Relearning the lessons of the Apostles

I was walking alone in the “Back of the Yards” looking for the family of a woman who was killed alongside her five your old son.  I had met with the boy’s father the day of the murders, but now I needed to go back and see about the funeral.

Upon arriving at the victims’ home, I was informed that I should see the mother/grandmother who lived, in Englewood, a few blocks away on a street I had never been.  While walking, I thought about Mark’s Gospel and how the Apostles resisted Jesus‘ requests even though they had many successes.  On crossing into Englewood I could feel hostility in people who did not know me as I was walking to the home of people I had never met.

In chapter 6 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus sends his disciples out two by two to heal, preach, and evangelize.  Afterwards the disciples came back energized and happy in all that they had accomplished.  Jesus takes them away to be by themselves and process all that had happened.  Unfortunately, crowds of people followed them intruding on their personal time with Jesus.  Jesus took pity on the crowd and asked the disciples to feed the people.  The disciples were not happy and resisted, so Jesus fed the crowd with the loaves and fish.  He then sent the disciples ahead of him to perform a task, but again they resisted, their hardness of heart caused Jesus to change his plans.

Having walked the streets for over 26 years I know why Jesus sent his disciples two by two.  It happens to be the easiest most effective way.  No matter whom I walk with the dynamic of relating to people on the streets is most effective in groups of two.  This day I could sense why Jesus’ disciples would harden their hearts at his command and thought of other things I could be doing.

Approaching the house I saw a family member standing at the gate to the backyard.  I crossed the street and as I approached him, he walked into the backyard closing the gate on me.  I turned around and rang the front doorbell.  The mother/grandmother invited me inside.  Thirty minutes later I was praying with the family including the surviving son and greeting everyone throughout the house and yard.  As I left, a family member walked down the block with me thanking me for coming and I noticed the hostility in the neighborhood was gone.

As I continued my walking I thought about how like the disciples, I was resisting the summons to go outside of where I am comfortable and to love people whom I do not know.  Yet the grace that day was powerful and I felt the presence of God in the midst of their sorrow.   It is the lesson to not let our hearts harden, but to continually reach out with love to others, especially those who are suffering.

Br. Jim Fogarty,  BSL

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Feeding the Problem

by N. P. Lanthrum

We navigated the never-ending hallways of power-walking nurses and blinking machines looking for our friend, a neighbor from the Cabrini-Green rowhouses.  He was about to be discharged after spending nearly a week in the hospital for issues related to his kidneys.  As we entered the room, our friend in his late 30’s was in good spirits, talking about all the lifestyle changes he was going to make in order to improve his health. A heavy drinker and smoker, we were skeptical of his commitment to this new plan. However, as he spoke, we could discern an almost tragic earnestness to be healthy that was coupled with an obvious lack of education and resources to carry out this plan.The doctors had left written instructions as to what our friend could and could not consume, and we read the list so as to coach him and encourage him.  The guidelines on the “could-not” list: “Fast foods, restaurant foods, canned foods and highly processed foods should all be avoided.”  This, in a nutshell, explains the poor-man’s diet.  Beyond the discipline it takes to avoid a chocolate sundae, this diet was going to force our friend into a completely foreign world.  In short, following this diet would be like telling a vegan they had to swear off vegetables and legumes.

“I just have to eat a lot of salad and pasta,” he said, optimistic of his abilities to avoid this food and highlighting the only two foods on the “good” list he even recognized.  We explained that the pasta had to have sauce that wasn’t from a can (tomatoes were on the “avoid” list too), and that salads didn’t count if they were drowning in ranch dressing.  We suggested trying olive oil for both.

“You can eat olive oil without cooking it?” Our friend was stunned and a little disgusted.  There was a lot of work to be done. By the end of the conversation, his swearing off alcohol turned to a one-week vacation of it, and his food list turned into a suggestion sheet he would give to his girlfriend in hopes she’d follow it.

At Brothers and Sisters of Love, we spend a significant amount of time watching doctors give health instructions that fall on deaf ears for patients in poverty.  We watch our friends not take their high-blood pressure pills with regularity because they decided to spend that money on food, rent, or heating bills.  We watch them talk about managing their diabetes while simultaneously drinking a pop or lemonade, super-sized, completely unaware of the contradiction.  Or we hear the common phrase: “I quit drinking.  Now I just have wine and beer.”

The diets consumed by the poor are slowly poisoning them, and they have neither the finances, the education, nor the desire to do much about it. Imagine feeling sluggish and ill constantly, and then persevering through the struggles we assume the poor can escape.

