Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Sunday, January 24, 2010

North Catholic High School and the Cristo Rey Conversion

I’m sitting with two North Catholic grads in my (Philadelphia) Fishtown kitchen. One’s downing a Pepsi while the other guy is pouring over last week’s Star article entitled, “Alum push on for N. Catholic’s salvation.” Both these guys love North Catholic and they’ve taken to reading the article out loud. I’m sitting with them thinking of my own high school way out in the Chester County boondocks. I don’t have the same kind of loyalty to my old high school that these guys have for North Catholic, so their absorption in the school’s plight fascinates me.
“Woo, what’s this?” the one drinking Pepsi says while folding the Star into the shape of a Chinese menu. “They wanna rename North Cristo Rey. Cristo Rey was founded by the Society of Jesus-- what’s the Society of Jesus?” (Not so long ago, all Catholic school students knew that the Society of Jesus was the Jesuits, but not anymore.) “…And it says here that Cardinal Justin Rigali has given the Alumni Association and business leaders permission to conduct a feasibility study.”
“Wow,” the other guy offers, “they’ll be a work study program where the students will work one day a week in about 40 businesses.”
“Not good,” the Pepsi drinker chimes in, “that means I won’t find a job if they give these jobs to students. That sucks.”
The second guy almost bounces off his chair. “Listen to this—it says the new school would be Catholic, but open to people of all faiths.’”
“Man, I guess that means they’ll be taking the crucifixes off the wall so they won’t be offensive to non Catholic. But North is gonna remain all-male, at least in the beginning, though they’ll look into female enrollment, which really means it’ll go co-ed six months after it reopens. You know, it seems like North isn’t even going to be North anymore. And that’s not right. They should just close the school and keep their dignity. You know, go out with a little bit of dignity…”.
After hearing these guys talk, I looked into the history of Cristo Rey schools, and came across a National Catholic Reporter 2009 article that asked, “What happens when your old Catholic alma mater is no longer the same place it used to be?” The article was about a Catholic high school in the Watts section of south Los Angeles. Controversial Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles approached the Jesuits to take over the school. The Cristo Yet model, according to the NCR, are “schools for the poor where students help meet tuition by taking work/study jobs with major corporations and other sponsors.” But the school’s alumni from the old days are not happy with the Cristo Rey model. Now comfortably middle class, the alumni cannot send their kids to the school because under the Cristo Rey model, only poor and disadvantaged students can apply. With economic guidelines like these, a family would have to remain poor for generations in order to keep sending their kids to the parents’ alma mater.
This is not to say that the Cristo Rey model has not worked elsewhere in the country. Indeed, as brand new schools, rather than a reformulated system built on the foundations of traditional Catholic high schools, the Cristo Rey model might hold some promise for disadvantaged youth. So call them public schools, but why masquerade them as Catholic?
In the past, the spirit of Catholicism has always permeated the Catholic school system, but no longer. Catholic schools-turned-publicly funded charter schools are a case in point.
In the Archdiocese of Washington, where many Catholic schools were converted to publicly funded charter schools, non-Catholics make up more than 71% of the student population. They still mimic as Catholic schools “of a sort,” but why bother? “The charter schools teach value-based education but cannot use religion as its base. The Catholic schools-turned-charter have lost a big piece of themselves,” wrote author Susan Gibbs in US Catholic.
In “Losing Our Religion: The Crises in Catholic Education,” Joan Desmond describes how one charter school in Beeville, Tennessee, had to “take the crucifixes off the walls and put them in our pockets and drawers.”
Now, when a so called Catholic school does that, it’s really time to fold up the tent and call a spade a spade: Call yourself a public school.
As for the two guys in my kitchen, I can tell you that they are not religious fanatics. In fact, they hardly go to Mass outside of Christmas, Easter and funerals, but they know one thing: they want their alma mater, which claims to be Catholic, to remain Catholic.
“Anything less, is not really North,” they said.

Thom Nickels

Monday, January 11, 2010

UPS Madness = Lost Package

A large green car covered in snow slush proceeds down East Thompson Street from the Port Richmond Shopping Center, staying a good hundred feet behind a large UPS truck. The car is careful not to get too close to the truck or to attract any undue attention. To avoid detection (and give the UPS truck a little space) the driver will periodically pull over and park or take a random detour down a side street, wait a while, then back around again to find the truck.
The UPS driver is oblivious that he’s being followed and tracked. He doesn’t even notice that the green car stops at every house where he’s delivered a package. He doesn’t see the occupants, a man and a woman, cleverly working together as a duo—he going out and grabbing the just delivered package and throwing it in the backseat of the old Chevy, while the woman pulls away before neighbors can catch onto what’s happening.
They proceed like this until, at the end of an hour, the man and woman have grabbed virtually every package left by the UPS man.
The specific green car noted above is a fiction, but incidents of people tracking UPS trucks to steal packages is not. On Monday, December 11th, a package sent to me by a family member was stolen from my doorstep while I was at work. To make matters worse, a replacement package sent out 3 days after that was also stolen, or disintegrated into dry ice or eaten by the seagulls that hover near the shopping plaza—this despite the fact that I alerted my neighbors Carol and Jay to stand guard, A KA rifles aimed and ready to fire (a fiction) when the UPS man came knocking. But in the two minute span that it takes most people to use the water closet, somebody swooped down on the second delivered package, perhaps that green car again, or a grubby passer-by with a stolen shopping cart.
At the news of a second stolen package I entertained thoughts of forming a posse of friends and allies to search the alleys and byways of the hood for discarded package wrappings and UPS sigh off sheets. Armed with flashlights and Trappist jam detection devices, we’d hunt down the villains and make them pay.
“I hope the food in that package was bad, and that whoever stole it is choking by the river,” Carol said. Jay, Carol’s sister, had an even worse scenario, reminding me of those grim opening scenes in ‘Law and Order.’ While I’m not going to go Clint Eastwood to retrieve Trappist jam and gourmet cheeses, I do hope that the Christmas snatchers get their comeuppance—is that the right word?
UPS package snatching is happening all over the country. In Merrimack, New Hampshire last week a person or persons targeted a traveling UPSA truck, essentially following the truck while it made deliveries and then snatching the packages once the truck left. Merrimack police reported that hundreds of dollars in random items were stolen during the course of a week. Police eventually found the empty UPS boxes and packing slips in nearby woods, so the case is still hot.
In Brentwood, Tennessee, there’s also been a rash of door-to-door stealing of UPS packages. The culprits in this case did not use a car but walked from door to door, taking as many packages as they could carry.
In Cape Coral, Florida, a former UPS driver and his wife was charged with stealing over $250,000 worth of UPS packages and selling them on eBay.
In an ideal world, UPS would insist that every package be signed for, as well as ask for ID whenever they drop off a package. UPS would also not cram packages halfway inside storm doors so that the ends of packages are sticking out, tempting those on the street or in cars to come and sample the goods.

