Do you know who you’re talking to?

As I walked down the hall and into our parish’s Spanish language youth group meeting after a very trying and somewhat disappointing middle school lesson on the Ten Commandments, I was fully immersed in beleaguered-teacher mode. I entered and quickly began an Advent lesson on Mary. We began reviewing the stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity, and I was asking questions and giving answers in a pretty rote fashion: What’s the angel’s name? Who does he visit first? Who is Elizabeth the mother of? Yes, that’s right … no, that’s wrong … and so forth. But before long a more engaging question came up from one of the students: why doesn’t Mary get scolded for questioning the angel?

I paused. It’s a decent question. Gabriel shows up to Zechariah and announces a miraculous birth. When Zechariah asks how this shall come to pass given the age of himself and his wife, the angel takes this as a doubt-filled affront and strikes him mute. Fast forward a little bit, when Gabriel shows up to Mary and announces a miraculous birth. Mary asks how this shall come to pass given the circumstances of her virginity. Gabriel, instead of becoming angry, gives a fuller account and praises Mary even further. What gives?

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Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Annunciation” (image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org)

The students give various answers. They seem to me insufficient, and I say so; I’m the teacher after all. No, that’s not right. No, I don’t think so. I give some explanation which seems to me semi-convincing, and the kids nod. I prepare to move on. But another hand goes up, “No Mr. Steven, I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s a better explanation.”

“Oh,” I say, skeptical. “And what is that?”

The student continues. “I mean, I just think the angel knows who he is talking to … the mother of the King. In some way his own mother. You cannot talk to your mother that way. Maybe your brothers and sisters, maybe your friends, but not your mother. I would never, and surely the angel is better at these things than I am.”

I had never thought of that before. The student’s response knocked me out of my haze and into a moment of speechless consideration. I’ll admit, I don’t know the real answer to this question (who can pretend to know the minds of the angels? The mind of God?), but I loved his answer and his perception humbled me. I was no longer in teacher modeI was awake now, and pondering this possibility right alongside the rest of the class.

I just think the angel knows who he is talking to.

My student comes from a home where there is a much greater culture of traditional respect than in the home I grew up in. Most of the time, I talked to my parents any which wayif anything, familiarity was a sign of closeness and affection, not respect. And while both have their place, I realized that the discussion with this student meant I had missed somethingI couldn’t see what he could.

It is a lesson I have learned before and which I clearly need to learn again; perhaps one we must learn over and over countless times: we can only see the fullness of truth in a community of faith. Our viewpoints are limited and all those we encounter know something we don’t. We can learn something new from anyone at any time if we are willing to set down the answer book and listen. Just as an adolescent Jewish girl from Nazareth can outrank an angel in holiness, so too can students surpass their teacher’s insight; so too can we all be outmatched in wisdom by those we underestimate. Real wisdom is not ignoring those lessons when they come.

But the student’s answer is also challenging on a different level. As I left class that day I found myself thinking, “Do I know who I am talking to?” My students are kids; kids I am entrusted with teaching and correcting. But do I also recognize them as brothers and sisters and fellow disciples? People with unique experiences of God that frequently surpass my own in holiness? People who had a relationship with God before I stepped in the classroom and who will have one long after they have moved on from our time together?

Do I know who I am talking to in the people I meet every day? Do I know who I am talking to in the person on the street? Do I know who I am talking to when I argue with my enemy? C.S. Lewis once said that there are no ordinary people:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

All too often I don’t know this. For me, familiarity might not breed contempt but it can sure breed blindness and ingratitude. The people I see every day my family, my students, my co-workers and acquaintances —  become normal, and I can no longer see them each for the unique word of God that is spoken in them. The unique aspect of the Divine Person that they are in the world.

My student gave me a great gift on the first day of Advent and so it has become my Advent prayer:

Renew my vision. Let me see people as they really are; let me see them as you see them. Let me take no one for granted, and let me recognize your face in all I meet.

Lord, let me see who I am talking to. Amen.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

We walk together: reflections of the Women’s March

Leading up to the Women’s March on Washington last week, I noticed a lot of #WhyIMarch and also #WhyImNotMarching social media posts. Because the spirit, style and mission of the event—seemingly driven by language of “reproductive rights” (a new expression I’ve not yet come to terms with)—didn’t resonate with me, I found my own feelings and conclusions undecided.

