Porters, Posadas and our Advent invitation

“Welcome!” My Capuchin Franciscan postulant friend greeted me as he opened the large wooden door, inviting me inside from the Midwestern early-winter chill. There was a handsome plate beside the door, announcing to visitors that this large old house was the St. Conrad Priory.

“Who is St. Conrad?” I asked, stepping inside.

“He was a porter,” my friend answered. “He opened the door and extended hospitality to visitors.”

As we made our way into the foyer he continued, gesturing to an icon on the wall “This is Solanus Casey, who is up for canonization. We have quite a few Franciscan porter saints.”

St. Conrad of Parzham Photo credit: catholic.org
St. Conrad of Parzham (Photo credit: www.catholic.org)

I was surprised – porter saints? Surely, it is easy to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary holiness of courageous missionaries, wise theologians, inspiring preachers, tireless pastoral workers and valiant martyrs. But porters? Why would the Church choose to lift up and honor the holiness of those who spent their lives as doorkeepers?

The unexpectedly large number of porter saints is a testament to how central hospitality is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The refrain repeated over and over in the Hebrew Scriptures is to remember that since we were once strangers in the land of Egypt, we are to welcome strangers now. And Scripture reminds us continually that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome God. Abraham entertaining angels unaware in Genesis. Cleopas and his companion inviting the stranger on the Emmaus road in for a meal, only to discover Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Jesus insisting to his bewildered followers that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Him.

This truth is made visible during the Advent season when Mexican and Mexican-American Catholics act out the Gospel through the practice of Las Posadas (literally, “the inns”). For nine consecutive nights, we gather to re-enact the journey of Joseph and Mary asking for shelter in Bethlehem. It is a deeply incarnational practice which literally challenges us to stand in the shoes of travel-weary Mary and Joseph, or to stand in the shoes of those in relative warmth and safety indoors that have to respond to their request.

Photo credit: https://www.neostuff.net
Photo credit: https://www.neostuff.net

“In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter,” a group sings in Spanish outside a locked door. “My beloved wife can travel no further.”

After being turned away several times, the door is opened and the group representing the Holy Family is welcomed in joyfully. “Enter, holy pilgrims,” is the jubilant refrain of those inside as they offer hospitality to the stranger – who is Christ.

During the years I worked in Hispanic parish ministry, I celebrated Las Posadas with a primarily Mexican and Central American immigrant community. During the shortest days of the year, we gathered in the dark, stamping our feet and rubbing our hands together against the cold which worked its way through our wool hats and fleecy gloves. We passed a flickering flame from taper candle to taper candle, cupping our hands to carefully guard the small flame from the December wind, the warm glow lighting our faces as we processed. My breath came out in white, cloudy puffs as I sang the familiar words of the lilting melody. And then, the open door, the sung words of welcome, the warmth and light of the parish hall, the inviting scent of steaming pots of pozole and hot chocolate, the smiling faces of friends.

Tragically, in the past weeks since the election, we have seen a heart-breaking, disturbing rash of hate crimes, many directed at immigrants, especially those from Latin America or the Middle East.

In the face of our current political and social reality, the witness of porter saints like St. Conrad and the Las Posadas tradition offer an urgent challenge and poignant invitation for Christ-followers not only to open doors and keep a safe distance, but to open ourselves to conversion through encountering the stranger. To see the stranger as a blessing, not a burden. To believe we may catch a glimpse of our God if we dare to unlatch the lock, turn the doorknob, and step onto the threshold to greet those who knock.

This advent, through my work as a Spanish-language legal interpreter, I have glimpsed God through “Catalina,” a plucky, bright-eyed fifteen-year-old Central American girl. She spoke with a straight-forward, quiet confidence as she described leaving her home in the rural highlands, traveling through Mexico on buses, and entering the United States to reunite with family here.

