Years ago, while teaching theology to 9th graders, a particular student tugged at my heart.
Each day he would come into my classroom and listen thoughtfully. His face would twist up with frustration and confusion while he heard me explain how the Bible came to be and the call of discipleship. The questions seemed to agonize him, to torment any solid footing his faith may have once had.
He would often interrupt my lesson with questions–real tough questions. Other teachers might have received his struggles and doubts as disrespectful or a threat. I was challenged, certainly, but I thanked him.
I told him privately that his questions were a gift. That he should allow them to evolve and teach him the Truth. (And, my statement seemed to create more questions and agony for him. Why couldn’t I just give him clear answers?!)
I loved his questions, and I really loved him too.
I have been thinking a lot about the sacredness of questions lately, of the importance of letting them be a way that we are drawn into communion with other people, and God.
Last weekend, I caught part of This American Life on the radio and was reminded that answers aren’t as important the asking, as the listening and conversation–at least when it comes to the building of relationships and unity.
Here are some of my recent questions. What questions can I ask to increase compassion and connection? How can questions bring us to deeper levels of understanding? Why do certain questions make me uncomfortable?
What questions are causing you agony? What questions are helping you grow closer to God and others?
Although our questions can cause a lot of anguish and discomfort, let us remember that they are a way we can bond with others, that they are a path to union with Christ.
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. —2 Corinthians 4:7-10
He is lying in the middle of the street, wrapped in a blanket, semiconscious. Earlier, someone was concerned enough to call the paramedics. The paramedics picked him up by the arms, dragged him to the sidewalk, determined he did not need medical transport, and left.
When the paramedics find him, nobody is with him. No one comes to check on him. He has no water and is lying wrapped in a blanket on a sidewalk. In Phoenix, the pavement can be so hot it will burn skin.
That was three hours ago. Someone just noticed that he has not moved in awhile. He has died, but we don’t know when he passed because no one checked on him before now.
The paramedics come by again, determine the man dead, but leave quickly with nothing to do. The police arrive and sit in their car, waiting for the medical examiners. They’ll likely be waiting a long time. In The Zone — the part of the city near the Catholic Worker House, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters — it often takes forever for the medical examiners to show up.
Today I’m running late. I missed morning services and get here just as he is found dead. I’m greeted by Paul, who is sitting on the curb.
“I always wait.” he says.
Now, Paul is by far my favorite guest at the Catholic Worker House. He is a man of much wisdom and endless joy.
“If we do not love them in death, how will people know they are loved in life?” Paul asks.
I sit on the curb next to the body with Paul and wait for the medical examiners for several hours. Meanwhile, people all around us continue with their lives.
Steve (who is sober today) likes to sweep the street when he is not using. He keeps sweeping and never looks at the dead man on the sidewalk.
A lady comes by and asks me for a pair of pants. I run downstairs to grab some for her, wondering if she notices the dead man on the sidewalk.
A man needs help making a phone call. He is stranded in Phoenix, trying to go back to his family in South Carolina, and does not understand the automated phone system of the bus company. Preoccupied with his own worries, he doesn’t seem to notice the man dead on the sidewalk either.
A couple enjoys each other’s company. He gives her a piggyback ride and runs down the street.
A lady rides by on her bike and stops to talk to a friend. The conversation ends and she quickly moves on.
Lunch services continue. Showers are offered. People go to the office to make phone calls.
I know life continues after death, but how is it that life goes on with no recognition of the dead man lying on the sidewalk?
As Paul and I sit on the curb, holding our own little vigil, we answer people’s questions, directing them to resources, and try to figure out the name of the man who died. Just a few people seem to notice him.
“Who is the stiff today?” a passerby asks.
“Do you know there is another one at the gas station 10 blocks away? He was stabbed,” someone else says.
Paul and I sit together on the curb for three hours waiting for the medical examiner to show up to take pictures and move the body. (I learn later that another volunteer found out what had happened and called a friend on the county board of supervisors to investigate the wait time for the medical examiner. The examiner showed up 30 minutes after that phone call.)
At first, I am disturbed by the lack of indignation. Even more so, though, I’m disturbed by the lack of response at all.
I’ve been volunteering In The Zone for over nine years and little makes me uncomfortable. Yet, the lack of discomfort makes me uncomfortable. So I ask: How do I continue to maintain a heart of discomfort? How do we not fall into despair? How do I joyfully serve while continuing to question why so many people lack access to shelter? How do I continue to joyfully serve while continuing to question, challenge, and overturn the systems that continue to hold people down? How do I maintain this discomfort when my own everyday life is full of comfort?
