Labor Protest

August 9th, 2020

There was a demonstration on Friday in front of the Strauss Brands facility in Franklin, Wisconsin. The event was organized by Voces de la Frontera. I participated. I wasn’t a big part of the protest, but I showed up.

Strauss Brands processes meat products, in particular veal and lamb. A large number of the company’s employees are Latinx. Thirty-one of them were recently fired. Why?

I will let Voces de la Frontera answer that:

“As Wisconsin struggled through the most difficult days of the pandemic, Strauss Brands in Franklin forced its workers to continue working in its meat packing plants without safe distancing, failed to provide hazard pay and protective equipment, gave inadequate and arbitrary paid sick days for workers infected with COVID-19, and failed to inform workers of possible exposure.

When workers sought the help of Voces in filing a complaint with OSHA and the health department, they were fired, and subjected to racist treatment from Strauss’ HR director.”

Strauss’ official reason for firing these thirty-one employees was that the company had  received Social Security No Match letters from the Social Security Administration (SSA) concerning these workers. These letters are typically sent to an employer to alert them to the fact that the SSN that the employee is using does not match the records of the SSA. However, this type of letter is not evidence that the employee lacks proper immigration status. These letters are not sufficient grounds to fire a worker. The letters from the SSA certainly are not, by themselves, enough to get rid of workers who have been at Strauss for ten to twenty years. Even if these letters from the SSA were reasonable grounds for dismissing these people, it seems a bit odd that Strauss did not notice, or show any concern about, discrepancies regarding social security numbers in the years prior to the pandemic. SSN’s that don’t match should have shown up on the workers’ W-2 forms each and every year. Suddenly, these mismatched social security numbers are a big deal.

I worked in a corporate environment for decades. I know from experience that, if a company really wants to get rid of an employee, it will find a way to do so. The reason for firing the worker may have nothing to do with the real problem. The fact is that, with time and patience, any employer can make somebody go away.

What is impressive with the action by Strauss is that they managed to kick out thirty-one workers simultaneously. By eliminating that many workers at once, the HR director made things look very suspicious. The whole affair stinks of retaliation.

The demonstration itself was a well-organized event. Well, it was as well-organized as a street rally can be. Voces had made arrangements with the Franklin Police Department, and the cops were there to keep things safe. Voces really does a good job coordinating with local law enforcement. Voces had several marshals on hand to keep protesters out of the way of traffic, and to maintain social distancing. There was a low level of chaos. A certain amount of confusion is inherent in any kind of demonstration. At Strauss it was kept to a minimum.

I don’t know how many people actually showed up. I’m going to guess between fifty and one hundred. We walked from the nearby Sports Complex parking lot to the Strauss building. People carried signs and banners, all the usual accouterments of a protest march. Most everyone wore masks, and we tried to keep six feet apart. Demonstrating during a pandemic is kind of awkward.

We were greeted upon our arrival at Strauss by a woman at a table covered with job applications. I’m not sure who the lady was, possibly the HR director. She had a broad smile on her face. I laughed. I appreciate dark humor. Other people in our group were enraged. They started yelling,

“Shame on Strauss! Shame on you!”

After a while, the woman walked away from us. She left her table full of papers where it was. As time went on, the job applications were caught by the breeze and started to blow away.

We all formed a picket line and walked back and forth in front of the Strauss building. A few folks from Voces tried to get the crowd wound up. They started chanting:

“What do we want?!”

Answer: “Justice!”

“When do we want it?!”

Answer: “Now!”

The rabblerousers alternated between English and Spanish:

“¿Qué es lo que queremos?!”

“Justicia!”

“¿Cuándo lo queremos?!”

“AHORA!”

That sort of thing went on and on as we walked. I’m not a big fan of people shouting slogans. However, a noisy protest gets news coverage, and this one sure did. I’m not certain which members of the media were there, but I saw plenty of TV cameras and microphones. The whole point of a demonstration is to get somebody’s attention. Protests don’t often change hearts and minds, but they make people conscious of an issue. This demonstration made people aware, at least for a moment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hiroshima

August 6th, 2020

“Don’t you know it is better for one person to die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed?”, the high priest Caiaphas – John 11:50

“Add to this the memory of that shadowy companion who is always with us, like an inverted guardian angel, silent, invisible, almost incredible -and yet unquestionably there and ready to assert itself at the touch of a button; and one must concede that the future of civilization does not look very bright.” – Kenneth Clark, historian

“But (Leo) Szilard did not stop. When in 1945 the European war had been won, and he realized that the bomb was now about to be ready to made and used on the Japanese, Szilard marshaled protest everywhere he could. He wrote memorandum after memorandum. One memorandum to President Roosevelt only failed because Roosevelt died during the very days that Szilard was transmitting it to him. Always Szilard wanted the bomb to be tested openly before the Japanese and an international audience, so that the Japanese would know its power and surrender before people died.

