Five Keys to Building Community

I recently gave the commencement address for a high school graduation. The students came from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. Many ended up in the school because it offered them an alternative to a traditional classroom setting that had not served them well in the past.

It was my first public commencement speech, and I had labored over the remarks. I read This is Water about five times to prepare and watched a video of Robert De Niro opening his recent remarks at the Tisch graduation at NYU with a forceful expletive, jolting the audience to attention and doubled over with laughter.

Overall, I was satisfied with the content, delivery, and pacing of my remarks. There was a slight bump when it came to my lame attempt at humor, but nothing too major. Before I left the stage, I was particularly proud of the second part, which exhorted the graduates to go out into the world and build community in such a way that it served the greater good.

To illustrate my point, I talked about Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles who works with gang members. He runs what is now the largest gang rehabilitation program in the country, called Homeboy Industries. Their slogan is, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Not only do they employ former gang members in places like bakeries, a t-shirt factory, and a cafe, but they place members from opposing gangs at the same job site, which forces them to work together.

Read More


In Thanksgiving, In Memoriam

I had to reset the password on my old Yahoo account to access it. Once I was in, I did a quick search and found his name: Loren Baker. There it was, my last message from him. In the note, he thanks me for a postcard from Philadelphia and remarks, “It reminds me of our trip to Paris and Italy. One of the best trips I have ever had with students.”

This email is dated 2006. I want to cry. How is it possible that I haven’t actually spoken to him in seven years? I think of Loren Baker often, and fondly. On Tuesday I learned that he passed away over the weekend. He was only 64. Professor Loren Baker, MFA was a model of faith, authenticity, love, and generosity. I knew him as a faculty member and as chair of the Art Department at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, NY. More recently he taught at Biola University in California.

In eight semesters of class, work study, and trips, I learned to appreciate how Mr. Baker lived in the world and gleaned the following life lessons:

Read the Arts section of the New York Times. This simple expectation of his students opened up a whole new dimension for me. It situated my struggle to create in a larger context of creators.

Be real. Mr. Baker frequently misplaced items, such as his keys and his glasses. The result could be exasperating or amusing, depending on the situation: exasperating when it was your time sheet, amusing when you could see the glasses perched on top of his head. It was most certainly endearing. Students would team up–even pausing mid-way through putting brush to canvas–to help search for the missing item. Many an evening we would find him back in the studio after he had left for the day because he would get to his house and realize he had, maybe, perhaps, left his house keys in his office. This stands out to me because I too often mistake polished and pulled together for competent and capable when in fact, this kind of humanness makes one more approachable, and ultimately more loved for it.

Be true. In a time when abstraction was popular in the art world, Loren Baker practiced a figurative style illuminating biblical narratives. When other artists were using bold, raw gestures to express heroic themes, he made meticulously crafted assemblages about the interior life. When it was popular to reject Christianity in favor of relativism and artistic freedom, he embraced the Cross anew. He found God in all things and wasn’t afraid to share these moments with his students. In a reflection for an online devotional, Mr. Baker remarked, “Christ is constantly stepping into our lives, bringing us hope, healing and restoration.”

Sanctify everyday space. Mr. Baker often started a studio or art history class with a reading from the Psalms. He particularly loved Psalm 90:17: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; And confirm for us the work of our hands; Yes, confirm the work of our hands.” With this practice, a bleary-eyed 8 a.m. studio class was elevated to something akin to worship. Instead of incense we had charcoal dust. Instead of Eucharistic wine we shared hot chocolate made from the very, very hot water that ran in the studio sink–the same sink where we also washed out brushes.

Negotiate and take some risks. Convinced by those New York Times articles that we were missing out on great works in great places, my friend Stephanie and I approached Mr. Baker about taking students to art shows and museums outside our tiny college town. Citing missteps by students in previous years and the inevitable administrative tangle of liability issues, he initially denied our requests. Pleading ensued. Eventually he complied, with the following conditions: Stephanie and I were to handle the student recruitment, funding, and some travel details. He would secure the college’s permission and additional chaperones. Working within these terms, we were able to travel to Toronto, Buffalo, New York City, and finally to Italy and France.

