In Praise of Graceful Exits

This is a crazy week end, with two of my favorite UU ministers delivering their final messages to their congregations today. Another favorite is retiring as well. And I’m aware of another who I don’t know as well but respect greatly who is hanging up her robes. There’s a larger question — Why now? — that I don’t feel qualified to answer, though I have thoughts. 

But for now, I’d like to traffic in gratitude.

Rev. Ken officiating at our renewing of our vows (Year 25) in 2017.

Rev. Ken Beldon delivered his final message at WellSprings Congregation, in Chester Springs, Pa., this morning. It was a greatest hits, which, for Ken, is some pretty tasty material. Ken has been a minister at WellSprings for the decade-plus I’ve been there. I’ve listened to him preach, gone to justice events with him in West Chester, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. We’ve even gone on a weeklong service trip to Haiti (my second time there). I served on his ministerial committee, participated as a student and co-leader in mindfulness classes he led, and went to more than a few Jason Isbell concerts with him. I do remember him leading off a ministerial committee meeting once with Isbell’s “Relatively Easy,” which I’d discovered around the same time and has since become a hymn in my own personal liturgy. (I hope I didn’t just break some ministerial committee NDA I signed back in 2012.)

Ken is an amazing preacher and connector of dots. Above all, Ken’s sharing of his experience with mindfulness has had a huge impact on my life. I don’t think I become the adult I’m still becoming without his teaching, guidance and support.

In his final message today, he spoke about #ordinarypraise, the idea that spiritual practice is forged in and benefitted most from in everyday life. We live in the valley, not the mountains, he said. That resonated with me deeply, and it’s why I appreciate his experience and ministry so much.

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Kent sparring with an Infowars TV crew at a 2016 Black Lives Matter rally at Independence Hall.

Rev. Kent Matthies is a great friend. My wife worked with Kent on regional denominational issues, especially justice, in the early 2000s. We are roughly generational equals, and found a mutual appreciation of the other. Kent was the minister at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, which is a diverse, urban UU congregation in Philadelphia. Going to Kent’s congregation is like getting real. Justice isn’t a hypothetical for his congregation, it is an essential part of who they are.

And Kent is a peace warrior. In 2017, I remember, he had partnered with a group advocating for better re-integrating people previously held in prison. We were at a racial justice protest in downtown Philly, in the shadow of Independence Hall, in the runup to the 2016 elections. Kent held his own when a TV crew from InfoWars showed up to ask him some very pointed, and ugly, questions.

For three years, I co-led the Martin Luther King Day of Service projects that ran out of USG. We basically found service work for up to 400 people each year, some on and some off campus. It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know the Germantown congregants, and to turn Dr. King’s message into deeds.

Kent has an infectious energy and joyous, subversive sense of humor. He lives with honesty, integrity and joy, and I treasure his friendship.

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Me, Rev. Kent Matthies and Rev. Peter Friedrichs at Peter’s discussion of his book at Swarthmore College, in the midst of the pandemic (we dropped out masks for just one minute).

Rev. Peter Friedrichs is the retiring minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County, in Media, Pa. Peter is a great pastor and preacher, and he recently published his first novel, And the Stars Kept Watch. He is moving out of the Philadelphia area as part of retirement, but I look forward to seeing what he does creatively and in pulling people together around justice.

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I am so thankful to all three of these ministers as teachers, as guides, as friends, and I look forward to seeing what each of them do next, as I am sure it will benefit other people and inspire me.

How Is Church Going to Change?

A year ago, the pandemic was upon us, states were declaring lockdowns and church services (along with most everything else) went online. It was a scary moment for anyone who loves their religious community, with lots of questions:

  • Would people find online church services satisfying?
  • Would they attend?
  • Would they take part in church life beyond service?
  • Would they support their religious community in a time of extreme dislocation?

The surprising thing is the answer has been more “yes” than “no” over the past year. As more religious communities move toward in-person gatherings (in Pennsylvania, such gatherings remains very limited, with communities either avoiding it wholly or severely limiting worshipers), my own sense is that the past year is going to usher in a very different world for religious communities in 2021 and beyond.

Here are the new ground rules that I see:

  • Church is multiplatform. In my community, people from as far away as Arizona and Texas attend Sunday service. Our Wednesday mindfulness program includes a person from New York state who has never been part of a physical meeting of our community. These people are part of our community, we think there are more people who would benefit from our values and approach, and I expect we’ll continue to find ways to connect with them. When the time is right, I expect we’ll return to in-person services, but the schedule may be very different. Maybe we go from two Sunday services to one, to reduce resources needed and complexity for the physical event—but we add a livestream component that has a significant audience, both people who live at a distance and others who are physically near but decide it makes better sense for them to attend remotely.
  • Church is a mix of live and produced events. This pandemic has questioned the need to meet physically, and I would not be surprised to see a move away from physical meetings every week and a hybrid approach that includes something like what church is right now for many people (a produced service pulled together ahead of time and made available on online platforms like Youtube and Vimeo) once a month. Maybe it’s the last Sunday of the month. Consider it the spiritual equivalent of work-from-home (which is another huge societal change due to covid).
  • Church is asynchronous. Like Netflix, you can tune into church when it fits your schedule. Rather than choose between a morning hike and Sunday service on a gorgeous weekend morning, you can time-shift service to later that day, or Tuesday evening, or whenever. Church is no longer “appointment programming” in the way that it has been.
  • Church remains about connection. The religious communities that survive and thrive in this environment will be able to meet people where they are AND provide a message and presentation that is valued and, to an extent, can outcompete the variety of experiences competing for attention. The message and execution need to be compelling and values-forward, in a way that makes spending the time either going to service or choosing it over other screen alternatives makes people feel good about their choice. There will be limited ability to guilt people into choosing religious community if it doesn’t impact their lives in some way.

