So naive

“It [grace] strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.”

~ Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted”

You have to be pretty naive to be a Christian in today’s world.

This thought strikes me frequently and no more so than during the season of Lent. Lent is that season especially dedicated to penance and spiritual self-renewal and every year I treat my Lenten penances as a sort of Catholic version of New Year’s resolutions. This is the year that I am going to finally rid myself of that troublesome vice. This is the year I am going to improve myself beyond that pattern of sinful thought. This is the 40 days in which I will finally mortify my flesh sufficiently and begin living a saintly life.

And while Lent has undoubtedly been good for my soul, it so often falls short of my expectations. Most of my pet sins remain. Most of my largest spiritual struggles are still exactly that, entrenched in my soul as they always have been. This year my self-renunciation is aimed at a spiritual trouble spot that I have been attempting to reform for years. For years.

I am naive to think that this Lent will be any different, any better. It is naive to think that, after falling 70 times seven times, this will be the time I get up and stay up.

Our society is faring no better than I am in its battle against its demons. The problems that have always plagued us plague us still. Columbine was 18 years ago and yet more children than ever are victims of a violence that back then was unthinkable, but now habitual. The sirens about the terrors of climate change have been sounding my entire life; now they are here, with Cape Town set to run out of water in mere months. Dorothy Day died in 1980, and yet her country is more inequitable and more violent than when she departed from it. Yet so many people — faithful people, and people of good will — continue to work and march and witness against injustice all the same.

We are naive to think that we can fix our broken world. It is naive to think that, after failing to heed the warning signs and to learn from the pain for so long, that now is the time things will change.

But here I should confess that I do not consider naiveté a bad quality, especially when it is not something we possess without realizing it but rather something we specifically cultivate. To be naive means to be simple and a little foolish, and it is sometimes simple foolishness that gives us the courage to persevere.

For all the darkness that surrounds us in our lifetimes alone we have seen miracles happen. For all the darkness that fills me I can think of some demons I have beaten, some sins I have shaken.

Naiveté, when chosen, when specifically engendered within ourselves, is the antidote to a cynical word. It means trusting people who are not trustworthy. It means forgiving someone you have already forgiven a multitude of times and believing this will be the last time you will need to. It means thinking they will be better this time. It means thinking you will be better this time.

But this foolish, simple belief is what makes the space, what gives the time for true repentance to occur. Our act of believing translates to endurance in the face of failure, and it is the very thing that helps bring about the conditions for change to be realized.

stonecutter-cartoon-zenpencils.com
Cartoon courtesy zenpencils.com

It takes a lot of telling to make a city know when it is doing wrong. However, that was what I was there for. When it didn’t seem to help, I would go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it would split in two, and I knew it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before together.

When my fellow-workers smiled, I used to remind them of the Israelites that marched seven times around Jericho and blew their horns before the walls fell. “Well, you go ahead and blow yours,” they said; “you have the faith.” And I did, and the walls did fall, though it took nearly twice seven years. But they came down, as the walls of ignorance and indifference must every time, if you blow hard enough and long enough, with faith in your cause and in your fellow-man. It is just a question of endurance. If you keep it up, they can’t.”

~ Jacob A. Riis (1849-1949), photojournalist and social reformer, on his attempts to improve living conditions for the poor in the slums of New York city. (I was introduced to the quote via this illustrated rendition of it.)

When we look at all the realities of our corrupt world, at our corrupt selves, and choose to try again anyway, we are being naive. But in just such instances, when we choose it freely, ‘to be naive’ means the exact same thing as ‘to have hope.’ And unlike the occasional unsuccessful Lenten resolution, hope is something that does not disappoint.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven 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, adorable daughter and 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.

Love in the midst of the mess

You are dreading another meal of ramen noodles and canned vegetables, but you know that’s all that’s left in the cupboard, that it’s the best you can offer your son tonight.

