What’s whiteness got to do with it?

“You don’t dismantle white supremacy by ‘learning about other cultures.’ You dismantle white supremacy by deconstructing whiteness.Benita Grace Joy

benitagracejoy-meme
This meme, shares Annemarie, “… deeply resonates with my own experience.”

I saw this quote the other day. As any good meme does, it deeply resonates with my own experience.

As a white woman who chose to move to South America, originally serving as a Franciscan lay missioner, the temptation for years has been to reconcile my whiteness by learning about other cultures different from my own.

But the trouble is that although it may be less complicated to dabble in other cultures instead of deconstructing my own, it would do little in the way of addressing my own internalized racial superiority and the racist systems I participate in daily.

I have seen this dynamic in the experiences of short-term mission trips (domestic and abroad) so common in white Catholic culture. 

When observing another culture, rarely do we slow down enough to reflect on our judgments and assumptions and what they have to do with race.

It adds a whole other layer of reflection when we start to consider how our judgments and assumptions are influenced by our own internalized racial superiority as white people.

“Siembra Resistencia,” original watercolor by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art

While serving as a Franciscan lay missioner, I visited one of the Catholic communities in the United States that was financially supporting me. After listening to my brief explanation of our work and an expression of gratitude for their financial support, one womanCatholic, whiteapproached me and said, “I am just so glad that you are down there teaching those people how to share.”

I was stunned. Absolutely stunned. The kind of shock that comes with hearing an assumption made about your own experience that is so inaccurate it causes both rage and grief at the same time.

I let this woman know that, in fact, collectivity and sharing are much more integral elements of Andean culture in South America than they are in individualistic white culture in the United States. I let her know that I was learning how to share from the Quechua women I was accompanying in a way that I had never learned in my white Catholic upbringing.

And yet I have never forgotten that exchange, perhaps because it demonstrates how our internalized racial superiority as white people works. We as white people often make racist assumptions about people different from us, and it is so common to make these assumptions in our white Catholic communities that we don’t even realize that we do it. 

sketching watercolor
“Siembra Resistencia,” original watercolor by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art

We may travel to another culture and bring back souvenirs and anecdotes about the intercultural experiences that we had, but do we also bring back a reflection of our own whiteness? Are we simply trying on other cultures during these service experiences or are we also deconstructing how the paternalism in our service is rooted in racism?

When I decided to continue to live in South America after finishing my formal service as a Franciscan lay missioner, one person’s reaction to my decision was, “I understood why you were there when you were helping people, but I don’t understand why you would stay.”

I have since wondered to myself, is it really that hard for white people to imagine that there is more to culture than our racist standards in the so-called “developed world”? How can we challenge the racist belief that living in another non-white culture is inherently a sacrifice?

How might we learn to stop centering our experience as white people as the only way to effectively live in this world? In our white Catholic communities, how might we confront the sinfulness in our own habits and lifestyles instead of scapegoating other communities and cultures?

sketching
“Siembra Resistencia,” original watercolor by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art

As white people in the so-called “developed world,” we are the worldwide leaders in materialism, consumption, production of food waste and pollution. 

So when our white Catholic communities travel to other cultures and observe pollution and environmental decay, how might we flip the script? Instead of making racist assumptions about the failures of the communities receiving us, how might we reflect on the dire effects of the globalization of our materialistic lifestyles? 

When our white Catholic communities visit other cultures and observe material poverty and violence, how might we flip the script? Instead of raising money for a charitable cause invested in paternalistic solutions, how might we reflect on the history of colonialism and ongoing cultural genocide that has attempted to destroy so many communities of color around the world while ensuring the privilege and power we experience as white people today? How might we redirect our financial resources to organizations invested in social justice work founded and led by professionals born and raised in the communities they serve?

And when our white Catholic communities visit other cultures and only see suffering and despair, how might we flip the script? Instead of assuming incompetence and neediness, how might we open ourselves to hear the testimonies of resilience? How might we genuinely learn from different cultural values and practices instead of trivializing them? How might we allow the wisdom in cultures different from our own to challenge our own preconceived notions and way of doing things? 

sketching
“Siembra Resistencia,” original watercolor by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art

Interacting with people of color and learning about cultures different from our own is not enough to absolve us of racism. Donating money to charities working in communities of color is not enough to absolve us of racism. 

