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.

Judgment and Justice

This morning’s reading presents a real challenge. “Stop judging and you will not be judged.” (Luke 6:37). I know very well that judginess is a great fault of mine (and a great many others in these polarized times, across the spectrum of disagreements). It twinges my conscience.

I was roundly scolded a few weeks ago for being judgy about people who wouldn’t wear masks (one of whom threw around the word “communism” to justify it).

But at that time, COVID cases were still quite high, and people refusing to wear masks were willfully putting others at risk. There’s an injustice being perpetrated there, and while we’re not supposed to judge others, God is also all about justice. Where does discipleship lie in that situation?

That gets me thinking about other big disagreements. To me, it seems patently obvious that some attitudes and behaviors NEED to be judged and called out by faithful Christians, because they are violations of Godly justice. For instance: the refusal to acknowledge that racism still impacts the world in institutional ways.

Where is the line between calling out injustice and, well, judgment?

All this illustrates that the seemingly straightforward sound bytes of the Gospel are a whole lot more complicated to apply in the real world. Maybe that’s why we so often give up and go for the over-simplistic view. (Hence, the Chesterton quote.)

I don’t pretend to have the answer to the conundrum. I only wrestle with it with as much integrity as I can.

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.

Now and Not Yet

As I continue praying “Advent With Oscar Romero,” I find that so much of what he says resonates. In recent months, I’ve encountered a perspective that baffles me–one that argues we shouldn’t work for justice in the here and now, because the only thing that matters is Heaven. St. Oscar Romero’s words speak to this beautifully. He says, “In preaching the gospel I do not speak about a non-incarnated gospel, but one that is incarnated and that enlightens the realities of our time.”

And then, farther down, he summarizes the “virtues that the Word of God highlights: first, poverty and hunger for God; second, vigilance and faith; third, Christian presence and action in the world.”

What I read in this is a reminder that God came among us in bodily form for a reason–to demonstrate that what happens in the physical world matters to God. (Poverty, racism, injustices of all kinds.) And therefore, it should matter to us, too.

Pope Francis on the Problem with Social Media

Background image by Gerd Altmann, via Pixabay

Every time I sit down to break open another section of Fratelli Tutti, I’m blown away all over again. I know the amount of Stuff we have to wade through in modern life is punishing, even within the writings and teachings available to Catholics by Catholics. There is value in reading the words of past popes.

But we also need to listen to THIS Pope. Reading Fratelli Tutti makes it crystal clear why the Holy Spirit chose him to lead the Church at this point in human history. He doesn’t get fancy, he doesn’t spend time being brainy. He’s right in the thick of it, speaking words we understand, pointing out all the things we already know, and drawing the connection between “the way we do things” and “how we got where we are.”

The section from #42-50 deals with the way we use social media. Being friends online has its uses, but he’s pointing out truths. You can make true friends on social media, and I have. But most of our contacts there are shallow and social, not full of depth. Social media is all about the next big thing, so building the “consensus that matures over time” is not its strength. Of course online disagreements fall to toxicity. Our goal in social media is to get likes, to spark a reaction, so really, Pope Francis points out, the fundamental purpose is to feed individuality, not community.

As someone who is trying to build a following for Intentional Catholic and for my secular fiction, this strikes very true. I got on social media specifically to network with Catholic musicians and fiction authors, and it serves its purpose well. I greatly value the relationships I’ve built here. Social media is great for helping us forge connections. And I can say honestly that there are people I consider friends now whom I’ve never met in person.

But in this year when conventions, conferences, and retreats are canceled, we’re all deeply mourning the loss of the in-person gatherings, because those are where we most often make the lasting connections.

Anyway, I’m getting pretty far afield in my stream-of consciousness reflection. Pope Francis’ point is that social media is structured to encourage us to try to stand out (an individualistic endeavor), and the algorithms are built to show us more of what we already like (or hate), as measured by what we like or comment on. So we end up getting shoved into those echo chambers, or into toxic environments—and very often both at the same time.

And because we’re a step removed from a lot of the people we’re interacting with, it’s easy to get ramped up into “remarkable hostility, insults, abuse, defamation and verbal violence destructive of others, and this with a lack of restraint that could not exist in physical contact without tearing us all apart.”