In addition to screens, church will be especially challenged in the second half of the year, due to:

  • pent up demand to travel
  • pent up demand to see family and friends on weekends.
  • people changing jobs
  • people spending down money saved during the pandemic

It’s going to be a very distracted time, and religious communities that assume that as covid relents people will return to previous patterns are, I think, kidding themselves. The world has changed, and relevant religious communities will change with them.

Two summers ago, my community had a practice run on this unsettled time. We were displaced from our physical location and could not worship at our usual location for the summer. It felt like an existential threat. We  went “on the road” and spent a lot of good time, thought and effort on our community’s place in the world. I can speak only for myself, but it made me feel vulnerable for our community.

A year later, poof!, that physical site again went away. It was unavailable to us and, even more unimaginably, there’s noplace else to go. So we re-formed community on the fly, missing zero services in the switch from live to virtual services. We did it for a full year, with the sense that we can do this till we do what comes next.

I dearly look forward to “next”, but I also feel less threatened about living in this liminal, “between” time. I’m confident in our resilience and ability to work skillfully with the facts on the ground to create the next “next”. My prayer is that everyone is thinking about how to connect in a world where many people will not be comfortable gathering even after the epidemiological “alls-clear” is given, because there is a lot of healing that needs to occur before everyone is ready to gather in one indoors, physical space again.

A Balm for Our Nation

Virginia and I were in DC Monday at the White House. We joined a group of local Catholics, from lay people to bishops, Franciscan monks to priests, who peacefully affirmed that Black Lives Matter.

Behind the speakers was a security fence, erected to keep citizens off the White House grounds but turned into a shrine of sorts, adorned by people who left behind posters and cardboard signs and artwork that spoke to their experience of violence and oppression and despair and anger and hope. The protest had a liturgical feel to it, and an excellent closing sermon, and then we marched together to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Along the way, we sang several songs, including There Is a Balm in Gilead. The first verse and chorus goes like this:

Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.

These are trying times. A week ago I feared this moment would be squandered, that we were at risk of being distracted from the opportunity available to us to reconstruct a more just future. But people did the most amazing thing: the opportunists were hustled off-stage; across the country, an overwhelming number of people solemnly and joyously took up the challenge to meet this very real opportunity with grace.

We’re not there, not by a long shot. But, and I can only speak for myself, I am encouraged that we can meet this challenge and see this opportunity through to meaningful change. That we can create a more just, safer society for all of us, especially those who have been schooled by dread experience that they are unsafe here. That there is a balm. That we can be healed.

I am a Universalist by inclination; I believe there is always another chance, for you, for us. If you are discouraged or wounded, know that you can be whole again. And you can help heal others — a whole country, perhaps.

I don’t know how that happens. I do know its continued existence is precarious. That powerful forces insist that some people suffer. That they will not relent easily.

But there is a balm in Gilead. It’s here too.

Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.

50 Days In …

50 days in. It’s only when you silence your own thoughts that you can hear the grief for what was and what, in my heart, I know isn’t coming back anytime soon: the casualness of friendship; the intimacy of the chance meeting; the mindlessness of getting lost in a crowd; the pleasure of a good meal in a crowded restaurant.

I’ve been fighting these thoughts for weeks now but it wasn’t until last night, when I Zoomed into a Wednesday mindfulness session led by minister, that I heard how hard I was working to strangle these thoughts and keep the grief at bay. I’m still holding it at arm’s length, but I can now see how alive this grief is, how it wants a piece of me, how sometime in this long, long summer to come, I’m going to hold it close.

The world has gone and turned itself inside out and I act like I can just adjust my glasses and proceed as usual. I need to rearrange my heart. Reorient my soul. Reground my faith. Reset my intentions. I’m afraid—terrified, to be honest—of what I might find. But the only path is through. Are we brave enough to enter the Upside Down? Who will come out the other end?

This is my prayer on a rainy night: that, frightened, we might encounter each other and embrace in the Upside Down, then come out the other side, arm in arm.

St. Joe’s Grads Feed Boyle’s Mission

When Greg Boyle, S.J., spoke Wednesday at the Chapel of Saint Joseph, most of the attendees knew the Jesuit priest and his ministry Homeboy Industries, the largest rehabilitation and re-entry program for gang members in the world, from his TED Talk or a report on 60 Minutes.

Many members of the Saint Joseph’s community have been involved more deeply, and practically. Here are two such stories. One recent graduate reached out to Homeboy and brokered a business deal that significantly increased Homeboy’s business reach and revenue. Another went there to serve for a year, found her calling, and stayed on as a case manager.

Madeline Mollahan holds packages of Homeboy guacamole and salsa at Stop & Shop headquarters in Massachusetts.

The Heart of the Deal

Service to others and business success are often separate. Madeline Mollahan ’18 found a way this year to bring them together.

Mollahan, who graduated this January from the food marketing co-op program, was hired by Stop & Shop, one of the largest grocers in the Northeast with 410 stores across Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey, as a category analyst for specialty deli — hummus, salsa, guacamole, spreads, dips, and cheese products.

While looking for new products, she came upon Homeboy Industries, the Los Angeles-based rehabilitation and re-entry program founded by Boyle. She knew Homeboy from her time at Saint Joseph’s, and because her younger sister (who attends the University of Scranton) had participated in a service trip to Homeboy that deeply impacted her.

Mollahan took Homeboy’s offerings to her manager, and she gave her the green light — and asked her to take point on the relationship.

“I take great pride in having Homeboy [in Stop & Shop], not only because it has a Jesuit background, but because it goes to such a good cause,” Mollahan says. “That is heart-warming to me.

“It’s also a great, healthy product — no preservatives — and we’re giving such a quality product to my customers. That, as a professional, makes me feel good.”

Mollahan, from Boonton, New Jersey, did more than merely place Homeboy products on a store shelf. She worked with the publisher of Boyle’s best-selling book, Tattoos on the Heart, to have the book and the Homeboy story adjacent to the food products so customers encounter more than just guac and salsa.

