Many of us are riveted by the 2016 election, which mesmerizes like a train wreck.
I try to avert my eyes, but it’s so compelling I’m forced to steal another glance at cable news so I don’t miss today’s headline.
Lately, however, I’ve tried to think about the bigger picture rather than the outcome we face in a few months. No matter who wins the presidential contest, what comes next? Where is America going?
I’ve found myself drawn to a book I read a couple of years ago called “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas.” In this fascinating portrait of two men, author Anand Giridharadas explores what it means to be an American.
Raisuddin Bhuiyan is a Bangladeshi immigrant who was temporarily working at a Dallas minimart as he pursued his American dream of working in technology.
Mark Stroman was a Texan, a down-and-outer who decided to seek revenge after the 9/11 terrorist attack by killing “Arabs” — despite an ignorant misunderstanding of who is an Arab. He did succeed in killing two people, but his third victim, Bhuiyan, survived. The book follows them — to death row for Stroman, to recovery and forgiveness for Bhuiyan.
The whole story is intriguing, but here’s what struck me about our present political situation: Both men were at similar levels economically. They were struggling. But their dreams and aspirations could not be more different.
Stroman represents an American underclass, lost and confused about patriotism, morality, life purpose. He exemplifies a breakdown in a segment of our citizenry.
What are the symptoms of this breakdown? Economics plays a part. But there’s more. There’s a breakdown of family, community and sexual standards.
Families, the basic safety net, may no longer live close together geographically and when they do they’re often so broken they’re of little help. Community ties falter.
Add pervasive substance and alcohol abuse to this mix. Food deserts exist where people survive, either by necessity or poor choices, on processed food and bags of chips, adding physical decay to moral decline.
For Bhuiyan, the immigrant, there was ambition and drive, a social network he could rely on, a dream he had. Much like my great-grandfather who sailed in a famine ship from Ireland in the 1850s, Bhuiyan was determined to succeed. He had purpose and meaning.
Stroman swam in a stagnant pool populated by Americans who have lost purpose, who scapegoat others for the breakdown of their own lives. You see some of these Americans shouting racist and misogynistic chants today at political rallies. Personal responsibility lags. Dreams falter.
Political solutions alone from the left or right can’t meet this challenge.
Where’s the church in all this? Pope Francis repeatedly urges us to make our parishes more welcoming. Yet, churches, not just Catholic but other mainline groups, see declining numbers among these disaffected Americans. People desperately need the support of strong communities, which is what our churches are called to be.
Somehow, we need to reach beyond the familiar faces in the pews. We have to do more than collect food for the poor at a distant food kitchen. We have to invite people, offer a hand, not a wagging finger, meet people where they struggle.
One example is the Ignatian Spirituality Project, which brings retreats to homeless people in recovery from substance abuse. That’s the kind of thing we need to support in our parishes.
This unhappy, declining American underclass is a complex problem. Somehow, our churches must be beacons of hope and tolerance. If we believe faith girds our civic life, our churches have to be part of the solution.