Children in traditional Hasidic Jewish attire run joyfully on the playground. Some of their playmates speak Spanish, others are Anglos with bobbing blond hair. Multiple languages float through the August air under the music. A Mexican band sings and strums its guitars as the sequins on the band member’s sombreros glitter in the sun. I sit with hundreds of people at picnic tables, munching food made by our neighbors: tacos, shish kabobs, falafel, pelmeni, borscht, pierogies, Maid-Rites, venison and pie. There is a sacredness to the event, a holiness to this community. This, I think, is what the reign of God might look like.
But this is not heaven. It is…
[This is the beginning of an article I wrote for America. Continue reading here.]
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.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs./ We are prophets of a future not our own
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.
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.
I was first introduced to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s cosmology at a bar in Wisconsin. I was a recently graduated senior out to eat with my parents, drinking a beer in public for the first time. I was still 18, but in western Wisconsin the legal drinking age is as obfuscated as Teilhard’s arduous writing.
The conversation turned to religion, as it often did in my family. I was raised in a household enmeshed in what Alice McDermott would call a “thick” Catholicism, with parents rooted in a liberal, post-Vatican II religious milieu. I was just beginning to seriously question my faith for the first time and its applicability to the postmodern, spiritual-but-not-religious world in which I was becoming an adult. While this questioning would ebb and flow for years, this conversation over pizza and beer was one of several very subtle and delicate moments that would, in the end, tether my heart to the chaos that is American Catholicism.
In response to my doubting a moral center to our universe and the uncertain state of our country amidst the final years of George Bush’s second term, my Dad pointed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit scientist and evolutionary theologian, as a source for hope. He explained that Teilhard was convinced that evolution was not a random process, and it did not solely point to a biological reality. Instead, it was a way of seeing the entire cosmos that applied to our faith. Since the beginning of time we have been on a collective journey, with the entirety of created matter, toward love, toward total unification with God, toward the Omega Point.
My dad’s optimism, and subsequently Teilhard de Chardin’s, is now grafted into my worldview. Pierre’s positive understanding of creation and his undying hope in the coming Kingdom of God has proved to be especially important during this past year. Amidst the catastrophes of pending nuclear war and climate change, and the ever-growing wedge between the rich and poor, Americans have elected a white nationalist to the presidency.
Teilhard would understand the rise of Trump to be situated within, if not a culmination of, what he calls “an organic crisis in evolution.” In “The Human Phenomenon” Teilhard explains that, “There is a danger that the elements of the world should refuse to serve the world.” Usually ever-optimistic, he concedes that there is a possibility humans will not travel the course set for us through evolution, the path mapped out for us by God.
To avoid this catastrophe Teilhard argues that we must choose to surrender to the collectivization of consciousness, to fall into unification. Our proper participation in evolution and our arrival at the Omega Point is contingent on a new economic and social order; one that unifies, that eliminates economic and social differentiating and the privileging of certain categories of people. These divisions (facilitated by the interplay between capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy) are an impasse. They are a nonstarter, clogging our evolutionary journey and impeding our salvation. The establishment of a new order, which Teilhard’s work demands, must take on a new sense of urgency given the rise of Donald Trump and the divisions and violence he signifies. In the age of Trump, Teilhard reminds us that the evolutionary journey of the cosmos, which arches toward the unification of matter with God’s love, now lies in our hands.
Joe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia through the La Crosse, Wisconsin, community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse. Now he spends most of his time working at Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.
Last summer, I sat in a small circle of with other sisters my age at the Giving Voice conference. We were praying in silence, integrating the question our speakers had invited us to consider: What sort of borders do we desire to cross?
In the quiet, I recalled a fear that had surfaced earlier, when I was discerning whether I wanted to make my final vows with my congregation. What if, I wondered, dedicating myself to this particular way of living religious life made it look like I was only saying “yes” to a certain type of Catholicism? What if my yes was heard as a no to other lives and ways of being a woman religious?
As I looked around this circle, I noticed that all of us looked like modern women; many of us wore capri pants, sandals and cross necklaces. I had a lot in common with these women, but I knew that…
Such mottos of countercultural Christian living have been ingrained in me for much of my life. Lately they have been going around in my mind like a record, while I have been pondering instances of divisiveness and polarization, both in American politics and…
Church is tough. We are like a big dysfunctional family regularly squabbling and bickering about bizarre things. Sometimes we try to divorce each other or run away from home. But, we can’t, really. The Christian church family is the only family that can heal us and give us true freedom. In the Catholic branch, there’s true Eucharistic Love.
No matter what, like it or not, we’re in this together. And no one can really separate herself from her roots; we can’t really forget who we are and where we belong. No one can really leave his family.
In this family, our connection is Christ. Christ is the heart that keeps beating and keeps the energy flowing. Christ keeps us moving and building and creating.
All the diversity is essential for the body to function. Let’s love and cherish it. We can’t persist; we can’t exist without being different. God designed us this way on purpose.
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. -1 Corinthians 12: 4-7
I love being Catholic because we’re a wide Church with a very deep spirituality. (At least that’s the way I understand Ecclesiology.) There’s a wide range of what makes one Catholic. Despite our diversity, we still unite in Christ through the same sacraments, the same traditions and basically the same liturgies.
In this family, we don’t know all our relatives because we’re all so busy doing different work. It’s a little understandable. We are permitted to be different because we need to be. Part of the diversity of spirit means that we have different opinions about what our priorities should be. The challenge- and the frustration- is when we seem to lack appreciation for the others’ efforts in building the kingdom of God. We can’t all be working hard at every need. So why do those who are passionate about one issue get frustrated if others aren’t working at it with them?
