Fragmentation and faith in the ol' neighborhood


EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is based on reflections originally crafted on Easter Sunday during the first wave of the coronavirus.

Not every day am I nostalgic, and I do not really relish touching base with so many memories of a world long gone.

My good and diligent Irish American parents died well before the ending of the 20th century. They raised two boys in the then liberal and reformed Jewish neighborhood of Riverdale. I have been a priest and educator with the Archdiocese of New York for 41 years.

Even now, burdened by the awful scandals affecting the church and other vaunted institutions, there is still a certain routine confidence as one enters into Holy Week, Passover and Christmas. Like swimming in a calm lake, the time-worn rituals carry us. The dwindling numbers of often-aging believers still show up for what is a significant story of liberation, intrigue, and the possibilities of new beginnings.

All that is true — until this year, when schedules of public prayer came to a screeching halt.

COVID-19 had landed like a hammer, and so does the second wave.

This never-before shock in my life — and that of a polarized country — silently and firmly crushed my “business as usual” habits of prayer, work and play. The closed doors of both 24-Hour Fitness and even Saint Gabriel’s, where I had celebrated my first Mass, blurted out loud that the healthy release of the groaning of body and soul had seemingly gone up like a vapor.

My brother had intended to send me a ticket to a baseball game that we could attend together on a June evening at the “big ballpark.” That, too, was lost in the fog of the plague.

I sensed my frustration after I had gotten my face masks at a regional church. They had been graciously sent by the cardinal to the priests who served in the Bronx. The masks were certainly needed, but not natural.

I had driven in what was once rush hour on eerily empty streets. That was odd. I drove along West 235th Street and Johnson Avenue out of curiosity to see what was happening in an established, tranquil neighborhood where I was raised.

I had found a parking spot — almost a miracle, but not one that brought me much joy. I got out of my dusty 2003 Prism, and I saw something like a demonstration outside CVS, which was not there in my youth.

I had participated in enough demonstrations in my time to know enough not just to jump in and join.

What was it about? Were there any hotheads? Could my ecclesial institution — with some parts of it still resisting Pope Francis — support it?

I learned that it was not a demonstration at all, but real people waiting their turn to be allowed to enter this drug warehouse and store of basic household commodities. These folks were keeping “social” — or is that “physical distance” — of at least six feet apart.

Besides the public concerns of public safety, it brought my mind to the pre-colorized pictures of the Great Depression. I never knew the Depression, but I knew and respected my father who did. Dad had proudly worked for the New York Fire Department for 36 years, and had spent his adult working life knowing in his heart that it was worth risking his life and limb to put out fires.

Besides his attraction to helping people, he also accepted that civil service was a buffer against bankruptcy — and even bread lines. “If the money of the government is no good, then no money is good,” he would say. And he meant it.

Was it sad? Or anger-producing? Or overwhelmingly pathetic seeing neighbors not talking with each other?

I could not say which it was, but I knew that I felt that COVID-19 was like a hangover that would not go away.

As if I were in a stupor, I shuffled around the neighborhood, stopping into the grotto outside of one of the now-closed retired priests homes, aptly named Our Lady of Consolation. Mom, who had died at my present age, often and quietly had me in a stroller in prayer there. I wonder what she was praying for in the mid-1950s.

As usual, it was quiet for prayer and meditation. Nobody else was around.

I walked slowly back to my car.

I then heard a raucous outburst of energy celebrating something outside of ourselves. Was it for the sunset, as it was Passover? Were the sounds from somewhere near the corner of CVS saying a loud, disorganized “thank you” to the first responders, who were often poor people of color and accents not of this neighborhood? Was it that vague “resilience of human spirit,” which politicians of all stripes almost glibly talked about?

I am not sure.

I do know that many of my friends in my e-constellation and myself have shared that reality of agonizing uncertainty much more freely than we used to, as we work from our digitalized work bubbles.

Many instruments — both through electronic loud speakers and from handheld noisemakers from sturdy, apartment house windows built post-World War II — caused some music and much cacophony.

The Northwest Bronx apartment houses and condominium owners were presenting some passionate energy outside themselves, even as they were shut down.

Was it prayer? Or a protest against the sneaky and evil nature of this plague that was aided by a soon-to-be departed, blind national administration? My felt ambiguity led me to wonder what real prayer is really about in 2020.

Some good news is that this type of outdoor and open evening prayer with its “groaning of creation” could not be defined, controlled, nor contained. At all 7 p.m.’s. we hear this eerie outcry. In no way is this prayerful protest ever going to be shut up.

Is this not the message of the original oral sharing about the Exodus — that the plagues and oppression were not the final sentence against a people? Is it not intimately connected with the whispers of the scared fishermen and women across the ages?

They somehow knew that the arrest and death of their small town-born leader as a humiliated, common criminal — was not the last word?

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James Sheehan,