In our white Catholic communities, our anti-racism work needs to also include reckoning with our whiteness, deconstructing our power and privilege and paternalism and our colonial history. In order to deconstruct white supremacy, we need to reflect on the assumptions and judgments we hold that are rooted in our own internalized racial superiority. How are you addressing these issues in your Catholic communities?

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

 

Rejoice with me

 

The Giving Voice National Gathering planning team, from left to right, front row: Kristina Ortega, facilitator; Sr. Lisa Perkowski, Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Scranton; Sophie Vodvarka, Giving Voice communications coordinator; middle row: Sr. Kathryn Press, Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Sr. Clare Bass, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis; back row: Sr. Mary Therese Perez, Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose; Sr. Julia Walsh, Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration; Sr. Adriana Calzada Vázquez Vela, Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio (Provided photo)

Along with three others sisters in their mid-30s, I am in a busy café in St. Louis, Missouri, enjoying a lunch of sandwiches and salads. A bit ago, we prayed over our food. Between bites, we’re laughing and chatting about the work we need to do. Feeling happy and a little anxious, we still have many tasks to complete before nearly 80 more sisters arrive from all corners of the country.

It’s the final day of preparations for the Giving Voice National Gathering at Fontbonne University that the four of us — along with a team of three more sisters and two other women — have been planning since the fall of 2018. The theme for our gathering is “The Boldness and Beauty of Communion: Living Religious Life NOW!” and we have four days of prayer, presentations, discussions, workshops, art and fun planned to help us break open how our communal lives compel us to be “experts of communion,” as Pope Francis insisted. We long to be awake to…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Our Common Call to Contemplation, Communion and Creativity

Photo credit: alluringintuitive.com

On an ordinary morning, I kneel into The Now.

I am alone in my bedroom, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I have set my timer, so I know when I must move. But for now, this is all there is. I light the candle nearby, then close my eyes and move my mind — my focus — into the rhythm of my breathing. On the other side of my eyelids I sense the flicker of light, the glow of what is in front of me. I feel the subtle heat emanating from the flame. My body is barely still, yet I try to say yes to the chance to truly “be still and know that God is God” as God encourages me to do. I resituate my hips, straighten my spine. I hold my hands in my lap, and press my palms onto my knees. Slowly, eventually, stillness and silence seem to surround me. A sacred word makes its way into my mind — a word or phrase or traditional prayer, depending on the day.

Breath, light, heat, stillness, silence and words: these are my touchstones as my mind wanders, taking tours of the past or dreaming up the future. Each time a…   [This is the beginning of a reflection I wrote for Carl McColman’s blog at Patheos. Continue reading here.]

Walking in beauty

No matter what the season, God helps me to find the beauty in the neighborhood in which I live.

Perhaps one of my biggest struggles as I develop my spiritual practices and prayer life is staying in the present moment. I find my attention wandering not only during prayer, but during meals and conversations with others. I can get quite busy and not notice what is going on around me. It’s easy to become distracted by technology and other interruptions. As I walk my pup Capoochino, I strive to treat the activity as an extension of my prayer. I attempt to quiet myself and notice all the beauty around me in the neighborhood, the changes in the foliage, the animals that scurry around. I try to take a lesson from my dog who is totally in the moment as we walk, delighting in the scents and smells.

Although it can take quite a bit more effort, it can also be important for me to notice and enjoy the “messy stuff” during our walks. I try to delight in some of the imperfections or oddities I see in nature. One of the pictures below was taken during an ice storm that occurred when we had hoped winter would be finally over. I was annoyed to have to go out in the messy weather to walk the dog. Yet, God showed me the beauty in the discomfort. Each thing I saw served as a reminder that God delights in the messiness of our lives while we change and grow.

Learning to remain in the present moment during my walks with Capoochino helps me to dedicate my day to God’s work; to put stresses into perspective and find those moments God was woven into my day.

Here are some of the images I’ve found myself awakened to during walks with Capoochino throughout the year:

white-dog-harness
“Capoochino anxiously awaiting his walk.”
frozen-flowers
“Frosted beauty”
trees-flower-buds
“Buds of spring!”
pink-blooms
“Waiting to bloom”
tree-flowers-rain
“Beauty in the rain”
tulips-in-courtyard
“Beauty in diversity”
st-francis-statue-flowers-garden
“St. Francis watches over our garden.”
tall-purple-flower
“Beauty in memory: these flowers were planted in memory of my dear friend Susan.”

