Finding the faces of God in the dark

Lately, a memory keeps surfacing.

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Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

I am struggling with my mental health and, almost before it begins, I am having a particularly hard day. Sitting in my chair, trying to get started, I call my counselor for help. I tell him, “All I have on my schedule today is an appointment with my psychiatrist. That’s all I have the energy for. Can I do that and nothing else? Can I skip eating?” He replied, “You have to eat. It could be just cheese and crackers or a peanut butter sandwich, but you have to eat something.”

So that’s what I did that day. I went to my appointment and I ate a simple bowl of ramen. I was practicing self-care in the best way I could.

On my spiritual path, through depression, anxiety, and self-harming thoughts, I sat in the darkness for a long time. And I discovered the God Who Stays. I didn’t know where I was going when I found this God who just stayed with me in the darkness. I also gained comfort from Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?
If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;
if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.
If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”—
Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.
Darkness and light are but one.

If I am having a good day, God is here. If I am unable to get out of the chair, if I want to drop off the ends of the earth, God is here. I love how brilliant this psalmist is! I can’t see through the darkness around me, but God can. God sees me! God knows me always.

Gradually, as I came to a little more light and love in my life, I began to discover the God Who Heals. This is an active, moving God who groans when I groan and who breathes life into my broken bones. Paul says in Romans 8:22, “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now.” The God Who Heals knows my pain intimately, but she also knows light and helps me reach toward it.

This memory is a good example of the God Who Heals. I am journaling and working on my low self-esteem. I know that I hate myself and I want that to change. So I write down one small step that I can take to improve it. I decide I am going to make a commitment to brushing my teeth twice a day. This seems like a basic self-care that I don’t always practice. When I tell a friend of my commitment, she asks me why I chose that action. I say, “Because I don’t want to be so gross and I want to be cleaner for others,” to which she replies, “Oh, I thought it was because you are treating yourself as precious.” Whoa! I never thought of that reason, but yes, I am treating myself as precious.

The God Who Heals is the one who is with me as I slowly try to care for myself. He helps me to see myself as precious and is patient when I am incapable.

woman-lying-in-lilacs
Sister Sarah Hennessey

Now that I am in a steady place of recovery and have more joy in my life, I am becoming acquainted with the God Who Loves. I feel that love as I face a new challenge, as I reach out to a friend in need, and as I walk in nature. The God Who Loves helps me to see myself with gentle eyes and to hold compassion for the world around me.

Recently, I took a survey about myself that measured both my creative and reactive leadership characteristics. I then passed the survey on to 15 people with whom I have worked in a variety of capacities for their input. When I received the results, the data was reported as a graph. There was a clear pattern. For many of my creative abilities, I gave myself a low rating. Everyone else rated me much higher. The measurements for my reactive tendencies were the opposite. Negative traits were also assessed: I rated myself quite high while the others gave me a much lower score. It was a stunning picture in black and white of how my self-view varies from how other people see me. The facilitator who explained the results to me said that this was a quite common pattern, especially for women religious.

The God Who Loves sees me and knows me as I am. So do the God Who Stays and the God Who Heals. All of these images of God have been growing with me as I grow. God meets me exactly where I am and helps me to become more fully myself. As my spiritual path continues, all of these images stay with me and shape me. I am so curious.

I wonder what other faces of God I will meet.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sister-Sarah-Hennessey-cake-face

Sarah Hennessy is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for her Franciscan community, poetry, singing, and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as a spiritual director at Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is a Franciscan Hospitality House volunteer.

Finding common ground in the din of debate

Debate divides this nation, and democracy is in disarray.

On one hand, we enjoy light, good-natured disagreements:

— Is the dress blue and black or white and gold?

Photo credit: https://www.zenia.com/2015/11/19/black-and-blue-dress/

— Do you hear Yanny or Laurel?

And then, there are the more serious debates; the ones that could be causing our civility to crumble.

The latest is emotional, intense: were the high school students recently filmed in DC being racist and mocking Native Americans? Or, were they just caught up in a complex situation?

As I observe the debate and consider how our government is failing to serve the common good right now, I have noticed I am not compelled pick a side; to make a public statement condemning anyone.

