Last month, I attended Mass at the border; I was part of a community of believers uniting around bread and wine miraculously made into flesh and blood.
I was on the Mexican side, sitting on a concrete street curb next to another Catholic sister. Together we were a color pop in the assembly: we stuck out in our bright turquoise T-shirts declaring “Catholic Sisters for Compassionate Immigration Reform.” Nearby sat our friend, Br. David, a Franciscan Capuchin, bearing witness in his dusty brown habit. Guests to this area, this Mass we were attending coincided with the events of the School of Americas Watch Border Convergence throughout the entire weekend.
We were among a crowd of a couple hundred other folks. Some sat upon haphazard rows of folding chairs, others leaned against fences and buildings, many stood. We were gathered on a crumbling, uneven street formed from a mishmash of concrete, asphalt and sandy earth. In front of us was…
[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Sick Pilgrimat Patheos. Continue reading here.]
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.
Ever since the birth of this blog nearly six years ago each discovery of Christian content elsewhere—stuff that also emulates the tone Messy Jesus Business aims to assert—has been a little thrill for me.
And by “tone Messy Jesus Business aims to assert” I mean that in this forum we (myself and the Rabble Rousers) try to ruminate on the hard, uncomfortable aspects of Gospel living. It is messy, challenging and intense to struggle for social justice and the protection of the most vulnerable. It is confusing and complex to live a Spirit-filled life working toward systemic change, to fill our lives with works of mercy and simple living. There is no tidy and straight-forward way to contribute to the coming of God’s reign in this broken world. In fact, we experience union with God in the chaos and suffering, among the poor and the despised and the least and the little ones.
Here is a small sample of Christian blogging gems from around the web that express the spirit of Gospel living as being real Messy Jesus Business:
I am afraid this blog post is going to be a terrible, tangled mess: sorry about that. But considering the mess this is all about, a jumble might be the best I can give.
My thoughts are tangled because so much has been stirring within me since last week when I learned about the killings of Alton Sterling (in Louisiana) and Philando Castile (in Minnesota), and then police officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith (in Dallas).
My heart has been heavy with more sadness—too similar to my grief for the 50 people killed in Orlando on June 12th. I’ve been praying prayers of lament and trying to lean on my faith; that love prevails. As a Christian who desires to be an agent of nonviolent social change, I have also felt overwhelmed, helpless, disappointed, doubtful and frustrated—how can these horrific events and lingering tensions lead to healing and peace?
Mostly though, I have been feeling a lot of guilt.
I didn’t ask to be born with this white skin. I never wanted to inherit centuries of stolen privilege and power. I’ve never wanted to be an oppressor and blindly participate in social structures that keep my brothers and sisters of color in poverty, assumed criminals. I’ve never wanted to walk around wearing white privilege every day, but I do.
I understand now (but didn’t before: more about it later) that much of the racial violence flaring up throughout our nation has been centuries in the making. As a nation we’ve never healed our racist wounds and now racism has become an infection, sickening and slowing our chances for unity and peace. The disease of racism has corrupted our economics, communities and ways of relating to one another.
We can’t blame anyone for the racial conflicts but ourselves, as we’ve all contributed to the causes that ignite anger and hate among us; structural racism is real and creating a mess of problems, tangled together and killing our children. When we submit to lies and take a side, when we ignore the suffering of anyone—this is sin and evil staring us down and laughing.
Whether I like it or not, I participate in the evil of racism every time I enjoy my white privilege. When I feel the tinge of excitement over seeing a “run-down” neighborhood flipped into an area with funky shops and remodeled homes (that’s what gentrification is), I’m ignoring the plight of the poor. When I savor easy access to healthy food and transportation without anger for the lack of attainability my black and brown brothers and sisters have of such beneficial basics, I’m failing to love. And, when I experience nothing but respect and kindness from police officers and assume it’s everyone’s experience, I’m turning away from the Truth.
I had to leave the nearly all-white farming community in Iowa where I grew up in order to learn the ugly truth: racism, as portrayed to me in history class, didn’t end after the civil rights movement. I discovered this in college partly through Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (which really impacted my life); while studying abroad in South Africa; while serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and witnessing lack of health care for people of color. I first heard about predator police patrolling black neighborhoods from my students at an all-boys African-American high school on Chicago’s south side. The powerful truth in this video mirrors their stories (but be warned: it’s violent and contains offensive language).
