Listening & Learning from the Elderly
I am the leader of Communitas. I’m at the age – window of making my greatest contributions in this next decade. I am also a member, not leader of the Faubourg Marigny Community of Communitas. We’re in the Faubourg Marigny of New Orleans, the oldest neighbrohood outside of the original walled city (now referred to as the Vieu Carré by locals and the French Quarter by tourists). It’s adjacent and connected to The Bywater. Both of these neighborhoods were plantations of families by their names. At one time, there were seven churches, four large Catholic Parishes, a Baptist and a Lutheran, and an old “Christian Church” (as in the Christian Church movement-denomination). Today, there is ONE Catholic Parish and a small Lutheran congregation left.
The Lutherans are a bunch of elderly, who long to see the neighborhood impacted, but know they are in the late Autumn of life. Yet, they have postured and finance a parish school, full of mostly very poor African American kids from the neighborhoods next door (St Roch and St Claude). The other church is St Seelos, one of the oldest parishes in the US and the city, with only St Louis Cathedral and St Patrick predating it in the city. It is composed of Anglo, African, Latin and bohemian peoples… a true New Orleans gumbo… and a wonderful life bunch of people who care about their city, their neighborhoods (Faubourg Marigny and The ByWater) and seeing Christ proclaimed.
As I’ve come to know the people at St Seelos, along with their fiery Latin pastor, Father Serranos, I’ve come to become a student again. You see, when you make my life stage, most people become the masters and no longer the students. One is accustomed to telling and not listening well. This parish, with all of its unassumable character traits is also full of a range of people of different ages. What sticks out to me, is a recognition that we unwittingly become youth centric and focused on youth – their trends, likes, dislikes, style, communication, modus operendi, and take our queues from them. We tend to not be around old/older people. We tend to operate in younger circles and we know old people exist, but their needs, values and priorities become passé.
What this parish is teaching me is a depth of wisdom, character, fortitude, resilience and deep depth of these wonderful saints who carry decades of knowledge, wisdom and insight. They remember when and know “why” it is as it is. They are committed, willing to let go of sacred cows (I know that is not all that common amongst any generation) for the sake of the Gospel and the Kingdom. They know the reality that we’re losing the culture war and fighting it all wrong. They love the people of multiple cultures, care for the kids, tolerate the different music and appreciate many changes.
This morning, I went along to daily Mass there. Deacon Jesse presided, a tall African American man who’s homily is more Baptist in message and delivery than old school Catholic. As I sat there praying at the end of Communion, I only saw the feet of the parishioners as they returned to their seats. I noted their shoes and their legs…. the baggy pants on the old guys, the sagging socks and simple shoes on the elderly women, having given up style for comfortable and practical support a long time ago.
This parish isn’t wealthy at all… their dress, so simple, so humble, so irrelevant to what is important to life, to relationship. As I’ve gotten to know many of these elderly (as well as the younger), I’ve come to know that when daily Mass is over, they head over The Who Dat Café, a coffee house owned by a middle aged gay guy, a place frequented by all, but a noted gay clientele as well. He loves Aunty Laura, the matron of the bunch, a quiet old school New Orleans (say “New Ahwleeuns”) dialect. Her bony malfigured hands, deeply spotted and knarled as she reads the Scripture with conviction and the strength of a 20 year old. Why? They love him unconditionally, are faithful, take time for him and look for ways to love him.
In the population of 30,000 that live in the Faubourg Marigny and The Bywater, there are these two churches left. There are maybe 200 (mostly in St Seelos) saints residing there… 200 in 30,000! Do the math! That is .0075. That’s 3/4 of 1%…. That’s as low as any 3d world overseas place we know, as low as France. As we incarnate, listen and serve in this neighborhood, we’re doing learning, lessons we had not expected, growing in respect and indebtedness for our tutors, the aged… having there there is is a gift!
Their presence and voice also teach me something personal…. in a youth obsessed culture, I too face aging… how do I even accept the aging of my body, my thinking, my callousness from so many wars fought… How does one love and follow God as one ages… they humbly instruct without ever imposing. It is a gift. Not many people do that well at all…. Susanne and I were at an event last week – full of Mutton, dressed like Lamb! That’s a Kiwi, Aussie, British saying for women who dress like their young, way past their station in life. I watched women in the late 40’s and older, come in wearing stiletto healed platform sandles, very short revealing dresses and bust lines that were, well, embarrassing. Their over applied makeup, over styled hair and perfectly over accessorized outfits were to the point of gaudy. Shame, they fight and resist and do not know how to age with grace, how to life humbly with dignity, how to lead by a stalwart example and servant’s lifestyle.
May I learn to emulate and model myself after these saints. So, a toast to Aunty Laura and her mob!