Years ago, while teaching theology to 9th graders, a particular student tugged at my heart.
Each day he would come into my classroom and listen thoughtfully. His face would twist up with frustration and confusion while he heard me explain how the Bible came to be and the call of discipleship. The questions seemed to agonize him, to torment any solid footing his faith may have once had.
He would often interrupt my lesson with questions–real tough questions. Other teachers might have received his struggles and doubts as disrespectful or a threat. I was challenged, certainly, but I thanked him.
I told him privately that his questions were a gift. That he should allow them to evolve and teach him the Truth. (And, my statement seemed to create more questions and agony for him. Why couldn’t I just give him clear answers?!)
I loved his questions, and I really loved him too.
I have been thinking a lot about the sacredness of questions lately, of the importance of letting them be a way that we are drawn into communion with other people, and God.
Last weekend, I caught part of This American Life on the radio and was reminded that answers aren’t as important the asking, as the listening and conversation–at least when it comes to the building of relationships and unity.
Here are some of my recent questions. What questions can I ask to increase compassion and connection? How can questions bring us to deeper levels of understanding? Why do certain questions make me uncomfortable?
What questions are causing you agony? What questions are helping you grow closer to God and others?
Although our questions can cause a lot of anguish and discomfort, let us remember that they are a way we can bond with others, that they are a path to union with Christ.
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. —2 Corinthians 4:7-10
Years ago, when I was learning how to be a teacher, some of my motivations were quite idealistic: I want to change the hearts and minds of youth, and therefore change the world!!
Now, when I think back to the workings of my mind in those days, I almost want to scold my younger self, “get a grip!”
By no means were my motivations bad, but it was my ego that got me into trouble. Did I really think that I could change people? Of course I did–and I suppose most of us do, at some point in our lives. Maybe this thought is buzzing in the background of our interactions most of the time, without us realizing it. If so, we may feel like we’ve failed if we can’t convince others of our opinions, can’t get them to switch their views or can’t inspire them to join the cause about which we are super passionate.
When did this all change for me? When did I stop thinking I was supposed to change others? I suppose it started when I began to see myself more as a minister than a teacher, and when I began to understand that my role is to lovingly companion people and meet them wherever they are. I share God’s love, myself, my knowledge and experiences, but I hope to always provide the freedom for people to make up their own minds.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs./ We are prophets of a future not our own
I am not the messiah. It’s not my job to free people, to save them. I am called to love and let God do this rest. This is freeing, good Gospel news!
But to tell you the truth, companioning others, and not aiming to change them, is a struggle. That’s especially true when I encounter people who have views that are offensive to my own, who say things that make me cringe. Do I just listen and let them speak, even if they are voicing something that is morally wrong–like a racist or classist idea?!
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And, I have been grappling with these questions while in conversation with others. At a recent Theology on Tap event here, I sat around a table with about a dozen people eating pizza and burgers and having a deep and vulnerable conversation centered on the topic, “How to get along with people different than you.” We read an excerpt of a chapter of a book by Margaret Wheatley “Willing to be Disturbed,” which I highly recommend.
A few weeks prior, when I was at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I attended an excellent panel discussion called, “Writing about politics in an age of rancor.” Most of the panelists talked about the importance of listening, of practicing good interview skills. One speaker said that we’ve lost the art of persuasion in our culture. Everyone emphasized the importance of empathy.
Plus, I have been a bit fascinated by a radio program that I recently caught on my way to mass at the local parish. This part of the conversation, in particular, piqued my interest:
RAZ: You know, I find myself having, like, really serious conversations with friends about things we disagree on, and it can get pretty heated.
RAZ: And I try to employ a lot of these rules. But what do you do when your core values are just totally misaligned with the person that you’re talking with – like, to such an extent that the things they believe just offend you to your core? Do you still engage?
HEADLEE: I do. And I can give you an example of this. So I am a mixed-race person. The last time my family lived in Georgia, we were owned. And I think most people would understand my feelings on the Confederate battle flag. But I have a number of friends that absolutely think that is about heritage, and it’s not about hate, et cetera, et cetera.