Thom Nickels

Those Northern Liberties Hipsters


An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the Eastern Orthodox churches in the Northern Liberties section of the city got me thinking about hipsters and religion, among other things. In that piece, writer David O’Reilly quotes some Northern Liberties residents who say they have no interest in going to (or visiting) any of these unique churches because organized religion isn’t necessary for spirituality anymore. That stuff, the feeling went, belongs to an older time and to an older generation.

Reading O’Reilly’s piece, I couldn’t help but envision 2,000 years of Christianity being made irrelevant by the invention of the Blackberry, Liberty Lands, or Sunday brunch in a chic new neighborhood restaurant.

What the hipsters seemed to be saying in this Inquirer piece is that the new religion of Northern Liberties is the environment, and that “living” that religion amounts to sprucing up Liberties Land, planting new trees, or discovering new doggie day care centers. The hipsters seem to agree that this is not an age for pie in the sky, for priests in gold vestments who wear funny hats and kiss icons, or for following somebody else’s rules. The New Age is all about finding the truth within as long as it does not hurt anybody.

Ah yes, the truth within: My truth is not your truth, but hey, that’s okay. We are all the same, all religions are the same, everything’s on an equal footing, and one truth is as good as another. But is that really true? If all truths are the same, you mean to say that there’s not one truth that stands out as The Truth?

One thing’s certain, and it’s this: the hipsters didn’t invent “doing your own thing” when it comes to spirituality. That was my generation, the baby boomers. When I was 20 I walked out of a Catholic Ash Wednesday service. My exodus was meant as a slap in the face to my mother, who was with me at the time. In my mind I was demonstrating my new found independence. “I believe in the Church of Man,” I told her later in the car, “a higher spirituality. Heaven is here on Earth.”

But if heaven is here on earth, why can’t we fix the economy, leave the doors of our houses open when we go to work, or pick dollar bills off money trees? The concept of heaven on earth is a fantasy that never seems to make the transition to real life. Put all your faith in Man, or humankind, and chances are eventually you will be sorely disappointed.

I did feel sorry for these Orthodox and Eastern Catholic priests who told Inquirer writer David O’Reilly that their Northern Liberties churches are not attracting any of the local residents. These are the same residents, after all, who claim to have an interest in everything arty and esoteric, from casino politics to micro breweries to trolling the streets on First Friday’s for a monthly infusion of art and crafts. They’ll talk about Tibetan monks, take up Hindu or Transcendental meditation, go Vegan, tattoo their body, but still nothing compels them to sample an ancient liturgy that once caused ambassadors from the court of Kiev who visited the Aghia Sophia in Byzantium in 987 to exclaim, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”
The Orthodox churches must take part of the blame for this. Visitors to these churches can sometimes be made to feel unwelcome. When I visited Saint George’s Greek Orthodox Church in Center City some years ago, an old woman approached me in the vestibule and stated rather emphatically, that “This is NOT a Catholic church!” It didn’t help that she then asked if I was Greek, as if an Irishman had no business soiling the province of Orthodoxy.
For a Church to be vibrant and successful, wouldn’t it be wise to purge itself of too strong an ethnic identity? The keyword here, I think, is universal. If these NL churches want to attract the local population, they should opt to be more than just ethnic enclaves. But they should not, as one hipster commented on, make themselves “more relevant” and “attractive” by staging environmental sermons or trying to compete with local activist organizations.
After all, have these hipsters ever heard the quotation from Scripture, “Render unto Caesar….?”
Reading the Inquirer article, it was easy to feel the priests’ resentment of NL residents. I got the feeling that a couple of the priests came very close to suggesting, albeit in a joking manner, that the hipsters should go out and create their own church, a Northern Liberties Church of the Dog, or a Northern Liberties Church of the Environment, or a CasinoNo chapel of the Delaware River Rite. In the Church of the Dog, for instance, hip congregants could show off their dogs, sing dog mantras, and sip Starbucks coffee while periodically playing with their Blackberries. Then they could all head out for a communal brunch. I’m stereotyping, of course, and for that I apologize, but I am hitting on a few general truths. (By the way, I’ve got nothing against dogs, or the concept of relative truth— a hot Johnny Brenda’s band as one’s temporary personal messiah-- I just don’t like stepping in dog poop while making my way in the neighborhoods).
While I don’t pretend to have even half the answers, I do know that should that awful Mayan prophecy come true in 2012, people won’t be running to the Church of the Dog, or to the Church of the Environment for advice and solace, but more likely than not they’ll be knocking on the door of that priest in the funny hat around the corner.

Thom Nickels