Preaching the Gospel for the first time … again

kids-listening
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I sat down in front of 15 pre-K students for our bi-weekly Bible story time, expecting more or less to follow our routine. Every Wednesday and Friday I join them for a 15-minute story session, telling toddler-friendly versions of Sunday’s scripture or the classic Bible stories that adults clean up and present to young children: Adam and Eve, Noah, Daniel and the lions’ den and the rest. After the story I field questions for a few minutes (I’m most often asked whether or not I think someone’s new shoes were cool), end with a prayer and head back up to my office to prepare for my afternoon lessons with the older kids.

But this day we did not follow our routine. This day was Good Friday, and I had brought for them a story called “A Very Sad Day” which, albeit in simple terms, described Jesus’ crucifixion. It concluded, “So the soldiers took Jesus away. They nailed him on a wooden cross and left him to die. Jesus’ family and friends were very sad. They had lost a very special person.” I closed the story and waited for questions. There were none. That should have told me that something was off … they always had questions. But I didn’t notice. Maybe it was the routine; maybe it was the hunger from fasting that day; maybe it was just the inexperience of being a first-year educator. Nonetheless, I didn’t notice the lack of questions or the looks on their faces.

I went back to my office and began to prep for the afternoon. After about 10 minutes I got a phone call. “Hello, Mr. Steven. Hi, its Mrs. C., in the pre-K room. Could you come back, please? Something is … not right. Please come down. Right away.” I went right away.

When I arrived, the class was in pandemonium. One kid was at the sand center, just dumping sand on the floor. One kid was punching a wall. Two kids were on the floor, hugging each other and crying. Another was spinning in a circle. Another was ripping up paper from his notebook. They all looked upset. I turned to Mrs. C. with a quizzical what-in-the-world face. And she looked at me and said, “They’re really upset. About Jesus.”

I gathered the kids on the story carpet, and started asking what they were feeling.

The chorus of tiny voices responded “Mad. Sad. Why?”

I struggled to understand what exactly was going on. “I don’t understand. Our stories have had death in them before. You know what death is. We had that whole conversation when Charlie’s grandpa died.”

“This is different.”

“Why?”

“Because Jesus is the best. It’s not fair. He didn’t do anything. He’s the best.”

“The best at what? Tell me what you mean?”

“He’s the best.”

“But,” I continue, “is this a surprise? You guys come to Mass. Haven’t you heard the parts at the end about when this happens?”

They blink, uncomprehending. I guess not.

“But I know we’ve talked about this before. I mean, look, there, that crucifix on the back of the wall. That’s a statue of Jesus. Did you not know that statue was about this story?”

“That’s Jesus!!” one little girl screamed. The tiny voices descended into a clamor of shock and outrage.

I felt myself losing control of the situation so I quickly interrupted them all. “Well, wait … wait. If you haven’t heard this story before then you haven’t heard the next one either! Do you know what happened next?”

They sat in quiet and skepticism before asking the question “No … what happens next?”

“Wait here!” I leaped up, gave a nod to Mrs. C. and sprinted, as fast as I could, faster than I thought I could, up the stairs to my office. I grabbed the toddler Bible and headed back down, faster still. I didn’t want to keep them waiting, not another second. Another teacher saw me running and asked where the fire was. “Christ is Risen!” I yelled over my shoulder, and plummeted back into the room.

disciples-running
“The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection” by Eugene Burnand (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I sat back down in front of the kids. “This is the story of the first Easter. Jesus’ friends buried him in a cave. They rolled a huge stone across the doorway. But when they came back, the stone had been rolled away …” When the story ended they clapped. They cheered. Several pairs hugged each other. One started crying in relief. It was like watching a tiny team of NASA scientists pull of a moon landing.

When I finally I walked back up to my office, I lowered myself into my chair and started to think. When was the last time this story had affected me like that? When had it stopped affecting me like that? How had I become someone who not only didn’t see this story for what it was — the greatest possible tragedy, the boldest possible comeback but I had become so accustomed I couldn’t foresee how it would sound to new listeners. All year I had told these young students many from non-Catholic homes, many who had never heard these stories except from my telling that Jesus was their friend, that he was the best possible man, that he was the nicest possible person. And then I had killed him, without warning, and I didn’t expect them to react?

“I’m sorry God. I’ve stood too close to you for too long and have become careless in your presence. I’m living next to a waterfall, and I’ve ceased to hear the sound. Help me hear again.”

We live in a world, in a nation, in a culture, where many have not heard the stories of Jesus. This is true even within the church. In my religious education classes it is not uncommon to have high school students who can barely relate to any stories from the Gospel. This can be frustrating at times. But it’s also an opportunity — an opportunity only missionaries get. We get to tell the story of Jesus to listeners for the first time.

Just last week I was with 10 high school students in religious education, and none of them had heard the story of the woman caught in adultery.

