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.


Power
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.

Strength
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.

Character
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.

Atmosphere
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.