It’s taken years of observing, listening and relationship-building to get to my current consciousness; to understand the privilege of my skin color and the complexity of our social sins; to realize that practically every inequality I’ve encountered is an aftereffect of our shared racial wounds; to move beyond white guilt and to white responsibility. I want to share the principles that have guided me as I clumsily deal with my white privilege, hoping to contribute to racial reconciliation.
Please white brothers and sisters, join me in these actions for everyone’s sake. And, brothers and sisters of color; please comment and correct me where I’m mistaken; suggest what we could do to better share this privilege—rightly yours—with you.
1.) Always avoid paternalistic thinking and behavior. Never give people your pity and create projects you think will increase their standard of living without asking what is needed, wanted. (And keep in mind that cultural dynamics may cause people to agree with your ideas no matter what they believe.) Similarly, make sure organizations serving people of color are not managed solely by white people.
2.) Celebrate diversity. Culture is a beautiful gift from God that ought to be understood, reverenced and appreciated. If you serve a culture not your own, it’s necessary to move cautiously yet eagerly to see all the beauty in the difference (especially if you’re a white person).
3.) Listen. While teaching in Chicago, I was frequently the only white person in the room. It was incredibly important for me to ask questions and really listen to the answers. Whenever I didn’t understand something I had to put aside my pride and fear and let my students explain their world to me. I’m sorry for not engaging in this way more often.
4.) Become allies. Any action you can muster to offer the privilege of your well-respected voice, advocacy for peace and healing, is crucial. It can take a lot of courage and skill but is very important to correct racial language, assumptions and attitudes when necessary. (Be aware that the sin of racism can creep into all of us.) Talk about racism even when it’s uncomfortable, donate to organizations of social justice governed by African Americans and ask your elected officials what they’re doing to ensure peace for the people most marginalized—our black and brown brothers and sisters.
5.) Educate yourself and the next generation. Watch the news and pay attention to bias; search for balanced news sources. Ask critical questions, read, study and share information that helps others understand the truth. If you have children under your care, especially white boys, make sure they are learning narratives about humanity that reveal the God-given dignity and equality of all people.
6.) Pray and witness. Now is a time for communal reconciliation and prayer services for peace. Join in a solidarity action or peaceful protest (like this one, recently in Madison). Plan one for your community or hold a prayer service in your Church or home and invite people of color to contribute to the planning, music and dialogue. Remember that reconciliation is God’s work and we are made to be instruments of peace, working for God’s mission. In order to build up God’s reign of love, we must truly love and pray for each other.
It will remain tough and messy, but all of us who are white must act. It’s just as Jesus said: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” (Luke 12:48)
As I wade further into the mess I’m aware that as one of many, I have a lot more to learn. Yet I’ll remain in this struggle and not tire because it’s what we are made for—to be one, arriving together to the time when justice and freedom is known by all on earth as it is in heaven. Through God, by God, and in God’s love, one day we’ll arrive.
This week at Sunday Mass I had a full-body prayer experience that transcended the ordinary.
I am Catholic. Full-body prayer is nothing unusual; it’s basic Catholic functioning. Stand, sing, sit, listen, sing, listen, speak, kneel, stand, shake hands, sing, walk, eat, drink, kneel, sit and stand. Through the rhythm of movements, our hands, feet, mouths and throats embody the mysteries of our Incarnational faith. Even as we sing, speak and breathe, the core of our bodies vibrate with words of love and hope.
This past Sunday, though, my body tuned into a communal woundedness. It was as if, in a way, I could feel in my bones an echo of the laceration that had been inflicted upon my brothers and sisters during the massacre in Orlando a week prior.
Certainly the mass shooting that occurred at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12 was a complex atrocity. The narratives of our nation’s political battles are…
“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” This quote, attributed to author and theologian Ian Maclaren, has been tossed around a lot. I think I first saw it memed on Facebook and most recently I heard it on Krista Tippet’s On Being. It is simple and straightforward and frankly, kind enough, to come off as a bit trite. I am reticent to be found quoting phrases I’ve seen more than once pasted over the image of a sunset, or a silhouetted figure with their head in their hands. But this one, I’m going to stand behind. This one is not to be dismissed. It is, in fact, particularly handy when one is scrolling through their Facebook feed—so full of both the beautiful and ugly, in image and word—and precariously near falling victim to impulse replying. With hand hovering over the keyboard, prefrontal cortex poised, quickly conjuring up a tart reply to something that’s pressed the “angry”, “offended” or “I’ve been staring at a screen too long and just cannot” button inside, “be kind…” is a blessed mantra to retrieve and reflect with.
