Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

January 10, 2006
   Vol. 3, No. 27

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Joan Chittister

"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

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Anybody remember the 'pagan babies'?

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By Joan Chittister, OSB

I learned something about society in third grade that may be begging to be rediscovered. At least I just rediscovered it myself.

Every major cultural change in society introduces as many questions as it does answers.

How do you control the peasants, for instance, if, thanks to the invention of the printing press, they begin to think for themselves? And, worse, what if the books they read lead them to think differently than the authoritarian elites whose money, education and noble birth has long been their claim to command?

How do you contain the expectations of a society when TV sets transmit pictures of three-car garages in this country to the corner kiosks of windowless shanty towns and fetid barrios everywhere else? And what do you do if you can't contain them?

And, on the other hand, how do you save the soul of a people who have been brought up on 30-second sound bites masking as social analysis, and ticker-tape news headlines that change every 10 seconds? How, indeed, do you save the very fabric of society itself as the fissure between the possible and the probable grows beyond all proportions.

While we may have moved beyond the "Woe is me" images that characterized the starving immigrant and dustbowl generations before us, we may, in fact, be far worse off than they, as a result. The sores of those generations seeped onto the streets of the United States for all to see. They begged for food and begged for work and begged daily to be heard. There was simply no forgetting them. Nor was the government equipped to help.

Instead, we may well have moved to the kind of careless unconcern for a world that changes with the turn of a dial.

How do we deal now with life-changing situations that appear and disappear from the front pages of our newspapers, the problems rendered invisible by "Today's Top Stories" but whose misery lingers on for months -- even years -- muted, drowned out, forgotten, relegated to the archives of history despite the fact that the pain of them lives on.

We are living in a morass of 30 second updates now while millions of people live on -- shattered, poor, lost, angry and forgotten -- after the updates are long gone

The tsunami in Asia has become a commemoration of the dead while thousands of survivors still wait for help with housing.

The earthquake in Pakistan left 74,000 dead, and 3 million homeless still wait, as winter wears on cold and damp, for help with housing.

Have you missed a column?
Click on the archive link at the top of this page to read past columns by Sr. Joan Chittister.

In this country, hurricanes in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana left thousands homeless, separated, displaced, unemployed. Some in Florida have been waiting for help with housing for more than a year now.

Like the rest of us, governments, upon whom the modern world has begun to depend for life support systems, give emergency help. Then, they move on to more important things -- like war -- leaving the innocent, the needy, the wounded to fend for themselves.

You'd think that in a country that can go to the moon at will, ship an entire army overseas, and spend trillions on weapons -- that's a 1 with 12 zeroes behind it -- could manage to come up with the rent and reconstruction money needed to house the 76 percent of the population who cannot return to New Orleans or Phuket or Pakistan because there are no houses left for them there in which to live.

Instead, all those people are forgotten now. They've disappeared with the headlines and the TV cameras and the interviews. Only CNN hangs on daily, stubbornly to the Katrina story as the city itself, a heap of rubble, disappears with the Ninth Ward.

So, is there an answer to any of this and, if there is, what is it?

I have an idea I've seen a glimmer of it over the years. Once upon a time, in my grade school, we "ransomed pagan babies"-- don't laugh -- and sent weeks' and weeks' of candy money to provide support for babies routinely abandoned in an overpopulated and underdeveloped China. Sister collected our nickels every week, banked them and sent money orders to missionary communities in China for the care of Chinese orphans.

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We did it week after week, month after month, year after year. Boys ransomed boy-babies and girls ransomed girl-babies and competed against one another for the honor of having rescued the greatest number of children every year.

But winning is not what I remember. What I remember is the experience of direct personal response. It gave me both a sense of responsibility for the rest of the world as well as a way to meet that responsibility -- an awareness that I have begun to worry may well be declining with every news program we broadcast.

Then, last Friday, coming out of Wegman's Supermarket in Erie, Pennsylvania, a relatively small town of about 100,000 people, I noticed the 20 foot wall behind the checkout counter. Large hand-painted signs made the point. They read:

  • United Way Fund -- $70,601.40; Wegmans -- $5,000.
  • American Red Cross Tsunami Relief -- $8,633; Wegmans -- $250,000.
  • Food Bank of NW Pennsylvania -- $43, 395.22.
  • Katrina: Company wide, $862,935. Wegmans -- $100,000. Employees and customers, store #75 -- $15, 051.

I didn't quite understand all the figures on the sign but the import of it struck me like a thunderbolt. This was a business that not only donates money to important causes itself but gives its employees and customers a way to join the effort as well.

Maybe people aren't uncaring, after all. Maybe they aren't self-centered. Maybe they aren't superficial. Maybe they aren't disinterested in responding to major human tragedies. Maybe they simply don't know how to go about making a direct, personal response after the initial appeals disappear behind a plethora of new headlines.

It may not be human compassion we lack, after all. Maybe what we lack is simply the organizational structures it takes to go on donating our nickels week after week, year after year.

Imagine what could happen for people if every business, every parish, every religious community, every institution -- every family -- made it a point to identify a need and then, one person at a time, went on making small contributions to it every week.

From where I stand, it seems to me that it may be time for all of us to reinvent a universal process for ransoming babies again. Otherwise, the world may collapse under a confetti of old ticker-tape headlines and a smothering accumulation of long-ignored "Stories of the Day."

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line. E-mails with attachments are automatically deleted.
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