Face To Face With Homelessness in New Orleans

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I have been in New Orleans for the past nine days—first on vacation with my family, and now staying on solo for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) conference, where I’m presenting this week.

We have so enjoyed our time here—from swamp tours to beignets to fabulous jazz, it was a great trip with the kids. But I was not prepared for the sheer scope of the face of Jesus in the homeless population that I would encounter here.

The presence of people suffering homelessness has been a cattle prod to my conscience for twenty years. I remember going to work at the church and feeling the hypocrisy of driving past the people holding signs as if they weren’t even there—when I was headed to work at a CHURCH. Eventually I started keeping a stash of protein and Nutri Grain bars in the vehicles to pass out. It feels insufficient. But it’s better than refusing to make eye contact at all.

I always think about Lazarus lying at the rich man’s gate, begging for scraps and being ignored. That rich guy probably wasn’t evil. Probably, he just was uncomfortable, didn’t know how to help, and so he didn’t make eye contact.

I also think about Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate, and the beggar there who couldn’t walk. That story stands out to me because it says he asked for alms, and then Peter responded by saying, “Look at me.” Then the Bible says: He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.

The eye contact raises expectations in the person on the receiving end of this equation—and that’s why we don’t do it. That’s why we ignore them. Eye contact compels us to step in in some way. But if we can’t even look in the eyes of Jesus in the person suffering homelessness, then… Well, it says something about our commitment to the faith. Something we probably don’t want to know about ourselves.

So I have made a real effort to make eye contact —to SEE the people who stand at highway intersections back home. After twenty years, I know many faces and some things about them, both positive and negative.

But I was completely and totally unprepared for the magnitude of the homeless population in New Orleans.

Camps, apparently long-term, beneath the interstates (in the shade—very important). Right out in the open. A man sprawled on the sidewalk sleeping on Canal Street, a handful of steps from restaurants that would cost my family $150 to eat there. Another man using an umbrella to block the sun as he sleeps against a lovely old wrought-iron fence. A woman, her face a study in shame and hopelessness, sitting on a three-hundred-year-old stoop with a sign that says, “First time homeless.” I have seen literally hundreds of homeless people in the week I have been here.

Hundreds of the face of Jesus, looking at me.

The first day, the first HOUR of the first day, I should say, I pulled singles out of my wallet, just to do SOMETHING, knowing perfectly well that if we emptied our wallets, it would only take care of a dozen of these people for a day, maybe two. And yet–and yet! We are on vacation, spending money on ourselves!

Eventually, I had to resort to the very thing I despise: walking by without acknowledging. Food is expensive here, even for me. Do I go buy six orders of beignets and hand them out? Relatively cheap, but totally useless calories. Do I spend a hundred dollars buying $15 burgers and onion rings from the place next to my hotel, and hand those out?

I wish I could offer what Peter and John did in that moment by the Beautiful Gate. They were able to heal that man, give him back the ability to walk—the thing that kept him in poverty, unable to help himself.

What this experience makes so clear to me is that the problem of homelessness is one of the many that are a systemic problem, and so the solution also must be. That does not excuse me from my responsibility to see and to be made uncomfortable and to help in whatever small way I can. (Trail mix bars from the CVS two blocks down?) But it also reminds me that I have to work for justice in the larger world, because the problem isn’t mine to solve alone—it is OUR problem.

Random Reflections

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Bishop Barron’s reflection on today’s Gospel says that “taking up our cross” means more than being willing to suffer. It means absorbing violence and hatred by way of forgiveness and nonviolence.

That sentiment really struck me in light of the last two weekends’ Old Testament readings. I wrestle often with what the “prophet” part of “priest, prophet, king” means in practical terms. What troubles me is that everyone thinks they’re speaking for God, even when they stand on opposite sides of a conflict. Worldly opposition is to be expected, but human nature has a way of interpreting any opposition as persecution, thus confirming one’s own “rightness,” even if that opposition is actually an invitation from the Spirit to recognize that one’s own heart and attitudes and understanding need to grow.

How do we tell the difference?

I pray over this all the time, because it’s hardly fair to point that commentary at someone else without considering how it might apply to me too. But it troubles me how often, how glibly, we say the words “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” without realizing the soul-scouring that follows when we actually mean them.

