Locked up in different prisons

The heavy metal door bangs behind me, the electric buzz locks the bolt in place. After a pause, another door buzzes and is unlocked, controlled by a police officer sitting near a video monitor in another room. I cross the florescent-lit linoleum and open the next heavy metal door, making my way through this threshold of security.

It’s my first visit inside the county jail. My mind and breath are electric with anticipation. We — the other volunteer I am shadowing and I — arrange the blue plastic chairs in a circle and place copies of Scripture passages, prayers and reflections upon them. Shortly I will encounter my first group of inmates. More than a dozen men will join us for prayer and Bible study.

Driving through brightly colored October woods to the jail, I pondered…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Photo credit: (Unsplash/Mitchel Lensink/GlobalSistersReport.org)

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.

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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.

More than a table

They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.                            —Acts of the Apostles, 2:46

Last week, I had to buy a dining room table. It is the first time I’ve ever done so and to be honest, I was loathing the very idea of it. I am not the home decorating type, and for the vast majority of my life most of my furnishings have consisted of what my parents gave me or what I could cobble together from thrift store clearance sales.

But my wife was insistent that in our new home we were going to have a room into which we would want to invite people into. A place where people could be hosted and fed. The space needed a table worthy of the welcome. As we sat staring into the empty dining room and thinking about the idea, I was surprised how the conversation about a piece of furniture became philosophical so quickly.

“Okay … so what kind of table do you want?” I said.

My wife responded, “Well first, it has to be sturdy. It has to be something solid and well built. We’re going to be feeding people here for decades. We’re going to feed our grandchildren here. So it needs to be made to last.”

“Okay …” I said, closing the Ikea.com tab on my browser, “what else?”

“It needs to be big. We’re going to have people over for holidays with everyone welcome to bring as many guests as they want. We need to have as many seats as possible.”

“Well,” I thought out loud, “if we want so many seats, then what if instead of chairs we had benches? Then people can always scoot together to make more room, or spread out if there’s no need.”

“I like that idea … for one side at least. But some of our friends and relatives are old. They won’t be comfortable on a benchthey’ll need back support. I want everyone to be comfortable. And some of our friends are a little heavierthey might feel self-conscious on a bench. Better we have at least a number of chairs.”

The conversation went on for a while longer, but at every turn I realized that for my wife this was about far more than a table. It was about warmth and welcoming, about fellowship and feeding friends. She wanted to serve, and to accommodate the needs of all. She had joy and welcoming in mind, but it was going to take a table to help those things unfold.

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Excited to serve hospitality around the new table (image courtesy of Steven Cottam).

I realized through this conversation that far too often my love of people is an abstract, theoretical love. I frequently think about what it will take to get “more people around the table” in the sense of making my ministries and my work more participatory, more democratic. But rarely do I make it as simple as just making sure everyone is literally invited to be around an actual table. My desire for hospitality rarely comes down to the details of making sure everyone has a chair that fits and enough elbow room. However, these mundane details are in many ways the actual work of hospitality.

Dorothy Day once wrote in The Catholic Worker newspaper, “Paperwork, cleaning the house, dealing with the innumerable visitors who come all through the day, answering the phone, keeping patience and acting intelligently, which is to find some meaning in all that happens – these things, too, are the works of peace.” No great work on behalf of the Kingdom is ever accomplished without a lot of little tasks along the way. As they say of the devil, the Gospel is in the details.

So our table is on the way. It’s a huge, farmhouse-style table that measures over 8 feet long when all is said and done, and it’s nearly going to burst the seams of the room. Next comes extending invitations to guests, both those we now count as friends and those we hope will become friends through the sharing of food, time, and stories. And this requires not only good intentions but also actually cooking and cleaning, holding doors and taking coats. And I hope through it all I can learn what my wife already intuitively understands – that if I want to do something as lofty as fill hearts with gladness, then I must be willing to do something as basic as fill cups with coffee.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

The beauty of brokenness

An old building in disrepair, collapsing toward the ground.

A rusting, defective car, stuck in layers of mud.

