About four years ago, before any of us had been encouraged to practice social distancing because of the coronavirus pandemic, I moved to the Northwoods of Wisconsin. My family and friends worried I’d be lonely, but I embraced the peace and quiet and found myself feeling very happy among the trees and lakes. It didn’t take long for me to make friends among my fellow Franciscan sisters, to feel like I was part of a community. About once a month, I drove half the day to visit friends in other parts of the state. Occasionally I would fly to meetings in places like California and South Carolina. I even got in good enough shape to walk the Camino de Compostela in Spain. Plus, social media allowed me to grow and deepen my relationships with many people online.
Overall, my time in the Northwoods was fruitful for me. I wrote a book and completed a master’s degree, all while benefiting from natural beauty and fresh air.
For my master’s project, I researched the problem of loneliness and developed some pastoral responses. What I learned was alarming… [This is the beginning of an essay I recently published in The Christian Century. Continue reading here.]
The world that surrounds us is daunting,
too many voices speak truth
and prophetic words from false prophets
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
Enter into discomfort, dispel rational thought
that has normalized hate, and do not tread on the surface, but abandon it for the deepfor it is therethat the truth will be uncoveredrevealing that all are created
in the image and likeness of Godall are made holy and sacred and just.
It is a profound truth,
if only because the voice that responds is feminine
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.
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.
I have never been to Charlottesville. In fact, I have barely spent anytime in the American South.
Like most people, though, I am horrified and sickened by the ugliness of racism that has been expressed there recently, especially last weekend. I want to know what to do, how to help and am trying to discern what sort of reaction I can muster.
Today I’ve been mourning the death and praying with the family of Heather Heyer, the counter-protestor who was hit by a car driven by a white supremacist on Saturday. I have been feeling heartsick for the friends and family of the police officers who died in the helicopter crash, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates, too. I went to a somber candlelight vigil with another Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration on Monday night to pray for peace, healing and to mourn the the lives lost last weekend. I am trying to study the truth carefully, prayerfully. I know I have a lot to learn.
I don’t know how to make sense of what is happening in the United States of America. I don’t know how to pray or move forward in the mess. I am not sure where God needs me to focus my energy and prayers to help transform society, contribute to the healing of racial wounds and stand for truth and justice. I feel lost.
I have been compelled this week, therefore, to pray with some of the voices I know from Charlottesville.
First, I re-read this poignant essay from my friend Natasha Oladokun, “Why Are We Here if Not for Each Other?” before I got ready for Sunday Mass. I highly recommend that you read and pray with this essay, too, and allow yourself to consider the hard questions. Here’s an excerpt:
Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you, said Jesus — the champion of the marginalized and poor, the so-called religious radical who was executed by the state, the God to whom I’ve offered my life. It is an injunction that rarely makes earthly sense, especially now: how can I bless when I have nothing left to say? And what should I pray for? A plague of locusts?
In her book-length lyric essay Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the poet Claudia Rankine asks, “Why are we here if not for each other?” This is the question I keep asking myself and whomever else will listen. Perhaps, in its own way, it’s the question. If our lives and work and words are not in the service of transformative devotion to and for our neighbors, then what, in heaven or hell, are we doing?
Secondly, I have been challenged and grateful for this message from another friend who calls Charlottesville her home, Andi Cumbo-Floyd. I have read this over and over, and am trying to take the challenge to heart:
My Dear, Beloved, White Brothers and Sisters,
I am seeing a lot of distancing, a lot of us stiff-arming the white nationalists, the Nazis and racists who marched in Charlottesville on Friday and Saturday. We are doing a lot of “them”ing about those folks, acting out our horror at their hatefulness. I get it. I want to do it, too, push those white people, those young white men especially, far away from myself. I want “them” to be “them,” too.
But they are us.
I say that with no hyperbolic force. I am speaking truth.
I am a racist. As a white woman who was raised in America, this is something I must own. It is part of what is taught to me as a white person in the United States – this belief that, somehow, white people are superior. I never got a lecture. No one ever told me that belief in so many words, but I was taught it nonetheless.
I know that I was taught this belief because sometimes I think and say things, racist things, that I didn’t know I believed. I won’t recount the list of those things for you here because I do not want to retraumatize our brothers and sisters of color who hear those things every day, but if you’d like examples, email me at email@example.com, and I’ll share a few with you, as illustrations of my own brokenness.
So you, my beautiful, beloved, broken white brothers and sisters, you are racist, too. I know that’s hard to hear – I KNOW. But it’s true. You have been taught things about people of color, things that say they are inferior to you as a white person. If you consider carefully, you’ll find those things. I find more every day, and it breaks my heart.
We need to have our hearts broken.
But let me be clear – we don’t need to sit around feeling guilty, making this about us yet again. As Nadia Bolz-Weber said, “let’s be honest – white guilt does nothing. White guilt makes us look for exoneration. White guilt leads to changes of only optics in which people of color are the object and not the subject. Once again. White guilt leads to me trying to figure out how to relieve my white guilt and once again it’s all about me. So let’s let White Guilt go. It doesn’t work.” So no guilt here – it’s useless. Work is better. Honesty is better. Truth is better.
And for the love of Pete, don’t go around apologizing to all the people of color that you know – that, too, is asking them to do the work of exonerating you of your beliefs. Instead, do what my wise friend Nicole Morgan suggested – talk to other white people. Take your questions, your struggles outside the circle of people of color who have so long had to carry the burden of racism in every way. Write to me if you want. I”ll answer. We’ll talk it out.
But please, don’t make this about other people. Because it’s not. As you look at the people who marched on Friday and Saturday in Charlottesvile, in my city, don’t push them away with a stiff arm of safe distance. Pull them close. Look them in the eye. See them as your brothers, aunties, cousins, next-door neighbors, yes. But most importantly, see them as yourself.
Until we, the white people of America, can own the quiet racism in our own hearts AND the virulent armored racism that marches in our streets, we cannot change.
And we must change. WE, the white people of America, must change.
With all my love for all of us,
These two essays have been churning questions and agony within me, haunting me. Over and over I wonder: Am I racist too?
The insistence of this moment is that we all realize that our actions for racial reconciliation must be both internal and external. Internally, each of us must enter into the chasm of our hearts and minds and ask ourselves the most necessary and challenging questions such as: How am I racist?
I majored in history in college. Doing so helped me understand that all of the “isms” are complex, systemic and sinful. Racism, especially, is one of the worst “isms” that we need to confront, especially in ourselves, as it can be subtle and unconscious, and likely to come out sideways in our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.
That’s the way social sin works. Even if we are working against it, we still absorb some of the evil. We all are harmed. We must repent.
This tool is especially helpful to me as I work to see more of the truth of how I may be racist without realizing it:
Externally, we must work for racial reconciliation in every possible way. Prayer, education, protest, social action are great ways to start. (You can look here to see if there is #StandWithCharlottesville event happening near you.) Intentional conversation circles and dialogues are valuable. Also, the Episcopalian Bishops of Virginia offer great specific actions here in their list titled “Concrete actions in the face of white supremacists and others whose message is counter to Christ’s embracing love.”
No matter how we proceed through this mess, let us remember that every person is worthy of God’s love and mercy. Let us not clump anyone into a group that we are against, but realize that even if they are acting in a way that goes against God, that they are also a child of God and need to be honored and loved as such. Let us be clear that Christ’s love is for all people, every race, language and nation.
And, fortunately, God gets to take the lead through this struggle; it’s not all up to us. Step by step we struggle forward, letting Jesus take the lead and bring us closer to true peace, reconciliation, healing and freedom. Amen.
I spend most of time going through life assuming that I am basically a good person who is OK with God. But, every now and then, I notice ugly thoughts jumble around inside me: Give them what they deserve! Or, Lock them up and throw away the key! Or, Thank God they’re not my problem to deal with!
Upon recognizing such thinking in myself there are two layers of horror and disgust. First, I am shocked by the awfulness and ugliness of the attitude, which is far from the Way of Christ. Second, I am terrified that such thoughts are authentically coming from me—a “good person.” When I realize that yes, I really thought that, it is an indicator that the structures of social sin really do have an influence over me—so much so that even my mind has shifted away from compassion and mercy.
Jesus, too, understood the ugliness of social sin and the way it can corrupt the thinking of good people. Challenged with the question “who is my neighbor?” his reply stretches his audience to widen their view:
But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” –Luke 10:29-37
The despised Samaritan becomes the “good guy,” the one who models how to practice the law of love, while the expected holy ones—the priest and scholar—miss the chance to serve. The false, deeply engrained perceptions are challenged so that the Kingdom of God can break through.
All these centuries later and across the globe, it turns out that wrong thinking has influence over our societal structures as well. Compared to other nations, the people in the United States demand more punishment for crimes; we want to be tough, not merciful. This insistence means that the for-profit private detention industry is booming. Plus, we greatly surpass every other nation for the amount of people we have put behind bars. Even though our nation has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population is in the USA. Nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population is in the USA!
