Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Welfare of the City: Sister Margaret (or: The First Time I Walked Away from Poverty)

I recently told you I want to start writing about poverty and race, two topics I care deeply about, but find incredibly difficult to write about with honesty and integrity. The more I experience and learn about racism and poverty, the less sure I am about solutions to these tragedies, until I find myself positively paralyzed. I’m pretty sure, right now anyway, that all I have is my own story. Unlike everything you have been taught about good stories, this one doesn’t have a clear beginning and middle and end. I’m sure some sort of structure or theme will emerge in this series, which I am calling “The Welfare of the City” (from Jeremiah 29), but I sure don’t know what it is. Still, Sr. Margaret McKenna seems like as good a place to begin as any.

I’m pretty sure the first time I met Sr. Margaret was in a program at my church called Urban Disciples. This was way, way back, in the late 90’s or early aughts, shortly after I joined Old First, having gotten involved there through volunteering with Julie at our homeless shelter. A group of us decided to get together once a week and explore what it meant to be urban disciples. To be Christians called to serve those living on the margins in the city, and in turn to be served by them. Few know about this better than Sr. Margaret, and so we had her come talk to us, and we went to visit her at New Jerusalem, the recovery community she helped found in North Philly.

But my first really clear memory of Sr. Margaret is on a Sunday morning, when she joined us at Old First for worship once. I believe we were recognizing our partners in service, the sites where we send rural and suburban youth groups who come through our work camp program to learn about and do service in the city. At any rate, what I remember so clearly is that it was Reformation Sunday, and I thought it was such a hoot that Sr. Margaret sang A Mighty Fortress Is Our God -- by Martin Luther himself -- with such pleasure and gusto!

Sr. Margaret is a Medical Mission Sister and the founder and passionate spiritual leader of New Jerusalem Laura, a beloved community of men and women seeking recovery for themselves and for the world. To hear Sr. Margaret tell it, she never meant to start anything at all when she moved to an abandoned house in one of the most brutal ghettos in Philly. She just wanted to get away, to be a hermit, to live a simple and prayerful life like the desert mothers and fathers she hoped to emulate. But the thing about Sr. Margaret is that she just loves people. She loves to touch them and laugh with them and hear their stories. And she’s got this infectious zest for life, and this totally disarming charm. It’s probably a cliché to describe an elderly nun as having twinkling eyes, but she does, really – twinkling and mischievous!

She also has a searing intellect (B.A., English, Chestnut Hill College; M.A., Liturgy, Notre Dame; Ph.D., Christian Origins and Religious Thought, University of Pennsylvania); wide-ranging experience (she has been a director of novices, university professor, writer, art director, and peace activist); and broad, broad vision. It’s a compelling combination, let me tell you. So it’s no surprise that the whole hermit thing didn’t really work out for her.

Instead, Sr. Margaret took a look around her new neighborhood in North Philly and said, “Hmm, it seems that addiction is at the heart of a lot of the problems I see facing this community.” She got to know the Reverend Henry Wells, who was working with addicts through his program One Day at a Time (ODAAT), and out of their work together, organically, New Jerusalem was born.

Among the founding principles of New Jerusalem is that people are sick with addiction and the violence it spawns because our world is sick with addiction and the violence it spawns. So to heal ourselves we also have to heal the world, and likewise, to heal the world, we also have to heal ourselves. New Jerusalem is not just a place that serves addicts who want to get clean, but a place where addicts can serve the world to help it get clean as well. As Sister Margaret describes the mission of New Jerusalem:

The program of New Jerusalem Laura is one of holistic recovery: we seek to integrate the physical, psychological, spiritual, political, and social dimensions of recovery in our daily lives. We are committed to work toward healing and justice for and with the impoverished people of North Philadelphia, with whom we live and work in community and reciprocity. We are not so much a service institution, as a community of people helping ourselves and our neighborhood to recover. Recovery is about the radical change from death to life, from darkness to light, from self-will to God’s will. It involves the mystery of conversion and the aspiration to fullness of life in God. It requires risk and mutual support and the sharing of practical spirituality and wisdom. God must be the sole principle of this new way of life, this reordering of chaos. (from the website)

Spiritual formation is at the heart of recovery work at New Jerusalem, and one of the requirements, at least in the first year of residence in the community, is to attend daily Bible study with Sr. Margaret.