“You’ve never heard this story? It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. Here it is. So, these religious scholars, right, they think they’re holier than everyone else. And they don’t like Jesus taking that away from them. So they lay this trap for him. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery …”

At the end of the story, they are silent. “Jesus did that?” one asked.

“Yes, Jesus did that,” I said.

“But that’s so … so … cool?” questioned another.

“Yes,” I said. “He is. Very. He did stuff like that all the time. Is it any wonder so many of us love him?”

“Tell us another one!” a third student said.

To explain these stories to listeners for the first time can be a challenge. It can be especially frustrating when dealing with Catholic students, to think they’ve made it through 10 or more years of life and not understand the basic story that underpins the faith of the church of which they are a member. But mostly it’s a privilege. To explain to people why you fell in love why you are in love with the God who saved you? There is no greater honor nor is there a greater delight.

But you have to be careful. You have to be sure that you don’t stop hearing them. Because if you do, if you cease to hear the story in the re-telling, then the love goes out of your voice, and it’s not the same story any more. Then you can get blindsided when you hurt people with your careless retelling or, worse yet, you bore them. Then you fail to do justice to the story and thereby to the man and the God.

So my Lenten prayer for you is that you are able to hear Jesus’ story for the first time … again. There truly is no more powerful story in heaven or on Earth, if only we have the ears to hear it.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

 

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. 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, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

I fasted on only bread and juice for Lent. This is what I learned.

My stomach felt like an empty pit. There could not possibly have been anything left in the tank. I had already been on the toilet for 10 minutes, but I had not built up enough confidence to walk away. Diarrhea for reasons beyond our control is bad enough. This time it was, I admit, completely self-inflicted.

A few days earlier, I had started a bread-and-juice fast for the season of Lent. Three times a day, at normal meal times, I had a simple piece of bread (preferably multigrain, as my body begged for nutrients) and a glass of fruit juice. I was also drinking lots of water, and it was going straight through me. Fasting always sounds like a brilliant idea before… [This is the beginning of an essay recently published by America. Continue reading here.]

Photo credit: Kamil Szumotalski on Unsplash

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Luke Hansen, SJ

Luke-Hansen-SJOriginally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. He now is studying in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. (Photo credit: www.jesuits.org)

As dust

Oh God, who desire not the death of sinners,
but their conversion,
mercifully hear our prayers
and in your kindness be pleased to bless these ashes,
which we intend to receive upon our heads,
that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes shall return to dust,
may, through a steadfast observance of Lent,
gain pardon for sins and newness of life
after the likeness of your Risen Son.
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
(Prayer for Blessing and Distribution of Ashes)

photo credit: Justin Luebke, Unsplash.com

As dust

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

within
the largeness
of God
dust, I am
we all are
tiny

a fragment of a larger whole
floating through the open air
only visible to the naked eye
when illumined by light

some days I am
certain I was once
a piece of His flesh
and now I am floating
trying to reunite
with my maker
my true home

most days I am
like a fragment
of an ignored
broken seashell
or sofa
or sweater
of carpet
or crumb of
neglected
leftovers

yet the grace
and beauty–
the dust of me,
of us all
is an offering
able to unite
to give life

as dust
blessed
broken
shared:
the common
mystery
communion
community–
may this true love
be

 

Learning to abide in care

“I have a home here because I know people care for me.” These are the words of my friend and housemate, Tikelah, also known as Miss T. Miss T had a home with her grandma as a young child. Since the age of 10, she has been jumping around from temporary house to life on the streets of Durham to a whole slew of group homes, desperately searching for a place of care to call home.

I have the gift of making a home at the Corner House along with Miss T and six others. We are a strange sort of family, rooted in our belonging in Jesus, committed to learning how to love and care for one another. Our ages range from 2 to 67. Some of us live with developmental disabilities, and some of us do not. All of us are bearers of Christ to one another and gift-givers in our little shared life.

What does it mean to be a community of care? How can we deepen in our care for one another in a world so caught up in efficiency and the self-protection of individualism? These are the current questions of my heart.

It is significant to me that the origin of the word “care” comes from Germanic and Old English words for “grieve” and “lament.” To be in a community of care has something to do with bearing one another’s burdens and crying out alongside one another. A community of care shares a togetherness in suffering. This is the kind of community to which Paul gestures when he says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn,” (Romans 12:15) and “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” (Galatians 6:2).

I used to live in a Catholic Worker hospitality home committed to sharing daily life with some folks living on the streets in Durham. We would often repeat to one another, “abide, don’t fix.” I know well the impulse to see a problem or pain and immediately yearn to fix it, eliminate it or somehow make it better. We live in a world that is quick to celebrate cures and explanations, so often abstracted from the solidarity of relational care. This leads to all sorts of depersonalized policies and “solutions” for injustices that separate us, including such things as race, disability and poverty. A community of care is one in which being together is paramount. Something happens when that commitment to “be together” journeys through pain. The communion is transfigured and a new horizon of love opens up.

