Gifts That Keep Moving

The Working Catholic
Bill Droel

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Gifts That Keep Moving

This is the season for gratitude. First up is our national day of Thanksgiving on which we express gratitude to God for our beautiful country and for our relatives, even those who are a tad rowdy at the day’s get together. Thereafter begins three and a half weeks of giving gifts at Christmas parties and at a family reunion or two.

Unfortunately, some essential features of gratitude have been lost over the years. First, a true gift must be given with a generous spirit. Not allowed are feelings like: “If I get him one, then I suppose I have to give her one even though she doesn’t…” Or, “I wish they’d have Christmas only once every ten years so I wouldn’t have to bother with shopping for and wrapping all this junk…” In other words, a true gift must not be the result of any coercion, including subjective feelings of guilt or resentment.

Second and yet at the same time, a gift is different from a monetary trade in that it imposes a non-quantifiable obligation on the recipient. A true gift is implicitly reciprocal and its essence is lost if the gift is not re-gifted.

Take the phrase Indian Giver. It is offensive, like the name of the NFL team in our nation’s capital. But specific to our lesson here about gratitude, our understanding of the phrase is also historically inaccurate.

Those who know something about the beginning of our country know that Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780) was a wealthy merchant in Massachusetts, loyal to the British occupation. He was perhaps the first to put the phrase Indian Giver in writing. Given his cultural assumptions, Hutchinson and many others thought that Indians take back a gift as soon it is given. Indians, Hutchinson wrote, put gifts in the category of monetary trade in “which an equivalent return is expected.” The next thing you know, Indians will expect the settlers from Europe to give back the country to them.

Anthropologist Lewis Hyde of Kenyon College in Ohio explains that Native Americans had a profound notion of gratitude and that a phrase for someone who abuses a gift might better be Settler Giver.

Hyde sets a scene in his book The Gift (Vintage, 1979). A Puritan visits an Indian lodge. In hospitality the Indians invite the visitor to smoke a peace pipe. Upon leaving the lodge, the Indians give the red stone pipe to the Puritan. He displays it at home for awhile and then, so impressed with its decorative carving and feathers, he sends it to a museum in England. Later, other Indians visit the Puritan settlement and are astonished to learn that not only do the Puritans have no intention of giving them the pipe, but that it is now stagnating in a museum. The custom, not understood by the Puritans, is that every gift contains a spirit of generosity and that gifts circulate from tribe to tribe or house to house in order to symbolize mutuality. From the Indians’ point of view, the Puritans were the stingy, uncivilized ones.

“A cardinal property of the gift,” Hyde says, is that “whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away, not kept.” Given away not given back. “It is better if the gift is not returned [to its original donor] but is given instead to some new, third party,” writes Hyde. In a sense, giving is about passing around some useless thing. The power is in the circle of beneficiaries/givers. The action of the circle is “the container in which the gift moves.” Once a gift is treated like a market commodity, Hyde concludes, it only strengthens the negative spirits of selfish individualism and clannishness.

To be continued….

Droel is editor of INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free newsletter about faith and work.

Thanksgiving, Part I

The Working Catholic
Bill Droel

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Thanksgiving, Part I

This past summer Oracle, Arizona reflected back to us two defining cultural images.

Oracle with a population of about 4,000 is 40 miles north of Tucson and it is slightly more than 100 miles north of Mexico. It was founded in the late 1870s as a mining town. It seems that Albert Weldon from New Brunswick, Canada took a ship, named Oracle, around Cape Horn and made his way to the Santa Catalina mountain area in Arizona. Two other immigrant prospectors joined him: Jimmy Lee from Ireland and Alex McKay from Scotland. They found gold and named their mine Oracle, in thanksgiving for a sturdy ship and for their discovery. By 1880 about 70 mines were staked in the area and a post office named Oracle opened to serve the workers.

The first image from this past summer is of an ad hoc ecumenical group called Heart To Heart that extends assistance to refugee children. This first image also includes donors to Catholic Community Services who have filled storerooms with food and clothing for the children. It includes about 100 people from South Side Presbyterian Church and other groups standing along the road in Oracle with signs greeting the children; signs in Spanish like Friends, don’t be afraid. Finally, this image includes leaders from Pima County Interfaith Council who are circulating a petition. Its provisions stress the need for each refugee child to have a specific attorney for a time, the need for access by pastors to detention centers or shelters and the need for a maximum one-year refugee card to ease a child’s anxiety while waiting out the refugee process.

The second image is of a Tea Party group, perhaps 60 people, standing alongside an Oracle street, shouting insults at refugee children. Adam Kwasman, a 31-year old member of the Arizona House of Representatives, was among the protestors. As Amy Davidson in The New Yorker (7/28/14) explains, Kwasman and company made two mistakes. First, the bus that the protestors harassed was filled with quizzical YMCA children (not refugees) on their way to a camping site. Second and contrary to the protestors’ claim, refugee children are not “illegal,” under the Wilberforce Act. Signed by President George Bush in 2008, the law stipulates that children, except those from Canada or Mexico, must have a judicial hearing before their immigration status is determined. From the time they come to the U.S. until a judge renders a decision, those children are legal.