And I was having one of these discussions with someone earlier, and he started to say to me, well, I’m not going to talk about this with you because I know where you stand. And I said, you know what? That actually frees us up. Just tell me what you think because here’s the thing. Our views are opposed on this, but I am interested in your perspective, why this is so important to you. And if I can just start from the outset and allay those expectations that someone’s going to change my mind, sometimes it just sort of relieves that pressure. Then it just becomes about hearing someone’s perspective.
RAZ: So you wouldn’t respond to his argument. You would just listen to what he said.
HEADLEE: I might. I might, but I start by just listening and asking questions, but because he likes me and respects me, usually he leaves an opening for me to express my feelings, and I do honestly without condemnation. But, you know, it’s hard for people to open up like this. It’s hard. That makes you vulnerable.
Here is the entire TED Talk about how to have better conversations, about how to interview and listen:
As a Christian who is aiming every day to keep united with the power of the resurrected Christ, I am trying to keep all this in mind as I minister, listen and learn: listening and being vulnerable with others helps build community, and build relationships. When both parties are compassionately curious about one another, when our thoughts and beliefs can be clarified, then we can be in communion. We grow closer together when we share our wounds, when we create spaces of true hospitality where bread of all sorts can be broken and shared.
And somehow, along the way, by the grace of God, we all end up changed.
A few weeks ago, President Trump announced the winners of the Fake News Awards. His pattern of discrediting journalism and attacking the freedom of the press is a fascinating sign of the times we are in; an opportunity for us to imitate Christ and share mercy and Truth.
But, what if we aren’t really sure what’s True? How do we know what’s Fake News? What if we’re completely dizzy with confusion about who to believe, about who’s right?
My observations of American society in the past of couple years has convinced me that it doesn’t make a difference where one sits on the political spectrum or how educated one is — all of us can fall victim to the lures of propaganda and become unsure what is actually True.
Yet, Scripture tells us, over and over, that we are called to know, love and promote the Truth.
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every wayinto him who is the head, into Christ. – Ephesians 4:15
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. –1 Corinthians 13:4-6
Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. – John 14:6
Plus, for those of us who are Catholic, we understand that perusing and promoting the Truth is a core component to how we live the Gospel and live as disciples.
The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. This moral prescription flows from the vocation of the holy people to bear witness to their God who is the truth and wills the truth. Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: they are fundamental infidelities to God and, in this sense, they undermine the foundations of the covenant.– Catechism of the Catholic Church #2464
It is by loving that the God-who-is-Love is proclaimed to the world: not by the power of convincing, never by imposing the truth, no less by growing fixated on some religious or moral obligation. – Pope Francis
So, how are we to navigate through this murky era, when the truth is so often watered down or warped to fit particular views?
What I offer here are some tips developed from my study of history, propaganda, media and politics. (Being a history major in college really has served me well!) Last summer, I shared many of these tips and resources to a group at my place of ministry and heard that they were very helpful; I have been meaning to share them with you, Messy Jesus Business readers, ever since. The day has finally come!
First, one of the confusing parts of this time is that many phrases and words are being tossed around, and a lot of people don’t really know what the terms mean. Let’s start with a glossary.
Absolute Truth = Facts which exist without being dependent upon anything else, such as one’s perspective or opinions.
Alternative Facts = Un-factual information, false information.
Bias = Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
Confirmation Bias = The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.
Fake News = Propaganda or false information published under the guise of being authentic news.
Objective Truth = Not influenced by or based on personal feelings or opinions.
Post Truth = Debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion, which are disconnected from facts.
News = Factual journalism regarding events
News Analysis = Opinion and commentary on the news.
Satire = The use of humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose or criticize.
Subjective Truth = Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK, DEVELOP YOUR SKILLS
I am growing increasingly convinced that anyone who consumes information in this modern world has a civil duty to develop their skills and critical reading eye. For example, I like how On The Media suggests we spot Fake News.
Similarly, it is crucial that readers can recognize bias and are aware what type of slant sources are likely to make. I find this chart quite accurate and helpful.
CONVERSE WITH COMPASSIONATE CURIOSITY IN PURSUIT OF THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH
Look back at the definitions of Absolute Truth, Objective Truth and Subjective Truth. In our post-modern world, there is a common temptation to let the opinions and beliefs held by another be “their truth” while one maintains “my own truth.” When I hear that folks say things like “believe what you want, I know what I believe” I get frustrated and wonder why we dismiss one another, why we don’t believe that others can help expand our thinking, perspective. Only through community and in relationship can we gain a more complete picture of the objective truth, what we all are here seeking to understand.
