Sunday, November 30, 2014

So, What's Our 'Retired' Fr. Bill Doing Nowadays ?

By Robert R. Schwarz

"Every person who is suffering is on that cross . "

            A priest during an interview a month before  his retirement party —you would have thought it was New Year's Eve—on June 28, 2013 said,  "I m going to try to be  the most productive pastor emeritus I can be. " No one among the several hundred parishioners who  packed the St. James school gymnasium that June  night  doubted Fr. William Zavaski's  prophecy.  Now, 18 months later, Fr. Bill shows little sign of resting from 45 years of priesthood, the last 18 as pastor of St.  James Catholic Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois. 

            To satisfy the ongoing curiosity of  many of the parish's more than 4,000 families who keep asking  " what is Father Bill  doing nowadays,  ? "  your  reporter once again prevailed upon this 71-year-old man to sit still for a second  interview and answer some questions.  So, in summary , he's now celebrating Mass on weekends and Mondays  at the Holy Family church in nearby Inverness ; the pastor there is  Fr.  Terry Keehan , one of  Fr. Bill's former altar boys at St. James. In between funerals and weddings here and there , he says Mass at the Luther Village retirement home  (" Whenever someone there  needs help , I go and help out " ) . He leads an occasional spiritual retreat  and will soon be performing priestly duties for senior citizens at St. James.  Also , Cardinal Francis George has asked him to be a chaplain for all the newly ordained priests in the archdiocese. 
            Though he draws a small pension from the archdiocese, Fr. Bill identifies himself as a volunteer , an "independent agent. "   As he once said,  "I also want to work on my spiritual life, because, you know,  that the older you get, the closer you get to those gates."
            At a small table in his modest one-bedroom home in a residential neighborhood less that a 100 yards from the church parking lot,  we talked about fun-things  Fr. Bill has been  up to.  He related them with characteristic gusto slightly reminiscent  of  his persona seen on a St. James stage through decades of his cameo and other performances in Broadway musicals  that never failed to elicit howls of laughter from his flock.              Though the balding of his white hair has noticeably advanced,  other aging has not; it's  been merciful to Fr. Bill , allowing him to be as affable as he was playing FDR in " Annie" and  as mobile as Fagan's pick pocketing fingers were  in the recent St. James'  "Oliver."    Now and then , having said  something  which  after a second or two of reflection   he found humorous ,  he'd let loose with  a  guffaw :  "HA ! "
            Some of his spiritedness he says he owes  to walking Merton , his ten-year-old Tibetan terrier  named after the renown monk and  author Thomas Merton .  The dog at the moment was  near our feet , either   taking a nap or  sulking over recently being scolded by his master for dipping into the kitchen garbage basket.  " He's a pain in the neck, " the priest said  with restrained affection. Fr. Bill maintains a three-times-weekly exercise regimen  at a wellness center near  Northwest Community Hospital.  He is still recovering from surgery more than a year ago that repaired  torn and detached eye retinas.   "That was a little scary, " he said.  "I prayed a lot. I still don't have great vision."
            The man does  have his share of recreation—well deserved for sure.  There will be a six-week getaway in a rented house  in Fr. Meyers, Florida this winter with two former seminary classmates .  Traditionally  in summer he  plays cards and golf  and hikes in New Buffalo, Michigan, where 17 years ago he and six of those seminary classmates purchased a  home.  " I have a lot more time to read, " he added.  He reads library-borrowed novels, and is currently reading the non-fiction book  " Sacred Fire " by  celebrated author and lecturer  Fr. Ronald Rolheiser.   "I'm not bored . I'm having a great time."
His 'Mountain Top ' Experience  In Israel
            Then  there was a virtual "mountain top "  experience  on his  three-month sabbatical which , among other places, took him to Mt. Tabor in Israel  where  he was the principal presider at a Mass for  his tour group of priests from various countries.  (Mt. Tabor, the Bible tells us, is where three of Jesus'  disciples saw their Master transfigured in  celestial white light with Moses and Elijah .  In Rome he stayed at the North America College, two blocks from the Vatican, and made a side trip to Assisi, the town known for its very own saint—St. Francis.  "That was just wonderful, " Fr. Bill exclaimed. 
            What he misses most about his  pastorate at St. James is "seeing the people every week ." He raised his voice to add: " I do not miss the administration at all ! It's a lot of work. I was in that office ten hours a day ! "  Then , with obvious thanksgiving : "  I no longer have a night meeting nor have to ask anybody for money. "  In hindsight, would he have done anything differently?  He  paused in thought.  "  I don’t think so. I'm very  happy with what we have done. "  He mentioned the fact that the  $88,000 parish debt  , most of it for new school construction,  was paid off a year after he left. "I felt very affirmed and think the people are happy with what we  have done. "    

            Though Fr. Bill said he lives " one day at a time,"  his agenda for at least the next year appears  fairly full. He likes to travel, and so there'll likely be a trip to India to visits Foundation for  Children in Need , an ever-growing  outreach to hundreds of needy children and adults ( St. James  is a major sponsor of FCN ).   .  There'll  be chaplain duties with those newly ordained priests , who will likely hear Fr. Bill's often quoted assertion that  "being  a pastor is the simplest job there is.  All you have to do is love the people—and they'll love you back . "    And waiting for him are rehearsals for his role in  "Peter Pan,"   the church's musical  for 2015.
            Our conversation turned  more serious when Fr. Bill was asked his advice for people who want to  live Godly and simplified  lives in spite of a culture that is stressful and complicated.  He cut to the chase. " Spend some time each day with Jesus. The closer you get to Him, the less material things you'll need.  I pray for three things each day: health,  healing , and holiness. "  He admitted that "it's challenging to live in this culture. "
            As for the current culture, he  said ,   "I thing we live in a moralistically  warped society…but Christians have always had to live in  it. "  He pointed out the Christians who lived in the once pagan Roman society  were "devout people who loved each other and were the best people they could be and  had a moral sense and a value about them."  Commenting on same-sex marriages and homosexuality,  he quoted St. Thomas Aquinas: Any law that is written against the natural law is no law at all, and quickly added: " Some goofy judge thought he knew more than God did when he said two people of the same sex could get married. Well, that's nuts!"  
            He wasn't finished with the  topic.
     "Everybody thinks we [the Catholic Church ] are anti-gay or anti this.  We just love people, but there are certain norms and absolutes ."  He didn't think  that  the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would ever change anything about the definition of marriage.
            Reminded of his comments at our last interview about how pleased he was  with the large number of St. James members  involved  in the churches' some 80 ministries, while displeased  with the "number of families  who don't take their faith seriously , " the priest said, "We have to pray that someone coming back into the church has God's grace and is motivated. We have to continually invite people. I think that parents have to model faith for their children , and we need to spend more time teaching adults as opposed to kids. Jesus taught adults and played  with children. What do we do ? We teach children and play with adults. I think we have it screwed  up."
His Home and the Unseen Crucifix Face of Jesus
            Lastly , we talked about Fr. Bill's home life.  Does he cut the grass, rake leaves , make his  own house repairs,  cook for himself ?   "I'm  on my own here,"  he said.  " Fortunately, someone  takes care of the lawn, but I'll be doing some gardening in the spring.  My brother is a handyman and he comes over and does things for me , like fixing the porch ."  Thanks to fellow parishioners who regularly  invite him  to dinner—and they know what he likes to eat—Fr. Bill does little cooking.  " I'm well taken care of and grateful to God. "  Unlike two of the recently sold parish homes, Fr. Bill's retirement home  has not been sold . " I'm going to stay here until they throw me out ."  He guffaws.
            His kitchen also serves him as a workroom ; it has a desktop computer  and a washer and a dryer.  Hanging on the wall is a painting of two dear, now buried friends: "Maurice"  and "Higgins" , air dales which once shared  another home with Fr. Bill.  Paintings, drawings, and art pieces—many given affectionately  by parishioners or close friends, others purchased during his travels—came into view as we walked through  the house.  There is  a painting of an Amish buggy on country road, a Lithuanian  street scene  done  in sepia  ( a  gift from a bishop ) , several Lithuanian  wood carvings and a crucifix crafted  by a neighbor , a Tiffany designed lamp, a painting of the St. James altar by one-time local resident and noted artist  Tom Lynch ,  and a retirement  present of  a quilt hangs on the staircase landing which has been stitched  in the likeness  of the large, round stain glass window that hangs above the St. James altar  .    
            On the fireplace mantel's  opposite ends are statuettes of  Jesus and Mary. Over the fireplace is a large oil painting of his favorite scenes  in Rome, which  he bought during his sabbatical there.
            On a wall in  his bedroom are pen-and-ink sketches of St. Francis and the Last Supper. Covering Fr. Bill's bed is a beautiful , crazy quilt  made for him  in 1976 by two parishioners.  Over his bed  is a sacramental that perhaps is also a  metaphor for this priest— and others like him. It  is a carving  of Jesus hanging on the cross with  His head bowed quite low. You cannot see His face.     
            " Why this particular  crucifix ?"  I asked.
            "I like it the most ,"  was the answer.
            " Why?"
            " Because you don't know what He's going through. "  Then, in a  whisper as if   to himself, were his  words:  " Every person who is suffering is on that cross.  I think of so many people who are suffering. " 

All comments are welcome.