A couple of years ago at my twentieth college reunion, a classmate whom I hadn’t seen since graduation looked at me and said, “typewriters and babies!” I stared back, blankly. “That’s what you used to say you were going to have on your commune,” said Robert, “typewriters and babies, remember?” I didn’t really, but I was thrilled to be reminded. I guess it’s been a long time that I’ve been fascinated with living intentionally and in community. Though I bet Sr. Margaret would say she is living unintentionally in community, or rather, organically in community -- unintentionally enough that good intention doesn’t get in the way of community happening, organically. That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned from Sr. Margaret, that community will happen if we let it. And it’s kind of true that my life now does feel a little bit like living in a commune – with typewriters and babies no less! But when Micah was little, I wanted something more. I wanted very intentionally to be part of a community like New Jerusalem, which I found so powerfully compelling. But with a first grade daughter and a new baby son, it was hard to imagine how I could really get involved. Bible study seemed like a good place to start.

New Jerusalem is now a pretty wide-ranging community of residences that have been reclaimed and renovated from the abandoned rubble of North Philly. But the heart of New Jerusalem is a pair of small, modest row houses. One is the abandoned house Sr. Margaret originally bought for her hermitage, and the second is the one they bought next door. Along the way, the interior wall was torn down between, so the community house is a funny sort of mish-mash of two kitchens, two staircases, and one big living space. Upstairs is a maze of small offices, bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a small prayer room. Every thing has a scrappy, handy-man-special sort of look to it, with pergo floors and a mish-mash of used furniture; found art of the religious-inspirational variety; political posters of the peace-and-welfare-rights variety; bookcases made of boards and bricks and full of dusty, wide-ranging titles that almost certainly include Ghandi, King, Merton and Day; two kitchens full of mis-matched dishes and cheap, processed food; and doors and windows that are totally out of plumb. There are lots of plants, many hanging from macramé plant holders right out of the seventies; crucifixes hang on several walls; the old piano is never in tune; and a communal, avacado-green phone is attached to its base with a long cord. It might strike you a lot like a college group house at first, except that the plants are all alive, and there are no empty beer cans anywhere, and no ash trays. There is, however, almost always a pot of strong coffee brewing. And if you can look past the lack of attention to any real aesthetic sensibility, you will notice that everything is very clean, as cleaning the community spaces is part of the mandatory community service at New Jerusalem.

Bible study starts every morning at 8:00, in the community living and dining space, where all chairs can be turned to face Sr. Margaret’s plaid recliner by the wood stove. It was a bit of a trick to get there by 8:00, but Trixie was a sport about being dropped off at school early, and with luck, I could usually get there in about ten minutes. Finding the right place to sit among the crowd of forty or fifty residents was more difficult, given the vicissitudes of life with a small baby – Micah was not quite six months, and probably only twice as many pounds, when I first started attending Bible study in October of 2003. I finally figured out that sitting on the steps in the first house afforded me both a good view of Sr. Margaret, and an easy escape route upstairs if Micah got fussy. But mostly in the early months, Micah was content to snooze and nurse in our blue batik sling, and I could sit entranced by Sr. Margaret.

And really? “Bible study” was probably a misnomer, because it was really more like the “Sr. Margaret Variety Hour.” She would pick a theme for a few weeks or months – while I was there, we did the Beatitudes, the “Gospel According to Martin Luther King,” the passion story from Luke – and for an hour each morning, Sr. Margaret would talk. Always with a steaming hot cup of black coffee held between both hands, stopping only very occasionally to let someone else say something or ask a question, Sr. Margaret would interpret and narrate. It was really The Gospel According to Sr. Margaret, truth be told, and not everyone was happy about it all the time. Especially if they dared to challenge the good Sister, or disagree with her interpretation. Oh dear. And if you haven’t spent much time with middle-aged African American addicts and homeless men, you may not know this, but many of them are serious theologians. They know their Bible, chapter and verse. And very occasionally, some of them didn’t agree with Sr. Margaret’s interpretation of things. There wasn’t a lot of room for that, though, so the grumblings stayed pretty low in the back of the room, mostly unnoticed by the rest of us, who sat contentedly, heads nodding, letting loose an occasional “Amen” in response to Sr. Margaret’s compelling meandering through scripture.

