Wednesday, February 7, 2018

“The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate
between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
-Dorothy Day

Thomas wrote a book. It was the first thing had ever written. I don’t think he finished high school. The book is an alternate telling of the fall of man and the creation of a new earth. It has many biblical elements, but the world is redeemed by beauty (yeah, the physical kind) instead of grace. He grew up with no mother and a Pentecostal father whose favorite verse was Proverbs 13:24. They couldn’t match his high aptitude test scores with his behavior: getting kicked out of schools, fighting, and using drugs. Not understanding he had an undiagnosed mental illness and was being sexually abused by an uncle in secret, his family saw his behavior as selfish and uncontrollable rather than desperate. To a family living below the poverty line with five other mouths to feed, he was a problem, not a troubled child. Kicked out before he could even finish his graduate equivalency program, he had to make it on his own.
Self-medicated and unaware that his ‘flights’ were treatable, he burned bridge after bridge until he wound up drunk-driving into a young girl’s car in a snow storm. Ending up in prison allowed him a modicum of medical treatment; they quickly diagnosed his bipolarity and psychosis. As the years of liquor and ‘spice’ left his veins and the medication kicked in, a clarity bloomed in his mind he hadn’t known for a long time. That’s when the pen hit the page and he put his solitude to use.
After his time was finished, he struggled to adjust to the new world and the freedom. He was homeless on and off still fighting with his alcoholism, drug use, and mental illness. In one of his moves, he lost the manuscript and it crushed him. That’s when he really lost the little control he had had and ended up at our place. He lived with us for a time at the Catholic Worker but we eventually kicked him out after some explosive nights of drinking. We told ourselves we couldn’t help him but maybe we just passed the buck. A year passed, and I heard from him in spurts when he needed gas or a friend to talk to. I ran into him yesterday at the Beacon: the new homeless day shelter. He was too broke to buy booze, but he had found his book and was writing again. He told me that he just wanted to “make something beautiful” before he died.
Despite his desire to give back, Thomas’ story is tragic but unfortunately typical of those I have met out on the street. Having lived a privileged life, it can be hard to empathize with the suffering of those who are homeless and addicts. It is even more difficult to sympathize with their self-destruction and greater still is the challenge to actively love and serve them amidst all the confusion. As a Christian, I feel called to do these things but I fail. That is why I love Dorothy Day; she teaches us to serve the “undeserving poor.”
I wish I could say Dorothy Day inspires me but the truth is, she haunts me. She started at 20 years old living on her own as a journalist in NYC in the 1910’s and rubbed elbows with some of the most famous writers, poets, and activists of the era before she even founded the Catholic Worker. She had gotten arrested, beaten, and received a presidential for defending women’s right to vote, all before the age of 25. She protested against injustice, violence, and greed throughout her life, always trying to get closer to that radical edge. She invited those without homes and without merit into her own dwelling and, with the help of Peter Maurin, fostered the growth of the Catholic Worker movement. She wrote and edited for the Catholic Worker newspaper for over 40 years. Her bold prose, direct action, and dedication to the poor seem to push us out of complacency and into action.
That saint smoking a cigarette, that was my first memory of Dorothy Day. The palimpsest of history can smooth out the rough edges of the men and women we now call saints in almost inhuman ways but Day lived too close to the present and too close to the edge society to be reimagined as anything other than human. Her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, recently published The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. The biography explores the different faces of Day:  writer, bohemian, convert, radical, Catholic Worker, and mother. The narrative is vivid, self-conscious, at times painfully intimate, and always challenging.
This Thursday starting at 10:00 am, Hennessy will be speaking in the Anderson Auditorium at Edgewood College (No admission fee), sharing some of that gritty beauty of Dorothy Day’s life. Come join us!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

