Friday, January 05, 2007

Letter to a Right Wing Nation

As many of you know, I took a hiatus from blogging for about a year. Like Rip Van Winkle emerging from sleep, when I went back to the blog I discovered a lot had changed. Most of the blogs that used to link to mine had given up on me (can't say I blame them), as had many of my regular readers. But I found there was a new blog linking to mine, a blog called "Right Wing Nation."

Perhaps, now that I am starting up blogging again, this is a good opportunity to reiterate a few things I have mentioned in the past. I am an Orthodox Christian who lives and writes from a socially and politically liberal perspective. I'm a pacifist, a vegetarian, and a socialist/distributionalist. I am anti-death penalty, and favor eliminating the stigma attached to homosexual people in society and in the church. And my family and I, in the various situations in which we have lived over the past number of years, have attempted to live in community with the poor, to make disadvantaged people a part of our lives. This is really the basis for the Guerilla Orthodoxy blog: it is one family's attempt at living out a personal preferential option for the poor.

So it was a real surprise to discover that someone whose tag line is "peace through superior firepower" is linking to my blog.

Now, I want to emphasize that I'm not complaining about this (and not only because I don't want to lose one of my few remaining referrers!). Despite my own ideas and leanings, I happen to think there are many things that are more important about a person than his or her political affiliation. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat or a Constitutionalist or a Green, it doesn't answer some of my most basic questions about you: Are you kind? Are you fair? Are you generous?

Moreover, I genuinely believe (appearances in this country often to the contrary) that it is possible for people of good faith on the right and on the left to work together on some very difficult issues if we are willing to surrender some of our preconceptions, rather than using these issues as fulcrums to leverage ourselves into power. Take abortion, for example, one of the most divisive issues of our time. If you study the statistics about abortion, you will soon learn that one of the strongest predictive factors as to whether or not a pregnant young woman will get an abortion is poverty. The country that has the lowest abortion rate in the world is not the country with the most restrictive abortion laws, but rather the one with the most liberal abortion laws, the Netherlands. Why is this? Probably because there is very little poverty in the Netherlands, a narrow gap between rich and poor, a generous medical leave program, and health care for everyone.

A world without abortion is not a world with better laws. It is a world without desperation. So being pro-life doesn't just mean passing stronger abortion laws. It also means working to eliminate poverty, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, making health care accessible to everyone, and creating a society where family is more important than productivity or profit. I'd like to think there is a "win-win" on abortion, a way for people on both the right and the left to agree that every abortion is a tragic event, and to work towards eliminating the root causes of abortion, rather than endlessly reiterating the "right to life/right to choose" dichotomy like a bad and endless beer commercial ("Tastes great!" "Less filling!").

So this is my letter to a right wing nation. I'm glad you're here, I really am. I just wanted you to know where "here" is.



Working on Broadway

So this morning when we got up, Jeff was still asleep in the doorway of the church next door. After breakfast, I brought him some coffee and blueberry flapjacks, and we talked a little.

Jeff's story was familiar in many ways. He's lived all over, including Hawaii and Alaska. Like a lot of people I've met, Jeff went on the street when his family network of support disintegrated: his mom died young, his dad remarried soon after, and then more or less disowned Jeff and his sister in order to focus on his new family. He's 42 years old, and been on the street for over ten years. He has the worn look of someone who's been out for awhile; the average age of death for people on the street is 43 (as compared to about 70 for the rest of us).

One of Jeff's biggest problems is that he has no ID, nor does he have the ID necessary to get ID. This has become a very big problem for homeless people since 9/11, when the standards for getting identification were significantly raised. When you're moving all the time and have no safe dry place to store stuff, it's easy to lose your ID, have it stolen, or ruin it. Then you need a certified copy of your birth certificate to get a new license or state ID. But Jeff doesn't have a birth certificate, nor does he have the means to get one, and without a birth certificate, no ID. And without ID, its difficult for him to get assistance or services, and easy for him to get arrested. As he put it, "It's like they say, 'in order to work on Broadway, you have to have worked on Broadway.'"

Jeff told me he thinks his sister may have a copy of his birth certificate, but she's moved to Arizona, or maybe Florida, and he doesn't have contact information for her. He doesn't remember the spelling of her married name, but thinks he can get it. I told him I'd give him a hand trying to look her up on the Internet sometime.

This evening, I saw that he was still there under a pile of blankets, though in the morning he had said he was going to try to move on to another place where some friends were staying. It's a blustery and rainy night, no time to be traveling, so I figured he was going to hunker down for one more night. After dinner, I got some shells and cheese and Eritrean style vegetables together on a plate, along with some hot coffee, and brought them out for him.

When I got out to the church doorway, I could hear music and singing; a service was going on inside. And Jeff was gone.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Sleeping in the alcove of God's house (again)

Our new house is next door to a church. Not a nice, beautiful, suburban chapel, but a big, boxy, urban church that looks like it wanted to be a warehouse like all the other cool buildings, but instead ended up as a church.

Tonight when I got home, there was a guy sleeping in the back entrance to the church (which faces our house). The she-guerilla told me he'd been there all afternoon. She had left some homemade caldo verde soup and biscuits for him on the steps, but he hadn't stirred.

So I went out and walked halfway up the steps. "Friend," I called out. No answer. A little louder, "Hey friend, would you like some coffee or something?"


"That sounds good."

So we brought him some coffee and reheated the soup and biscuits (and added a piece of baklava left over from a Christmas plate), and we gave him a blanket out of the garage. He said his name was Jeff, and thanks. He didn't seem too interested in talking, so I said I was sorry he had to be out tonight, and went back in.

A few hours later, we turned up the heat. It's cold out tonight.

I thought about Milton, who used to sleep "in the alcove of God's house." I wondered how he is doing, or if he is even still alive.

It's tough out on the damn street.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Legend of Old Befana

So since the purchase of our home, I have been reflecting on what it means to create a hospitable and inviting space. On Christmas day, we decided to have some guests over, a few people who otherwise didn't have any place to go. We invited Stan and Mona over, with their daughter Stephanie and Mona's son Romero. I first met them in the Salvation Army shelter last February; now they are in an apartment, but still in a pretty precarious situation. Romero is not quite 13 years old, basically a good kid in a horrible situation. I see so much gentleness in him, watching the way he takes care of his two-year-old baby sister. He's still a child, but just old enough to have started to become intimidating, at that age when we stop adoring children and start fearing them, especially if they have dark skin. He wears his baseball cap cocked to the side and punctuates his speech with wide, gangly, hip-hop gestures, talking about Tupac Shakur and "the street" and "keeping it real." But he's still enough of a kid to look up from time to time to see if you notice him, to make sure you're still listening.

Romero was suspended a couple of weeks ago for bringing a knife to school. When I heard this, I couldn't help but think of the knife his stepfather Stan brandished when he had a nervous breakdown a couple of months ago, the day Romero had to help tackle him to protect his mom and sister, and then watched the paramedics take him away in an ambulance to the mental ward. When I came over a few hours later, there was still blood on the wall, Stan's own blood from where he slashed himself when he was struggling with Mona and Romero.

Now Stan is back with the family; he's taking his medication regularly and appears to be doing much better. But Romero has started carrying a knife, perhaps because it makes him feel strong and tough and "real," perhaps just in case he needs to protect his mom and sister again. And the guidence counselor at the school is saying he may not be readmitted to school in January because of the school's "zero tolerance" weapons policy.

In the Italian Catholic tradition, the season between Christmas and Epiphany is a time for telling the story of Old Befana. According to the legend, Befana was a grouchy old woman who kept a neat house and did not like children. One day, she sees a wonderful sight: a magnificent train of camels, wise men bedecked regally, and a little child who tells her that they are following the star, seeking the Child who has been born a king. When Old Befena hears this, she says "humph" and goes back to her sweeping. But the story has captured her imagination, and so before long she lights a fire in the oven and prepares her very best sweets for the new king, then hurries after the wise men, now long gone.

She is still searching to this day.

It is said that on Epiphany eve, Old Befana creeps into the room of all children and peers into their sleeping faces, seeking the Child born king. And she leaves sweets for every child, saying to herself, "Who knows? Perhaps this is the one."

For some reason, I imagine Old Befana coming to Romero's room. I see her looking deeply into his still boyish, not-quite adolescent face, relaxed in sleep. And then silently leaving sweets.

Perhaps Epiphany is calling all of us to this: to learn to see through the eyes of Old Befana. To see in each face, even those we are tempted to fear, the face of the Child. To keep saying to ourselves, "Perhaps this is the one."

What makes a boy like you go bad?
What makes a man so lonely and sad
That he'd poison all he knows
And in one year, just let it go?

And all that time you were telling me
You were fine
Aw, silly man, silly boy.

"Dirt and Dead Ends," from Despite our Differences
Amy Ray, The Indigo Girls