On My Way to the Flannery O’Connor Conference

August 7, 2014

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Let me begin by telling you that the last Flannery O’Connor Conference took place in Chicago at Loyola University in October of 2011. At the closing banquet of that conference I met Kerry Weber. Her younger sister was giving a paper on O’Connor, and Kerry was there for support. That night, the three of us were fortuitously seated around the same table. Halfway through dinner, the conversation shifted from literature to music and before you knew it Kerry and I realized that between the two of us we had seen Springsteen almost sixty times in concert. Then from Springsteen we moved to singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, another musician we mutually admired. I mentioned to Kerry that I read a piece on Ritter in a recent issue of America Magazine. She asked what I thought about it. I said something like, “I thought the author had some solid insights into Ritter’s understanding of God, but I’m not sure I agree with her entirely.” Kerry said, “I wrote that.” My face turned red and our friendship commenced.

Kerry published her first book a few months ago with Loyola Press entitled Mercy in the City. She sent me a copy and I planned to read it as Lent began, but it was during that time that my dad’s health took a major hit, and his care became my priority. Kerry’s book is an account of her Lent a couple of years ago where she decided to commit to forty days of practicing the Corporal Works of Mercy in a meaningful way. If you’ve ever taken care of an aging and infirmed loved one, you know that it’s not uncommon to practice four of those seven works in a meaningful way, daily. The book had to wait. 

Dublin was the host city for the Flannery O’Connor Conference this year – All Hallow’s College to be exact. The conference was to open with a reception on Thursday evening, so I booked a flight for Wednesday. I grabbed my copy of Mercy in the City and figured that I could read it on the way to Ireland. 

Arriving at the airport ninety minutes early, I began reading as I waited for my flight to Newark, which was scheduled to leave Cleveland at 4:59pm. United sent me a text informing me that my plane would be delayed by an hour due to weather in the New York area. I texted my friend William – who was flying out of Nashville to Newark and who was also on his way to the O’Connor conference – to see if his flight had been delayed. It had. We were planning to have dinner in the Newark airport before boarding the plane to Dublin at 10:25pm. But with these unforeseen delays, I decided to eat dinner at the airport in Cleveland, and he in Nashville. During dinner I checked my Twitter feed and saw that Loyola Press had tweeted about Mercy in the City. I tweeted at them stating that I was currently reading that very book. They favorited my tweet. 

My flight out of Cleveland did take off eventually, but it wasn’t long before the captain informed us that he needed to land the plane in Harrisburg until the storms around Newark passed. I texted William from Harrisburg and he responded that his plane was grounded in Allentown, also waiting on the weather. I told him that he could sing a Billy Joel song while he waited, and then continued reading my book. 

By the time our plane finally arrived in Newark it was 10:28pm, and I had finished Mercy in the City. I searched the departure screen for my flight to Dublin and read “BOARDING” so I ran from one concourse to the other in hopes of making my flight. The big jet was still there when I arrived, but the gateway door was closed, and in a minute, the plane was slowly backing out of the gate on its way to Dublin, without me. My phone buzzed and William alerted me that his plane just arrived from Allentown. He still had hope to make the flight. I broke the news to him. 

It was almost an hour later by the time we made our way through the miserable line of travel-gone-wrong to the desk of the service agent. She apologized to us about our flight and said that she would put us on the 10:25pm flight to Dublin the next day. Doing so would mean that William and I would miss half the conference, so we begged that she bump us up to the 7:00pm flight instead. She mercifully obliged, but then she informed us that all the hotels in Newark were booked solid with travelers like ourselves, so that unless we could find a place to stay, we’d be sleeping in the Newark airport for the night. I inquired about hotels in the City, and she said that she believed that they were sold out as well. I called a few of them. She was right. I even tried the Leo House and the Seafarers & International House in Manhattan, two classic faith-based hostels that would have been perfect for our situation. Even they were booked. Biblically speaking, we were “harborless.” 

William and I were racking our minds trying to figure out where we might stay to avoid a twenty hour layover in the Newark Airport. He texted his brother-in-law who lives in New Jersey, but received no response. Then it happened. I thought, “Kerry Weber!” Kerry is a writer, and I know from past conversations that she works late into the night. It was a little before midnight, so I figured she would still be awake. And even if she wasn’t, considering that she wrote a book about the Corporal Works of Mercy, I knew she wouldn’t mind a late night text from an old friend in need of one of those works – harbor the harborless.

Within a few minutes she replied to my text and I wrote back explained our situation. I asked if she knew any Jesuits who would be willing to put up a priest and his filmmaker friend on their way to a Flannery O’Connor conference. She told me that it was too late to call the Jesuits, but that she had a couch and an inflatable mattress at her un-air-conditioned apartment in Queens and that we were welcome to stay there for the night. I informed William of Kerry’s offer and he nodded in approval. In a few minutes we were in a long line outside the Newark airport, waiting for a taxi, which would eventually take us to Queens, courtesy of a voucher from the airline. 

It was around 1:30am when finally when we finally arrived at Kerry’s building, which was nice, but I must say that the stairwell and hallway to her apartment reminded me of episodes of “Law & Order SVU.”  A door opened and there was Kerry with a big smile on her face ready to welcome two weary travelers in need of rest. 

We were in Queens, but the sporadic décor of peacocks, O’Connor quotes, images of Christ and Our Lady, and the Springsteen album cover hanging on the living room wall of Kerry’s apartment made me feel all the comforts of home. And of course, the fact that a friend whom I met at the last Flannery O’Connor Conference in Chicago, and whose book I read that very day, was now unexpectedly putting me up for the night was too rich to be coincidence. The speed of God’s mercy is terrible indeed. 

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