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Thursday, November 18, 2010

The New Math of Ministry

Last weekend, I spent Friday evening and most of Saturday with a group of eight interns from Newark ACTS, the Young Adult Urban Internship Program of the Diocese of Newark.

I had a wonderful time.

It reminded me of my first call as Chaplain at University of Lowell in Massachusetts. I love working with this age group. I love the energy of inquiry and curiosity in the room. I love their honesty.

I love their keen ability to spot what they perceive as BS and dismiss or confront it, as may be appropriate (or inappropriate) to the situation. I love the youthful arrogance and aloofness that sometimes communicates itself as, "I'm only here because I have to be, I'd rather be in bed or at the beach or anyplace else, but okay, look, I'm here. Okay? Show me what you got and it better be good."

I suddenly found myself reminded of the New Math I studied in High School. What ever happened to that?

Don't remember New Math? It didn't come to a school system near you? Well, it emphasized mathematical structure through abstract concepts like set theory and number bases other than 10. Beginning in the early 1960s the new educational doctrine was installed, not only in the USA, but all over the developed world.

In the system of New Math, the important thing was to understand what you're doing, rather than having the right answer. Everything else was just details.

Apparently, the system was abandoned sometime in the early to mid 80s because even teachers didn't understand it, and parents complained that valuable time was being wasted on theory rather than arithmetic.

You might also remember that those were the "Regan Years". You know, when ketchup was counted as a vegetable in school lunch programs, and vats of #13 cans of Peanut Butter and huge slabs of what we sarcastically called "Uncle Ronny's Cheese" were unceremoniously distributed from the back of a truck while hungry people - mostly women and children - waved slips of paper and quietly took their "monthly allotment".

This was, of course, the Regan Administration's response to the cut backs in the Food Stamp Program. It was just simple mathematics, is all. I remember it being a humiliating and embarrassing scene - like something out of a news clip of NATO troops distributing food in a war-torn nation.

Mathematics has never been my strong suit. That's probably why I liked New Math, which valued understanding the theory over getting the "right" answer. I understood what I was doing, but I rarely got the right answer, which was okay because, for once, I got a decent grade in Math. Worked for me.

All kidding aside, I think we missed an opportunity here. A life lesson hidden behind mathematical formulations.

That opportunity was apparently not lost on the Newark ACTS interns, who were obviously born after New Math had come and gone. They got it. Straight up. No question. Except, the questions they faithfully follow and the questions that greet them on the path toward the answer.

So, my presentation was a mixture of stuff from my doctoral dissertation - an approach to pastoral care which begins with understanding the self before trying to pastor others - and some reminiscence of the ministry I've been blessed with in the urban setting.

One of the stories I remembered and told the interns was a parable about New Math. Actually, it was about what it means to be in urban ministry - or, in fact, ministry in any setting - and being someone who tries to provide - or be a vehicle of - "help" - whatever that means.

At the time, I was working as Executive Director of St. Barnabas AIDS Resource Center and Vicar of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, a poor church in a poor neighborhood in the North Ward of the inner city of Newark. The church also shared its parish hall with a community agency that ministered primarily to the neighborhood's elderly.

The week before Thanksgiving was an especially busy time. From the Monday before to the eve of Thanksgiving Day, both organizations, along with the church, combined efforts to put together a Thanksgiving Day Basket - a frozen turkey, a box of stuffing, cans of sweet potatoes and green beans and corn, fresh sweet potatoes, kale and broccoli when we had it, a bag of potatoes or box of rice, and some pie - sweet potato, pumpkin or apple.

We worked with local supermarkets and stores and bakeries to donate the food. Some of it came from a grant from the city to supplement the Food Stamp Program, which had undergone some cutbacks.

We also solicited donations from suburban congregations who would drive their contributions into the church yard, quickly empty out their station wagons or mini vans, stay for a few minutes of anxious chatter - looking around to see who might be around the corner - while we thanked them profusely and tried to make them a bit more comfortable while actually being in Newark.

As they drove back to their safe suburban homes, you could see a mixture of satisfaction and relief combine in the dust that followed them out of the driveway.

