Finding St. Francis and choosing to stand on the margins

It was early 2013 and I was fresh from three months of formation with Franciscan Mission Service. I had just arrived in Bolivia, South America, to live and serve for at least the next two years as a Franciscan lay missioner.

I had spent the autumn months of 2012 in daily classes learning about Franciscan spirituality and the life of St. Francis of Assisi. In those sessions, I learned about Francis’ example of living as “minority,” a spiritual posture in a “downward direction” always drawing closer to those on the margins.

St-Clare-St-Francis

I learned how Francis’ example of living as “minority” challenged his followers to live “without power over others.” They were taught to resist positions of power and instead encouraged to be “subject to all.”

He was directly challenging folks with the privileges of wealth and social status to reject their power over others and instead grow in humility and service.

As a white woman from an upper middle class family recently graduated from a large Catholic university, the challenge to live as “minority” seemed to deeply contradict the many privileges that were such integral parts of my identity: white, wealthy, over-educated and formed for years as a leader among my peers.

Yet my spiritual journey was already moving in that downward direction towards accompaniment of those most marginalized in our communities. And the example of humility in the life of St. Francis of Assisi deeply resonated with the spiritual growth I most desired.

In those first few months of transition, I had the opportunity to hear a North American friar speak about his 40-plus years of life as a Franciscan. And I will never forget the main message from his talk that day.

He said, “What is essential as a Franciscan is that every day you look at our reality from the perspective of the poor.”

I had to let that message sink in and each time I revisited it I was invited to let it go deeper, called again and again to ongoing conversion. It is a message that has since become central to my spiritual journey.

I had also recently finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter” and was immersed in reflections on my own spiritual journey as a woman as well as the experiences of the women in my life — particularly the diverse experiences of marginalization so common to women across the world.

by-Annemarie-Barrett
Annemarie’s original watercolor “You Stood With Me”

And the Church was at the forefront of my mind. I was grieving the many ways that I have witnessed women marginalized in the Catholic Church. I thought of the women who were staying in abusive relationships for fear of judgment in the face of divorce, the women sexually assaulted and/or abused who were isolated by the silence of their faith communities, the women abandoned out of the shame of an unplanned pregnancy, and the countless stories of women that constantly go unheard and overshadowed by the privileged voices of their male peers.

Whenever I gathered with other women, I was touched by the experiences of marginalization that seemed to define each of our journeys. And I was particularly enraged by the disproportionate suffering that I was witnessing among the migrant campesina women I was just recently forming relationships with in that first year in Bolivia — so different from my experience as a white women from North America.

In the midst of these reflections I began to paint what I now call “You Stood With Me,” a watercolor piece that I did not know at the time would eventually turn into a series of paintings reflecting on marginalization, solidarity and love in action.

Five years since I was in formation with Franciscan Mission Service (for which I served as a blogger), I am still living in Bolivia and the marginalization of women I witness in the United States, South America and throughout the world still devastates. And I believe that the Church’s complicity in that marginalization is a crisis worth our attention.

In following the example of St. Francis of Assisi, I believe that we too are called everyday to look at our reality from the perspective of those most marginalized among us.

Today — the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi — we are reminded of his example of humility and solidarity and I believe that we are called to examine our own call to conversion, learning to look at our reality from the perspective of those most marginalized among us.

But what does that look like in action?

Meinrad-Craighead-piece
The composition of Annemarie’s watercolor series “You Stood With Me” was inspired by this original art from Meinrad Craighead.

In my experience, it has meant first and foremost learning to listen. When I choose to listen first instead of speaking I resist the temptation to express power over others, instead drawing closer to the lived experiences and expressed needs of those facing the suffering firsthand.

When we choose to humbly listen to those who are suffering we are invited towards empathy instead of judgment, accountability in place of denial, and community and connection over fear and marginalization.

When we choose to join with those on the margins, none of us are alone. And in the face of ongoing marginalization, we are empowered to stand together.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett

Annemarie-BarrettAnnemarie (who also served as a blogger for Franciscan Mission Service) 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.

Casting a vote beyond the political haze

For most of my adult life I have been incredibly fascinated with the interaction of politics and faith.

I was ecstatic when Pope Francis spoke to U.S. Congress last fall. I loved lobbying on behalf of the Catholic bishops in Iowa—and all the Catholic concerns for the entire state—when I interned with the Iowa Catholic Conference in 2004. And, I am a big fan of organizations like Faith in Public Life and Sojourners, who empower people of faith to advocate for justice.

