One life together

As of the writing of this reflection, Witness Against Torture, The New York Catholic Worker, and Voices for Creative Nonviolence, among others, are in the midst of a week-long fast for the victims of the recent airstrikes and ongoing besiegement of Yemen. There we see, once again, one of the poorest countries of the world pummeled by some of the richest; not an unusual circumstance, but it’s ubiquity makes it no less tragic.

I was invited to join the fast but unable as my youngest is still an insistent and aggressive breast feeder and my oldest has simultaneously forgotten his ability to listen and enhanced his capacity to test all boundaries. Circumstances being what they are, a well-balanced and consistent diet seems an indispensable tool in order to be an alert and able-bodied parent. Frankly, I felt relieved to have such an excuse. While my younger self would contrive reasons to fast, exulting in the ascetic undertaking and invigorated by the discipline, that aspect of my nature has diminished over the years to such minute stature that I am hard-pressed to find it in me.

On the other hand, I am disappointed to miss out on the communal response. Joining together in mourning, conceiving acts of creative resistance, fasting and prayer are among the few means of response we can identify in the face of escalating and seemingly endless violence and despair. As it is, I am merely one among many who hear it on the news, quietly lament, and continue with the needs and desires of the day. I am at risk of becoming inured to the pain of others, especially that of those who I don’t see in person and who exist in such overwhelming numbers. More than I can remember or recite. More than I can truly imagine.

Before I have finished writing this there will be more to count. Already, the U.S. has chosen to conduct air strikes in Syria in response to the ghastly chemical attacks there, which are a part of a larger, ongoing massacre happening through various means of human-on-human violence. Violence begetting violence. Those who’ve been following the news will be aware too of the atrocity in Mosul, yet another among the countless acts of destruction and devastation in Iraq.

For those of us who live in relative comfort and security, it is all too easy to stagnate in statistics. I often feel I can’t even write or talk about something that tears at me because then I need to mention every troubling incident. Each crisis gets lost in the many and responding feels impossible. I recently heard a poem that addresses this attitude on NPR’s OnBeing called “The Pedagogy of Conflict” written by Pádraig Ó Tuama; a poet, theologian and leader of the Corrymeela community (a place of refuge and reconciliation in Northern Ireland).

“When I was a child, / I learnt to count to five: / one, two, three, four, five. / But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count / one life / one life / one life / one life / Because each time is the first time that that life has been taken. / Legitimate Target / has sixteen letters / and one / long / abominable / space / between / two / dehumanising / words.”

I believe that throughout Scripture, God has sought to communicate to humanity that we were created with intention, that we are part of a holy human family, that all life is precious and inextricably interwoven. I have found it hard to know how to live out that truth as a citizen of the Western world (the U.S. specifically) where, unlike citizens on the receiving end of our war-making, I live my life removed from the death and disorder in which we are involved. I feel all the more inhibited in my capacity to respond to the needs of others as I endeavor to care for and create a stable, loving, beautiful environment for my own children.

Amy Nee and one of her children.

Yet, even as life as a parent inhibits me from reaching out, from taking risks, it also tends to enhance empathy and conjure the questions—what if it was me in that situation? What if it was my kids?

Ever since reading a book review by Terry Rogers in The New York Catholic Worker’s newspaper I am haunted by the story of a Palestinian father who used to feel great peace watching his children sleep. Now, he gazes on them with anguished anxiety wondering if this will be the night that they wake to a bomb tearing through the ceiling, or if they will even wake at all. He writes of too many friends who have lost their children to bomb attacks and realizes he cannot expect his own family to be spared from the same fate. So to look at his children, vulnerable in sleep—each one a mysterious trove of wonder, laughter, frustration, confusion, tears, expense, effort and attention, both given and received—brings only sadness, fear, anger, despair.

One life … one life … one life … one life.

sleeping-children-courtesy-Any-Nee
Amy’s children, sleeping soundly (photo courtesy of Amy Nee).

Seeing my children sleep, I am most often filled with relief, satisfaction, a wave of affection and admiration for their beauty and gratitude for our shared life. I cannot imagine what I would feel were I to hear them referred to as collateral damage, let alone “legitimate target.” I cannot imagine–having watched with amazement each new developing nuance in language and motion–suddenly seeing them fall limp and mute and forever lifeless. Each blossoming life, so intricate, so very dear, so amazingly new each day. “Each time is the first time that life has been taken.” What a gaping hole there would be in my heart, in our family, even amongst our friends.  Whole communities grieving the loss of what was, of what was becoming.

