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One of the oldest Benedictine monasteries of Southeast Asia is nestled in the lush highlands of central Vietnam. As we travelled on a small road surrounded by an extensive variety of fruits and vegetables through picturesque farmland, we glimpsed into the simplicity and serenity of monastic life. We were being taken to one of the holiest sites in their monastery: a crucifix standing at the far edge of the property. But now the large metal cross lay on the ground, the shattered pieces of the body of Jesus barely attached.
We listened to the story. The government and the monks, we were told, were in an intense debate over the ownership of the land. Things had heated up just a few weeks earlier. A mob broke into the monastery one night, harassing the monks and their property in the name of communism. The thugs tore down this symbol of Christianity and began breaking apart the body of Christ with hammers and clubs, scattering the pieces throughout the woods and river. As reported by UCA News, extensive damage was done to the property. Many of the monks were emotionally and physically assaulted, leaving several in need of medical attention. In the aftermath, the monks retrieved what they could from the desecrated cross, searching the property for the broken pieces of Jesus, and re-bound the body of Christ back on the cross. It remains there as a site of prayer.
The worst part of all? This has happened three times.
It was a powerful experience to hear this story, but even more so to look upon the broken body of Christ re-bound on the cross. These communist attackers no doubt saw a powerful symbol standing in the way of state progress. And yet by tearing it down and destroying the crucifix, they made it an even more powerful symbol for the faithful. Christ remains on the cross, a reminder that through the cross comes new life: resurrection out of crucifixion. Looking upon this image with this context, I had a new awareness of just how deep the bond is between Christ and the Church.
Those thugs tore down Christ on the cross because they know Jesus is not a communist. But Jesus isn’t a capitalist, either. Jesus loves all with a love transcending every ideology. Unfortunately, some Vietnamese see the crucifix as a symbol of foreign influence: of the West and its capitalist democracy and its complicated colonial history, never mind the Vietnam War. But the Catholics of Vietnam are anything but foreign. The local Church in Vietnam is strong and distinct. Their faith is marked by sincerity, depth, and devotion. Cities and communities in Vietnam are enriched by the Church, for people are more generous with each other and with those in need because of their faith in Christ. The Vietnamese Catholics possess an inspiring hope in Christ and have the endurance to live it out, and they are no doubt a gift to the progress of their country.
We hope and pray for peace and cooperation for those involved as the Vietnamese work for the good of their people. But as I continue to reflect on that image of the broken body of Christ on the cross, I am challenged by this question: Do my politics shape my faith, or does my faith shape my politics? Which do I cling to when I am challenged? Being a Christian can feel quite comfortable in the US. Often, it’s easy to think that my politics and faith are simply the same thing. But this window into the life of the Vietnamese faithful challenged me to remember that the Christian vision can and does come into conflict with our political systems.
The Kingdom of God is unreachable through any secular policies or political and economic schemes. In living out the Christian life, however, our faith must still be marked by works of justice. Even after these attacks suffered by the monks in Vietnam, they continue to pray, to minister, to live out their faith. Their faith endures, and we know what the end of the story will be: resurrection.
Photo courtesy of author.
Two wheels and a slender frame make it hard to wrap, but I still marvel at the unexpected Christmas gift leaning on its kickstand. Santa came through big time this year. It’s 1994 in the urban sprawl of São Paulo, Brazil. The gear shift mounted on the stem between the handlebars looks like a speed boat throttle. In my head I hear the roar my new bicycle will make as my eyes shift the throttle from first up to fifth. Imagining myself on this bicycle with speed boat features summons the opening montage of Thunder in Paradise, a short-lived TV show that just premiered. And, with that, it reveals its name: Thunder.
I try to memorize the landmarks on the way to my buddy’s house. The payphone on the corner. The pizza shop on the long stretch. The point where the blacktop switches to a brick-paved road. It’s my first expedition of significant distance and I’m nervous I might get lost on the way home. Upon my return, I coast triumphantly down the last stretch before my house. Thunder facilitated my first taste of independence. Many more adventures would unfold.
The Peace Corps office demands that volunteers wear helmets when we take motorcycle taxis, but come on – I already stick out enough as the only American in my Dominican neighborhood. Passengers never wear helmets, and so I don’t. I’m self-conscious about how stupid I would look carrying it around town as I run errands. I don’t own a motorcycle. Breaking this rule adds to the thrill of a moto-taxi ride in Puerto Plata.
The moto-taxi drivers from my neighborhood know me well. When they see me approach the stop where they congregate, their eyes light up, they call out “Andrés!,” and their hands go up – a signal inquiring whether I’m riding or not.
I jump onto Roberto’s bike and we speed off. My knuckles are white as I hold onto the seat. The wind whips across my unhelmeted face as we accelerate down the only paved road in my barrio. Roberto’s yellow vest, indicating he’s registered and syndicated, flaps open and closed.
We pass a bicycle shop and I look longingly at their wares. They remind me of Thunder. I remember the freedom, and if I had a bike now, I could be more spontaneous with my errands. I could go for joy rides along the malecón. But the price tag is far too large, even considering how much I would save from moto-taxi fares.
Near the end of my 27-month service, a new Peace Corps volunteer is assigned to a project in my barrio. I greet him when he passes my place on his way home. One day, his return is not by foot or moto-taxi. His wide smile and his expressive eyes pierce through me as he rides his beautiful new bicycle past. I walk downstairs to my host-mom’s place to lament and express my jealousy.
“Andrés, estás loco. Every time those moto-taxi drivers pass by here, they don’t ask me how I’m doing. They say, ‘And Andrés?’ The new gringo isn’t gonna get to know people very well on that bicycle.”
Full-throttle. High gear. Intense pace. These are the descriptions I use with friends regarding my transition into my new teaching gig. Delicious moments of stillness are interrupted by dread about the lesson I haven’t quite planned, the stack of homework I haven’t graded, the unresponded emails that glare at me.
Please, slow down! I whisper to life, certain of its deafness to my plea. I fantasize about the day when I feel caught up; when I can coast. At the end of another long day, I climb on my bike. The early autumn sun is nearly set, and I hit a long stretch of road between the school and my house. I downshift into a gear that takes little effort to pedal. I relish the slow ride and am calmed by the cool air that caresses my face. Sometimes I even let go of the handlebars and sit up straight, hogging the empty street at an hour when traffic has dissipated.
I think about Thunder and our past adventures as I make my trek from work. And those memories are followed by discomfort as I remember my host-mom’s words. Some of my most fascinating conversations have been with strangers on public transportation. Some deep bonds have formed over carpooling and commiserating over traffic. And a distinct awareness of the resources I am blessed with in a religious community has come from mundane tasks like filling the gas tank. I forget how dependent I am on others when I savor the independence I feel when riding my bike.
But I have come to depend on this nightly ritual. I smile at the paradox of dependence on the one thing that has always made me feel independent. It dawns on me that my rides – whether by motor or pedal – have never been in solitude. They’ve always been in good company. My friendship with Roberto kept me loyal to the moto-taxi. A different friendship keeps me peddling on now.
To all our youthful readers: stay in your 20s as long as you can!
Ah, how fondly I remember that decade! It was filled with new experiences and opportunities for growth and adventure. But just as it did for me, the day will inevitably come for you: your 30th birthday.
Fear not! It doesn’t have to be a funeral for your 20s. Save the tears and find a way to celebrate. Here are 10 suggestions for how to commemorate this milestone.
- Go out for drinks! But don’t close down the bar.
This is 30, not 21. You don’t need another night that lasts until 2am and ends with a greasy chalupa at Taco Bell. You also don’t have to rip through Tequila shots or binge drink on Natty Light. This isn’t college. (Was that ever a good idea anyway?)
Go out for a sampling of craft beers instead. Turns out: bars are open in the early evening as well, so you can enjoy a cocktail or two and still get home by 10pm if you want. After all, it’s your birthday.
Better yet, how about brunch!
- Get a babysitter and have a date night.
Hey, you’re 30. It’s more likely that you’re married and raising children. While the kids are surely the love of your life, maybe this is a good excuse to take a night off for a romantic date night with your spouse. Remember what those are like?
If not, you can always take the kids with you for a night out at your local Applebee’s. (If it’s still open.)
- Sleep in: until 8am!
Remember when you used to sleep in until midday? Yeah, neither do I. We all know the maxim about early to bed…early to rise. Was that written to inspire a particular sleeping pattern? Or simply to justify natural changes that are unavoidable with aging?
But hey, it’s your birthday. Turn off the alarm, close the shades, and sleep as long as you want. Who knows: maybe you’ll make it to 9am??
- Get some exercise. Sign up for a race.
Life does not end at 30, and neither does good health. Heck, your early 30s are still part of your athletic peak. Think about it: LeBron James is still dominating the NBA as a healthy 30+ year old. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady just turned 40! (But let’s not jump that far ahead just yet.)
Okay, admittedly few of us thirtysomethings will lead a sports team to a league championship, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to spend your 30th on the couch all day. Get some exercise or go for a run. Better yet, register for a road race. Why not sign up for a 5K charity run? It will help others and help you feel better about yourself as you enter the next decade of life.
Want to reach for more? Try out a half marathon. Or maybe this is the decade you run a marathon. Remember: you are still in your athletic peak! (Repeat this line in the mirror as many times as necessary.)
- Photo booth!
Let’s face this reality together: at 30, parts of your body start moving the other direction. Hair might start to gray (or slowly disappear…your buzz cut is fooling no one!). Suddenly it takes you a couple of days to recover from a light game of beach volleyball. Wrinkles start to mark the face, like crow’s feet or unwelcome lines underneath the eyes.
This transition is unavoidable, but it doesn’t mean you lose your strength or beauty. Celebrate who you are and how you look. Visit a photo booth and bring your own costumes.
At a minimum, snap a selfie as the sun rises on your 30s.
- Check something off your bucket list.
Wait- you have a bucket list already? Guess it’s never too early to start. At 30, there are many adventures ahead of you. Plan something dramatic and exciting for your 30th birthday.
Never been skydiving? Today is the day!
