The Death of Poverty, or how to face homelessness with love

​A couple years back I was riding a taxi through the Sahara during a terrible sandstorm on what should’ve been a one-way road (but wasn’t) with zero visibility. There were seven of us crammed into the taxi, a rundown Mercedes Benz, and the driver had what appeared to be the early stages of glaucoma in at least one eye. Despite that, he was going sixty or so, and my fellow passengers looked around nervously and held on tight. But no one did or said anything. 

This was the kind of almost-gravel road giant trucks roared down carrying, no joke, bales of hay stacked easily fourteen feet high, but from the taxi all you could see was brown sand which was beginning to pour in through the closed windows making it difficult to breathe. I decided to break the cultural norm and speak up – “Brother, could you slow it down. I don’t want to die today. This is dangerous.” The driver protested that “God would take care of us,” implying an almost fatalistic notion that “what will be will be.” As though our salvation or damnation in this moment rested entirely on God. I responded, “God gave you a brain to use, so slow down.” The car lit up. The other passengers smiled and nodded and one reached back to shake my hand as if to congratulate me on making a funny. It was as if they were thankful someone decided to break the cultural norm. 

I thought that fatalism was unique to Morocco at first, a kind of cultural difference where God was sometimes used as a way of shucking responsibility to care for ourselves or others. In fairness, while this mentality pervaded in some ways, it was countered in others, as Moroccan hospitality far outweighed the hospitality I’d ever been shown in America’s southern states. 

But recently, I got a taste of the very same fatalism, or perhaps American apathy while waiting for the train one morning in Bloomfield: 

A homeless man dressed in rags and donning a white Santa Claus beard came sauntering along the train platform mumbling something about Andre the Giant. He hovered dangerously close to the edge preaching about how great Andre had been. People watched. But no one acted. 

The man walked away from the platform and stumbled toward it again. There was this tension you could feel as passengers watched nervously, then looked away. It reminded me of one of those demotivational posters that says, “When it’s everybody’s responsibility, it’s nobody’s responsibility.” 

The train bells rang and a light glimmered off the rails. There were several people standing near the guy as he hovered closer to the edge, and it was clear he was going to be hit by the train if he didn’t fall off the tracks first. I walked by the unmoved people swiftly and grabbed the man from behind putting my hands on his shoulders and lightly nudging him along as I said, “Hey buddy, let’s walk over this way a little.” Not three seconds later the train whooshed by me, and people exchanged glances and nodded toward me as if to imply their appreciation that someone stepped in just in the nick of time. 

The guy paid me absolutely no attention, and he stumbled off in the distance. Fearing he would stumble again after I got on the train to Penn station, I grabbed a conductor and pointed him out. 

On the train, I was shaking, and a kind of mini anxiety attack ensued. I was disgusted by how I smelled. One brush with someone who is homeless, and their smell seems to rub off on you and linger. That distinctive, memorable odor is the same we all have just after we wake up. It’s perfectly natural. And it’s strong enough that even writing this my mind conjures up the smell out of nowhere. But when it’s from someone who is homeless it feels foreign despite being the same. 

As I sat in disgust, I was even more upset with myself that my takeaway in this crazy moment wasn’t that a human being, my fellow brother, had just avoided death or injury but how he nevertheless reeked of “death.” I was disgusted by my own distaste for poverty, itself a kind of damning death in this life – our own”walking dead.” I was disgusted I was actually upset with myself that I chose to step in and disgusted that no one else had. I wonder even now, what does it say of our country that the poor or the mentally ill so disgust us?

Even now, having had time to process it all, it’s strange to me that a perfectly normal human smell could so disgust anyone, and I’m driven to believe it’s actually my own fear of real, human pain and death – something I and none of the other passengers wanted to confront – that was what truly irked me. We so loathe to see and face the suffering of others that it has become easier for us to hate someone (or, perhaps better stated, to hate ourselves vicariously through another) than to ease their pain or step up and act when we know there’s a chance no one else will. 

And yet, there has never been a time in America where stepping up and acting, where calling out injustice, where confronting our fears of suffering – our own and others – has been more crucial, more dire. God may indeed “take care,” I suppose you could argue, but that cannot be our excuse, and what good is our belief in God at all if we won’t act mercifully in some sacred name because of that belief – and not just as individuals but as a collective, organized society? 

