MIDLAND — To some, news that seed money used to establish Helping Hands was raised through a deal with Disney World officials eager to obtain a 1937 Packard convertible for Epcot Center in Florida would not seem plausible. But for those who know Msgr. James Bridges, the story is not only plausible, but likely.

MIDLAND — To some, news that seed money used to establish Helping Hands was raised through a deal with Disney World officials eager to obtain a 1937 Packard convertible for Epcot Center in Florida would not seem plausible. But for those who know Msgr. James Bridges, the story is not only plausible, but likely.   

When Msgr. Bridges and others were searching for a building for Helping Hands of Midland, Disney officials just so happened to be looking for a ’37 Packard. Msgr. Bridges owned one. The two sides negotiated and Disney initially offered $35,000. But Bridges played hard ball, ultimately driving the price to $100,000. Msgr. Bridges used the money to purchase the Helping Hands Building at 1301 Brinson Lane, tucked behind a row of automobile dealers on Wall Street.     Msgr. Bridges is a remarkable servant of God. He celebrated 54 years in the priesthood in May 2016. For the entirety of his priestly vocation, and for his entire life, he has been driven by one core belief: If you take care of the poor, God will take care of you. After establishing St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Odessa he was assigned as pastor of St. Stephen’s parish in Midland in 1996.   

Even though St. Stephen’s was established years before St. Elizabeth’s in Odessa it had not grown into a big and stable parish like St. Elizabeth’s had. In 1995, the year before Msgr. Bridges was named pastor, St. Stephen’s celebrated only three weddings and 17 baptisms.   

Last year, the parish celebrated 86 weddings and 1,002 baptisms. Enrollment for weekly RCIA classes this year is 250 in English and 100 in Spanish. Msgr. Bridges attributes the parish’s extraordinary growth to one thing: When parishioners began to focus on helping the poor, the church began to grow so fast it became hard to stay up with its progress. And it started 14 years ago when St. Stephen’s established Helping Hands of Midland, which now provides the poor of Midland $2,000,000 of help each year with all volunteers.   

The more St. Stephen’s helped the poor, the more it grew and blossomed. St. Stephen’s is now the largest parish in the diocese.   

“Everyone who gives to the poor benefits. It always happens,” Msgr. Bridges said. “I always tell people to try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll give them their money back. And it is not that God’s blessings might return if they give to the poor. They will return.”   

Trust in God, Msgr. Bridges emphasizes, must be an integral part of giving to the poor. The one thing God wants from us, he said, is trust. “Trust and faith are about the same thing,” he said. “I don’t know why trust is so important to God. But it is.” Msgr. Bridges says aside from the Eucharist, Jesus Christ is more present in the least than anywhere else this side of heaven. Plus, “giving to the needed is a sort of heavenly insurance,” he says with a wry smile. Helping Hands is not Msgr. Bridges’ only contribution to the poor population of West Texas: He was instrumental in the founding of both Catholic Charities of Odessa and the West Texas Food Bank.   

 The food bank, which recently moved into its new $20,000,000 facilities in Odessa has a bronze bust of him as its founder in the entrance. He insists he had nothing to do with the bust, but did become suspicious when food bank supporters kept asking for photos of him.   

“No one wants a picture of an 87-year old,” he said. He refers to the organizations he helped form as his babies. Msgr. Bridges has been gifted with the ability to gather others for a common good. Some people sing. Some write. Some act. Msgr. Bridges inspires others into action.   

On a recent Sunday, his gaze upon the Crucifix at the back of the St. Stephen’s sanctuary never left as he recited the Eucharistic prayer. His eyes do not venture downward to the Sacramentary. Seeing him see Christ impacts Mass goers. The vision of Christ working through him is a moving experience. His love of the poor is backed up by action. He ends each day by writing 10 letters to indigent prisoners — offenders who have been behind bars for 2-5 years, who have never received a letter or a dollar and often still have 10 years or more remaining on their sentence.   

“If those people aren’t the least among us, I don’t know who is,” he said. What’s more, Bridges calls the prison to find out who isn’t being written to, who could use a little money for hygiene items, or to learn whose mother or children are sick. Only then does he pick up his pen and begin to write to each of them.   

“Helping the indigent prisoners makes them feel more worthy of God’s love and forgiveness,” Msgr. Bridges said. This falls in with his core belief: Take care of the poor and God will take care of you. Bridges says, “Helping the poor, the indigent, the least among us, is actually touching Jesus where he loves to hide."