Wednesday, November 05, 2014

(Mis)Adventures in Assembly Line Apologetics

Writing for the Catholic media has many benefits. Making a decent living at it isn’t necessarily one of them. Which is why, when I received the robocall from a local temporary employment agency about a second-shift job at a local electronics assembly plant, I jumped at the chance. It was supposed to last a month. That was on September 1st. As of February 19th, I was finally out of a job.

Since 1997, I have been working in the Church or at Church-related work and since 1999 have been living in the rural Midwest where it takes a half-hour or more to get to a town of any size. Let’s just say that my social contacts where I live have been limited.

Then I began at the plant and my vision of the world suddenly expanded. After our initial basic three-hour training session, we were brought out to the floor and introduced to Chad, our line leader. Chad is 34, about five-foot-seven and weighs no more than 145 pounds soaking wet. He has a thick but scruffy-looking reddish-brown goatee, a thin face, wears what looks like a horseshoe earring in one ear and chews his nails down as much as he can, as often as he can. But how he chews them is a mystery to me since he appears to be missing about a quarter of his teeth and those that are left look like they’re about ready to fall out.

Besides this obvious characteristic, he has another one – the ability to talk your ear off and be “honest” about his life. So in fairly short order we new temps all found out that he is a convicted felon (assault on a police officer), still on probation, wears an ankle bracelet for the police to track him, has numerous friends who are also small-time criminals, has had many girlfriends, and has a son through one of them. (Or was she actually his wife? It’s hard to tell since he uses the phrase “The mother of my son” to describe her. And Chad is not a person you want to question for fear of how long and labyrinthine the answer will be, an answer that will usually include the word “technically” even if there are no technical data involved – which is almost always the case.) As the week went on, we found out (among other various and sundry items) that, though he wants to travel to Canada, he really can’t do it because, being a convicted felon, that requires much more paperwork to get clearance along with an annual $200 fee, but he has a friend who does it every year. Or so he says. As he says a lot of other things.

The list of other characters at the plant is long. There’s Bryan, who's 6'7" and weighs in at around 420 or more, and has an ego and mouth to match. Boua is the exact opposite – an immigrant from Laos who is 4'7" and weighs maybe 95 pounds. But she can hold her own. Pat looks like she’s twice past retirement age and has worked there for nine years, but she worked at a woolen mill for many years before that. She’s one of those crusty old folks that you know is a dear underneath the seeming hard shell. Nick is Chad’s best friend at work. He’s 24 and has an underbite on his lower jaw that looks like a serious orthodontic malpractice case. He claims that he knows the most about religion of anyone he knows. And since he barely graduated from high school and usually ends up crawling the bars of the larger city near him every weekend, that isn’t saying a whole lot. David is also young, about 22, and has also had jail experience (as has Nick) and calls himself Catholic. “I’m even confirmed,” he boasted, just as he also boasted about driving home while he was drunk.

Then there’s Geoff. When you see the name “Geoffrey,” you generally think of someone with an aristocratic air, someone like Geoffrey Boisi, the multi-millionaire who heads up the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management at Boston College and has the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at the same college named after him. Or you might think of a stupid giraffe that serves as a mascot for a certain toy store. But you would not think of the Geoff with whom I worked at the plant. Lean of build and uncertain of character, he displayed behaviors that left you wondering if he was altogether there.

The conversation at this plant does not lean toward the intelligent, and some of them know that. Chris, who is Chad’s roommate, once told me, “The people here are either rednecks, racists or just plain stupid.” I didn’t have the heart to ask him into which of the three categories he placed himself.

One night, the conversation began at strip clubs and descended from there. If you’re not sure how far one can descend from strip clubs, just take my word that it can happen. It finally got so bad that I went to the supervisor and asked her to reassign me to another task. She asked why and I told her. This was the second time this kind of discussion happened, and Peggy had had it. She called a quick meeting and made it clear that the inappropriate talk was to cease and that if it happened again, “You’ll no longer be working here.”

We got back to the line and Bryan began to whistle and drum his fingers on the line – for two hours. The other guys, Geoff and David in particular, looked at one another asking, “What was inappropriate about what we were saying?”

What Chris said.

The next night, Bryan was moved to another position off the line and I was left there with Geoff, David, Nick and Tong, a 23-year-old of Hmong descent. Suddenly, Geoff started asking questions about Christianity. He had been raised in a rural Midwest town as an agnostic and he was truly ignorant of Christian belief. So ignorant, in fact, that he asked, “Well, Jesus wrote the Bible, didn’t He?” My attempts at answering the questions foundered, not because I didn’t know the answers, but because Geoff’s attention span is about as short as a TV commercial. David’s was no better and going from one to the other was interiorly frustrating. This conversation lasted for more than an hour and Tong tired of it. He’s a true pagan, retaining the Hmong pagan beliefs that were handed on to him. But he’s also secularized and not wanting to hear anything of religion at all. It finally did end without any kind of fruit that I could see.

Others would occasionally ask me faith-related questions. Mark, who’s originally from Chicago, also a convict and missing his two upper front teeth from who knows what fight, once asked me what Catholics believe, but I did not have time to even begin to tell him. Perhaps the most bizarre occurrence happened when Brent came on the line. He’s good at math and figured out a three- or four-part problem in less than five seconds. Geoff’s response was “(Take the Lord’s Name in vain), “you’re good at math” and then he turned to me and asked, “Was that taking the Lord’s Name in vain?”

A close friend of mine once described these people as “a bunch of yahoos.” To an extent he’s right. Or as Chris said... 

But they’re yahoos, rednecks and racists who need redemption as much as the next guy. And this is where it occurs to me that the Church is missing out on evangelizing a large segment of the population. There are many evangelical efforts aimed at the middle class or, as with Opus Dei’s Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., towards the elite. But we have been missing out on something like Catholic Action for many years. There are still remnants of that rather vast and influential late-19th to immediate post-World War II organization which worked in factories towards evangelization, but most of them have morphed into political groups. Most outreach that is currently done is attempted at the parish level towards people who are already at Mass. We have Theology on Tap, but we don’t have Theology on the Line.

A young St. Gianna Molla (center, back row) and her Catholic Action group

Yet this is where it is needed. Unfortunately, my efforts weren’t very successful -- at least that I'm aware of. Working with the Chads, Bryans, Tongs and Geoffs of the world is difficult. It doesn’t help that the atmosphere of an assembly line isn’t conducive to such conversation or even to thinking about that kind of issue, nor is the loud music that is blared in constantly and greatly influences people’s behavior. And you have the very real expectation that you’re there to work, not evangelize.

Yet such is the task of evangelization, bringing the Gospel into what would purport to be the gates of hell. How this is done, I’m not sure and I hope it’s not a totally lost art. But if we take up the challenge, we shall have our Lord’s promise behind us: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”