There is this belief that has plagued American Christianity for far too long that eternal salvation hinges on some surface-level acceptance of Jesus as Savior. But how meaningless is accepting Jesus if we aren’t as concerned with salvation in this life as we are with salvation in the next? If the poor are disgusting to us now (or, if we’re disgusted in our fear of having to confront their suffering), what happens when we must face our own poverty, our own death, the nakedness of our life’s end? A man on the brink of ashes is already where we will all one day end up. Either we face our own death and suffering through the suffering of others here, now, in this life – fearless and faithful to love them as they are and love ourselves in them, or we will face that suffering tenfold “with weeping and gnashing of teeth” when we discover in our last days that we have failed to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and, in so doing, have failed to ‘keep’ or save ourselves, as well. 

God gave you a brain, so use it. This universe has gifted you with hands and feet and opposible thumbs and hearts as much for today as for tomorrow. Put them to use! This world, this nation, has gifted you privilege of the highest degree that many don’t have so use it to lift them up, to empower them to their own divine rights, not to keep the status quo to the benefit of your own ‘tribe.’ We are all saved, in some form or another, but if we cannot or will not use that reality to ‘save’ others by lightening their load, easing their suffering, then our salvation will be rendered null and void at least in this life, and one would think that has to carry over to the next. 

In the meantime, if you find yourself in a Mercedes-Benz in a sandstorm or by the train tracks on a brisk morning staring down your own death in someone else’s, you’re not alone in this no matter how lonely you might feel. So take heart and fear not. God will take care – if you do. 

What Are We Willing to Die For?

Imagine for a moment that I walked into your house and murdered one of your children. That would test your ability to remain peaceful. Even if you were able to avoid retaliating against me, you would at least be able to understand why someone would retaliate or why anyone being harmed in that way would respond with violence. That’s really simple logic, actually: hate makes hate.

Whether it’s instinctual or learned over time, it just doesn’t seem today that we know how to respond to violence without wanting to become violent ourselves. I speak from personal experience there, though most of the ways I’ve been hurt are particularly benign. But we’ve all been hurt in some way or another, by somebody; we all understand the desire for vengeance, if not blood. So, if we agree that hate makes hate, then we can see how it would be a cycle. You harm me; I retaliate. You retaliate, I harm you again. The only way the cycle is ever broken is when someone decides to break the cycle and respond to violence without becoming violent themselves.

None of this is rocket science, and most of us get the logic. Some respond breaking that cycle would be nice but since we don’t live in a world of ideals, sometimes a violent response may be understandable if not even necessary. I’ll concede the point here that I would love to believe I could hold myself to an ideal of nonviolence but that I don’t actually know if I could. I confess, and my friends will tell you sadly, that I am a violent man. That doesn’t stop me from striving for nonviolence, for recommending it, believing in it.

Of course, I suppose you may not even buy my argument that breaking the cycle is wise. “It’s weak to let people just walk all over you, which is exactly what they’ll do if you let them,” you might say. “In some cases, we have to show strength which is might and force.” That sounds decidedly American today, especially in light of how to deal with terrorism. This ‘wisdom’ hinges, though, on how you define strength and weakness, as well as how you define your purpose in life. In other words, it depends on what you’re willing to die for and whether you believe there are some principals or values that are more important than life itself. I’m of the mindset that we’ve had so much luxury in modern society that we’ve lost sight of what we’re willing to die for, in part because we haven’t been asked to die for anything. We’ve only been asked to live, and that terrifies us to death as it is. We kill, scared for our own lives, never once considering what might be greater than our lives. Or in other words, we haven’t faced, most of us, a situation that demanded we determine what life and death are worth.

History, though, can help us here. To whatever degree I’m an armchair theologian, I try to draw a lot from Christian history, though I think the lessons are relevant beyond Christianity. From the time Christ dies to the time Christianity becomes the ‘official religion’ of the Empire, some 280 years pass. Christianity in that period, without the speed of modern infrastructure or the internet, manages to spread its message the world over “conquering” without ever resorting to violence. Think about that for a second: wars were historically fought, yes, to gain land but also with the goal of conquering the hearts and minds. Christianity does both without a single war. Constantine, of course, changes that, which is a conversation for another day, but I want to focus for a moment on the reality that a religion spread its viewpoint the world over without resorting to violence. How did they do it?