As you know, Szilard failed…” – Jacob Bronowski, polymath and historian

What is there to say?

Today is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and do we care? 140,000 people were killed during the actual bombing, and from the effects of radiation. All of that death and suffering from the use of one atomic weapon.

The shadow of Hiroshima is still with us. It hovers in the back of our mind, barely at the edge of consciousness.  We are preoccupied with other crises: the pandemic, climate change, racial violence and unrest, a crippled economy. We don’t think about the threat of nuclear war. Too many other issues vie for our attention. The threat remains.

I am too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, I do remember serving as a U.S. Army officer in West Germany in the early 80’s. I remember waking up each morning wondering if I would die in a war with the Soviets. I remember that gnawing fear, that angst. That feeling never completely goes away.

I could review the arguments for and against the attack on Hiroshima, but to what end? It all boils down to the end justifies the means. A nation that had no problem with firebombing Tokyo, Hamburg, and Dresden probably had no conscience left. Dropping a nuke is only a small step beyond burning 100,000 people to death with incendiaries. We worry about North Korea having nukes, and we panic about Iran building one. We have thousands of them, all ready to annihilate life on this planet.

I end this with another quote from Jacob Bronowski. He was speaking about the Holocaust, and about nuclear warfare.

“I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond (at Auschwitz) as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”

 

 

 

 

Body of Christ

July 31st, 2020

Barb was waiting for me. She was standing with her walker just outside the front door of her apartment complex. Barb is in assisted living. The woman is in her 90’s and she is remarkably spry and alert. Up until a couple years ago, she could drive herself to Mass, but those days are done. Now Barb depends on Karin and myself to to take her to church twice a week.

Barb has been a widow for a long time. Like Karin, Barb is an immigrant from Germany. Like Karin, Barb is a bit deaf. The conversation tends to get loud in the car when both of them are together.

I parked in front of the entrance and got out of the the car to help her. Immediately, Barb told me in her thick German accent,

“I can do it myself! Please. Don’t bother.”

I shrugged, “Okay, I’ll go back in the car.”

She nodded and said, “Ja, sank you.”

Barb is very independent about things. Karin and I only help her when she asks for it. Just doing little things on her own maintains Barb’s dignity. At her age, that is just about all she has left.

Barb got folded her walker and put it into the back seat of the Corolla. Then she slid into the car. She fumbled with the buckle for a few moments. I heard it click, and then Barb said cheerily,

“Ja, now I am ready.” She chuckled softly.

Then she asked me, “Und vere is de Karin? Vere is your vife today? Is she not vell?”

I replied, “Karin isn’t feeling well this morning. She has an earache and a sore throat.”

I imagined Barb nodding as she said, “Na ja, we all get sick sometimes.”

Yeah, we do. It’s just that nowadays any cold or flu makes us worry. Always in the back of our minds is the thought, “What if it’s…”

It’s only a couple block drive to St.Rita from the assisted living apartments. I stopped the car in front of the church entrance. Barb called to me from the back seat of the car,

“Please, don’t get out. I can do it myself.”

I stayed in my seat.

She got herself and her walker out of the car, and laughed,

“Ja, I can do it. It just takes me some time. I’m old, you know.”

I thought about how I would be functioning at her age. I concluded that I would be very dead at that point.

I parked the Toyota and went into the church. I had my mask on and I sprayed some sanitizer on my hands before I entered the sanctuary. I walked up to ambo to check out the readings for the Mass. I hadn’t had a chance to look at them yet, and I was scheduled to serve as lector. I like to get familiar with the text before I proclaim it to the congregation from the lectern.

The first reading was Jeremiah 23:1-9. Most of the readings from Jeremiah are rants. The texts are emotionally intense. I scanned the narrative and stopped where it said, “It may be they will listen, and every one turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the evil which I intend to do to them because of their evil doings.” The word “turn” made me pause. I thought about the Hebrew word “teshuvah” (תשובה), which means to “turn back” or to “repent”.

After hanging around Lake Park Synagogue for eleven years, I have acquired a feel for the Hebrew scriptures. I still don’t understand very much Hebrew, even after all this time, but I have a simpatico relationship with the stories. Somehow, after just being with the people from the shul, some things have seeped into my soul. I don’t necessarily have a better intellectual understanding of the scripture. It’s more of a heart thing than a head thing. When I read from Jeremiah, I can sometimes hear his voice, and maybe I can even be his voice. I am occasionally be a channel for God’s word. That can be scary. It’s almost like being possessed.