Lots of people visit New Jerusalem, and quite a few visit the Bible study occasionally, so nobody paid me much mind at first. As weeks turned into months, though, I slowly and quietly became part of the community. People generally knew who I was, and I started learning names and noticing who was gone, recognizing when folks were new. As Micah grew bigger and more active, I missed more and more of the Bible study, straining to hear as I bounced him and hummed at the top of the stairs. But Micah became quite the center of attention upon our arrival and departure, as I pulled him out of, and then bundled him back into, his purple snow suit. He was quite beloved of the community, and got passed around a lot to men and women hungry for something sweet and fresh and new. (When I took Micah to his one-year old appointment, I got on automatic pilot at the checklist of questions our thorough pediatrician always asked: Any smokers in the house? No. Any guns in the house? No. Do you always use a car seat? Yes. Any reason we should do a TB test? No. …Oh wait, yes, now that I think of it, maybe we should...)


Early that winter, Sr. Margaret asked if I would help some of the residents get ready for the GRE, a program she had long wanted to start, but had never been able to get off the ground. I was eager to do something that would give back, eager to get to know folks in the community in a more intimate way, and I eagerly said yes. I put out a call to anyone interested, and soon had about ten residents signed up. I did a thorough intake with each one, assessing their needs and goals. I got hooked up with some city bureaucracy that gave us books. I found a course at Temple and took a van full of residents to the campus to sign up for study help. I scheduled regular study times in the community house, and tried to make myself available to help whenever I could. I found locations and dates for taking the test, and tried to help folks register.

But here’s the thing – the thing I was already learning, in fact, as I watched the faces at Bible study change over time. New Jerusalem is one of the most successful long-term recovery programs around, with a relatively high success rate, and a relatively low rate of relapse. The emphasis, though, is on “relatively.” In fact, even at New Jerusalem, one of the few sure things is relapse and turnover. I guess that’s what I learned, in concrete and heartbreaking ways, about poverty in general: one thing you can count on is that you can’t count on much. Things change all the time: you grow close to someone, come to love someone, and suddenly they’re gone – because they’re using again, or they got in a fight, or they lost their public assistance. Maybe a mother or a child needs them, or their boyfriend took them back, or they ran into some of their boys from back in the ‘hood. New Jerusalem is full of hope, but it is the hope of a flower that blooms in the midst of the weeds and the trash and the used condoms and the crack vials and the hypodermic needles that riddle most every vacant lot in the ghetto. New Jerusalem is a beacon in the midst of the swirling, ugly chaos of poverty and addiction, but it is not immune from the chaos. The chaos swirls through on a regular basis, and wreaks havoc on the community. And the folks who stay, year in and year out – all of them, Sr. Margaret, and the other nuns, and the volunteers, and the long-term residents, all of them working their programs to heal themselves and heal the world – they are all saints. Saints, really, there is no other word for it.

I, on the other hand, am not a saint. It was just too much for me. By the time the test date we’d been working toward came around, almost every one of my promising pupils had left the community. Often I wouldn’t even find out for days or a week. New folks would sign up, but they too would eventually leave altogether, or simply fade away. It was confusing and disheartening and just plain hard.

By the time Easter rolled around, Bible study was becoming less and less satisfying too. Micah was more and more active, and less content to nap or play quietly in the sling. I spent a lot of time upstairs feeling frustrated. I was also finding myself a little uncomfortable with Sr. Margaret’s Easter theology, much as I wanted to revere every word that came out of her mouth.

And so, after spring break, I just didn’t go back. I meant to, I surely thought I would, but as it turns out, I didn’t. I didn’t say good-bye. I didn’t offer any explanation. I just let myself fade away, as so many folks do at New Jerusalem. I told myself it just didn’t make sense to keep going: Micah was too big and fussy, summer was coming, I was starting to tire a bit of the Gospel According to Sr. Margaret. But in truth, none of that was the real reason. The real reason was that I just needed to get away from the chaos of poverty. And so I did. That was the first time I just walked away.

To be continued.

Epilogue: I should note that have been back, a couple of times over the last few years, and I have always been wildly and warmly received with cries of “Oh we have missed you! It’s so good to see you!” Saints, I tell you. No other word for it. If you're looking for a worthwhile cause to give some money to in this season of thanksgiving, I can't think of a more worthy one than New Jerusalem!


Mark Livingston said...

I love the way you write I almost feel like I was there. I can just imagine those two little row houses of Sr. Margaret the wall coming down and the two becoming one. The vacant getto lots that you describe full of who knows what. Looking forward to the continuation.
Mark :o)3

Kate Haas said...

This should definitely be part of your memoir!

Patrick said...

Compelling and thought-provoking, my dear. As per usual. I'm so excited about your upcoming series.

Austin said...

Have you ever seen The Ordinary Radicals documentary? A section of the film features Sr. Margaret and New Jerusalem. http://www.theordinaryradicals.com/