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

 

Christ_empty_tomb
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.

Dead man on the sidewalk

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.

dead-man-sidewalk-police
Image courtesy Elizabeth Odhner

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.”

In the Andre House Catholic Worker, Phoenix, AZ
ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Elizabeth Odhner

Elizabeth-DiedrichOriginally from Madison, Wisconsin, Elizabeth Odhner is an emergency room nurse in 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.

 

Appropriately disturbed and loving my distant Aleppo neighbor

Along with many people far and near, I have been terribly disturbed by images from the Syrian war recently. Appropriately disturbed.

Early last week, I felt physically ill while I watched a news story about doctors and hospitals being targeted by airstrikes.

Then, just a few days later, the images of Omran Daqneesh, the five year-old-boy who sat dazed and bloody in an ambulance in Aleppo, stirred compassion, outrage and prayers from many of us.

Here is the disturbing video of Omran being rescued by aid workers:

Since the video and pictures of his rescue went viral Omran’s older brother Ali–along with at least 148 other chilldren of Aleppo just this month–died.

Thousands of miles are between me and the people suffering in Syria. Entering into their experiences through the news, images, and videos is tough. Really though, the turmoil that it surfaces in me is miniscule compared to what makes up their daily life.  

Yet, I am tempted to turn away from loving my neighbor. The challenging truth of suffering and injustice could spiral me into a state of helplessness. What can I do? I am too distant from the pain to be able to help rescue people or offer comfort, food or water. I feel like I have no power or wealth to end the conflict. I could resign, throw my hands up, “I can’t keep up! I can’t handle it!”

I am tempted to turn away from the Gospel of love and mercy, to reject hope and leave it behind me, ignore the suffering of my distant neighbors, and return to enjoying the comforts of my safe and privileged life.

War is ugly and can bring out the worst in us.

Yes, war is ugly, but discipleship necessary.

When it comes to loving our neighbors thousands of miles away, solidarity becomes a demanding spiritual practice. We unite in prayer, enter into relationship, and respond with compassionate actions. We allow ourselves to be disturbed and uncomfortable while we pray and and act, because we know that others are very, very uncomfortable.

Although ending war may be complex and difficult, living the Gospel is really quite simple: every choice is guided by sacrificial love.

So let us pray!

For all the children like Omran and Ali, the children living and dying in war, let us pray. For an end to war and conversion of hearts, let us pray. For peace and an increase of hope among us, let us pray:

A Prayer For The People Of Syria

Almighty eternal God, source of all compassion,

the promise of your mercy and saving help fills our hearts with hope.
Hear the cries of the people of Syria;
bring healing to those suffering from the violence,
and comfort to those mourning the dead.
Empower and encourage Syria’s neighbors 
in their care and welcome for refugees.
Convert the hearts of those who have taken up arms,
and strengthen the resolve of those committed to peace.

O God of hope and Father of mercy,
your Holy Spirit inspires us to look beyond ourselves and our own needs.
Inspire leaders to choose peace over violence 
and to seek reconciliation with enemies.
Inspire the Church around the world with compassion for the people of Syria,
and fill us with hope for a future of peace built on justice for all.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace and Light of the World,
who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
Amen.

(Source: USCCB)

Let us also offer generous support to organizations who have remained present to the victims of war, even while risking their own safety and security. According to my research (and I am willing to be corrected) these are the best organizations to donate to, in order to assist the people of Aleppo in particular:

UNICEF

Doctors Without Borders

International Rescue Committee

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Catholic Relief Services

 

Let us join together and devote ourselves to protecting the life and dignity of God’s children everywhere—no matter how long or exhausting the struggle or how deep the heartache. Pope Francis’ wisdom that “our infinite sadness can only be cured by infinite love” can direct us.

No matter how awful the circumstances or how distant our neighbor, love must disturb us and we must keep being the people God has called us to be.

