By J. Hogan
The term “new normal” gained traction in 2009 when then President Barack Obama used it in an attempt to lower economic expectations on the heels of the 2008 collapse, and has been used often since to declare that we should just get used to things being less than ideal.
I hate the term. There’s a defeatism inherent in it which betrays the hope I think is necessary to fight the good fight in life, and I don’t care very much for longterm pessimism, which, unlike an accurate assessment of a bad outcome or circumstance, leaves little room for reactive improvement to fuel change.
Living and working in McKees Rocks, I’ve heard from day one that it was an impossible task to plant and grow a church in town, but I wasn’t quite concerned with these assessments: God’s always been in the business of making the impossible possible.
Believing that a bad circumstance is perpetual is not healthy for anyone, and some “normals” must be found repugnant and contested, even if it takes a battle to move the ball.
A person living in a comfortable suburban setting would be shocked at some of the things that children think is the normal course of things in our urban, impoverished areas.
This point was hammered home for me when I was confronted by my own insidiously numbed callousness.
When a dear friend of my sister Maureen and her family, 21-year-old Jacob Jaillet, was murdered in 2021 while working at a U-Haul location in Pittsburgh.
I was appalled at the shooting when I heard of it, but then I just went on with my day. My sister, her husband, and their two children - were thrown into horrible grief and roiled by the situation. Theirs is the appropriate response, of course.
My reaction was a conditioned response, numbed by 16 years of shootings and death here where I live.
My house has been shot, my neighbors have been murdered, and others have had life-altering injuries as the result of violence. The human mind can only take so much grief and trauma, and over time my emotions had been tempered by the onslaught.
Not so for the folks in my sister’s neighborhood. Their normal doesn’t include people often being shot and killed.
I had a dear friend, who once was a school administrator here in town, tell me that she’d never seen a place where the kids expect to lose five or six of their classmates to violence over time.
“These kids have a friend killed on Wednesday, they do a candlelight vigil on Thursday, and on Friday they go on with their lives almost as if their friend never lived,” she said.
Trauma is a normal condition in war torn countries, and the emotional deadening that comes with it a necessary coping mechanism, but trauma shouldn’t be a normal condition here in town or in any of the towns peppering these river valleys.
We can’t accept that. We can’t be OK with children growing up with no understanding of a decent, safe place to live and grow up, and as a society we can’t afford to write off vast swaths of our urban culture as a lost cause - although that’s an easy response to such a daunting and complex problem.
We can’t write them off because all children matter.
We need the courage, honesty and fortitude to assess and address the causes and fight to change them.
I know it’s a sizable problem with multiple contributing factors… and some folks will fight to maintain the status quo out of misguided loyalties while others will say “not my problem, I don’t live in such a place.”
Accepting it as a new normal won’t do.
Rev. James Hogan is a native of Stowe Township and serves as pastor of Faithbridge Community Church in McKees Rocks.