Back to the Future?

August 31st, 2012

While I would never consider myself one of those people who long to go back to the “good old days”, there are some things about “old time New York” that I definitely am nostalgic about….the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Tree at Rockefeller Center, the Boardwalk at Coney Island…I am so grateful that in the New York of 2012, you can still see all these perennial favorites! Of course, there are some things about the “old time New York” of my childhood I wish would remain just there – back in the past: distant memories that would fade into oblivion over time. One of those things, the sight of fellow human beings – homeless men and women – sleeping on the streets is perhaps the most disturbing of these “bad memories” which I’d like to keep back in the ever thickening fog of what I have the audacity to call my “memory”. Sadly, I cannot …its impossible…. It is tragically something that I witness with my own two eyes – with increasing frequency – every single day.

The Director of our Department of Social and Community Development here at Catholic Charities George Horton – who has worked for over 30 years trying to help the homeless and hungry of this city gain the food, the shelter, the jobs and other things that they need to live a more dignified life – has penned a reflection of those “not so good old days” and the response of two particularly courageous religious women he knew who took homelessness squarely on, and tried to make a difference in the lives of their vulnerable brothers and sisters who lived on the streets. Today I’d like to share it with you:

 

In 1986, when New York City and the nation were struggling to address the crisis of homelessness, when over 25000 men, women and children were living in shelters or on the street, two religious sisters felt a call to come to New York City and help. Sr. Theresa Skehan, a Mercy from Maine, and Sr. Dorothy Galant, a Charity from Massachusetts, met while volunteering at Emmaus House, a transitional residence for homeless men and women in Harlem, and began to discuss a mission to people living in the NYC public shelter system. Last September, the fruit of their efforts, the Life Experience and Faith Sharing Association celebrated  its 25th Anniversary with friends and supporters,  

From the beginning, Sisters Theresa and Dorothy understood that something more than the traditional handout model of service was required. They knew that for their endeavor to succeed, their ministry must embody the transformative power of Jesus Gospel message of love, and Church teaching on the God given life and dignity of every human person. Scripture reflection on the lived experience of homeless people, building of community among them, empowerment for growth and change and the long term support and nurturance, as well as assistance with immediate needs were fundamental to their work. They also knew that the movement and association they created could not be run by them alone and would only be successful if the leadership of their organization came from those who heard god’s word in the shelter and responded by wanting to help others themselves. At the 25th anniversary party, the extension of this invitation was evident.

The LEFSA team is now made up of primarily formerly homeless people who have taken to heart the invitation to “ preach good news to the poor”, who conduct sessions in NYC homeless shelters, provide a street ministry to homeless people in the Port Authority area, and hold monthly Leadership Study Days and men and women’s discussion groups. Since the team members have experienced homelessness themselves, they are a trusted resource for people living on the streets or in shelters, and able guides for the direction of their Association. While continuing to experience the daunting challenges of every day life, including recovery from addiction, family and health stresses, and living on low income, they are a source of inspiration to people whose experience they share. In addition to this wider community of homeless and formerly homeless people, who accompany them, the LEFSA team has enlisted a circle of individual, religious congregation and agency volunteer and financial support, including Catholic Charities. Further impact on the wider society has followed from social justice advocacy undertaken by the Team.

The creation of this Team, its wider community of homeless people and network of support, and the challenge of recognizing human dignity in everyone, are a sign of hope in difficult times and places. Sisters Dorothy and Theresa, strong and powerful religious women, challenged their own religious congregations, challenged public authorities to make room for their work and challenged the Church and the larger society to not only its responsibility to care for “ the least of these” but also that their voices be heard. Other religious women made the same commitment, among them Sr. Florence Speth and Sr. Barbara Lenniger, who developed transitional housing for homeless women, Sr. Ann Murray who worked at Catholic Charities, directed our Office for the Homeless and Hungry and help found an education program for homeless people, and Sr. Nancy Chiarello who founded the Dwelling Place.

Recently there has been an increase in the numbers of homeless people on the streets, in the shelters and coming to Catholic Charities food programs. The doldrums of the economy and the lessening resources of government are having an impact. However, unlike the crisis of the 80’s and 90’s, the upsurge in poverty and homelessness appears to be occurring in a much more hardhearted and less generous climate. Who will now answer the call to help as Dorothy, Theresa and other religious women have done?

 

Tearing Down the Wall

July 28th, 2012

One of the things that I love best about New York in the summer is the many wonderful outdoor activities that the city provides. It might come as a surprise to folks – who might not equate the “concrete metropolis” with “outdoorsy” stuff – but depending on the weather, the city can indeed offer a respite to folks tired of the long, hot, dog days of summer. Whether it’s a stroll down the cool shady path of Literary Walk in Central Park, or taking in a bright orange and crimson sunset along the Hudson – the outdoor venues of the city offer a little something to suit everyone’s tastes. A particular favorite of mine is taking in the free movies shown at various sites throughout the city under the starry night sky. Whether its in the beautiful park behind the New York Public Library in midtown, or shown against a giant screen set up along the Hudson with the Palisades as a backdrop, I’ve seen several over the years: “Airplane” (still as funny as when I first saw it), “Star Wars” (quite a site on the big screen), but I think my favorite was watching Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “The Birds” last year at one of the parks along the river on the Upper West Side. The movie, of course, was as good as I had ever remembered – but let me tell you, the fear factor was ramped up exponentially by viewing it with no cover overhead…..many of us spent as much time warily eying the pigeons who sat on the fence surrounding the park awaiting eating leftover popcorn (or us!!!) as we did watching the movie on the big screen!

 

A couple of weeks ago – through the great generosity of good friend  – I had the opportunity to attend another great New York summertime activity – a rock concert in an outdoor venue. Even better – this one was held in a place that I have been dying to go to for a long time, but haven’t yet had the opportunity (or the cash on hand) to go: Yankee Stadium – the new one… if perhaps no longer literally the “House that Ruth Built”, the new “House that Jeter Sustains” is certainly impressive!  The concert was one given by former Pink Floyd founder and front man Roger Waters who performed his opus, the rock opera: “The Wall”, which originally debuted in 1979.The Wall” itself centers on the life of a character named “Pink” – who Waters molded after himself and a former band mate in “Pink Floyd” named Syd Barrett – who suffers a series of losses in childhood and early adulthood (death of a father in combat in World War II, ridicule at school, an overbearing overprotective mother, and dissolution of his marriage) that causes him to methodically, over time, build up a metaphorical “wall” – which includes drug and alcohol abuse – to keep the world out and protect his vulnerable inner self from the vicissitudes of modern life, until finally, in the end, his “Wall” is torn down and Pink is exposed for who he really is to the outside world.

