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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

September 16, 2003
   Vol. 1, No. 25

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Questioning what news is and why

By Joan Chittister,OSB

I'll tell you two stories. You decide which one is more important. Then, maybe we'll all understand what really drives the country and the culture in which we live.

Both stories happened in the same town. Mine.

In the first account, a local man of limited mental capacity robbed a bank. The shocking aspect of the report is that he did it with a live bomb attached to his body by a locked metal collar around his neck. What's more, he carried a note ordering him to report to four different places after the robbery to receive instructions on what to do next. He never made it past stop number one.

In the first place, police intercepted this simple man in a parking lot near the bank almost immediately after he left there. He was clearly not really racing to escape, or at least he was not capable of completing the plan. Instead, he was begging for help. He told the police who arrested him a couple blocks from the bank that he had been forced to do the robbery because the bomb attached to the collar on his neck was on some kind of timer.

In the second place, the bomb squad didn't reach the site fast enough to defuse the bomb.

The man, 46 years old, lived in a simple house with his cats. He had very little interest in money. What's more, friends and acquaintances say that he simply did not have the mental ability to plan something so devious, let alone to make the bomb himself. He made his living by delivering pizza, the very circumstance that may have put him in a position to be lured to such a violent death.

It's a bizarre tale, an astonishingly painful situation for everybody concerned: for the mother and family of this simple man, of course. But it was devastating, too, for the local police whose major problems in a town like this are more likely to be domestic quarrels and barroom brawls than a need to defuse bombs, which they clearly are not prepared to disengage fast enough to save a man on a very short timer. It was certainly a shock to a city that prides itself on being "a great place to raise a family." This kind of raw cruelty lies beyond the imagination of most people in this town. They turn their faces away from it wincing.

The tragic circumstances of his death, the unthinkable events surrounding it, the hapless individual involved all ate at the innards of the population with a kind of communal grief, of unbelievable disbelief. Not here, not him, not us.

The FBI moved in, as well they should. Locals want this crime solved, this kind of violence squelched. But interestingly enough, the national press moved in quickly, too. The story ran in every major newspaper in the country, including on the front page of The New York Times online and -- count them -- on five national TV channels. There was so much national attention, in fact, that the local newspaper -- circulation 58,000 -- ran stories on the publicity itself.

So, now for the second story.

This story is about one nun, a block full of young children, a small corner store, and an old Polish neighborhood now turned African-American in the drug-center of the city.

The nun lives with her 90-year-old father who simply refuses to move out of his home. He raised all his children, the nun and her three brothers, in this house. He still sings Polish songs at funeral Masses in the parish church next door where he has worshipped all his life. He's comfortable there. It is a reservoir of memories and a touchstone to his past. Hers, too.

So, when Benedictine Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki returned to the old neighborhood in which she grew up -- the Polish church on one side, Polish families on the other -- meeting the neighbors, playing with the children and organizing school games fell into the category of reflex action. Before long, she was giving reading classes for the children on the front steps of the house. Then they began to do projects together -- pick up those cans, fill that garbage bag with papers, plant these flowers.

Finally, with the additional help of Inner-City Earth Force Director, Benedictine Sr. Margarita Dangle, came the organization of a kind of platoon of neighborhood children who did regular tasks and for their troubles got paid in neighborhood dollars usable in the corner store. They swept sidewalks and planted grass. They poured and leveled 12 cement squares on both sides of the street for new walkways. And they did it, in the words of one child, because "our block is the ghetto block, and we wanted to make it nicer."

They call it the "One Block At A Time" neighborhood revitalization project. What they would like to do is to make it a permanent program. But that takes money. It also takes the support and interest of adults. And that takes publicity. The local paper gave this story good coverage, too.

But the national press did not rush in to cover it.

The bank story is about the violent murder of a simple man. It is also about he deterioration of the United States.

The neighborhood story is about the rejuvenation of an old neighborhood by the simple children who live there. It is about the possible rebirth of the quality of American life.

"People haven't changed since I grew up in this neighborhood," the Erie Daily Times quotes Kownacki as saying. "There are still people here who just want to have good jobs, good families and a good place to live." Well, that may be so. Maybe the people haven't. But maybe the country has.

You tell me why one of those stories is national news and the other is not. From where I stand, the answer to that question may tell us more about ourselves than we care to know."

And by the way, the local newspaper carried another story Sunday reporting that the Erie story has already spawned a copycat bank robbery. No word yet of anyone copycatting the neighborhood program, as in "Come, follow me," perhaps.

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