Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bridging the Language Gap

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works. Fr. Mike reflects on his experience of trying to learn Spanish in his new ministry in Camden, and the challenges that accompany this new task. It is easy for us to resist anything that takes work, but by embracing the challenge, we can understand more about what it means to be human and enter into meaningful relationships with those who we believe are different from us. Work for justice is meaningless unless we are willing to meet people where they are and enter into their worlds. Language is one important aspect of all people's worlds, and Fr. Mike captures this well in the following entry.

Is there anything closer to us than our language? We use language inside our minds to think. Words enable us to connect to others and to God. They enable us to understand feelings and experiences. We have vocabulary to express everything from the light and fun to the profound and serious. Language is such a complicated and human thing: nearly as close to us as our breath or each beat of our heart.

Language is a huge part of the experience of Camden. Most of our people are new Americans from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, or Mexico. There are also families from other regions of Latin America, and even one French speaking family at Mass each Sunday from Senegal. Though we have been here since August 2008, I have just in September begun leading the celebration of Mass in Spanish. I began gradually, starting with the opening rites: the sign of the cross and the litany of praise at the beginning of Mass, “Senor, ten piedad. Cristo, ten piedad. Senor, ten piedad.” ---Familiar, short and repetitive. Over the months of this semester, I have haltingly expanded the amount of Spanish prayers to the point where I can read the entire Mass---minus gospel and homily---in my new language. “Read” is the correct verb; I barely raise my eyes from the page. One Sunday, I got to the word “merezcamos” toward the end of the Eucharistic Prayer and thought to myself, “Why did I not practice more?” Defeated by the sight of all those consonants, I just said, “and an ‘M. word’ that I can’t say … por tu Hijo Jesucristo. Amen.” Not very professional.

The recent comment of a woman after the Spanish weekday Liturgy encouraged me to plunge into the entire Mass. She said, “You know more Spanish than you think.” (“No,” I thought, “I really don’t.”) She went on, “No matter how badly you pronounce all the words or how many sounds you get wrong, we are grateful that you try.” I was tempted to just let her comment stand as a well-meaning, backhanded compliment. But what she says is true; there is something to just doing it. The fact that I am getting better with the prayers I have been using for a couple months—gives me confidence that there can be progress.

I never studied Spanish in school. I took French beginning in 8th grade and continuing into college. French has been very helpful for pilgrimage to Salesian sites: Troyes, Annecy, and Dijon, and for greeting our African family at Mass, “bon jour.” We had to take Latin in the seminary. I resisted it at the time, but I am now grateful for the exposure.

Language is so complicated. But the woman from morning Mass was right to push me to try more.

My Spanish is emerging from a primordial soup of sounds. Music at our newly combined parish is amazing---uplifting and full of energy. For two and half years I have sung along, making Spanish sounds---more than actually singing. It has been like what babies do learning to talk---cooing, trying out sounds, playing with words. Now that immersion experience is paying off, albeit in the very specific context of the Mass. In addition there are more Spanish words than I realized that are part of U.S. culture: names, place names, names of food, common words and phrases (hola, adios, gracias, nada, vamos, santa, san, amigo, senor) all help. Familiarity with Latin and French give some clues for Spanish words in the soup. Cognates, Spanish words that are similar in English, help a lot.

The analogy with baby sounds brings us to a major issue for people learning a new language. It can be very humiliating---or humbling. Essayist David Sedaris writes about the frustrations and realities of trying to make a new language your own in his book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. He writes that he realizes he sounds like his immigrant Greek grandfather in the U.S. He realizes that his vocabulary and understanding of how things are said is just never going to be anything like natural and smooth. And he is a writer---someone who relishes expressing ideas with crisp and vivid language. There is no way to get around the fact that this is a handicap. He’s an adult, but in his adopted culture, he has to talk baby talk and endure the assumptions that come with that.

My experience of learning another language in this way, gives a partial window into the experience of our immigrant neighbors. The Oblate pastor here, Matt Hillyard, often comments how patient people are about his Spanish language efforts, noting that trying to speak a foreign language is what they do all day. So they know what it is like to make errors---and to just go on doing the best they can.

DSW volunteer, Tim Gallagher, teaches English to four young guys newly arrived from the Dominican Republic. Observing this process has given another window into how complicated language is---even though native speakers can take it for granted. One day I drove them home with Tim, and I listened to them learn to use the words “right” and “left.” What could be more simple? But it was not for them. Listen to how many sounds are involved in “left.” Look at the word “right;” how do we get that sound from that combination of letters? (Another example is the word I messed up recently in a newsletter: medal ---or metal, meddle, mettle.)

This experience in 21st century Camden fits the pattern of immigration to the U.S. since the beginning. People describe neighborhoods in Camden in the 30s and 40s where everyone spoke Italian or Polish or Puerto Rican Spanish. At one point in the 1800s New York City had the largest German speaking population of any city, more than Vienna, second only to Berlin.

Though I try to claim that I am 200% Irish, my father actually is Polish. His parents came from Europe as young adults and learned to speak only very broken English. His parish grade school taught class in both languages. This was bilingual education before the word was invented. But no one taught our generation even a single word of Polish.
This is often the pattern in our neighborhood as well: older people speak only Spanish, working age people speak both, but children understand Spanish, but are most comfortable with English.

Highlighting the other half of my background, I sometimes joke that I grew up speaking Gaelic at home, but of course that is not true. But the experience of the Irish having our very language taken from us, gives some understanding of older generations of Latino people here who morn the fact the youngest generation might lose the language of their people. Language carries the culture and part of their identity. But the Irish have famously made our own the language of our bullying neighbor. Our writers and talkers make masterful use of the English. So Latinos make English their own, enriching the living language in the process.

This experience colors how we might hear comments like, “Why don’t they just learn English?” Or “He/she doesn’t even try to speak English.” Or “This is America; speak English.” Language is a complicated tool; patience and understanding are called for.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Teen Reflects on Service in Camden

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Emma Dolson, a student at Georgetown Visitation Prep in Washington, DC, who did service in Camden this summer with De Sales Service Works.

This summer, I went to Camden, New Jersey for a week, with the intention of getting 50 service hours. This summer, I left Camden, New Jersey a changed person who gained SO much more than required service hours.

To put it simply, Camden was life-changing. I know most people say that about service trips, but I really, really mean it, as I am sure the rest of the girls that went on the trip would say as well. I’ll tell you one of the many experiences I had, to give you an idea of what we did from August 2 to August 6, 2010.

The first morning we were there, half of us went to the Cathedral to give out sandwich bags to the homeless. At first, all we did was pack the bags with different snacks. But after, we each got a chance to actually hand them out to the people. We were instructed to say hi, and have a smile on, which didn’t seem too hard. For my turn, I went up to the door and began to give bags out.

Most of the people that came up looked homeless. But then a girl came up, and she told me her name was Kelly. She is 24. I had a skewed vision of what I thought homeless people looked like, and she definitely did not fit the profile. She was pretty, young, fit. She looked just like us. I remembered her because of how out of place she looked. The next day, we went to a homeless day shelter. Again, we were instructed to say hi with a smiling face, and try to start up a conversation. This was the hardest part for me, and I think for most girls there. My mom, one of the chaperones, came with us that day. She, like the rest of us, was uneasy, but—I’m sure to try and set a good example for us—sat with a couple and began to talk. It was Kelly and her boyfriend. Apparently, Kelly was from a wealthy family in Philadelphia, and an avid swimmer in high school. However, she got addicted to heroin, and her family kicked her out. So now, she and her boyfriend are living under a bridge and struggling through every day to help each other stop taking drugs. My mom got the whole story, and by the end all three were in tears.

After we left, my mom said she was going to buy them a month’s worth of bus tokens so they could temporarily live with Kelly’s boyfriend’s family, and try and sort their lives out. They only had enough money to pay for medicine to keep them off heroin, but not enough for transportation to his mom’s house. The next day, I saw Kelly again at the sandwich service. I told her who I was, and the look on her face when she remembered my mom was the happiest face I’d seen on anyone in Camden. Both she and her boyfriend could not thank my mom (through me) enough.

