Monday, March 18, 2013

Getting Shot In America: A Tale Of Two Cities

Sitting at the surgery trauma waiting room at UC Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, I couldn’t help but notice two separate realities. The good news is, the divide was not racial. The bad news is, it was painfully economic.

There was a prison inmate in the room, shackled and leg-injured, with a sheriff on one side and his girlfriend on the other. His girlfriend was arguing with him, he kept asking her to leave. There was a little old lady, black and cute as a daisy, whom I wanted to adopt as a grandmother. What struck me as odd and a little heartbreaking is that she seemed to be there alone, and disoriented. A nurse came by to check up on her. There was a middle-aged white woman in a wheelchair, who looked all of sixty-five but my bet is that she was no more than forty-five. She was accompanied by her daughter, stunning looks and looking all of thirty, though my bet is that she wasn’t more than twenty. Growing up fast is an expression of bittersweetness on the right side of the tracks, but on the wrong side it is just another battle wound.

I was there because a friend of mine had been shot. Twice, once in the leg and once in the abdomen. The leg shot had shattered his femur. He was ambushed at midnight in what turned out to be an armed robbery, and as he wrestled for his life the gun went off twice. My friend is in his mid 20’s, but I’ve known him since he was 14. He was “assigned” to me in 2003 by an organization that works closely with the division of Children Services at Hamilton County. I was his Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).

Sydney (not his real name) had landed in “the system” after he ran away from home. His life -- or “file” as the system prefers to call it -- was a textbook case of child neglect and abuse. The complication is, once you dig in beyond the surface, it really does get complicated. Sydney’s mother was a product of the system herself. 

I remember when I first met Sydney, at a foster home. His foster mom seemed nice enough, the home was clean and well-furnished. I could tell Sydney sized up all of us rather quickly: the foster mom, as much as he seemed to respect her, received a subsidy from the government for taking care of him; the social worker from Children Services did not interest him in the least. But he looked at me up and down more than once, almost as if to say: what does he get out of this? It was emphasized more than once that my role was strictly a volunteering one.

Four years later, with a few visits to juvenile detention centers in between, I found myself in court for Sydney’s official “release” from the system – on his 18th birthday. It seemed a bit surreal to me, as there was a strange assortment of people present: a lawyer from the CASA organization; my CASA supervisor; Sydney’s 3rd social worker (I had been his only CASA throughout the same period of time); a lawyer from Children Services; Sydney’s biological mother; and me. Sydney chose to sit with me, not surprising given the revolving door cast of characters. The judge went around the room, asking everyone for their comments. The social worker was issuing a somewhat defensive statement, sprinkled with local politics, occasionally glancing at the lawyer from the county. The judge interrupted her a bit impatiently, looked at me and asked for my thoughts. I looked at Sydney, then back at the judge and said, “All I can say is that in these past four years I thought it was Sydney who was hopefully going to learn something from me. Instead, I believe I have learned more from him. I am thankful to him for that.”

In the ten years that I have known Sydney, I must have traveled between the west and the east side of Cincinnati over a hundred times. The West Side, while it does include a couple of middle class and affluent neighborhoods, is primarily blue collar or poor. The East Side is the exact opposite – a couple of blue collar and poor neighborhoods, but primarily middle, upper middle, and highly affluent neighborhoods. There are awkward jokes in Cincinnati about which side of town you are from – usually in the form of "where did you go to high school?". As a permanent outsider no matter where I have lived, the jokes struck me as odd. People from the East Side and the West Side have no more in common with each other than people I have met from opposite sides of the world. So if by “which part of town” they really mean “which part of the planet” – I guess I could join in the nervous laughs.

