Life in Community

The Daily Grace of Give and Take

The final column of a six-year run gives the author permission to write in the first person, wouldn't you say? So as we bring "Life in Community" to a close, allow me to offer personal thoughts on the major inspiration for these lines over the past half-decade—my own Assisi Community.

The inimitable Ed Spivey Jr. once wrote in "H'rumphs" that I actually live as a recluse in Newark, venturing forth occasionally to buy People magazine as source material for this column. The reality of my life in the Assisi Community is much more fun—as well as real, varied, faith-filled, changeable, and always challenging.

We've lived all our 12 years in a gritty neighborhood of inner-city Washington, D.C., minorities in a predominantly African-American area. We chose the location purposely, not because of some messianic illusion, but to share the city's uncertainties, fears, and noise, as well as the neighborliness, occasional heroism, and respect that most people here exhibit.

The numbers in our community have fluctuated over the years, as have our demographics. When we reached 23 members inhabiting our two row houses awhile back, we knew that communal physical and psychic limits had been surpassed. We've always accepted the inevitability of younger members' moving on after a couple of years, and the older ones staying. That way change and vitality have combined with stability and serenity among us. The formula has worked well.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1999
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The Children's Funeral Parish

Early in the 1980s, I served a parish in Woburn, Massachusetts. This suburban city, some 12 miles north of Boston, had boasted of tanneries for 300 years. Other companies supplied the chemicals for the tanneries, so Woburn never lacked for industry. In more recent times the W.R. Grace Co., a transnational conglomerate, built a small plant in the city.

Beginning in the '60s an unusual number of leukemia cases, especially among children, surfaced in Woburn. In one part of the city, the incidence of the disease was at least seven times greater than average. During my short service in the city, the people described their church as "the children's funeral parish." One family in the community I served, the Toomeys, had lost one young son in a car accident. Their second son, 10-year-old Patrick, contracted leukemia in 1979 and died sometime later. Despite these tragedies, Dick and Mary Toomey, the parents of these children, decided to stay in their hometown. Dick died of a malignant melanoma in 1990.

A 1995 book, Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action, outlined in great detail the efforts of a lawyer and his associates, together with the parents and neighbors of the dead and dying children, to prove in court what they already knew—that one of the tanneries and W.R. Grace Co. had caused water pollution and consequently the many cases of leukemia by dumping toxic waste into the ground near their factories.

The lengths to which these companies went to avoid, obstruct, forestall, and overturn legal judgments against them provides truly horrifying reading. It reminds one of latter-day efforts by cigarette companies similarly to evade responsibility for their irresponsible, or at best ignorant, actions that result in enormous harm to innocent people. A Civil Action is a very small sampling of what has happened in the last decades through the virtually unbridled activities of national and multinational corporations.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

Ecology does not begin and end with the human, but it certainly includes us. All other beings share the planet and the cosmos with us, and we with them. The entire creation exists in this web of being, this most basic community.

In the light of human co-existence with all else that is, and of our growing preoccupation with threats to the created order, one danger in particular is especially ominous. And it comes from a most unexpected source-the U.S. Patent Office. A little history is in order here.

Thomas Jefferson introduced America’s first Patent Act, which became law in 1793. It provided inventors a measure of monopoly on "any new and useful art, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new useful improvement [thereof]" that they developed. Since that early and farseeing initiative of Jefferson’s, the office has issued more than five million patents. Some of the notable ones include the telegraph (1840), the telephone (1876), the internal combustion engine (1898), the "flying machine" (1906), the cathode ray, forerunner to TV picture tubes (1938). Patents are held on all sorts of things.

Enter Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, an Indian microbiologist, who while employed by General Electric applied in 1971 for a patent on a "bug" that could eat crude oil. By shuffling genes and changing bacteria, Chakrabarty thought he had a super bacteria that could devour oil slicks from tanker spills. In the end G.E. lost interest in the "bug’s" ability to clean up oil mess, but not in its patentability. This patent claim provided the test case for patenting life.

In 1980, after years of legal and ethical wrangling, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a patent on Chakrabarty’s microbe. One ethicist at the time wrote: "The principle used in [this case] says that there is nothing in the nature of a being, no, not even in the human patentor himself, that makes him immune to being patented...."

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1998
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A Spirituality of Ecology

Put aside the Holy Scriptures for a while and read God's first revelation—nature itself. Such was the advice offered some years ago by a profound, Christian thinker. We stress "Christian" here because this person of faith intended no offense to God's Word, nor to us who hold that Word sacred. His point was that long before the writing of Genesis, humanity could already read God's self-revelation in the natural world.

