About four months before I moved into Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, I found myself sitting in a Portuguese pastry shop waiting for my mom to pick me up. Behind the fanfare of the shop’s patrons shouting boisterously in that tongue whose words I could only comprehend if they faintly sounded like Spanish ones, I heard the din of brass instruments. “Perhaps there are some kind of Holy Week festivities going on…” I wondered. It was the eve of Palm Sunday, and I was missing southern Spain’s lavish Holy Week festivities which I had the privilege of experiencing not too many years ago. I missed the vibrancy of Andalusian culture, the spontaneity of sitting for hours leisurely at a coffee shop, wandering into a centuries-old Baroque chapel to pray the rosary, and relishing the more relaxed attitude toward time and work.
The Ironbound—known as “Little Iberia”—was the closest I was going to get to that Mediterranean vibe this side of the Atlantic. My mother called me to come out of the shop and into the car. “They’re about to have a procession outside of that church around the corner,” she said. We quickly found a parking spot near the church and made our way in. Several smiling Ecuadorian women were standing in front of the entrance of the church selling their handmade palm crosses. As we made our purchases, the band was practicing for the procession next to three statues—Christ being scourged at the pillar, the Sorrowful Mother, and the Immaculate Heart (the patroness of the parish)—waiting patiently on their own individual floats to be paraded throughout the streets after the Palm Sunday vigil Mass.
Later that year, I moved into that same neighborhood, anxiously awaiting to break away from the stifling suburban environment I’d lived in for too long. I was looking very much forward to soaking up the warmth and vivacity of the ethnic barrio. Within my first weekend, I got a sampling of the neighborhood’s various cuisines: Portuguese, Brazilian, Spanish, Ecuadorian, Peruvian. I was able to attend Mass again at that same parish I had seen four months prior. Unlike my suburban parish, the people were so lively and worshipped with a tangible sense of joy. I was enthralled by the presence of people on the streets: kids running around in the park, grandpas smoking and drinking coffee outside a cafe, mothers carrying loaves of bread under their arm.
Perhaps a more challenging, but nevertheless beautiful aspect of my new neighborhood is the presence of the many homeless men and women who congregate outside of Newark Penn Station. After several months of visiting the homeless, whether to bring them food or just to talk, I am able to call some of them true friends. One in particular, Milagros—a Dominican immigrant who lost both her mother and her job not too long ago—always greets me with a smile, asking how my grandparents are doing and if I want to pray a decade of the rosary with her.
Disturbing the Peace
Fast forward a few more months, and I am packing up my bags to go back to stay with my family in suburbia. The quarantine is just beginning, and I’ve decided it’s best that I ride out the pandemic with them. The first two weeks of the quarantine were challenging, to say the least. My grandfather started developing symptoms, and my aunt was admitted to the ICU because she could barely breathe. It was as if a dark cloud was looming over my head. God, please make this go away…let me grandfather not have it, let my aunt get out of the hospital alive. I wished that that cloud would just drift away so that I could live my time at home as stress-free as possible.
I decided to stop by my apartment to pick up some items I needed. As soon as I pulled into the neighborhood, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia and sadness. It was three days before Palm Sunday, and I remembered that I wouldn’t get to enjoy the procession this year. The coffee shops were closed, there were no grandpas out smoking, and barely any moms carrying fresh Portuguese bread home. There was a radiantly beautiful cherry blossom tree in front of my apartment, and the smell of roasted chicken wafted down the street from a Brazilian BBQ restaurant. I can’t even enjoy my new neighborhood during my favorite season! I had looked forward so much to my first spring in the Ironbound. As I packed my things, I thought of my aunt and my grandfather and how much I just wanted everything to go back to normal. I thought about how much more complacent I would be without this dark cloud hanging over my head.
I had just placed my copy of The Long Loneliness in my bag when my phone buzzed. It was my grandfather, texting me that his symptoms were going away. Thank God! A wave of relief crashed over me, casting a ray of light through the dark cloud. Finally, I start to feel slightly more at peace. Just then, a cockroach crawled out from under a kitchen cabinet, and I blocked out the prospect of having to do something about it until the pandemic ended. My phone buzzed again, and this time, it was my dad telling me that my aunt is still in the ICU, and that her mother-in-law just died. The cloud darkened once more over my head. When will it all end? Just when I think I can be at peace, something else comes up again to stave off the complacency, making it feel all the more unreachable.