“They can read on the package and see the book right there and put it together to understand what the story behind Homeboy is,” she says.

It’s worked. Since their introduction five weeks ago, Stop & Shop is selling a lot of Homeboy guacamole and salsa each week.

“I didn’t have to do any marketing. It almost sells itself,” she says, “which is pretty incredible to see.”

Thomas Vozzo, the CEO of Homeboy Industries, is appreciative. Homeboy earns more than 30 percent of its $20 million in annual revenue through its business operations (the rest comes through donations and government funding). The money supports the employment of about 250 Homeboys and Homegirls, former Los Angeles-area gang members who sign on for the 18-month program. Those employees, plus about another 1,000 people a month, receive services including job training, tattoo removal and anger-management therapy. And it works: While the average person incarcerated in California has a 2-in-3 chance of returning to jail, a UCLA study of people who participated in Homeboy’s programs found the recidivism rate dropped in half, to about 1 in 3.

“The Stop & Shop deal brought us to the East Coast,” he said. “It is very significant for us. And it’s a testament to Madeline. We depend on good people like her who know our mission and help to expand our work and business.”

Mollahan credits Saint Joseph’s generally, and the food co-op program specifically, for her ability to step into Stop & Shop and make an immediate impact.

“St. Joe’s definitely gave me the resources for that,” she says. “I owe my career right now to the food marketing co-op program, because I would not be in my position today if I didn’t have that experience with the food marketing co-op program.”

Sharnise Simmons and Molly Verghese

A Sense of Vocation

Molly Verghese ’17 graduated last year and decided to take a year off before starting work toward a doctoral degree in theology.

Her experience in the Inside-Out program at Graterford State Prison, where the class was comprised of 15 Saint Joseph’s students and 15 incarcerated men, awakened something in her.

“Getting to know the men’s stories … that just jolted me,” says Verghese, of Rochester, New York. “I still remember walking in the doors of the prison, and what overcame me was a sense of vocation — where your greatest gift meets the world’s greatest need.”

That sense of call eventually led her to pick up and move to Los Angeles last August for a service year through the Saint Joseph’s Worker Program. She started there as the manager for a diaper-distribution program. That provided an opportunity to get to know the community, and she became engaged and invested as she learned people’s stories.

She shared their challenges, too, and something shifted. One day, Verghese says, she was asked to drive a woman to the hospital who had been beaten with a baseball bat. It was difficult, but being there for another person in a time of need touched her. Later, when the woman needed help finding a place to live, she asked for Verghese to drive her. That drive was full of laughter, not pained silence.

“It was a powerful moment,” she says. “It said, ‘What is here? What’s stirring?’ ”

Verghese eventually was asked to stay on beyond her year and became a case manager at Homeboy. One of her clients, Sharnise Simmons, of South-Central LA, will be among the speakers Wednesday evening on the Saint Joseph’s campus.

“Molly is great, I can say anything to her and know it’s OK,” Simmons says. “Before this, I was very isolated. Now I can share my feelings.”

Verghese reflected on her experience at Homeboy and what it has provided her.

“The gift of being able to name our gifts,” she says. “It takes a mix of humility and confidence. And I couldn’t have done this without my experience at Saint Joseph’s.”

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at https://www.sju.edu/news-events/news/near-and-far-sju-grads-feed-boyles-mission.

What I Know About Haiti

I’m no expert on Haiti. I’ve been there twice in the past four years, for a total of two weeks. But two weeks is more than most folks, and it’s enough to form an impression.

And enough to refute our president. Because when President Trump reportedly called Haiti, El Salvador and most of Africa “shithole countries,” he intimated that Haitians, Salvadorans and Africans are “shithole people.” It is awful, racist, repugnant stuff. It is divorced from my lived experience.

So let me tell you a little about the Haiti I have experienced, and point you to some better reference materials if you are interested in the place and its people.

The joyful and the troubling mingle in Haiti in ways outside the usual frame of my experience. I loved my time there. That’s not to say the place is easy. It’s hard, and I lived the most privileged existence possible in Haiti—the white visitor. I was treated like royalty, which, if you know anything about the history between our two countries, is unexpected and undeserved.

Everyone knows that Haiti’s standard of living is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere, and I have driven through the slums around Port Au Prince. I’ve looked up long roads strewn with trash and lined by shanty town shacks. I’ve looked and looked, because I could not take my eyes away. I’ve driven on dusty roads past three-room homes where I could not discern what the people who lived there could possibly do to scratch out a living.

There is something elemental in the struggle it takes to get even simple things done in the country. It appears tiresome. And yet people manage, because a lot actually gets done there.

My minister today was saying that the key to resilience is not learning to tough out a miserable situation. Instead, the key to resilience is discovering how to retreat and recharge after facing up to a difficult and heartless world. As he said that today, I remembered being gathered in silence with a small circle of fellow travelers in a compound outside Hinche, in Haiti’s Central Plateau, reflecting on a difficult day … and listening to the sounds coming from a modest home nearby. I don’t understand enough Creole to catch more than the occasional word or phrase. What I did make out was the unmistakable sounds of a family working through its daily routines with compassion, frustration, dignity and humor. Those overheard moments told me Haitian people, like so many Americans, find strength in their families that feed their dreams and help them cope with a world that so often appears arrayed against them.

As much as I appreciated my time there, I was glad to come home. I remember saying to a colleague on my second trip, “I’d be less excited if we were staying another week, let alone another month.”

Which is one way of saying that I remain in awe of the resilience of the people I met. Their ability to enjoy their lives, to be aware of the problems and not be defeated by them, amazed me.

Haitians aren’t saints. They’re people. I’ve been the recipient of their generosity. I’ve witnessed them argue violently over an unconscious boy about who was responsible when the boy was hit by a motorbike on a dusty street, without attending to the boy. I’ve worked with them and laughed with them.