They didn’t just stop the cycle and take a beating. You might be right in saying that would be “weak.” Nonviolent resistance is not passive, however. It’s in-your-face aggressive. Pacifism would be letting the conqueror beat you up while you say nothing. Nonviolence gets in the conquerors face, taunts them to be violent, then having taken the beating, gets back in their face and taunts them again without ever taking a swing. In this regard, nonviolence is indeed very bloody and very violent. It’s a form of in-your-face martyrdom, and that’s how Christianity “conquered” the world without responding to violence with violence. Why? Because everyone saw that these so-called Christians were willing to die for something but not without first speaking their truth. Their truth, in fact, was in their willingness to die. And people so yearned for that sense of purpose that the movement, instead of being squashed out despite attempted genocide only grew and grew.

Take for example the early Christians a hundred years before Constantine – Perpetua and Felicity: A young woman of noble birth and a pregnant slave who knew they faced certain death but, to everyone’s surprise, welcomed martyrdom and left behind a ‘diary’ of sorts for the world to know that they would rather die than renounce their faith. Their willingness to die – and even the death itself – becomes a powerful message that resonates beyond anything the gun or the bomb can do.

And it’s not just a matter of “breaking the cycle of violence;” it’s exposing those who choose violence for who they are and in the process showing you’re better than them, more at peace. You don’t need the strength of “might and force.” You have the strength of truth and the resolve of peace within. And that – and only that – can flip the oppressors on their head. Oh, sure, to respond with violence may, indeed, win you temporary peace but only at the cost that you were willing to become the aggressor yourself. And when you become what you hated, it’s only a matter of time before the same fate that befell your aggressor also befalls you or your loved ones.

All of that, of course, is said in the context of a President-elect who wants to solve our problems with violence. It’s said in the context of an America that has bombed its way through our history and left an ugly stain on almost every nation-state we’ve touched. It’s said of a day and age when long-gone is the Christianity that was once so faithful in its resolve of what life is worth and its trust in something greater than death that “love your enemies” has become meaningless and the Babylonian “eye for an eye” has been embraced as a replacement for most of Jesus’ message. We have an opportunity to reclaim that with the conviction of a love built on faith and not on fear. And the next several months will certainly test how serious we are about such matters.

All Hail the Storm King

img_20160914_180955254_hdrThere’s something monstrous and all-encompassing about New York City, as though the longer you’re there, your memory of the way the world works elsewhere is slowly cached until it fades into oblivion. Everywhere about the City, nature prevails. The pigeons come close and tilt their heads to look at you as though you’re the one that doesn’t belong amid this concrete, not them. The mice and chipmunks and squirrels are perfectly content to live among the steel-and-glass ignoring you, mostly. The trees manage to climb surprisingly high, a wooden skyscraper unto themselves, their roots searching the dirt beneath until it slams up against the concrete veins and arteries of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Everything here unnatural seems to have grown together so well that it may have become one with Mother Nature herself.

Until, of course, you leave New York City and discover that this is not the norm, that – in fact – it’s a kind of beautiful, artistic and architectural blasphemy unmatched the world over.

img_20160917_104720302_hdrSuffice to say, it is still jarring to me that less than an hour away, the signs of the City are replaced with countless acres of trees and farmland, of mountains and lakes, of the River Valley where the remnants of the Appalachians come crashing into one side of the Hudson and pick up again on the other as though there’d not even been a creek in the way or perhaps as though Moses learnt to part rocks the same way he’d parted water. In the early days of autumn, just when the dog days of summer have tired out, and there’s a light breeze whispering to some of the trees that dying is a part of living, you can escape here and forget there ever was any concrete or steel or glass or plastic or car horns or subways. This is the land of towns with names like Fishkill and Beacon and Doodletown and Stony Point. It could just as easily be Tennessee.

It is not a place without its reminder that New York City is close by, of course. The train to Montreal whistles off the Hudson and churns on the tracks like a tornado rolling through, and the traffic and passers-by are a diverse lot of run-down hooptie cars, the people packed-in tight on their way to the next ‘job,’ juxtaposed with an occasional Tesla driven by a lone Frenchman who wears G Star Raw and is environmentally-conscious. And yet, in the same way the City can make you forget this place over time, this place – this dance with Mother Nature – manages to flood back over you singing, lulling that this is the real America. Cue Paul Simon on a search.

img_20160917_113923636And what is the real America but that hard, tried juxtaposition, that reminder that nothing is simple or can be easily broken into ‘this vs. that’ but is instead some mosaic of anything-and-everything we’ve ever done, imagined, or desired – the best and the worst of us – all thrown into the same mixing pot we once celebrated in this country.

