Committees are no substitute for true community

We used to belong to a parish that was a true community. It was genuinely diverse, with rich and poor people, old and young, able-bodied and impaired, and racially and culturally varied; but there was a sense of unity that I rarely experienced elsewhere, in any group of people of any kind, Catholic or otherwise.

When we got on the parish mailing list, we started to get regular emails: So-and-so needs a ride to the doctor on Thursday; So-and-so needs help changing the oil in his car. I didn’t happen to give birth while we attended that church, but I can easily imagine the landslide of casseroles and hand-crocheted booties that would have come my way if I had.

There was a very clear spirit of love present, and it was concrete and immediate, not abstract. They did have programs and official groups, but there was also a constant exchange of help and concern between individuals, one to one.

It’s tragic that this parish stands out in my head, rather than being the norm. Part of the magic was, of course, that it was small.  Of course little parishes aren’t automatically kind and generous and warm and giving, but they can be. But more and more in the 21st century, they don’t have the chance, because smaller churches are shuttered and de-consecrated, to be transformed into condos or pubs, or just bulldozed; and their former congregations are shunted into high capacity consolidated churches that can serve a wide community.

This is partly because of poor attendance. You can’t pay for lights and heat and insurance if hardly anyone is turning up. But it’s also because astronomically huge gobs of money are going to pay off sex abuse lawsuits, and there’s none left to pay for things like, well, keeping lots of little churches open.

Don’t get me wrong: Victims should be paid. Pressure on parishes is not their fault. But this slow-moving avalanche of the sex abuse scandal is largely crushing other innocent people, and because of the sins of some perverts in pointy hats, people who depended on the Church for help can no longer get it.

And so it goes. Each time a little church closes due to financial strain, there’s one less opportunity for a little gem of a parish to become a warm, busy little hub of charity in the name of Christ.

In big parishes, of course, it’s still possible for the church to care for needy people, whether what they need is food or clothing or help with their electric bills or help finding a job. But what often happens, if the money is there at all, is that there’s a program for everything: A program to feed the homeless, a program for divorcees, a program for widows, a program for youths.

It’s a good thing for needs to be served. Sometimes it’s a matter of life and death. But there are grievous drawbacks to the “there’s a program for that” model. . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Burned out on call-out culture? Try fraternal correction

One of the most wretched and discouraging phenomena of the past year or so is call-out culture and its dreadful child, cancel culture. So many decent, or even indecent but not totally irredeemable people — which includes most of us — were deemed too problematic to exist by a rapacious online mob. Both far right and far left extremists indulged themselves, and heads rolled.

I wondered how long this kind of thing could go on before people realized that it has only one end: Self extinction. You tighten your crowd into a smaller and smaller knot of what’s acceptable, and sooner or later, even the inner circle gets strangled.

But one woman whose voice seems fairly influential in the states is trying to push back against this trend. I found her words especially compelling since I doubt her views align with mine very often, so I know I’m not just sympathetic because she sounds like me.

What I liked was how she talked about people you disagree with. I liked the idea that she thought you could talk to them.

Her name is Loretta Ross, and she’s a professor at the Smith College, a progressive private women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and she was recently interviewed for a public radio station, ahead of the release of her new book in 2020.

Ross, who is black, said that she used to allow herself to hate white supremacists. “I kind of felt like, if they wanted to hate me, I was okay hating them,” she said. 

But that changed when she met a former white supremacist, who himself backed out of the movement when he realized his own child, who was born with a cleft palate, did not deserve to be exterminated.

Her organization worked with him to help him un-learn his radical beliefs. And in the process, she discovered that even some radicals are reachable. Even more interesting, she is reaching people on her own side, who already agree with her but who respond to true injustices in a way that she sees as counterproductive.

Her students, for instance, were lashing out harshly against the administration of their college for not responding as strongly as they might have to anti-semitic graffiti on campus. She allowed the students to protest, and then redirected them:

“Smith at worst is a problematic ally. We’re supposed to be talking about fascists. So unless you think the leadership of Smith is fascist, can we stay focused on the fascists?” she said.

She urges her students to do more “threat assessment” and “target assessment.” It’s all too easy to lose perspective and to expend all the energy of your righteous anger on someone who is essentially on your side, but isn’t squeaky clean according to your current standards — and meanwhile, the truly dangerous aggressors go unchallenged, having taken cover in a sea of microaggressions.