Wavering about getting a tattoo? Time for the ink.
Want to learn the piano? Um…[cough] Okay, let’s keep this realistic.
- Take an international trip.
Whether it’s on your bucket list or not, this is a great occasion for an international trip. My older brother Eric was in India for his 30th birthday. He rose before dawn in Agra and was at the front of the line to enter the Taj Mahal when it opened at sunrise. When you’re among the first to enter the Taj, the wind passing through the temple whispers to you like voices from another world. It doesn’t take long for the space to fill up, and then the noise of visitors and tour guides drowns out the whispers.
My brother was able to soak in a good 10-15 minutes in the silence with the whispering wind. What a way to start a new decade!
So…what’s at the top of your travel list?
- Spend time with your family.
Whether it’s your spouse, kids, parents or siblings, spend time with the most important people in your life.
During the summer that I turned 30, I was helping at a Jesuit high school in my hometown of Denver. To celebrate my birthday, my family decided to go out for a dinner of Korean BBQ. The night went wrong in a collection of ways. There was confusion over making a reservation; we inadvertently stole the table for a different “Brian, party of 7”; eventually we had to give up the table to its rightful party and wait for our own. But hey, that’s family. Sometimes it’s messy, sometimes it doesn’t go according to plan.
In the end, we were all sitting around the table and sharing a meal together, including my three-month-old niece who was baptized a week later. That’s what I will remember most. Family matters.
- Say a prayer of thanks.
Maybe you’ve fallen away from your faith during a decade of exploration and independence where you had some fun, made some mistakes, and took important things for granted. No time like the present to pause and take stock. This could be just the occasion you need (or the reality check?) to re-evaluate your relationship with God. And gratitude is at the heart of a healthy faith life, so start with that.
After all, you have a lot to be thankful for – you survived your 20s! Take time to reflect on all the things you lived through and experienced in that decade. There is surely a lot to be grateful for, so offer up a prayer of thanks.
- Smile and look forward to what’s ahead!
I know what you’re going through. The transition can feel like a big one. It’s an important milestone. Use it as an opportunity to reflect on your life and where it’s taken you, but don’t let the weight of it get you down.
Given all you’re grateful for from your 20s, what do you want to do to make the most out of your 30s? How do you want to build and cultivate relationships? How will you contribute to a better community? How can you make your next 30 years better than the first?
A birthday isn’t just about looking back on a year (or decade) that has past, it’s about looking ahead too. So enjoy your birthday, whether it’s time with family or friends, a 5K run or an international trip. And then smile, because so many great things are yet to come.
Have your own ideas? Mention them in the comments!
In almost 500 pages, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new memoir What Happened says what many might say in two words: she lost. Her explanation nuances her own personal mistakes, her emails, Russian intervention, Bernie Sanders, sexism, and the intersection of race and class. But this is only a fraction of what makes the book so compelling and important to read. In her own words, Clinton says she’s letting her guard down.
Not unlike her political career, the book has received mixed reviews. Democrats aiming to rebuild the party after Clinton’s loss claim she and her subsequent Hillary Clinton Live book tour are a distraction. Others say presidential candidates don’t immediately write books explaining why they lost the election. And finally, there’s the obvious: we’ve been talking about what happened since that early November morning.
That being said, the book is more than an explanation of why Clinton lost the election and is worth the read for the following three reasons:
Her Prayer Life: Part of what Hillary Clinton recounts in What Happened is her inner spiritual life. She admits early on that many people won’t believe her discussion of her prayer life after the election. One of the reasons for this skepticism is that Rev. Bill Shillady plagiarized spiritual reflections he sent her. Although this may discount Shillady’s credibility, these reflections still shaped her personal prayer during the campaign.
Whether one is skeptical of her prayer life or not, there’s much more to be gained from taking her at her word. She describes how she reread The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen, a book that has guided her prayer for over twenty years. Seeing herself in the position of the older brother, she admits that the book challenges her to the discipline of gratitude:
To be grateful even for our flaws, because in the end, they make us stronger by giving us a chance to reach beyond our grasp. My task was to be grateful for the humbling experience of losing the presidential election… It’s because of our limitation and imperfections that we must reach out beyond ourselves, to God, and to one another.
In what must have been the most painful experience of her life, her experience of gratitude calls her out of her pain and propels her into the future. For each of us who have faced losses in our lives, her story urges us to not allow our hearts to grow bitter, but to continue to find God working on our lives and the lives of others.
The Need for Radical Empathy: During the campaign, Clinton herself admitted it was odd that a presidential candidate would speak about the need for more love and kindness. Her message might have appeared weak to some, but is now more important than ever. She’s calling us to move farther to radical empathy: to “try to walk in the shoes of people who don’t see the world we do.” That includes her. She acknowledges cultural change, lack of belonging, economic insecurity, and even abortion as reasons why someone would see the world differently than her.
While not excusing the unleashing of hate in America since the election, Hillary Clinton urges us to work to build bridges between persons who are different:
We have to fill the emotional and spiritual voids that have opened up within communities, within families, and within ourselves as individuals. That can be even more difficult, but it’s essential. There’s grace to be found in those relationships. Grace and meaning and that elusive sense that we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves.
As her prayer life demonstrates, she’s decided to let go of bitterness and try and build bridges. So too must we.
Embracing Her Own Mistakes, Flaws, and Failures: Many people see the Clintons as thinking they are “above the rules.” Perhaps one way this played out is her admitting throughout the book that she never expected she would lose the election. Furthermore, she’s apologized for not winning the election without blaming her campaign staff. But more than anything, she’s found grace in her mistakes and flaws.
Take one concrete example from the final pages of the book: returning to her alma mater Wellesley to give the 2017 commencement address, she hears the student speaker say that it is our flaws that make us who we are. Listening to the student, she reflects to the reader how she’s learned to see her own flaws as character marks of her own authenticity, something that many see her as hiding over her years in public office.
And perhaps that is why, despite the controversy, Hillary Rodham Clinton has written this book and re-emerged in the public sphere. Perhaps the whole process has been less of a desire to tell what happened that led us to November 8th, 2016. Maybe instead she’s showing us what happened next in her own acceptance of her flaws, mistakes, and public humiliation. Simply said, she’s found grace, gratitude, and healing there.
Her book invite us to do the same. She implicitly asks us for critical self-reflection that is more than just what happened last November. Like her, we’re invited to consider our limited perspectives so that we might stretch them and grow to be radically empathetic. And in the process, she subtly requests us to find what she found – how God is laboring beneath our flaws so that we might find ourselves good enough, strong enough, and ready to move onward together.
The cover photo is featured courtesy of Ali Shaker/VOA and can be found on the Wikimedia Creative Commons.
One might assume that a special release of a television show in IMAX would come with striking clarity and amazing special effects, but with ABC’s Marvel’s Inhumans I found myself struck not by the wonder and the ‘super’ but by the sheer humanity involved. While villains might exist in the series, the very person of the characters lies central to the conflicts and the underlying themes of the narrative.
Marvel’s Inhuman series follows a race of humans who possess extra genetic potential, making them “different” from humans and forcing them into exile as refugees. In exile in the city of Attilan, they create an entire society based on “potential”—it is so important that King Black Bolt, his wife Medusa, and the rest of the royal family personally supervise each individual as they undergo their transformation when they come of age. That genetic transformation might awaken “powers” within the person or it might not. A person’s “powers” may seem far afield in terms of fantasy and science fiction, but the attention to each person and their potential turns the story inward towards the humanity and pressures involved.
Maximus, the king’s brother who lacks superpowers, faces the challenge and frustration of being underestimated by all around him. The society continually highlights him as “just human,” which leads to the very human experience of jealousy and self-loathing. Maximus turns this jealousy and anger into a weapon which eventually motivates a coup d’état for the throne of Attilan. It’s painful to watch, as everyone around King Black Bolt can see the jealousy and manipulation of his brother Maximus building. Yet, in this escalating tension, Black Bolt remains silent. Even though Maximus seems evil, his brother cannot see it, and he cannot help but underestimate him.
Silence and inaction are important themes for Black Bolt. By comic standards, Black Bolt is perhaps one of the most powerful superhumans in the Marvel world. His voice—which is his weapon—excites the very atoms which stand in his way, disintegrating everything. A single word can demolish a city or an army, and if he raises his voice the scale of destruction would be limitless. The power and potential of his voice remains feared, but also silent: Black Bolt knows that with a single word he can defeat anyone and anything, but his potential scares him more than empowers him.
We see a glimpse of his power in a single moment when Black Bolt it punched. He releases an insignificant grunt, but that sound—no louder than a whisper or exhale—crushes and flips a police car hundreds of feet. This accidental manifestation of power brings him to his knees. Ashamed and afraid, he surrenders. His power and potential remain self-silenced by the shame he has for those mistakes he has made in his past and his fear of future destruction.
As a result, Bolt remains silent. He sits within the very human tension of holding potential and not knowing what to do with it. His fear of destruction, much like the human fear of failure, ties his hands and his actions. He is the most powerful, rendered powerless… a feeling not inhuman at all.
ABC’s Inhumans pits two opposing human experiences against one another: the frustration of being underestimated, and the fear of your past mistakes and future potential.
The two human experiences come to a moment of pregnant tension at the close of the series premier. Maximus sits upon his brother’s throne, having proven himself so much more than just a human. As he sits, he receives a call from Medusa who says, “the king will have words for you.” Her statement of course implies the use of Black Bolt’s power, but more importantly it indicates that Bolt is going to move beyond silence and inaction. Maximus though, unwilling to be underestimated again, replies that he is looking forward to it.
The closing conversation captures the tension which will unfold not in superhuman or inhuman terms, but in terms of the underestimated and unrealized potentials of the person. The superpowers, the inhuman capabilities, and the special effects all fall into the backdrop of a distinctly human tale. We may be entertained by the superpowers and special effects, but we are fundamentally drawn to the way a super-tale allows us insight into our own human experience.
The cover image is courtesy of Jamie of the Flickr Creative Commons.