 

The concert at Yankee Stadium itself was incredible – perhaps one of the best I have ever seen. Over the years since 1979, the world has changed much – and Mr. Water’s metaphor of “The Wall” has proven a durable image for projecting not only the personal loneliness and isolation experienced by many people today, but also for the many political upheavals that have rocked our world both here and abroad since before Ronald Reagan became President; and Waters – in putting on this most recent production of his opus – uses the metaphor of “The Wall” quite effectively during his stadium show. As the musical performance continues over two plus hours, brick by brick an immense white wall (similar to the 1979 album cover of my memory) was built across the expanse of the outfield of the entire stadium reaching up a height of about 40 feet. Waters then used the white expanse as a massive video screen to project stark images of people: those killed in wars, terrorism and acts of state violence as well as those suffering from extreme poverty. He also uses “The Wall” as a kind of enormous billboard to flash saying of famous writers and statesmen – like George Orwell and Dwight Eisenhower – who were suspicious of unchecked government power, as well as pithy quotations critical of predatory capitalism, ceaseless war and dire poverty. At the close of the show – as the crowd shouts out “tear down the Wall” – the massive white expanse seems to turn blood red and crumble from within from the top down – the video element showing collapsing bricks and pyrotechnic explosions – all to an incredible effect!

 

As I took in the concert, I must admit that I found myself to be very moved – while I have always enjoyed the music of Pink Floyd, and the songs of “The Wall” were familiar to me – I had never before taken in the album in its entirety – and certainly not this way! Water’s addition of adding the images of the contemporary victims of political violence, terrorism, and poverty to his the album’s main themes of personal isolation and abandonment was compelling to me; and I thought his message resonated well with both the music and the audience. This of course was not the first time that “The Wall” was staged in a political context. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, on July 21, 1990, Waters performed his rock opus in the vacant terrain between the Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to a crowd of almost a half million people – one of the largest and most elaborate rock concerts in history. Waters undoubtedly used much that he learned putting on that performance in the current show – and all to great effect.

 

Another element that I enjoyed were the “messages” that were projected onto the wall during the concert: some were funny – and some unprintable on this blog – but one in particular stood out to me and stayed with me throughout the concert and well beyond; it was a simple statement really – only three words, but powerful. In broad graffiti strokes – across the expanse of the wall – was projected these words: FEAR BUILDS WALLS!

 

As I sat after the concert and pondered these words, I reflected on what they meant to me – personally and professionally, as well as for my life as a Christian and Catholic. Now its funny that this concert, put on by a man who I believe is an avowed atheist, would get me thinking of subjects like this – but I am a firm believer that God writes strait on crooked lines. I thought of those words, pondered them and came to realize how true they really are…fear indeed does build walls: in our personal lives as well as our collective lives together. Walls separate us one from another – perhaps protecting, but also isolating us – and even as our world becomes more and more connected through technology and economy – the walls in our lives seem to be growing ever higher.

 

As I further contemplated this, my thoughts turned to someone who knew a little something about living behind walls – or if not walls, certainly “curtains”: the iron kind. Blessed John Paul II knew from his experiences the tremendous cost that isolation behind walls imposed on people; that’s why I think it is so compelling that upon his election to the Papacy, the first public words he uttered to an anxious world was Be not afraid!Three small words – just like “fear builds walls”…but much more powerful! If fear indeed does build walls, it seems to me that Blessed John Paul II was telling the world that he would be about the business of tearing walls down…and that’s exactly what he did. And I think those words still have a message here for us today – I think that is exactly what we should be about as well. As Catholics, we should be “tearing down the walls”: of isolation to be a friend to the lonely, of alienation to be support for the hurting, of poverty to be a help to those who lack resources, of misunderstanding to bring war and terrorism to an end, of violence to protect those who are vulnerable, of a perfectionism that leaves no room in our society for those on the margins of life.

 

We better get busy now, because I’m pretty sure in the Kingdom come there will be no walls….

 

 

On the Move in Places Expected and Unexpected…

April 7th, 2012

A close colleague of mine here at Catholic Charities and I were recently having a conversation about the movies – and in particular the increasingly realistic depiction of violence in film. As it turns out, she and her mother had recently been off to see the picture “War Horse”, and – it being a Disney release – she was astonished at the very graphic depiction of the horrors of the warfare in the First World War – so accurate was the physical violence that she said she spent most of the second third of the movie covering her eyes. I had told her that I had felt a similar reaction when watching both the depiction of the Allied beach landing in the film “Saving Private Ryan”, as well as the brutal assault on the Vietnamese villagers in the Vietnam war era drama “Platoon”; the emotions both films stirred in me were visceral – so close did the scenes appear to mirror the actual horrors of real war and violence that the victims of conflict experience in real life. While my colleague was very upset about the graphic depictions of violence in film today – wishing instead to return to the depictions of wartime in the old Hollywood movies where the characters who were shot merely fell down on the spot in a bloodless demise – I have to admit that I am somewhat torn on this point. That today’s Hollywood glorifies gratuitous violence in a frankly pornographic way is without question; however – to the degree that the violence that is depicted in film accurately portrays what those who are the victims of that violence actually experience – I think that it may be important to portray these atrocities in and honest and even perhaps graphic way in order to bear witness to what our fellow human beings have experienced, in the hope that the cry of “never again…War no more…” may one day be realized.

 

In the similar way, upon it’s release Mel Gibson’s depiction of the events of the Easter Triduum – “The Passion of the Christ” – was met with a clamor of criticism for, amongst other things, what was an unusually graphic depiction of the violence that Jesus Himself experience at the hand of the Roman authorities on Good Friday on the way to Golgotha and at His crucifixion. I went to go see this movie when it came out, and I have to tell you that – though again I did have a very visceral reaction to the violence committed upon Jesus’ person in the film – I believe Gibson’s portrayal was probably pretty accurate to the brutality that Jesus actually experience on that first Good Friday. I mean, let’s face it, the Roman Empire – the world’s economic, political and military giant of the time – ruled most of what was the known globe not because they were the world’s most efficient administrators, although efficient administrators they certainly were, but instead because they were brutal enforcers of their own Imperial prerogative. Crucifixion – after all – was the method of capital punishment that the Romans used to terrorize the local occupied population into docility and as a warning to discourage non-cooperation with Roman rule, as such its victims experienced a death that was particularly slow, painful, gruesome, humiliating and public. Many depictions of the Crucifixion of Jesus sanitize the horror of what He actually must have experienced: what Gibson’s film did was strip away decorum from the event to make us honestly confront the pain and anguish that the Prince of Peace actually experienced. In this sense, I think that Gibson – a talented film-maker despite his bizarre and disturbing personal behavior – should be commended for producing a film that makes we Christians confront the true cost of the price that Jesus paid out of love for us that first Good Friday.

 

I think that Gibson’s portrayal of Christ “gets it right” in another way too  – one that is often overlooked because of the graphic nature of the content of most of the film. The part of the movie that I like most is literally the last two minutes of the film : the part that begins with a black screen depicting the interior of the tomb where the disciples of Jesus have laid his lifeless body after the Crucifixion. Slowly, a bright light begins to creep from the lower right to the upper left hand corner of the screen casting it’s glow over the bare walls of the enclosure until it comes to illuminate a body-length pile of linen laying flat on a rough hewn stone platform; the camera then pans out and focuses on Jesus, who now sits upright next to the linen on the edge of the platform – eyes closed. As the music crescendos, Jesus opens his eyes and stands, the camera then focusing on the nail hole piercing his palm; Jesus is still for a moment, steadies Himself, and then takes his first step (click here to view clip). The step that is depicted is not a hesitant meander as we might take when waking up from a deep sleep upon first getting up out of bed, but instead is a hearty stride: Jesus move quickly out of the camera’s vision, up out of the tomb serious and purposefully – He is Risen, and clearly on the move.

