Trevor Addendum

October 29, 2013 at 11:37 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Trevor’s pastor, Dr. Russell, informs me that Trevor actually gets $45 a week, not a month, as I said in my post yesterday. That’s certainly better, but I’m grateful that’s not how much cash I’ve got in my wallet.

Our Friend Trevor

October 28, 2013 at 4:49 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
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When Keith and I came back to New York in 2008, we bought a co-op in a sixty-or-so unit apartment building on the western edge of the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. After World War II this was a Jewish neighborhood; then a lot of Caribbean immigrants moved in. By the time my husband became the pastor of an American Baptist congregation six or eight blocks from here, in 1978, the neighborhood also had Haitian and Latino communities in it. And today, there are also lots of (subcontinental) Indians, and three blocks further west, a section called “little Pakistan.”

The 1920s apartment building reflects these changes. On the upper floors are two Jewish women, one ninety-five years old, one 103, who have been here their entire adult lives. But there are also Caribbean and Latino families who came after most of the Jewish renters moved out. And more recently, some young professional couples–Russians, secular Jews, white ethnics, WASPS–moved in. Most of us own our apartments; the building became a “co-op” in 1989. A co-op is different from a condo in that we own shares in the apartments and elect a board that makes decisions about financial and residential matters. What enables the renters to remain here with us are New York City’s rent stabilization laws, which control how quickly rent goes up and make it difficult for the real estate firm that owns the unsold units to evict the (for the most part) less economically well-off renters still occupying them.

Our friend Trevor and his mother and younger brother lived in just such a rent-stabilized apartment, directly above us, until recently. Trevor is in his mid-forties, his brother Michael is in his late 30s, and their mother, Geraldine, is younger than you might think, but retired. The rent stabilization laws allow a renter to be away for up to six months out of the year without losing their lease, so Geraldine spent about that much time in Belize each year, while Michael stayed home and worked. Trevor, however, had had a really bad stroke in 2006, and has been on Social Security Disability since then. He was working in construction in Tampa when he had the stroke but came home to live with his mother.

Trevor is tall and thin and walks with a cane, hunched over; he has no front teeth–one of many local residents who can’t afford $11,000 for dental implants–and has a terrible time talking. I often met him on the street, walking out to Prospect Park or back, where we both went to get our exercise. We would chat a bit, and I got better at understanding what he was saying. One day I met him outside the supermarket up on Church Avenue and he was loading bottles and cans out of a supermarket cart into a recycling machine that paid five cents an item. It occurred to me that he may be the only friend I’ve got who collects and cashes in bottles and cans.

I also met Trevor’s Mom on the street once in a while when she was back from Belize. She would invariably get to complaining about hard it was to live with Trevor, but spoke highly of Michael. She was in Belize in September when I came home to see Michael packing a rental truck out in front of the building.

“We’re moving,” he said.

I said, “Oh, I need to get your address so I can come and see Trevor.”

“Trevor’s not coming,” he replied.

Turns out Geraldine had written to say that she was not coming back from Belize. And Michael was moving in with his girlfriend. Which left Trevor, for the moment, in the apartment. Trouble is, his name wasn’t on the lease.

So the management company that handles the rental units got Trevor hooked up with Adult Protective Services–better than putting him out on the street, for sure. After a while, they moved Trevor to Surf Manor, an NYC “adult home” out in Coney Island, where he shares a room with another guy and gets three meals a day. The home gets his Social Security check and gives Trevor forty-five dollars a month for incidentals.  Unfortunately, Surf Manor is reputed to be one of the worst “adult homes” in the city, with residents at one point suing for a long-term bedbug infestation, and the majority of the residents mentally ill and hardly being cared for.

Trevor now comes to see us a couple of times a week. He walks to the old neighborhood from Coney Island, three miles each way, leaning on his cane. I think we’re becoming his family, more or less. Keith is going tomorrow to see the social worker at Surf Manor because Trevor’s Medicaid drug card has expired and he can’t get his cumadin prescription refilled; I think he takes the cumadin to offset the effects of the stroke. Trevor said he tried to explain this to the social worker at Surf Manor, but she didn’t understand him. Odd to think that I would be better than a social worker at understanding the speech of a disabled man. Keith has decided to describe himself as Trevor’s pastor. Maybe he actually is.

Trevor has taken to asking us for money, because he hardly has any. I don’t think he’s conning us; Keith gave him twenty dollars at one point and he came back the next day to tell us he’d lost the twenty–could he have more? A con probably wouldn’t have told us. A clergy friend of mine is going to let me write checks to his congregation as a donation and  then give me the money in cash so we can at least take it off our taxes. We’re planning to give Trevor five dollars at a time in case he loses it.

I tend to avoid homeless people on the street. I give them some money but scurry away. It doesn’t feel very Christian not to answer the door when Trevor comes, though. Maybe I should find it a comfort that some Central Americans are as rotten to their family members as some Anglos (or whatever we are). But I don’t.


The Pope! The Pope! The Pope!