I spend time each week in a pod at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center – the JDC. Each pod is visible through thick panels of glass which, sadly, makes it feel like looking into an exhibit at the Lincoln Park zoo. But instead of animals, there are 14 to 18-year-old boys awaiting trial, sentencing, or transport to prison. Each pod has a bathroom area on one end and a TV room on the other. Roughly 15 cells line the back wall with heavy grey doors and a mesh-wired window. Usually when I arrive some of the boys are either playing cards or watching TV. Others are already locked up until morning.
One evening a young man named Kevin, about 18 years old, sat down to talk. He was a Chicago boy and grew up in a tough neighborhood. He had been a leader in a gang, but now wanted to leave that life behind after having seen the suffering it brought him.
Kevin was a talented writer, and in a later conversations he would share a poem he authored about his past life. It was filled with loving companions, painful losses, hope, anger, and fear. He had not graduated high school, but he wanted to earn his G.E.D. Beyond that I don’t remember specifics, but I do know that he had a strong desire to help other young people like himself.
After speaking for some time, I asked him how he was feeling. He paused for a moment, his eyes glancing away from mine. When he finally spoke, he slowly grasped his chest with his hand, as if trying to massage a chronic ache or feel an old wound that could possibly crack open again. He was trying to indicate something palpable within him that he couldn’t quite describe.
“Yeah, I just…I have this feeling in my chest like a weight or… like something in me that feels like even though I want to do this, I can’t.”
It was normal for me to speak to the boys about the difficulties they would face when leaving. But Kevin was expressing something much more profound than a lack of social or psychological resources. He recognized that there was a more fundamental mystery of weakness that resided deep within him. A weakness beyond external difficulties that he feared might keep him from being able to do what he truly hoped to do.
I am very different from Kevin. I am a 27-year-old white man from South Dakota who took vows in a Catholic religious order. I have the freedom open and close my bedroom door as I please, eat what I want, and freely talk to the people I love.
But, there are also things in my life that keep me locked down, chained, unable to move. A year ago, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which I have struggled with for years. It’s not that I hoard things, or have to wash my hands every five minutes. Instead, I will obsessively ruminate for hours over whether I hurt someone, spoke poorly of them, or did something “wrong.” This rumination is accompanied by gnawing anxiety wherein I can’t focus, my stomach becomes a knot, and I feel like there’s a fire alarm going off, even though nothing is burning.
I know these fears are unreasonable, but I can’t let them go. And I cannot keep myself from getting anxious, no matter how badly I want to, or how much I can see that I don’t need to be. My mind is locked up, and I feel powerless against it.
As Kevin and I talked, I sensed that the fear and powerlessness he now felt – and that I felt with my OCD – though born from different places, were the same. A fundamentally human fear of being helpless against a force that pulls away from life and toward imprisonment, sin, pain, and despair. A weakness that is not artificially created by some abstract ideal he or I hold up for ourselves, but an undeniably real experience – a part of simply existing. In this way, whether held captive in the JDC or by OCD, I saw that Kevin and I both understood what it means to be truly weak.
Yet almost immediately in the midst of this recognition, I was moved to something else I’ve come to know: that it’s precisely in these places where my own power and self-sufficiency wear out that God meets me. And as I remembered this, I thought Kevin could meet God in the same way.
So I asked if he would like to pray, and he said yes. I didn’t plan what I spoke. All I could speak of was what I knew to be true in my own heart: that there is a gift of grace that transforms even the deepest despair and fear into life and hope. I prayed that Kevin would experience this in his own way.
As I prayed, I could feel this power with us – palpable, real, and liberating. I sensed light breaking through darkness and the birth of confidence born of faith in something larger than ourselves. I ended, and we both sat in the echo of a message I believe we both understood. It was us two with God, being reminded of this hope we can truly claim and hold on to.
The last time I was in a hurricane, I was four years old and remember a few things. We hid in a closet with the glow of a flashlight while wind howled outside. The next day I still remember seeing palm trees that had blown over and knew that it was a miracle, even though I didn’t know that word, that our house wasn’t hit.
My experience of Hurricane Harvey, was not boring in the least, despite being stuck in my house for nearly five full days. At first, there was the excitement that school had been cancelled and we were getting a long weekend. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed storms when in the safety of a home. Once the initial excitement passed and I had a day to catch up on work, I realized that this was going to be a lot longer, and more boring, than expected. But then… Jesuit community! We rode out the storm while playing board games, cooking, and eating together. We were comfortable and happy, but certainly aware that a dangerous amount of water was coming down.
A couple days in, news started turning from what might happen, to what actually was happening. We lounged around a television, watching the water rising around Houston. It began pouring into people’s homes and the mood shifted from conviviality to seriousness, then gravity, then shock.
I vividly recall watching a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explain that they were going to be releasing water from the dams to prevent them from breaking. The amount of water in the reservoir was pushing it beyond the Corp’s capacity to keep it under control. It was surreal to think that our city had to systematically flood more homes to prevent unknown, but likely much worse, damage. An ethical analysis would be incredibly complex, but the bottom line is that everyone seemed to understand the necessity. The Army Corps of Engineers has not been excoriated for making that difficult decision.
Five days after it began, Hurricane Harvey moved north, leaving a sopping wet community in its wake. We’ve spent all the time since then trying to assess the extent of the damage and letting the realization sink in of how much time recovery will take. It has been terrible, wonderful and in my better moments, awe-inspiring to see the aftermath. The destruction is terrible; the goodwill and energy among volunteers is wonderful; both of them are awe-inspiring.
The rivers have run through our city and carried with them our security. No one could have predicted who was going to be hit and how badly. There’s fear in that recognition, yet the response by people has overwhelmingly been one of optimism and energy as resources are mobilized. People are working industriously and with hope already. Even people who are in need of aid are making efforts to give back at the same time. As one lady said to me on a visit, “This is just another storm. Storms come and go. New life comes after every storm. We are going to come back stronger.”
It’s going to take a lot of hard work to get there and a lot of help from each other. From what I’ve seen, there is no reason to doubt she’s right.
To read Marc Fryer, SJ’s account of praying for his hometown of Houston, click here.
Cover image courtesy National Museum of the U.S. Navy, found here.
As a Houstonian, the past few weeks have been a struggle. As a Houstonian living away from home, rather than dealing with flood damage and other chaos, I have struggled with being away from family and friends when they most needed help. As a Jesuit with a vow of obedience, I go where I’m told. Currently, I’m assigned as the assistant pastor in Albuquerque, New Mexico. From nearly 900 miles away, I watched on the news and on social media as the city I love was torn apart. I saw desperate posts from friends and co-workers at Strake Jesuit High School (my alma mater and former employer) who watched as the water rose higher and higher in the streets outside of their homes and eventually came inside. I watched as co-workers from the fire department I worked at prior to my life in the Jesuits struggled to respond to the sheer volume of calls and rescues necessary during such a tragedy. I felt, and was, helpless to do anything about the suffering. For more moments than I would care to count, I even considered that I may have had a mis-fire on my vocation – perhaps I should have been a diocesan priest? At least then I would be able to serve God in the midst of the people I know and love in my hometown while they cope with tragedy.
On the Wednesday before the storm hit, I celebrated Mass for the parochial school at our parish. That morning I asked the students to pray in a special way for all of those in the path of the storm. As we prayed and offered petitions for Texas, I reminded the students that they should keep the soon-to-be-impacted areas in their prayers with their families before meals and prior to falling asleep at night. Later in the day I went over to the school to spend time with the younger students in their classes. One of the first graders raised his hand as I entered the classroom. He said to me, “Father Marc, do you think other people are praying for us like we prayed for the children who are about to get hit by the hurricane this morning at Mass?” My immediate response was, “Well, yes, of course! I’m sure they are.”
As I returned to the church, I stopped for a moment, gripped by the question the young student had asked. Kids have a great way of getting to the point. Catholics spend a lot of time praying FOR things. We pray for the ill, for our families, for support during natural disasters and tragedies. I had sent countless texts and messages to friends on the Gulf Coast, reassuring them of my prayers for them. How often, though, do I stop and think about people praying FOR me? What do those prayers do? What does the knowledge of other’s petitions on my behalf do for me and my relationship with God? It is comforting to know that somewhere out there someone else is praying for me. But is my comfort the point?
Perhaps the point lies in the connections and bonds built among the faithful as we weave this web of prayers. When we’re suffering, we are united with others through their prayers for us. We come together as the faithful, strengthening the Body of Christ, when we offer prayers for others and are the subject of the prayers of others. While our prayers may not directly result in the cessation of flood waters or the rescue of a loved one, they do result directly in the fortification of the bonds we all share as Christian disciples. The Holy Spirit is alive and well, present and accounted for, when we offer and receive prayers. So, as the hashtag on Twitter said, #PrayForHouston, as Florida faces Irma, #PrayForFlorida, and know that somewhere, someone is #PrayingForYou.
To read Juan Ruiz, SJ’s firsthand account of Hurricane Harvey, click here.
Cover image courtesy NOAA Satellites, found here.
By now most readers have heard about Steve Bannon’s disgusting comments on DACA. The bishops’ support for DACA, Bannon argues, can only stem from their crass self-interest:
The bishops have been terrible about this. By the way, you know why? Because unable to really – to come to grips with the problems in the church. They need illegal aliens. They need illegal aliens to fill the churches. That’s – it’s obvious on the face of it. They have an economic interest. They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.
To be fair to Bannon, such self-interest is precisely what drives immigration debates in Washington: both political parties have benefitted from avoiding meaningful solutions to immigration. So it is little wonder Bannon can’t imagine the bishops playing any other kind of game.
But given that Bannon is Catholic, it is sad that the Church has not challenged him to see a vision of something better. And so I actually agree with Bannon: the Church has not “come to grips” with many of its problems, including its poor catechesis of Catholics like Bannon. But speaking out for the dignity of all persons is not one of those problems.
Bannon’s screed shows the difficulty of being Catholic and Republican: the Gospel call to serve the poor isn’t even on his radar. You can argue that Bannon does not represent the GOP, and there’s no confusing him with John McCain or George W. Bush. But his vitriol arises from some of the worst tendencies of the Republican party, especially the new, ascendant parts. That is a problem for Catholics, particularly when we see care for the poor and the marginalized in the crosshairs.
