Neighborhoods

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Our convent in Salisbury, Maryland is in a neighborhood called Newtown. It’s named this because many of the houses were built in the aftermath of two devastating fires that swept through the community, one in 1860 and the other in 1886. We’ve seen photographs of our street after one of the infernos: only the chimneys and blackened tree trunks were left standing. Today, mature leafy trees and vibrant flower gardens frame the Victorian homes. Nature and time have erased the wounds.

We like the historical character of our neighborhood. Up the street from us is the Poplar Hill Mansion; completed in 1805, it is the oldest home in Salisbury. Down the street is the Chipman Cultural Center, the oldest African-American church building on the Delmarva Peninsula. Historians believe that before the church was built in 1838, local slaves congregated on that patch of land for Sunday morning worship services. We can only imagine the cries to Heaven that once filled the air. They were only a few blocks away from the mansion, but separated by a great divide.

The house we call our convent also holds some history. We once discovered, behind our basement wall, receipts from a hardware store going back to 1891. Other traces of past ownership were clear from the beginning. When Sr. Mary Elizabeth purchased the property in 1978, the previous residents had been a group of young people. They left behind walls painted black adorned with rock and roll posters! But nothing, least of all that, could ever faze Sister. The house was big enough for the community of sisters she envisioned and that was the most important consideration.

All in all, what we like best about our neighborhood are the people who live there. Our friendships with some of our neighbors can now be measured in decades. It’s like living on the same street with members of our extended family. There are bonds of trust and support that keep us going, which in turn help to keep the Joseph House going. The variety of people living in Newtown makes it a real patchwork quilt, and we feel very blessed to hold down our square on the corner of North Poplar Hill Avenue and Isabella Street.

Nevertheless, the sad fact remains: a city of neighborhoods is often a city of barriers. The situation is true no matter where in the country one may live, or what country one may live in. There’s always a part of town that is on the “wrong side of the tracks,” places that aren’t safe after dark, or where the people are different or have different ways. Unwritten laws inform people not to mix. Some localities may just as well have walls built around them. In fact, some of them do.

Whether real or imaginary, these walls can do more than separate people. They’re also good at hiding things, especially things we don’t want to see, such as poverty and injustice. And the invisible walls are just as effective at doing this as any other.

Our local paper once published a front page story, complete with a map, that highlighted the section of Salisbury burdened with high levels of prostitution, drug dealing, and gun violence. Only the busy commercial strip of Route 13 divides that neighborhood from ours.

Fault lines like this are common throughout America. Our faith tells us to cross them, not avoid them.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus from the gospel of Luke, the rich man lives contentedly behind a gate, unaware that poor Lazarus is starving on the other side. The rich man never deliberately harms Lazarus, he simply ignores him. He lives his life as if Lazarus did not exist. He could have shared something with Lazarus and never even missed it.

What would have happened if the rich man had stepped outside his gate and opened his eyes? A little kindness on his part would have meant everything to Lazarus.

Borders, boundaries, walls, fences, gates… they have their place. But they limit our horizon and it is easy to get used to the view.

One must be especially careful about building them around the human heart. What was built out of fear, anger, hurt, or ignorance can have unintended consequences. C.S. Lewis wrote these memorable lines in his book, The Four Loves:

If you want to make sure of keeping [your heart] intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

Crossing boundaries can expand our world in more ways than one. During a period when he was searching for answers, the spiritual father of the Joseph House, Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916), made a trek deep into the Sahara desert. He later wrote about his impressions:

Islam really shook me to the core. The sight of such faith, of these people living in the continual presence of God, made me glimpse something greater, truer, than worldly concerns. I started studying Islam, then the Bible.

If only we could inspire one another this way all the time. Each encounter with the “other” can be a gift. There is so much to learn, so much to gain, as we journey together to the place prepared for everyone, the place Jesus called “My Father’s house.” (John 14:2)

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Poplar Hill Mansion

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Chipman Cultural Center

The Two Feet of Social Justice

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To walk forward, we place one foot in front of the other. The walk toward social justice in the world requires the same effort.

Two feet are needed for this movement: one is “Direct Service” and the other is “Social Change.” Both are needed to achieve justice, both are needed to stay balanced.

Direct Service addresses the needs of people here and now. When a person is suffering, when he or she is cold, hungry, or homeless, we cannot tell that person to wait. Sr. Mary Elizabeth, the founder of the Joseph House, once said, “If a man comes in and tells you he has no job and hasn’t eaten in two days, you don’t give an in-depth analysis of his socio-economic hang-ups. You give him a bag of groceries and a dollar if you have it. If you don’t have a dollar, you keep asking people you know until someone gives it to you.”

There are many ways we can directly serve the needs of the poor. Here are a few examples that call for our support:

  • food drives and food banks
  • community gardens
  • homeless shelters
  • weatherization projects
  • instruction on tenant rights
  • thrift shops
  • transportation for the sick and elderly
  • literacy programs
  • job skills training
  • youth programs
  • after-school care

Social Change involves changing structures and removing the causes of poverty and other social problems. This type of work seeks to educate people and bring them together. Its action must be non-violent; otherwise, there is the risk of replacing one oppressor with another.

Here are ways to work for social change:

  • read about and critically evaluate the issues
  • register to vote and then vote
  • through letter writing and boycotts, change corporate policies that hurt the poor
  • participate in peaceful protests to help give voice to the voiceless
  • write to legislators on behalf of the poor and marginalized
  • use public forums (letters to the editor, social media) to educate others about the needs of the poor and the reality they face

The goals of social justice are to reduce poverty, protect human rights, and promote peace. We can only make this journey using “both feet.” In all that we do, the advice of St. Paul will serve us well: “Conquer evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

The photograph shows the sandals that belonged to Sr. Mary Elizabeth. She left them pretty worn out in her work for justice.