Personally, I have discerned that I am called to collaborate with peacemakers who are working for non-violent Gospel systemic change in the issues of poverty, war, torture, immigration, environmentalism and food. I depend on those who are working hard with the issues of health care, education, death penalty, abortion, contraception and equality to keep working hard in my name.
No one can do everything. But we must all do something, right? Perhaps the most important thing we can do in these divided times is support each other. Truly we can never say thank you enough.
There’s struggle and pain in our divided, yet united, beautiful diverse body. When we criticize each other, we so easily feel as if no one has noticed all the hard work we have been trying to do. I’ve noticed and I say thank you!
The fire of God is burning and we gather to praise and rejoice. No barriers divide us, no division separates us. God’s mystery connects us through the diversity of language, origin, world-view, culture and class. We are together, glowing with the heat that can only be experienced by the fullness of humanity.
Fire is beautiful, enlightening, strong. We can become mesmerized and tempted to play in it and with it, teasing the limits. With deep wonder, we can get too close to the power, only to be burned and scarred. If we dance with God’s designs, we can’t stay the same.
In fact, the elements of God’s designs instill in us great lessons about the mystery of God’s nature. Fire is fierce, dangerous, destructive. Without our attention or understanding, the sparks of elements and energy ignite flames in fields and forests. Dry air and strong wind force rages for miles, destroying life, homes, security and control.
We lament at loss and grieve our lack of understanding. It feels like an injustice, it’s definitely a mystery. How can we love and have faith anymore? How can we believe and trust? How are we supposed to accept that this is Love’s Way when we feel so hurt?
Nature tells us, though, that with time life comes back brighter and stronger after a fire sweeps through. In my childhood, I remember being confused about how my parents would start brush fires in our pastures to renew the grasses for something better. It made no sense to me, just as I now don’t understand my Divine Parent’s fire-y ways.
I try to trust, despite the struggle. I’ve been hurt by the sudden death of a colleague and I am trying to live through painful good-byes; I’m ending my ministry in Chicago and moving to Wisconsin to be near the motherhouse. On Tuesday, another student told me that someone he knew well (his cousin) was shot and killed. A foot taller than me at fifteen, I suddenly fell onto his chest, sobbing at the injustice. He stood there like a pillar of stone, trying to comfort me through his own stunned grief. “It’s OK, Sister.” he muttered. “No, it’s not!” I said.
Somehow, I must be faithful to my call to be an itinerant Franciscan and say good-bye to my students who are in so much pain. Somehow, I must trust God that things will really be OK. I must trust the mystery of God’s glorious fire, because I have no other choice. And, I believe that Love is truly stronger than any other energy, even the energy of non-understanding.
Deep in the dark, I shall snuggle up to the coals of God’s comfort with my community, family and friends. The force of the Spirit shall heal and transform all of us, together, to be united as one body: the fire of God’s love. May it be so, Amen, indeed, Amen.
Here are my thoughts: It’s hilarious because it is so right on. I actually used that video when I introduced Catholic Social Teaching principles to my Peace and Justice students this year. We had to watch it a few times because we were all laughing so hard that we couldn’t hear everything.
Christianity is so messy for so many reasons. One of the reasons it’s messy is because we’re all very divided about the best methods of practice and the meaning of the message. What if Glenn Beck is right and social justice is a code for communist Christianity? (That’s just confusing!) What if Fr. James Martin is wrong and Jesus wasn’t really poor “because his father was loaded.”
One of my advent posts created some controversy because we didn’t all believe that Jesus was a poor man. Why not? Why is it uncomfortable to think about Jesus as poor? What if he really was just a middle class man of his era? What if the emphasis of Christianity is supposed to be spirituality and not justice? (I believe it’s always a combination.)
What is the definition of poverty? What is the definition of justice?
Brothers and Sisters, we must return to our Christian roots. The point of all of this is love not squabble! My students – and many young people – are watching the way Christian adults behave and becoming very confused. “Sister, if Christianity is supposed to be all about Love, then why are Christians so mean to each other?” What am I supposed to say? I sigh and see the Beatitudes and the Great Commandment hanging on my classroom wall. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
The current climate of our country begs us to love each other in healing sorts of ways. Slander was screamed all over the internet while President Obama gave his bold State of the Union speech. Yet his words remind us that democracy is about peace and basic respect.
“It’s no secret that those of us here tonight have had our differences over the last two years. The debates have been contentious; we have fought fiercely for our beliefs. And that’s a good thing. That’s what a robust democracy demands. That’s what helps set us apart as a nation. But there’s a reason the tragedy in Tucson gave us pause. Amid all the noise and passion and rancor of our public debate, Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater -– something more consequential than party or political preference. We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different from those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.” – President Obama
Indeed the tragedy in Tucson shook our nation. What if it also alerted Christians about the danger of divisions in the Christian church? Crowds continue to pray for Representative Giffords’ healing and wipe away tears of disbelief. Meanwhile, the Blessed Holy Spirit blows through tension between us and builds bridges of Christ-like compassion. Converted to Love, I hope we can walk toward one another on that bridge where hot dialogue happens.
Young people need a church that they want to be part of, one that gives them passion and faith. My students need to be eager to share the Love that they find in their churches on the violent streets because they know it is True.
I need to be willing to model what Christian Love and unity could look like for the people who pay attention to me, even when I am really mad. I pray that I can have an open heart and mind to all people of faith. I pray for ability to love someone who says my passion- social justice- is wrong. I pray that I have the strength to lovingly walk across the divide, right into the arms of my enemies.