Most of the time I am pleased with what I observe in the dance between politics and faith because I believe the actions of those of us who are religious—including our political actions—must be directed by our faith.

Many would agree that our religion must influence how we raise our voices, what we stand up for, whom we stand with and how—or whether—we vote. For those of us who are Christians, this means we aim to imitate Jesus Christ, who demonstrated that nothing was worth killing for and that real love makes everyone worth dying for, even in the political sphere. We are guided by Jesus’ most demanding teachings like “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) and “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5) and “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:15).”

As a Catholic Christian, I am grateful my bishops insist that every person has a responsibility to inform their conscience and follow it in the voting booth. I love this Church document and I appreciate media like this that summarizes the document and highlights the complexity of voting:

Certainly, it is complex to weed through the issues and options and arrive at a decision, to prayerfully follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the voting booth.

I also keep in mind that no politician will ever save us from all our problems.

Unsatisfied with every party and politician, a lot of what Shane Claiborne wrote in his book Jesus for President makes sense to me. This article from the 2012 election especially resonates:

No party feels like home. No candidate seems to value the things we see Jesus talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. Federal budget cuts have begun to look like the anti-thesis of the beatitudes where Jesus blesses the poor and hungry rather than the rich and wealthy. You get the sense that if Mary proclaimed her famous “Magnificat” in Luke’s Gospel today — where “God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty” — she’d be accused of promoting class warfare. As one theologian said, “Our money says in God we trust … but our economy looks like the seven deadly sins.” What would America look like if Jesus were in charge?

There just isn’t much talk in the debates about caring for the poor and loving enemies, the stuff Jesus was on fire about. It’s hard to imagine a candidate with a consistent ethic of life, a candidate who is pro-life from the womb to the tomb. Many of us have grown tired of death, and share a faith that speaks of resurrection and proclaims the triumph of life over death and love over hatred. We want life—fewer abortions, an end to the death penalty, hospitality to immigrants, an end to extreme poverty, fewer bombs and wars and other ugly things.

~  From “Jesus for President 2012” by Shane Claiborne, Huffington Post

With such writings in his past I was amused, then, when Shane Claiborne tweeted that he will vote for president during this election:

 

Alternatives also fascinate me. Guided by their religious convictions, some folks have found other ways to participate in democracy and help promote God’s reign wherein all life is protected and peace and justice are triumphant.

I’m intrigued by those who choose not to vote, such as Christian anarchists. I can understand, somewhat, why they take that approach to help create social change. (Jesus for President is a good book to read to understand.) Personally, it is a big challenge to me that one of my heroines, Dorothy Day, never voted and was a suffragette. It is equally interesting for me to learn about those who will not vote this year, even though they voted a lot in the past.

I have never been convinced that the two-party system we have in the United States is the most fair or helpful: we are too diverse as a people to be divided into two camps. Related, I was excited to learn about the American Solidarity Party this election year and the presidential candidate Mike Maturen, whose platform is completely in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church. (I am not sure I’ll vote for him though.)

I am also fascinated by and well aware that, for many people of faith, political choices aren’t actually influenced by one’s faith but rather it’s the other way around—what they believe and accept as true is often influenced by where they sit on the political spectrum. This, of course, isn’t supposed to be the way it works. We are called to put our faith in Jesus before any political candidate, party, or nation. The Bible tells us repeatedly that to put anything before God is idolatry.

No matter how one decides to act, it is certainly complex and challenging for people of faith to participate in democracy. It takes a ton of study and prayer—and faith that God can make something good come out of anything.

Yet, people of faith are called to even more; we must move beyond the voting booth. Now, especially, we are needed to step to the front of the political haze and be healers and servants to a nation in need.

Such servant leadership requires communal prayer and discernment. Together we can create societal transformation by asking broad, visionary questions—questions that move us forward and beyond the violence, hate, and division that has wounded our nation, our communities. We must tend to those who are feeling left out, ignored, marginalized, neglected; those whose anger and pain has disturbed what we once thought of as normal. (Visionary questions and the need to care for the neglected are discussed in this in this On Being episode.)

With God’s grace, we will manifest hope, joy and reconciliation to people in need of freedom and peace. Following in the footprints of Jesus Christ we can be ones who show others that—really, yes—”blessed are the peacemakers” indeed.

By Jay Phagan from Taft, Texas - Vote Here Sign, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52568213
By Jay Phagan from Taft, Texas – Vote Here Sign, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52568213

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