You don’t always know how your life affects someone else’s and this is what used to torture me about working with people on the street. Almost everyone you meet is in crisis and at first, you want to be the one that helps them, that gets them what they need and that solves their problems; you want to be their savior. Or at least that is what it used to be for me. But after sleepless nights, wrong turns and letting people down, you feel like you can’t do much.
               Last year around this time I met Jack. Although in his mid-forties, he had the air of young man. He was smiley, talkative, and easily spooked. He loved crime novels and had a penchant for the Beasty Boys. Jack had been homeless since he came here from his home town of Gary, Indiana in 2012. He got evicted because the heater broke in his home in the middle of winter and the land lord refused to fix it so he refused to pay rent. After they kicked him out, he decided he would rather not be homeless in the murder capital of the world, so he moved to Madison. The whole not-making-it thing really messed with him, blaming himself and feeling like a failure, he became familiar with the scene that the world thinks is the cause of homelessness rather than a symptom of it. He started using.
I met him after he had been clean for a while. My friend Dynamite Dave, the most popular comedian on State Street, told me about him. He told me he was a “good kid and could use a place to stay”. Since Dave had just moved out of our place, we had an open bed, so I met up with him on a windy Tuesday night in November. Those grungy loose clothes hung on an athletic frame and he like to stand at distance when he spoke mostly looking down at his large black Doc Martins. He had large hands but when he shook my hand, he was as delicate as a child. His dry, measured, and almost southern delivery sucked you in and he could look you right in the eye and tell you a hilarious joke with out cracking a smile. He was in perpetual agreement with anyone he spoke to because he was always nodding and muttering “very cool, very cool”. He had a deep vocabulary from all his reading and it lent credence to all the conspiracy stories he told.
Jack stayed with us on and off for almost the whole winter. We were friends and we still are. This made it complicated. When the lines get blurred between guest and roommate, friendly assistance and familial proximity, it makes it difficult to know how to act. When you welcome people off the streets into your home often enough, you have to build a little bit of a callus, or at least I tried, so that not every crisis brings you to where they are and suddenly you collapse in a pile of guilt and defeat for never doing enough. Giving someone a bed is not so hard, giving them a family is much harder.
He started coming home later and later, not returning calls, coming home drunk, lying and not showing up when he said he would. I didn’t want to be his parent, brother, or even his friend at the outset but now we were close and I was worried he was using again. If he had been just some guy, I could have laid down the law, told him how things worked, given him an ultimatum or even kicked him out. I could have told him to never come around anymore. But if you know someone, intimately, that becomes messier.
 After so many conversations about trust and honesty, second chances and being repeatedly lied to, I can remember shivering in the unheated hallway of our apartment at 3:00am telling him that I couldn’t keep doing this and that he had to leave and couldn’t come back. He just smiled as if it wasn’t January in Wisconsin and almost as if he knew it was coming, “Very cool, can I have a sleeping bag?”
He took it way less personally then I did. He moved on as if he was expecting to be disappointed. Months go by, we move out of 718 East Johnson and I go back to school. I have had trouble trying to create a metric for what we would call success in the Catholic Worker. Is it how many stomachs you fill? Or how many people you put on a housing list? Or how many people you give a bed?
Two days ago, I am walking down the street and I see Jack sitting there smoking a cigarette looking up at the new St. Paul’s Student center on library mall. “Peach!”, I yelled, because see, that’s his nick name (his girlfriend gave it to him because he is so sweet). He offers me a smile and embraces me. As if nothing passed between us, he told me about his life. He fell in love since I last saw him. He met her out on the street and after a couple of coffee dates she let him. They gave up drinking together and things are looking up.

It sounds like a happy ending. But it isn’t an end to anything. Rather than seeing Jack as a character in play whose life crossed mine and was changed in some kind of heroic way, I just see him as another blind man walking around in a dark world who bumped into me. Learning to think this way has allowed me to encounter people where they are at for who they are and, more importantly, as I really am. At the end of the day, we can’t do much, but we can be someone’s friend. For a brief time, we can share the light of our friendship and learn to love just a little bit better. Rather than viewing our projects or relationships as successes or failures based on their outcome, maybe we should think a little more about our intentions.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Polarization and Easter

The voice spoke to him... “What God has made clean, 
you are not to call profane.” (Acts 10:15) 
(©Review & Herald Publishing/Licensed from
Does Easter seem disconnected from the anxieties and tensions in your life and in the life of our nation? It wasn’t so for the first Christians, according to their written accounts collected in the New Testament. They certainly experienced worries and conflicts, with polarization and mistrust at least as extreme as what we currently face, but the Resurrection transformed their communities and relationships in ways we can hardly imagine hoping for.

Every year, on Easter morning, the first reading recounts a particular speech of Peter’s testifying to Jesus’s Resurrection: “This man God raised on the third day…” (Acts 10:40). But the lectionary never presents the speech in its full context, which is a dramatic and miraculous overcoming of an acute form of polarization.

Division between Jews and Gentiles was so extreme that, as Peter explains, it was “unlawful for a Jewish man to associate with, or visit, a Gentile” (Acts 10:28). It’s difficult for us to grasp that kind of division as a daily reality, but let's try. What kind of house would you be uncomfortable visiting, even to the point of moral revulsion? For me, it might be visiting our president in his Trump Tower penthouse, decorated wall-to-wall with carved marble and gold. Or, I can try to imagine visiting the dingy house of a known child molester. There's not only the personal discomfort with being in such a place but also the apprehension—if not panic—about how others will react when they find out where you’ve been.

