Kerry Weber is one of the most talented millennial Catholic writers on the planet (and that sentence is still true if you remove the word ‘millennial’). And every time the subject of her recent book, Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job, has come up in conversation, people have raved about it and told me I must read it. Katie Diller has already written a great review of the book for Millennial, which you can check out here. You can also read Kerry Weber’s article “Mercy in the City: Making Mercy a Verb,” which we were happy to run here at Millennial.
Given what everyone had told me, I came in with big expectations, and I must say that the book exceeded these. It is wonderfully written, engaging, and fun to read. Some lines were deeply insightful, while others made me laugh out loud. It’s a must-read for every millennial Catholic, but beyond this, I would recommend it for everyone, especially Christians of all ages and young people who are “nones” right now. I had the opportunity to ask Kerry a few questions about the book in the interview that follows:
Robert Christian: Given the title, Mercy in the City, what role does the setting play in the experiences you write about in the book? In the West, urbanization has been connected to secularization. Is there something about living in a city that makes it harder to be religious or to practice these works of mercy? Are there advantages or unique opportunities that the city might present?
Kerry Weber: In my mind, New York City is almost one of the characters in the book. It’s a unique and fascinating place, but my hope is that, within that context of the larger story, it also offers an experience that is recognizable to people who live in other cities or rural areas. Because the struggles here are similar to what people struggle with everywhere: How can we be of service to others, exactly where we are right now? Of course, being in New York meant that I had the advantage being very close to a number of vibrant non-profits and parishes and social service organizations that grapple with this question every day and that do great work with and for people here. There are so many opportunities to be involved and inspired. Yet, it also is easy to feel anonymous in a city like New York. The good thing is that the city is filled with people yearning for connection, and sometimes all you have to do is reach out. I find living here to be a tremendous benefit for my faith life, because there are so many opportunities to find fellowship with people who value prayer and action. There are so many Catholic young adults here trying to live out their faith in a very real way; it is one of the many things I love about living in New York.
RC: My second question is somewhat related. You seem reluctant at times to be seen as too religious, not wanting to be seen as fanatical or preachy or like you are parading your faith. Do you see that as the product of your personality, of living in a relatively secular area as member of a generation where it is increasingly popular to be a “none” or “spiritual, but not religious,” or of the faith itself where we are cautioned not be hypocrites or to show off our devotion? Or is it some combination of these? Does your experience speak to some of the challenges or tensions that religious millennials might face when it comes to living out their faith, of being “in, but not of the world”?
KW: I’m pretty open about discussing my faith and religion in my day-to-day life, and I’ve found most people are willing to engage in conversations around faith in a positive way, even if they aren’t particularly religious or spiritual. So if there’s a seeming hesitation in the book, it’s not because I hoped to avoid being perceived as religious; but I do hope to avoid giving the impression that being religious means that I have everything all figured out. I think too often people feel that to be religious means that you can’t have any questions or doubts. But those doubts are a real part of religious experience, too. With that in mind, I wanted to be sure that the overall tone of the book was descriptive, rather than prescriptive. I wanted to say: “Here is how I’ve lived my faith; here is how I’ve struggled with these things. Hopefully my struggle will provide some comfort and solidarity in your own journey.” And hopefully we can learn from each other. Our efforts to be mercy in the world should be rooted strongly in our sense of community. In our (often imperfect) efforts to serve others, none of us has to go it alone.
RC: I’ve seen a lot of devout millennial Catholics who decide to “do something” for Lent instead of giving something up. You seem to see the value of doing both. Why is that? How are they related to one another?
KW: I value that combination of contemplation and action, because ideally one leads us to the other. Hopefully, our prayer compels us to act, to change our lives; and our actions, hopefully, are rooted in prayer and in communion with God. Lent asks us to turn inward and really look at how we’re living each day, but it also asks us to place our selves and our actions within the context of a broader community. It’s not just a self-help program. Sometimes this means stepping out of those spaces where we’ve become comfortable. Lent should be challenging, because it calls us to more faithfully live out the Gospel, and the Gospel is challenging. If it weren’t it wouldn’t do anyone much good.
RC: What was the most challenging thing you experienced in trying to complete the works of mercy?
KW: At times I found myself really overwhelmed by the number of things I had to do and also by the amount of suffering that exists in our communities. I think one of the most challenging things about trying to complete the works of mercy was recognizing that they’re not really things that can be completed. That mercy must become part of a process, part of how we live our lives. I can’t simply check off items on a list; I have to be present to others, to listen, to give of my self and my time. And that’s not easy; all of us are so busy, but we have to make sure we’re not so focused on getting things done that we miss seeing Christ in the people around us.
RC: What was the most rewarding part of the experience? And what were some of the most important things you learned about mercy, your faith, and/or your life?
KW: The most rewarding part of this was the sense of community that was built from my experience. I learned that when you’re trying to help others, you can’t make assumptions about what they need. It’s important to have a conversation, to figure out where your gifts and talents are and how those can be used to glorify God through service to others. And it’s important not to have an agenda, to be open to the God of surprises, to recognize that we might be able to give of ourselves in surprising ways, if only we would allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit instead of our own desires.
RC: When does the sequel come out? I think the readers are really invested in hearing about your life after this Lenten journey and, importantly, what happened next in your love life.
KW: Ha! Oh gosh, readers concerned about my love life (let’s be honest here: reader. hi mom!) may be happy to know that I have found a nice Irishman to whom I am getting married this May. In fact, I’m quite happy about it myself. As for sequels, I’m still thinking about what to write next. I know that it has to be a topic I really care about or it will get old fast. One nice thing about writing this book has been that it has really reinforced how much I hope to keep the charism of Mercy central in my life. In both the writing and in the conversations that have followed its publication, I am continually reminded about how much Mercy means to me, and I’m continually challenged to try to more fully live it out.