The goal of survival is to consume calories to make it to the next day and curb hunger. The fastest, densest, cheapest way to consume calories often means high-fructose corn syrup, heavy preservatives, high sodium meats and meat mixtures, and fried foods. A bag of Doritos and a Coke will go farther than an avocado or whole-grain bread. Money cannot be wasted on things like fruits and salads that leave the poor hungry.

Furthermore, no one is going to pass up any free food—a girlfriend or mother cooking their special fried pork chops with their heart-clogging version of potatoes, a social event drinking with friends, or a fast-food or pizza spread at a community event.

Nutrition is an often overlooked part of privilege. Healthcare, just like other systems, is built around giving guidelines and rules for the middle and upper classes. Without knowing the poor, doctors remain befuddled, unable to counsel them in a way where the poor can execute their advice. The poor will not take the doctor’s advice and will continue to eat the food they enjoy. And without access to decent, nutritious food, the poor will not maintain the health needed for a quality life.

Megan Cottam, BSL

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BSL in the News

Check out BSL in the news this week:

Chicago Tribune

Catholic New World

Pulitzer Center

Enjoy some fresh perspectives on Brothers and Sisters of Love!

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Adoration

We walked down the hospital corridor, our eyes briefing looking into window after window of children attached to unnatural tubing, monitors and machines making all sorts of noises. My heart sunk a bit further with each door, and the air itself seemed heavier as mothers, siblings, and nurses attended to the beat up, morphed,

English: Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, t...

and sickly little bodies.

Before we reached little A’s room, we were told of the serious nature of the condition, and expecting the worst, or what I thought was the worst.

The 6-year-old boy had been put in the Pediatric-ICU thanks to a hit-and-run drunk driver crashing into him as he attempted to cross the street. A neighbor informed us the prognosis was grim, and that we should visit the family before they took A off life support machines.

I expected a limp body where a vibrant bouncing boy once had been. I expected crying relatives, and grandparents praising God to shield their pain. I did not expect the convulsions, the blinking, and machines alarming the nurses of his coughing up the breathing apparatus. Although unconscious, his body signaled the pain constantly running through his ragged bones and organs.

His all-too-young father remained by his side, stroking his hand, reminding him of the Spongebob he could watch if he woke up, and telling him he was loved. I wondered for a brief moment how involved this man was in his child’s life, and then I quickly knew it didn’t matter. The love in the room was deep, real, and unquestionable.

Brother Jim and I spent two separate occasions praying with the family. On the second day, we spent about 30 minutes in silent prayer as A’s father buried his head in the hospital bed, trying to limit the amount of emotion that could escape.

There we stood, gazing upon Jesus in his most disguised form. The Eucharist was not exposed on a pleasant-looking altar in a golden monstrance, but we certainly found ourselves in front of the Body of Christ. Although there was no incense, the air had a weighted holiness to it, as though the busyness of our lives was stopped in its tracks.

God was close, hovering over A and his family during his last moments, and the Spirit felt palpable. This hospital room was truly holy ground.

Brother Jim and I often find ourselves entering moments of intense and sudden tragedy that expose the fragility of human existence. And yet, despite the pain, these moments seem to hold the greatest sense that God is present, standing in solidarity with our suffering. The chaos of the streets, lure of gangs and drugs, and the issues of injustice that plague these communities all seem to evaporate as we stand in the presence of the Body of Christ, inherited to our own humanity. Even at the door of death, there is a flooding of love and grace, letting us all know we stand equal before the Lord, never alone and never far away.

Brother Jim and I are blessed to be witness to these moments where the human and divine mingle, and we feel the deep love that a suffered Christ continues to give us through the Holy Spirit.

–Megan Cottam, BSL
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Workers In the Field

Have you checked out opjchicago.wordpress.com yet? Our latest blog, “Workers in the Field” is posted here: http://opjchicago.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/workers-in-the-field/ . While you’re at it, take a look at all the good work the Archdiocese of Chicago is doing to promote peace and end violence.

