A well-known conservative Catholic intellectual just e-mailed me about the latest Uncle Ted news:
From Trent to Vatican II will seem like a golden age of Catholic intellectual and spiritual life with the reckoning that will follow for the rest of our lives. The good thing about what’s coming out is that it’s clear that there is nothing to “protect” anymore.
I’ve been thinking for the past couple of hours about a conversation I had late this morning with the man we hired to pull down the enormous mass of poison ivy from the fencerow at our house. Nice guy. He’s a working-class white guy who has been busting his butt for a couple of days in the miserable heat and humidity of a Louisiana summer, tearing down and uprooting these vines, which have infested that side of our property. He called me out back to listen to the gator growling in the storm drain that runs under our carport. I heard the big lizard, clear as a bell. That was … something.
This shallow underground tunnel runs beneath the manicured lawns of a subdivision that backs up to a creek. The gator must have entered the drain from the creek. It would probably shock most of the people in our neighborhood to know there’s a dragon crawling around underneath their yards. Fortunately, the iron grates are firmly secured in concrete, so the dragon is not going to be popping up in anybody’s yard. Probably.
I told the yard man to be sure to keep our security gate closed when he hauled his trailer full of poison ivy off to the dump, because we’ve had burglary problems in our neighborhood. He told me that this is a constant problem in his line of work. People steal his equipment all the time. Said he caught a guy in front of his own house trying to steal from him.
We got to talking. He said he grew up in a rough neighborhood of New Orleans, and was one of the few who got out of there and made something of his life. He runs his own lawn service now. He and his wife have two little girls. He loves them very much, and says he would do anything to protect them.
“I know exactly what you mean,” I said, and told him how my ferocious desire to protect my children drove my writing about the church abuse scandal.
I don’t know if he’s a churchgoer. If so, he didn’t mention it. He did talk about Hollywood and sexual abuse, and mentioned the documentary An Open Secret, about pedophilia in the film industry.
We talked on about politics. He doesn’t trust anybody. Thinks everything is rigged towards protecting Big Business, and that Trump can’t be counted on either. “Nothing works for the little guy,” he said. He talked for a while about the finance industry, and then apologized for sounding like a conspiracy theorist.
“I gotta tell you,” I said, “you might be a conspiracy theorist, but the things you’ve just been telling me are true.” I urged him to watch this PBS Frontline episode, “The Warning”.
We talked for a while longer. He talked about how it just feels like the country is falling apart, and you can’t trust anybody, and you don’t know what to expect next.
“I’m a simple man,” he said, with sweat running down his cheeks. “Right is right, and wrong is wrong.”
But who believes that anymore? he said. Who in power believes that? “I just try to keep my head down and do my best, and try not to get involved in any of it,” he said. He believes the world is stacked against people like him: those who work hard and follow the rules.
What are the rules anymore? He said he worries about men dressed with women going into public bathrooms with his little girls. What will he do if he catches one of them messing with his daughters? He was explicit. It’s what any father with a healthy moral sense would do. But these days, he’d be considered a bigot for even thinking these thoughts. He knows that. This is one reason why he stays quiet, and minds his own business. But it’s burning him up, thinking about the kind of world that his little girls are growing up in.
The yard man got back to work, and I went inside to get back to my own work. I find, though, that I can’t get that guy off my mind. He really is the backbone of this country, and he’s losing faith in it.
Again, religion didn’t come up, except in passing, with me mentioning the role fatherhood played in driving my own reporting back in the day. I’d say he’s probably an older Millennial of the white working class, which means that he’s statistically likely not to identify as a Christian. I don’t find myself wondering at all what either the Democratic or the Republican Party has to offer a man like that. I do, however, find myself wondering what Christianity has to offer to a man like that.
How would you convince him to come to church? In our brief discussion about abuse in churches, I shared with him a couple of anecdotes about cases where ordinary people knew what was happening, yet they refused to confront it, even though it was kids in their own congregations who were being sexually abused. Why? Why would people do that?
The yard man is not an emotionally dark guy — he’s actually buoyant, even joyful, in that way a lot of south Louisiana folks are — but he believes that no institution in American life can be trusted. He believes the security of his family depends on being suspicious of all institutions, keeping his distance, and minding his own business. And hey, I get that. I’m pretty much where he is, though one difference between us is that I have the money to put up a security gate, and he doesn’t.
This yard man is the one who pointed out to us over the weekend that we have an alligator living in the storm drain under our house. We had not realized. We walk by that storm drain all the time, to get into our cars. He was the one who stood by it long enough, pulling poison ivy, to hear what was going on in there. And he was the one who knows from experience what a gator sounds like.
There’s something poetic in that symbolism, if you follow me.
UPDATE: I was thinking just now of something I heard a friend from church say the other night at dinner. He was talking to a non-Orthodox guest about our own little mission parish. He said, “Father told them, ‘If you are coming here for any reason other than to seek Christ, this is not the church for you.'”
That did not surprise me. That’s how our priest is. It’s why I trust him, and our little parish. Everyone I know anything about there is broken in some way, most of all me; the handful of people I don’t know except in passing are no doubt broken too. But there really isn’t any reason to come to our parish except for Christ. Orthodoxy is a weird form of Christianity (for south Louisiana). We are poor. We meet in a room in a strip mall. There is no social prestige, or anything else available at this parish. Only Christ. That’s everything.
I don’t have it in me to trust “the Church.” But I do have it in me to trust our pastor, and our little parish. That’s enough.