, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s talk.” So we began to negotiate. My impulse was to go and find the local chop shop, find a used car, trade for her, and get her out. But I knew from talking to those who do the real hard work of emancipation that rewarding a trafficker like that would be giving rise to a trade in larger misery. So what I did is I took a zoom photo of the trafficker and took the (tape from the wire I was wearing) into the local police. I said, “Here’s the evidence, here’s what I’ve seen, I’m willing to testify.” The response that I got from a quite able prosecutor who had successfully prosecuted a number of trafficking cases was, “These are the gypsies. We want to prosecute them but we have nobody on our task force that speaks Romani. If we were to take that girl out of bondage, who is to say that she would testify?”

The Romanian justice system needs to be reformed…In a situation like this where you have somebody who has been enslaved for as long as this young woman, it takes some real TLC, some real sensitivity to win this person’s trust enough so that they know they will be protected if they testify against their trafficker. The prosecutor in this case had no confidence that that would be the situation so as far as I know, that young woman is still in hell.

(To help the fight against modern-day slavery, visit or visit E. Benjamin Skinner’s web site To listen to the full Christopher Closeup interview with E. Benjamin Skinner, visit

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Joe Mantegna is one of the most versatile actors working today. He is a star on the stage, in film, and most recently, on television series like “Joan of Arcadia” and “Criminal Minds.” But Joe’s role as an actor is secondary to his role as a parent in real life – specifically, as the father of two daughters, one of whom – Mia - has autism.

Twenty-one years ago when Joe’s wife Arlene was pregnant with their first child, all had been going well until one Friday afternoon when she got concerned because the baby hadn’t been moving much. Arlene had gotten a good prognosis the day before so the doctor wasn’t sure if he needed to see her again. Luckily the nurse said, “Since it’s Friday, come in otherwise you’re not going to feel right all weekend.”

A half-hour later, Joe got the call to rush to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank, California. The doctor had discovered the baby was in distress and needed to be delivered instantly or she would die. While Arlene was getting an emergency caesarean, Joe headed to the chapel.

On the radio program “Personally Speaking,” Joe recalled, “I went to the chapel. There was nobody else in there. I kneeled and – I haven’t been the most devout Catholic in my life I’ll be the first to admit, but we all tap into that which we know. And that is my spiritual connection to God, that’s the channel it runs through – Catholicism. But I went in there and said, ‘Look, I know I’m not on the A Team. I’m not one of the starters; I’ve been on the bench for a while. But please, if there’s something that can be done for this child to live, I’m prepared to do whatever I must do.’”

Born three months premature and weighing only 1 pound, 13 ounces, Mia was successfully delivered. Though she spent several months in intensive care, her health improved and she went home. Joe and Arlene thought they had dodged every bullet but, at age three, it became obvious that something was wrong with Mia’s development. She was then diagnosed as being autistic.

Recalling that period, Joe says, “I think everybody goes through shock and anger…It’s human nature to go through that, but the trick is you have to move past it because you’re not doing anybody any good by staying in a state of anger. There’s nothing productive about that. So rather than yell at the wind, you try to use the wind you have to fill a sail…(My) prayer was granted, but there were obviously some stipulations that came with it. And you know what - it’s okay. I look around me and I look at the world and at the suffering that goes on – and I think, “Why not me?” If this is that thing that we as a family have to deal with, we’ll do it. I still feel blessed that we’re able to deal with it as best as we can. So I think back on that moment of prayer and I’m convinced that it worked.”

Mia is now twenty-one years old, lives with her parents, and is “fairly high functioning.” While the autism has brought challenges, it’s also brought blessings. Joe says, ““My daughter has this purity about her. (Kids with special needs may be) lacking in terms of the things we wish they had – communication, speech, all the behavior that we call normal. The other things they are lacking is - my daughter doesn’t understand hate, she doesn’t understand jealousy. These abstract kind of emotions aren’t on her radar. So she’s pure in spirit. She gets frustrated about things, but she never has a moment of vindictiveness or anger or hatred because it’s just not part of her psyche. The magical things about life still exist in her and always will.”