You’re thinking about this as you enter the dimly lit child care center to pick him up, with hunger pulling on your stomach, only to see him sitting on a grimy, stained rug. He gazes upward, engrossed in a cartoon, his face stone-still like an icy zombie. You remember that you once asked if the TV was safe — it still looks as if the smallest bump to the cart could make the heavy machine plummet down and crush a child — but the one time you tried to ask about it, you felt like a nuisance, so you never brought it up again.

Before you gather your son into your arms, you notice a child care worker with thinning hair scolding a girl; the girl stares at the dusty floor as tears roll down her cheeks. The scene tightens your throat with discomfort, awkwardness; you ignore this and scoop your son into your loving arms instead.

You don’t like this place; you have a feeling that…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Feeding Time at Art Beast Child Development Center Photo Credit: ©Ellen Friedlander
Bubbles at Art Beast Child Development Center Photo Credit: ©Ellen Friedlander

A litany for the teens in Parkland, FL

This time, it's different: The One-of-a-Kind Parkland Movement
Photo credit: http://theforestscout.com/time-different-one-kind-parkland-movement/

Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. 2 Corinthians 6:2

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy. 
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.

For our failure to protect children, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to elect leaders who protect lives, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to end unjust laws, God, have mercy.  
For our tendency to justify evil, God, have mercy.  
For our tendency to complicate love, God, have mercy.  
For our greed, God, have mercy.  
For our pride, God, have mercy.  
For our violence, God, have mercy.  
For our excuses, God, have mercy.  
For our selfishness, God, have mercy.  
For our stubbornness, God, have mercy.  
For our love of guns, God, have mercy.  
For our desecration of childhood, God, have mercy.  
For our desecration of the vocation of teaching, God, have mercy.  
For our desecration of schools, God, have mercy.  
For our desecration of the joy of being young, God, have mercy.  
For permitting a society full of inequality, God, have mercy.  
For allowing money to have more power than people, God, have mercy.  
For putting any life above another life, God, have mercy.  
For calling people monsters, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to love our enemies, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to believe in you, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to follow your nonviolent way, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to trust You, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to trust each other, God, have mercy.  
For our failure to love one another, God, have mercy.  

Heal our sorrow, Help us, Good God.
Mend our hearts, Help us, Good God.
Make us yours Help us, Good God.

For teens who teach us how to raise our voice, We thank you God.
For teens who turn trauma into strength, We thank you God.
For teens who lead us on the path of peace, We thank you God.
For teens who speak Truth to power, We thank you God.
For teens who lead us to true freedom, We thank you God.
For teens who are smart and articulate, We thank you God.
For teens who are deep and wise,  We thank you God.
For teens who are the hope of this nation, We thank you God.
For teens who offer their gifts to the greater good, We thank you God.

Heal our sorrow, Help us, Good God.
Mend our hearts, Help us, Good God.
Make us yours Help us, Good God.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy. 
Christ, hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.

May we all have the courage to join the teens of Parkland, FL in demanding common sense gun reform and advocating for nonviolent peacemaking. Let’s unite to protect life, so that there is #NeverAgain a school shooting.  Sign up to join a march in your community on March 24th here:   www.marchforourlives.com 

Dead man on the sidewalk

He is lying in the middle of the street, wrapped in a blanket, semiconscious. Earlier, someone was concerned enough to call the paramedics. The paramedics picked him up by the arms, dragged him to the sidewalk, determined he did not need medical transport, and left.

When the paramedics find him, nobody is with him. No one comes to check on him. He has no water and is lying wrapped in a blanket on a sidewalk. In Phoenix, the pavement can be so hot it will burn skin.

That was three hours ago. Someone just noticed that he has not moved in awhile. He has died, but we don’t know when he passed because no one checked on him before now.

dead-man-sidewalk-police
Image courtesy Elizabeth Odhner

The paramedics come by again, determine the man dead, but leave quickly with nothing to do. The police arrive and sit in their car, waiting for the medical examiners. They’ll likely be waiting a long time. In The Zone — the part of the city near the Catholic Worker House, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters — it often takes forever for the medical examiners to show up.

Today I’m running late. I missed morning services and get here just as he is found dead. I’m greeted by Paul, who is sitting on the curb.

