Years ago, during a Fourth of July parade, I had a panic attack. Fresh back to the United States after studying abroad for six months and foggy with jet lag, I felt dizzy and overwhelmed among the swarm of white people speaking English, waving flags, eating candy and donned in red, white and blue.
Then a float went by that showed an Uncle Sam character punching down a man with brown skin. At the sight of it, people near me laughed and cheered. I got physically ill. My stomach squirmed and I felt like I could vomit, while my head and heart raced with discomfort. Breathing became difficult. I choked out some words to my younger sister and Mom, who could see that I was not OK and did their best to calm me down, to help me relax. I didn’t have to go to the hospital, but I was scarred by the intense experience: I was uncertain if I would ever again feel comfortable with patriotism, if I would ever again be totally proud for being American.
In the early days of this blog, I wrote about my resistance to patriotism and the glorification of military culture. I re-read these pieces recently, and felt a bit embarrassed (it’s a bit too preachy and full of rant for my current tastes, and oh my word, why didn’t I capitalize my titles in those days?! Also, apparently, these themes were on my mind a lot in 2011.)
I felt reluctant about resurfacing these old posts here and now, because some of my views have changed and I don’t like writing and sharing things that may be divisive anymore (there’s enough of that being published now.) I don’t want to disrespect veterans who have risked their lives for others and continue to need healing, prayerful support. I definitely don’t want to dishonor anyone who has died, especially on behalf of others.
Yet I decided that it might still be worthwhile for me to share those old posts and to write about this topic again, because the general sentiment still remains true: my love of God and the cross will always be greater than my love for the United States and as long as this nation’s policies and practices continue to hurt the poor, perpetuate violence and increase the wealth gap, I am not likely proud to be an American. I don’t believe any of us should blindly love our nation without question, struggle or critique; I am concerned about how easily our country can become idolized if we are not careful.
Our country is not our savior. Our country did not rise from the dead. What’s more, our country is not going to be judging us in the afterlife. I always think of the lines from the Book of Isaiah:
Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,/ and are accounted as dust on the scales … All the nations are as nothing before him;/ they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness (Is 40:15-17).
The truth is, patriotism is very complicated for me; it is not a black and white matter. I am certainly benefiting from our nation’s complicated and violent history; I enjoy many comforts of being a citizen of one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations, and I am not ungrateful for the privileges. I want to share the riches. Every day I enjoy and appreciate my freedoms of religion and press, freedoms others have sacrificed greatly to maintain.
… many of my fellows in citizenship, from this generation and from those before, and even some who suffered grave and protracted injustice from the United States, nevertheless have refused to drink from the cup of bitterness and despair. Feeling myself blessed in America — not least by their example — I eschew the cup as well.
In any case, my love of America has never been the result of fantastic or blinkered esteem. Our history is rife with examples of our failures to live up to our commitments. We must face those failures in this and every generation squarely and without stint. I learned that from America, too.
Years ago, when I still was very short and had buck teeth, I sang “God Bless the USA-I am Proud to be an American” with gusto in a gymnasium with my young classmates, loud and proud, with props and hand motions; I think we were in fourth grade. I still know the song quite well — and frequently catch myself humming it this time of year around Independence Day.
But now, if I find myself making any patriotic music — even half-heartedly — I assure you that deep down the song is more lament than celebration, more prayer than pride.
I am a citizen in God’s kingdom more than I am citizen of the United States. My loyalty is to Christ and the Gospel mission. While many Americans will be celebrating their freedoms, I don’t believe I am free while many of my brothers and sisters in Christ suffer from the experiences of being detained and shackled by the bonds of poverty and violence. Their experiences of injustice eats at any freedom offered to me.
Let us pray and labor for the day when Jesus’ words can be true for all of us, no matter what nation we are part of; let us follow Jesus and create a society where this is what we see:
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.
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;
You are dreading another meal of ramen noodles and canned vegetables, but you know that’s all that’s left in the cupboard, that it’s the best you can offer your son tonight.
