I attend a large, fairly well-off parish. The kind with families who will gladly give of their abundant gifts to support the community. It’s a blessing to be here. I’m surrounded by examples of sacrificial giving.
But there’s a thing about our liturgy that has always kind of made me stop and look around a bit. There are several forms of the Penitential Rite that can be used at the beginning of Mass. The best known is The Confiteor. “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned…”
It’s a humbling prayer. Most of us don’t feel like sinners most days. Or ever. Much less apply the term to ourselves out loud. Which is why we probably should. With the exception of Lent, we don’t pray the Confiteor at Mass. We typically use the “Lord have mercy” form of the rite. Which is easy to say without thinking about what the words mean. I know I often do.
It would help if I was a little less judgey. A little more humble. Like, I definitely want mercy on Judgement Day. But that’s gonna require me admitting my sins.
My news feed has been filled the last four days with “Rest In Power” wishes from former students to their classmates. By my count there were four deaths from the weekend through Tuesday. They are all heartbreaking, all of the kids under 30. Yeah, I know, not “kids” anymore. But for the group of teachers I worked with for 11 years, in the building I’m going to return to this year, they’ll always be “our kids”. One Facebook post in particular took my breath away. A former student eulogized her friend, then went on to call on her friends to recall all of their classmates/peers who have died too soon.
There were 43 pictures attached to the post.
Street violence, drugs, suicide, cancer.
I pray for about a dozen of them by name in my Rosary every day, and add “and also for those whose names are known only to You”. Because I knew there were so many more. I’m just not sure I ever knew exactly how many more.
That post was floating around in my head while I read Chris Arnade’s book Dignity. I’ve been meaning to read it since it came out last summer. I finally picked it up this week and devoured it in a matter of days. It was worth the wait.
Folks who didn’t read the book dismissed it out of hand as fetishizing the white working poor, as some type of apologetic guide to “how we got Trump”. Those critics missed the boat. Arnade spoke largely with people of color during his travels, and does address the dangers of “racial identity” late in the book. Regardless, he clearly cares deeply about the people he met and about their circumstances.
The former Wall Street trader quit his job and walked to a part of New York City his co-workers told him to never go. He looked around, met people, listened, talked, snapped photos, offered help in terms of cash for a meal or a ride. And he learned.
Then he jumped his car and sought out the forgotten and left behind across the country: Portsmouth,OH; Gary, IN; Bakersfield, CA; Cairo, IL; Milwaukee’s North Side; Central Cleveland; the East Side of Buffalo; Selma, AL.
And everything he thought he knew was challenged.
“Like most in the front row, I am used to thinking we have all the answers. On Wall Street there were few problems we couldn’t solve with enough smarts, energy, audacity, or money. We even managed to push death into the distance; with enough research and enough resources – eating right, doing the right things, going to the correct medical specialist – the inevitable could be delayed, and mortality could feel distant.”
Writing as an atheist, Arnade continues:
“With a great job and a great apartment in a great neighborhood, it is easy to feel we have nothing for which we need to be absolved. The fundamental fallibility of humans seems outdated, distant, and confined to a few distant others. It’s not hard to feel that you have everything under control.
The tragedy of the streets means few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things that are just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know. It is far easier to recognize that one must come to peace with the idea that ‘we don’t and never will have this under control.’ It is far easier to see religion as not just useful but true.
This isn’t confined to those in poverty or on the streets; it’s true for almost everyone growing up in the back row. Their communities have been shattered, their sense of place and purpose ruptured, leaving them with no confidence in ‘worldly’ institutions and with a clearer sense of the importance, value, and necessity of faith in something beyond the material.”
“It’s easy to feel we have nothing for which we need to be absolved”. I know what he means. I think it every Sunday at Mass. The Church knows it too. That’s why we’re invited “to call to mind our sins” at the beginning of the liturgy.
So, Arnade’s terms: Front row? Back row? The author explains that the people in his office, in his neighborhood, they worked the system, played the “game of school”, got the grades to get into the right college, gathered the credentials to gain access to elite jobs. The Masters of the Universe, who used education as a way out and up. Thus, the classroom analogy: “In many ways, we were akin to the kids who sat in the front row, always eager to learn and make sure the teacher knew they were learning.”