That last phrase is important. We all say things on social media we would NEVER say to another person’s face. And unfortunately we’ve started calling it “telling the truth in love,” and justifying it by saying that sometimes love hurts.

Which is true, but we’re ramping ourselves up and then deciding that our own “wisdom” is sufficient to discern what is the “truth.”

So when he says, “This has now given free rein to ideologies,” I think, YES. That’s exactly right!

And when he says, “Halfway through, we interrupt him and want to contradict what he has not even finished saying,” I think of all the careful, thoughtful attempts I’ve made to engage with people, and how they react to one phrase they think they can attack, and ignore all the rest.

And then I try to check my own conscience, because the ability to recognize it in others does not mean I am immune myself.

I know I say this every time, but please read this document. God gave us Pope Francis right now for a reason.

Christian Brotherhood and Immigration

Background image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

Returning to Fratelli Tutti today. This comes from a section subtitled “An Absence of Human Dignity on the Borders,” calls out conflicts around immigration as a violation of Christian brotherhood. “They,” in this case, refers to migrants.

This quote struck me with particular force because it encapsulates what I’ve been struggling with in arguments over race and immigration. In the abstract, we all agree that racism is bad and immigrants have human dignity, but whenever discussions of particulars arise, an almighty outcry rises in protest, saying such and such a thing is not racist, that of course they have human dignity BUT (fill in the blank). Here, Pope Francis calls that out.

One thing I found particularly interesting: the assertion that communities whose people flee are losing “their most vigorous and enterprising elements” (#38). I’d never thought about that. His point is that in addition to the right to immigrate, there’s also the right to be able to stay where you are. People flee when that right is violated. So in addition to justice for immigrants seeking new homes, responsibility also rests on those who create the dire situations that force people to flee.

As tempting as it is to read this section in light of U.S. immigration battles, we have to remember we aren’t the only ones dealing with conflicts over migration. #40 actually names Europe as particularly at risk of prioritizing its own citizens so high, it sets aside the rights of migrants.

This section ends with a heartfelt acknowledgment of the fears that cause people’s reaction to immigration, and begs us to face those fears and move beyond them, because they cause us to act in ways that are “intolerant, closed and perhaps even–without realizing it–racist.” The closing statement is just beautiful: “Fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other.”

In Which I Begin To Understand Anger

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

This week, a group one of my kids is involved in pretty much gave up on pandemic-mitigating strategies. Because now the weather is cold and it’s, y’know, hard, because you can’t be outside anymore.

And for this reason, we’re going to have to say no to at least one major event this child really wanted to attend.

I had a conversation with the leadership, asking if the group would consider voluntarily taking on masking. I explained the medical history that makes our caution necessary: a child with naturally floppy airways who nearly died of RSV as a newborn, had open heart surgery at 7 months, and was intubated again at age 2 for pneumonia.

I got about the response I expected. The burden is on us to just abstain.

I expected it, but it made me angry. In fact, my reaction bordered on rage.

I totally get being tired of COVID limits. Me too, people. Me too. But masking is such a small sacrifice to make for the good of others. We want America to be a Christian nation, but when the rubber meets the road, what does that mean?

Well, Jesus was clear that the most vulnerable among us are supposed to be our priority.

To say, “Hey, if you think you’re at risk, just stay home” places the entire burden on those who already bear the heaviest burden–and to those who love them. (Like my kid.) It forces them into isolation that erodes their mental health, all so the strongest people don’t have to be bothered with small sacrifices like wearing a mask that would reduce spread and make the world safer for more vulnerable people.

Where is Jesus in that world view?

But what was most significant last night was what I learned from that hard spark of outrage: helpless, choking, impotent rage. I felt powerless against an inexorable machine that was perpetrating an injustice that stands in direct opposition to Christian values–but which the perpetrators do not recognize as such.

And for the first time, I really “got”—even if only the barest, palest shade of an echo–what it must feel like to be a person of color in the United States.

I understood why the Black community is angry. I understood at some speck of a level what it might feel like from the inside of a system that thinks itself righteous while imposing unjust burdens on entire communities. And which, when challenged, blames the victims.