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Adam and Eli marching (photo courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker)

What attracted me was the immediate, massive response of women (and men) coming together to respond in an assertive but nonviolent way with their bodies (not just Tweeting and tagging). The ambiguity of the platform appealed to me too but also gave me pause for possible interpretation as inclusivity: many people feel wronged for different reasons and it’s necessary to create a space where all can come together and voice their concern; not in a series of separate events but in unity.

It’s not uncommon for the term unity to be mistaken as synonymous with sameness. In fact, unity requires diversity: many different people, beliefs and ideas coming together to form “a complex whole.” Unity is not clean and neat, it’s messy and complicated. (Something we readers of Messy Jesus Business should appreciate!) What finally tipped the scales for me was the presence of my family members, with varying political and religious views, joining their voices across the country. In the spirit of sisterhood and unity, I asked some of them to share their reflections of the march.

Grace, who lives in Ohio and shared her home with a family of four (while in between jobs, after the birth of her second child), knows well what it means to practice hospitality:

I entered the Women’s March in D.C. as a skeptical outsider, wanting to observe and understand even though I felt like I didn’t quite belong. I wanted to stand up for dignity: for the right to dignity for women, Muslims, immigrants—all those who have been demeaned and treated as “less than” in the rhetoric of our new president. As a Christian I take to heart the command given in Leviticus to welcome and love the stranger (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Yet because I believe dignity of life extends to the unborn, the newly formed life, I kept questioning if there was a place for someone like me—pro-women, pro-equal rights, pro-intelligent sexual education, pro-supportive and affordable health care for women and pro-life—in this march. I had a desire to stand in solidarity with my fellow women and men in a historic moment but based on the official platform of the march I felt in many ways my presence wasn’t wanted.

As I struggled I came to recognize that to remove oneself from a discussion because you disagree is to render your voice obsolete. What part can we play in inspiring change and perpetuating truth when we refuse to begin the conversation? Conversing is not to speak at someone; to spew statistics, Scripture, opinion, or fact and then write them off when they disagree. A conversation involves listening, giving and receiving. So I sought to observe and understand the varied reasons so many people felt they could stay silent no longer and among these many voices I heard and saw things that made my heart say, “Yes, I see you, I know how you are feeling. I feel the same way.”

Ann Marie is a mother of three and long-time advocate for human rights who attended the march in Los Angeles wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt:

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Placas-Nee girls marching (photo courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker)

BLACK LIVES MATTER means our neighbors live lives in which they are told they matter less than us, and we need to do something about it. At the very least we must recognize it’s true, it’s happening and it’s their experience instead of foolishly insisting “but we ALL MATTER.” Yes, WE ALL MATTER. That’s the point. We need to change society—that they matter the same as us— till it rings true.

I took my two daughters, five and nine years old, to the march in L.A. because while we each have a voice now, we may not always. I may not fear for my immediate way of life or that of my blond-haired, blue-eyed children. We are safe and comfortable in so many ways. We haven’t been attacked because of our religion, our skin color, our parents’ country of origin. We may not have been threatened by Trump and his campaign promises, but our neighbors and fellow Americans have. So we went to speak out and lend our voices to theirs.

Allison traveled to D.C. along with her husband (my brother), both compelled by dismay that a man with such obvious disdain for women, Muslims, people of color and the environment is the new president:

It felt like a momentous day just from the bodies present, the singing, the buzz of electricity. And amidst all this excitement, one thing stood out to me the most.

We had been standing in the crowd for a couple of hours when a cry started. “Karen! Karen!” My husband and I joked “You’re in a crowd of 500,000 people and you’re trying to find Karen? Good luck.” Then we heard Karen’s son had been separated from her. A little boy lost his mom. We joined in the “Karen” shouts until she was found. Then we saw a group of women encircling a young boy, spreading the sea of people with their bodies, shouting “We’ve got a lost kid!” The women marched him backwards until he was reunited with his mom.

