Posts Tagged ‘Thanksgiving’

Thanksgiving Reflections…from a Sandy Place…

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

When I was a kid growing up in the Northwest Bronx in the 1970s, I have no recollection whatsoever of really bad weather of any kind. Some of this is perhaps because of the circumstances in which my family and I were living at the time – we rented a three room apartment in a four story walk up; if any storms did occur they certainly made no great impact on my memory; because in our urban environment the electrical wires were underground we never lost power, and when and if it snowed, it was (blessedly) the landlord’s responsibility to clear it.

In fact, the first real “weather” events that remain with me are those our family encountered once we moved to the suburbs. That move brought with it much more space for our family to live, but also – a shock to the system for this city kid – a plethora of new chores to be taken up: the raking of leaves weekend after weekend in the autumn, shoveling what seemed to be a city block of snow every time precipitation occurred during the winter, and in the later summer, the almost annual occurrence of a storm that caused a  tree to fall somewhere on our block that left us without electricity for anywhere from several hours to several days. None of these occurrences were too burdensome in and of themselves, and of course our family soldiered through – in fact, for a kid the occurrence could be almost be described as fun – imagining yourself a pioneer on the frontier and the only light you had was the lantern that lit your way before you. As far as big storms go, the first one I have vivid recollection of was one that hit the New York City area when I was in the 6th Grade; it hit on a Holy Day of Obligation – this I remember, because my friends and I were off from school that day and had taken the bus from where we lived up to the New Rochelle Mall. My friends had gone up to the Mall to hang out, but I was there on a mission: a bit of a science fiction nerd at the time (not that I have outgrown it) I had spied on an earlier reconnaissance mission in the Mall’s obligatory toy store Mattel Toy’s Space 1999 Eagle Transporter, and I was there on my day off to get it! When I purchased it, I remember that it came in an enormous box (the toy itself was pretty big). I left the Mall and went outside to wait for the bus home with my friends, and the weather by that time had become pretty inclement. We were forced to stand inside the open bus shelter for cover. The wind was tremendous, and I recall that at one point while my friends and I waited it caught hold of the big plastic bag that contained the big cardboard box and blew my toy clear across North Avenue until it hit the building across the street and fell to the sidewalk beneath. Despite the weather, I scrambled across the street to reclaim my prize, which seemed – and was – intact, although dented and a little worse for wear from the wind and the water. The bus eventually came and my friends and I boarded it, and as I rode home, I tightly clung to the box my mock spacecraft came in  – smiling inwardly that I was probably the only kid who had a model that had actually ever taken flight – and thinking to myself that this was some weather I had never experienced back home in the Bronx!

Since that time, I do recall many big storms that have made their way through our area – Hurricanes Gloria, Hugo, Floyd and Irene, all these passed through  with no particular personal memory that I could attach to any. There was one storm – 1991’s so-called “Perfect Storm” – that I do have vivid memories of: at the time I was working at a Catholic Charities sponsored Nursing Home in the South Bronx. I used to drive there from Westchester County, and as I remember, no one was anticipating a storm of such power to pass through the area. I had lived through Hurricanes before: they all had names and were big storms, but you prepared for them before they struck and you felt secure; with this one however we were all seemingly caught unawares. Expecting just a particularly blustery rainy day, we had gone to work, expecting to get a little wet but not much more. Instead, the storm caused extensive flooding – which a colleague of mine at the nursing home got caught in on the F.D.R. Drive on the East Side of Manhattan – as well as a large number of power outages from fallen trees. I remember driving home that afternoon once we were dismissed from work – up Southern Boulevard past the Bronx Zoo – and seeing the thick trunked oaks that lined that broad street almost bent double in the wind, causing me to say a Decade of the Rosary out loud to myself in the car, that Our Blessed Mother would help see me safely delivered home in one piece that day – which gratefully She did!