© 2014 Robert R. Schwarz

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Trek of a Missionary Raised as a Muslim in Lebanon; First Bankruptcy, Then on a Hit List --All for the Gospel

by  Robert R. Schwarz

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
Edmund Burke , philosopher (1729-1797 )

            Two ordained ministers,  a Muslim-raised  missionary from Lebanon and  I walked into the church while preoccupied with  a statistic : an estimated  500,000 people with  Muslim roots live in metropolitan  Chicago. With  the  constant  violence and suffering of refugees in the Middle East , we believed this statistic had far-reaching implications for all people of good will in our communities .
I was to interview this missionary for  his insider view of what  it's really like to live as a Christian in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon . Each of us wanted some authentic  knowledge about what really shapes the mind of the Muslim terrorist ,  and we wanted facts  that went deeper than media reports of the Islamic faith as allegedly practiced by Muslims.
  One of these ministers  was 82-year-old  Eldor " Rick"  Richter (this was his church in Schaumburg), author  of   Comparing the Qur'an and the Bible  (BakerBooks, Grand Rapids, Michigan ,2011 ) . Rick, whose specialty is evangelizing to Muslims, is my  coffee buddy at McDonald's.  The other cleric was Hicham Chehab,  who converted to Christianity  after  fighting alongside the Lebanese militia . He's pastor to several hundred Muslims and Muslim  converts who attend his  Salam Christian Fellowship  churches in Lombard and Batavia.   The  missionary was Muhammad Y. ,  48 years of age ,  who directs  the Tyre Center for Gospel Proclamation  in  Tyre , Lebanon . One of his center's ministries is the care of 1.5 million  Syrian refugees—with more daily fleeing into his country.  Mohammad had recently arrived in the United States for a  fund-raising speaking  tour and to visit his friend Hicham whom he hadn't seen in ten years.
Mohammad with family on the day of his Big Decision 
    While my three friends  paused momentarily  in the church narthex to chat about a televised soccer game they had watched last night, I went over my research notes , such as the  Wall Street Journal column  " Houses  of  Worship " (June 27, 2014 ) in which   Charlotte Allen had reported : " The Pew Forum  on Religion and Public Life has found that Christians are persecuted in more places today than any other religious group, suffering formal or informal harassment in three-quarters of the world's countries.  The persecution of Christians, Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom wrote in the June 23 Weekly Standard, 'is occurring on a massive scale…and in many parts of the world it is rapidly growing. ' " 
 I had underlined Ms. Allen's  added comment  that "many Christian churches in the West seem to be too constrained by ethnic sensitivities to assert themselves on behalf of their persecuted brethren. They haven't  paid much attention  to the near-extermination  of the ancient  Christian communities in Iraq during the past decade of turmoil , or to the systematic destruction of Coptic churches in Egypt by the Islamic radicals in 2013. "      
"I'd like to first talk about your conversion, " I told Mohammad.  " Then about your family and something about your work with refugees. " 
"Of course,"  he replied.  " But make sure you don't use my last name.  When I gave up my Muslim faith  for the Christian faith, I was put on a terrorist assassination list.  "
"Can I refer to you as 'Muhammad  Y. ? ' " 
He nodded  approval and related his background: He had a degree in accounting  and , at age 25 , had accumulated  $500,000 by hard work but then lost everything while backsliding  from the Christian faith he had embraced  since a youth.
Muhammad   wore  dark blue pants, a pullover shirt with red and dark blue horizontal stripes and an a brown suede jacket , which he wanted me to know was "old. "  He has brown eyes and his black hair is  flecked with gray . I found out he is five-foot ten inches tall and  weighs 192 pounds .  Muhammad is ruggedly handsome . A few other  things one notices   is that he takes his faith quite seriously  and never is  at a loss  to make a point  by quoting from the Bible if necessary.  He laughs a lot . When stirred, especially about the threat of radical Islam, he rubs a finger across  a short beard and raises both hands chest-high.  He speaks English clearly and with  a  fast wit . While asking  him questions about his personal life, I noticed he was often glancing down at his hand-held smart phone.
" What are you doing, " I asked  , wondering how attentively  Muhammad had been listening.
"I'm texting some of your questions to my wife in Lebanon ." 
" And she's been answering you ? ! " 
He laughed. " I can do five things at the same time "
His  'daily catch"  of refugee children 
Further into our interview,  I discerned that Mohammad was not unlike  the missionaries  I had met during my travels while conducting leadership workshops around the world for Lions Clubs International :  Yes, this missionary was on call 24-7 and had , more or less,  detached himself from  what most of us consider essential to a normal life—like financial security and ordinary social pleasures .  
His Conversion…
The milestone in his life ?  " The day I got saved, " he said.    " I was living at the time in a very rich community near the American University of Beirut where a lot of professional people lived, where one gets an education on the street. They talked about politics and social issuers and the Israeli-Arab conflict.  It was a volatile neighborhood.  I was a street kid , living with my mother and step-father , and my real  father left us before I was born and divorced my mother. I started to think and ask questions like 'why am I here ? ' and 'who is  God ? ' I was trying to find answers in the Islamic faith but to no avail. I spoke to an Imam [ a Muslim prayer leader ]  but still did not find rest ."
            Mohammad then  recalled when , at age 14 and having been raised as a Sunni Muslim , he was sitting in a religion  classroom which he had been attending  since age 7 and   listening about the Christian way of salvation. Irresistible thoughts about Jesus kept coming to  him. " The moment and the hour was awesome.  But I was not ready to  make a commitment   to Jesus in front of my peers.   I was afraid.   I walked out of the classroom , and  that night I could not sleep. There was a big struggle in me. But  at 3 a.m. I knelt down and prayed about  how to  make a commitment to Jesus . I prayed out loud ; it just came out of my mouth.  ' Jesus, I am a sinner, Lord Jesus, forgive me, I need you. '  There was joy and I slept for four hours , and the next day I went to school ,  and my whole life was changed. There was so much going on inside me that I could not shut my mouth.  I was on fire and I wanted to share with everybody what had taken place inside me. "
            Mohammad paused  to catch  his breath. Then  glanced at his smart phone for any  new text from his wife . 
…and the Price
            " After I got saved , I found out that to live  for Jesus is not cheap, " he continued.   He  told  how during his early years as an evangelist when Muslim fundamentalists—both Sunnis and Shiites— twice tried to kill him in public .  "But it wasn't time for God to  call me home. "
 Seeing he needed protection, Muhammad's church pastor hid him in the north of Lebanon for six months.  But when Muhammad returned and resumed his life-threatening  evangelism, the pastor  once again feared for Muhammad's life and wrote a friend on the board of trustees of Bob Jones University in South Carolina  and asked that Muhammad be enrolled there .       
Three and a half  years later, Muhammad returned to Lebanon with his diploma and soon  began  planting new churches and handing out thousands of New Testaments. "We were in a devil's den, "  he said . He was  persecuted , of course,  such as the day  his wife was driving their children to Sunday school and a young Shiite man rushed on foot   at her car and tried—unsuccessfully— to drag her out, hitting her in  the  process. The Shii was angry, Mohammad said, because  Mohammad  and his wife were  "preaching the Gospel to Shiite Muslim children .  " ( Shiites and Sunni, the two major Muslim sects,  have been in conflict, often violent,  ever since the death of  their prophet Mohammad .)  "But my wife  came back smiling, " Muhammad  said smiling .  
Courtship and  Family
            Muhammad claims being  born into one of the largest Islamic families in Beirut (a cousin was a Muslim cleric ) .His father was born in the Gaza Strip, making him a "Palestinian-Jordanian."   In 1948 , the father  moved to the West Bank ( then Jordan) and later to Lebanon, where he met Mohammad's mother , who  came from a "well-known " Sunni background .He  married her in 1965 but  later left his wife , who then raised Muhammad alone  and remarried  in 1991.  
A bare bones Sunday School class
            " I found his whereabouts  later and contacted him ,"  Muhammad said. " He knew I was a Christian and could not take it. He was rich . Before we parted for the last time,  I told him  that the God who took care of me in the last 30 years will take care of me in the next 30 years. " The  father now works as a building machinery contractor in Frankfort, German .
            Mohammad met his wife, Grace Hanan—the Arab word for ''comfort'—at a basketball game at the American University in Beirut . "I was on fire for  Jesus and was telling her that she needed to get saved. She was a nominal Presbyterian and thought I was a nut and for awhile was cautious with me. She was nice to me but didn't want to continue with me. "
            Months later,  when Lebanon  in 1991  was in a civil war between Muslims and Christians,  Muhammad was preaching in a church where Grace's  mother , coincidentally , was sitting  near  Hanan . The young woman didn't know Muhammad was to preach that night. After the service , Hanan's future mother-in-law introduced her to Muhammad. " We started going out together, " Muhammad said.
            The couple courted for a year and a half, during which time  Hanah was "saved and baptized. " They were married in Muhammad's  church and honeymooned for three days  in " a big hotel up in the mountains. "
            Hanah,  now 48, gave birth to five children: Laya Nour, 21 ; Selina Yasmine,  20; Lynn Samira, 16; Peter Karim, 13, and Sara Hanan, 7. One daughter wants to become a doctor, another an evangelist to children.  The other children are living with their parents in Lebanon.
Backsliding and Losing It All
            Now crept a  more subtle enemy into Muhammad's camp—ambition. Speaking slower and softer, he explained: " Because I came from a poor family,  I always had an ambition to 'make it' in life . I forgot what is permanent in life and sacrificed it for  'the immediate. '  " At age 25 and now married with children,  he owned four retail stores in Beshamoun , a city near   Beirut. He  had accumulated  $500, 000, then went bankrupt—a crime in Lebanon—and was imprisoned for four months.  He left prison still "hard-headed about ambition , "  he said , "but God had His way…and I surrendered to it. "
            In 2008 in Beirut, he  was " stripped naked and  lost everything" . He  went to his wife and  said, "Honey, I'm quitting everything  ." She was shocked, Mohammad remembers. He liquidated what was left of any assets and started evangelizing on the streets. Three months later his wife once again questioned his sanity when he announced the family was moving to Tyre, where nearly  everyone was a Muslim.   " But my wife  was a Godly woman, and agreed to move. "
            For four months , Muhammad and his wife and five children slept on a concrete floor of the building that would become their ministry headquarters.  Muhammad was keen to have his children well-educated  in a Christian school but was disheartened upon  learning the total  annual  tuition would be $12,000.  The family prayed, and  within a few days the school principal asked Muhammad to send his wife to office,  where he not only hired her for a "good" salary with benefits,  but also enrolled the children tuition-free. 
            For fun, Muhammad plays basketball with friends on a court in Tyre . He also enjoys the family's pets: turtles, a parrot,  a cat, and dogs ( a beagle ,  Belgium shepherd, and a Dachshund ) .  "I've raised pets all my life so they  came with me to the marriage. My  pets served as a good schooling for my children; my pets  taught them responsibility, cleanliness, love and compassion. At  one time  we had a  puppy who died and all my children were crying and I could see they were learning to love. "
    This missionary said he  reads all kinds of books ( mainly in English)   about politics.   He has no time for television or movies, though he did enjoy seeing the movies "Ben Hur", " Quo Vadis ", and " Gone with the Wind. "
            " What do you want people to say about you after you die ? "  I asked him.  His reply: "I don't want people to say anything about me. "  I pressed him , and after a deep sigh he said,  "He served. "