 

I like Gibson’s portrayal so much because it depicts Jesus upon His Resurrection not as some friendly ethereal spirit making brief appearances to the disciples almost as an actor in a movie would make a cameo, but instead as a real corporeal person – on the move with places to go and people to see…. obviously a man with a mission. And honestly, with the kind of purposeful life that Jesus had lived on Earth, what other type of behavior would we expect of Him upon His Resurrection? After all, this was a Man who during His Earthly ministry continually helped the blind to see, deaf to hear, the lame to walk, cured the sick, fed the multitude, placed his own body between the crowd and the woman caught in adultery to prevent them from stoning her. All throughout His ministry, Jesus lived the life of an itinerant – always on the go to places He was expected, and even to places where he was not expected – preaching the Good News to the poor, liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. With a life dedicated so utterly to helping others wherever and whenever he encountered them, why would we expect Jesus to behave any differently after His Resurrection?

 

Yesterday morning, I took part in what for me has become part of my annual Good Friday observance – with about 500 or so others I participated in the 30th Annual Pax Christi Metro New York Good Friday Way of the Cross. Similar in many ways to other “Ways of the Cross” or “Via Crucis” that take place all over the United States every year (click here to view list) – themselves all based upon the centuries old tradition in the Church that recalls journey that Jesus took from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate to the place of His Crucifixion on Golgotha in Jerusalem known as the Via Dolorosa – the Pax Christi Way of the Cross begins at 8:30 a.m. across from Holy Family Church (the United Nation’s Parish) in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza and proceeds over the course of about four hours along 42nd Street to conclude at Holy Cross Church directly across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal; along the way, participants take part in re-enacting contemporary Stations of the Cross where there is reflection on both Jesus’ Passion as described in the Scripture, as well as how suffering is experienced by those marginalized in our world today including: children, the poor, the hungry, refugees and immigrants, victims of racism and human trafficking, of bullying and gender discrimination, those condemned to die and those denied the opportunity to live. The Pax Christi Stations end a bit differently then the traditional 14 Stations (which end with Jesus laid in the tomb); instead, the Pax Christi Stations conclude Scripturally on a hopeful note with a 15th Station in anticipation of Jesus’ Resurrection, and the actual Way of the Cross concludes over at the Port Authority Bus Terminal with walk participants actually doing what Jesus Himself would have done by distributing food to those who are hungry.

 

It is elements such as these that have always made the Pax Christi Good Friday Way of the Cross such a spiritually meaningful Good Friday observance for me. I think that the linking together of contemporary suffering with the redemptive suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ shows those who pass by and witness the Walk that what we Christians do on Good Friday is not commemorate some historical event that took place going on over 2,000 years ago, but instead is to celebrate an on-going reality that has as much redemptive power and relevance in our own world today as on that first Good Friday in Jerusalem in A.D. 29. By publicly witnessing our faith and belief in this reality, we turn 42nd Street into a place of prayer – bringing the presence of Christ to places as expected as Churches – and as unexpected as the Port Authority Bus Terminal; by feeding the hungry we show that Christ’s feeding of the multitude did not end on a hill in Palestine two millennia ago, but continues today – here and now – in our own city. By making the Way of the Cross through the cross-roads of the World, we are public witnesses to the fact that the Tomb is indeed empty, and that Jesus IS Risen and still – to this day – on the move!

 

A Blessed Easter to you all, and may each of you encounter the Risen Christ in places both expected and unexpected this Easter Season.

There and Back Again

March 26th, 2012

As many long time readers of this blog may recall, the late winter and early spring is a very busy time for those who work in the social ministry of the Church; Liturgically – of course – this time of year corresponds on the Church’s calendar to the season of Lent during which Christians across the world are called to undertake corporal and spiritual disciplines in order to prepare for the commemoration of Our Lord Jesus’ Passion and Death during Holy Week which culminates with the celebration of his Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. But its not only the preparation for these most profound events on the Christian Calendar that is cause for the frenetic activity of late January, February and early March around here, instead much more mundane – and yet still important – pursuits than those ultimate ones require attending to as well. Roughly speaking – the season of Lent almost always corresponds to the legislative “budget season” for national, state and local government, and so for those of us who’s job it is to work for the protection and promotion of human life and dignity, this season means that we then set about to do those things necessary to bring the concerns of our Church to those in positions of power in Washington and Albany. The actual work attendant to advocacy efforts such as these involve everything from the exhilarating – actually meeting with United States Senators and Congress People, State Senators and Assembly Members and their staffs and discussing the impact of policies on the poor and vulnerable – to the hum-drum: ensuring that meetings are set up, and that every person has a “seat on the bus” and makes it not only to their destination, but – equally important – back home again. In fact, it has occurred to me that some of the workaday elements of the preparations for our advocacy efforts are a very good thing for me spiritually at this time of year if only in the sense that I can then “multi-task” some of the more tedious but still essential “chores” I do over to the Lenten sacrifices portion of the ledger. And more than this, it has also occurred to me that the “there and back again” nature of this kind of work actually corresponds roughly to the nature of advocacy work in democracy itself; especially for those who have been at these efforts for a long time like me. I have come to see that almost no issue is ever won or lost completely and forever, and as such it is truly the work – and indeed Christian duty – of every generation to be defenders of that which is laudable and essential for the promotion of human dignity and the flourishing of the human person, and so to, to equally combat that which is contemptible and stands against this dignity and flourishing. As such, the work of securing and promoting human dignity is both constant, and yet always new – and certainly never ever boring!

 