So Peter is understandably disturbed when he discerns God telling him to visit the house of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. His uneasiness turns to complete amazement when, as he gives his testimony (the one we heard read on Easter morning), it becomes clear that this Gentile is receiving the gift of the holy Spirit—the very same Spirit that he himself had received with the apostles not so long ago. Though just a day earlier he would not have considered even entering a Gentile’s home, he now finds himself exclaiming, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the holy Spirit even as we have?” (Acts 10:47)

What was it that made it possible for Peter to make this leap? It seems that even Jesus had a strictly “Israel First” policy. Do you remember his reaction when a Greek woman asked him to heal her daughter? “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27) Jesus questioned certain sabbath regulations, but he was also known to say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law…” (Matthew 5:17). So Peter was not simply following Jesus’ instructions in any straightforward way.

Rather, Peter's declaration may be one of the "greater" works Jesus spoke of in the Gospel reading we heard on the Fifth Sunday of Easter. What seems to have happened is that, following Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, and having received the Holy Spirit he promised, the disciples’ hearts and minds were transformed over an extended period of time. For Peter, this—no doubt bewildering and painful—process ultimately enabled him to declare clearly that “God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35) To us, the beneficiaries of his witness, this truth about God seems boringly obvious. Not so obvious, however, are the solutions to our own family conflicts and our country’s polarization.

So it might be worth taking a fresh look at the explanation Peter gave following his bold declaration (Acts 10:36-43) and asking whether we are open to experiencing afresh the pascal mystery that so reshaped his heart and mind:

“[God] proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ... He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil... They put him to death by hanging him on a tree. This man God raised on the third day... He commissioned us to...testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. ...that everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”

When we think about polarization, we think mainly in terms of sociology or psychology, of the impact of economic trends or new forms of communication. But there is also a theology of polarization and its overcoming that offers insights and hope for our current struggles today. I hope to explain more in future posts.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

This complicated, imperfect world: An essay

This essay was originally posted on the blog: Messy Jesus Business

I have always been hesitant to rock the boat; to challenge another’s opinion. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I don’t often get my feet muddy or my hair wet. The dirt splattered across my pants comes from my daughter jumping into a rain puddle, not me. I am usually complacent, confined to the rigid knowledge of my own truth.

This was made clear to me after a pre-November 8 conversation with a friend.

We had only been driving together for a few minutes. It was close to midnight and the street lights illuminated the road. My daughter Clara and I were visiting family in Milwaukee, and my parents had offered to put her to bed so I could see a movie with a friend. Adam and I had left the theater and as we drove down the road, our conversation turned to the upcoming presidential election and social policies directed at the poor. Adam works at a bank in Milwaukee.

Almost immediately he began to share with me his frustration over customers who receive government benefits: people, often minorities, for whom he cashes government-issued checks.  He’d recently counted out money–income she receives without working for it, worth more than his own paycheck–for a woman he assumes is a single mother who “chose to have multiple kids by multiple fathers.” Adam continued to provide example after example of people rewarded for poor choices, supported by his tax dollars with no incentive to change: a system, he sees, as broken.

In that moment my mind flooded with memories of our collective past and stark realities of the present. I thought of white privilege: of how blessed we both were growing up each with two parents in stable homes in safe, affluent neighborhoods; regularly attending Mass (and actually, to be honest, he more so than I). I thought of my own stories of encountering the working poor while living at a Catholic Worker house in La Crosse. I thought of socioeconomic studies that demonstrate racial and economic disparity.

In the end though, all that I managed to say was: “Yes, it doesn’t always make sense, but every person has dignity and is deserving of dignity.”

“Michael,” Adam quickly retorted, “You can’t honestly tell me that woman is equal to you in any way. She’ll never be. I love you Michael, but you just don’t understand how some things in our society work.”

This is where the true test comes in. No matter how much I disagree with his statement, to him it’s absolute truth. There will be other examples from Adam’s work and stories in the media to confirm his bias, and new life experiences and encounters to affirm my own.  He is tired of being labeled racist for “calling it like it is.” I will not change his opinion, and he will not change mine.
And yet we still plan to see each other the next time I’m in town; still plan to share our beliefs; still plan to disagree.

So does this mean we live in a broken, polarized society; one that is stitched together as a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and beliefs separated by intolerance, discrimination, righteousness, and hostility, impassable and unforgiving? Yes and no. I believe we live somewhere in the middle, immersed in the messy and difficult conversations and realities that have become flashpoints erupting and boiling over in nearly every news cycle: Black Lives Matter, the anger directed at police forces; lead-tainted water; Standing Rock Reservation; “Lock her up” and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks.