This is an important phrase indeed, not only when tooling around social media—that ripe field for impulsive seed to be scattered and bear sour fruit—but really when confronted with any of the issues and characters that compose our political and social climate at present. One issue I’ve been skirting around for fear of being immediately exhausted and annoyed (and saddened and discouraged and bewildered) by is the hotly-debated issue of bathroom access in public spaces. I use “debated” very generously as, especially if Facebook is your primary news source (I confess, it is mine of late), the content of what you are seeing or reading seldom has enough substance or anything like a fact traceable to a source considered actual information (let alone insight).
This is why I was so pleasantly surprised and grateful to stumble upon a Baptist minister who, when confronted with this issue, was self-aware and open enough to recognize that he had very little actual information about what it meant to be a transgender person (let alone how such persons might be effected by laws about bathroom use). Rather than leap to a reactive response based on what he might assume should be his moral stance as a conservative pastor, he paused and started to ask questions. “I don’t know much about transgender issues,” he admitted, “but I’m trying to learn.” It is in the trying to learn that this man reveals Christ to us more than any memes throwing out Scripture reference or rants about how our society is descending into chaos. And it is with Christ-like invitation that he challenges his readers with the question “How much do you really know about this subject beyond all the screaming headlines” while gently reminding us, that more than political posturing and religious rigidity, this is about “real people and real families.” Have we calmly considered who those people might be? Have we done our homework about what risks are real and what are inflated in order to manipulate an emotional reaction?
Asking questions with the intention of hearing and learning and desiring to understand is a radical, rare, brave and vulnerable act. In a prayer often (albeit incorrectly) attributed to St. Francis, the writer beseeches God that they might direct their energy toward seeking to “understand, rather than to be understood.” In doing so we are opened to the possibility of love; our being is expanded to receive others (even others who are different or confusing or who we genuinely disagree with). It’s a prayer, ultimately, to be more like Jesus, who walked among strangers, sinners and enemies and so often found in them disciples, followers and friends.
What this rant is about, more than anything, is both how we respond to difference and how we behave when confronted with information startling, offensive or frightening to us. If I intend to take in and respond to information as my best self and as a member of the body of Christ, then I find I need to pause, not only before I repost or reply but also to evaluate what is being fed me. Is there any nutrition here or is it just tantalizing candy, packaged to trigger my cravings, fears, anxieties, longings? Is it just empty calories that will leave me full but malnourished or worse; toxins that once consumed will poison my point of view and diminish my capacity to live and love well? I need to ask myself (and I invite you to do the same) “is this designed to heal or to hurt?”
“Does this seek to unify or divide?”
“Is this truthful?”
“Is this merciful?”
Imagine Jesus or, if you prefer, imagine the kindest person you know sitting next to you. Wait to see if they smile, nod, and reach over to press “send.”
So, this week some depression symptoms have come back.
Fatigue, heaviness, a dull pull at the sides of my mouth, a silent scream in my throat, anxiousness, and a few intrusive thoughts of self-harm.
But, I’m a veteran. I know what to do.
Give it to Jesus.
Pull out my toolbox of skills. For me it includes mindfulness, grounding, centering, exercise, contemplation, affirmations, walking with mantras, pushing on walls, calling friends, journaling, healthy eating, support groups, therapy, spiritual direction, and being honest with myself and all my support people.
A few days ago when it was going a bit rough, Jesus and I sat down and had a talk about it. I’m struggling to break out of old coping mechanisms and make a new choice. It feels healthy and I know it’s the right thing to do but dude—it is still physically and emotionally hard! Jesus said to me, “I got you. I know you can do this. You have the external support and the internal resilience to make this change at this time. And if you don’t, it’s okay. I’ve got you. You didn’t do it wrong before, and you don’t have to do it that way again.” With those words, I felt both freedom from the pain of my past and joy in choices of the future.
For me, my struggles with mental health have always had a spiritual component, and often that aspect’s ignored by the community around me. Some friends and I wrote up a list of what we consider to be the “Spiritual Rights of Mad Folks.” The term “mad folks” is a way to talk back the labels put on us as stigmas behind our backs and claim our own identity in the world, similar to when the word “Black” became more common for African-Americans. I also prefer the terms “mental (sk)illness” or “neurological diversity.” It’s a way of claiming the gifts of the reality that we live with; not pathologizing our identity.