Of course, February’s hot ticket here in the Archdiocese of New York was for the trip to Rome to share with His Eminence Cardinal Dolan his elevation to the position of Prince of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI; the event itself was covered by just about every media outlet and was so thorough that you almost didn’t need to make the actual journey yourself to still feel part of Cardinal Dolan’s special honor. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite make the cut for that trip, but instead traveled first down to Washington D.C. with about 500 other Catholic social ministry professionals in year’s Social Ministry Gathering, and then later on in early March I traveled up to Albany with over 1,000 Catholics from around New York State for the annual “Catholics at the Capitol” Public Policy Forum Day. Both events were generally successful this year thank goodness, and although I wasn’t as fortunate as those who were able to accompany His Eminence to Rome (if only to enjoy the beautiful of Vatican City and partake in some of the delicious food), I have to say that this year’s advocacy trips – especially the one to Washington D.C. – were a little more momentous then those in years gone by. Some of this could have to do with the level of media attention that the meetings had this year, which – in contrast to years gone by where the attention paid by the media in general was zero if you discounted the coverage of the event in the Catholic press – was everywhere; wherever you turned the print, television and radio media at this year’s meeting were there. I’d like to think that some of this was because the reporters and their news editors had recently discovered some of the good work that the Church does in the social ministry field of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, ministering to the imprisoned and welcoming the stranger and were eager to cover this work….but my hunch is that the actual level of media coverage had a little something more to do with a set of regulations promulgated earlier this year in January by the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requiring that almost every employer – except for houses of worship specifically, but including religiously sponsored social welfare organizations – had to offer their employees health insurance coverage that includes sterilization, contraception and abortifacient drugs. In case some of you readers have been on a recent trip to Mars, these regulations have been the cause of quite a bit of controversy as of late, so much so that discussion of these regulations has filtered into the Republican Presidential debates, and triggered a response on the President’s part when he offered what he termed an “accommodation” for religious employers under the HHS rules, whereby the responsibility for covering contraceptive services for the employees of the religious organizations was shifted from the organizations themselves over to their insurers.(Funny enough, the press conference where the President announced these accommodations to the HHS rules took place while I was actually on the Amtrak on my way down to Washington D.C. for the Social Ministry Gathering; when my father called my cell phone to tell me of the President’s offer at the press conference, I responded the timing of the announcement was because the White House knew that the “Catholics were coming” – a bit tongue in cheek perhaps – but who knows!) While this compromise on the part of the President was a good first step, there remains some significant concerns on the part of the Church, particularly the fact that the definition of who the HHS deems a “religious employer” remains exceedingly narrow: covering only organizations who hire and serve primarily those of their own faith, and will also still involve the government in deciding exactly what is and is not effectively a “Catholic ministry”. In response to these accommodations, the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on March 14th issued a statement on Religious Liberty that invited the Executive Branch to continued dialogue in an effort to secure broader exemptions from the law that would not involve the Federal government forcing Church institutions to act against Church teaching, and urged Catholics everywhere to pray for religious liberty – at home and abroad.

 

Since then of course, the whole controversy itself has been sucked up into the vortex that is the “culture wars” in our society, where vitriol serves as oxygen that feeds a fire of misunderstanding and miscommunication that generates intense heat but very little light. So outrageous has the public discourse on this matter become that on the one side, you had a nationally prominent radio commentator speculating on the number of intimate encounters a graduate student who gave testimony before a Congressional Sub-committee in favor of the contraceptive mandate had on a monthly basis, and on the other, there was a mean-spirited and ignorant full page ad in the New York Times that called Catholic women “enablers” of the Catholic Bishops’ “war against women” urging them to “vote with their feet” and “exit – en Mass” in a tawdry attempt at double entendre. The whole situation is incredibly sad, and has obfuscated the entire issue of the religious liberty concerns of the Church, as often happens in our sensationalistic, media driven society when issues of sexuality and human reproduction are added into the mix.

 

Like most people, I have my own personal responses to the situation, and they correspond – like most personal reflections do – to my life’s experiences. While I do not practice law per se, as a graduate of law school I am very concerned about the erosion – both in the present situation and others – of institutional conscience protection. While the mainstream media often concentrates on violations of individual rights and freedoms, institutional freedoms often suffer a lack of public sympathy; this frankly is much to our determinant, because as anyone who has ever tried to bring about any kind of social change comes to realize, individuals effect social change collectively through the institutions of civil society – institutions such as the Churches and their social welfare agencies. The importance of this insight was brought home to me when – soon after my graduation from Law School – I had the opportunity to travel to several republics of the former Soviet-controlled Eastern Block soon after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. I actually had traveled there with members of a group that was sponsored by the New York Times called “The Center for Independent Journalism”; the goal of this organization was to teach journalists, and the newspaper editorial boards that employed them, the ins and outs of how a “free press” operated – so long had the papers been under government control and oversight they had forgotten the habits they needed to make their now “free press” run. Being in those countries, at that time, with a group dedicated to teaching the principles of a free press made me very proud of our country and its freedoms – Americans are rightly very proud of our Constitution, and particularly our First Amendment, which guarantees for us freedom of speech, and of the press. But what we should not forget is the other essential freedoms that great First Amendment guarantees to us just as precious as our freedoms of speech and press. I think this is summed up best a famous First Amendment scholar and United States Court of Appeals Judge for the 9th Circuit John T. Noonan Jr. when he wrote, “an unregulated, unregistered press is important to our democracy. So are unregulated, unregistered Churches. Churches have played an important – no, an essential – part in the democratic life of the United States….In a secular age, Freedom of Speech is more talismanic than Freedom of Religion. But the latter is the first freedom in our Bill of Rights”.

 

As someone who as part of his job is asked to help Catholic Charities staff identify the “Catholic identity” of our work, I am equally concerned with the overly narrow definition of what constitutes our ministry. Whenever I am approached and asked why it is that Catholic Charities does the things that it does, I always find it instructive to turn to the 25th Chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel and ask the questioner to read the admonitions of Jesus as to what is required of us to live a righteous Christian life: feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the ill and visiting the imprisoned – it reads almost like our annual report! And of course, in our care for the least of our brothers and sisters, we try as best as we can to do so in a way that – in a phrase made famous by the Hard Rock Café  – “Loves All and Serves All” – regardless of their race or gender, beliefs or religious practice. How is it that the drafters of the HHS regulations were unaware – or at least tone deaf – to this fact and the impact this could have on our good work? There are those who see malevolent intent in this action, perhaps this is true – or perhaps it was just naiveté – or maybe we weren’t telling our story long enough, and loud enough to enough people.

 

And so, I conclude this post right back where I began – “there and back again”: almost no issue is ever won or lost completely and forever, and it is the work of Christians and other people of good will in every generation to be defenders of that which is laudable and essential for all our human flourishing. It appears now that – at least for the short term – one of those good and laudable essentials that require renewed appreciation and defending – in addition to all those other things required to live lives of Human Dignity – includes our cherished right to religious liberty. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has an excellent page on their website that can help concerned citizens refamiliarize themselves with this foundational principle and steps needed to secure this essential liberty for themselves, for the Church and for all who cherish freedom of conscience.

 

 

When did We see you Hungry…?

January 22nd, 2012

When I was a much younger man – some days, especially lately, it feels like a million years ago – like many of my contemporaries I dreamed of seeing the world and traveling to far away and exotic places; my particular dream had a different sort of wrinkle however. For you see, what I really desired to do was not travel far a field to sit on a beach absorbing the local color – as wonderful as that would be! – but instead, I really longed to go someplace to be of help to those struggling to survive in what we then called the “developing world”. At that time, I always looked forward to receiving the wonderful monthly publication put out by the Maryknoll Missionaries, and I read it religiously, looking forward to the incredible stories the wonderful Maryknoll Fathers, Brothers, Sisters and Lay Missionaries that were doing so much to bring needed healthcare, resources, and education to far away places in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, acting in ways that helped alleviate the poverty of the people there and encourage development, making tangible the command that Our Lord gave to us when he delivered his Sermon on the Mount as it is recounted in the 25th Chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew. I was truly in awe of these heroic people, and of the stories they told of the incredible work they did in and among the people that they served.

