My move to Brooklyn from Manhattan last year seemed daunting, and I am still processing that change to a different world. The link in both cases, though, has been a Jesuit parish. In Manhattan it was Nativity, now closing because of gentrification that has driven out many parishioners. In Brooklyn it is the parish of St. Ignatius. Both are small, with a mix of nationalities among the parishioners. Although my work at America continues full time, I have always loved the rhythms of parish life, saying Mass and getting to know parishioners in all their diversity of age, background and interests. Those at St. Ignatius in Brooklyn are from “the Islands”; but the majority are Haitian, and on Sundays I hear Creole spoken as much as English.
The parishioners’ faith is evident. In fact, that whole area of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights is marked by faith in the form of storefront churches. Just around the corner from St. Ignatius is a whole series of them, with names like the United Spiritual Baptist Church of God Inc. and L’Eglise Ebenezer Foi en Dieu. Passing by these and others on Sunday, you can hear lively singing and clapping.
The subway ride to America on weekday mornings takes longer now, and involves two trains. On the first, I am usually the only white person, so for a few minutes I am a minority member—a useful learning experience. The second train carries me for the longer part of the commute, and by then the passengers are a more diverse medley of skin colors and languages.
That second leg of 35 minutes has proven to be an ideal time for morning prayer. The whole world seems represented in that small space of a subway car, and what comes to mind is the contemplation on the incarnation in St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. In it, we are asked to imagine “those on the face of the earth in such diversity of dress and manner.... Some are white, some black, some weeping, some laughing, some well, some sick.” The diversity is right there before my eyes—a reminder of humanity’s need for a redeemer, but also of humanity’s basic goodness. During the crowded rush-hour subway ride back to Brooklyn, for example, it is not unusual to see someone offer a seat to a mother carrying a stroller, with a child in tow or in her arms.
A sadder mood arises at the sight of homeless people, for whom the subway cars and the benches on the platforms often serve as shelter. On one occasion, an elderly woman boarded a Brooklyn-bound train in the late afternoon and, seating herself opposite me, carefully arranged the huge plastic bags with her possessions at her feet. To some, her world may have seemed chaotic, but at least for a few moments, she had instilled into it a sense of order.
On one of the inbound train platforms every weekday morning, I pass an elderly Caribbean man standing with religious pamphlets in his hand, repeating over and over: “God is love, God is love. Hello! Hello!” In passing, we exchange a wave of the hand as he repeats his phrase. Often, not far from him, another older person stands with copies of a Jehovah’s Witness magazine. These two represent for me the anawim, the humble people of God described in the Old Testament, people who know where to put their bottom-line trust. They also signify a belief in a world beyond this one.
I have reminders of that reality of another world along Eastern Parkway, my route for walking from the subway station to the St. Ignatius rectory. In front of many of the trees that line the parkway are small bronze plaques with the names of young men from the neighborhood who died in “the World War 1914-1918.” Those who placed the plaques probably did not think that within little more than two decades, another, more destructive war would again cost lives on an even wider scale. In the late afternoon, the sun shines on the plaques’ bronze surfaces, making it easy to read the soldiers’ names, and I often stop to make them out. One was dedicated to the memory of Cpl. Frederick Haupt. Doubly saddening is the name’s suggestion of German heritage. Little wonder that St. Ignatius’ image of the Trinity gazing down on struggling humanity with compassion resonates powerfully today as wars continue to claim lives around the world. Faith in all its forms, from storefronts to cathedrals to mosques and synagogues, continues to cry out for peace.