So my mom gave Kelly a month’s worth of bus fare. But more than that, she gave the gift of her time and recognized Kelly’s humanity. People in poverty are not used to others listening to their stories, so simply giving your time to listen really means a lot. At that moment, I realized that little acts of kindness can go a long way. You don’t need to do something huge to make a difference. When people have nothing, giving a smile and a happy hello seriously impact that person’s life. My mom made a difference in their lives. All of us there made a difference in the lives of the people that we met. And, most importantly, they made a difference in our lives.
It’s hard to explain a service trip, as most people who have been on one would say. There is just something about the experience that cannot, no matter how hard you try, be put into words. So I can’t really tell you how it feels to go to Camden. I can, however, tell you to go. So go. Go play in an open fire hydrant with kids from the projects. Go talk to a homeless person, give them your story and listen to theirs.

Camden changed my life. And I know it changed my mom’s. Helping others, especially this close to home, and realizing that they aren’t much different from you and me, put my life into perspective, and I am so grateful I participated in this trip.

Thank you!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

November Saints of Justice

Editor's Note: The following blog entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ.

Two of my favorite saints have feast days in the second half of November. I want to share some highlights of their lives. Each gives us a good example of Christian charity and work for justice in the particular circumstances of his life and culture.

St. Roque Gonzalez, SJ, served in an amazing project referred to as the “Reductions.” The name comes from the Spanish verb reducciones, “to gather together.” These missions gathered the Guarani Indians together for their protection and advancement in the colonial world. The Jesuits shared the cutting-edge advancements of their day in agriculture, technology, arts, reading and writing and the gospel. They helped the nomadic Indian peoples establish settled communities where they shaped an economy that combined collective ventures with private enterprises, and where there was security from exploitation and enslavement.

Heaven on Earth
Summing up their approach to service, St. Roque wrote, “God does not command the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ to be preached with the noise of arms and with pillage. What he rather commands is the example of a good life and holy teaching.” In fact the sound that accompanied life in the Reductions was most often amazing music, both the highly refined Baroque music of the time and the sound of flutes, pipes, whistles and fireworks that the Indians loved. The movie The Mission tells the story and features Ennio Morricone’s breathtaking music capturing the love of beauty in these communities. http://youtu.be/MuyQQD-EAOQ The missionaries relied on the belief that the beauty, truth and goodness in human endeavors point to the Ultimate, to God, and will lead people to conversion and the rich, full life of the Gospel.

This approach is one that St. Roque shared with St. Francis de Sales, who remarked using a homespun image, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” The attitude stands on confidence that the attractiveness of God will do more to bring people to faith and good life than any amount of argumentation, appeals to guilt, or force. Roque is remembered also as one who worked along side his people, building, farming, healing, and teaching, as well as preaching and leading prayer.

Eventually Roque Gonzalez y de Santa Cruz gave his life with two companions, Juan de Castillo and Alonso Rodriguez, in a remote Reduction. The martyrdom was a tragic end to his life of service, but he really gave his life each day to his people for God, and we can still learn from him.

Make the World
At their highest point, as many as 100,000 indigenous people lived in 57 settlements in Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. They continued until 1768 when the Jesuits were suppressed in Spanish and Portuguese dominions, and the greed of the colonial masters destroyed the communities. The movie The Mission focuses on the events that led to the end. In the movie, after the San Carlos Reduction had been brutally destroyed, and the Indians and Jesuits massacred, the final scene of the movie ends with the papal representative, Msgr. Altamirano, musing with a colonial leader. The legate had agreed to close the Reductions in exchange for promises that Spain and Portugal would not expel the Jesuits from their dominions and thereby shut down all their good works there. Altamirano thought he was sacrificing these communities for a larger good. In the scene, we watch him realize how deeply wrong he was. He speaks with the official about how these communities were a clear example of God’s kingdom begun on earth and how awful it was that they were dismantled in a violent way. The official partially agrees with him, saying that it was unfortunate, but inevitable, “because we must work in the world; the world is thus.” Then the prelate replies, “No, Senhor Hontar, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”

The example of the St. Roque and the Reducations challenges us and encourages us to do our part cooperating with God to make his kingdom in justice, peace, compassion “now as it is in heaven.”

This Latin America Jesuit and St. Hugh of Lincoln have no connection except that they, like all the saints, took the gospel seriously and made it real in their time and place. His world was very different from our own: medieval Europe, which is often treated either as a fairytale world or as dark, ignorant, and corrupt. The Middle Ages should not be romanticized or dismissed, the life of this man of his world has a lot of wisdom and inspiration to offer us in ours.

Rooted in Christ
St. Hugh (c.1140-1200) was a French monk and a member of the strict, monastic order, the Carthusians. He flourished in that life of silence and prayer. Hugh was chosen to establish the first Charterhouse in England, part of the penance of King Henry II for his involvement in the death of St. Thomas a Becket. As abbot, he distinguished himself by organizing the new monastery very effectively. On several occasions he had to oppose the King on issues of justice and Church jurisdiction. In setting up the monastic foundation, the King acquired land by various questionable means; Hugh insisted that he compensate fairly all the people whose land was given for the order, “to the last penny.” Another example: Henry frequently delayed nomination of bishops in order to claim Church revenues for his own purposes. This was particularly notable in the large Diocese of Lincoln, without a shepherd for 18 years. Hugh’s involvement in this justice issue, and his reputation for goodness and able leadership, led Henry to promote him as bishop of Lincoln. It should be mentioned that the king also relied on Hugh for counsel and spiritual guidance, despite the honest fraternal correction (or perhaps because of it.)

I quote Sarah Thomas in Butler’s Lives of the Saints to again illustrate St. Hugh’s deep commitment to justice, in this case related to a minority group facing an outbreak of religious fundamentalism:
"Another salient characteristic was his fearless concern for justice. During the third Crusade, (1189-92), for example, there was a nasty epidemic of anti-Semitism in England, amounting to persecution. In Stamford and in Northampton, as well as in Lincoln, Hugh, alone and unarmed, faced an armed and vicious mob, and managed somehow to lower temperatures and persuade the rioters to spare their intended victims."

I would like to suggest that fearlessness and gentle strength we can observe in the lives of both these saints was connected very directly to their commitment to contemplative prayer and liturgy that grounded them in Christ for whatever they needed to face in work and service. A similar commitment to contemplative prayer and the liturgy in our lives will also inspire us to work tirelessly for justice and peace in our world.

St. Hugh of Lincoln, pray for us.
St. Roque Gonzalez, pray for us.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Finding a Calling in Camden

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Jenny Mayo, Communications Director for Georgetown Visitation in Washington, DC. The article reflects on the experience of students and faculty from different Visitation schools throughout the country who spent a week of servie in Camden, NJ, with De Sales Service Works. The Oblates have a strong connection with the Visitation Sisters because one of the founders of the Oblates, Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis, was a Visitation nun. We both treasure Salesian spirituality and seek to spread this spirituality in everything we do. This post originally appeared in the Summer/Fall issue of Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School Alumnae Magazine.

Camden, New Jersey, sits just across the Delaware River from bright, bustling Philadelphia, Pennsylvania---and yet, it resembles a war zone. Blocks of abandoned buildings crumble like bombed-out targets, and its alleys teem with bits of life left behind: old furniture, overstuffed bags of trash, used syringes. The stats aren’t reassuring either: Nearly half of Camden’s population falls below the poverty line, and its crime rate was the highest of all U.S. cities in 2009.

Beneath its decaying, dysfunctional surface, however----in fact because of it, Camden boasts a sizable community of individuals and organizations seeking to help improve the situation. This summer, students from three Visitation communities spent a week working with and learning from one such group: the inspiring De Sales Service Works, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales ministry that uses Salesian teaching to bring beauty and hope to those who so desperately need it.

The trip was this year’s installment of Vistory, a summertime meeting of Visitation schools for service and sisterhood. Georgetown Visitation’s Christian Service Director Kathleen Looney was instrumental in anchoring this year’s program in Camden and believed that De Sales Service Works had a lot to teach the participating students.