You’re thinking about this as you enter the dimly lit child care center to pick him up, with hunger pulling on your stomach, only to see him sitting on a grimy, stained rug. He gazes upward, engrossed in a cartoon, his face stone-still like an icy zombie. You remember that you once asked if the TV was safe — it still looks as if the smallest bump to the cart could make the heavy machine plummet down and crush a child — but the one time you tried to ask about it, you felt like a nuisance, so you never brought it up again.
Before you gather your son into your arms, you notice a child care worker with thinning hair scolding a girl; the girl stares at the dusty floor as tears roll down her cheeks. The scene tightens your throat with discomfort, awkwardness; you ignore this and scoop your son into your loving arms instead.
You don’t like this place; you have a feeling that…
He is lying in the middle of the street, wrapped in a blanket, semiconscious. Earlier, someone was concerned enough to call the paramedics. The paramedics picked him up by the arms, dragged him to the sidewalk, determined he did not need medical transport, and left.
When the paramedics find him, nobody is with him. No one comes to check on him. He has no water and is lying wrapped in a blanket on a sidewalk. In Phoenix, the pavement can be so hot it will burn skin.
That was three hours ago. Someone just noticed that he has not moved in awhile. He has died, but we don’t know when he passed because no one checked on him before now.
The paramedics come by again, determine the man dead, but leave quickly with nothing to do. The police arrive and sit in their car, waiting for the medical examiners. They’ll likely be waiting a long time. In The Zone — the part of the city near the Catholic Worker House, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters — it often takes forever for the medical examiners to show up.
Today I’m running late. I missed morning services and get here just as he is found dead. I’m greeted by Paul, who is sitting on the curb.
“I always wait.” he says.
Now, Paul is by far my favorite guest at the Catholic Worker House. He is a man of much wisdom and endless joy.
“If we do not love them in death, how will people know they are loved in life?” Paul asks.
I sit on the curb next to the body with Paul and wait for the medical examiners for several hours. Meanwhile, people all around us continue with their lives.
Steve (who is sober today) likes to sweep the street when he is not using. He keeps sweeping and never looks at the dead man on the sidewalk.
A lady comes by and asks me for a pair of pants. I run downstairs to grab some for her, wondering if she notices the dead man on the sidewalk.
A man needs help making a phone call. He is stranded in Phoenix, trying to go back to his family in South Carolina, and does not understand the automated phone system of the bus company. Preoccupied with his own worries, he doesn’t seem to notice the man dead on the sidewalk either.
A couple enjoys each other’s company. He gives her a piggyback ride and runs down the street.
A lady rides by on her bike and stops to talk to a friend. The conversation ends and she quickly moves on.
Lunch services continue. Showers are offered. People go to the office to make phone calls.
I know life continues after death, but how is it that life goes on with no recognition of the dead man lying on the sidewalk?
As Paul and I sit on the curb, holding our own little vigil, we answer people’s questions, directing them to resources, and try to figure out the name of the man who died. Just a few people seem to notice him.
“Who is the stiff today?” a passerby asks.
“Do you know there is another one at the gas station 10 blocks away? He was stabbed,” someone else says.
Paul and I sit together on the curb for three hours waiting for the medical examiner to show up to take pictures and move the body. (I learn later that another volunteer found out what had happened and called a friend on the county board of supervisors to investigate the wait time for the medical examiner. The examiner showed up 30 minutes after that phone call.)
At first, I am disturbed by the lack of indignation. Even more so, though, I’m disturbed by the lack of response at all.
I’ve been volunteering In The Zone for over nine years and little makes me uncomfortable. Yet, the lack of discomfort makes me uncomfortable. So I ask: How do I continue to maintain a heart of discomfort? How do we not fall into despair? How do I joyfully serve while continuing to question why so many people lack access to shelter? How do I continue to joyfully serve while continuing to question, challenge, and overturn the systems that continue to hold people down? How do I maintain this discomfort when my own everyday life is full of comfort?