One life … one life … one life … one life.

I am being interrupted in this writing endeavor. My one-year-old daughter, waking from her brief moment of tranquil sleep, insisting on nursing. I will resist for a moment and then concede. It is a comfort to so easily give comfort. I know it will not always be so easy for me, with nothing more than my own body, to bring calm and contentment to my daughter whom I love profoundly. For one life, that opportunity has been stolen.

One life …  one life … one life … one life.

Come, let us love one another.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

Anxious resistance

I had a knot in my stomach all day. I couldn’t focus at work. I lost my appetite. I felt exhausted as soon as I woke up. My mind was running with a thousand scenarios of things going wrong. I became keenly aware of that familiar feeling: a low-grade but persistent anxiousness; a lump that sits somewhere between my heart and stomach warning me of something to be feared; an impending lack of control.

It was March 1, 2017. Ash Wednesday. For the past three weeks I had been meeting with fellow community members of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker and our friends from the Mennonite Worker to plan a vigil and direct action. Our intent was to lovingly, but boldly, address the American Catholic Church’s reluctance in naming the xenophobia and racism that have characterized Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and presidency. We sought to implore Archbishop Hebda and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to release a public statement directly addressing the rise of xenophobia in our Church and society.

Cathedral of St. Paul, courtesy of Joe Kruse

After work I sped home to prepare for the action. My mind was spiraling as we packed our car with a banner, ladders, candles and ropes. I thought of my heroes and their steely determination. Their seemingly complete lack of fear. I thought of the iconic photo of Dorothy Day picketing with Cesar Chavez, calmly gazing into the eyes of a police officer right before her final arrest at the age of 75. I thought of Daniel Berrigan on trial for burning draft files in Catonsville, Maryland. Seemingly unaffected by a pending threeyear sentence to federal prison, Dan boldly proclaimed to the court, “We have chosen to say with the gift of our liberty and if necessary our lives: the violence stops here.”   

With my mind and heart racing amidst a cascade of doubts and fears, I felt like I had missed the memo. The seeming difference between my anxiousness and their prophetic conviction was laughable. I wondered about Dorothy’s doubts and Dan’s fears. Did they have them? Or had God given them some kind of divine courage for holy conflict that rendered their doubts and anxieties obsolete?  

And, most importantly, when will God give that to me?!

As a white Midwesterner, conflict avoidance is my cultural bread and butter. Growing up, tension or disagreement were to be feared and resented. They were signs of something gone irrevocably wrong; something over which to feel tremendously anxious. Yet here I was, about to help manufacture an almost-assuredly tense situation within a Church I call home. I found myself doubting, searching in vain for Dorothy-like divine courage. Is this worth it? Am I doing the right thing? Is the conflict, the worry, the anxiousness necessary?

Dorothy-Day
Image of Dorothy Day by Bob Fitch

While I wrestled with these doubts, fears and questions, a small inner voice (which I often resent) assured me that Jesus’ answer would be a resounding “Yes!” It’s become painfully clear to me I cannot claim to be Christian and deny Jesus’ call for direct action, which leads to inevitable conflict and anxiousness. While it’s incredibly important for me to take care of myself and not stretch beyond what I can handle, Jesus’s social vision clearly calls the most comfortable of us into discomfort. As in Mark 10: 17-27, Jesus did not lovingly challenge the rich, young man to give safely within the confines of comfortable charity but to relinquish all his wealth for the service of others.

Jesus’ is an orientation toward loving and creative tension; a tension resulting in Christ’s inherent opposition to oppression. Soon before he was crucified Jesus and his disciples staged a direct action at the Jerusalem temple, confronting temple authorities’ collaboration with the Roman Empire and exploitation of the poor. In analyzing Jesus’s incident at the temple, the biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg writes in his book “Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark” that “Judaism was not the problem [for Jesus]. The problem was the imperial captivity of the temple and its authorities’ collaboration with the Empire.

