Choosing not to live in fear

My feet were numb. It was the night of January 27, 2017, and I was standing outside O’Hare International Airport in Chicago with hundreds of supporters of Muslims.The number of Muslims, immigrants, allies and politicos surged to 1,000 in a few short hours. Many travelers arriving at O’Hare decided to forgo their itineraries and join us as we stood in opposition to President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. Standing in the cold, a knot began to form in my gut.

President Trump’s executive order banning travel from several Muslim countries to the United States was just the start of many intense times of terror for me. I was working as a media liaison for an immigrant-rights organization. Trump threatened and attacked Welcoming Cities with disparaging rhetoric and legislation, kept young immigrants with DACA-work permits in permanent limbo and fear of deportation, ended Temporary Protected Status for several countries and more. However, Trump has also put into the spotlight an infrastructure that has long existed in the U.S. to imprison immigrants and people of color. His shock-doctrine was a wake-up call.

Each attack on the freedom of the people I worked with drove a knife into my guts. Every time a reporter called me, my chest would tighten, Adrenaline rushed through my body. My phone, constantly blowing up with reporters and my co-workers, threatened my ability to relax. I pined for weekends and evenings free of my mobile device. There was never time to detach.

Since the first whispers in 2015 that Donald Trump could be a legitimate contender for president, I’ve been thinking and reading about people who have lived in oppressive countries throughout history and how they dealt with really scary regimes. Often, I think of repression during the soviet rule of Eastern Europe and the stories I’ve heard about people quietly getting by in the midst of authoritarianism and surveillance.

Of course, the U.S. has been terrorizing people of color, subjugating women and waging war on the world for a long time, but what really changed in 2017, I think, is white folks’ ability to ignore it.

I spent a lot of 2017 really pushing hard against the system, in the media and otherwise, and living in a constant cycle of panic and reaction. I think much of it was due to the workaholic environment I was in, but it was also because I was so consumed in fear and locked into a narrative of us vs. them. Each crisis felt like an emergency. People around me carried a messiah-complex leadership and lacked a way of looking at the world from a historic, spiritual dimension. That work climate fed off Trump’s fear and the media’s flurry of speculation, and without proper reflection, we ingested the terror.

I was worried about how so many social justice and political organizations function, and began to seek out a job and lifestyle that were more balanced. I needed space for reflection so that I could regain my courage and face the reality of our world.

“We needed poetry, in some ways, more than we needed bread.”

This phrase really sticks with me. In a world that seems dead set on destruction, the human spirit is strengthened with art. We need art to transform fear. We need art to be human.

When I was 100 percent absorbed in immigration work, it was extremely difficult for me to find space for self-reflection and spiritual growth. I could barely find strength in art, something that has always fed my soul. Instead, I was stuck in a cycle of fear and putting out one fire after another.

deck-woman-mountains-sunrise

Watching the sunrise from a mountaintop in Cuba (image by Sophie Vodvarka)

A few weeks ago, I went on vacation to Cuba. One pre-dawn morning, we hiked up a star-lit mountain with a local guide who laughed and joked with us as we trudged through mud. On the top of the mountain we watched the sunrise. That moment, among so many others, were joyful, though heavy.

Because we spent so much of our time with Cuban people, we learned about the reality of life on the island. Most Cubans can only earn around $40 a month working for the communist state. Although they are highly educated, they have nearly no opportunities outside of government employment except for the new tourism industry. It’s nearly impossible for most Cubans to travel, due to lack of funds. Many people are afraid to talk to their neighbors about the government, because a KGB-esqe secret police keeps the population in check. On an architecture tour, we learned about the housing crisis in Cuba and how difficult it is for young people there to marry and create families of their own. In the evenings, we witnessed people standing in line for bread. We also saw U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton on television, threatening a new embargo on Cuba. We heard people say that they were not looking forward to using ration cards again.

Although these people lacked many freedoms, they shared with us their beauty and humanity.

