One life together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Nee and one of her children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come, let us love one another.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

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

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.

Work and rest

 

This last month was a strenuous one in my youth ministry. It involved back-to-back weekend events, and I found myself putting in tons of extra hours and working for a 21-day stint with only a single day off. It involved late nights and early mornings. It was hard, tiring work.

Work & rest
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

During one evening of this labor I found myself murmuring. I was reciting facts of my overwork to myself in my head but in that whiny, grumbly, self-pitying voice that we all have at times when we think we’re being put upon. “Poor me. Working so hard. Does anyone notice?” Pout … pout … pout.

Tired of working (and feeling lazy and aimless) I did what any normal American millennial would do: take a quick break for some Facebook browsing. As I clicked and browsed around, I noticed that a similar complaint was being made by a number of my Facebook friends—but in entirely different tones of voice.

One friend was just finishing up a huge project, but was pleased with herself and her team’s accomplishments and reveling in the large bonus she and her co-workers had received as a result of their success. A different friend had just completed a master’s thesis and another had finished a doctoral dissertation; both were celebrating the completion of well-written study and the reward of new degrees they’d receive as a result. Yet another had just finished laboring over a piece of art, and was now wearily showing off the completed work of her hands.

All were tired, all were fatigued, and yet they were leaning against their shovels and smiling. All had taken hits and suffered sacrifice, but were pleased because the task was worth it. And here I was, working in the vineyard that I chose and to which I believe God called me, and all I was doing was grumbling.pull-quote

We were made for work. Work has dignity, and it calls us to be co-creators in this world we have been given. But if you listen to a lot of talk about ministry these days, it seems like the biggest fear facing us as ministers is the possibility of working too hard. Set boundaries on your time and space; limit yourself; be careful; and, whatever happens, don’t burn out. The world is on fire with fear and despair and loneliness yet it’s putting in some overtime that worries us.

I am not saying there isn’t some real truth in avoiding overwork. We live in a world that is obsessed with busy-ness and work for work’s sake; that has forgotten the meaning of the word Sabbath and the importance of rest. We need to believe in a God that is bigger than our efforts, and to avoid the idolatry of self that believes we are the world’s savior and it’s all up to us. We do need to take time to stop, to breathe, to rest, to recover.

But in avoiding the one extreme, we must avoid falling into its opposite. In order to truly rest, we must truly work first. It is good to wear ourselves out, and there are few things holier than falling into bed at night after fully exerting ourselves in the labor of a task worth doing. And if we must always count on Christ to fulfill our shortcomings and complete our labors we must also remember that, until he comes again, Christ is counting on us to be his hands and his feet in this world.

I frequently recall that, after a presentation all about avoiding burn out, a religious sister once said, “Yes, we should avoid burn out but let us not forget that, in order to burn out, there needs to have been a flame burning in the first place.” If we are tired from our work, perhaps the salve for our souls is not less work, but to remember why we started working in the first place. Conspiring with God is so much easier when we are inspired by Him. Keeping our eyes on the goal—remembering for what purpose and for whom we work—makes yolks easy and burdens light.

 

Loving and sassy

A fascinating thing happened this school year when I tried to teach my students to love their neighbors.

Kids can be so mean. I remember this from when I was in school.  As a teacher now, I see this reality right in front of me.  It’s awful.  At a Catholic Christian school it seems even  more disturbing, and as a religion teacher I feel a bit of responsibility for it.  I try to design curriculum that responds to my observations and helps my students to grow in Christ.

To help my students deal with people who are unkind, I planned a unit that focused on the teachings of Jesus.  I wanted them to learn how to be bold, brave, creative, peaceful, compassionate and kind–just like Jesus taught. My students memorized the Beatitudes and the great commandment. They realized that Jesus’ teachings are not fluffy or cozy, but really messy and difficult.

We also mulled a while on what Jesus REALLY meant when he said “love your enemies,” and “turn the other cheek.” Basically, we studied the Third Way of Jesus which is to creatively stand up for oneself and to honor the dignity of oppressors. To help the students understand I made a handout called Jesus’ non-violence explained.  Even though it’s really a simple concept, it’s extremely challenging to understand.

