Staring At My Pile of Dirt: The cost of growing the kingdom of God in Chicago

I am glad to share this recent post from Daily Theology with all of you. It is written by one of my friends, Dannis Matteson from Catholic Theological Union, who writes from the messy trenches of Gospel living in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago. Let us hold their ministries in prayer and do all we can to support them!

Daily Theology

The reign of God. God’s rule. The household of God. God’s dream for the earth. Basileia tou Theou. The justice of God…

The kingdom of God is the core content of the synoptic gospels. In fact, the kingdom of God appears 122 times in the New Testament. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to participate in building the kingdom of God. But there is always a cost…

A life dedicated to growing the kingdom ensures great adventure, as my husband and I have found. The glamour of giving it all up, living counterculturally, and letting go of socially acceptable life plans, all of which is required when you give your life to building the kingdom, can appear attractive. At the Hope House (1), an intentional community my husband and I have worked to create, along with Molly and Kevin (our core community members), we live each day in anticipation…

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Street violence and holy darkness

This past Monday one of my former students was shot and killed on the streets of Chicago.

Advent is a time of darkness.  Sometimes it is obvious to us that there’s a such thing as holy darkness. And, sometimes the darkness is so cold and heavy that it seems to swallow our hope.

During Advent we are called to open up our lives to the hope that our heartaches make us hungry for.  No matter how overwhelmed or ugly things may seem, we try to resituate our habits and hearts and create time and spaces so Love may arrive and change us.

When the darkness that corrupts our anticipation is because of ugly injustice, we can become tempted to turn away from Truth.  The Truth is that many powerful promises are packed into the waiting within Mary’s womb.

How do we not give into the temptations so that we remain faithful to our trust in Love?  The nativity story teaches us that we can only do this through community.  Together we know that even when life flings the worst at us we need to allow openings as wide as canyons for Christ’s coming.  No chaos ought to cause us to close our minds or hearts to the changes that come from Christ’s presence.  Really wide openings of anticipation and healing hope emerge when we collect as communities and pray, cry, vigil, and serve together.

Only when we’re bonded together can Christ’s peace crack through the din of despair.  That’s why good Advent activity happens in community.

Mensa’s death on Monday was another moment of senseless street violence. No one should ever be killed by another person, but when the victim is a young man full of great energy it’s especially awful. I knew Mensa  from when I served at the now-closed St. Gregory the Great High School in 2008-2009. Then, he was an ordinary teenage boy who was very kind, smiley, helpful and humble– certainly someone who could have helped create more peace on the streets.

Before my former colleagues reached me with the news about Mensa, another sister and I had spent some of Monday night hanging up Christmas decorations. We giggled, climbed on furniture and hung lights and bows in open spaces around the house as cheery Christmas carols blared from the stereo. I had the special privilege of setting up the simple nativity scene on the commode in our dining room.  The nativity scene is the centerpiece of all our decorations, so I tried to arrange it with great care.

In the creche, Mary, Joseph, an angel, and a couple of animals all are focusing their attention on an empty trough.  When Baby Jesus shows up on Christmas Eve, he’ll get tucked right into the little bed that they’re focused on.  Although Mary and Joseph are technically just figurines in the scene, their posture is a great reminder for me of how to wait in holy darkness.

"Advent Nativity" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Advent Nativity” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

They’re together. They’re quiet. They’re very still.  They could get tired from being faithful to allowing an open space for God to be between them.  Yet, they boldly believe that Love will arrive, so they continue to wait.

We all are waiting for Love to arrive and feed our hungry, hurting hearts.  We are together, trying to be quiet and still, no matter the commotion.  We may get tired and overwhelmed by the injustices and suffering, yet we’re trying to allow signs of hope to be seen in the darkness. We’ll light candles and vigil on street corners, we’ll fast outside government buildings and we’ll pray through the night. As we do, we’ll create openings for quiet so Christ can come tell us of light, peace, and joy.

The holy darkness gets cold, especially when someone like Mensa dies.  Yet we’ll keep waiting in silent expectation because we still believe. Even in the darkness, healing happens and hope can arrive. Amen!

a holy man, a graduation, and a NATO protest

Yesterday I met one of my heroes.  Father Louis Vitale is a model peacemaker and Franciscan.  He received an honorary doctorate in ministry from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Fr. Louis’ accomplishments include many actions of non-violent advocacy, education, and much contemplation about the goodness of God.  He has spent two years in jail for actions of non-violent peacemaking plus he helped found Pace e Bene and the Nevada Desert Experience.  Now he is a parish priest in San Francisco.

