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    Tony Taj, The Skyline, mixed media on canvas, 2011, detail

    Small Acts of Grace

    Building Urban Community in Pittsburgh

    By Brandon McGinley

    February 4, 2020

    Available languages: Deutsch, français

    • Karen Trush


    This story begins with an event I considered a flop. It was on March 19, 2016, the Feast of Saint Joseph. The email I had sent to friends around Pittsburgh went like this:

    Please join us for a potluck dinner … to discuss ways young Catholics in Pittsburgh can effectively adapt to the challenges of modern, secular(izing) society. Historically Catholics naturally formed communities of support – spiritual, social, financial, etc. – through neighborhoods, parishes, and other associations. How can we form intentional communities in this day and age that express Catholic uniqueness while still actively engaging in the wider world? How can we help one another more effectively?

    The problem with the event was turnout – too much of it. With food and seating and children to be organized, not a great deal of actual conversation happened, and what did was disjointed and unfocused. There was obviously interest in organizing a common life to counter the alienation of secular liberalism, but we hadn’t even figured out how to talk about it.

    In the nearly four years since that potluck, some of the invitees have moved to other cities or elsewhere around the city. But several of us have settled in a single neighborhood in south Pittsburgh called Brookline. Without ever really trying, we have brought into reality the abstract notions that were on the table at that chaotic gathering.

    No one decided that Brookline was going to host a capital-c Community. We were the second family among our friends to move to the neighborhood, mostly for its housing, walkability, and affordability. That we would be living three blocks from friends was a bonus.

    Tony Taj, The Skyline, mixed media on canvas, 2011

    Tony Taj, The Skyline, mixed media on canvas, 2011

    But then a third friend-family chose Brookline, and the house they bought was catty-corner from the first. How convenient! Three families could walk to each other’s houses for cookouts or birthdays or a game of cards. As 2016 rolled on, however, we came to realize that there were really seven families, all of whom lived either in south Pittsburgh or nearby suburbs, who were spending a lot of time together.

    We had another meeting, just the seven families. This time, we learned our lesson and got a teenager to watch the kids while the parents talked. In our conversation, we recognized that something was happening organically: proximity, shared values, and similar-aged children were drawing us to one another. We decided to take action to confirm and develop these friendships, rather than permit them to be worn down by the relentless winds of alienation, dislocation, and anxiety.

    We established an online group chat so that we could stay in touch throughout the day to offer or ask for help and prayer, plan events, seek advice, or just vent about the latest toddler atrocity. The point was explicitly to augment and facilitate real-world interactions, never to replace them. And we committed to prioritizing one another with our time and attention, to be willing to give freely and cheerfully without a spirit of calculation and quid pro quo, to treat each other – increasingly as trust grows over time – like family.

    From the beginning, I always used the language of “community” to describe this effort. After all, I tend to think in terms of grand and abstract concepts, so my vision was expansive. But these friends consistently tried to reel me in, and after a while I finally got the picture: what we were describing and attempting was not engineering a society, but simply living as genuine friends.

    My family was on a Virginia highway when our phones pinged. It was a notification from the group chat, and it was urgent: one of our friends’ boys desperately needed prayers. There were no details, but it was especially distressing that the message came from someone other than his parents. Whatever had happened, they were apparently too frantic to post it themselves.

    We were helpless to support them physically. But we could pray. And so together with our children we prayed as we careened down the dark Virginia byways. And we felt united to our friends, who were also praying in their homes, or maybe on other roads.

    The boy, we found out later, had fallen out of a tree and cracked his head on a root. The damage was millimeters from severing an auditory nerve and nicking the carotid artery. But he would be, and is now, fine.

    These days, six of our seven families live in Brookline. Remarkably, the seventh family, with a suburban residency requirement due to the father’s job, moved across their town to be as close as possible to our neighborhood. No one asked any of the families to move; we had never made a specific commitment to that kind of proximity. But the benefits were apparent, so they accelerated their new-house timelines and transferred their belongings five or ten minutes away.

    Brookline was once one of the most dynamic Catholic neighborhoods in a city of Catholic neighborhoods. Its parish, the Church of the Resurrection, was the largest parish with the largest school in the diocese. Now, although Pew hasn’t done a study on us, it would be fair to assume that “lapsed Catholic” is the commonest religious identity among our neighbors.

    It’s tempting to say that we are trying to restore that lost mid-century legacy. And there are times when it feels that way, like when I lean out the window of our minivan to chat with one of our friends’ boys on his bike. But friendship isn’t about conforming ourselves to some historic model. It’s about conforming ourselves to Christ in the circumstances with which God has presented us.

    Brookline families gather on a Pittsburgh sidewalk.

    Brookline families gather on a Pittsburgh sidewalk.
    Photographs courtesy of the author

    It is inspiring to see other examples of this, even if we share only modestly in their radicalism. My family has twice visited the Bruderhof home in Pittsburgh, where university students from the New Meadow Run and Spring Valley communities live during their studies, and we yearn to visit more often. And I have been fortunate to have been hosted at the Fox Hill community in the Hudson Valley. Places like these, and the people whose love of Christ and their neighbor give them life and peace, fill us with confidence that Christian community is not only possible in these days, but essential.

    Because the truth is that the old model, whatever its features and bugs, is not available to us. Those old neighborhoods were built on a substrate of Christian culture that has long since eroded – partly as a result of the faithless profligacy of precisely the communities it sustained. Whatever we’re doing, and whatever we do moving forward, it must be undertaken with a clear-eyed understanding that we are building nearly from scratch. Our project is not one of reclamation, but of laying the first beams of the scaffolding that will support a rebirth of community-based Christian witness in decades and generations to come.

