Pentecost

One of the most striking sentences in the first reading from Acts (2:4) describes people speaking different languages, yet still being understood. We all know that even those who speak the same language can have a hard time communicating. Pentecost reverses The Tower of Babel story, which tries to explain why people began speaking in different languages. The people that day achieved understanding, despite their linguistic differences.

 

Pentecost continues today, as African students in an ESL classroom learn English and across the hall, North Americans learn Spanish. A young California woman who had emergency gall bladder surgery in a Tokyo hospital felt alone and afraid, unable to communicate with or understand her nurses and doctors. She was placed in the oncology ward because a few nurses there knew some English. But another patient broke down the language barrier. She simply lifted her hospital gown and showed the American her scar, a silent signal that she could relate to the girl’s pain.

 

One way to celebrate Pentecost is to appreciate the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in our lives. The processes of ordinary living are so fragile, so immensely significant, so fraught with terror, that we desperately need someone beyond ourselves. We need the warmth and power of the Spirit to help us in whatever we have undertaken.

 

If you look back over the last 5, 10 or 20 years, where could you could say this? “Ah yes. So you, life-giving Spirit and Guide, were there all along, enlightening and accompanying through whatever came.”

A Shout-Out to Catholic Charities

Although I’m familiar with only one Catholic Charities, East Bay in Oakland, CA (CCEB), I’m guessing that their work is typical of many organizations, so this praise goes to all 139 offices nationally. In a dark time, when immigrants are terrorized, the poor are pushed even further into the margins, and the vulnerable are demonized, they offer hope in crisis, and shine like bright lights.

The price of housing in CA is so astronomical that even people with healthy salaries have a hard time buying or renting a home. Teachers can’t afford to live in the districts where they work, and those on minimum wage can’t begin to compete. Last year, CCEB received over 8,000 requests for housing assistance, and could help with less than 1% of those.

But they don’t get discouraged. They press on, and with generous supporters, branch into other areas too, like welcoming immigrant families and helping them with jobs, housing, schools and cultural adaptation. One of their films shows a Burmese family who’d spent years in refugee camps arriving at the airport, where parishioners, translators and a pastor waved flags in welcome. Those of us without refugee experience can only imagine what that sight must’ve meant—and it was just the beginning of ongoing care to ease difficult transitions.

I’ve written before about Claire’s House, one of the first shelters for young girls rescued from trafficking. CCEB has carefully pioneered in this complex arena, hopefully paving the way for other homes of refuge. A tangle of licensing and other state requirements has slowed the process, but the staff’s perseverance will make sure it won’t close, and can continue to offer healing to those who need it most.

Here’s where you come in. Studies from The Greater Good Science Center have found that giving to others makes us happier than spending time and money on ourselves. So if you know someone at your local Catholic Charities or similar organization, send their staff this column—with a bouquet, chocolate and a big donation. If you don’t know anyone, do the same—surreptitiously posting your praise in a break room or on a website. Even saintly humans need reinforcement and thanks. The research mentioned above proves that giving it increases oxytocin (the “feel good” hormone) in the bloodstream of the giver. Maybe we can’t all be on the front line. But we can support those who are. Let’s launch a campaign: Three Hundred Cheers for Catholic Charities!

Shame at the San Diego Border

The National Guard must be mortified. Excerpts from the recruitment pitch read as if they’ll be joining Doctors without Borders or some other humanitarian group that saves the world:

TAKE A PATH WITH PURPOSE. BE PART OF SOMETHING BIGGER THAN YOURSELF.

This is a message to anyone who ever believed they could be something great when they grew up. It’s an invitation to all who want to build a better world.  As a Guard Soldier you’ll respond when disaster strikes at home. You’ll also answer the call when your country needs you around the world. (www.nationalguard.com)

The $20,000 signing bonus must appeal too. As Helen Thorpe reveals in her splendid book Soldier Girls, it draws desperately poor young people, eager for education, who are then amazed when they wind up killing civilians in Afghanistan.