Why am I reluctant to stand up for peace and justice? Am I afraid of something, like offending a partner in ministry or someone I care about? Am I undecided about what’s right and wrong? Am I refusing to stand with the oppressed and marginalized?

I have been praying with these questions because I want to be a courageous disciple; I want share Christ’s light and love. And, I think that’s why the answer — that my opinions or outcry will not contribute any peace or unity — has come to me in prayer. It will only add to the din. The last thing our society needs right now is more din and debate. It is time for us to listen to another, to dialogue, to discover our common ground and work toward rebuilding a society full of peace and justice. The kingdom of God that Jesus established, the building of which is our Christian mission.

Certainly it’s valuable for me to evaluate my hidden prejudices — to attend to the ways that judgement can influence how I understand or react to situations. We all need to do this; it’s part of growing in health and holiness.

Even more importantly, though, is the call to increase the compassion and mercy offered to others, no matter who they are. Teenagers, Native Americans, republicans, democrats, African Americans or people who look and think like us — everyone deserves compassion and mercy.

I’ve learned how to get in touch with my own darkness, with my own ability to get involved in complex social sins. I do this by trying to see myself in others — even those who are clearly different than me. In other words, I try to imagine the story of how my life might have led me to behaving badly. I could have ended up a white supremacist if I would have felt desperate and allowed myself to become convinced by the propaganda I was exposed to as a youth growing up in rural America. I could have become involved in crime; in drugs and other addictions. I could have perpetuated violence and oppression upon others. I could have flaunted my privileges in ugly ways. I can imagine the narratives, the ways my life could have gotten me into trouble. I am no better than anyone else. We are all capable of evil.

Even though my life has gone in different directions (fortunately!), I still carry the potential to give into the temptations, to succumb to the darkness. Most of us do. And freedom is found in allowing ourselves see the truth of who we are; the truth of how desperately we need God’s grace, mercy and guidance. Only with God’s help can we grow in holiness and be peacemakers. This is the light we are called to offer.

Photo by Luca Baggio on Unsplash

When it comes to the complexity of sin and the din of debate, I believe the only way forward into God’s reign is to increase compassion and decrease judgement. Sharing this light will increase unity and peace.

Let us set down the stones and stop condemning one another.

Early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” John 8:2-11

Let us try, by the grace of God, to go and sin no more.

It’s not our job to change people

Years ago, when I was learning how to be a teacher, some of my motivations were quite idealistic: I want to change the hearts and minds of youth, and therefore change the world!!

Now, when I think back to the workings of my mind in those days, I almost want to scold my younger self, “get a grip!”

By no means were my motivations bad, but it was my ego that got me into trouble. Did I really think that I could change people? Of course I did–and I suppose most of us do, at some point in our lives. Maybe this thought is buzzing in the background of our interactions most of the time, without us realizing it. If so, we may feel like we’ve failed if we can’t convince others of our opinions, can’t get them to switch their views or can’t inspire them to join the cause about which we are super passionate.

When did this all change for me? When did I stop thinking I was supposed to change others? I suppose it started when I began to see myself more as a minister than a teacher, and when I began to understand that my role is to lovingly companion people and meet them wherever they are. I share God’s love, myself, my knowledge and experiences, but I hope to always provide the freedom for people to make up their own minds.

This stanza from “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own,” has helped me remember that saving others isn’t my job; Jesus already has that under control:

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs./ We are prophets of a future not our own

 

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Photo credit: http://www.fggam.org/2013/03/devotional-for-resurrection-sunday-praise-god/

I am not the messiah. It’s not my job to free people, to save them. I am called to love and let God do this rest. This is freeing, good Gospel news!

But to tell you the truth, companioning others, and not aiming to change them, is a struggle. That’s especially true when I encounter people who have views that are offensive to my own, who say things that make me cringe. Do I just listen and let them speak, even if they are voicing something that is morally wrong–like a racist or classist idea?!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And, I have been grappling with these questions while in conversation with others. At a recent Theology on Tap event here, I sat around a table with about a dozen people eating pizza and burgers and having a deep and vulnerable conversation centered on the topic, “How to get along with people different than you.” We read an excerpt of a chapter of a book by Margaret Wheatley “Willing to be Disturbed,” which I highly recommend.