The Awesome Variety of Refugees and Religion 
            Lebanon and its capital , Beirut—once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East—defies updated demographics because of  frequent oceanic waves of refugees and the  multiplicity of religious faiths  the refugees  bring with them into the country, Muhammad pointed out . In fact , no official census of Lebanon has been taken since 1932 .  Muhammad cited Lebanon's likely population as  an estimated 4.4 million people, and today the country  is struggling to absorb a refugee population of  7o0,000 Palestinians  as well as those 1.5  million Syrians. According  to a United Nations report,  " this deluge of refugees  has overwhelmed Lebanon's schools and public services, strained its economy, and stoked the sectarian and political tensions that continue to fuel the war in Syria. "      
Praying for mercy with a Muslim woman

            " The Syrian refugees come with just the clothes on their backs,"  Muhammad said.  His refugee  ministry center  is part of the Emmanuel Baptist Church of Tyre , a city of 300,000; he himself  claims no religious  denomination,  but all churches  in Lebanon, he said,   must operate under a "legal umbrella" of a denomination.  At his center, Muhammad and his  volunteer aid workers give out food, clothing, eye glasses, medicines,  and New Testaments . " We give these regardless of whether the refugees  have accepted Jesus as Lord. "  Last  Easter ,   Muhammad's center boiled 5,000 eggs and gave to each  refugee a loaf of bread and a  New Testament.
            At a nursery , Muslim children  learn Biblical verses taught by South Korea youth volunteers who write the scripture on a blackboard. "I have found Korean Christian  believers more zealous  than others to reach out to [to  evangelize ] Muslims ," Muhammad said. " They do this by being hospitable and by socializing. "  He said that last summer  his  ministry center gave aid to more than 1,000 children.
            A bookstore at the center  called "Noah's Ark "  provides  free coffee and Internet service in a room usually filled with more than 285 refugees.  " We also have a summer camp where 60 or so kids come for five  days to enjoy Jesus,"  Muhammad said.  "Last year I took it upon myself to put 50 children in a school.  We try to do everything to show them the love of Jesus.  Today the people know that Jesus loves me. " 
            Christianity , Muhammad will tell you, has a long and continuous history in Lebanon as well as a rich history of ethnic and religious diversity. He reminded me that the Bible tells of Jesus' visits to the southern territories where He performed many miracles.   And , he added,  Lebanon's cedar trees are mentioned in the Old Testament , and today the cedar tree remains the country's  national emblem . A Roman Catholic saint  named Sharbel Makhlūf , whom Pope Paul VI called the "admirable flower of sanctity blooming on the stem of the ancient monastic traditions of the East ," tended sheep  in the early 19th Century in Lebanon's wilderness. Though a civil war—it occurred after Lebanon gained independence  as a mandate of France in 1943—in the 1970's and 1980's was said to have wrecked the country's economy and infrastructure,  many tourists still remember Beirut's heyday  as a charming and sophisticated city .  ( I saw a bit of it briefly in the 1960's . ) 
             Muhammad's church is less than a year old ,  and its Sunday attendance is about 20 people . The country has 17 sects  with a  Christian  population of 31 to  41 per cent (21% Maronite, 8% Greek Orthodox, 5% Melkite Catholic ) .  Other sects , as reported by Statistics Lebanon, a Beirut-based research firm, are : 54% Muslim (27% Shia; 27% Sunni), 5.6% Druze ( they do not consider themselves   Muslims ) ,   and 6.4% other Christian denominations like Armenian Orthodox,  Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic,  Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Copt .    Most Protestants (Presbyterian, Congregational,  and Anglican ) ,  reports Wikipedia, were converted by missionaries ( primarily English and American ) during the 19th and 20th Centuries .  Roman Catholics, under the leadership of the Pope and curia in Rome, number about 1, 200, 000. Most are Maronites.
Worship with music on the streets of Tyre 
The Volatile Topic of Islam and Its Koran
             Mohammad asked about lunch when he noticed that Hicham and  Rick  were   waiting for us  in the church narthex . I grew anxious about a remaining  question which appeared  to open a safety pressure  valve in  this missionary  when I  asked, "Mohammad,  is there anything that repels you about the  Islamic faith?"
            " There is no love . I do not see love in the Koran.  I see a lot of selfishness , especially with marriage issues , like my  mother's first husband being able to divorce her so easily . Also,  a man can marry four women ?  A religion that promotes hatred and non-tolerance of others, and a social life that is contradictory to human values ? "
            He went on for another   20 minutes.
              " And when you confront them [ radical fundamentalists ]  with this, they tell you that you have  read a wrong translation of their   Koran. " 
     Muhammad had touched a nerve in me, too . Some Suras in the Koran I had found  disturbing , notably Sura IX 5 (known as " the verse of the sword, " Ayat-as-seif ) :  Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them…  And Sura IX 29 :   Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the  Last Day, and forbid not that which  Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the religion of the truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low.  And Sura VIII 39: fight then until …religion is all for Allah.  (These  citations are  from what many Muslim scholars consider the most authoritative Koran text in English,   The Glorious  Qur'an , rendered by Mohammad M. Pickthall .  )
And there was  this lead paragraph from the  Wall Street Journal article  ("Christians in Iraq Get Death Threats ",  July 19-20 , 2014 ) dispatched from Baghdad: " The Islamic militants who seized large swaths of Iraq  last month  have threatened Christians with death if they don't convert to Islam, pay a tax or flee insurgent-held areas by Saturday. "        
     Muhammad  now  waxed philosophical: " I'm not saying that the Western world  is a Christian world, which is a fantasy, for  if it were totally Christian , there wouldn't be any tolerance for any other religion. But the Western world is secular and this is why all people from all religions come here ; it's a safe haven. God allowed people to have the freedom of choice. "