A reading of nature also strikes us as a wonderful primer on the most elemental fact about our life in community: Humanity lives within a wondrously complex, interactive ecosystem. We humans receive from this system, impact on it, dwell inside of it, depend upon it; we are not in any sense of the word apart from the natural order, but bound to it for our very survival. This original community, Earth and the cosmos, brings us forth, embraces us, and surrounds us at every moment of our existence. It receives what remains when our spirits go to God.

That greatest of Christian saints, Francis of Assisi, recognized all of this nearly 800 years ago. Without doubt it is Francis' understanding of our community with nature that makes him such a universally beloved figure. He wrote with great intimacy and familiarity about our natural world: "Praised be You, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun....Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the Stars....Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the Air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather....Praised be You, My Lord, through Sister Water...through Brother Fire...through our Sister Mother Earth...."

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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The Nature of God

Some days ago I received an unexpected call from Lima, Peru. A brother Franciscan there told me that Olga Valencia had died and, knowing of my friendship with her, he had attended the funeral. The news brought a flood of memories.

It's hard to pinpoint my first encounter with Olga. Surely it had to do with some request of hers for help—work, food, a handout. For she was the quintessential Third World mother, continually asking, begging, cajoling those of us in positions of privilege for charity on her own behalf and that of her numerous offspring. I must confess that in those early years she struck me as a whining, bothersome, pestering person, whom I tended to dispatch as quickly as possible.

One day her oldest child, 9-year-old Jose, was killed by a hit-and-run driver. It took Olga four days to bury him, and I walked alongside her during those terrible hours. From a halting investigation of the accident, to a still more halting autopsy in the city morgue, to a funeral director who wanted his money up front, to dealing with the accused driver—everything stood in the way of Olga's burying little Jose with dignity.

In the end, out of desperate necessity (no embalming in Peru) this mother, her husband, and I took Jose's body to the paupers' graveyard and buried him there. Then I drove them home, sat with them for a while, and left them to pick up once again the threads of their miserable existence. That day forever changed my relationship with Olga, and in some ways forever changed me.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
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The Receiving End of Mission

Once in a while you get to see people assimilate a value from a different culture. It’s an enriching experience for everyone concerned. Recently I observed this phenomenon at close range and came away heartened at the openness and generosity of the receiving group, as well as at the cultural gift bestowed on them.

A Catholic parish in an American city, which shall remain nameless, has found itself divided over the leadership style of a relatively new pastor. The story is not new, and from the outside it’s futile to ascribe blame for the situation. In fact, all sides in their better moments tend to agree that no bad will is involved in the impasse—just differences over the exercise of authority.

For the purpose of these regular reflections on community, what is important is the way in which a segment of the parish finds itself dealing with the situation. Under good lay leadership, several dozen women and men have set out to satisfy their need for spiritual nourishment. While consciously remaining part of the parish, these good folks have gone out and sought lay, religious, and clerical ministers who can supply for them what they find lacking in their own pastors. To one of these "outside ministers," their experience resembles closely that of the base ecclesial community phenomenon of Latin America.

In the late 1960s, church leadership in Latin America began to appreciate the potential for parish and diocesan life that lay in the local, grassroots groupings, or base communities, of people there. Pastoral workers—lay, religious, and clerical—were instructed to journey with these groups and, when appropriate, point out the gospel values being lived among them.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1998
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A Modern Salvation Story

The drama that unfolded in the arrest and court proceedings of Theodore Kaczynski deserves serious, even prayerful, reflection. In part it focuses our attention on that most basic of all communities, the family. While the media mostly treated this case as a titillating show, those who see

the family as the building block of community, indeed of society itself, may find this tragedy holds crucial lessons for all who relate to families– that is, for all of us.

The contours of the case are well known. A strange, reclusive loner leaves enough clues to his identity as the long-sought Unabomber for his younger brother to suspect him and inform the FBI. His arrest and the subsequent exhaustive search of his cabin lead to trial preparations and eventually a surprise guilty plea. In an incredible turnabout, the brother, David, together with their mother, Wanda, appear in court to stand with Theodore and plead for his life.

The cost to brother and mother of this support seems incalculable. The opening scene in court finds David and Wanda weeping side by side in the courtroom as brother and son Theodore strides by ignoring their presence. He has had no contact with David for 12 years or with Wanda for 16. That tableau of the weeping mother and brother, which typifies the entire family tragedy here, lends itself to some profound and, one would hope, instructive questions about the vagaries of family life.