 

This desire to help the poor – planted in my soul through my reading Maryknoll Magazine and elsewhere – continued to grow in me as I went on with my studies and progressed towards my still developing adulthood. I recall as I was in college and law school hearing of acquaintances of our family who were going off for summer break or a semester to work in the missions with one of the wonderful youth volunteer organizations like the volunteer corps run by the Jesuits and the Brothers De La Salle. In my heart I always admired these young people who with little thought for their own comfort and personal safety would head off and devote a portion of their lives to helping people in a far distant land that they had never actually met before. To me, this seemed the epitome of Christian love in action. I recall conversations at our dinner table at that time where I would share my admiration of this particular dedication to service of the poor of the developing world with my family. The response I got to this conversation – particularly the one from my Dad- surprised me. My Father – truly one of the most generous men that I have ever met and a native of the Fordham section of the Bronx who is an honest to goodness “small C” conservative – unlike so much of what passes in the current political debate where I think the “C’ stands for comedy instead – my Dad went on to remind me that one need not purchase a plane ticket in order to assist the poor, but that a Metrocard – or in this case, given that this particular conversation took place nearly 30 years ago, a subway token – would suffice. To find poverty, he said, one need not travel outside the confines of the United States, or unfortunately or own great city: poverty was literally right here, in front of our faces, sometimes – scandalously – in the midst of plenty; and that if it was my goal in life to try to do something to alleviate poverty I did not have to board a plane to do so, but could also work locally- here – to address it. I believe much of my Father’s awareness was born of the fact that – although a businessman and Certified Public Accountant by training – much of his business and practice was devoted to assisting local affiliates of the Catholic Charities movement address the needs of the poor – be it in the areas of housing, or heathcare, immigration services, food or social assistance – here in our own greater Metropolitain area.

 

The wisdom of my Dad’s answer to my question at that time has always remained with me, and in many ways has served as the guide star to my life’s choices – certainly as regards my career decisions. And although life has unfolded in such ways that have actually allowed me to travel to places in the developing world such as East Africa to see the wonderful work and dedication of organizations such as Catholic Relief Services to bring needed development and assistance to the populations living there, it is my Father’s instance that I not only focus on the poverty far away “out there”in distant lands, but also – equally importantly – that I look to see and work to address the poverty that exist right HERE that stands out in my mind as especially important, particularly at this very difficult moment in our Nation’s economic history. In fact – it is this reality of poverty in our midst, and particularly poverty in its most vicious manifestation: hunger – that I wish to raise up for your consideration today.

 

New York and its surrounding suburbs are perceived by many as places of unprecedented privilege and plenty, but amid this perceived veneer of abundance there is a specter of increasing poverty and hunger that is growing more manifest day by day. It may surprise you, but last year a staggering 6.1 million meals were served at soup kitchens, food pantries and senior centers in New York City and the Hudson Valley through a Federation of over 90 Agencies that are operated and supported by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York to address growing hunger needs of families in the region, including “newly poor” families who – out of work or now “under-employed – never sought food assistance before. Many of these families include those with children, and tragically in our own Archdiocese, almost 22% of the children who live in the 10 counties – over 325,000 in number – have difficulty obtaining the nutrition they need. Due to a combination of the increased cost of food and considerably less government funding for food assistance, there is now unfortunately even less food available to feed increasing numbers of hungry families. It is because of this extraordinary situation that Catholic Charities has decided to initiate a special food campaign in order to replenish the dwindling stock at all our food pantries. Entitled the Feeding Our Neighbors: A Catholic Response, this campaign begins tomorrow – Sunday January 22nd and runs through the following Sunday January 29th; Catholic Charities is encouraging all people of good will to address this extraordinary food crisis in our midst. There are three simple ways that you can help: the first is to participate in the Archdiocesan Food Drive that is taking place this coming week – over 1,000 donation boxes for canned and dried food stuffs have been distributed to parishes, schools, CYO programs, healthcare organizations and Catholic ministries around the 10 counties of the Archdiocese. Another way is to donate a collection of money to support emergency food programs – you can do this by visiting the Feeding Our Neighbor’s webpage at http://www.catholiccharitiesny.org/make-a-donation/feeding-our-neighbors/ . Or, you can resolve to volunteer at a food pantry or soup kitchen; if you want information on how to do that, please contact Carlos Rodriguez at carlos.rodriguez2@archny.org .

 

Hunger has no season. I urge you to open your eyes and see the poverty in our midst, and – just as importantly – open your heart and resolve to do something to solve it. The solution is in all our hands – lets make sure that not one of our hungry neighbors is ever turned away!

 

Of Melodies and Messiahs

December 23rd, 2011

The time in and around Christmas has always been one of my very favorites, and for many reasons – the festivities and food, get togethers with family and friends long distant, the decorations, the well-wishes that come from near and far – and even the shopping believe it or not (I love to go into the stores when they are abuzz to pick out “the perfect gift” for loved ones!) But probably as much as any of these, it is the music that accompanies the arrival of Christmas that I love the most. Christmas songs at this time of year can seem ubiquitous of course – some very sappy, and others very trite (“Grandma got run over by a Reindeer” comes to mind…). And yet, for those songs that maintain their focus on the real “reason for the season” – the birth of Our Lord Jesus in that stable in Bethlehem – there is still something good and wholesome and profound in walking all around the city and hearing everywhere you go music that heralds the arrival of Our Savior.

 

I have some favorite Christmas songs of course; on the top of my list has always been Do You Hear What I Hear– which I always thought was a “traditional” song, but in doing some research for this post discovered was first written in October 1962 making it just a little bit older then I am – how is that for a little bit of unwelcome information!  Interestingly, the song was written in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a plea for peace in a world threatened with nuclear annihilation. The reason that I love this song in not only for its melody – which of course is beautiful – but most particularly for its message: the lyrics relate the story of Jesus’ birth but actually do so in a very ambiguous manner. Jesus’ name in fact is never actually mentioned. Instead He is spoken of as simply “the Child” – the Child who is simultaneously  “shivering in the cold”, “sleeping in the night” and who will bring us “goodness and light”. The anonymity of the Christ Child in the song is to my mind reflective of the circumstances of Jesus’ actual birth – far, far away from the political, religious and economic power centers of Rome and Jerusalem in the tiny little backwater village of Bethlehem, and not even in an inn, but in a place where they kept the animals. The song continues to reflect the humble circumstances of Christ’s actual birth in the manner that it relates how the news of Jesus’ arrival is passed along – beginning with the lowly little lamb – most certainly one of the least of God’s creature – up to the Shepard Boy, who then tells the mighty King, who eventually proclaims the message to people everywhere. In spreading the word of Jesus’ Nativity, the song very much takes the route that God Himself actually takes in the Gospels: beginning in the stable, moving out to the Shepherds in the fields, then on to the Magi from the East and then out to every corner of the world. In a very sublime way, this simple song communicates God’s gentle ways of speaking to the human heart – not with bombast and ostentation, but instead in the beauty of simplicity and honesty.

