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.)

Crafting a message

The first Catholic Worker newspaper I encountered came from the back of an Episcopal church in Upstate New York.  A small wood cut illustration caught my attention as it peeked out from underneath a pile of leaflets.  I pulled out the paper and unfolded the cheap, ink-smeared pages.  I didn’t know what the Catholic Worker was, but the masthead seemed like something dropped in from a different century.  A light-skinned woman and child were depicted to the left of the image.  One hand held a basket, the other hand clasped that of a dark-skinned man on the right side.  She looked like a weary mother of many, just in from hanging the laundry.  He appeared ready to do heavy labor. Both were being embraced in the outstretched arms of Christ.

The Christ-centric composition and heavy black outlines called to mind 19th century French artist Georges Rouault.  However, the other illustrations scattered throughout the paper shared little in common with what I was studying then in art history.  The play on simple positive and negative space had a quality that suggested something more consistent with the propaganda leaflets and protest posters I had seen in graphic design class.  The images were crisp and direct.  They told a simple story that connected with the text in nearby stories.  Sometimes an image was coupled with a quote.  Some of these quotes were attributed to Dorothy Day.

I remember folding the newspaper back up and shoving it sheepishly in my book bag before I left the darkened church.  I was a staunch evangelical Protestant attending a conservative Christian liberal arts college.  I wasn’t sure that being in an Episcopal church—no matter how beautiful the music—was a great idea.  Taking something akin to Catholic leftist propaganda didn’t seem like the best, either.

And so began my introduction to the life and words of Dorothy Day.  A convert, a radical, a woman whom the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops chose to endorse this week for canonization.Upon hearing the news, I was reminded of that cold Sunday evening when I first laid eyes on the paper.  Not only was I eventually captivated and compelled by Day’s story, but also by the artwork that defined the Catholic Worker aesthetic.  A young Belgian woman known as Ade Bethune designed that masthead, first with two men and Christ in the ’30s, and then redesigned it in the ’80s replacing one of the men with the woman and child.  She too was an art student when she encountered the Catholic Worker.  Bethune felt that the paper’s message could be improved with better quality artwork that reinforced the working class ethos the movement embodied. “I thought it was only fitting to show working saints, since the paper was called The Catholic Worker. Then I began to realize there were no other saints. All saints were working saints,” she remarked.

Bethune went on to craft a career in liturgical art and architecture.  Her pen and ink drawings adorned two missals.  She received commissions for work that was installed across the country, many pieces reflecting themes found in the Worker and the emerging doctrines of Vatican II.  Bethune communicated this new way of creating religious artwork to students, art associations, artist guilds, and clergy.  In her memoir, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day said, “Whenever I visited Ade I came away with a renewed zest for life. She has such a sense of the sacramentality of life, the goodness of things, a sense that is translated in all her works whether it was illustrating a missal, making stained-glass windows or sewing, cooking or gardening. To do things perfectly was always her aim.”

Dorothy Day will someday “officially” join the ranks of Bethune’s working saints. May we, through her intercession, work for justice and peace.  May we, like Bethune, find creative ways to communicate a prophetic message of hope and hospitality to a new generation of Catholic workers.

Election Day Reflections

As I write this, I can hear the soft beep of an electronic polling station recording votes in a room next door. The beeps are frequently drowned out by loud greetings between neighbors. Deep laughter and high-pitched giggles ensue as folks reconnect in line at the polls. News about grandkids seems to be a favorite topic. Physical ailments keep coming up. There was a competitive tone to the conversation of two women who were comparing hip replacement surgeries. Only one disagreement has erupted when someone didn’t show up on the rolls. Most of the commentary is lighthearted and matter of fact.

I am curious to know if the topics will change as the day goes on and blue-collar workers and young moms with kids in tow replace the parade of seniors that dominated the morning rush. One fellow answering his cell phone loudly right outside my office was repeatedly trying to tell the caller that he was “at the voting place”.  He sounded proud to be casting his ballot and aggravated that the person on the other end did not appreciate the significance of this morning errand.

Hurricane Sandy spared much of the Philadelphia neighborhood where I work, but the storm did manage to delay delivery of the voting machines. When they did finally arrive, they were stashed in an empty corner of a long porch that overlooks a courtyard on the parish grounds. We have been using the enclosed porch to store donated furniture until volunteers can move it to other parts of the new outreach center being developed in the former convent. The two machines sat there amid the donations for three days. Each time I walked by them I couldn’t help but think that democracy is a strange and wonderful thing.