I hope to be among them again.

I’ve written a bit about my time, including this poem, called 17 Pilgrims, about my first service trip there. From it:

“Haiti, you trudge to the end of a long day. I expect you to wake tired in the morning. Instead, you are bright smiles.”

I offer these resources as a way to connect with a challenging, beautiful place and its beautiful, worthy people.

2014 Visit
My Favorite 17 Photos
17 Pilgrims, a Poem

2016 Visit
A Whirlwind Start
A Harrowing Day on the Roads
Homecoming
Why Haitians Reject industrial Farming
A Different Take on Education
The Boy on the Road, a Poem
The Amazing Way Power Is Coming to Rural Haiti
59 Photos from My Trip to Haiti

Reference

If you’re looking for some starting points on understanding the place:

Boxers, A Poem

I.

The truth, it’s said, is that boxers
Don’t know when to quit.

That they refuse to leave the ring
until they are hollow shells

Of themselves, shuffling ghosts
Chasing ghosts chasing them—

Except there’s a deeper truth,
that you and I are boxers, too,
called from our short stool by a bell:

That we all hang in there
For all manner of reasons;

That we all take too many punches
Before we look to our corner;

That we all think we can
Wiggle our way out of trouble
And make it to that next bell.

Before we hold the boxer’s
Tenacity against him,

Can we agree that next time
We’re staggered, hanging on the ropes,

That we’ll drop our hands,
Find the referee’s eyes and beg,

“Stop this fight right now.
I’ve had enough. Please,
Protect me from myself”?

II.

Or can we understand the instinct
To ball one’s hands and swing again
Until our strength ebbs or awareness dawns?

Looking back, I see so many times
I swung when, at the the least,

I might have peered between raised hands
To get a read on what was across from me.

And more times when stepping back I might
Have transformed this square
Into a circle, eliminating the sides.

Other times I might have closed the distance
And arrived on shared ground, sacred space.

There are ways to quit, ignobly or not, in this world,
As there are many ways to break—open or apart.

The truth, they say, is that boxers
Don’t know when to quit.
They are not alone.

Roots, Wings, Bridges, and Abs

This week, Rev. Lee Paczulla at my church was talking about a popular development metaphor: that people need roots and wings. It refers to our need to be both grounded and aflight.

“A wise woman once said to me that there are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these she said is roots, the other, wings.” – Hodding Carter, journalist, in his book Where Main Street Meets The River, 1953

A lot of times it gets used in reference to children. That we want our children to grow up with roots and wings—with a sense of grounding and connectedness AND with a sense of adventure and freedom. Me, I think it sounds like something for all of us, not just kids.

But, there’s an issue. As Rev. Lee correctly points out, this is a metaphor at odds with itself.

It’s also at odds with a world in which safety has been fetishized, where people wish to accept no risk—the expectation that all dangers can be screened from our lives. At the same time there is a lot of anger in the country that individuals’ wings are being clipped.

In short, this request for both total liberty (wings) AND total safety (root) is at odds with itself.

I felt this tension most recently on a Wednesday several weeks back when the family-owned company for which I’ve worked the past nine years announced it would entertain offers for sale.

I had two reactions at the same time:

  • One that was essentially defensive. I have enjoyed my time here and I believe in the mission of the company, to help people to live fuller lives. I am 51, appreciate and like my employer, and know that it could be tough to find a similar one. How dare anyone consider anything that would threaten that mission (and me)?
  • One that was more considered, that accepted the possibility that the family might be ready to separate from the company—that it might, indeed, be exhausted from the rapid changes in the publishing industry that have driven down the value of all publishing properties in the past two decades and, personally, recognizing something inside me, a yearning that it was time for something new.

I was struck by the duality and a deeper truth—it led me to realize that the tension between all these things does not play out in our extremes, not in our roots nor our wings. It hit me in my gut. Literally.

It made me appreciate that what an engaged person needs to resolve the tension between roots and wings, between liberty and safety, is a strong core. We need spiritual pilates, people! We need some holy abs.

And that got me to thinking about how the gut is not where reconciliation happens, and that perhaps it is more useful to think of the way we reconcile between roots and wings as a bridge, connecting two shores. The bridge metaphor is helpful in that a bridge cannot pull the sides together, it doesn’t make the two banks one. Instead, it can allow transport between them—of thoughts, of energy, of salves. A bridge enables flow,  across it and underneath it.

That’s helpful when thinking of many things, including this country, with two shores that are so far apart right now that there will be no resolution in the near term. The best we can hope for is a bridge to facilitate flow.

Closer to home, I need that personally, as I consider an uncertain future. With a son still in college and a family to tend to, I have a ravenous appetite for roots, for security. And I know that this world, ultimately and despite my deepest desires, is an uncertain place. As someone who recently renewed my wedding vows (after 25 years operating under the original ones) with a commitment to adventure, I yearn for wings, for what comes next.

How to reconcile the tension in these two desires?

I don’t know, and I don’t feel alone. I see this tension being played out among my friends (guys especially) who are, like me, well into the second act of their work careers and find that the benefits of having “made it” co-exist with the reality that you can quickly become a target, too, in any cost-savings plan. That your skills are expensive. Some, to use the HR language, have been “separated” or they have stepped out of their careers voluntarily. Some have re-created themselves; others are still trying to figure out how to proceed. I see it play out 300 million strong, in the coarse barking of our national conversation. The yearning for rootedness and flight—for safety and liberty, the politicized expression of this—is a tension that seems as if it is going to get worse before it resolves itself. And the resolution will not be the joining of the far shores, but an understanding that these two shores hold a fluid truth between them. We are not a nation but a vessel, holding the fates of these millions and millions of people, and many more, in its shores and beyond. These shores can be kind or cruel, informed or ignorant. But there is no movement without banks, within which the water flows.

And … back to the need for a resilient core. What are these spiritual pilates? What work can I do to contain these opposing desires at once, to span the river between two distant shores?

For me, that work revolves around compassion, self-awareness, and connection. With recognizing my abilities and my limitations, both formidable. With realizing that the path forward is a softening, not a hardening. And it is a connecting—that ultimately, strangely, the bridge is flow, too.

It is both listening and speaking. It is following a call and stepping up when needed. It is the new and the familiar. It is knowing that every day dawns a fresh creation and I have a curious place in it.

This image of standing on the bridge, and being of the flow, this fills me with light.

I hope you sense the light, too.

For the country, I know even less. And still—still I feel that until we wrestle this dual fetish for uncompromising safety and unquestioned liberty to the ground, we’ll be circling this same angry, frustrated, fruitless round as a nation. The answer, I think, is trust in and accountability to each other. We need to be able to manage the tension between stubborn rootedness and selfish flight. We need a center—again, a core. Or maybe it works to think of it as a Commons. With a reality we can agree on. Without that, it seems all discussion goes nowhere. So, yes, to roots and wings, but also to a strong stomach, a civil Commons, and a supple bridge.

Gratitude For My Dad’s Life

My dad died 7 years ago today. What I wrote three years ago still stands — gosh, he would have enjoyed the hell out of his grandkids, who they are and who they’re becoming. I imagine he’d sit around the kitchen table with Pete, talking about the ins and outs of the casino business, and Kelly pulling him out on politics and the past.

And, at the same time, life moves on. The grief ages and distills and, strangely enough, it brings forth life. Eventually, the pain recedes into an ache and an appreciation for how precious and fragile our lives are.

What I’ve found is, loss deepens. I can drown in its depths. But when I stand with it and in it, I can — like a submarine, lights on in the Marianas Trench — see things I never would have on life’s sunnier surface.

I am so grateful for my dad’s life and, this is the harder part, for his death. His passing and the past 7 years have taught me things about the world and myself that I never would have learned any other way. These are not all happy lessons.

It has taught me that time has its limits, and called me to attend to the moment. It has schooled me in loving through differences, and how those differences recede with absence. It has made me nostalgic. It has driven home to me, like a punch in the gut, that we are sharks, that we need to move to live, and my dad’s ghost flushes me out of the house and on to the bike or the court when my spirit says relax. My dad’s life and death remind me that we live in our shared stories.

At his funeral, I walked around and spoke to his friends and our family and kept asking, “Tell me a story about my dad.”

I heard so many. The one that made me laugh the hardest was one from his work colleagues. They had all been at a conference in Puerto Rico and were at a celebratory dinner. The appetizers were awful and slow in coming. As they were sitting in mild dread about what would arrive next and when, there was a small commotion.

“These guys came into the dining room,” one old friend told me, “carrying several bags. And Tommy called them over. It was Chinese food! Tommy had gotten up earlier, I thought he went to the bar, but he ordered Chinese for the table! Oh, he was the best!”

Finally, I learned that suffering and loss are a price we pay for living. My dad was the best — and a thousand other things. Every year for six years now, I’ve stopped on this day and tried to hold all 1,001 things close to my heart, and sink in those waters, knowing I could drown but I will not, buoyed by the stories and love and lessons of his life, of my life, of this great living chorus.

 

Remembering My Uncle Tom

Today is my Uncle Tom Stansfield’s birthday. He would be 87. The fact he passed away last year (June 14, a Sunday) doesn’t lessen my wish to celebrate him on this day. So here is a rough reprise of my parts of Tom’s eulogy, delivered along with my brother Chris, at Holy Family Church in Union Beach, N.J., 9 long months ago. My notes were still sitting on my nightstand, which tells you something. Maybe you knew him and this will bring him to your mind and heart. Or maybe — if you’re lucky — you have your own Uncle Tom.

Continue reading “Remembering My Uncle Tom”

Why a Son Stranded at Night Resonated with So Many Friends

I was dead asleep on a Monday night when the phone rang. I’d been asleep only an hour, but as I was startled awake, it felt like much longer. It was my oldest son calling to say that his car had died on the way home and he was stranded on the side of the Schuylkill Expressway. He was asking about how to call AAA. He hoped AAA would be able to jump-start his car and send him on his way.

I confirmed with him how to call them, then sat there thinking. It was unlikely the car simply needed a jump. Eventually I got up and awaited the follow-up call.

It came and we agreed the car should be towed to where it could be repaired, at the family mechanic’s place. We met there and were back home by 1:40 a.m. I went to sleep and the next morning I wrote this on Facebook.

A midnight call from the oldest son that his car broke down on the Schuylkill Expressway is no fun.

And yet, to see him manage a small crisis, to pick him up and drive home in the dark talking and excavating small truths, to return to bed, everyone safe (the tow truck driver even waited with Pete till I arrived where they took the car) confirms for me that this world is full of graces embedded in its difficulties, large and small.

Grateful for this particular, small one. But a little tired too.

And then people started to like it. It amazed me when it was liked by more than 120 people (and counting). I wonder why, and I think that in a Facebook feed dominated by eruptions against (and occasionally FOR) Donald Trump, something that is non-political and simply an acknowledgement of the challenges and rewards of this life struck people as real and valuable.

And thank God for that.

May your life be occupied by the real things—the care and concern we share for the ones we love. Our efforts to influence the things we can to make lives better—our lives, others’ lives. We are in this together.

59 Photos from My Trip to Haiti

Even though I’ve been back home for nearly a month, people I haven’t seen in a while keep asking how January’s service trip to Haiti was.

My response is along the lines of “Do you want the 20-second version or the 9-hour version?”

They think I’m kidding.

I am and I’m not.

Trying to explain the experience is hard.

So let me run you through a bunch of photos and see if that helps to sharpen the story, and save us about 8 hours and 45 minutes. If you want to know more, click back to my earlier posts chronicling our stay (The Whirlwind Start, the Accident on the Road, the Departure and Homecoming), as well as some thoughts on the big lessons I brought home about education, agriculture, and power—and a poem, The Boy on the Road.

#3: Homecoming

It was the lights of Miami that told me our trip was over. The lights I didn’t take for granted, and that seemed so abundant—excessive and wasteful, even—after a week spent in Haiti’s Central Plateau.

The plane ride allowed for some time to take stock of the past three days. None had the emotional rawness of Wednesday, but they continued the work of understanding this place and its people—and made me aware of how much I have to learn and experience.

This is the third of three posts sharing this service trip to Haiti.

On Thursday, we returned to the school to clean up more rocks for a playground, and played soccer and took photos with the students at recess. After recess, we visited each classroom. In one classroom were four impossibly low tables and tiny chairs, each with a group of 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, respectively, sitting around it. We sang “Old MacDonald” for them, after they provided an animal for each verse.

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We visited this classroom with one table each of 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, at impossibly low tables. Joy!

Other classes sang for us and made room for us to sit with them. The school’s director shared that the school, which was expanded last year, would like to accommodate more older children and asked for our help.

That afternoon, we visited the Bassin Zim waterfall, where young people (mostly boys) scrapped to be our guides along the falls and secure a $1 tip. It was as uncomfortable as that sounds. In the evening, a local dance troupe visited the MPP compound to perform.

Charlot with students at recess.

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Here we’re cutting material to make a compost pile at Eco Village 1.

Friday, we visited Eco Village 1, the oldest of the villages constructed to offer refugees left homeless by the earthquake not just a home but a sustainable way of life.  (This is the village that members of Main Line Unitarian Church helped construct on the first service trip to Haiti three years ago.) While there, we learned how to compost, MPP-style. As when we made natural insecticides with MPP instruction two days earlier, I was struck by how much work goes into sustainable agriculture in the Central Plateau.

That afternoon, we met with the leader of the Women’s Groupment, who shared the group’s work in combating domestic violence. MPP is progressive in its commitment to gender equality, and it backs its talk with actions: during our time in Haiti, I was struck by how many smart, capable women served in positions of leadership at MPP. That includes our handler, Marguerite, who deftly guided us through Wednesday’s craziness and the entire week.

We then met with MPP’s former head and charismatic founder, Jean-Baptiste Chavannes. In a free-wheeling, laughter-filled two hours, Chavannes shared many stories, including how he got his start as a social justice warrior (he went to police to complain that a local political leader had stolen his uncle’s cow and, against all odds, retrieved it and had the official arrested and imprisoned).

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That night we had our final reflection of the trip, and each person shared an object or words. A dress, several quotes, a camera, stones from places we visited, a ukelele, a machete, the covenant that guided the group through the experience. I shared this little poem:

Haiti is not just a country.
It is that setting in Google Photos
Called Vibrance or something
Equally strange, that when
You move it to the right
It makes your photo burst
With color; What looked
Ordinary takes on a strange,
Enhanced quality. The greens
get greener, the details appear
In the shadows—surprise! They were
Always there. And I sit here
Looking at this moment we share,
The Haiti filter on, and I say,
“We will share this forever.
Let us gaze on this image
And feel the heat and the heart,
The connection and its breaking,
And know that this time, this place,
This image, these people, these feelings,
They are not an effect.

This is life, lived from a deep place
Of love, and fear, and hope.
And as we part, please,
Do not adjust the settings.”

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On the final night, we created a circle and each put what we wanted inside it. That’s my notebook …

Saturday was the long road from Central Plateau to Port-au-Prince, to a tchotchke shop, to the airport, to Miami, to Philly. It’s 15 minutes till touchdown. I am tired, but incredibly moved by the people we met, the beauty and joy and heartbreak and sheer unexpectedness of Haiti, and the deep ties formed within the group itself. If this was service work, I pray it benefited those I met for the first time, and the thousandth time. I too have been served. Now it’s time to serve up some shuteye.

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Kelly with translator Majeeda atop the Catholic church in Hinche.

#2: A Harrowing Day on the Roads

Trip co-leader Mike Carpenter warned us at Tuesday night’s evening reflection that if something is going to go wrong during our time in Haiti, it’ll happen on Wednesday. He was right and wrong.

The day started with a visit to MPP’s schoolhouse, which was expanded in the past year with a generous gift from the Unitarian Society of Germantown. We helped with the grounds and met the children, who were full of wonder, then headed to our vehicles.

And that’s when Wednesday struck.

This is the second of three posts about a service trip to Haiti Jan. 9-16, 2016.

On the road back, we came upon an accident. A motorbike with a passenger clipped a boy crossing the road. The boy was lying still where he fell, and the bike fell over too. One of the young men limped off the road.

Our caravan stopped and two members of the group jumped out to aid the boy. Monica Perme and Nuala Carpenter are a nurse and retired physical therapist, respectively, and cared for the boy, while the boy’s father and others incited a loud, angry argument over who was to blame for the accident. The argument howled above the boy, Monica and Nuala.

Amidst the furor, the boy regained consciousness.

Eventually Monica, Nuala, the two injured Haitians and the boy’s mom went to the hospital in one vehicle, and the rest of us headed home in the other two.

So often we ask ourselves why we’re in a place like Haiti. It’s not an easy question. Today we knew. We weren’t there intending to help in this situation; we were just there. We have no way of knowing if what we did prevented something worse, though it kind of felt like it did. What we do know is that at a terrible time in a young boy’s life, when he was surrounded by confusion, and anger, and noise, he received compassion and skilled care and he was delivered safely to more care.

The reflection this evening centered on that event, and several other out-of-leftfield experiences that seem to happen more here than at home. And on the joy that comes with doing this work of living together.

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It included Monica remembering something that one of the youth, Julia MacDonald, said while gathering rocks to clear a space for a playground at the school what seemed like a lifetime earlier. Julia said, “I wish I had bigger hands to help.”

May all of us have the hands and hearts to help, wherever and whenever we’re needed in this world that so often confounds our plans.

#30

Other posts from this 2016 trip:

#1: A Whirlwind Start

#3: Homecoming

Our Trip in 59 Photos

And from the 2014 trip, My Favorite 17 Photos from Haiti

#1: A Whirlwind Start to Haiti Trip

We are settled in with our Haitian hosts after a whirlwind day and a half.

The 13 members of the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice service learning trip to Haiti arrived in Port-au-Prince Friday and Saturday. Most of us are from the Main Line and Wellsprings congregations in suburban Philadelphia.

This is the first of three posts about a service trip to Haiti Jan. 9-16, 2016.

On Sunday after attending an evangelical Christian service, with more than 2,000 Haitians in the morning, we took a brief tour of the country’s national history museum. Then we climbed into three vehicles for the three-hour trip to the headquarters compound of the Papaye Peasant Mouvement (MPP), our hosts for the week.

The trip took us past a vast ghetto of makeshift housing near Port-au-Prince, through the mountains and into Haiti’s Central Plateau. To see the depth of poverty here, to be so close to the people who live their lives here, is a world-rocker.

We shared our feeling of heart-opening and -breaking at the night’s reflection. A house away, we could hear a family going through its paces—talking, laughing, a child calling out. For me, it was a reminder that our circumstances may be so different, but our humanity is identical. We live, we dream, we fear, we grow angry and despair. We persevere.

After the reflection, we star-gazed. The sky is both darker and brighter here, and bursting with light. May that be a good omen for seeing what is ordinarily hidden from us.

Monday we will hear more from our hosts, hopefully including MPP’s founder, Jean-Baptiste Chabonnes, who recently abandoned a presidential  campaign. And we move one day closer to understanding and being in relationship with the people who live in this complicated, difficult, wondrous place.

Please keep us, and our hosts, in your thoughts.

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Why I Love This Pope

Pope Francis’ powerful remarks after his trip to Africa strike me deeply:

“Africa is a victim. Africa has always been exploited by other powers. From Africa, they came to America, sold as slaves. There are powers that only seek to take the great wealth of Africa … Africa is a martyr, a martyr of exploitation. Those who say that from Africa come all calamities and all wars perhaps don’t understand well the damage that certain forms of development do to humanity. It’s for this that I love Africa, because Africa has been a victim of other powers.”

#Truth

Once Again, Trouble in Haiti

I am headed back to Haiti in early 2016, with my youngest son and members of local Unitarian Universalist congregations—including my own, Wellsprings—so I have my eye on what’s going on there. And the news is not particularly good:

I hope the country can hold fair elections and resolve the issues with its island neighbor—and that we can be assured of a safe trip in January.

 

 

 

 

My Wild and Precious Life at 50

This is what I presented recently at Wellsprings Congregation as part of our annual Wild and Precious Life service, which draws inspiration from the Mary Oliver poem The Summer Day.

It’s a little funny to be here as the representative for the 50s, as I’ve been 50 for 8 days now. But let me tell everyone, your 50s are great: you get a party every week!

One of the last things I did in my 40s was talk to a bunch of middle schoolers. A friend had asked if she could volunteer me to speak about my day job as a journalist to the gifted program students. I was talking about the things you’d expect an editor to say. If you want to write, do 3 things: Read, write, be curious.

Curiosity, my own and hopefully theirs, led me to share something I had no intention of sharing.  About 10 days before this, I’d had a surgery at Paoli Hospital where a surgeon performed a small miracle. He re-opened an artery in my heart that was more than 95% blocked. He did it through an incision in my right wrist that you’d have trouble inserting a cocktail straw through.

The question I brought to that class was the one that had dogged me since this all happened: How am I still here? How do you live when precious little blood is reaching your heart through its biggest artery?

One of the perks of being an editor for a magazine with “Health” in its name is I could ask doctors. And this is what they told me: I’m alive because life found a way.

I didn’t find a way, at least the conscious part of me, which was conveniently ignoring the fact that I was getting slower when I ran and that I didn’t really know what my cholesterol and triglyceride numbers were because I hadn’t gone to the doctor in 6 years. I felt fine—that was the cloak I wore, and it fended off the nagging concerns of mid-life and the reality that my family has a long history of heart disease.

Instead, my body laced together a network of capillaries that routed blood around the blockage and to my oxygen-hungry heart. The twin miracles of my body and medical science conspired to grant me a grace I hadn’t earned.

As I start on my 6th decade, I find that this is the lesson. Life and love find a way.

I’m reminded this week of my neighbors growing up. Herman and Mina were young and Jewish and lived in a small village in Poland. They knew each other a little bit, nothing more. When the Nazis invaded Poland at the start of World War II, they were sent to different work camps.

After the war, Mina moved to New York City—something to remember today as we sort out the correct response to a new wave of refugees across the globe. Back then, it wasn’t ISIS but communism that America feared was sneaking across its borders. Anyway, Mina, she’s walking down the street one day, she sees a familiar face: Herman. He had moved to the same neighborhood. They dated, they got married, had kids, moved to the suburbs. They were waiting when my family moved in next door in 1972. My Mom and Mina grew close; they are on their fifth decade of arguing over who last bought milk for whom, and Mina calls my mom her Irish sister. At 91, Mina called me last week to wish me well on my 50th birthday. She wished me a life richer than hers.

And to think, how unlikely was ― is! ― Mina’s life?

But life and love find a way.

I’m not a pollyanna. Tens of thousands of people die of heart disease each year. Sometimes life and love can’t find a way—they couldn’t hold the door open forever waiting for me to hear the call. But I did, just in time.  My doctor told me that something bad would have happened within the next 2 months without intervention.