In her “National Catholic Reporter” article Jamie Manson explains that many American bishops likely refrained from critiquing Trump’s hateful campaign rhetoric because of social and economic gains to be gleaned from his presidency. She writes, “In the course of the presidential campaign, the bishops’ conference put out one press release about promoting Catholic-Muslim dialogue and one release about “partisan divides” on migration issues. But as Trump inspired hate-speech, xenophobia, bias crimes and violence toward women, the bishops remained mum … the evidence suggests that the bishops’ conference threw under the bus the needs of these vulnerable peoples for the sake of advancing their anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, right-wing religious liberty agenda.”  

The bishops’ behavior is tragically similar to the conduct Jesus condemned at the temple within his own religious tradition. Their silence is proving lethal. President Trump has engaged in an unprecedented campaign of intimidation and violence directed at many of the most oppressed and marginalized. Much of his executive action is in direct contradiction to the core of Catholic social teaching. In an attempt to follow Jesus’s call into discomfort and to mirror the loving tension he manufactured within the religious institution he called home, I came to see our Ash Wednesday action as not only necessary on a political level, but completely in line with my Catholic identity.

I have also come to see the inevitable anxiousness as not only necessary but also sacramental. While I must be aware of my limits and the reality of unhealthy anxiety, especially in the form of mental illness, I see some level of anxiousness as a gift; a signpost on my journey toward Christian discipleship. An indication that—with God’s help—I can to learn to embrace fear and then to let it go.

We pulled up to the Cathedral of St. Paul during the evening Ash Wednesday service, gathered our equipment, took a deep breath and were off. We ran up the stairs and leaned extension ladders on the two large marble pillars framing the cathedral’s front door. Two Catholic Workers ascended the ladders and hung a large banner reading “Speaking up for unborn lives more than black and brown lives is white supremacy – #silenceissin” across the door, calling on Church hierarchy to condemn racism and xenophobia with as much tenacity and consistency as it does abortion.

banner-cathedral
Banner hung from Cathedral of St. Paul, courtesy of Joe Kruse

After hanging the banner we spent 20 minutes in silent prayer. Several of us engaged with passers by and church goers leaving Mass. We encountered a range of reactions from disdain to joyful support. Eventually, a priest came out with a small group of men. He read the banner, immediately instructed the men to tear it down and quickly moved back inside, choosing not to engage with us. (Check out this time-lapse video of our experience.)

Before leaving we sang a beautiful but haunting rendition of the Kyrie. As the doleful melody rose into the snowy sky, I felt the anxiousness drain from every limb of my body. What replaced it was a confident calm and deep joy. In that brief moment, I felt the fortitude of Dorothy and Dan within me. I let the cold air slowly fill my lungs, breathing out all the tangled thoughts, unraveling the knot in my stomach. The anxiousness died and resurrected, transformed within me. Another deep breath. I was right where God was calling me to be.

Note from the Editor:

Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis Bishop Bernard Hebda makes reference to these events of Ash Wednesday in the March 9 edition of “The Catholic Spirit.” Read it here.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

joe-kruse-jpgJoe Krusea 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.

 

On the corner of 12th Ave. and Jefferson

True story shared by guest blogger Liz  Diedrich

I was happy to see William pull up next to me on his bike. Last I heard he had been stabbed in a fight and I did not know the extent of his injuries. Surprised at the opportunity, I ask him how he was doing. He seems embarrassed about his injuries and the fact he was fighting; he says he was fine but really blows the question off.

I have known William for three years and I have seen him on and off “the wagon” twice as many times. I know he is an alcoholic. I know he finds himself in a lot of fights. I changed the bandages on his gunshot wound a few years ago. We have a good rapport and I feel comfortable teasing him and challenging him.

So I continue to push a bit. I ask about the fights, work, housing and his alcohol addiction. He is not really in the mood to chat so I continue on my walk to work and he starts to peddle away. But then he stops me.

“What is the beginning of 1st John all about?” he asks.

Confused and surprised, I respond, “What William?”

“I was reading my Bible last night, and I was reading John and it did not make sense. I could not sleep because it did not make sense,” he responded quickly.

“William, are you talking about the Book or the Gospel?” I ask, secretly hoping he is asking about the Gospel.

“The Gospel. What is all this talk about the Word, and God, and light about?”

So I sit down. He sets his bike down and sits with me. I pull my Bible out of my bag. And together on the corner of 12th Ave. and Jefferson we have a Bible study. In the part of town where drug dealers, prostitution, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens exist. In the part of town people try to avoid. Here we are sitting on the corner having an impromptu Bible study.