As I said, a fascinating thing happened when I tried to teach my students to love their neighbors.  I found myself telling my students that practicing Jesus’ methods of peacemaking–in that Third Way style–meant that we have to get downright loving and sassy.

A slogan emerged: Let’s get sassy for Jesus! We laughed about how it sounded like a country song. The former cheerleader in me wanted to make it into a chant: “Sassy for Jesus, yes we are!  I’m thanking the Holy Spirit for giving me a catchy way to teach the truth, because the students still remember it.

God’s got a great sense of humor, and humor is what true, loving, non-violence takes.  We can make light of persecution because, with the freedom that Christ gives, we are just as powerful as everyone else.  We see Jesus alive in all people, even those who are mean. We get to love them and remind them of their inherent dignity. It’s so good!

In the teenage world, this love and sass could come out when people make fun of our shirt or our shoes. For example, a creative, non-violent, Third Way practitioner might respond by saying “It shows how I feel about mean people. Isn’t it beautiful!?”

Recently I asked some of my students how the whole “loving your neighbor, loving your classmates” thing is coming along.  They groaned. “Sister, it’s so hard!”

Yes, loving our neighbors and being non-violent IS really hard. But wow, it’s so worth it. May God help us. Amen!

Photo credit: http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1315/532519876_b00d0c79e5_z.jpg

Oh, and you might enjoy this interesting take on some of this problem about kids being mean to each other:

bonds that build and never break

I am not afraid of death.  I do not fear death because somehow I am confident that I’ll get to know Jesus better at that point and I really look forward to that. But, I don’t want to die.

I am afraid of grief.  Grief can damage faith.  It can destroy joy and break people down.  The fear I do have about my own death is what it might do to the people who love me.  I’m afraid of people I love dying because I don’t know how I would live with the awful taste of grief in my own body, soul and mind.  And, I doubt I can live without them.

Plus, tragedy and suffering can be so life changing that the identity of a person can be transformed.  Even person-hood and dignity itself can be questioned.  When Desmond Tutu was asked what the worst thing about South African Apartheid was he said that the greatest tragedy was how the injustice caused people to doubt that they were children of God.

In addition, when confusion is really thick, doubt can cloud out joy, hope and a sense of purpose.  Questions can collide with trust.  Why would God let this happen? How could a good God let us suffer?  How is a Christian to respond?  What are we supposed to say? How are we supposed to be?

I’m learning some answers because I keep living.

I have heard some of my students say that death is their greatest fear.  Nearly every day I hear them pray for a safe return home from school and a safe return back tomorrow.  I haven’t prodded to find out exactly what they fear about death- whether it’s what it would do to others (like me) or how it would cut their lives short, or something else completely.  No matter the reason, their fears are well founded.  Violence hurts and kills people in neighborhoods all over Chicago nearly every day.

This weekend our country is commemorating the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  Certainly, the nation can do well from pausing to remember how suffering has changed us.  It’s valuable to tell our stories and to hear the memories of others.  While we listen, let’s build community and bless each other through loving presence.

Here’s the “How To” that I have learned:  No matter the cause of death and tragedy, we must respond with love.

Lately, I’ve learned about love in a whole new sort of way.  My own experience has convinced me and I’m learning it from how my students are.  When tragedy, such as death, breaks us down and contaminates us with pain, the most healing thing that a person can offer is loving presence.

The walls of death can’t clog the power of a loving presence.  Through grief, love beyond the material world is real to us.  Even beyond death, those whom we love are with us.  When we stay awake and listen deeply this Truth gazes back at us through the suffering.

This love bonds and blesses. It’s beautiful how it can’t really break.  Thanks be to God for the mystery and wonder. Thanks be to God that love keeps building.  Thanks be to God that we’re children of love and at death we don’t really part.

Brothers and sisters:
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself.
For if we live, we live for the Lord,
and if we die, we die for the Lord;
so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
For this is why Christ died and came to life,
that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.  -Romans 14:7-9