Millions didn’t escape the snare that Mina and Herman did.

But it happens, and it happens more when you and I set our minds and hearts and hands to it, when we heed the call of our wild and precious lives.

For me, that meant moving up a doctor’s appointment (not that difficult) and paying greater attention to my health going forward (same). It also means returning to Haiti this January, and sharing that journey with members of Wellsprings. Who knows what will happen? Rev. Ken might come back with a new way to grow tomatoes in his backyard garden next summer. A young Haitian may make a connection and his path might veer from its current course.  I might trip and turn an ankle that takes months to heal. Someone might meet the love, or the calling, of their lives.

That is my prayer for all of us this morning.

The Sad Truth, Guys: Your 40s Suck

When I turned 40, my mom pulled me aside and said, “The 40s were the best years of my life. Enjoy them.”

I love my mom, and she has rarely led me astray—except about this. Because she was dead wrong. The 40s are not the best of times.

Why would a usually optimistic and upbeat 49-year-old say this? Because it’s true (and I wrote this before my heart issue). If your life was an NFL season, your 40s would be a trap game. If it was a table game, it would be a sucker’s bet.

It’s not so much that the 40s have the worst quality of life. All in all, I feel pretty good. And as I get older, I expect that health issues and chronic pain will make the day-to-day more difficult.

But what is unique to the 40s is that if you’ve put care into your first two decades as an adult, you might enter your 40s positioned nicely: rewarding job, a growing nest egg, a durable and satisfying primary relationship, kids, the whole deal. You probably feel like you’ve got the world by the tail.

But all those good things actually mean that you have an enormous amount at risk: all of these things are stressed for guys in their 40s:

  1. It’s unlikely that you’ll actually change your life station in a positive way. No matter how big a raise and promotion you get, you’re unlikely to escape the demons of your mortgage or of struggling for a way to put the kids through college. However, a career calamity is just an ogre-boss or a downturn in the business cycle away, and if you are let go to save costs, it’s unlikely you’ll hook back on anywhere near where you were previously (and out the nest-egg money that kept you afloat). And that’s for those who are relatively well-off. Researchers recently discovered that working-class white men (and women) in their 40s and 50s were in the midst of a historic, despairing rise in death rates.
  2. Also, guys in their 40s often get the urge to be their own bosses, to use their hard-won experience to strike out on their own. Sometimes it works out; often it doesn’t. Hence, the median age for bankruptcy filings is 45—even with health care increasingly stressing elderly, middle-class people.
  3. Busy guys can be lonely guys. Research shows that guys make up two-thirds of people who live alone in their 30s and 40s. Why is this important? Because the single-best determinant of longevity is number of friends beyond a spouse. When a woman’s husband dies, she spends more time with her friends. When a guy’s wife dies, he spends more time with himself. And that lack of connection is a literal killer in your 60s, 70s, and 80s.
  4. Physically, your 40s are when the weekly hurts go daily, when your hair thins to a point where you consider the comical comb-over your uncle employed (or maybe you just shave it all off). It’s when getting down becomes as hard as getting up. When your eyes go. It’s when skin cancer rates rise. Ditto for sexual dysfunction. You wouldn’t wish the 40s on your worst enemy.

Add it up, and your 40s are the worst thing to happen to you since … since … since, well never. Because it’s always been better.

Until, you know, your 50s. 😉

Orbits Near and Far

At today’s leadership meeting at Wellsprings, I realized that one of the things I do—and should own—is a general stepping in and out of commitment. I see it as an orbit, an eccentric one at that, that brings me closer and takes me farther from the issues I wrestle with on a daily basis. I rarely become occupied and unable to separate from something.

The truth is, I think this is a mixed bag. While it keeps me from becoming obsessed, it also means that I sometimes step away from issues that I should stay on top of—work and church projects, family issues, friendships. I always figure I can work my way back eventually. That is sometimes a rationalization. I have no intention of re-engaging. Other times, as I draw away I feel the tug of gravity or responsibility and I nudge back into the waxing portion of my orbit.

Continue reading “Orbits Near and Far”

A Parent “in” Love

Love is not enough.

I was speaking with a colleague in church leadership yesterday in a wide-ranging discussion about where are hearts are these day (one of the reasons I do love my church community). We were speaking about the death of her dog, and what a big impact it had on she and her husband. And that led to parenting humans, and her saying that she was always unsure on whether she would be a good parent.

I told her she would and that she had all the qualities to be a great parent, because there are no skills to being a parent. The only thing you need is the ability to be in love. Because it’s not enough to love.

You can love chicken vermicelli at the local Vietnamese place. You can love Wes Anderson movies. You can love your niece. But parenting is about being “in love,” about the stretch and intensity and depth of feeling and concern that we often place on a romantic relationship.

Like those romantic relationships, being in love with your kids doesn’t mean you are blind to them; it’s the contrary. You see them very clearly. The good and the bad. The naive parts and the broken places. It also means that it can be hard to hold them accountable to what you see and what you believe.

The intimacy of being in love with your kids is easier when they’re young, when you loom so large in their world and they large in yours. As they get bigger, it gets harder. They develop alternate networks of approval and support, some of which may not align with your values and experiences. They yearn to strike out on their own—or just to strike out.

And that’s when you need to soften. Even then, you need to stay in love with them. Because they are not done growing, and you are not done parenting. This can be your final act of parenting: the last exhilarating fling before moving on to another way of relating, where you merely love them. Because at this point, if things are not going great, you start looking at the exit door, thinking this is when you can step away and they’ll figure it out.

Except they might not. And what’s needed from you now isn’t a listen-to-me or I-told-you-so. What’s needed is a who-are-you, it’s a tell-me-your-story-again. What’s needed is someone who can tell them what’s different about their story today compared to a year or a decade ago. What’s needed is that they know someone is paying attention. Someone in love with them.