Remnants of Unconditional Love by William Klein

Rich Clark, the founder of the school where I taught theology passed away last week. His tombstone is an extraordinary school on the East side of Cleveland and a community that is one that is composed of the most genuine, mission driven, heartfelt givers I’ve ever met. This is where his coffin lay in state and his family greeted throngs of mourners in its main hall, a state-of-the-art school that was converted from a suit factory storefront.

Richard Clark was born in Chicago, Illinois and attended Georgetown University majoring in Theology. Upon graduation he taught at Loyola Academy in Chicago. He moved to Cleveland and became the principal of St. Ignatius in Cleveland.

Rich often made pilgrimages to Lima, Peru, bringing students there to work with the poor. He became fast friends with John Foley, S.J. who would join him on the trips.

Foley, a Jesuit priest founded the Cristo Rey Network of schools. He had a small brainchild of an idea to offer students of meager means an opportunity to work and gain experience in a professional environment while they received a Jesuit education. Students would attend school four days a week and work in professional environments to pay for their schooling. Students took jobs at law firms, hospitals, libraries and other businesses. Not only did it establish foundational understanding meaningful work, it would also offer students opportunities to see where their lives could take them.

With the success of the founding school in Chicago, Rich was invited by Foley to a school in Lima, Peru, Fe y Alegria (Faith and Joy). The school was in a barrio in the poorest rural area of Peru. While visiting the school, Rich stopped in the chapel to say a prayer. As he was leaving, he was overcome with a profound call to return to the altar. He said he “was struck by the power of fear, love and something physical happening.” He was overcome with emotion and could not explain it but began to weep. Confused at what was happening to him, he returned to his colleagues in the plaza a changed man, and they noticed that he was struck into a deeper contemplative mode. He knew he had a spiritual experience, but he couldn’t explain why or what it was.

Rich was with other visitors and one of them was a “process guy.”  He liked talking through things one step at a time and brainstorming ideas. Rich is the kind of guy who likes to get things done. Growing impatient he said to his friend, “We could’ve formed a school in the time it takes us to move forward.”

A colleague said to him, “Then why don’t you?” 

“Maybe I will,” he responded.

The spiritual experience had come full circle to a tangible action to fulfill.

Rich talked with a friend about his experience and how he felt like he was being called by God to start a school on the east side of Cleveland. He was so excited and talking so fast, the friend asked him “Are you drunk?” Rich was drunk with the Holy Spirit, which wasn’t lost on him. It is written in the Bible that the saints acted this way when moved by the spirit. Rich told Foley he was interested in “leaving his cushy job at St. Ignatius” and starting a school in Cleveland.

When Rich started the school, he didn’t know what he was doing. He tells the story of getting the paperwork together and sitting on a stoop not knowing what his next steps would be. Foley, without batting an eye said, “Good people will come” – as if to say, they will guide you on the next steps.

They did. Founded in 2004, with 104 students in the Freshmen class, St. Martin dePorres High School became a school. One of my former colleagues who is an alum said, “On the first day of school we didn’t have desks. A truck rolled up and Rich said, ‘get your desks.’ One by one they filed out the door and picked up a desk and carried it to class.” The school used the facilities at the old St. Vitus school until a 30 million dollar facility was built across the street  with money raised by Rich and others he recruited to help.

Rich was sitting on the stoop at St. Vitus and an old woman stopped by. She asked him what he was doing there? He said we started a new school here, as the school before St. Vitus recently closed. The woman said, “A new school.  New hope. Praise God.”

Rich was a no-nonsense Chicago guy. He always had a smiling glint of devilish laughter in his eye and a sense of humor to match. He was known to challenge people in being honest. His points were always made with an eye on understanding what’s really going on here. He had a poet’s precision for digging into the heart of reality and offering a pointed lesson to learn. 

 I remember sitting down and talking with him as he waxed poetic with a critical eye on reality. “The city is literally burning and we need to do something to put the fire out. Look around here at the poverty. We cannot leave people behind. We need to let people know we’re here in this community and willing to help them out of this situation. That’s what schools do.” St. Martin is a centerpiece in the St. Clair, Superior neighborhood. Businesses are starting to move in there and new and development opportunities, too.

Rich retired from being president of St. Martin dePorres five years ago, but he started a consortium of schools to move the needle on improving the quality of education students are receiving. There are now four schools included in that group.

In her beautiful eulogy to her dad, Bridey commented on how when he met people, he would say, “I’m Rich, in name only.”  Bridey corrected her father saying he was rich in service, rich in faith and rich in love.”

There wasn’t a thing that Rich did that was not done with fervor and favor. Whether it was serving his famous Rishy burgers which consisted of hash browns, hamburgers and cheese, or winding a clock while raising money for his beloved project. The man lived the gospels. I used to tell my students there are saints among us. Rich’s dedication to being true to himself and his social justice calls in this world are clear evidence that he’s in the running for canonization.

Rich had a famous saying for our students that is quoted often by Chaz Napoli. “We love you and there is nothing you can do about that.” This statement is understood implicitly by every soul who goes to work at St. Martin dePorres. Students are also reminded to “Go with God” as they leave class. The response is “God goes with you.” 

Wherever I am, whatever I do, my thoughts go to this mantra. It is a remnant of Clark’s belief in unconditional love. I can’t help but thank Rich for instilling it in my heart.

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