October 11, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, you have admit, Pope Francis is getting some serious media coverage.  As John Allen quips in the National Catholic Reporter today, “If a Las Vegas casino had opened a betting line eight months ago on the likelihood that within a year the most popular figure on the planet would be the pope, one has to imagine the odds would have been awfully long.” But here’s Francis, making headlines everywhere. In the latest  summary of articles on Christianity that I receive weekly from the New York Time, three of the pieces are about the new pope.  And there were two articles about him in the last issue of The Nation, that former hotbed of  anti-Catholicism.

This outpouring of interest in and enthusiasm for the pope inspires several thoughts in me. First of all, it suggests that the Catholics won the Reformation. Roman Catholicism is the biggest organized religion on earth, with 1.2 billion members. One journalist–don’t ask me which one– suggested recently that the pope is now  the global symbol not only of Christianity, but of religion. I can imagine a few Muslims taking issue with this. But as for Christianity, it’s hard to dispute. Part of the problem is the clothes—who wants to photograph the head of the World Council of Churches in a suit and tie when you can get these guys in archaic dresses and hats? The universal fixation on the pope also suggests that the Catholic emphasis on, not to say brutal enforcement of, unity does have its upside. Why talk to the 476 and counting heads of various Protestant denominations when you can just call Rome? Nearly a half a millennium after the posting of his ninety-five theses, Luther must be turning over in his grave.

But as Allen also mentions in his NCR article, despite the new pope’s enormous popularity, there are still a few sticking points. Allen calls them Francis’s “Older Son Problem,” referring to the elder sibling who got seriously pissed over his father’s ecstatic welcome of the returned prodigal brother. These include, according to Allen, some faithful Vatican personnel who were not pleased by the pope’s references to the “leprosy” of the Vatican court; some pro-life Catholics who feel less than appreciated by the pope’s suggestions that their efforts have been “over the top”; and some evangelical Catholics who have toiled heroically to defend and clarify orthodox Catholic identity and who suspect the pope is pulling the rug out from under them.

As for me, however, I’m with Nation columnist Katha Pollitt and University of Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting: it’s Francis’s support of church teaching on sexuality that renders problematic this great outpouring of enthusiasm.  As Pollitt wonders, is warm Pope Francis’s  acceptance of church teaching on contraception, abortion, and the exclusion of women from ordination  “Sexism with a Human Face”?  In his New York Times blogGutting answers the question unambiguously: “Unless the pope is prepared to reject the hierarchy’s absolute condemnation of these actions (any abortion, any homosexual act, any use of artificial contraceptives) and revise the official teaching, his comments reflect merely changes of style and tone.” Gutting finds a few glimmers of hope—references by Francis to the infallibility of the faithful in matters of belief and to the “uncertainty” that always accompanies spiritual discernment.  But Gutting does not expect Francis to change Catholic sexual teaching.

Pollitt’s and Gutting’s concerns call to mind the explanation of the ideology of the post Vatican II church in Gene Burns’s illuminating 1994 study, The Frontiers of Catholicism: The Politics of Ideology in a Liberal WorldBurns, a sociologist, argues convincingly that after Vatican II the hierarchy—the ranking—of the various Roman Catholic ideological positions underwent rearrangement. Before the Council, Catholic theological doctrine was the single most important part of Catholic thinking, with social and sexual teaching equally important but secondary. In the nineteenth century, for example, abortion and belief in the separation of church and state were equally gravely sinful, but heresy was worse.

With Vatican II, however, the church’s (belated) acceptance of the modern world undercut the primacy of Catholic doctrine per se. By admitting, for example, that a human being does not have to be Catholic—to believe in Jesus Christ and the Roman Catholic Church—in order to be saved, the church undercut the absolute status of its theological doctrines.

But as Burns explains, no institution gives up its claim to absolute truth and power willingly. After the Council, then, the RCC replaced its claim to absolute doctrinal truth with a claim to the absolute truth of its sexual teaching, based not in the Catholic tradition, but in Natural Law. According to Natural Law, all human beings are forbidden to have abortions, to engage in homosexual acts, to divorce their spouses. The Catholic church became the keeper of this universally mandatory law. Thus in the ideological hierarchy, as defended and enforced by the Catholic Church,  universal (Catholic) sexual teaching is on the top, and mandatory for all; Catholic doctrine comes second, and is mandatory only for Catholics;  and Catholic social teaching comes third, and is optional, that is,  subject to individual “prudential judgments” (as the American bishops sometimes put it.)

It sometimes seems as if Pope Francis isn’t privy to this ideological hierarchy–or at least he doesn’t grasp that social justice is entirely optional. Who knows–under his leadership, the Catholic ideological hierarchy may be rearranged again; maybe all three kinds of teaching will get put on an equal level.  If the Catholic ideological hierarchy changed after Vatican II, it could, conceivably, change again.

But let’s not kid ourselves: such ideological reconfigurations don’t happen easily, or quickly, as the repression of liberation theology by John Paul II in the 1980s suggests. In the short-term, and for a good while thereafter, Pope Francis will be keeping sexual teaching on the top (and, to switch metaphors, women and gays on the bottom) no matter how warm and loving the style in which he does so.

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