So, those are two salient images of U.S. culture—the first an image of gratitude and the second an image of resentment.

Gratitude is the recognition that everything, including life itself, is ultimately a gift from someone, somewhere. For most people in our country, that someone is God. In the example at hand it is the recognition that nations must have borders and have clear, enforceable immigration policies. It is also, however, the recognition that no one in this country, except for Native Americans (who are .9% of the population; 4.6% in Arizona) has prior ownership of land or resources. Further, it is the recognition that our beautiful country enjoys freedom and opportunity because its laws and its culture have always attracted and retained immigrants.

Resentment is the opposite of gratitude. It is the feeling that: #1. I have made it, to a degree. And I have made it through my own hard work; and #2. That a group just below me is getting ahead undeservedly. And further that the group below is somehow getting ahead at my expense.

There is an unarticulated side-effect to resentment, explains Fr. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996). It is a murky fear or a dragging suspicion that “you have made yourself totally dependent” on something you cannot name and a feeling of powerlessness over the dependency. Resentment “is a smoldering passion preventing us from asking forgiveness.”

Each November our country pauses for an entire day to bring the first image of thanksgiving to the fore. Perhaps we need to institute a day of forgiveness for our resentment, a national Yom Kippur.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

Relevant Saint?

The Working Catholic
Relevant Saint?
By Bill Droel

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October is a great month for saints: St. Therese Lisieux (the Little Flower), St. Boniface, St. Damien of Hawaii, St. Teresa Avila, St. Luke, St. Jean de Brebeuf of Canada, St. John Paul II and several more. And October is also the month for the second most popular Christian ever, St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). But is St. Francis relevant?

No, not unless the goal is for young adults to quit their jobs, abandon their cell phones, roam about begging and maybe repairing a church building here or there. All the while dressed in a long hooded jacket.

Wait a minute: young adults do wear hoodies. Back in the old days a hoodie was called a capuche. St. Francis never picked a standard color, sometimes appearing in black or dark green. He didn’t intend to establish a uniform for his friends and he hardly was making a fashion statement, even a counter-cultural one. Eventually one group among his followers picked a standard color that reminded people of coffee mixed with foaming cream. That type of coffee, now popular with young adults, was called cappuccino. Thus, that group of followers were then and now called the Capuchins.

St. Francis never did anything; he never launched a project; he had no four step program. Instead, he spent his career extending gestures. And for some reason, the young adults of his time thought he was interesting. So much so that hundreds joined him, creating the Francis movement.

His gesture toward the latest innovation in town summarizes all his others. You see, before the 13th century few people needed any time-keeping device other than direct observation of the sun. But when the mercantile economy emerged in Europe, people wanted to keep appointments. So a clock tower was installed in the public square. St. Francis turned his back to the clock to remind people that a life fixated on clocks (be they now a cell phone app) and tight schedules and transactions is not ultimately satisfying.

It was the same message he tried to impart by disrobing in front of a church tribunal that was mediating a dispute between St. Francis and his father, a prominent clothier. St. Francis took off all his clothes. Fashion, ornaments, car accessories, and mansions are all ultimately unsatisfying.

St. Francis once made a courageous anti-war gesture. It was during the Crusades. He and a friend decided to walk across enemy lines and meet with Malik al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt. In a surprising return gesture, the sultan conversed with St. Francis during an entire week. The gesture did not dissuade the so-called Christians from continuing their wrong-headed attacks. But once again, many young adults saw an alternative to senseless war.

Young adults today are understandably disenchanted. Star athletes betray their profession by abusing other people and by cheating in the very nature of competition. Prominent business leaders engage in pseudo-commerce, peddling products that are unhealthy and some that don’t even exist. Bishops cover-up the egregious behavior of some employees. Politicians needlessly stoke resentment and racism.

To be disenchanted means to be away from the magic. Who wouldn’t be jaded when it comes to the magical or miraculous in daily life? Disenchantment is a fixed by-product of modern life. People assume that modern culture will provide meaning, but in its drive for efficiency our culture must dispel enchantment. We are left with, at best, an upbeat and vacuously positive approach to life, otherwise known as self-help.

Science and technology and individuality are gifts that come wrapped within the modern and they are to be cherished. But we need also to be caught up or taken up or drawn in. Enchantment means to be aware of the alluring and mysterious; to be awake to hues, shades, dialect, mood and gaps in sequence. Enchantment is outside of clock time. It is a belief that the so-called past is existentially present and that the current moment has a future.

St. Francis was enchanting to many young adults. We need him today.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work

Urban Revival and Suburban Poverty

The Working Catholic
Bill Droel

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Urban Revival and Suburban Poverty

The N.Y. Times recently reported that the population of downtown Kansas City, Missouri has increased 50% over the last dozen-plus years. Entertainment venues, restaurants, the arts, higher education and office firms have likewise invested in downtown. Urban planners and developers there predict downtown residents will double within a few years. Kansas City is just one example of a remarkable trend.