At the graduation, I was so excited to hear Fr. Louis speak and I had brought my journal and pen in order to take fervent notes.  His acceptance speech was not anything highly academic nor formal though; instead he guided us all in a meditation and celebration of the goodness of God.  He ended his speech by blowing kisses at the crowd and saying “I love you!”  In the end, with a big smile I wrote a simple note:  “Always celebrate the goodness of God!”

Earlier this week, Fr. Louis was on the news explaining what freedom means to him. His statement was part of a story about the awesome social action that my Catholic Worker friends engaged in on Monday at which they bravely proclaimed “NATO Feeds War! Community Feeds People!”  Through bread-breaking, song, prayers, signs, statements, leaflets and presence my friends and fellow Christians asked the leaders of NATO to join them in the works of mercy and stop the works of war.

Clip from Chicago's CBS news re: NATO protesters
Click to watch video

Fr. Louis’ statement about freedom has been rattling in mind since I saw it a few days ago. Then there was something about Fr. Louis’ pure joy and love for Christ and humanity that overflowed at the graduation last night that reminded me of other holy Christians, but from a long time ago.  Certainly, St. Francis would probably be grateful for his courage and witness.  But, I was thinking more about Saints Peter and Paul.

I have been teaching the book of Acts and the life of the early Christian church to my students this week. As I re-read Acts (and hear it proclaimed at mass during this Easter season) I keep feeling excited and amazed.  And, I am challenged.

Do I have the same faith and courage in Jesus that the early Christians did?  Am I willing to lovingly, non-violently proclaim the Gospel in public places, even if it’s really risky? Am I healer, a preacher and a teacher in a way that invites more people to the Christian community?  What would my faith be like if people were plotting to kill me for it and the Christian community was also not accepting me?

All who heard him were astounded and said, “Is not this the man who in Jerusalem ravaged those who call upon this name, and came here expressly to take them back in chains to the chief priests?” But Saul grew all the stronger and confounded [the] Jews who lived in Damascus, proving that this is the Messiah. After a long time had passed, the Jews conspired to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. Now they were keeping watch on the gates day and night so as to kill him, but his disciples took him one night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. When he arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.  Acts 9: 21-26

I am not sure how brave I really am.  I’d like to think that I am willing to share the Gospel no matter what, but I haven’t really ever been persecuted for my faith.

But, I do know that I am inspired and grateful.  I am inspired by those, like Fr. Louis and my Catholic Worker friends, who non-violently, publicly testify that the non-violent, good God and Jesus is more powerful than any other force.   I am so thankful for holy men and women throughout history who boldly said yes to God and Love no matter what the cost!

This weekend, as NATO convenes in Chicago and the fear, tension and excitement escalate, I pray that all people of all faiths can experience the real peace of Christ and be able to celebrate the goodness of God.  Then, we really will graduate to The Way of peace and justice. Yes, let us pray, let us love and let us proclaim the Truth no matter the cost. Amen!

love, peace, Jesus and NATO

When Peter entered, Cornelius met him
and, falling at his feet, paid him homage.
Peter, however, raised him up, saying,
“Get up. I myself am also a human being.”
Then Peter proceeded to speak and said,
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.”   –Acts 10:25-26

Let’s get up and be together; we are all human beings.

We are the people of God.  Really, all people are God’s people and God loves everyone the same.  Not one nation is better than any other. Not one person is better than any other.  We are all called to do what is right and we work to please our God.

What sort of action does it take to be a “nation who fears God and acts uprightly?”

What actions show our reverence for God?  What actions say that we revere how Jesus is living in the dignity of all humanity?

Jesus made it pretty clear how we are are to act:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and your joy might be complete.
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing.
I have called you friends,
because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you
and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,
so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.
This I command you: love one another.”.
   –John 15:9-17

Is there a nation that is ready and willing to be a true friend, one who is ready and willing to lay down their lives the other?

I am aware that many soldiers are willing to lay down their lives for their own nations.  But are there people who are willing to lay down their lives for others, for another nation?  Who are being true, loving friends in the national ways of being?

In 10 days the NATO Summit begins in Chicago.  I am excited that I am here for this historic event as people shall try to confront the powers whose acts are in complete contrast to what is acceptable to God.