Know your people and stand by them. By senior year I was actively exploring Catholicism and other faith traditions. I spent the fall and spring semesters steeped in iconography. I struggled with a growing awareness of the lack of female voice in Scripture and in the lived practice of faith around me. I asked Mr. Baker a lot of questions about the theology of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in relation to the art of Western Civilization. He suggested I use color and shape to ask these questions. The pieces that marked my exploration became part of my submission to the senior art show. My Madonna and Child, with Mary’s facial features obscured by torn pages of text, while tame by most standards, drew fire from the donor whose funds had built the gallery. When confronted by the donor, Mr. Baker graciously assured her that the offending piece was created not in defiance of Scripture, but in relationship to it. He knew me well enough to be able to speak to this. By listening patiently and being generous with his time, I think he knew most of his students this well.

Experience beauty firsthand. It was in our trip to Italy and France where four years of art history finally made sense. The hours of studying flash cards and slides (pre-digital media) to memorize details such as artist, art, date, medium, museum, and city suddenly had new meaning when you were standing in that city, in that museum staring at that piece of art. Awestruck, I learned that “Giotto: Ognissanti Madonna, 1306-1310, tempera on panel, Uffizi Gallery, Florence” was a magnificent work, a nearly ten foot high altarpiece, so unlike the tiny, flat image reprinted in Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.

During our stop in Rome, in the summer of 2000, I encountered not only the breathtaking beauty of the Vatican treasures, but also the kind face of Pope John Paul II. Looking back now, I don’t know how our little band of art students from a Protestant Christian college even managed to be housed in Rome during the Jubilee Year. It was one of the most auspicious years in three millennia of Church history. The Jubilee was like ten World Youth Days rolled into one. Maybe bigger.

Yet, because of Loren Baker, because of his firm belief in our capacity to know God by experiencing beauty, I had landed in Rome and found myself standing five feet from the Holy Father as he distributed the Eucharist among the crowd. Some people wait a lifetime for that encounter. Others travel thousands and thousands of miles on pilgrimage. I had come for the art and stayed for Mass. Five years later I was in RCIA when Pope John Paul II fell ill. Seven days before he died I was confirmed and welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church.

In Thanksgiving, for Loren Baker. For a life well lived. Requiescat in pace.


The Human Face of Immigration Reform

The United States needs comprehensive immigration reform. We need it now. There is a twelve-year-old girl on a crumbling stoop in inner city Philadelphia who can tell you why.

She is a U.S. citizen, but is currently experiencing the trauma and pain of having a mother who is not. Clutching a bag of food from the church pantry, Maria* climbs the last step to her home and gives me a quick wave before she darts into the battered entryway. The door shuts with a creak and I’m left standing alone on the sidewalk in a soft spring rain.

As I’ve written before, my job consistently puts me front and center to observe vignettes that are right out of the Gospels: If a man asks for bread, do you give him a stone? If he asks for your cloak, give him your shirt too. Is there room at the inn? However, I don’t often feel equipped to respond to these situations.  I’m not a trained social worker or a pastoral associate. My very large parish has several of each, and so the requests for food, shelter, and clothing often land with them. I usually observe the exchange or hear about it over dinner at the rectory. I’m proud to be part of a team that does good work, but I provide support in different ways.

I have spent ten years working in and around the context of asylum, migration, and immigration, including the undocumented. On this particular day though, I was pulled into Maria’s story, and the abstract nature of legislation and regulation faded away.

The transformation commenced when I was typing away on a grant application at my desk. I heard a soft knock on the office door and one of our priests walked in to ask for the phone number of the law fellow who runs our legal clinic at the center. This is what I do well, connecting the dots and coordinating programs. I gave it to him and went back to crafting the perfect sentence that will persuade someone to give us the dollars we need for things like the legal clinic.

A good twenty minutes later I went to the kitchen to fetch my lunch. I came across the priest sitting in the center’s dining room with a woman and girl. They were involved in a heated discussion taking place in Spanish, English, and sign language. The mother appeared to be exhausted. The daughter was animated. The gist of the conversation was that the single mom and her two daughters were evicted illegally and were trying to get legal assistance at our clinic.  Unfortunately, due to the rain and a long walk, and perhaps a communication gap, they were two hours late for their appointment and missed the lawyers entirely.

I mustered what little Spanish I could and offered hospitality in the form of a plate of cookies, coffee, and water. Then I went back to my desk. I should have known that wouldn’t be the end of it. I heard a small voice asking, “¿Puedo tener un bolso?” The cookies went into the bag and then into the mother’s purse, prompting a conversation about food. Not only were they illegally evicted, but they had also been forced out of the apartment in the middle of the night and were not allowed to take any belongings with them.

