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Is a Grand, New Cathedral Our Way to Stand With the Poor?

Visiting a crack addict in jail may be closer to the message of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

April 10, 1998|JEFF DIETRICH | Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker group

Mean Ron is a crack addict, a drug dealer and a passionate despiser of all white people; and since Catholic Workers are the only white people that he comes in contact with, we bear the brunt of his ferocious anger. I have been spat upon, punched, threatened with a knife, a pair of scissors, a length of lead pipe, a bicycle chain and a particularly lethal No. 2 pencil. Though he helps himself to the resources of our soup kitchen, he consistently maligns us and rebuffs all overtures of friendliness. So we were not exactly saddened when the police recently busted Mean Ron for drug dealing. The poor you will always have with you and they are often a pain in the neck. But without the poor there is no cross, there is no Resurrection, there is no Easter.

It is easy to understand why current public policy dictates that the poor be eliminated from our streets and parks and public gathering places. It is easy to understand why the police aggressively collect shopping carts, empty street encampments and arrest panhandlers. The poor are a pain in the neck.

By the same token, it is easy to understand but more difficult to accept that our church has ignored the poor in the process of building its new cathedral. When Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you," he was speaking not to municipalities or state-run institutions; he was speaking to the church.

As the cost of the new cathedral soars from a promised cap of $45 million to a new high of $163 million, the fund-raising process begins to resemble that of the Music Center and the Disney Concert Hall with the donor list reading like an ad for "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." Every millionaire from Rupert Murdoch to Roy Disney to Betsy Bloomingdale is standing in line to fork over the big bucks. The poor you will always have with you, but when it comes to building cathedrals they are a pain in the neck.

In order to raise $163 million, one must eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive. One must sell the "cheap grace" of Resurrection at the expense of the cross. But the centrality of the cross means that God became human and allowed himself to become a victim, thus elevating the status of all victims and criticizing the status of all elites, particularly the rich and famous.

The scriptural passage that cathedral advocates love to quote in support of their project is the anointing of Jesus. From the perspective of the cathedral supporters, the cardinal is the woman who anoints Jesus, the cathedral is the expensive oil, and of course the Catholic Workers are the disgruntled male disciples rejecting this sumptuous gesture with a plea that "The money could have been spent for the poor."

But the male disciples are not really concerned about the poor. In the gospels, they always miss the point; they are like clowns or comic foils. Jesus preaches nonviolence, and the disciples want to call down heavenly fire on the villages that rejected them. Jesus says to "feed the hungry," and they want to send the hungry multitudes off into the wilderness to "buy food." Jesus says, "Let the little ones come to me," and the disciples are the ones blocking the way. Jesus says that in the kingdom, the one who would be first must be last and the disciples want to "sit one at your right and one at your left when you come into your kingdom."

Not so surprisingly the lesser known "female disciples" get the point at every juncture. The "bleeding woman" breaks all social conventions and reaches out to touch Jesus. It is her faith and courage that "heal her." The Canaanite woman boldly argues with Jesus and gains the healing of her daughter and the expansion of Jesus' ministry to the Gentiles. And it is the "scandalous" woman who anoints Jesus who thus proclaims and affirms the vocation of the cross. She understood intuitively that his life of confrontation with the powerful and his advocacy for the poor would bring him a martyr's death.

The women disciples are courageous, compassionate and faithful. They follow Jesus to the cross and beyond, to the empty tomb, thus becoming the primary evangelists of the Easter story. But the male disciples are fearful, hardhearted and disillusioned. They desert the cross, deny Jesus and sell him out to the rich and famous for money. Some would argue that the male hierarchy of the church has been doing it ever since.

When Mean Ron was taken off to jail, Joyce, a new member of our community who has an affinity for the tough cases, went to visit him. Fully expecting to be rebuffed for her efforts, she was shocked when he appeared delighted and grateful for her presence. He was charming, talkative, friendly. He asked her to come to his court appearance where she found out, much to our amazement, that he had actually been falsely charged by the police and was innocent of all but a minor charge.

Like the women in the gospel, Joyce followed Mean Ron to the tomb of county jail, and much to her surprise she found the resurrected "Human One" awaiting her there.

The Easter story means risking death and derision and following Christ to the cross and beyond the cross to the grave. It means that the God who hung on the cross will be with us when we stand with the victims. It means that love is stronger than death. It means that God is on our side when we insist that "the poor will always be with us." Despite the fact that they are often a pain in the neck.

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