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.

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.

“Demanding and even tiring”

I’ve been swamped lately with other professional obligations, and Intentional Catholic has had to take a back seat. When I came downstairs this morning, I knew I needed to dig back into Fratelli Tutti, but I was not prepared for the section I was reading to speak so powerfully to the event coming up next Sunday.

March 21st is World Down Syndrome Day, chosen because Down syndrome, or Trisomy 21, is THREE copies of the TWENTY-FIRST chromosome.

For fourteen years now, Down syndrome advocacy has been a driving force in my life. I was not prepared to be a special needs mom. Having grown up in the pro-life movement, the moment when I had to confront my own distinctly un-pro-life reaction to the news was a pretty bruising collision with the mirror.

The point Pope Francis makes in this excerpt really hit home after a decade and a half of mighty struggles on behalf of our daughter. “A demanding and even tiring process,” he calls it, and let me tell you—you have no idea just HOW demanding and tiring.

But he’s right: this demanding and tiring process DOES contribute to the formation of a conscience capable of acknowledging each individual as unique and unrepeatable. I would not be where I am today, in my growth as a Christian, had God not placed this precious gift in my womb, forcing me to look in the mirror and recognize a host of inconsistencies between what I claimed to believe and how those beliefs conflicted with other deeply-held convictions about how the world was “supposed” to work.

I will never be done grappling with my profound failures around these issues, but I am grateful for the gift of my child, who to this day stretches me beyond what I think I am capable of.

For the next week, leading up to World Down Syndrome Day, I will share here some of the reflections I’ve written or presented over the years as I wrestled with all this.

The First Step

This is part of the conclusion of Pope Francis’ reflections on the Good Samaritan. I find that it’s easy for these parables and teachings to become trite by repetition. It’s not a fault of the story, it’s a fault of human nature: we start tuning out b/c hey, we already know this story. I did a presentation on this parable a year or two ago, and reflecting on it anew really changed my relationship with it. This reflection does the same thing–renews and adds insight to something I’ve known for a long time.

Pope Francis spent this reflection pointing out that this parable is about individuals, but it’s also about groups of people. That it applies in person-to-person situations close to home, but also in communities and nations and the world. And there’s no neutral in this story: at each level, you’re either a victim, a passerby, or a person who undertakes the uncomfortable work of engaging. Most of us end up being passers-by, but we don’t want to admit it, and so we come up with all kinds of excuses. Hence, the bickering over policy that has caused the Church to divide along “abortion” and “everything else.” I see this as a call to recognize that those entrenched philosophies are themselves the problem. A sin.

I’m not sure how to change myself. I still want to point everything I read at others. That’s my sin. And so I begin simply by admitting it. Change my heart, O God.

This quote is me

I’ve been wrestling painfully lately with what it means to love people with whom there seems to be so little common ground. People who believe and do and say things I find so horribly contrary to my faith and world view. A friend told me that Fratelli Tutti‘s third chapter addresses that.

But first I had to read chapter two–a reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Of all the quotes that jumped out at me in that section (there were many!), I picked this one to share, because this is the truth that has twinged my own conscience in recent years. I drifted very comfortably in a black-and-white view of the world for years, until it impacted me directly when I was given the gift of a child with a developmental disability. This quote was me. And my spiritual journey now is deeply formed by wondering if, in fact, this quote still is me, and I just don’t know it.

The more I interact with Pope Francis’ writings, the more in awe I am, the more grateful that the Spirit gave us this man to lead us during this particular moment in history. And once again, I beg everyone: READ THIS ENCYCLICAL.

St. Jude Novena

(If you want to receive the daily email from which I took this screen shot, click here.)

Unity has been on my mind for a long time, but particularly in the past few months. The divisions in our country and among Catholics are profound. What I have come to realize is that nothing I do or say is going to change that. I don’t see a way out of this. Since, oh, October sometime, I have been praying for God to navigate a path none of us can see–a path that will get us out of this toxic sludge pit we’ve dug for ourselves. The one that is drowning us.

Last week, after chewing over all this with a devout Catholic friend, I decided to pray a St. Jude novena. It seems appropriate, doesn’t it? St. Jude, the patron of desperate cases and lost causes (Wiki’s phraseology) or “patron saint of the impossible” (St. Jude Shrine’s phraseology). If ever there were a lost cause, a desperate case, or an impossible situation, it would be the search for unity in our time.

And when Pope Francis’ daily email yesterday sounded the same call–prayer, because unity is actually beyond us–I knew it was a divine nudge.

Today I embark on this prayer and I invite you all to join me. My intention is: “for a path to unity in God’s will for our Church and our nation, and for the conversion of all our hearts to make that possible.”

I will post it daily on Facebook, but for today, here is the link to the prayer.

Putting a face on the reason masking is our Christian call

We had two altercations with people over masks last weekend.

First of all, let me say that I try very hard not to go out at high traffic times. But when one’s husband works full time and you have things you need to do together, sometimes there are only high traffic times.

I’ll just describe one of our interactions. I asked one man who had his gaiter hanging around his neck to please put on his mask. He responded by rolling his eyes. Let me tell you, it’s quite something, seeing a 60-something white man roll his eyes like a teenager. He muttered something about not living in a communist country, or something equally (pardon my bluntness) idiotic and totally at odds with both Christianity and reality.

It’s mind boggling, how wearing a mask to protect the health of others got twisted into a political wedge. A few months ago a fellow Catholic on Facebook posted that it really bothered her that the Church had “bought into” the narrative that brotherly love required us to mask and distance.

I was dumbfounded.

So I’m here today to put a face on “brotherly love.”

This is my daughter. She is charming. She loves to sing. She loves to dance. She loves babies and ice cream and pasta. Since she was a toddler, she has had an uncanny ability to enter a room and instantly zero in on the one person who most needs the love of God. She goes to them and loves them.

Wherever she goes, she brings joy and love. She brings God, in other words, without ever speaking a word about it.

She also has Down syndrome.

When she was six weeks old, she contracted RSV. She had floppy airways and a heart defect that caused her blood to spin instead of properly oxygenating. She spent more than a week on a ventilator. For children that age, 93% oxygen saturation is the threshold for hospitalization. Hers dipped to the 40s every time she had a coughing fit. The doctors told my husband to “prepare himself.”

At 6.5 months, she had heart surgery to repair her heart. They stopped her heart. Put her on a heart-lung bypass. And she was on a ventilator again.

We thought that would be the end of respiratory issues, but it wasn’t. At 2.25 years, she developed pneumonia and was in the ICU, on a ventilator, yet again.

Since then, she’s been very healthy. My rational mind tells me she’d probably be fine if she got COVID, but the fact is that her airways are naturally floppy, and now they’re scarred from multiple trips down ventilator lane.

My daughter puts a face on the reason for masking. We make this sacrifice in order to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Nobody likes masking. Nobody likes being forced to hold loved ones at a physical distance. Nobody likes any of this. But if that’s what it takes to protect the life and health of others, then that is the Christian call.