Let’s just call this blog posting an update. Since my time here in the US is coming to an end, let me offer a few thoughts on what these past two years here have given me. They’ve been very different years–last year at America Magazine and this one at a parish. Each has played to one of the two facets of ministry that has been especially important to me in the past: speaking to public issues, and personal care for the needy.
The year at America Magazine, the Jesuit weekly aimed at US Catholics, was a good opportunity to weigh in on public issues. The only problem is that I wasn’t always sure what the public issues were. Other members of the staff were far more up to speed on what appealed to the US public than myself. If we had been discussing marine conservation in the atolls, for instance, or the problems in public school performance in Chuuk, I might have held my own. But the trouble in Syria, the Arab Spring, or the economic crisis in Europe? What did I have to offer on topics like these? Still it was a chance to observe the rest of the world through a US-crafted filter and learn a thing or two on the job. Every so often I found myself scratching my hairless head and wondering whether there might not be some value in a fresh pair of eyes looking at things from a different point of view. Americans, like any other people, can get trapped in their own mindset at times. So can Micronesians, for that matter. Standing outside the culture can be useful at times, I’ve always maintained. Foreigners can tell us things about ourselves that we never knew before.
This year, at a parish in Oceanside, has been a very different experience. If I feel the need to address public issues, I resort to this blog or submit an article to some periodical (which usually rejects it). The blessing here has been the opportunity to feed the other facet of ministry that has always been so personally satisfying: responding to the “cries of the poor.” That’s the biblical way of putting it, but it means trying to help the individuals who come in with personal problems, especially the marginal people. You might not think that a small middle-class community like Oceanside, just a half hour out of Gotham (otherwise known as New York), would have many “poor” to be served. That’s what I thought, too, when I arrived last September. But they are everywhere to be found. After all, the “poor” have many faces.
The other day I spent an hour with a homeless man who had been sleeping in train stations for the past seven years. Could we get him help through the Department of Social Services? I wasn’t sure, but we would certainly try. Then there is the guy who wanted to be a capo in one of the gangs but had to settle for peddling drugs on the street. But most weren’t this dramatic. There were older people, dismissed as irrelevant by their own children and troubled by the divisions in their family. There were widows neglected by their own children who hadn’t spoken to them in years. The nursing home at which we say mass every week is filled with victims of Alzheimer’s Disease, who have lost even the memories that older people fall back on to sustain themselves. Then there are the unemployed–construction workers, plumbers, even divers–who have no hope of finding a job in this economy. Or the new arrivals from Haiti or the dominican Republic who take the worst jobs and earn the least money but somehow manage to keep their families together all the while.
So, the “poor” abound even in the suburbs of Long Island, and it’s been an honor to serve them in some small way. Public issues also abound, but I just wish that I were better able to name them and offer reasonable positions on them. As valuable as this experience has been, it makes me long for a place where I know the issues and have a stockpile of ready answers.