*All photos above by Sister Shannon Fox

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER:

Sister Shannon Fox

sister-shannon-fox

Shannon Fox, Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Chicago, Illinois, became a novice in 2003. She ministers as a high school special education teacher at a therapeutic day school for students with special needs. Teaching runs in her family, as both her parents and her little sister are teachers. In her spare time (“Ha!”), Sister Shannon enjoys community theater, singing and photography. She is also a member of Giving Voice through which she and Sister Julia met.

For those who long for a life of meaning

I am a Franciscan, yet much of Carmelite spirituality resonates with me. Perhaps it’s because I am inspired by the depth of the tradition. Maybe it is because the wisdom offered reads like poetry. Or, it could be because the beautiful images and metaphors feel right to my meandering heart and mind: Flower, Castle and Mystery. Most likely, it is because a devotion to God’s love is also my intention.

Yes, I love Carmelite spirituality just as I love my own Franciscan tradition. Even so, I can admit that I have a lot more to learn. That’s is why I am excited about a new book from Paraclete Press.

From the Foreword to Holy Thirst: Essentials of Carmelite Spirituality (Paraclete Press, 2019). The foreword is written by Adam Bucko. 

I can still see the light of the moon reflected on the snow-covered ground outside. It was a quiet winter evening in 1985 when my mother gathered us together— she, my dad, and I—and we knelt down as a family to pray. Martial law, which had been instituted by the totalitarian regime in Poland to destroy the opposition, had just ended, but the images on the news of people in the streets run over by tanks were very present in our memory. As we knelt, we faced a small picture of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and mom held a typed booklet with a shiny red cover that had been produced by an underground association of the faithful. We began to pray the novena.

Our lives were about to drastically change. I had just found out that my father was about to leave for the US, after having been granted permission from the American consulate. My parents had known for a while but were afraid to tell me in case I, with the innocence and eagerness of the small boy that I was, shared it with my classmates. They feared that government officials would show up and confiscate my father’s passport, preventing him from leaving. I understood that now that I knew, I had to keep quiet. Our nightly novena to the Little Flower of Jesus gave me a sense of reassurance during this scary time, that the motherly presence of God would hold us securely, not only now, but in the years to come.

The Poland of my childhood was a place of violence and tragedy, but also hope. When our government was eager to keep us in check by any means necessary, we decided to live our lives with our invisible—but all too real—holy friends, who strengthened our resolve not to…

[Read more from the Foreword of Holy Thirst: Essentials of Carmelite Spirituality (Paraclete Press, 2019) HERE.]

Adam Bucko and Sister Julia have become close friends since they were introduced to each other. Adam is an activist and spiritual director to New York City’s homeless youth. He grew up in Poland during the totalitarian regime, where he explored the anarchist youth movement as a force for social and political change. Adam emigrated to the United States at 17, but his desire to lead a meaningful life sent him to monasteries in the U.S. and India. His life-defining experience took place in India, where a brief encounter with a homeless child led him to the “Ashram of the Poor” where he began his work with homeless youth. Upon returning to the U.S., Adam worked with homeless youth in cities around the country. He co-founded The Reciprocity Foundation, an award-winning nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of New York City’s homeless youth. Adam is currently based at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, where he is helping to launch the Center for Spiritual Imagination.

The joy of being surpassed

Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery, hmm … but weakness, folly, failure also. Yes: failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters. – Yoda, to Luke Skywalker, “The Last Jedi”

It is good to remind myself, every now and then, that in a very real sense I am working to put myself out of a job. In two of the most important roles in my life, that of father and youth minister, I will only have succeeded if and when I am fully and finally replaced.

This has never been more on my mind than it has been this last month. Recently, I became a godfather for the first time, flying out to Chicago to stand beside my best friend and his wife as they baptized their brand new little girl. Not two weeks later, I watched as a good friend of mine was ordained a priest. And in both of these holy moments — both moments in which I stopped and praised God for the people in my life and the grace of the sacraments — my time of prayer was filled with reminders of being replaced.

