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    A View from the Pew

    Here am I, Lord - at a slot machine 

    Here I am, Lord – at a slot machine

    January 15, 2012

    This week, my friend Joanne Mercier went to Foxwoods Resort/Casino to see an exhibit of memorabilia of Diana, Princess of Wales. My husband occasionally attends national conferences at Foxwoods describes this synthetic Shangri-La as a wishing well for the poor in spirit.

    I’ve been curious about seeing Foxwoods for some time. When Joanne assured me about the exhibit’s beauty, Pat and I decided to drive to Connecticut so that I could experience Foxwoods for myself and we could visit the exhibit. So on Saturday, January 14, 2012, my husband Pat and I stood in a three hour line at Foxwoods to see the Diana: A Celebration, organized by Arts & Exhibitions International, Althorp House, England, and supervised by the Spencer family. The collection of the Princess of Wales memorabilia included several exquisite tiaras, her wedding dress with a 25 foot train along with the shoes, royal umbrella (just in case), one attendant dress, several film strips about her life as a child and young adult, pictures, including some from Kensington Palace, her wedding and her funeral, journals, letters from many legendary people including a note and prayer from Mother Teresa, and a library collection that included volumes of collected letters of condolence regarding her tragic ending.

    The colors of the wall of the exhibit matched her engagement sapphire, the one now worn by her daughter in law. The music in the various exhibit rooms recalled moments that many of us remember: Trumpet Voluntary heralded a new wave of bridal marches for liturgical musicians as brides imaging themselves in a royal processional as Diana walked the length of Westminster Cathedral with her father to greet Charles on her wedding day. Elton John once again sang Candle in the Wind in the exhibit room as on the day of Diana’s funeral and again we watched the tragic event unfold and looked at his notes and music from behind a glass partition.

    The film strips and diaries also revealed Diana’s charitable works and her groundbreaking moments in compassionate outreach, like the day that she took a leper’s hand in her own as she spoke to the patient in a hospital that treats patients with this particular disease. And the day that she donned a miner’s hat and walked through a field of potential explosives, sat talking to a child without a leg as a result of being blown up by an explosive device, and letters and speeches that she gave on behalf of those without power, without voice, without dignity.

    Finally, the last exhibit displayed 25 of her couture gowns, suits and dresses, much like the Smithsonian Institute presents the inaugural ball gowns of the First Ladies of United States. Chanel, Lagerfeld, Versace, Dior and many other fashion icons found themselves forever immortalized because this iconic woman wore their clothes. Many people chided Diana’s extravagant taste, but in her defense, more than a few items displayed came ‘right off the peg’ in her own language. She loved beautiful clothes, even off the rack items. Diana used her fame to the poor’s advantage and knew that her clothes and jewelry would benefit others when her estate sold one day. Bang on. The money raised by the Diana Exhibit will benefit her various charities at the request of the Spencer family, to continue the charitable work that she began and that ended so abruptly and far too soon.

    During one of his conversations with an exhibit attendant as we waited in line, Pat learned that Foxwood Casino estimated that between 2,500 and 3,000 people would see the exhibit yesterday. The weekends since the exhibit opened in October saw numbers of about 2,000 people on Saturdays and Sundays. Weekday viewers flowed through pretty steadily. Pat estimated that approximately 30,000 people saw the exhibit. Exhibit tickets cost $25.00 per person; you do the math. Kudos to the Spencer family; Diana’s work goes on.

    After dinner, I wanted to mark my first visit to Foxwoods Casino/Resort.  To humor me, Pat and I played a 2¢ machine with $5.00, my limit. We lost $5.00. “Here I am, Lord – at a slot machine.” I still can’t believe that I pressed a white button over and over again, waiting to see if # 7 would line up for a win. The exercise only took about five minutes, but I can never recover that wasted five minutes from my lifetime. Nor can I recover my lost $5.00, which could have gone into the collection basket for Haiti as they still try to recover from devastation and poverty. Lesson learned; never again.

    As we walked pass a roulette table, I watched young people place high roller bets, lose and play again. I walked by  hundreds of people who looked tired, worn out and sick (some with oxygen machines) sitting in front of glitzy machines that light up and made a lot of noise. Very few people smiled. The room smelled like stale cigarette smoke. Everyone looked worried, bored, exhausted. A few just looked terribly sad. Wait staff whizzed around the room with huge trays with an assortment of mixed drinks, all free, so people would be swept away in a blur of booze and gamble more. I learned that some of these folks actually cash in their Medicare checks and spend the lump sum on slot machines. Hoards of people boarded elevators with luggage, bags of junk food and coolers that contained beverages for their ‘room time’ over the weekend.  I cannot remember feeling such despondency. Even victims of natural disasters exhibit more hope than in this bleak setting, where people seem to place such a store in happenstance and willing to risk everything they own in the hope of winning big money.