We danced, swam, hiked, rode horseback and enjoyed awesome music. We drove through Havana and the countryside in 1950s American cars. We were privileged to spend nearly all of our time chatting with Cubans in Spanish and in English. A conversation with one Cuban we met really stuck with me. As they told us about their reality, I asked them how it felt to risk speaking openly.

“I just decided not to live in fear.”

I was impressed by this openness. Fear is so sneaky, and it affects people in such different ways. But if not addressed, fear always leads us to live only in its proscriptive box, outside of the spiritual world where empathy, vulnerability and courage reside.

Our friend in Cuba decided not to let the cages of a repressive communist state control them. And they gave us a great gift of vulnerability in the process, allowing us to understand, a little more, what their life and the lives of the people whose country we were visiting are really like.

Looking back to when Trump was first inaugurated, to the immigration battles, to being overworked and to when I was consumed with fear, I realize that I was unable to see a third way to live — both taking care of my soul and addressing systemic issues in our country and world. I had given in to fear.

As I feel more like a whole person again, I am focusing on a different path forwardbuilding up peace and looking at the historical strategies people have employed to fight oppressive regimes throughout the world. As I do, I am learning that one surefire way to succeed is to tend to our souls, to the beauty of art and freedom. No matter what comes, if we focus on our physical and spiritual well-being, we can identify fear and stop if from consuming our hearts.

We can’t control the world, but we can choose how to respond to it. I choose not to live in fear.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

franciscan-sisters-sophie-vodvarka
Sophie Vodvarka

Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.

For We Know Not What We Do

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash
The world that surrounds us is daunting,
       too many voices speak truth
       and prophetic words from false prophets
sow division.
God cannot be both compassionate 
       and a defense through which morality props
       up the unjust 

But the most persuasive voices
       can tailor the emperor’s clothes
       to align with God’s will
                or is it man’s?

So that the immigrant is still detained
the prisons overflow
race is divisive
the poor are criminalized
the natural world degraded
walls are built
And weapons are beat not into plowshares, 
      but into proclamations that they alone
      can make us secure.  

The drumbeat goes on

And then, in stillness
      the God who is addressed in prayer
      who is challenged and cursed and loved
      and condemned 

responds:

       Enter into discomfort,
             dispel rational thought
             that has normalized hate,
       and do not tread on the surface,
             but abandon it for the deep

for it is there
that the truth will be uncovered
 revealing that all are created
 in the image and likeness of God
 all are made holy and sacred and just.

It is a profound truth,
if only because the voice that responds is feminine
    and courageous, 

as though all of the daughters and sisters and mothers 
had preached a holy Gospel that for too long had gone
    unheard in the echo chambers of the ordained
    and the backroom channels of the elected
    and the boardroom coffers
    of an ever-present greed

and the people would plead, 
and the faithful would gather:

We must rise from dust and ashes
      to a sermon on the mount that was once proclaimed
      not mere allegory or callous refrain
      but a prophetic truth that has always been

that has always been until it wasn’t
because we had strayed so far from the road 
      that the Judean was left to rot and decay 
      and Lazarus awoke only to die again
and the fishermen did not walk on water
but capsized in the storm,
      their bodies washed to shore
      not as fishermen, not as disciples, 
but as refugee children drowned 
      and the rich man walked through
          the eye of the needle
      and the mob picked up the pile of stones
      and the loaves and fishes were hoarded away
      and the other cheek was not turned to the side,
              but instead a gun was drawn
              and the bullets pierced those hands
                  that once held nails
And we wept.

For so long we wept and cried out:
  My God, my God why have you forsaken me?

And in reply her voice dispelled any rumor or denial:
  My child, my child it is you who have forsaken me.
For in that moment our truth had finally been revealed

For we cannot claim a compassionate God 
     if the God we choose is a placeholder
     to uphold unjust views
     or whose ears fall deaf to the cries of the poor
     or who promotes a prosperity
      that benefits a few and no more.

