adventures in the Spirit, part 3

A wise priest once helped me understand what Spirit means.  Spirit, he said, is all that relates beyond boundaries.  Our Spirits can transcend time, place and bodily nature to relate to our God, the Great Source.  Jesus said His Spirit would be with us always.  At times, it seems as if the spirits of those who have died are close to us.

And, here and now, in our daily Gospel living, our Spirits can relate across the borders of culture, race, social class and place.  It is the work of service, ministry, and real, messy, Gospel-living to move across borders and interact with those who are different from us.

As our Spirits relate in new environments, we learn the Truth. We gain awareness and compassion.  We become more interconnected and united.  We build the reign of God and become more holistically the body of Christ.

This is the continuation of the story of 11 people moving their spirits across borders and relating to difference.  It’s a great adventure to live in the Spirit.

Day 3: Loving God’s Creation

Wednesday.

We’re beginning to get sleepy from all the fun and activity and it’s a little harder to be ready on time this morning, but we still get up and enjoy another wonderful homemade breakfast served by our hosts.  Afterward, we gather around our painted candles for morning prayer and reflection. We are reminded that we can rejoice, as God loves the poor:

I will praise the name of God in song,
and I will glorify him with thanksgiving:
“See, you lowly ones, and be glad;
you who seek God, may your hearts revive!
For the LORD hears the poor,
and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”   Psalm 69: 31, 33-34

The first place we visit is the Postville office of Northeast Iowa Helping Services.  We are overwhelmed to hear how domestic violence and poverty harms people in rural areas.  We learn how hard it is for victims to leave abusive situations when there are so many dual-roles in small communities.  We have to think about how hard it is to run-away from violence in the country where there is no public transportation and everything is spread far apart.  In the country, there may not be fears of gang-violence, but violence is still damaging lives.

The sad stories of sin sink our spirits and we struggle with learning the Truth.

After an intense start of the day, we venture out to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.  We head to Effigy Mounds National Monument in the river-bluffs by the Mississippi River near Marquette, Iowa.  In the woods we get to contemplate how to respond to injustice in loving ways and have fun learning about Native Americans and nature.

We enjoy a picnic and explore the museum and woods.

The views of the Mississippi River from the bluff tops are remarkable.

We still need to do something to make a difference.  We go to Osborne Nature Center near Elkader.  Before working we get to see some wild animals up close.

Then we help to clear an invasive species, garlic mustard, from the woods to help the natural wildlife thrive.

The next thing we do is attend Bible Study.  We’re nervous and excited about joining the youth group from First Baptist Church in Elgin for their weekly meeting.  After eating pizza and playing get-to-know-you games, we become comfortable with each other even though we seem different.  We pray and contemplate scripture. Then we have a lot of fun playing in the dark on a trampoline with the local Iowa teens.

Back in Gunder, at evening prayer and reflection, I asked the students what the most important things were that they learned that day.  One student said that he learned how important it is to stand up against violence and abuse.  Another said that he learned that the woods can be a lot of fun.  A third said that he learned that there are good people everywhere, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or the color of your skin.

Day 4:  Broken Systems, Breaking Bread

Thursday. Our last full day in Iowa.

We’re getting weary but yet we wake up excited for another day of adventure.  After breakfast, our morning reflection reminds us that it is Holy Thursday.  This night, Jesus gathered with his friends and broke bread and taught about communion.  We pray that we can unite through the brokenness of humanity.

Our first site today is Decorah.  Decorah is interesting because it is the closest major town to Gunder.  It’s 40 minutes away and where you can find the nearest McDonald’s and Wal-Mart.  We are warmly welcomed to the Luther College campus with a presentation, gifts and a tour. We learn that Northeast Iowa was settled by immigrants from Norway and Germany in the 1800’s and that’s why there’s a Norwegian ELCA Lutheran college in this town.

Our excellent host at Luther, Pastor David Vasquez, has arranged for us to enjoy the college’s climbing wall and enjoy lunch in the college cafeteria.

We all feel pretty successful after the experience.

Well fed, we go to help feed the hungry. At the First Lutheran Church food pantry we help unload the truck from the Northeast Iowa Food Bank and learn how the church helps provide food and free health care to people from all over Winneshiek County.

After a break for shopping in downtown Decorah, Pastor Dave helps us reflect about everything we have experienced on our trip.