Here is the Catskills, and here, maybe ten minutes west of the river and buried in its rolling hills there is an art gallery stranger than most. Imagine an outdoor museum, five hundred acres of it – something akin a postmodern Stonehenge with giant architectural feats planted like seeds that grew uncontrollably large in a river valley. It is the exact opposite of New York City: these structures that seemingly don’t belong actually make a very good case that they were born and grew up here and couldn’t reside anywhere else but a garden ‘that rivals Versailles.’ Against a backdrop of perfectly groomed green grass, knolls perfect for sledding, and oak and pine, these artistic gods – like a Picasso come to life – tower toward the pristine blue above to kiss the clouds. Their rusted metal – black and red – screams to the sky, but it’s somehow overwhelmingly peaceful. Once again, what didn’t belong found a home, and at home, you can scream loudly and find peace in it.

img_20160917_121225180The name of the place is fitting, too: Storm King, as though just around the mountain to the east there lurks Zeus ready to fire his bolts directly at the towering metal structures. I half-expected a postmodern ‘Night at the Museum’ were I to hang around until after dark.

Maybe that’s because seeing a giant, rusty metal structure next to a pond gives it life. But I think, too, its wild shapes, its shadows, the way the light might hit it at different times of day, leaves you to imagine that this one stationary structure could be a million things to a million people across a million eons. Somebody throws one gargantuan slab into the pasture, sculpted in steel, calls it art, and it tells a vastly different story at sunset from what it told at sunrise. Could it be said to be the same thing on a cloudy day when the sun doesn’t give it its sharp shadow that, arguably, is as much a part of the sculpture as the body the artist built? Or does the absence of its shadow breathe into it new life altogether?

img_20160917_121025271We small creatures who look upon such vastness are made somehow smaller still by this place. What of life is any different? Is not everything we look upon equally as complex? I am caught often, chained even, by my very limited perspective: that how I encounter you or the things you and I have made depends on just how the light hits us, just where we’re found in it, and just the time of day (or week or month or year) that your life and your creation may have graced mine. It is difficult, sometimes, to wait through the cloudy days to see again the shadow. It is that much more difficult, should they remain, to not let the clouds skew our view of what we know or once knew to be true. We are the storm kings and queens tasked to wade through the layers of our limited perspectives, to call out with humility precisely what those layers for us may be and to view it all as the birds of New York City might: looking curiously on and wondering what belonging is while knowing and claiming, this is our home.

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Unity with Schism, a Mea Culpa

I have made abundantly clear in social media – sometimes to people’s frustration and often too harshly – that I am in favor of schism for the United Methodist Church. I’ve held that view in part because I believe the church to have been hijacked by lobbyists who have pushed political agendas of the far right into a mainline denomination. I’ve held that view in part because even the progressives I usually agree with seem more interested in maintaining dying structures under the guise of ‘unity’ than they do in pursuing a justice that’s as swift as I’d like for it to be. And I’ve held that view in part because I, like many of you, am tired of being hurt by church and am tired of seeing those I care for be hurt by it – and that extends beyond social issues and as much into everyday brokenness and bureaucracy of the Church. It’s something every institution does to us; I’m just burnt out with this one.

This morning, however, I was challenged by an email from, strangely enough, a priest – a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement – who is the former Vatican Representative to the World Council of Churches and has been a part of the envoy for the UN’s peace process between Israel and Palestine. These are his words, and I found them worth sharing:

“Hi Philip, I see the United Methodist Church is going through the inevitable east-west, north-south tensions that so many churches have been experiencing recently. You are not alone. When the Catholic Church had the recent synod of the family, the Africans were opposed to any changes while the Europeans were in favor of them. Sometimes I wonder if we might have a too restrictive notion of what church unity means, something derived from the European experience of kings and emperors, where everything -and I do mean everything – gets “standardized.” The church(es) of the New Testament and post-Apostolic times were far more diverse, often experiencing conflicts between one church and another. Yet it wasn’t until quite later that a juridical notion of unity – as opposed to the more organic notion of communion – began to take over. Unfortunately we live in a world of zero sum everything where compromise is a forgotten art and virtue.”