Despite this wake up call, I went on in happy ignorance as to the vulnerability of our area to catastrophic weather events. I would see on television the devastating effects that severe weather would have on places like Haiti, like Florida, like the Gulf Coast – and would participate in relief efforts, donating funds and saying prayers for people in these place that they would recover and pull through despite the adversity that nature had thrown at them – all the while thinking that I would never witness in my lifetime, in this area, comparable devastation to the kind that flickered across my television screen.

That happy ignorance came to a crashing halt of course on October 29th when Sandy came barreling ashore.

I will not belabor explaining to you the devastating effects that this hurricane has had on our entire tri-state area – the lives lost, homes destroyed, property damaged, neighborhoods washed away. Others have written much more eloquently than I ever could what this storm has wrought in their lives. For myself, thankfully, the apartment live in did not lose power (in fact, it became “power-charging” central to many friends in other parts of the city that were not so fortunate); and my parents home was spared as well. Since the storm first hit, I have been witness to the extraordinary efforts of my colleagues here at Catholic Charities – both in the Archdiocese and at our sister agencies across the region in the rest of coastal New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – who quickly mobilized to establish recovery centers for those impacted by the storms, providing for the people every sort of assistance – from the basics of food, and water, and clothing and care, to rental assistance, housing and counseling for those who lost close to everything that they owned.

No, instead on this evening before Thanksgiving, I would like to write a rebuttal – not of an editorial per-se, but of a headline, one that graced (and I use this term loosely) the front page of the local tabloid here in the city – The New York Post – just about two weeks ago, in the aftermath of a snowstorm that had struck our city in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In bold stark letters, the headline declared that – in the aftermath of Sandy and the snowstorm – GOD HATES US!…

I must admit that I do not ordinarily read the Post, but walking down the street, this headline not only assaulted my eyes, but my psyche as well…. “God hates us”…. How opposite – how alien – to anything that I believe or have been taught about God – by the Church, from my parents  – so alien and jarring in fact, that the words have been echoing  within me for these past two weeks demanding a response.

While I cannot really begin to- and am neither equipped to – explain the age old perennial question of why God allows “bad things” – like natural disasters – to happen to good people (to use a MUCH, MUCH too  overused phrase: “it is above my pay grade”), one thing that I can attest and give personal witness to through my work and exposure here at Catholic Charities is that disasters sometimes present to us the opportunity to do quite “Godly” things in response to them: to reach out and assist, to try to make whole again,  to offer a prayer, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, to share with those who have been harmed from the rich bounty that God has blessed our own lives with, to simply be present to each other.

Last week, we were blessed here in the Archdiocese to be visited by an extraordinary person: at the invitation of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, Bishop Bernard Unabali – leader of the Diocese of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea – was in our city to speak about the plight of the people of the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific, whose island home is gradually being inundated by rising sea levels. They are often referred to as the world’s first “climate refugees”, and their story is told poignantly in an Academy Award nominated short film called: “Sun Come Up, which we screened here at the Catholic Center last week. After the screening, Bishop Unabali   spoke movingly to those assembled about the plight of the people of the Carteret Islands, and the willingness of the people of his diocese to welcome and provide land and assistance for these “climate refugees”.  While certainly victims of a disaster, I am quite certain that the people from the Carteret Islands that are profiled in the film “Sun Come Up” do not believe that “God hates them”….in the film they were not despondent,  but instead joyful and hopeful – most especially because when presented with the Carteret Islander’s crisis, their  Island neighbors in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea responded  in a “Godly” act of solidarity, welcoming the community to their own island home as the Carteret Islanders started their lives anew.

In concluding, Bishop Unabali urged all present to integrate the biblical values of environmental justice into their lives, and to answer a similar call of solidarity – a call that has special resonance and new urgency for all of us here in the metropolitan New York area as we work to respond to those impacted by the rising waters Hurricane Sandy left in her wake.

God’s blessing upon you and your families this Thanksgiving and always.

Gratitude for Things Unearned…

Wednesday, 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!