Friday, June 29, 2018

Grace for the Journey

I’ve been thinking about another story today that is drawn from about twenty-five years ago, when I was a fairly new priest. I was very enthusiastic, but still figuring out what it meant to be a priest, so was still making lots of mistakes. This story is about one of those mistakes, from which I gained a little more insight into the nature of the priestly vocation.

The parish in which I was serving was in California. Although I was born and raised in California, I was returning after an absence of about twenty years. Consequently, I was not prepared for the couple who showed up in my doorway unable to speak a word of English.

The fact that they could not speak English irritated me, just a little bit. I have no doubt that a piece of that irritation was drawn from the embarrassment that I could not speak Spanish. I grew up with Spanish being spoken all around me. I even took Spanish in school. But for some reason, I never picked it up. Perhaps it was all that “I’m not a Mexican!” stuff from my last story. For whatever reason, I only speak English. That in itself is somewhat embarrassing. My wife speaks at least five languages. In Europe, the norm is to be multilingual. The expectation that in some places everyone is at least bilingual seems to be just plain common sense. That’s how communication problems are avoided in other places. On that day in California, we had a serious communication problem. The couple standing in my doorway and I had no common language.

I could see the couple’s old pickup through the window in my office. It was late Spring, so I assumed they were migrant workers, following the crops along the El Camino Real. When I was growing up in California, I’d not paid much attention to the migrant workers, who I would sometimes see working the fields under the hot California sun. I picked strawberries and beans to make some money one Summer, so I knew that working in the fields was hard work. So hard in fact, that most folks quickly find easier employment. Without migrant workers, the crops will not get harvested. This couple in my doorway were most likely among those who have been migrating up and down the West Coast harvesting crops for many generations.

I was wearing my clerical collar. Back then, as a young priest, full of vim and vigor, I think I slept with my collar on. So I was determined to help this couple get back on the road. I walked up to them, shook their hands and rubbed my stomach as I said “Hola. Hambre?” That about exhausted my Spanish vocabulary. They looked at each other, muttered something, and then turned to me, smiled, and nodded their heads. The church food pantry was closed, so I gestured for them to follow me in their truck to the local store. I got a cart, and was picking things off the shelf, to be met with shaking heads. So I backed off, and let them take the cart. They chose a couple of pieces of fruit, some tomatoes, and a pack of tortillas. In the parking lot, they seemed hesitant to get back in their truck and leave, so I gestured again for them to follow, and drove them to the motel that I sometimes used to put folks up who needed help from the church.

I hate to admit it, but the motels that will give the church a discount are often “last resort” kind of places. The room the manager let me show the couple was really bad. They looked around, and without even speaking to each other, both smiled at me and shook their heads. I offered them food, and they chose a light lunch. I offered them shelter, and they declined. What did they need? I gestured for them to follow me, and took them to the gas station.

Their tank only took a few gallons. They weren’t hungry. They didn’t need a room. And they were not out of gas. But here they were, in the parking lot of the gas station, staring at me, still not ready to leave. Feeling like a complete failure for my inability to communicate, and so not meet whatever need still had them rooted in the asphalt of that parking lot, I stretched my Spanish vocabulary and muttered “Adios” as I shook their hands.

I turned and began to slowly walk to my car. I heard a voice say “Padre.” I turned around, and the couple I had failed were both on their knees, right there in the parking lot. So I offered them God’s blessing, laying hands on them both and making a large sign of the cross over them, as I knew they didn’t understand the words I was saying. But it seemed to be enough. They both got up off their knees, and, with glowing grins, shook my hand again, and jumped in their truck and roared away.

They didn’t need food, or shelter, or fuel. They needed God’s blessing; they needed an assurance of God’s grace for their journey. Imagine that.

It is so important that we discern correctly the needs of those who present themselves to us. All Christians, including clergy, are called to be clear conduits of God’s grace. We receive the gift of grace, God’s unmerited love, and it flows through us out into the world. The way we allow grace to flow depends on the situation, of course. And in some situations, offering food, shelter and fuel are a good way to express grace.