Thank goodness Catholics have another party.
Oh, about that.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior U.S. senator from California, recently questioned a prospective federal judge’s fitness for office. It turns out the nominee, Amy Barrett, is just a little too Catholic for the senator’s taste:
Whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different. And I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.
This is sad coming from Senator Feinstein. I doubt she has any problem with the Gospel call to serve the poor, and she is known for the strength of her own convictions, convictions that she is generally happy to force on others. But the minute a truth comes up that she dislikes, in this case arguments against abortion, then suddenly conviction becomes “dogma” and the truth loses its right to a public voice.
As if working in tandem, Senator Dick Durbin, himself Catholic, asked Barrett directly, “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?” When did the Democrats start requiring religious tests for public office?
Again, you can argue that these senator’s views don’t represent their party. But at its worst, the Democratic party is deeply skeptical of any claims to truth or authority. And that is bad for Catholics who recognize the salvific truth of the authority of Jesus Christ, and indeed want to assert it on behalf of the poor, vulnerable and marginalized, including the unborn.
You can’t make this stuff up. Completely unplanned, two figures as different as Steve Bannon and Dianne Feinstein – a Trump-supporting Breitbart writer and a progressive California hero – inadvertently teamed up to remind Catholics that anti-Catholic bigotry is alive and well in both political parties.
Every day Catholics argue about which party represents better the Gospel. Have that argument if you like, but don’t forget the bigger picture, a point that we desperately need to remember: neither party can be the home of the Catholic voter. You might vote with a party, you might support parts of its plank, you might donate money and time to it: but you are never really home there. It can never be where you belong, where you discover who you are, what you most deeply care about and what you should do with your gifts for the world.
If you want to object that one party is better than the other for Catholics, you are missing the point. Even if one party were better, the fact remains that neither party is a good source of values and teachings for Catholics engaged in politics. If you are going to be selective about the values and policy preferences you hold within the party, you cannot learn that from the party itself. And you won’t bother to anyway if you find yourself more invested in partisan politics than in the Gospel.
But what bothers me the most about Bannon’s and Feinstein’s comments is that I fear that many Catholics are not so different from them. I fear that many of us disregard Church teachings because we fundamentally don’t believe that the Gospel is calling us to fight for the Kingdom. I fear that many of us don’t really think our faith should have a public voice because we fundamentally don’t believe that the truth will set us and others free.
Instead, we preach our own political beliefs. Sure, we invoke the Gospel when it conveniently aligns with what we already believe, when we can use the Gospel as a weapon against our enemies. But what if the Gospel is challenging us, too? Is that what we are running away from?
Today is 9/11, and TJP could have run something about the tragic events of 2001. But 9/11 is actually the perfect time to meditate on this bigotry. 9/11 reminded us, albeit in a most unwelcome way, that life and death are bigger than politics. Yet Bannon and Feinstein are asking us to sacrifice what we hold most dear for political expediency.
We can fall into their trap by joining in the ideological warfare that plagues our society, refusing to recognize the humanity of others. Or we might surrender to our frustrated apathy with politics, vaguely accepting that our private selves will never find meaningfully public expression.
But maybe, on this day when so many lost their lives, we can ask what life is, and what makes it worth living. Rather than be discouraged or embittered by hate and violence, we can remember what we hold dear, and feel gratitude for all the people who give us hope that goodness is still possible in the world. Because it is.
As a “PS,” I invite readers to weigh in on two questions:
How do you maintain hope today?
Do you identify with a political party? If so, how do you maintain spiritual freedom from the beliefs and practices of that party?
Tomorrow our Church celebrates St. Peter Claver (1580-1654), patron saint of, among others things, African-Americans.
But for me, and I suspect for not a few Black Catholics, Mass on September 9th has the same unsettling feel of the first day of Black History Month. At best, the tip of the iceberg of our history will be briefly revisited. At worst, this history will be inaccurately presented.
Researching the life of St. Peter Claver gives me the same feeling. Many sources rightfully laud his tireless efforts among African peoples in Colombia. Called “slave of the slaves,” he did the work that few or none wanted to do. But though Claver did much for the Africans he encountered, he never worked to end the system that held them in bondage nor was he a pioneer for racial justice or equality.
Despite that, Claver’s life is often revisited as a model for addressing our contemporary racial tensions. But trying to mold him (consciously or not) into fitting that narrative is problematic because this is not what Claver’s life and work was about. Though his efforts should not be ignored, we have an obligation to also learn the full story of what happened, who was involved, and what legacies remain. Only in such a spirit of truth can we hope for healing today.
St. Peter Claver’s story in context
African enslavement had existed in South America for over a century before Claver’s arrival. One of the earliest advocates of the institution was Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas had taken part in atrocities committed against Native peoples but would later reverse his position and push for Native rights and freedom. He advocated instead for Black enslavement as a replacement for their labor. Las Casas eventually entered the Dominicans and there wrote that he’d “repented” of the mistake of supporting Black enslavement as well and realized that the enslavement of any group was wrong.
This raises an interesting question: Was enslavement a universally accepted way of life of the era? De las Casas’ conversions, as well as the long history of enslaved resistance and the abolitionist movement, seem to indicate the answer to be no. Still, as las Casas had done, many continued to interpret Just War Theory 1 and the “curse of Ham” 2 is taken from the Biblical story of Noah cursing his son Ham’s descendents with servitude to his other two sons, see Genesis 9:20-27. Though the text didn’t mention skin color, the text was at times used to explain that Ham was a common ancestor of Black Africans and that darker skin was a continual marking by God to indicate that their enslavement was part of, or at least condoned by, Divine Will.] as reasons enough to legitimize African enslavement.
Like many Europeans of his time, Claver functioned within these beliefs. According to a biography, it was thought that Claver felt, for Africans, “that it was better to die a Christian slave in Cartagena [Colombia’s major port] than a native chieftain in the Congo.”3
By Claver’s time, the Spanish Jesuits had taken the lead in evangelizing enslaved Africans in South America. The Africans were in terrible conditions as about 40% died between initial capture and arrival in the Americas. Thus, not only were theirs spiritual needs, but also physical ones. The ministry was intense work. In his efforts, and with the critical help of Black translators, Claver baptized over 300,000 people. He was also noted for his unique compassion and his singular ability among the Europeans to endure work in the deplorable cargo holds of the ships that enslaved people were forced to live in for months. By his death, from his contracting one of the many diseases common among the enslaved people he ministered to, Claver’s dedication had become well known as many flocked to the house where he died.
And for his work, Claver is worthy of a certain degree of veneration and imitation. He was a man who was deeply moved by the conditions endured by Africans, the poorest of the poor. Yet his good intentions were never turned towards ending the cruel system that fueled Black suffering. It would not be until 1839, almost two centuries after Claver’s death, that Pope Gregory XVI would condemn the trade of enslaved Africans.
“Don’t call me a saint [yet]”
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, is often quoted as saying “don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” I think that when she said this, she was sensing the focus wrongfully shifting from the unjust poverty in which she was immersed to herself.
This tends to happen with Claver. It’s tempting to gloss over truths of his life and era to instead move on quickly to something else because we get uneasy talking about racism. It’s another temptation to insinuate that his work excuses the injustices of his era or ours.4 It’s easier to venerate Claver’s work and leave it at that.
Yet promoting his charitable actions while ignoring his (or the larger Church’s) inaction in ending the institution of slavery can condone such silence. By extension, it can encourage a similar silence in us. But silence in the face of systemic evil is the same as consent, no matter how much good we may do. Unfortunately, many popular versions of St. Peter Claver’s life can make it seem that praising good deeds in our saints, our Church, or ourselves is enough for moving forward. It’s not.
Was St. Peter Claver morally right for what he did or didn’t do? The debate continues. But right now perhaps the more pressing issue is how do we face and use his legacy today. Making him into something he wasn’t, or focusing only on one aspect of his life over another, confuses the truth and is troubling enough. But what would be worse is if we allow such narratives to unjustly excuse us from our call to work for justice today. This would not only disrespect the actual good work Claver did but is also a roadblock to much-needed progress and reconciliation.5
At night, when the world was sleeping, I would don an orange mask and take a shortcut to St. Matthew School. I’d quietly slide a heavy metal grate from one of the storm drains and, nunchuks in hand, leap into the darkness. The battle for my school was about to begin again.
When I was in first grade, I thought that I was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle – a crooked-smiled, cowabunga-shouting Michelangelo, to be exact. It’s not that I dreamed of being a Turtle – I was a Turtle who, by day, took the form of Eric Immel. As a Turtle, I felt the real threat of the Foot Clan and the Shredder who sought to destroy the place I loved most. I took the council of Master Splinter, heeding sage words and making them my mantras. I moved in the shadows, three thick green fingers gripping the rough-hewn handle of an ancient ninjitsu weapon. I kept our school safe. And I told everyone as such.
At recess one day, I was regaling my classmates with tales from the previous night’s tangle. Two boys – John and Mike – called out my deception. “You’re definitely NOT a Ninja Turtle,” they said. We argued back and forth for a moment. What about the nunchuks? A cheap, plastic set my mom bought me at Toys-R-Us. My orange mask? A bandana with two janky eye-holes. My three-fingered turtle-hands? Five-fingered, like everyone else I knew.
Until that moment, I thought I had everyone convinced. I had convinced myself. But in an instant, I realized that my whole life was a lie.
I haven’t been to the dentist in three years. And, I don’t really floss. And, on some Saturday mornings, if I don’t have much going on, I’ll drink three cups of coffee, eat breakfast, go to church, and go to the gym before I brush my teeth. At the risk of making myself seem like a failed member of the hygienic community, I should tell you what I see in the mirror.
I see teeth that are white enough and clean enough. I see a bright and ready smile. I see a man who is busy with work and prayer and all the other things Jesuits are busy with. I see someone who thinks, almost daily, that he should make an appointment to go see the dentist. I see someone who disappoints Dr. Martin and Sandy, my childhood dentist and hygienist. I see someone who is afraid to fail people, and who fears being found out for my three-year hiatus. And then, I see someone who has, in his mind, actually gone to the dentist.