Spiritual Rights of Mad Folks include:
the right to have a “dark night of the soul” without one’s experience being attributed to a brain disease or a disordered personality.
the right to speak of one’s experiences without fear of harm or recrimination by authorities.
the right to not have our spirituality viewed as a product of our diagnosis or as otherwise pathological.
the right to appropriate support during times of spiritual emergency.
the right to claim our mad gifts within a spiritual community or context.
the right to be reverenced as a person of dignity.
the right to companionship and affirmation on the spiritual path.
What if these rights were all just universally embraced in every place of worship and spiritual community? What a wild and beautiful world that would be! I dream a place where it’s okay to think you are the Messiah. Where walking in the void of darkness and the fear of demons are believed. Where the daily perseverance to get through a day is not disregarded, but honored and celebrated.
Our “mental health” system may be broken beyond repair. Far too many go without the basic care they need. When I moved to La Crosse, I had to wait seven months for an appointment with a provider to manage my medications. Globally, the situation is even worse. Our old ways of coping and hiding people away just don’t work.
I have found little glimmers of hope and a community of people just like me, dreaming wildly and working for change. Internet community The Icarus Project tries to help us navigate “the space between brilliance and madness” and “transform ourselves by transforming the world around us.” The support groups and daily skills of Dialectical Behavior Therapy focus on mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and relationship skills. This is the super tool box of concrete skills that make life worth living again! Also, I have found regular attendance in a Depressed Anonymous group and working the program’s 12 Steps a real way to live hopefully and turn it all over to Jesus, my Higher Power. (I connect with Emotions Anonymous too.)
And, my FSPA congregation is actively participating in the nation-wide Campaign to ChangeDirection to raise awareness of the five signs of suffering and to deter future suicides.
We never walk alone. For me, my mental (sk)illness requires the constant companionship of Jesus, my faith community, recovery community, and all my loved ones. We dream a new world. We dream hope and live bravely into a new tomorrow, each and every day.
Editor’s note: This is the third blog post in a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda (learn from lessons #1 and #2). Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next two installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.
Electricity can be elusive in Uganda.
The country’s power grid is both incomplete and unreliable. When I lived there in 2006, access to power shifted from region-to-region in a process called “load-shedding.” This means those lucky enough to be connected to the grid only had power about 50 percent of the time—a reality that was at best a nuisance but could be downright life-threatening (as people living with HIV couldn’t refrigerate their antiretroviral medication).
My host dad’s computer work was repeatedly disrupted by power outages (scheduled and unscheduled), which made for slow and frustrating progress. Once, after yet another unexpected outage, he confided in me that he dreamed of installing a solar panel on top of his house. (Solar energy is becoming an increasingly popular alternative for Africans who wish to shed their dependence upon an inherently undependable source: the government-supplied power grid.)
My host dad had researched the costs associated with obtaining a solar panel for his home, and it was within his grasp … Or, at least, it could have been. “But,” he told me, without an ounce of regret, “Not all of my siblings have made it through secondary school yet, so I must put their need for education ahead of my desire for electricity.”
I was floored.
I understood that Jesus expects us to give from our substance and not our abundance, but I had never before stopped to consider just how many things in my privileged life I considered to be substance which were, in reality, abundance. Things like electricity.
Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)
How is Jesus calling me to live out His radical generosity?
I know there is no single “right” answer to this question … But, having witnessed poverty so abject as to be dehumanizing, right alongside generosity so self-sacrificing as to be miraculous, I also know that I can never, never stop asking it.
For reflection: What “necessities” could I give up in order to better live out Jesus’ call to radical generosity, especially in the face of so many unmet needs across the world?
Author bio:Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She is happy to report that her host family now has a solar panel for their house, so that they rarely have to rely on government-supplied power.
“When you eat a meal, thank the farmer who harvested it and think about their livelihood. Food is something that connects all of us as a community, wherever we live.” – Oxfam Fact Sheet
This statement is from a farmer and my sister, Ellen Walsh-Rosmann. It helps me remember that something as basic as eating food and sharing it with community influences how I contribute to the reign of God.
I am from a food family. I grew up in a rural, agricultural, Christian community that taught me to understand that caring for Earth and neighbor is an issue of social justice. Our neighbor is the land as are all creatures large and small that also claim the land as home. As a child I would help…