Deacon Gary Riggi has a passion for Jesus Christ and for helping people in the Diocese of Albany. Riggi, 60, is deacon at Our Lady of the Valley Church in Middleburgh and is director of engagement at the City Mission of Schenectady. (Mike Matvey photo)
Deacon Gary Riggi has a passion for Jesus Christ and for helping people in the Diocese of Albany. Riggi, 60, is deacon at Our Lady of the Valley Church in Middleburgh and is director of engagement at the City Mission of Schenectady. (Mike Matvey photo)
Deacon Gary Riggi has a passion for Jesus Christ and for helping people in the Diocese of Albany. Riggi, 60, is deacon at Our Lady of the Valley Church in Middleburgh and is director of engagement at the City Mission of Schenectady. Riggi has been married to his wife, Sharon, for 35 years and they have three children, Matthew, Joshua (Brianna) and Paul and two grandchildren, Luca and Jaxon. Riggi sat down with Mike Matvey of The Evangelist to talk about his earliest religious memories, walking with people at the City Mission as they overcome trauma and his life philosophy in this latest installment of Catholic Voices.

TE: What was your upbringing like?
GR: I grew up in Scotia-Glen¬≠ville, been there all my life. I have an older brother, Dean, who is 13 months older than me, and my sister, Dana, who is younger than me, so I was a middle child. 

TE: Was your family religious?
GR: My parents, Jerry and Cathy, were very involved in St. Joseph’s in Scotia when I was growing up. We went to parochial school and that is where, probably when I was 5 or 6 years old, I had my first encounter with Father Joseph Girzone (a priest in the Diocese for 60 years and author of the “Joshua” series of books). I met him through my parents; my dad and him were really good friends, they used to do a lot of projects together.

TE: What were your first religious memories?
GR: When I was 3 or 4 years old, my grandfather on my mother’s side had a general store in Sharon Springs. I would be at my grandfather’s side all the time. He just really liked me or I really liked him. At the end of the day when the store closed — he had this big chair and desk in the landing — and he would open up this book every night. I would sit on his lap, and when he read the book, I could tell that nothing else mattered to him. It was just so calming. He wouldn’t speak. He wouldn’t say anything, you just knew there was something special happening there. When he passed away, I think I was 5 years old, my mother said, “If somebody wants something of his, ask for it and you can have it.” I said, “I want his book.” And she said, “What book?” I said, “I want this book that is on his desk. He used to read it every night.” She said, “Grandpa didn’t read like that.” I said, “No, he did it quietly.” I still have that book to this day. It was his Bible.
And when I was 7 or 8 years old, I was running around the barns in our backyard and a board with a nail sticking up got lodged in my foot. My mom pulled it out and there was a hole in my foot, so she got me ready to go to the hospital. All of a sudden, I started crying and this overwhelming feeling came over me. I saw Jesus on the cross. My mother asked, “Is it hurting that much? You’ll be okay.” I said, “No. Now I know what it must have been like for Jesus on the cross.” I had no idea where that came from, but it was powerful.

TE: When did you decide to become a deacon?
GR: Father Girzone really taught me to read the Gospels and spend time with the Gospels. There was a time when I thought about the priesthood, going into a seminary. Then I met my wife, she was 13 and I was 15 and we stayed together ever since, so that changed the outcome of that. When we had a family, I kept feeling this call and I responded to it, I think I was 30 years old. I went to (what is now Kateri Institute) and I did the two years of that. From an early age, there was always this calling and this want to get closer to Jesus. 

TE: Did that come from how your family raised you?
GR: Oh yeah, my parents and my grandfather. I can remember that my parents had a pizza place and I think they gave out more than they sold. I remember this woman, she was from the concentration camps and she lived in Schenectady. She even had the tattoo on her arm and she would come in for lunch every day and could barely speak. There were times when she couldn’t control herself and she would go the bathroom on the stool. I remember people saying, “Oh my gosh, we can’t do this.” My mother would say, “Don’t worry” and would clean this woman up and get her clothes and she would get her back on the stool and give her coffee. I remember watching that and it had a profound effect on me, just caring for someone like that and seeing that love. I grew up around it. My dad was always doing something with Father Girzone for the churches. I can remember my dad going to the children’s shelter in Schenectady, and on Sundays, we would fill up carloads of kids and he would bring them back to the house and they would be swimming all day. We would have a cookout. It was just a part of our life.