In our home, we have three residents who have lost their mothers and other close family members in the last several years. The sadness of these losses remains strong. Almost every single day, the grief bubbles up. We are learning the surprising gift of abiding. Even with the intimacy and intensity of our life together, the lurking traps of trying to avoid the pain or say something to make it all better (which isn’t actually possible) are present. We so badly want to take away the pain of those we love. There is such a temptation in the midst of relational care and responsibility to think we control the quality of life together through doing or saying the right thing. Praise God we aren’t in control. We are learning the beauty of releasement as we sit together and discover our own capacities to listen to one another. We are uncovering the vast depths of love and knowing that emerge from open-handed, steadfast presence with one another. It can actually be quite surprising what we learn of each other and ourselves and God when we stop trying to fix the hurt we see.

I wonder how contemplative practice might orient us to abide, rather than fix, in our care for one another? As we discover our own depths and become more aware of God’s direct, loving, active presence in our lives, we come face to face with our own wounds. In silent practice, in particular, we are confronted with our personal loneliness, fears and anxieties. Through a commitment to showing up to some form of contemplation–resting in the God who is the ground of our being–our relationship with these deep wounds shifts. Perhaps the control they once wielded over our patterns of behavior and thought life softens and we can see them for what they are. We can receive Jesus’ invitation into freedom.

“Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, wounds, failure, disgrace, death itself all have a hidden potential for revealing our deepest ground in God. Our wounds bear the perfumed trace of divine presence.” – Martin Laird, “Into the Silent Land”

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Art by Janice Little.

As we come to recognize in our our pain the “perfumed trace” of God’s transformative presence, our relationship with others and their own pains is changed. We begin to see the nonsense in fixing, and the beauty of abiding. And within abiding, there is room for deepening, always closer and closer, drawn into the merciful heart of Jesus. Whatever the journey of becoming more freely and fully who we are created to be entails, we are invited into it together, as a community that enters into pain before trying to do something about it. This is the slow, patient work of care.

The root of our care is God’s care for us. In the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, God reveals the mysterious depths of care. In Jesus, God became a human being and identified with our human woundedness. God cried out with us and entered into our pain and loneliness and fear. God doesn’t know what it is to “fix” from a distance or to be absent from our pains. God is too simple for that. In Christ, we discover care in God’s steadfast, abiding nearness, transforming the blockages of sin into doorways for new life.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

woman-man-holding-baby

Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia recently met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.

Outsiders help the church grow

The 2015 movie Spotlight shows the painful and vital role of the outsider in exposing the systemic sex abuse perpetrated by clergy throughout Boston, and the U.S. Key outsiders, including the Jewish editor of the Boston Globe, the Armenian attorney representing survivors of abuse, and, most importantly, the survivors themselves, unlocked this horrific cover-up.

One of the most telling scenes in the film is when abuse survivor Phil Saviano tells his story of abuse to the Spotlight reporters at the Boston Globe. One of the reporters notes that he seems eccentric, too passionate and perhaps unstable.

Of course he was. He was abused, traumatized by a priest. He understands the church in a way an insider, who benefits from the system, never will.

The implication in Spotlight, is that Phil may be an unreliable source because his demeanor is not that of a slick communications professional or soft-spoken pastor. And more importantly, his story went against the dominant narrative of the church in Boston. It is just so easy to dismiss someone who has no power, who goes against the grain of an institution from which so many not only personally benefit, but identify with on a core level.

This week, Pope Francis will convene a 4-day summit with bishops from throughout the world on the sex abuse crisis that continues to traumatize Catholics.

On matters of official church teaching, the all-male hierarchy has the final say. This suggests a power imbalance. And as with all power imbalances, the question of whose voice is legitimized in dialogue should be raised. Who do we believe, in the church and in society? Whose voices matter? And why?

Throughout church history, it is often an outsider whose voice is most genuine and prophetic, and who sparks change. This is because outsiders often hold little to no power, and can truly understand corrupt and unequal structures. Outsiders, due to their vantage point, are a gift, and should be embraced by all who want a more just church and world.

I recently wrote a piece about Roy Bourgeois in the Patheo’s blog Sick Pilgrim, which I hope creates dialogue about the roles of outsiders and women in the church. Roy was a founder of SOA Watch, an incredible movement for demilitarization and anti-imperialism, for which he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The movement was widely supported by many Catholics. Then, after 40 years of practicing as a priest, Roy was excommunicated from the church because he refused to recant his support for women’s ordination.

author interviews Roy Bourgeois
The author, Sophie Vodvarka, interviewing Roy Bourgeois at the SOA Watch 2016 Encuentro in Nogales AZ/Mexico.