This is all kind of scattered and disorganized, but it hopefully illustrates why Barron’s words struck me so forcefully this morning. I want to see God’s will done on earth, but I can’t change people’s minds; only God can do that, and God won’t force them; they have to be willing to be changed. So that’s two realities I have no control over. All I can do is bear the cross. Absorb the violence and hatred, and meet it with attempts at understanding and compassion rather than outrage.

Help me, God. Because this is way bigger than me.

Gratitude, round 2

The sheer volume of What Must Be Done lately has completely buried me. I am worn down, tired, and frustrated. Summer school is supposed to give the kids structure (so they don’t sit in the house fighting all day) and me time to work and see to my own “oxygen mask,” but it hasn’t worked out that way this summer.

So it’s a good thing for me to be intentional about gratitude—because, left to my own devices, I would only grouse.

I am grateful for:

Sightings of my (secular fiction) book “in the wild”–this one is Rhode Island, but I’ve gotten these shots from Colorado, California, Chicago, Florida, Oklahoma, Michigan, New Jersey, and more. Anxious book mamas can take a deep breath, seeing those shots.
Wine dinner with my husband–what a lovely evening!
Daily giggles from the Daily Buzz my chromosomally-gifted daughter does at school as part of her self-awareness, self-reporting, executive functioning IEP goal.
My patio and back yard. I’d live our here if I could.

Oh yes…and this.

DONE with driving lessons! We have a third licensed driver in the house… FINALLY.
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What are you grateful for today?

The more things change…

If you notice the copyright on this, it comes from 1986. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose 35 years is not a huge length of time. Nonetheless, it’s been more than a generation, and we’re still bickering about the same things. That feels a little disheartening to me.

The rest of this quote says, “These wounds will be healed only by greater solidarity with the poor and among the poor themselves.” Solidarity is a scary word. A lot of us live in a pretty significant bubble, which allows us to view the problems of others in an abstract way, rather than as something concrete and heartbreaking and intensely personal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no paragon of virtue in this respect. I’m no better at solidarity than anyone else, despite my best intentions. But it twinges my conscience and forms my approach to the political and social issues that so preoccupy modern discourse.

Freedom and Fraternity

There’s a lot in this section of Fratelli Tutti that should make us squirm in America. In #103, Pope Francis reminds us that freedom and equality are insufficient without dedication to concrete love of neighbor. Without making a political (he does use that word) priority of taking care of each other, liberty is nothing more than “living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit.” Liberty, as God intends it, is directed toward the welfare of the other.

And then, of course, there’s the excerpt above. What follows it is a reminder that efficiency is often at odds with the common good.

In recent years, I’ve become deeply convicted about the fundamental flaw in the whole idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” #109 addresses this. Plenty of us don’t, in fact, need help from a “proactive state,” because we’ve been born into functional educational systems and families that can get us to the doctor.

We all stand on the backs of our parents, grandparents, teachers and communities. Within our communities, we support each other; this is good. It WORKS. I certainly didn’t need any of those COVID stimulus checks, and how to use them in a way that best served the common good was a matter of no small debate in our household.

But it’s a mistake, and I would argue, contrary to Christian discipleship, to assume that simply because many of us don’t have need for a proactive state means nobody does. Look at the injustices and inequalities that litter America’s history:

These are just a few structural realities whose consequences have rippled down through history. If we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, then some among us are fighting a way, way bigger battle than others.

These are hard realities to accept in a time of such profound division. But the Cross IS hard, and the Holy Spirit gave us a shepherd at this time who’s calling us to confront the things that make us uncomfortable.

The Face Palm

My small faith group discussed the Gospel of Mark last week. It was the first time I’ve tried reading a Gospel as a unit, rather than a chapter at a time, or more likely, whatever is in the Lectionary.

A few things struck me. One was that I really understood for the first time the term “itinerant preacher.” Jesus was all over the place. He arrived on one shore of the lake to be greeted by a demoniac, and as soon as he sent the demons into the swine herd, the residents said, “Thanks but no thanks, can you just go away?”