“I always wait.” he says.

Now, Paul is by far my favorite guest at the Catholic Worker House. He is a man of much wisdom and endless joy.

“If we do not love them in death, how will people know they are loved in life?” Paul asks.

I sit on the curb next to the body with Paul and wait for the medical examiners for several hours. Meanwhile, people all around us continue with their lives.

Steve (who is sober today) likes to sweep the street when he is not using. He keeps sweeping and never looks at the dead man on the sidewalk.

A lady comes by and asks me for a pair of pants. I run downstairs to grab some for her, wondering if she notices the dead man on the sidewalk.

A man needs help making a phone call. He is stranded in Phoenix, trying to go back to his family in South Carolina, and does not understand the automated phone system of the bus company. Preoccupied with his own worries, he doesn’t seem to notice the man dead on the sidewalk either.

A couple enjoys each other’s company. He gives her a piggyback ride and runs down the street.

A lady rides by on her bike and stops to talk to a friend. The conversation ends and she quickly moves on.

Lunch services continue. Showers are offered. People go to the office to make phone calls.

I know life continues after death, but how is it that life goes on with no recognition of the dead man lying on the sidewalk?

As Paul and I sit on the curb, holding our own little vigil, we answer people’s questions, directing them to resources, and try to figure out the name of the man who died. Just a few people seem to notice him.

“Who is the stiff today?” a passerby asks.

“Do you know there is another one at the gas station 10 blocks away? He was stabbed,” someone else says.

Paul and I sit together on the curb for three hours waiting for the medical examiner to show up to take pictures and move the body. (I learn later that another volunteer found out what had happened and called a friend on the county board of supervisors to investigate the wait time for the medical examiner. The examiner showed up 30 minutes after that phone call.)

At first, I am disturbed by the lack of indignation. Even more so, though, I’m disturbed by the lack of response at all.

I’ve been volunteering In The Zone for over nine years and little makes me uncomfortable. Yet, the lack of discomfort makes me uncomfortable. So I ask: How do I continue to maintain a heart of discomfort? How do we not fall into despair? How do I joyfully serve while continuing to question why so many people lack access to shelter? How do I continue to joyfully serve while continuing to question, challenge, and overturn the systems that continue to hold people down? How do I maintain this discomfort when my own everyday life is full of comfort?

Now, months have gone by since the unknown man died alone on the street. I still do not know his name. Many more — whose names are also unknown — have died alone on the same street.

Meanwhile, my life continues. Again and again I show up, say friendly hellos to those I encounter, and do as Paul says, help “make sure people know they are loved.”

In the Andre House Catholic Worker, Phoenix, AZ
ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Elizabeth Odhner

Elizabeth-DiedrichOriginally from Madison, Wisconsin, Elizabeth Odhner is an emergency room nurse in Phoenix, Arizona. She spends her free time with her new husband working for immigrant rights and volunteering at a free clinic and a homeless outreach center. She lives in a community providing radical hospitality to immigrants and refugees. She and Sister Julia have been friends ever since Elizabeth studied at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois, the city in which they were both members of the same cooking club. For fun, Elizabeth enjoys making pottery and taking day trips outside the city.

 

Love and ashes

our bodies make lines
and our hearts beat
repent, repent

make us more honest in
forty days
conversion time

prepare us, Mystery,
for an eternity
with you, true Love

create in us clean hearts
draw us closer–
Love, we are yours

You are our heartbeat
You are our way
help us fast, pray

lines of ash pressed into
our faces, worn with love
renewed, restored

the lines of time move
forward; we embrace
our destiny

death comes for us all
our graves are ahead
dust. ash. dust. ash

our bodies make lines
and our hearts beat
repent, repent

Credit: FreeImages.com

A Christian’s guide to discerning the Truth in a post-truth era

A few weeks ago, President Trump announced the winners of the Fake News Awards. His pattern of discrediting journalism and attacking the freedom of the press is a fascinating sign of the times we are in;  an opportunity for us to imitate Christ and share mercy and Truth.

