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Jim McDermottNovember 22, 2022
A statue of Mary stands alongside a hurricane-damaged house on the coast of southern Louisiana (photo: Kevin Jackson/America Media).A statue of Mary stands alongside a hurricane-damaged house on the coast of southern Louisiana (photo: Kevin Jackson/America Media).

Editors’ note: This fall, America Media released the groundbreaking documentary “People of God: How Catholic parish life is changing in the United States” with the aim of sparking a national conversation about the diverse ways the Catholic faith is lived out across the country. To help facilitate those conversations—in your parish, with your family or in the comments section—Jim McDermott, S.J., has offered a reflection on each of the four segments of the film as well as a number of discussion questions. You can read Part III below, and follow the links for Part I, Part II and Part IV.

In the third part of  “People of God: How Catholic parish life is changing in the United States,” producer Sebastian Gomes and the America film team visit Cut Off, La., a bayou shrimping community, and the people of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Where the prior twostories in the film were a lot about issues within the church, here the story is about a community contending with the issues of the wider world, most especially climate disasters, but also political divisions. They sound like two very different kinds of obstacles, but the underlying question is the same: How can we as church stay afloat amid the storms that confront us?

The people of Cut Off have some great answers. First: When it comes right down to it, what we have is God and each other. Living near the ocean requires an act of humility; you have situated yourself before something over which you have no control. And as challenging as that can be, for the people of Cut Off it also seems to simplify some things. You cannot count on things to be predictable, and so you really have to trust in God’s care and the care of one another.

In the third part of “People of God,” we travel to Cut Off, Louisiana, a bayou shrimping community, and the people of Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

In the wake of Hurricane Ida, as they found their homes and sometimes their lives in ruins, the parishioners of Sacred Heart found solace in the church as a place of prayer and petition. And they found comfort in one another, including the complete strangers who sent them an 18-wheeler filled with supplies. Even in the face of their own catastrophic losses, they were there for each other. That experience in a very real sense lifted them all up.

Whether we are among those who have experienced a climate disaster or not, we all have a sense of impending change that we cannot completely avoid. That can seem very frightening, but the people of Cut Off remind us that we do not face the challenges ahead alone. We have each other.

A second lesson from Cut Off: Keep your conflicts in context.It’s eye-opening and refreshing to watch Ashley and Al Archer talk about the ways that they negotiate their differences of opinion, and then as they do start laughing. Beyond being a fun glimpse into their relationship, it points to something important: The Archers approach their conflicts and differences within the broader context of the life and faith they share.

Both in secular society and within the church, differences of political or religious opinions have come to represent almost existential threats. At times we can’t even conceive of seeing past them. But the Archers’ relationship points to the actual reality of our lives, which is quite different: We may disagree, even fiercely, but we are not each other’s mortal enemies or existential threats. We may not have the intimacy of husbands and wives, but we are all capable of appreciating one another, even if we don’t agree. We are all pilgrims on the same road.

It’s hard to have a meal with someone you’re angry at. The nourishment and community we find at the table of the Lord does indeed give us hope.

Maybe the people of Cut Off understand this better than some because they have experienced real existential threats. The point is, when in the midst of conflict, don’t trust any “take no prisoners” or “all or nothing” impulses. There is a bigger picture; take the time to step back into it.

A final lesson: The mission of the church is actually pretty simple. In talking about life after Ian, Mr. Archer lays out what the church provided for the community, and his words really capture what church can be. “The church was a place to go to plead to the Lord for mercy and support. The church was there for fellowship. The church was there as a sign of hope.” If we are looking for some criteria to judge how well we’re doing as a community, his description seems like a great place to start.

We could even boil it down even further. At the beginning and the end of the story of Cut Off, we hear that the one thing that you can count on in this community is that you’re going to “eat good.” Meals are central to these people. And meals are central to our faith. The table is a place where we experience God’s mercy and care, and where we are invited into friendship with each other.

It’s hard to have a meal with someone you’re angry at. The nourishment and community we find at the table of the Lord does indeed give us hope.

Questions for reflection and conversation:

How do you feel about the future? What gives you hope? What concerns you?

What is it you want the church to be when you experience crisis or tragedy? How can we as church stay afloat amid the storms that confront us?

How does your parish deal with division? What are some concrete and effective things that your church community does to support you or to encourage you to support one another? What are some things that you wish it would do?

How does your parish use meals as a place of fellowship? How could it?

How well does your parish live out each of Al Archer’s points about church: “It’s a place of mercy; it’s a place of fellowship; it’s a sign of hope”?

Listen next: 

On this bonus episode of the Jesuitical podcast, hosts Ashley McKinless and Zac Davis speak with Jim McDermott, S.J., and Sebastian Gomes, the producer of “People of God,” about the meaning of parish life in a changing church.

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