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Amy and Penny marching (photo courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker)

I keep thinking about the way those women protected Karen’s son, a child none of them knew. The way ripples of “Karen!” flooded the human logjam. The way everyone worked together to solve a problem. The way I’d been skeptical and my quick change of heart when I realized a child was in need. The way we all thought of our own children getting lost and needing help. That moment was a microcosm of the world in which we march.  If we all shout “Karen!” loud and long enough, Karen or peace or human rights or equality can be found. We have the power to move ourselves with the best interest of our children in mind through the masses; to push ourselves to the front, and to let our leaders know that we will not let even one of us be lost, trampled, forgotten. We walk together. I have your back.

As for me, I carried a sign my husband Ted and I had quickly assembled the morning of the march. Trying to decide upon words we could confidently stand behind and uphold, we settled on those of the prophet, Micah: “Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.” I’ve carried these words—as a challenge and a guide—for most of my life. They indicate the spirit with which my husband and I resist the rhetoric and actions of Trump, who embodies the exact antithesis of justice, mercy and humility.

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Photo courtesy of Amy Nee-Walker

The march was one opportunity to join our voices against what was only rhetoric and obscure proposals but which, over the course of last week, became executive orders and inhumane threats. I raise my voice again—sturdy on the foundation of the millions around the world with whom I stood in solidarity last Saturday (and all the more so, those who have been dedicating their lives to truth and compassion long before) to speak a resounding NO:

NO to banning people from this country because of their religion or nationality!

NO to dishonoring treaties and desecrating sacred lands!

NO to militarizing police and marginalizing people of color!

NO to torture!

And with Hebrew Scripture and teachings of Jesus prodding me forward, I dare to proclaim a determined, hopeful YES:

YES to welcoming foreigners and sharing with those in need!

YES to reverence and care for marvelous Earth and the creatures inhabiting her!

YES to defying oppressive powers and violence!

YES to recognizing that real security comes through accepting our individual vulnerability, embracing collective connectedness and choosing to care for one another!

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Nee-Walker FamilyAmy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.

 

Why I am going to the Border

I am about to leave the beautiful, safe and peaceful Northwoods of Wisconsin and travel to the U.S./Mexico border for the weekend.

I’ll be joining thousands at the SOAW Border Convergence in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico; with other Catholic sisters and members of Giving Voice as we pray and give witness for peace and compassionate immigration reform.

I am going to the border because I want to pray for the beloved deceased and be a peaceful witness.

It is a violent and contentious place where hundreds of people die unnoticed each year. Some are shot by border patrol agents, but most die of heat stroke, dehydration or hypothermia. Plus, much of the violence is spurred by economic disparities and U.S. drug and gun control policies.

Here is a map of locations where human remains were recovered by No More Deaths just in August of 2016:

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The red dots mark the places at which 16 human remains were found in August. One hundred twenty-five bodies have been discovered in Arizona since the current fiscal year began in October 2015. (Map by Ed McCullough. Source: https://www.facebook.com/groups/92300350558/)

I am going to the border because I am concerned about immigrant detention.

In 2010 I wrote about an experience I had praying at an immigration detention center in Chicago. The knowledge I gained that day—the fact that immigrants are denied basic human needs such as hygiene supplies and food once deported—continues to disturb me. The description of humans put in cages makes my heart ache every time they surface in my mind. It is horrific that 27,000 unaccompanied minors have been seized and detained at the U.S. border between October 2015 and March 2016. Plus, I took a course about the Japanese-American concentration camps during World War II and read this disturbing article that convinces me we must not detain folks based on race, immigration status nor place of origin.

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 in June 2012, blessing a bus as it brings immigrants to the airport to be deported. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA.

I am going to the border because I am a daughter of immigrants.

Much like the migrants that come today, my Norwegian and Irish ancestors immigrated to the United States in 1800s to escape poverty and make a better life for themselves and their families. My Irish great-grandmother came by herself as a teen and never obtained proper papers. But that didn’t make her a bad person. She was hard working and established a strong family—all who contributed to American society.

I am going to the border because others who have done so inspire me.

I am grateful for the witness of the folks who have walked The Migrant Trail and prayed for the dead. I especially appreciate this account of their journey.

I am going to the border because the U.S. Catholic Bishop’s principles of compassionate immigration reform make a lot of sense to me.

I agree with them wholeheartedly. Sure; nations have a right to protect their borders but they also must help keep families together, address root causes of migration, and honor all human dignity.

