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?”
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 . . .
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.
“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.
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.
If our friends are all angry at Fred for that awful thing Fred said, we should find out if Fred actually said it, or just something like it, or something that could be skewed to imply it. Or maybe Fred said the opposite, and someone with an axe to grind knows that the internet doesn’t read carefully, and a misleading headline is good enough. Or, maybe it was some totally other guy, also named Fred, and the Fred we know is now holed up in his basement watching a frenzied mob slash his tires for something he didn’t even do.
Image via Maxpixel (public domain)
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.
Several years ago, my family went through a rotten patch, and we couldn’t scrape up enough money to pay our basic bills. A friend of the family got wind of our troubles and fired off a generous check. She did the same the next month, and then next as well, always with a little note saying she hoped it could help make a dent in our expenses.
One month, we miraculously found ourselves above water. One of the most miserable parts of poverty is having to deny your kids. It almost hurts worse when they learn so quickly not to ask for even the smallest treat. So when the mail came and there was yet another check from our friend for expenses from, the first thing I thought was, “Oh, I can buy the kids a swing!”
But I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I asked her permission to spend her money on a swing. She was flabbergasted. She begged me to spend it however I saw fit, because it was a gift. It wasn’t her money; it was mine.
This is how you live the gospel. This is how you don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When she gave me the money, she didn’t give herself permission to manage my life. She wasn’t buying a share in my life or my soul or my day. She understood this better than I did.
Having been the poor, I don’t want to romanticize the poor, to paint them as some kind of holy, spotless victims who can do no wrong simply because they are poor. The poor are just people, just like the rich. Sometimes they are greedy; sometimes they are stupid; sometimes they are ungrateful; sometimes they are dishonest, just like the rich.
Sometimes poor people do dumb or dishonest things with money, even the money you gave them. (Rich people can hide or get past their dumb or dishonest actions more easily than the poor; that’s the main difference.)
I’ve been on that side of this difficult transaction, too. I’ve been the one to give money to a needy person, only to discover that he wasn’t as needy as he claimed, or he spent the money foolishly, or he spent it in a way that I thought showed an ungrateful attitude, or a million other flaws in the way he received my gift. Maybe I denied myself so that he could eat, and then he turned around and got himself a treat, and acted like it was no big deal.
That sucks. It feels horrible. No one wants to be played for a sucker. No one wants their good will offering converted into something evil or gross; and no one wants their sacrifice treated like dirt.
In situations like this: sure. If the person you gave money to lied, don’t give him any more money. If you think the money is making his life worse, don’t give him any more money. If interacting with this person is an occasion of sin for you, maybe take a break. Find someone else who needs your gift. God knows there are always more needy people.
But this is very basic: Once you have given the money, it is no longer yours. That’s what it means to give. If you give but still want to hang on, then you haven’t really given; you’ve just tried to buy a share in another human being. Charity doesn’t come with a rubber band that you can twitch any time you feel like it, making the other fellow dance to your ideals. That’s not giving. That’s investing, and we’re not supposed to treat other people like investment property.
Do we want any chance at all of getting into the kingdom of God? Then we have to recognize that we, all of us, are the poor — poor beyond measure — and that Christ gave recklessly to us. He gave without any hope of being paid back, without any hope that we’d use His gift well, without any hope that we’d be anywhere near sufficiently grateful. He gave up Heaven to become a man, and then gave up his body and became a dead man. That’s what He did for us. He doesn’t threaten to withdraw salvation every time we act ungrateful (which we do every day) or squander his gifts (which we do every day) or fail to shape up (which we do every day). Instead, He gives more and more.
Look at your weekly bulletin. Is there Mass? Are there baptisms? Is there confession? You’re receiving charity. Are you living up to it? I’m not. I’m a horrible investment. I’m a black hole. Christ knows this, and still He gives.
That’s what he does. And we’re going to be jerks to each other about money?
So if we give — and we must, if we can at all! — remember we’re not making an investment. We’re not teaching a lesson. We’re not purchasing a share in someone’s life. We’re imitating Christ. Christ will make our gift into something great, if we will let go of it.