Now, months have gone by since the unknown man died alone on the street. I still do not know his name. Many more — whose names are also unknown — have died alone on the same street.
Meanwhile, my life continues. Again and again I show up, say friendly hellos to those I encounter, and do as Paul says, help “make sure people know they are loved.”
Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Elizabeth Odhner is an emergency room nursein Phoenix, Arizona. She spends her free time with her new husband working for immigrant rights and volunteering at a free clinic and a homeless outreach center. She lives in a community providing radical hospitality to immigrants and refugees. She and Sister Julia have been friends ever since Elizabeth studied at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois, the city in which they were both members of the same cooking club. For fun, Elizabeth enjoys making pottery and taking day trips outside the city.
I don’t believe that remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement that he represented is supposed to be comfortable for us white folks.
And I wonder what we might learn if, on this national holiday created in his honor, we were to sit with his speeches that most challenge — not affirm — our worldview today.
I wonder what it would mean for us white folks, in churches, Catholic schools and affluent communities, to collectively step out of our comfort zones today and every day in his honor.
What if us white folks dedicated more time to listening to black activists today? What if humility became the root of our attempts at solidarity with diverse communities of color who are fighting every day for their liberation?
Every autumn for the past four years, I have facilitated three, three-hour sessions on issues of white privilege and white supremacy as related to experiences of foreign volunteer work for Franciscan lay missioners in training with Franciscan Mission Service. These sessions were born out of my lived experiences as a Franciscan lay missioner in South America.
In these sessions, we start with the basics.
I explain how I opened my eyes to the realities of racism only when I stepped out of the white culture I grew up in; in other words, when I stepped out of my comfort zone.
And we connect that experience to concepts of white privilege and white fragility that help explain how a college educated adult, like myself, could be so ignorant about issues of racism.
We also focus on history in that first session; primarily, the history of colonization worldwide and how that history implicated white folks, particularly white Christian folks.
We talk about why it is so important for white folks who are confronted with their own ignorance to respond by choosing to educate ourselves. And we cover basics like how to respond to issues and experiences related to racism that are new to us — namely, by choosing to humbly listen and learn.
We also directly deal with the racist stereotypes surrounding Catholic volunteer work. I share about my experience of being characterized as a “saint” who was “sacrificing” myself by serving in a country economically poorer than the United States.
I explain to the lay missioners in training how different the ways in which I was being categorized were from the personal expectations that I had for living in another culture.
I knew for myself that I was choosing to live in Bolivia because I was interested in their vibrant indigenous cultures and inspired by the grassroots social movements thriving there. I was choosing to move to another country to humbly learn and collaborate, not pity and patronize.
But the reality was that most of the white Catholic folks supporting my life as a Franciscan lay missioner assumed the opposite and so I had to learn how to respond to those folks and look for opportunities to not only educate myself but to share what I was learning with other white folks too.
It was a terribly uncomfortable process.
While I was confronting similar, local stereotypes where I was living and working — a testament to the destructive effects of colonization still so very alive today — I was also simultaneously trying to navigate how to communicate what I was experiencing and learning with folks in my own country who were as steeped in white culture as I am.
The whole process has been full of discomfort and yet I would not have it any other way.
Well, just this past autumn a lay missioner in training asked me in the final session of our time together, “How do you find the courage to confront these issues of racism?” She, like me, was working through dealing with how overwhelming the discomfort can feel at times.
And in my own process I had found two possible responses to this question.
One came from a wise friend of mine who aptly taught me that no matter how hard I think confronting racism is for me as a white person it is always, always, more challenging, traumatizing and even life threatening for people of color.
As a white person I have the privilege to choose to confront racism, but for people of color it’s not a choice but a daily lived reality. Choosing to engage in conversations about racism with a white person is often an exhausting and fraught experience for people of color.
What I shared with the lay missioner in training that day is that this reality ought to, at the very least, inspire humility in us white folks while also leading us to another response.
I told her that I find the courage to confront issues of racism as a white person, not because I am an expert on issues of racism and certainly not because I am some savior who benevolently decided to care about these issues.
I find the courage to keep learning and confronting these issues because I have formed intimate relationships with people of color whose life experiences are very different from my own, and I care about being accountable to them.
The answer is both that simple and the living into it that complex.
But what I have found is that at the very least it does require a willingness from white people to get uncomfortable.
Today of all days is a good time to practice that voluntary discomfort — to stretch beyond what we know and have experienced as white people to listen and learn from the experiences and wisdom of people of color.
Here are some resources to engage that discomfort today:
Annemarie 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.