Tag: witness

Off Duty

Off Duty

Everyone involved would be ashamed to be identified in this story except for me. Most of the people who were present when it happened were already ashamed because they were homeless which, during the Reagan years, was hardly something to be ashamed of. It happened. For some reason as a nation we had decided that it was a great idea to take all the most deeply wounded and hopeless people from every arena of injury and grievance and to house them together in church-run dormitories called homeless shelters. The other people in the story should be ashamed, but God only knows how they handle their memories of the evening. They’d be ashamed if you knew what they did. Maybe they would tell you I’m lying. Maybe their colleagues would rally around them and tell you I’m lying.  I understand that impulse.  But I’m not lying. This is true.

I was 21 years old and working the overnight shift in a shelter for homeless single adults in my hometown. Back then I looked like a dirt bag most of the time, with my long hair, stupid novelty T-shirts, and dirty jeans from my day job with Habitat for Humanity. Even though I have never smoked up in my life, back then people used to always ask me for weed. I looked the part. Anyway, the shelter was usually a pretty quiet place after lights-out. It was unbearably hot and airless that night, and one of the residents had propped a door open to let some cool air in. I was still awake at around midnight, at the far end of the shelter from where the residents slept.

The four men who entered through that open door looking for a guy named Juan were tall and muscular, and they came in banging doors and making angry noises. “Where the f*ck is Juan?” they roared. I could hear them but not see them, so I ran toward the dorms. The residents—some addicts, some abuse victims, some vets– started shrieking in fear, and by the time I got to the dorms the four intruders had split up and had entered the women’s dorm and the men’s dorm, turning the fluorescent overhead lights on and yelling, over and over, into the faces of the residents. I did not know these men, and it took me longer than it should have to realize that they were all in uniform, probably because this sort of thing didn’t happen.  Not in the world as I’d understood it until then.  The residents all already knew how to do something I was being invited to learn right then: How to cower. Rosa was curled into a ball on her bunk, motionless. Seth, a Vietnam vet and the gentlest man I’d ever met, shuffled away from the commotion and pretended, as much as possible, that it wasn’t happening. “Where the f*ck is Juan? I know he’s in here. Don’t f*cking lie to me!”

By some miracle, the practical dimensions of which I forget entirely, I was able to corral these four men into a little common area outside the dorms and to try to talk reasonably with them. They said, “Oh, so you’re the staff person here? Well, where are you hiding him?” I said, “Look, really, what the residents said was true. There’s no one named Juan here.” I experienced all four of them as huge and menacing and angry as hell. They thought maybe he’d changed his name to hide here, so they described him. He wasn’t in the shelter. It dawned on me—they shouldn’t be here, either. I had to get them out of here.

Three of the intruders were from my home town, one from the next town over. Interesting. I knew from the patches on their uniforms. They had removed their badges but they still had their guns. One guy fiddled with his gun nervously. He looked up at me in embarrassment and anger when he realized I was watching him. Maybe I was about to be shot.

“How did you get in here?” I asked.

“We came through the f*cking front door. It was propped open.”

“That’s not OK. You can’t do that,” I said, because for some reason I believed that I had some sort of power that could stop what was happening.

“We are looking for this mother*cker, and we know he’s here.”

“Well, this is a private place. You need a warrant to come in.” How’d I know that?

“WE HAVE A F*CKING ARREST WARRANT!” one of them yelled into my face.

“But I think you need a search warrant to come in here unless I’ve welcomed you in, and I did not welcome you in, and you are scaring the residents and you need to leave.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Mark. Mark Shiner.”

“OK, Mark Shiner. Well, we will remember your f*cking name. Don’t expect us to come running the next time one of these pieces of sh*t causes you trouble. We’ll take our good f*cking SWEET time getting here. See how you like that, Mark Shiner.”

