Monday, March 26, 2007

Big Week in Youngstown

There are two big "debuts" this week in the city (although one is admittedly much bigger than the other). The first, and more important of the two, is the installation of the new bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown, George Murry, SJ. The second is the home opener of the city's newest professional sports team, the af2's Mahoning Valley Thunder, this weekend.

Much has already been written about both events, especially in the case of Bishop Murry. As many others have already pointed out, the new bishop has a challenging road ahead. A lot of talk has also been about the dramatic differences between his old diocese and his new one. What hasn't been discussed much, though, is his background as a Jesuit and what that might mean for the Mahoning Valley.

The Jesuits have a long history of service to the poor and of a preoccupation with issues of social justice. Finding good in even the worst of situations and building on it (especially in an urban setting) is a key aspect of the Jesuit tradition. Youngstown is almost the perfect place for the Jesuit mission to take hold and thrive- its somewhat small size being the only thing that makes it atypical.

Oddly enough, but perhaps for that reason, there has never been a strong Jesuit presence in Youngstown. Regionally, the opposite is true- in fact, just by looking at the roster of Jesuit schools in the region, one can see their influence.* Yet Youngstown, for all of its poverty and social ills, has been essentially off the Jesuit radar (save for the annual St. Ignatius vs. Boardman game). If anywhere can benefit from the Jesuits, though, it's Youngstown.

What's perhaps more interesting about Bishop Murry is his hometown- Camden, NJ- the city consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous in the country. Youngstown, of course, is usually only a few spots behind Camden on that list. Although I can't say with any certainty whether or not Bishop Murry has spent much time there in recent years, he is undoubtedly aware of the situation in Camden and can see the parallels between that city and our own.

All in all, I think that Bishop Murry's installation is a wholly positive thing for the city and the diocese (and not just for Catholics, either). Keeping in mind the huge challenges ahead, it's unfair to expect huge results in the short term. Over the next few years, though, I think there will be some exciting and positive things coming out of his office.

A few blocks away from the diocesan offices, over at the Chevy Centre, the Mahoning Valley Thunder are preparing to kick off their inaugural season. The Thunder now gives the area three legitimate professional sports teams (including the SteelHounds and the Scrappers) along with the Phantoms junior hockey program and the D-I teams at YSU. It's too early to tell whether or not the Thunder experiment will be a successful one, of course. What works in the team's favor is the area's passion for football, people's apparent willingness to come downtown again (as evidenced by the relative success of other events at the arena), and the fairly solid reputation of the af2 league. On the other side, though, are doubts about the strength of the market (due primarily to size- Youngstown is, I believe, the smallest metro area for any team in the league), the timing of the season, and the strength of the actual product on the field once the novelty wears off.

It's understandable to be a little pessimistic, given how things have gone with our sports teams over the years. Murphy's Law reigns supreme- just look at the Youngstown Pride. Even so, though, I think there's more reason to be positive than there is to be negative about the whole thing. All we can do is wait and see. Regardless of where the team may be 5 or 10 years down the road, though, this weekend will be an historic one for the city and another thing to get excited about downtown.

*At the college level, there is John Carroll University in Cleveland, Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, Cansius College in Buffalo, and Xavier University in Cincy, among others. There are two Jesuit high schools in Northeast Ohio alone, those being St. Ignatius in Cleveland and Walsh Jesuit outside of Akron. These schools typically have Jesuit residences tied to them, and the priests that live there typically teach at the schools and/or oversee service and social justice programs in the nearby communities and beyond.