The first year we distributed or delivered over 200 baskets. Three years later, we had almost doubled our efforts.

The parish hall was always a buzz of activity that time of year. Some of the more courageous of the suburban folk would come and help us pack up the brown paper bags or cardboard boxes for the "Thanksgiving Basket."

One affluent family from South Jersey - father was a Wall Street banker - would come up with their six kids and actually deliver the food to the 20 or 30 families I had identified as being in need.

I LOVED that family. Not even a whiff of affluent arrogance. Several members of the congregation and I would drive them around the city. The kids and their parents actively engaged the recipient families in conversation. Had a proper visit with some who served tea and packaged ShopRite cookies. It was wonderful.

Other volunteers helped to take the applications from folk in the neighborhood who simply had to tell us how many people were in their family and testify that the need was genuine.

If they had a social worker at AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) or DYFS (Division of Youth and Family Services) or received Food Stamps, that agency would send along a form from that office. Sometimes, the social worker would call in a request.

The system worked well because we worked to make the system work as smooth and as uncomplicated as possible. If you said you had a need, we believed you. Well, sometimes with a raised eyebrow, but we took you at your word.

The only folks who needed accountability were the folks from the government agencies. We understood. There should be accountability for government spending in any amount. Thankfully, it was such as small part of our efforts as not to be more than a minor annoyance.

Hey, everybody! It's Thanksgiving! Relax! Everybody eat! Abundantly!

One year, we had just finished delivering or distributing the last Thanksgiving Basket. The Parish Hall was swept clean and ready for Sunday morning. The freezers and refrigerators were bare. The shelves in the food pantry had a few boxes of cereal and cans of fruit and vegetables. I think there were even a few packages of toilet paper, paper towels, disposable diapers and sanitary napkins.

I was the last one left in the building, just putting on my coat and sighing a weary but contented sigh when she walked in. All out of breath and in near panic mode, she was, as I tried to push down a wave of anxiety.

"I'm homeless," she said, pulling herself up to the counter in a small gust of anxiety and attitude. "I - my family - we - needs a Thanksgiving Basket."

I looked at her face and into her eyes. She wasn't high but she was a little 'jiggy'. I thought, "Hmm. . . probably just got herself out of bed. Needs a drink. A little 'hair of the dog' and all that."

She had already done the classic math: Poverty multiplied by guilt equals charity.

"I'm so sorry," I said, feeling the guilt already starting to rise, "We don't have any Thanksgiving Baskets left."

She looked stunned, "What?" I repeated the sad truth, "We don't have any Thanksgiving Baskets left. Gave the last one away about half and hour ago."

"But, we homeless!" she pleaded.

"I'm so sorry. I understand. But, well, maybe we've got some canned vegetables left in the food pantry. Maybe some canned fruit. I can check."

The thin line of her jigginess couldn't hold back her anxiety and desperation. "What? I been watchin' peoples with bags of food leave this place all week. I know you got one for me."

"Really," I said, "I don't have anything. That's the honest, straight-up truth. Perhaps if you had come earlier this week, we would have been able to help you."

Now I was getting caught up in another theorem of the classical math of the situation: Righteous indignation divided by a sense of "charity" equals frustration.

"What?" she insisted, "My social worker told me to come down here. Told me the people at the church would help. What kinda church is this that doesn't help people?"

"Really? Your social worker?" I asked, hating the sound of the words that were coming out of my mouth more than I hated asking the question.

Another mathematical theorem emerged: Frustration multiplied by frustration equals cynicism.

"Yes," she said, matching my tone, "my social worker. Call him." She ruffled through her pockets, producing a wrinkled card. "Name and number," she said, as she slammed it on the counter. Her indignation and frustration were palpable.

I sighed and looked at the clock. Three pm. I was already runny late. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving. What did this woman expect would happen after I called her bloody social worker? Was I supposed to pull a Thanksgiving basket out of thin air?

Hey, I had done a good job all week. Had worked hard. Physically and mentally and spiritually. I had my own family to go to. My own Thanksgiving meal to cook.