Shattered glass.

Melting candle.

Cracked eggshells.

Chipped ceramics.

The sight of the simplest crack in a sidewalk can still my body, stun my soul.

The colors and textures of a simple, broken branch can inspire poetry.

It may be a bit bizarre, but brokenness really can become a gallery art piece to me.

I am in awe of the beauty of brokenness because I relate to the ordinary being an un-mended mess—a mix of decay and transformation. The objects all around me feel familiar because I have been broken and mended, again and again.

I love this poem about brokenness.

This Psalm also speaks to me, deeply:

Into your hands I commend my spirit;

you will redeem me, LORD, God of truth.

Be gracious to me, LORD, for I am in distress;

affliction is wearing down my eyes,

my throat and my insides.

My life is worn out by sorrow,

and my years by sighing.

My strength fails in my affliction;

my bones are wearing down.

Be strong and take heart,

all who hope in the LORD.

I am forgotten, out of mind like the dead;

I am like a worn-out tool.

I hear the whispers of the crowd;

terrors are all around me.

But I trust in you, LORD;

I say, “You are my God.”

Let your face shine on your servant;

save me in your mercy.

Oftentimes, it seems that brokenness is what helps me to become most in touch with my humanity; I know that this part of my nature doesn’t make me unique. In service and contemplation, I have touched physical and mental wounds in myself and others. I have heard people pour forth the worse of spiritual sorrow, anguish and misery. At times, my own doubts and struggles have been so intense that I felt incapable of doing anything but collapsing, quitting. Don’t we all feel dysfunctional, inoperable and crumbled in certain circumstances, in one way or another?

It seems to me that the season of Lent has much to do with this brokenness. As Holy Week nears and we enter into the most sacred days of the Church year, let us check in. What has happened in our hearts and in our lives as a result of our fasting, praying and penance in the desert? How have these desert days helped us to recognize where we are in need of mending, healing and reconciliation in our lives? How have our eyes been opened to the truth of our interdependence, of how we are made for community, for Christ, for others? How have we been transformed and changed? And what scars can we now bear more courageously?

A few weeks ago, I presented a program at the spirituality center where I minister about this passion of mine, the beauty of brokenness. After shared contemplation, we attempted to convey our reflections through the Japanese craft of kintsugi, which repairs objects with gold in order to highlight and honor the history of the object: the beauty of the cracks.

Here is where I learned about how to experience kintsugi, without becoming an apprentice in Japan.

During the workshop, we considered how we all might be like broken cups within God’s hands as we tried to piece them together—a complex, layered puzzle. Another poem, “The Perfect Cup” by Joyce Rupp, helped foster this reflection.

Honestly, I found it challenging to try kintsugi. My fingers became sticky, gold-spattered messes. I even cut my fingers a little on the broken cup I tried to repair. In the end, though, I really liked what I held in my hands.

In fact, I have decided that what I created is a perfect vessel for light, a beautiful place to burn candles within.

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Photo by Sister Julia Walsh

Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” includes the lyrics “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” My experience trying kintsugi and reflecting on my likeness to a broken cup in God’s hands caused a spin on Cohen’s wisdom to emerge.

I believe we all are broken so that God’s light can shine out through our cracks.

By God’s grace, let us be strengthened and transformed so we can see the beauty of our brokenness. With the arrival of Holy Week around the corner, may we be ready for God’s light to beam brightly from us all. May the resurrection energy shine through our cracks, so we can help illumine dimness near and far. Amen! 

The wonderful inconvenience of love

Happy Valentine’s Day!!

I love this day so much because this is a day when we can celebrate and praise God for the gift of the strongest force in the universe: love!