Now, months have gone by since the unknown man died alone on the street. I still do not know his name. Many more — whose names are also unknown — have died alone on the same street.
Meanwhile, my life continues. Again and again I show up, say friendly hellos to those I encounter, and do as Paul says, help “make sure people know they are loved.”
Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Elizabeth Odhner is an emergency room nursein Phoenix, Arizona. She spends her free time with her new husband working for immigrant rights and volunteering at a free clinic and a homeless outreach center. She lives in a community providing radical hospitality to immigrants and refugees. She and Sister Julia have been friends ever since Elizabeth studied at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois, the city in which they were both members of the same cooking club. For fun, Elizabeth enjoys making pottery and taking day trips outside the city.
On June 20, Pope Francis visited the gravesites of two Italian priests who were well-known for the ministry among the poor and their opposition to war. These men were prophets. When I think of someone like them, closer to home, it’s Joshua Casteel. Joshua grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, enlisted in the United States Army shortly after 9/11, was trained as an interrogator, learned Arabic and interrogated about 130 prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
One day, a Muslim prisoner asked Joshua how he could reconcile his work as an interrogator with the command of Jesus to love one’s enemies. Joshua felt the prisoner was a hypocrite but the question cut to his heart. It touched his conscience. Joshua started to ask how he could become a peacemaker and whether there is a path outside the cycle of violence.
Joshua became a conscientious objector and received an honorable discharge from the army in 2005. He went on to write plays and publish books about war and conscience and the Gospel call to love our enemies. He even went to divinity school and considered becoming a Jesuit. (I met him when I was a Jesuit novice.) In 2012, at age 32, Joshua died of lung cancer, despite never having smoked. His family believes the cancer resulted from his six months near a burn pit in Iraq.
God called Joshua to be a prophet, and he responded to this call.
We are baptized into Christ who is priest, prophet and king. Today, we are invited to reflect on the call of a prophet and our own call to be prophets.
God created out of love. There is abundance — enough for everyone. But there is also human greed, violence and broken relationships. God calls prophets to say “This world, this violence, is not what God intends. You were created out of love, called to love each other, even our enemies.”
Jeremiah was born into this world of sin and injustice. People had turned from God and neglected the most vulnerable in society, widows and orphans. God chose Jeremiah to call people to fidelity. Jeremiah protested, “I am too young!” God reassured him: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you … See, I place my words in your mouth.”
God told Jeremiah to announce to the people “Reform your ways, or disaster will come upon you.” It was not a popular message! People plotted against him. Jeremiah was scourged and imprisoned. He remained faithful to his call, but was persecuted. He was dejected and angry.
Jeremiah laments: “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.” Jeremiah wanted to quit. (He tried to run away three times.) But, he said, “I must cry out.” The call is “as if fire is burning in my heart.”
Jeremiah was able to express his grief, anger and questions to God. Can we? In the end, Jeremiah praised God (“Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord”). Even when we do not understand what is happening, and we are angry with God, can we also trust God and praise God? When we gather to worship, we can express doubt, lament, pain and anger. These feelings are part of a journey of faith.
What injustice in our world, our neighborhoods, troubles your conscience? For Joshua Casteel, it was the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the violence of terrorism and the U.S. response: the “war on terror.”
What about for you? What troubles your conscience? The deep division in our society and the lack of charity and dialogue? The lack of respect for life from conception to natural death? A “justice” system quick to send people to prison, separating fathers, mothers and children from their families? An economic system that creates a great disparity of wealth? Violence against women in its many forms: street harassment, rape, exclusion?
Are you angry that God does not seem to intervene? Can you express that anger to God?
To be a prophet is not the call of a few. We are all baptized into Christ who is priest, prophet and king. What is the fire burning within you? How is God inviting you to respond, in small ways or large ways? How are your gifts and professional skills at the service of those most in need?
