By Shu-Fy H. Pongnon
When I think of the future of the Church, I think of -- me.
A few years ago I was a humble parish secretary. That might seem like a surprising choice for an Ivy League-educated woman who had worked in politics and journalism. My mother certainly couldn't understand it.
But some perspective-building in India, coupled with a nagging restlessness and my recent conversion to Catholicism actually made the job seem like a pretty rational choice. I belonged to the parish, after all, and as a parishioner I was all too aware of what was wrong with the rectory; I'd experienced the office's seeming indifference and what I perceived to be unprofessionalism. Sensitive to all of that, I was sure I could make a positive difference in a neighborhood known for its skyrocketing HIV-AIDS rate, its poverty, and numerous other social ills. I could show the rectory how to be the humane face of the church, to its neighbors.
If I brought change to the inept rectory office, it paled in comparison to the change the office wrought in me.
Every November the parish sponsored a Thanksgiving turkey drive. Considering the desperate needs in the area and the pitiful reality that my attempt to "change everything" in the rectory office had been as successful as Apple's poorly-engineered fourth ode to the Smartphone genre, it was a mess. From collecting the turkeys, to the constant callers trying (sometimes more than once) to get on the dispersal list, to keeping the frozen turkeys from somehow "walking away," it was bananas. And, like a bad late-night infomercial, there was always a "but wait, there's more" in store.
And then there was . . . the day of.
I arrived early to the rectory and could see the teeming line of people already snaked out into the street, hoping for a turkey. It was a scene that should have touched me, and yet I felt my heart harden. These needy people seemed no longer to be the "deserving" poor, but my enemy combatants, and I had to prepare for war. While trying to disperse the food fairly and with an orderliness that human dignity should demand, I was cursed at and had my life and job threatened. I was pushed, consigned to Hell, lied to -- you name it. By day's end I left the rectory exhausted, disgusted, and firmly committed to the idea of leaving the parish, and perhaps even the Church. For me, these people had become frauds. They didn't follow Jesus to the mountain for the bread of life, but for the breadbaskets. Coupled with my day-to-day challenges, this episode convinced me that I hadn't joined the Church I'd learned about in RCIA.
I talked about all this with my beloved spiritual father -- the former pastor of this parish -- about my day, my disgust, and my decision, and he told me something I have never forgotten. Indeed, his words have been a life rope I have clung to as -- in reading the endless headlines about the sex abuse scandal that engulfs our church -- my misery and pain redouble, and I waver, yet again, wondering about making my exit. He told me that what is bad and what is evil never has the last word in our Church.
The Church is a beautiful mess of people, places, and things that will alternately horrify and inspire you. You will want nothing more than to leave and yet remain in the loving embrace of the sacraments. Lord willing, in the middle of this utter chaos, you will find -- me.
Shu-Fy H. Pongnon holds degrees from Columbia University and NYU. She is the Assistant News Director at NETNY, in the Diocese of Brooklyn, which produces the nation's only nightly news broadcast from a Catholic perspective.
7/19/2010 4:00:00 AM