Another thing that stuck out was the “Messianic secret.” I know that’s a thing, but reading the whole Gospel at once, I thought all those times he told people not to tell others what he’d done, he might actually have been less concerned about theology and more with very human exhaustion! He was mobbed all.the.time. He couldn’t get away from people. It must have been suffocating—crowds all the time, wherever he went. No privacy, no recovery time. It gives this introvert heart palpitations.

But my favorite insight came from one of my friends, who really clued in on this phrase from Mark: “He sighed from the depths of his spirit.” (Mark 8:12) She said, “It’s like being a parent. The kid comes and asks this thing AGAIN, and you’re like, ‘How many times do we have to go over this? How do you still not get it?’”

For the past five days, she and I have been sharing various Kid Moments that caused us to “sigh from the depths of our spirit.” It’s a running joke that I’m sure all parents can appreciate, but it resonates at a more serious level, too. There’s something bone-wearying about parenthood at times. Sometimes, you laugh at things because the other alternative is to weep. You look at the thing your kid has said or done and you think, “I have failed as a parent.” And it’s far too late to go back and correct the thing you know you did X years ago to cause it.

It’s been an enlightening experience, reading Mark as a whole. The Gospels are so sparse—so many details missing—and we hear them so often that it all sort of fades into “yada yada yada.” This exercise made it possible for me to see around the edges and glimpse a hazy, indistinct, yet concrete *realness that makes it all seem more… well, MORE. I don’t think I will ever hear Jesus, in any Gospel, rail on the blindness of the Pharisees or disciples without instantly recognizing the emotion he’s expressing.

Henceforth, in my spiritual life, this will be known as “The Face Palm.”

In Pursuit of a Thankful Spirit

Years ago I used to participate in a blog hop where bloggers, mostly women of faith, listed their blessings weekly, counting toward a thousand. It was a good spiritual exercise, but it was never great blogging–for me, anyway. You have to have a pretty strong charism for pairing words and images to make such a thing interesting to readers, and I never had the knack.

But gratitude is a much under-exercised muscle, and every so often, when my world starts circling the drain, I need a reset in gratitude. Such has been my reality lately.

So as I grind back into gear here at Intentional Catholic, I am going to devote my Thursdays to making note of what is good and beautiful and holy in my life. And if it doesn’t make much of an impression on the online world, well, that’s okay. This is for my own growth in holiness.

But even so, I invite anyone who comes across this post, whether by blog, Facebook, or Instagram, to take a moment to reset your own heart by highlighting a blessing or two in the comments.

Today, I am grateful for…

Family Bible Study with a good friend and her kids.

A fun and engaging summer school program that keeps the kids occupied and having fun at the same time.

The wisdom of middle age, which allows me to recognize that sometimes relationships can’t be repaired, and removal is necessary for one’s own spiritual and mental health.

Growth in understanding in the most important relationships in my life.

The magic–and I use that term in its holiest, most God-directed sense–of the play of light and dark along the Katy Trail, as the slanting rays of the morning sun pierce the woods in beams of light and set the soft grasses aglow with celestial light.

The iridescence of a blue bunting, racing me along the trail before darting sideways to rest in a tree.

The deep, pervasive stillness of a historic country cemetery–a place to retreat and be still with God, surrounded by buzzing bees and warm breezes.

A nap on a memorial bench beneath the wide, shady branches of a walnut grove.

The tiny fawn, smaller than the gravestones, crossing the lawn of the cemetery, which dropped to its knees and stared at me from behind a tuft of unmown grass and eventually, after deciding I posed no threat, proceeded to sniff and explore the flagpole before darting off with an ungainly, adorable gait.

Growth in trust (however far I still have to go) that no matter how screwed up everything in the world seems, God can use those events to nudge things closer to holiness. That I don’t have to carry the weight of trying to figure out how to fix things that are far too big for me.

Going around and coming around

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I’ve been absent quite a while from this site. In the past few months I published a novel, which has consumed every bit of time and energy I had and some I didn’t. But it’s time to start easing back into posting here.