The people behind these bars are our brothers and sisters, our neighbors who Jesus calls us to love. They are the broken body of Christ in need of mercy and kindness. They are fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, sons and daughters. Our sin tears parents from children. Our wrong thinking—focused more on punishment than mercy—is festering wounds in families, neighborhoods and cities.
The good news is that we do not need to get stuck; no keys are really thrown away. We can repent for the sin of our wrong-thinking and continued allowance of bad public policy.
Let us give God our broken hearts and broken systems. Let us grow closer to Christ upon the Christ, bearing our wounds and sorrow. Such an intimacy with Christ can transform the prisons of our wrong thinking and create new hearts within us. The Kingdom of God shall break forth, the prisoner shall be released, and we all will be liberated from the damage of social sin.
Changed by God, we will then be able to rejoice and announce the good news: freedom and forgiveness for all, the day of favor has arrived!
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…
People often express their condolences when the subject comes up but—the truth is—it’s really not a big deal. I grew up with asthma, so I was never intimidated by the diagnosis. Thankfully, my daughter’s asthma is well-controlled with daily medication and has (thus far) never caused her any serious issues. Though it does flare up when she falls ill or exercises more than normal, her asthma most typically manifests in a distinctive chronic cough from October through April.
Predictably, the coughing has recently started up again. It makes us very unpopular in public spaces.
At our local science museum last week, I couldn’t help but notice other parents discreetly redirecting their children away from my daughter who, although she’s pretty good about coughing into her elbow, inevitably makes quite a scene when she’s hit with a prolonged spell.
I don’t blame other parents for giving us a wide berth. Nobody wants their kids to get sick and, unless you know (as we do) that her cough is distinctly asthmatic, you’d think she had a cold and was putting everybody at risk of exposure. And so I find myself subtly justifying our presence. If I happen to catch a mother’s skeptical eye after yet another coughing fit, I give her an apologetic smile and say, “Sorry, she has asthma.”
Almost without exception, her expression transforms from one of irritation into one of sympathy and regret.
Watching this instantaneous transformation occur before my eyes over and over again makes me wonder: how many times have I presumed that I am witnessing a human failing (one to which I can feel superior) when, in fact, I’m only seeing the symptom of an underlying illness or injury (one which would immediately compel me to compassion)?
I suspect the answer is almost every time.
One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Ian Maclaren, is, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The older I get, the more I realize how true this is. In every stage of life I meet people who are embroiled in terrible battles—battles which transform my bitter judgment into deep sympathy in a heartbeat:
Why is that boy acting so rude on the playground? Because he’s on the autism spectrum and doesn’t recognize social cues.
Why is that new mother giving her baby formula, when we all know “breast is best”? Because she has postpartum depression and breastfeeding makes it worse.
Why does that young woman get drunk and sleep with jerks every weekend? Because she was sexually abused and has no model for healthy intimacy.
Why is that guy addicted to heroin? Because he’s gay and terrified of coming out.
Why did that mom bring her sick child to the Pacific Science Center today? Because her daughter’s cough is due to a chronic, not contagious, sickness.
We are all of us sick: at the very least, in the way that humanity is sick with original sin but also—and usually far worse—in ways that are personal, foundational … and frequently invisible. Our souls may be sin-sick (as the old hymn goes), but they are also abuse-sick, grief-sick, trauma-sick, and illness-sick.
The same wounds and diseases that cry out for compassion lie hidden beneath the very symptoms which make compassion so easy to withhold. And yet Scripture, particularly the New Testament, makes it pretty clear that compassion is non-negotiable if we are to consider ourselves true Christians.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12-14)
I pray for the grace to see beyond the coughing spells I encounter, and to be moved to compassion for those dreadful, hidden illnesses about which I know nothing.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s whose contributions to Messy Jesus Business usually focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. She writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters (only one of whom has asthma).
Things are occurring around this country this week that are begging for us to unite and enter into some messy Jesus business—to put our lives on the line for others. Let us make a choice to love our neighbors, even if it’s costly.
Here are three situations where others have put their lives on the line, at times without their choice.
This week, a man stood up to power in Washington D. C. and asked people to cooperate, to put down their weapons and love their neighbor.
He spoke of a teenager who literally sacrificed his life so that others could live:
Zaevion Dobson was a sophomore at Fulton High School in Knoxville, Tennessee. He played football, beloved by his classmates and his teachers. His own mayor called him one of their city’s success stories.
The week before Christmas, he headed to a friend’s house to play video games. He wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. He hadn’t made a bad decision. He was exactly where any other kid would be — your kid, my kids. And then gunmen started firing, and Zaevion, who was in high school — hadn’t even gotten started in life — dove on top of three girls to shield them from the bullets, and he was shot in the head and the girls were spared. He gave his life to save theirs. An act of heroism a lot bigger than anything we should ever expect from a 15-year-old. “Greater love hath no man than this than a man lay down his life for his friends.”