Love is the foundation of Christian living. Love is what drives us disciples to do what the world may not ever understand. Love is wonderfully inconvenient. We forgive. We embrace every new person in our life. We abandon our schedules and travel across miles to be present to the hurting; to tell people we love them. We hope for the best for our enemies and pray that they may be well. We run into battle zones, toward the sounds of bombs, if we know a child is in danger.  We lay down our lives for our friends, our neighbors, for strangers we meet along the roadside who are in desperate need of help. We protect and welcome the strangers who are crossing borders, who are fleeing oppression and poverty. We rally in the streets and carry banners that announce love even while folks scowl. We visit the smelly and imprisoned. We give away our food and open up our homes; we share with all our might. We fast and pray for the sake of strangers, for peace in general, for liberation from any power that doesn’t help others feel love. Love is bold and wild and a verb.

Photo Credit: www.freeimages.com/
Photo Credit: http://www.freeimages.com/

Over the years many people have turned to me and said that they have never felt God’s presence, that they don’t know God. To this very real heartache I often respond with a question: “Have you ever felt love for another person?” To that, the response is usually “Yes, of course.”Then,” I respond “you have experienced the presence of God without knowing it.”  

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. ~ 1 John 4:7-8

I believe one of the biggest problems with our faith lives is that we tend to put God in boxes; we expect God to be as small and containable as we are. The truth, though, is that God is beyond measure; God is abundantly good and infinite mystery. We must allow this mystery to surprise us, to move through us, to be revealed in ways we would never imagine.

Once we allow God to be in charge of who we are, we will find that love has us doing all sorts of things that don’t make sense, that will be contradiction to the ways of the world. I love the way Courtney E. Martin describes this:

Just as our lives — especially white, economically privileged lives — have suffered from over-privatization, our notion of love has suffered from an over-interpersonalization. We hear love and we think marriage. Worse yet, in the age of dating apps, we hear love and we think swipe. The commodification and Tinder-ization of love isn’t just bad for our romantic relationships; it’s bad for our nation. We think of love as solely intimate, as tumultuous, as something we choose to bestow or withhold based on someone’s capacity to earn it and keep earning it.

But real love is radical because it cannot be earned or unearned. It is tied to inherent dignity. It is unconquerable because it is dumb in its own way — determined to keep loving no matter what the counter forces, no matter what scarcity small men try to message, no matter what fear they try to sow. It’s blindly trusting, also positioned as stupid in our overly strategic society. It’s inefficient, a sin in our efficiency-obsessed time.

It is perhaps most clearly understood as maternal. Just as mothers have, from time immemorial, loved without condition, we must now love this nation like mothers. We must parent it into a new maturity. We must not give up on it, no matter what. We must be prepared to be surprised at how beautiful it will be. We must do all this without knowing what form it will take, but knowing that whatever it becomes will be rewarding if it is shaped by fierce, unending, active love.

(An excerpt from “The Twin Forces of Love and Resistance” by Courtney E. Martin at OnBeing.org)

On this day, may we embrace the wild power of active love. May we allow love of God and neighbor to take complete hold of us and move us into zones—uncomfortable and cracked—where we never thought we would tread. May we learn what it means to really lay down our lives and experience love’s rising power and imitate Jesus Christ.

I love you all and I thank you for joining me in this wild activity!

 

Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki

“Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki, but something much worse comes for you … for when you die, it will be without honor.”

~ Master Splinter, to the Shredder, in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie” (1990).

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Splinter and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (image courtesy of YouTube)

At the climax of one of my favorite films, the 1990 cinematic masterpiece “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the wizened and heroic Master Splinter squares off against the film’s main villain, the evil ninja leader Shredder. At the film’s climax, Shredder and Splinter go head-to-head at the top of a New York City skyscraper. Though Shredder vows to kill Splinter, Splinter seems unconcerned. Calm, collected and prepared, admitting that he does not fear death, he is ready for what comes next. Death is inevitable. What he fears is dishonor.

The fear of death seems to be lurking everywhere these days. And this fear is leading us to cloud our judgement and to behave dishonorably. Right now our borders and our airports are filled with the homeless, the hungry, the oppressed and the suffering; all desperately seeking safety and stability. Vast numbers of them are children who never committed any wrong except being born in a country that lacked our blessings. And we are turning them away because we are afraid admitting them will make us unsafe.

