Monthly Archives: September 2018

Miracle at the Hartford Super 8

When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii[a] worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

—Mark 6:35-44

“This has sh*t show potential” is not a phrase I can find coming from the disciples in any translation I’ve seen, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine one of them muttering the Aramaic equivalent as he [let’s face it, probably Thomas] assessed the situation. Five thousand men, plus women and children. Five loaves of bread and two fish. Yeah, that could go poorly.

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img_0561Since I first wrote about my friend Patrick in Uganda and the unlikely story of our connection, there have been some ebbs and flows in the effort to sustain their school in a Kampala outskirt that strives to feed, house and educate several hundred kids, most of them orphans, refugees, or otherwise given up by their families and pretty much everyone else. We raised enough money for the water filter…but Facebook’s Network for Good has been slow to get the money to the US-based non-profit that supports the school. Patrick was able to raise some money for desks for the kids, but the school year was briefly thrown into chaos due to a teacher strike, which reshuffled their fundraising priorities. He was able to raise money to buy supplies for their agricultural venture, but they added scores of new students from South Sudan who had fled their country to a refugee settlement and saw this hanging-by-a-thread school as a better chance to a better life. Even though they really didn’t have enough for the kids already under their roof, they couldn’t turn away these others in even more dire need. So it’s been up and down. Throughout, Patrick and I message each other most days.

Patrick reached out recently to ask if we could send clothes to the kids. As they begin a new school year there, some of them new arrivals don’t have clothes, especially shoes. Could I send some from the US? I explained to Patrick that, if I had the money to ship clothes from America to Uganda, it would be better for all involved just to send the money directly to the school so they could buy their own clothes. But I don’t have that kind of money.

Oh. Hey, Mr. Segawa (the school’s founder, Segawa Ephraim) is planning to visit the US, but I think he’s too far for you to see him. He’s going to a conference in Hartford, Connecticut. (Yes, it’s too far.)

Patrick, if we could get some clothes to Mr. Segawa could he take them back?

He could take two suitcases full – up to 23 kg (50 pounds) each.

Thus began what one of the semi-willing co-conspirators confessed had sh*t show potential.

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Patrick and Mr. Segawa at the airport.

I started off thinking that we could collect clothes in Florida and ship them to Hartford, but the first wake up call was that Mr. Segawa was leaving for the US that day, and would be returning less than a week later. That pretty quickly scrapped the idea of collecting and shipping. Not enough time to marshal te troops, and too expensive to ship on that timeframe.

I know, basically, one person in Hartford, Connecticut, so I asked her if she knew anyone who might be able to donate clothes for kids 5 to 15 to a guy who would take them back to Uganda to orphans and refugees. [Confession: every time I tried to explain this project to someone, I end up laughing at how absurdly unlikely it is.] I figured, best case, she’d know of a non-profit in town I could pitch. Instead, she turned to her friends, several of whom, apparently, have LOTS of kids clothes they don’t need. In the span of about a day, it looked like our biggest concern would be that we had more than two suitcases full for Segawa to take back. All we needed to do was get the clothes to the Super 8 Hartford where he would be staying the night before he returned home, and we’d actually make this happen! My friend is a superstar who went above and beyond, and her friends were awesome to respond so quickly and abundantly.

Then we realized he didn’t actually have suitcases. [This would be when the sh*tshow potential comment came.] I assured my friend that, yes, this was pretty chaotic, but I was confident we could get suitcases. She didn’t seem convinced, but she said she’d keep working on clothes and look to me to work my magic on suitcases.

It turned out I didn’t need to. Before I heard back from a friend who is a Franciscan priest in St. Pete, who used to be a pastor in Hartford, and who said there were plenty of old suitcases that friars had left behind in the friary there, my friend’s friends had scared up two suitcases to go with the shoes and clothes to go back with Segawa.

Through it all, I kept in steady communication with Amish, the manager of the Super 8. He was less than enthused, but handled the chaos relatively well – packages, suitcases, bags of clothes coming in at odd times for a guest who wasn’t arriving for a couple days. By the last drop off, he was ready for Segawa to arrive so he could hand over all this stuff. But at the end of the day, he did his part. Sunday night I got word from Segawa that Amish had given him the suitcases, bags and packages.

