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Coming home to family
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Witnessing Michael Jackson’s family materialize out of their relative obscurity, to unite so visibly on the event of his death, drives home for all of us the importance of coming home to the ones who share our life-story.

Even Janet had kept a lower profile since her regrettable Superbowl #38 presentation in 2004.  Without delving into the motives of those who took the stage last Tuesday in Los Angeles, or evaluating the messages the King of Pop communicated with his stage gestures and publicity stunts, we can still be impressed at the mark made on our nation’s history, and the quality of prayer, caring and sharing that took place in that solemn gathering.   

For me, watching the event re-play from a hotel room near Logan airport in Boston, the vision of Michael’s family assembled with his children on stage had a more special significance.  Even though I was never a fan of the Jackson Five, much less of Michael, they still had an impact on my world.  Born four years before the international icon, I couldn’t help but notice the unending gossip surrounding his idiosyncrasies and bizarre  media-grabs.  But what struck me most last Wednesday morning was that the hotel room was now empty.  Just hours before, it had been filled to overflowing with family.  Now, brother Douglas was already flying back toward Tanzania, Donna and Diane (with Matthew, Gracie and Tommy) were en route to Bellingham and Ketchikan, Debbi with husband Phil had remained with Mom and Aunt Marilyn in Vermont (later to return to Washington, D.C.) and soon nephew Aaron and niece Jessica would fly back to Macon, Georgia  (– if we seem scattered in 2009, know that twenty years ago we were much farther apart, with each of us five siblings living in a different country.)  But now, after re-uniting around the memory of our beloved father, we were all disappearing once again over the horizons.

I’d decided to spend an extra day in historic, beautiful Boston.  Waking up late, having seen everyone off and climbed back into bed, I turned on the news.  There was the forecast, once again for heavy rains and lightning storms.  Great.  What a way to spend my first day alone since God-knows- when.  And yes, there was the excerpted replay from Michael Jackson’s memorial service.  My family gone, rainclouds building up outside, I watched his family huddling together amidst a storm of reverent applause.

Determined to warm up before braving the polar climate outdoors, I went down to the Jacuzzi.  It was closed.  A maintenance specialist was busy hosing off the week’s accumulated whatever.  Back in the exercise room, in place of yesterday’s stewardesses, a very substantial woman sat, staring out the window. I wished her the best but decided just to jump in the water.

Now everything was wet inside, and outside, and the Jackson family was still standing there in front of the whole world, and everyone was in tears.

We Americans are truly a great family
God is good, and in my case it turned out that, despite the self-assurance of our weather technicians, the rain hardly fell at all.  Leaving the empty hotel room behind, I dropped my bags off at the waterfront Marriott, and found a nearby Catholic church.  It felt most reassuring to participate in the Mass and to kneel there amidst the figures of people who have come to be, for me, more than family: Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Francis of Assisi, Therese of Lisieux, and, out in the garden, Padre Pio.  Most of all, in this sacred space, in which God’s faithful people have gathered to pray for 136 years, it was encouraging to know that my Lord was truly present, and listening.

In fact, the whole day was blessed.  I spent hours walking the Freedom Trail.   From the site of the Boston Tea Party to the obelisk of Bunker Hill, from legendary Hanover Street to the Naval Pier where Old Ironsides still floats after two hundred and twelve years, I wandered, wondering at the people, places and events which determined the early history of our nation.

Yes, we Americans are truly a great family.  You could see it in the statues of famous soldiers and statesmen which populate the streets and parks of our major cities.  The war monuments remind us of the sacrifices our ancestors have made from 1775 to the present.  Boston’s magnificent architecture, ranging from its founding in 1630 to the ambitious mosaic of modern skyscrapers and office complexes occupied me for two hours on Thursday.  And its beauty also attracted me, as I walked the Freedom Trail, beginning at Park Street Church on the edge of Boston Commons.

Before I share that walk with you, I need to address two historical events which took place the night before I stood reverently by Park Street Church.

