Last night my sisters and I were sitting around the kitchen table sharing a celebratory dinner and conversation. Inevitably, the discussion turned to the effects of hurricane Sandy.
On the edges of our daily living there is a communal sadness as we hold deep in our hearts those whose lives after the storm will never be the same: the mother whose two small children were swept out of her arms, to their deaths, by the storm surge; a teacher who fights for life in the ICU, unaware that her husband and child drowned and were found dead on the lawn in their community.
These conversations are our way of grieving with those we know who have lost so much. They’ve lost memories, communities and loved ones to hurricane Sandy. While New Yorkers are resilient and determined, in our hearts, we cannot escape the effects of tragedy and devastation.
Nor do we want to.
While the news has moved on to other stories, Sandy’s story continues through the compassion of those near and far who continue to support and help the victims of the hurricane. At the high school where I teach (which was spared any damage), students decided to forego a planned celebration and instead send the money to a sister school in Staten Island that was devastated in the storm.
Other schools and universities in the area are pitching in through similar efforts or with labor for rebuilding. One of my own sisters ministers in a local hospital as a physician assistant and worked countless hours through the storm and continues to do so for misplaced and evacuated victims and patients of the city. Her story and our story are one of many efforts of generosity, caring, and concern for neighbors, friends and strangers which reveal a loving and active God mending brokenness and offering hope amidst tragedy.
In this Advent season we continue to grieve and search out ways to be hope for one another, to give to others so they can begin rebuilding, and to be thankful that we have each other and our God to see us through.
This week’s guest blogger, Jayne Pickett, is originally from Wisconsin, but has spent several years teaching high school in New York City. She is currently teaching in White Plains, N.Y., and is a candidate with the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This past week I journeyed with a group of women discerning a call to religious life. We traveled to New Orleans for a week of service at a ministry called The Rebuild Center, a collaborate effort by the Presentation Sisters, Jesuits and Vincentians. No, our ministry was not carpentry or plumbing, but rather helping rebuild lives by serving some of the most neglected on the streets of New Orleans—the homeless.
Several in our group were nurses and some were trained in healing touch. These women set up a massage and foot washing area for The RebuildCenter’s guests. Those of us in the group, like me, not trained in the medical field were given a crash course on healing touch and were invited to partake.
Honestly I was feeling uncomfortable with this invitation. Massaging another person is rather intimate and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of intimacy with a homeless person. And just the thought of touching another’s dirty feet made me feel nauseated. I avoided the invitation by sticking in the kitchen to help prepare the meals. However, every day I heard this nagging voice inside me say, “You should try it, look at the other women who are courageous enough to try it.” I would go peek in on the stations, but fear and the waves of nausea stopped me. I told the inner voice, “I can’t do it.”
Being in the Lenten season, the symbolic nature of the foot washing was not lost on me, and I was plagued with guilt of not being able to muster enough courage to serve these vulnerable men and women in this way. I felt like the rich young men of scripture whom Jesus told to sell their possessions and follow him. I walked away sad, feeling as though I was failing Jesus.
I wanted the courage to lovingly be able to enter into the foot washing ministry. I kept praying during the week that I would feel called and would have the courage to respond yes. On our final day in New Orleans Molly, one of my companions, asked if I was ready. Surprisingly, I said “Yes I think I can do it.” I suggested I watch her technique with one guest first and then jump in (I was really stalling for time). My face was hot and flush when I said this and she suggested I sit down and breathe deep. I watched Molly pray over her guest’s feet then gently and tenderly wash, massage and slip on new socks. Molly and the guest engaged in personal conversation all the while the man was getting his feet massaged, at one point he stopped in mid conversation, lost his train of thought and was swept away by the loving touch of Molly. I was witnessing a sacramental encounter.
After watching Molly I had enough courage to serve the next guest on the list who wanted a foot washing. I followed Molly’s example and with the grace of God was able to enter as deeply into the experience as Molly.
I was humbled and blessed in this simple act of love. I understand the profound message of Jesus in the scriptures as he washed the disciples’ feet, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet… Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:14-17) In the voice of the Spirit that came through Molly, and in the reciprocated love and trust of the homeless of the Rebuild Center, I know I am blessed.