Amish receiving suitcases full of clothes from strangers.

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There is a modern reinterpretation of the feeding of the multitudes, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, which is assuredly not what the gospel-writers had in mind. In it, it’s not so much that Jesus says “Shazam” over the bowls of breadcrumbs and multiplies them. It’s that, by encouraging the one small soul who gave what he had, and tearing it into small pieces, he convinced everyone in the crowd that if they all took what they had squirreled away just in case and threw it in with the others, there would be enough for everyone. There is something terribly daunting about taking on the responsibility of feeding 5,000+. There is something imminently doable about throwing in the crumbs you have on you to contribute to the good of the group. It still takes some goodness and some trust, but you can do it. And when 5,000 do it, there is more than enough for everyone.

That is the sort of miracle that happened at the Super 8 Hartford last weekend. A total stranger from the other side of the world needed clothes for the kids back home with nothing. Friends of friends of friends of his heard about it and looked for what they and their friends could spare. And he went home with two suitcases, full to the brim with hope and clothes and shoes of all kinds.

Let those with ears to hear, listen up.

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One more thing before the photos of what came of this caper. If you missed this boat and you’re still willing to help Segawa and Patrick provide for these kids, PayPal Heart for People directly here. Thanks.

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Fortress or Field Hospital?

I’ve been reflecting on the current stage of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church as seen through the lens of moral foundations theory, because it seems to me that one of the dimensions of dissonance in the responses of Catholic factions to what’s been unfolding since the summer of ‘18 relates to the findings of those proposing this new theory of moral psychology.

A little while ago, I read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and (perhaps appropriately) it really struck home by validating something I saw in myself and the people around me. That is, people are not morally rational…at least not primarily rational. Instead, people form an opinion, especially about morality, intuitively, in their emotional center, and then turn to reason to justify that heartfelt opinion secondarily. What changes people’s minds, Haidt argues, isn’t really a change of mind; it’s a change of heart, usually by intersecting with personal stories that shift their current worldview by exposing them emotionally to another way of seeing a situation.

Moral foundations theory, which Haidt outlines in the book, assumes that communities of interest prioritize different constellations of moral values, with some mix of care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and maybe liberty/oppression. Haidt (himself a self-professed progressive atheist) argues that progressives tend to keep their moral reasoning almost exclusively in the first two dimensions, while conservatives tend to use all of them in more of a balance. (Libertarians are a special breed, who in part sparked the addition of the sixth provisional value set.)

In trying to understand my friends who believe that the root cause of the current crisis is the tolerance of deviance from church teaching on sexuality (by which I don’t only mean openness to LGBT believers, but recognizing that that’s the key issue), what keeps coming up in my mind is an observation that they are driven by a deeply felt sensitivity to sanctity and degradation. At a very obvious level, this applies to a reaction to the idea of same-sex sexual relations at all by those who are offended by them; clearly, they would hold that same sex relations violate the sanctity of the divine design of human sexuality and signal the degradation of what sex was meant to be.

But, deeper than that, there’s a sense that what it means to be Christian is to seek sanctity and purity and to actively keep out all that degrades. The other elements are important – authority in determining purity, loyalty to that vision of sanctity, etc. But in this understanding, the Church is a fortress in a viciously antagonistic world, one that must be kept secure by keeping it pure, by keeping out those who by their identities would degrade it.