            Mohammad then  went after  Middle East dictators like Assad, Mubarak, and Ghadafi  , each whom he said  didn't  care about the people and "have used religion to usurp power and to stay in control . " He reminded me  that several  American politicians, powerful and otherwise,  had used  a similar strategy  to win election.  "All monarchs of the past in the Middle  East, " Muhammad continued, "thought of themselves as Gods and made rules to control the people. "
I broke a  journalist's  rule and , for a moment, got emotionally involved with  my interview.  "That kind of manipulation and hypocrisy has been going on forever in most Arab countries  !" I said . " Yet the people keep electing these tyrants  .  You'd think by now that the   people, the ordinary citizens  would  put a good man on the ballot and get him elected  ! "
            Mohammad frowned .  Then  loud enough for Rick and Hicham to hear him, he exclaimed,  " The people are afraid !   Fear  is the key  !  That's why they need Jesus to overcome their fear, and that's why I'm there. "       
 Tough Words for Some American  Christians 
      Muhammad's passion for evangelism  I had witnessed a few days earlier when he spoke at Hicham's church in Lombard. He had been invited  as a guest of honor months ago but his visit had been delayed  for a several  weeks while his ministry was being investigated by the powerful Hezbollah party . The party , he told me, had once warned him not to stay in Tyre if he  continued  evangelizing.  The implication was that Hezbollah had serious concerns that Muslims  would start believing in the words of Jesus rather than the Koran. 
              "There are Christians today in   the Middle East who stand with dictators to protect themselves , "  he had  told his  audience. Only two per cent of  all the world's Christian missionaries go to the Middle East,  he said.  His voice pitched higher and louder , reminiscent of the fire and brimstone sermons of  old time  American  tent crusaders.  " American Christians are not living up to their standards of being holy for a holy God…It's all for Jesus or nothing at all…."             After giving  a power point presentation of refugee scenes in Lebanon,  his voice raised even higher:  " We don't need  methods to reach Muslims. .. It's simple: You  love them ! Give them a hug, take them to lunch,  visit them in prison…the Gospel is so sweet and awesome because it's simple ! "  ( Weeks later, Mohammad would email me: " The security situation in Lebanon is not good. We might be in for some violent conflict. But God leads my battles with ISIS, Hezbollah, and every ungodly group, using the most powerful  weapon on earth: LOVE . " )
Lunch, Final Reflections, and a Prayer    
            After the interview , the four of us drove to a café and took an inordinate amount of time filling our plates with a variety of Asian and Middle Eastern food spread upon six long buffet tables  and two dessert bars.  Though  it was obvious by dessert time that no one had any stomach for   "serious" talking , I felt obligated to ask Muhammad one more question .  " Tell me, Muhammad , "  I said, "what's your personal challenge in life  ? "         
            " To live in purity, "  he replied. " To not defile myself,  to not let sin creep into my soul.   I  face that challenge daily. " 
            "I think we all face that  challenge,"  Rick said.
     We rose to leave . I think Rick and I would have liked to have   come up with a Hitler or a Stalin to blame for  much of the violence  on earth today. That would be a much more concrete target to oppose  than  radicalized Islamists popping up all over. "Dealing with evil that is woven into the fabric of the world's culture is tortuous ," I told my friend.  When  we  were to meet the next time  for coffee at McDonald's , he would  read to  me   a line from Holy Scripture ( Ephesians 6:12 ) ; it identified , he believed ,  the real culprit, whether of  war  in the Middle East or  a gangbanging in Chicago:  For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.       
     Soon after that  day in McDonald's,  Rick was to hand me an old Wall Street Journal interview ( March 6-7, 2010 ) of a former Palestinian who had converted to the Catholic faith while serving as a spy for Israel. Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of  the founder and then leader of  Hamas , stated  his belief that terrorism can't be defeated  without a new understanding of Islam. "The problem is not in Muslims, " he told the Journal's editorial board member Matthew Kaminski . " The problem is with their God. They need to be liberated from their God. He is their biggest enemy. It has been 1,400 years they have been lied to. "        
Walking in camaraderie to the cafe parking lot, I , for one, still wondered what  was my role as an American and a Christian   in the scheme of all this . Was  it no more than  writing  articles like this?   Life had shaped Mohammad, Hicham, Rick and I into different people with  vastly different likes and  dislikes , drives,  and personalities .  Yet what we had in common was clear : a bonding relationship  with a Jew born 21 centuries ago in the Middle East. It was a good start. 
            Driving home with Rick that day,  I told him of my encounter with  a  Muslim taxi driver  who had taken me home from  O'Hare International Airport . For fifteen minutes this man from Pakistan  had been explaining to me what he thought were  the many similarities between  Islam and Christianity.  He had obviously s seen his share of violence and hatred  and how it had been tolerated—if not often  encouraged in the Middle East— from father to children to grandchildren to great-grandchildren and on and on. In my driveway as he unloaded  my luggage , I briefly thought of how unbridled hatred and lust for revenge can perpetuate themselves ,  making peace impossible .
            I handed my tip to the Muslim man and,  looking at him with a smile, I politely said:  "  Many of we Christians actually do practice something which you Muslims don't… We  forgive our enemies, sometimes even pray for them.  "  The Muslim opened his mouth as if stunned by such a preposterous thought.  He stared at me for a few seconds ,  then got in his taxi and  drove off.  It was too late to mention one of  life's fundamental temptations stated by a saint name Benedict , founder of Western Monasticism : unbridled passion for revenge . But I did hope my words , at the least,  would   deprive him  of a good night's sleep. 
A  few days after this interview , Hicham posted this prayer on his internet blog ( ) :  " Most of us  who have considered giving our  lives to Christ have been bullied by pressures, threats, and mistreatment from family, friends, colleagues, supervisors, religious authorities, and police. This week we pray for Muslims who are searching  for the truth. Many Muslims are not satisfied with the religious teachings and traditions they have known all their lives . They try to find a solution to their problems, relief  in their dilemmas ..." 
( from left ) The Reverends Hicham Chehab,  Rick
Richter, and missionary Muhammad Y. 