I am going to the border because I don’t want to be part of a nation that puts up walls.

I agree with Pope Francis’ words, stated after he celebrated Mass at the Ciudad Juárez U.S./Mexican border in February: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” Along the same lines I think we need to stop blaming, scapegoating and discriminating. It is time for us to have intelligent and compassionate national conversations about the complex issue of immigration.

I am going to the border because my hometown has been impacted by the current broken immigration policies.

In May 2008 the community of Postville, Iowa, was torn apart by the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. (OK: technically, my hometown is about 10 miles away, but it’s certainly the same community and our Catholic parishes were served by the same priest.) It was discovered that many of the undocumented workers at Agriprocessors meatpacking plant had been told to put an X on a piece of paper when they were hired in order to start working. The forms were falsified social security card documents created by their employers not understood by the people signing them. Many of the immigrants could not read nor write English nor Spanish. I have written more about the horrific Postville immigration raid and can attest to the fact that its impacts continue to be felt in Iowa as well as in Guatemala.

Kevin and Julia Walsh, Postville March, July 2008
Kevin and Julia Walsh, Postville Immigration Raid Vigil, July 2008.

I am going to the border because compassionate immigration reform is long overdue.

I don’t even know how many times in the past 20 years I’ve called or written members of congress and asked for them to help pass legislation that would reform the immigration system. Or, asked them to vote against something that would hurt immigrants. Or, asked them to help protect a particular immigrant from detention or deportation. I’ve distributed postcards, signed petitions, led prayer services and attended vigils. The fact that I have not seen much progress occur in this time is frustrating and exhausting. But, I will not stop working at it because people’s lives are literally on the line.

I am going to the border because I want our nation to see that Catholic sisters are crying out for the protection of the dignity of our immigrant brothers and sisters.

I have learned that a major aspect of my vocation as a Catholic sister means that I am living a prophetic life—a life that gives witness to the fullness of God’s reign just by virtue of its countercultural nature. My vows have me saying “no” to our culture’s obsession with wealth, sex and independence so that I can say “yes” to a life of prayer, community and service for the greater good; for the glory of God. Living this way means I must constantly advocate for the poor and proclaim God’s mercy and peace to all; I must use my voice for those our society has deemed voiceless.

You can follow Convergence on the U.S./Mexico Border online this weekend by searching the hashtag #ConvergenceAtTheBorder on Facebook and Twitter. You can keep up with the activities of us Giving Voice sisters in particular by searching the hashtag #GivingVoice. If you’d like more news coverage of the event, call your local media outlets and ask them to cover the story. There are resources for media here.

I hope you will pray in solidarity with us this weekend and help us advocate for peace, mercy, and compassionate immigration reform. Let us pray that we can be a nation that honors and protects the dignity of all people, especially those who are poor and fleeing violence. Let us pray for the dead and the protection of all life. Let us pray for the children who die and are detained.

Pray with us from this portion of the prayer service we will pray at the border this weekend:

Jesus, you who were a migrant, we call to you in one voice with those gathered at the border. We pray for all the people in our world who are on the move, escaping violence and poverty, and for all those who live, hiding and in fear, in our own country. God, we pray for all politicians and for all citizens, that we may be filled with your compassion. May our policies promote peace and keep families together. We pray especially for all the children caught in this web of oppression; protect them and their parents so that they may grow up in freedom. We continue to pray for comprehensive immigration reform that will, finally, offer justice for immigrants. Glory to you, God, for all that you have given us. We give you thanks, and we ask you for strength and courage. May we never tire of working for the common good; may we never lose your vision of a world of peace and love for all.  

Amen.

Everyone’s children and nobody’s property

Right now, at this Internet-saturated time in history, screams for help are coming out from the shadows.

As Christians, we can choose to ignore the serious pleas for help and deny the existence of problems. Or, we can we do as Jesus instructs and heed the call coming from the wilderness. Let us study the brightly glaring sign of this time and respond with courageous compassion and advocacy for systemic changes.

There are 27 million people in slavery today, which is more than any other time in human history. Ninety percent of people are trafficked because of the sex industry.

Porn revenue is larger than all combined revenues of all professional football, baseball, and basketball franchises worldwide. U.S. porn revenue exceeds the combined revenues of television broadcasting companies ABC, CBS, & NBC ($6.2 billion). Child pornography generates $3 billion annually.