The good padres’ email forced me to raise important questions about what unity really is, and as someone who can break bread with Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Atheists and who longs for the unity of one world, it seems bizarre that I’d no longer wish to break bread with parts of my own spiritual ‘family.’ It’s more complicated, I guess, when we are tasked to do more than merely break bread together but also live under the same roof. Especially when our time under that roof has involved intense emotional and sometimes physical harm.

I know I’ve contributed to that harm, and for that I’m sorry. I know I’ve played into the zero sum game at times and that doing so is, quite literally, asking an entire continent, if not hemisphere, in places the West once colonized to adhere again to our values. We don’t acknowledge this enough when we get on our social media, social issues high horses; we don’t acknowledge just how complicated these “east-west, north-south tensions” are, but if we wish to remain united in earnest, cultural sacrifices become inevitable. And while I’m inclined to say as a Westerner that equality as a moral good and human right should trump culture and tradition, I’m not sure I’m in a position to say that; I’m not sure any of us privileged Westerners are in a position to tell Africans, for example, once more what they should do. But I’m also not willing to sacrifice my values, either. And therein lies the problem.

So, we may find ourselves sometimes needing to part ways, temporarily. We may find that sacrificing our cultural values is something we just can’t do. But perhaps we can “part ways” and yet still be united? That is, the unity I hope for may indeed be schismatic – but less like warring schism and more like brothers and sisters who throw temper tantrums all day long yet still love one another when it comes to it. Can we act differently, function under different rules and still seriously call ourselves one institution? What rules are so sacred to us that they are uncompromising? And what rules can we allow certain conferences or churches to fudge on? In the past, I’ve claimed that this kind of unity renders our faith meaningless, that to stand in solidarity with all viewpoints is to have none of our own. But the good friar’s email reminded me that, maybe, it’s okay to differentiate between the rules sacred to our unified identity and the rules sacred to our diversity.

The good friar’s email reminded me that on some level, unity is a lie. Anyone who doubts this should attend a United Methodist Church in Tennessee and another in New York. Geographical differences govern us more than our holy texts do, because the way we interpret them will always be influenced by our social location. Perhaps it shouldn’t work that way, but our cultural and experiential differences will always run much deeper than disciplines and dogmas no one reads. And yet, those geographical differences, as well as the dogmas, can be honored so long as we can decide what essence of our identity must be retained. That is what the United Methodist General Conference must decide now: what is non-negotiable to call ourselves one entity. And then, the hard question this church is facing won’t be whether or not we should split but whether, if we really believe in unity, we should not also reunite with the Episcopal Church, and from there, the Catholics? After all, if, indeed, this church splits, that is not the end, and to believe as much with such intense fervor is to deny everything Christians claim to believe about resurrection and reconciliation. But reconciliation should scare you if you’re committed to unity: it might make us all Roman Catholic again.

As for me, for now, I will continue attending a United Methodist church in New Jersey where I live. I am not member of the United Methodist Church, having forgone my membership in 2012. I don’t at this point intend to rejoin. Nor will I continue to attend this church simply because it’s United Methodist. Instead, I attend because of its harmony as a church with over 20 countries represented, one of the few exciting aspects of attending a church ten miles from New York City. I’ll attend because it’s where I’m building meaningful relationship here at the moment. And I’ll attend because in a church so diverse, I might just learn something about how to live together when we disagree as much as we do.

Some Thoughts about the Upcoming United Methodist General Conference 2016, or Why This Church Should Just Give In and Die Already

Not all that long ago, a band of conservatives within the United Methodist Church were floating around the idea of an “amicable separation” over the issue of ordaining or marrying LGBTQ+ individuals. The majority response among moderate and liberal Methodists was a resounding ‘no’ favoring unity above all else and citing that Methodists should agree to disagree but remain in communion with one another. Since then, a few silly ideas have popped up. Chief among them included a suggested change in polity which would have allowed Conferences or even churches to determine for themselves what stance they would take on social issues rather than a larger body making that determination for everyone. Therefore, instead of an “amicable separation” of just two theological factions within the church, this silly idea would result in hundreds of new churches leaving nothing “united” to what it means to be a “United Methodist.”