© 2014  Robert R. Schwarz
All comments welcome




Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sr. Faustina: Down from Pike's Peak and Up on God & Students

                                        " I just knew I wanted to do everything that
                                                            had to do with God  ."  ( Sr. Faustina Ferko )

By Robert  R. Schwarz

            She is 35 but looks years younger.  She stands five-foot-seven , has brown hair and smiling  blue-green eyes  and a cheerful disposition ,  and she prays several times during the day and evening.  She likes hamburgers without a bun ,  guitar  playing , making pottery ,  and cycling along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Et cetera, et cetera. You could call  Sr. Faustina  Ferko a kind of Catholic Renaissance  woman  but  you'd have to expand that definition to include mountain climbing. She's hiked up Pike's Peak twice and,  during one ascent when pelted with hail, rain, and snow and seeing  flashes of lightning , she thought she was going to die.
" I was praying and asking Jesus to lead my steps ," she said during our interview.  Whenever she mentioned  "Jesus" , she intoned His name as if He were  a beloved neighbor of hers whom she had known   for a long time.
            As was to be expected when Sr. Faustina Ferko was hired as the new director of youth ministry at St. James  Catholic church in Arlington Heights , Illinois, she came with  a devotion to Jesus and also to those conversion moments with students  she calls  "God  moments. "  During our hour together, she recalled one of those special  moments when a novice stationed at a Philadelphia high school : It was in a chapel there  after an " adoration "  service of prayers and singing  for freshmen .  "Everybody was getting up to leave except for a girl who remained kneeling ," Sr. Faustina said. " I asked her if she was okay , and she said ' yes , but I don't want to go. ' It was like she was saying  this is God and I don't want to leave Him . For this girl ,  it was a beautiful moment. "
       Sr. Faustina took a deep breath before

continuing : "That was the beginning [ of a

conversion] for that young lady , and for it to

happen at her age is so important . In that

moment they understand how much God loves

them. The younger these children can take hold

of the realization that God is real and that He

wants a relationship with them, the better. "  She related with exuberance all this to her ministry  at

St. James  by emphasizing the importance having a " good atmosphere  for the students to encounter

Christ."   Sr. Faustina has "high expectations" for the program she is developing at St. James to get

adult volunteers to teach  religious education to 9  th through 12th grade students , whether they have been  confirmed or not. "I think a lot of parents are looking for ways to better plug our teens into this parish. "
            I asked her what she would like people to say about her at her funeral . Her prompt reply: "I saw Jesus in her."
Why and How She Became a Religious Sister
How did it all begin for her ?   " The beginning seed was planted in my heart at age eight at a 2 ½ –hour charismatic Mass,"  she said. " It was very engaging. " Then I attended a seminar where I learned about gifts of the Holy Spirit. At the end, people pray over you. When they prayed over me, I felt my heart and His heart became one. At that age I didn't know what that meant.  I just knew I wanted to do everything that had to do with God .  I realized that as I  got older,  my heart was so big and full of so much love that I wanted to give it to more than just one person."
            Then came four years at Franciscan University at Steubenville, Ohio and a bachelor of arts degree in theology.  Now with a college debt to pay off,  Sr. Faustina spent the next ten years working as a youth director at various levels and  with  various jobs to help pay off that debt . She made rosaries, loaded  trucks for United Parcel Service, and answered telephones for a telemarketing agency. Today she is a sister ( and resident )  of  Holy Family of Nazareth in Des Plaines ,  an order formed in 1875 in Rome , which today has   1,300 sisters—not nuns, who are cloistered and whose vocation is primarily prayer. The order's work in its 13 countries  focuses on helping families.
            Asked if she ever had any regrets about choosing a religious rather than a family life, Sr.

Faustina  said with obvious , good-natured candor, " I don't think I can have regrets yet. I just made

my first vows June 15. "  We both laughed.  "I'm kind of still in the honeymoon stage. I'm totally

blown away by all that God has given me in the last three  months. So, I have no regrets. I always

knew I had a religious vocation in life but at the same time I  knew that if God brought some

wonderful  guy into my life I would be open to that . My mom was always saying  'I'm praying for

you to meet  a nice Catholic man ."  Again we shared a good  laugh. Then she continued : "So, last

June 15 I told my mom   'thanks for praying for me into the arms of Jesus . You couldn't get a better

guy than that .'  I wouldn't change my life decision now for anything, for I think God has given me

everything I've dreamed of ,  a great job and two great bosses  [ Fr. Matt Foley, pastor,  and JoAnne 

Mullen-Muhr , director of faith formation ] . "
Family Life
            All of Sr. Faustina's family  lives in  Erie, Pennsylvania .  Her father is  retired  from General Electric, where he did manual labor on train parts for 35 years. " He always put the family first, Sr. Faustina said. "If we needed a pair of shoes or pants, he'd buy it for us before himself.  Thanks to the sacrifices of my father,  I was able to attend Catholic schools all  my life. He'd put everything on the back burner to make sure that we got our Catholic education. "  She has two brothers:  Jamie, 41, a kitchen designer at a Lowe's store  , and Frankie, 43, an electrician for Verizon. 
And for   Recreation ?          
            With  full-time youth ministry and  rising at 5 a.m. for  prayers,  private adoration, and  meditation  , and later, saying  the Rosary followed by afternoon and evening prayers , one wonders  if there's any time—or energy—left for Sr. Faustina's  recreation. But there is. Sometimes she sees a movie like "l2 Years a Slave"   or  " Rise of the Planets of the Apes "—my grin at this title  was noticeable, causing Sr. Faustina to comment , "A Friend talked me into it. It really, though, was a decent movie. " 
            And there are books: " The Giver," which she thought fantastic,  " The Hunger Games, "  The Gospel  of Joy," by Pope Francis, and books by Henri Nouwen.  She exercises , which includes  long bike rides, like the 17-miles she pedaled last Labor Day  along Lake Michigan near Loyola University. What seems to delight her most is  "hanging" with her sisters at the Des Plaines convent, where she'll play and sing her guitar for them. "They are my community, " she said . " Spending time with them is really important. "
       With  two students at a Catholic Heart work camp at
 Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

            She paused for a long moment to mull over a question about what makes  her sad. Finally, she said, "When something tragic happens like  the beheading of that American journalist in Iraq.  It also made me angry. It also makes me sad that a child dies from hunger every 20 seconds, and  here I am with all this food around me and I can't get it to them."
            She was suddenly reminded of the 24-hour hunger  food fast  she is planning for all the parish high school students . " It's a 24-hour lock-in ," she explained . " They will drink water and juice and then end with a 5 p.m. Mass followed by a feast of all their favorite foods their parents will bring. "  Money will be donated for each hour the students go without food and then  given to Catholic Relief Services.

We ended our conversation with one last question: Was there anything she  had to learn the hard

way?   What had been most challenging for her was being unable to see her parents during her

novitiate  except for two weeks each year . Another challenge came quickly to mind: "Oh, yeah," she

mused, recalling her first days as a novice  and how she was instructed to wash dirty dishes ( she still

does this ).  " Correction is difficult when you're 30 years old and somebody is telling you how to do

something you've been doing well for years . She admitted that the  real challenge was pride.

Comments are welcome
© 2014 Robert R. Schwarz



Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Case for Re-defining the Strength of 'Weak ' People

By Robert R. Schwarz

When I am weak, then I am strong
( The Apostle Paul, 2 Corinthians, 12:10 )

God chose the  weak of  the world to shame the strong
( 1 Corinthians , 1: 27 )

If we should ever feel burdened by the knowledge
of our weakness…let us remember what  the Lord
told St. Paul during his time of trial : "My graces
is sufficient for  you,  for my power is made perfect
 in weakness ."
( from Conversations with God by Francis Fernandez )