“When we were thinking about this year’s event,” she said, “we saw this ministry as a unique opportunity to experience Salesian spirituality in action. The true immersion into the community would offer us the privilege of seeing and learning first-hand the challenges and hope present there in Camden.”

Students from Georgetown, Minneapolis, and Mendota Heights, Minnesota all saw Kathleen’s vision come to fruition over the course of Vistory 2010. Their temporary residence was the Service Works house in the heart of Camden, which despite the surroundings, immediately felt warm, safe and welcoming---largely due to the tireless work of Service Works director, Father Mike McCue, OSFS, an impossibly kind, respected figure in the community. From this home base, the Visitation women set out to a variety of volunteer placements: passing out lunches and food bags at the Cathedral as part of its Sandwich Service, sharing conversations with the homeless at New Visions Day Shelter, and providing a free Bible camp for area youngsters.

Vistory participants were continually pushed to the edges of their comfort zones throughout their time in Camden, yet they embraced the experience, facing some rather shocking scenarios with courage, patience, and compassion. At New Visions, for example---where students were to provide a “ministry of presence” or be supportive companions for the homeless---one Mendota Heights student, Mary Sicoli, embraced a woman who intimidated even the chaperones. She was 30-something, olive-skinned and dark-haired. In a different set of life circumstances, the woman might have been what some people would consider beautiful. But now, sporting cuts across her face, a tube dress that didn’t stay put, and the most haunting drug-induced nod you’ve ever seen, she was difficult to look at. Mary did more than that; she grabbed the woman’s hand and held it for nearly half and hour, asking her name (Kelly), soliciting details of her life when she could (from a good home in the Philly suburbs, turned to drugs, got kicked out of her house and forced to live on the streets, recently in the hospital for pancreatitis), and telling her things were going to be OK.

“She didn’t want to let go of my hand,” Mary told the Vistory group while walking home with an awed look on her face.

At daily morning and evening prayer services, other students shared similar stories of how they had engaged the downtrodden in a loving, Christ-like manner, and how the people of Camden expressed their appreciation for these interactions. Vistory volunteers described massive smiles on the children at camp, and the heartfelt gratitude they witnessed when they did something as simple as hand out a sandwich. Even amid all the despair, these glimmers of hope and small moments of happiness uplifted and inspired the students. They found it possible to find beauty in ugly situations, and recognized that it felt good to do good.

Guest speakers like New Visions director Kevin Moran and Camden-based painter Brother Mickey McGrath, OSFS, further challenged the young women’s notions of poverty and dared them to do more to help others. Social worker Sister Helen Cole, SSJ, who mostly counsels the families of murder victims, gave an especially powerful, thought-provoking lecture. Her anecdotes encouraged girls to ponder what life might be like as a working, single mother without a washing machine, or as a school child who hasn’t eaten in two days and is coping with domestic violence at home. The unspoken question that lingered: “What do you take for granted in your own life?”

Mendota Heights’ Sarah Neuberger responded to this query during the Vistory closing night ceremony. She’d been pondering the fact that during the service week, she’d gone without many of the creature comforts she’s used to: a stereo, Internet, unlimited cell phone use, and so forth. She told her fellow volunteers, “It was really nice to realize so many things we think we need, we don’t actually need---because I had a very full life without them this week.”

Many other students admitted they also had new perspectives on a lot of things. Georgetown’s Tiffany Ogundipe ’13 said that now she understood that service was much more that just giving someone a meal; it could also be just listening, or even playing cards with someone in need of a friend.

Molly Ledwith ’11 said, “I think that Camden has taught me a lot of things, but mostly, it’s not to judge anything. Before I came here, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, something bad is going to happen.’ but that’s obviously not the case. I’ve met some really amazing people here.”

One of the last speakers of the evening, Tonia Ogundipe ’13, opened up about her attitude about service before the trip---one that she surely has shared with others----and how that changed. “Starting out, I just wanted to get the service hours required by the school. But by staying here, I wanted to help people.” It is a mission she and many of her fellow Vistory volunteers will remain committed to far in to the future, long after they leave 35ht Street.

To learn more about De Sales Service Works, visit www.oblates.org/dsw.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Power of the Little Virtues

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ.

The alley near our house provides a quick spot for addicts to shoot up after a drug purchase out on the street. It is hard to know how to deal with people engaged in this activity. Our neighborhood, North Camden, is known as a center for drug activity, being close to highways, the Ben Franklin Bridge, and bus and train lines that allow easy access, in and out, for customers.

During the summer, members of the Mission Club from Bishop Verot High School in Ft. Myers, Florida, put up a stockade fence to keep people out of the yard of an abandoned house off the alley that was a popular spot for drug use. The students painted it a cheerful yellow and printed uplifting quotes from former Camden resident Walt Whitman and from St. Francis de Sales. We were under no illusion that this barrier or its positive messages would end addiction, the drug trade, and poverty, or even stop individuals from finding another place to get high. But we hoped perhaps it could make at least one person pause, and maybe penetrate the fog of addiction enough to help someone imagine another way.

One sure thing is that some people have found other places to take drugs. We continue to see the evidence of drug use all over the alley, especially in corners or anywhere there is not a clear sightline from the street. One place that has become popular is another abandoned backyard near us. Addicts have pealed back enough of the chain link fence to slip into the trash-filled, overgrown lot.

Recently, James, the son of our neighbor two houses away, cleaned up in that abandoned lot behind his elderly parents’ home. He is a tall, very solid looking guy; whenever addicts came to the yard, baseball bat at hand, he chased them away. This made me think.

When I see someone involved in drugs, I generally ask them to stop. Trying to be reasonable and respectful, I’ll say, “Hey, we are asking people not to shoot up here, with the church, and kids here and all.” Frequently I will introduce myself and ask their names to try to show respect, to try to normalize the encounter.

One example: recently I noticed a young woman crouched behind the trash dumpster, syringe in hand, arm out. I interrupted, getting her attention, asked her not to do that. She stopped and slid the orange cap back on the needle and tucked it into her top, as she prepared to move on. “I’m not from here; I didn’t know,” she said. I asked her name. “Lindsay.” “My name is Mike McCue, Father Mike, one of the priests here.” “Is there anyone you could call?” Clearly I was trying to disrupt her anonymity and make her uncomfortable with doing what she is doing. “Are you really addicted?” I asked. “I am sorry you are out here.”

I suppose a non-threatening, middle-aged man dressed as a priest can have that kind of conversation. But I have no idea what affect this approach has on anyone, beyond getting them to move on, especially with individuals whose freedom and reasoning are compromised by potent chemicals. I hope it makes connections that can lead to help.

One reason the Oblates are in this poor city is we bring the spiritual insight of Francis de Sales. Camden is a particularly harsh climate to test the value of little virtues St. Francis de Sales recommended so highly. Over and over we preach the power of the little virtues, but it is healthy to ask questions that examine the validity of axiomatic statements whose truth we take for granted.

Does love really have power? What is the potency of respect, gentleness, loyalty, forgiveness, patience, kindness…? The ultimate, big picture answer is that of course God will set all things right in the fullness of his kingdom. But here and now, what is the power of these virtues? How does it compare with the power of a stern attitude or a baseball bat, which seems to inspire respect, or at least fear and results? And is brandishing a bat necessarily unloving? And conversation, persuasion, kindness are not necessarily impractical or weak. What advances the justice and peace of the kingdom of God? What does the power of love, gentleness, and humility look like?

There is nothing like good questions to provoke thought. This essay represents my thoughts regarding these questions. I invite comment, feedback, disagreement, and sharing of your experience in this area.

One of Francis de Sales’ most familiar quotes is, “Nothing is a strong as gentleness; nothing as gentle as true strength.” Gentleness provides a good test for the power of little virtues because it is one, along with humility, that De Sales focused on. His quote implies a definition of gentleness that is not passive and “nice” because options with more impact are not available. Before I say any more about what gentleness is not, let me offer a definition. Gentleness is the power to give enough space to neighbors to allow them to be themselves, to let their individuality unfold and be expressed. We can describe gentleness as “strong” because it requires inner discipline to put self-interest, feelings, and ego concerns on hold to allow the other to have space.