I pulled two loaves of bread out of the center’s freezer, left behind by a recent service learning group, and we all trooped over to the rectory where we loaded up two more bags of non-perishables. The mother was intent on matching up ingredients for a meal, asking if a can of tomato sauce would go with the pasta. The priest left the room to try to call the lawyers again and I was left with the mother and daughter.

That’s when Maria asked me softly if we had any clothes.  No food, no clothes, and temporary shelter at a non-Spanish speaking neighbor’s. Clearly embarrassed, she ducked her head after making the request.  I took down the sizes from the daughter, but we were interrupted by a loud cry from the mother who demanded to see what I had written. She insisted in a combination of Spanish and sign language that her young daughter was sprouting like a tree and should really have a larger size than what the daughter herself had told me. This was a turning point for Maria. She curled her small but gangly frame into a large, ornate chair and shared more of their story.

Her mother is from Honduras. Maria and her seven year old sister were born in the U.S. The mother is deaf in one ear and almost deaf in the second with a handful of other ailments. In the last few weeks, they got behind on the rent. When the landlord threatened eviction, they scrounged, begged, and borrowed and came up with the balance. He said the debt was paid. Then followed the middle of the night intrusion and subsequent removal from the apartment. It seems that the mother’s undocumented status was used as a threat. Exit the apartment or face deportation?

Everything about the eviction was illegal. Papers or no papers, tenant rights in Philadelphia are very clear: “It is illegal for a landlord to lock out a tenant without a Sheriff or Landlord-Tenant officer. The landlord may not evict any tenant unless they have followed the legal process and obtained a Writ of Possession and/or an Alias Writ of Possession. It is also illegal for any landlord to try to evict tenants by force, by turning off their utilities, by removing their possessions, by boarding up their doors or windows, or by any other means designed to force the tenant to vacate their home, unless the legal eviction process has been followed.”

I cringed as I watched the beleaguered twelve-year-old translate for her mother as the priest, in the absence of the lawyers, reviewed each of the above terms with the two. “Did you go to court?” “When were the locks changed?” “Do you have the lease for the apartment with you?” As a child, I overheard many an argument by my parents regarding finances, but I was never emotionally invested as the interpreter. I never once had to carry the burden of clarity or precision that this young girl was doing right now. I never bore the weight of legal or financial or medical communication. Maria has three times the responsibility that I did growing up. In addition to being the first born, she is able bodied, bilingual, and a citizen in a family with illness, limited communication, and no papers.

At the same time, she also has the freedom and opportunity that her mother so desperately wanted for her children when deciding to immigrate to the United States. Yet, I’d like to believe that the American Dream isn’t only for those who survive displacement, oppression, and abandonment. I’d like to believe that initiative, hard work, and persistence matter more.

As I drove the two back to the apartment where they were staying with a neighbor, Maria told me proudly that she would be going to school on Monday anyway, even though it would now be a longer walk. She then asked me a series of precocious questions, including “Is this your own car?” and “How does the green arrow know where to go?” in relation to the turn signal. A conversation about how cars work ensued.

Maria and her family have a very long road ahead.

I don’t know what will happen with their apartment, if they will ever see their belongings again. I don’t know if a daughter ever fully heals from taking care of her mother in the way that Maria has had to do over the years. I do think that, armed with the curiosity and determination she demonstrated on Saturday, Maria will survive and even thrive.

Last month, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), announced that the time was right for immigration reform. The result must be humane. It must be compassionate. It must shine a light into the shadows and dispel the fear that this family knows too well.

*Name changed to protect privacy


Karla’s Story

For most of her life, Karla did not know that she was an undocumented resident of the United States of America. She grew up in a densely populated neighborhood in South Philadelphia. She went to high school and got a job as a waitress in her teenage years. Her parents worked hard, sent money to relatives in Mexico, and were active members in a local church. When it was time to think about college, Karla learned that she was not eligible for federally subsidized student loans because she was not a citizen. Depression swiftly set in. Her dreams of studying, travel, and a vibrant life were dashed.

In the forthcoming edition of America, author David Golemboski outlines many of the issues currently affecting Latin American countries and reasons why families like Karla’s choose to immigrate to the United States.  He describes a protest over working conditions in a General Motors plant in Colombia that has received attention from human rights organizations. Yet, he notes that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—typically vocal on immigration and workers rights issues— has not released a public statement supporting the factory workers.

Golemboski argues that Americans (and American Catholics) no longer consider our neighbors to the south to be in harm’s way, despite the very real incidence of political instability and violence they face, along with the negative impact of inequitable trade agreements. Those who flee to escape these pervasive problems may find themselves like Karla did, at home in a new country at the age of seven, safe, but prevented from thriving once they reach adulthood.