You could do a full-out Bible Study on Old and New Testament passages that underscore this point. I’m not going to, but I welcome those who want to. I’m just conceding that this is a narrative of what it means to be holy that extends back to the beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

But it’s not the only narrative that can claim that heritage and power, and that may be the issue at play in a lot of the dissension we’re seeing today. What Pope Francis brought to his papacy was a different model of what it means to be Church (one echoed by his predecessor Saint Pope John XXIII and many others): Church as field hospital. Let me try to make that case:

One of the gifts of Catholicism is the lectionary – a break down of the Bible into chunks of Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel passages that cycle you through most of the Bible every three years on Sundays and every two years on weekdays. Today, tomorrow, and any day, every Catholic Church in the world (pretty much) will read and reflect on the same set of readings, including at least one Gospel passage, one Psalm, and one other reading. These were set decades ago, so it’s not the case that a pastor wakes up, is struck by a particular thing, and goes to pick readings to underscore that thing. You have to play the cards that are dealt, and while that doesn’t cover the entire Bible, it covers most of it. So if you’re Catholic (or attend another Church that follows a common lectionary), you will hear over the course of time a broader lens of what’s in the Bible, I would argue, than if you are attending a Church in which a pastor picks one book at a time to go deep on. (Growing up in such a Church, I got a heavy dose of Pauline letters; less so the other stuff.)

I raise that to say, it is really, really hard to listen to Jesus’ exploits, both of word and deed, every single day without getting a clear sense that he was deeply subversive and intensely driven by care. Most of what He says, and most of what He does, centers around breaking a norm in order to show care and, even more subversive, actively include those who had been cast out as degrading, unsanctified. Widows and orphans, sure. Those afflicted by deformities and illnesses blamed on their sin or their parents, you bet. But lepers and bleeding women and Samaritans and Romans who were specifically declared unclean and degrading to observers of the Hebrew law of the time.

His subversive focus on care didn’t just undercut the sanctity/degradation and the authority/subversion realms. He violated fairness in what he said, all the time. The parable of the workers said forget paying people based on how hard they worked; shower them all with enough. The parable of the Prodigal Son becomes the parable of the Prodigal Father, who lets his son waste away half his inheritance on wine, women and song and then throws a feast to welcome him back, ticking off the older son who still clings to fairness and all-but-shouts “He’s cheating!” And, perhaps most uncomfortably, in his crucifixion and resurrection, he testifies that even the most malevolent harm can be transformed into loving care, not only for the sinless Son, but for the thief rightfully executed at his side.

In the light of that subversive ethos, this counternarrative of the Church says we are not called to be set apart from the hurting as a shining, exemplary, pure fortress on a hill; we are called to be a field hospital, choosing as Jesus did to go straight toward the margins, to actively embrace those that purity says you should keep at arm’s length, to overwhelm them with love and let yourself take on their stain in the process. One of the fundamental turning points in St. Francis of Assisi’s life doesn’t get as much play in the arts and legends as his taming wolves and preaching to birds. When he was younger, he was horrified by the lepers outside Assisi’s walls, reflecting the cultural norms and good hygiene. But in the process of his conversion, God confronted him with a leper who Francis finally saw not as an impurity or a threat but as a brother needing human touch. When Francis hugged the leper he had earlier scorned, it marked the turn toward sainthood. So are we called as Christians to love first those most scorned by our society, even those that make us go “Eww.” So says the Gospel writers. So says Francis of Assisi. So says the current pope, as imperfect as his example may prove to be.

I obviously have a rooting interest between these narratives, so I admit the bias. But it seems to me that our choice of vision is one of running away from sin or running toward love. Either way, you’re running; one direction is clean and cold, and the other is warm and messy. Like I said, I’ve made my choice based on the God I’ve encountered in Word, Spirit and Sacrament. But I also need to recognize that others hearing the same Word, participating in the same Sacrament, and receiving the same Spirit might be pulled in the other direction. (And the test I will offer – which life brings the most evidence of the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, and the like) – might be a split decision or draw to a truly objective judge.)

As (almost) all of us react in horror to the thought that 16 years after US Catholic Bishops adopted a charter to protect children from sexual abuse, there remain thousands of cases (perhaps) that have never been reconciled, and a hierarchical culture of coverup, you notice that some people’s horror is a little different from others. The victims of abuse lose when we allow ourselves to obsess on those differences rather than the crimes from which there has been no repentance. But maybe if we understand how these divergent narratives of what the Church should be drive those differences, we can give them a nod of understanding and shrug them off enough to focus together on bringing care to the victims and justice to the wronged, and we can rebuild a Church that can hold together the tension of fortress and field hospital.