Oblates and the volunteers who have joined us in Camden express Salesian gentleness in conversation and respectful encounters that have been our “tools,” so to speak, impacting the difficult situations in our city. This is in line with general Christian life: don’t we often face the dark powers of sickness, death, tragedy, guilt and sin with seemingly insignificant tools at our disposal: sacramental actions, compassion, prayer, faith, and just showing up? Like these, little virtues that seem like nothing have significant power.

Too often it is easy to put aside the Lord’s tools and revert to anger, passive aggression, or devaluing people, sometimes just to get things done. One week during the summer, a group of volunteers put on a vacation Bible camp. On the first day a dozen elementary school aged kids came for the camp. Three young teenaged boys, newly arrived from the Dominican Republic, also came. From the beginning, it was clear that they were not enjoying or getting much out of the day. They made it very clear, projecting an attitude of cool that put off all attempts to connect. I just wanted them to go home; we had enough going on without needing to deal with challenging adolescents. Fortunately, two members of the team had the gentle strength to persist with them. The kids ended up having a great week, teaching the team some Spanish, and opening up enough to begin the long process of learning a new language.

Aim for the Heart
In service we accomplish many tasks, but perhaps the most important goals focus on the interior, where progress or effects are hard to measure. I have a picture cut out from a newspaper. The setting is a civil rights event accompanied by a counter-protest involving skinheads and neo-Nazis. The photo is of a young Black woman physically shielding a young man, a skinhead, who had been taunting and antagonizing members of the gathering. The woman is quoted saying, “you can’t change anyone’s mind by hitting him over the head.”

Most often a “hit over the head” leads to hardening of differences and defenses. But there are times when a good “kick in the backside” can have power, can lead to good because it gets our attention. St. Paul knocked off his high horse provides a vivid example. He moved from being an official with no doubts or questions, to someone with a deep realization of how wrong he was and a willingness to begin again, from ground zero. I imagine most of us can think of times when a correction, an unwelcome truth, a difficult conversation or argument, failure, setback, sin, or humiliation stopped us in our tracks enough to get us to change direction or rethink choices.

A harsh word or a firm hand can come from vengeance or desire to crush. Anger or stern-ness can be defensive, cover for insecurity, all about ego things, expression of alpha male domination, or they can be tools in the service of good. Challenge or harshness from someone motivated by genuine concern for good and growth can make a significant intervention. The Christian range of tools includes firm language, anger, and “kicking in the backside,” when appropriate. Look at Jesus’ approach to some leaders in his time. These confrontations cannot be characterized as nice or weak; Jesus is firm, clear, and on target. I would also argue that he is gentle because he knows these leaders very well and never aims to destroy or delete them. He is all about teaching, bringing them to grace.

Clearly harsh truths delivered in “hit-and-run” fashion, without gentleness, care or commitment can still provide opportunities for self-examination and growth. But the method can undermine the giver. Part of the power of virtues is that they form character. We do actions, and we become a particular sort of person. We act with gentleness, and we become a gentle person, over time. Or we act mostly with an angry, dismissive attitude, impatience, and we become that kind of person.

I wonder if a baseball bat doesn’t shape dynamics of interactions. It gets a result, but doesn’t it close off conversation? Doesn’t it invite the other party to arm similarly? At the other extreme, a naïve approach almost invites not being taken seriously, being stepped over, stepped around, or stepped on. And of course the need to be liked can compromise ability to stand for anything.

Part of the power of little virtues is how they form us, shape expectations and tone of interactions, and counter the usual way of acting that might be expected. Conversation, respect, humanity, civility, and gentleness can be disarming, could change the expected encounter.

A Good Question
I need to end my reflection for this blog, but I am still going to puzzle over the questions. You are seriously invited to offer your thoughts and experiences about the real power of Francis’ little virtues in real life. Email me at michaelmccueosfs@aol.com or post a comment directly on the blog (it is not very complicated). And while you are there become a “follower” for the blog.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Meet the DSW Volunteers

Pictured (from left to right): DSW Volunteers Mike Morgan, Tim Gallagher, and Tom Briese.

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ.

De Sales Service Works presently has two aspects to it. First, we welcome groups who come to Camden for a time to serve here and to reflect on the experience in light of their faith. In addition, we have a program for year-long, full time volunteers. I want to take this blog entry to introduce this year’s volunteers. In the near future, look for blog entries from each of them sharing experience and insight from their time here since the end of August.

Tom Briese
Tom found DSW via online advertisement through Catholic Network of Volunteer Service. He is a recent graduate of St. Mary’s University a Christian Brothers school in Winona, MN. Tom graduated with a degree in biochemistry and has several research internships under his belt. In addition to serving as DSW volunteer, Tom has been doing the hard work of applying to medical schools in the Midwest. He is a skilled musician and can basically play anything in front of him. Trombone is his main instrument, but we have witnessed keyboard, guitar, tin whistle and fife. Tom is originally from Rochester MN, the home of the Mayo Clinic---one of his inspirations for a career in medicine.

In Camden, Tom works at a variety of service placements in the neighborhood. In the medical field, he works at St. John’s Pre-natal clinic and at Lourdes Hospital’s mobile clinic, Project Hope. Then he volunteers at Holy Name School and at Camden Center for Law and Social Justice each one day a week. In addition, he shares his musical ability in liturgy at St. Joseph Parish in East Camden and at Holy Name School Masses with Sr. Claire.

Mike Morgan
Mike is a recent graduate of Virginia Tech. He earned a BA is in the field of Public and Urban Affairs. He was a freshman at Blacksburg at the time of the tragic shootings in 2007; he says people always ask. He experienced the efforts at healing and processing of that event facilitated by the Catholic Student Center. Campus ministry also got Mike to Camden. He first served here in May of 2009 with two other guys from Tech and several Oblate Associates. That experience made an impression, and he kept in touch and now is here for the year.

Mike works full time at Hopeworks, the project nearby that uses computer skills and web design to teach life skills and job skills and is, at the same time, a business that designs and runs websites for non-profits around the nation. His has many responsibilities there, but spends a lot of time recruiting trainees for the program.

Williamsburg, Virginia, is his hometown. Mike also plays the guitar, runs, and enjoys woodworking.

Tim Gallagher
Tim has been part of DSW since we moved to Camden. As an Oblate Associate, he was part of the January 2008 service retreat held here. He was back with the Virginia Tech group in May and then participated in several groups that came from DeSales University last year, his senior year at DSU. Tim began his association with the Oblates in high school at Father Judge, a school we staff in Northeast Philadelphia. In June 2008 Tim even spoke about DSW at the annual Oblate Convocation.

Tim hears a clear vocation to teach, evident in his comfort presenting to our convocation and in his service this year as a DSW volunteer. This volunteer year, he works at Guadalupe Family Services, an agency that reaches out to the families of murder victims in Camden. In addition, GFS engages in anger management and conflict resolution training in the community. Tim does this at our parish grade school at all the various grade levels. In addition, he has been teaching English to four newly arrived young men from the Dominican Republic since August.

The volunteers live in a deliberate way as a community for the year. Each has his full time job, and each is involved with the various service groups who come to Camden to serve. They pray together each morning. They study Salesian spirituality and Catholic social teaching book-club style by reading and discussion some very good books through the year.

Camden has so much need, and because of that situation, many people come to serve here. A great thing for DSW volunteers is that there are three other volunteer groups made up of recent college grads in Camden. One group, five members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, live one block away from DSW on Vine Street . They are great neighbors because of friendship---and also because they like DSW’s internet connection.

Four retreats are part of the volunteer experience. The first one is this weekend at the DeSales Hall in Washington, DC. This will provide an opportunity to check on goals for the year, to evaluate and to reflect on themes of justice and Salesian spirituality.

We will also take advantage of some of the attractions the nation’s capital has to offer including a visit to the Holocaust Memorial and Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” on the Mall. Mike Morgan will get to try out DC’s new trail that runs from the Brookland section of NE Washington downtown, where it connects with the Mall and all the trails along the Potomac. He will be running 20 miles this Saturday in training for the Philadelphia Marathon on November 21st.

