Tuesday, March 20, 2007

the Bronx...

Below is a letter I wrote after my spring break trip to the Bronx and sent to a few people who might have been interested...

Hi Everyone,

Well, this is a long overdue update, and so much has happened in the past week that just covering that would be a longer-than-usual email. Two weeks ago was midterm week, so the students were running all over the place. Monday night (5 March) I had the students in the service-learning community that I chaplain gather in one of the large meeting rooms in the student center, and we walked a fold-out labyrinth that campus ministry has. None of them had ever done one before, so it was a nice way to both introduce them to an ancient form of Christian prayer and to teach them a form of meditation that could help them de-stress during midterms. I took off from work Wednesday and Thursday, since I was going to be on the Spring Break trip all the next week and wouldn't have a "day off" for over a week. Friday morning my new credit card (finally) came in (the old one expired at the end of February), so after several days of sweating bullets and making increasingly desperate calls to Brenda in the province office, I spent the day running around making purchases that I needed for thetrip. Saturday morning we left for the Bronx, and the trip there was fairly uneventful apart from the usual shenanigans that happen when you cram 8 college students into two SUVs. Sunday we finished thetrip, but my van took an unexpected detour after the navigator failed to point out the exit we needed to take, so we had the adventure of driving through Manhattan to get to the Bronx - no easy feat, as you may know, during the middle of the day. After about an hour and a half of meandering around, we showed up and got the grand tour from the sister who directs the Highbridge Community Life Center. After church we decided to take our evening and go into town, since we wouldn't start work until the next morning, so we figured out the subway system and headed down to Grand Central Station, from which we walked to Times Square, which I can only describe in two words: sensory overload. We found a little local place to eat (I'll be damned if we would drive a thousand miles to eat at a place we could find just as easily in New Orleans or St. Louis!) and headed back to our "accommodations," which were not particularly accommodating: concrete floor, one working shower (no hot water, thank you very much), pipes making weird noises all night, and a couple of rodent neighbors to share the room with. We made do, of course, but I don't recommend it if you are looking for a luxury suite in the Bronx.

The next morning was wild: we walked around the neighborhood visiting all the different sites that Highbridge operates (about 6 different works) before doing a little work and coming back to our home base to participate in a neighborhood activity. It turns out that a couple of days before we got there, a big tenement fire had killed 8 or 9 children from an African family that had just immigrated to the U.S. -you may have seen something in the news - and that was right down the street from where we were staying. We went to the house that had caught fire, where there was a community memorial, and then we walked with a couple of hundred people a few miles into the Bronx to the mosque where the funeral was going to be. The police had closed the streets and laid out tarps for the Muslim community to come and do prayer there, but we were able to watch people pouring in from all over. We stayed about an hour, but we never saw any of the actual service, because we had to get back to work and because the service showed no signs of starting anytime soon. All the way back toHighbridge, we saw people walking towards the thing - I would not be surprised if 10,000 members of the Muslim community showed up for this funeral. That afternoon we worked with kids in the afterschool program that Highbridge runs. You all know me well enough to know that playing with 9-year-olds is not my favorite thing in the world, but it was actually fun - a little tutoring, a little playing with the kids, a little watching them slowly destroy my Frisbee by repeatedly pitching it into the wall. That night, a Lasallian volunteer invited us to the Brothers' house where she lives to eat and sleep over, which was a wonderful change from the previous night. Tuesday we went back to work at our sites, and I got to try my hand at teaching a little ESL. It was actually very challenging, esp. since they didn't want us to use any Spanish - how does one explain in English the words "outhouse" or "cellar" (it was in our reading) to a person who has a very limited grasp of English?

That night (Tuesday) we drove to Goshen, a town about an hour north where Highbridge runs an organic farm. The next two days we were there, and that was really the highlight of the trip for me. The farm manager put us to work on all kinds of manual labor projects, which were much more up my alley than the stuff with the little kids in theBronx. I got to work a chainsaw for a while (if you know me and chainsaws, you know I was in heaven), and then we did all kinds of work, from planting mushrooms and hauling compost to cutting lumber and building birdhouses. Our schedule there was perfect: a few hours of work after breakfast, a simple lunch of sandwiches, fruit, and maybe a cooked dish, an hour or so for a siesta or whatever, and a few more hours in the afternoon for work before dinner, which we all helped to prepare and clean up. In the evening, we had time to go shopping for groceries, watch a film, or just sit around and talk.

Friday morning we drove back to the Bronx (in the beginnings of what would become a serious snow storm) and took the subway back to Manhattan until midafternoon. We got to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the site of the World Trade Center before going back to Highbridge for a couple of hours of work with the students. Back to the Brothers' house that evening (I think they just took pity on us because of how rustic our original living conditions were!), and off for home the next morning. We got back about noon on Sunday, ate together, and split up. I did a few unpacking things yesterday, but I was absolutely beat, so I spent much of today cleaning up the mess that was my office. All in all, a marvelous trip, a few stressful moments (mostly related to navigating in the chaos that is New YorkCity) notwithstanding.