In the Gospel according to Matthew (10: 26-33), Jesus commands two things: “fear no one” and preach boldly: “speak in the light,” “proclaim from the rooftops”). Jesus reminds us: God cares for each insignificant sparrow. How much more for you! God knows and loves you and sends the Spirit to empower and strengthen you in your prophetic call. How will you respond?
Note from the editor: This blog post is a version of a homily that Father Luke Hansen, SJ, preached at the Church of the Gesu on June 25, 2017 (Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Originally from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, Luke Hansen, SJ, has been a friend of Sister Julia’s since 2004 when they met at an airport on their way to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in California. Passionate about justice and peacemaking, much of his experience in ministry has been centered on serving adults and adolescents who are incarcerated. In October, he will begin a licentiate in sacred theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. (Photo credit:www.jesuits.org)
Several years ago, I had an opportunity to tour a recycling center.
Much about my visit was interesting, but what I still remember most vividly are the giant clothing bales.
During the tour it was explained to us that not all of the clothing we donate to thrift shops is redistributed locally; some is shipped abroad and sold at markets to people who are poor.
I remember being surprised by this news … but then I basically thought “Well, that’s good. I want people to have clothes.”
Some time after the tour, I lived abroad in a developing country. I met people who were wearing t-shirts with slogans related to ordinary things in the United States, like little league teams and sandwich shops. I asked about how they got their shirts and they said they had purchased them at the market. They picked out the shirt because they liked the color, but didn’t know what the designs or words were really about.
I began to have questions about this global phenomenon but, even so, I kept on thinking things like “One’s person’s trash is another person’s treasure.” And, upon my return to the U.S., I continued to donate to Goodwill and similar shops, well aware that many of my donations weren’t going to help people locally.
I was reminded of all this last week when I was fortunate to view the film Poverty, Inc. with a great crowd of concerned citizens here in La Crosse. (Find out if the film is going to be screened at a theatre near you here.)
Poverty, Inc. is incredibly thought-provoking; challenging many of my ingrained assumptions about the effective ways to help people. Although, to quote a concept in the film, I believe I am basically a person that has “a heart for the poor and a mind for the poor” and tend to be careful about what sort of charities I donate to, I realize I still have some embarrassing assumptions about poverty and other people.
Back to the clothing bales, I suppose I assumed the reason people need our old clothing to be sold at markets is they didn’t have the means to fabricate garments locally. So, when a woman from Kenya was interviewed in the film and spoke about how several decades ago the shops there sold clothes with the label “made in Kenya” and there were many thriving cotton farms, I was disturbed.
As explained in an article published in The Guardian, the policies of World Bank are to blame for the fact that Kenya’s textile industry has been in decline since the 1980s. Kenyan manufacturers can’t compete with our cheap second-hand clothing, in the same way that other local businesses are frequently unable to compete with free goods (like TOMS shoes) that are flooded into developing economies. This is one of many examples of how the current global aid system keeps people poor.
Even with our good intentions and values, often times we are hurting others more than we are helping them.
Undoubtedly, the system is complex. Poverty, Inc. did not present any easy solutions because there aren’t any. I gained more consciousness about globalization, poverty, and structures that perpetuate inequality. I left with more questions than answers. The film highlights that what is lacking in the current aid system is “the ladder out of poverty” including access to the rule of law for the ordinary person, a simple infrastructure to set up and manage a business, and so on.
As people of faith, we have a duty to be mindful about how our actions impact others. We must be thoughtful, charitable people. We must be focused on justice as we work for peace and the protection of the dignity of every person.
We must keep in mind the words of Jesus.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” –Luke 6:31
““You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” –Matthew 22:37-40
As I continue to pray and discover ways to advocate for just changes, I will remain supportive to the NGOs and charities that promote the dignity of those who are poor and offer support to people as they emerge from poverty–organizations like Heifer Project International and Catholic Relief Services. I continue to believe it is important to provide food to people when they are hungry as well as to help them gain the stability and skills to feed themselves.
