I’ve never had any training in hospital chaplaincy, and I know little about medicine. Like many people, I feel awkward and uncomfortable around suffering. I prefer what I know how to manage, like the classroom where I teach. But when an acquaintance’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, was in a serious bike accident, I didn’t hesitate before agreeing to go and sit with her and her family.
My response to Elizabeth’s need wasn’t measured or thought-out. Rather, it seemed to gush from a natural space in my heart. I found that I could not…
[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for U.S. Catholic. Continue reading here.]
People often express their condolences when the subject comes up but—the truth is—it’s really not a big deal. I grew up with asthma, so I was never intimidated by the diagnosis. Thankfully, my daughter’s asthma is well-controlled with daily medication and has (thus far) never caused her any serious issues. Though it does flare up when she falls ill or exercises more than normal, her asthma most typically manifests in a distinctive chronic cough from October through April.
Predictably, the coughing has recently started up again. It makes us very unpopular in public spaces.
At our local science museum last week, I couldn’t help but notice other parents discreetly redirecting their children away from my daughter who, although she’s pretty good about coughing into her elbow, inevitably makes quite a scene when she’s hit with a prolonged spell.
I don’t blame other parents for giving us a wide berth. Nobody wants their kids to get sick and, unless you know (as we do) that her cough is distinctly asthmatic, you’d think she had a cold and was putting everybody at risk of exposure. And so I find myself subtly justifying our presence. If I happen to catch a mother’s skeptical eye after yet another coughing fit, I give her an apologetic smile and say, “Sorry, she has asthma.”
Almost without exception, her expression transforms from one of irritation into one of sympathy and regret.
Watching this instantaneous transformation occur before my eyes over and over again makes me wonder: how many times have I presumed that I am witnessing a human failing (one to which I can feel superior) when, in fact, I’m only seeing the symptom of an underlying illness or injury (one which would immediately compel me to compassion)?
I suspect the answer is almost every time.
One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Ian Maclaren, is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The older I get, the more I realize how true this is. In every stage of life I meet people who are embroiled in terrible battles—battles which transform my bitter judgment into deep sympathy in a heartbeat:
Why is that boy acting so rude on the playground? Because he’s on the autism spectrum and doesn’t recognize social cues.
Why is that new mother giving her baby formula, when we all know “breast is best”? Because she has postpartum depression and breastfeeding makes it worse.
Why does that young woman get drunk and sleep with jerks every weekend? Because she was sexually abused and has no model for healthy intimacy.
Why is that guy addicted to heroin? Because he’s gay and terrified of coming out.
Why did that mom bring her sick child to the Pacific Science Center today? Because her daughter’s cough is due to a chronic, not contagious, sickness.
We are all of us sick: at the very least, in the way that humanity is sick with original sin but also—and usually far worse—in ways that are personal, foundational … and frequently invisible. Our souls may be sin-sick (as the old hymn goes), but they are also abuse-sick, grief-sick, trauma-sick, and illness-sick.
The same wounds and diseases that cry out for compassion lie hidden beneath the very symptoms which make compassion so easy to withhold. And yet Scripture, particularly the New Testament, makes it pretty clear that compassion is non-negotiable if we are to consider ourselves true Christians.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)
I pray for the grace to see beyond the coughing spells I encounter, and to be moved to compassion for those dreadful, hidden illnesses about which I know nothing.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s whose contributions to Messy Jesus Business usually focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. She writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters (only one of whom has asthma).
With one hand I grip my luggage and move slowly down an air-bridge at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. With my other hand, I reach around to check that my backpack is securely zipped. My skin brushes a cool and smooth rock poking through the mesh pocket on the outside of my bag. I turn to my friend, Sister Priscilla, and point to the palm-sized glacial stone decorated with colored markers. With a hushed voice I quickly explain, “I forgot this hope rock was in my bag, I made it when I was leading a retreat a few weeks ago. I’m glad I’m bringing a hope rock to the border.”