I found a pew and looked around. It was a thin crowd. That is always the case at a weekday Mass. The demographic for weekday Mass goers tends to be old. With the pandemic, that means that not many people show up. Those who do come are wary of everyone else. We are celebrating the liturgy together, but apart. The masks and the social distancing make everything seem a bit clumsy. However, it’s better than watching the Mass online. At least we get to see each other in 3D.

The Sign of Peace was particularly awkward. In the past, people would shake hands or even embrace. No more. We waved at each other from a safe distance, or we flashed our neighbor a peace sign. With the masks we couldn’t even smile at one another. There was an odd tension between fear and love.

Father Michael wore his mask as he said the Eucharistic Prayer at the altar. His voice was muffled, but still understandable. My mind often wanders during that prayer. Maybe it’s because I have heard so many times over so many years. I usually perk up when the priest says,

“Remember also our brothers and sisters
who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection,
and all who have died in your mercy:
welcome them into the light of your face.”

It is at that point that I remember to pray for Dennis.

I worked with Dennis at the trucking company years ago. He was a forklift driver. He looked a bit like Woody Allen, and he was very easy going. Dennis was one of the gentlest people I ever met. He was also a stoner.

Dennis got fired for failing a drug test maybe twenty or twenty-five years ago. His wife had mental health issues. They grew weed at home, and the marijuana helped her to cope. They got busted, big time. This was back when people actually believed that the War of Drugs was a good idea. Dennis and his wife were looking at serious prison time. They were going to lose everything. They were going to lose each other.

They went to a motel and hung themselves.

I have prayed for them at almost every Mass since they died.

Does it help? Does it matter? I don’t know. Maybe my prayers don’t do anything for them.

It still needs to be done.

I went up for communion. Father Michael held out the host to me in his gloved hand and said,

“The Body of Christ.”

“I said, “Amen” and I meant it.

That wafer was Christ. Father Michael is Christ too. So is Barb and Karin and Dennis. So are Hans and Hannah and Stefan. So are all the living and the dead and those to come yet into this world. We are all Christ. Everything is Christ.

I drove Barb home.

We got her building and she reminded me,

“Ja, now don’t help me. I can do it”, and she laughed softly.

She got out. I heard the car door slam.

I will see her on Wednesday.

 

 

 

 

Hello Darkness

July 28th, 2020

“Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly, creeping
Left its seeds while I was, sleeping
And the vision, that was planted in my brain… still remains
Within the sound of silence”

“The Sound of Silence” – Paul Simon

The phone rang.

I answered, “Hello?”

There was a one word answer: “Hey.”

It was Hans. He always replies to me like that. Then there is usually a brief pause.

Hans continued, “I got a question for you.”

“Okay.”

“Do you know who did the original version of that song “Sound of Silence”.

“Yeah, that was Simon and Garfunkel, back in 1967 or so.”

Hans lit up a cigarette. I could hear the clicking of his lighter over the phone.

I could hear Hans inhaling the smoke. Then he exhaled and said,

“Yeah, I figured you would know that. There’s been a lot of covers of that song and I wasn’t sure which was the original. “Disturbed” did a cover of it a while back. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I heard that version. It’s actually quite good.”

Hans agreed, then he said, “Yeah, I’m thinking about making it my theme song for a while.”

“Why is that?”

Hans drawled, “Welllll, Gabby and watched “Outpost”. It’s a movie about an American outpost in Afghanistan. Now, I was behaved myself this time. I didn’t point out all the factual mistakes in the movie while Gabby was trying to watch it. She doesn’t like it when I do that.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“What? Oh, whatever. Anyway, the movie has that guy from the “Lord of the Rings” in it. You know who I mean?”

“Uh, no.”

Well, it’s that blond-haired guy. The elf. Orlando Bloom.”

“Okay.”

“Anyway, the movie is based on a true story. The Taliban attacks this outpost. There’s like only one hundred GI’s, but there are three or four hundred Taliban.”

“That’s no good.”

Hans took another drag on his cigarette.

“Yeah, the Taliban overran the FOB (Forward Operating Base). Bad guys tried to overrun our FOB in Iraq, but we had more people and more support. The Americans at this outpost would have been all right if the Army had sent in air support, but they wouldn’t send in the Apaches. They said that the “weather was too bad”. Shit. The weather good enough. The Apaches would have torn up those Taliban. The Taliban were just sitting on the hillside. But the Army wouldn’t send the air support.”