Have mercy on me for my terrible clip art, but here’s an image that shows the different types of truth.
In order to know what is absolutely true, we need to have compassionate curiosity about how others see things; none of us, from our finite human experience, can ever see the whole picture, the entire truth. (The truth that God knows, the Truth that is God. ) Grounded in prayer, we can ask questions without being defensive, without aiming to convince others why our perspective is better.
There are several guides and resources available that can help us develop our dialogue and communication skills. I am especially a big fan of what the folks at On Being are offering with their Civil Conversations Project. The Circle Way is another approach that I have found quite helpful.
LISTEN AND LOVE
Certainly, in order to be an effective communicator, it is important to honor the dignity of every person, to lovingly listen to them in a way that honors that they are made in God’s image. Conversation and listening — when it comes to pursuing the Truth — ought to be an act of prayer. We open up our heads and hearts and remain detached. We allow ourselves to be converted, realizing that the Spirit is always calling us into greater growth and intimacy.
One way to think about it is to consider what is important for good listening. The Chinese character that means “to listen” is made up of smaller characters that reveal what is needed to be a good, active listener. Aren’t these the same elements needed to be attentive in prayer, to be in a loving relationship?
Overall, Christians, we are called to be discerners, to have the humility to remain open to being wrong and learning from God and others. Only with the guidance of the Spirit and the grace of God can we come to know what is True and worthy of our promotion and experience how the Truth can truly set us free!
You will know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free. – John 8:32
Easter has ended. Jesus ascended. The power of Pentecost is nearly here. (We’ll celebrate this feast on Sunday.) What sort of wildness is unleashed into the world by way of these turns in the liturgical calendar? How has the energy transformed us and made us more into the people God has called us to be?
I don’t know. I think we each ought to pray and reflect on this individually and communally and come to our own conclusions.
Yet, I believe in the potential—power is active in the world for we’ve all been connected and created anew by the truth that evil, death and ugliness don’t get to have the last word. Hope, love, resurrection, and peacemaking remain the strongest forces in our lives, in our world.
The Holy Spirit can show up each day (no matter the liturgical phase we are in) and blow where She will, energizing and enlivening us with grace. We realize that if we empty and open ourselves to mystery and wonder the Spirit can blow through us and make music. We become instruments of mercy, peace, hope and love in the hurting world.
We are transformed by God’s activity in us. And our “yes” helps transform the world.
Listening to the news each day continually reminds me that the greatest transformation the world so desperately needs is the construction of unity, the building of bridges over the canyons of divisions. I believe God wants us all to participate in the bringing together of divided peoples.
With our cooperation the power of God is wild and fierce; the Holy Spirit can’t be contained. We abandon our fears, judgments and assumptions. We reach outward to our enemies and realize that they can be our friends. Mercy makes us free.
So speak and so act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. ~ James 2:12-13
How does this happen? How does the Holy Spirit move us outward and across enemy lines? What is required of us for this to happen?
Certainly, it starts with prayer. The sort of self-emptying surrender that Jesus modeled for us and demonstrated on the cross. The sort of communion with Christ that opens up spaces where we can hear whispers of guidance from God. The widening of our hearts and minds to make space for thinking beyond categories and the edges of boxes.
Then, we are compelled to consider who it is that we think of as “other,” as unlike ourselves. Who and what do we despise and how can become curious about them?
Then, we move toward them. We trust the Spirit to provide the courage and compassion we need. We enter into their world and try to hear their perspective with a great, loving curiosity. All this from a grounded place of playfulness, of child-like love that assumes everyone is good.
As Courtney E. Martin writes:
In some ways, it’s incredibly complicated to have worthwhile conversations about things you care deeply about with people who disagree with you … Part of why we don’t engage in conversations with people who have different belief systems from our own is because we don’t have the emotional energy. Our lives exhaust us. We’re too busy and too frustrated. It feels better to bond with people we know agree with us than to wade into the unknown waters of a psyche that might anger us. It takes real effort and emotional sturdiness to assume genuineness in someone you perceive as “the other.” It takes a resilient naïveté. Sometimes, it even takes a kind of playfulness.
