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"Jesus Is on the Main Line"
Jennifer Scroggins
Published: Sunday, March 20, 2011
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Young people attend the 2010 Religious Education Congress in anaheim, California.
A room full of some 200 Catholics is clapping along with two old blues players with a bass and a steel guitar.

“Jesus is on the main line; tell him what you want.”

It is one of the first sessions of the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, and Dr. Daniel Smith-Christopher, who teaches at Loyola Marymount, is comparing the Book of Lamentations—a book about pre-Christian Jerusalem—with the African American blues of the Mississippi Delta.

“We have the right to call out to God our pain and the pain of others,” the professor says. “We know we have someone who cares and who listens.”

The themes of Smith-Christopher’s talk feel like a perfect entry point for a first-timer at “LAREC.” About 40,000 people attend the four-day event in Anaheim, ranging from teen groups to vowed religious, and from lay religious educators to vendors and publishers such as St. Anthony Messenger Press.

This year’s congress is centered around the idea of “Hold Firm … Trust!” And considering recent events in the Middle East, New Zealand and Japan, that rallying cry seems utterly urgent.

The annual conference is a celebration of all things Catholic and what it means for a diverse United States to experience Catholicism in a multicultural way.

Almost every state has a representative here, and countries including Pakistan, Singapore and Namibia also have sent participants.

There are delegates in religious habits and some in blue jeans; visitors in ethnic dress and others in groups donning matching T-shirts.

Indeed, there is a place for everyone to express their faith in Christ. So, why not include the blues?

Dr. Smith-Christopher is passionate that a musical tradition considered by some to be “dirty” or “evil” is, in fact, a modern African-American expression of an ancient art form: the poetry of lament.

And a lament, he explains, comes from a deeply rooted belief that someone is listening and that someone loves you and wants to know how you really feel.

“Is the truth ultimately a prayer to God?” he asks. “We acknowledge that we suffer. We express our pain to God because we believe that God cares. You trust the one with whom you are so brutally and painfully honest.”

Just as slaves and sharecroppers cried out in their despair and loneliness, so did the Hebrews in 597 BC, who saw Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians and felt their lives and their heritage being torn apart.

Families were broken; poverty and crime were rampant; loneliness and isolation were the prevailing feelings of the day.

Yet the Jews’ laments at once expressed their deepest pain and their profound gratitude that God would hear them and help them.

“Lamentations is Hebrew blues,” Dr. Smith-Christopher says. “So are the blues a kind of African American Book of Lamentation?”

It’s a fascinating question that challenges Christians not to look away from suffering, the professor says.

For many people, the ability to share their pain by telling their truth is the first step toward reclaiming their lives and healing.

One need not look further than the world news to see the need for truth-telling and healing because of political oppression, natural disaster and economic devastation.

In the Catholic Church, truth-telling and healing take on even deeper meanings.

Yet even as the Church changes and grows, thousands of people here in Anaheim seek to deepen their faith and build the Church’s renewal. At times, the sea of convention-goers is as overwhelming as the challenges at hand!

But even as we lament certain realitites within our faith and our society, we can be comforted that we have an ear to which we can cry out.

After all, Jesus is on the main line; tell him what you want.

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