And so, instead of donating clothing to charities that may gather it up into giant bundles to be sent to developing countries, I will work to reduce my consumption and keep my former goods within the local economy. More clothing will go to my neighbor who might understand the t-shirt slogans, the bales will get smaller and the African woman can once again take pride in labels that say “Made in Kenya.”
Then, hopefully, I will be truly be helping people near and far.
I have asked my good friend and occasional Messy Jesus Business contributor, Amy Nee-Walker, to share her perspective on the recent events in Baltimore for our readers this week. Amy and her husband Ted presently live in the Jonah House community in Baltimore with their one-year-old son. Here are her responses to my questions.
What would you want young people to learn from the events in Baltimore in the past week?
“Observe without judgment” is a phrase commonly used in meditation. One is asked to observe–while withholding judgment–his or her own self: thoughts that run through the mind, sensations being experienced within the body, feelings rising to the surface. It is only through observing without judgment that we can begin to have a truer, fuller sense of what is happening and attain a state of peace and wholeness in body, mind and spirit.
I would like for myself, and others–young, old and in-between–to take hold of this concept and to extend it beyond the self. What I want people to learn about what has been unfolding this past week in Baltimore is not exact. I am still in the process of trying to understand and sort it out and respond appropriately myself. But I think, if nothing else, I want people to look and to listen and to do this without judgment. I want people to learn to not just perceive what is happening but also to seek to discover why it is happening; not stopping at the easy answer that some news outlet, or peer, or even parent, is waiting to feed you. If you can begin by observing without judgment, you will learn to ask questions that don’t have assumed answers already attached.
In terms of asking the deeper question, I would also like to share some words from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. Words that my husband Ted and I were recently reminded of and have continued to contemplate as events unfold:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent…
… I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
It is my view that these triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are the deep and wide-reaching roots that are fueling violence, not just here in Baltimore but throughout the country and the world. That is something I would like people to examine in their own lives and communities as I intend to examine it in my own.
What do you think the rest of the world doesn’t know about Baltimore?
Having lived only a year and a half in this city, there’s a lot that I don’t know about Baltimore! Living here has been a continual educational journey. This is a city with a very complicated past and present. I wonder whether the rest of the world knows that preceding the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore City Police Commissioner and the Department of Justice were in the midst of an investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department. In 2014, The Baltimore Sun released a long-researched exposé outlining cases of police brutality in Baltimore. Attorney Bill Quigley sums up that report well in two sentences. “Over $5.7 million has been paid out by Baltimore since 2011 in over 100 police brutality lawsuits. Victims of severe police brutality were mostly people of color and included a pregnant woman, a 65-year-old church deacon, children, and an 87-year-old grandmother.”
For those who wonder why there is so much tension between protesters and police, I hope this shines some light. For those who think the only reason someone might resist arrest is because they are a criminal, I hope this helps them begin to realize there are times when people evade police not because they are afraid of getting caught in wrongdoing, but because they are afraid for their life.
But I also think the world does not know enough about the positive, creative ways that people are trying to take back their streets from the rioters who trashed them, the wayward pockets of police who torment them and the political leaders who frankly didn’t seem to give a damn about this particular neighborhood until it hit national news. First of all, most of those taking action are advocating for peace and collaboration–some who want to have the opportunity to mourn and grieve for the loss of their friend, son, and brother–Freddie Gray. And there are many who want to both confront the oppression they have experienced for generations as well as show there is more to this city, and more to these neglected neighborhoods, than crime and destitution.
What do you love about Baltimore?
One of the things I love about Baltimore is how easily identifiable it is as a city, it is itself and nowhere else (unless you go to the inner harbor which, sadly, has become a cookie-cutter middle class shopping district with the usual chain stores and restaurants). The city strikes an awkward balance between crowded row houses and expansive green parks and forest space. It is teaming with locally-owned businesses, a love of fried fish and crabs, pockets of incredible historical sites that include civil war memorials as well as the birth places of Billie Holiday and Edgar Allen Poe. And there are many community-based initiatives from planting trees and community gardens, to providing after-school activities, to street festivals and art fairs.