Preparations for hosting the polling station included not only moving those donations out of the way, but also ensuring that there was toilet paper in the bathrooms and space for the ballot posters to be displayed. We shifted tables from the Hispanic Community Room on the second floor to the first floor for the poll monitors. I was still running around late Monday evening trying to find extension cords for the machines and space heaters to keep voters comfortable in line. I agreed to take the second shift of staffing the building on Election Day so I was not the one arriving at 5:30AM to open the gates and the porch for the poll workers.

For seventeen months the country has watched hundreds of campaign commercials and seen thousands of candidate signs online, along highways, and in yards or windows. We have listened to the stump speeches and watched the debates. Even those not schooled in statistics have come to understand the meaning of “margin of error” after being inundated with sophisticated polling results. And yet today, the billion dollars of campaign advertising spent on the 2012 election give way to individual voices and individual votes.

As Alexis de Tocqueville remarked about his visit to America, “Democracy doesn’t give people the most competent government, but it does what the most competent government is often powerless to do. It spreads throughout the entire social body a restless activity, a superabundant strength, an energy that never exists without it.” The commercialization of our sacred right to vote can make it easy to forget how much we depend on the collective energy of a diverse nation to maintain self-governance. People have lost their lives for this right. Others have gone to prison to secure it. Because of their sacrifice, some South Philly neighbors are able to chat calmly about the weather while in line. Once their vote is cast, they are free to discuss the best home remedies for arthritis. I hope to remember this energy—and the strength it brings—long after the voting machines are carted away.


Becoming Human Again

In this past Sunday’s Gospel, we heard Jesus issue a challenge to an earnest young man who wanted to know how to secure life beyond the grave.  First, he was ­reminded of the Ten Commandments.  The young man assured Jesus that he was keeping these.  Considering this, Jesus upped the ante, telling the man to sell his belongings and give to the poor.  But Jesus didn’t stop there.  He concluded by saying, “Then come, follow me.”

Many commentators and homilists focus on the second part of Christ’s response to the young man (and rightly so).  The message is not that wealth is bad, but that all manner of attachments can limit our ability to fully embrace the Cross.  Moreover, we need to be reminded from time to time of the beautiful arithmetic of our faith.  Adding treasures on earth may actually result in a net deficit in the heavenly realm.

Yet, this week, I am less focused on the challenge to live simply or to detach from possessions, and more on the three words of invitation.  Presumably following Jesus would mean living like the disciples lived.  They moved from place to place.  They relied on support from others for their food and lodging at times.  And they had to slow down the pace every time a hurt, broken, or anxious person wanted to ask Jesus for guidance or healing.  Consider this: at the very start of the Gospel reading, we find the men on their way to something else: “As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up…”  They were interrupted yet again.

I couldn’t find much context for where Jesus and the disciples were headed that day.  It seems like earlier in the Gospel they had progressed from one side of Judea to the other.  Not being a Biblical scholar, I don’t know how long this took; if it was a cross-country road trip or a short jaunt to a neighboring town.  But I do know that the frustration that I feel when interrupted on the way to do good work is one of my worst failings.  I’m going to guess that fiery men like the Apostle Peter probably found the interruption aggravating too.  I can picture Peter slapping his forehead in dismay when he saw the young man run up to Jesus, perhaps even muttering under his breath about these constant stops and starts.  A big crowd could be waiting to hear his leader’s profound message of salvation.  Maybe there were some influential Pharisees to wrangle with.  The last thing they needed was another pause on the way to the main event.

I have served as a full-time volunteer with an income well below the poverty line.  I have embraced simple living and cast off belongings in order to take mission-minded jobs.  I have not come to terms with the part of the invitation to discipleship that asks me to welcome interruptions.  Christ’s way of being in the world suggests I do more than deal with interruptions with a strained smile.  The call to follow seems to imply that I intentionally create space for the unexpected demand.   Like many busy professionals, I see efficiency as a hallmark of competency.  I schedule conversations with my significant other on how travel logistics can be arranged to maximize the short weekends that typify a long distance relationship.  I stay late for the silence of an empty office to avoid the humanness that hinders my flow.

At the end of June there was an article in the New York Times that rocketed up my Facebook feed faster than “Binders Full of Women”.  Author Tim Kreider talked about the “self-imposed” busyness that is rampant in our modern culture.  My friends and I paused long enough to scan it, repost it, and even to mention it in a faith-sharing group.  It felt good to de-busy ourselves over the summer and almost seemed like we achieved a bit more sanity.  Then September returned with full force.  We slipped back under the tide of commitments and appointments, fundraisers and networking events, Bible studies and choir practices that leave little room for deviation from the schedule.

I’m not only speaking of the unanticipated errand of replacing a burned out headlight that will result in a ticket if I put it off for too long.  I am also referring to the pause on a walk from one side of the parish to the other when I am often stopped by a parishioner wanting to know if they can schedule a room in the center, right there, in the parking lot, while I am clearly on my way to do something else.  Or the moment that happened yesterday, when I decided that maybe my persistent headache was resulting from a lack of food and I decided to stop for five minutes before my next appointment to make a sandwich.  Isn’t that the moment when the rectory doorbell rang and my visitor arrived early?