 

Another favorite at Christmas is a bit more offbeat – not so much for the song as for the version that I like. The song is “We Three Kings of Orient Are“, and it too is beautiful, and it is also “traditional” in that very real sense, being that it was written in 1857 – making it considerably older then me thank goodness, and sharing with me only the fact that our origins both trace to New York City. There are very many magnificent recordings of this song and I appreciate them all, but the version that I most particularly like is the one released in 1997 by the New York down-town Rock and Roll song-writer and performer Patti Smith on the album “A Very Special Christmas 3”  - which was issued by the Special Olympics organization to raise funds for their excellent programs for special needs children. Smith’s rendition of the song is a bit different from the others that you sometimes hear – very atmospheric in nature; the song intersperses verses from the Gospel of Matthew regarding the visit of the Magi to the crib in Bethlehem (Matthew 2: 9-15) with the verses of the traditional song sung in a very foreboding, gothic manner. Melody is a very powerful conveyor of mood, and to be quite honest I think that this almost off-putting arrangement that Ms. Smith couples the lyrics and Matthew’s Gospel account to communicates very effectively the very humble, vulnerable and dangerous circumstances of Jesus’ actual birth. When recounting the Christmas story – which has been sentimentalized by the media and trivialized by commerce – we need to remember that Mary and Joseph lived within a Palestine that was occupied by the ruthless forces of the Roman Empire, the journey that they took from Nazareth to Bethlehem on the orders of the dictatorial occupying power Emperor Caesar Augustus was a long, dangerous and arduous one – especially for the pregnant teenage Mary. Upon arriving in Bethlehem of course the Holy Family found themselves homeless, and were forced to take lodging in a dirty animal stall that would today probably be comparable to giving birth in a commercial garage. Then upon the birth of the Christ Child, there was the threat of death from King Herod the Great – a thug and local puppet enforcer of Roman authority so threatened by this humble birth that he murdered countless other children in a fruitless attempt to retain his worldly power. As a response to this very real threat, the Holy Family was then forced to flee to a foreign country, which of course would render them as refugees in today’s world. This is the actual story of Christmas – without the sentimentality and saccharin coating we sometimes try to place upon it. Perhaps we do so because we do not want to imagine Mary, and Joseph and Jesus Himself in such humble and vulnerable and dangerous circumstances – perhaps it frightens us to do so. But being frightened by the circumstances of Jesus’ humble birth is the exact opposite of what God intended to communicate on that first Christmas night. We need to recall that the first words that the angels heralding Jesus’ birth spoke to the shepherds in the fields were “Do not be afraid!” By choosing these exact circumstances in order to become flesh and blood, Jesus is teaching us all a lesson: these circumstances never diminished the inherent human dignity of His Holy Family – no, instead they show us that human dignity is never dependent on where one is born, on whether one has a home or not, on whether one is rich or poor, on whether one is welcome or unwelcome. Jesus’ birth into difficult circumstances should remind us all that – like Him – every person we encounter must be valued as preciously as we would value the Christ child Himself – this I believe is and remains the true message of Christmas.

 

It is my prayer that this Christmas, you all may find the Peace, Joy and Hope that was born to us in that humble stable on that first Christmas day and that these gifts from God remain in your heart throughout the coming year. A Blessed Christmas!

Gratitude for Things Unearned…

November 23rd, 2011

Late November is upon us – and as with every year, the autumn days grow shorter, the air gets cooler, and the leaves fall off the trees. But before those naked brambles are adorned with the bright festive lights that will mark the beginning of Advent and the approach of Christmas, we here in the United States are blessed to celebrate what is our unique inheritance from our Puritan Pilgrim forefathers and foremothers – the wonderful feast of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is the holiday that gives us a welcome respite from the over-all business of our lives, where we are encouraged to take the time to reflect on the state of our little corner of the world and give thanks for those things that we have been bestowed with – much of it with little or no effort on our own. Now of course, Thanksgiving does not require of us a willful act of amnesia: this has been a decidedly difficult period for many – here in New York, in our country, and around the world. A lot of people are struggling: unemployment is stubbornly high, economic growth remains persistently low, and “responsible government” seems to be a contradiction in terms. Still, there is a tremendous number of things that we as a global community ought to be thankful for; on the whole, the world’s population is healthier, wealthier, smarter and – believe or not – more peaceful then it ever has been before in recorded history. Democracy and freedom are spreading – aided significantly through the advent of social networking – and ever-increasing numbers of people globally are gaining access to those things that they need to lead a more dignified and human life. Now, this stated does not mean that we do not have significant challenges ahead of us in addressing the needs of those still too many who live lives of unnecessary suffering: however, we would be remiss if we were not incredibly grateful for the abundance with which we have been bestowed.

As it turns out, such feelings of gratitude appear to be a “gift that keeps on giving”: recent psychological studies seem to indicate that an attitude of “giving thanks” bestows upon us better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher satisfaction with life and kinder behavior towards others. In short, it seems that a posture of gratitude appears to be “hard wired” to our own well-being. This actually makes basic sense to me: I have always felt that the “grass is always greener” syndrome leads us to – to use a contemporary term – an “unsustainable” attitude towards living. For myself, in taking stock, I can honestly say that I have so very much in my life to be grateful for: my work, my home, my freedoms, my faith – but most particularly, I am especially grateful for the most precious gifts that I have: the people in my life – my family and my friends – and the oceans of love that they provide me with, which pours into my soul and sustains my very being. Without each one of these precious gifts, I could honestly say that I would not be the man that I have become today – hopefully more for the good then the ill! I am mindful of the fact that this love is a gift and is – to a significant degree –unearned. In fact, it is this unearned character that gives this love it characteristic as gift. And it is this particular characteristic of gift that brings me to perhaps what some may see as a particularly peculiar thing that I am most significantly grateful for this Thanksgiving – the only thing in my estimation that enables this gift that is love to keep on flowing – and that is the gift of forgiveness.

Forgiveness – like love itself – can be worked earnestly towards, but it can never be guaranteed. Like love, forgiveness is in the purview of the bestower to grant, and in this sense it is a gift: completely unearned. On a fundamental level, forgiveness is – to my estimation – one of the most essential components of human life: as important to the flourishing of the soul as water, or food, or air is to the body. Forgiveness frees the forgiver, and is completely restorative of the forgiven – it can even be transformative. So essential is forgiveness to human flourishing that the Lord Jesus Himself raised the very act of forgiveness to the level of a Sacrament in Reconciliation: God’s love reaching down to unburden our souls and restore them to their full dignity. Forgiveness truly is the prerequisite of the peaceful heart.

In my line of work – support for the social mission and ministry of the Church – one phrase that is often repeated are the words of Pope Paul VI in his message for World Day of Peace in 1972: “If you want Peace, Work for Justice”; thirty years later, Blessed John Paul II on the occasion of the World Day of Peace in 2002 very wisely added to his predecessors phraseology by telling people that there is “No Peace without Justice”, but adding that there is “No Justice without Forgiveness”. Perhaps Pope Paul VI did not add that second phrase to his World Day of Peace Message because he was writing at a more innocent time, but I think – because of the particularly harsh conditions that Blessed John Paul II lived through: the Nazi take-over of Poland, the Holocaust and other atrocities of the Second World War, and life behind the Iron Curtain during the totalitarian communist period of the Cold War – Pope John Paul II was particularly cognizant of the importance of forgiveness in world affairs – from the personal to the societal. It’s my prayer this Thanksgiving that we take this wise and saintly man’s words to heart.

So this Thanksgiving; I ask you dear readers to please give thanks for – and practice – the gift that is love, the gift that is forgiveness, and to please be ever grateful every encounter with every single human person that you meet along your way.

God bless you all!