The most compelling of these questions is also the most obvious: How could two siblings turn out so differently? The responsible member of society, David, who had the moral courage to expose his older brother, with the consent and backing of their mother, came out of the same household as the weird, anti-social killer, Theodore.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1998
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Community for a "Dead Man"

"The hardest part in this is seeing the pain, not only the pain of those I love, but the pain of everybody involved. I am sorry for that pain, I mean really sorry....I have another 10 or 15 minutes before I have to give this pen up. What can be said in 15

minutes? The fear settles in, the inevitable fear of the unknown. Trust in God, faith that things will be okay. No more words...."

The above comes from a remarkable journal in which Robert Wallace West chronicles his last month—and hours—on death row. Moments after writing those words, he walked to the execution chamber, allowed himself to be strapped down on the gurney, then watched while the "technician" inserted the needles and the fatal injection. Wallace was prounced dead at 6:41 p.m. on July 29, 1997.

Sister Helen Prejean’s riveting book, and subsequent movie, Dead Man Walking, allowed the world to glimpse the rare and quite courageous people who gather around each man and woman sentenced to death in our country. These communities, for they are truly that, ask the same question in the midst of the admittedly complex realities surrounding those who have killed others: What good does capital punishment accomplish?

One of the ways for those who walked with Bobby West (and I have observed one of them, another Catholic sister, Jean Amore, as she corresponded, prayed, and wept with him on his last journey) to ask this central question was by publicizing his journal. The entries, as he nears the inevitable, make compelling reading. One cannot believe how banal and polite is the entire process as seen through this "dead man’s" eyes:

Two hours before execution: "The last meal was served 20 minutes ago, cheeseburger, fries and coke....Chaplain at my door, guards checking every couple minutes, asking if I need anything and taking care of my needs. The AC is getting colder. They have cookies and crackers and fruit juice."

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1998
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Pax Christi Pilgrims

A unique faith community gathered recently in Washington, D.C., to celebrate its Silver Jubilee. Twenty-five years ago several notable peace activists, including the legendary Dorothy Day, came together in the nation's capital to launch an American version of the Catholic peace movement Pax Christi. In August the inheritors of what those pioneers began chose the same city to mark the anniversary.

As a concept and a movement, Pax Christi goes back to the days immediately following World War II, when French and German Catholics, aware that too much blood had been shed between their countries in this century, decided to extend the hand of peace across their borders. The idea flourished, and today Pax Christi exists in 24 countries.

In symbol, word, and action, Pax Christi USA celebrated its short history, acknowledged present strengths and challenges, and set a course for the future. The theme of pilgrimage served as a unifying thread for the three-day assembly. Sandals, a walking stick, and a haversack served as symbolic reminders that the journey toward peace is both biblical and lengthy. A complete menu of workshops—based on the dictum, If you want peace, work for justice—pointed to the multifaceted issues that must be faced if peace is to come. And two concrete actions reminded assembly participants that work for peace has horizontal and vertical dimensions.

The action pointing to the horizontal aspect of peacemaking took the Pax Christi folks through the "two Washingtons." Some 500 people crowded onto 13 buses for a close look at the Washington of poverty, exclusion, and hopelessness. On each bus an activist from the city's inner-city neighborhoods explained what the pilgrims were looking at—a parable of underprivilege in the midst of a city that wields the most power in the world.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1997
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High Stakes in School

School in all of its dimensions inevitably marks our later efforts at community living. So, as another school year begins, it seems worthwhile to revisit this foundational experience in everyone’s life. The lessons we did or did not learn there can shed light on how we deal with present and future community realities.

There is in each of us a basic reaction to our time in school, which in a most obvious way colors all future engagement in community. Either we liked school or not. The years we spent in and around classrooms affirmed us or caused us pain. If it was the latter, then my guess is that all subsequent tries at community living have proven an enormous challenge for us, if indeed we had the courage to attempt them.

All of us can remember the classmate who, for whatever reason, went through school pretty much as an outsider. In my own experience, it was one loner who balked at some fairly mild freshman hazing in college, thereby attracting more of the same from insensitive upperclassmen. In the end the poor fellow suffered a breakdown and left school.

Much more positive is the memory of a well-adjusted kid who delighted in school, despite mediocre academic work. He loved the daily give and take with the rest of us, both inside and outside the classroom, and of course got voted "most popular" at graduation.

One needs no graduate degree in educational psychology to surmise which of these students may later have thrived in a community setting. However, between such extremes stand the rest of us for whom school, and its effect on our lives, have proven much more nuanced.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1997
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