The offense against me (really, my child) is ludicrously small. It barely registers on the scale. But it really clarified for me how a lifetime of micro-aggressions would cause exactly the kinds of reactions we’ve seen across the country this year in response to police violence against unarmed black men. I can’t even imagine living every day with the kind of righteous anger I was feeling last night. Let alone multiplying it exponentially.

I can’t walk a mile in the shoes of a person of color, but last night, for the first time, I felt like I kind of understood.

Respect, Honor, Believe: Abuse and Assault in the Church

I’ve been involved in liturgical music since junior high, when my 7th grade teacher invited me to join the parish “folk group.” I also played flute with my parents, who were song leaders, and with the parish choir on holidays.

That involvement deepened as I studied music in college and grad school, and of course, now I write and publish music for the Church.

So this past spring’s news about David Haas was particularly horrifying to me. I had idolized David for years and I knew (know?) him, though not as well as some in my community of liturgical composers.

We spent time this fall coming together for webinars, trying to form our understanding and see how we, as composers for the Church, can make a difference.

The presentation that stayed with me most was given by Dr. Hilary Scarsella, who works with Into Account and the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. She talked about approaching discussions of abuse with an attitude of “survivor-centered response.” Too often, the response to allegations of assault, harassment and abuse is to alienate the accuser and make her experience secondary to preserving the man’s reputation.

For instance:

  • What if she’s making it up? Innocent until proven guilty!
  • How dare we ruin this man’s life?
  • What about forgiveness? Second chances? We’re Christians!
  • Lots of guys through history have done bad things, and we still listen to their music. Why can’t we separate the man from his music?

All of these arguments, highlighted in the presentation, are reactions I’ve heard within my own communities. In fact, let’s be honest. They’re all things I thought or expressed myself in earlier accusations of abuse and assault that didn’t hit quite so close to home.

When you recognize yourself in something you now recognize as morally problematic, it also makes you recognize your responsibility to speak up.

The thing is, what do all those arguments tell survivors of abuse? When we say, “What if it isn’t true?” we call them liars. And THAT is how we’ve managed to have generations of dysfunction around this subject. Why would women come forward if they know they’re only going to be shamed, disbelieved, and silenced?

And then, if they’ve remained silent for years *because* they know they’ll be shamed, disbelieved, and silenced, but then they finally decide to do so because, say, someone is about to be put into a position of great influence? Well, then they’re shamed, disbelieved, and silenced *again*, because if they really had this experience, why didn’t they come forward years ago?

Women always bear the burden. The culture and the system are rigged in favor of the abusers.

But as for truth versus lies: in the case of David Haas, more than forty women have come forward at this point. To cling to the “what if it’s not true?” argument is to defy our God-given reason.

All of the argument listed above tell the victims, “My comfort is more important than your trauma.” Because that, after all, is why we don’t want to confront the hard questions. If we have to give up singing David Haas’ music, it will be uncomfortable. We’ll be sad.

But if we DO keep singing them, what does that do to the victims? It means their own churches and liturgies are minefields of trauma, week in, week out. The community that should support them, the liturgy that should help heal and sustain them, is instead re-traumatizing them. EVERY. WEEK.

Is our comfort really more important than that?

As for forgiveness–sure, forgiveness is critical to Christian living. But what does that mean? Does that mean the perpetrator gets a pass and the victims–once again–have to bear the burden? There’s no way that’s what God means by “forgiveness.” It’s got to be our understanding of forgiveness that has to grow. Maybe it’s time we do the hard work of figuring THAT out.

Finally: yes, there is a loss of a beloved repertoire. But who’s to blame for that? Not the victims. We need to put the responsibility where it belongs–on the perpetrator–and stop asking the victims to bear it instead.

These are the questions Dr. Scarsella posed (and which now are filtered through my own experiences). I share them now because there’s no doubt in my mind that some of those who read this are wrestling with some of the same questions and the same resistance.

It’s really hard to overcome a lifetime of cultural conditioning, but we as a Church have lost so much moral credibility since the sex abuse scandal came to light. The Haas situation is yet another black eye in the same area. We, as Church, have GOT to learn to confront these hard, uncomfortable issues so that we can fix them. First, because victims of abuse are God’s beloved, and they deserve to be treated as such. And second, because our dysfunction is getting in the way of our credibility to spread the Gospel.