Peace,
Br Jim and Megan

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A Walk for Change

Evans“Be safe!” “Stay away from the Southside.” These are a few examples of the many advice friends and family gave me before I left for Chicago. Up until now, most of them did not know about some of the areas I have visited because if they did, they would be very uncomfortable and worried. This feeling of uneasiness was the same experience I had when I first walked the streets in the Back of The Yards neighborhood. It is definitely a different experience seeing and hearing about something on TV and being there in person.  Being on the streets has certainly taught me that the reality I know is not the only reality there is out there and that one can never fully understand a situation without being fully engrossed in it.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect the first day I did the walk with Brother Jim and Megan. From what I had been able to gather about him, I could tell he wasn’t insane so I took comfort in the fact that he wouldn’t still be doing this after all these years if it wasn’t safe.  All the people we visited with that day seemed very nice and very “normal”. I use the word normal because they were just like you and I. From the horrible stories I knew about the neighborhood, I was expecting to meet a different breed of people. I guess I mostly felt this way because I didn’t and still don’t understand why anyone would do any of the things that happen in these neighborhoods. Almost all the stories I have heard are violence-related and it just made it very difficult for me to understand.  I still don’t understand why the violence exists because I got the sense that all the adults that were at one time involved in the violence and drugs regret the choices they made as young men and women. I was taught as a child that violence never solves anything and from what I know so far, I still find that to be true so I just wonder why some of these people join gangs and do these horrendous acts.

One thing that I think could be a part of the answer I am looking for is poverty. I was amazed to see the living conditions of some of the people we visited. Some of these families have close to nothing and I feel for the young children that have to grow up there. In these neighborhoods, poverty can not only be seen in the houses but in the streets as well. Most of the neighborhood is covered with garbage and the place just doesn’t look pleasant. I think it is a shame to see places like that in America. We all could be doing a bit extra to get rid of poverty-stricken areas like these.

At the end of the day, I was very pleased I decided to go on the walk. I was touched by the amount of gratitude the people in the streets showed Br. Jim and Megan. Who knew something as simple as a prayer could mean so much to so many people.  It was shocking to see how many young and old people stopped us to ask for a rosary. It taught me that in the end, the little things in life do matter and just going around and saying hello can make a huge difference in someone’s life.  Being in the streets was an eye-opening experience; one that I hope we all have at some point in our lives.

–Evans Yamoah, Benedictine Service Volunteer, St James Church

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Reflection: 5th Sunday of Easter

Hans Sebald Beham engraving of the parable of ...

 

Acts 14:21-27; Rev. 21:1-5a; John 13:31-33a,34-35

 

The first reading tells us that Paul and Barnabas went throughout the Mediterranean World proclaiming the Good News of Jesus rising from the dead. The Good News that Paul and Barnabas spoke of was expressed by John in the second reading, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. God will dwell with them (us) and they (we) will be his people and God himself will always be with them (us) as their (our) God.” (21:3). The Parentheses are my interpretation.

 

As a quick disclaimer in verse 4, John says, “God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.” Now obviously the second has not come to pass on earth, but the first part, I believe, is true.

 

If Jesus brought us good news that he has power over even death and if God is in the midst of the human race, why do Christians have so many problems? I think it is because we ignore the commandment Jesus gives us today, “…I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn13:34). Instead of loving others we focus on faith and over-coming sin. Many of us worry about how we can get closer to God, try to prevent sin from affecting our lives, and we can become neurotic.
The problem with focusing on faith is that faith and faith experiences are not linear. We do not grow in faith by following prescribed steps to holiness even if some Christians say we can. We cannot earn holiness, because holiness is a gift we grow into through wisdom (finding God in our life experiences) and by loving as Jesus commands.

 

A friend of mine recently shared that he and his brother were like the prodigal sons. He felt that God loved his brother whose life consisted of high highs and low lows. He on the other hand had remained faithful for decades, but felt his faith was weak and desired to grow as a man of God..

 

I told him that I too believed his brother was blessed, but that his brother had woken with the pigs on numerous occasions. That is what sins does to us. We end up living with the pigs or sin forces others to live with the pigs. The point of the story is that the father loved both of his sons and had seen from a distance how much the younger son had suffered. When people have slept with the pigs, they carry those scars always.

 

My experience of being a follower of Jesus Christ is following the commandment that he gives us today- Loving one another. By following Jesus’ example and the example of the father of the Prodigal son, I find the “Kingdom of God” enters into my life.

 

–Brother Jim Fogarty, Brothers and Sisters of Love

 

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The Case of the Chocolate Bunny

Easter bunny

A well-built man, commanding in presence and successful in life, is first to admit he did not think walking the streets was the greatest idea ever invented. He did not immediately see the wisdom in approaching gang members, especially the ones who glared menacingly at him as he walked down their block. The fear was tangible. But nevertheless, our board member Bill committed to walking once a week with Brother Jim, and has come to cherish the time with the residents.

 

Bill always fills his yellow bag with something for the journey—gloves in the winter, water in the summer, and dog bones for the pets in the neighborhood. He personifies generous. On this past walk during Holy Week, however, he revealed something unique: His bag was exploding with chocolate Easter bunnies.

 

He recounts a moment of truth as we all began to walk South down 51st Street on the Southside of Chicago.

 

“The first year we did this, I was only planning on giving chocolates to the kids. There were these guys on the corner, and oh man, they did not look inviting. I had said to Brother Jim, “We are not going over there.” Brother Jim wanted me to give them the chocolate bunnies I had for that Easter, and I was sayng no way! Those guys do not want a chocolate bunny.” He was emphatic in his tone.

 

“But then Brother Jim did what he does best, and started approaching the corner anyway, so I had to follow. And what do you know? Those guys loved those darn bunnies! It was unbelievable!” Bill seemed as though the shock had never faded, even though he was prepared to repeat the now-tradition this year.

 

In that moment, those who seemed unapproachable became friendly and welcoming. Br Jim and Bill were able to engage in conversation, spanning sports, the news, and the neighborhood, and in Bill’s eyes, the “criminals” transformed into mere companions.

 

To those who have never spent significant time in the streets, this is in fact an unbelievable story, and goes against our assumptions about gang members. We have images of tough, hardened criminals who have lost the ability to feel and want anything but power.

 

And yet, inside that hardened shell prepared to defend his corner is still a young boy who was robbed of his childh

 

ood. He never got an elaborate Easter Basket. He had holiday dinners at the food pantry, not a Norman Rockwell-style feast with extended family and both parents present. The desire to be childlike never goes away; it is only suppressed by circumstance.

 

Gang members are not spontaneously-created evil-beings. They are boys forced into manhood, while not having any idea what that means. They act to survive, just as we do. They act to feed themselves, just as we do. They act to gain status among their friends, just as we do. They also watch sports, movies, the news, and the shocking TV episode finale, just as we do.

 

It is not complicated programs and grand schemes that break down barriers in our ministry. Sometimes all it takes to make a connection is to remind one another of these commonalities, even something as simple as a craving for a chocolate bunny.

 

~Megan Cottam, BSL

 

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Listening to the Voices of the Streets

Listen, Understand, Act

 

We approached her home like we do every week, excited to see our friend, expecting to crack a few jokes, get a good hug, and proceed down the street. There was nothing unusual about the day, and no major crisis had developed in the area or in her life.

 

The only difference was the addition of a journalist, a free-lancer looking to create a documentary on the area and feel out the neighborhood. She had walked with us for several weeks, and to our neighborhood friends had easily become one of the pack. She also had taken to our comical friend, and was interested in interviewing her.

 

Ahead of time, our friend was nervous. This middle-aged woman was worried she didn’t have the right answers, or wasn’t interesting enough, or even worse, that she would be heard. She was afraid her name might be published, and her neighbors would punish her for any truth that criticized them. After allaying her fears, the microphone came out, the television was silenced, and the interview began. Five questions and two hours later, we were all transformed.

 

What was so powerful? The reporter only asked very brief, broad questions, allowing periods of silence to occur and letting our friend speak for as long as she needed.

 

The power came from listening. This was one of the few times that someone validated our friend by asking to listen to her story, as she told it, under her terms. Her words weren’t twisted, or boxed into pre-assumed thoughts and patterns, or judged or ignored. They were not immediately analyzed under the microscope of scholarly articles, psychological implications, or any other device that we love to use when ministering to the poor.

 

Sometimes we fail to value the wisdom and insight that comes from the stories of those to whom we minister. We fail to acknowledge the benefit of simply listening to another’s journey, but when we do, we become fascinated by the perseverance of humanity. We appreciate these individuals all the more.

 

A middle-aged man, ex-felon, and friend of Brothers and Sisters of Love is determined to fight for change in his community. He has reformed his ways, remained clean from his addictions, and is doing everything he can to make connections, find work, and lift up his community. He writes poetry and has even penned a book. People tell him that he is great and that he inspires them, but he cannot find a way to get paid. They say they will help, but nothing comes through. He repeats that his community is dying today, and time is of the essence. He is clashing with the churches and professionals he looked to for leadership because for over a year no money has come. He has not been exposed to or prepared for the arena of grants, waiting periods, meetings, and collaborations. This clash is starting to escalate, and he is growing in anger at those trying to help. No one is listening to his specific demands. Ignoring his anger can lead to an incredible backlash.

 

This pattern is often seen in those returning citizens attempting to do something positive with their lives. The values and systems of the poor are not the values and systems of the Church, social services, court systems, or any other structures aimed at increasing their chances for a successful future. These systems have their methods, and they mute the important voice of those with whom they work. As a result, these returning citizens grow frustrated, weary, feel unsupported, and return to their old ways, needing comfort and stability.

 

Why is it so hard to listen? Listening to others requires releasing control and pre-conceived notions about a given situation. It is inefficient. It is emotionally draining. Narratives can be boring, repetitive, or seem off-track. They can even be filled with lies and conspiracies. However, it is precisely the details that seem off the wall that may lead to insight.

 

People question how Brother Jim can enter the streets when others cannot. The answer is simple: Through years of listening he appreciates people’s history and he creatively responds to their cries, listening most of all to the Spirit of God in their midst.

 

~Megan Cottam, BSL
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Defining “Church.”

jesusIf someone were to ask you what “Church” means, what would you say? Is it a building? A set of beliefs? A group of people? A challenge to act? The way we define Church determines how we treat others.

In the past few weeks, Brother Jim and I have met with various community leaders about what the Church’s role should be in Chicago. We’ve sat with pastors from the Near North community desiring to meet people in the neighborhood for the purpose of inviting them into their faith communities. We also met with a group of committed citizens who are working against the violence in the city who want to bring “Church” to the streets, and preach a certain message. In our own Catholic tradition, we have been supported by the Catholics 4 Nonviolence, who see the Church as a powerful resource to bring the language of Gospel nonviolence into the community.

We also heard a growing push for a “smaller but more faithful” Catholic Church community, focusing on obedience to the magisterium. The Church becomes a pure vessel rejecting the sinful state of the world. However, our final conversation is what struck me. We gave a talk at the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Leadership Day, where our audience had just come from a reflection on the Creed.

One parishioner, inspired by this reflection, asked an earnest, well-intentioned question: “How do we get guys on the streets to come to Church? To believe in the Creed as we do?” He was concerned that the friends of Brothers and Sisters of Love were not in Sunday Mass.

The desire was correct, but the focus was wrong. His desire was for these young, troubled people to find Christ, but the focus was on getting a body in a pew. Reciting the Creed without an experience of the grace and love Christ brings is empty lip-service. Stepping foot in a physical building called “Church” is not the same thing as experiencing Christ.
One of our friends at BS/L exemplifies this. Her mother is a pastor, so learning the rules of Christianity was not the issue. Regardless of this upbringing, our friend had lived a troubled life, in and out of homelessness, prostitution, and other trappings of the streets. When we entered her life, love did not begin with Mass, but with an air conditioner so she could breathe despite her asthma. It continued with home visits and building a caring relationship. Throughout the years, a mutuality developed until she could experience grace and love in her own neighborhood, alongside the grace felt by BS/L. Years later, she just now has begun returning to Church services, in gratitude for the conversion she has experienced.

Think of your own faith journey. How did you come to know Christ? Sure, you may have been a cradle Catholic as I am, but regardless there was some experience as a youth or adult that caused you to remain committed to your beliefs.

I can name the moment. It was a particularly trying day in Jaipur, India, working with abandoned and abused street-kids. The non-profit where I interned had just rescued a child—a walking ghost—and was trying to nurture the mutilated, malnourished boy back to health. He was mute and partially deaf, but despite the odds I was able to teach him to hold a pencil and write for the first time at age 10. After writing the letter “A,” this boy celebrated as if he had painted a Picasso. In his eyes was Jesus conquering death all over again. Nothing else mattered, and nothing was impossible with the grace I experienced teaching him.

It is from that faith experience that I grew deeper into the practices of the Catholic Church. I was drawn to the Eucharist, seeing it as fuel to go forth and love when it seemed most daunting. I was attracted to Mary’s journey and her humility. I could say the words of the Creed, having this experience in my head, speaking each syllable with gratitude and joy for what God had done in my life.

As soon as we treat the Church only as a building to bring people into the beliefs, creeds, and practices of a religion without also seeing it as a starting point to go forth from to love one another, we deny Jesus’ teachings. Jesus set out to bring people the Good News. He did not force people into any type of behavior, but loved them until that love caused a conversion experience. The Gospel is full of conversions: From Peter, to Paul, and everyone in between. If we desire for others to know Christ, then we must bring the love we have out to meet our neighbors wherever they are, even in the poorest communities and most violent streets, the most criminal of prisons and most unforgiving of crowds.

What will Church be for you? What will you make Church for those who need you? Will you allow your love to be the first account of Christ your neighbor experiences? Let your light shine so that others will say, “I believe in one God…” and understand its glorious implications.

~Megan Cottam, BSL

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