I am not sure how I will participate in the actions of the Summit. I feel compelled to say with my love- with my living- that I truly believe that no nation should ever behave as if they are better than another.   After all, we are all human beings and we all deserve to be treated that way.   Presently, I am contemplating what  God is calling me to.  I know, however, that I want to be a friend to people in other nations. I want to behave in ways that are truly acceptable to God. I want to say with all that am that I love my neighbors everywhere and the only power that I really fear is God’s infinite power.

Thanks be to God for those who live the Truth with their way of love.  Thanks be to God for those who inspire me to really love my neighbor and be part of a nation who is willing to lay down its life for other nations.  Creative non-violence says “I’ll live simply so you may live” & “I’ll dialogue with you so we may both be free.”  Alleluia, amen, by the witness of great peacemakers, I am learning!   May we all behave non-violently, in ways that are rightly acceptable to the true, holy Power.

Thanks be to God! Amen!

“peace on the sidewalk, Chicago” by Julia Walsh, FSPA

adventures in the Spirit, part 4

Living by the Spirit that is Truth is not comfortable.  We can feel crammed into corners, we have to give up control, we have to trust others.  Sometimes we are exhausted but still have to keep pushing ourselves.  Our bodies can hurt, but we still have to carry heavy loads and keep moving onward.  When we’re dedicated to God’s Truth-seeking missions, however, it’s all worth it.

The service trip that my students took to Iowa during Holy Week ended on Good Friday.  The meaning of the day hummed in the background of our spirited movement.

Day Five: Crossing Over

Friday.

We have to say goodbye and head down the road.  First, some of the people who helped us have an incredible experience come to say goodbye and see us off.

Just like it was for Jesus on his way to the cross, our journey back to Chicago is full of surprise stops.  Before we get too far away from Gunder, we get to see one more farm.

Farmer Amanda raises chickens, ducks and turkeys and sells the eggs and meat.  We are surprised to learn that some of the eggs we ate earlier in the week were actually duck eggs. And, we enjoy learning how it works to farm poultry and playing with the animals.  Plus, she had a sheep on her farm, so it was fun to get to meet him too!   To me, it seemed like the perfect farm to visit to kick-off Easter weekend.

We say more goodbyes and thank you’s and we continue on down the road.  After a while, we arrive at the Field of Dreams near Dyersville for a visit and a little baseball.

Some of the students are part of our school’s top-rated baseball team, so it was a special thrill for them to see the site.

In the car we pray the stations of the cross together.  We had intended to stop and pray them but we would have arrived in Chicago too late.  That’s one of things about seeking the Truth and following Jesus as we cross over boundaries: we must remain flexible and willing to make-do with the time and resources provided.  The good news is that we can still experience God’s mystery everywhere we go!

We stop again in Dubuque and near Rockford to eat and take a break before we finally arrive back at the school around 6 p.m. It’s Good Friday.  Like Jesus was when he went to the cross, we’re weary, tired and overwhelmed. We have experienced and learned a lot in a brief amount of time.  We have tried to learn the Truth and relate over boundaries. Our reunions with our families are joyous, but our new service-trip family says goodbye to each other with new appreciation and awareness.

After Easter weekend and spring break are over and school is back in session, the students gather in my classroom for a final meeting.  I show them this movie:

And, I ask them what they learned about the Truth during the trip.  I hear:

People are good and people are people no matter where they are and what they do. 

I love Iowa and I want to go back.

Even though people are different than us, they really care about us.

I also ask the students how the experience changed them and helped them grow.  I hear:

I learned service is fun and it’s really nice to help people.

I learned how to communicate better with my family and other people, and the importance of good communication.

I learned to be more grateful for what I have. 

I learned to keep an open mind about people and places that are different than what I know.

Indeed, when we enter into adventures with the Spirit we learn the importance of opening our minds.  With open minds the Spirit shows us Truth, we get to cross boundaries and relate to people who are different then us, and we become changed.

Along the way, we cooperate with God without even realizing it and experience the reign of God come.  Just by us being who we are, the Spirit of Truth does great work.  We are blessed and renewed and the world and Church radiate with fire of God’s glory and goodness. You don’t have to take my word for it:

“The renewal of the Church is … achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us.”Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei

Indeed we are called and indeed we have responded.  By the grace of God, through great adventures in the Spirit, awesome things happen.  Amen, Amen, Alleluia and Thanks be God!

adventures in the Spirit, part 3

A wise priest once helped me understand what Spirit means.  Spirit, he said, is all that relates beyond boundaries.  Our Spirits can transcend time, place and bodily nature to relate to our God, the Great Source.  Jesus said His Spirit would be with us always.  At times, it seems as if the spirits of those who have died are close to us.