But, what if we aren’t really sure what’s True? How do we know what’s Fake News? What if we’re completely dizzy with confusion about who to believe, about who’s right?

My observations of American society in the past of couple years has convinced me that it doesn’t make a difference where one sits on the political spectrum or how educated one is — all of us can fall victim to the lures of propaganda and become unsure what is actually True.

Yet, Scripture tells us, over and over, that we are called to know, love and promote the Truth.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.  – Ephesians 4:15

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  1 Corinthians 13:4-6

Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. – John 14:6

Plus, for those of us who are Catholic, we understand that perusing and promoting the Truth is a core component to how we live the Gospel and live as disciples.

The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. This moral prescription flows from the vocation of the holy people to bear witness to their God who is the truth and wills the truth. Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: they are fundamental infidelities to God and, in this sense, they undermine the foundations of the covenant.  – Catechism of the Catholic Church #2464

 It is by loving that the God-who-is-Love is proclaimed to the world: not by the power of convincing, never by imposing the truth, no less by growing fixated on some religious or moral obligation. – Pope Francis

So, how are we to navigate through this murky era, when the truth is so often watered down or warped to fit particular views?

Source: “The New Yorker”

What I offer here are some tips developed from my study of history, propaganda, media and politics. (Being a history major in college really has served me well!) Last summer, I shared many of these tips and resources to a group at my place of ministry and heard that they were very helpful; I have been meaning to share them with you, Messy Jesus Business readers, ever since. The day has finally come!

DEFINITIONS

First, one of the confusing parts of this time is that many phrases and words are being tossed around, and a lot of people don’t really know what the terms mean. Let’s start with a glossary.

Absolute Truth = Facts which exist without being dependent upon anything else, such as one’s perspective or opinions.

Alternative Facts = Un-factual information, false information.

Bias = Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

Confirmation Bias = The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.

Fake News = Propaganda or false information published under the guise of being authentic news.

Objective Truth = Not influenced by or based on personal feelings or opinions.

Post Truth = Debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion, which are disconnected from facts.

News = Factual journalism regarding events

News Analysis = Opinion and commentary on the news.

Satire = The use of humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose or criticize.

Subjective Truth = Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK, DEVELOP YOUR SKILLS

I am growing increasingly convinced that anyone who consumes information in this modern world has a civil duty to develop their skills and critical reading eye. For example, I like how On The Media suggests we spot Fake News.

 

Similarly, it is crucial that readers can recognize bias and are aware what type of slant sources are likely to make. I find this chart quite accurate and helpful.

Source: http://imgur.com/gallery/iPLkz / http://www.allgeneralizationsarefalse.com/ Vanessa Otero

CONVERSE WITH COMPASSIONATE CURIOSITY IN PURSUIT OF THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH

Look back at the definitions of Absolute Truth, Objective Truth and Subjective Truth. In our post-modern world, there is a common temptation to let the opinions and beliefs held by another be “their truth” while one maintains “my own truth.” When I hear that folks say things like “believe what you want, I know what I believe” I get frustrated and wonder why we dismiss one another, why we don’t believe that others can help expand our thinking, perspective. Only through community and in relationship can we gain a more complete picture of the objective truth, what we all are here seeking to understand.

Have mercy on me for my terrible clip art, but here’s an image that shows the different types of truth.

Types of Truth (image by Julia Walsh FSPA)

In order to know what is absolutely true, we need to have compassionate curiosity about how others see things; none of us, from our finite human experience, can ever see the whole picture, the entire truth. (The truth that God knows, the Truth that is God. ) Grounded in prayer, we can ask questions without being defensive, without aiming to convince others why our perspective is better.

There are several guides and resources available that can help us develop our dialogue and communication skills. I am especially a big fan of what the folks at On Being are offering with their Civil Conversations Project. The Circle Way is another approach that I have found quite helpful.

LISTEN AND LOVE

Certainly, in order to be an effective communicator, it is important to honor the dignity of every person, to lovingly listen to them in a way that honors that they are made in God’s image. Conversation and listening — when it comes to pursuing the Truth — ought to be an act of prayer. We open up our heads and hearts and remain detached. We allow ourselves to be converted, realizing that the Spirit is always calling us into greater growth and intimacy.