One million children are forced to work in the sex industry every year. Between 100,000 and 300,000 children in America are at risk for sex trafficking annually.

In the past week, I was blessed to hear Matt Fradd speak at the high school where I minister. He was entertaining and enlightening for the youth about the tough topics of sex and pornography (and made my job of teaching the theology of the body much, much easier. ) I was haunted to learn more facts about this issue that has been disturbing me for several years. For example, I learned that recent scientific study shows that people who are addicted to pornography have significantly smaller brains than those who aren’t. (The scientists aren’t sure if the smaller brains are a result of the addiction or more that those with smaller brains are likely to use porn.) Thanks be to God, Matt has an excellent ministry of sharing God’s healing love and mercy. Plus, his website is full of the support and facts that people need to heal and recover.

His presentation was mainly focused on promoting St. Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, or helping Catholics connect their theology and faith with their sexual attitudes and behaviors. He was effective at critiquing this sexualized culture and promoting chastity. Plus, my students and colleagues alike were marveling at how gifted he was at talking about uncomfortable topics in an accessible way.

Although Matt’s presentation was a thorough and informative introduction, I left thinking about how the picture he painted was incomplete; our wired society’s increasing addiction to pornography connects to many other systemic problems that he didn’t even mention. Here are some indicators that I’m aware of: I have felt increasingly disturbed to notice more sex shops creeping up at rural exits along major highways and worried about how their presence harms rural communities and families, not to mention the children that see the billboards and shops. I recently watched this documentary online and felt heartbroken for the young teens who were manipulated and then tattooed with the names of the pimps that they are forced to work for.

I became convicted that all children who run away from abusive homes and then end up in the sex industry are everyone’s child; we all have a responsibility to help them. I grieve the many ways that people are objectified and abused when others fail to recognize their sacredness and dignity. I mourn the violations to human dignity that occur on every level.

For certain, the statistics are terrifying. The Church—the Body of Christ, the people of God—is broken and in severe pain. It is time for us to unite and open clinics and heal the wounded, hurting body of humanity. Let us pray and discern and act so that we can be instruments of mercy and redemption.

Thanks be to God, changes are happening and good work is being done. I am proud of my Franciscan Sisters and affiliates and the work they are doing to eradicate human trafficking. I am grateful for the nationwide sting to the sex industry that occurred a couple of weeks ago and led to 150 arrests. I am grateful to be connected with many Catholic Sisters throughout the country who are working hard to help people escape and recover. And I am encouraged by the work of ecumenical Christian ministries that give victims an opportunity to recover.

I am concerned, though, that we aren’t doing enough. And, I beg you to pray with me that we will discern how the Spirit is calling us to respond, pray that we have the graces and courage to act and that we then act with great love and compassion.

As I pray, I think of Mary. I think of her poverty and how she was able to offer her body to God as an instrument for freedom and salvation. I see in her a beautiful sign of hope that we can all partner with God in ways that honor our dignity and worth and build up God’s reign.  Let us have hope, from Mary, that these sins and crimes will come to end, that’s God’s victory of peace and justice will be triumphant. Let us live boldly our belief that one day soon all children of God will deeply understand that they are no one’s property.

Photo credit: ololchicago.org
Photo credit: www.ololchicago.org

For every woman, man, or child who has ever been abused and has experienced the darkness of fear and pain, there is a human sign of hope.

Jesus, please care for all victims and perpetrators of violence. May they know healing and strength and may the violence come to an end!

For every person who has ever been bought, branded, and sold as a slave there is hope. In Mary there is proof that you don’t have to suffer in this way for your body is precious and has value and worth. You deserve to be honored as holy, because you are—you are a child of God made in God’s image and likeness.

Mary, pray for us sinners who permit the sex industry and human trafficking to continue today. Guide us, Holy Mother, as we aim to advocate and change the systems that trap people in slavery. Help us protect all children! 

Amen!

For more information/ How to get help

Trafficking Resource Center

National Center on Sexual Exploitation

Domestic Violence Hotline

The Porn Effect

UNODC report on human trafficking exposes modern form of slavery

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photo credit: www.unicefusa.org/