After a few more door slams, a few more shouts, and a long, sneering look into my eyes from one of them who’d stopped just to look into my eyes and sneer, they were gone. I locked the doors, tried to calm the residents down, talked to them for a while, and then I called the director of the shelter. She came in. The two of us talked for a long time. I didn’t cry. Maybe you don’t cry on this side of that sort of experience.   The shelter had never had a bad experience with the police, she said. They’d always been great. The next morning the chief promised he’d look into it, though he didn’t ask to talk to me and didn’t get any descriptions of the officers and never called back.

I worked in that “bad” neighborhood for an entire summer, and the one time I felt genuinely terrified it was because of four police officers.

When I was a kid, my favorite Sunday school teacher was a police officer and I thought the world of him. I love and admire every single cop and safety officer I’ve actually met—something I definitely can’t say about the clergy I’ve known– and I can’t fathom the underlying terror of being an agent of the state’s violence. But since that night in Pennsylvania in 1989 I also know the other side, what it’s like to be targeted and harassed, what it’s like to be innocent and yet find your self on the wrong side of anonymous men with authority and guns.  Once you’ve been on the “wrong” side, you can never wholly return to the “right” side. Some gnostic substance seeps into you and carries with it tiny cells of solidarity, mistrust and revolt, and they don’t go away no matter how good you’ve been or how established, safe, and non-threatening you eventually become. My life had been easy and I was always warm and well fed, free from abuse and violence, educated and secure. But that night, without knowing I had somehow also become poor, homeless, addicted, and marginalized. Whatever empathy and hunger for justice that I have now began to bloom in the night soil of that encounter.

You need to remember what horror is possible even with the “good guys”, and you can’t be ashamed of what you know.  I remember, and I am not ashamed.

Why I Think Catholics Should Tell the LGBTQ Community That We Love and Support Them, Loudly and Often.  

I will admit to being heartbroken to find that some of my Catholic brothers and sisters are unwilling to say, in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, that they extend their condolences specifically toward the LGBTQ community.  Fr. James Martin has been one of the prominent exceptions. I have been blessed to spend a lot of time talking to and working with folks who identify with the LGBTQ community, and my willingness to try to love and extend myself has been a transformative and graced part of my ministry.  I am writing to my fellow Catholics in the hopes that I can encourage them to follow a similar path, especially in this urgent moment.

I’ll start here:  I think every single person in the world has a deep-seated desire to know that they are loved and cherished by human beings, sure, but also, deep down, by God. So, start from that premise– that every person, deep down, wants to know that love, a love that flows from God and draws one back to God. So, before you are anything else, male or female, Gentile or Jew, slave or free, as Paul says, you are a person created by and for love. Now, let’s say that your best understanding of yourself is that you are, for reasons that we will bracket for now, a person whose primary human dimension of that love is experienced in people of the same sex. Before you are in any meaningful sense political– really, before you are any other thing– you experience yourself as desiring this love from others and from God, because you experience yourself as being incomplete, even as being unworthy, in a sense (because you– we– are).

What I want to identify as the basic Catholic theological impulse is the idea that God is saying, “Yes” to each person at this fundamental level of being, OK? Every time– and I mean EVERY time– a gay or lesbian person has come to me to talk, there has been this most fundamental human question: Do you, Mark, cherish me? Are you open to the possibility of genuine, real, human encounter? What are the terms of that encounter? Can I reveal this thing that’s hard and awkward to talk about in the context of the Church? Will you still smile at me and hug me after you know?  If I come to receive communion from you, will i somehow see Jesus in your face?

So, when more conservative Catholics say something like, “I don’t want to reduce a person to a slogan,” guess what? They absolutely, positively do NOT want to be reduced to a slogan, either. This is where I think the conservatives are right. We agree on that. But then this is where I think it goes off the rails: If you love someone, you have to encounter them where they are, love them as they identify themselves, really grind out that sort of love that only the Holy Spirit gives.