This week, my small group is reading the Gospel of Mark in its entirety, and this verse really stuck out at me last night. It seems to speak eloquently to the times in which we live, as a reminder that what goes around, comes around. I don’t read this as a moral judgment, i.e., “This is how God works,” but instead as a clear-eyed recognition of the way the world works. What we sow, we will also reap, and probably more of it, whether it’s fair or not.

The good news is, it’s true of generosity and kindness as well as judgment and bitter words.

The Meaning of Mercy

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A few years ago, when Pope Francis declared the year of mercy, I spent some significant time pondering this on my personal blog. I’ve fallen off the radar here of late because, as we all either know or need to learn, “balance” means sometimes one thing has to give to make room for another, but eventually it will swing back. My writing life is buried right now under fiction work, with a book releasing in the next few weeks, and I simply haven’t had time to come over here.

So I went back to my personal blog to harvest a few more posts to fill in the gap, and the mercy posts really struck a chord. So here you go.


I once attended a workshop on writing liturgical texts in which the presenter challenged us to take out all the church-y words and see if anything of substance remained.

“Mercy” is one of those words. A throwaway word, overused into gibberish. At least, it has been for me. So when I heard about an extraordinary jubilee year of mercy, I went, “Mercy? Why mercy? What does that even mean?”

It was that last question that turned out to be the most important. The problem of this simple, hackneyed word has been gnawing at me until I’ve realized that prising apart its significance for me—both as a recipient and as a giver—is meant to shape the coming year.

I have always viewed mercy as synonymous with forgiveness. The mind, hearing “mercy,” goes straight to sin and unworthiness: I’m a pathetic, undeserving wretch whose sins have been forgiven despite my general loser-li-ness. (I can coin words late at night with the best of them.)

The idea of confronting our own brokenness is really important, especially in these days of “what’s right for you may not be right for me.” Built into our identity as modern men and women is a deeply-held resistance to admitting that we treat ourselves, our fellow human beings, and our world with careless disregard for our/their/its innate dignity. Mercy speaks to the humility of admitting we do crappy things sometimes. It speaks to the recognition that we deserve just consequences for our actions and instead we’re blessed—in fact, showered—no, deluged—with goodness. Goodness we usually fail to recognize, because we’re too busy asking for more, more, more.

But if that’s all there is to the word “mercy,” then what’s up with those “corporal and spiritual works”? How do they fit into all this? What do they have to do with undeserved forgiveness?

I’m not the only person wrestling with this question. I’ve been reading anything I come across on the blogosphere, and this single quote is the one that caught me:

“Mercy is being willing to enter into the chaos of another.”

I thought, Yes! That’s it! I understand that!

Image by Kasun Chamara from Pixabay

It’s far easier to pass judgment on the guy on the street corner begging for money. To say, “He doesn’t really need it, he’s trying to take advantage of people’s gullibility.” But mercy says, “Okay, I will enter into his chaos by contemplating the decades of days and hours and influences I can’t possibly know, the countless steps that brought him to this particular intersection on this particular day, and pry my brain open to admit that I simply cannot know whether he is or is not truly in need, and as such I am compelled, by virtue of his dignity as a human being, to give him the benefit of the doubt…and help him.”

Mercy.

It’s far easier to cling to the distance separating us from the chaos in the Middle East–to say, “We can’t possibly ensure that Those People are not terrorists; therefore it is only prudent to keep Them all out and send our riches Over There so Someone Else can take care of Them.” But surely I’m not the only one whose conscience whispers, If not us, who? Where is there a place of refuge for so many? Mercy responds to worldly prudence with a call to dismantle the geographical wall we’ve been hiding behind for two centuries and enter into the chaos that the rest of the world already knows so well.

Mercy.

I’m finding that mercy, far from being meaningless, is an enormous, life-altering word. Terrifying, too, because it shoves me out of my safe, familiar, comfortable world full of safe, familiar, comfortable platitudes. To live mercy is to enter into the chaos of families shattered by abuse. To enter into the existence of stomach-turning poverty that, if viewed head-on, would force me–even chintzy, never-spend-a-dime-if-you-can-make-do-with-a-penny me–to confront my own excesses and make changes I don’t want to make.

Mercy, I am beginning to realize, is a shortcut to a darned uncomfortable conscience.