When I stop staring at myself in the mirror and the topic of dentists comes up, I gloss over my failure to floss and act like everyone else who visits the dentist every six months.
Almost as soon as these fictions fabricate themselves, they become a sort of truth – a truth that isn’t true at all.
If someone asked me in first grade whether I was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, I would have said yes. If someone asks me tomorrow whether I’d been to the dentist recently, I’d say yes. I’m convinced that I should, so I say I do. But eventually I’d get caught, and the truth would come out.
What else have I convinced myself of? What lies do I continue to tell myself? I’m no ninja, and I’m certainly not on top of taking care of my teeth. Do I simply say that I want to eradicate racism, or do I actually work to eradicate racism? Do I want people to know I stand with DACA recipients, or do I actually stand with DACA recipients?
When I was in first grade, I thought people needed me to be a hero. I wanted to be a hero. And so, I fashioned myself into one, even though my pretending made me something of the opposite. Adults go to the dentist, and so I “go to the dentist,” even though I don’t go to the dentist.
I spend a lot of time guessing at who I think others want me to be – others who I want to impress or attract, who have what I don’t have, who are something I’m not. If I become what I think others want me to be, I’ll be right with the world. An advocate for justice, a writer, a ninja, a committed patient of dentistry.
But then it becomes clear that if these things are not truly who I am, then this effort is nothing more than a subtle and toxic way of telling myself I’m not good enough. If the world doesn’t know I feel that way about myself, I can keep up the lie. As Master Splinter says: “The path that leads to what we truly desire is long and difficult.” The harder way – the right way – is to become who I am called to be – a person who is nothing more than himself.
And, a person who makes a dentist appointment as soon as I finish typing these words.
Come by here, my Lord, come by here.
Come by here, my Lord, come by here.
Come by here, my Lord, come by here.
Oh Lord, come by here.
It is a Sunday afternoon in late September, and the famed Chicago wind is still hot this far west of Lake Michigan. I am pulling up to the school where I teach in my standard-issue Jesuit Toyota Corolla so I can get some grading done before Monday hits me like a pile of bricks.
My parking spot is across the street from Moore Park. It’s a smaller version of the typical West Side park – swings, slides, basketball hoops. Usually on a Sunday afternoon Moore Park is packed, the basketball court a vibrant stage; the energy as amped as the volume. I’m used to that kind of energy. But that’s not the kind I’m seeing today.
People are everywhere, but this energy isn’t fun, it’s frenetic. Police cruisers are pulling in at high speeds, one after the other, lights flashing, sealing off the area. People are running, eyes wide. My thumb hesitates to punch the orange latch on my seatbelt. I have no idea what is going on.
But I need information. So I slide out of the car toward the ice cream truck parked curbside. It’s run by Tee-Tee, she’s posted up in that spot – her spot, next to the basketball courts – every weekend selling hot chips and ice slushes. She sees everything on this block.
As I stride over, I can hear Tee-Tee’s voice high and tight, describing to the clientele how, not five minutes prior, a young man had ridden up on a bicycle, pulled out a pistol, and opened fire into a bunch of kids. I hear tell how a little girl has been shot in the ankle and hauled into one of the ambulances. As we listen, the ambulances are pulling away. We listen to Tee-Tee talk over the sirens. I’m poking at my raspberry-lemonade slush, confounded – Why is a kid shooting up a public park? – when a young lady runs up to Tee-Tee, out of breath. “Baby what’s wrong?” Tee-Tee asks her.
It’s only after that question that I realize that I know this young lady. It is Jamani;1 she’s a senior at my school. Always mellow, always cool, Jamani is the kind of almost-adult that, when she sees me, smiles, and says, “What up Mr. Peters!” But now she is frantic, wide-eyed, and her voice is uncharacteristically clipped. “My little sister is in the park,” she yelps, “I told her to stay in the house! Have you seen my sister?” Jamani knows about the little girl being shot and she’s desperate. I have no idea what to say. We are all looking at Tee-Tee. “I told her!” Jamani screams. “I told her – don’t go out in that park!” She is crying now. But I have brain freeze in my throat, and I think it’s in my heart too.
It’s Tee-Tee who breaks the tension, “Baby, I don’t think your sister was with that lil’ girl who got shot. I saw the whole thing.” Jamani’s eyes are wide as she listens, but she only pauses for another moment before hustling off in search. We are quiet for after she leaves.
“Praise God, no one was killed,” Tee-Tee says.
Come by here, my Lord…
It is Friday afternoon and not even a week has passed since Jamani was crying and Tee-Tee was giving us the scoop in Moore Park. Tomorrow it will be my birthday, and I’m excited because, after parent teacher conferences, I’ve rallied some colleagues to celebrate. And we need it because – as every teacher knows – the pace of the fall is exhausting.
I know I spent the better part of September waking up before 5 a.m., hustling to school, greeting the 1st shift maintenance crew, putting the finishing touches on a lesson plan, running to class, then to meetings, and then to class, and then, and then, and then… Until it’s 11:00pm and I’m standing in my room holding a toothbrush and looking at my severely balding head in the mirror and hearing the voice of a sophomore I teach say: “Mr. Peters, you lookin’ scraggly. Why don’t you just shave yo head?” Because I can barely muster the energy to brush my teeth most nights, Marquan! I hear myself think. Teachers need a Friday night, too, and I’m excited.
But as conferences wrap up a pall descends on the gymnasium. I have no idea what is going on but bodies suddenly seem harried; colleagues are having hushed conversations. Word slowly matriculates, and it is this: one of our busses has been caught in crossfire. The bus had pulled off the expressway to avoid the thick traffic until, less than a mile east of school, a bullet ripped through a front window, grazing the bus driver’s head and exiting through the roof. The students have been evacuated and shuttled to safety. Our bus driver is almost to the hospital. I hear the words, but it does not seem real.
We mill around the buzzing gym for too long until, finally, an email arrives. Please do not to speak to the media, it asks us, please leave the school premises quickly, it says, and please pray for our students and their families. Need it or not, we will not be celebrating tonight.
(Later – at home, watching the national news – I find out that our bus driver has been released from the hospital. His injuries are only minor.)
On Monday morning I decide to scrap my lesson plans for the week, to process the trauma instead. I am perched on the edge of a desk, my roman collar stretched tight across my neck, when a student says, “You telling us that we shouldn’t live our lives in fear, but I’m afraid.” Her eyes flick between her desk and my face. “That coulda been our bus!” she says, “that bullet coulda hit one of those kids or killed that bus driver.” “Yes,” I say quietly, “It could have.”
Six months later – months filled with counseling, prayer services; forums with local law enforcement to help our students and ourselves process the shooting – I am talking with a colleague. She still gets sick to her stomach, she tells me, when she remembers calling our students’ loved ones to tell them about the shooting. “I was on the phone for four hours,” she says. Four hours, I think. Four hours of inducing shock and then disbelief, distress and then anger, details and then dismay – with maybe little comfort thrown in besides. No wonder you still get sick to your stomach.
Like Tee-Tee said: Praise God no one else was injured on that bus.
Come by here, my Lord, come by here…
It is mid-May, and the light at the end of the school year tunnel is at last shimmering down the hallways. I am sitting at my workspace, in the Ministry Office, in front of my all-too-familiar laptop, when an email arrives. Yesterday evening, it informs me, one of our juniors was playing basketball in the park near his house when gunshots rang out. Antwan was shot through the leg. Crossfire again. I sit at my desk, my hands on the keyboard, and read.
“Thankfully it didn’t hit any bone or ligament,” it says, “No one else was injured. Antwan has been treated and released. He will be on crutches when he returns to school later this week.” The email is succinct, helpful, and mundane. I am profoundly sad at its tone.
I have known Antwan for three years, since he walked through our school doors as a bright-eyed, smiley, uncharacteristically-polite freshman. I taught him as a sophomore and witnessed his attitude shift to something more… aloof. As I sit at my desk in the Ministry Office I remember him – remember how once, when I gave the class an assignment, he smacked his teeth and put his head down. When I asked him if everything was all right he raised his head just enough to non-angrily mutter, “I just don’t care about school anymore, Mr. Peters. That’s all, I just don’t care.” He sounded equal parts jaded and sorrowful.
Which is exactly how I feel, sitting at my desk, when I think about how Antwan was in the wrong place, at the wrong time. When I think about how all these shootings are becoming routine here on the West Side of Chicago. When I think about how we talk about them like we’re sending emails. Jaded and sorrowful, succinct and mundane – about the bullet ripping through a young man’s calf muscle.
Like Tee-Tee said: Praise God that neither Antwan nor one of his friends were killed that night.
Come by here, my Lord, come by here,
Oh Lord, come by here!
Fr. Joseph Brown, SJ is one of my mentors. He is the kind of man who can weave Kendrick Lamar into the fabric of a classic Negro Spiritual. The kind of man who can make the moniker “Child of God” sound like a warning. Aside from being a professor of Africana Studies, Fr. Brown writes a blog called The Sankofa Muse. The word Sankofa is derived from a Ghanaian word meaning “to go back and get it.” This, as Fr. Brown has taught me, means that we must know where we come from in order to know where we are going.
In the spirit of Sankofa, he teaches his students – he has taught me – about origins, history, roots; about the “Gullah” people from the coastal islands off of South Carolina. He teaches his students about the Gullah because they need to know. He taught me about them because I need to know. I am teaching you about the Gullah for that same reason, because you need to know.
