In hope, in prayer, we find ourselves here …
I sang these words with a chorus of climate and Indigenous activists on a humid June morning in front of the White House. In hope, in prayer. The words became a refuge, an embodied cry that gave me courage as my timid self stood steady, as cops circled us on their bikes. These words gave me solace as I marched down Constitution Avenue with friends and strangers, protesting the Line 3 oil pipeline expansion through northern Minnesota with signs and songs and presence. Among other people of faith, I sat for hours on the hot asphalt, blocking the south entrance to the White House. Our mission was to send President Biden a clear message: Stop Line 3 and protect the environment. Stop selling out to oil companies. Honor treaties.
The initial large group of protesters had split up into four groups to blockade each White House entrance. Indigenous activists came by each group to hand out water and give encouragement. When they got to our group, one of the Indigneous women spoke to us with words I will never forget: “I know you are people of faith, and I know you are trying, and thank you for being here. But you need to do more. Especially if you are Catholic, because those residential schools were Catholic. You need to do more.”
A few days before this, the devastating news from Canada had come out about the remains of Indigenous children found at Catholic residential schools. As the only Catholic present in the faith group that day, I felt this direct call in my bones. I need to do more. We need to do more, as the church. We inherited this evil and we need to care.
Recently I took part in a Zoom call with other young Catholics who are part of the organization Call to Action. We were asked to wrestle with a question: Reflect on what it means to be Catholic on Indigenous Peoples’ day — what does this stir in you?
This question took me, and those present in the call, into places of deep dissonance within our religious inheritance. Guilt, shame, anger, devastation were some of the common emotions. Facing the church’s failure and our own inadequacies is discouraging and can feel hopeless. So I was grateful for the reminder that I am not alone in this important work, that we are not alone in this imperative work. Together we are committing to decolonize our belief systems and churches and ask: How can we not be part of the harm anymore? How do we become faithful truth-tellers and justice-makers?
I am a white Catholic settler on the unceded homelands of the Council of the Three Fires, the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations, on what is now Chicago, Illinois. I grew up on Ute land in what is now Colorado, have lived on Kumeyaay land in San Diego, California, and Piscataway land in DC. In all of these places, the land has welcomed and held and healed me. I acknowledge that I have so much to learn, and I commit to being a good caretaker of this precious, living land of lakes and grasses upon which I am a guest.
When thinking about that question on the Zoom call, the first thing that came to my mind was that moment when the woman at the protest invoked me: You need to do more. What it means for me to be Catholic on this day (and every day) means to listen and respond. To believe it and respond well when I am asked to do more for justice.
Steven Charleston, a Choctaw elder and episcopal priest, writes that it is human to acknowledge each other’s mountains and rivers and land, to acknowledge each other’s histories, the good and the bad. So I seek to begin there — acknowledging and making space for the histories of everyone I encounter and every place I visit.
Someone on the call gave the reminder that the Latin Catholic Church is not the church — there are 24 particular churches that comprise the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is not default European. This is a necessary reminder as I try to decolonize my Euro-centric understanding of Christianity and engage in other practices and ways of being Catholic that are not white.
May we listen to the ancestors who are also part of the communion of saints. Lyla June, an author and activist of Diné and European heritage, wrote a piece about reconnecting to Indigenous European ancestors to find wholeness in our stories: “They sang to me of their life before the witch trials and before the crusades. They spoke to me of a time before serfdoms and before Roman tithes. They spoke to me of a time before the plague; before the Medici; before the guillotine; a time before their people were extinguished or enslaved by dark forces. They spoke to me of a time before the English language existed. A time most of us have forgotten.”
To acknowledge is to remember that we are not alone in this work. Ancestors and holy people in vast and varied traditions are calling us to create the world we want here and now. To become people of radical care for the earth and each other. My faith calls me to this, too.
There is a painting at the Denver Art Museum that I have always loved. A vast blue sky with wispy clouds takes up most of the canvas with a thin layer of prairie grass at the bottom — a landscape I know well and love from growing up in the mountain prairie. “In June, the Light Begins to Breathe” is the title. I’m drawn to the name of it just as much as the piece itself — the sky and the light beginning to breathe as if after a period of not-breathing and darkness.
I thought of that painting and journaled about the experience when I got home after the protest at the White House. In June, the light begins to breathe. I wrote:
Today, on this last day of June, the harsh and sticky light breathed in and around me, breathed over and among the small act of hope that today was. The light breathed in everyone present and it lit a spark in all of us. I can’t not care. In the darkness of suffering, the darkness of climate catastrophe and politics and colonization, may that light breathe in us, and may we always find it and breathe with it. May the light overwhelm me so that I am always called to action, always called beyond myself.
In hope, in prayer, I find myself here: writing this, acknowledging the complicated histories I am entangled in, committing to be a good and loving caretaker of this land. This land that is so ancient and cries out to us. As I look out the window now, on this glorious October day of leaves so golden and sky so blue, the light breathes like it did in June. I pray: God of light, be with us as we become a Church of dignity, anti-colonialism, climate justice and human peace. Amen.
Cassidy Klein is an essayist, journalist and creative writer based in Chicago, Illinois. She grew up in Denver, Colorado, and attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California, to study journalism and philosophy. After college, Cassidy moved to Washington, D.C. for a fellowship with Sojourners Magazine, where she worked as an editorial assistant. Now in Chicago, she lives at The Fireplace, a community of artists, activists and Catholic sisters. She is a freelance writer, editor and assistant with adults with intellectual disabilities at L’Arche Chicago. Find more of her work at cassidyrklein.weebly.com