Nothing too big is going this week - the usual round of meetings and office work, but next week is the trip to Notre Dame for that PeaceStudies Conference, so I need to finish preparing my paper ("Language, dehumanization and the spiral of violence") and work on my syllabus for the course I'm teaching in the fall (on Thomas Merton, for those of you I haven't emailed in a while). Oh, on that note, the chair of the theo. department bumped into me a couple of weeks ago and mentioned that they have a course on prayer on the books that no one has taught in a couple of years, so would I perhaps think about teaching it in the spring? How on earth do you say no to something like that? That's about it for now, so I hope this letter finds you well, and more to come soon. Let me know how you are all doing when you get a chance.



Mercy within mercy within mercy...

Friday, March 9, 2007

Who knows what evil lurks...?

My credit card expired last week, at the end of February, so I called my province secretary in New Orleans to ask about getting the new one. She said that she assumed I would get it in a day or so, but by Monday (March 5), still no card. I called again, a little more urgently, because I’m leading a spring break trip to the Bronx this weekend, and I REALLY need a credit card to do it. She called them, raised a little hell, and called me back: they’re Express Mailing it to me, she says, and they SWEAR it will be there Wednesday. Wednesday comes, no card, so I call again. OK, they’re mailing a second card out, so one or the other should reach you soon, but it might be Saturday. No, I’m leaving Saturday, I say, even more urgently than last time, and I really need that card. Well, you need to be there to sign for it, so be at home and it should come today (Thursday). You guessed it – not only did I not get my card, but I also wasted a day that I should have spent preparing for the trip, because I was at home waiting for this *$@&! card that never came. “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9) In the reading for today’s mass (8 March 2007), Jeremiah knows well the illusions and falsehoods that we create around ourselves to convince ourselves that we are holy, that we are peaceful or whatever it is that we seek to be. I see in this the old saying, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” As much as I read and write about nonviolence and reconciliation and so on, I got angrier today than I have been in a long time, all over something stupid like not getting a credit card. What might be hiding within me that could be brought out by something REALLY bad – real injustice, true atrocity, not just getting lost in the cracks of a big corporation’s system?

The gospel for today was the story of Lazarus and the rich man (LK 16:19-31). Appropriate considering that I am getting ready to accompany 9 students on a trip to the Bronx to work with homeless people. The rich man walked over Lazarus every day to get onto his property and chose to make him invisible. How many homeless people in St. Louis or New Orleans or Baton Rouge did I choose to ignore? Why does it seem that we (ok, I) need a special event and a thousand-mile drive to pay attention to homeless people? How much energy would we really have to expend here at home to find homeless people, or better, how much energy do we have to expend to consciously avoid seeing them? It is great to go to the Bronx or wherever to be with people for spring break, but maybe it would be even more important for us to come back with a new vision of the needs of people here, that we don’t need to drive a thousand miles to notice poor people. Abraham warns the rich man that if his family would not listen to Moses and the prophets (i.e. the Old Testament, the tradition of the people) they won’t listen even if someone returns from the dead. For us who DO have someone who has returned from death, will the message sink in?

Friday, March 2, 2007

Last night I gave a lecture on Thomas Merton as part of a lecture series that campus ministry offers. It went fine, I think, and after another campus minister said, "It was cool to see you in teacher mode." Her comment made me reflect on how much I do miss the classroom setting. As much as I delight in the kind of work I get to do in campus ministry, I am so excited that I will be able to teach a class in the fall, in particular since it is on Merton.

I had dinner this evening with a Jesuit theologian friend here at SLU. Most of his work has been in anthropology and issues concerning Native American religions. We went all over the place, but we kept coming back to enculturation and what it means to talk about the gospel living in cultures other than the European framework in which it has been nestled for so long. I mentioned a class I had taught to lay ministers, etc. while I was in Arizona, and discussing sacramental theology and the adage "grace builds on nature." What can we say about what happens theologically in, say, a sweatlodge or a pipe ceremony? The lodge in particular is so rich in symbol, has such a deep sense of liminal space, of transformation and rebirth and transition, that the grace it manifests is undeniable. That says nothing against the official sacraments, of course, but just like the Apologists drew on Platonism and Aquinas did theology through the lens of the "pagan" philosopher Aristotle, how might Christianity look through the lenses of the genuinely graced symbols and rituals of a Native American religion? I mentioned to my Dad yesterday on the phone that I love having the time in this job to do a little research and write a bit, but the problem is that, with so many brilliant people around, they all point me to books I should read and areas of research that I would love to pursue! As they say, you can do ANYTHING you want, but you can't do EVERYTHING you want.

Mercy within mercy within mercy...