Hans paused and said, “You know how those pilots are.”

“Uh, yeah.”

Note: I was an Army helicopter pilot for five years. I never flew the Apache gunships, but I flew Hueys and Black Hawks. Yes, I know how those pilots are, because I was one. Hans knows that I know.

Hans went on, “The movie was pretty accurate. I wouldn’t have complained much to Gabby anyway. The thing is that I remembered a lot of stuff while we watched it. Dark stuff.”

“Yeah”, I said quietly.

Hans kept talking, “That happens sometimes. It’s like a friend, a dark friend that keeps coming back to me. That’s why I like the song.”

“Okay.”

“Bye, Dad. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

I hung up.

 

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls,
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting for a Train

July 23rd, 2020

The Union Pacific tracks cross Oakwood Road about one mile from our house. Long freight trains use that set of tracks to shuttle between Chicago and Milwaukee. Some of the trains pull a variety of railroad cars to transport a variety of goods. Some of the trains contain a seemingly endless number of coal cars, probably to deliver the coal to the power plant downtown. It not unusual for the trains to extend for a mile or more, and they often have several engines hooked together in order to keep the train moving. The trains are loud. We can hear them sometimes from our house.

Yesterday I walked down Oakwood for some fresh air and exercise. It was mid-afternoon and it was hot outside. I generally walk west to the tracks and then immediately turn around to go home again. As I neared the crossing, I saw a young man park his PT Cruiser in a field just to the west of the tracks. He got out of his car and began setting a video camera on a tripod right next to the crossing. He had a microphone rigged up to the camera, apparently to get sound to go with his pictures.

The young man looked at me as I approached. He was tall and lanky. He had a scraggly beard and thick brown hair that had never felt a comb or a brush. He wore glasses, and he had on a reflective vest, like a county worker.

I asked him, “Waiting for a train?”

He nodded and pointed to the south.

I stopped walking and looked down the tracks toward Chicago. The tracks were arrow straight, and seemed to go forever. Far in the distance I could see the faint glimmer of a headlight. I couldn’t tell how far away the engine was, or even if it was moving. The train was at least a mile from us, maybe much further than that.

I like to watch trains, maybe not quite as much as this guy, but I get a thrill seeing the locomotive coming toward me on the tracks. It’s like being in the path of steel tornado.

I asked the man, “Do you like trains?”

“Yes.”

“Do you ever ride on them? Amtrak?”

The young man adjusted his camera on the tripod and looked at me warily. He said,

“Yes.”

The young man was gawky and moved with a certain clumsiness. His right hand twitched when he spoke, and he held his fingers in an odd way. His face was filled with confused anxiety, like he couldn’t remember if he had left the oven on at home.

The youth spoke up, his hand restless at his side, “I rode the Hiawatha to Chicago back in 2018. I didn’t take the train last year, because my father got hurt. Well, and this year, with the pandemic…”

I nodded. I told him, “My wife and I took the Empire Builder a couple times.”

The young man seemed perplexed by that.

“The Empire Builder?”

“Yeah, it goes all the way to Seattle.”

He shook his head. “I never take long rides. I don’t have the money for that.”

Then he stated flatly, “This train that is coming will have four engines.”

We both stared toward the south. The headlight on the lead engine seemed a bit brighter. I couldn’t hear it, so it had to be quite far away. I wiped some sweat from my eye, and I thought about the trains I rode in Germany many years ago.

I asked the young guy, “Have you ever been overseas?”

His forehead furrowed and he asked me, “What do you mean by ‘overseas’? Do you mean like on the other side of Lake Michigan?”

“Uh no, I meant like Europe.”

The man shook his head and said, “No. Have you been there?”

“Yeah, long ago, when I was in the Army.”

“You were in the Army?”

“Yeah”, I replied.

“What war were you in?”

“I wasn’t in a war. I was in the Army when we were between wars.”

I turned to look at the young man. I clearly had not made any sense to him. I noticed that he wore a t-shirt with a picture of the Hiawatha on it.

I told him, “I was in Germany with the Army. I rode the trains there.”

He asked me, “When was that?”

“Back in the ’80s.”

“Oh, then you were there during World War II.”

I glanced at the guy. He was dead serious.

“Uh no, I was a little late for that.”

We stared down the tracks. The single headlight had turned into three lights. The train was obviously closer, but still outside of hearing.

I wiped some sweat off my face. I was getting quite warm in the sunshine.

I said, “I’m going to go now. I hope you get some good pictures. It was nice talking to you.”