I’ll have to think more about this, and I want to hear this idea fleshed out further. I do think it’s important to call people to account for inadequate responses to evil. If Smith college did have a tepid response to swastika graffiti, then that’s worth denouncing, even if Smith isn’t as bad as actual Nazis.

But the call-out culture she seems to be rejecting isn’t simply the kind that calls people to account for doing wrong or failing to do right.

It’s the kind that offers the heady thrill of publicly denouncing anyone who falls afoul of what you consider the correct point of view, simply for the sake of denouncing them.

It feels virtuous and bracing, as if you’re scouring out the corners of some filthy room to usher in health and healing. But in practice, what often happens is that people who are mostly innocent are seriously injured — or they’re so offended that they dig in, rather than examining their errors and making changes. Rather than bringing about a correction of an error, call-out culture often ends up entrenching people in their mistakes.

In other words, everything gets worse for everybody.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image via Pxhere (Public Domain)

Juggling, jargon, and the golden ball

Last week, I read Tomie dePaola’s wonderful story, The Clown of God, to my faith formation class. (If you don’t own the book, you can hear and see it read aloud in this video.)

Before I read the book, I prepped the class a bit. It happened to be my daughter’s birthday, as well as the last class before Christmas, so we talked about birthdays and presents. To my relief, they all knew that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.

And what present does Jesus want for his birthday? We established that he probably doesn’t want a Hot Wheels Ultimate Gator Car Wash play set, and he probably doesn’t want a Barbie Sparkle Lights Mermaid.  So what does he want?

Most of them were baffled. Then a few hands shot up.

“Love!”  said one kid. I smiled and nodded, and wrote that down on the white board.

“Community,” said another. “Respect, service, compassion.”

He laid the words out flatly, like a card dealer mechanically snapping cards out on a table. He had clearly heard them a thousand times before, and knew how to say the thing the teacher wants you to say: Jesus wants us to love one another. Jesus likes community. Jesus likes service. Some of these kids are barely in contact with anything religious, but others have been in Catholic school since they were tiny, and at the tender age of eight, they are full to the brim with jargon.

So I read them the book. The story goes like this . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

 

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Image: Detail from illustration from Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God

Sponsor Marquette NFP supplies for couples in need!

Okay, I forgot it was NFP Awareness Week. Just one of the many things about which I am sub-aware.

I usually host a ClearBlue fertility monitor giveaway, but here’s something even simpler: You can donate to a fund that helps couples buy monitors and test strips to use with Marquette model NFP. Marquette uses the ClearBlue Fertility Monitor to measure hormone levels in urine, to help you achieve or avoid pregnancy.  Basically, you pee in a cup once a day, dip a test strip in, stick the strip in the machine, and then it tells you what’s going on.

The fund was organized by Mikayla and Stephen Dalton. To contact them for more information about this fund, you can use this form:

or email them at NFPmission at gmail dot com.  Feel free to contact me if you have questions: simchafisher at gmail dot com.  

Right now they are not accepting new applications for assistance. There is a backlog of people they haven’t been able to help yet (they got 37 applications and could only fund 12); so any moneys collected will go toward helping those who have already applied. 

Mikayla is a Boston Cross Check instructor, and she’s the one who taught me how to use the monitor to track my cycles. She is an eminently forthright, practical, and generous person, and I trust this couple to do exactly what they say they will do with any funds donated.

I not only personally vouch for the Daltons, I can vouch for Marquette [gestures meaningfully and non-pregnantly toward our youngest child who four-and-a-half]. It has taken so much of the stress and subjectivity out of using NFP. For us, it’s been far easier to use, easier to understand, and more reliable than other methods we’ve used. I’m not bashing other methods. If your other method works well for you, wonderful! Enjoy! But some people only really find NFP manageable once they start using Marquette.  

It is more expensive than other systems, though. The monitor costs between $100 and $200, and a box of test strips costs about $35 (a box lasts me about 4 months, but this varies). It wasn’t long ago that this was completely out of our budget, and there are plenty of couples in the same boat. They really want to use NFP, but the odds are against them. 

