Without Precedent

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a national treasure. So many of his Op-Eds make such unwavering good sense that it is difficult to believe he’s not a household name. His recent piece in the Miami Herald concerning Jimmy Carter’s announcement that he has cancer is a case in point. Many reporters would be quick to point to the tragedy since, although the Carter administration is generally undervalued, nobody would ever say that Carter is less than a true gentleman. Pitts, however, takes us deeper. He looks at this understated announcement in terms of faith. Faith, as he points out, in a world where it has taken on an unsavory, if not downright evil, flavor. We do indeed hear about faith that moves mountains, but it is with the power of fully fueled passenger jets. We hear about the faith that builds mega-churches while the homeless and hungry sleep in the city streets. Pitts is quite right, our faith requires a shot in the arm.

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I sometimes wonder how we have come so far down what seems to be obviously the wrong road. Our religion has become a charade and it is used for people to get what they really want rather than to make the world a better place. I always thought true religion was putting others before yourself. Nothing like working in Manhattan to show you how totally off-base such sentiments might be. Jesus can sell books, but his teaching is definitely passé. Yesterday. Old-school (but not in the good way). We have faith in money because immortality, or at least the antidote for mortality, is readily for sale. There’s one born every second. This, we are told, is what gives life meaning.

Of the presidents who’ve retired, we generally hear very little. They sequester themselves and write their memoirs to gain even more money for themselves. Carter has been known to be out there building houses for the poor, living what presidents all say they believe when they ask us to cast our votes in their direction. I’ve always been proud that the first president I ever voted for was Carter. Of course, it was in the beginning of those recent Dark Ages known as the Reagan Administration, and I had voted for the underdog. My faith in the political system has been severely challenged since then. I have seen stolen elections treated as legitimate by those who can’t possibly do too much for themselves. And I remembered my first lowly vote given for a man who, perhaps more than any other, showed Americans their misplaced faith after he had been denied a second term in office. Although Pitts doesn’t say it, I can see it in his pen: the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Saint Diego

Didacus of Alcalá fortunately, I think we might all agree, was more commonly known as Diego. The city of San Diego is named for him, as his nickname was a diminutive of Santiago, or Saint James, patron saint of Spain. Ironically, the more recent Saint Diego is best known for his visions of St. Mary, or Our Lady of Guadalupe. To keep your saints straight you need a score card sometimes. To go by the names, California must be a most sacred place. 120 miles north is the City of Angels. Then the city on the bay named after Saint Francis. Then Saint Barbara. One of my favorites, however, is San Louis Obispo. Everywhere saints. What of Didacus? Born in Spain, he was a missionary to the Canary Islands. I don’t think he ever visited southern California. The Franciscan mission dedicated to him, however, is what grew into the presently eighth largest city in the United States.

Wandering the streets of the old part of San Diego, you might find evidence that a mission led to this sprawling city. Or perhaps not. Now it is famous for fun in the sun—beaches and clubs and the US Navy. I have to wonder what Didacus would have thought of his namesake. I wouldn’t presume to speak for a saint, but I can’t see him surfing or enjoying perpetual summer. Did he have any idea what he might have been starting by denying himself and helping others? He was known for his curing of the sick, although he himself died of an abscess some five-and-a-half centuries ago this month. Like most ascetics, it seems one thing he highly valued was being left alone to contemplate. Would he have even survived in modern San Diego?

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One of the observations I make quietly, from the sidelines, is how frantic religion scholars seem to be. Frantic to write that book, get that tenure, find that recognition. It is sometimes easy to forget that educating students is a reward in itself. Having attended large conferences like this for nearly a quarter century, I have watched carefully. Saints and sinners both wander these carpeted halls with motivations as widely diverse as those of Didacus and Daedalus. Although there are 10,000 people here, including, briefly, Jimmy Carter, the world will go on tomorrow as if none of this ever happened. The homeless will still sleep in the park across the tracks from this world-class convention center. We’ll send our sick to hospitals instead of to churches. And if it weren’t for this conference in this city, I would never even heard of Didacus of Alcalá.