Ain’t That America

Sorry it has been so long in between posts – the pastor at the church in which I am currently stationed passed away suddenly this week.  Please keep the soul of Fr. Jim Wiesner in your prayers.

This continues a series of entries that describes the time when I first entered seminary in the Fall of 2006.

From Oak Ridge, NJ we head for Columbus, Ohio on the second part of our Northeast Road Trip. This is my first time to Ohio – looks about the same as Pennsylvania. We did drive alongside a big pile of coal along side Route 80 outside of Youngstown. As a tribute, I put on the Bruce Springsteen song “Youngstown” about the miners who lived there—man, Bruce just travels everywhere.  We are now driving under a road sign for Lodi, which brings to mind the Credence Clearwater Revival song “Lodi.” When I first heard it I thought they were referring to New Jersey; now I’m struck with the reality that maybe that’s not the case. Add that to the list of areas in which my faith is being challenged.

What I know of Ohio is mostly from the 2004 election.  I know that I am going to have to resist the temptation to grab random citizens of the Buckeye State by the shirt and shake them while shouting “Why?? WHY did you vote for that stupid man!?!?  It’s all YOUR fault!!!” However, I fear that would make me an odious and ungrateful guest, so I collect the energy to refrain.

In Columbus, Ohio is the University of Ohio, where the Paulists run the Newman Center there. Newman Centers, for those of you who don’t know, are like Catholic parishes on college campuses. The Paulists run several (but certainly not all) of the Newman Centers throughout the country, including University of Tennessee, University of Texas (Austin), and UC Berkeley. I have to admit that it’s one of the things that attracted me to the Paulists is their work on college campuses. I also have to admit (and might be evident by those who know me well) that I had a hard time letting go of college. Yet, I know a lot of people who feel the same way, and I don’t think it only has to do with “getting older.” Sure, there were a lot of great things about being twenties, but there were a lot of crappy things too. I’m personally a much happier and a more secure person now in my mid-thirties than I ever was in my twenties.

It’s necessarily not the keggers that I believe are missed. For a lot of people, including myself, college life filled two very fundamental needs that we all have and is not as readily available in today’s society: freedom and community. Those two things, in addition to a sense of call, are what are attracting me to the Paulists right now. Two weeks in, I actually do feel very much like a college student.  I’m going to new places. I’m meeting new people. Hell, I’m even on a road trip for three weeks. Yet, I do have to remind myself what a friend of mine told me before I left – life in seminary is not what my life will be like as a religious.

The next day we leave Columbus and head to our next destination: Chicago.  We drive past the town of Lodi; I always thought that the CCR song “Lodi” was based off of the town in New Jersey, but maybe now I’m wrong.  As soon as we finished listening to Tiny Dancer from Almost Famous soundtrack, we pass the town of “Stillwater,” the name of the band from Almost Famous.  Crazy.

We crossed into Indiana and this is my first time.  So far, it looks a lot like Ohio… which looks a lot like Pennsylvania. But the billboards starting to get interesting; soon after leaving Columbus, we pass a billboard saying “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?” (If things go according to plan, I’ll be in Oak Ridge, New Jersey.)  A few miles down the road, and there’s another sign: “Avoid Hell, Repent.”  Then a sign that reads “Colonoscopy” – I wonder if the last two are related. Then, of course, McDonald’s, offering burgers and McNuggets.  As we drive further into Indiana, it starts to look a lot more like the state I imagined from the John Cougar Mellencamp songs of the 80s; lots of corn, lots of trucks, and lots of flat.  And even more  billboards.

Then comes the sign: “Adult Superstore, 34 miles.” Wow, an adult SUPER-store… a Wal-Mart of porn, right here in the heartland!  I mean, I’m not advocating that the big-box industry should suddenly embrace the adult entertainment industry… I’m not suggesting that this is a giant leap forward for American culture… but I gotta admit that the curiosity of the part of my brain that loves all things kitsch is killing me.  I wonder if they too will have a smiley face as their mascot.

It is funny how all of these forces on the billboards are competing for my salvation in America today. I have to admit, while I do like to consider myself somewhat of an intellectual that’s above it all, a part of me does question the strength of my own faith when I see the religious billboards so directly expressing their religion like that. It’s never been my style to be so open with my own. I know, I know… I have to remind myself that my more questioning nature usually serves to deepen my faith after all of my intellectual mud wrestling is done.

Speaking of mud wrestling, the 34 miles is almost up and we’re passing the Adult SUPER-store!  It turns out to be a converted Pizza Hut… goofy red roof and all.  I’m struggling with the things in life I can depend on right now; who knew that I couldn’t even trust porn?

The highway continues as does the radio.  The radio gods continue to accompany me on this journey. After driving through Gary, Indiana into Illinois, the station plays “Solisbury Hill,” a song I’ve often listened to as a great emotional description of my own discernment. Right after that comes on a song I have not heard in years and whose appearance on the radio seems suspicious: “Lodi” by Credence Clearwater Revival.

Since 2009, Tom Gibbons, CSP, has shared insights on faith, pop culture, and seminary life in the Kicking and Screaming blog here at Busted Halo. On May 19, 2012, Tom was ordained a Paulist priest at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City. He will begin serving St. Peter's Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada beginning in July 2012.