As Fr. Brown tells it, the Gullah are called the Gullah because that’s how the word “Angola” sounds when it’s spoken with a heavy African-Creole pidgin. Angolans, as you may know, derive from the Yoruba people in West Africa, which is now part of present day Nigeria. Like so many they were ripped from their native soil, trafficked in slave ships across the Atlantic Ocean and transplanted as property to work the plantations of the American South. Thankfully, in the ships and in the fields, Gullah spirituality was as strong as their accent. And during the long years of their enslavement they sang a song based on the second chapter of the Book of Exodus. This is what that Book says:
A long time passed, during which the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their bondage and cried out, and from their bondage their cry for help went up to God. God heard their moaning and God was mindful of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and God knew…
The Gullah knew that God was mindful of them as well. And they knew it not just in their minds, but in their bodies and in their songs. They knew it in their tears and they knew it as they cried out “Kum-ba-ya, Lord! Kum-ba-ya! Someone’s crying, Lord, Kum-ba-ya! Someone needs you, Lord, Kum-ba-ya! Kum-ba-ya, Lord, Come by here!”
Come by here, Lord. Come by here. Fr. Brown says that he considers this song – a song many of us first learn to sing around campfires when we are kids, and then learn to mock as we get more “mature” – the first great text of Black Liberation Theology. Fr. Brown writes:
Theology is the story of God’s intervention in human history. Black Theology begins with trans-located Africans exploding with the insight that if God could ‘deliver Daniel from the lions’ den,’ then why not every man? Finding the initial biblical cry of oppressed slaves and knowing that the groaning of the lately oppressed and abandoned would be heard, the spirit-possessed singing believers – with the sound of their voices – became the Israelites anew. The Exodus story describes the action. The song, Kumbaya, becomes the action. The song is the prayer itself. It possesses the power to make the desire a reality.
It’s ironic that a song of such power has been so badly misappropriated. Knowing this, being possessed by this knowledge, has had consequences for me, though. And now that you know this, it has consequences for you. I have had to learn how to teach people the true meaning of Kumbaya. And now you must do the same.
Because Kumbaya is not a campy folk song. It is not naïve. Kumbaya is simultaneously a lamentation and a hope, a cry of pain and a plea for emancipation. It is a true prayer.
It is the only prayer I knew how to say for Jamani’s panic, or for the bullet-grazed bus driver. The only prayer I knew how to whisper onto Antwan’s bowed head.
My most authentic prayers have always come from a place of either great need or great love. There is a harmony between these two places, a rhyme between need and love. It is this: whether in need or in love, I am not in control.
Suffering is a disdainfully common part of the human condition. Women bear children, farmers labor in fields, and patients endure chemotherapy. Sometimes in the midst of suffering, humans cry out to God in desperation. When I encounter suffering, I often feel like I’m wading into deep, muddy water. I cannot see or feel love because I’m terrified.
I know that the Gospels say that God is love, but I have learned that God’s being love does not make suffering any less terrifying. Which is not to say that it is irrelevant that God is love – it is to say that it means something different.
It means that, if I surrender control, there is a chance that love can transform suffering into something bearable. This is, in fact, what the word “suffering” etymologically means: “to bear up under.” In this sense, love is the muddy water, but I no longer have to wade. Instead it bears me up. And in the very moment I am swept up, I float. I am not alone. I am never alone.
My brother once heard a priest he knows say that God expresses love through fidelity. And fidelity, the priest said, “means we stay around even when things get difficult, even when we don’t feel noticed or appreciated.” I think that I am at my best – that we are at our best – when we mirror this type of fidelity to others. When we stick around. Fidelity might not always seem sexy, but I believe that it expresses love as purely as it’s possible for a human to do.
The cancer patient who trusts in their doctor witnesses to fidelity. The farmer who cultivates, harvests fidelity. The mother who labors in delivery, gives birth to fidelity. We cannot survive without love. And we cannot love without staying. And we cannot stay unless we are willing to suffer alongside, to stand by one another in that place of need.
It is November, and we are all hoping that the cold fall winds will cool these hot Chicago streets. I am sitting in my office staring anxiously at my to-do list when the door bursts open. Kamyria is balling, and Jazzmyn is shuffling in behind her with a distinctive, “I have no idea what to do” look on her face. Both of these young women have been my students in years past and here they are now, permeating my office with raw emotion and vulnerability.
It’s the tears on Kamyria’s face that force me out of my little world of to-do lists and timelines and remind me to look up, to wonder what is hurting her. I walk over, hand Kamyria a Kleenex, and wait until she can explain. She was in class watching a film on the slave days, she says, and finally the dam broke; she is overwhelmed. Then comes the question for which I will never be ready: “How did the slaves make it, Mr. Peters? Where did they get their strength?”
Sobbing, she continues, “I don’t think I could have made it, Mr. Peters. I don’t think I could have been as strong as they were.” Then she buries her tear-ridden face into my shoulder, and weeps.
I do not know how to answer, not really. It’s only thanks to others – to Tee-Tee, to Fr. Brown – that I know that this Child of God’s question can be answered at all, that it can still be answered by a Gullah song. It’s thanks to my elders that I knew it, but it was thanks to Jazzmyn my student that I remembered it then, as she laid a hand on Kamyria, turned to me and said: “Can we, like, pray or something, Mr. Peters?”
Her question clears the fog that had begun to settle in on me. It is like that rare breath of wind that reaches from the lake all the way to the West Side of Chicago.
So we huddle together. Kamyria and Jazzmyn and me, and Tee-Tee and Antwan and our bus driver, and every single person on the West Side. We huddle together and I pray – to the God of the Gullah, and to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. I call upon the God of Moses who led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, and the God of Harriet Tubman, who followed that old North Star to freedom from the Apartheid South.
I prayed. We prayed. And God knew.
How much is our labor worth? Think about these questions:
- How much money should a barber make for cutting hair? The same basic haircut in Mexico costs half the price it does in the United States.
- How much should a nanny get paid? NPR’s Planet Money reported on a nanny in New York City making a staggering $200,000/year (!!!). Yet salary estimates peg the average nanny wage in NYC at a much more modest $19/hour (or around $40,000/year)- still a lot more than a nanny is making in India, or even Indiana.
- What about a coffee picker? Nicaraguan coffee laborers annually cross the border into Costa Rica, where wages for the exact same work of cultivating coffee can be five times higher.
So how much is our labor worth? It is not so easy to stamp a price on it.
Right now, a debate over the value of labor is raging across the United States as the Fight for $15 movement advocates a raise in the minimum wage to $15/hour.
The Fight for $15 movement has gained traction in the past year. The states of California and New York have passed laws to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour through a series of gradual increases in the upcoming years, along with dozens of other cities and municipalities. The city of Seattle is the furthest along in the journey, as they just bumped wages to $13/hour at the start of 2017 on their way to a $15/hour minimum.
How do we end up with such varied wages for the same work? What is the Fight for $15 movement all about? And what do economists have to say about it?
The barber, nanny, and coffee picker examples highlight the wage differences (often extreme ones) that exist between cities and countries.
Six-figure nanny salaries, cheaper haircuts in Mexico: how the heck does this happen? Prices for locally produced and consumed services, like restaurants, taxis, and barbers, vary based on area income levels. In places where incomes are high (like New York City), average price levels for these types of services are higher. In places where incomes are low (like Mexico), average price levels for these types of services are lower. Thus you find more expensive nannies in New York and cheaper haircuts in Mexico.
A higher paycheck might sound like an inherent advantage, but it can be offset in higher income areas where basic goods are more expensive. A taxi driver in San Francisco will make more money than a taxi driver in Santiago, Chile, but the prices for renting an apartment and riding the local bus will be much higher in San Francisco than Santiago. So a worker might make more, but also has to spend more for basic necessities.
The objective of the Fight for $15 movement is a raise in the minimum wage, but the motives are deeper. They are fighting for minimum wage earners to be able to support themselves and their families with their labor. Too many workers across the U.S. work full-time jobs, and still can’t afford to cover their daily expenses of housing, transportation, food, health care, and education for their children. Many people resort to working multiple full-time and part-time jobs in an attempt to make ends meet. Despite their efforts, they can still come up short.
Remember that the United States is a high income country, so its average prices are high. It costs a lot to afford a place to live, to get around town, to eat healthy, to see a doctor, and get a good education. These necessities are expensive.
The Fight for $15 movement and its supporters want workers to be able to earn a living wage: sufficient payment for their full-time labor so that they can live a healthy life and care for those dependent on them. Given the cost of living in the United States, the current federal minimum wage at $7.25/hour fails to meet even the lowest estimates for a living wage in the cheapest parts of the countries. Thus minimum wage earners are stuck in poverty, even as they log full-time hours at their job. This is unjust and unacceptable.
What are the effects of a minimum wage increase? Economic models propose that in a perfect market, wage floors like the minimum wage are counterproductive and lead to lesser demand for labor by employers, which is called the employment effect. In other words, those who work might get paid more with a higher minimum wage, but fewer people are able to get jobs because fewer employers are inclined to hire someone at that wage.
A problem with these economic models is that they assume a perfect market, and the real world market is anything but perfect.
There are other potential economic pitfalls as well. An employer trying to grow a profit has the incentive to look for cheaper labor. Thus factories leave the U.S. and move abroad, which has been happening for decades. A higher minimum wage could further decrease opportunities for manufacturing workers within the US. Fast food restaurants and beauty salons cannot outsource their services, but other industries can, and they would be further incentivized to do so if the costs of labor are higher.1
Who will pay for higher minimum wages anyway? The assumption is that profitable corporations can afford to pay their workers more money instead of passing on all the profits and benefits to owners or shareholders. These companies can still turn a generous profit if their payroll expenses are higher. Of course, corporations might not want to see their profits decrease at all. They could respond by raising prices, thus deferring the cost of higher wages to the consumer. Workers might start making more money, but if prices start rising as well, the cost of living will rise. Will the higher wage be enough to cover these rising costs?
Enough about theory: how do things turn out in the real world? All eyes have been trained on Seattle this year as its minimum wage rose to $13/hour on its way to $15. It has become a real world test model for economic theory. Politicians and economists across the country are following closely. What will happen as minimum wages rise?
An early report was published this summer as a working paper produced by economists at the University of Washington. These are preliminary findings and have not been subject to a peer review. The report suggests that the initial increase in the minimum wage from $9.47 to $11 had negligible effects, but the more recent increase from $11 to $13 led to overall employment losses. In short, the report makes the case that the recent increase has been counterproductive for workers. It could be that the increase to $13/hour has taken the minimum wage too high or risen too quickly.
