Archive for March, 2009

Headstones, string beans and the Pope

March 26, 2009

By David Farside

Last week, the Pope shocked the world with his lack of common sense, human sensitivities and inhumane remarks about the prevention of HIV and AIDS. First lady Michelle Obama broke ground on the first organic victory garden at the White House.

The new victory garden reminded me of our neighborhood victory garden during World War II. The Pope’s remark reminded me why I always questioned his infallibility.

Eleanor Roosevelt had a victory garden during World War II and former President John Adams grew a vegetable garden in 1799, but neither one was organic. The Clintons even grew vegetables in pots on the roof of the White House. Bill probably would have settled for the pot. Former President Woodrow Wilson wasn’t into gardening; he just raised sheep on the White House lawn.

I remember back in the early 1940s, everyone was asked to plant a victory garden. I lived in the middle of a big city in central New Jersey and any would-be garden space was absorbed by concrete teepees and pretentious steel monuments to big business.

The centerpiece of my neighborhood was a beautiful, historic Presbyterian church. It was crowned with a bell tower and the resonance of its bell was equal to the blast of the Civil War cannon that was stationed at the entrance to this sanctuary of the past.

The church was surrounded by a plush, green landscaped cemetery. It was still clutching the remains and memories of forgotten heroes from the American Revolution and the Civil War. The worn epitaphs chiseled on the marble monuments barely identified the name and rank of the slumbering spirits from long ago.

The cemetery, the size of a city block, was covered with old trees and surrounded by a rusty ornamental iron picket fence. The soil was rich from years of care; it was like a green paradise in the middle of a concrete desert. The conclusion was obvious: What a great place for a victory garden.

The church sexton lived on the premises. He was an elderly man and could barely make his daily rounds. He usually paid the kids in the neighborhood to shovel the snow in the winter and decorate the church at Christmas. I asked him if we could have a victory garden in the cemetery. He laughed and said that the residence would be honored and would think of it as patriotic.

We organized the neighborhood bean brigade and bartered for seeds. We planted string beans around the base of the decaying trees and crumbling headstones. My father worked for Rutgers University, which donated more than 100 tomato plants and the victory garden was born.

By the time mid- and late summer finally arrived, the beans covered every branch of the trees, the headstones were consumed with new life and the jersey tomatoes were ripe – the picking began.

We harvested our crop, shared the beans with all of the neighbors, especially the church sexton, sold the tomatoes to the A & P and traded for sugar and coffee rationing stamps. Our garden not only contributed to the war effort, but it unified our neighborhood. It was truly a beautiful victory garden in the time of a hideous war.

At the time, our string beans were a symbol of our neighborhood’s belief in democracy and our Constitution, a constitution that provides for freedom of speech, separation of church and state and religious tolerance.

Last week, while visiting Africa, Pope Benedict XVI exercised his freedom of speech, but he crossed the line between the separation of church and state and strained the fundamentals of religious tolerance. Responding to written questions about HIV and AIDS, the Pope said, “You can‘t resolve it with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

That brought response from Christian ministers and health agencies from around the world, also questioning the infallibility of the Pope and his humane insensitivity.

Rev. Roland Martin, writing for the CNN Web site, said although he knows the difference between reality and utopia, “the Pope shows he doesn’t get it.” In reality, “people are having sex. Catholics are having sex; heck, some Catholic priests have abandoned their oath and had sex,” he said.

I don’t think he mentioned the priests who have had sex with little boys, girls and each other. The irony is, they probably used condoms, hoping they wouldn’t get caught. But I guess all is forgiven with five “Hail Marys,” an “act of contrition” and millions paid by the holy Vatican.

The World Health Assembly president Leslie Ramsammy blasted the Pope’s intolerance of suffering AIDS victims, saying the Pope’s statement was “ inconsistent with science” and he was trying to sow the seeds of confusion. Ramsammy said Benedict was “absolutely and unequivocally wrong,” noting condoms will still be a part of an “overall strategy that includes education, fidelity and monogamy to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”

Today, I wonder what the ghosts of the past standing guard over our symbolic string beans would think of our modern-day wars, economics and Catholicism.

They’d probably agree that in the 21st century, consenting adults should decide on birth control issues and the use of condoms, not the Pope preaching his ancient and medieval dogma.

Maybe they would advise this self-righteous navigator of Catholicism to fill his chalice with reality and realize that preventing a terminal disease from spreading among innocent women and children with the use of condoms, especially in Africa, is more important than his opposition to birth control.

Or maybe they’d invite the Pope to come down from his cloud of illusion to the pragmatic hearth of Mother Earth. And as he takes that final ride in his Pope-mobile, he could soar on the wings of secular common sense and join them at their headstones in the victory garden. There, he could acquire a real taste for string beans and humane sensitivities.