Give Them Something to Eat…

November 7th, 2011

Dear Readers…

Sorry about the little delay in posting, but like so many others lately I have been – if you’ll pardon the ubiquitous pun – a little “pre-occupied”.

In this pre-“occupation” I am seemingly in good – and teaming – company. Whether one counts themselves among the under-employed, debt-ridden and under-insured members of the 99% of the “Occupy the–Fill-in-the Blank Movement”, the over-worked and over-taxed 53%, the 18th Century Costume Wearing over-regulated Tea Party Movement, or even the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace at the Vatican in Rome; it seems that just about every-body lately is pre-occupied thinking and talking and complaining about the dismal state of the global financial system. While there is no unanimity amongst those complaining about the state of the world’s finances on how to best fix what is wrong, there definitely seems to be a consensus that things are seriously awry and that we need corrective action – sooner as opposed to later.

I actually went down a number of weeks ago with a friend to visit Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan and see for myself the goings on at the “Occupy Wall Street” Movement’s (or OWS) ground zero as it were. I had been reading a lot about the protests for several weeks from various sources, and I wanted to see for myself exactly what was going on that was sparking so much interest across the globe. What I witnessed there was a collection of people – from various walks of life and different age groups – who felt significant alienation from the direction that their society was taking, as well as a certain inability to control the powerful forces that were shaping society in what they felt to be very detrimental ways. To a certain extent, these “Occupiers” – although politically far removed from the conservative Tea Party Movement – were united with that other movement in a spirit of disenfranchisement: feeling that the world is changing in fundamental ways that are beyond the abilities of ordinary people – the 99% if you will – to control. This is certainly a feeling that I in my more despairing moments could commiserate with, and because of this feeling I – for one – was not surprised when the “Occupy Movement” sprouted legs and wings and spread to over 900 cities across the globe.

I will blog more about OWS and the events in Zuccotti Park in future posts, but for now I’d actually like to tell you a bit about another place in lower Manhattan – one of my favorite spots in the city actually, and a place only about 4 or 5 blocks west of where OSW is located – on the banks of the Hudson River in a small park located in Battery Park City. It is there that you will find New York City’s memorial to the great Irish famine that occurred from 1845 to 1852 – which began with a blighted potato crop and was exacerbated by a confluence of political inaction that increased an already desperate situation. Fully one-third of the people living in Ireland at that time – one half million – died of starvation, and another third – of whom I am a living descendant – emigrated in a great diaspora out to any ports that would welcome them all over the world. The memorial itself is beautiful: a rugged half-acre of cantilevered landscape thickly planted with native Irish flora and plants growing in fallow fields, along with the remains of an authentic, famine era Irish cottage; beneath is a stratified base of glass and fossilized Irish limestone that creates a space where accounts of historical and contemporary sentiments about hunger world-wide are etched in the glass and broadcast from an audio installation overhead. All in all, this space does what memorials at their best are supposed to do: it raises public awareness about an event that happened long ago that led to the Irish Famine of 1845-52, while encouraging its viewers to address the causes of current and future hunger world-wide.

Hunger has been in my thoughts a lot lately, primarily because for the past week I – along with our Executive Director Msgr. Kevin Sullivan and several of my colleagues here at Catholic Charities – have been participating in “The Food Stamp Challenge”, an annual campaign sponsored by the “Fight Poverty with Faith” Mobilization – of which Catholic Charities USA is a partnering organization – which ran between October 27th to November 6th; the goal of the Food Stamp Challenge is to encourage participants to live for one week on the average national benefit given to those who are on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which roughly translates to approximately $31.50 per week, or $4.50 a day. Let me tell you – that’s not a lot of money…especially here in New York City, and its not easy to restrict your shopping budget for a week to what many of us might pay for a single meal in a restaurant. Being on such a restricted budget certainly presented it’s challenges, but armed with a shopping list and a calculator, I set out to the supermarket to plan out my meals for the week returning with staples that consisted mostly of oatmeal (store variety), brown rice, frozen vegetables and on sale chunk light tuna (in water of course!) These were the mainstays of my diet & accept for a Saturday night treat of a 10-piece McNugget (no fries or soda); I pretty much stayed to the challenge, winding up with just under $5.00 by weeks end. During the challenge – while I have to admit that I was not REALY every truly “pangs in the stomach” hungry – what I can tell you is that the cuisine I was eating left me definitely uninspired. While oatmeal (made with water and no milk), dry canned tuna, brown rice and frozen chopped carrots, beans, corn and peas might be healthy, they are not the tastiest things to eat on a daily basis. In fact, to give myself a little flavor, I used to use packets of soy sauce I had saved from Chinese take-out and add it to the brown rice and vegetables – that definitely gave it a flavor, with all that sodium, I shudder to consider what my blood pressure must be now!

All in all though, I am glad that I have taken the challenge, and I certainly do not want to complain: it seems to me that there is something unseemly about complaining about a situation that you voluntarily take on in order to attempt to understand the reality that others live but have little choice about. In fact, the past week’s experiences reminded me a little of the time that I spent in Africa last September, when we were staying in some of the guest houses with larger groups of people back in Tanzania. Often, the dinner meals that were served were put out at one time to feed all who were staying there, and we would all line up cafeteria style to serve ourselves from whatever was being prepared. I almost always found myself at the end of the line, and sometimes when I got to the front, whatever the meat that was being served was gone, and all that was left was white rice and sauerkraut (not a favorite), which I would combine on my plate and eat because I was hungry. Then – as with last week – I found after eating such a meal that I definitely was not hungry, but also not fully satisfied either; and yet – then as now – I did not complain about my meal because having been in Ethiopia in the days before – to witness first-hand the tremendous work that Catholic Relief Services does to provide food assistance to that drought ravaged region in the Horn of Africa – it would have been not only unseemly but obscene to do so.

The Food Stamp Challenge this year comes at a time of great challenge to our financially-strapped nation and its historic moral commitment to feed the hungry at home and abroad. As many of you are aware – in an effort to address the burgeoning budget crisis here at home, the Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is working on producing a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion dollars; the day that this deficit reduction plan is due is – ironically – the day before Thanksgiving. Many anti-hunger advocates are concerned that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides food stamp assistance to those struggling to put a meal on the table might be a target for massive funding cuts. In addition, another area that appears to be ripe for budget cutters is slashing financing for the State Department and its related agencies – this at a time of desperate humanitarian crises across the world; life saving, poverty-focused international assistance that fights hunger, disease and poverty makes up less then 1% of the U.S. Federal Budget, and yet the Unites States Senate is currently looking to drastically cut this funding. Sadly, it seems clear that reducing the federal deficit by 1% will not balance the federal budget; in fact, the one thing that such action seems certain to do – at a time that 12 million people in East Africa are facing malnutrition and starvation – is cost lives.

Through my work, I have been blessed to witness how such U.S. government assistance helps Catholic Relief Services and other similar agencies quite literally save live overseas, and how back home similar assistance helps Catholic Charities ensure that the families of those trying to make ends meet don’t have to literally skip meals as they struggle to pay their bills from month to month. In a recently published book “Three Famines: Starvation and Politics” about three of the greatest famines in history: the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, the Bengal famine in India in 1943-44, and the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s & 80s, author Thomas Keneally writes persuasively about how politics helps to turn a crop failure into a famine. As Keneally notes, famine is caused less by a failure to produce food then it is by a failure to distribute food correctly – mostly because those in power feel they are not accountable to the starving. Unfortunately today, the hungry do not have a large and vocal constituency: and that’s where we come in!