After watching many secular media outlets butcher these very ready facts about gluten in the Eucharist, though, and after seeing educated Catholics retreat huffily into their corners, I began to wonder if I have a dog in this fight, after all. Maybe we all do. Because maybe this is not the first time we’ve seen some version of this fight.
I’ve heard from the bereaved that death anniversaries can be brutal. Everyone else is the world has long since moved on, but the grief is rekindled. A kind word and the promise of a prayer can make a huge difference in how painful that day feels.
It’s a profoundly Catholic impulse, the follow-up; and, like every virtue, it was modelled by Christ.
Two people were facing the congregation at Mass last Sunday: The priest, of course, and an interpreter, who was signing for the deaf people in the pews.
Scratch that, there were three people facing the congregation. The third was a profoundly disabled man, his body twisted permanently into a pretzel, his skull misshapen, his features preternaturally mobile. He didn’t seem able to face the altar, but spend most of the hour bobbing and grinning and leering at the rest of us, while his caregiver patiently redirected him over and over again, calming him when he got agitated, soothing him when he got loud.
Why is it so hard to meet the gaze of folks like this? If ever there was a low-risk social interaction, it’s making eye contact with someone who can’t talk at all, much less expect something witty or suitable in response. “Just smile at him,” I tell myself. “Just be friendly and sincere, and then move along.” Still, I avoid eye contact. It’s obviously not about him. It’s about me.
That hour nagged at me. Two faces, the translator and the disabled man demanded our attention, their eyes shining, their hands busy with gestures that meant nothing to me. If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts. If today you see a face and it keeps grinning and winking and nodding at you, at least you could ask the Holy Spirit what’s up. Here’s what I think it is.
The sign language translator was there because there are some folks in the congregation with a disability. They cannot hear, so they need extra help to have God’s word conveyed to them.
I am disabled, too, spiritually. I need a translator. There is something in my heart that fears and rejects mentally and even physically disabled people, and I’d rather they just turn around and leave me alone with my smart, attractive children and friends. I’m a pro-lifer, so I am ashamed to respond this way to any of God’s children. It is a common but severe defect. I want to be open, but I am not, and I can only fake it about half the time. Most of the time, I just avoid, avoid, avoid, avoid. I’m not alone or unusual in this, but that doesn’t make it all right.
I don’t mean to reduce another human being to a symbol. This man was attending Mass, and certainly wasn’t there just for my benefit or edification. He has a name, and he obviously has at least one person who loves and cares for him. But he was also, for me, a translator, someone turning to face me to convey a message that I wasn’t able to hear on my own without his help. Sometimes you don’t realize you are deaf until a translator turns up.
So there is more. It made me ask myself: Who am I having the hardest time facing right now? Who do I not want to look in the face? Who am I reluctant to treat as fully human?
Easy to answer in January of 2017: Enthusiastic Trump supporters. Over and over again, despite my resolve, I lose my temper with them, I get nasty, I get personal. I am just so angry at what they have chosen for me and my family and my beloved country. There they stand, shamelessly twisted in their worldview, not even hiding their faces, just leering and gesticulating. Turn around! Shut up! Get away from me! I want to yell (and sometimes do).
I’m not proud of behaving this way. I call myself a pro-lifer. This is a severe defect, that I allow myself to respond to other human beings with open, personal contempt and derision. It’s especially egregious because I often write about our obligation to show love to each other.
I don’t know what to tell you. I’m working on it. Yes, this post is the best I can do right now. Those of you who happily voted for Trump and continue to champion him, I think you are wrong, wrong, wrong, and I will not apologize for calling it twisted and awry to admire and champion a wicked man. Whatever your motivation, you have done something objectively terrible to our country.
But the way I respond to you is my problem, not your problem. I have a defect, and I know it. Thank you for looking me in the face and helping me be more aware of my defect. Thank you for being the translator who alerts me to just how deaf I am. Please pray for me, and I will pray for you. And then maybe we can all just turn around and face the altar, like we’re supposed to.