Or enmeshed in the current fiasco: saving the country from babies, and mothers who respect the U.S. so much they’ve walked long, treacherous distances to get here. Yet Jeff Sessions, Attorney General accuses them of “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system.” What kind of system can’t absorb 200 unarmed civilians? An editorial by Eugene Robinson (Bay Area News Group, 5/2/18) adds, “President Trump has spoken of these people as if they were some kind of rampaging horde.”

So one-year olds, barely walking, can lug howitzers and machine guns all the way from Honduras? And their parents, facing death threats at home, want to undermine the only place they might find safety and hope for the future? Doesn’t the country face more of a threat from lax, NRA-friendly gun laws that have led to murders in our schools? Or a president who accepted $30 million in campaign contributions from said NRA, but doesn’t know asylum or international law?

Those laws were passed after World War II when the US disgracefully refused entry to German Jews, sentencing many to death in concentration camps. Does a Spanish-speaking Anne Frank wait agonizing today in Tijuana? And what’s happened to the ancient moral code that a society is judged by its treatment of the most vulnerable?

Heartening Stands

When the administration’s attempts to end deportation protection for young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children (DACA) seem mercilessly cruel, it’s uplifting to hear about those who resist such inhumane treatment of innocent people. For instance, John Bates, a DC federal judge, called the government decision “virtually unexplained, arbitrary and capricious.” He offered the chance for a better explanation within 90 days. But if that doesn’t come, he will rescind the White House order and reopen the program to new applicants.

Trump may use young peoples’ lives as a bargaining chip to get a border wall, but Jesuit Thomas Reese deliberately got arrested on Feb. 27 to express solidarity with “Dreamers.” They have been students, parishioners, friends and colleagues, he writes in National Catholic Reporter (Mar. 23-Apr. 5, ’18). He admits that his symbolic action is nothing compared to the devastating arrests that cause untold damage to immigrants. Many would be torn from families, returned to the most violent countries on earth and targeted because they don’t know the culture or the language. They have grown up in the US, the only home they know.

Sen. Nancy Pelosi of California stood before the Senate for more than 8 hours without a break, in 4 inch heels, to defend the Dreamers. Reading passages from the Bible and Dreamers’ letters, she delivered the longest continuous speech in the chamber’s history (Washington Post, 2/7/18).

In fifty years, when the Dreamers’ grandchildren hear the stories of threats to civility and blatant disregard for human rights, may the parts of brave witnesses be told too, underlining, “In the face of powerful attack, some people stood for justice.”

A Cluster of Films

Granted, these may not be hugely popular, and may need to be sought online or at libraries, but two are definitely worth seeing. “The Leisure Seeker” is the sweet, final adventure of an elderly couple: Helen Mirren (with a Southern accent) and Donald Sutherland (with dementia). She knows exactly what she’s doing, guiding them on their rickety RV to the Hemingway house in Key West, Florida before her cancer does her in completely, then ending their long lives and marriage with a peaceful dose of carbon monoxide.  That may seem harsh, but it makes sense in the context of dwindling health and mental acuity. Along the way, they watch slides of their youth, their children, a collage of memory that others in the campgrounds quietly gather to watch and appreciate. It’s a reminder of the sacramentality of any life, viewed as a long trajectory. One of the most touching moments comes when Sutherland, seeing the beautiful Florida skies and ocean asks, “Are we in heaven?” He is alternately wise and vulnerable; she is scrappy, fierce and romantic. And her final letter warns their children that they may have run up a large credit card bill, orchestrating their Last Hurrah.

“Back to Burgundy” is set in a French vineyard, and reminds us how arduous it is to make fine wine. Three siblings, thrust into the job when their father dies, show how the family arena is always fraught: they argue because they matter so much to each other. Flashbacks to their childhood reveal why the domain is so important to them: they’ve been raised on identifying tastes and loving the vinter’s careful process. The film is full of life’s good things, for instance, a party for the whole crew once the harvest is in. They’ve worked hard, sweating in the sun: now they drink wine, eat, sing and dance. It’s reminiscent of the Biblical passage about God rejoicing over us as at a festival. The central trio cares deeply for each other and their heritage, deeply enough to work out differences over their inheritance.

