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This Work Must Go On

For people in Shreveport, Louisiana, Christian Service (CS) represents different things. For many of the young generation, the term CS revives the happy memory of a picnic the first time they ever had the chance to be outside their own Ledbetter Heights neighborhood. To older Shreveporters, CS means the widespread feeling of community forged when members of various races and religions broke with tradition and got together. To contemporary Shreveporters, it means the annual CS Telethon, sponsored by the local cable station, which raised $100,000 last year.

To some, CS is the startling oasis (comprised of five neatly painted houses) that brightens ramshackle Ledbetter Heights, the most economically underprivileged section of Shreveport. In one of those five houses, 200 people are fed daily; in two houses, there are private rooms for men and women who need a place to stay; in another house there is a mini-mall where those short of money can shop free; in yet another there is an apartment ready for those who feel called to CS.

At the heart of it all is Sister Margaret McCaffrey. Two decades before the Call to Renewal made history by arranging the religious round table in Philadelphia in 1997, Sister Margaret made history in Shreveport by organizing the Poor Man's Supper that drew whites and blacks from many different religious denominations to the first citywide CS event. Incredulity and pride marked that evening as Shreveporters, always separated by economic and cultural practices, supped soup and broke bread together.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1997
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The Red River Rises

This column was adapted from a sermon preached by John Hulden at Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, Minnesota, on Sunday, April 13, 1997, two days after the expected crest of the flooding Red River (20.5 feet above flood stage), and five days before the actual crest (22.6 feet above flood stage). Later that week, Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, 80 miles north of Moorhead, were evacuated as 11 downtown buildings burned uncontrollably. —The Editors

We had the plastic down first, then thousands of sandbags, more plastic on the river side of the dike, and more sandbags on top of that. The 100-year flood stage of the mighty Red River meant the dike was being tested like we hoped it never would be. And the mighty Red was seeping its way through the dike to the back door of my friends' house.

Where was the water getting through? From underneath the dike because the dike was sitting on ice and frozen concrete? From underneath the concrete patio slab? Maybe from where the dike was up against the frozen dirt and brick retaining wall? We didn't know.

We did know we had to continue pumping the water back into the flooding river, and keep the ice chunks and slush away from the pump. Losing ground, we bought another pump. We blew a fuse. Within a matter of minutes the Red River was lapping at the threshold of their door, and we were groping for answers.

Grope is my word for the week. Groping is when you try to make your way around in a dark room, reach out with your arms, and usually stub your toe. We groped for answers that week: Why 10 blizzards that winter, that week's being the worst? Why is it so cold in April? Is that good or bad for flooding? Will flood insurance cover this or that?

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1997
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Four Seasons and the Moon

My daughters sprang from the cycle of the moon in this order: winter, spring, summer, fall. Like the four seasons, each child’s charm is unique unto her. As my winter baby approaches her 12th birthday, her body shifts and sprouts with all the urgency of Vivaldi’s strings. She is growing up; she is blossoming. It is time to talk of cycles and the moon.

A lot is happening to my oldest daughter. She is walking the path of a woman, one step at a time. It is an awkward, beautiful transition between filled-up childhood and brimming adulthood. As I recall, it takes forever and it happens overnight.

My grandmother always said, "A sweater is something a baby needs to wear when her mother is cold." Batty old lady, I used to think. But the moment my daughter was born, I understood what she meant. For nine months, my daughter was a plasmic being that was part of my body, and yet not part of my body. She was not viable, but she was feisty and independent. She readily detached herself from me after nine months of intense togetherness, just as I readily detached from her.

The first thing I did after pushing her out was to eject my part of the attachment, the afterbirth. But then there existed this dependent, perfect, beautiful, horrible thing that needed me every second. Somehow I knew what to do, when she faced hunger or thirst, fatigue or cold, wetness, sickness, or sadness. I could solve all of these things for her, so utterly was I tuned in to her.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1997
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My Friend Buddy

If I had to choose one word to describe my friend Buddy Gray, it would be relentless. He was an advocate on behalf of homeless people in Cincinnati. For advocates of any stripe, relentlessness is a wonderful attribute. I remember the endless meetings required to put together a national homeless movement in the 1980s. Buddy was relentless in his pursuit of consensus. He drove a lot of people a little crazy.

I laugh when I remember throwing him out of my office at the Community for Creative Non-Violence in Washington, D.C. I was preparing to leave the organization after 17 years and didn’t know where I would go. Buddy, in one of the more loving and caring gestures during that difficult time, was there insisting that I come to Cincinnati to stay at his Drop-In Center for some R & R.

I tried to explain that Cincinnati was not a place I equated with renewal, but he was relentless and insistent, until I finally ran out of patience and asked him to leave. He shrugged his shoulders and walked out, not in the least offended, promising to return another day.

He was a remarkable man. When a Cincinnati slum landlord decided to sell blocks of skid row rental buildings, a sympathetic real estate agent gave Buddy a heads up. Buddy managed to scrape together the down payment money and bought up all the buildings. He was able to renovate and preserve them for low-income residents, as well as increase the amount of space he had to provide services to homeless people.

The development community was outraged. Buddy became their favorite person to hate. I remember visiting him once and getting a tour of his little empire. He seemed amazed at being able to pull it off, but as always was passionate in pursuing his vision. It stands as a testimony to relentlessness at its best.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1997
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Legs That Will Be Straight

The phone call came as it does to many parents at some point in the growing-up years of their children. Colleen had fallen off the jungle gym at school, and could I please pick her up? When I got there, our 11-year-old was in a lot of pain and the emergency room staff soon confirmed that she had broken her right leg, just above the knee.

Two days later, she came home from the hospital with a full-length cast bulging at the middle from two long rods holding the broken bone in place. I felt bad for her—it was a serious break—but silently assured myself with a smile that this was just another rite of passage for an active child.

I was wrong.

Now, two years and three major surgeries later, Colleen is in rehabilitation to learn to walk correctly again, this time with titanium clamps and plates screwed into both femurs and 10-inch scars on her thighs. She's looking with little enthusiasm at another visit to the surgeon to remove all the hardware and is not pleased that she may lose as much as two inches from her adult height.

All this from a little playground mishap that has taught big lessons to a young girl and her family. Lessons about enduring pain and imagining a future without sutures and crutches and sleepless nights in noisy hospitals. Lessons about really tough choices parents sometimes have to make, and never ever knowing if they made the right ones.

It turned out that the original injury had destroyed the growth plate responsible for 40 percent of the length of her right leg. Her doctors felt the condition required closing the growth plate on her left leg to pre-empt the inevitable discrepancy that would result in a lifelong hobble.

They were right and they were wrong, we found out later: The right growth plate wasn't completely closed by the break, and they didn't completely close the left one through surgery.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1997
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The Comfort of Strangers

Death sucks." Five years ago this was the opening of a eulogy by a minister for a mutual friend who died tragically. Spoken loudly and fiercely, then followed by a hollow silence, it was a slap in the face. Nonetheless, it was a fair assessment of how many of us felt.

Death still sucks. It has not gotten easier as I have gotten older, or more experienced, or on more intimate terms with it. The pain of separation is agonizing.

On July 17, 1996, five days shy of her 16th birthday, Larissa Uzupis died. She was one of the victims of the TWA Flight 800 explosion. She was also the daughter of my best friend, Michele. Larissa was a beautiful girl, on the brink of womanhood, full of promise, life, and the energy of youth- fearless, passionate.

Extremely independent and focused, Larissa was an honor student, an athlete, a musician. Being the only girl in her computer programming class was not enough for Larissa; she was also the top student. A cheerleader, a math whiz, a vegetarian, Larissa was a complex and interesting individual. She had a thoughtful and introspective nature, but she possessed a wonderfully dramatic flair. Larissa self-confidently claimed she would be the first woman president-and maybe she would have been.

Michele Uzupis and I have known each other for 24 years. We went to the same small Catholic high school together in Oil City, Pennsylvania. The weekend before the crash, we were looking forward to attending our 20-year reunion. Instead I joined Michele in a New York hotel, and waited as divers worked to recover bodies from the ocean.

THE HOTEL WAS a sea of grief and pain. As the shock wore off and people tried to cope, it became a roller coaster of emotions. The same face laughing at some sweet or silly memory five minutes earlier would convulse into heartbreaking sobs with no warning. Anger and frustration mounted as we spent hours upon hours waiting to hear nothing new.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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No Limit On Love

 At home, the best-known of Sojourners' Washington, D.C.-based ministries is the Sojourners Neighborhood Center, where Barb Tamialis has served as executive director and her husband Jim Tamialis has served on the board since the Center's inception. When Barb and Jim's 25th wedding anniversary rolled around, we threw these original community members a party and put into action another Sojourners ministry: We "published" a collection of memories and wishes from their friends and family.

Love, commitment, and faith come up often in 25 Years Together (a limited edition), as do references to Barb and Jim's adoption of three children over the years. The following excerpts testify to their witness in marriage, children, vocation, and community. — The Editors

On the eve of her wedding to Jim, after the rehearsal and dinner, Barbie questioned her father about the mural wallpaper he had purchased to hang in the dining room. He had to admit that getting the yard in shape for the outdoor reception had taken all of his time and he had not been able to hang the wallpaper mural.

"No problem, let's hang it now," she said. So the mural was hung by Dad and Barbie on the eve of the wedding day and it still hangs there today, 25 years later. — Mom and Dad Wallis (Barb's parents)

Twenty-one years ago, these two people gave me a gift that many children today only dream of—they gave me love and they gave me a family. I cannot say, honestly, that I have returned to them that same generosity, but they have been there for me nonetheless. — Mike Tamialis (Barb and Jim's son)

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1996
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Freedom School Summer

One day in early May I left Sojourners Neighborhood Center for about an hour to run to the post office and the bank. When I returned to my office, Keisha was there waiting for me. “Are you going to be hiring classroom aides in the Freedom School this summer? Can I apply?”

Keisha, 15, began participating in the center’s children’s program when she was 8 years old. Last year she worked here in her first summer job, serving as a classroom aide for the Nkym-Nkym sisters (8- to 10-year-old girls). During the Freedom School summer program, Keisha learned how to lead the group in reading exercises, how to resolve conflicts that arose, and how to be a good role model for her younger sisters, even when they tested her to her limit.

Next was a phone message from Michelle: “Be sure to save me a place in Freedom School. Last summer was great!” Michelle, now a 20-year-old college student, lives just a few doors down the street. She also began participating in our children’s program at age 8. Last summer she worked as a Servant Leader Intern (primary group leader) for the Ngomas, our 5- to 7-year-old boys and girls.

Since then, I have been stopped on the stairs and on the street by other young people who want to work and are willing to learn how to be good workers. In Columbia Heights, our neighborhood of Washington, D.C., almost all of the families with children live below the poverty level, more than half of our children still do not graduate from high school, and 40 percent of our young adults are unemployed.

Street violence is at an all-time high. Between January 1 and April 1 of this year, there were more than 150 street robberies on just the few blocks surrounding our center. Despite these statistics, most of the young people who live here want to graduate from high school and they want to work. What they need to “make it” is opportunity—access to academic support and training for employment.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1996
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Breaking the Cycle

I am going to begin this story, in a sense, where it ended, and where it will never end. It has been determined that Daniel Pitcher, the man who confessed to and was convicted of murdering Ursuline Sister Joanne Marie Mascha, will not go to the electric chair.

I knew Sister Joanne, and her life has ended. But her peacemaking continues, even after her death.

I met Joanne at the Bon Secours Spiritual Center in Marriottsville, Maryland, where the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation's Group Leaders Class of 1995 assembled for our eight-day residencies. Joanne was one of my 29 classmates. In May 1994 and February 1995, our class stayed at the Marriottsville center together, praying, listening, sharing, walking, laughing, and at times playing.

Joanne was without a doubt the most gentle of all of us. She was slight of build and fair-skinned, and appeared younger than her 58 years. Joanne talked in glowing terms of her convent home with the Ursulines in Ohio; about her love of birdwatching, which she did at home, walking on the grounds of her convent. She loved centering prayer as much as she loved one of her ministries to children whose parents were in jail. At Christmas Joanne would buy presents for them, from their parents. I'll never forget how joyfully, almost gleefully, Joanne described the amazement and joy the kids expressed when they opened gifts from their parents that had been purchased by the sisters.

All of Sister Joanne's life she had worked for peace. She worked to ban nuclear weapons, belonged to Amnesty International and the War Resisters League. At Thanksgiving 1994 she wrote a letter to her local Ohio newspaper urging people to write Congress to make hunger a political priority. And yet she died a violent death, during Lent, March 28, 1995, strangled and sexually assaulted, as she walked her convent grounds, birdwatching.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1996
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Shadows and Light

Nights are the worst. I toss and turn, seeking a blessed relief from consciousness that seems to come only at dawn. Sometimes an intense grief overwhelms me and I want to die. How do other people get through the night?

Daytime brings its own kind of pain. I either drift through the day in numbness, unable to bear the pain, or I succumb to spasms of tears, terrors, or a vast sense of inner chaos. My life is fragmented, so fragile that each tremor of emotion threatens my existence.

Six years ago, I was diagnosed with recurrent major depression. I have been hospitalized twice for suicidal impulses and have been through seven therapists since the age of 12. I have felt depressed for the last 30 years-in fact, I just assumed everyone felt this way and simply handled it better than I did. I was sure that I was fundamentally flawed as a person.

FIVE YEARS AGO, I began using Prozac. It changed my life, and medication continues to change my life-when it works. When it stops working, I'm back to square one.

Prozac opened a door into a life I thought would forever be denied me-normalcy. I could function at work, be more relaxed around others, even picture a future without suicide or insanity as the inevitable destination. It seems hard to believe that a little green and yellow pill (featured on the cover of Time magazine!) could do so much.

For many people, six months or so on medications triggers something in their biology and they can discontinue Prozac-a financial relief, if nothing else, because each pill costs around $1.80. I have watched friend after friend go on Prozac, feel stability return, and then go off. But there are others, like myself, who discover how much of an art it is to prescribe the right combination of anti-depressant medication for a particular individual.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1996
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