Called to serve

First slide

It seems like there's nothing Deacon Tom Bello doesn't do.

During the week, he's a teacher of English to immigrants and refugees at a multicultural center in Falls Church. On the weekends, and in his "spare" weekday time, he's a servant to the clergy and parishioners of the St. James Parish community. Once a month he preaches. He presides over baptisms and weddings. He distributes Communion to the sick and homebound. He serves food at Christ House, teaches a Scripture study class and ministers to prisoners at the Alexandria Detention Center.

Now in his 22nd year of his diaconate ordination - the last19 spent at St. James - Bello can succinctly sum up his life so far in three words: service, nonviolence and education.

A Tar Heel born and bred

Bello hails from North Carolina: Durham-born, Raleigh-raised and Chapel Hill-educated. His father was a native of New York, and his grandparents were Italian immigrants - likely the reason Bello, who received a full ride as an undergraduate and has three master's degrees - has dedicated so much of his life to working with those assimilating to life in the United States.

"I love being with these people," he said. "Those were my grandparents."

A double major in English and history at UNC-Chapel Hill, Bello also focused on religion and psychology. During his undergraduate years, he served as student body president, following in his father's (a student body president at Duke University) footsteps. His time in office was filled with the student protests and activism of the late 1960s, and overlapped with the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970. After a night praying at the university's Newman Center, Bello gave a speech saying that the student protests in Chapel Hill should remain nonviolent. And they did.

"We kept things peaceful," he said. "There was no violence."

This was a formative moment for Bello, who would grasp this idea of nonviolence and carry its lessons with him throughout his life.

Finding a calling

After earning a master's in history from Oxford University in England, Bello married his wife, Judy, and moved to Northern Virginia in 1975.

Though his younger years weren't the holiest he's ever lived, Bello said the track of his life was altered with the birth of his first son, Yates, and the promise he made to a priest friend to make a sincere effort to raise him in the Catholic faith. That pact got Bello on the path to aligning himself with God's will.

"When you're a child, it's really your parents' faith. It's not really earned yet," he said. "When you're married and you have a child, that's really a wake-up call. It was for me anyway."

Drawn to St. Francis by his devotion to service and nonviolence, Bello joined the Secular Franciscans.

And, while attending the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington with his family, he was encouraged to apply to the permanent diaconate program.

Bello's response: "What's a deacon?"

After time for prayer and discernment - and spiritual nudging from his nonviolent favorite St. Francis - Bello, then 37, was ordained a permanent deacon in May 1987.

He earned yet another master's degree, this time in Christian spirituality - and the one he said he has used the most - from Notre Dame Pontifical Academy. He served as a deacon at the cathedral from 1987-90 and then at St. James for the last 19 years.

"Service has always been a mantra to me," Bello said. "It's always been so important to try to help. That desire to serve, I think, is at the very basis of what my Christianity means to me."

In the classroom

At the same time Bello was discerning how he would serve in his faith life, Bello began volunteering with immigrants and refugees from Asia and Central America. Feeling like he'd found a calling, he earned a master's in linguistics from George Mason University in Fairfax and became a full-time adult education teacher.

For years he has taught a split shift - catering to the students - in the mornings and the evenings. The curriculum is learner-centered, meaning whatever the immigrants or refugees need the most - be it reading, writing, speaking or listening - is the focus.

Though in his public school environment, Bello must, to some extent, hang his deacon hat at the door, he still is able to minister just by being himself.

"There's a lot that you can do and show you are a Christian by your example," he said. "I've had a lot of ministry outside the classroom."

And he truly believes he's been called - right down to believing he witnessed Jesus motioning toward him in his sleep when he was still a boy growing up in North Carolina.

"I always could picture that moment in my mind," Bello said. "I really think He's always been back there, kind of nudging me forward, step by step."

He considers his ability to serve a true gift from God.

"I really wake up everyday happy to have another day of life, happy to serve," he said. "I really love what I'm doing. I'm never good enough. I'm always failing. But I love to try."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009