For we cannot claim a compassionate God
    and proclaim the Gospel as the only truth
    when that very same God is rejected by us
    because he or she does not look like us

but rather the image that appears 
reflected in our mirror is
            the immigrant detained by us
            the refugee excluded by us
            the inmate who profits us
            the detainee tortured by us
            the gay man shamed by us
            the child abused by us
            the woman silenced by us
            the poor forgotten by us

And all of it in my name.

So forgive us, we know not what we do.
Forgive us, even though we know 
that it’s not quite true:
        for we know exactly what we do.  

                                  Amen.
Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash

About the Rabble Rouser

Michael KruegerMichael-Krueger

Michael Krueger first met Sister Julia in La Crosse, Wisconsin, while an undergraduate student at Viterbo University and dishwasher at St. Rose Convent. She was the only sister who didn’t leave a generous tip. (All joking aside, the one and only tip he actually received was the priceless call to FSPA affiliation in 2009). He credits that “top-notch Franciscan education” for putting him on a path to La Crosse’s Place of Grace Catholic Worker House (where he lived for two-and-a-half years), SOA peace vigils, work with developmentally disabled adults (inspired by Jean Vanier and L’Arche), commitment to social justice and a chance dinner with Roy Bourgeois. He currently lives near Madison and is a stay-at-home dad to two creative and adventurous kids, and is an active member of the Catholic Worker community there.

Breaking down the walls because ‘tú eras mi otra yo’

I once stood near the United States-Mexico border. In the journey to this edge, I witnessed the evidence of militarization: guns, checkpoints, armored vehicles, cameras. The steel fence rose from the sandy earth like a misplaced mountain. I felt my body tense from the feeling of surveillance. I felt the unease and sorrow that seemed to hover in the dry desert air.

This was a little over two years ago, when I visited Nogales, Arizona/Nogales, Mexico as a participant in the 2016 Border Convergence. In the shadow of the giant steel fence, I prayed and protested along with other Catholic Sisters and members of Giving Voice.

With other Giving Voice Sisters at the SOAW Border Convergence, Oct. 2016, Nogales, Arizona. I am the fourth Catholic Sister from the left in the photo.

Since that time much has happened in my life, including earning a MA in pastoral studies from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. At my graduation last May, I loved hearing this speech from one of the recipients of an honorary degree: Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas from El Paso, Texas, a pastor, educator, theologian, advocate for migrants and refugees and founder of the Tepeyac Institute.

In his speech, Msgr. Bañuelas centered his comments around the meaning of the Spanish phrase he learned from his grandmother: “tú eras mi otra yo” or “you are my other me.”  According to Bañuelas, when we see our humanity wrapped up in the being of others, we see how “walls between us threaten our sacred bounds” because “oneness with each other is oneness with God.”

As I understand it, a community of any type cannot know oneness if those who are poor and marginalized are not included, honored, respected. We come to know God and ourselves through the poor. In Bañuelas,’ words, “there is no conversion to God if there is no conversion to the poor. Through their eyes we see what Jesus sees, a life rich in beauty, value, and meaning.”

Since my graduation in May, Bañuelas,’ words have remained a steady challenge to me. I often ponder if my life is being converted more to the poor; if they are my center and path to knowing God more deeply. I think about during my visits to the county jail. I think about it during my drives around rural America. As a retreat minister, I often wonder how I’m going to help others know the sacredness of the other. I also consider the Christian call when I observe the divides in society, the collapse of connections over political aisles and the evidence that even the ecosystems are feeling the torment of conflict. How can we build more inclusive societies? How can we tend to the most vulnerable among us?

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I stood in front of a group of teens preparing for confirmation in the Catholic Church. I read this aloud:

“In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people.” – Pope Francis (Gaudete et Exultanteparagraph #6)

In other words, not only is our humanity bound up in one other but our salvation is too. If we are divided and not caring for one another across borders and divides, none of us will be able to experience the fullness of God’s reign. We are a Church, a people, a community only as strong as the most marginal and weak among us. This is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. This is the stuff of South African spirituality called Ubuntu, which means “I am who I am because of who we all are” and “I am a person because I belong.”  It’s “tú eras mi otra yo” put another way.

Visiting each side of the border two years ago with my peers, I encountered the sacredness of a community and the goodness of God’s creation. The heat of the sun and the desert life growing in abundance testified to the truth that God did not create borders. God created the beauty of humanity, the glories of nature. And humanity and nature is all communal, like God, the Trinity.

God’s has designed us for unity, communion, community; we cannot be made whole if knowing one another demands crossing through splits and divides, if we must conquer walls and fences in order to bond as neighbors.

Building unity demands tearing down the walls and advocating for justice. As Bañuelas says, “tú eras mi otra yo” means “Our hearts and our lives shrivel when remain silent about the silence of others.” And, “tú eras mi otra yo” … “is the lived courageous hope not afraid to take a stand for justice, knowing that each stand removes a brick from injustice until it all comes tumbling down … because love always wins.”

Now is the time to cross the canyons split into our civility. Breaking down the walls will strengthen our society. We need each other because we are human, because we are the people of God.

With the walls down, let us look into the face of the poor and come to see God — doing so means better knowing ourselves, because “tú eras mi otra yo.” And it means, wonderfully, that we will not be the same.

“There is an innate part of God in each of us that needs to be honored and respected always. When we listen with our hearts and share in solidarity with the sufferings, the struggles the hopes and dreams of the poor, our lives are shaped anew. Our theology and ministry formation finds its deepest meaning. Our passion for living explodes into shouts of joy and a new person, a new humanity is born. The poor show us that when we are together as one we are invincible in justice, peace, hope and reconciliation.”  – Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas  (Catholic Theological Union graduation, 2018.)

Changed hearts and lives, strengthened communities and Church, with the walls broken down there will be no more borders to visit or neighbors to fear. We are closer to God and encounter all people seeing clearly that “tú eras mi otra yo.”

Credit: SOA Watch

YOU ARE INVITED TO THE 2018 SOAW BORDER CONVERGENCE

The third mobilization at the border in Nogales, Arizona/Sonora Mexico is Nov. 16-18, 2018!

“Our move to the border responds to the present-day call to solidarity in Latin America. The mobilization at the border in Nogales is one more way to fight for the closure of the School of the Americas/WHINSEC and an end to U.S. intervention in Latin America. The third bi-national Encuentro at the militarized U.S./Mexico border aims to build the grassroots power necessary to challenge the racist statutes quo and push back against U.S. intervention in Latin America.”

Details are here: http://www.soaw.org/border/

Headlines and prophets: a conversation

McDonald’s workers go on strike over sexual harassment 

“Yes, I’m on my  way to visit you with Judgement.

I’ll press compelling evidence against sorcerers, adulterers, liars,

those who exploit workers,

those who take advantage of widows and orphans,

those who are inhospitable to the homeless —

anyone and everyone who doesn’t honor me.”

In North Carolina, it’s the poorest who bear the brunt of flooding

“They’ll see that you take care of the poor,

that you take care of poor people in trouble,

provide a warm, dry place in bad weather,

provide a cool place when it’s hot.”

U.S. slashes the number of refugees it will allow into the country

“Attend to matters of justice.

Set things right between people.

Rescue victims from their exploiters.

Don’t take advantage of the homeless,

the orphans, the widows.

Stop the murdering!”

Violence displaces over 30,000 in northwest Syria this month: UN

“He’ll settle things fairly between nations.

He’ll make things right between many peoples.

They’ll turn their swords into shovels,

their spears into hoes.

No more will nation fight nation;

they won’t play war anymore.”

Photo credit: Unsplash photo by Rod Long

(Scripture passages are from The Message translation in order of appearance: Malachi 3:5, Isaiah 25:3,Jeremiah 22:3Isaiah 2:5)

Listening to and praying with the cries of the children at the border

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
-Proverbs 31:8-9

Like everyone else who understands that the Bible is a book that calls us to love without limit, I am heartbroken by the splitting of families happening at the U.S./Mexico border.