Finding True Peace
As I put my things in the car, I thought about my friend Milagros. I put on my mask and gloves and walked over to see if she was there at her usual spot. I was happy to see she also had a mask on as she said muffledly, “You remembered me.” “How could I forget?!” I replied. Our brief encounter, even with the six feet between us, cast a different kind of light through my dark cloud. Despite my aunt’s continued suffering and my neighborhood nostalgia, I felt a new peace wash over me. Pope Francis spoke recently about two different kinds of peace during one of his audiences in the Casa Sanctae Marthae:
One kind of peace can be seen in the biblical term Shalom, which signifies an abundant, flourishing life. A second idea is the modern notion of interior serenity. Yet this second type of peace is incomplete since spiritual growth often occurs precisely when our tranquillity has somehow been disturbed. In this Easter season we see Jesus bringing the gift of his own peace, a fruit of his death and resurrection. The Lord bestows his gift not as the world does—where “peace” is often purchased at the expense of others—but by destroying hostility in his own person.
I saw how I had been vainly waiting for the “worldly” brand of peace which Francis distinguishes from the peace of Christ, which can be experienced even when one’s “tranquility has… been disturbed.” Rather than avoiding suffering and sacrifices, those who imitate the peace of Christ embrace sacrifices and suffering in the name of love. While bourgeois, “worldly” peace allows us to blind ourselves from the suffering of others — to pretend that all is good in the world, and that we can continue feeling “OK” without having any anxiety or fear — people are starving on the streets, losing their jobs, and lack adequate healthcare.
While I’m waiting for life to “go back to normal” and hoping I won’t get any more phone calls about loved ones testing positive for the virus, Milagros doesn’t have the luxury of trying to preserve that worldly peace that so many of us are desperately clinging onto. She sits there waiting for someone to give her some change, some food, a mere “Hello, how are you doing?” So many of us are deathly afraid of the anxiety of waiting, of begging, of being constantly dependent on someone else for our sense of hope. For a moment I felt pity for Milagros. But then I realized that Milagros and I are the same. No, I’m not homeless, but my true identity is the same as hers. I am a beggar. I’m constantly awaiting God’s mercy, for his consolation, for the peace that only he can give.
As bourgeois people pursue endless distractions from suffering, from their own sinfulness and inability to save themselves, they push themselves further into the existential peripheries. Instead, we should all be taking this time to embrace our own spiritual poverty, and stand in solidarity with those who are materially poor. This is a time to keep those on the economic periphery in our memory. No, not to pity them, but to let their experience wake us up to who we truly are. We are not self-sufficient receptacles of comfort and pleasure. The ideal of life is not the kind of peace where we don’t have to worry about anything, where no one is sick or suffering, where we don’t have to cry out to someone to save us. It’s not to stave off that dark cloud of anxiety so we can rest in mindless tranquility, binge watch tv series, or scroll through our social media feeds. The ideal is to share our suffering, to enter into the mystery of kenotic, self-sacrificial love, and beg for Christ to fill us with the strength to follow His example of loving to the point of death, even in the midst of pain, poverty, and a global pandemic.
Going back to normal?
After praying the rosary for both Milagros and my aunt in the ICU, I read a few pages of The Long Loneliness. I was struck by how much Day’s experience of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake resonated with ours of the Coronavirus pandemic:
What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward…People came in their night clothes; there were new-born babies. Mother and all our neighbors were busy from morning to night cooking hot meals. They gave away every extra garment they possessed. They stripped themselves to the bone in giving, forgetful of the morrow. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.
Day continued, lamenting how as things went back to normal, people seemed to forget how they lived during the aftermath of the earthquake.
I did not want just the few, the missionary-minded people like the Salvation Army, to be kind to the poor, as the poor. I wanted everyone to be kind. I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt and the blind, the way it had been after the San Francisco earthquake. Only then did people really live, really love their brothers. In such love was the abundant life and I did not have the slightest idea how to find it.
What Day noticed then is happening again today. So many people who usually think only of their own comfort are thinking of those in need. So many people who are crabby and rude are softening their humors and being kind to strangers. So many people who think being a successful person and not doing harm to others is enough to live a happy life are now crying out to God in prayer. But as Day asked, is this exceptional way of living confined only to moments of disaster? Will we be able to remember the way we were changed by this experience, and continue to live with the needs of our brothers and sisters in mind? Let us pray that the memory of this moment—of the beauty of charity, communion, and prayer, and of the peace that comes not from complacency and self-sufficiency, but from dependence on God and others—may stay with us even after we “get back to normal.”