Congress abandoned a national immigration reform plan in the run-up to the 2012 elections. Absent their leadership, President Obama issued an Executive Order in August called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to assist young adults who were brought to this country as children and have proven themselves to be contributing members of society. A Pennsylvania based immigration advocacy group calls DACA, “a promising program which will finally allow many young hard working immigrants to finally step out of the shadows and stop fearing deportation. Many will be able to continue their studies and hard work in the United States, the only home that most of them know.”

Karla Roja became one of the first people in Philadelphia to benefit from the president’s initiative. She was granted a two-year reprieve from deportation and can now get a job on the books. Her status can potentially be renewed. Her story was covered in the local paper and she was featured on MSNBC in November. This week, Karla spoke about her experience with a group of twenty college students visiting Philadelphia for a service trip celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy of freedom and justice.

The discussion eventually turned from her own personal narrative to the broader implications for countries on both sides of the border when young people lack viable access to education and employment. Karla explained that she is involved in a local group that is headed to Washington, DC to advocate for more systemic reforms to immigration policy.  She encouraged those with legal status to join her in solidarity. The backdrop for her talk was a parish-based center that facilitates service immersion experiences in a multi-cultural, urban setting, thus bringing a challenge like Golemboski’s to the fore. As he concluded, “…people of faith in the United States need not wait for a pastoral letter from the U.S. bishops to take action.”


Illuminating God’s Love at Work in the World

A dark shroud seemed to envelope America in the last few weeks of 2012.  From the constant media chatter about the fiscal cliff to the coverage of trauma and heartache in Newtown, CT, the days were filled with painful reminders of our human failings and fragility. The darkness seeped into my own family with the death of my paternal grandfather a few days before Christmas. A committed public servant and military man, his private life was permeated with fear and distrust. Mourning him also meant coming face to face with how that way of living had affected those who loved him.

Daybreak on Christmas Eve arrived with another national news story, this time unfolding mere miles from my childhood home where I was settling into a holiday visit. A gunman had lured first responders into a death trap in Webster, NY. Flames licked at vacation cottages along the banks of Lake Ontario. Lives were lost at the hand of a very disturbed man.

What should have been a celebratory Mass on Christmas Eve night began instead with a somber recognition of the lives that were affected by the Newtown and Webster shootings.  As the priest asked us to remember the victims before the Mass commenced, I wondered how we collectively—as a nation, as a generation—could make sense of tragedy and brokenness. How might we walk into the New Year with confidence? How do we maintain hope when all around us we see despair?

These questions became less rhetorical the longer I sat with them. Seeking answers, I turned to a recurring source of sustenance, a small faith community to which I belong that meets regularly to pray together, fellowship, and support one another in navigating decisions about vocation, family, and church life. The group is inspired by one belief: the love of God is at work. While seemingly simple, this belief, when acted upon, is a game changer.

We use a framework of four questions to guide our actions: 1) Who is God calling me to be? 2) Who is God calling us to be? 3) How can we live in relationship with those on the margins of society? 4) What is beautiful?

In our day-to-day lives, asking these questions looks like this: If I believe the love of God is at work, then how does that love affect important decisions related to how I spend my money? Perhaps God is calling me to be more generous with charitable gifts or with my time. My gift of time might not yield an America free of violent crime, but a collective investment of our time might bring about safer streets and more accountability between and among neighbors.

When it comes to “us” as a group, we share intentional time together in discussion, prayer, and meal-based fellowship with the hope of building a joy-filled community that invites members to use their gifts and talents for the common good. In practice, this translated into those with more catechetical experience preparing and leading a memorial prayer liturgy in my living room to mark my grandfather’s passing. Their gift of language expressed what I could not.  Their expression of friendship put flesh to God’s love for me.

The third question was originally shaped by our experiences with the materially poor in the US and those in developing countries. However, in light of shootings in Newtown and Webster, in Colorado and Arizona, I wonder how a collective awareness of the effects of isolation and estrangement can impact access to mental health services. How can I live in relationship to those who might be economically affluent, but are marginalized socially and emotionally?

Believing that the love of God is at work also means thinking about how we process the physical world in which that love exists.  Despite the pain, despite the brokenness, there is an essential beauty among us that inspires and rejuvenates. One of the first things we heard the day after the Newtown shooting was that memorials were being erected near Sandy Hook Elementary School. We are a visual generation and a place-making people. What can we learn about God and ourselves by encountering and creating works of art, film, music, poetry and prose?