Let us ignore for the second that there is no basis in fact for that assertion. Let us set aside, for the moment, that there is no verifiable evidence that admitting these refugees has now or ever made us less safe. Though it’s not true, just for the sake of argument, let us assume that letting these people into our country will make us less safe—that bringing these suffering masses into our cities and our homes will risk destruction to our property and our persons. Assuming this, I turn to the Church and I ask: “So what?”.

So what? What of it? Does that change anything? No. The duty of virtue and honor, the obligation given us by Christ, remains. We Christians do not put our stock in the things of this world, and that includes comfort, safety, and ultimately our own lives. The Gospel is not filled with asterisks and addendums, telling us we don’t need to be faithful when it’s scary. Feed the hungry, help the stranger—always. If it’s hard, Christ says take up your cross. If it’s threatening, Christ says you should seek to lose your life so you might gain it. If it kills you, Christ says that there is no greater love than this; that you will be with him in paradise.

In his book “Follow Me to Freedom,” Shane Claiborne addresses this very topic: “Fear is powerful. At some point, especially as Christians, we say with Paul, ‘To live is Christ, to die is gain’ … if we die, so what? We believe in resurrection. We’ll dance on injustice till they kill us … then we’ll dance on streets of gold. Many Christians live in such fear that it is as if they don’t really, I mean really, believe in resurrection.”

You are going to die. Someday, somewhere, death will come for you. There is no way around it. In the meantime, how will you live? Will you live as Christ, living a life of sacrifice and service out of love? Or will you live as Judas, betraying Christ in his hour of need? Make no mistake, that is precisely the choice presented us at this moment—it is Christ who is waiting in our airports and at our borders, waiting in the disguise of the least of these his brethren. And we are betraying him; not for silver, but for security.

If this is a seemingly depressing note to end on, know that it need not be. It is only depressing if we turn away. These are the moments when saints come forward, when heroes are made. “Perhaps this is the moment for which You have been created?” (Esther 4:14).

Courage, Church! If our God is with us, then who can be against us? I do not know to what action specifically God calls you, but I know it is not a timid one. As Pope Francis told our Catholic youth, now is the time to ask Jesus what he wants from you, and then be brave.

Death comes for us all, dear reader. I do not ask God to spare us from it. But please, O Lord, save us from dishonor.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

The joy of receiving

Jesus observed, “Without me you can do nothing.” Yet we act, for the most part, as though without us God can do nothing …“

~ Loretta Ross-Gotta

Last night I walked into our parish’s “Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe.” It was a rare occasion for me — a church event for which I had no particular role or responsibility. As our parish’s youth minister/RCIA coordinator/general purpose fire putter outer, it’s rare for me to attend a liturgy or event where I am not working or serving in some capacity. I walked into the sanctuary thinking, “Finally, a chance to just sit and pray for once, without having to do something!” This was my chance to relax!

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Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

 

However, as the celebration began I soon found myself not refreshed but restless. I couldn’t focus and was constantly fidgeting. Maybe someone needed help with something? Was anyone seeking liturgical assistance? No; there were plenty lectors and eucharistic ministers. Did someone need help in the kitchen? No, it was already filled with talented chefs. Even the garbage was taken out faster than I could get to it. It was unnerving: no one seemed to need my help. I wandered through the festivities and out into the social hall where the leader of our Hispanic ministry caught sight of me and immediately handed me a plate which she began to pile high with food of all sorts — tamales, rice and sweet breads, as well as a cup of hot chocolate. At first I tried to refuse: “No, no, no … I don’t need this much … I’ll wait for everyone else to eat.” Even though I had missed dinner and found myself terribly hungry, even though it was being offered by a friend, even though there was clearly enough to go around, I nonetheless tried to turn away the fare. Despite my protestations, I was soon holding a heap of food (plus some to take home, “Para mi niña”) and could barely utter an awkward, terribly accented “Eres bastante generosa” before she moved on to bestow another delicious bounty on someone else.