If I had done what I usually do when interrupted, I would have missed the best part of my day—actually of the week.  Thankfully, Christ’s invitation to follow him was still ringing in my ears.  Instead of one peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I made two.  Then the visitor and I sat in the old rectory kitchen talking about school and family.  The young man grew up in a different faith tradition, something similar to the one I was raised in.  Out of his curiosity and my convert’s zeal, the discussion touched on some of the misunderstandings that plague the Catholic Church in America.  The priest stopped in to say hello and in his own generous way underlined my claim that authentic, dynamic faith is alive and well in the Church.  We eventually got around to discussing the purpose for his visit, a college service-learning assignment, and walked over to the center to work on the project.

Absent the early arrival, absent the room in my schedule for a shared meal, I would have sped right past a graced space where the Spirit was at work.  During this Year of Faith, the call to enter into a deeper relationship with Jesus means that I must seek to understand how he lived as a human person on earth.  He lived with the same twenty-four days that I do and the same need for sleep and sustenance.  Yet he also exercised a powerful ability to be fully present to the persons around him.  If I am to offer the world “the gifts of faith, hope, love and new life in Christ” that are a part of the New Evangelization, then I must welcome the very interruptions that mysteriously create the space to do so.

Young Catholic Values Guide Them in Upcoming Election

This week I attended a talk entitled, “Why Your Young, Catholic Vote Matters”.  Before the speaker took the podium, each table group answered a few questions, including: “What brings you here tonight?” The responses from the seven talented, college-educated millennial professionals at my table ranged from curiosity to confusion.  A handful expressed outright disengagement with the political process. “I’m starting to think maybe I won’t vote this year,” exclaimed one, after citing the prospect of choosing between the lesser of two evils. Another remarked that she did not vote in the last presidential election after trying unsuccessfully to secure an absentee ballot while away at college. One person went so far as to say, “I’m here because I hate politics.”

Thankfully, the speaker, Dr. John DiIlulio, is no stranger to the bewilderment and vitriol that characterizes the modern body politic.  He cheerfully took on the task of explaining to the forty or so assembled why their vote does indeed matter on November 6th.  DiIulio is the Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society and Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, noted for a career examining religion in the public square.  He is also a native son of Philadelphia.  He began his talk by pointing out that the group was sitting in a historic parish hall that was once threatened by the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment rampant in the city in the 1840s.  Not too far away, parishes were actually burned to the ground when attempts at pluralism were abandoned in favor of destructive acts levied against those who were different.

DiIulio argued that young Catholics are precisely the citizens that can be a “tonic” for the similarly escalating polarization of American Catholics.  He described new survey data that shows that millennial Catholics “get” the teachings about solidarity and the preferential option for the poor. Some come to this understanding through education, but far more through hands-on service in vulnerable communities, an experience that is markedly different than previous generations of voters.  According to DiIulio, this is the groundwork for a new electorate that could impact the future of politics in this country.

“Subsidiarity, solidarity, and human dignity” are the three elements of Catholic Social Teaching that DiIulio feels young Catholics “can bring to the voting booth this year on election day.” Audience members pressed him to explain his assertion.  One person asked that if the consideration of human dignity is essential, how does one decide between a candidate who emphasizes the dignity of the life of the unborn versus the candidate who focuses on the dignity of those already born who are poor?  DiIulio encouraged the group to examine the Faithful Citizenship document prepared by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which places a priority on the individual’s conscience.  A vote for candidate A over candidate B, against the backdrop of a fully formed conscience educated by the richness of Church teaching, is all that is asked of citizens.

As DiIulio said at the end of the evening, when it comes to human dignity, “democracy doesn’t make sense without it.” The republic is founded on individual rights and duties that prioritize the participation of individuals to elect leaders who shape policies that affect all of us.  Rarely have I heard a more compelling case for how personal and collective faith can inform political choices.  I hope that the rest of the audience walked away with a similar feeling, resulting in forty more informed and conscientious millennial Catholic votes on election day.

Don’t Be Fooled, Politicians Are Not Our Saviors

By the time this piece posts, the blogosphere will be awash in commentary about the first presidential debate of the 2012 general election.  Pundits will weigh in on word choice and policy platforms.  Fashion bloggers will be talking about the color of the men’s ties.  And students of Aristotle and Socrates will be weeding through the buzz words and hot topics to determine whether the redesign of the debate structure signifies a return to substantive oratory. 