A few weeks prior, when I was at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I attended an excellent panel discussion called, “Writing about politics in an age of rancor.” Most of the panelists talked about the importance of listening, of practicing good interview skills. One speaker said that we’ve lost the art of persuasion in our culture. Everyone emphasized the importance of empathy.

Plus, I have been a bit fascinated by a radio program that I recently caught on my way to mass at the local parish. This part of the conversation, in particular, piqued my interest:

RAZ: You know, I find myself having, like, really serious conversations with friends about things we disagree on, and it can get pretty heated.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

RAZ: And I try to employ a lot of these rules. But what do you do when your core values are just totally misaligned with the person that you’re talking with – like, to such an extent that the things they believe just offend you to your core? Do you still engage?

HEADLEE: I do. And I can give you an example of this. So I am a mixed-race person. The last time my family lived in Georgia, we were owned. And I think most people would understand my feelings on the Confederate battle flag. But I have a number of friends that absolutely think that is about heritage, and it’s not about hate, et cetera, et cetera.

And I was having one of these discussions with someone earlier, and he started to say to me, well, I’m not going to talk about this with you because I know where you stand. And I said, you know what? That actually frees us up. Just tell me what you think because here’s the thing. Our views are opposed on this, but I am interested in your perspective, why this is so important to you. And if I can just start from the outset and allay those expectations that someone’s going to change my mind, sometimes it just sort of relieves that pressure. Then it just becomes about hearing someone’s perspective.

RAZ: So you wouldn’t respond to his argument. You would just listen to what he said.

HEADLEE: I might. I might, but I start by just listening and asking questions, but because he likes me and respects me, usually he leaves an opening for me to express my feelings, and I do honestly without condemnation. But, you know, it’s hard for people to open up like this. It’s hard. That makes you vulnerable.

Here is the entire TED Talk about how to have better conversations, about how to interview and listen:

As a Christian who is aiming every day to keep united with the power of the resurrected Christ, I am trying to keep all this in mind as I minister, listen and learn: listening and being vulnerable with others helps build community, and build relationships. When both parties are compassionately curious about one another, when our thoughts and beliefs can be clarified, then we can be in communion. We grow closer together when we share our wounds, when we create spaces of true hospitality where bread of all sorts can be broken and shared.

And somehow, along the way, by the grace of God, we all end up changed.

#MeToo, #ChurchToo and the hope in breaking the silence

The courage and resilience of survivors of sexual assault choosing to share their stories gives me hope.

My-Rage-My-Voice-by-Annemarie-Barrett
Annemarie Barrett’s original watercolor painting “My Rage, My Voice”

The wave of very public accounts of sexual assault and misconduct sweeping the United States, for many, has made what once seemed safe and certain seem suddenly dangerous and frightening.

For those recently opening their eyes to the harrowing realities of male privilege and power, the stories of sexual assault survivors may feel like a threat. Many may feel tempted to distrust what is being revealed about our society and opt for outright denial or compulsively blame victims for the violence they endured.

Many more may be overwhelmed by doubt and confusion, unsure of who to trust as powerful people and institutions expose their failure to protect us.

There are also many of us who have been treading in the dangerous and frightening uncertainty of living as survivors of sexual assault for some time.

But now, even if you never have before, is the time to listen to survivors.

It is the time to reflect on the powerful narratives that have taught us to marginalize the wounded among us, and it is time to invest in believing the experiences of survivors.

The Gospel is fundamentally about listening to the needs of the most marginalized and the personal (and societal) transformation necessary for us to stand with those on the margins, demanding justice from the powers that be.

The challenge is learning to apply that call to our daily lives today.

When we exist within a patriarchal society and an even more patriarchal Church, it is tempting to position Jesus as the patriarchal center in our spiritual lives.

Too often we lose sight of the ways Jesus practiced dissent and favored decentralization; the ways he spoke truth to men in positions of power and listened to and supported women who were experiencing marginalization.

Thankfully, the survivors of sexual assault who are choosing to break the silence are modeling that dissent and decentralization for us today, so that we too can learn from their example and practice breaking the silence in our own lives.

woman-in-Annemarie-Barrett-painting-My-Rage-My Voice
Individual images in “My Rage, My Voice” depict the voices of many, coming together.

As Heather McGhee, president of Demos, so powerfully explains, “This is a moment of reckoning. It is a moment of collective power for women who have felt that they individually could not speak up because men hold so many of the cards in workplaces, in industries. They hold so much of the political power in this country and the economic power. But women are discovering that there is strength in numbers and that they may just be believed. That’s a wonderful thing.” (“DemocracyNow!”)

It is indeed.

Just a few months ago, another friend of mine reached out to me to share her recent experience of sexual assault. Her experience not only traumatized her, but her whole family. And though I was filled with grief and rage as I listened to her story, I knew there were few options available for her to pursue justice. Disproportionately, legal action from the justice system and services such as therapy are much harder to access for women of color who have been sexually assaulted.

That was not the first time a friend of mine has been sexually assaulted without justice or professional support and, tragically, I doubt it will be the last.

As I reflected on the impotence I felt for my inability to offer anything more than accompaniment to this friend, I started thinking about all of the women I know (and don’t know) who have been sexually assaulted and the experiences of trauma that interconnect us.

And I started to paint.

Annemarie-Barrett-painting-My-Rage-My-Voice
Annemarie puts the finishing touches on “My Rage, My Voice”

“My Rage, My Voice” is the watercolor piece which I created while reflecting on the experiences of sexual assault that connect women from all different backgrounds and identities. The piece is about the grief and rage that connect us and the empowering experience of raising our voices to make our truth and our stories known.

Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, uses the phrase “empowerment through empathy” to describe the process of survivors sharing their stories with one another. And since hearing that term I have wondered to myself, is there a more succinct and accurate way of describing Gospel living than “empowerment through empathy”?

It is natural to feel uncertainty and fear in response to the harsh realities of injustice, especially when opening our eyes to those realities for the first time. But the Gospel calls us to choose empathy even when afraid and full of doubt, a call much easier preached than practiced.

Fortunately, the courage and resilience of those participating in #MeToo, #ChurchToo and other similar efforts to connect and amplify experiences of survivors of sexual assault are modeling for us how to speak truth to power.

By learning from their example, we too can learn how to transform silence and complicity into accountability and justice. That gives me hope.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett

Annemarie-BarrettAnnemarie (who also served as a blogger for Franciscan Mission Service) 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.

Finding the balance

 

Photo credit: http://www.freeimages.com

Carrying my laundry basket across the lawn, I feel a sudden sting.

I was feeling peaceful and content as I did my chores. I was enjoying this quiet Saturday — I thought. But then, as surely as if an insect just bit me, a wave of emotion interrupts my peace and I am caught off guard, startled to attention.

Miles away, a friend in a nursing home is being treated for chronic pain. In a few days, a dear sister and housemate is scheduled for surgery, a double-mastectomy to treat the cancer discovered only last month. On that same day, a relative will endure yet another round of medical tests to determine why she has been rapidly losing weight. In my prayer journal I have listed over a dozen situations of suffering loved ones.

In the sting of sadness, my consciousness has cracked. I feel overwhelmed, helpless, and worried. Faced once again with the challenge and invitation to give it all to God, I find myself groaning internally. I am almost tempted to believe that…

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

Be perfect

Hypocrisy. According to Google, it’s “The practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.” It’s a dirty word; the worst of insults in religious circles. Why, then, do those who consider themselves clean of heart, hand and tongue seem to so relish the taste of it in their mouths?

Recently, I came across a conversation in the vortex of Facebook that inspired this reflection. It began with a link to an article for the latest pop aggrandizement of abusive relationships, “Fifty Shades Darker. The person who posted it had commented “I can’t help but wonder how many who claimed to march for women turn around and support this as healthy entertainment. Shaking my head!”  Her expression of disgust led to a comment from one of her friends who replied, “How many of these women who either read the book(s) or saw or will see these movies are also the ones so outraged by comments made by Trump? The hypocrisy is amazing!”

woman-covering-mouth
Image courtesy of everydayfeminism.com

My gut reaction was to devise ways in which I might remind this woman, whom I’ve never met, of her own potential conflicting ideologies. It’s easy to make assumptions and I’m quite adept. I quickly conjured up a litany of instances in which this person, completely unknown to me, may herself be “claiming to have moral standards or beliefs” to which her behavior did not conform. They were harsh and pointed and quite possibly accurate. But then, an intervening thought: What would be my motivation in crafting this comment? Would I not be mirroring the very practice of generalized accusation that had triggered my own anger? Even if what I was saying was true, would I be speaking truth in love? Was my goal mutual clarification and conversion, or self-defense and condemnation? St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have not love, I am nothing.” Intent matters. However right or pure we may be, what attitude toward that other person and outcome are we desiring–for ourselves–as we slap others with our truth?

It strikes me that implicit in the use of the words “hypocrite” and “hypocrisy” is a reflexive attempt to discredit ideas and actions of those who differ from, challenge, disgust, or in other ways stimulate discomfort. Denigrating the other allows those of us who do so to prop up our own fragile sense of righteousness while simultaneously freeing ourselves from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to listen or understand. In doing so we are rejecting the call to love or, at the very least, to respect the dignity of the other.

Trying to understand would require the mindfulness to overcome impulsive, emotional reaction and look more deeply at the words, actions or images that have triggered such reactive response. Trying to understand would mean developing an awareness of our own tendency toward generalizations and assumptions and to willfully discard such tools as they inhibit our capacity to think creatively, compassionately and clearly–very hard work but necessary if what we genuinely desire is to create love and peace in our hearts and in the world. If that is not what we desire, an examination of conscience is in order.

Recently, during the Gospel reading at Mass, Jesus said, “I tell you unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:21).”  The following week; “Be perfect, as your heavenly father (a.k.a. the God of All Things!) is perfect.” These can be felt as discouraging, improbable, even impossible exhortations. But if we consider the lens through which Jesus was gazing as he spoke, it may change how we receive the words.

I have been slowly reading Henri Nouwen’s “The Life of the Beloved,” a short, sweet book that articulates in simple and profound language how deeply loved we each are by God. As Nouwen emphatically asserts the belovedness of the individual, he indicates how an awareness and embrace of one’s own condition as beloved can transform the way in which that person engages with the world. A perception of ourselves as foundationally beloved would fill us with such a sense of confidence, gratitude, grace and generosity that we would manifest these qualities as we related to others and the world we share.

“How different our life would be,” he writes, “if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace will multiply and multiply … Imagine your kindness to your friends and your generosity to the poor are little mustard seeds that will become strong trees in which many birds can build their nests … Imagine that you’re trusting that every little movement of love you make will ripple out into ever new and wider circles.”

How different indeed, but what hard work to be ever mindful, ever transforming! Much easier to point out someone else’s hypocrisy! And yet, what purpose does such labeling serve, accusing others of what we would excuse in ourselves? Does it bring assurance or peace or joy? Does it create positive change? I find that the time I’m most ready to cast judgment tends to coincide with when I am most insecure and serves only–ultimately–to exacerbate my own insecurity and anxiety.

No doubt there are times when the hard and loving work we have to do is indeed to name sin when it rears its ugly head, or to get in the way of someone who is causing harm to another either with words or actions or both. But let us be vigilantly mindful of our motivation and carefully conscious of what we hope will grow from the seeds planted by our every word and deed. Let us remember that when Jesus said “Be perfect,” it wasn’t a condemnation, but a vote of confidence.

“I know that you can do better. I love you, no matter what.”

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

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

This complicated, imperfect world: an essay

I have always been hesitant to rock the boat; to challenge another’s opinion. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I don’t often get my feet muddy or my hair wet. The dirt splattered across my pants comes from my daughter jumping into a rain puddle, not me. I am usually complacent, confined to the rigid knowledge of my own truth.

little-girl-sandals-mud-rain
Photo courtesy of Michael Krueger

This was made clear to me after a pre-November 8 conversation with a friend.

We had only been driving together for a few minutes. It was close to midnight and the street lights illuminated the road. My daughter Clara and I were visiting family in Milwaukee, and my parents had offered to put her to bed so I could see a movie with a friend. Adam and I had left the theater and as we drove down the road, our conversation turned to the upcoming presidential election and social policies directed at the poor. Adam works at a bank in Milwaukee.

Almost immediately he began to share with me his frustration over customers who receive government benefits: people, often minorities, for whom he cashes government-issued checks.  He’d recently counted out money–income she receives without working for it, worth more than his own paycheck–for a woman he assumes is a single mother who “chose to have multiple kids by multiple fathers.” Adam continued to provide example after example of people rewarded for poor choices, supported by his tax dollars with no incentive to change: a system, he sees, as broken.

In that moment my mind flooded with memories of our collective past and stark realities of the present. I thought of white privilege: of how blessed we both were growing up each with two parents in stable homes in safe, affluent neighborhoods; regularly attending Mass (and actually, to be honest, he more so than I). I thought of my own stories of encountering the working poor while living at a Catholic Worker house in La Crosse. I thought of socioeconomic studies that demonstrate racial and economic disparity.

In the end though, all that I managed to say was: “Yes, it doesn’t always make sense, but every person has dignity and is deserving of dignity.”

“Michael,” Adam quickly retorted, “You can’t honestly tell me that woman is equal to you in any way. She’ll never be. I love you Michael, but you just don’t understand how some things in our society work.”

This is where the true test comes in. No matter how much I disagree with his statement, to him it’s absolute truth. There will be other examples from Adam’s work and stories in the media to confirm his bias, and new life experiences and encounters to affirm my own.  He is tired of being labeled racist for “calling it like it is.” I will not change his opinion, and he will not change mine.

And yet we still plan to see each other the next time I’m in town; still plan to share our beliefs; still plan to disagree.

So does this mean we live in a broken, polarized society; one that is stitched together as a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and beliefs separated by intolerance, discrimination, righteousness, and hostility, impassable and unforgiving? Yes and no. I believe we live somewhere in the middle, immersed in the messy and difficult conversations and realities that have become flashpoints erupting and boiling over in nearly every news cycle: Black Lives Matter, the anger directed at police forces; lead-tainted water; Standing Rock Reservation; “Lock her up” and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks.

But what we have to be mindful of and profusely share is that we’re also immersed in subtle reminders of that which is good and holy. Sometimes it simply takes an encounter or the reframing of a question for us to change our perspective. In a 2012 TEDx Talk, Father Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, remarked, “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement for how they carry it?”

We are called to stand with compassion and not hesitate to step out into the mud, alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world … this complicated, imperfect life.

Watch for a second post tomorrow–a poem, composed by Michael–that encapsulates this “complicated, imperfect world.”

About the Rabble Rouser

Michael KruegerMichael-Krueger

Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois. He currently lives near Madison with his wife and young daughter, and recently joined efforts to begin a Catholic Worker community there.

From farm to city and back again: Listening and loving on the margins

Decades ago, as a child growing up in the rolling hills of Northeast Iowa, I would daydream of simpler times, of the days when people were pioneers and steadily establishing their families and homes and building communities upon frontiers.

My younger sisters and I would gather in groves of cedar trees tucked into the hills and pastures and play “Little House,” inspired by the novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I would thumb through books tucked into my parents’ shelves, books like Back to Basics: How to Learn and Enjoy Traditional American Skills and 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth, and ponder what it would have been like to live in the “olden days.”

On steamy, sunny days in July, my younger sisters, cousins and I would put on pants and long-sleeved shirts and carry buckets half our body size into the deep woods. We’d crawl underneath berry bushes, pluck juicy deep purple blackcaps off thorny branches, rapidly fill our buckets, and scratch up our arms. Later we’d…

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

"In Wisconsin's Northwoods" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“In Wisconsin’s Northwoods” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Our hidden illness

Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

My  daughter has asthma.

People often express their condolences when the subject comes up but—the truth is—it’s really not a big deal. I grew up with asthma, so I was never intimidated by the diagnosis. Thankfully, my daughter’s asthma is well-controlled with daily medication and has (thus far) never caused her any serious issues. Though it does flare up when she falls ill or exercises more than normal, her asthma most typically manifests in a distinctive chronic cough from October through April.

Predictably, the coughing has recently started up again.  It makes us very unpopular in public spaces.

At our local science museum last week, I couldn’t help but notice other parents discreetly redirecting their children away from my daughter who, although she’s pretty good about coughing into her elbow, inevitably makes quite a scene when she’s hit with a prolonged spell.

I don’t blame other parents for giving us a wide berth. Nobody wants their kids to get sick and, unless you know (as we do) that her cough is distinctly asthmatic, you’d think she had a cold and was putting everybody at risk of exposure. And so I find myself subtly justifying our presence. If I happen to catch a mother’s skeptical eye after yet another coughing fit, I give her an apologetic smile and say, “Sorry, she has asthma.”

Almost without exception, her expression transforms from one of irritation into one of sympathy and regret.

Watching this instantaneous transformation occur before my eyes over and over again makes me wonder: how many times have I presumed that I am witnessing a human failing (one to which I can feel superior) when, in fact, I’m only seeing the symptom of an underlying illness or injury (one which would immediately compel me to compassion)?

I suspect the answer is almost every time.

One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Ian Maclaren, is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The older I get, the more I realize how true this is. In every stage of life I meet people who are embroiled in terrible battles—battles which transform my bitter judgment into deep sympathy in a heartbeat:

Why is that boy acting so rude on the playground? Because he’s on the autism spectrum and doesn’t recognize social cues.

Why is that new mother giving her baby formula, when we all know “breast is best”? Because she has postpartum depression and breastfeeding makes it worse.

Why does that young woman get drunk and sleep with jerks every weekend? Because she was sexually abused and has no model for healthy intimacy.

Why is that guy addicted to heroin? Because he’s gay and terrified of coming out.

Why did that mom bring her sick child to the Pacific Science Center today? Because her daughter’s cough is due to a chronic, not contagious, sickness.

We are all of us sick: at the very least, in the way that humanity is sick with original sin but also—and usually far worse—in ways that are personal, foundational … and frequently invisible. Our souls may be sin-sick (as the old hymn goes), but they are also abuse-sick, grief-sick, trauma-sick, and illness-sick.

Photo courtesy of freeimages.com
Photo courtesy of freeimages.com

The same wounds and diseases that cry out for compassion lie hidden beneath the very symptoms which make compassion so easy to withhold. And yet Scripture, particularly the New Testament, makes it pretty clear that compassion is non-negotiable if we are to consider ourselves true Christians.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)

I pray for the grace to see beyond the coughing spells I encounter, and to be moved to compassion for those dreadful, hidden illnesses about which I know nothing.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s whose contributions to Messy Jesus Business usually focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. She writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters (only one of whom has asthma).

Why I am going to the Border

I am about to leave the beautiful, safe and peaceful Northwoods of Wisconsin and travel to the U.S./Mexico border for the weekend.

I’ll be joining thousands at the SOAW Border Convergence in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico; with other Catholic sisters and members of Giving Voice as we pray and give witness for peace and compassionate immigration reform.

I am going to the border because I want to pray for the beloved deceased and be a peaceful witness.

It is a violent and contentious place where hundreds of people die unnoticed each year. Some are shot by border patrol agents, but most die of heat stroke, dehydration or hypothermia. Plus, much of the violence is spurred by economic disparities and U.S. drug and gun control policies.

Here is a map of locations where human remains were recovered by No More Deaths just in August of 2016:

RHR.Aug16.AZ.NoMoreDeaths
The red dots mark the places at which 16 human remains were found in August. One hundred twenty-five bodies have been discovered in Arizona since the current fiscal year began in October 2015. (Map by Ed McCullough. Source: https://www.facebook.com/groups/92300350558/)

I am going to the border because I am concerned about immigrant detention.

In 2010 I wrote about an experience I had praying at an immigration detention center in Chicago. The knowledge I gained that day—the fact that immigrants are denied basic human needs such as hygiene supplies and food once deported—continues to disturb me. The description of humans put in cages makes my heart ache every time they surface in my mind. It is horrific that 27,000 unaccompanied minors have been seized and detained at the U.S. border between October 2015 and March 2016. Plus, I took a course about the Japanese-American concentration camps during World War II and read this disturbing article that convinces me we must not detain folks based on race, immigration status nor place of origin.

A crowd prays at a detention center in Illinois, June 2012, blessing a bus as it brings immigrants to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
A crowd prays at a detention center in Illinois in June 2012, blessing a bus as it brings immigrants to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA.

I am going to the border because I am a daughter of immigrants.