As I stepped away, he said, “Yeah. Thanks. What’s your name anyway?”

I stopped walking and turned to face him. “I’m Frank.”

He nodded without smiling and said, “I’m Brandon.” He went back to his camera.

After about five minutes, I could hear the dull roar of the diesels behind me. Then I heard the blast of the air horn from engine, and the rhythmic clatter of steel wheels on the tracks at the crossing.

I didn’t turn around to look.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Confederacy and the Third Reich

July 20th, 2020

The largest German Army (Bundeswehr) base is located in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. It is the headquarters of the 21st Panzer Brigade, and over 4300 troops are stationed there. The base is called the Field Marshall Rommel Barracks, Augustdorf,  (Generalfeldmarschall-Rommel-Kaserne). It was named that in 1961, only sixteen years after the end of World War II.

General Rommel has a romantic sort of history. He is often portrayed as a brilliant tactician and chivalrous warrior. His nickname was the “Desert Fox” for his exploits in North Africa. He had an amazing string of wins until the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt. He was a soldier in the Wehrmacht until he was implicated in the assassination attempt against Hitler in 1944. He then committed suicide to avoid the persecution of his family.

Historians agree that Rommel was one of the best generals that Germany had in World War II. He also had one of the cleanest records. Despite all that, Rommel loyally served Adolf Hitler in a brutal war of aggression. He fought for five years in the service of a regime that was one of the most murderous in all of human history. Whether he wanted or not, Rommel died for the Nazi cause.

Then the West Germans decided to name a military base after him.

Does anybody remember John Bell hood, Braxton Bragg, Edmund Rucker, or Henry Benning?

Those men were all Civil War officers serving the Confederacy. Compared to Rommel, these guys were rank amateurs. However, they all share some things with the German field marshall. These men were all generals. They all fought for racist, despicable governments. They were all on the losing side of their respective wars. They all have military posts named after them.

Why?

Why would anybody want to honor a member of the Confederacy? Why would anybody want to honor a Nazi?

I have to think back on my experiences with my father-in-law, Max, and my memories of my wife’s uncles. All of those men fought for Germany in World War II. They all suffered enormous hardships. When I talked to these guys, all those years ago, I asked them about the War. They would tell me stories about their struggles and adventures, but they never spoke about the morality of it all. If they did say anything, it was “they were defending Deutschland”. They always came back to the idea that they had done what they had to do. They had done their duty.

I think about more recent events. My son, Hans, fought in Iraq in 2011. He’s told me plenty of stories about his time there. Some of the tales are very disturbing. However, Hans, like Max, his grandfather, never dwells on the politics or the morality of his actions in the war. As far as Hans is concerned, he was sent to Iraq to do a job, and he did it.

We honor dead soldiers because of their courage. We honor their loyalty to their country and their comrades. We honor their selflessness. We ignore the fact that these men and women often served causes that were unjust. We focus on the aspects of their lives that were noble, and forget the rest.

We name military bases after them, and maybe even erect statues to their memories.

Soldiers are by nature apolitical. They volunteer to fight for what they perceive to be a greater good, and then they follow orders in order to serve that cause. They don’t get to pick their battles. They try to be honorable, but sometimes they fail. Did Rommel ever question the justness of his fight? Did the Confederate generals ever wonder if they were on the right side? Did Max ever consider anything beyond survival while he was on the Russian front in WWII? Did Hans ever ask himself, “What the fuck am I doing here in Iraq?”

I don’t know.

 

 

 

 

 

Skydiving

July 18th, 2020

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” – Helen Keller

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” – John 15;13

Elliot asked me to go skydiving with him.

Elliot is one of my neighbors. He goes skydiving every year in August, on his birthday. Elliot’s dad started skydiving after his wife died. Elliot’s father passed away several years ago (not due to a skydiving accident), and Elliott has chosen to honor his dad’s memory by continuing to jump out of perfectly good airplanes.

Why not?

Elliot asked me if I would like to go with him sometime. I told him that I would have to think about it. I am intrigued by the idea, and I have some experience with doing dangerous things (e.g. I was a helicopter pilot, I drove a BMW on the German Autobahn at 130 mph, I walked on top of glaciers, I rappelled off of cliffs, etc.). So, the prospect of leaping out of a plane has a certain perverse attraction.

In order to go with Elliot on this adventure, I would need to consult with my wife, Karin. I have not done so. I don’t ask questions when I already know the answer. Karin might agree to my desire to skydive, but she would do so with great reluctance. The whole notion would frighten her, and rightly so. I am not going to talk to Karin about it because it would be unfair to scare her just so I could have a momentary thrill. Why put her under a lot of stress to satisfy a whim?