“Red Sparrow,” on the other hand, feels like drinking sewage. It’s based on the tired premise that Russians = Bad Guys, Americans = Good Guys. Those who’ve read Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy questioned that facile assumption even at the height of the Cold War—so why resuscitate it now? One brief scene at the Bolshoi ballet is the only saving grace—but it ends in catastrophe. After that, the action moves into a world where there are no ordinary blessings like children, grocery shopping, trees or humor: all is intense, abstract, ideological. Demeaning, dehumanizing processes and hideous torture occur in a place where it’s always winter. Subjected to terrible stress and physical pain, the lead Jennifer Lawrence becomes more remote, less likeable, even though at first she’s a victim, then ostensibly acts to save her sickly mother. Some of the settings are opulent palaces with lavish costumes—or grim jail cells– that make one long for the dilapidated farmhouse, sweaty t-shirts and earthy humanity of Burgundy.

Third Sunday of Easter

Today’s gospel defies all the self-help books about achieving inner peace. Peace is a gift, according to Luke. Furthermore, it comes unexpectedly, during confusion, mourning, fear and anxiety. The disciples find it too good to be true.

 

To alert them to reality, Jesus asks for something to eat. He reminds us of adolescents who are always hungry, or long-awaited guests whom we welcome with a special meal. This touchstone in human nature apparently convinces the skeptical. Wisely, Jesus starts with bodily needs, then “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” (24: 45)

 

How ironic that he tells the poor, uncertain, wavering crew: “You are witnesses of these things” (48). They are hardly the finest spokespersons, but then, neither are we. We have the same mixture of doubt and certainty, anxiety and joy that they had. Jesus always seems to choose the most unlikely prospects. As Desmond Tutu says, Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine.”

 

But to all, he extends the same invitation: “touch me and see.” Only by coming dangerously close to this wounded Lord will we too know transformation of our wounds—and resurrection.

Thank You, Madam Secretary!

Long-suffering readers of this blog will already know my obsession with the CBS drama “Madam Secretary.” It tackles tough political issues with a brilliant woman in the US Secretary of State role. Now they’ve outdone themselves. If you missed it Sunday March 25, catch it online: https://www.cbs.com/shows/madam-secretary/video/4iyOQfZj9A_U0JQ7EcX9_jdBrGG5XBMM/madam-secretary-the-unnamed.

The genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar may be little known, despite the best efforts of Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times and Kevin Frayer’s dramatic photo essay in Time Magazine 11/27/17.  My blog has already detailed the atrocities, and the obscene non-intervention of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the country, who ironically received the Nobel prize for her opposition to dictators. Over 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh. Those who remain are treated atrociously by the Burmese military, callously killed and raped, and denied the most basic medical care, food, and shelter. The news media are denied access because the Burmese have a lot to hide.

I was impressed to see this horror surface in mainstream t.v., when on “Madam Secretary,” the US is poised to award the Medal of Freedom to Myanmar’s charismatic leader, fictionalized as a male, but with the same background as the current president. The Secretary of State shows him clear surveillance photos of the villages burned and the mass exodus of peoples. Most poignantly, she reveals pictures drawn by children of their parents being killed and their homes being torched. The leader protests that the issue is complex, that the US has its own refugee problems, quickly refuted by Secretary McCord: the Muslims have lived there for centuries. He argues too that a few Muslim militants attacked security forces, but she counters that the military reaction is wildly disproportionate.

How this genocide has been allowed to continue this long is a good question to raise with Congress, which supported the Burmese military with US tax dollars. “There comes a time when silence is betrayal,” said M.L. King Jr., and his words echo dramatically in the inertia of US non-response. We’ve come to a sad state when the t.v. industry raises the moral conscience of the nation more powerfully than its leaders, but let’s be grateful wherever that clear voice sounds.