And, here and now, in our daily Gospel living, our Spirits can relate across the borders of culture, race, social class and place.  It is the work of service, ministry, and real, messy, Gospel-living to move across borders and interact with those who are different from us.

As our Spirits relate in new environments, we learn the Truth. We gain awareness and compassion.  We become more interconnected and united.  We build the reign of God and become more holistically the body of Christ.

This is the continuation of the story of 11 people moving their spirits across borders and relating to difference.  It’s a great adventure to live in the Spirit.

Day 3: Loving God’s Creation

Wednesday.

We’re beginning to get sleepy from all the fun and activity and it’s a little harder to be ready on time this morning, but we still get up and enjoy another wonderful homemade breakfast served by our hosts.  Afterward, we gather around our painted candles for morning prayer and reflection. We are reminded that we can rejoice, as God loves the poor:

I will praise the name of God in song,
and I will glorify him with thanksgiving:
“See, you lowly ones, and be glad;
you who seek God, may your hearts revive!
For the LORD hears the poor,
and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”   Psalm 69: 31, 33-34

The first place we visit is the Postville office of Northeast Iowa Helping Services.  We are overwhelmed to hear how domestic violence and poverty harms people in rural areas.  We learn how hard it is for victims to leave abusive situations when there are so many dual-roles in small communities.  We have to think about how hard it is to run-away from violence in the country where there is no public transportation and everything is spread far apart.  In the country, there may not be fears of gang-violence, but violence is still damaging lives.

The sad stories of sin sink our spirits and we struggle with learning the Truth.

After an intense start of the day, we venture out to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.  We head to Effigy Mounds National Monument in the river-bluffs by the Mississippi River near Marquette, Iowa.  In the woods we get to contemplate how to respond to injustice in loving ways and have fun learning about Native Americans and nature.

We enjoy a picnic and explore the museum and woods.

The views of the Mississippi River from the bluff tops are remarkable.

We still need to do something to make a difference.  We go to Osborne Nature Center near Elkader.  Before working we get to see some wild animals up close.

Then we help to clear an invasive species, garlic mustard, from the woods to help the natural wildlife thrive.

The next thing we do is attend Bible Study.  We’re nervous and excited about joining the youth group from First Baptist Church in Elgin for their weekly meeting.  After eating pizza and playing get-to-know-you games, we become comfortable with each other even though we seem different.  We pray and contemplate scripture. Then we have a lot of fun playing in the dark on a trampoline with the local Iowa teens.

Back in Gunder, at evening prayer and reflection, I asked the students what the most important things were that they learned that day.  One student said that he learned how important it is to stand up against violence and abuse.  Another said that he learned that the woods can be a lot of fun.  A third said that he learned that there are good people everywhere, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or the color of your skin.

Day 4:  Broken Systems, Breaking Bread

Thursday. Our last full day in Iowa.

We’re getting weary but yet we wake up excited for another day of adventure.  After breakfast, our morning reflection reminds us that it is Holy Thursday.  This night, Jesus gathered with his friends and broke bread and taught about communion.  We pray that we can unite through the brokenness of humanity.

Our first site today is Decorah.  Decorah is interesting because it is the closest major town to Gunder.  It’s 40 minutes away and where you can find the nearest McDonald’s and Wal-Mart.  We are warmly welcomed to the Luther College campus with a presentation, gifts and a tour. We learn that Northeast Iowa was settled by immigrants from Norway and Germany in the 1800’s and that’s why there’s a Norwegian ELCA Lutheran college in this town.

Our excellent host at Luther, Pastor David Vasquez, has arranged for us to enjoy the college’s climbing wall and enjoy lunch in the college cafeteria.

We all feel pretty successful after the experience.

Well fed, we go to help feed the hungry. At the First Lutheran Church food pantry we help unload the truck from the Northeast Iowa Food Bank and learn how the church helps provide food and free health care to people from all over Winneshiek County.

After a break for shopping in downtown Decorah, Pastor Dave helps us reflect about everything we have experienced on our trip.