One way to think about it is to consider what is important for good listening. The Chinese character that means “to listen” is made up of smaller characters that reveal what is needed to be a good, active listener. Aren’t these the same elements needed to be attentive in prayer, to be in a loving relationship?

Source: tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/

Overall, Christians, we are called to be discerners, to have the humility to remain open to being wrong and learning from God and others. Only with the guidance of the Spirit and the grace of God can we come to know what is True and worthy of our promotion and experience how the Truth can truly set us free!

You will know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.  – John 8:32

Fear, faith and the flu

I am not a germaphobe by nature, but this year’s flu season has me in a tizzy of microbial paranoia.

Daily news reports about the severity of this specific flu strain and the extent of the epidemic have fueled my anxiety, as did a recent email from my daughters’ school informing us of confirmed flu cases within the student population. Yesterday, a doctor on NPR waxed dystopic about the particular vulnerability of people who have underlying health conditions.

As the mother of a 6-year-old with asthma, I feel frightened and exposed.

Although our entire household got the flu vaccine back in early fall (as we do every year), I know there is no guarantee of immunity. With the flu season now in full force, I want to wrap my kids up in Purell-lined bubbles and safeguard them against all the insidious germs that assault their immune systems on a daily basis. I want to protect them from the physical misery and dangers of influenza.

ballerina-red-tutu
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

As a matter of fact, I want to protect them from all suffering. Forever.

But of course, the world doesn’t work that way. Try as we might, we parents cannot prevent our children from suffering.

We can get them the flu vaccine, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get the flu. We can provide them with love and stability, but that doesn’t mean they won’t struggle with depression and addiction. We can raise them in a household of faith, but that doesn’t mean they won’t turn away from God.

In this world – as in the flu season – there are no guarantees. And so we vaccinate as early and as extensively as we can … and then we trust.

As Christians, our trust is based not on the presumption that we will avoid suffering, but rather on our faith that God is with us when we suffer and that Divine Providence (aka “God’s Plan”) will ultimately triumph. We trust that the Good News of Jesus prevails, even when our lives are filled with bad news. We trust that our suffering is not in vain.

Easier said than done (at least for me).

Sure, some suffering makes sense – either right there in the midst of it or decades later, with the hindsight of lessons learned and otherwise-missed life journeys. But some suffering will never make sense this side of eternity; some suffering is so dehumanizing and apparently pointless that it falls into the category of the “Big M” Mysteries of Christianity.

crosses-against-sky
Image courtesy freeimages.com

This is the kind of suffering I fear most for my children and – by extension – myself. It is the suffering I find most baffling and scandalous … and the suffering for which I most need the baffling and scandalous grace of God.

Especially as a mother.

Elizabeth Stone famously wrote, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

It’s true. And it’s why, as I drop my children off at school – where H3N2 germs, Mean Girls and any number of other potential threats await them – I am thankful that they (and my heart right along with them) are ultimately in the hands of Someone I trust.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s and mom to 6- and 4-year-old daughters in the Seattle, Washington area. Her contributions to Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. For the record, she’s really not interested in a debate about vaccinations right now.

Teilhard in the age of Trump

I was first introduced to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s cosmology at a bar in Wisconsin. I was a recently graduated senior out to eat with my parents, drinking a beer in public for the first time. I was still 18, but in western Wisconsin the legal drinking age is as obfuscated as Teilhard’s arduous writing.

The conversation turned to religion, as it often did in my family. I was raised in a household enmeshed in what Alice McDermott would call a “thick” Catholicism, with parents rooted in a liberal, post-Vatican II religious milieu. I was just beginning to seriously question my faith for the first time and its applicability to the postmodern, spiritual-but-not-religious world in which I was becoming an adult. While this questioning would ebb and flow for years, this conversation over pizza and beer was one of several very subtle and delicate moments that would, in the end, tether my heart to the chaos that is American Catholicism.

