“We Can Only Serve the Work of Another”: An Interview with Angelo Sala
We caught up with New York Encounter organizer Angelo Sala, who talked with us about the origin of the Encounter, the importance of this year’s theme, and the way doing this work has helped him. . .
CL Newsletter: I am really curious about how the New York Encounter got started. What can you tell me about its origin?
Since the early 2000’s, there was a push to have a public moment during the Diaconia (the national meeting of responsibles), to which we could invite people who were not of the Movement. In 2008, the first time we had the Diaconia with Father Carron in New York, we presented one of Giussani’s books at the Skirball Center, a beautiful, huge venue with 900 seats at New York University. It was packed. We realized how we could risk to do something very public in New York. Half of the room was clearly people not of the Movement. It was very exciting.
The following year, at the apex of the financial crisis, we decided to have a book presentation with Father Carron on Saturday, another public event on the financial crisis on Sunday, and a concert on Saturday night—although not all in one location. We linked the three events and called it “New York Encounter.” Again, all three events were packed, and we realized that people were interested in what we are proposing.
In 2010, we went super-public and rented a floor of the Mariott Marquis in Times Square. We had the very first exhibit and some booths that presented the life of the Movement. People were rushing from the Diaconia in New Jersey to the Mariott in Times Square. We started to have our first volunteers. Still, people had to go elsewhere for meals.
The following year we went even bigger. The financial risk was increasing, but also the awareness of carrying something very valuable. When that venue no longer permitted us to use our own volunteers, we found, miraculously, the Metropolitan Pavilion, where we are now.
The point is, the development and growth of NYE was based on two things: the desire of the hearts of the people putting it together to offer the life that we had met to the world, and in doing so, to verify the value of the life that we received and to look for Christ in reality. The second component was the answer reality was giving to us.
The answer was progressively positive. The more we were offering, the more reality--in terms of people and speakers and the experience of people building this thing--was positive. We grew organically in dialogue with these two things: our desire and the answer of reality. And we obeyed the circumstances.
CL Newsletter: The Encounter today is a huge event in downtown Manhattan. Last year over 13,000 people came and over 300 people volunteered. It seems like an almost impossible job to organize it…
From the very beginning, there was a huge disproportion between our desire and the outcome.
I personally am very attached to what my friend Maria Teresa told me when we started years ago. I was working and involved in Crossroads, as I still am now, and this thing was asking some crazy hours of me. I admitted to her that I felt completely overwhelmed and inadequate. “You know,” she told me, “The Gospel today was the multiplication of the seven loaves. We are like that kid. We give what we have, and what we have is seven loaves, and there is a crowd of five thousand people. But we give it, really, to Jesus. Then he will do whatever he wants with it.” I was very moved, and even now when I go into panic, I go back to that and say, “Jesus, I give you everything that I have. You do what you can, what you need.”
Jesus cannot do the miracle of the Encounter if we do not give him what we have—our time, our energy, our resources, our anxieties, our creativity. He needs it. If we don’t do it, this is not going to happen. But we are surprised, astonished by the disproportion between what we put in and the outcome--because we do not generate the experience that people have coming to the Encounter. We can only serve the work of Another.
I found peace in my crazy life because I have a sense that I am obeying; this is not my project. I am obeying the will of Christ and the desire Christ puts in my heart.
What I have in exchange for this is amazing. It has been a confirmation, a growth in the certainty of my faith, of the relevance of Christ in life, of the relevance of that particular experience we live, our charism, in the time in which we live. For me--and I believe for all of us—it is a giant work of verification. We ask, Is Christ still interesting for me and for the world—let’s see!
You cannot imagine what happens when we receive signs of this, how beautiful and moving is the jolt we have in our hearts. We know we are betting on Him, asking Christ to come--and when He comes, it is always a surprise.
CL Newsletter: I am struck by the fact that what you did in 2009 was based on the financial crisis. How do you come up with the themes every year? What are you responding to?
This is the part of the Encounter that is the most fascinating for me. Every year a group of fifteen or twenty of us meets in March. We begin with nothing, and we work for three days around two questions. First, we look at what is happening in the world, from every point of view and at various levels—in politics, society, the workplace, our own cities. We ask: In what we see happening, what is valuable from a human point of view and where is there a challenge, a problem, in terms of developing our humanity, our religious sense, our relationship with the Mystery?
Then we ask a second question: Having encountered the charism, what can we offer to this situation? What do we say about it?
We discuss these questions over three days in complete freedom. It is very exciting, because you can see that everything is personal. There is nothing big or small happening in the world that does not have an impact in my personal life.
Why are we interested in these things? I can offer an analogy. Very few people sense now that life is a journey. But life is a journey from A to B. The destination of this journey is what makes the journey possible, reasonable. If the destination of the journey is important, if you want to get there, it becomes important to understand the road that will make it easier to get there, the condition of the road, the weather on the road, the signs on the road, the signs you have to follow so that you will not get lost.