And, Pastor David grounds us in the stories of God’s people.  We are reminded of Joseph in the Old Testament and how he and his brothers immigrated to Egypt.  We learn about the push and pulls that have caused people to move for centuries.  We hear about horrors of the Postville Immigration raid of 2008 and watch this trailer:

And, we hear how God’s law of Love tells us to work for justice:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.-Exodus 23:9

The Spirit has moved people across many borders.  After the presentation, we learn about the Norwegian Immigrant Experience to the United States in the 1800’s at the Vesterheim Museum.

We are learning about human struggle, but we still enjoy a break at The Whippy Dip before we go to Postville.

In Postville we hear about the horrors of the 2008 Immigration Raid right where it happened. We visit the tiny St. Bridget Catholic Church where hundreds sought refuge during the aftermath of the raid.

We see the meat-packing plant that was once called Agri-processors. In both places, Pastor Dave tells us the true stories about what his friends lived through.

Our Holy Thursday dinner happens around a giant table at the Mexican restaurant in Postville with the stories of brokenness stirring in our spirits.

Afterward, we go to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Elkader for mass and hear how Jesus washed the feet of his friends, pray, break bread, sing songs and feel a little uncomfortable because we really stick out for being different.

Back in Gunder, we try to reflect on all that we learned throughout the day.  One of my student says “What happened in Postville was a really big deal. Why doesn’t everyone know about it?”  

We give thanks for the ways that the others in our group have blessed us throughout the week. Around a fire we are commissioned.  We will return to where we came from, but we’ll keep living by the Spirit.  We shall continue to relate beyond bounds.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of adventures in the Spirit.

Visit here for Part 1 and Part 2.

adventures in the Spirit, part 2

The Spirit of Truth has a lot to teach us when we open our minds and hearts.  No matter what our motivations are, God is alive and hard at work.

God speaks to us through the stories of our lives and through the adventures we live through.  As we move, we do the work of trying to pay attention to God and cooperate with God’s ways.

God’s ways are surprising, just, peaceful, loving, challenging, encouraging, uniting, hard-working, open, holy and adventurous. God’s ways are good.

This is the story of how 10 people from Chicago (8 of my students and another chaperone and his son) went a new way.  They followed God (and me!) to a “foreign land” where the population is small and the skies are wide.  In this foreign land there are few people, a lot of peace and quiet and a lot to learn and do.  This is the the story of the Hales Franciscan High School Service-Learning-Rural-Immersion Trip to Northeast Iowa during Holy Week, April 2-6, 2012.

Day One: Community

Monday.  We finally leave the high school around 9:30 a.m. Our principal prays a blessing over us before we go.  Very quickly we’re forced to get comfortable with each other and be very close together. A 12-passenger van is not as big as it seems.

After about three hours, we finally cross over the Mississippi River and into Dubuque where our first stop in the foreign land of Iowa is to get a simple lunch.  Then it’s time for our first real challenge. We must become a team.  We must unite as community.

Our first great challenge was the Ropes Course at EWALU Bible Camp near Strawberry Point.  We learned how to trust each other, communicate and be encouraging.  We worked together as a team on low-ropes challenges. And we encouraged each other as we climbed up high, took a leap of faith, and flew through the woods on a zip line.

As a new team we went on to Gunder.  Our base for the trip was The Gunder Inn, the bed and breakfast owned and operated by my parents, Kevin and Elsie Walsh.

My parents also own and operate The Irish Shanti , home of the world-famous one pound Gunderburger.

All students tried to eat an entire sandwich and the first one done was one of the skinniest students in the group.

After dinner we played outside.  Students enjoyed football on the lawn, playing ghost in the graveyard in the real dark, under the star-lit sky, and a couple of them even tried driving a tractor!

Before bed we said our prayers, discussed the highs and lows of our day and painted candle holders to represent who we are and how we were to shine our gifts through our experience.

Day Two: Meeting the Stranger

Tuesday.  After a delicious homemade breakfast served by our hosts, we gathered in a circle for morning prayer and reflection. We heard the word of God proclaimed:

“When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem,
to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives,
he sent two of his disciples and said to them,
“Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately on entering it,
you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.
If anyone should say to you,
‘Why are you doing this?’ reply,
‘The Master has need of it
and will send it back here at once.'”
So they went off
and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street,
and they untied it.
Some of the bystanders said to them,
“What are you doing, untying the colt?”
They answered them just as Jesus had told them to,
and they permitted them to do it.
So they brought the colt to Jesus
and put their cloaks over it.
And he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road,
and others spread leafy branches
that they had cut from the fields.
Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out:
“Hosanna!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come!
Hosanna in the highest!”        – Mark 11:1-10

We contemplated how we could respond if someone were to ask us “Why are you doing this?” upon entering their villages.  We thought about what we bring and what “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” could really mean.