And, Pastor David grounds us in the stories of God’s people.  We are reminded of Joseph in the Old Testament and how he and his brothers immigrated to Egypt.  We learn about the push and pulls that have caused people to move for centuries.  We hear about horrors of the Postville Immigration raid of 2008 and watch this trailer:

And, we hear how God’s law of Love tells us to work for justice:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.-Exodus 23:9

The Spirit has moved people across many borders.  After the presentation, we learn about the Norwegian Immigrant Experience to the United States in the 1800’s at the Vesterheim Museum.

We are learning about human struggle, but we still enjoy a break at The Whippy Dip before we go to Postville.

In Postville we hear about the horrors of the 2008 Immigration Raid right where it happened. We visit the tiny St. Bridget Catholic Church where hundreds sought refuge during the aftermath of the raid.

We see the meat-packing plant that was once called Agri-processors. In both places, Pastor Dave tells us the true stories about what his friends lived through.

Our Holy Thursday dinner happens around a giant table at the Mexican restaurant in Postville with the stories of brokenness stirring in our spirits.

Afterward, we go to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Elkader for mass and hear how Jesus washed the feet of his friends, pray, break bread, sing songs and feel a little uncomfortable because we really stick out for being different.

Back in Gunder, we try to reflect on all that we learned throughout the day.  One of my student says “What happened in Postville was a really big deal. Why doesn’t everyone know about it?”  

We give thanks for the ways that the others in our group have blessed us throughout the week. Around a fire we are commissioned.  We will return to where we came from, but we’ll keep living by the Spirit.  We shall continue to relate beyond bounds.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of adventures in the Spirit.

Visit here for Part 1 and Part 2.

“What if it’s too hard?!”

My students are brilliant.  They endure so much and remain hopeful and faithful.  Prayers of gratitude pour out of them easier than on-time assignments.  Every day I hear praise that God gave them another day.  It’s amazing to me.  But, it shouldn’t be. They’re teenagers and they know they have a life of greatness ahead of them.

In this part of the world there is abundant chaos, confusion and distraction from what is true and right.  Gang warfare, poverty and drug addictions are thick.  We know people who are in jail and people who have been shot.  I shudder at the violence, racism and sexism I have been exposed to around this city.  It seems to me that the common culture tries to convince the youth of today that consumerism, sex, drugs, violence and selfish living are the meaning of life.  The teens are beginning to believe lies:  success is about fame and money and freedom means you aren’t locked up.  It’s an awful, tough world indeed.

Yet, the young come.  No matter that they’re required because they’re in a Catholic school, they still come and are very good.  My students arrive in religion class and argue about whose turn it is to lead prayer because many of them want to do it.  They love to meditate together and have no problem being silent and peaceful.  They listen and work hard.  They ask me tough questions.  Their silliness and playfulness helps me laugh and lighten up.  Their reverence is deep: a hush falls over us as we gaze into the sacred, living words in the Bible.  They want to believe and understand.

In my classroom I preach a lot. I preach that God is good and God is with us.  My students seem to be convinced that they have dignity and they are children of God.  The struggles begin when I start to talk about action.  I preach a lot about how we are called to treat all people in a way that honors their dignity, so they also know they are children of God.  Because we are Christian, I say, we must be different. We must act differently. We must live and love differently.  We really can’t fit into the popular ways of the world, because the world’s ways don’t fit with God’s ways.  We need to act like we believe that Love is the most powerful force in the world.

This week I’ve been teaching about forgiveness. I explained that because we are children of God, we are supposed to forgive like our loving Parent does.  I said that when we wonder how to forgive we can look at Jesus on the cross and see that it takes great sacrifice. I asked them that if we believe it, then what are we supposed to do?  In a world where pride, grudges and even violent retribution is as normal as nonsense, how can we act like children of God?

"cluttered stations" Art by Julia Walsh, FSPA

We read God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu last semester and we remember that it’s up to us to help God’s dreams come true. Tutu has a lot to say of smart things to say about forgiveness:

I keep challenging my students (and therefore, myself!) Their exam essay question asked “what attitudes and actions could you take to help create a society that values forgiveness more than retribution?”

One student raised his hand and said “Sister, what am I supposed to say if I really don’t think it’s possible?”  I said that just this one time, I’ll give a hint about what he could write about.  The first step might be to try to have faith.

Faith isn’t easy in this messy world.  I understand that the world is not sending the same message of God’s goodness and might plus there’s a lot of evidence pointing to other ideas.  I understand that Jesus is asking a lot of his followers.  So, when I preach about the real, un-cozy and uncomfortable challenges of living the Gospel the reactions I hear make a lot sense:

“What if I don’t agree with the Ways of Jesus?”