Look for blog entries from the volunteers reflecting on their insight and experience in Camden with DSW.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Experience of Student Visitors to DSW

Editor's Note: The following blog entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. Mike shares the experiences of some seniors from Salesianum School in Wilmington, DE, who have been on retreats this semester in Camden. As someone who has participated in all of these retreats, I can attest to the powerful impact the experience of serving in Camden has on the students.

Salesianum School, the Oblate high school in Wilmington, DE, has been a great partner with DSW since we began in Camden. Last year 12th graders came in small groups for service, prayer, and reflection. This year seniors have been here again in groups of around 20 students for Tuesdays and Thursdays in September and October. In February and March juniors will come for service retreats. In addition, we will host two weekend retreats, one in February and the other in April. The school community has also been generous in donations of money and (very practical) socks and underwear. Participating with DSW is one way for the school to demonstrate its commitment to Salesian spirituality and Christian service.

Each service retreat begins with Mass followed by a morning service period where students go to one of three sites: our food service, New Visions day shelter, or working with Ken on the “peace garden.” As noon approaches, we tour part of Camden as we walk from the Cathedral in downtown to North Camden. Just in walking the 7 blocks, students get a picture of life in our city. We pass vacant lots, abandoned houses, graffiti-covered walls, all too abundant evidence of drug use and human desperation.

All this contrasts with the experience at the end of the walk: we join Holy Name School kids in recess. The middle school kids are very lively, friendly, and they enjoy the interaction with the high school students. Each group of Salesianum young men is made up of different individuals, but there is a sense in which the service has become a corporate project. The grade school kids meet new visitors each retreat, but they have come to expect good things from the “high school boys.” The same is true of the peace garden; last year’s seniors began it, transforming an urban desert into an ordered, flourishing garden. The Class of 2011 has taken up where they left off, working with Kenny and enjoying the comments and appreciation of all passers-by.

The retreat finishes with discussion of topics raised by the time in the city. As part of that we ask the seniors to spend a few minutes answering journal questions. I share some of these below, to give a picture of the reaction of these generous students to their time here.

Why is it important for me to be here for this service retreat today?

To see what it’s like to live poor so we understand it better.

When I wake up everyday, I have food to eat, clothes to put on, and a bed to come back to at night. People here do not have these things. We all need to see these things so we can learn how to fix them.

I think that, now that I see what goes on in this city, it means a lot to the people just for us to be here. I think that we also need to see what life is like in the world we do not see.

It is important because it opens our eyes to a completely different world. This place just makes you want to help and to make a change. This is not how America should be and those of us who are fortunate enough should help make a difference here. People need our help, even id it is just to listen to their story.

I need to see how an area so close to me was completely different from my life. I helped people by listening to their life stories; about how they became homeless and why they use drugs.

To learn about the lives of other people who live so differently from the way I live. To walk in someone’s shoes who lives in Camden. To see how someone can fall to the bottom so easily. It’s a learning experience that I will take with me for the rest of my life.

Because some people don’t realize how bad certain areas are in this country. For myself, I have taken my life for granted and have not appreciated the thing I have like a home, clothes, and food. This has certainly opened my eyes.

It is important for me to see how poor of shape Camden is in and see if I can make a difference.

To give people in need something money can’t buy: time. Just to give them some one to talk to.

I think that the importance behind my reason for being here is simple. simple, meaning doing small things like talking to kids at the grade school or making sandwiches makes mw realize how lucky I am to have what I do. All the things I need to live my life. Then a realization opens my eyes even more, looking at the big picture not just seeing what’s in front of me but the people and what they go through every day just to get a meal. It’s the small things I can do that really show the difference

What will I take away from this experience of service and reflections?

The love that everyone around me has shown me and the gratitude I’ve received through my actions.

I now realize all the bad things that can happen to you when you live on the streets. And it’s made me thankful for the family I have and all that they have given me. And I think that I can better understand why it is necessary to get a good education and to be successful so as to one day be able to give back to communities like this.

I have a feeling of how lucky I am for what I have been given. I want to help people and clean up our country. ---Really showed me that I am blessed and shouldn’t take anything for granted.

Coming out of this mind-opening experience, I take away images of people sleeping on the streets and how using drugs will not solve your problems. The kids at the school were smiling the whole time we hung out with them, and I think we made their day a lot better.

To be the best that I can be in any situation I am in because I saw today what can happen if I don’t. It really made me feel how lucky I was to have a nice home, to go to a great school and to live in a great place that I do with a great family.

The love that everyone around me has shown me and gratitude I’ve receive through my actions.

Not every one is a lucky as the next person but they know that they still have their pride and their life. I can take away anything and everything from this opportunity. Respect, forgiveness, humility, gentleness, civility and more.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Salesian Spirituality in Haiti after the Earthquake

In a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter, Gerard Thomas Straub details the experience of Fr. Tom Hagan, OSFS, in his work in Haiti after the earthquake.

While much of the media coverage that immediately followed the earthquake has died down, Straub notes that the situation in Haiti these days is getting worse. Poverty, disease, and violence continue to be large problems, just as they were before the earthquake. In this pro-life month in the Church, we are reminded that "Poverty is death."

In this violent, chaotic world, Fr. Hagan articulates how Salesian spirituality and his prayer life sustains him in what can be tiring, thankless work. Fr. Hagan notes that Salesian spirituality gives him what he calls a "positive arrogance" because of his unfailing trust in the providence of God.

Straub gives a beautiful description of Fr. Hagan's ministry in the slums of Haiti, "In a world of shadows and despair, Hagan is a gentle ray of light and hope." Fr. Hagan is doing extraordinary things in Haiti, but we all live in a world that can be marked by violence and despair. Being a gentle presence in a violent world in the tradition of Salesian spirituality is a valuable gift we can all offer to the world today.

The complete article can be found here: http://ncronline.org/news/haiti-grace-rubble.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Pro Life Month

October is pro-life month in the Church, and all Christians are invited to reflect on the threats to the dignity of the human person that exist in the world today. After gaining a deeper understanding of the issues that threaten the dignity of human life, we are challenged to work for change so that human life, in all its stages, will be recognized as a gift from God.

The dignity of human life should be at the center of all of our policy decisions and moral reflections according to Catholic social teaching. We believe that God is passionately in love with every human being God has created, from the womb to the tomb. This "seamless garment" approach to human life prevents us from being co-opted as Christians by one political party or another to promote a limited view of what is important. Abortion is not the only pro-life issue, despite its importance. Poverty is not the only pro-life issue, despite its importance as well. The list could go on and on. Poverty, abortion, euthanasia, affordable health care for all, etc., etc., are all important pro-life issues that Christians must be concerned with. We do not respect human dignity when we only focus on one issue at the expense of others. Further, we also have seen over the past few years how many of these issues are interrelated, and a just response requires looking at how sinful systems affect the dignity of human life. During this month of October, and throughout the year, we pray and work for a respect for the image of God present in all human beings.

Cardinal DiNardo, the chairman of the committee for pro-life activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated, "If we allow the dignity of human life to guide the decisions we make as voters and public policy advocates, we can surely succeed in creating a more just and humane society." For the full text of Cardinal DiNardo's statement for pro-life month, please click here: www.usccb.org/prolife/programs/rlp/10dinardo-stmt.pdf.

Monday, September 27, 2010

St. Vincent de Paul

Editor's Note: Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, a good friend of St. Francis de Sales, spiritual director for St. Jane de Chantal, and tireless servant of the poor and marginalized. Vincent and Francis shared many of the same passions for God and God's people. In today's entry, Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ, reflects on the importance of the witness of Vincent's life for people today. Like Francis, Vincent has a number of powerful quotes that offer much food for thought for people today.

Quotes from St. Vincent de Paul

Let us love God, my sisters and brothers, let us love God. But let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brow.

Go to the poor: you will find God.

It is from your hands that Our Lord, in the person of the sick, seeks relief.

