MLK Day and choosing white discomfort

I don’t believe that remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement that he represented is supposed to be comfortable for us white folks.

And I wonder what we might learn if, on this national holiday created in his honor, we were to sit with his speeches that most challenge — not affirm — our worldview today.

I wonder what it would mean for us white folks, in churches, Catholic schools and affluent communities, to collectively step out of our comfort zones today and every day in his honor.

What if us white folks dedicated more time to listening to black activists today? What if humility became the root of our attempts at solidarity with diverse communities of color who are fighting every day for their liberation?

Every autumn for the past four years, I have facilitated three, three-hour sessions on issues of white privilege and white supremacy as related to experiences of foreign volunteer work for Franciscan lay missioners in training with Franciscan Mission Service. These sessions were born out of my lived experiences as a Franciscan lay missioner in South America.

In these sessions, we start with the basics.

I explain how I opened my eyes to the realities of racism only when I stepped out of the white culture I grew up in; in other words, when I stepped out of my comfort zone.

sketching
Annemarie’s original sketch “You Stood With Me II”

And we connect that experience to concepts of white privilege and white fragility that help explain how a college educated adult, like myself, could be so ignorant about issues of racism.

We also focus on history in that first session; primarily, the history of colonization worldwide and how that history implicated white folks, particularly white Christian folks.

We talk about why it is so important for white folks who are confronted with their own ignorance to respond by choosing to educate ourselves. And we cover basics like how to respond to issues and experiences related to racism that are new to us — namely, by choosing to humbly listen and learn.

We also directly deal with the racist stereotypes surrounding Catholic volunteer work. I share about my experience of being characterized as a “saint” who was “sacrificing” myself by serving in a country economically poorer than the United States.

I explain to the lay missioners in training how different the ways in which I was being categorized were from the personal expectations that I had for living in another culture.

I knew for myself that I was choosing to live in Bolivia because I was interested in their vibrant indigenous cultures and inspired by the grassroots social movements thriving there. I was choosing to move to another country to humbly learn and collaborate, not pity and patronize.

But the reality was that most of the white Catholic folks supporting my life as a Franciscan lay missioner assumed the opposite and so I had to learn how to respond to those folks and look for opportunities to not only educate myself but to share what I was learning with other white folks too.

It was a terribly uncomfortable process.

While I was confronting similar, local stereotypes where I was living and working — a testament to the destructive effects of colonization still so very alive today — I was also simultaneously trying to navigate how to communicate what I was experiencing and learning with folks in my own country who were as steeped in white culture as I am.

watercolor-painting
Annemarie paints in watercolor

The whole process has been full of discomfort and yet I would not have it any other way.

Why?

Well, just this past autumn a lay missioner in training asked me in the final session of our time together, “How do you find the courage to confront these issues of racism?” She, like me, was working through dealing with how overwhelming the discomfort can feel at times.

And in my own process I had found two possible responses to this question.

One came from a wise friend of mine who aptly taught me that no matter how hard I think confronting racism is for me as a white person it is always, always, more challenging, traumatizing and even life threatening for people of color.

As a white person I have the privilege to choose to confront racism, but for people of color it’s not a choice but a daily lived reality. Choosing to engage in conversations about racism with a white person is often an exhausting and fraught experience for people of color.

What I shared with the lay missioner in training that day is that this reality ought to, at the very least, inspire humility in us white folks while also leading us to another response.

I told her that I find the courage to confront issues of racism as a white person, not because I am an expert on issues of racism and certainly not because I am some savior who benevolently decided to care about these issues.

I find the courage to keep learning and confronting these issues because I have formed intimate relationships with people of color whose life experiences are very different from my own, and I care about being accountable to them.

The answer is both that simple and the living into it that complex.

But what I have found is that at the very least it does require a willingness from white people to get uncomfortable.

For-I-Thought-painting
Original piece “For I Thought I Was Alone II” in its completion (by Annemarie Barrett)

Today of all days is a good time to practice that voluntary discomfort — to stretch beyond what we know and have experienced as white people to listen and learn from the experiences and wisdom of people of color.

Here are some resources to engage that discomfort today:

“White Supremacy (Overt & Covert)”

“White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism”

“White Fragility and the Rule of Engagement”

“The White-Savior Industrial Complex”

“#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism”

The Importance of Listening as a Privileged Person Fighting for Justice

“True Solidarity: Moving Past Privilege Guilt”

“Black America should stop forgiving white racists”

“If You Think You’re Giving Students of Color a Voice, Get Over Yourself”

“The FBI Has Quietly Investigated White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement”

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ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett

Annemarie-BarrettAnnemarie grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

 

counter-culturally powerful

Yesterday I asked a section of my students to raise their hands if they thought power is something God gives us.  Only half of the students raised their hands.  When I asked the other half what they thought they spoke about how power is something people earn because of their success.  “If we are all children of God, aren’t we equal?” I asked.  Not really, I was told, status sets us apart.

I believe that the electric energy of equality has the power to unite all.

"Light's great uniting power" By Sister Julia Walsh, FSPA

Within the core Christianity is a belief that all people are children of God. We are all made in God’s image and likeness, we are all people of dignity.  Everyone is holy and is worthy of honor.  God is alive within all of us.  Although our diversity helps us all to be more whole, no one is better than anyone else.  God sees as us equals and loves us all equally.

But then there’s the way society sees it.  Common culture tells us a totally different story.  Before we can read, we learn about winning and losing.  Competition is fun.  From a very young age we are taught that success and achievement are about accomplishing more, having more and earning more.  In the dynamics of capitalism, we base power upon wealth.  The rich and powerful seem to perpetually oppress the poor and powerless.  Perhaps it is because of this that we blame the poor for their problems and we are convinced that the rich are powerful because they deserve it.  Competition and consumerism connect with our experiences of power.   The fanfare of the Super Bowl is a manifestation of these attitudes.

The principles of non-violence imply that all people have the same power. No one is actually more powerful than anyone else,  just as in the eyes of God no one is better than anyone else.  The problem is that power is abused, misused, misunderstood and unknown.  Those who are more wealthy begin to believe they have the power to control, lead and guide. Those who are poor haven’t experienced the wealth and goodness of their own power.  We don’t really need to empower others, we need to encourage them as they desire to unleash the power they already have.

As we try to be faithful Christians, the tension between God’s ways and the world’s ways seems to keep us moving in circles.  When we want to experience what power really means we look to Jesus for grounding and growth.  The early Christians had some pretty good ideas about all this:

“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. You know the word [that] he sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all..”   -Acts 10: 34-36

We know Jesus loves all.  Jesus has been with us through our highs and lows.  Jesus’ humility is power’s true way.  Into the broken, hurting, bleeding cracks of creation Christ is crying.  He’s with us and showing us what is real.

Powerlessness and being powerful blend together in a place of true humility.  We know we are nothing without God and this knowledge sets us free.  As we bend to God’s power, we are enlivened for God’s good mission.  We’ll build unity so that status no longer sets us apart.  Energized to be together, we love like Christ loves: with great humility.  May it be so, amen, indeed.

in a body, God glorified

Last weekend I went to a retreat with other Catholic sisters younger than 40.  I met a sister who ministers as a hospital chaplain in St. Petersburg, Florida.  In addition to providing presence to all the suffering and miracles in the hospital, she listens to the prostitutes who come in for care.  Apparently, pimps buy McDonald’s value meals for poor women as a way to lure them into prostitution.  When the women work for the men the name of their pimp is tattooed near their private area.  I had tears in my eyes as I listened to the other young sister dream about a ministry of tattoo removal and spiritual and mental healing for the women who desire to leave prostitution.

The two things that I despise most about our human sinfulness are the sins of the sex and military industries.  Violence and destruction destroy experiences of holiness and dignity.  We take the gift of our God-given creative power and misuse it in attempts to prove ourselves.  We misuse our bodies while we live lies.

Really, though, we can give God great glory with our bodies and our lives.  Alternatives are abundant.  Although we are small and powerless, we can unite with Christ to do great things in Love.  In chastity and service humanity is healed.

Brothers and sisters:
The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord,
and the Lord is for the body;
God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?
But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him.
Avoid immorality.
Every other sin a person commits is outside the body,
but the immoral person sins against his own body.
Do you not know that your body
is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,
whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?
For you have been purchased at a price.
Therefore glorify God in your body.  1 Cor. 6:13-15, 17-20

When I was a kid I was just as confused as everyone seems to be about what is right and wrong.  I was persuaded by our dualistic society and its messages.  Older Christians showed me that the New Testament taught me that we should live according to the spirit and not the sinful flesh.  Did that mean my body was not good?

Soon, my students and I will study sexual ethics.  I’ll emphasize that our bodies are really good and sex is very holy.  We’ll  examine how sexual desires can become destructive and dangerous when they’re not controlled: when we fail to use our bodies to glorify God.  Rooted in Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body and I’ll use this book and this website.  The holy power of our sexuality is alive in everyone’s bodies.  As we seek union, we are capable of creating new life.  As we love chastely, we can truly give God glory through our bodies.

Our bodies are holy and alive with the spirit of God’s goodness, which is why they are built for the morality of the reign of God.  We are children of God. We are free.  As we give God our powerlessness,  God converts us into temples of blessing.  When we say “yes” to God’s love our bodies are made powerful for humble service.  As we serve, we build God’s reign of healing and justice now.  God is glorified.