“I wasn’t scared,” I said, interpreting Catalina’s words from Spanish to English for the immigration lawyer. “I prayed for God to be my guide. Every time I got on a bus, I would pray for God to protect me. And my prayers were answered.”

At the end of the legal consultation appointment, Catalina thanked me and clasped my hand, her bright brown eyes locking on mine with a sudden, shy seriousness.

“God is with you,” she said.

Perhaps unwittingly, this immigrant teenager girl spoke the name of God that we chant, sing, and meditate upon during these Advent days of hoping and waiting: Emmanuel. God is with us.

Catalina’s unexpected blessing challenges me to grow in trust and reminds me of the many ways my heart has been expanded through encountering the stranger on the threshold of an open door.

St. Conrad, and all you porter saints, pray for us that we, too, may open doors and make room for the coming of Emmanuel.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Rhonda-Miska-red-shirt
Photo courtesy of Wendy Wareham Photography

This week’s guest blogger is Rhonda Miska. Like Sister Julia, this Messy Jesus Rabble Rouser is a former Jesuit Volunteer and a member of Giving Voice. She is a candidate with the Sinsinawa Dominican sisters and freelance writer who teaches religious studies at Clarke University in Dubuque (in the fine state of Iowa – Sister Julia’s home state!). She studied at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and her past ministries include congregation-based community organizing, coordinating a winter shelter for people who are homeless, accompanying migrant children in legal proceedings, and living in a community with adults with special needs. Read more at www.clippings.me/rhondamiska.

Ugandan faith lesson #1: always room at the inn

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the first blog post in the five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family” by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda. Stay tuned throughout this week to experience the next four installments of Nicole’s faith lessons from Africa.

Nearly 10 years ago, my life and faith were transformed by the experience of volunteering in Mbale, Uganda. Though I only lived there for three months, each day burst at the seams with discoveries, challenges and delights, such that those three months occupy an enormous share of my life’s key memories.

A few weeks ago I returned to Uganda with my husband, finally following through on a long-repeated promise to visit my beloved host family. As we danced, laughed, and prayed with our Ugandan family, we were blessed and renewed by the African spirit, a spirit which—I am convinced—suffuses anyone who has the privilege of visiting that beautiful place.

I could probably write a book about the ways in which my Ugandan family has informed and challenged my own discipleship, but I have narrowed them down to five major faith lessons.

Faith lesson #1: always room at the inn

My host family’s house is a veritable revolving door of visitors and guests. Family, friends, friends-of-friends, co-workers, community partners and complete strangers show up unannounced throughout the day, oftentimes requiring a hearty meal and/or a place to sleep.

They are always, always welcomed with enthusiastic hospitality.

Nicole with Delight, host family's youngest sibling
Nicole with Delight, host family’s youngest sibling

Part of this, of course, is cultural: the people of Uganda are renowned across Sub-Saharan Africa for their incredible hospitality. Upon entering any home, you are sure to receive a vigorous greeting: “Oooooh, you are MOST welcome!” is followed by an exchange in which your host clasps your hands for the duration of your conversation. At first, I found this constant physical touch to be somewhat disconcerting, but I came to love the way it signified the full focus of the person with whom I was talking. In Uganda, I never felt like I was competing with a smart phone (and, yes, they do exist there!) for someone’s attention.

My host family, however, takes Ugandan hospitality to another level. Far beyond cultural expectations, they invite people into their home with relentless joy … and into their hearts with unquestioning love. They set a place for their guests at the table, and prepare for them a mattress complete with mosquito net; they invite their visitors into their evening prayer ritual, and thank God for their presence among them. They do this over and over again. Every. Single. Day.