Sister Priscilla and I were on our way to meet other members of Giving Voice at the Tucson airport so we could go to the SOAW Convergence at the Border. In Nogales, the giant border town that straddles the line between southern Arizona and northern Sonora, we would join immigrants, activists, and other religious for a weekend of speeches, song, and prayer. We would rally on both sides of the border fence, not far from where…
I recently observed an online discussion in which a full-time church minister who had just become a new mother was lamenting the fact that she was not allowed to bring her new baby with her to the office. She felt she had valid reasoning to do so and made a good case for her ability to juggle work responsibilities and care for her child at the same time. However, she was ultimately denied; told by both the pastor and the office staff that such a request was unprofessional.
There is a growing movement in the Church, especially in the world of ecclesial lay ministry, to become more professional. This has come to mean an impulse to not only become more credentialed, certified and educated, but also to acquire the trappings of professionalism—to dress a certain way, keep certain hours, have shiny equipment and ban kids and pets from our offices.
And it leads me to ask the question: is this really what we want the Church to be? More professional? The current professional climate of the white-collar world is all-too-often filled with stories of sad, inverted priorities and temptations to be greedy, overly ambitious and self-serving. Many places of employment now ask people to work endless hours with no pause or rest, and it’s pushing us beyond our limits. Our obsession with achievement and accomplishment is creating a whole culture of people who feel resentful of their families or who consider abortion a thinkable option in effect to finish a thesis or get a promotion. Our desire to achieve and be professional is literally killing us. The Church’s job is not to emulate these practices, but to build a better world instead.
I have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of that better world. In my previous job I worked at a nonprofit that delivered environmental education to inner city kids. The work culture there was tremendously unprofessional—staff members frequently came in shorts and t-shirts, brought their kids or their pets in with them, and kept odd hours. But it was by far the healthiest work environment I have ever experienced. It was a culture in which people were encouraged to find multi-faceted identities; in which it was recognized that good work requires good rest; in which the reality that we all had families and friends in addition to jobs was celebrated. In turn, these values created an environment of high achievement. Our executive director made it clear she didn’t expect us to be professional in the standard sense, but she did expect us to be excellent. There were no excuses for doing a bad job: you were expected to come in and work well and work hard. And you did work hard because you felt like you were a member of a team instead of just a serf.
Though I have moved jobs since then, I’m lucky still. I currently work as a youth minister. My office is next door to my wife’s, who is the church’s religious education coordinator. We frequently bring our young daughter in with us and everyone benefits from it. My family gets to spend time together. The church gets co-workers who collaborate really well, working hard because we are grateful to this place that nurtures us. We save money on childcare and therefore accept lower salaries. The office gets an adorable cheerleader on tough days. But, perhaps most telling, is the health of the parish. It’s no coincidence that the numbers in our family and young child programs have risen sharply in the last 18 months. So many potential new parishioners or those fallen away come to me and ask “Is the Church really welcoming to young children and new families? Or will we be viewed as an inconvenience?” And I get to look at them and honestly say “I bring my daughter with me all the time. We love it here. This is her second home.”
I know everyone’s situation is different. And the lived reality of it is far messier than this short description might make it appear. But I do sincerely believe we are all happier and healthier because we are focused on the concrete needs of the people we are ministering to and ministering with, which has led us to largely ignore the abstract bar of professionalism.
The Church should strive for excellence in its ministry. We should deliver the highest level of quality in everything we do. We are servants, and our parishioners deserve the best we can give. But the best, from the perspective of the Gospel, does not mean the most professional. It does not mean the flashiest or the cleanest or the nicest. It certainly does not mean the most regularly scheduled. The best ministry means unburdening the oppressed and advocating for a saner way of life. In this day and age, that might mean going to the office with a baby on your hip. It certainly means throwing off the ungodly burden of false respectability and seeking lighter yokes instead.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which 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. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
We live in a society that has a tendency to divide us into enemy camps. Violence and squabbles due to differences like politics or culture have become strangely normalized.
No matter what has become culturally acceptable, the Gospel challenges us to live counterculturally. Although some people may avoid those they don’t like or agree with, we reach out to others with love and compassion. While others discriminate against or systematically oppress those who are different because of their race or beliefs, we seek to welcome and appreciate diversity. Such bold actions help us know our belonging in part of an inclusive, universal Church. To embrace and celebrate diversity is central to what it means to be Catholic. As challenging as it may be, when our family of faith unites as one we are obeying the words of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, thank you for the beauty of human diversity and creating us as one. May I recognize and promote our oneness today. Amen.
