I am sitting in the basement of the poorest parish in the diocese, Blessed Sacrament on Union Avenue in Bridgeport’s East End. There’s an event tonight; I am eating bowls of Cape Verdean soup, conja and cachupa, with people of various races and tongues. My ministry partner and co-founder of our association, Sacred Beauty, is hip-hop dancing with a nine-year-old; they look ready to take the show on the road.
Tonight is the Ragman’s Ball, an annual small-group event. In rumpled clothes, over homemade soup, the historic parish of Bridgeport’s African-American Catholics celebrates the memory of a Jew. Hyman Chamnitz, the “ragman,” rode the streets of the East End in a horse-drawn wagon the first half of the 20th Century, paying a few pennies to carry off the unwanted rags, paper and scrap metal of the neighborhood. According to his grandson, Chamnitz lost a daughter and six grandchildren in the Holocaust; in 1951, he collapsed after some heavy lifting and died in his wagon. His horse brought his body home.
The pastor goes by with a huge bag of garbage slung over his shoulder; an hour ago, he was hauling food and pallets of water; half an hour ago, he was serving soup. Even the apostles were concerned about neglecting the word of God in order to wait on tables, but somehow Father Skip touches all the bases. At no point does he sit down.
Over there, across the room, is the table where Bishop Frank was sitting, the first time we spoke in person, before I got to know him, before Sacred Beauty was officially founded, four years and 350 public Holy Hours ago, besides concerts and musical compositions and writing and so much more. The last I saw that day, Bishop Frank was still there, listening to a feeble elderly man who was evidently talking to him, not because he was the bishop, but because he was a human being who was willing to listen. Father Skip says he stayed the whole afternoon.
Earlier that year had been the parish’s “Epiphany miracle,” when there came from the East on Epiphany morning, not three wise men nor gifts of gold, frankincense or myrrh, but busloads of Korean Catholic tourists looking for a place to go to Mass. They, too, found a place at Blessed Sacrament.
And we have found a place here – a place for trying to live out a vowed life of culture-building, wisdom-loving and -preserving as a vocation like the monastics of old, with a very different external appearance, in the midst of a greatly changed world. Thanks to Bishop Frank, Father Skip is our chaplain now – for him, perhaps, one more burden among the many he bears, but an inestimable grace for us. We spend an hour a day in prayer here before the Eucharist. If anyone were to ask why an association for Eucharistic art, liturgy and culture finds a home here, I feel the question answers itself.
For our Church is troubled now – we all know about the shepherds who devoured the sheep under their charge, and their masters who condoned it or looked the other way. Many talk of redistributing power within the Church; others, of using the powers that be to enforce the Church’s law and doctrines more forcefully. But there is no power but service. There is no power but charity. There is no power but suffering, no power but living and dying by the Cross. Of course there is money, there are buildings, there are universities and hospitals, and there is human governance in the hands of priests and bishops – but all those things come and go, pass and are forgotten. Charity remains.
Without fanfare, Blessed Sacrament is a daily emblem of how small and shallow money and property and institutional power seem at the end of the day – or at the end of a lifetime. Here in this basement, with the people of God around us, the power of God is made perfect in weakness; charity and service are our only riches and our Eucharistic Lord dwells overhead in perfect silence and humility. Perhaps places like this are where new life for our Church can begin.
Paul Chu is co-founder of Sacred Beauty, an approved Private Association of the Faithful in the Diocese of Bridgeport, dedicated to Eucharistic contemplation and to artistic and intellectual creativity reflecting the beauty and holiness of God.