Everything involves risk. There is no safe course. As somebody once told me, “Nobody gets off this planet alive.” The question is not whether you can avoid danger. You can’t. The question is: What risks do you take, and why?

Two days ago I walked down Oakwood Road, and I saw a number of squad cars near the railroad crossing. The cops had their lights flashing, and they were directing traffic in other directions. I kept walking until I was close to the train tracks. I saw a number of policemen taking pictures and measurements. That is never a good sign. I also saw a twisted bicycle laying on the pavement. That’s not good at all.

Somebody on a bike got nailed by a car while going over the narrow part of the railroad crossing. I am sure that the biker thought that he was being safe. Maybe the driver of the car thought the same thing. However, it wasn’t safe, and somebody got hurt really bad.

Last week I went for coffee with a friend from the Zen Center. Kevin was riding his bicycle on Lake Drive a couple months ago. He got t-boned by a car. Kevin had several broken ribs and a screwed up shoulder. He was feeling pretty good when we sat outside Colectivo Coffee House and sipped our drinks. As we sat, he made the comment,

“We’re sitting pretty close together here. This is kind of risky.”

Yeah, I guess so.

In this time of pandemic, the emphasis is on being safe. Everybody I meet tells me to be safe. So, what does that really mean?

I am not so much worried about myself getting sick from the COVID virus. I am worried about making other people sick, if I do get the disease. Any action that I take will involve other people. I have to keep thinking about what effect I may have on the health of others.

For instance, I want to do volunteer work. I go into poor areas of Milwaukee to distribute meals to families. Do I endanger them by going to their homes? Would they be worse off if I did not go to them? Am I actually helping these people?

Whatever I do has an impact on somebody somehow. I have to be aware that my life is not my own. I do not have absolute sovereignty over my body. Other people need me, and I need them.

I have to tell Elliot and that I am not going with him.

 

 

 

 

 

Pregnancy

July 15th, 2020

I was sitting at my computer (as I am now) and I heard somebody go into the bathroom. The bathroom door closed, and I heard the sound of a person puking loudly. I gave it no further thought.

I got up and went into the kitchen to get something. While I there, I heard the toilet flush, the sound of water running in the sink, and then the young woman came into view. She was looking a bit pale. She opened the door of the pantry and stared into it, hoping that something tasty would jump into her hand. No such luck.

She walked a couple feet over to the refrigerator and did the exact same thing. She had the door of the fridge wide open, searching for something to eat, but not knowing what it could be. Maybe, back in the Pleistocene, our hunter-gatherer ancestors did something similar. Maybe they gazed into the distance looking for anything that qualified as food.

I asked her, “So, how do you feel?”

Stupid question.

She stopped focusing on the leftovers in the fridge, frowned, and said, “Nauseous.”

She found some fruit hidden way in the back of the crisper.

Then she said, “And hungry.”

I asked her, “Did you find anything that the baby likes?”

She replied, “I hope so. I know that she doesn’t like quiche.”

“Sorry. I don’t have to cook that any more.”

She continued, “I looked on line and they said that pregnant women shouldn’t eat a lot fatty foods. That’s about all we have in this refrigerator.”

“I guess we will have to buy other food.”

“Yeah.”

The young woman took out a glass and filled with lemonade and fizzy water.

She looked at me and said, “I know that the baby at least likes this stuff.”

She walked away, holding her drink and bowl of green grapes.

Another time, we were both in my car. I was driving the young woman to an appointment.

I asked her, “Have you and your guy talked about about a name?”

“I want ‘Elvira’ for her.”

“You mean ‘Elvira’ like in ‘virus’?”

She nodded.

“Well, what about ‘Corona’ for a name? That means ‘crown’.”

She frowned and raised an eyebrow. “That sounds stupid.”

“Okay.”

“What if it’s not a girl?”

She replied, “Well, there is no point in putting a mermaid poster in the bedroom if it’s a boy.”

Hard to argue with that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Catholics

July 11th, 2020

“I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally.”