Much like the migrants that come today, my Norwegian and Irish ancestors immigrated to the United States in 1800s to escape poverty and make a better life for themselves and their families. My Irish great-grandmother came by herself as a teen and never obtained proper papers. But that didn’t make her a bad person. She was hard working and established a strong family—all who contributed to American society.

I am going to the border because others who have done so inspire me.

I am grateful for the witness of the folks who have walked The Migrant Trail and prayed for the dead. I especially appreciate this account of their journey.

I am going to the border because the U.S. Catholic Bishop’s principles of compassionate immigration reform make a lot of sense to me.

I agree with them wholeheartedly. Sure; nations have a right to protect their borders but they also must help keep families together, address root causes of migration, and honor all human dignity.

I am going to the border because I don’t want to be part of a nation that puts up walls.

I agree with Pope Francis’ words, stated after he celebrated Mass at the Ciudad Juárez U.S./Mexican border in February: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” Along the same lines I think we need to stop blaming, scapegoating and discriminating. It is time for us to have intelligent and compassionate national conversations about the complex issue of immigration.

I am going to the border because my hometown has been impacted by the current broken immigration policies.

In May 2008 the community of Postville, Iowa, was torn apart by the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. (OK: technically, my hometown is about 10 miles away, but it’s certainly the same community and our Catholic parishes were served by the same priest.) It was discovered that many of the undocumented workers at Agriprocessors meatpacking plant had been told to put an X on a piece of paper when they were hired in order to start working. The forms were falsified social security card documents created by their employers not understood by the people signing them. Many of the immigrants could not read nor write English nor Spanish. I have written more about the horrific Postville immigration raid and can attest to the fact that its impacts continue to be felt in Iowa as well as in Guatemala.

Kevin and Julia Walsh, Postville March, July 2008
Kevin and Julia Walsh, Postville Immigration Raid Vigil, July 2008.

I am going to the border because compassionate immigration reform is long overdue.

I don’t even know how many times in the past 20 years I’ve called or written members of congress and asked for them to help pass legislation that would reform the immigration system. Or, asked them to vote against something that would hurt immigrants. Or, asked them to help protect a particular immigrant from detention or deportation. I’ve distributed postcards, signed petitions, led prayer services and attended vigils. The fact that I have not seen much progress occur in this time is frustrating and exhausting. But, I will not stop working at it because people’s lives are literally on the line.

I am going to the border because I want our nation to see that Catholic sisters are crying out for the protection of the dignity of our immigrant brothers and sisters.

I have learned that a major aspect of my vocation as a Catholic sister means that I am living a prophetic life—a life that gives witness to the fullness of God’s reign just by virtue of its countercultural nature. My vows have me saying “no” to our culture’s obsession with wealth, sex and independence so that I can say “yes” to a life of prayer, community and service for the greater good; for the glory of God. Living this way means I must constantly advocate for the poor and proclaim God’s mercy and peace to all; I must use my voice for those our society has deemed voiceless.

You can follow Convergence on the U.S./Mexico Border online this weekend by searching the hashtag #ConvergenceAtTheBorder on Facebook and Twitter. You can keep up with the activities of us Giving Voice sisters in particular by searching the hashtag #GivingVoice. If you’d like more news coverage of the event, call your local media outlets and ask them to cover the story. There are resources for media here.

I hope you will pray in solidarity with us this weekend and help us advocate for peace, mercy, and compassionate immigration reform. Let us pray that we can be a nation that honors and protects the dignity of all people, especially those who are poor and fleeing violence. Let us pray for the dead and the protection of all life. Let us pray for the children who die and are detained.

Pray with us from this portion of the prayer service we will pray at the border this weekend:

Jesus, you who were a migrant, we call to you in one voice with those gathered at the border. We pray for all the people in our world who are on the move, escaping violence and poverty, and for all those who live, hiding and in fear, in our own country. God, we pray for all politicians and for all citizens, that we may be filled with your compassion. May our policies promote peace and keep families together. We pray especially for all the children caught in this web of oppression; protect them and their parents so that they may grow up in freedom. We continue to pray for comprehensive immigration reform that will, finally, offer justice for immigrants. Glory to you, God, for all that you have given us. We give you thanks, and we ask you for strength and courage. May we never tire of working for the common good; may we never lose your vision of a world of peace and love for all.  

Amen.