The Apostle John wrote, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” May we be light-bearers in 2013, illuminating God’s love at work in the world.


The Virgin for our Time and Generation

I arrived late. The crowd was pressed in tightly. Layers and layers of winter clothing seemed to double the size of each person. Despite the throng, all attention was focused on a parade of icons making its way down the central aisle of the church. Cell phones were held high from nearly every hand trying to capture pictures of the procession. Once the icons had traveled the full length of the cathedral basilica, they turned at the altar and moved down a side aisle toward the back of the church where another altar featured a two-story mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mariachi serenaded each step.

Eventually the icons and coronas made of living flowers were situated around the large mosaic. Then the bishop and concelebrating priests processed. Small children were everywhere underfoot. Many of the boys dressed as St. Juan Diego, the recently canonized Mexican peasant who saw the apparition of Our Lady that eventually became the basis for this feast day celebrated on December 12th. Younger girls might be clothed in colorful native dress that includes a tilma or cloak imprinted with an image of Mary surrounded by rays of light. This would be the same image that appeared on his tilma when Juan Diego was before the bishop presenting his case for the construction of a church in her honor.

Most of the thousand in attendance at the Mass had started the late evening journey to the center city cathedral from their home parishes in other neighborhoods, some from as far as four miles away. They braved the crisp winter air with their children packed into strollers in order to honor the “Patroness of the Americas”. It was the Millennial pope, John Paul II, who declared her thus. And yet, within that crowd there were only a handful of faces that might have been from places north of the Mexican border. Why doesn’t my whole generation consider her our patroness? Why isn’t it common outside of the Mexican community to practice devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe?

Not only did the Virgin Mary appear to Juan Diego, an indigenous countryman, she also appeared as one of his own people. She spoke in his language. This vision took on a prophetic quality for those who had been marginalized and oppressed under the Spanish occupation in the 15th and 16th centuries. As my friend Mike said earlier, “By appearing to Juan Diego, Mary asserts that she stands with those who are on the margins of society. ‘I am one of you,’ Our Lady of Guadalupe suggests.” This is the Virgin for our time and for our generation. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the ideal intercessor for an increasingly global community of believers who are heeding a call to create more just systems and societies that include the voices of all.


Seeing the Signs

As the chaos of Black Friday and Cyber Monday comes to an end and Christians around the world prepare to enter the season of Advent, I am reminded of a day nearly nine months ago when Catholics observed the Solemnity of The Annunciation of the Lord. This feast day commemorates the Virgin Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel who comes to tell her that she has been chosen to carry the Son of God. Much like a sonogram picture that suddenly appears as your friend’s profile picture, the Annunciation is a declaration of what is to come. I also like to think that it celebrates free will, unexplainable belief, and faithful women.

This Advent, before we welcome the manger and the miracles, let us consider the young woman who faced this unsettling pronouncement. Mary’s brave response to the angel becomes the model for our response to God’s messages. These may come through nature or another person. We may receive them through Scripture or song. Very often they come when we think the whole world has gone silent and forgotten about us.

When I put myself into Mary’s story all I can think of is the confusion and frustration she must have felt. She would be disgraced. She would lose her reputation and very likely her only means of financial security, Joseph. She might have this magical, mystical child, but how would she support it? Mary has to have wondered what her family and friends would think.

I hear three key things in the momentary encounter she had with the angel Gabriel: God had noticed Mary, she was going to do something remarkable for God and humankind, and doing this work was going to commence with her acceptance of the task.  I don’t notice much about the logistics or the how.  There doesn’t seem to be a road map provided or a flow chart about how this will unfold. Mary asks one clarifying question, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” A good question given the circumstances. Gabriel gives her a reply wrapped up in yet another mystery.  Her older cousin will have a son even though physically that too would be impossible by human standards. Would I have said yes with that as the sign that the task at hand was worth embracing? Doubtful. One mystery is enough.

But how often do I miss God because I dismiss the other signs?  How often do I walk past the miraculous because it seems unreasonable? Even absurd? I can forget that the mystery I say I believe in is actually made and remade each time I show up…and each time I say yes. Contemplative and author Heather King writes, “…the Annunciation reminds me that with faith, which is to say with love, all things are possible. Because this is the paradox of what happened after Mary said yes: everything turned out wrong–and, then again, everything turned out right.”

(This post is adapted from a personal blog entry published in March 2012.)