After devouring several tamales I sat down to reflect. And it struck me that I am a terrible gift receiver. I’m always trying to refuse gifts and help. When someone tries to give me something, be it a book or a brownie, I always try to turn it down. (If I accept at all it’s usually after several entreaties.) If someone offers help my first instinct is always to say, “No, I got this.”

I’ve always believed this impulse was a result of my attempt to cultivate a servant’s heart. And to be fair to myself there is a lot of truth in that — I do truly love to give and to serve. But as I sat there, reflecting, I began to notice a dark side. The truth is that a big part of my refusal and reluctance to accept help is pride. I want to be in control. I want to have the power. I want to be the one who has it all together and the excess of time, talent, and treasure to give. Another part is cynicism. I find joy in giving and yet doubt that others do — I fear they give to me reluctantly, and that I will be an undue burden they are anxious to shrug off. This basically amounts to the assumption they are less generous than I am. And the real tragedy in that is it saps my ability to be grateful. I get so anxious about whether or not I should have accepted the gift offered that I am rarely able to graciously accept and simply say “Thank you.”

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Steven’s daughter polishing off the tamales (photo courtesy of Steven Cottam)

Recently the Dalai Lama contributed to an op-ed in The New York Times in which he wrote that one real tragedy of modern civilization is that so many people feel unneeded. He said that we all benefit when everyone feels they can meaningfully contribute to building a better world, and that “We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, ‘What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?’” And I figure there is no better time to start doing this than Advent and Christmas: seasons filled with giving and receiving. I’ll still give and serve as much as I can to everyone around me. But I’m also going to try to be more gracious in receiving what others give to me. I’m going to try to be a bit more humble about my own abilities, and a bit more trusting of the hearts’ of my friends. I’m going to try to remember that I am not only a servant of the kingdom, but also a son — and being part of a family means receiving love as well as giving it.

I’m going to start by finishing the leftover tamales. And to my friends from the festival, if you are reading this, gracias por el regalo delicioso. I really was quite hungry.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Porters, Posadas and our Advent invitation

“Welcome!” My Capuchin Franciscan postulant friend greeted me as he opened the large wooden door, inviting me inside from the Midwestern early-winter chill. There was a handsome plate beside the door, announcing to visitors that this large old house was the St. Conrad Priory.

“Who is St. Conrad?” I asked, stepping inside.

“He was a porter,” my friend answered. “He opened the door and extended hospitality to visitors.”

As we made our way into the foyer he continued, gesturing to an icon on the wall “This is Solanus Casey, who is up for canonization. We have quite a few Franciscan porter saints.”

St. Conrad of Parzham Photo credit: catholic.org
St. Conrad of Parzham (Photo credit: www.catholic.org)

I was surprised – porter saints? Surely, it is easy to recognize and celebrate the extraordinary holiness of courageous missionaries, wise theologians, inspiring preachers, tireless pastoral workers and valiant martyrs. But porters? Why would the Church choose to lift up and honor the holiness of those who spent their lives as doorkeepers?

The unexpectedly large number of porter saints is a testament to how central hospitality is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The refrain repeated over and over in the Hebrew Scriptures is to remember that since we were once strangers in the land of Egypt, we are to welcome strangers now. And Scripture reminds us continually that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome God. Abraham entertaining angels unaware in Genesis. Cleopas and his companion inviting the stranger on the Emmaus road in for a meal, only to discover Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Jesus insisting to his bewildered followers that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Him.

This truth is made visible during the Advent season when Mexican and Mexican-American Catholics act out the Gospel through the practice of Las Posadas (literally, “the inns”). For nine consecutive nights, we gather to re-enact the journey of Joseph and Mary asking for shelter in Bethlehem. It is a deeply incarnational practice which literally challenges us to stand in the shoes of travel-weary Mary and Joseph, or to stand in the shoes of those in relative warmth and safety indoors that have to respond to their request.

Photo credit: https://www.neostuff.net
Photo credit: https://www.neostuff.net

“In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter,” a group sings in Spanish outside a locked door. “My beloved wife can travel no further.”