Saint Oscar Romero, bishop and martyr

“Let us begin. We have done little or nothing.” – St Francis of Assisi

There are Black Catholics. There aren’t that many, but they exist. Blacks make up a mere 3% of the population of the Catholic Church in the United States. Using a stubby pencil to do the math, that means that there are maybe 1.8 million of them in the entire country. I was privileged to meet a few of them yesterday.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee sponsored the Black Catholic March for Racial Justice. It was partly a demonstration, and partly a history lesson. The Catholic Church in Milwaukee has long history with the Black community. Some of it is admirable. Some of it, not so much. In the United States the Roman Catholic Church has been a primarily a conservative white institution. It has often done more to preserve the status quo than it has to promote social justice. But not always…

The march started at St. Francis of Assisi Church on the corner of Brown Street and Vel R. Phillips Avenue (formerly 4th Street) in Milwaukee, just north of downtown. The church goes back to 1869, when the Capuchin friars started building a monastery on the site.

(Capuchins are a variety of the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church. The name “Capuchin” derives from the same source as the word “cappuccino”. They both mean “brown”. Capuchins wear brown robes. Just a little Catholic trivia).

The Franciscans at St. Francis Church have a long and close relationship with the Black community in Milwaukee. According to the pastor, Father Mike Bertram, the first Civil Rights march in Milwaukee started at St. Francis Church on July 29th, 1967. There is a strong tradition among the Capuchin friars for helping the poor and the oppressed. That commitment to justice was on display yesterday.

It was warm and humid when I showed up at the rally. I think there were probably a couple hundred people in attendance, more than I had expected. I walked up to a friar wearing a mask (everybody was wearing a mask). He was handing out t-shirts for the march. On the front of the shirt, it said, “RACISM IS A SIN”. On the back was a quote from Saint Pope Paul IV, “If you want peace, work for justice”.

The friar told me, “Go ahead and take one. All we got left are XXX large, but they shrink when you wash them…well, maybe a little.”

“Okay. do you want a donation?”

The friar shook his head, “No. just take it and wear it. You can grab a sign too, if you want.”

The friars had a wide variety of signs available. They were all laying on the grass under the linden trees. I took a small one. It was a print of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Jesus was portrayed as a Black man. I liked the image, and I wanted to give it to Karin when I got home. Now she wants to frame it and hang it in her craft studio.

There was usual milling around that is normal prior to a protest march. I looked around to find somebody I knew. These events attract all the usual suspects, so I figured I’d meet a friend. It was hard to pick out anyone, because we were all masked. Most people were keeping a respectful social distance.

I stood near a young man and struck up a conversation. It was a bit awkward because I couldn’t read many of his facial cues. I had only his eyes to work with. The man’s name was John, and he is in charge of the education center across the street from the church. We talked a bit about the struggle to do volunteer work during the pandemic. His center has done a lot of work helping people get their GED’s. All their tutoring used to be face to face. No more. The pandemic has made it nearly impossible to help people in a personal and physical way. It has alienated us from each other.

During the conversation, I lifted my mask for a moment, and then put it back.

I told John, “I just wanted you to see my face, to see who I am.”

John briefly raised his own mask from his mouth, and smiled.

At 9:15 the show started. These things have a certain ritual to them. Mary Words, the chair of the Black Catholic Ministry Commission, spoke. There was a rendition of a gospel song. Father Mike said a prayer for us and, as we began the march, he quoted from his order’s patron, St. Francis of Assisi:

“Let us begin. We have done little or nothing.”

That cut to the heart. Because it’s true. When it comes right down to it, I ain’t done shit.

We began.

We walked several blocks to 7th and Galena. There is public housing on that corner. Many years ago, it was the site of Blessed Martin de Porres. Now there is no trace of the building. Martin de Porres served the Black community of Milwaukee from 1940 until 1962. Then the church was closed and destroyed in order to build the Hillside housing project.

I will digress for a bit.

The Black community has not been treated gently in Milwaukee. Milwaukee is still one of the most segregated cities in the country. At one time, there was thriving Black business district just to the north and west of downtown. That was all demolished in order to build the Interstate through Milwaukee. It was a classic case of systematic racism. The Black community in Milwaukee suffers inordinately from poverty and crime.

The Catholic Church in Milwaukee has not always been a champion for racial justice. It is not just that white Catholics can and have been racist. The local Church has always been tribal. There have been many hyphenated parishes in the city (Polish-Catholic, German-Catholic, Irish-Catholic, etc.). Until recent times, the Church in archdiocese has been rent with cultural divisions. It was not unusual in my childhood to hear somebody say something like: “I don’t go to such and such church. They’re all Polacks there!” In some ways, racism in the local church was and is an extension of other antagonisms.

There have been clear exceptions to the prevailing attitude among Catholics in Milwaukee. Casa Maria Catholic Worker House has always been a beacon of hope for better race relations. St. Francis and St Benedict the Moor parishes have promoted racial justice. Father James Groppi was a leader in Milwaukee for the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s. There were and there are good people. Good things can happen.