You probably heard that Attorney General Jeff Sessions misused the Bible to justify the sin of separating families. I am grateful that Stephen Colbert stood up for the Truth of love and justice in response, as you can see in this video.

God’s law is love. The Bible is all about love; love is the entire New Testament covenant. Christians must be more concerned with love than borders, security or any human-made law.

Love can be painful and demanding. When we really love, we often feel heartbroken. Because my heart has been so heavy about the ways that children in poverty are suffering, I wasn’t sure how to write about it. I doubted I could say anything that wasn’t already being said. I felt helpless.

But then, once the audio of children crying inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility was leaked by Propublica, I knew I didn’t need to say anything new or different. I could share this video with any of you who may not have yet had a chance to listen, and by doing so I could help give voice to the voiceless–the children trapped at the border. I could let the children speak for themselves.

Here is the video. Please listen. As you do, love the children. Imagine their faces. Please pray for them, for their parents, for those who must work in the facilities, for the people in power who can end all this horror.

When I first listened to the voices (and cried and prayed) I was reminded of Archbishop Jeckle’s words at The Summons event in Postville, Iowa on May 11, 2018:

“I would like to cry, to weep. And I would like to say we should weep as a form of prayer, as a way to wash our hearts—to soften our hearts.”

We must weep, we must soften our hearts; we must offer our broken hearts to God for mending. Crying is an appropriate way to pray in this situation.

Then, with God’s grace helping us gain some strength, we can get to work. Let’s learn the facts about what’s happening at the border by reading this article. Informing our minds is another way to pray.

Then, let’s donate our dollars and energy to organizations offering aid to families separated at the border. Or, let’s plan to participate in an upcoming protest of the separation of families, such as this one in Chicago or Families Belong Together events near you, as listed here. Protest and charity can also be ways to pray.

However we cry, pray and act on behalf of the children and their parents, let us remember that God hears our cries; God is with us and empowering us to remain courageous for justice and peace. Thanks be to God!

The righteous cry out, the LORD hears

and he rescues them from all their afflictions.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted,

saves those whose spirit is crushed.

Many are the troubles of the righteous,

but the LORD delivers him from them all.

He watches over all his bones;

not one of them shall be broken.

Evil will slay the wicked;

those who hate the righteous are condemned.

The LORD is the redeemer of the souls of his servants;

and none are condemned who take refuge in him.

Psalm 34:18-23

What we have learned 10 years after Postville, the largest immigration raid in U.S. history

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.]

“2007 Taste of Postville.” Photo credit: http://postvilleproject.org/

Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki

“Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki, but something much worse comes for you … for when you die, it will be without honor.”

~ Master Splinter, to the Shredder, in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie” (1990).

teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles
Splinter and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (image courtesy of YouTube)

At the climax of one of my favorite films, the 1990 cinematic masterpiece “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the wizened and heroic Master Splinter squares off against the film’s main villain, the evil ninja leader Shredder. At the film’s climax, Shredder and Splinter go head-to-head at the top of a New York City skyscraper. Though Shredder vows to kill Splinter, Splinter seems unconcerned. Calm, collected and prepared, admitting that he does not fear death, he is ready for what comes next. Death is inevitable. What he fears is dishonor.

The fear of death seems to be lurking everywhere these days. And this fear is leading us to cloud our judgement and to behave dishonorably. Right now our borders and our airports are filled with the homeless, the hungry, the oppressed and the suffering; all desperately seeking safety and stability. Vast numbers of them are children who never committed any wrong except being born in a country that lacked our blessings. And we are turning them away because we are afraid admitting them will make us unsafe.

Let us ignore for the second that there is no basis in fact for that assertion. Let us set aside, for the moment, that there is no verifiable evidence that admitting these refugees has now or ever made us less safe. Though it’s not true, just for the sake of argument, let us assume that letting these people into our country will make us less safe—that bringing these suffering masses into our cities and our homes will risk destruction to our property and our persons. Assuming this, I turn to the Church and I ask: “So what?”.