In contrast, a separate report from the University of California, Berkeley looked at just the Seattle food services industry. The results of this study found that wages increased in this sector and that employment was not affected, which suggests that the minimum wage increase had a favorable impact for workers.
Supporters of the increase have jumped on the latter report that supports their cause, and those opposed to the raise are citing the first report. Suffice it to say that at this point, the jury is still out as these theoretical economic problems get tested in the real world arenas of cities and states across the country.
How much is our labor worth?
At the heart of this question is the dignity of work and the dignity of the worker. In the words of Pope Francis, “Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. Work, to use an image, ‘anoints’ us with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works, who always acts; it gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation.” This should be at the heart of the debate over the minimum wage.
Fundamental to the dignity of work is a living wage that can provide for the livelihood of a person and their family. Full-time work that does not cover basic material necessities degrades and exploits the worker. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice” (No. 2434). Although they have not published a position on the Fight for $15, the USCCB has long supported increases in the federal minimum wage to “ensure that no full time worker and their family lived in poverty.”
It remains unclear whether raising the minimum wage to $15/hour will be able to overcome the theoretical economic problems it faces. Nonetheless, as we engage this issue and evaluate results, we need to avoid the temptation to make it purely about numbers and economic theory. Let’s keep our mind on the worker and the just wage that he or she deserves. This is the minimum that we can do.
Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user M.o.B 68, found here.
What would you do if you could write a name in a notebook and that person would die? Is it justifiable? If so, when and towards who?
These questions are central to last week’s new Netflix adaptation of Death Note, an acclaimed anime series from 20061. The film follows Light Taylor, a high school student who finds a notebook with the power to kill anybody whose name is written in it. After a little coaxing from Ryuk, the mysterious death god who guards the notebook, Light agrees to test it by writing the name of a school bully. There is a clear personal motivation here as previously, he stood up to that very bully but wound up in trouble while the bully got away.
Soon, Light and his girlfriend Mia decide to use the notebook by writing the names of those who do evil and are not punished for their crimes. These people will suffer judgment of “Kira,” the alias Light uses to mask his true identity.
The gruesome deaths of major criminals, including terrorists, make sense for Light. If you eliminate the bad people and give other people incentive for not being bad, then you eliminate crime and make the world a better place. It’s a twisted sort of logic that makes sense in the mind of a high-school boy.
L, a brilliant and eccentric detective, deduces Kira’s location and begins his attempt to track him down and bring him to justice. Announcing his presence through a press-conference, he dares Kira to find and kill him, issuing a challenge to his pride. What follows is a series of actions taken by both sides to try and trip the other up. The conflict cannot end until one of them is brought to the other’s idea of justice.
While the adaptation can feel a bit too action-heavy and gory, the final scenes capture Light’s brilliant thinking. He masterfully uses the notebook to manipulate others and achieve his ends, reclaiming control of a situation which appeared hopelessly out of hand. The film leaves the viewer questioning the consequences of his actions, ending without a true resolution.
Certainly, this adaptation was made to bring the cultural phenomenon of Death Note to a wider and broader audience. (How well it succeeded is debatable). In doing so, it attempts to grapple with the same central question of what real justice is, but it is sloppier in its execution.The film does not have time to flesh out its characters’ conceptions of justice and often focuses more on gore or romance instead of the central philosophical and psychological conflict of the original.
And the question still remains: who is right?
Is it justice to eliminate criminals and rid the world of evildoers by killing them? Light certainly achieves results, but at what cost? The film does not linger on the effects of using the Death Note on him as a person. By eliminating criminals and attempting to rid the world of evil, he becomes corrupted himself. While he was always cynical, Light is clearly a less virtuous person at the film’s end, choosing to protect his vision of goodness at any cost.
Is it justice to follow the law alone? Light’s father seems to follow this route, even putting his life on the line in the pursuit of bringing Kira to justice. But the criminal justice system has let people down before. Light’s mother was killed and the justice of the courts let the man who killed her off without any punishment.
Is it justice to catch an evildoer no matter what? L’s justice is more of a game at some level but it is difficult to deny that there is something compelling about his justice. For him, there is nothing more important than solving this case and thus bringing Kira to justice. It is a single-minded pursuit of a goal. However, would his justice include killing someone who took the life of someone close to him, if he thought he could get away with it?
The ambiguous ending of the film leaves the viewer to decide what is right. Or, perhaps, none of the models of justice presented here truly are justice.
As a society, we are often tempted to believe in Light’s version of justice. There certainly is a great deal of evil present in the world; however, if people refrain from doing evil for the sake of fear of retribution, then nothing has really changed. That is a far greater tragedy. Real justice can only come about when people’s hearts change.
There is no easy solution to justice. It is never as black-and-white as either L or Light seem to think it is. And perhaps this is what is most important about this new Death Note film: it prompts us away from easy selfish solutions and towards asking difficult questions about how we ought to live and treat one another. This justice is grey, amorphous, and very difficult to define, let alone live out. But that difficulty makes it all the more valuable.
The cover image is featured courtesy of WishCarole of the Flickr Creative Commons.
Let’s try a contemplation. I want you to imagine one of your favorite outdoor adventures. I’ll give you a second…okay, got it? Now where was it? Who was with you? What beauty most stood out to you? What made that place special, important, and worth remembering? What causes you to remember it so vividly?
Do you care if that place is protected?
Herein lies the best way to protect our federal lands: to fall in love. So let’s think about this as as love story.
Our public spaces are truly a gift, a reminder of incredible creation and the vault of our public history. They shape and form us, but we only know their real value when we have deeply experienced them. Speaking of St. Francis of Assisi in the encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis eloquently writes, “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.”
Pope Francis clearly calls for greater love of creation. But how do we protect that creation? Let’s address the three greatest threats to our national parks, as outlined in Part II of this series: direct human impact, indirect human impact, and neglect. Except this time, we’ll work backwards.
What is the start of every love story? You have to meet each other.
Public lands are my high school sweetheart: I first encountered them as an adolescent hiking through the forests on family vacations. There are many people who meet and fall in love with our public lands at a young age, but this is not the case for everyone. Indeed, there are huge discrepancies in who accesses public lands.
Communities of color enjoy federal public lands at a far lower rate than white people. In 2014, just 22% of national park visitors were people of color, despite composing about 37% of the total population. Over a quarter of Black and Latino visitors saw national parks as unsafe or unwelcoming.
Several organizations have emerged to rectify these discrepancies. Groups like Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors have grown to help Black and Latino communities connect with nature. The National Park Service has even created a branch to increase diversity and inclusion. Other programs are seeking to rectify the lack of rangers of color. Hopefully these efforts will further expand the love that diverse communities feel for public spaces, facilitating a sense of ownership, responsibility, and desire to protect them.
A vast number of federal lands celebrate the histories of indigenous nations and communities. Yet tragically, fewer than 2% of park visitors are American Indian, and 61% of American Indian visitors say they don’t know enough about sites to visit. This is land that the US government forcefully stole from indigenous peoples by genocide, deception, and outright lies. It is true that federal lands began protecting the history of indigenous culture starting in 1906, but only after removing the people who lived those cultures. And until recently, American Indian nations were still excluded from federal land management.
In the last few years, there have been greater efforts to include Native Americans in the management of natural resources. A 2016 rule from the Department of Interior opens the door for federally-recognized tribes to voice input on federal lands that are historically, culturally, or geographically significant to tribes. For example, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota works with twenty different tribes protecting a site connected to several creation stories. Efforts are by no means perfect, with lawsuits pending over natural resource extraction in Arizona or pipelines through Nebraska.
For many communities, the opportunity to fall in love has been denied. People in poverty and people of color visit public lands at far lower rates than wealthy and white people. In order to help others fall in love with these lands, it’s absolutely vital to overcome these obstacles and develop the relationships necessary for love.
Where does the love story go from here? Once you meet, a relationship begins. You start talking, maybe going on a few dates. You like the way things are going. What’s the biggest threat to this budding relationship? Dramatic change, like, say, a change in climate…
Climate change presents probably the greatest threat to federal lands, largely due to its myriad of complex and tangled challenges. For example, to fight climate change, we need more and healthier forests, but climate change has directly resulted in an increase in forest fires. How do we break this cycle? After all, the climate, as Pope Francis states in Laudato Si’, “is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” Between being a complex challenge and a common good, it can be incredibly difficult to discern what exactly we should do to address the impact of climate change on our federal lands.
Pope Francis further writes, “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” Put simply, public lands are in danger of becoming part of our throwaway culture. We easily consume and throw away what we do not love. To truly protect federal lands, we must change how we love, appreciate, and enjoy them.
What does this mean practically? We need to combat climate change. But the complex web of connections grows. Should we halt offshore drilling? We should, but it funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Should we get rid of coal mining in Wyoming? We should, but it supports other wildlife programs. Should we cut our emissions? We should, but does that mean we stop visiting far away national parks? There is no simple solution here, which can be incredibly frustrating. Like the climate, our public lands are a common good. Protecting them from climate change will take common action, understanding, and sacrifice.
Over time, our relationship grows and deepens as we spend more and more time together. We fall in love. But we need to continue to care for each other.
How do we directly care for our public lands? We humans leave many traces when we visit public lands. From damaging areas near trails to getting too friendly with the wildlife, we can easily destroy God’s creation. Perhaps the simplest and one of the easiest ways to avoid this is familiarize yourself with Leave No Trace. This program began in 1994 to help people learn best practices for minimizing impact when enjoying nature.
While avoiding degradation is important, we can also take strong steps to improve the areas we visit. Last summer, I spent a week with the Wilderness Volunteers, a group that sponsors trail building and clean-up. During that week, we backpacked, built new bridges, improved erosion control, and took a day off for exploring the backcountry. Groups such as this offer an opportunity to vastly improve visitor experience, protect natural resources, and deepen our own appreciation for these public spaces.