The first was in the prayer I prayed for my goddaughter. Looking down into her small face and holding her tiny hand, and then later in a stolen moment of prayer after the baptismal ceremony, I found myself praying: “God, let her be the best of us. Let her surpass all of us in holiness. Let her become such a saint that we end up seeking her intercession, and may her prayers for us be even more effective than ours for her because she is that much more in your favor.”

two-priests-blessing
Steven’s friend and newly-ordained priest, Father Dan Molochko (standing), blesses Bishop Barry C. Knestout. Image courtesy of Steven Cottam.

At the ordination, in a liturgy filled with incredibly meaningful and memorable moments, the most impactful for me was watching my friend and newly-minted priest exchange the sign of peace with my spiritual director — another good friend, an incredibly gentle and holy man, a trusted mentor, and a priest who just weeks ago announced his retirement. I watched these two friends of mine embrace — one just beginning his priestly ministry, the other reaching the tail end of his — and found myself praying that my friend would be an even better priest than my mentor was.

May my goddaughter surpass me in holiness. May our new priests surpass our veteran priests in service.

What am I to make of this longing to be replaced and for those I love to be replaced as well? It is perhaps one of the most common temptations we humans face — the desire to be important. We want to be wanted; we wanted to be needed. We want people to recognize our talents and accomplishments. We love to sit at the head table at banquets and the most important seats in the assembly. Such temptations are always problematic, but in ministry, they can be especially insidious. Perhaps the greatest reason is simply for the fact that the desire to be recognized and applauded — especially for doing the work of the Gospel — is so foreign to the mind of Christ.

The Christian life is a constant call to humility, and that means seeking the lowest place. Christ constantly emptied himself — he took on flesh and claimed his place alongside the lowly and died alongside them. Christ instructed us to wash up and smile when we fast and to not let even our right hand know how much our left hand is giving. As ministers seeking to emulate this way, that means constantly dying to ourselves by always looking for places to step aside and let new ministers take up our tasks. And when they surpass us, when they do what we did even better than we did it, we ought not to sulk or pout or complain about being forgotten. We should rejoice in that God is glorified once again in a new generation.

Yet, so often we do not. As liturgical ministers, we refuse to skip a turn or take a seat and allow someone else to serve at Mass. At soup kitchens, we have to be the one to dish up, and we make the new people wash dishes in the back. We let the new girl talk at the meeting but make sure to cut her off if she starts contributing ideas that outshine our own. We sit in our place, our hard-won place, and we refuse to budge an inch.

How much better would it be if we rejoiced each time we were surpassed, especially if we had the honor of playing some special role in forming the one who replaces us? It would be all the better because being surpassed by our students is also the most natural thing in the world. If we do a good job of teaching — if we are able to pass on all we have learned to the young people we mentor — how could they not surpass us? They would have the knowledge of everything we have learned, including all the mistakes and failures we had to fight through the hard way and of which we tell the tales in the hopes of sparing them that same strife. Yet, they would also have the knowledge of everything they have learned for themselves.

In C.S. Lewis’ book “Perelandra,” Lewis imagines a foreign world much like our own but unfallen. In it, the main character meets the “Eve” of this world — Tinidrill. Tinidrill is destined to be the mother of all the people who come after her, and she has a conversation in which it is revealed to her that she will not live forever but instead will be replaced and surpassed by her children and her children’s children as the history of her world marches on. The main character, and I think most readers too, expect her to be bothered by this. But she is not. Instead, she rejoices. She praises Maleldil (her name for God), saying:

How beautiful is Maleldil and how wonderful are all His works: perhaps He will bring out of me daughters as much greater than I as I am greater than the beasts. It will be better than I thought. I had thought I was to be always Queen and Lady. But I see now … I may be appointed to cherish when they are small and weak children who will grow up to overtop me and at whose feet I shall fall.

In all our dealings with the young, or with whomever we have the privilege of preaching the Gospel, let us work to make saints far greater than ourselves. Let us work to be surpassed, and let us be filled with joy when we are. Let us decrease so that Christ might increase as these new workers in the vineyard proclaim him. As Litany of Humility (a great prayer for striving against just the sort of temptations we are discussing here) reminds us: “That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.” Amen.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group that seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Alive in the fire

In the stretch of some days, we switched over from Resurrection joy and fiery feasts to ordinary time. (At least, according to the Church calendar that guides my contemplation.)