Prayer for Children of Syria by Bro. Mickey O'Neill Mcgrath, OSFS Source: http://bromickeymcgrath.com
“Prayer for Children of Syria” by Bro. Mickey O’Neill Mcgrath, OSFS (ource: http://bromickeymcgrath.com)

 

 

disturbed in the desert

It’s Lent. I am a disciple, trying to fast and pray in the desert. I’m getting hungry for some great elation, getting worn out from discomforts. I am all hot and bothered–hah! I am disturbed.

I’ve been thinking “perhaps that’s the whole point of discipleship.” We must be disturbed. This journey with Jesus is a journey of conversion– personally and communally. We must remain open to God changing our hearts, our minds and our lives from the inside out.

Disturbed is defined as “intruded on, bothered, rearranged, mixed up, interfered with and turned upside down.” A dictionary also told me that those who are disturbed often are “concerned, upset, flustered, unsettled and disconcerted.” I have learned that all those things happen when we’re living the Gospel.

When I have gone to live with those on the margins of society, I have been appalled, infuriated and outright disgusted with what they must live with.  Racism, discrimination and violence; health, education and environment issues are all tangled into the web of social problems related to poverty. For example, world hunger isn’t really as simple as “we need to share our food.” We also need to change the system.

I showed this video to some students at the high school recently in order to demonstrate how complicated problems like world hunger are:

When we learn the truth of how–and why–people are suffering, it’s hard to not become upset and turned upside down.

I am not sure where I learned the phrase, but I often find myself thinking that in order to follow Jesus we must be standing on our heads. This past week a student asked why John the Baptist was standing in the water when he was preaching (as he was in the movie I was showing them). I didn’t have a good answer because I had no clue. What I said was all I could think of: “All holy people seem slightly crazy.” I was surprised when my student nodded with what seemed to be satisfaction. I think that if a religion teacher would have told me that when I was 15 I would have been a bit upset. “You’re saying I have to be crazy to follow Jesus!?”

Well, yes. There is a certain amount of radical trust, impulsiveness, scandal and risk that is required if we’re really trying to follow Jesus.

Eleven years ago, when I was only 20, I took one of those crazy risks. I flew to the other side of the world and studied abroad in South Africa.

I was wandering around a big foreign city where crime rates were high; many people didn’t speak my language, and I was enjoying it. I was disturbed and deeply converted. I began to understand myself differently. Maybe I wasn’t a shy, small town farm girl after all. When God disturbs us–turns us upside down–we even start to think about ourselves in new ways.

God quickly showed me how to be involved with his people and his church. I prayed, started asking people about opportunities and then began volunteer ministry at a shelter and in a prison. A lot of things unfolded and with every new experience I was transformed, converted, changed.

In South Africa I developed relationships with the wealthy and privileged and the poor and marginalized at the same time.

I was exposed to the extreme contrasts of economic injustices. It felt very unfair–very wrong that people who were extremely rich could live right alongside others who were so poor they dwelled in tin shacks, had to carry their water and used car batteries for electricity.

I remember one day when I came home from volunteering at the shelter and was especially confused and overwhelmed–disturbed–by all that I had experienced. My housemates were getting ready to go see the musical Cats and offered me an extra ticket. I quickly got dressed up and went along but barely enjoyed the show. “How could people possibly enjoy the wine they were sipping while people were right outside the doors–on the streets–without any food?” I wondered.

I knew that Jesus wanted me to share, not feel guilty or stop having fun.  For the rest of my time in South Africa I decided to love and give without abandon. If people asked me for things I’d trust God and their goodness and give meals, clothes, money, school supplies; whatever I could. It was risky but worth it. And the amazing thing I learned about giving was that I didn’t need to worry. I could do it freely. If I was recklessly being loving, generous and faithful God would take care of me. And God totally did, being a loving parent after all.

Now, back in the middle of mainstream United States of America, the land where the uncomfortable and our injustices are much more hidden, I find myself wondering if it is my calling is to disturb others, to shake people up, challenge them and tell the youth that yes, you must be slightly crazy if you want to be a disciple.

The fascinating, beautiful, wonderful thing is that God is still disturbing me by what I am encountering. Good thing I get to be in the desert to feast, or…um…fast, in all these conversions.

"simple and quiet: a scene from Lesotho" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“simple and quiet: a scene from Lesotho” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

 

 

 

nourished by disturbance

O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?  I want to learn only this from you: did you receive the Spirit from works of the law, or from faith in what you heard? Are you so stupid? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Galatians 3:1-3 

There is no doubt that Paul’s words were meant to disturb the community at Galatia. I am sure that I would be disturbed if I was called stupid and bewitched by someone I look up to. “Are you so stupid? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now ending in the flesh,” or in New Jerusalem translation, “After beginning with the Spirit, you now end in observances.” A message like that cannot help but shake people in their ego! It cannot help but wake people from their sleep. That was true then but is it true now?

I am willing to bet that most people today skim over this text paying very little attention to it. I know that I have heard it many times and I have become accustomed to it. If we are honest with ourselves, are there any Bible passages that have the power to disturb us, to shake us out of our own selves, lives, problems, and egos? We claim to be Christians; does the gospel message disturb us? Or have we grown accustomed to almost sleep walk through reading the scriptures, mass, or prayers? Has the Christian life become a passive comfortable existence? Have we been sleeping through our spiritual lives? I know I can get into a pattern, a routine; I can be comfortable with framing the world with what I already know. We can feel worlds apart from the moments where Jesus rocked our world. I am talking about that moment when we stood at the edge of the vast ocean and yelled “YES” to the radical call of discipleship. I am talking about the moment when the thought of leaving everything to follow Jesus disturbed us but we wanted it anyway, the moment when the radical love of God challenged us but we desired it anyway. I am talking about the moment when we stood before the deep blue sea and we were scared but we knew we must dive in anyway. At times we can feel so far from that moment, that person we were, the openness and trust we had. Instead we have been lulled into the routine.We build expectations around what little we already have and know. We have forgotten how to dream. We follow rules and do practices yet they seem to mean nothing to us. We are no longer disturbed by the eating and drinking of the flesh and blood of Jesus. Even Jesus no longer disturbs and following him follows.

“Are you so stupid? After beginning with the Spirit, you now end in observances.”

The reality is that we will not alone be disturbed by Jesus in the Gospels, we will not be disturbed by Jesus on the cross or on the altar, Jesus becoming the bread and the wine, or by anything else in church. We will not be disturbed here at church until we are disturbed there in the world. Until we are disturbed by the grave injustice done to people in this world, the pain of peoples’ lives, and the kingdom that is not yet here, we will not be disturbed here in church. There is nothing strong enough other than the suffering of others to pull us out of ourselves, to tear us from our own self-centered world, and to free us from our smallness. But, if we are honest in this moment then we can honestly answer the question: have we not been sleep walking through this also? Have we not become accustomed to the brutality of war, the sin done against our earth, and the injustice that surrounds us? Is it true that we are no longer surprised by homelessness and disturbed by our own neighborhood evils? We sleep walk through the pain of the world and it is no surprise that we do the same with our spiritual lives.

Do we connect the pain of this world to the pain within our own hearts, the suffering of our past, the longing, and the desires for the kingdom? Do we allow the needs of this world to mirror the needs of our own souls? Are we disturbed by what we find within ourselves? Does the need for the kingdom penetrate our own souls so that we long to be freed, to be healed, and to hear the good news? If the world out there doesn’t disturb us and the world within our hearts doesn’t disturb us then the gospel will fall upon deaf ears. If there is no need to transform the world and our lives, then the altar will not disturb us.

But, if we allow the world to disturb us, the pain of others to rip our hearts out, if we allow the broken world to show us our own brokenness, then the message of Jesus will disturb is. It is in that hunger that eating His body and blood we will be transformed. And as we become what we eat, the transformed will transform and we who have been disturbed will be sent out to disturb the world.

 

Art, photography and writing are property of the author and have been previously published. All have been used with permission. To learn more about this week’s guest blogger visit his January post.