Gaza: So far away, but not really

It’s hard to know what to say about the situation in Gaza.

First off, I’m here. I’m not there. But there is tremendous interest locally in what’s happening in the Middle East. The news in Gaza is of immediate concern to many New Yorkers, for all sorts of reasons.

We all know this.

Over the years, I’ve written many “local reaction” stories about the Middle East — you know, calling Jews, Muslims/Arabs, maybe some others, to get their feelings about the latest bad news. It’s a trying exercise because everyone always says exactly what you expect them to say.

Nothing every changes. It often feels pointless.

In a way, it’s like writing about abortion. The two sides have entrenched positions. They demonize each other. Nothing really changes.

But the abortion debate is important. People care. And the war of words continues.

As far as Gaza goes, I’ve come across a few revealing points of view. Among them:

Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt captures well the internal debate that many American Jews are probably having about Gaza — and worries about a growing divide between Israel and the diaspora. He writes:

I suspect that the majority of American Jews are somewhere in the middle, supportive of Israel’s effort to protect its citizens, but uncomfortable with the IDF campaign, and the painful images they see of the results of the bombings. “Can’t you find another way?” they might be asking of Israel, as if the government and people had not endured years of attacks and provocation before striking back?

“We’d love to, but this is the Mideast, not the Midwest,” would come the reply.

Muslim scholar Hussein Rashid, a native New Yorker, writes about how difficult it can be for a peace-seeking, mainstream Muslim American to criticize Israel without being accused of anti-Semitism. He asks:

What home now for the Muslim who believes that religion does not divide, but is a force for peace?

And Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori makes the case that Israel’s attacks are “disproportionate” to Hamas’ shelling of southern Israel (certainly a popular position in the mainline world):

We are deeply saddened by the first-hand reports we are receiving from Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza about the casualties they are treating under the most horrific circumstances. Not only do they lack basic medical supplies, but with windows blown out they are even struggling to keep patients warm. The high number of civilian deaths and injuries, which continue to include noncombatants, women, and children, will only prolong the violence years into the future. Israel’s disproportionate response to the rockets being fired into its cities may well encourage violence beyond Gaza and Israel. The first steps toward peace will only come if all parties unite behind an immediate ceasefire. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded the world that “an eye for an eye soon leaves the whole world blind.” May we seek to end this blinding violence.

Where are the megachurches? Not here

No, New York is not exactly the land of megachurches.

I finally got around to perusing Outreach magazine’s 2008 lists of the 100 biggest and 100 fastest-growing churches in the country.

Outreach is an evangelical magazine and they’re talking about their kind of churches. Roman Catholic churches need not apply.

The 100 largest churches include only three in New York state — the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, the Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York in Jamaica, Queens, and Times Square Church in NYC.

And the fastest-growing include only two in NY — Christian Faith Fellowship Family Church in Middletown (that’s it) and the Chapel of CrossPoint in Getzville (north of Buffalo).

Some day I have to get around to writing something about the vast Catholic parishes in the Lower Hudson Valley. They are mega, even if they don’t count as megachurches.

The largest church in America, according to Outreach? Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston. 43,500 members. Wow.

‘Doubt’

I saw it yesterday. The movie, that is.

No, I don’t get to see movies during work hours too often. The only others I can recall seeing were “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Da Vinci Code.” Both were difficult to watch — for very different reasons.

I had no trouble sitting through Doubt, which I expect to be writing about in my FaithBeat column for Saturday.

I’m no movie critic, but I found the film to be pretty compelling from start to finish. It wasn’t perfect, by any means. But Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman were typically terrific, carrying the movie with their dialogue in only a handful of settings. A showdown scene between the two great actors — she the accuser, he the accused — was riveting.

The film is, of course, based on the play by Bronx native John Patrick Shanley, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play (and the movie) is based in 1964. In the Bronx. At a single Catholic parish and school, where a nun has accused the pastor of something awful.

Guess what.

Shanley had a relative who was abused by John Geoghan, one of the chief villains of the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse crisis. And he wrote the play as the scandal unfolded. But the film — I didn’t see the play, but understand that the plot is the same — is not a treatise on the scandal.

Doubt raises questions, big questions, about sexual abuse. But it does not try to address the scandal in a Big Picture sort of way. I’ll address this, and other matters (I hope), in my column.

Next up, New York?

Although it’s been a while since Cardinal Egan reached retirement age, one strong argument against believing that Pope Benedict XVI would actually allow him to retire has been that Detroit’s Cardinal Adam Maida is even older than Egan.

And still working.

But this is no longer true. Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the U.S., announced this morning that Bishop Allen Vigneron (that’s him) of the Diocese of Oakland will become the next archbishop of the Motor City archdiocese.

He will replace Maida at an installation ceremony on Jan. 28.

Maida hit the retirement age of 75 in March of 2005 and has been waiting for the Vatican to say, “Okay, take a breather.”

The announcement will surely jump-start speculation that Edward Egan is next. After the papal visit in April, there was a lot of chattering about when Egan’s successor would be introduced. But when summer hit, the breathless interest began to subside.

A lot of priests I’ve spoken to in recent months have sort of given me a “It will happen when it happens” shrug.

Let the chattering commence (again).

‘Choice’ Christian books at a CVS near you

While I was off, I stopped at a local CVS and saw something interesting: a rotating display of several dozen Christian books.

I realize that such a display would not be unusual in most of the (evangelical) country. But it’s not the sort of thing you would generally see in Westchester County, a land of mostly Catholics (who have their own reading materials), mainline Protestants, Jews, and none-of-the-abovers.

Drugs stores in New York have generally sold best-sellers — modern-day pulp — with maybe a Billy Graham title or, more recently, a Joel Osteen book, mixed in.

But this was a free-standing display featuring titles like “Power Prayers for Women,” “Becoming a Prayer Warrior,” “How to Study the Bible,” and “What Makes a Man Feel Loved” (from a Christian perspective, of course). There were also a couple of T.D. Jakes titles, such as “So You Call Yourself a Man.”

The display was set up by an outfit called Choice Books, which I now know (thanks to their Website) is a “direct-store delivery vendor” of inspirational reading material. Its mission is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Choice Books began in the late 1950s, when its founders began selling inspirational books to retail stores. It now sells over 5.5 million books each year from over 80 publishers at more than 9,400 retail display locations.

On the Choice Books website, I could search for other displays in the area. It seems that a large number of CVS stores in Westchester (and several Walgreens) now carry the books.

In recent years, I’ve marveled at the incredible influence of the evangelical publishing industry in the U.S., a phenomenon that is lost on most New Yorkers.

I wonder how Choice Books will do at a suburban CVS. I’m sure there is an audience out there: certain mainline Protestants; African-American Christians; Catholics who might get some inspiration from an entertaining and broadly Christian evangelical tract; and all those folks who love self-help and relationship books.

Wrapping up ’08

I’m back. Happy New Year.

I got to catch up with a lot of reading while I was off. I’ll share some of the good stuff over the next couple of days.

My FaithBeat column from two days ago was about the top religion stories of ’08. Give it a read, if you might.

Last week, our photographers put together a real nice feature on their “Lasting Impressions” from ’08. Their favorite assignments.

They’re all interesting, but you might want to take a look at the segments done by Mark Vergari, Joe Larese and Peter Carr, all of whom focused on their experiences covering Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to New York.

Go HERE, and either enjoy the whole thing or go the main menu and look for the pope stuff.

That picture is Mark’s, by the way…