In response to my doubting a moral center to our universe and the uncertain state of our country amidst the final years of George Bush’s second term, my Dad pointed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,  Jesuit scientist and evolutionary theologian, as a source for hope. He explained that Teilhard was convinced that evolution was not a random process, and it did not solely point to a biological reality. Instead, it was a way of seeing the entire cosmos that applied to our faith. Since the beginning of time we have been on a collective journey, with the entirety of created matter, toward love, toward total unification with God, toward the Omega Point.

Pierre-Teilhard-de-Chardin
Image of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin courtesy of “Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice”

My dad’s optimism, and subsequently Teilhard de Chardin’s, is now grafted into my worldview. Pierre’s positive understanding of creation and his undying hope in the coming Kingdom of God has proved to be especially important during this past year. Amidst the catastrophes of pending nuclear war and climate change, and the ever-growing wedge between the rich and poor, Americans have elected a white nationalist to the presidency.

Teilhard would understand the rise of Trump to be situated within, if not a culmination of, what he calls “an organic crisis in evolution.” In “The Human Phenomenon” Teilhard explains that, “There is a danger that the elements of the world should refuse to serve the world.” Usually ever-optimistic, he concedes that there is a possibility humans will not travel the course set for us through evolution, the path mapped out for us by God.

To avoid this catastrophe Teilhard argues that we must choose to surrender to the collectivization of consciousness, to fall into unification. Our proper participation in evolution and our arrival at the Omega Point is contingent on a new economic and social order; one that unifies, that eliminates economic and social differentiating and the privileging of certain categories of people. These divisions (facilitated by the interplay between capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy) are an impasse. They are a nonstarter, clogging our evolutionary journey and impeding our salvation. The establishment of a new order, which Teilhard’s work demands, must take on a new sense of urgency given the rise of Donald Trump and the divisions and violence he signifies. In the age of Trump, Teilhard reminds us that the evolutionary journey of the cosmos, which arches toward the unification of matter with God’s love, now lies in our hands.

About the Rabble Rouser:

joe-kruse-jpgJoe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia through the La Crosse, Wisconsin, community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse. Now he spends most of his time working at Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.

MLK Day and choosing white discomfort

I don’t believe that remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement that he represented is supposed to be comfortable for us white folks.

And I wonder what we might learn if, on this national holiday created in his honor, we were to sit with his speeches that most challenge — not affirm — our worldview today.

I wonder what it would mean for us white folks, in churches, Catholic schools and affluent communities, to collectively step out of our comfort zones today and every day in his honor.

What if us white folks dedicated more time to listening to black activists today? What if humility became the root of our attempts at solidarity with diverse communities of color who are fighting every day for their liberation?

Every autumn for the past four years, I have facilitated three, three-hour sessions on issues of white privilege and white supremacy as related to experiences of foreign volunteer work for Franciscan lay missioners in training with Franciscan Mission Service. These sessions were born out of my lived experiences as a Franciscan lay missioner in South America.

In these sessions, we start with the basics.

I explain how I opened my eyes to the realities of racism only when I stepped out of the white culture I grew up in; in other words, when I stepped out of my comfort zone.

sketching
Annemarie’s original sketch “You Stood With Me II”

And we connect that experience to concepts of white privilege and white fragility that help explain how a college educated adult, like myself, could be so ignorant about issues of racism.

We also focus on history in that first session; primarily, the history of colonization worldwide and how that history implicated white folks, particularly white Christian folks.

We talk about why it is so important for white folks who are confronted with their own ignorance to respond by choosing to educate ourselves. And we cover basics like how to respond to issues and experiences related to racism that are new to us — namely, by choosing to humbly listen and learn.

We also directly deal with the racist stereotypes surrounding Catholic volunteer work. I share about my experience of being characterized as a “saint” who was “sacrificing” myself by serving in a country economically poorer than the United States.

I explain to the lay missioners in training how different the ways in which I was being categorized were from the personal expectations that I had for living in another culture.