Many years ago I was  saddened and  also   dismayed by the death of two friends whom I had considered paragons of human strength—emotional, physical, intellectual. As a journalist, their deaths left me  with a need to know why our society appears confused  about the core of human strength . Should we call a man or woman " weak" when , upon closer discernment , we see how strong he or she is when put to the test ; or label someone "strong" when he has over a lifetime behaved with subtle weakness  ?
 I  began to probe these  questions by recalling those hundreds  of   men and women  who, despite the brutal clubbing  and  lunges of police dog,  stayed the course of their freedom march in  Selma , Alabama ; and  of  those  peaceful marches in 1930 in India when thousands were   savagely beaten by soldiers determined to eliminate a country-wide  protest against a British imposed, harsh  tax on simple salt.  And then I read  the Wall Street Journal    article that  appeared  after  Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs . In describing  the SEAL's training  as the hardest training in the world , where only 10 to 20 percent of trainees  graduate, Lt. Cmdr. Eric Greitens , himself  a SEAL   in the U.S. Navy Reserve, wrote: " Almost all the men who survived [ his own  training class ] possessed one common quality. Even in great pain, faced with the test of their  lives, they had the ability to step outside of their own pain, put aside their own fear and ask: How can I help the guy next to me? They had more that a 'fist' of courage and physical strength. They also had a heart large enough to think about others, to dedicate themselves to a higher purpose."   
Blessed Mother Teresa
How we view indomitable human strength and pitiful, often concealed weakness became clearer  when I began to think of the lives of six   friends : a corporate vice president,  psychiatrist,  homeless man,  ex-felon,  fast-food clean-up man , and department store clerk. I have chosen one of them to write about in some depth . Hopefully, I'll someday find it appropriate  to tell you about the others . First, a brief account of two "strong" men… I have changed some names and locations.
 Dillon  was a college varsity wrestler and cross-country runner who later wore captain bars  as a U.S. Infantry paratrooper during the Korean Conflict. He married a smart, classy  woman who lovingly  bore him three children and saw that they were raised on a good ole fashioned regimen of American morality, work ethics , and patriotism.  Dillon  became vice president  for an international  consulting company, managing several hundred employees. 
According to Dillon , drinking with the boys  was part of the job,. "You find out what the competition is doing at the hotel bar," he once told me. He could come home at 3 a.m. , fall asleep on the living room floor  watching television, then rise  at 6:30 a.m. with  full steam for work.  "Dillon has amazing recuperative powers," his wife would say.  But after twenty-five years of riding the corporate  high, Dillon 's "powers" were not recharging so quickly. There had been a lot of nights with the boys at hotel bars. " I can stop drinking anytime I want , "  he explained in a huff  to his wife after walking out of his first—and last— AA meeting .
One afternoon ,   Dillon , his wife and I were sitting in my home making arrangements for a mutual friend's  funeral.  I knew of  the reoccurring troubles Dillon 's drinking had brought to his work and family life . I turned to him and ,  as if asking an academic question,  said: "Dillon , would you sacrifice anything  for the love of you wife?"   He thought for a moment before realizing he was being confronted  with something   off limits, in a mine field .  "Oh," he said,  trying  to dismiss my question as  unworthy of much thought,  "you mean the drinking ."  e said He  He said no more, and , unfortunately,  neither did his wife nor I .  But the unspoken point had been  made: Though you love your wife dearly, Dillon , do you have the courage, the guts to do something extremely vital to your family's happiness?  
Helen Keller
     A couple of years later, Dillon , now separated from his wife and drinking a tumbler of vodka before noon, sat down one day to assess  his situation.  Unbelievably,  the  mind that once provided leadership for cadres of managers and also  handled  the self-sacrificing  logistics of raising two daughters and a son,  concluded: Things could be better but, really, Dillon,  it's not all that bad. Right?  
He tried to rise from his chair but couldn't.   The legs  which at college could race  three miles in less than 15 minutes and which could   seize the  ground after a chute  drop from ten thousand feet up,   had suddenly become paralyzed.  Dillon— and I know God loved him-- died a few weeks later.  
My other friend  was a psychiatrist  whom I met in an interview for a series I was writing about a mental health center.  Dr. Rudy Sunburg was 42 , a tall , balding , cigar-smoking , humor-witted , North Carolina  boy with  an  I-like-people  personality . Rudy's  hearty  laugh  compensated for the barely tolerable  puns  he told to staff and patients alike. Everyone wanted to claim friendship with Rudy.   He was a fun-loving father to a Mexican boy whom  he and his wife had adopted soon after Rudy  had left a  successful general practice for psychiatry.  We and our wives  bonded  during the years Rudy and I served on  the board of a county  mental health association .
My wife and I often visited  Rudy in his home and soon learned he  was  an atheist who actually carried this ID in his wallet . This fact never seemed to bother his colleagues or patients, that is until  Rudy was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. Pain  now  forced him to sleep  in  a hardback chair at night, facing the back of the chair and resting  his head on  folded  arms.  A few days before  Rudy was hospitalized,  I looked for an opening to  say what I knew must be said to a good friend.  I  waded in with:  "Rudy, what if you're wrong about God and everything.  At least cover your bases and—".  I didn't know what to say next. In those days I did not articulate my Christian faith very well.  But Rudy gave me full attention  with a  polite  smile that said he had  heard it all before, most of it from his devout , Southern Baptist mother .
Martin Luther King , Jr. 
 The next week I visited Rudy at a Chicago hospital .  Still the atheist,  Rudy  joked about the morphine which had constipated him so severely that it required a nurse—a friend of his— to  give him relief by hand.   A Jewish lady chaplain entered, and we all talked and made witty remarks .  Though  Rudy  was expected to fight off his foe for several more weeks, he died— suddenly the next day.
 Later, I couldn't help but ask myself: Had my friend died with at least one  thought of God and His omnipresence, His omniscience, His omnipotence ?    Had my friend ,  before his final darkness, had any thought of a heaven , that maybe, just maybe  his atheism had let him down? Or did my friend, with his disciplined empirical certitude,  believe he was facing the absolute end of himself —forever? If so and if he saw his last days as nothing but unceasing  pain or  his  spinning in a mind-numbing cloud of morphine, then I dreaded to ask: had this  wonderful psychiatrist   yesterday written for himself  one last prescription and then  handed it  to his nurse friend. 
Then Came Philip: a Rare Breed
Philip's speaking voice belied his appearance, and you might assume it belonged to a radio announcer or a corporate CEO, for it had a mellow timbre that resonated self-control and perfect diction. Though you had never seen his face ( which  was not especially  memorable ), you'd be willing to risk an opinion that his man was kind and trustworthy. That his face hardly ever showed  any trace of any interior conflict could most likely be attributed to the stiff-upper-lip attitude of his parents of German descent.   
  The few who regularly interacted with Philip saw him as a  private ,  gentle ,  and meek-spirited man who rarely asserted himself , and when he had to, it was with utter calm and absence of any guile. I found it interesting that my friend would rather face  the occasional hoard of grasping customers at the department store which employed him  than  the give-and-take of any human  relationship. Other than an occasional wish to  be a few inches taller than his five-feet-five inches,  his ambitions were to be an honest and diligent salesperson in his furniture section and  to retain a sane and  secure lifestyle that allowed him frugality and simplicity.  
            Philip was a college graduate and had majored in business administration. Except for the 20 years of  the  live-in mutual   companionship he had given without stint to  his widowed mother,  Philip had   lived alone as a bachelor  in a studio apartment in Arlington Heights,  Illinois.  According to his sister ( whom I knew before her death ), Philip never dated except for a girl he took to his high school prom.   As best I know,   Philip had no psychological hang-ups ,  nor did he ever appear  to have any passions, disordered or otherwise ; this,  however, would  belie  his enormous empathy for other people's suffering. Once, while relating to me an incident at his neighborhood supermarket when a runaway car  struck and killed a teenage girl, Philip's eyes were wet with tears.  Though he had a low discomfort threshold for crowds,  he  enjoyed nothing more than using his innate and low-key salesmanship skills to please a customer . I always had the notion that the counter which separated Philip from his customers  served as a sort of shield that emboldened him  to come closer to people in a spirit of friendship , something his very nature could not consummate outside the  store.
            I believe that  Philip ,  whom I  had known off and on  since boyhood days, was a moral  man in all respects. Yet , except for the one time my wife and I took Philip to a church  Christmas pageant , I never knew  Philip to attend a church service. He could  not  emotionally tolerate all the human intimacy of  any church service  . " I just can't pray with other people , "  he confided to me with regret . Yet  he always took his turn at prayer at our weekly coffee 'n'  donut meetings .   
When Philip was a teenager, his  father died of a rare blood  ailment while the family was
Abraham Lincoln
vacationing out East. For years the tragedy traumatized Philip .

This incident and that of witnessing a lightning bolt kill three soldiers

marching closely behind him during his Army basic training caused him

for all time to be exceptionally prudent about anything or anyone that

could  possibly diminish his health or his modest bank account .
A Typical Day
            I well knew my friend's typical day , which never lost it structure for  decades.  Philip was up at 5 a.m.  and put on one of  two  suits, a white shirt , and  one of his  four  neckties (  each was a past Christmas  present  from a niece and or his  sister in Minnesota ).  His breakfast is  a muffin—usually blueberry—and a cup of decaffeinated instant coffee. Philip  had an aversion to cooking his own meals—something to do with a memory of  army chow and its punishing  KP duty.    He takes  many of his dinners at a McDonald's  . A physician would tell him years later that his  meal regimen  likely had contributed to his two  heart attacks . 
 Before leaving for work, he gives a worried   thought to the fragile  health of his octogenarian sister or  the expected cost of a brake job for his 14-year-old Chevy  or , and  most troublesome , the kind of person a new boss might  be . It perturbed Philip, he had  told me when he was  76  ,  not to know if he'd  be up to the challenge of again  having to adjust to a possible quirk in a new boss'  management style .  
            Philip now  descends two  flights of stairs. He drives his car out of a small  parking lot across the street and, in ten minutes, arrives at his  department store. Because his car once didn't start and he had to take a taxi to work, he always arrives at the shopping center 90 minutes  early and  sits in the car until the employee entrance  opens.  
            It  is a large and busy store, part of a national  chain.   Top management has been continually cutting back hours for  full-time employees or  firing  them upon the slightest infraction of company rules and then replacing these people with  part-time employees who , of course , work without medical benefits and whose hours are   changed  mercurially  from week to week to conform to  cash flow demands.  Loyal, hardworking veteran employees like Philip are shown no favoritism, Philip explained after I had  prodded him to divulge  few company "secrets."    
Ever  since he had   opted for a small pay-out instead of a regular company pension ,   Philip's salary had become  barely adequate for rent and food. Unbelievably, he and some other employees, hadn't  had a raise in more than 12 years. "If we complain "—Philip never would—"they find some reason to let us go,"  he told me. He talks about moving to a low- rent apartment in another suburb but procrastinates because of his short drive to work and because he has , for various reasons known only to himself, staked his life's territory in  Arlington Heights. 
Sgt. Alvin York 
     A year ago,  a new manager lost patience with Philip for not meeting a

 daily quota of company credit card  applications. Philip  was downgraded.