So if you’re looking for a simple way to directly help another couple, please consider contacting the Daltons. Thanks! 

 

 

How can we get beyond the battle of the sexes?

Why don’t we take a moment to catch our breath on this frantic sprint to dehumanize half the human race? This is not some lame attempt at both siderism. I’m simply asking everyone who’s angry to ask sincerely, “How likely is it that I’ll win this war using the tactics I’m using?”

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Think globally, like the Church, and vaccinate

I used to be hesitant about vaccines. I defiantly told my pediatrician that I’d “done my homework” and wouldn’t be needing about half the vaccines on the list. I didn’t think my particular kids were at risk for these diseases, and so I didn’t think my kids should have to get jabbed. Pretty simple.

Now, however . . .

Read the rest of my latest for the Catholic Weekly

Image via Pixabay

Fred, were you talking to me?

When I was an adolescent, our Catholic girl’s group made a large batch of cards for the residents of a nursing home. “YOU ARE LOVED,” we spelled out over and over again, switching to scented markers when we got bored. We added a few stickers, then we threw all the cards in a bag to be delivered, and we got back to our real lives.

I felt obscurely ashamed and angry at the disingenuousness of this exercise, thinking how little it would mean to some ailing old woman to get a card from a girl she never met. Or, I thought, maybe it would mean a lot, and that would be even worse. “You [whoever you are] ought to feel loved [passive voice] by someone who couldn’t even be bothered to sign her name, because she has field hockey now [smiling sun sticker].” How worthless. Worse than no card at all.

But it never occurred to me to fix it by being sincere — by actually showing actual love to actual people, spending time with a lonely stranger. I didn’t want to do that, either. So I scrapped the whole thing.

I felt something of the same angry distaste when I was little and would occasionally watch Mr. Rogers at my grandparents’ house. My sister and I thought he was unbearably goony (and it didn’t help that I was secretly terrified of Lady Elaine). When his show came on, we would elaborately die of boredom, rolling our eyes so hard, we could see the inside of our snarky little skulls.

But I also didn’t like how he was always talking directly to me. You don’t know me! You’re just on TV! You don’t even know if I’m watching or not, so why are you pretending you care about me? I pretended to be bored, but I was also truly angry.

There was something more, though. I couldn’t deal with his face. I just didn’t want to look at it. He had that smile of extreme simplicity that you see in people who have gone through tremendous sorrows, or in the mentally impaired at Mass. It’s a radical openness, a lantern that burns too bright.

Looking at his face now, fifty years after his first show aired, I think that I was very wrong about this man’s sincerity.

Mr. Rogers was remembered by François Clemmons on StoryCorps a few years ago. (The very short StoryCorps features on National Public Radio are almost always worth a listen — sort of the audio equivalent of Humans of New York.) In this edition, Clemmons tells how Fred Rogers invited him to come play a policeman on his show.

Clemmons, who is black, says that the idea didn’t appeal to him. 

“I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people,” he says. “And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”

But he agreed; and one show in particular stands out in his mind. It was 1969.

Rogers had been resting his feet in a plastic pool on a hot day.

“He invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him,” Clemmons recalls. “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.”

 

Something to think about during Lent, as Holy Thursday approaches.

Fred Rogers clearly saw his career as an opportunity to invite, to serve, and to model charity. When he dried Clemmons’ feet, he wasn’t only doing it for the cameras — although that in itself was a momentous statement in 1969. He wasn’t merely modelling charity; he was being charitable, personally, to the actual person beside him.

Rogers didn’t hide behind the TV screen and consider that he had discharged his duty by broadcasting his message to the millions of people who watched his show. Talking to a crowd was not a substitute for talking to the man in front of him. Writers and social media warriors, take heed: There is no substitute for the personal.

[Clemmons] says he’ll never forget the day Rogers wrapped up the program, as he always did, by hanging up his sweater and saying, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” This time in particular, Rogers had been looking right at Clemmons, and after they wrapped, he walked over.

Clemmons asked him, “Fred, were you talking to me?”

“Yes, I have been talking to you for years,” Rogers said, as Clemmons recalls. “But you heard me today.”

Okay, so, that sounds familiar. Doesn’t it? Who talks that way? You know who. That’s why I still find it hard to look Fred Rogers in the face. He was a holy man.