Remarkably, Roy became an outsider due to following his conscience before he was excommunicated, but, as I write in this article, his understanding of the church became much clearer after being emphatically pushed out.

Roy was silenced. His voice was not welcome because it threatened the power of the all-male clergy, challenged the dominant narrative, and suggested that women could help heal the church. And for many of his previous supporters, this was enough to ignore him. The Vatican legitimized his ostracism, and if you personally benefit from the institutional church, then it removed the burden of having to bother with women’s inequality anymore.

I think it is nearly impossible for most people to understand the full picture of an institution from which they benefit, whether it is their job, their social life or their vows. This is why outsiders are a vital asset to all groups and societies. History always shows us that it is outsiders who bravely step into the public sphere, shine light on the truth and guide our way forward.

As the discussion of systemic abuse continues this week at the Vatican, let’s pray for outsiders, for whom we are all indebted. It is through their courageous lives and the grace of God that institutional culture changes. Let’s pray for their strength to turn pain and betrayal into action. For it is only through action that they, too, can be free.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

franciscan-sisters-sophie-vodvarka
Sophie Vodvarka

Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.

Beyond lonely scrolling

photo credit: unsplash.com

Sitting alone in a living room on a dark winter night, I am staring at a screen once again. With a TV buzzing in the background, I scroll down through tragic headlines, past photos of smiling babies and occasional political rants. The warmth of the laptop upon my legs and its glow across my face create a cozy feeling perfect for a winter night.

Then, I notice the status update of an acquaintance from years ago; a little cry for help that sends a ripple of worry through me: Been feeling lonely and wanna meet some people. You guys have any ideas?

In the Gospel of Mark, there is a story about the movement of Jesus’ heart: In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat, Jesus summoned the disciples and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and having nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way …”  (Mark 8:1-3)

Today, two millennia later, the great crowds are online. Now, we rarely sit on hillsides and absorb the wisdom of prophets and teachers. Instead, we stare at screens and connect virtually. We often ignore those who are in the same room or neighborhood. Instead, we share and retweet the insights of like-minded friends living in other time zones.

By each act, our needs and desperation glare out at us, reflecting back at us like images in mirrors. In the gap between these flat surfaces and real-time — lived human experiences — we meet our longings for intimacy and connection; for closeness with others, God, and our true selves.

I am fascinated by how technology influences our processes of building relationships with one another today. I am especially curious about how the changes impact the way we serve, love, share and care for others. With more ways for us to connect, are our communities stronger? Healthier? How are we living out the Christian call to create inclusive communities and care for one another? Does our modern tendency to connect more through screens and devices than through human contact, touch, influence our spiritual health?

The Incarnation — God taking on human flesh — insists that our human bodies are holy, sacred. Sitting around tables and sharing bread and wine is sacramental. Praying side-by-side and sharing air and space is communion on holy ground. We are made to be together, united as one.

Yet, we often are not. In fact, there is a rise in the number of people who are considered lonely. To give you a sense of just how alone we feel, in the 1980s, 20 percent of adults were chronically lonely; a 2010 study told us that 35 percent of people over 45 are now chronically lonely. It’s even more grim for millennials. As noted in Stop Being Lonely by Kira Asatryan, “nearly 60 percent of those aged 18 to 34 questioned spoke of feeling lonely often or sometimes, compared to 35 percent of those aged over 55.” (p 28).

And, it turns out that loneliness is slowly killing us. If you are chronically lonely, your blood pressure increases, your immune responses decrease, and you are likely to gain excess weight and suffer from insomnia, headaches and anxiety. Researchers tell us that chronic loneliness increases mortality by as much as 26 percent. It is such a serious public health problem that a year ago the UK appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

We are social animals, we are meant for each other. We are called to be in community. It’s actually all science, as the research of John Cacioppo highlights.

So, what are we supposed to do? I’m not sure. I am still learning, making my way forward into serving and living in this mess. But I am certain that we are called to build connections, community.

It comes down to this: we all need to have strong connections to exist and be healthy. This is the way God designed it; nature helps us know it. Actually, scientists theorize that loneliness has a biological function; it is an innate drive that works to help our species survive. The emotions and symptoms of loneliness exist to motivate us to reach out, to get closer to the tribe … the community.

Been feeling lonely and wanna meet some people. You guys have any ideas?

My scrolling pauses and I contemplate how to respond compassionately, kindly. I know that responding to the needs of others expressed online doesn’t have the same effect as responding in-person or over the phone, that whatever words I might type could go ignored or unread.

Yet, I feel compelled to serve and care. Is this pity? Like Jesus, when he looks upon the hungry crowd?

I recognize the scale and scope are vastly different, but the question remains: how do we respond to an expressed need? What is helpful, appropriate, meaningful, real? In seconds, I settle on an action and type “Have you ever considered trying MeetUp.com to see if there’s a group in your area that you’d like to join?”