Street signs for 12th Avenue and Jefferson Street

In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

All things came to be through him,

and without him nothing came to be.

What came to be through him was life,

and this light was the light of the human race;

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness has not overcome it.  –John 1:1-5

We talk through each verse. We take each line and individually look at its meaning. We discuss the passage as a whole.

It’s simple. We do not use the word exegesis or talk about homoiousios vs. homoousios. It’s beautiful. Two people are caught in a moment; two people are finding God; two people are drawn together by grace.

“So really, it’s all about Jesus. Jesus and God. And Jesus saved us. And Jesus is still the Light. That’s it?”

 “Yep, William, it really is that simple.”

living simply to build community

You’ve probably heard the saying: “Live simply so others may simply live.”  Different sources credit the phrase to different wise people, like St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa. Either way, it’s a good mantra and the saying totally carries weight.

Lately a new, yet similar saying has been rattling around in my consciousness:  “Live simply so communities can simply survive.”  It’s not as poetic but I think it’s just as true and powerful. Plus, I made it up (I think) so that adds to its awesomeness. Just kidding!

Anyway, in my recent summer adventures I have been encountering this simplicity truth in a variety of ways. It’s not new stuff to me; I think about it lot.  The circumstances of life, however, just really seem to rub my face in my convictions sometimes.

Last week while I was working with the Peacebuilders Initiative I was blessed to accompany a group of teens on their ministry site visits to the White Rose Catholic Worker here in Chicago.  My friends at the White Rose totally seem like ordinary Christians to me. They dumpster dive, grow and preserve their food, give things away freely, advocate for justice, pray a lot, share everything (including their home with strangers)  and compost and recycle all their waste.  Yet, the teens kept talking about this way of life as foreign to them. It was a reminder to me how my preferred way of life (service combined with sustainability mixed into activism, grounded in good Catholic prayer) is actually quite radical.

Sometimes I forget how my vocation and passions have made me into a counter-cultural creature.  The thing is though, my consciousness doesn’t really make it into an option for me, but a necessity. There’s a fire in my belly that burns me right into action. I live the way I do- and am always seeking to increase my sustainability and simplicity- because it seems to me to be the way we need to live.

When the Peacebuilders and I visited my Catholic Worker friends last week, their community did a really terrific job of organizing programming and hands-on actions in order to help the teens gain an foundational understanding about why people choose to live simply as they do.

One day we watched this video together and discussed how environmentalism is intertwined with Gospel living:

The video left me feeling embarrassed for a variety of reasons.  It feels overwhelmingly inevitable that I cooperate with the systemic injustices related to consumerism. I don’t mean to, I don’t want to. I just seems to happen, I’m sorry.  (I feel like a whiner as I confess this sin, blah!)

But then, I know about alternatives to cooperating with the mainstream.  And I try to choose them as much as possible.  Some of the most basic ways to live simply have to do with food.

My friends at the Catholic Worker House took our Peacebuilder group to their organic farm for some good-old-fashioned labor last week and I was overjoyed (seriously!) to be placing composted manure around plants and weeding veggies.  I was also amazed while I heard the teens say that they had never done anything like it before.   Again, I was reminded that it is sort of a radical thing to grow one’s own food now days.

Then, on Tuesday of this week I was was again doing labor and bonding with Earth.  I helped my sister box up veggies from her farm for her CSA business. As we weeded, harvested, packaged and delivered foods to people in her community I couldn’t help but think the whole thing felt sort of silly- we were working so hard to feed people who also had good land to grow food. My sister echoed my thoughts as we drove around (and wasted fuel) and made deliveries.  She said she’d welcome competition and wishes that CSAs were more ordinary, as it is necessary for us to develop community through local economies. In the same way, I prefer that we’d revert to a culture of neighbors creating hand-made crafts and food for each other. The earth seems to be begging for it.

Let’s do it, Christians.  Let’s free ourselves from bills and material abundance, and live simply so that we are closer to the earth and our neighbors. Let’s build community by sharing in the responsibility of sustainability.  Let’s live life to the fullest and love one another.  The bible tells us to, plus our brothers and sisters far and near need us to help build their communities, not harm them.

As my sister, the farmer, said here, eating food (like all simple actions) is something that connects as a community, no matter where live.   So, let’s connect by living simply. God help us, Amen.