This trend of urban revival was first pointed out to me in the early 1980s when Ed Marciniak (1917-2004), legendary Catholic labor leader and urban character, suggested we go for a walk around Chicago’s South Loop. “The Loop [Chicago’s term for downtown] is gradually expanding and repopulating,” he mentioned as we set out.

These strolls continued over many months to include Little Italy, East Humboldt Park, Cabrini-Green, Chinatown and more. We went to many delis for lunch; chatted with contractors; made appointments with officials, school principals, pastors, community activists, real estate agents and executives. We read hundreds of neighborhood newspapers—both current issues and library collections.

“This is something like gentrification,” Marciniak observed, “but different too.” When we reflected on and then published our findings, we called the phenomenon the new inner city. The trend, we noted, contained opportunity in general. But we also said it contained difficulties for the poor.

The current recession put the trend into a freezer. A booming real estate market peaked in early 2006, but then in December 2008 and following real estate experienced its biggest drop in U.S. history. Now, however, there is a qualified recovery. And thus, the N.Y. Times reporter in Kansas City is the latest of several writers who are resuming the walks Marciniak and I made in the 1980s.

Gentrification is a simplistic term for the changes, writes Alan Ehrenhalt in The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City (Alfred Knopf, 2012). “A better term is demographic inversion,” something not specific to one factor or another. It is rather “the rearrangement of living patterns across an entire metropolitan area, all taking place at roughly the same time.” Ehrenhalt’s examples in Chicago include the South Loop/University Village, Logan Square and a thorough case study of Sheffield/DePaul University.

The current recession did not really alter this trend, says Leigh Gallagher in The End of Suburbs (Penguin Press, 2013). It is the result of lifestyle changes, immigration patterns, global economic factors and more. The appeal of suburban life might persist, Gallagher writes, but the suburban locales of the 1950s to 1970s are passé.

Cautions are in order.

#1. Not all cities will succeed in revitalizing, explains Edward Glaeser in Triumph of the City (Penguin Press, 2011). “Human capital, far more that physical infrastructure” or other components, is the key. It is not primarily a matter of financing a new hockey facility or offering tax incentives to 20 riverside restaurants or putting 15 art studios in abandoned warehouses or bringing back streetcars. Cities attract and retain people rich in human capital (immigrants and young professionals) by facilitating “face-to-face relationships” in colleges, workplaces and sidewalk cafes. Not all cities have enough social opportunity and thus not all will enjoy a rebirth.

#2. These positive trends accelerate the isolation of the poor, making it exponentially more difficult for their children and grandchildren to succeed. Plus, as a subsequent column will detail, an area’s new inner city parallels its aging, poorer first ring of suburbs.

Marciniak and I were disappointed that with an entrepreneurial exception or two the parishes situated in the path of an expanding inner city were pulling the plug, particularly on their grammar schools. So-called pastoral planning seemed limited to the physical status of church buildings and the availability of a priest for that parish. Has the strategic plan of city churches changed much since 1980? To be continued…

Droel is editor of INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

Misguided Voters’ Guide

The Working Catholic
Bill Droel

Droel_pictureMisguided Voters’ Guide

Our U.S. Catholic bishops periodically issue a voters’ guide; most recently in the form of a 36-page booklet, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Its next edition is scheduled for Fall 2015—in time for the presidential campaign. In light of themes stressed by Pope Francis the U.S. bishops will edit the guide to give more prominence to the “option for the poor and vulnerable.”

As long as editing is in process, I make this suggestion: Drop the project. No one is waiting to read what bishops think about electoral politics. Citizens who carry their Catholicism into the voting booth already know how they will determine their candidates. Further, bishops’ credibility is unfortunately so low these days that their effective witness will be restored only by humble service, not public statements.

There is also some evidence that young adults become further disaffected from the church when bishops and clergy wade into politics. One’s general ideology or politics (liberal or conservative) seems to drive one’s attraction to or neglect of regular worship, write sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace (Simon & Schuster, 2010). The evidence, at least tentatively, says religious formation does not per se determine political temperament; political disposition drives religious formation. Read more

Labor Day History

The Working Catholic

Bill Droel

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Labor Day History

Labor Day began in 1882 when machinist Matthew Maguire (1855-1917) and carpenter Peter Maguire (1852-1906) organized a parade in New York City. Both, though unrelated, were Catholic laymen active in the Knights of Labor, the first successful national union in this country. The New York parade was repeated in 1883 and 1884.

Soon thereafter Oregon, and then a few other states, began honoring working people with an official Labor Day on the first Saturday of June. It was later changed to the first Monday in September. Finally in 1894 Congress voted for that day to be a national holiday.

Once upon a time I was part of a lobby to change the feast of St. Joseph the Worker from May First to the first Monday in September in the United States only. The proposal got a fair hearing from the U.S. bishops but the inertia of bureaucracy stopped us. Read more