A Pilgrimage of Spiritual Commitment

“It would be like we have been living underwater, and for the first time, we would be able to come up and breathe.”  

I heard one of the undocumented immigrants say this. We just had finished a meditation of imagining what the day would be like when we, a group working on immigration reform, win citizenship. The tears of real joy, laughter, and heartbreak showed me a glimpse of reality of the 11 million people who are undocumented in our country.

As a result of this emotional reflection, we decided we needed to make this issue felt in our community and then created our Pilgrimage for Citizenship. Our journey was to tell the immigrant story and our path brought us through the very suburban communities I grew up in.

Walking past houses that could have been my parents’ elicited in me the feelings I often get as the white male organizer working on this campaign: first, a pang of guilt of about my affluence, then movement towards “I can fix the world on my own” mood, then a return of the sense of  guilt, and the cycle repeats.

After acting out of these emotions often, it has become clear to me they are simply unhelpful.  They ignore the real individualist sin of “whiteness” at work.

This sin directs me ask the questions, “Should I work on this or not? How should I work on this and with whom?” It all presumes and focuses on my choice.

Listening during the mediation on citizenship and walking the Pilgrimage have taught me that the questions I should be asking are not about my choices but about my commitment. Is my commitment to my own freedom of choice, even good choices about justice and right, or to the freedom of the community?  Is my commitment accountable to God and reality, or simply to my own feelings and preferences?

My immigration work has pushed me to be in more relationship with reality and people’s suffering, and this has set the tone for my commitment. On this issue it has meant using my gifts to be the most helpful and strategic in getting a Republican congressman to support citizenship.

Photo by Ben Anderson
Photo by Ben Anderson

Citizenship is necessary not only to stop the tremendous suffering caused by our broken immigration laws but also to give a democratic voice to 11 million aspiring voters in our community.

Our pilgrimage’s purpose was to start living into this desired reality by giving space for immigrants to have a voice and for voters to really listen to them. We talked to over 800 people at churches, yet our own Congressman would not even meet with us. (Read about the end of the pilgrimage here.) His response echoes a national answer. The door of the possibility of real immigration reform this year is continually closing.

Our faith-filled response in the face of this reality is to work as hard as we can to win citizenship now and if we don’t, buckling down next year to do the phone banking, door-knocking or whatever it takes to build the voting power to make this happen.

I believe we are only in relationship with God only as far as we are in relationship with reality.

My spiritual path therefore lies in this commitment to working with my immigrant brothers and sisters, and everyone in our community who wants a society where all can come up for air and breathe free.

The struggle of faith in democracy: voting

Guest blogger: Ben Anderson

Living our faith means struggle.  I am reminded of this as I see this sign taped to door of an old Lutheran church:

Sign that reads "God's people have always led the fight for the right to vote."
“God’s people have always led the fight for the right to vote.”

In that church’s dusty dark basement I lead phone banks where church volunteers make calls asking people of faith to vote “no” on the voter restriction amendment this November in Minnesota.   The struggle for the right to vote has taken many shapes over our history and continues today.   

This story of faith and struggle must be the context when we think about our individual vote.  In a time of monstrous corporate power and of unprecedented inflation of wealth and money in politics, it can easy to be apathetic or even hostile toward casting a ballot.  Our politics can seem so frustrating and so many horrifying wrongs are done by our government here and abroad. 

Yet the very idea that not voting separates us from our communal sins is an individualist fantasy.  Participating is the struggle of faith in each other and our democracy.  I say faith because a Christian’s belief in democracy is not the optimist’s view of gradual progress or a hope that democracy would bring the kingdom if people were only more reasonable and educated.  It is faith because evil is present in myself and the world, yet God is also present and at work.  Resting on the love of God for our world and our inherent goodness, we must take responsibly for who we are and the pain and suffering that surrounds us.  We must struggle not only for charitable solutions for our immediate neighbor, but for political solutions for the entire community.  We must struggle for justice. 

Voting is only a small but important step in the struggle.  It is not the solution or a score sheet of our complete moral character.   We must make prudent decisions for our context that are difficult.  Here are three points I think best summarize our duty.  What leader and policy best: (1) responds to our most pressing local issues in a manner that is consistent with the common good, (2) respects the life and dignity of all, (3) empowers the poor and marginalized? (three steps adapted from: Evans, Bernard Vote Catholic: Beyond the Political Din, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007)

I spend my evenings in church basements and my days organizing as a Jesuit because it is at the core of our faith to participate with God in working toward racial equity and an environment so all can flourish.   We can only do that if all have the power to be at the decision making table.  

A room full of people with hands raised indicating a vote yes.

In a time when states are trying to pass voter restriction amendments and groups are spending millions to intimidate and suppress minority votes, we cannot be paralyzed by our own moral quandaries.   

A billboard discouraging voter fraud
Visit http://www.colorofchange.org to tell Clear Channel to take these billboards down.

We must enter into the struggle, vote ourselves, and fight for the right so all people have a voice in our democracy on November 6 and beyond.”  

 

About this week’s guest blogger: Ben Anderson, S.J. is a Jesuit and an organizer with Isaiah, a faith-based organization that brings congregations together to work for racial justice and economic equity in Minnesota.  

 

 

Obama and Jesus on Fairness

Obama always snags me.  I try my best to avoid being sucked into his beautiful rhetoric, but he got me on Tuesday during the State of the Union. What captured me was his strong language about fairness.  Over and over again he talked about fair practices in trade, fair taxes, and creating a world where “everyone gets a fair shot, and does their fair share.”

What is this gut reaction that “fairness” stirs in me?  Philosopher John Rawls calls it rationally and self-interest in his system titled, “justice as fairness.”  He believes if we all existed in a pretend state before we were born and didn’t know where we would end up, we would all create a world that was fair because we would fear being on the bottom.  We would identify with the other and know that she could be us.

Another philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, names this feeling of fairness as our understanding that we are all humans who deserve better.  She thinks we innately see the dignity in other humans and want them to have the basic necessities and the capacities to create a life that the person deems worth of living.

Are these philosophers’ ideas of mutuality, fear, and dignity what moves me when I hear Obama speak?   Yes, I think that is part of it, but I think it also points to something much deeper.  Obama touches upon my desire for salvation.

Talking of salvation, I turn to Jesus.  He talked about fairness just as both of these philosophers do.  He used the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to strike fear in us and point to how we are our “brother’s keeper.”   Jesus also respected the dignity of everyone as children of God and worked to meet those bodily needs through feeding and healing.

But Jesus also called the poor, the downtrodden, those who mourn “blessed.”  It wasn’t just about a “fair shake” or doing your “fair share.”  They are not simply deserving, but blessed in a spiritual sense.   God chooses an economic location for grace.   Our longing for truth, love, and wholeness –that is, salvation–is mysteriously and indistinguishably tied to being with and working for those on the bottom.

Being with the outcast and creating a world of fairness and justice is not simply to fulfill a divine command then.  It is an effort to labor with Jesus for the salvation of ourselves and the world.  It is through being converted, embracing solidarity with the least, laboring for healing and justice, and painfully dying to self to find new life that we become Christ and begin to discover our true selves and meet our deepest desires.

Obama was preaching an American gospel of hard work and fairness for all Tuesday night.  While as Christians, we must distinguish this gospel from the Good News of Jesus, we can be stirred when it echoes the Spirit.  We do need to create a fairer world and structure government in that fashion, but not because we or others earn it.  We work for this because all is a gift from God and in creating such a world, we find grace and the gift of salvation.

Advent Stumblings

Guest blogger: Ben Anderson

I didn’t get it right. The new mass words have begun this Advent and I have often found myself stumbling and failing at it. I hate that, failing. The irrational part of me flairs up in a puff of anger at myself and others. I want to be “right,” and such simple failure touches a profoundly deeper disappointment at myself and others for a world so wrong.

As I sit in disappointment the seasons change and it has gently become winter. The crisp and refreshing air, the thick sweaters and coats, and the relief of shelter all bring a sense of peace to my struggle. I need the comfort of warm protection and a home to reside amidst the quickening darkness.

My need reminds me it is Advent. “Comfort, give comfort to my people,” says the prophet Isaiah on the second Sunday of Advent. God is here to dwell and longs to dwell deeper admits our darkness. Jesus came to love, grow, and embrace our un-right selves and reality.

Advent candles

But such a coming is not un-situated; Jesus is not a Santa Claus of sorts that dwells outside of what makes the night dark. Amidst the cold systems that crush the many and uplift some, Jesus was born with the forgotten. His life was a constant struggle against the dehumanizing structures of his day and was powerful enough to be killed as a political criminal.

Such thoughts of Advent remind me of the old activist adage, “Be hard on structures, soft on people.” God desires to dwell with us and incarnate in us to affirm our human goodness. God births in us patiently as we love, care, and belong to one another.

This birth comes while we are positioned and contributing to the structures of sin, reminding us not to ignore our responsibility as if they were as natural as the weather or barns burning themselves down. God shoulders the weight of reality in our church, our government, and our economic systems as we struggle in them.

As we look towards Christmas, we remember Joseph and Mary searching for a home to give birth to our savior in.  Caught up in a system of mandatory forced migration for a census, they needed personal care and institutional justice.  In 2010 there were 30,978 homeless children in the city of Chicago.  They not only need care and shelter, but a state that does not cut funding and citizens who ignore it when it happens.  This is one issue among many we are invited to start caring about and use reason to truly move structures towards the good.

We are to have the faith that God is at it too, as St. Paul states on the third Sunday of Advent, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.”

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/3dmg/5273355807/

God has got this

Guest blogger: Ben Anderson

I was left dumbfounded and depressed sitting there at my desk. “Rape in War” was the topic for my feminist ethics course last week. As I finished my reading and was trying to think of how to write something philosophical about it I was overwhelmed by the stories and stats that show such an astounding capacity for evil in our world. Lost, I didn’t know what to say.

My heart hurt.

Outside of my time as a grad philosophy student I am equally hit with truth. As a community organizing intern I have been helping with listening sessions in schools on the west and south sides of Chicago. We have been talking to kids about problems in their neighborhood and helping them name and unravel the intricate systems and structures spinning good but mostly evil around us. Hearing the same things named over and over of problems out of control, again, my heart hurt.

"Sacred Hearts" By Fr. Jim Hasse, SJ

How to keep going and make sense of a world where people endure so much?

I was given a quote from a brother Jesuit, Yves de Montcheuil, who was a philosophy professor who decided to become a chaplain to the French resistance during Nazi control and later was killed for it. He wrote from jail:

How will we remain in this spiritual atmosphere? By recalling the fundamental truths that must enlighten this commitment. We must first of all not forget that it is only a response to a call. It was not we who thought of it first; it was our Lord who called us to it. He can say to us as he did to his disciples on the evening of the Last Supper: “It was not you who chose me; it is I who chose you.” Left to ourselves, we would never have turned this way. We would have taken different routes according to our character, our inclinations, circumstances; we would never have taken that one, we would never have loved the Kingdom of God for itself.

God calls, but it is always too much. My weak heart never feels confident enough to really listen to others, to love and be loved, to write an intelligent enough paper, to pick-up the phone and organize, to keep stirring the pot again and again to agitate for justice… yet, somehow, I keep on doing it.

And much more: we are only following an inclination, an impulse given to us by grace. Our Lord not only shows us the road; he gets us to walk it. Our progress is always only an acceptance and, as it were, an abandonment to the impulse that he communicates to us. All that we give to him comes in reality from him.

I never really understand nor always like how I got here and through that God continually reminds me my life is not my own to do with what I will. My own gifts and weaknesses, the people who show up in my life, and the doses of reality that have been granted have moved and have pulled me to respond beyond what I ever thought possible. God is too good and keeps inviting me, one day at a time. It is too much, but God has got this. God is moving and working harder than me and I am not alone. When I stop and look around, when I take time to be grateful for the crazy people in my life, I see God is at work in every heart.