The problem is that not everyone gets this.  Sins explode and people are seriously misused because of our desire to be powerful and great.  Martin Luther King, Jr. calls this the drum major’s instinct:

And the other thing is that it causes one to engage ultimately in activities that are merely used to get attention. Criminologists tell us that some people are driven to crime because of this drum major instinct. They don’t feel that they are getting enough attention through the normal channels of social behavior, and so they turn to anti-social behavior in order to get attention, in order to feel important. And so they get that gun, and before they know it they robbed a bank in a quest for recognition, in a quest for importance. . .  Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. . . You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.  And you can be that servant.  -The Drum Major’s Instinct By Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We can be the servants, who with Christ, show the world alternative ways to live. As we serve, God heals, loves, redeems.  As we place our powerlessness in the hands of God’s we are set free to be temples of God’s goodness.  In our bodies God is glorified.  We unite together in great love and become God’s colorful, healing, chaste body of Christ- the true living God.

"Christ" painting by Julia Walsh, FSPA

A New Year Revolution

Guest blogger: Joshua VanCleef

If we really desire change, then what we need is something far greater than a New Year resolution, we need a New Year Revolution.  We need to turn things back to the starting point and evaluate the very principles, ideals and promises on which we have built our lives. It is then that we can overthrow the illusions that we have all too easily accepted as truths, the empty promises, the very things that stacked the deck against us and make real change nearly impossible.

We need to return to our baptism, stand as beloved children of God and overthrow the illusions that now dictate our lives. We need to stand on the promises of Christ and stand up against the false promises which hold hostage our desire.

Unfortunately, myths have become our foundation.  We need only to look into the mirror to see the illusions operant in our lives: that worth is based out of utility, attractiveness, wealth,or perfection; that happiness can be found in the collecting of things or people; or that the love of God needs to be earned. We only need to look out the window to see that the very illusions operating in our hearts have become the accepted principles that run much of our world.

In an honest moment, I realize the power that these false promises have over my own life.  It takes but an instant for them to surface when faced with a decision, and I know how much they really do influence me, how much they do hold me captive. But I also realize that the call to freedom casts off the yoke of slavery.

I call for a revolution of my own heart today. I call for a revolution because these false promises have become dictators in my life; they work me to the bone and feed me only enough to work another day. I call for a revolution because as I stand in the promises of my baptism, I cannot help but see the daily slavery to which I commit. I call for a revolution because this year I want change! I want my next step to be in truth rather than illusion, to choose freedom rather than oppression, and partake in a banquet rather than scraps. I know the only way for change in my life is to overthrow the dictators of illusion and the tyrants of false promises. So, I call for a revolution.

A revolution of the heart would lead me to a revolution in the streets. I know that revolution wouldn’t be satisfied with immigration reform, its goal is much larger and more fundamental: to overthrow the illusion that my dignity is more important or my life is worth more than someone else’s. Revolution would debunk the lie that it is more important for me to have much than for all to have enough. There is no surprise that Guantanamo is still open!

Only a revolution has the power to overthrow the illusion that a good end can be achieved through evil means, or the justification of torture. Outside of a revolution of the heart, reform will only allow torture to take new forms. Reform and resolution can mandate equal public treatment of people, but only a revolution can unmask the lie that all are not equal before God. Only a revolution can overthrow the illusion that worth is based out of utility, or the all too popular lie of entitlement.

Brothers and sisters, if a revolution is what we desire and we realize the powers that have become the current of our lives, the illusions that serve as dictators and the false promises as tyrants, then we are the sick in need of healing. We are the broken needing to be made whole. And if we wish to stand in our baptismal promises, in the freedom of the beloved children of God, then it is our sickness and brokenness that we have to offer Jesus. And this is all He asks of us. For if we wish to cast off the lies of the oppressor and the promises of the tyrant, there is only one Healer, only one Revolutionary powerful enough: the Crucified One.

Now, my brothers and sisters, together with Jesus let us go back to the beginning and claim our freedom as children of God. And when the illusions of oppression try to scatter us with fire hoses, we will renew our baptism in their water. We are people who know water and it will neither stop us nor put out our fires. When the dictators of false promises try to antagonize us with venomous words, we will handle their words and not be harmed.

My brothers and sisters, when we the weak, the sick, the believers, confront the powers that surround us with walls and barbed wire, then united with Jesus we will look to the cross and speak to our oppressors. We say together, “where we are going YOU cannot go.” Let’s take courage in the promise of Christ, that in the end when the mist of mustard gas dissipates, as a cloud of witnesses we will emerge.

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This week’s guest blogger, Joshua VanCleef, is a Franciscan Friar of St. John the Baptist province. Originally from Detroit, he now lives in Chicago and is finishing his studies at the Catholic Theological Union. He is a neighbor and friend of Sister Julia.

Thanks be to God for Reverend King!

On January 15, 1929, a child of God was born.  On April 4, 1968, he was assassinated.

Forty three years later this holy man, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., still speaks to the issues that concern us.

Here you can meet him and his gentle, yet radical approach to loving:

As I rest and dream on his holy feast day, I am going to pray with his Letter from Birmingham Jail. I pray in thanksgiving for this brother of ours who still lives in the truth of Love!