We then made a giant diagram and played a game to think about the challenges and experiences of people who live in rural areas.  We thought we were ready to go and meet some strangers in villages and try to bring blessings to their lives.

Our first stop was a visit to Valley Community Schools, in the middle of the country between the towns of Elgin and Clermont.  This is my alma mater.  Now the entire school district- preschool through grade 12- is in one building. Many of the young children stared at my students. I was impressed with how they helped each other through the awkward experience by reminding each other that many people may have never seen black people there before.

Next, we went to Gilbertson’s Park in Elgin for a picnic lunch and a service project.  A couple of us helped the Naturalist build a fence, which was a thrill.  Most of us helped clean mud, sticks and rocks off a paved trail to improve accessability for people with disabilities.  It was hard work on a beautiful day.

From there we went to the Shepherd of the Hills Food Shelf in St. Olaf.  We had fun working together to stock the pantry’s shelves.

We were amazed to learn that all the food put on the shelves would be gone in about a week.  For a county with a small population, that’s pretty fast!

Speaking of food, the next thing we did was learn where some of our food starts.  First, we visited a fish hatchery tucked into the woods along the Turkey River.  If you look closely at this picture you can see the fish swimming in the water.

Then we went to my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm to help with milking chores. For some of us, this was the highlight of the entire trip.

My uncle helped some students milk cows.

And my aunt helped them feed the calves.

One of the calves had been born the morning that we visited and was named after the youngest person in our group.

We also got to have the experiences of playing in a hay mow and jumping in a corn bin.  Before leaving, we learned all about the expensive farm equipment and tried sitting in the machinery.  As we were leaving I heard one of my students say that he was never again going to let people bad talk farmers, as they are some of the hardest working people he has ever met.

Afterward, we played basketball in the town park and had pizza and root beer floats before evening reflection and prayer.  It was a great day!

Stay tuned to hear about the adventures in the Spirit over our next three days!

 

adventures in the Spirit, part 1

I am an urban-educator who grew up in the country.  I often feel like my entire life is a Truth-seeking adventure.

I grew up in Northeast Iowa in a very rural community.  Currently, my parents live in an unincorporated village where the town welcome sign proudly announces 27 residents.  Practically everyone I knew growing up looked and sounded a lot like me (fair skin, light eyes and hair, with a twangy Iowan accent).  I attended public school until I went to college (even though I have always been interested in Christianity) because it was the only option.  I didn’t live a sheltered life, really, but I was actually pretty isolated and protected. The woods, fields and pastures were my playground and I only heard gun shots during hunting season.

Now I live in Chicago-land, a sprawling urban area that has a population of over 9.8 million residents!  I teach at an all boys inner-city, Catholic high school pretty much right-smack in the middle of all the action on Chicago’s south side. Today some of my students were casually talking about how they heard gun shots during their baseball game in the park, in the way that my high school friends would talk about hearing thunder during a game.  “It was all right,” they said. “We got to keep playing because they weren’t too close.”  I am worlds away from where I grew up.

I serve in a culture that is not my own.  This high school is much more lively than mine ever was.  From the elders to the children, there’s a different style than I am used to.  Even though I have been in this community for about three years now, I am still frequently exposed to food, music, art, history and speech that is so foreign to me that it seems a passport should be required.  I have had to adapt my teaching style, my expectations and learn a new way of communicating and making jokes.  Everything is interesting and fascinating, and yet I am constantly self-evaluating to make sure I am not subconsciously behaving paternalistically.  Fortunately, I have been embraced by the community and have experienced success.  I am here to serve and it’s an honor and blessing to be so welcome.

Beloved:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.
In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome,
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
The Spirit is the one that testifies,
and the Spirit is truth.   -1 John 5:1-4, 6

During Holy Week 2012 I went on a Truth-teaching adventure.  Eight of my students, a school colleague, and an urban 10-year-old (a chaperone’s son) and I squeezed into a van and drove five hours to the foreign land where I grew up.  We stayed four days and nights growing as a team through many fun experiences, service-work, reflections, challenges, prayer and communion.  God was up to a lot of good.

