Jim Cato wrote thousands of editorials in 28 years as editor of The Beaufort Gazette.
But it has taken a second “career” in retirement to feel he can truly change the world.
He is now the Rev. Jim Cato.
As of June, he is an ordained Anglican deacon.
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What have I done today that will have eternal significance?
He has gone from being the community lightning rod to talking almost in a whisper, telling me that this story and his new role in life are not about him but about God.
His trademark bow tie from the sharp-elbowed newsroom has been replaced with a turned collar at the ancient Parish Church of St. Helena on Church Street. On Sunday morning, he is a robed gospeler, reading to the congregation from the altar.
At 71, he can now baptize you, marry you and bury you. Instead of sweating over editorials and columns, it is now homilies and eulogies.
“No matter how many editorials I wrote about prison reform, I could not see it make a difference in people’s lives like doing what Jesus asks us to do and go and show love to our neighbors,” Cato said. “Who is your neighbor? The prisoners at the Ridgeland Correctional Institute are our neighbors. We take the words of Jesus to them in the Kairos Prison Ministry, and show the love we are commanded to show, and you do see some changes.”
He talks of the late Fred Smith, a fellow parishioner who went faithfully to the state prison in Ridgeland with other volunteers bearing tens of thousands of cookies, and Bibles. Smith kept going even as ALS slowly robbed him, and he sat before them in a wheelchair, a prisoner in his own body.
“A lot of them are better men today because of Fred,” Cato said.
Cato saw community troubles eye-to-eye as his wife, Susan, was executive director of the Child Abuse Prevention Association for 29 years.
And even in his newsroom days, there was a tug to personally address the rougher edges of humanity, from volunteering at the Friday night dinners at Washington Street Park at home, to nine summer vacations at a Dominican Republic mission, to a summer in Uganda, and 10 mission trips to Asia.
It’s a servant ministry.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve seen prisoners dancing around the room flapping their arms like wings, singing ‘I’ll Fly Away,’ ” Cato said.
In the Anglican and Episcopal church, becoming a deacon takes years of study, testing and discernment, both personally and by committees. Cato said the job description was first recorded in Acts 6. And it wasn’t lost on the old newsman that one of the first seven deacons was stoned to death in Acts 7.
“It’s a servant ministry,” he said.
Cato works as an unpaid deacon five days a week — Tuesday through Friday, and Sunday. On Saturdays and Mondays, he sells golf carts at King of Carts Superstore in Ridgeland.
At the church, he works with fellow deacon Mark W. Warter, and the chaplain for prison ministry Charles D. Pollak, a former captain of a nuclear submarine who was ordained a priest at age 79.
One last question
In his new assignment, Cato carries a little black bag almost like the old Lowcountry doctors and midwives did.
In it are wafers and a tiny container of wine, and a little chalice and patent made by potter Julia Hetherington. They are protected in jewelry bags from Rossignol’s on Bay Street. Cato and other volunteers regularly go into all of Beaufort’s nursing homes and assisted-living facilities for visitation, worship and communion.
He will be back in Asia this fall with Susan. He feels a calling that he is convinced is tied to his days as a kid from a mill hill in Chester, who flunked out of Clemson and was ordered by the U.S. Army to study Mandarin Chinese to become a translator and prisoner interrogator in Vietnam.
He doesn’t ask us to go, it’s a commandment.
Cato graduated from the University of South Carolina while working in a newsroom. He said his 39 years in newspapers felt like a mission. Like church work, it doesn’t make you rich and it is often seen as a calling to do good for society.
But it was history in a hurry — much ado about each fleeting instant.
“What you are talking about as a Christian, as a deacon, is something that has eternal significance,” Cato said. “God commands us to go. He doesn’t ask us to go, it’s a commandment. It’s like the old hymn we sing a lot in the prison that says they will know we are Christians by our love. It brings joy to life.”
Those thousands of questions at the newspaper now seem boiled down to one.
“It’s like I heard on a mission trip,” Cato said. “ ‘What have I done today that will have eternal significance?’ ”