I have traveled the road from New Delhi to Agra; north and south through Port-au-Prince Haiti; through the slums of Bogota, Rio, Manila, and countless of other "third world" cities. I have wined and dined in London, Paris, Munich, and other “first world” cities; and I have driven through Cincinnati’s Indian Hill neighborhood over a thousand times. Indian Hill is not only one of Cincinnati’s wealthiest neighborhoods on the East Side, it is home to one or two king makers. During my thirteen years in the city, both US presidents have paid multiple visits to the neighborhood. Given all of these contrasts, I can safely say from all of my travels that a common name and adjacent proximity does not a single city make. Neighborhoods, and their economic realities, are the only relevant segments of society.

Sydney was released from the hospital within a few days of being shot. It was much too early a release, but it is common for someone without health insurance in the US. I also learned that you don’t just drop off someone without health insurance at a hospital for a follow-up: you are expected to wheel him from one section to another, help him up on the x-ray table, get him down, hold him up while they remove his staples, wheel him from one doctor to the other, and beg for him to be given painkillers.

As I drove Sydney from the hospital to his sister’s house on the West Side, I realized he was in significant pain. Yet he had already reprimanded me once at the hospital for demanding that someone get him painkillers. He explained, half-groggy from the pain, that all I was going to achieve was get the nurses to entrench against getting him meds, since there are so many junkies that try to play the system. I asked him if there was a rash of cases with junkies shooting themselves in the stomach and shattering their femurs for free painkillers. That was a wiseass reply that I probably shouldn’t have made, given his state of pain.

Sydney mentioned something I’ll never forget, and it had to do with his ambulance ride to the hospital -- “the longest ride of his life”. Paramedics are trained to keep such victims conscious, even though all they want to do is pass out. But in describing what he remembers looking out of the ambulance, some of the words he used seemed very familiar to me. I had to look them up when I got home, but it didn't take long for me to recall where I had heard a similar thought:

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.”

- Sydney Carton, “A Tale of Two Cities” (Charles Dickens)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Inconvenienti Veritas

My view of St. Peter's cupola in 2011.

I don’t usually retain many Latin expressions, but for some reason the inscription inside St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome made an impact on me when I first saw it as a teenager in the mid-70's.  I can recite it from memory to this day:

"TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM"  ("You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.")

I guess what must have made an impression is that, when I glanced up inside the basilica and saw the inscription, I actually understood what it said. I was thirteen, and that sense of awe that everyone gets when they first walk inside St. Peter’s basilica must have struck me as well, particularly as one looks up and sees the dramatic ray of light that enters through the cupola and spotlights the floor of the basilica. Which prompted me to conclude, my God, I can speak Latin! Well, not quite. It turns out that if you speak Italian you can almost get by on reading basic Latin.
Five years and three popes later, the Vatican had become more of a backdrop for me. I had in fact become a local in Rome, the kind that walks past St. Peter’s as if he might be walking past a McDonald’s. Perhaps with the occasional rolling of the eyes, when you become aware that there is a small fleet of tourist buses unloading Japanese, Chinese, Israeli, and Saudi Arabian, um, pilgrims.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not particularly religious. OK, who am I kidding – not at all. What I am is respectful of the essence behind all major religions. But my patience ends once you wander much beyond the essence. I believe the common denominator of all major religions is the prioritization of love, understanding, non-judgment, sacrifice, and humbleness.  When you start dragging the essence of religion into politics, greed, hyper-judgment, superiority, terrorism or war -- that's where you lost me.

With that in mind: considering that Roman Catholicism is the largest church within Christianity, and that Christianity has the most followers on our planet, then the “McDonald’s” I was frequently walking in front of in Rome was in retrospect no ordinary place. There's a picture somewhere of me shaking hands with a future saint -- Pope John Paul II -- which I realize is not the same as shaking hands with Ronald McDonald. In fact, I actually liked the old Polish pope, the first non-Italian in one million years (give or take.)

When John Paul II was succeeded by yet another non-Italian pope I thought the Vatican was just maybe turning a corner. Maybe the church had decided to get back to its more universal roots – and who knows, maybe to its essence. As coincidence would have it, I was back in Rome for a few days on business during that particular transition. I had the best seats in the house actually, as one of my high school buddies was NBC's Vatican correspondent at the time, and he invited us to his report on the same rooftop from where NBC is reporting the transition these past few days. Which brings me to the developments of a few weeks ago, when Pope Benedict announced he was resigning. Once again, I was cautiously optimistic: leadership is not something one should take into senility, it is something one should pass on selflessly.

O Tempora O Mores!

My optimism was soon enough tempered by the child abuse sex scandal that has dogged the church for so many years. I had two completely different personal experiences on that subject, one direct and one indirect. Indirectly speaking, I grew up in a home with a parent that always hinted at personal knowledge of sexual misconduct within the church while growing up. Yet my direct experience was quite the opposite. The years I spent under the wing of a Catholic school took place not far from the Vatican, literally just down the road. Part of my primary and all of my secondary education was completed at an American boarding school in Rome, run by Brothers of the Holy Cross (of Notre Dame fame in the US). I often credit the brothers for the only amount of respect I still have for the Catholic Church. They were a very good example to me, spiritually and intellectually.

So I will try hard not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”, as the Catholic Church has offered the world many great things. It has provided refuge for persecuted peoples, food and shelter for the homeless, care for the sick; it has educated billions of people, something not many institutions can boast; and it has taught the great teachings of Jesus Christ, the “baby” in our baby and the bathwater analogy.

The “bathwater” was not exactly holy, historians have made sure we’re all aware of that fact. From the crusades to the inquisition, you can’t help but wince as a Catholic when you think about the overwhelming power-driven contradictions. Yet if power is something that the Vatican finally had to give up a long time ago, money is something they quietly continued to pursue. Which bought them  a different kind of power, with a behind-the-scenes stability perk. Sooner or later, never mind outsiders, intelligent insiders were bound to notice the proverbial elephant in the room. From a simple economics perspective, there is nothing humble about the Vatican. When the pope’s home looks more like Buckingham Palace than the much glorified humble beginnings of Christianity’s founders, there’s a disconnection. When an ex-pope is whisked away in a helicopter to a castle on a hill where he will retire, there’s a disconnection. But when an ex-pope and the school of cardinals he leaves behind seek immunity from prosecution in a massive child sex abuse scandal, there is a major problem.

I realize some Catholics have reconciled these contradictions, but I suspect too many are not even fully aware of them. My belief is that many Catholics have turned a blind eye towards these fundamental contradictions, which they may be confusing with turning the other cheek. I also believe too many Catholics are subconsciously proud of the grandiosity of the Vatican, almost as if it gives them a sense of historic validity and moral strength. To my knowledge, that is not what Christianity’s founder had in mind when he talked about strength.

The strength I interpreted, as in the rock mentioned on St. Peter’s cupola, was the strength of character, of sacrifice, and ultimately of love. That “rock” is what a child looks up to when he or she trusts an adult. But when the adult lays his hands on a child for his own sexual pleasure, the rock has been covered in slime. Estimated cases are not insignificant, in the tens of thousands (over 4,000 reported cases alone in the US). Pope Benedict’s attempt to underplay the abuse scandal in a speech he gave during Christmas of 2010, by implying that the modern world's moral relativism was at fault, was the last straw for me. In that speech he said, "In the 1970s, pedophilia was seen as a natural thing for men and children…" While he goes on to essentially confirm that he does not believe pedophilia is morally defensible, his mixed signals were reminiscent of the logic some politicians have used on the subject of rape: society’s at fault, everyone carries some blame.

Of course we all carry some blame – understanding that is part of the essence of Christianity. But pointing that out should not come at the expense of another inconvenient truth: accountability. When an adult implies to a child that what another adult did to him was partly his fault, the child no longer feels he is standing on solid ground -- the proverbial rock. If there is no rock, there is no Catholic Church. It is time for the Catholic Church to undergo some serious soul-searching. It cannot possibly continue to look at Jesus Christ on one hand, the Vatican popes on another, and reconcile the two.

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