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There is an unusual confluence of leave-takings and milestones behind the gathering of stories that appear in the second half of this issue. I would even suggest that the three pieces -- appreciations of Jim Corbett (Page 16) and Robert McAfee Brown (Page 17), who died recently, and Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, retired archbishop of São Paulo Brazil, who celebrates his 80th birthday Sept. 14 (Page 24) -- be read in succession, as a kind of reflection on models of modern Christianity.

These are saints for our era, all accomplished and well educated, who placed the rigors of their academic lives at the service of a Christianity focused on the poor, those outside the bounds of laws, on refugees on the run and political prisoners in torture chambers. Christian faith has become too often one of a tick list of necessary items on a politician’s resume. The stories in this issue are of folks who knew the real politics of faith; that faith acted on authentically would more often than not prove a political liability.

At a time when we are forced to watch a church that is choking on its own arguments over minutiae, that has become blinded in the strain to nail down and enforce every dogmatic jot and tittle, the lives depicted here force us to see the bigger picture, to recognize that Christianity calls us to a grander and more dangerous vision.

It would be impossible for me to mention the three men above without recalling another who, though not so high in profile, knew them all, lived the faith with the same abandon, and who died earlier this summer. James Gittings, 73, a big man with a full white beard, was a Presbyterian in love with Catholicism. He was a big-hearted ecumenist who loved being amid disintegrating cultures. That’s often where the church worked best, he said, at its most courageous, and it was, of course, where the story was for Gittings.

For years he traipsed the globe as editor-at-large for AD magazine, a now defunct publication of the Presbyterian church.

I was working as a reporter in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1980 when Gittings prompted me to meet Jaime Wright, a friend of Cardinal Arns, when Wright was making a trip through Pennsylvania. Wright, a Presbyterian himself who also worked in an official capacity in Arns’ archdiocese, had lost a brother to Brazilian death squads. Wright and I had a long conversation on the porch of a family home in Wilkes Barre. I went away with a reading list and new questions about Latin America and the church role there.

The next year, Gittings invited me along on a reporting trip to Guatemala. It was during the last years of the bloody regime of Gen. Lucas Garcia. The ruse we used -- covering the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Presbyterian church in Guatemala -- allowed us wide latitude in travel. We never wrote about the celebrations. After visiting a church and listening to long discussion of activities planned to celebrate the anniversary, we would head off to a more obscure location with a translator and one or two congregation members who would give us the real story of the churches, Catholic and Protestant, in Guatemala. Those clandestine interviews with missioners, lay people, doctors and teachers would further shape my understanding of the Latin American reality and the role of the churches and the U.S. role there.

I learned from watching Gittings. He knew the feel and the smell of terror and oppression. He had seen it in Indonesia, in Vietnam, in the civil rights marches in the United States and in barrios and growing base communities of Latin America.

He just loved this big wide world and everyone in it -- and people knew that instinctively. He could know the details of some of this world’s most horrible wounds and yet throw his arms around the reality, embrace it all.

When AD magazine went out of business, he tried launching a publication of his own and lost all but his shirt in the doing. In recent years, he lived in South Carolina with his wife, Sue. He taught writing at the local community college, continued to write poetry and worked as a volunteer with youth caught up in the justice system.

I got a call from one of his three daughters (he also has a son and six grandchildren) last month to tell me Jim had died Aug. 3.

So this past week and month my thoughts have often been of loss and passing. At the same time, this convergence of stories has forced me to meditate, if you will, on the risky business of Christian faith, on models whose faith transcended the limits of denominational boundaries and the stifling effects of social respectability.

Their lives are examples of living the gospel in big and daring ways.

Spirituality for the piety-impaired” was the headline for the cover story on Greg Pierce’s approach to finding God in the workplace and other everyday venues (NCR, Feb. 2). Reader response was so positive we approached Pierce about doing a regular column on the subject. His first appears in this issue on page 15.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2001