My Joshua Tree

u22-1-1024x643Thirty years ago, I drove 500 miles with college buddies to see U2’s “Joshua Tree” tour stop in Houston. “I can’t change the world / But I can change the world in me,” Bono had sung on a previous album. Young and idealistic, I believed it then. Strangely, I still believe it today. I’ve never forgotten that night – nor the long drive back to get to class the next day. U2 was recently back in Houston to mark the anniversary of the album that arguably handed them the keys to the kingdom of global rock stardom – #1 album in 23 countries. I’ve written extensively about these Irishmen over the last 20 years, but this full-circle “Joshua Tree” tour still triggered moments of emotional daggers-through-the-heart, tribal fist pumps, and Pentecostal hanky waving – transcendence.

The album concept was titled after a prickly and ungainly desert tree named Joshua by settlers because it resembled the Old Testament prophet’s out-stretched arms toward the heavens and deep roots – strangely symbolic for an Irish band from a country divided with sectarian barbwire and religio-political quagmires. Raised by a Protestant mother and a Catholic father, Bono lived the brutal divide. With the loss of his mother at age 14, he grew up under the weight and anguish of tragedy. Then there was the whirlwind of a charismatic revival among some of the bandmates and the stirring of a struggle between rock ‘n’ roll’s narcissism and an unseen kingdom where the first shall be last and the backstage passes are given to those who honor humility as a prime virtue.

Through all this, Bono remains rock ‘n’ roll’s most effective spiritual provocateur. He sees every stage as a pulpit and every coliseum as a cathedral. He talks breezily about the theological superiority of grace over karma to jaundiced rock journalists, launched the humanitarian One Campaign (one.org), and recently wrote the forward to the Bible paraphrase The Message. “My religion could not be fiction but it had to transcend facts,” Bono wrote in a forward to the Psalms in 1999. “It could be mystical, but not mythical and definitely not ritual.”

U2 has sold more than 170 million albums, collecting 22 Grammys along the way. This world tour features a stunning visual spectacle with a 200 x 45 foot high-def LED screen choreographing imagery with the music. For me, three vitally essential images stood out.

First, a Salvation Army brass band accompanied U2 during the haunting “Red Hill Mining Town.” Never before played live, the song is about the devastation and helplessness of an unemployed miner. “Love, slowly stripped away/ Love, has seen its better day.” The Salvation Army is the most reliable global Christian symbol for faith in action – soup, soap, salvation, and loud music. Under the 150 year old banner of “Blood and Fire,” this ministry – operating in nearly 120 countries – has extended the hand of grace to the down and outers, prostitutes, alcoholics, morphine addicts, unwed mothers, and victims of human trafficking. The original plan was for a brass band to play at every stop on the tour, but the film of them playing in the Santa Clarita Valley of California provides a keen juxtaposition about U2 identifying with the historic message of Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth that help is only a drumbeat away (salvationarmyusa.org).

“This was a privilege to be a part of and so much fun to film,” Jacqui Larsson, a member of the ethnically diverse Salvation Army band from Southern California, told me. “It was great to represent The Salvation Army to such a wide audience. We have already heard a few stories of how this video has had a huge impact on people’s lives in a way we had never expected.”

In a long list of poignant moments, the second occurred when we were introduced to Omaima Thaer Hoshan, a 15-year-old Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Jordan. In the midst of the chaos of her circumstances, she voiced her aspirations and hopes for a better tomorrow. A gargantuan banner with her face is passed hand-to-hand throughout the stadium. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that there is a hellhole on the other side of the globe. At bare minimum, pray for her safety and be grateful you are not where she is.