Lord, help me to make time today to serve you in those who are most in need of encouragement or assistance.

When you are called from your prayers or the Eucharistic celebration to serve the poor, you lose nothing, since to serve the poor is to go to God. You must see God in the faces of the poor.

The poor have much to teach you. You have much to learn from them.

The net result of my experience on the matter is the judgment I have formed, that true religion - true religion, sisters and brothers, true religion is to be found amongst the poor.

The poor are your masters. You are the servant.

Let us, my sisters and brothers, cherish the poor as our masters, since Our Lord is in them, and they are in Our Lord.

Make it a practice to judge persons and things in the most favorable light at all times and under all circumstances.

St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal articulated a classic spirituality in the Church. While Salesian Spirituality offers a distinct gift to the people of God, it does not stand in isolation. Francis and Vincent were friends, and De Sales had a significant influence on the younger man at a key point in his life. Later Vincent was associated with the Visitation community in Paris and was spiritual director to St. Jane. So it is not surprising that the maxims quoted above communicate the same good sense and awareness of God’s presence and action that can be found in the sayings of the Salesian saints.

Three Points from St. Vincent’s Life for Us.

1. Vincent came from a disadvantaged background in rural France. He left the farm at the age of 14 to train for the priesthood. It seems that Vincent was a sincerely religious young man, but it is also clear that his family saw this vocation as a way to advance beyond their economically precarious standing. A patron quickly recognized his outstanding potential, and he advanced to ordination and a comfortable position as chaplain and tutor to a wealthy family. It seems that Vincent also wanted to move beyond his humble background; there is a story that he refused to visit with his father who came to school in his shabby working clothes. There were even some accusations of financial mishandlings on his part during this period.

However, for a variety of reasons, but essentially because relationship with God was a deep part of his identity, he heard the voice of the Lord challenging him. He stepped out of the comfort of his secure upper class position to risk all for Christ. Vincent found ways to reach the poor and had a great way of getting the wealthy involved in helping.

2. Education and formation of the clergy is another area of Vincent’s efforts. He was very aware that so much hands-on work needed to be done, but he believed that ministers need to have thoughtful preparation and grounding in prayer in order to really help anyone, especially the poor.

The attitude anyone brings to charity work is hugely important. This famous quote of his expresses this well: You will find out that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give bread and soup. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor. They are your masters, and the more difficult they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.

3. He stood as an ally with the Salesian family in opposing the influence of Jansenism in the Church of their time. Jansenists saw God as a harsh judge who had predestined all humanity either to heaven or to hell. This way of approaching Christianity promoted an austere spirituality. It was admirable in the energy of its devotion and commitment, but tragic in its distorted understanding of God. It encouraged an immature attitude toward the love of God that assumed that humans need to earn God’s love, rather than receive it as grace. Fear and guilt were often its motivators, rather than trust in the goodness, beauty, truth and love of God.

Unfortunately, the error that Fr. Jansen articulated still shows up to burden Christians in our time. Salesian Spirituality and the thought of St Vincent continue to guide believers to a true and healthy vision of the living God.

“Forgive the Bread You Give Them”

Almost every day and in every encounter with the poor, I think of this quote of St. Vincent. I can’t say I know exactly what Vincent meant when he said it, but it has several meanings for me encountering needy individuals.

It reminds me that meeting material needs of the poor is important, but it is not the only thing. It reminds me that I have “bread-”things to give and things to meet my needs-but it could be otherwise. I need to be grateful and to take nothing for granted. The quote articulates the incompletion of all service and charity. We may help feed someone or give them kindness and respect, money or clothes, but likely there are other needs. They may still be homeless or illiterate, without job skills, burdened with mental illness or addiction, without good parenting skills, and that is not OK.

St.Vincent de Paul teaches us, despite all the incompleteness, to get out there and do something.

Outpourings of affection for God, of resting in his presence, of good feelings toward everyone and sentiments and prayers like these ... are suspect if they do not express themselves in practical love which has real effects.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Poverty in the US

In the past week, it has been revealed that 1 in 7 Americans live in poverty. The bishops are responding to this news by calling on Congress to have a preferential option for the poor as they debate tax laws for our country. Read more about this issue here:

Monday, September 20, 2010

Further Reflections on Christianity and Islam

Editor's Note: Today's post is the second reflection on Christianity and Islam from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ.

Curious not Furious

I remember after the 9/11 attacks reports about the increase of sales of copies of the Koran in the United States. That made me proud to be part of a culture where many people would respond to such an attack with efforts to understand.

Personally, my most frequent interaction with Islam comes just observing women clad head to toe in long black robes, sometimes even wearing dark glasses and black gloves. I do wonder how the anonymity provided by these uniforms could be a good thing. Perhaps women choose this way of dressing chose to stand at an extreme from a way of dressing that often seems better suited for the beach or gym than for business or daily wear. That is a good thing, I think. However, I still do not understand.

I was not one of those who bought and read the Koran in 2001. It remains on the list of classics that I really should read. I did read a good book by Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East that explores some significant interactions between Western European powers and the states that developed from the Ottoman Empire.

I still know very little about Islam, but I do understand that the Catholic faith encourages respect and trust that God’s grace extends out to everyone. Threatening to burn a stack of Korans, or any sort of disrespect directed at a religion, suggests a lack of awareness that the Almighty will not be limited by creed or tradition. The Church has a role to be a sacrament pointing to the fullness of kingdom of God, but God and the kingdom are not any one tradition’s private possession.

This is not to say that all faiths are the same. And clearly not all criticism has to be disrespectful and mal-intended (some of the most devoted Catholics I know are also the Church’s most articulate critics). It is also not to deny that some religions foster some unhealthy attitudes. But God’s desire for good will not be thwarted by the limits of human understanding and articulation of truth.


St. Francis de Sales confronted distorted understandings of God and the Church in his time by doing his best to articulate in his words, and in his behavior, what is good, beautiful and true about the Catholic tradition. He promoted the positive and tried to use reason to point out what was distortion in the Calvinist reformers’ and other rigorists’ arguments.

The Name of God

Perhaps you have heard people say in our recent national debate about the place of Islam in the United States that Allah is not the same as “our God.” Is Allah simply the Arabic language word for God the way the word is Dia in Irish or Dios in Spanish? Or is Allah a Being other than the God of Jesus Christ? The answer is that God is one, and God uses every imaginable way to draw his beloved children to himself and to the life he offers.

It is not an accident that the first of the Ten Commandments tells us there is only one God and warns us about false gods. It is not that there are any divine beings other than the one God; but we humans sometimes set up finite things, thinking they have power and truth that they really do not have. The living God is always beyond the grasp of our understanding. But one thing is sure, as St. Augustine observed, because we call God “our Father,” we must look at all God’s children as our sisters and brothers.

Light to the Peoples

In the structure of the Church there is no more sure authority than a universal council united with the pope. I end with a quote from one of the key documents of the Second Vatican Council: Lumen Gentium.

16. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their ancestors this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge humanity. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all people life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all people be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all so that they may finally have life. But often people, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, "Preach the Gospel to every creature", the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Christianity and Islam

As Fr. Mike McCue discussed in a post earlier this week, the relationship between Christianity and Islam is a hot topic of public debate these days. As we approach the ninth anniversary of September 11 this weekend, a Florida pastor has also threatened to burn the Koran. This promise has met with outrage from many people throughout the world, and the Church has joined in their condemnation. This week, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue released the following statement:

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue received with great concern the news of the proposed "Koran Burning Day" on the occasion of the Anniversary of the September 11th tragic terrorist attacks in 2001 which resulted in the loss of many innocent lives and considerable material damage.

These deplorable acts of violence, in fact, cannot be counteracted by an outrageous and grave gesture against a book considered sacred by a religious community. Each religion, with its respective sacred books, places of worship and symbols, has the right to respect and protection. We are speaking about the respect to be accorded the dignity of the person who is an adherent of that religion and his/her free choice in religious matters.

The reflection which necessarily should be fostered on the occasion of the remembrance of September 11th would be, first of all, to offer our deep sentiments of solidarity with those who were struck by these horrendous terrorist attacks. To this feeling of solidarity we join our prayers for them and their loved ones who lost their lives.