TE: As the call to the diaconate remained, what were you doing for a living?
GR: Before the call to formation for ministry and the diaconate, I was running my own business and trying to support my family. I had a tile and marble business. I always loved construction and working with my hands. Many days I would get done around 2 p.m. as I would start early in the summer to avoid the late afternoon heat. I would take that time to go to the Auriesville Shrine. I would go there two to three times a week and spend a few hours walking the grounds asking God for direction and praying to — at the time — Blessed Kateri asking her to pray with me to help me hear God’s voice clearly.

TE: You had a life-changing experience after the Schenectady floods in 2011. Can you talk about that?
GR: I was doing my own thing and I was happy where I was at until the floods came in Schenectady in 2011. I heard Rotterdam Junction had gotten devastated. When we could finally go through there, I went to check on my boat up at Sacandaga Lake. Here I am worried about my boat and I went into Rotterdam Junction and they wouldn’t let us in. I stopped at the fire station and said, “How is everything going?” They said, “It’s awful, people need help.” So I started walking down the street and I saw this elderly couple sitting in the back of their van with their heads in their hands and they were extremely distraught. I just sat and I said, “Is there anything I can do for you?” They said, “We lost everything.” They told me they were trying to live in hotels but they couldn’t afford to. They lost everything in their house and they didn’t think they could rebuild or if the insurance would cover it. 
As I was listening to their story and looking at the devastation all around, I can remember saying to them, “I am a contractor. I will help you rebuild your house.” They looked at me kind of funny, and I said, “No I will do this. I will come back tomorrow.” I got into the car and my wife said, “What is wrong?” I said, “You are not going to believe what happened.” Then it dawned on me that I just told these people I am going to rebuild their house. What am I crazy? I didn’t know what to do, but I did the first thing I knew I could do, I went to God and said, “Lord, I told these people I would help them. I need to help them. I don’t know how, but I am coming back.”
And I did and I just started cleaning out the house. I was assigned to St. Clare’s in Colonie and I spoke after every Mass about what was going on down there and I think we raised $8-to-$9,000 just that weekend to be able to help these people. Then I got more calls from people who wanted to donate, buy hot water heaters.
The head of the Pipefitters Union I had grown up with and I ran into him and told him what was going on and he said they would pull all the old pipes and boilers and install all the new pipes and boilers for free. 
By trusting in God and following through on what I said and letting God lead, everything came that we needed. That is where I had the first encounter with City Mission because they came down and helped with the clean out. Schenectady Foundation, and Bob Carreau, really believed in me. He said there is this guy down there that is trying to rebuild Rotterdam Junction all by himself and he has been able to make quite a difference. So he started bringing all these other agencies to work alongside me. We raised over $500,000 and rebuilt that whole community and it was all because we trusted in God. 

TE: You are now director of engagement at City Mission OF Schenectady. Talk about your role there.
: On a daily basis, I walk with the men and women that are here, not only the residents, but the staff. I do it in a way so that we try to maintain a sense of love for everyone around us and make sure that we are walking in God’s love. I work extremely hard on myself and my prayer life to be prepared each and every day when I walk into this garden. I call it a garden because it is tilling the soil and it bears so much fruit. You always hear, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” I don’t want to even call them poor because they are so rich in what they do and give us. We need to recognize that every human being is a tabernacle because God dwells inside of them. If I am going to kneel and respect a brass tabernacle that’s in the church, I should have that same heart with every single person that I come in contact with. That is getting the staff and the residents to recognize, No. 1, how sacred you are, how much God loves you and you are not alone in this. There is somebody who is going to walk with you. 