My heart sinks some and prays a bit of blessing and hope for that person. I feel uncertain about what I’ve done; unsure whether it was enough, if it really made a difference at all. It’s hard to know what’s the compassionate, Christian way to act in this modern, technology-infused world.

I return to scrolling, reading. I don’t ever follow up to see if the person is feeling better. And I don’t feel any better, either.

Serving up accountability this holiday season

Thanksgiving in the United States is often a time to come together with family, friends and whomever else we call community.

My favorite memories of Thanksgiving are around the table sharing food, memories full of warmth, comfort and a feeling of belonging.

But as I grew up, I also learned about the real history behind Thanksgiving; a terrible history, far removed from the supposed “reenactment” of a generous meal shared between settlers and indigenous people who I was taught to participate in as a kid in my Catholic elementary school.

And now that I know that Thanksgiving, in fact, recalls the meals that celebrated massacres of indigenous people, I cannot “un-know” that history — a settler society built the United States on genocide.

For us white folks only recently opening our eyes to the genocide, racism and oppression that founded the United States, it is only reasonable to ask, now what do I do?

One important response is to start focusing on accountability.

For the past five years I have facilitated a series of formation sessions dealing with issues of power and privilege for Franciscan Mission Service, a lay Catholic organization that prepares and supports lay missioners living and serving in solidarity in host countries outside of the United States.

And each year as I help prepare (mostly white) Franciscan missioners to live and serve in communities across cultural and racial differences, we talk about how vital it is for white folks to not only recognize and process our feelings of guilt when addressing the violence of racism and white supremacy, but also to move with that guilt into a focus on accountability

people-dinner-table-community-is-built-on-accountability
Original art by Annemarie Barrett

Accountability is a step beyond apologizing, a leap beyond feeling guilty.

It is pretty basic on a personal level: when someone hurts me I expect their apology, but that apology means nothing without accountability.

Accountability means that the person who hurt me not only apologizes for the harm caused but also makes a demonstrable commitment to change, to act and do differently from now on.

So for white Catholic folks who believe in Gospel values of social justice, inclusion and radical conversion, what if we treated this Thanksgiving as an opportunity to practice accountability?

Now that you know that the Thanksgiving holiday is not celebrating what you had been taught, how does your faith call you to respond? How might your conscience move you?

As white folks whose privilege and power was built on the genocide of indigenous peoples, what might practicing accountability mean for us on an individual, communal and even national level?

How might you move with your guilt into making concrete changes in what you do and how you act this upcoming holiday season? How might you choose to educate yourself further about this history? How might you share what you are learning and open conversations with other white folks about these challenging topics?

What might accountability mean at the level of the Catholic church?

While the Catholic church has in some circumstances recognized and publicly apologized for generations of sexual abuse in indigenous communities and Catholic boarding schools, what would it mean to move beyond apologies and focus more on accountability? What structural changes would need to be made? How might power dynamics necessarily change? What could you do to affect that change?

This holiday season is just a place to start. For white people, reflecting on accountability can become a part of a daily spiritual practice. We are invited to ask ourselves, how are we accountable to those most marginalized among us? How are we accountable to the immigrants, the refugees, the asylum seekers and the communities of color across our country surviving the terrors of police violence?

Now that we know, we cannot un-know our collective history. But, we can choose to humbly listen to marginalized experiences, actively educate ourselves to combat our ignorance, and courageously challenge our privilege and power in order to grow.

We can choose to confront the weak and problematic foundations of our communities and invest in radical change in order to rebuild on a stronger foundation of trust and accountability.

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.

 

Sisterly solidarity, crisis in Cameroon

Beheaded bodies lying in the streets. Stray dogs and pigs picking at human corpses on the roadside. Vibrant communities silenced and still, everyone indoors, too afraid to go to school or to the market. Roadblocks stopping travel, isolating entire villages. A pregnant woman delivers a baby who doesn’t survive because they can’t get to the hospital. Food rots because no one can travel and farmers can’t transport their harvests, and survivors of violence become increasingly malnourished, moving toward starvation.

These scenes may sound like snippets from a nightmare, but for Anglophones in Cameroon, these are the current facts of life. I gleaned those descriptions listed from an email forwarded to my inbox a couple weeks ago, written by a Cameroonian to a friend of my community, a philanthropist in Wisconsin. The writer was lucky to be able to send the message to his friend in Wisconsin; the Cameroonian government has blocked the internet in the Anglophone region frequently in recent months. The writer is lucky to be alive.

Cameroon, a nation in West Africa, is about 80 percent French speaking and 20 percent English speaking. Late in 2016, students and professionals such as educators and lawyers in the Anglophone region began to protest the Francophone majority, declaring that they were being treated like second-class citizens. In response to their protests, the Cameroonian government… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

With my 2015 Global Local Group

Breaking down the walls because ‘tú eras mi otra yo’

I once stood near the United States-Mexico border. In the journey to this edge, I witnessed the evidence of militarization: guns, checkpoints, armored vehicles, cameras. The steel fence rose from the sandy earth like a misplaced mountain. I felt my body tense from the feeling of surveillance. I felt the unease and sorrow that seemed to hover in the dry desert air.

This was a little over two years ago, when I visited Nogales, Arizona/Nogales, Mexico as a participant in the 2016 Border Convergence. In the shadow of the giant steel fence, I prayed and protested along with other Catholic Sisters and members of Giving Voice.

With other Giving Voice Sisters at the SOAW Border Convergence, Oct. 2016, Nogales, Arizona. I am the fourth Catholic Sister from the left in the photo.

Since that time much has happened in my life, including earning a MA in pastoral studies from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. At my graduation last May, I loved hearing this speech from one of the recipients of an honorary degree: Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas from El Paso, Texas, a pastor, educator, theologian, advocate for migrants and refugees and founder of the Tepeyac Institute.

In his speech, Msgr. Bañuelas centered his comments around the meaning of the Spanish phrase he learned from his grandmother: “tú eras mi otra yo” or “you are my other me.”  According to Bañuelas, when we see our humanity wrapped up in the being of others, we see how “walls between us threaten our sacred bounds” because “oneness with each other is oneness with God.”

As I understand it, a community of any type cannot know oneness if those who are poor and marginalized are not included, honored, respected. We come to know God and ourselves through the poor. In Bañuelas,’ words, “there is no conversion to God if there is no conversion to the poor. Through their eyes we see what Jesus sees, a life rich in beauty, value, and meaning.”

Since my graduation in May, Bañuelas,’ words have remained a steady challenge to me. I often ponder if my life is being converted more to the poor; if they are my center and path to knowing God more deeply. I think about during my visits to the county jail. I think about it during my drives around rural America. As a retreat minister, I often wonder how I’m going to help others know the sacredness of the other. I also consider the Christian call when I observe the divides in society, the collapse of connections over political aisles and the evidence that even the ecosystems are feeling the torment of conflict. How can we build more inclusive societies? How can we tend to the most vulnerable among us?

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I stood in front of a group of teens preparing for confirmation in the Catholic Church. I read this aloud:

“In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people.” – Pope Francis (Gaudete et Exultanteparagraph #6)

In other words, not only is our humanity bound up in one other but our salvation is too. If we are divided and not caring for one another across borders and divides, none of us will be able to experience the fullness of God’s reign. We are a Church, a people, a community only as strong as the most marginal and weak among us. This is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. This is the stuff of South African spirituality called Ubuntu, which means “I am who I am because of who we all are” and “I am a person because I belong.”  It’s “tú eras mi otra yo” put another way.

Visiting each side of the border two years ago with my peers, I encountered the sacredness of a community and the goodness of God’s creation. The heat of the sun and the desert life growing in abundance testified to the truth that God did not create borders. God created the beauty of humanity, the glories of nature. And humanity and nature is all communal, like God, the Trinity.

God’s has designed us for unity, communion, community; we cannot be made whole if knowing one another demands crossing through splits and divides, if we must conquer walls and fences in order to bond as neighbors.

Building unity demands tearing down the walls and advocating for justice. As Bañuelas says, “tú eras mi otra yo” means “Our hearts and our lives shrivel when remain silent about the silence of others.” And, “tú eras mi otra yo” … “is the lived courageous hope not afraid to take a stand for justice, knowing that each stand removes a brick from injustice until it all comes tumbling down … because love always wins.”

Now is the time to cross the canyons split into our civility. Breaking down the walls will strengthen our society. We need each other because we are human, because we are the people of God.

With the walls down, let us look into the face of the poor and come to see God — doing so means better knowing ourselves, because “tú eras mi otra yo.” And it means, wonderfully, that we will not be the same.

“There is an innate part of God in each of us that needs to be honored and respected always. When we listen with our hearts and share in solidarity with the sufferings, the struggles the hopes and dreams of the poor, our lives are shaped anew. Our theology and ministry formation finds its deepest meaning. Our passion for living explodes into shouts of joy and a new person, a new humanity is born. The poor show us that when we are together as one we are invincible in justice, peace, hope and reconciliation.”  – Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas  (Catholic Theological Union graduation, 2018.)

Changed hearts and lives, strengthened communities and Church, with the walls broken down there will be no more borders to visit or neighbors to fear. We are closer to God and encounter all people seeing clearly that “tú eras mi otra yo.”

Credit: SOA Watch

YOU ARE INVITED TO THE 2018 SOAW BORDER CONVERGENCE

The third mobilization at the border in Nogales, Arizona/Sonora Mexico is Nov. 16-18, 2018!

“Our move to the border responds to the present-day call to solidarity in Latin America. The mobilization at the border in Nogales is one more way to fight for the closure of the School of the Americas/WHINSEC and an end to U.S. intervention in Latin America. The third bi-national Encuentro at the militarized U.S./Mexico border aims to build the grassroots power necessary to challenge the racist statutes quo and push back against U.S. intervention in Latin America.”

Details are here: http://www.soaw.org/border/

A persecuted Church: Images of the Body of Christ in “Romero”

Blessed Oscar Romero will be canonized a saint in Rome this coming Sunday, October 14th. You can view the live Canonization Mass on EWTN starting at 3:30 a.m. ET or again at noon. In honor of the upcoming celebration, I offer you a review of the film about the last three years of his life that I wrote as part of my coursework at Catholic Theological Union.

Saint Oscar Romero, pray for us!

When I taught high school, a poster hung in my classroom that read, “Stand up for what’s right even if you’re standing alone.” To my theology students, the poster presented a message about the cost of discipleship; Jesus and his early followers were persecuted for standing up for justice, and through the centuries Christians have been persecuted for living the Gospel.

For three years (1977-1980), Oscar Romero served as archbishop in El Salvador. By his courageous leadership, all people in El Salvador — no matter if they were rich or poor, powerful or oppressed — were challenged to unite together as one body of Christ, as a stronger Church, more focused on the mission of Christ. He confronted systemic injustice, challenged the status quo, and stood along with the poor and oppressed. In the end, his courage caused martyrdom for Archbishop Romero. The true story is a reminder for us all that the cost of being Church can be persecution.

Credit: Franciscanmedia.org

A FILM OF TRUTH AND PAIN

The courage and Christ-like love of the archbishop during his poignant and brief period of leadership is captured in a 1989 film that bears his name, Romero. In addition to telling the tale of Romero’s leadership, Romero says much about ecclesiology through images of the Church as a Persecuted Body of Christ. A major theme of the film Romero is a contextual presentation of a definition of Church; as we see people unite together as the Body of Christ and build the Kingdom of God, the people come to embody the persecuted Christ.

Viewing Romero stirred up deep emotions in me. It felt like an act of prayer to journey with the Salvadorian people, and I became deeply saddened by the truth of their suffering. I remembered my experience protesting at the School of Americas in Georgia; I felt shame to know that my country was on the side of the oppressors in this conflict. Additionally, I became curious about the authenticity of the Romero quotes and the historical accuracy of the film.

I viewed the film in light of my reading and learning in an ecclesiology course at Catholic Theological Union. I was stunned to realize how highly theological the film Romero is and what it says about the global Church in the Post-Vatican II era. I noticed that the film featured several local “non-actors” which served to emphasize the ways in which the poor are the people of God who make up the Church. With this in mind, the faces of the ordinary people became strikingly beautiful as I watched. I realized the meaning was presented through the film’s strategic design of layering the pictures of the people with the sound of Romero’s speeches. The juxtaposition of my deeper theological understanding with the Truth of the story caused me to feel horror each time the film showed an image of Christ or the dignity of a person violated.

THE PERSECUTED BODY

In each period of Church history, there has emerged a new understanding of what it means to be Church. In the 20th century, after the Second Vatican Council, the meaning of Church became multidimensional. Church is a pilgrim people, the people of God on a journey. We are the Body of Christ. In Romero, we see this ecclesiology manifested within the context of the conflict in El Salvador. More significantly, we see how the archbishop responded to the tensions by presenting a way of being a Church that builds the Reign of God through action. As noted by Dulles, “to be fully effective, images must be deeply rooted in the corporate experience of the faithful.” This is, in part, why Romero’s focus on the people being the persecuted Church was effective within the context of El Salvador.

In one particular chapter of the film, we see a simple village church that has been converted into a barracks. The archbishop courageously enters the church and announces to the uniformed soldiers that he has come to retrieve the Eucharist. A machine gun-bearing soldier hears him and turns to point his weapon toward the high altar at the front of the church. First, we see Jesus’ body hanging on the crucifix above the altar as it is sprayed with bullets. Then, we see the doors of the tabernacle blast off as the surrounding altar, wall, and flower vases fill with bullet holes. The soldier turns to the archbishop and tells him to leave the church, and then smiles with satisfaction when Romero does. Romero goes into the street and looks into the faces of the people who stare back at him with concern. Romero then re-enters the church, returns to the high altar and tries to pick up as many pieces of the Eucharist as he can from the floor while more gunfire sprays toward him. As he crouches and gathers his beloved Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, a soldier approaches and kicks him to the ground. For the third time, the archbishop leaves and returns, now wearing his priestly garments and walking through the streets of the village toward the church with people following him. Romero leads the crowd into the church. Together, they gaze straight ahead and move unflinchingly past the soldiers who are pointing guns at them. Despite the confused and shocked looks upon the soldiers’ faces, Romero and the people fill the church. Archbishop Romero stands near the altar, looks into the faces of the people and speaks. He declares that he and the people have come to

 … retake possession of this church building and to strengthen all those whom the enemies of the Church have trampled down. You should know that you have not suffered alone, for you are the Church. You are the people of God. You are Jesus, in the here and now. He is crucified in you, just as surely as he was crucified 2,000 years ago … And, you should know that your pain and your suffering, like his, will contribute to El Salvador’s liberation and redemption.

Through the combination of the words of Romero and cinematic technique, the film presents an image of the Church. We see that the Church stands with the oppressed; the Church itself is persecuted, for it is the Body of Christ. The scene mirrors the ecclesiology defended by Romero in his pastoral letter The Church, The Body of Christ in History in which he writes, “no one should be surprised that the Church is being persecuted precisely when she is being faithful to her mission … It is the Church’s belief that this persecution affects Christ himself; what touches any Christian touches Christ, because he is in personal union with all Christians — especially in anything that involves the poorest of society.” Romero’s particular attention to “the poorest of society” by his words and action is especially significant in the context; the Church was accused of being Marxist and “meddling in politics” because it stood beside the poor. Within the same pastoral letter, Romero defends the Church’s actions against these accusations by especially emphasizing that the Church “has done no more than fulfill her mission.” Part of that mission, he insists, is to promote the inclusivity and unity that is core to the Reign of God, for the Gospel does not exclude any person, rich or poor. As he wrote, “… the Archdiocese has been faithful to the Gospel, and for that very reason she has been persecuted. Yet out of this persecution arises a stronger unity that helps her to offer the people more effectively her message of hope and love.”

AS ONE BODY OF CHRIST

Throughout the film, as they respond to the sociopolitical tensions in their country, we also see how the poorest Salvadorian people arise united by their ambition to build the Reign of God. The film begins with a scene of the military of El Salvador providing surveillance at a political rally in February 1977. As the people in the crowd cheer to a speech that calls for a free election, it becomes clear that the people are united in their desire for freedom and confrontation of the power system. As the film progresses, the people persevere with unwavering determination, even while more and more people are assassinated, arrested, tortured and raped; disappear. Their cause is the Gospel that promotes the dignity and freedom of all people, but their courage is a threat to the power of the right-wing government and death squads.

Immediately after the martyrdom of Romero, the last scene of the film shows a group of ordinary poor people, old and young, moving along a crowded road. Mothers walk with their children holding their hands. One young woman carries a bucket while another carries a basket on her head. An older man guides a mule. As we look into the people’s faces and see their poverty, we hear Romero’s voice one more time: “I’ve often been threatened by death. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadorian people. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be a reality. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” With this conclusion of the film, we are once again given an image of the Church as the persecuted people of God.

LESSONS FOR OTHER CONTEXTS

Although the image of the Church that is present in Romero is particular to the sociopolitical context during and after Romero’s time, the image of the people of God being a persecuted Church is not unique to that historical situation. Images of Church “suggest attitudes and courses of action; they intensify confidence and devotion,” but they really are not effective if they don’t fit the experience of the members of the Church. Nonetheless, I can apply certain lessons from Romero to my particular context because I relate to the experience of persecution as a member of the Church.

As a Franciscan Sister, I regularly find myself in a state of discernment about how to live the Gospel no matter the cost of discipleship. Even though my experiences are not as drastic as the violence dealt with by the Salvadorians, I also must confront my fears about the price of discipleship. Romero fed me the courage needed to be a Christian in contentious times; I now expect persecution since I am part of the Church. As a member of the Body of Christ, I will do what the poster in my classroom said and “stand up for what’s right” when the Spirit calls me to. Because of my faith, the difference is that I will be united with my Christian brothers and sisters in Christ’s love. I will not be, as the poster says, “standing alone.”

SOURCES

James R. Brockman, “Pastoral Teaching of Archbishop Oscar Romero” Spirituality Today40, no. 40 (1988). Online.

Oscar Romero, “The Church, the Body of Christ in History,” in Voice of the Voiceless and Other Pastoral Statements, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985), 69 and 79.

Antonio D. Sison, “Reign-Focus: Theology, Film, and the Aesthetics of Liberation” New Theology Review 24, no. 3 (2011): 45.

Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium (1964), in Vatican Council II: The Counciliar and Post Counciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Northpoint, NY: Costello, 1998), nos. 13 and 50.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 13.

“Unity,” Romero, directed by John Duigan (1989; USA: Paulist Pictures/Vision Video), DVD.

Romero, “The Church,” 79.

Romero, “The Church,” 78.

Romero, “The Church,” 79.

Romero, “The Church,” 72.

Romero, “The Church,” 76.

Romero, “The Church,” 76.

“End Credits,” Romero, directed by John Duigan (1989; USA: Paulist Pictures/Vision Video), DVD.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 13.