Pentecost was on May 27 the year I wrote this, my brother Christopher’s first birthday since his death from heat stroke August the year before. It’s also the official opening of the new Spiritan Formation House here in the Philippines. My Mom’s first birthday after her death was the solemn consecration of the first parish church of the Resurrection of the Lord Chinese-Filipino Catholic Community here in Iligan. First birthdays after death seem to be good for my family. Heck, I figure there should be at least one new Outback Steakhouse opening somewhere on my first birthday in heaven!
I find myself thinking a lot about Chris as his birthday on Pentecost approaches. In just a couple of months it’ll be 25 years since my first vows, too. Chris has taught me a lot about religious life, a lot about being a Christian over the years. He’d get a kick out of that, I’m sure, since he always felt he couldn’t quite get a handle on God. It didn’t mean he’d stopped reaching, though.
After Mom died, Chris was living in a tiny room in a boarding house that couldn’t produce any permits to exist. He was, as he always joked, the only one he was sure had no links to al-Qaeda. Around him were young men from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. They were typical Brooklyn illegal immigrants, most of whom drove for equally typical Brooklyn illegal car services. All that was fine with Chris, and he was actually improving his pitiful Arabic skills…or at least his hand gestures and grunts, which in themselves account for over 37% of Arabic conversation. One day he went out for a walk; he had been out of work for a while on medical disability, a fact he never accepted well. After a stroll through the neighborhood, he returned to find that smoldering ashes and general chaos were all that remained of the house…and of his few possessions, including a TV that dated from before the advent of remote controls. I had a whole novitiate of lessons on “detachment from worldly things”; Chris did the crash course in one afternoon.
The others, with proper respect for the immigration services, scattered quickly to the houses of distant cousins throughout the neighborhood, or to one of the local mosques, especially to what everyone simply calls “the 69th Street Mosque”. Of course all the mosques have proper names, but most are impossible for the tongues of Brooklynites, so they are simply known as “the 69th Street Mosque”, or “the 12th Avenue Mosque.” Who says common sense isn’t common in Brooklyn?
Once all our family in America lived in Brooklyn, but now they have scattered outside the city and the state. Chris was the last hold-out, a rare Brooklyn-born Lebanese still living in Brooklyn with the latest wave of immigrants. Cousins outside of New York invited him to stay with them, as did confreres who heard of his trouble. But all of them were out of New York City, and the miles and miles of general-assistance red tape would become even redder, wider, and longer if he left the city proper. He’d have to file and refile differently, line up to wait hours, just in time to be told to come back again. So he ended up in a city shelter. One of those cold places where you have to leave at 8 in the morning and can’t come back until late in the evening. He could use his government issued food stamps to eat. I remember seeing food stamps when I was a kid. They were like tickets in a book and you gave them in payment, not unlike tickets for a “B Ride” in Disneyland of old. But instead of “The Magic Mountain Ride” you could get a can of tuna for dinner, Chicken of the Sea at that. Now everything is in the magnetic swipe band of what looks like a credit card. Progress! We haven’t done so well with poverty, but we’ve sure come up with a great new food stamp card.
To get out of the elements, Chris used to go to the public library to e-mail me here in the Philippines. He’d wait in line for hours to get the half-hour daily maximum allowed for free internet service. Most of that time was spent sending job applications. I was his one luxury letter sent a week. He wrote once, “You’re right; ‘being’ is a lot harder than ‘doing.” He was referring to a conversation we had had twenty-five years ago this July, in Farnham, outside Montreal. The night before my first profession of vows Chris asked if I was joining religious life because I believed there’s a God who is actually around and interested and wanted me to be a Spiritan, or so I could reach out and help people. I tried to explain at the time that it was “both”, not an either/or question. And it made me think of a line from a renewal program that was all the rage when I was in college, Genesis 2. It was something to the effect of “So often we are busy doing holy things that we don’t have the time to become holy ourselves.” That’s why “being” is so important; being who you are, being with God, so that you can become holy yourself while doing holy things. I made up my mind then in college that I wouldn’t just do holy things, but I’d become holy, too. But Chris always felt he had to do. In fact, unable to figure out what to do with his time in spite of his bad health, he was on his way to a city-sponsored workshop to update his work skills when he fell over dead from heat stroke, a few blocks from the BMT subway he had just taken to Manhattan. Chris defined himself by what he did, but he reminds me to see myself for who I am.
