An interview with author Kerry Weber, managing editor of America magazine
Last autumn, Kerry Weber, managing editor of America magazine, returned from Rwanda, immeasurably enriched by her visit. During her time reporting from the country, she witnessed the fruits of forgiveness among the people affected by the 1994 genocide there: even those who had murdered many people were forgiven by the victims’ surviving family members for the sake of going forward as part of a peaceful community.
Yet, one need not travel to the ends of the earth to communicate mercy to others. This, in fact, is the theme of Weber’s new book, Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job, to be published February 1st by Loyola Press, Chicago.
Father Jim Martin, S.J., her colleague at America, has this to say about Kerry Weber: “Kerry Weber is one of the brightest new voices in American Catholicism. “In all of her writing, she combines a deep faith, a talent for crystal clear writing and and eye for the inspirational, lighthearted and even humorous. Kerry's new book is a wonderful introduction to mercy in the modern world, and it deserves a wide, wide readership.”
In the pages and pixels of America during the last four years, Weber’s articles and blogs have examined post-Katrina suffering; the ignored refugees of Iraq; interfaith dialogue; new ideas for Catholic education; women in the Catholic Church; transforming prisoners through education; and many other examples of Mercy at work in the world.
Her presence in crucial tasks of the moment is backed by a deep understanding of Catholic tradition and literature. Weber has written about the homes of Catholic writers, and introduced a slide-show tour of the homes by reflecting on one of her favorite authors: “I was first introduced to the work of Flannery O'Connor in a literature class during my freshman year of college. Since that time, I have spent hours reading her stories, as well as a good deal about O'Connor herself–and I have not been shy about voicing my enthusiasm. (My car bears a bright, blue "I'd rather be reading Flannery O'Connor" bumper sticker.)
As down-to-earth as any other thirty-something, she’ll chat about what her father has taught her about fixing cars or how the rhythm of sewing can be inspirational to prayer. Many of her stories are about her own family, as in this description of going to Church with them one Christmas: “Sitting in a pew at the cathedral, we are reminded not only of the transformative power of one child, but also of the need to trust in the value of the childlike humility we are all called to embody. It is a time when we are asked, once again, not simply to remember Christ’s love, but to take up our place in the long line of those who have come after him—proclaiming a message of joy, peace and redemption—and to continue every day, in one voice, as one family in Christ, to carry on that tradition.”
First, let's ask about your day job. How did you become Managing Editor of America magazine?
I started working at America a few months after finishing graduate school in 2009. I've been involved with the Catholic press in some capacity since I was 16, when I began working part time for our diocesan newspaper and television program in Springfield, Mass. My friends used to joke that if I wasn't careful I'd get stuck working in the Catholic press forever, but at some point working in this field became a real choice and a meaningful way for me to combine my faith and my everyday life. I'd always admired America, and I feel extremely grateful to work with the kind, intelligent and faith-filled people who make up the staff.
Is this your first book?
I published a handbook of prayers for college students, called "Keeping the Faith," in 2009. However, "Mercy in the City" is my first attempt at a full-length narrative. It was great to have the space and freedom to tell a story at length.
Could you please summarize the message of your book in a paragraph or two?
The book chronicles my efforts to complete all seven Corporal Works of Mercy—feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead—over the course of about 40 days. It's a kind of a spiritual experiment through which I tried to connect more deeply with these acts that we're all called to do. In the Gospels, for example, Jesus asks us to feed the hungry, but what does that mean for my everyday life? Should I just give a homeless person half of my sandwich as I walk by? Should I buy him a meal, or volunteer at a soup kitchen, or lobby for institutional change? But in the end, the question at the heart of the book isn't "How do I meet the minimum standard for being merciful?" but rather "How do I do these Works of Mercy sincerely and in a way that is meaningful and fosters relationships with the people around me and with God?"
Of course, a big message of your book is that this can be done right in one's neighborhood. How so? And will those of us over 35 find the book intriguing?
The narrative arc of the book focuses on a certain period of time during my life as a 29-year-old in New York, but the search and struggle I describe isn't limited to a particular time in one's life or even a particular location. God's work is not limited to big cities; how to best serve others and God is a question people face whether they live in the city or the suburbs or in rural areas. The book also includes stories from my time as a teenager growing up in the Massachusetts suburbs and my time as a post-collegiate volunteer working on the Navajo reservation, which includes many rural areas. Because I now live in New York, the book naturally includes many adventures in dating or friendships or faith groups in the city. As I was writing, I began to see New York as another character in the story; it's such a vibrant place full of life, but also full of interesting challenges to my faith—and sometimes my sanity.