Each religious leader and believer is also called to renew the firm condemnation of all forms of violence, in particular those committed in the name of religion. Pope John Paul II affirmed: "Recourse to violence in the name of religious belief is a perversion of the very teachings of the major religions" (Address to the new Ambassador of Pakistan, 16 December 1999). His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, similarly expressed, "…violence as a response to offences can never be justified, for this type of response is incompatible with the sacred principles of religion..." (Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI, to the new Ambassador of Morocco, 6 February 2006).

Interestingly, Pope Benedict XVI has chosen the theme "Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace" for the celebration of the 44th World Day of Peace on January 1, 2011 (http://zenit.org/article-29875?l=english). Rather than thinking that a multiplicity of religions is somehow beneath our dignity or that we need to eradicate other religions, we need to affirm the value of religious freedom as one of our fundamental rights. Actions such as burning a Koran suggest that religions other than Christianity are of no value, and are the cause of violence in the world. Instead, however, these actions contribute to the circle of violence we are working to prevent. The pope will make an important point that religious freedom is necessary for peace, not an obstacle to peace.

The Gospel for today comes from Luke's "Sermon on the Plain," and reminds us that as followers of Christ we are challenged to love our enemies (Luke 6:27-38). While clearly people who follow another religion are not enemies of Christianity, this Gospel teaches us that love must be the motivating force behind all of our actions.

One of Francis de Sales' most famous quotes is that we must do everything out of love, and not out of fear. While a very small minority of people may claim burning the Koran is a Christian act, it clearly is done out of fear and a lack of love. As followers of Christ in the Salesian tradition, we pray for an end to all violence and a deeper respect for all people who authentically seek God in their particular religious tradition. We remember this week all who lost their lives and family and friends in the attacks of September 11. Following Jesus' command in the Gospel today, we also pray for the attackers, and all who choose violence under the guise of religious fervor. As we continue our efforts for peace in the world today, we look forward in hope to the day when the Prince of Peace will return.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"The Mosque at Ground Zero"

Editor's Note: Today's entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden. This is the first of two entries on the current debate about the building of an Islamic center near the site of Ground Zero in New York.

The proposal to establish an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, a “mosque at Ground Zero” has generated a great deal of heated debate late this summer. Clearly some are trying to rouse voter attention as the nation approaches this fall’s election season. So we have witnessed political posturing and exaggerations, as well as some thoughtful discussion of important topics for our time.

Level heads point out that the proposed center is neither literally a mosque, nor is it located at Ground Zero. People point out that the neighborhood around 45 Park Place, the former site of a Burlington Coat Factory store, features the typical mix of enterprises found in this densely occupied island. Others highlight that workday Moslems worship in the Pentagon, sharing space with Catholics, Jews, and Protestants in the military chapel just yards away from where so many gave their lives on 9/11. Others shift the debate in the direction of issues of religious freedom in Moslem countries or of concerns about security. Naturally, concern for the sensitivities of families of World Trade Center victims enters into considerations.

The branch of morality called Catholic social teaching is not a place to go for easy answers to complex questions, but it does offer principles that can be helpful in shaping thinking and consciences that contribute to public discussion and development of public policy. I offer two blog entries that bring Catholic social teaching to the issue of the proposed Islamic center. The first will look to the experience of Trappist monks in a community in Algeria. The second will look at religious freedom and relationships among religious traditions.

Monastic life can offer a striking picture of Christian values, because this lifestyle is stripped of distractions, brought down to basics. These lives can be like a parable put in motion. I like scripture scholar C. H. Dodd’s definition of a parable:

A parable is a metaphor or simile
drawn from nature or common life
arresting the ear of the hearer
by its vividness or strangeness
that leaves the mind
in sufficient doubt about it precise application
to tease it into active thought.

The lives of the monks of Our Lady of the Atlas Monastery fit that description; they are, like many of Jesus’ actions (such as eating with sinners and tax collectors), a living parable. Their community of seven Trappists was found in the village of Tibhirine in the dry, remote Atlas Mountains of Algeria. All originally from France, they lived in Algeria as brothers to each other and to the poor neighbors with whom they lived. The goal was not to proselytize but to live a typical monastic life of prayer and labor, and by love and religion to bridge two worlds that so often have been hostile. Their “common life” consisted of work, friendship, prayer, care for the sick, living among the poor, living far from home. This life gives an image of the Kingdom of God, “strange and vivid.” They set aside one of the buildings in their enclosure for use as a mosque for the neighbors so that “the sound of the bells mixed with the Muslim call to prayer.”

These monks knew Jesus very deeply and loved their Trappist and Roman Catholic identity, but they also knew, as Vatican II articulated so clearly, that religious things point beyond themselves to the infinite, all-embracing God. God will never be the tidy possession of one faith or one group. Genuine encounter with the living God expands our hearts so that we love all, even the one who sees things differently, even the one we do not understand, even the one who does us harm, even the one who is enemy to us.

In the 1990s Algeria was plagued by violent unrest from armed groups who opposed the secular government and influence from the West. Things got to the point that these groups demanded that all foreigners leave or be killed. Very aware of the danger, the Trappist community decided leaving would amount to abandoning their people, so they chose to stay.

Distinctions are very important. These monks were able to discriminate between the intentions of terrorists or fundamentalists and those of the great majority of Algerians who lived honest lives in tolerance and respect. But even with those who embrace violence, distinctions can be made between the sin and the sinner.

The leader of the monastery, Fr. Christian de Cherge, wrote a sealed letter that he gave to his family in France to open in case of his violent death. His family had lived in Algeria, and he was born and grew up there, but they left during the bloody conflict that led to independence from France. He wanted people to know why the monks stayed in Tibhirine and wanted to be sure people understood the distinctions and the “strange and vivid” love of Jesus Christ.

I invite you to read his Testament and let the moral insights he shares “arrest” us and inform our “active thought” to contribute to this public policy debate.

When we face an A-DIEU…
If it should happen one day—and it could be today---that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to associate this death with so many equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil that seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in the evil that might blindly strike me down.
I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down. I do not desire such a death.

It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.
It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called the “grace of martyrdom” to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be,
especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which certain Islamism fosters. It is too easy to sooth one’s conscience by identifying this religious way
with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.

For me Algeria and Islam are not that, but rather a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed this often enough, in the light of what I have received from it.
I so often find there the true strand of the Gospel which I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.
Obviously, my death will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he think of it!”
But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.

This is what I shall be able to do, please God:
immerse my gaze in that of the Father
to contemplate with him His children of Islam
just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit
whose secret joy will always to establish communion
and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.

For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families. You are the hundredfold granted as was promised!

And also you, my last-minute friend,
who will not know what you are doing;
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this “A-DIEU”
to be for you, too,
because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves
in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Labor Day

This weekend we celebrate Labor Day, a transition from the relaxing months of summer to the Fall. The weekend marks the beginning of college football season and, traditionally, the start of school for many throughout the country. It is a weekend to spend time with family and friends at the beach, having a barbeque, or relaxing in some way as we enjoy a long weekend.

Labor is an important part of our lives, and this holiday weekend offers us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of work for us as Christians. The dignity of work and the rights of workers is one of the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching. Modern Catholic social teaching begins with Leo XIII’s encyclical on human work (Rerum Novarum, 1891) and the rights of laborers, which he called “the question of the hour.” Today, we see that this question remains, as many people seek meaningful work and seek just wages for their labor. Our economy still faces many challenges today, and unemployment was at 9.5% in July.

In honor of this Labor Day, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a document entitled “A New Social Contract for Today’s New Things.” The news release with the link for the entire document can be found here: http://www.usccb.org/comm/archives/2010/10-151.shtml. In the document, the bishops write,

Workers need to have a real voice and effective protections in economic life. The market, the state, and civil society, unions and employers all have roles to play and they must be exercised in creative and fruitful interrelationships. Private action and public policies that strengthen families and reduce poverty are needed. New jobs with just wages and benefits must be created so that all workers can express their dignity through the dignity of work and are able to fulfill God’s call to us all to be co-creators. A new social contract, which begins by honoring work and workers, must be forged that ultimately focuses on the common good of the entire human family.