When I get to witness the Spirit at Truth at work, I am amazed I am part of it.  I am amazed I get to see God in action.  Observing enlightenment is like watching a flower bloom or a sunrise, a glorious newness emerges so gradually and quietly.

Before my students and I went on the trip, we had meetings to get ready.  At one meeting I made a huge chart on the board that looked something like this:

We  had a very interesting conversation when we tried to fill in the gaps. Before our trip we left the Truth row blank. Finding the Truth was named as one of the trip’s missions.

Jesus was our trip companion.  Although we were in the hills of Northeast Iowa, I tried to keep my Holy Week spirit with Jesus in the streets of Jerusalem.  Jesus is the man who is the best at teaching the Truth!

Like he said: “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” -John 8:31-32

In this blog series, adventures in the Spirit, I’ll write about all the Truth that was taught and learned by my students in Iowa during our Holy Week adventure.

love upon my heart for teens like Trayvon

A teenage boy, Trayvon Martin, was killed a month ago in Florida. Since then his death has heated up the national news and sparked highly emotional questions, comments, protests, prayer, rallies and vigils.  We’re angry, lamenting and mourning.  In our hearts we know something is wrong and we are acting for peace.

Last week a teenage boy (my student’s good friend) was shot in the park near our school.  He was playing basketball on a beautiful sunny day.  Just like Trayvon’s story, there have been no arrests, no explanations, and he isn’t known to have been doing anything wrong.  The innocent victim, 15 years old, died later that night in the hospital.  Unlike the story of Trayvon, no national outrage erupted.  This mindless death happened quietly and has caught little attention.  I can’t find any news stories about what happened and my student casually shared the news with the class.  His casual manner alarmed me but it made total sense to him.  “We’re used to it, Sister,” he said.

It is dangerous to be a teenage boy. It is hard to cope with violence and injustice. It’s not surprising that young people turn numb.

Our school serves all African-American teenage boys, one of the most vulnerable populations in our country. It is one of three schools in the nation founded particularly for that purpose.   My students are teens, just like Trayvon.  They eat skittles and drink ice tea, wear hoodies and talk on their cell phones to girls.  They love playing basketball in the park on beautiful days and avoiding homework.  They’re typical teenage boys.

My students know that they are vulnerable to being misjudged simply because they are black teenage boys.  They have to be careful about where they go and what they do.  They know that their appearance causes people to be suspicious of them for no right reason.  Their parents warn them about this and it is something that they have to learn how to deal with as they become more independent.

My students should not be in danger for being who they are.  No one’s safety should be at risk because of where they are and what they look like.  Even though humanity keeps messing things up, our hearts know that this is not OK.

…For they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.   -Jeremiah 31:32b-34

I love my students dearly. They impress me daily by their brilliance, hard work and strong faith. They have taught me much about the realities of inner-city life, African-American urban culture, hip-hop, sports, slang and social justice.  I have learned about life on the margins from my students and this has brought me closer to Jesus.  My students have taught me new dance moves and beautiful new songs.

It is somewhat ironic that I teach all African-American boys in a big city like Chicago.  I am a white woman from the farming hills of Northeast Iowa.  I don’t think I spoke to a black man until I went to college, only because I didn’t have the opportunity.  I dreamed of being a missionary in Africa when I was a little girl but people kept telling me that I didn’t need to go so far away to do God’s work.  To my surprise I ended up teaching on the south side of Chicago and still feel like I am half a world a way from home. (But I am only a five hours drive away from where I grew up!)

It’s not easy serving in a culture not my own. I don’t always understand the things my students say and do, and they don’t always understand me.  Although the diversity is a challenge, it is more of a blessing.  When we unite across difference in action, learning, and peacemaking we build the kingdom of God.

Next week I will embark on one of the greatest experiments in my career as an educator.  I am leading a service-learning trip to my home.  I will bring eight of my students to Northeast Iowa and they’ll spend a week learning about rural life and social problems by visiting and helping at places like farms, parks, schools and food pantries.  We’ll pray through Holy Week as we journey together.  They’ll get to meet teens who are very different than them and understand more about humanity.

