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.