God has got this and that gives me hope.

India: The grace of not having a clue

Guest blogger: Ben Anderson
I was on the mountain top and things looked clear.  I was watching a group of Jesuit novices in the hilly northeastern states of India who were taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  These vows were the same I had taken four years ago and they spoke to my heart.  This radical response of love and service to the world seemed so simple and easy on the mountain.

Yet one never stays long on the mountain top.  The next day I descended into the busy city of Guwahati; a chaotic place of a million people of every type.  There in the city understanding was limited, if not all together gone for me.   The noisy traffic patterns, the many people and languages, were all beyond recognition. I had no answers for how life worked or function in such a different place.

Many groups in India do understand the problems and plagues as it is a lively democracy with protests and other political demonstrations happening every day. Some had enough answers to try to take down the system all together by blowing up trains in Assam and bombing market places in Mumbai.  These atrocities were only added to by the senselessness of the Norway massacre which all displayed the brutality of Christian, Hindu, and Muslim fundamentalism.  Surrounded by and listening to only like-minded people, these fundamentalists see people in the way of their ideas and answers for the world.

Being a part-time community organizer and activist, I strive also for answers and understanding to change this crazy world, but the lesson God taught me in India couldn’t be more different from the fundamentalist response.  Every time my feet sank into the mud of a place where I could start to recognize, understand, and know, I moved on.  I expected to be grounded in one place but instead was invited weekly to visit some Jesuit or non-Jesuit work somewhere else.  I continually found myself in a new area of the northeast with its own distinct tribe, language, culture, and issues.  Having tea with so many I was honored by the sense of time people gave me and the beauty of listening to the joys and struggles of their lives.

Such people and stories pulled and stretched my heart.  Bouncing in the back of a jeep from one place to another I was often frustrated at my seeming helplessness always “the guest.”  I realized how little I have to say to their situation and how much I have to learn.

It was beautiful, hard, and freeing. The freedom that I was being taught was something beyond control and knowledge.  It was freedom of letting go of my understanding so as to listen and realize that only together, with these radically different people, can I begin to know.  My cultural viewpoint, my limited range of seeing, however enlightened I think it is, is never enough. I often accompanied two young Hindu lawyers from the Legal Cell for Human Rights who put on workshops in the poorest of villages to teach people their rights.  Never understanding the language, I once asked them how they can have answers for every question asked in every village. They laughed and said, “We don’t.  We never really answer the people’s questions directly, because they have the answer, we just have to help them see it.”

This freedom is beyond choice.  Asking a religious Sister why she organizes domestic workers, she said she was called by God to respond to the poor around her.  It was not about her interests, choices, or causes, but about meeting the needs where she was.  I saw this lived out by Jesuits I lived with who were invited out into the jungle to set up schools for the most forgotten villages.  I walked the tea plantations with organizers who humbly spent their lives helping their own people be proud of their culture and dream beyond their near slave labor conditions.  All labored in freedom with the mission not to be heard themselves, but to help nurture the poorest around them and lift up their voice.   They work as Jesus did, which was summed up beautifully by a Muslim women in a self-help group who told me “As long as God gives us life, we will give our life to help others grow.”

One of the tea worker activists asked me on a bumpy car ride why God had made rich and poor, why such disparity and diversity?   I didn’t know and still don’t know.  I leave India still overwhelmed by such a reality, but as a Jesuit president of an all Hindu school told me once, “God is much bigger than what we do and our understanding.” I don’t have to understand, but have to listen, learn, and, as I saw so many doing, work really hard in my own particularity for the people around me.  I, like those vow men on the mountain top, have been given many gifts, and out of generosity to our great God, I hope to continue moving past myself and my limited view and answers to live a life of listening and work to help others grow and have a voice in this complex and beautiful world.

This week’s guest blogger, Ben Anderson, is a member of the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and a friend to Sister Julia. Ben lives in Chicago working on his master degree in philosophy at Loyola Chicago and is a community organizing intern at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. He spent two months during the summer immersed in the Jesuit works of Northeastern India.