 " I just couldn't pressure people to sign up for a credit card  when I sensed

they really didn't want it,"  Philip told me.  The downgrade  stung Philip,

but he did not protest and  continued to give his best.

The change in his job description now had him unwrapping and carting   sofas and armchairs and stocking shelves .  All this physical work was obviously meant to force Philip to quit . It  was taking its toll on Philip, now  walking slower .  
            Philip after work  heads for dinner ,  sometimes to his favorite  shopping center café for a dinner of  pasta ( his favorite )  or one of those hot pork sandwiches on white bread smothered with canned gravy and a side of  instant mashed potatoes . Then it's home to his apartment—which no one has ever seen, except his sister when she helped him move in and showed him how the hideaway bed worked . For several months he has  entered by the building's  backdoor to avoid  encountering a tenant  who, for no apparent reason, hurls demented insults at him whenever their paths cross:  "Come on, Shorty, look alive !" she says.
            Once  home,  Philip does not leave his apartment until morning. Before going to bed, he'll watch a Public Television documentary or a  library-borrowed movie  from the 1940's .  On any of  his two days' off, Phillip  might spend a few hours reading the Wall Street Journal at the library    or taking the train (once a month ) to the Loop to  have  a corn beef-on-rye   sandwich at a German restaurant,  one of the very few luxuries he allows himself.  Twice, maybe three times a year he'll  have lunch  with an aging tailor  friend. Philip's wardrobe for these off days consists of no more than two plaid shirts (washed but never ironed ) and  one pair of aged, slightly baggy pants with cuffs rolled up about  three inches.  
More Coffee, Nostalgia, and Shoplifters
            When Philip's sister died, he  made a two-day trip to Minnesota  for the services.  I telephoned him the  day of his return:  "Let's meet at Caribou for coffee ," I offered. It was his favorite place; with its fireplace and knotty pine walls ,  it  reminded  him of a Northern Minnesota resort where Philip and family would often vacation and  fish .  Central in his memory was that of the convivial , nature-sage  resort owner of  Chippewa descent. 
            As usual, Philip insisted I choose where to sit. I reminded him that it was his turn to pray.    His prayer was brief , sincerely expressing gratitude for life itself and  asking blessings for my wife. He ended  it with  "we pray in His name. "  I wondered why he had made  no reference to his sister, whose death I knew had deeply wounded him . ( "I wasn't even warned , !" he had told me tearfully on the telephone upon returning from Minnesota.  )
       Our conversation eventually turned to old Hollywood movies and actors like his favorite,  Gary Grant .We talked about how the prices of new cars  had soared since the 50's, and  finally  about the very rich and famous  and how  they unwisely or wisely spend  their money—and how they died. This last topic prompted  Philip to relate  the time he found $l4 ,000 at  work. It was in a pouch  on the floor, dropped accidentally by  a cashier rushing to the security office. "It was anyone's who wanted it, "  Philip said, still irritated at the cashier's clumsiness.    "No one was in sight at the time and the cashier would never recall where she had  dropped it. When I turned it in to security, they    grabbed the pouch  from me and  gave me a queer  look . I think they might have said 'thank you. ' " 
Philip frowned
Philip always has a complaint  about the  boldness of shoplifters .This time it was a thin woman who, before she was caught, had  walked out of a dressing room   wearing two layers of stolen dresses concealed under her own dress . And  there were "customers"  who switched their own shoes with those in a  shoe box.  Philip , who once sold shoes in the store, found this disgusting.  When the topic of charity came up, it was a rare time I saw Philip get visibly angry. "I don't understand it," he said , laying aside a large  chocolate cookie. "When  we give  change back to a customer and suggest they consider dropping just  a LITTLE of it  into this box  here to help our  veterans, they make the lamest excuses. "  Philip rattled off the excuses. 
              He leaned back and  relaxed. For awhile , we drank our coffee in silence. I became impatient, and so I probed , perhaps unkindly.  "Doesn't anything ever  upset  you , Philip? I mean,  do you ever think about heaven or hell ?" 
He sensed the edge to my voice . With a confessional tone and angry with me for  invading his privacy , he shot back with:  "Look, I don't know much about where I'm going when I die. I'm just concerned about all the tragedy that's now in  the world. "  He said this with such a heavy  heart that I was embarrassed , for I had obviously assaulted my friend's dignity .
     After another long pause, Philip again surprised me with more personal candor. "I wonder why God allows good people to suffer." He had , of course, been thinking about his sister. 
            " I don't really know ,"  I answered . "I don't think anyone has been completely satisfied with an answer. "  I sipped more coffee, then said , " Maybe it's for a greater good. "                 
            A few days later,  my wife and I had  Philip over for dinner. He was totally refreshed as only a night or two of  deep, good sleep can do for a person.  My wife Mary Alice asked him how his new boss was treating him . 
            Flashing a smile that lingered several seconds, Phillip  quickly replied: "Well,   her name is Doris ,  and she's about maybe 28. A little assertive and doesn’t know how to say to her employees  ' Would you mind doing this?' or  'Why don't you… ?'   But then she's  under a lot of pressure to turn things around in our department." He always could find some good  in anyone, no matter how they treated him.
 Over dessert , he had a lot more to say about Doris. 
     "Listen to this now. I come to work early one morning, set things up in  the stock room before I clock in. I didn't know there had been a mistake in the shift schedule and that I wasn't suppose to work  that day. My new boss comes in, sees me,  says she's really sorry for the mix-up and gives me a big hug. Can you imagine.  Then she says, 'We're going make it up to you with five  extra hours of work for you  next week . ' " 
I clapped. My  wife, happy,  bit her lip.
"I'm not finished, " Philip said.  " You know that brake job I've been putting off?  Two hundred bucks less than I thought !"
We escorted Philip to the front porch.  I watched him walk into the night towards his parked car. " He's wearing that same old  shirt," I murmured  to my wife. " Be quiet, " she told me. 
Philip's walk was  slower than ever  and his back  now  slightly  hunched and his arms sort of dangling rather than swinging at his side.  How ever do  his kind mange to  survive ?  I thought. Yet,   I admitted,  though halfheartedly,  there was something to envy about my friend.
Old Store Clerks Don't  Retire ; They Just Get Forced Out
Somewhere in the late 1990's , Philip's department store became more aggressive in replacing full-time workers with part-time people  whose medical benefits then ceased  and  whose hours  managers  could now be easily  manipulated solely for company advantage. In Philip's eyes,   the employee   turnover was dizzying and shameful.  Especially targeted were employees of Philip's age—he now was 75—and who had years ago opted to take that  small cash payout instead of a pension. All pensions were soon  eliminated. Philip , whose hours had been cut to under 20 per week,  now had  gone an unbelievable 16 years without a raise .  When he told me that, I shouted   "that can't be true !" 
"It is," he said without visible emotion.   "The employee who complains too much finds his hours are drastically cut or they find some excuse to fire him."
His  45 years as a shoe , then  furniture salesman  had earned him  a reputation of unquestionable honesty and company  loyalty. Sadly—and stupidly and unethically—the company, with its often draconian rules, was doing its best to discourage  loyalty and work diligence  in their  500-plus store employees. Nevertheless, Philip remained steadfast to his code of conduct.  When I asked him why he just didn't quit, he said he  couldn't  afford to. But there was another , more entrenched reason . I knew quite well that Philip through the years had bonded with  a  predictable and work-satisfying  workday  .  This , along with a handful of coworkers,  had  become  home , and he embraced it for better or  worse. 
Near the end of 2011 , Philip's work hours were cut to five . One day a week he climbed a tall  inventory ladder to stock shoe boxes; it  gave him  back pain. On Jan 26, 2012 Philip quit.  What really pushed him over the edge, I believe ,  was the depression he had  felt  for two days after his young , ambitious , and most likely insecure  female boss had inexplicably shouted  at him . It had occurred at least twice, each time at the end of the day when Philip , as a voluntary gesture, began  working beyond his quitting time to tidy up some inventory. "She'd start yelling at me : ' What are you hanging around here for ?! …All I could do , Bob, was stand there and look at her. "
" What are you going to do now ? "  I asked .  
"I don't know.  For now, I'm just enjoying being free of her . " 
Philip's boss  was one of those humans—so I conjectured—who  are repelled by what they perceive as  inexcusable weaknesses  in people . With some alarm they  sense—but find it impossible to admit—that this weakness is coiled in themselves. The mere thought of ever becoming in the least like a Philip—despite any virtue that this "weakness" might given them —threatens to shatter their self-esteem.
The more I reflected on what Philip continued to tell me, the better I  understood my own frailties and  saw why some "strong" individuals dread and even hate being in the company of people like Philip .  I recalled  poignant, though fictional,  examples of this given by two  great novelists : Herman Melville ( "Billy Budd") and Victor Hugo  ( "Les Miserable's " ) . Holy Scripture  ( Wisdom 2: 12-20 )  , also explains the behavior of  Philip's boss .  It concerns itself with the suffering of Christians  who are persecuted and hated , the author writes,   by those who say this  Christian guy we know  is " obnoxious to us [and ] the censure of our thoughts; merely to see him is a hardship for us…With revilement, let us put him to the test ."     
A week or two later, the head store manager and a few co-workers arranged a retirement  occasion for Philip in the cafeteria. There was no wrist watch or severance pay . But there were a few "goodbye-it's-been-good-to-know-you  comments from the manager . There also was  coffee and two strawberry cakes.
Mahatma Gandhi

