Holding Out for a Hero

“All week I have been working as usual.”

How many people in America can say that right now?

And yet, that was the opening line of Brother Jim’s update email to me. I had been thinking about the poor community, how it usually seems a world away, but how now it is living a completely different reality than what the news is presenting about American life.

You see, you can only pause the world when you are living the middle to upper class socio-economic reality. In less stable environments, life continues with other struggles. In the poor communities of Chicago and across the world, people are still dying. They are still hungry. They are still living day to day and cannot hoard or stockpile for any potential threat. They have current threats to survive this very hour.

The support for these vulnerable communities is failing in times like these. Church doors have closed. Non-profits have ceased. Donations have stopped pouring in. In Chicago, volunteers aren’t showing up for the food pantry work because they are afraid. At the St. James food pantry, Brother Jim had to step in to fill the void. Why? “Because people still have to eat.”

I have been angry at some of our leaders of various community sectors for their inability to see these needs. Sure, they can close their doors and self-quarantine, but they are leaving behind problems that will lead to deaths in other ways, be it other illnesses, hunger, bankruptcy and eviction, mental health issues, or domestic abuse. When one domino falls in a poor person’s life, the world comes crumbling down much faster than a 2 week to 30-day quarantine. This population does not have the time to wait it out on their couches with their wine and Netflix and see if things get better in May.

In my own work supporting lay formation leaders within the Church, I have been blessed to see some creative lay leaders and their pastors respond to the nationwide absence of the Eucharist and creatively reach their flock. They have quickly adapted to using social media, they have collaborated across regions, and they have worked extra hours from desperate hot spots to get the job done. They have asked for help navigating these new ways of ministry and are doing wonderful things to bring communal prayer and continued education digitally. And yet other leaders have altogether disappeared.

While it makes sense to follow the advised health precautions, it does not relieve anyone of their duties to help others. When the light of faith is dropped by certain leaders, I am thankful for those who pick up the torch and march on, sometimes on their own.
I don’t think any one of these people see themselves as heroes. They love their work, they believe in their mission, and it is simply a reflex to find solutions no matter what is thrown their way. They don’t have time to be angry at anyone—they have a job to do.

What makes the difference between a coward and a hero? What paralyzes one person in fear and allows another to act with clarity toward a risky but desperate need?
Heroes were not made this week. They were made a long time ago. Heroes were made because someone authentically witnessed the Gospel to them, and it invaded every part of their life. They came to understand what it means to love their neighbor, to trust God, to be not afraid, and to forgive constantly, focusing instead on the love instead of the insult.

Brothers and Sisters of Love will never stop serving. Coming up soon, Brother Jim must find a way to hold a funeral while observing the mandate to gather with no more than 10 people. If you’re ever been to a funeral in the hood, you know that this pretty much tops the impossibility charts. The work may get creative in the next few weeks and months, but Brother Jim and the good heroes of this world will continue to navigate new obstacles and mandates. Because love always finds a way. And when it does, the Kingdom of God breaks into our midst, and the grace makes up for where any of us lack.

The Eucharist has been suspended but go in fearless love and authentically witness to the faith, so that others may still encounter the Body of Christ and we may continue to find the heroes that we need.

–Megan Cottam

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18th Sunday in Ordinary Time / C August 4, 2019

… All things are vanity! For what profit comes to a person from … anxiety of heart…? (Ecclesiastes)
If today you hear God’s voice harden not you hearts. (Responsorial Psalm refrain 95:8)
Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. (Paul)
Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions. (Jesus through Luke)

Words of wisdom from today’s readings.

Anxieties of Heart
Some years ago I was with a small group talking to a US senator. The senator said that one of the problems in our country is that too many families are living on the edge financially, just making ends meet. One small bump in the road (death, an illness, loss of job, divorce…) can lead to financial ruin or bankruptcy.

He was right. I find most anxieties are based in reality. These realties go back to Adam and Eve and the loss of paradise (Eden). Loss of security, control, life, health, finances, even affection are real and will happen to us.

In the Old Testament, a number of books including Ecclesiastes and Psalms are called Wisdom Literature. The Wisdom Literature is not based on Revelation from God, but the expression of human experiences of God working in their lives. Thus when the Psalmist says, “Before the mountains were born, the earth and the world brought forth, from eternity to eternity you are God.” (Psalm 90). It is not God praising himself, but the Psalmist praising God.

Likewise, in Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth is looking back on his life and warning us that the anxieties of life controlling our decisions are often signs of vanity. He is warning his listeners the importance of life, God is with us, and life goes on. Remember God is with us.

Jesus and Paul are telling us the same thing from different perspectives. Jesus warns us about making possessions more important that people. Paul reminds us that the world and God are bigger than what we see around us.

When Paul speaks of what is from above what is he talking about? I think he is talking about faith, hope, love, shalom or peace, community, and wisdom that comes from God. These are the things from above. These are the things that are important.

I believe we receive these six things in two ways. First, we receive these things as a gift without even trying. Faith is based on experience. So if today you hear God’s voice harden not your heart. It is our response to hearing God’s voice or experiencing God’s action that determines if the gifts of faith, hope, love, peace, community and wisdom are placed on our hearts.

The second way is through prayer. Prayer does not take all bad things away from us, but it helps us endure. When Jesus prayed, “Father, take this cup away…” (Lk. 22:42), he still had to face the crucifixion and death. Over the long run good prayer gives us faith, hope, love, peace, community, and wisdom. Over the long run good prayer…

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Some are more equal than others.

July 2018, police officers shot a 30 year old man in the back 5 or 6 times. He died on the West-side of Chicago. Anger and protests followed. The police videos showed the victim with a gun he refused to give up. Friends of the victim said the shooting was justified and the protests stopped. More than one person said, “Why didn’t he just drop the gun?”

July 1998, two unsupervised rookie police officers hid among trees after midnight observing drug sales at the Robert Taylor housing development near 42nd and State in Chicago. A lookout noticed movement in the woods, one shot was fired. The bullet penetrated one officer’s body below his vest killing him. The other officer traumatized by the event gave a description of the shooter. Witnesses were held at the police station for over 24 hours until specific people were named.

A 16 year old boy was arrested for firing the gun and tried as an adult (three other men were also convicted one of whom was not at the scene). The first trial ended in a hung jury. The second trial brought a conviction. He was sentenced of 60 years to be served at 100%, the maximum. The Chicago Police Department no longer allows rookie officers to patrol the streets without an experienced officer.

January of 2019, a police officer, with numerous complaints of brutality, was sentenced to just under seven years (he will serve approximately three years) for executing a defenseless 16 year old boy in front of a dozen officers and unknown number of citizens. The killing was videoed. At least three officers filed untrue reports, temporarily protecting the shooter and impeding the investigation. A judge exonerated the three officers saying they made a mistake. At sentencing, the officer’s wife said, “There was no malice, the officer was only doing his job.”

In George Orwell’s book Animal Farm, the animals chase off the humans to create an idyllic animal run farm. A sign proclaims “All animals are created equal” in the hopes of living free and prosperous. Soon the farm evolves and becomes oppressive. The sign changes to “All animals are created equal, but some animals created are more equal than others.

As a child, I was taught that some professions (ministers, public servants, the courts, and law enforcement) were held to higher standards. As an adult I learned this is not true. In a country “where all men are created equal,” some men are created more equal than others.

