How Not to Solve the Gun Problem: Lessons from the Streets

gunsAfter the shooting in Oregon, an interesting phenomenon has developed in America: We’re getting too tired to talk about gun violence. With each mass shooting, there seems to be less crying in public, less pause and shock, and even less debate about what to do next.  The unthinkable is seeping its way into everyday reality. Both the pro-gun and gun control activists can do little more than repeat on autopilot their worn-out party platforms. Listening to our President’s speeches on the subject, his frustration is less controlled with each incident.

Here’s the problem: Both solutions fail to restore community, rendering them ineffective.

Brother Jim and I watched three teenagers grow up in my time working with Brothers and Sisters of Love.  The group began with basic theft and rebelliousness. As they got older, the stakes got higher.  One of the group was badly beaten. And then, someone’s brother was shot. What was the reaction? The group acquired a gun, both to protect themselves and to dominate their turf.  One of the three teenagers, now a legal adult, is behind bars with a murder charge. He got there from a flawed but understandable mindset: he felt he needed a gun because his opponent had a gun. He felt the world would not protect him, and he needed to be stronger, have more authority, and be more powerful.

We fail to realize that the street gang mentality of armament is identical to the argument that we should arm teachers, movie theater workers, and citizens far and wide with guns in America to “protect ourselves.” With a gun, it is assumed a person will become equal or more powerful than their potential enemy.  At best we end up in a cold war scenario where no one can be trusted and everyone remains suspicious.  That’s what happens on a good day walking with Brother Jim.  Whenever we approach a new street, the atmosphere is tense, and the neighbors question if Brother Jim is an undercover cop, all eyes on our every move.  At worst, we end up with Chicago’s current murder rate.  Arming a large population of the streets with a gun created that murder rate. Now, the pro-armament party would claim here that they would only give guns to citizens without records.  Gang members also started without records. Specifically, young boys and women without records are initiated and used to commit crimes on gang leaders’ behalf.  They had clean records until they needed to defend themselves and reclaim (or claim for the first time) their power. Gangs exist because their members took matters into their own hands when no one else would solve the problem for them. Acting as if every man and woman must protect themselves because no one else will causes us to the pull the trigger more, not less.  Fear and isolation created the streets. Isolating ourselves behind deadbolts and stockpiling weaponry in fear will have the same effect.

On the other side of the equation, activists claim that gun control will solve our country’s problem by limiting access.  A reporter from Germany spent one summer walking with Brother Jim and I, and one of her missions was to see how easy it was to acquire a gun. Before the afternoon was over, she had several options, and one was even presented in front of her before she could blink.  She was pressured to purchase one quickly, by the very people who lost family and friends to gun violence, in the name of profit.  Time and again as we walked the streets, people who would be found clean after pat-downs with the cops just minutes before could be seen packing heat in a moment’s notice when a threat presented itself. Legal or illegal, guns are everywhere.  If someone truly believes they need a gun to keep themselves safe, they will find the way to acquire one, no matter the law. Fear, and from that fear the need to dominate, dictates gun ownership more than legality. America is too far down the road of excessive gun production combined with a powerful and profitable black market to eradicate them from our everyday lives. Barring a miraculous sense of safety and good will between neighbors, the idea of a legally dictated gun-controlled America is far from realistic. First world countries with successful gun-control laws did not start in the same scenario America finds itself in.

When a reaction involves further isolation or restriction on the perpetrator, it will not help the situation.  Brothers and Sisters of Love lives by the Biblical value that love casts out fear. The inverse is also true. Love is given up quickly to fear, and fear casts out love. I live in a neighborhood that is gentrifying and middle-class do-gooders run with their baby joggers past dilapidated houses surrounded by cops.  The middle-class wants to interact with the poor, and most work in “safe” structures to do so through non-profits and organized community outreach programs, but also call the cops for every minor disturbance, buy home security systems, and build extra high fences. They love the idea of providing food for their neighbor, but they spent significantly less time breaking bread with them when it is not on their terms, or in their control.  Our instinct is to love, but fear stops us in our tracks. We value privacy over community, and security over connectivity. Those we block out with our privacy and security become angry. That anger builds, and will lead to violence, until those wounds of loneliness and deprivation are healed. Genesis tells us “It is not good for the man to be alone.” This can refer not only to marriage, but applies to isolation from community. It is within our own heads that we create the idea that we cannot trust others and that the world is meant to harm us. It is not our original instinct, nor God’s will for our lives.

When we reconnect to humanity, we remember the opposite—what we need to survive is each other, not the extra security laws or the guns. Until we can realize the worth of everyone in the community, victim, perpetrator, and in between, we will continue to face these acts of violence.

–Megan Cottam

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Tragedy of Black Men Killed by Police: Another Point of View

When a police officer fires his gun, it is for one purpose to Kill.  Police officers are trained to fire two bullets into a person’s chest and then one in the head.  It does not matter if the victim is armed or not.  We generally give the police the right to respond the way they see fit.  Yet the pPicture1olice have a history of over-stepping their authority with brutality, extortion, and murder.  So laws set standards which limit what a police officer can do.  Rarely though are police publicly held accountable for their actions.

In his book, The Land, the Biblical Scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote that at the time of Jesus there was a clash of cultures in Israel.  Judaism with its concern for the poor verses Hellenism where an educated elite manipulated the social, religious, and economic systems for their own benefit.

Christians have struggled with this for two thousand years.  Christian theology and philosophy have incorporated both Judaic and Hellenistic Philosophies into its understanding of the world.  While we hold the ideals of taking care of the poor, we also know that getting a good education is key to financial, religious, and social benefits.  We also know two basic facts: the powerful generally make the rules and we limit a portion of our surplus taking care of the poor.

The killings of an unarmed young black men has shown how this plays out in a clash of cultures.  Educated, white, wealthy tend to believe that the killings were justified or at least an honest mistake.  Uneducated, poor, black feel that it is open season on Black men and the system is against them

Most Americans do not exactly fit these categories.  Still it is hard to stand in the shoes of both the officer and victim.  In my experience, most police officers and poor Black men will not be candid with the larger public about how they honestly feel.  They usually say what is self-serving even when it is a lot of crap.  Like it or not both groups are hard to work with.

In reality, inner-city police officers know poor Black males better than the rest of society.  With over 500 murders a year in Chicago, officers know the streets are dangerous and why they are dangerous.  They do not need to be told about society’s ills.

Almost all young men in their teens and early twenties do dumb things.  But for Poor young Black men, the pressures of poverty and the rules of street make life especially dangerous.  My experience tells me that most of the young men embrace the rules of the street.  At least in Latino and immigrant neighborhoods the infrastructures of businesses, jobs, and opportunities are growing.  Poor Black neighborhoods are dominated by blight.

Both sides claim that they are the real victims.  The rest of us take sides or get tired of listening.  So nothing changes.  As long as poor Black men lack opportunities, they will hang out, drop out of school, do illegal activities for income, prey upon the weak, settle their own disputes, go to prison and die early.  The police will clean up the messes, not always well, and be in conflict with the neighborhoods.

If the lives of poor, uneducated, unchurched Black men are as important as everyone else’s lives in our country, what are we going to do about it?  For those of us who claim a Christian identity what does our faith say?  Do young, uneducated, poor, Black, unchurched men get what they deserve for their sins?  Or are we called to find a better way?  Historically Christians, churches, and America have neglected poor, uneducated, unchurched Black mPicture1en.  I do not expect much to change.

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Christmas 2014

For my thirty years in Chicago two points by theologians have haunted me. First, “The Kingdom of God breaks into our lives when we work, love, and learn from the Poor.” (J. Sobrino paraphrased}.  Second, during the time of Jesus, Israel was confronted by a clash of cultures: Hellenism which valued an educated elite who manipulated the political, economic, and religious systems for their own benefit vs. Judaism which valued care for the poor (W. Brueggemann paraphrased).  For years I tested to see if these things were true and I have used them to guide me in my mission with Brothers and Sisters of Love (BS/L).  I have come to believe that if we are seeking the “Kingdom of God,” caring for the poor is a priority.

Lots of people have accompanied BS/L on the streets, almost all of them have been moved by the obstacles faced by the poor and the positive feeling of being with BS/L.  Recently an older gang member said, “Come on Br. Jim, you was scared the first time you came to Cabrini Green.”  I replied, “No I was with Br. Bill and everybody loved Br. Bill. I felt welcomed.”  He answered, “That’s right there is only one Br. Bill.”

Even with “God’s Kingdom breaking in,” working with the poor is not easy.  I enter homes of people facing death, illness, eviction, lack of food, imprisonment, and violence.  The streets are rough, Chicago suffers over 500 murders a year.

This month I visited three friends in jail, all charged with murder.  They all claimed to be innocent, but three people, from three different parts of the city, are dead.  In an interview about one of the murders and I was asked if I was surprised by what happened.  I replied, “I was not surprised. I could feel the underlying tensions.”

Poverty, even American poverty, is destructive.  The non-working poor do not take care of their business,  Too many do not regularly- see a doctor, go to school, vote, speak the truth, or take responsibility for their homes or neighborhoods.  Most of the people I work with are unchurched.  Young people do not even know the Lord’s prayer.  Still when I read the Gospels, I know why so many of the stories of Jesus are with prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, the hungry, and the sick, in other words the poor and sinners. Because it is with them that grace and miracles occurs, in other words the “Kingdom of God” reveals itself.

Last month I visited the sister of an ex-gang member.  She is in hospice with incurable cancer.  She was raised in a church, but lived her adult life as a drug addict.  She was distraught.  She had wanted to turn her life around when she got sick, but failed by continuing to abuse drugs.  She was ashamed and felt she deserved her punishment.  I asked if she could forgive herself.  She wept, “No, I do not know how.”  Eventually, I prayed with her.  On finishing the prayer, she jumped to her feet, began praying in tongues, danced through the apartment, and threw herself to the floor- weeping and thanking Jesus.  I thought, “She is beginning to forgive herself.”  On seeing her since, she’s still preparing for death, but seems to be at peace.

Grace, sin, death, violence, despair, hope, love are all part of the mission of Brothers and Sisters of Love. As I prepare for the Holiday Season, I consider myself blessed to live this mission and feel God’s Kingdom breaking into lives.  Merry Christmas.

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First Sunday of Lent- Gen. 2:7-8, 3:1-7; Rom. 5:12-19; Mt. 4:1-11

The first reading tells the story of Adam and Eve’s sin also known as Original Sin.  The story is about the human desire to be God.  By eating the fruit, they saw their naked selves.  In their disappointment and embarrassment they clothed themselves and hid.

Today in Matthew’s Gospel begins immediately after, “A voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.” (Mt. 3:17).  Jesus is tempted to do Godlike things- turn stone into bread; Jump from the top of the temple into the crowd below, become the ruler of the world. 

Naturally being human we strive to grow and become bigger.  Service, education, technology, science, religion all move us beyond ourselves and our present situation.    It is natural to strive and to grow.  But the story of Adam and Eve reminds us that no matter what we accomplish we need to remember that in the end we remain human.

Years ago on retreat I looked upon a crucifix and demanded that Jesus come down from it.  I wanted the hungry to have enough to eat.  I wanted the poor to have places to live.  I wanted world leaders to end wars, to treat people fairly and to punish those who caused harm.   Why couldn’t Jesus have ruled the world creating and enforcing laws  that would make the ideal kingdom?

The answer was “I give you a new commandment, ‘Love one another’.”  Jesus did not deem equality with God as something to be grasped, but instead emptied himself and took the form of a slave.  He did it, but we do not like listening

 The great commandment- to Love God and allow God to love us.; Love others and allow others to love us;  Love ourselves as we are and not hide our imperfections or try to be something we are not.  In other words, respond differently than Adam and Eve.

Lent is the time to strip ourselves of our God-like desires.  To fast, pray, be generous and make sacrifices for others.  In others words prepare ourselves to experience the resurrection.

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Amos part 3

Amos 6: 1-7 part 3
Woe to the complacent and overconfident who sleep in comfortable beds, eat and drink well, and idly entertain yourselves while ignoring the collapse of the poor and middle class.
In part one I wrote about some of the problems the poor have with the rest of society. The second part I wrote about how people discover grace working with the poor, but that it is hard to sustain for the long haul.
Personally, I have felt called to work with street gangs and the poor. It began as a journey that had twists and turns in determining which forks in the road I should take. St. Ignatius says that in our prayer and discernment we look for the consolations and the desolations. Consolations are signs of the Spirit working and desolations are signs of going the wrong way. Amos warns us about the attitude of taking the easy way. Discernment means following our hearts in connection with the Gospel.
The role of the Church, I think, is not as an Ark to protect us, or as salvation from Sin. The Church has failed too many people just as the Pharisees, the Scribes, and the Priests failed Israel at the time Jesus walked the earth.
The Role of the Church is to feed us and sustain us in our searching of the “Kingdom of God.” The “Kingdom of God” as I understand it is finding God’s action in the world. I have found it most profoundly in working with gang members and the poor. The Church sustains me with prayer, the scriptures, the Eucharist (Holy Communion), and generosity from its members. We get disappointed when we expect too much from the Church. Just look at how it handled the Priest abuse scandals.
Being part of a larger body like the Church is part one. The second part is our own relationship with God. I personally understand God as the Trinity- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I relate to each part of the Trinity in different ways and at different times. I am not going into each one now, but it is freeing to relate to God in different ways and from different angles.
I find it useful to develop a Spirituality. For me it is fourfold. The first step is to Love. The great commandment is to love God, others, and ourselves. All three are important. For how can we love God if we do not love our neighbor? The first letter of John says we can not. If God so loved us that he sent his only begotten Son, then we should love ourselves too. I have found grace in loving the poor, not the idea of the poor. It comes from getting to know people and accepting them as they are not as I want them to be.
The second part of my spirituality is to Trust in God. That means that I have confidence that God is in all things and situations. That by being faithful and loving others God shows me the way and I find God’s presence working in my life.
The third part of my spirituality is to forgive. I have found that people do not do what I want them to do, what they tell me they will do, or what they should have done. I do not live as a doormat or expect others to live in abusive situations. But it does mean that we are to accept people as they are and to forgive when they fall short of what they should be. So if a person is a liar, I do not believe everything they say, but I still treat them as persons and listen to them.
The fourth part is to not be afraid or to live in fear, even at dangerous times. The first Letter of John also says that God is Love, and that Love casts out Fear. Fear tells us that there is danger or that something is not right. Fear needs to be listened too, but it is not to control our lives. During the dozen or so times that I had bullets go past me I felt the fear within me, but by loving the shooters and the people of the neighborhood I was able to sustain myself in those situations and from that I experienced Grace, the Spirit of God, and the inbreaking of the “Kingdom of God”.
Thirty years after beginning by journey I am still going strong, even though I still feel my vulnerability.

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33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Lo the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evil doers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the Lord of hosts. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays (Malachi).
In today’s gospel, people are looking at the magnificence of the Temple and Jesus says, “…the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down” (Lk. 21:5). When he is asked, when will this happen? He goes on with a discourse that sounds like a prediction of his second coming.
Luke’s Gospel was written about 20 years after the destruction of the Temple. The slaughter of the Jews and Jewish-Christians was well known. The expectation that Jesus would return at that moment was unfulfilled. The Christians at that time wanted to know what it all meant. Today we still disagree on the meaning of all that happened two thousand years ago.
In his book, Zealot, Reza Aslan describes the Temple worship in Jerusalem, at the time of Jesus, as prideful, evil, and corrupt. It angered Jews who did not benefit economically from the cult worship. Jews were expected to participate in the worship and exploited for doing so. They had no recourse for complaint, except rebellion, because the Temple priests were in collaboration with the Roman occupiers. To rebel against the authority of the Priests and the Romans would be punishable by crucifixion a way thousands were killed. Aslan suggests it gives credibility that Jesus said, before his death, to be a follower of his one needed to pick up his cross.
It is interesting historically, 30 years after Jesus’ death the sacrificial cult worship at the heart of Judaism disappeared for good and at the same time the sacrificial worship of the Eucharist began for Christians. The sacrifices that fed the Chief Priests and their court were transformed into the Eucharist that feeds us in seeking the Kingdom of God.
In looking at today, I wonder who the proud and the evil doers are now? When I was young it knew it had to be the criminals, gang bangers, drug dealers, communists, abortionists, and non-church goers. I thought that following the rules of the Church and having a strong moral character would be all that I needed to be blessed by God. However, I found that living that way mostly made me proud. In the bible pride leads to hardness of heart, which leads to condemnation by Jesus and the prophets. Which twice led to destruction of the temple and exile from the promised land.
What I found these last thirty years in working among the gang bangers, drug dealers, prostitutes, unchurched, those who have had abortions, and the poor is that God is in their midst and that grace abounds. The biggest problems come from our educated elite who harden their hearts towards the poor.
The Gospels tell us that we are to love one another as Jesus loved us. Of course that means we love our brothers and Sisters in the Church, but we must go beyond that. Meaning we humble ourselves and soften our hearts toward the poor and the unchurched. This will cause the powerful and those with hard hearts to be angry with us.
At the conclusion of today’s Gospel, Luke writes that Christians will suffer persecution, misunderstanding, and punishment. “Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself will give you a wisdom in speaking… they will put some of you to death… but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your life” (Lk. 21:17-19).
Brohter_Jim_May2013

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Amos part 2

Woe to the complacent and overconfident who sleep in comfortable beds, eat and drink well, and idly entertain yourselves while ignoring the collapse of the poor and middle class.

Two weeks ago I wrote about gangs and their relationship with the police and the lack of concern for the plight of the poor among average American Christians. Today I want to reflect on the Church’s call to work with the poor. Three things happen when working with the poor- grace, frustration, and burnout.

Lots of people experience joy, grace, and fulfillment when working with the poor. I have heard hundreds of times from people, “The poor give me so much more than what I give them.” I believe this is true. I have seen young people transformed by working on a house in Appalachia or serving food at a soup kitchen. I have seen people amazed that gang members in many cases are regular people. I have seen people find purpose in life by visiting the sick or taking communion to the homebound. I think we experience grace when we come out of ourselves and give our talents to others.

So if this is true why are we not more creative in our responses to the poor. First, I think Jesus parable of the sewer and the seeds gives us a good image. Jesus describes the seeds that land on the foot path, the rocky soil, among the thorns, and the seed that land in fertile soil.

The first two basically reject the gospel, while the last two accept the gospel to various degrees. The third group Jesus says, “…seeds landed among the thorns and the thorns grew up and choked them” (Mt. 13:7). Later he describes these people, “As for what was sown among the thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing” (Mt. 13:22).

Now I might disagree with Jesus and Matthew here. It yields something, but it yields less than it should, a lot less than it should. It costs to work with the poor. There is no money in it, except for those who exploit the poor. We feel that we have to spend our money as well as our time. Both time and money are valuable. The problems never end and we have other obligations. After a while the poor get forgotten unless something jogs our memory.

The second is frustration. The values of the church help eliminate many problems- sharing, mutual support, honesty, love of neighbor, trustworthiness, dedication, priorities that are life giving, etc. Living with these values help us to avoid lots of problems that the poor face.

Most of my experience among the poor is with the unchurched. It is easy to see how the values of gangs are at odds with the church, but the same can be said with much of the unchurched. For example, gang members are protected by the community. It is often said that people are afraid, but that is not the main cause. Mothers, girlfriends, neighbors go out of their way to protect young men who commit crimes and often benefit from the crimes too. Mothers protect their children even when the children are wrong. At the same time these same mothers put their children in danger. There are lots of paradoxes in working with people whether they are rich or poor.

It should also be remembered that some things cannot be fixed. Years ago I worked in a night shelter for homeless men. The director was helping one of the men try to get on his feet. He told me that this man had a chance to make it, but that the vast majority will not, due to mental illness and the physical and mental deterioration of substance abuse. In looking at the men in the shelter, I knew he was right. In looking at the man he was helping, it would not be easy. Still I knew why he was trying and why he ran a successful shelter. Personally, in reflecting on my thirty years of working with gang members, I do not see the gang problem getting any better here either.

Still we need to try. Mental health services are desperately needed for the homeless. Opportunities are needed for the young and those who come home from prison. A recent study wrote that six million young Americans between the ages of 18-24 are unemployed and out of school. They are missing out of the opportunity to develop skills that they need for the future.

The third thing is burnout. When I was in the seminary one of our lessons was that if we did not take care of ourselves we would lose our vocations to punch or Judy. A classmate of mine piped in, “Or Jack.” Translation, if we did not feed ourselves emotionally, spiritually, and physically (healthwise) we would be ruined by womanizing, alcohol abuse, poor health, and/or burnout.

It is important to let the poor give back when possible. I know that gang members have looked out for me and saved me from trouble. Too often in working with the poor, the caregivers give and give until they get tired. Oftentimes this leads to anger and despair because all the effort, time, and money led to nothing changing. The person who gets burnt out just cannot handle one more problem and when people see this they back away.

It can also lead to the caring person getting hurt. The poor often act in desperation and domination. Both of these factors lead to violence. The poor suffer more from violence than the rest of us, but helpers get hurt too.

In the next blog will I will describe how to thrive in working with the poor.

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Reflection on Amos 6: 1-7 in light of gangs and the poor.

Woe to the complacent and overconfident who sleep in comfortable beds, eat and drink well, and idly entertain yourselves while ignoring the collapse of the poor and middle class. The complaint sounds like an attack on the average American Church going Christian. It is not their morality that concerns Amos, but their lack of compassion.
I am hearing lots of talk about the problems of gangs, gun violence, and the animosity between young Black males and the police. Some expert from a university said the problem has to do with trust between the police and kids from poor neighborhoods. It is one thing to state the obvious, but since this person is an academic he is oblivious of the depth of the problem. Gang members and the poor do not generally trust anyone. Many poor teenagers often cannot even trust their own mothers, let alone the police.
My experience with gang members is that they do not like to be candid let alone tell the whole truth. Young kids in poor neighborhoods learn early not to be truthful to their own mothers. Their mothers make up excuses about why they are not in school and the kids do the same to adults- grandparents, teachers, pastors, neighbors, and even their own mothers. By the time they have to deal with the police they learn that whatever they say has consequences which will come back on them. They steadfastly refuse to cooperate with the police let alone anyone else.
The police contribute to the problem by bullying, disrespecting, and with bogus arrests. In September of 2005 I walked into Dearborn Homes to get information about a funeral. Residents informed me that a dozen or so young men had been arrested for trespassing the night before. As I was standing in the lobby of the building writing down the funeral information, I was confronted by about 10 officers of the Chicago Gang Task Force led by Jerome Finnegan.
I was wearing my habit as officer Finnegan asked me why I was there. I told him pointing to the funeral arrangements on the wall and that I was with Catholic Charities hoping to assist the family. He asked for my identification. I gave him my Driver’s License and Catholic Charities ID (it would the last time I would use it since Catholic Charities was cutting my program at the end of the month). He then told me to leave the complex or he would arrest me for trespassing.
I looked at him to decide whether or not to challenge him by saying that I wanted to visit a family, but looking at the other officers I could see they would all back him up. Leaving I knew that the next Black male entering the lobby would be arrested for trespassing. I was furious.
A few years later Finnegan was convicted of plotting to kill a police officer and for corruption with the gang unit in a federal investigation not by local police officers. The problem with Officer Finnegan and the Chicago Police department is not that he was a rogue officer, but that he was protected, abetted, and promoted by the department.
Now police officers are not as bad as Finnegan, but poor young Black Males do not care. Their anger at the police and rival gang is used to justify their behaviors. They claim to get guns for self-defense, but the guns are generally used to settle disputes or to transact illegal activities.
Amos’s complaint is not against the immorality of the poor or the police, but against the rest of us who do so little about it. The problems of the African-American poor can not be solved by themselves. It can not be solved by the police, by the government, or even by the churches because our society needs a softening of our hearts toward the poor.
Next week I will discuss the actions that need to take place.

Photo by N.P, Lanthrum

Photo by N.P, Lanthrum

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Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32 The Golden Calf and the Prodigal Son

Last week’s readings tell the stories of the chosen people rejecting their God because they wanted the world to be different than it is, thus creating and believing in a false God. Christians, Jews, and Moslems still do these things leading to Crusades, Crucifixions and Stonings, Jihads, and other wars.
The forty years in the desert was remembered as a purifying journey, but the Israelites rebelled. Their anger at God, their suffering, and remembering what they had given up caused them to reject everything that God had given them. They became hard hearted and stiff necked, unwilling to listen to anyone but their deep seeded emotions. They were saved only by the love of Moses and the love of God. God thus treated them mercifully and they eventually entered the promised land.
Paul describes himself in his zeal to become a good Jews as arrogant, blasphemes, and stiff necked, because he trusted Judaism and the law to be the salvation of the world thus doing horrible things including murder. But he was saved by the love of Jesus and the early Christians. He was treated with mercy and became the great Apostle to the Gentiles and is revered to this day.
In the gospel, Jesus has to suffer the hardness of heart of the Pharisees and the Scribes. It was hardness of heart that got him killed. The hardness of heart is against the Tax Collectors and the Prostitutes. I remember seeing a former prostitute in Rockwell Gardens. She ran up to me, gave me a hug, and told me that she was in church and did not prostitute any more. She also told me that she had never been happier.
Jesus states that Tax Collectors, Prostitutes, and even Gang Bangers will enter the “Kingdom of God” before the Pharisees or even practicing Christians. It is not that prostitution, gang banging, drugs, infidelity, and murder lead to the “Kingdom of God.” It is because the suffering becomes so great that sinners turn to God in order to turn their lives around.
The prodigal son in today’s gospel doesn’t return to his father because he had fun, but because his suffering got to be so bad. The Father doesn’t pray for his son because he is jealous of his son for having a good time and he is left with more work. The Father worries for his son because he knows that his son will eventually be hurt and hurt others. Still the squandered fortune forever hurts him. The son is saved by the love and the mercy of the Father.
Practicing Christians often harden our hearts against those who act like the prodigal son and break the values we hold dear. We want rewards for doing the right thing and following the rules. We think it is unfair that we suffer, while believing that sinners get what they deserve or worse they do not seem to suffer for their sins. In the end, we are called to love and have mercy.
The difference between the two sons in the story is that the older one did not have to eat and sleep with the pigs. In the end we will be judged on how we acted when our hearts began to harden. Will we become hard hearted and stiff necked? Or will we act with love and mercy?

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Genesis 18:20-32; Col. 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

Jesus and Luke tell us in the reading today that God is personal; that we are part of God’s family; and that God wants a relationship with us.

 When we pray we are to acknowledge that God is a parent to us- a parent who looks out for us and wants to hear from us.  It is interesting that Jesus gives us a short list of what to pray for daily: that the Kingdom of God comes; that we have enough to eat acknowledging our dependence on God; that we are forgiven as we forgive others; and that we not be put to the test like Peter and Judas.

 We are then to pray for our current needs.  Jesus tells us that God has our best interest at heart even when the world is not the way we want it to be.  So even when Jesus asks for the cup to be taken away (Lk. 22:42) Jesus has enough confidence that God will find a way for him.

 After his initial suggestion for prayer, he tells us to ask, seek, and knock.  For is if we do these things with a sincere heart we will receive, find, and the doors of the Kingdom will be open to us.

 

In my own journey of faith the most important part to me is seeking.  Seeking and finding the Kingdom of God is awe inspiring and elusive.  My search began with knocking.  After college, I sought a direction that was unconventional and unique.  I did three things as I sought out this direction.  First and throughout, I prayed for the direction and the opportunity even though I did not know what it would entail.  Second, I went to priests and elders for advice which did not always satisfy me.  Third, when I saw an opportunity I tested to see if it was for real.

Like Abraham in our Genesis reading I bargained with God in my prayer.  I bargained in a way that I could understand the answer.  I bargained that if God did certain things, then I would respond to it.  The responses opened doors that I then walked through.  I experienced God in interesting ways.

 For example, I had felt called to the priesthood in a Missionary Society.  When I was discerning whether to remain in the Society or take the bold step of beginning the ministry that I do now many thought the wiser step was to remain where I was, yet the spirit seemed to be saying it was time to move on.  I was embarking on an endeavor with no income or transportation.  As I took the step, I was offered a part-time job, without applying for it, as a hospital chaplain and friend of mine offered a car he needed to get rid of at a very good price.  Like Lk. 22:35, while I was never rich, I have never been in need either.  Twenty-six years later I am still going strong, but dependent on God.

 The key is to open our hearts to the movement of God by recognizing God’s spirit in our prayer and responding to it.  This is hard to do because opening our hearts Imagelike Jesus did seems to cost too much.  Yet it makes all the difference.

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