Lastly, if the Spirit is to use as an instrument in this way, we must be willing to change, to compromise. We find common ground and then build new things together in that solid place. This video, which I love, demonstrates it very, very well:
Come Holy Spirit! Make us into instruments of your love!! AMEN!
Veni, Sancte Spiritus
Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!
Come, Father of the poor!
Come, source of all our store!
Come, within our bosoms shine.
You, of comforters the best;
You, the soul’s most welcome guest;
Sweet refreshment here below;
In our labor, rest most sweet;
Grateful coolness in the heat;
Solace in the midst of woe.
O most blessed Light divine,
Shine within these hearts of yours,
And our inmost being fill!
Where you are not, we have naught,
Nothing good in deed or thought,
Nothing free from taint of ill.
Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
On our dryness pour your dew;
Wash the stains of guilt away:
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.
On the faithful, who adore
And confess you, evermore
In your sevenfold gift descend;
Give them virtue’s sure reward;
Give them your salvation, Lord;
Give them joys that never end. Amen.
“It’s getting ugly!” “Society is starting to collapse!” One might be tempted to scream and cry when the headlines are scanned; when turmoil bubbles up and splashes upon any sense of security and comfort that has been shielding our privileged lives.
The mess of injustice can burn us or it can mobilize us to be who we are made to be. This is the time for us to give of ourselves; to share compassion, kindness, solidarity and prayers—we have been practicing for this since the time of Jesus Christ. Yes, we Christians must indeed stand with the vulnerable and weak right now; we must protect and care for those who are oppressed and suffering with all our might. We must pay attention and help all people unite as peacemakers, as people who nonviolently resist the hate crimes and violence that are ripping communities and our nation apart. Yes, we must resist nonviolently, even willing to do so to our death–Jesus already showed us the way.
The heartache is real, the challenge is intense; the truth is disturbing and can mess up our comfort zones and our temptation to avoid. And it should. We have a lot of work to do.
But, tomorrow is THANKSGIVING. A day to feast, to pause. A day for loved ones to sit around tables and eat, eat, eat; play games and laugh, and tell stories. Can we afford to take a break?
Yes. We must. We absolutely must.
Thanksgiving is a day to practice the essentials; to lean into those we love and gain strength, to connect with our roots and remember who we are and how we’re meant to be.
Many of our families are likely to be split over the issues, to be a collection of folks who sit at different spots on the political spectrum. This day of thanksgiving—no matter who we spend it with—is a day for us to practice what we believe it will take to heal our hurts and mend the broken, messy society. We can avoid controversial topics and keep all things light and cheery (and that’s OK; that is healing and important too) or we can look into the eyes of those who are near us and try out those dialogue skills, even awkwardly. We can ask, “How are you doing, really?” and “What are you worried about right now?” and “What do you believe will help us be better?” We can listen (with compassionate curiosity), love unconditionally, tell true stories, and imitate Christ. We can practice self-sacrifice.
Thanksgiving is a day for gratitude. We can closely examine the beauty that surrounds us in faces, in food, in the dance of color and light. We can think about all the things we have learned, that have been exposed and broken open. We can consider how we’ve grown since last Thanksgiving and how God is guiding us through.
We can make “thank you” our mantra of love. A lot is good and we really are blessed, abundantly. To pause and celebrate the goodness is not only healthy, it is necessary; only in our gratitude and relationships shall we have the strength for the mission we are made for, a mission of love and joy.
There’s a lot of beauty in the endless opportunities of this sacred feast. This is an important time and by God’s grace we are ready. For this we can also say “thank you.”
Decades ago, as a child growing up in the rolling hills of Northeast Iowa, I would daydream of simpler times, of the days when people were pioneers and steadily establishing their families and homes and building communities upon frontiers.
My younger sisters and I would gather in groves of cedar trees tucked into the hills and pastures and play “Little House,” inspired by the novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I would thumb through books tucked into my parents’ shelves, books like Back to Basics: How to Learn and Enjoy Traditional American Skills and 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth, and ponder what it would have been like to live in the “olden days.”