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Advent 2018

Baruch 5:1-9; Phil. 1:4-6, 8-11; Lk. 3:1-6
A voice crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths!”
John, son of Zachariah, was born a priest within the comfort and prestige of the Jerusalem Temple. He gives up his privilege and chooses to live in poverty at the edge of the desert. Growing older, I wonder if John left Jerusalem with disillusionment from the corruption of Political and Religious leaders he observed abusing their power? He seemed to have a lot of anger- at the crowds (Lk 3:7); the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Mt. 3:7); and the powerful/dangerous (Mt. 14:3-4). While having compassion for the humble, tax collectors, and soldiers (Lk. 3:12-14). He passionately loved Israel.
Human nature doesn’t change. I get disappointed and appalled by the actions of leaders and institutions I’ve trusted, who have protected their honor and their positions at the expense of the people they claimed to serve. I ask, “Where’s the love?“
John called for repentance and people flocked to the wilderness to hear him preach. The season of Advent calls us to repentance as a transition to discovering God in our midst. If God is in our midst, do we feel God’s presence? Many of us do not feel that presence. Why not?
The book of Revelation and the Gospel of John may hold the key. The “sin” of the Ephesians was “Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first … (Rev. 2: 4-5).” The sin was to stop loving and the cure was to love again. It is the problem the Church has faced for 2000 years.
John’s Gospel gives us the commandment to love one another as I (Jesus) have loved you (13:34). Then the Gospel tells us, God will give us an Advocate (Holy Spirit) who will be with us always (14:16).
The heart of the Christian life is to love. My experience with violence and gang members is that a life dedicated to love receives the accompaniment of God

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5th Sunday of Easter / B April 29, 2018


Acts 9:26-31; 1 Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15:1-8.

We know that we should obey Jesus’ commandments. But what are they? Rules? Laws? Are they complicated? Are they difficult to understand? Do we need to study the Bible day and night? Do they concern our everyday life?

The second reading for this weekend lays it out simply, saying “And (God’s) commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us. Those who keep his commandment remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.” (1 John 3:23-24). In calling ourselves Christians, our commandment is to love one another and trust in Jesus Christ. We do this just as when Jesus walked the earth. Loving one another has a way of expanding because the world needs our love. As we learn to open our hearts, the Spirit cares for us according to John bearing fruit.

In the first reading, after his conversion, Paul tries to join the community of believers. However, Paul has a problem that follows him his whole life and affects some Christians. Paul is combative. In the New Testament combativeness can cause trouble and misunderstanding. John the Baptist, son of a temple priest, leaves the Temple and baptizes in the River Jordan. Even there his enemies follow leading to arrest and execution.

The Apostle James, called “Son of Thunder,” is the first of the twelve killed in Jerusalem. Steven combats and challenges the Jews and is stoned to death. Paul combats Christians before his conversion and “they were afraid of him” (Acts 9:26). In today’s reading, Paul combats the Hellenists (secularized Jews). Later he combats Peter, James the brother of Jesus, John Mark (possibly the writer of the Gospel), Barnabas, diaspora Jews, Greeks, and other Christians. Paul was faithful, insightful, sometimes wrong, often divisive, and on fire for his faith.

Jesus was not so combative, and because of this people were drawn to him. They listened when he asked them to soften their hearts. He was both adored and rejected. He healed, he fed, and then he asked for a change of heart. The healings and feedings were admired and seen as wonders, but his call to a change of heart was often rejected. So he invited and brought to himself a special group of twelve. Even with them the deeper call to a change of heart caused them to betray and abandon him.

The Gospel comes back to the central theme of trusting in Jesus, connected to him with the image of the vine. Being attached to vine produces fruit. Though they turned away from him the resurrection at Easter reattached them to Jesus the vine and they produced much fruit. Believing in the resurrection is our invitation to become attached to the vine. We do it by trusting in Jesus and loving one another. And from it we will produce much fruit.

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Christmas 2017

A year ago I met James at 15th and St. Louis on Chicago’s West-side. He asked if I could help him obtain a State ID card. He had a baby on the way and needed a job. I said no problem. It took ten months to correct his birth certificate, obtain a social security number, and get a State ID card. Fifteen years earlier his aunt was caught impersonating his mother trying to correct his birth certificate. The birth certificate was not corrected and he slipped through the cracks. Every adult and institution let him down.
I am often asked, what is wrong with Black America? My answer is poverty. Not all African-Americans are poor, but gangs, drug abuse, school drop-out rates, poor housing, and distrust of the police and institutions are all related to poverty. Backlash to these actions reinforce the behaviors. It becomes a vicious cycle. Poverty, when not chosen, is destructive for generations.
Recently, the Archbishop of Milwaukee stated the biggest problem for America, the church and the world is secularism. It struck me because I disagreed. The biggest problem is hardness of heart.
The Church and Christians are to be lights in the world. We are not lights in the world when we become afraid, refuse to forgive, reject trusting in God, and in hardening our hearts.
When Pope Francis goes to a refugee camp and takes 12 people to Vatican City, he is not requiring them to be Catholic. He is instead addressing the needs of vulnerable people and showing the world how to act.
Jesus’ message is about Love, Trusting in God, Forgiving, and Not Being Afraid. Jesus was exasperated by the hardness of heart, the lack of faith, and the fear of the people around him, including his disciples.
Hardness of heart is rooted in power, fear, injury, anger, greed, envy, lust, pride, sloth, and gluttony. In essence being human. The solution to hardness of heart is loving one another as Jesus loved us. The bible tells us to love– God, neighbors, ourselves, our enemies, strangers, and the poor. This is how we are to be lights in the world.
Love gets abandoned because of its failures. A bad outcome and love is tossed aside. Loving does not mean allowing ourselves to be abused. Love, in most cases, is not inaction. Would extra love have stopped Hitler, Stalin, or Bin Laden? Unlikely. However love anchored with trust in God finds hope.
How do we trust in God? Seeking, asking and knocking (praying), . Praying is an action that involves listening, discovery, and response. With practice it bares fruit.
Loving and Trusting in God has worked for me. I have seen disasters in not loving or trusting. I have witnessed the softening of hearts of the worst gang members. I have loved and experienced love in return. I have walked into deadly situations and experienced God’s grace. I have seen the despairing experience new life and hope. Anger, fear, and being hurt lead to hardness of heart. Softening of hearts leads to grace and hope.

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If Today You Hear God’s Voice Harden Not Your Heart

Ezekiel 33: 7-9
Romans 13: 8-10
Matthew 18: 15-20

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
If Today You Hear God’s Voice Harden Not Your Heart.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that the Torah found God to be both Transcendent and Immanent. And the Jewish religion is based on Faith and Love.

The transcendent God, whom Christians call Father, refers to God creating and ruling the world. The immanent God, whom Christians call the Holy Spirit, is close to his people. For ancient Jews the immanence of God was frightening.

Christians have a third aspect of God- The Incarnation: Jesus. Jesus’ professed the signs and wonders that occurred through him showed the nearness of the “Kingdom of God.” In short the “Kingdom of God” is discovered through Love and the “Kingdom of God” is lost through hardness of heart.

Christianity is based on Love, Faith, and Hope. From Jesus, Christians find the immanence of God hopeful, but often disappointing because we tend to harden our hearts towards God and one another.

Today’s readings tell us three ways to act in bringing about the “Kingdom.” Ezekiel talks of responsibility. “I (God) have appointed (a) watchman for the house of Israel…you (Ezekiel) shall warn them for me… I will hold you responsible.” While Ezekiel was given the burden of responsibility for Israel, we are given the responsibility for our own spheres of influence…. If like Ezekiel, we act with love, even when it is hard, God will be with us and grace will come from it.

Paul writes, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another…” To live in the “Kingdom” is to soften our hearts, but it is also place that we accept love from others. The obligation then is not like a debt that we owe, but a life that is shared.

Through loving, the “Kingdom” enters our lives, but it is not a Utopia or Eden. Loving leaves us open to being hurt. Jesus was a realist. He experienced life with its pains and disappointments. He tells us that we will be wronged and hurt not only by strangers, but by those who are close to us. This is how to act. “… Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone… If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you …. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, then treat him as an (outsider)…”, but with an openness to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Finally Jesus tells us, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” While we are responsible to one another, do not forget that Jesus is responsible to us too.

So, If today you hear God’s voice harden not your heart.

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