I cannot imagine how exhausted I would be if people dropped in on me with even half the frequency they do to my Ugandan family … But that’s probably because I tend to fixate on frivolous things when I am playing hostess.

host family compound
host family compound

My Ugandan family does not fret over unwashed dishes or un-mopped floors; they do not panic if someone has to eat standing up; they do not offer superficial apologies for their cooking. Their guests are not seen or treated as an interruption to plans, because guests are always planned for. My host family takes seriously Saint Peter’s exhortation to “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” (1 Peter 4:9) Indeed, they have created in their home a culture of hospitality in which hugging yet another visitor at the end of the day is never a burden, but rather a blessed opportunity to extend their family embrace that much wider.

host family neighborhood
host family neighborhood

For reflection: What could I do to foster an attitude of unbridled hospitality in my home and in my heart, such that every opportunity to invite someone in is welcomed as a blessing?

Author bio: Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She is profoundly grateful to her Ugandan host family and friends for changing her life a decade ago and continuing to make her a better person today.

Wanyala ni inkugana naabi!

 

the lesson of spring soil

"cracked through" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“cracked through” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
 
soil slides aside
allowing an emergence
flower seed breaks, becoming
resurrected over the reasons and chances
that it might not make it
or shouldn’t come
alive it rises, a new life
a new colorful character in the neighborhood
sustained by the power of the sun
Earth knows how to welcome the stranger
room is made, food provided
a warm loving home to the foreigner
yes to new life, yes to self-sharing
praise for Earth knowing and role modeling
it’s actually quite natural to boldly give
radical hospitality
A crowd prays at a detention center in Illinois, June 2012, blessing a bus as it brings immigrants to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
A crowd prays at a detention center in Illinois, June 2012, blessing a bus as it brings immigrants to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
A bus full of immigrants leaves a detention center in Illinois, June 2012, to bring people to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

sing, blessed women

I have memories of my grandma embarrassing me in church when I was a little girl.  She would sing really loud and off-key.  I couldn’t hear the choir or the piano; I just heard my grandma blurting out hymns like she didn’t care what others thought.  It didn’t make sense to me.  Being my bold little self, I remember telling her so.  In her smiley, matter-of-fact way she would respond: “The Bible says make a joyful noise unto the Lord, it doesn’t say that it has to sound pretty.

Today, December 8, is the 13th anniversary of my grandmother’s death. It is also the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Today my heart honors and praises God for the power of two women who have taught me how to sing “yes” to God with the joyful song of my life.

I am amazed, today, that the psalm I most associate with my grandma is part of the liturgical readings:

Sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done wondrous deeds;
His right hand has won victory for him,
his holy arm.
The LORD has made his salvation known:
in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice.
He has remembered his kindness and his faithfulness
toward the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation by our God.
Sing joyfully to the LORD, all you lands;
break into song; sing praise. -Psalm 98

My grandmother wasn’t a Catholic; she was a faithful Lutheran woman.  I don’t remember her ever talking about Mary and showing any images of her beyond the ones in Christmas scenes. Still, her faith and “yes” to God, like Mary’s, helped Goodness come into the world.

The matriarch of my big family and my rural neighborhood, my Grandmother, was a woman who had a wide open home and big, hospitable arms.  She raised 10 children on a farm in Northeast Iowa and her maternal nature extended into the next two generations.  In her home, children could play and farmers and neighbors could stop by for lunch and snacks.  Myself, my siblings, my cousins and the other neighbor children were empowered.  We would get help with our homework, collect nickels and pennies in payment for chores and learn how to cook.  The house usually smelled like bread and soup and a quilting frame frequently took the place of the dining room table.  The quilts she sewed were mission quilts and we knew that they were going to keep someone poor warm in a far-away land. Prayer books and Bibles were in every room.  In closets there were boxes of Bibles and other treasures waiting to be given away.  The home was warm and cozy and no stomach could ever feel hungry.

Like St. Paul, Grandma wrote important letters.  She would send cards and notes to everyone she knew for every occasion.  Tucked into every card were Bible verses that she hoped the recipient would later look up and study: Psalm 129, 1 Corinthians 13, Philippians 2, Psalm 98.  Her practical, generous loving Gospel witness steered many toward faith and trust in God.

In the mystery of faith the power of another woman’s “yes” to God’s goodness lives on and changes lives.  Our mother Mary was amazingly pure with Love and Light. Poor and young, she bowed to the mystery and allowed God’s might to come into her, be birthed through her and bring the universe to redemption.  What she said “yes” to continues to unfold in women today, who sing “yes” to God and let God’s will be done in them.

Like Mary and my grandma, I seek to be the woman I am called to be. I wonder what particular mission I must do, how I must birth life, how I need to listen, how I need to serve and obey.  I am grateful for the witness of Mary, the mother of God, and my beloved grandmother who remind me that my body is sacred and holds great potential for the spreading of God’s love.  Because they said “yes” I have been formed to share and simply give all I can.

In all of our lives and in every place, women continue to sing joyful praise.  Amazingly, diverse languages, tunes and rhythms somehow unite into harmony that helps free us all.   Thanks be to God for the witness, the power, the love.  May God bless women everywhere who work so hard to be free so they may sing more loudly and joyfully, even if it seems out of tune.  May God help us all, women and men, sing our own joyful song!


This is Mary’s song:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;

my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;

behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.

The Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is from age to age

to those who fear him.

He has shown might with his arm,

dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.

He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones

but lifted up the lowly.

The hungry he has filled with good things;

the rich he has sent away empty.

He has helped Israel his servant,

remembering his mercy,

according to his promise to our fathers

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  –Luke 1: 46-55

churches get out of the way, go to The Way

Christians, I think we have a lot of growing to do!

It’s embarrassing to admit that I can totally relate to the awkwardness featured in that video.  For a period of my life, before I settled into Catholicism, I was a seeker.  I visited a lot of brands of Christianity and tried to find a community that seemed like they were on fire for Jesus, service and social justice in the ways I wanted to be.

It was a lot of fun to bounce into worship services and jump up and down for Jesus.   X-games athletes might have used the events as warm-ups.  There were quiet times, too.  It was fascinating to attend Bible studies after Christian yoga.  I confronted pastors and asked hard questions then went home with a cool new bracelet and a headache.

My church-hopping days were adventurous. Certainly, they were also confusing and painful.  I was pretty young and I didn’t yet understand what I was experiencing or feeling.  I couldn’t even describe what I was looking for, but now I know it was something deep, lasting and radical.

Sometimes my searching brought me to Christian churches where I tried to find an easy escape because there was more of a cult-like mood than a Christ-like one.  It scared me a lot.  In general, whenever I am around groups that are very focused on themselves- and getting more people to be like them- I become concerned.

True, Christ told us to baptize others and bring more into the flock.  It seems to me, though, that if we were to truly live the gospel by working for justice and peace and loving and including all, then expansion would be natural.

But all Christians- myself included- can grow and improve as we seek to live the gospel.  As we try, we must keep looking in the mirror and paying attention to the realities we create.

I wonder: When we’ve been stuck in tunnel for a long time, how could we ever know when our vision has become too narrow?  Can we be trapped in a cave of comfortableness without even knowing it?  How many times do new people get creeped out when they come to our churches?  Do our lingo and ways make people feel awkward instead of at home?

I pray often that we can have open hearts and minds. I pray that we don’t get stuck in what’s comfortable for us and become stubborn about our convictions.

Like the disciples, we don’t really have a clue about where we’re going and what we’re up to.

Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  -John  14:5-7

I pray that we freely understand and follow Jesus, The Way, instead of our own worldly and churchy ways.  I pray that as we continually look around and let the Spirit guide us, we still have bold faith and deep trust in God. I pray that we can let go of what we’re used to when it’s no longer helpful.  I think it’s healthy to do this as individuals and as communities.

I pray that we become authentically loving Christ-like communities of inclusion, peace and justice.  I pray that our responses to seekers are kind and real.  I pray that modern Christianity looks more like this: