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.

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.

Going around and coming around

Background image by arielrobin, via Pixabay

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.

The chicken and the egg (or: double standards in Christianity)

“Hey,” my husband whispered to me before Holy Thursday Mass. “I forgot to tell you. Pew research did a new survey and the number of people who go to church is below 50% for the first time ever.”

My first reaction was: And Christianity will blame the secular culture instead of looking in the mirror and examining whether our own failures are the problem.

Actually, it’s probably a chicken-and-egg situation. The culture is definitely getting more hostile to religion. But then again, religion keeps giving more reasons for the hostility.

I know. Them’s fightin’ words, but painful though they might be, I think they’re fair.

The trouble is that the Gospel tells us we’re SUPPOSED to expect hostility from the world. But somehow, we’ve translated that into a persecution complex. We never stop to examine our own attitudes, words, and behaviors for how well they reflect the Gospel. We just assume that any pushback we encounter must, by definition, be the culture’s problem rather than ours. It couldn’t possibly be that we are misrepresenting our faith.

Meanwhile, Christianity fails to recognize how incredibly uneven we are in HOW we choose to stand at odds with the world. There are these huge double standards.

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, EXCEPT when it requires taxpayer money to support people most at risk of feeling the “need” for abortion (because of generational poverty and inequality of opportunity, etc., etc).

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, except when it infringes on “personal freedoms” (cough-cough-masking).

Like: Government should stay out of my business, except when it’s about homosexual relationships or abortion, and then of course it’s the government’s business, absolutely.

Or: Sexual assault and harassment are sinful, but how dare we ruin the life of the accused? (Never mind the life of the victim. Whatever. We’ve been sacrificing them for millennia.)

Or: Honesty and integrity are fundamental to Christian belief—they’re in the Ten Commandments—but how many people have wholeheartedly, even rabidly, embraced a lie about stolen elections that has zero basis in fact?

I’ve been trying not to write these kinds of posts lately. Nobody needs me haranguing them; it’s not particularly effective at anything except making people mad. So I’ve been trying to focus my posts here on working out my own spiritual journey instead of lambasting everything that’s wrong with the world. I have spent this Lent praying for “enemies,” and more importantly, for the heart to do so authentically while remaining in union with God’s will. So much is happening in my heart this year—I am journaling it, bit by bit, but I’m deep in the weeds and I can’t synthesize it yet.

But there are times when my frustration comes out. And this is one of them. And maybe, after all, Good Friday is not a bad time to have our collective conscience stung.

A Post For All Who Call Themselves Pro-Life

Today, as we march toward World Down Syndrome Awareness Day this Sunday, I’m harvesting another post I wrote long ago on my personal blog–one that marks a big step on the journey I’ve often referenced here, the journey from a black-and-white world view to the recognition that all issues have to be weighed together, because they all exert influence on each other.

I wrote this in 2011, and I’m going to leave the text exactly as it stood then.


My chromosomally-gifted girly-girl at age four, which would have been around the time this post was written.

A year and a half ago, I was working on legislation to ensure that children with disabilities weren’t denied therapies because of their disability. Our sponsor (my mom) was approaching her term limit, and we needed a new one. We knew we had to find a Republican, because the legislature is Republican-controlled. We also knew that putting mandates on insurers could be a tough sell. Still, we felt sure people on both sides of the aisle would recognize that this issue was bigger than political philosophy.

I contacted a former Republican state senator who was well-connected and reportedly supportive on disability issues. I told him what we were hoping to accomplish, and asked him to suggest people to approach as sponsors.

His reply raised my blood pressure for weeks afterward. (Eventually, its presence in my inbox became such an open sore that I had to just delete it. Just thinking about it still gets me going.) However he intended it, it came across as condescending: a man clearly much wiser than this do-gooder little girl, and determined to teach me the error of my ways. His philosophy went something like this:

Insurance is not meant for ordinary care. It’s meant for emergencies, for extraordinary circumstances, cataclysmic events you can’t anticipate. Therapy is normal, ongoing care for kids with special needs; thus, insurers shouldn’t have to pay for it unless they want to. And the government certainly shouldn’t be putting a mandate on them. It’s the responsibility of the families to provide for their children what they think is important. He understood how tough this was for families to accept, but nonetheless that was the way it was.

I’m sure you can appreciate why I hit the roof when I read this email. Never mind that raising a child with special needs is extraordinary circumstances and something you often can’t anticipate. I had the good sense not to respond at all, because there wasn’t one polite thing I could have said. But believe me, I’ve composed many, many responses in my mind. And the more time passes, the more convinced I am of the grave flaw in his argument.

Because this man calls himself prolife—by which he means that he believes abortion is wrong. But respect for life is so much bigger than abortion. It’s an attitude that should permeate all of life, in all its forms and manifestations. Prolife politicians are very good at being outraged by the systematic termination of “imperfect” children. But if you’re going to ask people to shoulder the responsibility of caring for children with disabilities, you can’t abandon them once the child is born.

Missouri has a great program called First Steps, which provides these services. But in rural areas, it’s hard to find providers to come to the home. And First Steps ends at age three, after which kids enter the school system. We’re lucky—we have a great early childhood program where I live. But we’re in an urban area. What about families in small towns without the resources to provide for kids through the schools?

When I was serving on the Children’s Therapy Act committee, we heard stories of people who had to sell their homes to pay for their kids’ treatment, people who deliberately stayed in low-paying jobs so that they would qualify for Medicaid, which does cover these therapies.

How dare politicians stand on a soapbox, claiming that all life is precious, that children with disabilities have a right to live, and then turn their backs on families who actually have them? Do they not realize that, unlike insurance companies, parents can’t negotiate reduced rates? Do they not realize how crippling the expense of therapy becomes? Or do they just not care?

Political philosophy is all well and good, but it cannot be so rigid that it leaves behind those it purports to serve. I happen to think that minimizing regulations is a sound principle—within reason. But the reality is that power companies aren’t going to implement environmental reform if it’s going to cost them money. CEOs aren’t going to give up their huge bonuses just because the economy’s rough on the little guy. Some things MUST be mandated, or they won’t happen at all.

Doesn’t it make more sense to get these kids the treatment they need to become productive, (tax-paying) members of society? And if we don’t, if we shove the disabled population into a corner, behind a wall where their lack of function doesn’t make everyone else uncomfortable—if we don’t show them the respect they are due as human beings by providing them the tools necessary to integrate into society—then how can we be horrified and outraged by the eugenics of aborting the “imperfect”?

I share this example today in the hope that it will open people’s eyes to the many ways besides abortion in which life is disrespected. We’re accustomed to hearing about certain issues: death penalty, abstinence education, end-of-life issues—but respect for life is everywhere, all the time, in every single issue we face as voters. As we head into an election cycle, I beg you: challenge your candidates to man up and be consistent. If you’re going to respect life, you have to respect life in all its forms.

“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.