It Couldn't Get Any Worse
When Philip told me he no longer could afford his $650 a month apartment rent, his  tribulation finally  exasperated me. Now it was me who  shouted at him : " But Philip,  you did see  this day coming, didn't you ? ! And you didn't  save for it ?!  Or look for a different job years ago?! " 
Philip  looked at me with  that calm and collected expression which again signaled  I was about to learn something .
" There was no money to save , " he simply said.  " And I told you before I tried looking for work years ago, but I guess I was too old  even then."
            With the  help of a niece who lived in Chicago,  Philip moved into a nearby , low-cost retirement home .  His Social Security check was surrendered each month to the home ; he was allowed to keep $100 of it.   His room was perhaps ten feet wide and 25 feet long; it had a bed, microwave and a small  television set . Several old and faded black and white family  photos were tacked on the wall or in frames on a small desk.  A black and white framed  etching of Jesus  was on a bedside table.
     One morning, a few months after Philip  had moved into the home , he was walking out to his 16-year-old  Chevy  when he began losing breath.  The home called a doctor , and he was admitted to I.C.U at Northwest Community hospital  . His heart , which had several years ago  required an angioplasty , was now pumping blood with only 15 per cent efficiency.  Doctors implanted a pacemaker and a defibrillator .
            Philip recovered , and within a few weeks we were again meeting for coffee.  Heeding his doctor's advice,  Philip refused to ever drive again. For five months his car remained with four flat tires in the parking  lot, until  a mechanic gave him  $500 for it. Other than the death of his parents and sister , I don't believe my friend was ever more saddened as upon surrender of   his car , his  last vestige of independence,  he claimed.
            For two weeks  Philip declined to see me. "I've got a cough , and I don't want to give it to you. "  It was a typical and  selfless consideration. He did his best not to get close to people with  whom he took his meals.  One  lady whom  he sat next to, however, had undetected pneumonia .  Philip contacted it and was again back in the hospital . There  doctors discovered he had an abdominal hernia  but could not operated because of his past heart procedures.  Instead Philip was put on a diet of pureed  food . He hated all of it.
            I visited  Philip weekly at his rehab center, where he lost so much weight that his clothes took on a clownish appearance. At first he was in a wheelchair, then shuffled along the hallways  on a walker. His nights were practically sleepless because his  partially demented roommate would wake up  screaming during the night. " For heaven's sake, " I told Philip, " try at least to talk to your roommate about it, talk to the staff. " Philip said he did not want to cause any more discomfort to  his roommate.  Nothing in his voice hinted of a  martyr's attitude nor of shyness or timidity. Would I to remonstrate with him for  what I thought was  excessive  charity,  I knew his reasons for it would be embarrassingly superior to my advice that he  assert himself.  He was too much of a gentleman to hold stock in the cliché the squeaky wheel gets oiled .
            Philip  slid into a deep depression; his face became grayish, he walked slower, talked less and less, and often  took a full minute or longer to make a reply during our conversations. When he did, it was with just a few words. Sometimes there was no reply; he'd just stare at me, wide-eyed until I felt he had lost all human perception. Other times he reminded me of  the metaphor the prophet Isaiah uses to describe Jesus:  Like a lamb that is  led to the slaughter…so he did not open his mouth.            
Steve Reeves ( Superman )
     When  Philip swallowed his first antidepressant , his legs froze on him the next morning. He wasn't given any more antidepressants until months later, when he was moved back to his retirement home and able to eat regular meals. Though he had  daily longed  for this return ,  Philip remained depressed. We prayed together each time I visited him , and for a few moments  Philip would come "alive" , but soon relapsed.
 During one visit, I wanted so badly  to see my  coffee buddy become a person again that  I broke the few  rules I knew about caring for a clinically   depressed  person.  I confronted Philip him about his depression , told  him to fight it ,  face it aggressively as he did during those eight weeks of Army basic training . I lectured , preached , pleaded .  I wanted him  angry, sad—anything to make him come alive, to feel.  Finally I said,   "Have  you , Philip, have you gone to your  knees and begged God to heal you ?  Have you " ? !   Of course he had.
 He nodded his head. " What the hell does that nod mean?"  I demanded.
" All I want is some friendly conversation. " 
Of course he did. Later I felt rotten for breaking those rules.
I now looked at my friend and said with a full heart,  " Philip,  I miss our friendship."
" I understand, " he said .
These  two simple words seemed   to redeem  all the  compassion missing in my strident , ill-timed exhortations.  Sounding perfectly normal for the moment, Philip  gently chastised me like a father might: "You know, people have to work out their illnesses in their own way,"  he said.
I telephoned him a week later and we went for an "outing" to a Panera Bread café .   Philip  had a cup to tea. I asked him what he wanted most in life,  hoping it was something I could help with.  
            " I'd like to get my personality back," he said barely audible. He said little more that  day. 
When leaving the retirement home later,  I reminded one of the attendants that my friend's fingernails were horribly long and if she would please cut them. She said she would. When I spoke to his niece the next day , she said Philip's physician had  recently given a negative prognosis about Philip. I asked her to invite Philip to my upcoming birthday party. Philip told her   it was too soon for that. He sent me a greeting card, and I smiled as I opened it  but then  swallowed hard when I saw his signature. It was tiny , only  the "P" in his name was legible ;  all the  letters were tightly squeezed together . It was the penmanship  so characteristic of  someone  with  Parkinson's  disease.
I shall continue to visit my friend. If Philip's final day comes before mine, I will  know his  eulogy  has already be said by Saint Francis de Sales, a great figure of the 17th Century rebirth of religious  mystical life:
                        I am a poor, frightened little creature,  the baby of the family,
                              timid and shy by nature and completely lacking in self-
                              confidence; and that is why I should like people to let me
                              live unnoticed and all on my own according to my
                              inclination,  because I have to make such enormous efforts
                              about shyness and my excessive fears….I have been
                              slighted and I rejoice: that is what the Apostles did. So to
                              live according to the spirit is to do what faith, hope and
                              charity teach us to do, whether in things temporal or things
                              spiritual….So, rest in the arms of God's mercy and fatherly
                                                THE END

Comments welcome
© 2014 Robert R. Schwarz