But more than that, I have been so moved by the hospitality, kindness and humor of the people we have encountered. We help with food distribution for those needing grocery supplements, and though the people come here in deep need they also come with great patience as we bumble our way through the long line of recipients. They come with a generous interest in us and a concern for one another; sharing when they’ve been given more than they need, bringing things back for neighbors and friends who couldn’t make it down themselves due to illness or other impediments.
When I was pregnant with my son, Eli, we were on WIC; a food assistance program for pregnant mothers and infants. It is a wonderful program but can be complicated when it comes to shopping. More than once a long line would form behind me as the cashier examined my grocery selection and compared it to the approved items on the WIC check. I would turn to the line that had formed behind me, mostly women, all African-American, blushing and apologizing. Not once did I get a rude or impatient comment; more often I would hear, “that’s all right Honey, we’ve all been there.” Similarly, when we started going to a local church where we turned out to be the only white people, we were afraid of being seen as interlopers. Instead, we were quickly and warmly embraced, invited to events and meetings and welcomed to return. Since his birth, our son has been cooed over and doted on wherever we go, even when he tackles the other children with his overly-enthusiastic hugs and kisses. “Don’t worry about that,” one mother said to me. “That just shows he’s loved and loving.”
These are not aspects of Baltimore likely to be recognized by folks who drop by the Inner Harbor for seafood, or who have formed all their ideas of the west side of the city (where we live) through watching The Wire, but to a young mother and new folks in town, it means the world.
What’s the story the media isn’t covering?
I think we can agree that the media loves bad news. For some reason, bad news is what gets a majority of us to tune in. Because of that, most of the reports on what’s happening in Baltimore, beginning with Saturday’s largely peaceful demonstration, flash images of smashed cars, burning buildings, looting stores. In fact, when everything is calm or when groups are gathering for prayer or just standing and talking, even “live” reports will flash back to images from earlier in the week that are more dramatic and scintillating. I don’t want to indicate that the damage done has not been real and impactful. Many of the people who came to our food pantry the day after Monday’s riots were saddened and frustrated by the damage done to their streets and businesses. One man commented that he doesn’t know where he will get his elderly mother’s medication now that all the nearby CVS stores have been looted and subsequently closed. Another said he lost his job, one of the few available in this area, because the building was burned down A friend reports that in their zip code, unemployment is at 50 percent (8.4 percent city wide). Several of the men commented that they didn’t leave their houses, not because they were afraid they would get hurt in the riot, but because they were afraid of being accused of participating in it just by stepping outside.
But there is so much more happening! Because schools were closed, the high school drumline (which we hear practicing almost daily from our house) marched through the streets with the school’s cheerleaders dancing before them. Churches held outdoor prayer services (some in front of their own buildings, others surrounding those places that had been burned down), seeking to bring healing to a traumatized space. Local clergy are meeting with local gangs, discussing ways of reaching out to the community and beginning to work together to seek not just calm but real enduring peace. Throughout the week our local Josephite church, Peter Claver, has been a hub for organizing–to meet the needs of people lacking food or other resources, to help with neighborhood clean up and to engage in the more long-term work of confronting social structures which are precariously imbalanced.
How has living the Gospel been a messy experience for you in the last week of your life?
Probably that hardest thing for me living in the midst of Baltimore’s present turmoil has been fielding the reactions of those who live outside of it. I guess that belies my privilege in that, because I have a car, I am not cut off from access to food, toiletries, or medications when drug stores and convenience stores in the neighborhood are burnt down. And frankly, because I am white, I am not afraid of being falsely accused of participating in destructive actions or being badgered or beaten by law enforcement.
