Last Friday, the 8th of June, I had the pleasure of taking my final examination for the Doctor of Ministry degree at Catholic University in Washington D.C. The exam, which was a defense of my Treatise turned out well, and studies are now complete. Thank you to everyone who has encouraged me over the past two years in the parish, and in particular, those on the Poetry and Photography retreat earlier this year, which formed the basis of my Treatise project.
As is usually the case, I stayed with my daughter, her husband and the two lovely granddaughters. They live in an area near H Street, an area that was decimated by the riots in 1968, but has since rebounded and become an area for “gentrification.” Within the two nights spent there we had the wonderful experience of finalizing my degree at Catholic University with over twenty other doctoral students present at the defense, plus family and some fellow doctoral students from my class/year. As I picked up my granddaughter from school, she scooted down the street, playing with young friends, overlooked by motherly gatherings in the neighborhood. All seemed well in Happy Valley.
But appearances can be deceptive. Later that same day, on a walk in the afternoon, I could see some properties still in disrepair and waiting for the developers to pounce; squeezing out the black population which formed the basis of this neighborhood for decades.
On the evening of my examination, we had a lovely meal and received some beautiful cards from family and friends. When we returned to the house from the restaurant in the taxi H Street was blocked off for two blocks; a motorcyclist had been hit by a drunk driver and dragged down the street. Traffic was redirected for some time; a sad note to the evening. We all headed to bed, and most of the house was asleep at 12:30 am when my wife and I heard four gunshots nearby. I turned the lights out in the hallway and investigated to see if there was anything close enough to be concerned. Upon returning to bed a tremendous crash was heard behind in the alley behind the house; more investigation, but whoever it was had left by the time I peered out through a darkened window. The following day we determined someone has smashed two panels out of the back fence at the alley behind the house.
On Saturday pm I took another local walk and was drawn to the wonderful Gospel sounds coming from the “Yahweh” Church less than 150 yards from my daughter’s house. It was full of love and vibrant sounds spilling all over the neighborhood. I did not go in but regret that now; God invites us and we should respond.
My final stop on this walk was to a photo exhibit in the basement of a local coffee shop. It consisted of photos of black mothers holding their “lifeless” black sons. The images were from all over the country, and while the lifeless bodies in the photos was staged, they were also very compelling. The artist was bringing to our attention police violence against the black community. Ironically, a community which is being moved out of the neighborhood, not because of their color, but the color of money; as row house after another are converted to apartments costing five hundred thousand dollars or more for each one.
I do not offer any of these observations as a judgment of the events of just two days spent in DC, but rather the very different worlds which surround us. In just a couple of days, I saw great love, worship, violence, stupidity, family values and tragic loss all within a few blocks of each other. The contrast is huge, between those who have and those who do not. There is a reason Pope Francis wants the Church to turn towards the poor and needy. That call is to us of course, as we are the Church.
Jesus’s passion is felt by them and demands our compassionate response; with whatever gifts we have, we are called to bring them.
At the end of this weekend, I felt very, very privileged to have been able to study at Catholic University, but am reminded the only purpose of all this is to help others. It gives me pause for each day and leaves me soaked in the sadness of those who are still hurting in such a tangible way. I am rarely confronted by this in the small, safe Massachusetts town where I live.