But what we have to be mindful of and profusely share is that we’re also immersed in subtle reminders of that which is good and holy. Sometimes it simply takes an encounter or the reframing of a question for us to change our perspective. In a 2012 TEDx Talk, Father Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, remarked, “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement for how they carry it?”

We are called to stand with compassion and not hesitate to step out into the mud, alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world … this complicated, imperfect life.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

This complicated, imperfect world

The Handmaid’s Tale, is a dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood, in which a monotheocracy has replaced the tradition of democracy in the United States following a period of social unrest and declining birthrates.  The country, renamed the Republic of Gilead, enforces a strict system of government control that follows a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis.  A Puritan structure of punishment and state-sanctioned repression is put in place, and each citizen is bound by a strict code of conformity and interaction confined to established gender roles.  For those of you familiar with George Orwell’s book 1984, or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ever popular high school classic The Scarlet Letter, similar questions and commentary arise.

 At times it would seem that we live in our own metaphorical Puritan-type communities, where cohesion and conformity—be it liberal or conservative—are absolute truth.  Stereotypes of one group or another (immigrants, evangelicals, tea party activists, transgender students, Muslims, etc.) become factual identities, rather than challenged assumptions; and legitimate concerns—employment, security, immigration, global warming, etc.—lead to divided opinion.  Fortunately, unlike the citizens in Atwood’s novel, we neither live on that city on the hill, which some would like to return to, nor in the darkened alleyways of Gotham city that some would have us believe. 
Instead we live somewhere in the middle, immersed in the messy and difficult conversations and realities that have become flash points, erupting and boiling over, in nearly every news cycle: Black Lives Matter, the anger directed at police forces, lead tainted water, Standing Rock Reservation, the chant of “Lock her up,” or ISIS inspired terrorist attacks.  We are also immersed though, in subtle reminders of that which is good and holy.  Sometimes, it simply takes an encounter or the reframing of a question for us to change our perspective.  In a 2012 TEDxTalk, Fr. Gregory Bolye, founder and Executive Director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, remarked: “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement for how they carry it?”  The poor though, could just as easily be replaced by any individual or group which threatens or challenges our idea of who is deserving of dignity, or of whom the Gospel directs us to embrace.

In the midst of this recent presidential campaign, it may seem that society is stitched together as a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and beliefs separated by intolerance, discrimination, righteousness, and hostility.  I myself have been hesitant to venture outside, confined to the rigid knowledge of my own truth.  But I encourage each of us to stand with compassion, and to not hesitate in stepping out into the mud, alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world.

This is a complicated world,
              but not for the sake of trying.
But how do we respond?  What is it that I have done?
              Have I tried to lay in the long grass,
              to wake early and see my breath?

When did I last wait to hear,
Not answer, not voice, but a bird,
              the woodpecker’s sharp tap outside the bedroom window.

I don’t remember when I last walked in the rain
              to look up and see the downpour.
Am I afraid of getting wet, of tracking mud?
How quickly I forget my coat, a pair of boots
              Do I even remember where in the closet they are stored?

I must go out this next time.
I must remember that it is expected of me
              to not remain dry
              to track mud onto the floor boards.
It is expected that I do not remain a stoic philosopher forever.

Good reflection never came from sitting at the altar.
Unless I propose to be a monk,
              but even the monk must laugh
              and he does look up into the rain.

This is a complicated world
              but made less so because I am not a monk
              however much I would like to be.
And although not a religious
              I will still pray.
Perhaps I will even pray tonight.
Perhaps my words will carry hints of the sacred.

It is a sacred found in the ordinary;
              Alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world.
              Alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect life.

And my feet have been introduced to mud,
              my hair drips rain.
Maybe I shall yet live
              or at the very least I will try.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Happy Feast of St. Francis of Assisi!

Francis of Assisi dictated these words shortly before his death in 1226, describing them as "a remembrance, an admonition, an exhortation, and my testament." Though almost 800 years separate us from his time and cultural context, his actual words (albeit translated from the original Latin, and with one section removed here for length) enable a uniquely direct and personal encounter with Francis.

Dancing Francis statue at Viterbo University (La Crosse, WI)
The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world.

And the Lord gave me such faith in churches that I would simply pray and speak in this way: "We adore You, Lord Jesus Christ, in all Your churches throughout the world, and we bless You, for through Your holy cross You have redeemed the world."

Afterward the Lord gave me and still gives me such faith in priests who live according to the manner of the holy Roman Church because of their order, that if they were to persecute me, I would still have recourse to them. And if I possessed as much wisdom as Solomon had and I came upon pitiful priests of this world, I would not preach contrary to their will in the parishes in which they live.