The Church takes seriously the dignity of work as participating in the creative work of God. There are various forms of work, but all forms that respect human dignity participate in God’s creative and redemptive work. In our society that values certain jobs much more than others, as seen by the fact that many people do not receive just wages while some CEOs and other high-ranking officials receive exorbitant wages, this is an important point to remember. Francis de Sales highlights the importance that each of us has in offering this world something unique through our work, “We all have a vocation. We must believe that God has called us to fulfill a special mission in this life that no one else can accomplish.” Even if what our job is does not seem to be important to many people in the world, the way we approach our job and interact with others can have a profound impact on others and can witness to the presence of Jesus in our lives.

The ancient principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief) teaches us that the way we pray shapes what we believe. In this vein, it can be instructive for us to hear one of the opening prayers for Mass on Labor Day:

God our Father,
By the labor of men and women you govern and guide to perfection the work of creation. Hear the prayers of your people and give all people work that enhances their human dignity and draws them closer to each other in the service of their brothers and sisters. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.

I pray that everyone has a safe, relaxing Labor Day, and is able to reflect on the dignity of work and seek ways to promote justice in the workplace and in the world.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

St. Francis Inn' Influence on DSW

(Pictured: This year's three year-long DSW volunteers: from left to right, Mike Morgan, Tim Gallagher, and Tom Briese).

Editor's Note: Today's blog entry completes the reflections of Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of DSW, on the influences on DSW. This week marks the begininng of the year-long volunteers' ministry in Camden. For anyone interested in participating in a service retreat, alternative break or weekend, or a year of service, please visit www.oblates.org/dsw.

Give Me
So often interactions with the needy seem to be all about, “what are you going to do for me.” Can I have 50 cents? I need a sandwich; I’m starving. I just need to get to Deptford tonight; I don’t want to spend the night here. Do you have any bus passes? I need shoes, deodorant, soap, a pillow, a blanket, pants, socks, another sandwich for my child, wife, friend, or disabled neighbor. This is understandable because so many people here are at a spot where they are simply trying to keep their heads above water. Mental illness, poverty, and/or drug use leads them to extremes just trying to survive.

But it is so dysfunctional: adults acting like kids. The community of St. Francis Inn offers a model with this experience, how to accept the reality of desperate need and to try to move deeper.

St. Francis Inn
St. Francis Inn http://www.stfrancisinn.org/ is a ministry of the Franciscans. The ministry centers around the daily meal at the soup kitchen located at the corner of Kensington Ave and Hagert Street, under the “El” in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. They also sponsor a women’s center, a thrift store, a food pantry, and a clinic. But most of all, the Inn is a community made up of Franciscan friars, sisters, year-long fresh college grad volunteers and years-long, in some cases, decades-long volunteers and then a whole network of supporters who have found a spiritual and service home there. Most importantly, the community includes the needy: “guests,” as they call everyone who comes for food, help, and company.

I first encountered this community in 1992 as campus minister at Bishop Ireton High School. For my next 8 years at Ireton, students and I would go regularly to Philadelphia to work and pray, to be a part of this amazing community, and to bring back insight and commitment to the poor to our own community. This blog entry shares three things we learned that help us now with DSW in Camden.

1. There For You
The experience of community at the Inn teaches the value of enduring, dependable presence. The needs guests have are real, but they do not usually have a quick solution that the person could walk away with. Most often the needs go beyond the emergency of the moment. We experience this very often in Camden: a couple times a week someone will come to the door toward the end of the work day expressing need to get out of the city before darkness falls. I want to ask each time what they did earlier in the day: what was their plan for return home earlier in the day? It can feel good to satisfy someone’s need, especially when it is framed as basically “saving their lives.” But most often, that just leaves more needs for the next day or the next crisis.

St. Francis is a community that is there for people, dependably, day after day, year after year. There is much banter and playing and conversation, all bonding things that move the focus out of the framework of getting things.

Saying “No”
Very often here in Camden, I can hear Fr. Michael Duffy, one of the friars on the leadership team, reflecting that he did not come to Kensington to say “no” to poor people. However, like all the community members, he learned that structure is important, and really necessary. Everyone needs to know what to expect. When Matt Hillyard and I first arrived here in Camden, we gave away food, clothing, and blankets anytime anyone came to the door to ask. It did not take long until that got out of control. We learned the need to set limits, to say “no” to poor people in order to focus on the individual, on deeper needs rather than on simply acting as an ATM or fast food drive-in window.

2. Peace of Christ
Another big thing St. Francis Inn gave us is the image of Jesus absorbing the negative, taking upon himself the weight of others’ sin. So many people we encounter here are nice, kind, grateful. But many are not; some can seem ungrateful or self-centered, can be manipulative, or appear antisocial. That can be upsetting for volunteers, and for us who are here all the time. We might offer peanut butter sandwiches to some people, and they say they want baloney and cheese. We offer baloney to someone who wants peanut butter and jelly. We get so much gratitude and positive feedback about our water, but there will be people who ask where the ice is, or who get upset if we run out of cups or if they find the tank low when they happen to arrive.

The Inn community, learning from the Poor Man of Assisi, takes the anger but does not give it back. They focus on understanding, aware that so many of the guests have no other place where they can ask for something and get it, have some kind of power, or get their own will, or even be angry or demanding. For many poor or homeless women and men, much of the day may be spent in situations where things are not under their control: waiting in line, being put off or avoided, or dealing with officious bureaucrats. So, the Inn community tries to be understanding, or to at least shape responses so that they are respectful.

The peacemaking you can observe at St. Francis Inn is not passive, however. An honesty and willingness to say “no” and to set limits keeps it from merely smoothing over conflict. The key effort is making the choice not to return anger with anger or power with power. Following Francis of Assisi, they commit to the power of Christ’s peace.

3. Mass
Each day The Inn strives to welcome and nourish the hungry. They deal with the disorder, the smells, and the privations of life in the inner city. They also enjoy people, the humor, stories, and the humanity. They endure the various letdowns and tragedies. All of this-especially the effort to understand and not to return anger for anger, violence with violence-gets support from the fact that no individual has to do it alone. St. Francis Inn is a community first and foremost. They work together. They also pray together. The community members describe themselves as a “Eucharistic community” because the sharing of communion in word and sacrament is very important for the group identity.

At Mass typically the priest preaches a homily, and then others are invited to offer reflection on the readings and experiences in the service. This practice seems to keep everyone connected to what is going on with everyone and the Lord. It also seems to connect the work and experiences of each day to values and goals everyone shares.

Welcoming Visiting Coworkers
The reason Bishop Ireton student groups were able to visit is because a good portion of the ministry of the Inn involves welcoming groups who come to share the life and work. This is exactly what we are doing with DSW. I hope we also teach respect and give the opportunity to encounter our wonderful and troubled needy neighbors. Inspired by our Francis-de Sales- we bring what we have to offer for the service of God.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hurricane Katrina, Five Years Later

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the destruction of the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. As we are well aware from the news the past few months, the Gulf Coast continues to be hit hard recently as a result of the BP oil spill. What is clear from both of these tragedies is that the people who are affected most are the poor and marginalized, those who have little to no security in their lives. While Katrina has passed from many of our memories because we do not see the horrific images on the news anymore, there is still much work to be done to help people flourish in their lives in the Gulf Coast.

While Katrina was a "natural" disaster, many commentators have noted that the poor living conditions of the poorest people of the region contributed to the scope of the disaster. We must be careful in blaming all the negative effects of this disaster on nature, and focus on what can be done to prevent catastrophes such as this from happening in the future. Catholic social teaching reminds us that a society is judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable members. Anniversaries such as today remind us that we need to care for the poor not only when a disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane. Poverty itself is a disaster and must be dealt with immediately. Today, we continue our prayers for the people of the Gulf Coast and hopefully will commit ourselves to work for peace and justice in our world so that all people can live fulfilling lives.