In the meantime, the New York Annual Conference, among other northern conferences, have forged ahead in an effort to uphold equality. Many pastors, as well as a Bishop, are actively marrying gay couples against the current doctrine of the church. While I applaud their efforts and think they are doing the right thing personally, I also find it incredibly disingenuous to willfully disregard church doctrine while simultaneously claiming that you favor “unity.” In that sense, I think the liberal end of the church is a bit two-faced; at least have the dignity to acknowledge that you favor a schism and are moving ahead with the new direction the church should be and will ultimately take. Don’t cower behind the lie of “unity” while acting in discord.

Personally, I’m not in favor of unity at all. If the issue at stake was merely equal rights for gay couples or ordaining gay pastors, then I might still be arguing that this is something Methodists could, prayerfully, work through. But the issue is an entire worldview whereby, too often, those who stand against gay rights, are spouting the same conservative one-liners that – in addition to being homophobic – are also harmful to just about any minority position or person you can imagine. This is often referred to as “intersectionality,” or the notion that all forms of oppression are interconnected. That is, systems of injustice often stem from the same roots and can’t be discussed singularly. I’ve always considered it a shame that gay rights, for example, became the singular issue that nearly split the Methodist church, when it could easily be argued that the church should have split years ago over the conservative position that “poor people are lazy,” a position that’s as racist as it is a slap in the face to those facing financial hardship in a country that rewards the rich and punishes the poor. Of course, no legislative position claiming a disdain for the poor was part of the Discipline, which explains why it never became a major church issue, but certainly, such a degrading attitude remains deeply ingrained into the Methodist system, especially in the Southern states where bigotry is more blatant (though not necessarily more prevalent) than the North.

Suffice to say, I do not understand the disdain for schism. Jesus himself talks about not wasting our time on people who won’t see eye-to-eye. The Methodist Church came into existence solely because of multiple schisms. Good can, then, come from “amicable separation” (though I think referring to it as “amicable” is also disingenuous when the division is as heated as it is currently). So, too, reconciliation can be a beautiful thing when the time is right. If you claim to uphold the good news that Christ is risen but forget or ignore circumstances of the broken body that lead to his resurrection, why bother calling yourself a Christian? Work through the inevitable of our brokenness rather than constantly shunning it. Fear of schism hinges on fears that a resurrected church can’t come to fruition, and as I’ve said elsewhere, it hinges on structural and financial fears that a church schism would make it impossible for the Methodist system to continue. Frankly, though, financial collapse may be good for a church that’s busy building or renovating unnecessary structures and housing bishops in million-dollar mansions rather than doing the work of God. Perhaps a broken Methodist Church is precisely what could birth a new spiritual awakening in America. Think of the Methodists who, in the wake of their understandable frustration with the pitiful state of this feckless church, have returned to either Anglican or Episcopal churches. The Wesley brothers, the founders of Methodism, would be pleased. After all, they never wanted a Methodist church to exist in the first place. Perhaps being reconciled to our Mother Church is but one step in the right direction of leaving behind what’s already dead and rotten. At least, that’s my ultimate hope for this Church and for this year’s General Conference.

Lead Us Not Into Penn Station

I’m not sure why, but lately, I’m hypersensitive to all the sounds that surround me. Maybe it’s because I’m used to a more rural environment that the sounds of the City are just that jarring to me. Maybe it’s because I’m living just next to the Garden State Parkway, which leaves in its wake a low, constant buzzing almost like that of a hummingbird. Whatever it is, lately I’ve heard it all.

I’ve heard the click-clack of the train that runs over the tracks in the morning, the screeching of its breaks, the muttering of passengers who’ve come to know one another, the familiar lines, “Tickets please,” or, “Remember, if you see something, say something,” the latter of which in reference to terrorism seems to be used to maintain a constant state of communal fear.

I’ve heard the taxis honking, the subway’s mechanical voice promising, “There is… a… local up-town train… one station… away.” I’ve heard quiet, though even quiet is filled with background noise: the harsh police sirens, a jackhammer, the wind weaving through and beating the buildings above – or is that the cars on the street? It sounds so similar to the buzzing of the Parkway. To this country-turned-city boy, so much of it is, well, kind of harsh. There’s no respite, it seems, in the sounds of the City.