Lastly, during a visual montage of notable female politicians and musicians (Sojourner Truth, Patti Smith, Angela Merkel, etc.), one stood out as a sister-in-arms with U2’s sonic art. Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), a personal heroine, was the undisputed queen of rock and gospel music, shredding an electric guitar and boldly taking her sanctified skills and songs outside the four walls of the church – taking church to the people. Keep the faith, she would say to U2, and rock on. Bono has called “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” an anthem of both doubt and faith. Whichever side of the coin you’re on, it continues to reverberate in the souls of saints and sinners alike. In the midst of uncertainty, it is anchored in redemption: “You broke the bonds / You loosed the chains / You carried the cross / And my shame / And my shame / You know I believe it.”

Bono sometimes mentions music producer Quincy Jones’ observation about waiting for God to walk in the room while making music, letting him fill in the blanks. It’s true. Sometimes. On occasion, divine intervention occurs with albums and concerts. Thirty years ago, I sensed the raucous epiphany during “Joshua Tree.” It was sweet relief, most recently, to experience it all over again.

Unreasonable Faith

catenaDr. Tom Caneta has spent the last nine years sequestered in the Nuba Mountains of the African nation of Sudan. Around the clock, he heals the sick, bandages the broken, and takes cover from bombs dropping overhead. Caneta is the last doctor left in this civil war-torn region marked by starvation, disease, and death. He treats up to 500 patients per day.

In June, Caneta was named winner of the Aurora humanitarian prize – $100,000 to Caneta and $1 million split between three charities of his choosing. Accepting the award, Catena said: “When the bombs are raining down, I think that any job must be better than this – even being an accountant. But when one little kid unexpectedly pulls through – it’s all worth it.”

The war-zone Mother of Mercy hospital is a long way from his previous life. Originally from Amsterdam, New York, Catena played football at Brown University and earned his medical degree from Duke University through a Navy scholarship. Catena visited Kenya while in medical school and returned as a medical missionary following his residency in Indiana.

“My decision to stay here was a simple one,” Catena told Catholic News Service (CNS). “As the only doctor at the only major hospital in the Nuba Mountains, I could not leave in good conscience. Also, as a lay missionary, I felt it was important to show the presence of the church in this time of need – to show that the church does not abandon her people when a crisis arises.”

In 2015, Catena was featured in Nickolas Kristoff’s New York Times column profiling his heroism and reporting that the doctor missed pretzels and ice cream, but mostly his family. The Kristoff column also noted that Catena wears a bracelet that says “John 3:30.” It is his focus each day: “He must become greater; I must become less.”

“I’ve been given benefits from the day I was born,” Catena told Kristoff. “A loving family. A great education. So I see it as an obligation, as a Christian and as a human being, to help.”

In response, Dr. Tom works daily to “pry out shrapnel from women’s flesh and amputate limbs of children, even as he also delivers babies and removes appendixes,” reported Kristoff. “He does all this off the electrical grid, without running water, a telephone or so much as an X-ray machine — while under constant threat of bombing.”

There is a local intensity of the love for Dr. Tom. “People in the Nuba Mountains will never forget his name,” said Lt. Col. Aburass Albino Kuku of the rebel military force. “People are praying that he never dies.”

A Muslim chief named Hussein Nalukuri Cuppi offered highest praise: “He’s Jesus Christ.” Kristoff wrote, “The chief explained that Jesus healed the sick, made the blind see and helped the lame walk — and that is what Dr. Tom does every day.”

“There also are many, many secular aid workers doing heroic work,” Kristoff continues. “But the people I’ve encountered over the years in the most impossible places — like Nuba, where anyone reasonable has fled — are disproportionately unreasonable because of their faith.”

Catena summarized his life’s challenge in a speech addressing the 2015 graduating class at Brown University: “Everyone is in search of happiness. Everybody is in search of fulfillment. I think if you really want fulfillment in this life, what I would suggest to you is go and get rid of everything you have. Sell everything you have. Get rid of all of your baggage and go live a life of full and total service to other people. I think if you do that, you will find that the rewards are incredible. You will find that you have fulfillment more than you could ever have imagined. So I throw that challenge out to you.”

To help Dr. Catena, go to www.amhf.us.