While some of us love playing lumberjack, not everyone enjoys using a draw knife to clear the bark off a 25’-long log. There are opportunities out there for people with a variety of backgrounds and interests. Perhaps you’d rather be a campground host? Give tours and teach about the Guadalupe Mountains? Bike patrol national trails? Support botany efforts in the Grand Canyon? The federal government sponsors each of these volunteer opportunities, as well as thousands more volunteer, internship, and job chances.
In Part II, I noted that one of the worst direct impacts that threatens our public land is encroachment of land development into natural areas. Several programs exist to defend our public lands from this threat, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which works to purchase or protect lands. The Farm Service Agency helps farmers and ranchers combat soil erosion, maintain wetland habitats, and restore forests. These programs face massive budget cuts and environmental protection rollbacks. Where the federal government cannot afford programs, private groups often step in. In 2011, for example, The Conservation Fund helped purchase a 5,000 acre ranch next to Wind Cave National Park and transfer it to the park when funding did become available. Supporting these organizations can further help protect our public lands.
When discussing public lands, it’s important to remember what draws us back there. It’s love. My family likes to tease me for my attachment to Wind Cave National Park after working there for a summer. It’s hard not to love a place after learning its intricate stories, favorite spots of solitude, or incredible scenery.
Those who do not have a strong attachment to a place are not likely to protect it. For many, that relationship may never come to be unless we take action. For those already in love, we need to build opportunities to express that love more fully. Our public lands need us, and we need them.
Let us know what you love about public lands and why you want to protect them. If you’re looking for ways to get involved, check out the following organizations.
- The Student Conservation Association is an organization that helps connect youth to public lands. They arrange programs ranging from trail building to being a guide to fighting invasive species. For folks 15-22 years old, this is a great place to get started.
- Sierra Club is largely an advocacy organization for the outdoors, but they also organize some amazing trips to get you into the outdoors. They’re a good place for learning to fight climate change.
- The Wilderness Society is another advocacy organization that focuses primarily on wilderness, those places in America that are largely untouched by humans. They work with agencies to plan and hold them accountable.
- Wilderness Volunteers is an organization to help adults get out and work on the trails. They have dozens of trips every year for all skill levels to help them give back and maintain public lands.
- American Rivers fights for the protection of our rivers. While we often focus on just the lands, rivers are a rich and vital part of our history that this organization strives to protect.
I would like to add a personal thanks to the many friends, family, and acquaintances who made this piece possible. They offered many beautiful and important stories that I did not have the space to include, but provided a great deal of hope and direction for this series. Reader John W. beautifully captures the spirit of these pieces, stating that “watching how ecosystems worked was like reading the handwriting of God.”
We’re in town this time to practice curbs: if you bump one on the driving skills test, you automatically fail—no bus driver license for you today. Better luck next week.
Easier said than done. Buses are three times longer than the little city cars I’m used to driving, and right hand turns are surprisingly claustrophobic when you’re 40 feet long and have to cross into oncoming lanes just to clear that curb with your back tires.
So we’re “in town” again, driving the only square, curbed block in Pine Ridge, South Dakota—the most populous, 3,308-person community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakȟóta oyáte. The city block that we repeat again and again includes the inimitable Big Bat’s restaurant/gas station, Sacred Heart parish, the town Subway, Pine Ridge’s tribal offices, fire station, courthouse, and one of the two traffic lights in the county.
Make no mistake: it’s midday in the middle of summer. Roads and sidewalks are filled with cars and people. And here we are, trying to weave this enormous yellow bus through dust and traffic.
On the way home, we practice studentless student pick-ups and studentless student drop-offs, railroad crossings at imaginary tracks, and emergency-less emergency highway stops. With each stop, the bus flashes absurdly with hazard lights or amber warnings lights followed by red warning lights. With each stop, my STOP arm halts traffic, my doors fling open and closed, my engine echoes in the quiet summer afternoons. Kids come to windows wide-eyed, horrified at (what seems to be) the doom of school’s somehow expedited arrival; parents come to the windows perplexed:
“No, no, we’re just – I’m sorry – no, no—” I mumble pathetically and inaudibly into my dashboard, quick-yanking the handle to shut the door and end the charade, “—we’re just practicing!”
But I feel more than awkward. I feel completely out-of-place. I feel like an intruder. I feel my whiteness as noticeably as the bright yellow bus. I imagine that everyone who sees me is thinking, what is he doing here?
“Practicing, we’re just practicing!”
Making the same circuit two years later, all these memories come back to me in vivid detail, popping up alongside the road as I hang over the grey rubbery front seat, coaching another right turn.
I’m no longer the driver trainee, the CDL hopeful. I am now a bonafide, de facto, no mistaking-it “bus driver.” In these last two years working at Red Cloud Indian School, I’ve easily tallied five-thousand plus miles of before-school, after-school, sporting and field trip bus driving—and I’m not alone. I’m joined by about twenty other twenty-something college grads (Red Cloud Volunteers), who each pick up a route or two alongside their volunteer day job as educators. I’m “training” one of the new ones today, and I can see on her face that she’s feeling all the same things I felt two years ago.
Today, I see things differently.
Eyes not darting dutifully from passenger mirror to concave to convex to crossover mirrors every 9 seconds, hands not white-knuckling the wheel, feet not tapdancing the brake and gas pedals trying not to Iurch this multi-ton beast—I can look around.
I see two of my former students—one looks up and waves back.
I glimpse a friend working under a truck at the fire station.
I notice the choir director’s car in the parking lot at Sacred Heart parish and try to guess which songs we’ll sing this Sunday.
I wonder about a friend who lives in a house we pass.
Pleasant moments aside, I still feel like an intruder here, as obvious and out-of-place as a blinking yellow bus in mid-summer.
What am I doing here? I imagined every confused face was asking on those practice days two years ago.
What am I doing here? I still sometimes ask myself, painfully aware of the colonial history I represent (and can unwittingly perpetuate) as a white man, a wašíču, a non-Lakȟóta on Lakȟóta land.
What am I doing here? I still ask myself, and often get an answer straight from my students and their parents and my friends here: I am an educator. I am a bus driver. I am learning what I can. I am giving what I can. All imperfectly, but all with as gentle of a heart as I can muster.
It will all make sense again, on Tuesday, when I hop onto the stuffy, number 13 bus at 3 o’clock in the hot sun. Unbuttoning my collar, turning the key and turning on the fans—all in one swoop—my first glance into the overhead passenger mirror catches the eyes of row after row after row of my favorite students. They somehow also happen to be looking at exactly that moment—and smile.
It will all make sense again, when a middle schooler breaks that beautiful moment by clomping up the bus’ steps to my right. When she looks at me, sighs and rolls her eyes, dragging out a “not youuuuu again” before breaking into a huge smile, saying, “Hi, Garrett! You’re back! You remember where I live, right?”
Having a young Jesuit as a teacher naturally piques the interest of high school sophomores. Does it mean you can’t get married? Who do you live with? How long does it take to become a priest?
But the one part of Jesuit life that tends to provoke a strong response is that we go to Mass every day.
“Really?!” they usually ask in disbelief.
In many parts of the world, the response would be “Really?! Where?” or “Really?! Wow, you’re lucky”, because Christians could be killed for going to Mass.
But here the sense of the response was more like “Really?! Why would you do that?”
That’s understandable. Ask anyone who doesn’t regularly go to Mass why they don’t and one of the top answers you will get among youth is because it’s boring (among young adults, that response turns into “I don’t really get anything out of it”).
Who can blame them for that answer? We go to the movies to be entertained. We go to concerts or the opera to enjoy music. We go to sporting events to watch our team beat their/our opponents. As spectators, we expect to sit back and get something out of the performance, or else it’s a waste of our time.
However, seeing the Mass as a performance at which we are merely spectators misses the point. Mass is about how we participate actively in remembering and celebrating our purpose in life: eternal life with God.
Recently, the media picked up on some comments Pope Francis made about the liturgy, fuelling the flames of an apparently ongoing “liturgical war” between two camps. One camp is caricatured as wanting to bring back the form of the Mass celebrated only in Latin, with Gregorian chant, incense, and all the bells (literally) and whistles (figuratively), and with the congregation mostly in silence. The other camp is caricatured as wanting Masses celebrated in every language you can think of, clapping and dancing, a band consisting of guitars and tambourines, where Marty Haugen’s “All Are Welcome” is sung every week.
Some of the most important words in Mass are, “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” Upon hearing these words, we the Church exclaim “Thanks be to God!” not because we’re glad Mass is over, but because having experienced the joy of our destiny of eternal life with God, we can’t help but start living it out. In the words of the Irish Benedictine monk Blessed Columba Marmion, we can’t help but get caught up in the “divine current,” which rushes us towards God, starting from the Eucharist at Mass to encountering our Creator in his creation.
The focus of liturgy is therefore primarily on what God has done for humankind and how he invites us to actively participate in it. Jesus came to serve especially those whom society ignores.3 How do we participate in this ministry of mercy? Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God.4 How do we prophetically proclaim this same Good News that Jesus redeemed all of us, the children of God? Just as we offer up bread and wine to God during Mass with the priest, are we offering up our own lives to God the other 167 hours of the week?
I hope so, because that’s really what being an Ignatian “contemplative in action” means. It doesn’t mean that we have quiet time and busy time; that would just mean we are at times contemplative and at other times at work. Being a contemplative in action means that, while we recognize the importance and necessity of quiet personal prayer, we live out that prayer. Similarly, as Christians, we must live out our communal prayer at Sunday Mass. After all, the Eucharist is a Sacrament, a visible sign of an unseen reality. When we receive Communion, it is a visible sign of the unseen reality that God has chosen us to be with him eternally and we have chosen to respond to his love.
Are there problems with the liturgy that need further discussion? Absolutely.5 But while we wait for the theologians to figure it out, we can begin and continue to participate actively in liturgical life – a life that is a ceaseless giving of ourselves to God in every thought, word, and action of ours. Only then will the “work of the people” as liturgy take root in the deeper meaning arising out of the Second Vatican Council.
Who knows, maybe what we experience just might surprise us enough to make us want to ask Jesus, “Really?”