But in most cases, those seeking out clergy are looking for a priest, not a social worker. That is the lesson I learned that day. And I also walked away with a new respect for my brothers and sisters who are migrant workers, some of whom will endure a stumbling and bumbling young priest with such grace and patience that they become instruments of God’s grace themselves.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

On Being Brown

When I was fifteen, I ran away from a foster home and hitchiked from Oregon to California.  I was born and raise in California, so in my mind, I was going home.  I couldn't show up on the front porch of any family member, as they would turn me in to the police for being a runaway.  Consequently, since the year was 1969, I hitched to Haight-Ashbury, of course.

The next few months were a quick learning experience.  I loved the scene, but being under age meant I had to learn how to be invisible.   Then one day I met two young ladies who were tourists, and really wanted to experience "the hippy life."  So, they turned in their car, checked out of the YWCA, and joined me sleeping in the bushes of Golden Gate Park.  They were miserable.  They decided to go to San Diego, where some friends of theirs lived.  By then I was adopted as their "little brother," so I was invited to join them.

It took two days of hitching and a few more adventures to make the short trip to San Diego.  Only once did I have to pull my "crazy kid" act to get the driver, who was hitting on one of my "sisters," to pull over.  When we got to San Diego, it turned out that their friends were all active duty Navy.  They were not pleased to have some kid hanging around.  So once again, I learned to be as invisible as possible.  I knew that soon it would be time to say good bye to my sisters and head back north.

The night I made that decision, the sailors were having a beer party.  I slipped away to the pier, where I had fashioned a fishing rig of sorts made of  discarded stuff I'd found on the pier earlier.  I'd been there about half an hour when the police showed up.  I was alone on a long pier.  I had forgotten the first rule of being on the run; stay invisible.  I admitted to being a runaway, so as to not get my sisters and the drunken sailors in trouble, and let them arrest me and haul me off to Juvenile Hall.

The Juvenile Detention Center in San Diego is where the story I want to tell actually begins.  I'd been in such places before, so the guards and the keys and the radios and the locked doors  were not new.   What was new was that the next morning, as they lined us up for calisthenics,  I couldn't even do jumping jacks.  I'd been on the street for about six months by then, often going days without food.  My lack of nutrition caused my muscles to no longer work.  I was starving to death.  That was an eye opening realization.

But its what happened next that I have been recently pondering.   At lunch, I took my tray and sat at one of the round tables near the back.  An officer walked up, looked over the four of us sitting at that table, and said, "You Mexicans can't sit together.  Two of you get up and move."

"You Mexicans..."  From what I've been told, I have Native American ancestry on both sides, and a bunch of German and other stuff as well.   I pass for white, but I'd been living outside for six months.  My skin was very dark.  The staff at that Juvenile Center assumed I was Mexican, because I was so brown.

Even though I was only fifteen, this was a shock for me.  I'd grown up in California, and had people walk up to me speaking Spanish, so I knew some folks thought I was Mexican, but I'd never heard it said to my face.

At that time, I had conflicted feelings about this.  In elementary school, my best friend was Paul Mares.  He and I were readers.  We read all the time.  I was a reader because my mentally ill stepmother would not allow me to go outside during recess, and confined me to my room at home.  Paul was a reader because he loved a good story.   Paul and I would often get sent to sit out in the hall by the teacher because we were reading by hiding our books under our desks during something boring like math.   Paul being Mexican was something that never came up in our long conversations about the books we read.  It never entered my mind.

Until I brought my friend Vic home one day.  Vic was a big, funny kid, who lived in my neighborhood, so sometimes we'd walk home from school together.  When I brought him home, my step-mother took one look at this big Mexican kid with a runny nose, and told him to leave.  Then she lectured me about Mexicans.  They all carry knives.  They steal. They were dirty.  I was to never have anything to do with them.  And I was to NEVER bring a Mexican kid home with me again.

By that time, I knew that my step mother was sick in the head, so I took it all with a grain of salt.  Vic might be a little rough looking, but she had not met my reading  friend Paul.  So I knew she was wrong.  Not all Mexicans are dirty.  Not all steal.  And the idea of Paul Mares carrying a knife was almost funny.  But it wasn't.  In her twisted head, Mexicans were not quite human.

So now I am fifteen, locked up, and a white guard just called me a Mexican.  My first inclination was to punch him in the nose.  My second impulse was to correct him, and so alienate myself among all the Mexican boys in that detention center.  Instead, I picked up my tray, and moved to another table.

That was the moment I realize that I had been benefiting from white privilege all my life.  I might have looked darker than the rest of my relatives, but I still passed for white.  And it had opened many doors for me, doors I had never noticed before, until that white privilege was stripped away.   Being fifteen had already stripped me of most of my rights as a human being.  Back in 1969, you had few if any rights as a juvenile.  And being a homeless teen took away even more rights; with no address and no phone, you might as well not exist.   And now I was being stripped of white privilege.

I got out of that place, and was sent back to the same foster home, which I ran away from again a few months later.  Eventually I ended up being placed in Nicky Cruz's Home for Boys in Fresno, California.  There were about ten boys in this home.  Most were Latino.  A few were Anglo.  This was a couple of years after the San Diego arrest, so I had a more street smarts by then.  Eventually, I was asked by one of the boys, "Are you Chicano?"  This time, I knew the safe, and honest, response was "I don't know."  So the Chicanos left me alone.  

But my friend Ralph, who I had known in Oregon, had blonde hair, blue eyes, and some serious mental health issues.  And these were the kind of Mexicans my crazy step mother had tried to warn me about.  They did carry knives.  Of course, so did I by then, as did every kid I'd ever met living on the street.  And they did steal.  When you almost starve, you make little promises to yourself, like "Never again."  If you must steal to survive, so be it.  But the color of the skin  has nothing to do with that ethical decision.    And they were dirty.  When you sleep in the bushes and wash with sponge baths from the sink of the gas station, yeah, you get dirty.  All of us were dirty.

But, I was able to help Ralph.  Being somewhere in the middle between the Chicanos and the Anglos, I was sometimes able to step in and calm everyone down.  Ralph was not easy to pull back from the edge  sometimes, but while I was there, no one laid a finger on him.

I share those stories because it is my personal experience that has shaped who I am.   I recognize the language of those who want to make all those with brown skin the Untermenschen.  And once we are defined as subhuman, the level of required morality allows those in power to treat us as less than a dog. 
What is going on at our southern border has little to do with "controlling our borders."  It is stark racist crap, and it smells of evil.

One more brief story, to make my last point.  When I was eighteen months old, my mother left to move to Hollywood.   I was not to see her again until I was forty-five.   That pain, of losing my mother at such an early age, is a wound that will never heal.  It will haunt me every day of my life.   Taking the children from their mothers at the southern border doesn't just smell of evil.  There is no doubt.  You are causing wounds in young lives that may never heal.  You are creating more young people who will indeed grow up to carry a knife and steal.  This is evil.

One final note...we happen to be reading the Book of Leviticus in our weekly bible study at the moment.  A few weeks ago, we came across this passage:

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

That seems fairly clear to me.  Then a few chapters later, we find that the Israelites were not called to simply "love your neighbor as yourself," as some kind of nice idea, but were called to put that love out there in concrete actions:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I YHWH am your God” (Leviticus 24:22).

Children and mothers are weeping at our southern border.  We can do better than this.  In the name of God, we MUST do better than this.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

About Guns

I'm listening carefully about proposals for new gun laws. Perhaps my experience with firearms is too unusual to make a solid argument one way or the other. Maybe the best way is to note a few memories, and comment as I go along.

I have three or four memories of my mother. She left when I was about two years old. One of those memories is of her opening a closet door. There, on the floor of the dark closet, was a toy pistol and holster, in a crumpled pile, as if thrown into that dark place.  My mother looked away, and said very quietly, "Those are from your dad." My first gun.

 A few years later, my grandfather's grocery store was broken into, and my dad started sleeping on a cot in the attic of the store. I climbed up there to see his new sleeping quarters. I found it, along with a shiny new revolver on a table next to the cot.  I learned something about my father that day.

 Then came the five years with my mentally ill step-mother. No guns, thank God. When I was sent away at age eleven, my Uncle Dale and his boys were avid hunters. I was trained how to safely handle a gun. A year later, I was taken in by relatives in Oregon, who were also hunters. Pheasant was our game of choice. Then I was given an air rifle. I spent many weekends in the woods after that, killing things.

 So, my first experience of guns included the memory of my mother's disapproval. Seeing as she ran off, my inclination was to gravitate towards that which she deplored, of course. As a twelve and thirteen year old, I went out into the woods to kill things. Eventually, thanks to my young cousin, whom you  met in the link above, I got over that phase.

But I think it is worth noting that I was not always alone on these hikes of death. Many of my friends who had also grown up with guns around would often go with me. I think there is a fascination with death among some twelve and thirteen year olds. We cannot create life, but we can take it. That kind of power is a strong temptation for some young people. My experience is that eventually, we outgrow it.

 Now comes the part that is difficult to put into words. From the ages of fourteen through nineteen, I spent most of my time either on the street, or locked up. Living on the street meant engaging in a number of criminal acts. Some involved guns. I never shot anyone personally, but I've pulled a gun ready to use it, and I had guns drawn on me many times.  I was only shot once, but that is another story.  One time, I wrestled with the man with a gun, and he won. And now he was pissed. As he pressed the barrel of that revolver against my forehead, I honestly thought it was all over. I add that detail for those who might imagine I don't realize the danger involved.

I'm not going to dwell on those years, for the simple reason that I did many things during that time for which I am still deeply ashamed. But here's the point I want to make; we either stole our guns, or bought them from one another. We rarely had to look far to find one. During those street years, I cannot recall anyone who bought a gun from a store. In other words, the criminals will always have guns. Just so you know.

 Fast forward a few years. After my time in the Navy, my wife and our young children and I moved to Wisconsin. I now had a .22 semi-automatic and two 12 gauge shotguns. The .22 was a camp gun; good for varmints, both four footed and two footed, while camping. And we did a lot of camping. The shotguns were for deer season. Where I was in Wisconsin, only shotguns were allowed to hunt deer.

A friend of mine and his family fell on hard times. So I let Tinker, his wife, two kids and huge dog move in. Tinker was like me, having spent some rough years in his youth. After a month, I made them move out. The next thing I know, he's trying to move into my father-in-laws house, because they were gone and their young son was there alone. I got Tinker on the phone, and after screaming at him for awhile, he hung up. I got the family in bed, loaded my shotgun, and sat on the stairs all night, waiting for Tinker to come crashing in our front door. He never did. 

There's been a few situations in which I've had to load a gun to protect myself and my family. Why didn't I call the police? In my street days, I was beaten, dragged by the cuffs, and basically treated like scum by "peace-keepers." I'm still working on learning to trust someone who forces me to do his will because he has a side arm on his hip and I don't. In my professional life, I do call the police. In my personal life, I deal with it.

Back to Wisconsin. One day, I came home and found that my two boys, who were toddlers, had gotten into my gun cases. They had pulled one shotgun out, and were working on the second one. That scene scared me.  I sold all three guns within a month.

A few years later, I knew I was going to be traveling and camping a lot, so I wanted another camp gun. I went with a single shot break open 20 gauge. A very simple gun, and quite safe. I still have my "little fire stick." It's a good tool.

 So, I listen to the debates about gun control. Most of the voices are on the extreme. One groups shouts, "They are going to take away our guns!" That's just silly. That's politicians trying to scare you into voting for them. The other group screams "All guns are evil." I assume that is the voice of naivety.

 Let's get something straight. Some animals cannot kill their own kind. Humans can. Human history makes that clear. We are all capable of being mass murderers. It is the nature of our species.

Gandhi knew that only those who were aware of their deep hatred for the British, so deep that they wanted to kill them, could practice non-violent resistance effectively. In order to rein in our dark side, we have to face it. You can only restrain that which is conscious. The most dangerous people in the world are those who hide from their potential for great evil, which dwells within us all. I speak out against killing because I know I am a killer.

 So, regarding gun control; if you speak of me as a "bad" person for owning a gun, I assume you are just very sheltered from some of the realities of life. If you want to arm your teachers, you don't know many teachers. That notion is just bonkers. Seriously.

I think I'll wait until some of the high pitched drama wears off. Maybe then we'll hear some sanity on this issue. In the meantime,  I'll keep my little fire stick, tyvm,  until, as Moses would say,  "you tear it from my dead, cold hands."  ; )