Labels and communities are, in a sense, badges we wear. I’m a Yankees fan. I’m Pennsylvanian by birth. I’m Catholic. But under all those labels, the real and fundamental identity that I claim is that I am a child of God and an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven. and this is actually what I am, all the way down. However, if (God forbid) a bomb went off in Pennsylvania or in my high school in particular, my Pennsylvanian identity would come right to the fore even though I haven’t lived there for 30 years. When Prince died, the fact that I’ve loved and listened to Prince since I was a kid shaped my whole experience of his death and shaped my grieving for him in a profound way. I don’t consider being a Prince fan some sort of fundamental anthropological characteristic of my being, but in that moment if someone had said,  “You’re a child of God, and the Prince thing is not really important,” I’d have been irritated.

This is why I think that James Martin was right to call Catholics to expressions of sympathy for the LGBTQ community in the wake of the Orlando shootings, and this is the argument I’d make to those to the “right” of me on this issue: The way to get past the labels and on the path of redemptive love is not to reject labels people give themselves, but rather to say, “I love you and acknowledge you as worthy of my love and God’s love exactly where you are.” That is the love that comes from God. That’s the basic Christian theological anthropological assertion, so radical and so overwhelming that most of us can’t deal with it at all, even over a life time: I stand right now, exactly the person I am, a sinner, a broken person, a failure, an outcast, gifted, called, bearing the divine nature– that person stands right now before a God who knows all of that, every last bit of it, more than I could imagine, and nevertheless says, whole-heartedly and from the very heights of heaven: “I love you, Mark.”  That unconditional “yes” is what actually begins to change us!  That’s the glory of grace. To encounter God is, inevitably, to change, in the most fruitful and often unexpected ways!

The complicated thing about using language like, “The XXXXX community” is that, sociologically, most of those “communities” are not tangible, permanent things. It’s not like they’re monasteries or something. The word “community” implies a sort of grounded-ness and unity that doesn’t exist most of the time but that come out in times of crisis or celebration. I am surrounded by Yankees fans a lot of the time, but we only really become the community of Yankees fans at games, online in Yankees forums or Facebook pages, when we see each others’ jerseys at a bar, whatever. And with the LGBTQ community, one of the fundamental things that brings folks together is the experience of being ostracized, disowned, separated, mocked, or whatever. That’s not true of all LGBTQ-identified people, but it’s sure true of a lot. And there’s also this sense, in so many people, of sexual orientation as a given, as a sort of rock-solid fact of their identity, as something that could never be negotiated, but only lived out or hidden, with potentially dire consequences from either decision. And it’s the love of TRUTH that brings them to live it out rather than to hide it. It’s always conscience and a desire to be truthful, in my experience. And you only need to look at a situation like Orlando to see why the sense of one’s orientation would be unifying. The one thing we know that most of the victims had in common was their self-identified sexual orientation. So, seeing that a dude could choose to gun you down for exactly one reason is a pretty harrowing and darkly unifying thing. At that moment, you are a queer person because man, people like us are in trouble and we need to know that not everyone is out to get us and that most decent people think that stuff like this absolutely should not be going down.

So, this is why I think James Martin was right: The basic information that really needed to get out last week as a sort of fundamental expression of solidarity was this: The Catholic Church can look and see that these people with whom you are identified were targeted for this reason, and that is not acceptable. We stand by you and, despite whatever awkwardness this might entail for some of us and whatever disagreements we have, we are not OK with you being treated like this for any reason. Our faith teaches us to love you, and we will do that now and endure the requisite awkwardness of that encounter including your anger and skepticism. We can argue anthropology later if we need to and if we get there, after we are extremely sure that you know you are loved, after we’ve done or attended your funerals and walked with you through your grief.

That’s some top-level brave, going-out-on-a-limb kinda stuff. That’s saying that their lives really, really matter and that you accept that loving them means letting go of your control of the narrative. “Change is not a pre-condition for God to love you, and it’s not a pre-condition for us to love you.” Love, after all, changes both the lover and the beloved. What incredible changes might God have in store for US when we choose to love? That’s the glory, as Pascal says, of the spiritual gifts: Unlike growing in material wealth, growing in spiritual wealth benefits everyone.

It all starts by acting like God and saying “yes” to people.