I knew for myself that I was choosing to live in Bolivia because I was interested in their vibrant indigenous cultures and inspired by the grassroots social movements thriving there. I was choosing to move to another country to humbly learn and collaborate, not pity and patronize.

But the reality was that most of the white Catholic folks supporting my life as a Franciscan lay missioner assumed the opposite and so I had to learn how to respond to those folks and look for opportunities to not only educate myself but to share what I was learning with other white folks too.

It was a terribly uncomfortable process.

While I was confronting similar, local stereotypes where I was living and working — a testament to the destructive effects of colonization still so very alive today — I was also simultaneously trying to navigate how to communicate what I was experiencing and learning with folks in my own country who were as steeped in white culture as I am.

watercolor-painting
Annemarie paints in watercolor

The whole process has been full of discomfort and yet I would not have it any other way.

Why?

Well, just this past autumn a lay missioner in training asked me in the final session of our time together, “How do you find the courage to confront these issues of racism?” She, like me, was working through dealing with how overwhelming the discomfort can feel at times.

And in my own process I had found two possible responses to this question.

One came from a wise friend of mine who aptly taught me that no matter how hard I think confronting racism is for me as a white person it is always, always, more challenging, traumatizing and even life threatening for people of color.

As a white person I have the privilege to choose to confront racism, but for people of color it’s not a choice but a daily lived reality. Choosing to engage in conversations about racism with a white person is often an exhausting and fraught experience for people of color.

What I shared with the lay missioner in training that day is that this reality ought to, at the very least, inspire humility in us white folks while also leading us to another response.

I told her that I find the courage to confront issues of racism as a white person, not because I am an expert on issues of racism and certainly not because I am some savior who benevolently decided to care about these issues.

I find the courage to keep learning and confronting these issues because I have formed intimate relationships with people of color whose life experiences are very different from my own, and I care about being accountable to them.

The answer is both that simple and the living into it that complex.

But what I have found is that at the very least it does require a willingness from white people to get uncomfortable.

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Original piece “For I Thought I Was Alone II” in its completion (by Annemarie Barrett)

Today of all days is a good time to practice that voluntary discomfort — to stretch beyond what we know and have experienced as white people to listen and learn from the experiences and wisdom of people of color.

Here are some resources to engage that discomfort today:

“White Supremacy (Overt & Covert)”

“White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism”

“White Fragility and the Rule of Engagement”

“The White-Savior Industrial Complex”

“#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism”

The Importance of Listening as a Privileged Person Fighting for Justice

“True Solidarity: Moving Past Privilege Guilt”

“Black America should stop forgiving white racists”

“If You Think You’re Giving Students of Color a Voice, Get Over Yourself”

“The FBI Has Quietly Investigated White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement”

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ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett

Annemarie-BarrettAnnemarie grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

 

Groaning and gratitude

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Unsplash/Zhang-Kaiyv

I am wide-awake in a dark hospital room. I survived a gruesome hiking accident that left me bloody and alone in the bottom of a ravine, but I’ve been told that I’ll have reconstructive jaw surgery the next day. My family and Franciscan sisters have gone home to sleep for the rest of the night. I am alone, except for the woman snoring behind the nearby curtain and the nurses who seem to materialize at my bedside to check my vitals.

Pain is pressing on my body. When I landed at the bottom of the cliff, my face shattered from eyebrows to chin. My hand and arm were crushed under my forehead, because I’d reflexively raised them to protect my skull as I slipped. Now my limbs are screaming reminders of what happened. I am bruised and bloody. I feel as if all the pieces of my bones would float away and disintegrate if it weren’t for the swollen flesh holding me together.

I want to scream, to groan about how my life has suddenly flipped on its side. I can’t sleep. I can’t relax. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through this dark, lonely night.

But somehow, my mind and heart turn from agony to appreciation; it’s the only choice I seem to have. I begin to pray: Thank you, God, for saving my life. Thank you for the excellent medical care. Thank for each person who has helped me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

This is the beginning of my latest column for “National Catholic Reporter’s” Global Sisters Report.” Read more of “Groaning and gratitude” here.