I believe that the institutional Church has not been often at the forefront of social justice work because of the Church’s laser-like focus on the abortion issue. For many Catholics abortion is the only social justice issue. This has caused some Catholics to support politicians whose only moral claim is that they oppose abortion. Being pro-life is more than just being anti-abortion. As Cardinal Bernadin and Eileen Egan said, there is a seamless garment of life. To be pro-life is to be attentive to all aspects of life. Ending racism is part of that seamless garment, and it has often been a forgotten part of it.

Back to the march…

We walked to St. Benedict the Moor Church on 9th and State. I walked along with an older black lady. Her name was Pamela. We spoke mostly about our children. Pam is a great-grandmother. She doesn’t look like it. I asked her if she was retired. Pam told me,

“No, not yet. I still have work to do.”

I asked her what she did. She’s been a busy woman. She spent years working with students who had been thrown out of the Milwaukee Public School system, so that they could continue to learn. She worked for a long time with Child Protective Services. Pam has probably helped hundreds, or maybe thousands, of troubled kids.

I listened to her and thought, “I have done little or nothing.”

Well, maybe I’ve done something, but not like this lady.

As we approached St. Benedict, Pam told about her relationship with this particular church. She talked about weddings and baptisms. It was clear from the sound of her voice that St. Benedict the Moor is her spiritual home. She loves that place.

It was hot when we arrived at St Ben’s. I have been there before. Years ago, I helped out with their meal program. St. Benedict’s was established as the first Catholic Church for Black people in the state of Wisconsin. The building has stood since 1923. It has served the poor and the marginalized ever since that time.

It is ironic that St. Benedict’s stands almost directly across from the Milwaukee Police Headquarters and the Milwaukee County Safety Building. On which side of the street do we find justice?

As I stood near the church, Greg came up to me. He’s the deacon at my church. I didn’t recognize him at first. He was wearing his mask and sunglasses. He said,

“Hey man! Good to see you! If I had known you were coming, we could have carpooled.”

“I didn’t know until yesterday that I would march.”

Greg smiled. “Look at all these people. This is great! At last!”

Indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meals

July 9th, 2020

Tandem is a restaurant on Milwaukee’s north side, near the corner of 18th and Fond du Lac. It’s located in a low income neighborhood. Most of the residents of the area are African-American. I’ve never actually eaten anything at Tandem, although I have been to the restaurant several times. Every time I have stopped at Tandem, it has been to pick up free meals to deliver to poor, undocumented immigrant families.

It’s a half hour drive from my house in the suburbs to Tandem. My wife, Karin, comes with me to pick up the meals and deliver them. She is enthusiastic about doing this work. It gives her a sense of purpose. It gives me one too.

Last week there was some mix up about our orders. Nobody knew that we were coming to pick up. Not knowing what else to do, Karin and I got in the back of a long line of people to wait for somebody to help us out. The line was exclusively made up of Blacks, except for my wife and me. Most of those waiting in line wore masks and practiced social distancing. One man served as a DJ to entertain the folks who were standing in the heat to get some food. An elderly Black woman wearing a mask came up to us and asked if we wanted to see a menu. We told her that we were trying get twenty-one meals to deliver to families on the south side of town.

She asked us, “You all pre-arranged for these meals?”

We told her that a friend of ours had called the orders in, but nobody seemed to know anything about the meals.

The lady took us out of the line and we followed her to the front door of the restaurant. She told us to wait, and she said that she was going inside to handle things.

She did.

In a little while, a young man brought us a big cardboard box full of meals. Karin and I thanked him. Then we started our rounds.

The south side of Milwaukee is full of old, dilapidated homes built on microscopic lots. The neighborhoods there have always been inhabited by immigrants. My grandma grew up in that part of town over one hundred years ago. At that time it was full of poor Slavic families. Now it is full of poor Latinos. In some ways it’s all different. In some ways, nothing has changed in over a century.

We had five drops. Each of the five families had been made aware that we were coming with food. A couple people greeted us at their front doors when we showed up. We left the meals on the porch at other homes. We had minimal interaction with the recipients of the food. Part of that was due to our lack of fluency in Spanish. Some of it was due to the fear created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that all these people were leery of strangers played into it. Karin and I tried to make the process as personal and human as possible, but it’s hard to do that nowadays.

Was it worth doing? Yes. These people are hurting, and we did a little bit to ease their troubles. The deliveries seemed insignificant, considering the huge need that is in our community. However, we did something that needed to be done. We made a tiny difference in the a few lives. We plan to continue doing that.

We touched people without touching them.