Defending California
I spend Wednesday night with my cousin, Lauren, a photographer and reporter who’s lived, with her husband Robert, on assignment throughout the United States.  He writes for the Boston Globe.  We ate Himalayan and Afghani food together in a student-filled corner café in Cambridge, then returned home to bounce back and forth between the two baseball games that would be making history that very evening.  Both involved California.

I’m not a big baseball fan.  But given the constant negative mention on the news back East of California’s budget crisis, I had to defend my state.

My affection and admiration for New England suddenly took a hit. Earlier, I’d cursed the Boston game, because the crowds were so great they shut down the Metro, delaying my long-awaited reunion with cousin Lauren.

Now, I was upset again, as the Red Sox beat Oakland’s Athletics for a second consecutive night.  At the same time, New York humiliated the L.A. Dodgers, relying on a freak behind-the-back flip to first base which somehow trumped our nation’s venerable rule that ties go to the runner.

For those who missed the magic, the Dodgers’ Mark Loretta had bounced the ball high off first base with a powerful line drive.  The Mets’ first baseman, Daniel Murphy, risked flipping the ball blindly behind his back to pitcher Bobby Parnell.  Parnell snagged the ball just as Loretta’s foot flattened the bag.  As the Mets’ own website clearly demonstrates, this was a full-fledged tie.  However, the amazed first base umpire called Loretta out, thus changing the course of baseball history.  I wanted to declare war.Having grown up near Oakland, Lauren kept her silence.  I, too, had little to say, as my mother grew up in Boston and graduated from Wellesley.  So there was nothing we Californians could do to protest the Red Sox victory.

Rob, for his part, had worked for New York’s Wall Street Journal.  He sat there in smug silence, pretending not to notice the red face on his guest.

The Mets won their game.  California’s economy continued its nose-dive.

Early the next morning, the sun did rise again.  Lauren and I took the Red Line in, and said good-bye beneath Trevor Street.  And thus I found myself standing alone before Park Street Church, there beside Boston Commons.

As I entered there early Thursday morning to leave my suitcase for safekeeping, I felt a wave of emotion.  Over the Fourth of July weekend, our family spent hours at the famous Congregational church in Peacham, Vermont. Having family ties (an ancestor descended from Mayflower pilgrims actually served there as Pastor) made it doubly meaningful to worship and fellowship in a place of prayer so key to Vermont’s history.

“Here history was being made’
But the Congregational church called “Park Street” is a thousand times more famous.  Explore online, and you’ll discover what the grey-wigged fellow dressed in eighteenth-century garb was explaining that morning to tourists on the front steps, as I drew near.  “Here, history was being made.”

To our family, Park Street means even more.  Sister Debbi and her husband attended there while preparing for missionary service to the Moslem world.  In fact, they married in that sanctuary thirty years ago.

Brother Douglas worshiped and sang there throughout his years living in Cambridge, where he worked as an interior decorator.  And my earliest memories of Boston come from this location, as I read in my childhood “Make Way for Ducklings,” and retraced their webbed footprints into Boston Commons and to its Swan Lake as a little boy.  In fact, I paid special homage to the ducklings’ bronze monument, too, on Thursday morning.  Only then did I circle past the lake to Washington’s statue.

But perhaps the most moving spectacle for me took place at the other end of the Freedom Trail.  There, in Boston Harbor, “tall ships” were sailing in from across the Atlantic seaboard, and beyond.  Majestic, seeming nearly to fly gently across the rolling waters, these living monuments to bold sea adventures and frightening maritime battles were converging on Boston for just four days.  I was among the first to draw near and marvel.   Later that day, as my jet lifted slowly off the runway for the long flight to that other  bay city, San Francisco, I looked back toward the Harbor.   Yes, in cities like these, the entire history of our nation comes together and co-exists on a daily basis.  We, the inhabitants of this great nation, are participating day after day in making new history, in writing new gospels with the risks, the commitments and the odysseys we undertake.  May we grow daily to appreciate more fully the wealth of heritage which we’ve received from those who paid the price of our freedoms.  And may history remember us kindly.  For, like our ancestors, we hardly know how future generations will view us.  Let us pray that they forget our foolishness and remember our feeble attempts to live with dignity and courage the legacy that is ours.

Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Parish.  Written during the long flight home.