So what? What of it? Does that change anything? No. The duty of virtue and honor, the obligation given us by Christ, remains. We Christians do not put our stock in the things of this world, and that includes comfort, safety, and ultimately our own lives. The Gospel is not filled with asterisks and addendums, telling us we don’t need to be faithful when it’s scary. Feed the hungry, help the stranger—always. If it’s hard, Christ says take up your cross. If it’s threatening, Christ says you should seek to lose your life so you might gain it. If it kills you, Christ says that there is no greater love than this; that you will be with him in paradise.

In his book “Follow Me to Freedom,” Shane Claiborne addresses this very topic: “Fear is powerful. At some point, especially as Christians, we say with Paul, ‘To live is Christ, to die is gain’ … if we die, so what? We believe in resurrection. We’ll dance on injustice till they kill us … then we’ll dance on streets of gold. Many Christians live in such fear that it is as if they don’t really, I mean really, believe in resurrection.”

You are going to die. Someday, somewhere, death will come for you. There is no way around it. In the meantime, how will you live? Will you live as Christ, living a life of sacrifice and service out of love? Or will you live as Judas, betraying Christ in his hour of need? Make no mistake, that is precisely the choice presented us at this moment—it is Christ who is waiting in our airports and at our borders, waiting in the disguise of the least of these his brethren. And we are betraying him; not for silver, but for security.

If this is a seemingly depressing note to end on, know that it need not be. It is only depressing if we turn away. These are the moments when saints come forward, when heroes are made. “Perhaps this is the moment for which You have been created?” (Esther 4:14).

Courage, Church! If our God is with us, then who can be against us? I do not know to what action specifically God calls you, but I know it is not a timid one. As Pope Francis told our Catholic youth, now is the time to ask Jesus what he wants from you, and then be brave.

Death comes for us all, dear reader. I do not ask God to spare us from it. But please, O Lord, save us from dishonor.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. 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. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

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.

The Broken Body of Christ at the Border

Last month, I attended Mass at the border; I was part of a community of believers uniting around bread and wine miraculously made into flesh and blood.

I was on the Mexican side, sitting on a concrete street curb next to another Catholic sister. Together we were a color pop in the assembly: we stuck out in our bright turquoise T-shirts declaring “Catholic Sisters for Compassionate Immigration Reform.” Nearby sat our friend, Br. David, a Franciscan Capuchin, bearing witness in his dusty brown habit. Guests to this area, this Mass we were attending coincided with the events of the School of Americas Watch Border Convergence throughout the entire weekend.

We were among a crowd of a couple hundred other folks. Some sat upon haphazard rows of folding chairs, others leaned against fences and buildings, many stood. We were gathered on a crumbling, uneven street formed from a mishmash of concrete, asphalt and sandy earth. In front of us was…

[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Sick Pilgrim at Patheos. Continue reading here.]

José Antonio mural and the border wall. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
José Antonio mural and the border wall. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

The hope rock

With one hand I grip my luggage and move slowly down an air-bridge at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. With my other hand, I reach around to check that my backpack is securely zipped. My skin brushes a cool and smooth rock poking through the mesh pocket on the outside of my bag. I turn to my friend, Sister Priscilla, and point to the palm-sized glacial stone decorated with colored markers. With a hushed voice I quickly explain, “I forgot this hope rock was in my bag, I made it when I was leading a retreat a few weeks ago. I’m glad I’m bringing a hope rock to the border.”

Sister Priscilla and I were on our way to meet other members of Giving Voice at the Tucson airport so we could go to the SOAW Convergence at the Border. In Nogales, the giant border town that straddles the line between southern Arizona and northern Sonora, we would join immigrants, activists, and other religious for a weekend of speeches, song, and prayer. We would rally on both sides of the border fence, not far from where…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

The hope rock that I carried to the Border Convergence in Arizona and Sonora.  Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
The hope rock that I carried to the Border Convergence in Arizona and Sonora. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA