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The Missions

Happy New Year from Oakland. We just returned from a bike ride with Charlie and his Gong Gong (maternal grandfather) through Golden Gate Park and along the Pacific Ocean. Charlie found this most perceptually jarring as bike rides in his New Jersey homeland do not include ocean vistas: I tried to calm him by singing about 'Lewis and Clark and Charlie' but it was good old heavy legwork pedaling back up into the park that restored his equilibrium. Earlier in the day during a visit to the the Ching Chung Taoist Association of America temple on Grant Avenue on the edge of Chinatown we lit heng (incense sticks) for Charlie's Tai Yeh (mother's paternal grandfather) and namesake Charlie Chew, who with his wife Lee raised five children above their grocery store in Oakland's Chinatown.      

When I first met Lee Chew (my wife Kristina's Ngin Ngin, who was detained at Angel Island in the mid-1920s while seeking reunion with her husband in Oakland and recently celebrated her 101st birthday) and discovered there was no ready means of translating my name into Cantonese, I suggested to Kristina that Ngin Ngin might simply refer to me as "the Irishman." Today after a lunch of chow funja ji gai and fu jook soup at the food court in the commercial building housing the temple, one of Charlie's great aunts suggested that the Irishman might like to take Charlie right across Grant for a visit at Old Saint Mary's Cathedral, where stunning photos of the 1906 earthquake were on display in the vestibule.

We were grateful for the encouragement especially since we'll be visiting with our great friend and pre-eminent historian of Bay Area Catholicism tomorrow. It's still a big country with plenty of varieties, or so I tried to convince a fellow guest at a Christmas Eve celebration after it became painfully evident that I knew absolutely nothing about Mission San Luis Obispo (her parish), or the California missions in general (this after I confessed to teaching some American religious history and, uh, you know, some American Catholic history too). Someday I'll take one of those mission tours. In the meantime we took another kind of mission tour on Tuesday, to the Friends of Children with Special Needs Center in Fremont, a program launched a decade ago in nearby San Jose by a Chinese-American woman and her husband to serve children like her then-seven year old autistic son. The Center is contained within a mission-like compound including supported living facilities for adults with special needs. Similar facilities are needed everywhere and fast: as founder Anna Wang explained to us, it takes more than a village to raise a special needs child, it takes an entire Bay Area (fill in your own analogous region).

To sustain the mission theme we later drove to the Jesuit campus at Santa Clara before returning to Oakland and the shocking and terrible news that our friend Jim Loughran, S.J., the president of Saint Peter's College in Jersey City, had died after a fall in a stairway at his home. Jim Loughran's life was dedicated to the mission of education in the Ignatian tradition, whether practiced on Jesuit campuses or during his stint as interim president at Brooklyn College in the beloved borough of his birth. Saint Peter's College is unique among the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities  in numerous ways; it also lives as close to the heart of the Jesuit mission as you'll find these days and like all true not just rhetorical mission enterprises it faces daunting challenges. Jim Loughran was haunted--with many other New York Jesuits--by the 1972 closing of Brooklyn Prep, his high school alma mater, and he worked hard to adapt Saint Peter's College for the rapidly changing community it served.

This was difficult work for anyone including a Jesuit trained for a very different world. But on September 11, 2001, Father Loughran stepped up in a big way: students had seen the towers collapse from the windows of classroom buildings. In the terrible hours that followed--with members of the Saint Peter's community among the missing--the campus was mobilized for relief efforts that found hundreds of us shuttling via police boats laden with supplies to the marina across the river in lower Manhattan, just steps west of the Trade Center. Saint Peter's is adjacent to a very large Muslim neighborhood from which it draws some talented students; it was clear that Jim Loughran's words and deeds as leader of this most diverse campus in this most diverse of cities had set a tone and a standard honored by the actions of the entire community. He was a really good man and really fun to talk and be with; there are few of his like still with us and this is a terrible loss; his convictions remain to challenge us as we ponder the meanings of "mission."