For most of us, inevitably when we hear “Haiti” our next thought is poverty. This has bothered me. Not because it is not true, but perhaps because it diminishes the Haitian people to a status of needing pity, or to a nation of people who cannot pull themselves together to build a sustainable living. “Oh those poor people.” I myself have said this.
I am in no way trying to diminish the level of poverty that exists in Haiti. More than six weeks ago I had the privilege of participating in an immersion trip to Haiti as part of my graduate coursework in theology thanks to the Cabrini Mission Foundation and the Cardinal Bernardin Scholars Program. The conditions in Port-au-Prince, one year after the earthquake, are inhumane and deplorable.
I am reminded of what was said when people first learned about Jesus. “But Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”” (John 1:46)
I believe some might think, “Can any good thing come out of Haiti?”
Privilege can be blinding, especially in the ways which we are called to live the Reign of God in our daily life. The purpose of our immersion trip to Haiti was not about rebuilding or saving Haitian lives. If anything, it was more about them saving our lives from being blinded by privilege, greed and apathy.
I need to change the way my privileged mind thinks. Sometimes the rest of the world doesn’t want the quality of life as defined by U.S. standards. So when I offer to help those from other cultures or places, I can’t impose my knowledge and way of doing things. My privilege needs to take a back seat to the gifts, talents, needs and desires of those I am serving.
One of the great lessons that is still unfolding in my heart from our trip is the notion of social responsibility as taught to our group by some of our Haitian friends. The lessons we learned challenged the greedy business practices in our capitalistic system.
Our Haitian teachers were a group of coffee farmers who partnered with a U.S. parish and developed a business association called Just Haiti. We were meant to attend an association meeting of all of the farmers; our professor was the U.S. rep attending the meeting to do business from the U.S. perspective. We journeyed five hours over mountainous, rough, and rocky terrain to get to the meeting place. We made this trip by vehicle; the farmers made their trip by foot, mule or dirt bike.
We were asked by the leaders of the association not to speak: a witness to the pride, competence, and leadership of the growers (despite their lack of formal education). The meeting commenced with prayer, and then the lessons began.
Farmer after farmer, men of all ages shared the value of coffee in their lives and communities. Working and owning land was a source of pride, since it was the same land their slave ancestors worked. The coffee trees were part of a long history of providing for their families and community members who had survived periods of mass chopping and coffee market crashes. We heard about ways to care for the soil (erosion is a major problem) and caring for coffee tree nurseries. They spoke of how the profits of the association come directly back to them and how their priority for using the money is for sending their children to school.
The leaders of the association led cheering sessions and repeatedly gave words of encouragement to the farmers about their coffee growing abilities. The leaders also brought in a local Haitian nurse to speak about the cholera epidemic and prevention. The profits from their coffee are meager by U.S. standards, yet those farmers felt a responsibility to their community and as a group established a health-care fund to aid growers’ families who could not afford medical help.
Most of these men never received a formal education, yet they understand and live out dignity of the human person, the necessity and right for access to health care and education, the importance of caring for the earth, and charity towards one’s neighbor. This is Catholic Social Teaching at its finest, at work in the Haitian culture.
As a trained accountant and former business professional, I couldn’t help but wonder how the world might be transformed if executives of corporate America were at this meeting. Would they be humbled by the social responsibility of these farmers and be willing to sacrifice their personal bonuses towards a health and education fund for the needy in their own communities?
I was also personally challenged by the experience. How much of my life am I willing to sacrifice for the least in my community? Am I willing to hear the dreams and desires of the marginalized in my own community and commit to accompanying them towards their dreams?
If you would like to support these coffee growers, their fair trade, organic coffee can be purchased through http://www.justhaiti.org/. All profits from sales go directly back to the Haitian farmers.
This week’s guest blogger, Jayne Pickett, is originally from Wisconsin, but spent part of her life teaching high school in New York City. Presently, she is a student at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and a close friend of Sister Julia. Sister Julia and Jayne enjoy cooking, praying, watching goofy television, grocery shopping, and sampling tea flavors together.