After being turned away several times, the door is opened and the group representing the Holy Family is welcomed in joyfully. “Enter, holy pilgrims,” is the jubilant refrain of those inside as they offer hospitality to the stranger – who is Christ.

During the years I worked in Hispanic parish ministry, I celebrated Las Posadas with a primarily Mexican and Central American immigrant community. During the shortest days of the year, we gathered in the dark, stamping our feet and rubbing our hands together against the cold which worked its way through our wool hats and fleecy gloves. We passed a flickering flame from taper candle to taper candle, cupping our hands to carefully guard the small flame from the December wind, the warm glow lighting our faces as we processed. My breath came out in white, cloudy puffs as I sang the familiar words of the lilting melody. And then, the open door, the sung words of welcome, the warmth and light of the parish hall, the inviting scent of steaming pots of pozole and hot chocolate, the smiling faces of friends.

Tragically, in the past weeks since the election, we have seen a heart-breaking, disturbing rash of hate crimes, many directed at immigrants, especially those from Latin America or the Middle East.

In the face of our current political and social reality, the witness of porter saints like St. Conrad and the Las Posadas tradition offer an urgent challenge and poignant invitation for Christ-followers not only to open doors and keep a safe distance, but to open ourselves to conversion through encountering the stranger. To see the stranger as a blessing, not a burden. To believe we may catch a glimpse of our God if we dare to unlatch the lock, turn the doorknob, and step onto the threshold to greet those who knock.

This advent, through my work as a Spanish-language legal interpreter, I have glimpsed God through “Catalina,” a plucky, bright-eyed fifteen-year-old Central American girl. She spoke with a straight-forward, quiet confidence as she described leaving her home in the rural highlands, traveling through Mexico on buses, and entering the United States to reunite with family here.

“I wasn’t scared,” I said, interpreting Catalina’s words from Spanish to English for the immigration lawyer. “I prayed for God to be my guide. Every time I got on a bus, I would pray for God to protect me. And my prayers were answered.”

At the end of the legal consultation appointment, Catalina thanked me and clasped my hand, her bright brown eyes locking on mine with a sudden, shy seriousness.

“God is with you,” she said.

Perhaps unwittingly, this immigrant teenager girl spoke the name of God that we chant, sing, and meditate upon during these Advent days of hoping and waiting: Emmanuel. God is with us.

Catalina’s unexpected blessing challenges me to grow in trust and reminds me of the many ways my heart has been expanded through encountering the stranger on the threshold of an open door.

St. Conrad, and all you porter saints, pray for us that we, too, may open doors and make room for the coming of Emmanuel.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Rhonda-Miska-red-shirt
Photo courtesy of Wendy Wareham Photography

This week’s guest blogger is Rhonda Miska. Like Sister Julia, this Messy Jesus Rabble Rouser is a former Jesuit Volunteer and a member of Giving Voice. She is a candidate with the Sinsinawa Dominican sisters and freelance writer who teaches religious studies at Clarke University in Dubuque (in the fine state of Iowa – Sister Julia’s home state!). She studied at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and her past ministries include congregation-based community organizing, coordinating a winter shelter for people who are homeless, accompanying migrant children in legal proceedings, and living in a community with adults with special needs. Read more at www.clippings.me/rhondamiska.

From farm to city and back again: Listening and loving on the margins

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…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

"In Wisconsin's Northwoods" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“In Wisconsin’s Northwoods” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

On Being Everywhere I Go

Credit: http://offthepage.com/2016/11/07/on-being-everywhere-i-go/
Credit: http://offthepage.com/2016/11/07/on-being-everywhere-i-go/

“No matter where you go…there you are,” stated the character Buckaroo Banzai in the 1984 cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. This troubling truism has become a bit of a mantra for me as I stumble through life.

I frequently have too much going on. In the flurry of activity, a nagging voice hums in the background, I can do this better, I could be more efficient, I should do this, I ought to do that.

One of my greatest sins is to put more faith in my ideas than I do in God. Recently, I did this when I believed if I changed a few parts of my life—the setting, my workload, my stress level—then….

[This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Off the PageContinue reading here.]