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Saturday, March 15, 2014

God's "Mystic" assignment

So yesterday was a travel day for me. Getting to O'Hare reminded me how long it had been since I had been out of town: nearly a year! I stood in line at security for ten minutes or so before reaching the uniformed TSA guard who was at the entrance of another line that looked to be about 20 minutes long. She looked at my ID and boarding pass and said, "You're pre-checked. Go over to that yellow wall–the line's much shorter. I happily obliged. Not only was the line shorter, but I didn't have to remove my belt, shoes, and coat for the screening. The first of many surprises that day.

Well, not the first, really. That would have been that I was pre-organized enough to get out for a three-mile run before I rode to the airport at 11:00 a.m. This qualifies as the first surprise.

Things went very smoothly getting onto the little regional jet that was to fly us from Chicago to Providence. I was one of the last dozen or so to board, in Group W or whatever, and sat down in my customary right-side aisle, with an open seat in the window. As I got up to store my jacket and scarf in the bin, an older (than I) black gentleman said, "I'm in the window," and so I let him sit down, and put his jacket in the overhead bin with mine. We exchanged a few pleasantries about the weather and so on, like you do with strangers on a plane. 

My seat mate had on a herringbone suit with a shirt and tie, and I got the impression he was maybe going to visit, or had come from visiting, family, and still had the old-fashioned habit of dressing up for air travel. I noticed then that his suit was frayed at the cuffs—badly frayed, like a half to 3/4 inch of fray—and so my liberal bleeding-heart started making its judgments about his being forced to dress in old clothes by circumstances beyond his control etc etc. Old, poor grandpa going to visit home, or leaving from a visit. 

It was about then that he pulled out a digital camera about the size of my head, with a telephoto lens the size of a baguette. Pushing my eyes back into their sockets, I remarked, "Wow. That is some camera you've got there." He smiled benignly, like I was standing with my back to the pyramids, looking for them on a map. "It does all right," he said, "but nothing like (tapping his chest) the camera of the heart."

The camera of the heart? Who says that, I wondered. I smiled back and said, "You have spoken well." He proceeded to shoot some pictures out the window of the plane. 

I had brought a book from the office which looked like a quick read, yet another "parish renewal" book entitled Rebuilt - The story of a Catholic Parish with a subtitle as long as the names of some of the combined rites of the RCIA.  But the flight gave me time to read the first 200 pages or so before I set it aside, which is when I noticed he was reading in the current avatar of Bp. Ken Untener's Little Black Book which had some referent to yesterday being the anniversary (3/13/13) of Papa Pancho's accession to the throne of Peter. 

That was when he said to me, "So, do you have a big weekend planned?" The way he said it made me think that he had noticed I was reading a churchy book too, so I told him about going to Providence to do this parish mission with two parishes in Sharon and Walpole Massachusetts, and that I had taken the opportunity to spend a couple of extra days visiting my daughter in Westerly. Seeing that he was reading the LBB, I asked him if he was a Catholic, which made him smile again. The kind of smile that meant it was going to be a long story. "No," he said, "I'm a Methodist. But my friend Cardinal Bernadin told me I have dual citizenship." I clearly did a double-take. "My name is John White. I authored two books about Cardinal Bernardin, took photographs of him the last years of his life." 

He told me that he had met the Cardinal while covering the 1979 Papal Visit to New York. A colleague, said, had pointed out the cardinal to him in a crowd of bishops. "That guy," the colleague said, "is a holy man." "I know that. He's a bishop. They're all holy." The friend said, "No, this one is something special. You should get to know him." Later, at some social gathering which he was covering, the Bernardin walked over to him, and introduced himself to John, asking him about his work. John had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for his work on a book entitled Black Chicago. (A humble man, he neglected to mention this little detail, but I uncovered it on the page devoted to him on Wikipedia.) John documented Bernardin's battle with cancer in a book entitled The Final Journey of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.

We continued our conversation until the plane landed at Providence. He asked me what I was passionate about, what keeps me going, and when I told him, he told me about his faith that God guided his daily life, where he should go, what he should see and shoot. What he actually said was, "I'm on God's assignment, God's syllabus." He told me about his friendship with the Felician Sisters in Chicago on West Peterson, and how they bake him cookies and pray for him. He was on his way to give a speech at the Press Photographers Association, and was struggling over what he should say to them. He's been working on a book entitled Keep in Flight, for which he gave me a little promotional button, but he said he was feeling like he needed to write a book about love, and he thought he might pursue it first, much to his publisher's chagrin. It was a conversation I hated to leave. I gave him my own copy of my book, Change Our Hearts, which he asked me to sign for him, after he gave me his Little Black Book for Lent. He also wrote down my email address, so I hope to hear from him again. I felt like a different person after talking to him, like I'd been in the presence of a holiness different from what I've felt in a long time.

There was more to come, the night was emotional and full, and ended with my panic that someone had taken my Irish tweed cap I'd bought in Donegal in 2000 (since found) and also lost the book he gave me (also since found), and I was stopped by a Connecticut trooper about three miles into Connecticut for driving (since leaving Claire's in Westerly RI) with no lights on. I was at emotional loose ends, but dinner with Claire and her visitors, fellow author Patty Templeton and musician Moosher, settled me a bit, though I was still a bundle of nerves, still shaken from my encounter. 

When I arrived back at my hotel, I looked John up to find out about the Bernardin books, which is when I discovered that he had won the 1982 Pulitzer for his significant contributions to photojournalism. I couldn't help but wonder about all this as I settled down for my first of two nights in a town called Mystic, ahead of a weekend that I'm sure will stretch me as I share my heart and faith with church communities in Massachusetts. I told Terry in a text message, shaking with emotion in the baggage claim area of Providence airport, "I don't know who's praying for me this weekend, but I wish they'd stop it." Tonight I'm thanking God for sending John into my life yesterday, for so brief an encounter, with a prayer that, like this remarkable man, I might also open my heart to take on "God's assignment." I think that's what I'm supposed to be talking about tomorrow, and trying to live, already.
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White has also won three National Headliner Awards, was the first photographer inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, was awarded the Chicago Press Photographer Association's Photographer of the Year award five times, and, in 1999, received the Chicago Medal of Merit.  (Source: Wikipedia article) Here is a link to an NPR interview (with slide show of his photos) after the Sun-Times permanently furloughed its entire photography staff, including him, as a cost-cutting measure.