In fact, the other morning, I heard screaming. A woman in the train car behind me was giving voice to some kind of anger, though I don’t know the cause. She ran through the aisle cussing at no one and then stood between two train cars. When the train pulled into Penn Station, she started screaming louder and began spitting on the glass door that was about to open – the one we were all standing behind. A man warned a woman in front of me, “Hey, watch out for this nutjob when the door opens.”

The screaming woman was obviously poor and in some kind of psychic pain. I thought immediately about the man’s use of the word “nutjob” to further disconnect her from us and how, in America, her mental illness and poverty were likely deeply in cahoots and were both things we used to see her as somehow “less” than us. For a moment – a brief moment – I considered attempting to console the woman or shaming the man for typecasting her in such a way that robbed her of her humanity. But I did nothing, said nothing. After all, she might spit on me. Or, I thought, I wasn’t trained or prepared to know how to deal with her situation. So I just let the words fill the air as more harsh sounds, and when the doors opened, the police entered the car and whisked the woman away. I have no idea what came of her. But I couldn’t escape the notion that her psychic pain was likely intensified by our collective apathy, or worse, our disdain for her situation which mirrored our fears of what could, perhaps, happen to us or to those we love. The police carted the ugliness away so we didn’t have to hear her suffering any longer. God bless them?

In one of his trips to encounter Syrian refugees, Pope Francis has remarked, “We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – ‘suffering with’ others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!” I think he’s right. There’s no “suffering with” others; it’s us and them, and we want the sounds of their screams, their tears, their harsh contribution to the world to simply be removed, forgotten, compartmentalized from the public sphere. I find myself too often among those who want that.

But if I stopped there, having heard only the harsher sounds of the City, I don’t know what hope would be left. And I do know that I would not have heard all there was to hear:

On Thursday, I met with the director of three Christian-run hospitals that were set up to serve the people of Lebanon and, since the Syrian crisis, have come to serve (indeed, being overrun by) Syrian and Armenian refugees, as well. While much of what he shared was hard to hear, there was hope to it, too. He described the relationships between many Christians and Muslims in Syria and Lebanon as a “mosaic,” that in suffering together, their religious differences had not always gotten in the way of their willingness to help one another. He described churches which were distributing water to anyone, regardless of creed, in Aleppo since those ancient structures had been built on top of water wells. He described instances of Muslims protecting Christians from ISIS and vice versa. And he described the good work he was doing: offering psychosocial support for children experiencing PTSD, healthcare to refugees even when the UN refused to fund it and the clinic picked up the cost; the list went on and on, and in it all, what I heard was not the sound of dogma or hopelessness but of the dignity of all people and the hope of a brighter future for those currently entrenched in conflict.

In the afternoon, as I headed back home to New Jersey, there were certainly still those harsher sounds. But that’s not all I heard: I heard a violinist in the subway and a jazz band filling the air in Penn Station. I heard gratitude in all the chattering on the train and people ending their phone conversations with love. I heard conductors from the train wishing passengers a good day as they exited. I heard a car honk – but to get the attention of an old friend. And as I got closer to the humming of the Parkway, I heard a mourning dove cooing a friendly reminder that it’s finally spring.

What I’ve noticed for me is that there are some sounds that pull me back into the full symphony of life. It’s so easy, so tempting to get sucked into one section or hear only a solo and be convinced of the domination that sound holds over the whole corpus. But while the ambiance of brokenness is assuredly in harmony with the ambiance of love, we need not forget that love leads the melody. Sure it’s all happening at once, each screech and scream perhaps isolated to a painful solo that in that moment needs to be heard, but what the mourning dove or the violinist or the kind conductor adds to the world is not isolated but is heard by those with ears willing to listen. And so, too, we contribute our own euphony or cacophony to the orchestra of life. Sometimes, we give both. Sometimes, we give more of one than the other. And sometimes, for better or for worse, we find ourselves silent. What we add or take away from the symphony is often entirely up to us; other times it isn’t. But perhaps the best we can do is simply listen, to be as aware as we can of how it all comes together (or doesn’t); that before we decide to contribute, we know exactly what we’re going to offer and why and how it belongs in this space where there are so many other sounds seemingly detached but, in truth, are just a completely different instrument yet still in connection with one symphony. Needless to say, I guess I’m a little thankful that I’ve been so hypersensitive to all these sounds lately. They might just have something to teach me.