Saturday, February 9, 2013

"In the World...." Remembering Michael Schwartz

Mike Schwartz was a remarkable man, and it was with surprise that I learned of his recent death on February 3, at only 63 years old, after struggling for a year and a half with ALS. I didn't even know he was sick.

Its probably been more than twenty years since I last spoke with Mike. I knew him from my student days, and then from my brief stint as a policy analyst on Capitol Hill (yeah, I did some time on "the Hill," back in the '80s...days of my youth, almost forgotten).

I have many happy memories of those days. I remember lectures he gave on political philosophy at our college. The man was brilliant. He was a philosophical and theological man in the best sense, in that he was always seeking to understand the most important things even as he kept both feet on the ground. I want to say, "He could have been a scholar" but in fact he was a scholar. He was a rare bird in America (or anywhere else): a well-read, deep-thinking, truth-seeking political activist.

He also knew how to connect with people, from homeless people to mothers and their unborn children to sexual abuse victims to media personalities to the big men who drove the engines of power. And he knew how to connect with and motivate young people. He cared about all of us newly winged butterflies: interns, aspiring journalists, idealistic office workers, coffee-brewing Hill staffers, think-tank hacks. He was prematurely gray and he dressed like "the older people," but he was upbeat, encouraging, enthusiastic, and always full of schemes.

Once he got asked to be part of a panel for a local daytime television show discussing the Catholic Church's teachings on sexuality. Then he found out that there were three other panelists who ranged from "not helpful" to red-hot hostile. Mike rounded up a few of us, explained the situation and told us he couldn't do it "alone." So he asked us to get on the phones to our friends and pack the audience with bright, hip young Catholics (yes, there were some of us around, even way back in the 80s).

And we did it! We got a big bunch of people together for that show. He inspired us, somehow, and we made it happen.

Mike had a hard time with the panel, but he did very well. Then they asked for audience "participation." It was amazing. For once the Church didn't get plastered. On the contrary, we made all the comments. Whoever watched that show must have been shocked to see normal young people (even some very pretty girls) intelligently defending the Catholic Church's teaching on sex and marriage. But it was live television; there was no way to stop us!

[Someone reading this was in the audience that day, I'll bet. Do you remember?]

Mike Schwartz gladly gave the limelight to a bunch of kids, so that truth might have a witness on a daytime TV talk show. That's the kind of man he was.

The obits have been pouring out on the internet, rightly extolling his unique combination of political savvy, ardor, kindness, humility, dedication to principles and willingness to fight for them, and also his real love for all people, even those who opposed him. He was a central figure in America's pro-life movement from the very beginning. He worked on social issues with conservative groups, while also being a member of the Democratic party for a good part of his life.

Mike was beyond stereotypes. He was one of those great Catholic activists who appeared in the second half of twentieth century America: courageous, good, and impossible to dismiss with any of the categories of our common political discourse. He was a man who was immersed in political work, but always at the service of others, and never interested in drawing attention to himself. He was dedicated and energetic, but he wasn't sucked into an ideological program; he was not fooled by the glitter of Washington power. He valued politics for what it was, and he knew that politics couldn't solve all our problems; he knew that there were greater things....

It was because of his Catholic faith. His faith really did penetrate his whole life. I was blessed to know several people like him in the days when I was growing up, people whose understanding was totally outside the box...because their focus was on Christ. For me it put flesh and bones on the saying that "Christians must be in the world, but not of the world."

How are we supposed to know what that saying means? By paying attention to people like Mike Schwartz.

Here are a few words from his last public appearance in November 2012. Mike knew that the way to respond to the violence of the abortion plague was to recognize a call to a greater love, a greater prayer and a greater service, a greater affirmation of the true dignity of women, a concern and an attentiveness to the needs of that most fundamental and most vulnerable of human relationships--the relationship between mother and child.
"The service and support network for the best and most important part of our movement, but we should realize that pregnancy services are not a stopgap measure until some political victory is achieved. We will always need such services, and perhaps the reason why God allowed the evil of abortion to fall upon us was to awaken us to the need to stop trying to affix scarlet letters to women with untimely pregnancies and begin helping our sisters when they need us most."
May God reward you greatly, Mike. Thanks for everything.

...I have a video of that TV show somewhere. I've got to dig it up and watch it again. :)