The service trip will be interesting and amazing.  We’re really excited about the inevitable adventures and fun.  I am thrilled and honored to be able to do the work of bridging cultures and opening others to Truth.  I have faith that God will be doing great things in our hearts and we’ll all grow in our knowledge about the law of Love and peace.  God will do the teaching and I’ll get to witness.

It’s true that teenage boys don’t enjoy the same freedoms that I do and they aren’t always safe.   Yet, I have hope.  They’re willing to be brave and go new places to grow in the truth.  Together, all humanity is learning the truth.

The truth is, God’s Law is about love, peace and justice.  God’s law is written on all of our hearts.

This is one of my favorite songs that I learned from my students.

“What if it’s too hard?!”

My students are brilliant.  They endure so much and remain hopeful and faithful.  Prayers of gratitude pour out of them easier than on-time assignments.  Every day I hear praise that God gave them another day.  It’s amazing to me.  But, it shouldn’t be. They’re teenagers and they know they have a life of greatness ahead of them.

In this part of the world there is abundant chaos, confusion and distraction from what is true and right.  Gang warfare, poverty and drug addictions are thick.  We know people who are in jail and people who have been shot.  I shudder at the violence, racism and sexism I have been exposed to around this city.  It seems to me that the common culture tries to convince the youth of today that consumerism, sex, drugs, violence and selfish living are the meaning of life.  The teens are beginning to believe lies:  success is about fame and money and freedom means you aren’t locked up.  It’s an awful, tough world indeed.

Yet, the young come.  No matter that they’re required because they’re in a Catholic school, they still come and are very good.  My students arrive in religion class and argue about whose turn it is to lead prayer because many of them want to do it.  They love to meditate together and have no problem being silent and peaceful.  They listen and work hard.  They ask me tough questions.  Their silliness and playfulness helps me laugh and lighten up.  Their reverence is deep: a hush falls over us as we gaze into the sacred, living words in the Bible.  They want to believe and understand.

In my classroom I preach a lot. I preach that God is good and God is with us.  My students seem to be convinced that they have dignity and they are children of God.  The struggles begin when I start to talk about action.  I preach a lot about how we are called to treat all people in a way that honors their dignity, so they also know they are children of God.  Because we are Christian, I say, we must be different. We must act differently. We must live and love differently.  We really can’t fit into the popular ways of the world, because the world’s ways don’t fit with God’s ways.  We need to act like we believe that Love is the most powerful force in the world.

This week I’ve been teaching about forgiveness. I explained that because we are children of God, we are supposed to forgive like our loving Parent does.  I said that when we wonder how to forgive we can look at Jesus on the cross and see that it takes great sacrifice. I asked them that if we believe it, then what are we supposed to do?  In a world where pride, grudges and even violent retribution is as normal as nonsense, how can we act like children of God?

"cluttered stations" Art by Julia Walsh, FSPA

We read God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu last semester and we remember that it’s up to us to help God’s dreams come true. Tutu has a lot to say of smart things to say about forgiveness:

I keep challenging my students (and therefore, myself!) Their exam essay question asked “what attitudes and actions could you take to help create a society that values forgiveness more than retribution?”

One student raised his hand and said “Sister, what am I supposed to say if I really don’t think it’s possible?”  I said that just this one time, I’ll give a hint about what he could write about.  The first step might be to try to have faith.

Faith isn’t easy in this messy world.  I understand that the world is not sending the same message of God’s goodness and might plus there’s a lot of evidence pointing to other ideas.  I understand that Jesus is asking a lot of his followers.  So, when I preach about the real, un-cozy and uncomfortable challenges of living the Gospel the reactions I hear make a lot sense:

“What if I don’t agree with the Ways of Jesus?”

“How am I supposed to believe this?”

“How can I possibly do this?!”

“Sister, what if it’s just too hard?!”

In my witty way, I tell them that they can take it up with Jesus. I gesture at the cross and tell them that I blame God that it’s so tough.  We can complain but we don’t need to give up.  Jesus made it simple, but not easy, so let’s take it up with him.  “Sit down with Jesus,”  I say, “and have a little chat.  Ask him for some help and grace and understanding.  Let him know how you really feel about it all.  If you really want to believe and be a follower I’m pretty sure God will help you.  You might be surprised.”

I sure hope I am right. I hope they’ll be surprised by the graces God gives and how they’ll be able to do great things with God’s help.   I hope that as my students mature they’ll discover that Jesus’ Way is the best there is.  I hope that it can be the only Way we’ll know.