What I do struggle with (as someone with a network of friends and family who have widely disparate takes on world events as well as philosophies of right living) is trying to bring a balanced perspective and to reveal what may otherwise go unseen. I think those who very sincerely and understandably want to be on the side of the oppressed are quick to rationalize and validate any actions. This is also true of certain forms of violence (such as property destruction)– long-suppressed reactions from people who have experienced many painful forms of violence throughout their entire life–even the lives of the generations preceding them. On the other hand, there are those who want, without question, to dismiss and criticize any behavior that is disruptive, uncomfortable or that defies their sense of what is appropriate. They are quick to have a scathing review of unruly protesters yet are ready to ignore the economic and social violence that has been far more enduring and harmful to peoples’ lives.
I find myself truly challenged to live my own exhortation to “observe without judgment.” I am challenged to observe what is happening on the streets, first with curiosity and compassion, before slipping into criticism and assumptions whether I am observing protesters, police or politicians. I am also, and perhaps all the more so, challenged to observe the comments and viewpoints of others that are pouring in with patience and humility, looking to the Spirit to help form my response and not simply relying on my reactive feelings. This is a struggle for me as I feel very deeply the turmoil of my community (even as I am aware of my own status as somewhat of an outsider); tucked away in this 22 acre-cemetery of which we are stewards, where the sounds of helicopters and sirens compete with the song of birds enjoying the shade of our blossoming apple trees.
I am coming to a point where I find the need to quiet my own roiling thoughts and emotions, my fast-forming opinions and judgments. Coming to a place of inner stillness, I ask myself to imagine “Where is Jesus in all of this?” With that question, lines of police in riot gear melt away, a disinterested mayor takes the backseat, burning buildings fizzle out. With the question comes tears: tears of a devastated mother who lost her only son, a mother who is representative of many and yet who is deeply immersed in her own very real and individual loss; tears of Jesus as he holds her grief-stricken body in his own wounded arms and mourns a multitude of violent deaths and broken hearts and the loss of even one precious child.
It’s Lent. I am a disciple, trying to fast and pray in the desert. I’m getting hungry for some great elation, getting worn out from discomforts. I am all hot and bothered–hah! I am disturbed.
I’ve been thinking “perhaps that’s the whole point of discipleship.” We must be disturbed. This journey with Jesus is a journey of conversion– personally and communally. We must remain open to God changing our hearts, our minds and our lives from the inside out.
Disturbed is defined as “intruded on, bothered, rearranged, mixed up, interfered with and turned upside down.” A dictionary also told me that those who are disturbed often are “concerned, upset, flustered, unsettled and disconcerted.” I have learned that all those things happen when we’re living the Gospel.
When I have gone to live with those on the margins of society, I have been appalled, infuriated and outright disgusted with what they must live with. Racism, discrimination and violence; health, education and environment issues are all tangled into the web of social problems related to poverty. For example, world hunger isn’t really as simple as “we need to share our food.” We also need to change the system.
I showed this video to some students at the high school recently in order to demonstrate how complicated problems like world hunger are:
When we learn the truth of how–and why–people are suffering, it’s hard to not become upset and turned upside down.
I am not sure where I learned the phrase, but I often find myself thinking that in order to follow Jesus we must be standing on our heads. This past week a student asked why John the Baptist was standing in the water when he was preaching (as he was in the movie I was showing them). I didn’t have a good answer because I had no clue. What I said was all I could think of: “All holy people seem slightly crazy.” I was surprised when my student nodded with what seemed to be satisfaction. I think that if a religion teacher would have told me that when I was 15 I would have been a bit upset. “You’re saying I have to be crazy to follow Jesus!?”
Well, yes. There is a certain amount of radical trust, impulsiveness, scandal and risk that is required if we’re really trying to follow Jesus.
Eleven years ago, when I was only 20, I took one of those crazy risks. I flew to the other side of the world and studied abroad in South Africa.
I was wandering around a big foreign city where crime rates were high; many people didn’t speak my language, and I was enjoying it. I was disturbed and deeply converted. I began to understand myself differently. Maybe I wasn’t a shy, small town farm girl after all. When God disturbs us–turns us upside down–we even start to think about ourselves in new ways.