“How am I supposed to believe this?”

“How can I possibly do this?!”

“Sister, what if it’s just too hard?!”

In my witty way, I tell them that they can take it up with Jesus. I gesture at the cross and tell them that I blame God that it’s so tough.  We can complain but we don’t need to give up.  Jesus made it simple, but not easy, so let’s take it up with him.  “Sit down with Jesus,”  I say, “and have a little chat.  Ask him for some help and grace and understanding.  Let him know how you really feel about it all.  If you really want to believe and be a follower I’m pretty sure God will help you.  You might be surprised.”

I sure hope I am right. I hope they’ll be surprised by the graces God gives and how they’ll be able to do great things with God’s help.   I hope that as my students mature they’ll discover that Jesus’ Way is the best there is.  I hope that it can be the only Way we’ll know.

stories that shoot the truth

Last week there was a shooting at the Walgreen’s near the school where I work.  I couldn’t find stories about it online and it didn’t make the evening news. It probably will never make the news at all because the victim, a teenage boy, survived.

I found out about the shooting because it happened after school and one of my students went to the store to buy a poster board to make a project I had assigned.  “Sister, there was a shooting in the Walgreen’s before I got there. I saw the boy go off on the stretcher. He’s okay, his eyes were open, he just looked scared.”

I listened and was amazed. I was very upset, as I am every time my students tell such stories.  Every time I learn the truth about the violence my students live with I am stunned, speechless, scared and angry. I cry with sorrow and pain when I get home from work.  I am shot down by the stories; I am disarmed and powerless.

I know most of my students know someone who has been shot.  Many of them know someone who has been killed. Several of them know someone who is in jail.  When I learn the truth, I want to share it. I really want to survey all the students and uncover the statistics so I could publicize them to the entire world and compel others to care and pray and work for change.

A while ago I asked a group of my students how they felt about my survey idea.  I said I wanted to tell the world about what they have to live through.  I was surprised with their response.  They were very unenthused by the idea, not because it was unimportant to them or insulting, but because they didn’t think that it would change anything.

“Sister,” I heard, “if you really want people to know about the violence we live with, then gather a group of us and let us tell our stories.”

Of course!  Duh me!  I know that stories are more important than statistics.  I know compassion is developed through relationships.  I believe that Jesus modeled how to listen and to teach through storytelling.  When we serve and love we need to know the people we are concerned about.  This is ancient history:

The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.God is with you statue
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”Lv 19:1-2, 17-18

And then of course Jesus inspires us:

““You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?”    –Mt 5:43-46

We can’t love our enemies unless we really know who they are.  Once we really know someone and have heard what they have lived through — no matter what they have done — it is hard not to love.  God’s designs are perfect.  If we heed the words and the ways, the world will surely be changed. The kingdom of God will come.

In my classroom we discuss the challenge of loving our enemies, like Jesus and the Bible teach us.  The students understand the theories of non-violence very well, much better than I did at their age.  As they walk through real battlefields between school and home, their youthful ideals are challenged.

Yet, I know storytelling changes things.  My senior Peace and Justice students have been examining the influence and the power of non-violence by watching a documentary that tells stories, not statistics.  Through media, we are meeting people around the world who have really changed the oppressive systems by loving their enemies.   The film is appropriately called A Force More Powerful.

I admire my students very much.  Their hearts have been broken, yet they believe in the power of love.  I asked the students to tell  me why non-violence is called a force more powerful.  Here is a sampling of their responses:

“Non-violence makes the people who are hitting them feel bad because they are not being hit back.”

“Non-violence is more powerful than any other method of difference-making because it requires the most discipline, endurance and mental strength.”

“Non-violence is a force more powerful because it is showing ultimate love and resistance towards evil and violence.”

“Non-violence is more powerful because it makes people look at the opposed as if they are wrong when they become violent.”

“Why is non-violence a force more powerful? Because it makes a social revolution in the lives of everyone through reason and dignity.  Violence cannot do this.”

I teach non-violence in the middle of a war-zone.  Our entire globe is at war too, fighting for rights and freedom.  The cries for democracy in the middle-east and protests at state capitols cause us to wonder how peace and justice can truly emerge.Peace sign

What will it take for our rage to transform into love?  Parker Palmer, modern-day prophet, says that it is storytelling.  I agree.  When the real truth shoots us down, we have to reach to the other to rise up into change.