I remember his e-mail telling me how just before his bureaucratic papers, documents and files were approved and the day of his long-awaited exodus from the shelter to a legal room for rent arrived, he ran into one of the young Egyptian men, Abdelkader, who offered to bring him to the mosque for a hot meal and a place to stay. Brooklyn’s nickname is the “City of Churches”, but it was only the mosque that swung open its doors for Chris. When Jesus said “love your neighbor as yourself”, the scholar of the law asked “Who is my neighbor?”, and Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Chris didn’t know his Bible stories well, but he learned a lot from life. He always reminds me to do that. Once he had offered cake and coffee to a house of uncertain Arab Muslims far from home, and then the mosque offered him dinner and a rest from endless wandering in the damp cold. He always felt like he couldn’t figure out the “Love the Lord your God” part…but he certainly had a handle on “love your neighbor as yourself”. Maybe it was because when we were young we spent too much time with symbols—icons, candles, incense, statues, holy water—that he never reached the reality they represent. So he shied away from both. “Fa-ghet-about-it”, he’d say in modern standard Brooklynese. It was as if he were at a party, just waiting for God to ask him to dance. But every time God did ask, he refused, so afraid he’d step on God’s feet. Chris reminds me to dance. God has strong feet.
He died in August, only a year older than I am now. He reminds me to live the wonderful gift of the minute, to enjoy the now since only God knows if there’ll be a later. It’s freeing and life-giving. “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” (Mt 6:27) No wonder Chris was so taken with the first reading at both my perpetual vows and my ordination which said in part, “You have been told what is good and what the Lord requires of you: only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
Chris took the meaning of “Church” from the Bible, and so always pointed an accusing finger at me and saying “you believe”, “you say”, when he was talking about church pronouncements, traditions or documents! He always reminds me to live and to own and to share what I believe…I am Church, we all are!
Chris died just as we here in the Philippines were busy welcoming new confreres and seminarians, and putting up the new formation house that will be officially opened on his Pentecost birthday. I know I could have asked for the money to go to New York City to bury his body. But there was and is so very much to do for the living….I had to think if meager resources should be spent on the dead. There are so many ways to mourn, you know. As the funeral liturgy so beautifully echoes the Scripture, “When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.” And besides, Chris and I are the children of immigrants, poor folk who were never able to go back to their homeland to bury their own dead. Chris inherited two things from Dad, a strong aversion to a suit and tie, and an even stronger aversion to spending money. Except Chris didn’t have colorful, if somewhat repetitive, stories about having to eat only potato soup during the Great Depression to justify himself. It would be ironic if I, now in a vow of poverty, used that as an excuse for all the luxuries my family had learned to live without. Or if, as the fancy books put it, I couldn’t tell my “wants” from my “needs”. Chris keeps me honest.
So faced with the fundamental truth of life and death, I let New York, my wonderful New York, bury his weary bones in an unmarked paupers grave, along with the homeless, the unnamed and the unchained. I figure some he must have already met along the way. But they are only bones turning to dust. Christopher himself, and all those unnamed, have gone home to dance with the Lord, the music and the rhythm finally clear. Finally. Chris and God are hand-in-hand; and God’s leading. And me, well, I keep swaying to the music…step, step, shuffle, turn! God has strong feet.
– Father Daniel S. Sormani, C.S.Sp.
© 2015, essay and photograph, Daniel S. Sormani, C.S.Sp.