God quickly showed me how to be involved with his people and his church. I prayed, started asking people about opportunities and then began volunteer ministry at a shelter and in a prison. A lot of things unfolded and with every new experience I was transformed, converted, changed.
In South Africa I developed relationships with the wealthy and privileged and the poor and marginalized at the same time.
I was exposed to the extreme contrasts of economic injustices. It felt very unfair–very wrong that people who were extremely rich could live right alongside others who were so poor they dwelled in tin shacks, had to carry their water and used car batteries for electricity.
I remember one day when I came home from volunteering at the shelter and was especially confused and overwhelmed–disturbed–by all that I had experienced. My housemates were getting ready to go see the musical Cats and offered me an extra ticket. I quickly got dressed up and went along but barely enjoyed the show. “How could people possibly enjoy the wine they were sipping while people were right outside the doors–on the streets–without any food?” I wondered.
I knew that Jesus wanted me to share, not feel guilty or stop having fun. For the rest of my time in South Africa I decided to love and give without abandon. If people asked me for things I’d trust God and their goodness and give meals, clothes, money, school supplies; whatever I could. It was risky but worth it. And the amazing thing I learned about giving was that I didn’t need to worry. I could do it freely. If I was recklessly being loving, generous and faithful God would take care of me. And God totally did, being a loving parent after all.
Now, back in the middle of mainstream United States of America, the land where the uncomfortable and our injustices are much more hidden, I find myself wondering if it is my calling is to disturb others, to shake people up, challenge them and tell the youth that yes, you must be slightly crazy if you want to be a disciple.
The fascinating, beautiful, wonderful thing is that God is still disturbing me by what I am encountering. Good thing I get to be in the desert to feast, or…um…fast, in all these conversions.
The fire of God is burning and we gather to praise and rejoice. No barriers divide us, no division separates us. God’s mystery connects us through the diversity of language, origin, world-view, culture and class. We are together, glowing with the heat that can only be experienced by the fullness of humanity.
Fire is beautiful, enlightening, strong. We can become mesmerized and tempted to play in it and with it, teasing the limits. With deep wonder, we can get too close to the power, only to be burned and scarred. If we dance with God’s designs, we can’t stay the same.
In fact, the elements of God’s designs instill in us great lessons about the mystery of God’s nature. Fire is fierce, dangerous, destructive. Without our attention or understanding, the sparks of elements and energy ignite flames in fields and forests. Dry air and strong wind force rages for miles, destroying life, homes, security and control.
We lament at loss and grieve our lack of understanding. It feels like an injustice, it’s definitely a mystery. How can we love and have faith anymore? How can we believe and trust? How are we supposed to accept that this is Love’s Way when we feel so hurt?
Nature tells us, though, that with time life comes back brighter and stronger after a fire sweeps through. In my childhood, I remember being confused about how my parents would start brush fires in our pastures to renew the grasses for something better. It made no sense to me, just as I now don’t understand my Divine Parent’s fire-y ways.
I try to trust, despite the struggle. I’ve been hurt by the sudden death of a colleague and I am trying to live through painful good-byes; I’m ending my ministry in Chicago and moving to Wisconsin to be near the motherhouse. On Tuesday, another student told me that someone he knew well (his cousin) was shot and killed. A foot taller than me at fifteen, I suddenly fell onto his chest, sobbing at the injustice. He stood there like a pillar of stone, trying to comfort me through his own stunned grief. “It’s OK, Sister.” he muttered. “No, it’s not!” I said.
Somehow, I must be faithful to my call to be an itinerant Franciscan and say good-bye to my students who are in so much pain. Somehow, I must trust God that things will really be OK. I must trust the mystery of God’s glorious fire, because I have no other choice. And, I believe that Love is truly stronger than any other energy, even the energy of non-understanding.
Deep in the dark, I shall snuggle up to the coals of God’s comfort with my community, family and friends. The force of the Spirit shall heal and transform all of us, together, to be united as one body: the fire of God’s love. May it be so, Amen, indeed, Amen.