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The old blue sedan parked outside my house early last Saturday morning made me uneasy. I live on a quiet street in an older residential neighborhood -- so quiet in fact that a car parked on the street (where all the homes have driveways) is noteworthy. I couldn’t help but notice that the four men in the car, in their late teens or early 20s, were all wearing dark stocking caps. And then, although the day wasn’t that cold, I saw that at least one was pulling on gloves. Add to the mix the fact that three of my four neighbors were out of town, and my Neighborhood Watch (perhaps coupled with investigative reporter) genes kicked in big time. In my fertile imagination, I was about to witness the crime of the century or at least a garden variety burglary.

Just then an older man came walking down the hill from the corner, carrying rakes and leaf bags. Imagine my embarrassment when the “perps” (I watch too many TV crime dramas) emerged from the vehicle, came up the walk and rang my doorbell.

“I bet you gentlemen would like to make some money raking leaves,” I offered sheepishly, hoping they couldn’t know what I had been thinking just a few minutes before. “But I have a lawn service and they’re already scheduled to come.”

“No, ma’am. It’s free,” said one of the young men, explaining that the group was from Heartland Community Church up the hill on the next block. “We’re just doing this as a community service, helping out our neighbors.”

I tried to give them a donation, suggesting they use it for their youth ministry, but they wouldn’t hear it. “Can’t take it, ma’am. We just want to show folks that sometimes doing a kindness is totally free -- just as God’s love to us is free, no strings attached.”

The young man smiled and grabbed his rake to join his peers (the other “perps”). Within half an hour they had raked and bagged a total of 15 bags of leaves and left them neatly lined up curbside.

For the rest of the day, I was buoyed by the group’s gesture, especially given my initial suspicions. What a treat to be surprised by goodness, to be the recipient of totally unexpected (and undeserved) kindness given by strangers.

But that was the point exactly. They weren’t strangers. Although I didn’t know any of the more than 10 people who eventually swarmed over my lawn, armed with rakes and determination, their view was that we’re all family, all on the receiving end of God’s totally gratuitous love. Because of that belief, there are no strangers, only neighbors.

Not everyone had the upbeat experience I had last weekend, I realize. But regardless of what kind of a week we’ve had, the events of this mid-November call us to reflect on where we’re headed as a global family. This issue of NCR debuts our first special section dedicated to family life (Pages 29-40). As the authors point out so well, family is the first place most of us learn about God. The “domestic church,” as the family has been called, is a model that a top-heavy, often too corporately defined institution can learn much from -- if it chooses. For too long, “spirituality” was something reserved to priests and nuns; no one talked about the family as a school of spirituality, or the family being the locus where grace, God’s own life, breaks into the everyday amid dishes and diapers (and even lovemaking!). Our church will only be as healthy as our families are.

At this writing, the nation’s bishops are preparing to tackle several issues at their fall meeting in Washington Nov. 11-14, not the least of which is the Vatican-revised norms for sexual abuse. Another item on the bishops’ agenda is a document urging priority for ministry among Hispanics. This action item was already delayed, scrapped from their June meeting agenda by the sex abuse discussions. Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population and could comprise more than half of all U.S. Catholics within a dozen years. But there’s no guarantee they’ll be Catholic if as a church we don’t take energetic steps now to empower Hispanic leaders, listen to Hispanic voices, and give full expression to their unique gifts and cultures.

Last, but not least, we report this week on the annual Call to Action conference (see Page 3), held in Milwaukee Nov. 1-3. James Carroll’s insightful essay, his plenary presentation at the conference, offers invitations and challenges we do well to ponder as we look to the future. As our cover asks: “How large is your community?” or as the Call to Action theme asks, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer we give could well determine our future -- as a global family, as a church, as a planet.

Now it’s time to say arrivederci from this space, which I happily cede to its rightful steward, NCR editor Tom Roberts. Tom will be back in the newsroom for the next issue.

-- Pat Morrison

My e-mail address is pmorrison@nat cath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002