Here is a map of locations where human remains were recovered by No More Deaths just in August of 2016:
I am going to the border because I am concerned about immigrant detention.
In 2010 I wrote about an experience I had praying at an immigration detention center in Chicago. The knowledge I gained that day—the fact that immigrants are denied basic human needs such as hygiene supplies and food once deported—continues to disturb me. The description of humans put in cages makes my heart ache every time they surface in my mind. It is horrific that 27,000 unaccompanied minors have been seized and detained at the U.S. border between October 2015 and March 2016. Plus, I took a course about the Japanese-American concentration camps during World War II and read this disturbing article that convinces me we must not detain folks based on race, immigration status nor place of origin.
I am going to the border because I am a daughter of immigrants.
Much like the migrants that come today, my Norwegian and Irish ancestors immigrated to the United States in 1800s to escape poverty and make a better life for themselves and their families. My Irish great-grandmother came by herself as a teen and never obtained proper papers. But that didn’t make her a bad person. She was hard working and established a strong family—all who contributed to American society.
I am going to the border because others who have done so inspire me.
I am grateful for the witness of the folks who have walked The Migrant Trail and prayed for the dead. I especially appreciate this account of their journey.
I agree with them wholeheartedly. Sure; nations have a right to protect their borders but they also must help keep families together, address root causes of migration, and honor all human dignity.
I am going to the border because I don’t want to be part of a nation that puts up walls.
I agree with Pope Francis’ words, stated after he celebrated Mass at the Ciudad Juárez U.S./Mexican border in February: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” Along the same lines I think we need to stop blaming, scapegoating and discriminating. It is time for us to have intelligent and compassionate national conversations about the complex issue of immigration.
I am going to the border because my hometown has been impacted by the current broken immigration policies.
In May 2008 the community of Postville, Iowa, was torn apart by the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. (OK: technically, my hometown is about 10 miles away, but it’s certainly the same community and our Catholic parishes were served by the same priest.) It was discovered that many of the undocumented workers at Agriprocessors meatpacking plant had been told to put an X on a piece of paper when they were hired in order to start working. The forms were falsified social security card documents created by their employers not understood by the people signing them. Many of the immigrants could not read nor write English nor Spanish. I have written more about the horrific Postville immigration raid and can attest to the fact that its impacts continue to be felt in Iowa as well as in Guatemala.
I am going to the border because compassionate immigration reform is long overdue.
I don’t even know how many times in the past 20 years I’ve called or written members of congress and asked for them to help pass legislation that would reform the immigration system. Or, asked them to vote against something that would hurt immigrants. Or, asked them to help protect a particular immigrant from detention or deportation. I’ve distributed postcards, signed petitions, led prayer services and attended vigils. The fact that I have not seen much progress occur in this time is frustrating and exhausting. But, I will not stop working at it because people’s lives are literally on the line.
I am going to the border because I want our nation to see that Catholic sisters are crying out for the protection of the dignity of our immigrant brothers and sisters.
I have learned that a major aspect of my vocation as a Catholic sister means that I am living a prophetic life—a life that gives witness to the fullness of God’s reign just by virtue of its countercultural nature. My vows have me saying “no” to our culture’s obsession with wealth, sex and independence so that I can say “yes” to a life of prayer, community and service for the greater good; for the glory of God. Living this way means I must constantly advocate for the poor and proclaim God’s mercy and peace to all; I must use my voice for those our society has deemed voiceless.
You can follow Convergence on the U.S./Mexico Border online this weekend by searching the hashtag #ConvergenceAtTheBorder on Facebook and Twitter. You can keep up with the activities of us Giving Voice sisters in particular by searching the hashtag #GivingVoice. If you’d like more news coverage of the event, call your local media outlets and ask them to cover the story. There are resources for media here.
I hope you will pray in solidarity with us this weekend and help us advocate for peace, mercy, and compassionate immigration reform. Let us pray that we can be a nation that honors and protects the dignity of all people, especially those who are poor and fleeing violence. Let us pray for the dead and the protection of all life. Let us pray for the children who die and are detained.
