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 na├»ve 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.