I picked up the phone and dialed the number. If nothing else, I would show her that I had tried to get her a damn turkey but, you know, there just weren't any.

If I had had the money, I would have gone to the store and bought it for her - just to get her out of my hair. But, I didn't. What did she think? That I made a lot of money doing this? I didn't. We were on a tight budget as well. Damn.

I was thinking these things as she paced back and forth in front of me, muttering things like, "Damn church. Say they gonna help peoples. They don't. Just take your money is all. Spend it on cars and clothes and . . ."

Every now and again, she would stop, mid-mutter, look at me with a pointed finger and say, "We HOMELESS."

To my surprise, the social worker answered the phone. I explained the situation to him and, to my further surprise, he also gave me grief.

"What? You can't help her? Look, she's been a client of mine for years. She and her son are now homeless. I can testify to the need. Can't you at least allow her the dignity of a meal at Thanksgiving?"

Jesus! I thought. Are you kidding me? Even the bloody social worker is giving me the blues and laying on a guilt trip. Jesus! What am I supposed to do?

Desperation multiplied by desperation equals panic.

I could feel the panic begin to rise above my guilt and shame and anxiety. So, I did the only thing I knew how to do: Pray.

I had the phone to my ear and my eye on the woman in front of me while I opened my heart and said, "Okay, Jesus. You gotta help me out here. What am I supposed to do now? I have no money. You know I don't carry my credit card with me. Give me a sign. A word of knowledge. Just one word. Help me, Jesus. Help me help her."

I don't know whether it was the woman in front of me screaming, "We homeless!" or the social worker on the phone saying loudly, "She's homeless!" or it was in fact, Jesus, but I finally heard the word:


I heard it clear as a bell.


The Christ in them had spoken to the Christ in me. Suddenly, everything added up.

"Wait. Wait. Wait," I said to the woman and into the phone receiver. "You are homeless, right?"

She rolled her eyes and said, "Ain't that what I been saying for the last ten minutes? Are you deaf? Yes, we HOMELESS."

The social worker spoke slowly and loudly, as if I were stupid or deaf, "Yes, I've told you. She's HOMELESS."

"Okay, okay," I said, clearing my voice as I took a deep breath and tried to remain calm.

"So," I continued, looking at her and talking into the phone, "Let's say I was able to find a turkey. Find all the fixin's. Let me ask you a question."

They both stood silent, waiting for the question. "You say she's homeless. I believe you. So, if I got the turkey, and she's homeless, where would she cook it?"

Silence. On both ends.

I quickly did the classical math in my head: A sense of entitlement added to romantic notions about helping equals insanity.

"Look," I said, "I know that the Parrot Brothers over at the Lighthouse Temple are having a big Thanksgiving Dinner tomorrow. Everything cooked and served. All you can eat. I'll be there, with some of my family, helping out before we have our Thanksgiving meal. I'll wait for you and your son - your family - and make sure you sit together during dinner. How does that sound?"

The woman shook her head in bewilderment. She, too, was trying to figure out what had just happened. So was her social worker. Finally, she said softly, "Okay. Okay. Lighthouse Temple? That on Washington?"

"Yes," I said. "I'll be there. I'll look for you."

Her social worker muttered an embarrassed, "Thank you, Reverend. For your help."

She still looked disappointed and sad but she nodded as she gathered her things and got ready to leave.

"White or dark?" I called after her as I hung up the phone.

"What?" she said, startled.

"Do you like breast meat or drumstick? I'll see if I can put some aside, especially for you."

"Drumstick," she said as a small, sad smile came to her face. "I never had one as a child. My daddy always took one and gave the other to the oldest brother. Then, my husband . . . well . . . he always ate both."

"I'll talk with Dennis first thing tomorrow morning," I said, watching years of deep disappointment with her life etch deeper into the lines in her face. "See if we can set one aside, just for you."

She nodded, sadly. I knew she was thinking, "I wish I had my own damn house and my own damn table where I could eat my own damn drumstick."