On steamy, sunny days in July, my younger sisters, cousins and I would put on pants and long-sleeved shirts and carry buckets half our body size into the deep woods. We’d crawl underneath berry bushes, pluck juicy deep purple blackcaps off thorny branches, rapidly fill our buckets, and scratch up our arms. Later we’d…
Advent is drawing to a close, Christmas is almost upon us. Once again, I feel that the days have passed all too quickly. I seem to have been too busy to attend to advent. Now Christmas Day is around the corner and I have this uneasy feeling that I’ve missed something, that I’m not ready yet.
How often this is the case! I imagine that having a time for waiting is equivocal to having extra time. So much time that it’s common to talk casually about “killing” or “wasting” it. Then, as I do verbal violence to time I wound all that lives within it; killing and wasting the potential waiting to be born in every moment. Momentous events that were meant to come as presents become a presentiment for which I am un or under prepared.
But it’s not too late! Advent is not over yet! And really, is advent about waiting through a patch of time or practicing a way of being, practicing and paying attention, learning to listen. I am beginning to think of advent being akin to waiting on a table. An active stance, attending to a particular table and to its place in a larger room; listening, watching, anticipating, understanding, acting according to what has been seen and heard.
Advent being a time of waiting that precedes Christmas gives context for the attention, a framework, a particular story, instead of a particular table, and how that story stands in the context of time, historical and present. This story reveals Mary, minding her own business, surprised by an angel who tells her not to fear, an angel to whom she responds with acquiescent boldness, “May it be done unto me according to your word.” Joseph too is taken by surprise, no doubt. Before any angelic intervention he discovers that his betrothed is with child (and it is evidently not his). Analyzing the situation, channeling conviction, and perhaps affection, into a generous, socially acceptable action, “unwilling to put [Mary] to shame, [Joseph] resolved to divorce her quietly.”1
And this could very well have been the last we hear of Joseph. Indeed, we may not ever have heard of Joseph accept that, though he had “resolved” in his mind the action he would take, he was waiting. Despite his logical, even loving resolve, “he considered these things.” Joseph too heard the voice of an angel, speaking to him in a dream, saying “do not fear to take Mary as your wife,” he paid attention, overcame the constraints of his anxieties and in so doing entered a new life.
“Do not fear,” continually accompanies the angelic announcements. Indeed, it would require a love that casts out fear to hear, receive and act on the words these angels delivered. Had God’s messenger not intervened, had Joseph been preoccupied, he may have inadvertently been excluded from being a key player in God’s remarkable plan. What God desired of Joseph was not that he follow the law of the land (which would have allowed Joseph to divorce Mary publicly), nor to be politely philanthropic (to show continued care and preserve Mary’s life and some shred of dignity). He was being invited as Mary was (dare I say, as we are?) to move from memory to imagination, to enlarge reason with faith, to take a counter-cultural stand, to stand with God.
The invitation is to participation in Incarnation, an it is an invitation continually extended, even today. That is what the waiting is for and it is not just about a baby born in Bethlehem (but oh what a beautiful image of vulnerability and interdependence – what tender, bold risk!), it is happening everyday; God with us, in us, around us. To receive and respond to such an invitation we need to listen and allow the spirit to supplement and surprise our intellect with the impossible possibilities of God; we need courage.
Advent is almost over, but it is ultimately a reminder, and one that does not lose its relevance with the changing of the season. The waiting is not wrapped up once Christmas arrives, nor is it an indication of empty time standing in the way of a day that is grander than that which is present. The waiting is a reminder to attend to this moment, to recognize Emmanuel, “God with us.”
So I am learning to listen to God who is always with us, not only on a particular day or in a particular place, but on every day, in every place. And to listen to my heart, attending to its quakes and whimpers. What voices are countering the echoing instruction, “do not fear”? What inhibitions obstruct from taking part in God’s extraordinary vision? Where am I blinded by lack of imagination? What sights and sounds are keeping me so distracted that I’ve no longer eyes to see and ears to hear?
This is the time. Wait, be still, listen.
Footnote: 1. Scripture references from Matthew 1:19-20, ESV.
Jesus said to his disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!'”-Mark 13:33-37
With wonder, I gaze at a horizon hoping for a Light that fills me in a whole new way. This time, may Christ come closer to me in my service, my teaching, my loving, my prayer.
