Kickball, Sia and 3 a.m. pizza: An O’Hare Fellow reflects on his year at America Media

Ciaran Freeman, Emma Winters and Brandon Sanchez at the beach (Photo: Colleen Dulle)

There is an M&M. Sometimes it’s yellow, other times it’s red or green. The M&M has a vast white roving eye that shoots a 750-foot look at me from Times Square, where it resides in an electronic billboard, partially obstructed by skyscrapers, constantly blinking and shifting. For about 300 days, I have made eye contact with the M&M, seated at my desk in the America Media newsroom.

The view is nice in June; outside, though, New York smells like hot trash again, as it did last August, when I first arrived in Manhattan and started to work at America. That odor—coupled with the fact that my time as a Joseph A. O’Hare fellow is drawing to a close—must have triggered something in my memory, made me sentimental. So I asked Ashley McKinless, the editor of the faith section, if I could write about America, promising my piece would be a cogent, fairly straightforward reflection on the events of the past year. I would talk about personal growth: what I had learned living the big city and working in media at a tumultuous time in the life of the church and the history of the world.

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Frequently, though, when I try to talk and write about these things, I fail. The words do not come out. They cycle through my head, doing roller-coaster corkscrews; they bury themselves in the sand; they slip off the cone and onto the boardwalk, a sad scoop of ice cream.

I am left with bits and pieces of confetti, tiny memories that might make sense, might say something coherent, if I place them next to each other, puzzlelike.

Instead I am left with bits and pieces of confetti, tiny memories that might make sense, might say something coherent, if I place them next to each other, puzzlelike.

This year’s crop of O’Hare fellows first reported to America Media’s Sixth Avenue headquarters on Aug. 16, 2018, over a month after allegations of abuse against former cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick were publicized. As fellows, we played any number of editorial roles. Every day for the past year or so, I posted news wires about the abuse crisis. Every day, our morning newsroom huddle—in which staff talk over the news, assign articles and finalize that day’s coverage—was a site of discussion and debate. Given that we were dealing with such heartbreaking stories, the office mood leaned somber.

Brandon and Emma on one of the office’s many inadvertent twin days
Brandon and Emma on one of the office’s many inadvertent twin days 

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Wading through heavy material 40 hours a week can take a toll. You need to find laughs wherever you can; God is in laughter. Pope Francis agrees with me: In late 2016, he said “it’s a human attribute, but it’s the closest to God’s grace.” My faith is side-splitting laughter—ecstatic, communal, ineffable.

When I think of the year, I will remember the teary laughs, the aching bellies, the fact that I gained at least three or four crow’s feet from smiling so wide. In August, after we discovered a shared sense of humor, my fellow fellows (Emma Winters and Ciaran Freeman) and I became friends. We laughed at bad movies and weird tweets and the general absurdity of New York. And the rest of our coworkers laughed with us, though we often served as irreverent Gen Z foils to our millennial, Gen X, baby boomer and silent generation counterparts.

Wading through heavy material 40 hours a week can take a toll. You need to find laughs wherever you can; God is in laughter.

In many ways, our office is sitcom-ready, a uniquely talented, amazingly thoughtful, joyously idiosyncratic cast of characters. We are 22 years old and 28 and 40 and 75 and 82. Priests and laypeople. Boisterous and reserved. Once, in the lunchroom, we launched into a half-hour conversation about Ingrid Bergman, only for a 22-year-old staff member to blurt, 15 minutes in, “Wait, who is Ingrid Bergman?”

Almost every day we were regaled with tales from the 110-year history of the magazine. (Though the company moved to a sleek new space in 2017, the charmingly dumpy spirit of the old America House—where the magazine was headquartered for over 50 years—looms large.) Like the time Hugh Hefner mailed copies of Playboy to America House; or when one Jesuit concealed from his housemates that he had been invited to the mayor of New York City’s mansion, then attended the event and ran into several of his housemates who had also stayed mum about their invitations.

This year, the fellows have been woven into that distinguished history. We joined the team, the family, bringing our talents to bear on the magazine’s editorial vision. I spent a lot of time editing, writing and reporting, often on issues like immigration, the death penalty and climate change, not to mention Kanye West. All the while, I’ve been shepherded through the print cycle (and the digital wilderness) by a host of supportive editors.

In many ways, our office is sitcom-ready, a joyously idiosyncratic cast of characters. We are 22 years old and 28 and 40 and 75 and 82. Priests and laypeople. Boisterous and reserved.

Thinking about mentorship and teamwork, I am reminded of a late-summer company kickball game: the goofy fun America staffers had as we—a four-eyed, mostly unathletic squad—made a game plan and playfully trash-talked our rivals. I can hear my colleague Alison saying, with the self-assured bravado of a major league coach, “O.K., here’s what we’re going to do.” One evening, we ventured down to Attorney Street on the Lower East Side and won by default when the other team didn’t show up. (At One and One, located between First Street and First Avenue, we rewarded ourselves with food and drink.)

Everywhere I looked, I found kindness, friendship and fellowship: learning from my colleague Joe Hoover, S.J., who edited my first-ever story; debating the merits of Taco Bell with America’s chief culinary correspondent, Vivian Cabrera; eating stuffed mushrooms past midnight and dancing to Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” in our large conference room with a group of coworkers that included [redacted].

 

A native Californian, I am inclined to regard New York mores—over here they say “waiting on line” instead of “waiting in line”—with some distaste. The city is a pinball machine of activity, where quiet is rare and aggression is currency. I work next door to NBC and live by CNN. There are no swaying, firecracker palm trees or primordial redwoods. But you find holiness in other places. I do know, for instance, that there was something holy about being 22 and lying on the floor of a Brooklyn apartment with friends, wolfing down cheesy buffalo-chicken clusters from Domino’s at 3:00 a.m. Or watching skaters tear up the ice on the Rockefeller Center rink and staring up at a bushy, iridescent Christmas tree (whose name, in 2018, was Shelby).

At work, my assignments ran the gamut. I went to the United Nations to write about refugees. I visited Washington, D.C., for the first time in my life and covered oral arguments at the Supreme Court. Idling around the National Mall, I spotted the Lincoln Memorial: a church of Indiana limestone and Colorado Yule marble, even grander and more awe-inspiring than I imagined. Back in New York, I met Cornel West after he and Robert P. George discussed love in the public square in a conversation moderated by America’s president and editor in chief Matt Malone, S.J.

Young(ish) America Media staff dress up like their editing here, Robert Collins, S.J., for Halloween
Young(ish) America Media staff dress up like editing legend Robert Collins, S.J., for Halloween

For Easter this year, James Martin, S.J., wrote that the resurrection is the backbone of his faith: “Love is stronger than hate. Hope is stronger than despair. Life is stronger than death. And nothing, nothing, is impossible with God.” As the images I have described (and more) keep cycling through my head—dark and light, somber and jubilant—I will keep this in mind. I will try to let kickball and Sia and the laughter echo. Because a world without hope, laughter and joy is like a gin and tonic without the gin—or a stuffed mushroom without the stuffing.

Thank God for my friends and colleagues. And thank God for America.

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