As Newton Minow, a longtime debate organizer observed on Tuesday, the new format is designed to, “Be entirely different from the disappointing primary and caucus debates, where we saw moderators preening for the camera, demanding yes-or-no answers, asking candidates to raise their hands to respond to questions, and forcing candidates to shout to be heard.”

You know what I’ll be doing while the debate is raging and the handlers are spinning?  I will be swapping canned goods with four other women.  Don’t get me wrong, I will consume a good deal of the media coverage surrounding the debate and read the transcript in the morning.  However, I will not have been glued to the television set or my laptop screen for those 90 minutes for one simple reason: I am living life.  I think it is too easy during election season to fall into the trap of thinking that the next president is going to fundamentally alter my day-to-day reality come January.

Yes, the person who sits in the Oval Office is a critical part of our American democracy.  You know who else is?  The councilwoman who represents my neighborhood.  As well as the ward leaders, the city commissioner, the city controller, the district attorney, and a dozen other elected officials that ensure (or at times stymie) the democratic process as it plays out in my corner of Philadelphia.  The truth is it wasn’t President Barack Obama who helped get one hundred new street lights installed on the commercial stretch a few blocks away from where I live.  Or, launched a bike lane initiative that has considerably increased my feeling of safety when riding to and from my parish on the other side of the city.

Civil society is vitally important to ensuring religious freedom, a safety net for the least among us, and vibrant public spaces.  Free and fair elections are an essential component of civil society.  The canning swap is too.  Our gathering marks the end of a summer of community gardens and farmers markets, of days of collectively putting up vegetables in a hot, steamy kitchen.  We believe in the power of buying locally and the dignity of community supported agriculture.  We believe in the household as an important economic unit.  We believe in maintaining practices that foster sustainability and interdependence.  And obviously, we believe in good food!

As each woman brings her jar of salsa, tomatoes, peaches, or pickles to share, she is also reflecting an aspect of subsidiarity, that oft misunderstood tenant of Catholic Social Teaching.  I am not talking about the small government being better government definition, I am referring to what moral theologian Meghan Clark explains, “is about the well-ordered society directed towards the common good.”  We each have a part to play: elected officials, houses of worship, universities, public administrators, business owners, and of course, the voters.  For all the pageantry of the presidential election, we must remember that November 6th will simply be another opportunity to live what we believe.   

How are Americans Faring?

Last week the U.S. Census Bureau released a report that revealed how Americans fared in 2011.  Theresults from the American Community Surveyhighlight social and economic realities facing the United States.  Since its release, a spate of news stories have analyzed the implications.  Headlines like: “US poverty rate unchanged; record numbers persist” or “California Poverty: Three Metro Areas In Central Valley Rank Among The Poorest In The Nation” slice and dice the figures for accessible consumption.  Some stories have profiled the startling contrast between the richest cities, like San Jose, where the median income is $77,000 annually, with the poorest, like Detroit, where the median income is $25,000.  Others have discussed the different household income patterns across urban and rural areas or by race.

In Wisconsin, one newspaper reported, “Milwaukee remained one of America’s 10 most impoverished big cities, with a poverty rate of 29.4% in 2011. The figure was unchanged from a year earlier, signaling that the economic spiral that enveloped the city’s poorest communities in recent years may have hit bottom.”  A self-identified libertarian radio personality used the city’s slice of the national data to critique local elected officials who, in his view, “seem more concerned with boondoggle projects and political maneuvering than with creating a business-friendly environment that would provide the kind of opportunities people who are willing to work need to get ahead.” As Marcus Mescher noted before the release of these figures, political parties have a keen interest in how the public perceives the report’s implications in the run-up to the presidential election.

Policy wonks and poverty researchers are familiar with the data release cycle.  With the return of school books and falling leaves comes the demand for analysis and sound bites.  And with that, the contrasts and contradictions that make for good nightly news broadcasts and newspaper headlines.

Rankings and ratings are an intrinsic part of the human experience.  We categorize, define, interpret and remake into something understandable, accessible.  Both appointed and elected decision makers across the country are dependent on the American Community Survey data to determine how to allocate resources at the local, state, and national level.  We need the report’s data to help make sense of the economic hardship facing our country’s poorest residents.  We also need compassion.

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul, a 16th century priest who founded the Congregation of the Mission (and eventually Daughters of Charity) that prioritized charitable works on behalf of the poor.  In some communities, his moniker is synonymous with trucks from the St. Vincent de Paul Society that pick up donations of furniture and clothes or their thrift stores where these items benefit those in need.

May our pragmatic consumption of the new poverty data be balanced with a mindful, compassionate response to the lived realities of our fellow Americans.  And, for those who follow in St. Vincent de Paul’s footsteps in caring for the broken, the poor, the forgotten, may the celebration of his life renew your energy and heart for the work.