And I desire to fear, love, and honor them and all others as my masters. And I do not wish to consider sin in them because I discern the Son of God in them and they are my masters. And I act in this way since I see nothing corporally of the Most High Son of God in this world except His Most holy Body and Blood which they receive and which they alone administer to others. And these most holy mysteries I wish to have honored above all things and to be reverenced and to have them reserved in precious places. Wherever I come upon His most holy written words in unbecoming places, I desire to gather them up and I ask that they be collected and placed in a suitable place. And we should honor and respect all theologians and those who minister the most holy divine words as those who minister spirit and life to us.

And after the Lord gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the Holy Gospel. And I had this written down simply and in a few words and the Lord Pope confirmed it for me. And those who came to receive life gave to the poor everything which they were capable of possessing and they were content with one tunic, patched inside and out, with a cord and short trousers. And we had no desire for anything more. We who were clerics used to say the Office as other clerics did; the lay brothers said the Our Father; and we quite willingly stayed in churches. And we were simple and subject to all.

And I used to work with my hands, and I still desire to work; and I firmly wish that all my brothers give themselves to honest work. Let those who do not know how to work learn, not from desire of receiving wages for their work but as an example and in order to avoid idleness. And when we are not paid for our work, let us have recourse to the table of the Lord, seeking alms from door to door. The Lord revealed to me a greeting, as we used to say: "May the Lord give you peace."

Let the brothers beware that they by no means receive churches or poor dwellings or anything which is built for them, unless it is in harmony with that holy poverty which we have promised in the Rule, and let them always be guests there as pilgrims and strangers. And I firmly command all of the brothers through obedience that, wherever they are, they should not be so bold as to seek any letter from the Roman Curia either personally or through an intermediary, neither for a church or for some other place or under the guise of preaching or even for the persecution of their bodies; but wherever they have not been received, let them flee into another country to do penance with the blessing of God.

And whoever shall have observed these things, may he be filled in heaven with the blessing of the most high Father and on earth with the blessing of His beloved Son with the most Holy Spirit the Paraclete and with all the powers of heaven and all the saints. And I, little brother Francis, your servant, inasmuch as I can, confirm for you this most holy blessing both within and without. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Way of St. Francis Today

One of the touchstones of Donald Trump’s speeches is that it’s a dog-eat-dog world: eat or be eaten. Everyone is looking to cheat everyone else and win by any means necessary. By way of explaining his favorite Bible verse, “an eye for an eye,” Mr. Trump put it this way: “ see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us. ...and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money...”

Trump’s supporters, quite understandably, view this as an example of his truth-telling. They look around and see the world he is describing. In such a world, strength and even ruthlessness are needed to protect what is rightfully yours. Mr. Trump’s apparent prowess in grabbing and securing success and happiness is therefore respected and considered an example worthy of imitation by many.

Denouncing Mr. Trump’s worldview does little good. We need to know and live a different way and show it to others, as St. Francis of Assisi showed it to his time. The Gospels taught him to let go rather than to secure , to receive good things as gifts from God rather than to grab. Life during Francis’s time was very different but no less violent and competitive, no less of a struggle than it is for us. Yet, by all accounts, he was no less happy than a billionaire.

Peter Maurin presented the message of St. Francis to the struggling people around him during the depths of the Great Depression. (Note that he wasn’t in a bubble of comfort and ease as I often am. He wasn’t primarily presenting this radical vision to well-off but bored people longing for adventure and meaning. He had lived as a wandering laborer for years and spent each day with people out of work and lacking even basic necessities like food.)

What St. Francis Desired
A tunic worn by St. Francis of Assisi
(consistent with carbon dating)
According to Johannes Jorgensen,
a Danish convert living in Assisi,
St. Francis desired
that men should give up
superfluous possessions.
St. Francis desired
that men should work with their hands.
St. Francis desired
that men should offer their services
as a gift.
St. Francis desired
that men should ask other people for help
when work failed them.
St. Francis desired
that men should live
as free as birds.
St. Francis desired
that men should go through life
giving thanks to God for His gifts.
- source, no copyrights reserved

St. Francis lived this way for months and years before a few of the people of his town finally stopped mocking him, unexpectedly finding themselves wanting to join him. Years later, when hundreds were following him, people in those cities no longer looked around and saw a world in which everyone was trying to take advantage of everyone else. Instead of being lured into resentment and a hamster wheel of diversions, they were--and we can be still today--drawn into the joy and creative power of the living God.
Fritz Eichenberg wood engraving