    This morning, I needed a surge of renewal after yesterday’s casino experience. Something in me deeply desired a reminder about my own Christian identity in a country that seems to have lost its way, its vitality and its belief that nothing replaces hard work, faith and determination. So I worshipped today at Our Lady of Assumption Church that ministers to the Cape Verdean community and located in central New Bedford near the National Park.

    Administered by the Sacred Heart Fathers who founded the parish in the early part of the 20th century, I count the community of Our Lady of Assumption as one of the cornerstones of my own pastoral ministry in the church. Following Vatican II and its changes in the liturgy, several parishes invited my folk choir to minister music for the ‘new Mass’. Sixteen of us would pack up guitars, percussion instruments and one another and set off for three Masses beginning with an 8am Mass at St. Joseph’s in Fall River, a 10am Mass at St. John’s in Westport and end the morning with a noon Mass at Our Lady of Assumption in New Bedford. This vibrant parish, administered by the Sacred Heart Fathers, remains the little jewel I discovered years ago. Hospitable, warm and confident in their own identity as the Church, many of the parishioners walk to Mass from their homes. A true neighborhood parish, they greet friends old and new with joy and enthusiasm. I found friend and colleague Sr. Maryanna Sylvester, RSM, the youth director and long time pastoral associate along with Jack Livramento, longtime pastoral musician who was just elected to the New Bedford School Committee. I sat behind one of the best percussionist ever, playing congas throughout the liturgy. The music ensemble uses guitar and percussion to lead assembly song. Sound familiar?

    Jack’s music rehearsal of the psalm refrain impressed me. He played it several times and we sang through the refrain. “I’m going to let you hear your own voices and not play along this time,” he said. We sang the psalm refrain again – poorly. “Oh, we’re in trouble today,” someone from the assembly called out. We all laughed. “So let’s try that again in a lower key; maybe that will help,” Jack smiled and invited us to try again. A far more robust response resounded and this assembly affirmed a better effort with “Amen.” “That’s right.” “We’re ready.” This church takes itself seriously when they prepare to worship. I loved every minute of that rehearsal. Nice job, Church.

    Ironically, Fr. Gomes, a Sacred Heart Father, visited today, preaching and presiding at the noon liturgy. Here in our midst stood the same man that began his ministry as a young priest in his home city when I began mine in the same city as a pastoral musician in that same church. It may be many years later, but Fr. Gomes can still reach down into your soul and pull something honest and challenge the community to dream the dream, see the vision, be the prophet, walk the talk. Today, Fr. Gomes reminded us that we all need to awaken the prophet deep with us and speak out for justice in our church, our city, our town, our schools, our governments, our hospitals, and our world. My folk choir used to call him our ‘cool’ priest. He still is. He comes to do God’s will and lead people to the mountaintop. You could hear a pin drop during his homily. When he presides, you pray intentionally. With the changes in the Roman Missal, I suddenly thought,” It doesn’t matter what words we say. It’s how we say what we mean. And that takes a good leader.”

    Announcements rounded up a hearty liturgy before a rousing We Shall Overcome as a song of Sending Forth.

    “The kitchen is open.” A murmur of approval curled up like smoke from a woodstove.

    “The ministry schedules are ready as always for pick up on your way out.” Another murmur of consent followed.

    “Haiti continues to suffer. We need to collect tuna for Haiti so bring food in during the drive to help Haiti as we remember them in this second anniversary of their crisis.” Affirmations could be heard. This church will deliver on its promise to serve, to deliver the goods, to make good on its promise to be Church for one another and for the world they serve.

    Here am I, Lord. I come to do your will, even at a stupid slot machine. Maybe that person who sat next to me needed to see you in me. Help me to be a better servant.

     Postscript: My daughter Martha performed in a Gilbert and Sullivan review in Rhode Island this afternoon. I wanted to finish this blog before Downton Abbey and The Good Wife began, so I wrote in the back seat while my husband and Tim, one of my sons, sat in the front seat, chatting while I wrote. The car stopped at an intersection. When I looked up from my laptop, we faced SLOTS, a casino that replaced Hi Li in Rhode Island. God really does have a sense of humor.