Holiness, light goodness, hope, love, transformation: all these energies are offered to us on this side of linear thinking and time. Yet, the God we know and love is bigger than the limits of our human understanding. This love invites us into a mystery that remakes us each moment, through each breath.

The Psalm (104) says: When you send forth your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the Earth.

The Spirit is being sent upon us constantly. Over and over we are created. Again and again, the face of the earth is renewed. The nature of the Spirit doing all of this is fire, wind and the flight of doves. It’s forceful, fierce, and moving. Not still and rarely subtle.

Yet, we are stalled by our lack of faith; by our fear of the Spirit’s fire and force, it seems.

Our faith in God’s power is corroded and corrupted by the world’s lies, by matters that are unGospel: security, strength and an obsession to protect our things. This is the trouble I encountered in a quick conversation with a man before worship on Sunday. As I aimed to prepare my heart for Pentecost Mass, I heard a suggestion that I ought to carry a weapon when I go to the margins of society, into the corners where street violence is a regular thing.

Such suggestions are due to the stalling to truly change our ways and steward the sacred gift of life and Earth we’ve been givenas named by the prophetic and powerful voice found in Greta Thunberg.

If we truly allowed the Spirit to change usto create uswe would be burned by the fire, I believe. We would wear the scars of our transformation, just as the Risen Jesus and Body of Christ bears the scars of our salvation. Our flesh wounds would influence how we carry our bodies around each day. Feeling the impact of our faith in the Spirit’s power would mean we’d really believe in the Gospel:

“Lay down your life.” (John 15:13)

“Put down the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

“Love your enemies …” (Luke 6:27-36)

“Take nothing …” (Luke 9:3)

“Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)

For as Jesus said, “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already burning.” (Luke 12:49).

I am convinced, dear friends, that in these evolving (and yet ordinary) times we must trust and pray and have strong faith in the Spiritwith the possibility alive that good faith is the stuff of orthopraxy, not so much orthodoxy. For like the Spirit, our faith is shown through movement and bold acts.

If we are totally alive in the Fire, we will be formed by a type of freedom that makes us wild and brave. We’ll be weapon-free peacemakers fiercely giving our lives and acting boldly as instruments of true hope.

Let us do this, Church! Let’s act as instruments of the Fire, for as Greta Thunberg has said, it is through our actions that change is made: “The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.” Amen!

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

The peace we’ve been given

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.
John 14:27

as light reflecting
on choppy water
as inner gladness
erupting laughter
as opening buds
widen self-giving
as birdsongs echo
across valleys, hills
this is the peace that allows
this is the peace that accepts
this is the peace that invites
transformation, emergence
outreach, courage, trust, love
this peace causes commotion
this peace deepens consciousness
this peace builds community
diverse, celebrating, embracing
inner spaces open wider
minds, hearts and bodies
wildly restored and offered
into war zones as peacemakers
crossing borders and lines
we listen and love and learn
new languages, new ways
as peacemakers we share
and change
as light reflecting
on choppy water
as inner gladness
erupting laughter
as opening buds
widen self-giving
as birdsongs echo
across valleys, hills
as peace

Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Choosing not to live in fear

My feet were numb. It was the night of January 27, 2017, and I was standing outside O’Hare International Airport in Chicago with hundreds of supporters of Muslims.The number of Muslims, immigrants, allies and politicos surged to 1,000 in a few short hours. Many travelers arriving at O’Hare decided to forgo their itineraries and join us as we stood in opposition to President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. Standing in the cold, a knot began to form in my gut.

President Trump’s executive order banning travel from several Muslim countries to the United States was just the start of many intense times of terror for me. I was working as a media liaison for an immigrant-rights organization. Trump threatened and attacked Welcoming Cities with disparaging rhetoric and legislation, kept young immigrants with DACA-work permits in permanent limbo and fear of deportation, ended Temporary Protected Status for several countries and more. However, Trump has also put into the spotlight an infrastructure that has long existed in the U.S. to imprison immigrants and people of color. His shock-doctrine was a wake-up call.

Each attack on the freedom of the people I worked with drove a knife into my guts. Every time a reporter called me, my chest would tighten, Adrenaline rushed through my body. My phone, constantly blowing up with reporters and my co-workers, threatened my ability to relax. I pined for weekends and evenings free of my mobile device. There was never time to detach.