Much has been written in the past 40 years on how women, in particular, can "have it all", meaning, of course, career, friendships, romance marriage, parenthood. It is hard now for many young people, women and men alike, to "have it all" as young adults trying to find their paths in career, relationships, and family. Do you think you are adding an extra layer of difficulty for these young people?
The call to serve others doesn't come from me, but from the Gospels. My book describes my own efforts, but I think the struggle to do more and to live a more meaningful life is a universal one. We all try to do this in the best ways we can. I hope that my book will encourage readers to discern which of the Corporal Works of Mercy they feel most called to and perhaps to pursue that type of service. But I think that the book also urges people to recognize the ways in which they may already act with mercy, or they ways in which others act with mercy toward them, and to see the grace in those moments, as well. I hope people see that we don't need to constantly attempt grand gestures to prove ourselves or our beliefs, but that there's value in simply being present and sincere and faithful.
If you could bring a contingent of young people to any of the places you have travelled as a reporter for America, tell us where you would bring them.
One place that really made an impact on me was my recent reporting trip to Rwanda with Catholic Relief Services. While there I was able to report on the reconciliation process since the 1994 genocide in the country, and I was really struck by the radical forgiveness that's taken place. We spoke with women who had forgiven—and were even friendly with—the men who had killed their entire families.
The land itself was gorgeous, and everyone we met was very welcoming and open. It was wonderful to see the great work that Catholic Relief Services is doing there, as well. The organization truly strives to promote sustainability, self-reliance and relationships in the countries in which it works. At a time when it's all too easy to get caught up in Twitter wars or petty comments on Facebook, these powerful efforts for reconciliation can teach us a lot and offer perspective.
Tell us about your commitment as an associate of Mercy. How can young people learn more about this group and yearly commitment?
Being a Mercy Associate has meant that I have had a chance to meet other people who have the similar goals and challenges in their spiritual lives. We sign a yearly commitment to the values of prayer and community and ministry in our daily lives. Regional groups typically meet once a month for prayer and reflection and there are opportunities for retreats and for service. It's a great environment in which to discuss and reflect on how we can better be of service and strengthen our relationships with God. The group is formally connected to the Sisters of Mercy, who commit to supporting us in our work, as we work to support theirs. They have groups all over the country, and more information can be found at www.sistersofmercy.org.
How has prayer and spiritual reading been important to you? Would you like to tell us about persons, authors, or books that have been inspirational?
Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton have been great inspirations, and Day's commitment to hospitality was something I kept in mind while writing the book. I like C. S. Lewis and love Flannery O'Connor. I have found St. Ignatius' examen to be a very helpful form of prayer, and I try to prayer Morning or Evening prayer, when I can. While I was writing the book I also tried various forms of praying the Stations of the Cross, a type of devotion that had always felt a bit laborious to me. It was great to approach it in the context of service and mercy, though, which opened it up to me in new ways.
Your book was written before Pope Francis took on his new job. Do you find it interesting that you and he seem to be taking a similar approach to spirituality in today's world?
Well, it's certainly great timing. And while neither of us are the first to have a devotion to Mercy, it's great to feel united with him on this and to hear him speak so profoundly on a subject that means so much to me. His homilies and his writings really have been a great reminder to be mindful of the poor, to try to be more merciful to those around us. I think it's easy to think of mercy as something you have or give at certain moments, but Pope Francis reminds us that we are called to live out mercy at all times. It must become a part of our everyday lives.
What are some of your goals for the New Year.
I'm hoping to read more novels. I tend to read a lot of nonfiction or spiritual writing. I'm also hoping to continue to find new ways to deepen my connection to the Mercy charism, and to serve others. Finally, I'm hoping to get a bit more sleep. I'm a natural night owl, so that last one might be tough. I'm always trying to find a better balance, so that I can give generously of myself and my time without totally depleting my energy.
Those who know Kerry Weber, if asked to describe her in one word, might choose “kindness.” Her new book teaches that this quality is self-energizing. Jesus knew this, and Shakespeare, too:
It falls to earth like gentle rain.
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
– Merchant of Venice