Pray with us from this portion of the prayer service we will pray at the border this weekend:
Jesus, you who were a migrant, we call to you in one voice with those gathered at the border. We pray for all the people in our world who are on the move, escaping violence and poverty, and for all those who live, hiding and in fear, in our own country. God, we pray for all politicians and for all citizens, that we may be filled with your compassion. May our policies promote peace and keep families together. We pray especially for all the children caught in this web of oppression; protect them and their parents so that they may grow up in freedom. We continue to pray for comprehensive immigration reform that will, finally, offer justice for immigrants. Glory to you, God, for all that you have given us. We give you thanks, and we ask you for strength and courage. May we never tire of working for the common good; may we never lose your vision of a world of peace and love for all.
In light of all that is making humanity hurt far and near—the evils of greed, economic inequalities, environmental destruction, endless war and gun-violence—on this ordinary and holy day, I find that my heart desires to emulate two particular aspects of St. Francis’ prophetic life from 800 years ago.
I am praying for all of us, for our broken and hurting hearts, that we can respond to the invitation Christ made to Francis to “rebuild my Church.” May we all contribute to the reconstruction of God’s reign of peace, justice and mercy. May we all be renewed and converted more closely to Christ, to the people Christ is calling us to be in today’s world.
First, we pray …
that we can counteract greed, materialism, pride and arrogance by totally embracing poverty, just as St. Francis did. The worst consequence of us taking more than we need is the infliction of suffering upon others; stripping them of food and shelter and other basics. Plus, our consumption and waste harm sacred Earth, causing climate change and consequential disasters; more suffering inflicted upon the little ones.
St. Francis’ experience also showed him that greed and materialism create division, cause wounds. A member of the emerging merchant class in the middle ages, his life could have been comfortable and privileged if only he’d joined the family business and become a cloth merchant. Instead, his conversion directed him to become a beggar, living with and ministering to the lepers, the outcasts, the little ones. St. Francis, like Christ, stripped himself of his wealth and made himself poor, gaining freedom in his dependence upon God. His complete embrace of “Lady Poverty,” as he came to so fondly call it, opened him to encountering Christ in the poorness found in others and in himself.
Audrey Assad’s lovely rendition of Psalm 23 “I Shall Not Want” is a song worth praying with today. Let us pray that we can all be poor and humble like Christ, so as to come to know the poor Christ in the truth of our poverty:
Second, we pray …
that we can nonviolently respond to the endless shootings, name-calling, bomb-dropping, drone warfare, torture and terrorism that destroy lives every day. As technology advances, the ways we hurt one another only get worse. In the city of Aleppo alone, daily deadly attacks continue to increase, shocking relief workers with more dire conditions, seemingly mocking their false declarations “that things cannot possibly get any worse.”
St. Francis was also familiar with the evil of war and grew into a practitioner of nonviolence. Before his conversion, he served as a knight in the battle between the warring city-states of Assisi and Perugia. Captured from the battlefield he spent a year in prison, dealing with illness and suffering. During his development into an itinerant preacher, he greeted everyone with the Gospel messages of peace, forgiveness and love of enemies in Italian: Pace è bene, Peace and all good. In response to his countercultural message he was mocked and ridiculed. Yet he persevered with love and risk, even heading into the war zone of the Crusades, begging for the wars to end. One of my favorite stories about St. Francis is his encounter with Sultan Malek al-Kamil, a Muslim leader whom he befriended and dialogued with about peacemaking and faith.
Emma’s Revolution’s joyous song “Peace. Salaam, Shalom” expresses the hope, faith, and celebration that I believe should be part of all acts of peacemaking:
I pray that we can all embrace true poverty and be merciful and forgiving to our enemies, according to our own call, in response to the needs of world, just as St. Francis did so well. I pray we can love authentically, for it was Francis who said “I have done what was mine to do, may Christ show you what is yours to do.”
I invite you to pray with me too, so we can all respond to the needs of today with great humility and mercy, with bold love that is provocative and countercultural, transformative and compelling. Let us be poor peacemakers for our world today, in the spirit of Francis, in the image of Christ.