TE: You work with Dr. Keli Rugenstein, executive director at Eastern Door Counseling who also does clergy counseling for the Diocese. Talk about the trauma YOU see in the residents at City Mission and the effect it had on you.
When I got to the mission and realized the problem with mental health and what was going on down here, I was devastated by it to the point where I would bring it home and cry at my doorstep. There were times I couldn’t go in the house because I was overcome by emotions. I knew that was not a healthy space to be in and I had to ask God if this was the place he was calling me to be and, if so, what can I do about his situation.
I spend a couple hours a day in quiet prayer between the day and the evening and I try to be as consistent as possible. I very rarely miss an opportunity to pray. I have a chapel with a tabernacle and I do a lot of Eucharistic Adoration at night and every morning I give myself an hour just to be quiet and still. I think that is the nourishment. I never know what God is telling me to do and what he is giving me, I just know that if I can sit there and be still, that whatever happens during the day, he helps and guides me through and gives me the wisdom and ability to find my way.

TE: How do you help the residents overcome this lifetime of physical and emotional trauma?
As I got to know some of these men and women that people would put labels on and give them medication, it began to be revealed to me through my prayer that what we are doing with the medication, we are just giving them another addiction. They are using heroin, cocaine or alcohol to forget about their trauma so they don’t have to think about it anymore and it is self-destructive. The medication quiets their mind so they are in this floating state where they are not really truly themselves but at the same time, they are not working on the trauma and the things that caused them to be in this space to begin with. 
The one thing that kept coming up in my prayers — love conquerors all, love conquerors all, love conquerors all — and that is why I am so fixated on this ministry of love, of unconditional love and meeting people where they’re at. As I talk and walk with these people and listen to them yell and curse at me and I just stay there and listen intently, but I love them. The important thing is to be present and loved because your body language says everything. Once they tire down, because they will, it’s to be there to ask them if they are okay. Love is listening, love is patience. They just want to be heard and want to know that somebody is going to be there for them because of all the abandonment issues that they went through.

TE: Can you talk about the spiritual aspect that you bring to the healing process?
(At City Mission, the residents), have this place to go to where there are professionals and they can talk about their trauma, because there is so much guilt and shame, they can’t really have a healthy encounter with God. It becomes something external like a magic wand; if I say this prayer or do this, I am going to be okay. And if they are not, where’s God? God didn’t help me. I am not going back. 
Almost always they are the ones that enter into the conversation and the dialogue about faith. The one thing that will always lead them into that is (telling them) how loved they are, how sacred they are. To love them and treat them as if they were your own son or daughter, it’s amazing the transformation that takes place and it’s just love.
One of the things that I talk about is the spirituality of humility and the spirituality of gentleness. Letting them know that the gift is in what you have given me. Letting them know how much you enjoy their company and like just being with them. … In the world of mental health, it is very difficult for anybody to be seen. And even then, spirituality isn’t a component in the programs or sessions. It’s a misunderstanding and a misinterpretation of who God really is. We can’t really share God if we don’t know who he is in ourselves. It’s not about forcing them into one space, but meeting them where they are at and allowing them to discover God for themselves. When you see that light go on and they recognize that they are loved and they are worth something and that is such a different way to look at life, oh my gosh, it’s powerful.
When you come in off the streets and you have all that stress and anxiety — worried about being abused, worried about being robbed, worried about being beaten up for your coat or your shoes — they come in here and they have shelter. They are safe. They have food and they have clothing. So we have met the most basic needs but we meet them in a loving way … and we walk with them when they come through the door until they no longer want our services.

TE: When you are not working, what do you do to relax?
My wife and I have date night on Fridays so we make sure we always have that time to ourselves. My wife is really a saint in that she is so supportive in anything that I may do. I may get a call at 11, 12 o’clock at night from somebody who is having a difficult time at the mission or even at one of the parishes and she says, “You didn’t disturb me at all. While you were talking to them, I was praying.” She is very, very supportive. I couldn’t do it without that kind of relationship. To tell you the truth, I enjoy being with Jesus, that is my relaxation.

TE: What is your life philosophy?
It is very easy for us to remember the greatest Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and love your neighbor as yourself. I say, let’s turn that upside down because until we can love ourselves, we really don’t know how to love our neighbors. In loving ourselves, we learn to love our neighbors and by doing these two things, we are loving God with everything we have.