    I had a golf date with a couple of the neighborhood dads. But when I called one of them to confirm, I could tell from his tone that something was wrong. His family was hosting another family’s three boys because their mother was experiencing alarming symptoms in her pregnancy. The emergency ultrasound revealed death in the cradle of life.

    The mourning parents returned for their other children and cried with their friends. We had them over a few days later, the evening before the mother was delivered of her baby’s body. Her husband observed that she had become a living icon of the Pietà. I thought of the embrace we had shared when he first told me of the pregnancy.

    The family arranged a funeral for baby Angelus; the parlor and the cemetery provided everything gratis. All the children old enough to wield a trowel tossed earth into the tiny tomb. To share in play is to share in pain. To share in joy is to share in sorrow. To share in life is to share in death.

    We often think of the married couple as the generative unit of Christian community, but that’s incomplete. Of course, it is the business of a husband and wife, in cooperation with the Creator, to beget the next generation. Accordingly, in the Christian imagination the household of parents and their children, patterned after the Holy Family, rightly holds a privileged position. But an exclusive focus on the nuclear family runs the risk of reducing the abundant life of which Jesus speaks (John 10:10) to biological fertility. That falls short of the gospel. Within the church, the spiritual fecundity of grace seeds and nurtures God’s presence among us, making genuine communion of persons possible in this life.

    In other words, friendship is fertile. Not only do proximity and solidarity create the material, social, and spiritual stability that allows for more children to be welcomed with confidence, but relationships of mutual charity also become channels of grace. And because authentic friendship is both spiritual and corporeal, it is also sacramental. In the Catholic Church, the sacraments are said to be “efficacious signs of grace” that bring into being the spiritual realities they signify. While bringing a meal to a postpartum mother or grasping the shoulder of a struggling father or gently correcting another family’s child are not numbered among the seven sacraments, they are acts of trust and service that communicate grace.

    Taken together, these small acts form a matrix that pulses with divine life. They form the foundation for living together in ways that our secular-individualist culture finds frightening in its vulnerability and impractical in its self-giving.

    And yet, confronted with the possibility of genuine community, people become fascinated, captivated, entranced. That’s because we humans know that living as isolated individuals or families is not how it’s meant to be. Somewhere deep in our souls the words are carved, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

    It’s now becoming clear that the Brookline experiment is overtopping the levees of friendship alone. Several new families have moved to the neighborhood – some looking to take part in our little something, some stumbling into it – and we’ve integrated a few who were already around. We’re hoping to attract people in different stages of life – younger, older, single, childless – but no one really knows how to go about that, except to seize the opportunities God places in front of us.

    There’s no denying that we’re now in the community-building business. To do so would be to frustrate the fecundity of grace; it would be to ignore the lesson we learned a few years ago, when we recognized something was happening and took the initiative to ensure it continued to happen. Community is the organic extension of friendship, but it requires, especially these days, a little light-touch intentionality to catalyze and nurture it.

    Those first friendships remain the fusion-core that provides energy and gravity to the entire system. But grace proliferates. That means there will be new friendships, new life-giving cores of sacramentality, that will over time form an impossibly complicated Venn diagram of irruptions of heaven.

    One late summer afternoon, several families, including a few new additions, agreed to meet for ice cream at Scoops on the Boulevard. We prayed a rosary as we walked to the main street, and then we clogged the sidewalk with sticky-fingered children until one of the new families suggested we decamp to their home a block away.

    We all climbed a Pittsburgh slope – a block here is often more grueling than a mile in Omaha – and gathered on their generous front porch. The kids ran around and around and around while the parents talked and talked and talked, rocking babies and pouring lemonades.

    Midsummer dusk approached, and everyone gathered up their protesting children for the walk home. At least one of ours fell asleep on the way.

    I make it all sound idyllic, and often it really is. In the moment, of course, one gets preoccupied with child discipline and safety, and the blessings of togetherness can feel a bit abstract. But, nearly without fail, on the way home or in the last moments before sleep we say, “I’m glad we went. It was a good day.”

    We know there will always be troubles. Little kid mischief becomes big kid mischief. And of course adults can break trust, too. (To respect privacy, I haven’t discussed any specific challenges here.) We’ve been upfront about this among ourselves, committing to the kind of intentional trust-building that will allow us, God willing, to confront serious problems with directness.

    For now, though, we feel unduly blessed with peace and good order. For now, and we pray forever, we feel confident that this is sustainable.

    Because in truth it is sustainable, because grace is infinitely sustainable.

    Fear of the vulnerability of trust is said to be a realistic response to the Christian truth of the Fall and our unavoidable brokenness. But when seemingly prudent caution prevents us from making commitments of mutual self-sacrifice, it becomes despair of the healing power of grace – rendering impossible precisely the solidarity on which friendship, community, and society are founded. The result isn’t protecting ourselves from others’ potentially toxic brokenness, but wallowing in our own.

    If Brookline is to become a fruitful example of Christian community, it will not be as a reproducible template or, God forbid, a celebrated “model community.” Rather, it will be as a place where the healing power of grace has simply been allowed to work as it should, where people with radically different personalities, strengths, and weaknesses are able to share life and death secure in our shared identity in Christ.

    The episcopal motto of David Zubik, bishop of Pittsburgh, is, “Nothing is impossible for God.” I admit that, in comparison with the traditionally grand Latin mottos, I had long felt this one was a bit trite. But now I see its majesty. And maybe, just maybe, Brookline is poised to demonstrate that majesty to this city.

    Contributed By BrandonMcginley Brandon McGinley

    Brandon McGinley is the deputy editorial page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a contributing editor at Plough.

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