***

A version of this post ran on Aleteia in 2016.

Photo: By Dr. François S. Clemmons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Making poor people pray

Many years ago, despite hard work, thrift, and a small family, we were poor.  As in no-heat-no-car-no-food poor.  And so I started traveling to a church which hosted weekly grocery nights, when needy people could browse over tables of expired dry goods, wilted produce, and drippy ice cream at cut-rate prices.  I remember the thrill of putting a true luxury, a box of crackers, into my bag, and feverishly calculating how many meals I could squeeze out of a single chicken breast.

That part of it was great.  But the part I didn’t like was in the beginning:  Before they opened the auditorium, they made us pray.

I hated that part.

Let me explain.  I pray.  I did pray at the time, I will always pray, and I will always be in favor of people praying, and in favor of encouraging other people to pray and to become closer to God.

But I am vehemently opposed to insisting that people suddenly start praying aloud, or giving intimate details about their spiritual life to a stranger, just because they happen to be vulnerable or in need.  Too many Christian ministries, including food pantries, crisis pregnancy centers, and homeless shelters, include mandatory prayer in their good works, and I think it ought to stop.

Well!  You may say.  Those who are vulnerable or in need are exactly the ones who need to hear about God!  Should we leave these poor souls in their misery?  Man does not live by bread alone.  Should we feed only the bodies of those in need, but leave their souls hungry?

Also:  what, should we be ashamed of our faith?  Should we hide our light under a bushel, cover over the name of Christ like those weasly Georgetown Jesuits?

The Good News is never out of place or inappropriate.  It’s always a good time to pray, and anyone who suggests otherwise is denying our Lord.

Okay, then.  How come you never insist that rich people pray?  When’s the last time you made it very clear to someone in a nice suit that he needs to start being thankful, out loud, right this minute?  Why is this on-command spirituality only standard practice for a guest who’s already on the ropes?

I know these good Christian folks had kind intentions.  They meant it like this:  we have a chance to do a corporal work of mercy—and while they’re here, we have the chance to share his glorious Good News with people.  So let’s be like the early Christians—let’s pray!  That’s all they meant.  And I was truly grateful for the food, and for the time they volunteered.

But let me tell you what messages I, as a bona fide wretched poor person, actually received:

1.  “We can see that you’re poor because of some spiritual failing, so let’s take care of that.”

2.  “Don’t you forget for a moment that we’re doing you a favor.  So before you get your dented box of Special K, let me see you bow your head.”

Now, there may have been someone at that grocery night who was smitten to the core—who needed to be there, needed to be forced to pray.  Maybe his life was changed forever by those mandatory prayers.

But I was there.  I guarantee you that thirty more people in that auditorium learned to connect the name of God with humiliation and intrusion.

Being poor means you never have a choice in anything.  Even while you’re grateful for bags of free clothes, boxes of food, and rides from volunteers, never having a choice about what to wear, what to eat, or when to come and go—it stings.  It makes you feel like crap.  Whether you’re poor because of bad luck and tough circumstances, or because of laziness and stupidity, being poor doesn’t make you sub-human.  It shouldn’t give other people an excuse to treat you like a child, even if they’re helping you.

So here is my suggestion to people who, God bless them, want to help the poor, and want to evangelize at the same time:  be quiet.  Put up lots of crosses and statues and Bible verses on the wall, wear T-shirts and medals—go nuts.  But don’t say a word, unless someone asks.  At the very most, extend an invitation:  “We are available to tell you about our faith—just let us know!” or “Don’t forget to check out our lending library, if you’re wondering why we’re here.”  Poor isn’t the same as stupid:  people notice when help always comes from someone who believes in God.

So please, never require someone to have a spiritual experience in exchange for your help.  The first thing about personal relationship, with God or with anyone else?  It’s not a quid pro quo.  It’s never mandatory.

***
Photo: Steven Depolo via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Mite makes right

There’s a reason treasure is more popular than pennies.

But woe to me if I keep on being snarky to someone who is trying hard to make amends, trying hard to be a better person. I wouldn’t smack a coin out of the hand of a widow who’s being as generous as she can be, and I shouldn’t despise a message like the one I got. I should, in fact, follow his example.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by Erica Zabowski via Flickr (Creative Commons)