We are not asked to do what Zaevion Dobson did. We’re not asked to have shoulders that big, a heart that strong, reactions that quick. I’m not asking people to have that same level of courage or sacrifice or love. But if we love our kids and care about their prospects, and if we love this country and care about its future, then we can find the courage to vote. We can find the courage to get mobilized and organized. We can find the courage to cut through all the noise and do what a sensible country would do.
That’s what we’re doing today. And tomorrow, we should do more, and we should do more the day after that. And if we do, we’ll leave behind a nation that’s stronger than the one we inherited and worthy of the sacrifice of a young man like Zaevion.
The man who was speaking was, of course, President Obama.
The entire speech he gave is worthwhile of watching:
Zaevion made a choice to give of his life to protect others, but it wasn’t a choice he should have been faced with. And, like President Obama said, we can make a choice to put our lives on the line out of love for our neighbors too, by at least standing up for what’s right.
This week, children have been deported back into countries in Central America that are raging with civil wars and gang violence.
This is not something I can get behind. As explained here, it was strategic for these deportations to occur this week:
The Obama administration has launched a big effort to deport those families to begin 2016. And it’s raiding residential neighborhoods to find and arrest the families — a tactic that a lot of immigrants and immigration advocates have traumatic associations with.
(I can’t help but to wonder if President Obama thought we might not notice this quiet cruelty if we’re all buzzing about ending gun violence.)
I am angry and heartsick about this inhumane way that people are being forced to put their lives on the line. We are a nation of immigrants and we have a human responsibility to be merciful to those who are poor and fleeing violence. No family should ever be broken apart and thrown into a war zone.
I hope that Christians can rally and demand a compassionate end to this family violence. Their lives are in danger and we can afford to take a courageous risk on their behalf.
This story is actually from last week. It’s an amazing story that could give us all courage and hope.
On New Years Eve while a Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was having service, a man came into the church with a semi-automatic assault rifle, was greeted, helped, patted down (and handed over his gun), embraced, welcomed and then peacefully brought to the hospital by police—but only after the church service was over and he was able to pray with others.
The pastor put his life on the line for his congregation and it had an effect. Violence was halted because love, mercy, and human kindness were in action.
No matter the circumstances that are crying out to us for compassionate attention, let us pray together that by the strength of God each of us will always respond with love, mercy, and human kindness. Let us give of ourselves and put our lives on the line, even if it’s dangerous or uncomfortable.
After all, a really good man, Jesus—love enfleshed, commanded it of us:
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this,j to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.This I command you: love one another. –John 15:12-17
When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and, falling at his feet, paid him homage. Peter, however, raised him up, saying, “Get up. I myself am also a human being.” Then Peter proceeded to speak and said, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” –Acts 10:25-26
Let’s get up and be together; we are all human beings.
We are the people of God. Really, all people are God’s people and God loves everyone the same. Not one nation is better than any other. Not one person is better than any other. We are all called to do what is right and we work to please our God.
What sort of action does it take to be a “nation who fears God and acts uprightly?”
What actions show our reverence for God? What actions say that we revere how Jesus is living in the dignity of all humanity?
Jesus made it pretty clear how we are are to act:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and your joy might be complete.
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing.
I have called you friends,
because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you
and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,
so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.
This I command you: love one another.”. –John 15:9-17
Is there a nation that is ready and willing to be a true friend, one who is ready and willing to lay down their lives the other?
I am aware that many soldiers are willing to lay down their lives for their own nations. But are there people who are willing to lay down their lives for others, for another nation? Who are being true, loving friends in the national ways of being?
I am not sure how I will participate in the actions of the Summit. I feel compelled to say with my love- with my living- that I truly believe that no nation should ever behave as if they are better than another. After all, we are all human beings and we all deserve to be treated that way. Presently, I am contemplating what God is calling me to. I know, however, that I want to be a friend to people in other nations. I want to behave in ways that are truly acceptable to God. I want to say with all that am that I love my neighbors everywhere and the only power that I really fear is God’s infinite power.
Thanks be to God for those who live the Truth with their way of love. Thanks be to God for those who inspire me to really love my neighbor and be part of a nation who is willing to lay down its life for other nations. Creative non-violence says “I’ll live simply so you may live” & “I’ll dialogue with you so we may both be free.” Alleluia, amen, by the witness of great peacemakers, I am learning! May we all behave non-violently, in ways that are rightly acceptable to the true, holy Power.