This is what we need to try to do if we are going to reach our ultimate destination, our destiny, Christ himself as the fulfillment of our humanity. We have to get to him living in the circumstances that are given to us, given the conditions of the road. To become aware of the circumstances that will or won’t facilitate this journey is directly related to the love that we have for this destination we have. If we did not realize our life has to go somewhere, we would not be interested in the environment around us.
This is why we try every year to come up with a theme and a program that somehow takes into account what is happening now in our society.
CL Newsletter: What can you tell me about this year’s theme?
This year, the experiences and judgments that came out during our week-end of discussion pointed to the theme “Crossing the Divide.” First off all, we realized that everything that happens to us—in our family life and social life--tends to be twisted immediately into various ideologies. Everything that happens is put in certain boxes (we called them “shells”). We live in these shells, and this is why we feel that we are so far from each other. We do not know who we really are, and we tend to build images about ourselves that are taken from something that is not our experience but from the prevailing schemes which are proposed by the environment in which we live.
For instance, in the “Me Too” movement, we see appeals to justice, but, in the end, justice is not answered, but used as a weapon. We say we have to be welcoming, inclusive, but then we are incapable of relating to anyone who does not think like us. There is a disconnect between the nature of the desire emerging in our experience and the images which are proposed as answers to this desire (because the nature of our desire is not understood or it is reduced or manipulated).
Or we all say we believe in science, in what can be scientifically proven, but since there is not the love for truth, the results are skewed along party lines. Climate change is the example here. We live, suffocated, alone, and angry.
However, it is possible that something very true can happen in life, and all of a sudden these ideas are shattered and true questions come up. It could be a natural disaster, like the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral. No matter what you think about the Church, everyone in the world gasped because something beautiful was going to disappear. Or when there is a school shooting. Or, on the personal level, at the birth of your first child, the beginning of a new love. All of a sudden, you are freed from schemes. There is something strange happening to you.
However, you do not have the language to understand what happens when reality really enters in, unless you have, experientially, someone to follow. This is the opposite of what the society proposes. The ideal is to be autonomous and solitary. But without an authority--a friend, a father, a mother, who brings his or her own personal experiences, his or her own stories—, you will not understand what is happening when reality impacts your heart. This is what we ultimately need. This is why we ended up with the quote about Virgil and Dante.
We built the program with these three steps in mind: we live in shells of ideology; reality breaks in and, by provoking the most profound questions in our hearts, shatters these shells and can free us from ideology; but without a friend, a father or a mother, an authority, we go back to our shells.
Then we went on to see how these three steps play out in the real world, in various activities of human experiences—the family, business, the economy, politics. We will have the experience of Chris Arnade, the bond trader who decided to go to the bad areas of New York and discovered that there was a humanity that is much bigger and more interesting than what he knew among the bankers in Wall street. We will have something on politics--we are in an election year--and will ask two journalists if they see ideals still having a place in politics. We will have two big events on ideological divides: racial ideology and the Palestinian-Israeli relationship.
CL Newsletter: Can you share with me something that are you looking forward to this year?
The presentation on racial ideology developed in a beautiful way. We were struggling for months to understand a point of view that would not be hijacked by the current ideology. It seems as though you cannot even talk about racism without immediately reducing it yourself or having others reduce it. But we know that our experience is not this way. In my experience, race does not matter at all. Because of my encounter with Christ, I do not care about the race of the person in front of me, because he or she is a sign of Christ for me.
We discovered two stories. If you want to talk about something in a way that is not ideological, you have to bring on the stage stories, experience—this is the real weapon against ideology. Miraculously—because we really believe that someone else is building this with us--we are able to bring on stage the story of Daryl Davis, a black man who by being faithful to a single question—how can you hate me if you do not know me?—was able to enter into a friendly relationship with Ku Klux Klan members and cause a profound change in the life of many of them. He also saw his question was just as true if reversed: “How can I hate them, the Klansmen, if I do not know them?”
The other story is that of a former Neo-Nazi skinhead, Christian Picciolini. What made a radical change in his life was the first time he held his newborn child in his arms.
Suddenly something in him was reawakened that brought him back to the innocence of his youth. And then another thing happened at the height of his leadership in this very violent Neo-Nazi movement. His mother got cancer, and he was struck by how much he suffered. He was a tough guy, but suddenly felt himself to be very soft. One day a black kid entered his music store and started crying. For a second, he gave in, and asked the question to the kid whom he normally would ignore: “What is wrong with you?” The kid said, “I just got out of the hospital, and I realize that my mother has only a few months to live because she has stage 4 breast cancer.” For a split second the Neo-Nazi recognized that that black kid was him. That was the beginning of the crumbling of his ideology. The power of human experience! We will have both of them on the same stage!
Another amazing meeting (even in the way it happened) will be the one between an Israeli woman, Robi DAmelin, and a Palestinian man, Bassam Aramim, who both had a child killed as a result of the violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Our dear friend Bishop Pizzaballa, who lives in Jerusalem, helped us to find them. Having suffered the same loss, they both decided to start a journey of reconciliation instead of revenge. They will tell us how and why.
It is really true! In order to free us from ideology that is suffocating, we need to pay attention to our own experience.