Sunday, February 09, 2014

Lessons On Being A ‘Light’ From The Movie, ‘Gimme Shelter’

(Fifth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 9, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 58: 7-10; Matthew 5: 13-16.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday 2014]

I want to begin my homily today by recommending a movie to you.  Specifically, I’ll recommend it to all those 14 years of age and older.  The movie is called, “Gimme Shelter.”  I saw it last week at Showcase Cinemas in Warwick.  Unfortunately it’s not playing at the present time at Regal Cinemas in Stonington.

But I would say that the trip to Warwick is well worth it.

The film is based on a true story.

It stars actress Vanessa Hudgens (who was in all those High School Musical movies of the recent past).  She plays a 16-year-old girl named Agnes Bailey (although Agnes prefers to be called by her nickname, “Apple”). 

When the movie begins, Apple is living in the inner city with her drug-addicted and emotionally unstable mother.  We also find out that the 16-year-old has been in several foster homes over the years, and was sexually abused in one of them by the father of the family.

Needless to say, she’s a very troubled young woman.

After getting into a physical fight with her mother, Apple runs away and goes to the house of her estranged—and extremely wealthy—father, Tom, who lives in a big mansion in a New Jersey suburb with his wife, Joanna, and their two young children.

Because of her scruffy appearance and abrasive personality, Apple gets a pretty cold reception from her dad—and an even colder reception from his wife.

But they allow her to stay.  While she’s there she experiences morning sickness one day, and shortly thereafter makes the discovery that she’s pregnant.  Tom and Joanna’s solution to this “problem” is simple and all too typical of people in the modern world.  They tell the teenager that she should have an abortion.

Apple, to her credit, dashes out the front door of the abortion clinic that Joanna takes her to—and runs away once again, this time to save the life of her unborn child.  She ends up back on the streets for awhile, sleeping in unlocked cars and eating out of dumpsters to survive.  But then, after a car accident puts her in the hospital, she meets a good, dedicated Catholic priest (you don’t find too many of them in Hollywood films these days!), played by James Earl Jones.

The priest (Fr. McCarthy) helps Apple to get the assistance she needs from a local pregnancy shelter: a home for young mothers and their babies, run by a woman named Kathy.  This very important character, incidentally, is actually modeled on a real person, Kathy DiFiore, who began taking pregnant teenage girls into her home back in 1981.  She now operates 3 mothers’ and babies’ shelters in New Jersey, giving love and hope to women like Apple.

I won’t tell you how the film ends—no spoilers here!—but I will say that, all things considered, it’s a good and happy ending for most of the characters in the story.

Jesus said in today’s gospel, “You are the light of the world.  A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.  Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand where it gives light to all in the house.  Just so, your light must shine before others so that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”

I mention the movie, “Gimme Shelter” in this homily, because I think it has a lot to teach us about being a “light” for others—the kind of light that Jesus tells us in this text that we must be.

First of all, the movie teaches us that being a light is not always easy and it’s not always popular.  It wasn’t easy for Apple to be a light by making the decision to carry her unborn child to birth.  In all likelihood, if she had consented to the desires of her father and his wife and had had the abortion, they probably would have allowed her to stay with them, and Apple would have had everything she could possibly have wanted in life—materially speaking.

It wasn’t easy for the priest, Fr. McCarthy, to be a light in his initial dealings with Apple right after her car accident.  She was angry at God; she was angry at life—and she let the priest know it in no uncertain terms!

And it wasn’t easy for Kathy to be a light by setting up and running a ministry for young and troubled teenage girls like Apple.

Of course Jesus never said it would be easy!  In fact, the implication in this Scripture passage is that it will not be easy, since a light stands out only when it’s surrounded by darkness.

Another lesson we see illustrated in this movie is that we can be a light now and in the future, regardless of what we’ve been in the past.

We learn that lesson, mostly, from Apple.

Apple runs away from her mother because of her mom’s physical, emotional and verbal abuse, and because of her mom’s drug addiction; she runs away from her dad and his wife because they want to kill her unborn child by forcing her to have an abortion.

And yet, in the midst of all those conflicts, it’s very clear that Apple is no saint either!  To say she was “a little rough around the edges” is to put it mildly.  The fact is she was angry, bitter, vulgar and not a very pleasant person to be around.

At the end of the story, however, she’s very different.  Her choice to be a light by continuing with her pregnancy—and by all the right decisions she made after that—had a positive impact on her and on those around her.

She didn’t allow her past darkness to keep her from being a light for others in the present moment, and neither should we allow our past darkness to keep our light from shining.

Instead, we should deal with our darkness by going to Confession, and then move on with our lives.

And speaking of others, another lesson we learn in this film about being a light is that lights burn more brightly when they burn together.

Apple was supported in her decision for life by Fr. McCarthy, and Kathy, and the other young mothers in the shelter—and that “union of lights” helped everyone, including Apple.

This is why, if we’re serious about living our Catholic faith, we need to try to surround ourselves with other Catholics who are also serious about living their Catholic faith.

Do you do that?

And speaking of helping others, we also see in this story how being a light can bring sight to the blind—the spiritually blind.  Apple’s decision for life—her decision to be a light in this very difficult situation she was facing—eventually ‘opened the eyes’ of her materialistic and very pro-choice father.  He came to see that it was not an impersonal cluster of cells that his daughter was carrying in her womb; it was a real, living human person!

And finally, we learn from this film that being a light for others must begin at home.

Actually, this lesson is taught negatively in the movie, mostly by Apple’s mother—but also to some extent by her dad.  Each of them had a negative influence on Apple’s life early on, because each of them failed to be a light for their daughter early on.  Sadly, they failed to give this girl the love and guidance and support that she desperately needed.  Thankfully, Apple did eventually find those things in Kathy’s shelter.  That’s why it’s not a coincidence that at the end of the film she refers to the residents and staff of the shelter as her “family.”

Apple understood.

I thought of this last point when I reflected on today’s first reading from Isaiah 58.  You know, this passage could be entitled, “How to be a light”—because that’s exactly what it’s about.

In addressing that issue, Isaiah writes, “Thus says the Lord: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; cloth the naked when you see them, and [and here’s the line that really struck me] do not turn your back on your own.”

That, I would say, is a clear reference to our families.  So yes, Isaiah is telling us that we should strive to be “lights” by helping all the poor and needy people out there in the world.  But he’s also making clear that our charity and kindness need to begin at home!

Of course, being a “light” at home by showing patience and compassion and forgiveness toward the other members of our family can be (and often is!) a real challenge.

And we all know that by experience!

That’s yet another reason why we need to pray every day.

In concluding my homily now, I ask you to do two things.  First of all, think of all the people who have been “lights” to you in your life.  Thank God for those people, and ask the Lord to bless them for being such good examples of faith to you.

And secondly, pray (especially after Communion) that God will make you an example of Christian living to the members of your family, and to all your friends and acquaintances, so that they will be able to say to you—in the words of the old Debbie Boone song of the 1970s—“YOU light up my life.”