I wished that for her, too. Prayed for it, right then and there.

I suddenly remembered Kip Tiernan, an amazing woman in Boston who was an independent Dorothy Day "Catholic Worker" who had started 'Rosie's Place' - a drop-in, emergency shelter for homeless women - the first in the nation.

I once heard her preach at the Jesuit Center in Boston, not far from the church where I was a seminarian. She was frustrated about the church's response to poverty. She was angry. Man, was she angry. It was like hearing one of the prophets rage.

She looked over at the good clergy, and then at the congregation and said, "Poverty is not just about not having food and shelter. Ministry is not just about providing 'three hots and a cot'," she growled.

"Real poverty is about not having your own key. When you want to talk about that, come see me." And then, she left.

Rosie’s Place provided poor and homeless women with warmth, pots of piping hot coffee, nutritional meals, a safe place to rest from the dangerous streets, and perhaps most comforting - companionship.

Kip’s vision helped Rosie’s Place evolve from simply providing shelter to offering solutions: a drop-in center, extended stay housing, permanent housing, meals, and a multitude of on-site opportunities for what she always called her "guests".

Kip personified the underlying philosophy of Rosie’s Place that together we can change the world if we are only willing to care enough and, in her own words, “to take the risk of being human.”

Are you getting this New Math of ministry - Christ's ministry?

It requires that you understand abstract concepts and set theory like abundance vs. scarcity, the liberation of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Realm of God.

You've got to deal with number bases other than 10 so that a few seeds scattered on the ground can yield thirty, sixty, a hundred fold.

It's not about getting the right answer, but doing the right thing, even when that leads you to take the risk of being human without counting the costs.

It goes like this:

The Christ in others plus the Christ in you equals Christ's ministry.

Everything else is just details.


Mary Jo Campbell said...

I graduated from high school in 1964 and as my school was private (the only difference from it and the girl's reformatory was the tuition) I never studied it.
One reason new math was dropped was because bridges were dropping as well. I do not mean this in a metaphorical sense. The math skills necessary to do the engineering were
a tad lacking.
Now on to the metaphors. We do need bridges in many manifestations. Kip Tierney's work is an excellent example of this. As is The Catholic Worker.

Anonymous said...

wow. thanks.

you ARE writing a book, yes?


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yes, MJ. Not either/or. Both/and.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks chrissief. I just don't think there's a "market" for this - other than 'online'.

susankay said...

And when I left Boston in 1983, Rosie's was STILL the only place for women -- homeless, abused, adicted.

They had so few beds -- and there were so many women.

walter said...

Dr Elizabeth,

I am getting the New Math Ministry-Christ' Ministry. To hear the Sound of the Genuine in others empowers to hear the Sound of the Genuine in Me. Happiness equals the redemption of pre-adolescence. Do you get it from the Womb of the Eternal? I pray the ultimate defeat of any form of sadness. In the name of the One who keeps us centered and focused and truthful, Jesus the Christ. I love my Little Girl, I love my Girl, I love my Brother-

Buffalo Shepherd

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think all happiness comes from the Womb of the Eternal. Thank you, Walter.

Caminante said...

I admit to shutting down when someone comes in asking for help and then starts pulling the guilt trip on me (What sort of church is this? How do you call yourselves Christian?). I've had people yell at me at the end of the 8.00 HE (as I am heading off to the 9.00 HE with no time to spare) because I honestly don't have cash on me on Sunday mornings.

Our discretionary fund could be wiped out in one day with all the people coming in; we do try to meet needs but we do so through a local organisation that coordinates things. I would say that being faced daily with this sort of need is probably the hardest part of parish ministry... and in the back of my mind and heart, I keep thinking of Haiti or El Salvador or Sudan or.....

walter said...

Holy Reading. Psalm 42. 7-Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls; All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me-The Womb of the Eternal calls to the Womb of the Eternal at the Sound of the Genuine; All Ebbs and Flows soar in the gorge. All Happiness come from the Womb of the Eternal and all happiness go to the Womb of the Eternal.

Buffalo Shepherd