Arnade recognizes that his pathway out of an oppressive hometown is not equally available to all: “The vast majority of minorities and the working poor were excluded from our club – by a lack of credentials and by a system rigged against them getting any.” Those are the kids in the back row, in the classroom, and in society: “They were the people who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their town or their family to get an education at an elite college. The students who didn’t take to education, because it wasn’t necessarily their thing or because they had far too many obligations – family, friends, problems large and small – to focus on studying. They want to graduate from high school and get a stable job allowing them to raise a family, often in the same community they were born into.”
And the front row kids have created a world that doesn’t value what the back row kids value, home and family and community, and where the jobs that supported that world are gone.
Driving through Hammond, and Griffith, and Merrillville, and yes, Valpo, that truth is hard to miss.
Arnade spends quite a bit of time examining his own attitudes, and how they changed during his travels. His first chapter is titled”If You Want To Understand the Country, Visit McDonald’s”. He has pointed out that in the back row towns, McDonald’s is more than convenient, cheap food. That place with the greasy burgers and salty fries that the front row kids shun? It’s a community center. Hell, it’s a community in the most basic sense of the word.
In those moments, barriers between groups start to break down. Humans are hard-wired to sort things, and that extends to ourselves and who we hang with. Arnade says he believed the right things, supported the right causes, voted for the right candidates, but not until he crossed the bridge to the South Bronx did he understand.
He stipulates he gave assistance for food to anyone who asked, and proceeds from his book support organizations that provide aid to people. Family Motto: Never underestimate the value of one person doing a kindness for one other person. It always matters.
But how much good will it do long term? A first step, for sure. But Gary had a brilliant, Harvard-educated mayor and nothing changed. They voted her out of office last year.
Maybe the big picture is too big for one person to fix. Arnade suggests the trick is to see individual people as humans first, to not judge them, to help them even in seemingly small insignificant ways. That seems obvious but in 2020 I don’t take anything for granted.
He says you’ve got to talk together first. To listen. To be open to another point of view, to a different set of values. Maybe skip over the part where we make assumptions about other people based on their hair and their clothes and their musical taste and their address.
Oh, and one last thing. In the summer when “Black Lives Matter” went mainstream, a lot of my teacher friends are starting to think about how this applies in the classroom. Some have been thinking about it and acting on it for a while now. But several of my connects who have been doing anti-racist work in schools for a long time have pointed out that upholding white, middle-class (“front row”) values as the standard is oppressive. Culturally responsive teaching requires that while we have high academic expectations for our students, if we aren’t letting our students live and be themselves, we are doing it wrong. This connected with me while reading Dignity too. In his chapter “Racism”, Arnade writes:
“The front row when it views the problems faced by minorities doesn’t bend, redefine, or adjust their definition of success. They rarely reevaluate their own values, their own worldview, their own priorities. They rarely look inward at the status quo they have constructed and its narrow and rigid definition of success. They rarely ask if maybe their narrow definition of success, narrow definition of value, is itself exclusionary.”
In a school setting, even teachers who were back row kids as students are by definition front row now. Which comes with advantages, and responsibility.
The last page and a half or so of the conclusion to Dignity is damning. Arnade points out that those in the front row have a “special obligation” to care about and act on the inequalities in our nation.
“We have an outsize voice, and many of us have the noble goal of using that voice to build a more inclusive society, to fix the ugly racism, sexism, and inequality. Yet we have created a status quo that is often inclusive in name only. We have created a system that still excludes far too many people, mostly minorities but certainly all of the poor.”
Arnade says this is not intentional but rather due to the way we measure success, in dollars and stuff.
“We have said that education is the way out of pain and the way to success, implying that those who don’t make it out are dumb, or lazy, or stupid. This has ensured that all those at the bottom, educationally and economically – black, white, gay, straight, men, and women – are guaranteed to feel excluded, rejected, and, most of all, humiliated.”
Almost everyone who will read Dignity is a front row kid. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not. Question is, now that we know, what are we gonna do about it? Call to mind our sins? Or mumble something about mercy on our way out the door to the beach?