Since the first whispers in 2015 that Donald Trump could be a legitimate contender for president, I’ve been thinking and reading about people who have lived in oppressive countries throughout history and how they dealt with really scary regimes. Often, I think of repression during the soviet rule of Eastern Europe and the stories I’ve heard about people quietly getting by in the midst of authoritarianism and surveillance.

Of course, the U.S. has been terrorizing people of color, subjugating women and waging war on the world for a long time, but what really changed in 2017, I think, is white folks’ ability to ignore it.

I spent a lot of 2017 really pushing hard against the system, in the media and otherwise, and living in a constant cycle of panic and reaction. I think much of it was due to the workaholic environment I was in, but it was also because I was so consumed in fear and locked into a narrative of us vs. them. Each crisis felt like an emergency. People around me carried a messiah-complex leadership and lacked a way of looking at the world from a historic, spiritual dimension. That work climate fed off Trump’s fear and the media’s flurry of speculation, and without proper reflection, we ingested the terror.

I was worried about how so many social justice and political organizations function, and began to seek out a job and lifestyle that were more balanced. I needed space for reflection so that I could regain my courage and face the reality of our world.

“We needed poetry, in some ways, more than we needed bread.”

This phrase really sticks with me. In a world that seems dead set on destruction, the human spirit is strengthened with art. We need art to transform fear. We need art to be human.

When I was 100 percent absorbed in immigration work, it was extremely difficult for me to find space for self-reflection and spiritual growth. I could barely find strength in art, something that has always fed my soul. Instead, I was stuck in a cycle of fear and putting out one fire after another.

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Watching the sunrise from a mountaintop in Cuba (image by Sophie Vodvarka)

A few weeks ago, I went on vacation to Cuba. One pre-dawn morning, we hiked up a star-lit mountain with a local guide who laughed and joked with us as we trudged through mud. On the top of the mountain we watched the sunrise. That moment, among so many others, were joyful, though heavy.

Because we spent so much of our time with Cuban people, we learned about the reality of life on the island. Most Cubans can only earn around $40 a month working for the communist state. Although they are highly educated, they have nearly no opportunities outside of government employment except for the new tourism industry. It’s nearly impossible for most Cubans to travel, due to lack of funds. Many people are afraid to talk to their neighbors about the government, because a KGB-esqe secret police keeps the population in check. On an architecture tour, we learned about the housing crisis in Cuba and how difficult it is for young people there to marry and create families of their own. In the evenings, we witnessed people standing in line for bread. We also saw U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton on television, threatening a new embargo on Cuba. We heard people say that they were not looking forward to using ration cards again.

Although these people lacked many freedoms, they shared with us their beauty and humanity.

We danced, swam, hiked, rode horseback and enjoyed awesome music. We drove through Havana and the countryside in 1950s American cars. We were privileged to spend nearly all of our time chatting with Cubans in Spanish and in English. A conversation with one Cuban we met really stuck with me. As they told us about their reality, I asked them how it felt to risk speaking openly.

“I just decided not to live in fear.”

I was impressed by this openness. Fear is so sneaky, and it affects people in such different ways. But if not addressed, fear always leads us to live only in its proscriptive box, outside of the spiritual world where empathy, vulnerability and courage reside.

Our friend in Cuba decided not to let the cages of a repressive communist state control them. And they gave us a great gift of vulnerability in the process, allowing us to understand, a little more, what their life and the lives of the people whose country we were visiting are really like.

Looking back to when Trump was first inaugurated, to the immigration battles, to being overworked and to when I was consumed with fear, I realize that I was unable to see a third way to live — both taking care of my soul and addressing systemic issues in our country and world. I had given in to fear.

As I feel more like a whole person again, I am focusing on a different path forwardbuilding up peace and looking at the historical strategies people have employed to fight oppressive regimes throughout the world. As I do, I am learning that one surefire way to succeed is to tend to our souls, to the beauty of art and freedom. No matter what comes, if we focus on our physical and spiritual well-being, we can identify fear and stop if from consuming our hearts.

We can’t control the world, but we can choose how to respond to it. I choose not to live in fear.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

franciscan-sisters-sophie-vodvarka
Sophie Vodvarka

Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.