Rev. Jim Ryan, PhD
Co-pastor of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community
Community blog: https://maryofmagdala-mke.org/blog
At Sunday’s Eucharist our discussion at homily time took a look at freedom. The Presider was led through the readings of the day to recall the line from “Me and Bobby McGee” – made famous for Kris Kristofferson (who wrote the song) by Janis Joplin (who sang the song.) As we once said, “When Janis sings your soul stirs.”
The line is, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” A one-line anthem of a soul-stirring era. This line has particular resonance for me which returns me also to the time of Bobby McGee. It was the time in my life when I lived by that line especially, the part about “nothin’ left to lose.”
In 1974 I was – as they say in the trade – a baby priest, newly ordained in need of the kind of learning they did not convey in seminary. The Provincial of my religious order, the Passionists, appointed me to my first assignment as Associate Pastor of St. Gemma’s Church in Detroit, Michigan. Once the word got to the parishioners a letter-writing campaign started. It was led by no less than the President of the Parish Council. Letters (I never knew exactly how many) were sent to Father Provincial, Paul Boyle, and to Cardinal John Dearden, the Archbishop of Detroit. The clamor was to keep this hippy kid (It was public knowledge that I was anti-war and had written articles in favor of amnesty for those who avoided the draft by moving to Canada.) to have the hippy priest not come to this parish whose membership comprised of many police officers and firefighters, not to mention the veterans of World War II and Korea.
The uproar was so great that when I went to Detroit immediately following my First Mass at my home parish in Cleveland (where, may I say, everyone loved me) and before the appointment was to be finalized later that summer, I was met with less than open arms. The Pastor, Paul Francis Ratterman, was so shook that he would not meet me at the Rectory, which adjoined the church. Instead, we met at the Monastery next door. He did not want anyone from the parish seeing me walk up to the rectory.
I want to say here, for the record, that five years later in 1979 when I left the parish for a new assignment, Paul and I departed having established a wonderful relationship both professionally and personally.
Now, I’m telling you all this because I hope you will see why my attitude in starting this ministry was, well, I had nothin’ left to lose. This was in the midst of many people informing the powers that be that not only did they not want me, they also did not like me, this before they had even met me.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
You may ask what does this particular lesson in freedom have to do with bussing. I’ll tell you. As I recalled this old memory I also recalled the reference to bussing in the Democratic debate from the previous week. Kamala Harris mentioned – without getting to her purpose in mentioning it – that as a young girl of 7 she was the second class that participated in bussing policies that were put into effect to address racial segregation in the nation’s schools. In her case it was Berkley, California.
Bussing was, to say the least, controversial. In Detroit the policy stopped after it was clearly evident that black children were being bussed to already black majority schools. There were not enough white children in the district to spread around for purposes of whatever racial balance was supposed to look like.
So, picture this. The young Associate Pastor of St. Gemma’s Parish, Detroit – who already knows that “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” – this young man whom the majority of his parishioners have difficulty calling him “Father”- this, some would say, misplaced Reverend wakes up one morning just before bussing is about to start in Detroit, wakes up with all the neighbors to a shock. On the wall of the local public school, which was less than two blocks from the church, in very large, very black letters had been spray-painted the N word.
So, having “nothin’ left to lose” I preached at Sunday Mass the obvious – what was right there before our faces. I pointed out to the congregation assembled that less than two blocks from where we were worshipping, the N word had been painted on the wall of Healy School. I told them that my parents never spoke that word nor did they let any of their 8 children speak that word. Perhaps, you too remember the parental threat, “I will wash your mouth out with soap?” Well, my Mother effectively used that threat to teach us a lesson about that word.
To this day I regret that I did not further announce to the assembled worshippers that Mass would continue only after they and I went in procession to Healy School so that we would remove the defacement and clean the wall. (The word was removed by Monday morning.) I did not do that procession which shows that I still had much to learn about “nothing left to lose.”
This memory/reflection is not about Janis Joplin’s soulful talent or Kris Kristofferson’s writing abilities; it’s not about the pros and cons of bussing as a strategy to achieve racial integration; it’s not even about the baby priest learning what ministry is about. I would like to think this is about civility – how to live together in respectful and honest ways. And here’s where a social strategy from 45 years ago and the society we live in today come together. The ugliness of Detroit, South Boston, and all the places who terrorized young black children on busses should be a lesson today on being civil to each other.
Today it appears that civility is lost in what passes for the nation’s leaders. So, as with so much else the people must rise up, show the way. Be respectful and honest Ultimately, this way of mutual respect is not a sign of the deep state brainwashing the population into passivity. No, mutual respect is the way that freedom surfaces in our treatment of each other. Because freedom is more than “nothin’ left to lose.”
As Sunday’s Presider was inspired so may you also be as together we read in Paul’s letter to the Galatians (5th chapter):
“It was for liberty that Christ freed us…. The whole law has found its fulfillment in this one saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you go on biting and tearing one another to pieces, take care! You will end up in mutual destruction.”
The Word of God! Thanks be to God!