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services are both now currently advocating with both houses of Congress and the Administration to ensure that needed hunger-related assistance – both international and domestic – is not compromised in the current deficit reduction debate; to add your voice to these efforts please press the links here and follow the related instructions; in this way you can help to ensure that the words of the Lord in the Gospel are made manifest when he said to “give the people something to eat”. After all, for Christians feeding the hungry is not some peripheral “nice thing” that we should do if we’ve got the time – its literally part of our “final exam” that Jesus told us about on the Sermon on the Mount, along with clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger and caring for the ill. Since we already know what we are to be graded on, there is really no excuse for us to get this one wrong. In fact, no less an authority then the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for World Food Day back on October16th went so far as to say that “liberation from the yoke of hunger is the first concrete manifestation of the right to life, which – despite its having been solemnly proclaimed – is often very far from being fulfilled effectively.” Its up to us to remedy this situation – to ensure that what has been solemnly proclaimed is fulfilled effectively…….While the rest of the world’s attention is focused on the 99% fighting the alleged evils of the top 1%, with the 53% somewhere in the middle, lets be sure that our attention is focused on the 15% who live here below the poverty level – and the much larger percentage of our brothers and sisters who do across our world.

Without You, The Church is Not Whole…

September 19th, 2011

(In honor of this year’s International Week of the Deaf (September 19th thru 25th, 2011) – and in solidarity with our Deaf brothers and sisters both here in New York and across the globe – I have asked my colleague Sister Barbara Ann Sgro, Coordinator of Deaf Services for the Hudson Valley, to reflect on her work with and for the Deaf community here in the Archdiocese)

I am used to being asked questions about my religious vocation. There seems to be a natural curiosity for people when they first meet religious Sisters as they probe, “Why did you become a nun, what do nuns do?” Very gently I take the time to explain that I am a Sister, not a nun and that there is a difference between the two. I then proceed to share a little bit about my vocation. So some months after I began my current ministry as a Pastoral Worker with the Deaf, someone I had recently met said to me, “I’d like to ask you a question.” I was prepared, or so I thought …

The “someone” was Deacon Patrick Graybill, a Deaf Deacon from Rochester, NY who is highly revered in the international Deaf Community, and his question was loaded. “Why,” he basically asked, “do you, a hearing person who is still learning American Sign Language (ASL) want to work with the Deaf?” After some seconds (which felt like hours) of processing his question, I responded, “Because without the inclusion of the Deaf, the Church is not whole.”

Deacon Patrick smiled and gave me a quiet nod of affirmation. I relaxed a bit, but truthfully, I’m not sure why. Giving Deacon Patrick the wording of that answer was the easy part; unpacking it is the ongoing challenge of my ministry that I will share with you.

I came into Deaf ministry equipped primarily with a deep love for God’s people, particularly those whom society holds on its margins. I’m not sure the sign language I knew at the time really counted, I had taken an intro class in my early college years as part of my study for working with adults with intellectual disabilities. I knew words (or signs) like eat, toilet, and help. These hardly qualified for everyday conversation.

One of my first challenges was finding out that using the respectful “people first language” that was so much a part of me (e.g., people with intellectual disabilities, people who are deaf) was not the proper way to go. Getting to know the people I minister with taught me that if I was to be an effective pastoral minister, I had to let go of my idea of deafness as a disability. To them, being referred to as Deaf is a positive thing. It’s a source of pride and identity; it is not offensive at all. I was truly amazed by how readily the Deaf welcomed me into their world of Deaf Culture (We’ll talk about what that is in a few minutes.) Everyone was willing to “teach me” but I knew I couldn’t just rest in that. I sensed how important it would be for me to “earn my keep.”

Now here is where hearing people like me have to sort out some confusion. There is the physical condition of being born deaf; that gets a small “d”. But on the other hand, when you talk about someone in relation to his or/her identity within the Deaf Culture that gets a capital “D”. It was hard for me in the beginning to get used to referring to people as Deaf. But now I get it.

Deaf Culture also values Deaf schools and has its own social etiquette rules, e.g. it is actually not rude to walk between two people signing with one another. Deaf Culture is also built around the native language of the Deaf—American Sign Language (ASL). I often hear people say how beautiful this language is. This is true for me also, but even more true is that it is capable of expressing so much more than words ever could. I never realized before how different ASL was from Signed English, which is basically a word for word translation of English. ASL is a true language in and of itself, whereas Signed English is not a natural language but created in hope to make English more visible with one’s hands.

The more I learn about Deaf Culture, the more I realize how “Christian” Deaf Culture can be. I say this because it is rooted in community sharing and caring and respect for one another. I feel Deaf power at its best can be aligned with the social justice taught by Jesus—used for the common good of the community and not for personal gain.

Self –advocacy is another important part of Deaf Culture. Some of us may remember the Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University in 1988. Gallaudet University was the first institution for college level liberal arts education of the deaf and hard of hearing in the world. At that time in 1988, the University was seeking a new President. There were several highly qualified candidates. All of them were deaf except one. The students advocated for a Deaf President who culturally understood their needs. Then the hearing candidate was hired. The students held a week-long carefully-engineered protest. At the end of the week, the school replaced the new hearing President with a Deaf President. The University responded in a manner that was socially just.

The need for social justice is so much a part of the Deaf experience. Having the privilege to be in pastoral ministry with the Deaf, two of my primary responsibilies are to support the faith-life / religious and sacramental education of the Deaf and to ensure that Deaf are respected in ways that are socially just. These are very challenging tasks.

How can the Deaf live the Good News in fullness if their access to their Church and the Good News is limited? We are socially conditioned to understand that access basically means ramps, automatic doors and ample seats at the end of a row. But doesn’t access also mean having the opportunity to fully participate in one’s faith? Deaf people are often called “eye people.” Why? Because they take in everything visually. How can we challenge ourselves to make the Gospel more accessible using their primary input mode? I wonder in what ways we can make our Church buildings and our environmental designs more visually accessible. I also wonder how we can challenge ourselves to be more open in inviting the Deaf to their right to taking more active roles in our liturgies.

In 2009, the Pontifical Council for Health Care ministry focused on the hearing-impaired person in the Church. One of its outcomes is that we need to make the Gospel more accessible to the Deaf. Throughout our Archdiocese we facilitate religious education and adult faith formation programs. I have many questions. How might we dream and plan programs that are accessible to the Deaf? How can we tap into the rich faith of the Deaf so that the leaders among them can rise? How can we be more socially just in welcoming the Deaf into their rightful places in the Church. We definitely have technology to our advantage here.

There have been twelve Deaf priests and several Deaf deacons ordained in the United States since 1977. Amazing you are probably thinking, I’m thinking there are many more vocations out there. Their stories are powerful and filled with overcoming struggle. I am hopeful that we have the resolve to change this for the future generations to give glory to God. There is so much deep faith and so much more to be untapped.