May I stay awake and be alert. May I pay attention and know what is mine to do, and then have the strength to do it. May my heart and mind be open so Christ can find a home in me. May I be quiet and calm so I can recognize Peace when it reigns on Earth.
This Advent, may we all watch for the ways we are to be ready. To really be watchful, we must slow down and look and listen. We must look and listen in and around.
May we be attentive to Christ’s invitations to be united through acts of service, generosity, celebration and prayer. Let’s all watch.
I was on the mountain top and things looked clear. I was watching a group of Jesuit novices in the hilly northeastern states of India who were taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows were the same I had taken four years ago and they spoke to my heart. This radical response of love and service to the world seemed so simple and easy on the mountain.
Yet one never stays long on the mountain top. The next day I descended into the busy city of Guwahati; a chaotic place of a million people of every type. There in the city understanding was limited, if not all together gone for me. The noisy traffic patterns, the many people and languages, were all beyond recognition. I had no answers for how life worked or function in such a different place.
Many groups in India do understand the problems and plagues as it is a lively democracy with protests and other political demonstrations happening every day. Some had enough answers to try to take down the system all together by blowing up trains in Assam and bombing market places in Mumbai. These atrocities were only added to by the senselessness of the Norway massacre which all displayed the brutality of Christian, Hindu, and Muslim fundamentalism. Surrounded by and listening to only like-minded people, these fundamentalists see people in the way of their ideas and answers for the world.
Being a part-time community organizer and activist, I strive also for answers and understanding to change this crazy world, but the lesson God taught me in India couldn’t be more different from the fundamentalist response. Every time my feet sank into the mud of a place where I could start to recognize, understand, and know, I moved on. I expected to be grounded in one place but instead was invited weekly to visit some Jesuit or non-Jesuit work somewhere else. I continually found myself in a new area of the northeast with its own distinct tribe, language, culture, and issues. Having tea with so many I was honored by the sense of time people gave me and the beauty of listening to the joys and struggles of their lives.
Such people and stories pulled and stretched my heart. Bouncing in the back of a jeep from one place to another I was often frustrated at my seeming helplessness always “the guest.” I realized how little I have to say to their situation and how much I have to learn.
It was beautiful, hard, and freeing. The freedom that I was being taught was something beyond control and knowledge. It was freedom of letting go of my understanding so as to listen and realize that only together, with these radically different people, can I begin to know. My cultural viewpoint, my limited range of seeing, however enlightened I think it is, is never enough. I often accompanied two young Hindu lawyers from the Legal Cell for Human Rights who put on workshops in the poorest of villages to teach people their rights. Never understanding the language, I once asked them how they can have answers for every question asked in every village. They laughed and said, “We don’t. We never really answer the people’s questions directly, because they have the answer, we just have to help them see it.”
This freedom is beyond choice. Asking a religious Sister why she organizes domestic workers, she said she was called by God to respond to the poor around her. It was not about her interests, choices, or causes, but about meeting the needs where she was. I saw this lived out by Jesuits I lived with who were invited out into the jungle to set up schools for the most forgotten villages. I walked the tea plantations with organizers who humbly spent their lives helping their own people be proud of their culture and dream beyond their near slave labor conditions. All labored in freedom with the mission not to be heard themselves, but to help nurture the poorest around them and lift up their voice. They work as Jesus did, which was summed up beautifully by a Muslim women in a self-help group who told me “As long as God gives us life, we will give our life to help others grow.”
One of the tea worker activists asked me on a bumpy car ride why God had made rich and poor, why such disparity and diversity? I didn’t know and still don’t know. I leave India still overwhelmed by such a reality, but as a Jesuit president of an all Hindu school told me once, “God is much bigger than what we do and our understanding.” I don’t have to understand, but have to listen, learn, and, as I saw so many doing, work really hard in my own particularity for the people around me. I, like those vow men on the mountain top, have been given many gifts, and out of generosity to our great God, I hope to continue moving past myself and my limited view and answers to live a life of listening and work to help others grow and have a voice in this complex and beautiful world.
This week’s guest blogger, Ben Anderson, is a member of the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and a friend to Sister Julia. Ben lives in Chicago working on his master degree in philosophy at Loyola Chicago and is a community organizing intern at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. He spent two months during the summer immersed in the Jesuit works of Northeastern India.