Loving and sassy

A fascinating thing happened this school year when I tried to teach my students to love their neighbors.

Kids can be so mean. I remember this from when I was in school.  As a teacher now, I see this reality right in front of me.  It’s awful.  At a Catholic Christian school it seems even  more disturbing, and as a religion teacher I feel a bit of responsibility for it.  I try to design curriculum that responds to my observations and helps my students to grow in Christ.

To help my students deal with people who are unkind, I planned a unit that focused on the teachings of Jesus.  I wanted them to learn how to be bold, brave, creative, peaceful, compassionate and kind–just like Jesus taught. My students memorized the Beatitudes and the great commandment. They realized that Jesus’ teachings are not fluffy or cozy, but really messy and difficult.

We also mulled a while on what Jesus REALLY meant when he said “love your enemies,” and “turn the other cheek.” Basically, we studied the Third Way of Jesus which is to creatively stand up for oneself and to honor the dignity of oppressors. To help the students understand I made a handout called Jesus’ non-violence explained.  Even though it’s really a simple concept, it’s extremely challenging to understand.

As I said, a fascinating thing happened when I tried to teach my students to love their neighbors.  I found myself telling my students that practicing Jesus’ methods of peacemaking–in that Third Way style–meant that we have to get downright loving and sassy.

A slogan emerged: Let’s get sassy for Jesus! We laughed about how it sounded like a country song. The former cheerleader in me wanted to make it into a chant: “Sassy for Jesus, yes we are!  I’m thanking the Holy Spirit for giving me a catchy way to teach the truth, because the students still remember it.

God’s got a great sense of humor, and humor is what true, loving, non-violence takes.  We can make light of persecution because, with the freedom that Christ gives, we are just as powerful as everyone else.  We see Jesus alive in all people, even those who are mean. We get to love them and remind them of their inherent dignity. It’s so good!

In the teenage world, this love and sass could come out when people make fun of our shirt or our shoes. For example, a creative, non-violent, Third Way practitioner might respond by saying “It shows how I feel about mean people. Isn’t it beautiful!?”

Recently I asked some of my students how the whole “loving your neighbor, loving your classmates” thing is coming along.  They groaned. “Sister, it’s so hard!”

Yes, loving our neighbors and being non-violent IS really hard. But wow, it’s so worth it. May God help us. Amen!

Photo credit: http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1315/532519876_b00d0c79e5_z.jpg

Oh, and you might enjoy this interesting take on some of this problem about kids being mean to each other:

adventures in the Spirit, part 3

A wise priest once helped me understand what Spirit means.  Spirit, he said, is all that relates beyond boundaries.  Our Spirits can transcend time, place and bodily nature to relate to our God, the Great Source.  Jesus said His Spirit would be with us always.  At times, it seems as if the spirits of those who have died are close to us.

And, here and now, in our daily Gospel living, our Spirits can relate across the borders of culture, race, social class and place.  It is the work of service, ministry, and real, messy, Gospel-living to move across borders and interact with those who are different from us.

As our Spirits relate in new environments, we learn the Truth. We gain awareness and compassion.  We become more interconnected and united.  We build the reign of God and become more holistically the body of Christ.

This is the continuation of the story of 11 people moving their spirits across borders and relating to difference.  It’s a great adventure to live in the Spirit.

Day 3: Loving God’s Creation

Wednesday.

We’re beginning to get sleepy from all the fun and activity and it’s a little harder to be ready on time this morning, but we still get up and enjoy another wonderful homemade breakfast served by our hosts.  Afterward, we gather around our painted candles for morning prayer and reflection. We are reminded that we can rejoice, as God loves the poor:

I will praise the name of God in song,
and I will glorify him with thanksgiving:
“See, you lowly ones, and be glad;
you who seek God, may your hearts revive!
For the LORD hears the poor,
and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”   Psalm 69: 31, 33-34

The first place we visit is the Postville office of Northeast Iowa Helping Services.  We are overwhelmed to hear how domestic violence and poverty harms people in rural areas.  We learn how hard it is for victims to leave abusive situations when there are so many dual-roles in small communities.  We have to think about how hard it is to run-away from violence in the country where there is no public transportation and everything is spread far apart.  In the country, there may not be fears of gang-violence, but violence is still damaging lives.

The sad stories of sin sink our spirits and we struggle with learning the Truth.

After an intense start of the day, we venture out to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.  We head to Effigy Mounds National Monument in the river-bluffs by the Mississippi River near Marquette, Iowa.  In the woods we get to contemplate how to respond to injustice in loving ways and have fun learning about Native Americans and nature.

We enjoy a picnic and explore the museum and woods.

The views of the Mississippi River from the bluff tops are remarkable.

We still need to do something to make a difference.  We go to Osborne Nature Center near Elkader.  Before working we get to see some wild animals up close.

Then we help to clear an invasive species, garlic mustard, from the woods to help the natural wildlife thrive.

The next thing we do is attend Bible Study.  We’re nervous and excited about joining the youth group from First Baptist Church in Elgin for their weekly meeting.  After eating pizza and playing get-to-know-you games, we become comfortable with each other even though we seem different.  We pray and contemplate scripture. Then we have a lot of fun playing in the dark on a trampoline with the local Iowa teens.

Back in Gunder, at evening prayer and reflection, I asked the students what the most important things were that they learned that day.  One student said that he learned how important it is to stand up against violence and abuse.  Another said that he learned that the woods can be a lot of fun.  A third said that he learned that there are good people everywhere, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or the color of your skin.

Day 4:  Broken Systems, Breaking Bread

Thursday. Our last full day in Iowa.

We’re getting weary but yet we wake up excited for another day of adventure.  After breakfast, our morning reflection reminds us that it is Holy Thursday.  This night, Jesus gathered with his friends and broke bread and taught about communion.  We pray that we can unite through the brokenness of humanity.

Our first site today is Decorah.  Decorah is interesting because it is the closest major town to Gunder.  It’s 40 minutes away and where you can find the nearest McDonald’s and Wal-Mart.  We are warmly welcomed to the Luther College campus with a presentation, gifts and a tour. We learn that Northeast Iowa was settled by immigrants from Norway and Germany in the 1800’s and that’s why there’s a Norwegian ELCA Lutheran college in this town.

Our excellent host at Luther, Pastor David Vasquez, has arranged for us to enjoy the college’s climbing wall and enjoy lunch in the college cafeteria.

We all feel pretty successful after the experience.

Well fed, we go to help feed the hungry. At the First Lutheran Church food pantry we help unload the truck from the Northeast Iowa Food Bank and learn how the church helps provide food and free health care to people from all over Winneshiek County.

After a break for shopping in downtown Decorah, Pastor Dave helps us reflect about everything we have experienced on our trip.

And, Pastor David grounds us in the stories of God’s people.  We are reminded of Joseph in the Old Testament and how he and his brothers immigrated to Egypt.  We learn about the push and pulls that have caused people to move for centuries.  We hear about horrors of the Postville Immigration raid of 2008 and watch this trailer:

And, we hear how God’s law of Love tells us to work for justice:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.-Exodus 23:9

The Spirit has moved people across many borders.  After the presentation, we learn about the Norwegian Immigrant Experience to the United States in the 1800’s at the Vesterheim Museum.

We are learning about human struggle, but we still enjoy a break at The Whippy Dip before we go to Postville.

In Postville we hear about the horrors of the 2008 Immigration Raid right where it happened. We visit the tiny St. Bridget Catholic Church where hundreds sought refuge during the aftermath of the raid.

We see the meat-packing plant that was once called Agri-processors. In both places, Pastor Dave tells us the true stories about what his friends lived through.

Our Holy Thursday dinner happens around a giant table at the Mexican restaurant in Postville with the stories of brokenness stirring in our spirits.

Afterward, we go to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Elkader for mass and hear how Jesus washed the feet of his friends, pray, break bread, sing songs and feel a little uncomfortable because we really stick out for being different.

Back in Gunder, we try to reflect on all that we learned throughout the day.  One of my student says “What happened in Postville was a really big deal. Why doesn’t everyone know about it?”  

We give thanks for the ways that the others in our group have blessed us throughout the week. Around a fire we are commissioned.  We will return to where we came from, but we’ll keep living by the Spirit.  We shall continue to relate beyond bounds.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of adventures in the Spirit.

Visit here for Part 1 and Part 2.

adventures in the Spirit, part 2

The Spirit of Truth has a lot to teach us when we open our minds and hearts.  No matter what our motivations are, God is alive and hard at work.

God speaks to us through the stories of our lives and through the adventures we live through.  As we move, we do the work of trying to pay attention to God and cooperate with God’s ways.

God’s ways are surprising, just, peaceful, loving, challenging, encouraging, uniting, hard-working, open, holy and adventurous. God’s ways are good.

This is the story of how 10 people from Chicago (8 of my students and another chaperone and his son) went a new way.  They followed God (and me!) to a “foreign land” where the population is small and the skies are wide.  In this foreign land there are few people, a lot of peace and quiet and a lot to learn and do.  This is the the story of the Hales Franciscan High School Service-Learning-Rural-Immersion Trip to Northeast Iowa during Holy Week, April 2-6, 2012.

Day One: Community

Monday.  We finally leave the high school around 9:30 a.m. Our principal prays a blessing over us before we go.  Very quickly we’re forced to get comfortable with each other and be very close together. A 12-passenger van is not as big as it seems.

After about three hours, we finally cross over the Mississippi River and into Dubuque where our first stop in the foreign land of Iowa is to get a simple lunch.  Then it’s time for our first real challenge. We must become a team.  We must unite as community.

Our first great challenge was the Ropes Course at EWALU Bible Camp near Strawberry Point.  We learned how to trust each other, communicate and be encouraging.  We worked together as a team on low-ropes challenges. And we encouraged each other as we climbed up high, took a leap of faith, and flew through the woods on a zip line.

As a new team we went on to Gunder.  Our base for the trip was The Gunder Inn, the bed and breakfast owned and operated by my parents, Kevin and Elsie Walsh.

My parents also own and operate The Irish Shanti , home of the world-famous one pound Gunderburger.

All students tried to eat an entire sandwich and the first one done was one of the skinniest students in the group.

After dinner we played outside.  Students enjoyed football on the lawn, playing ghost in the graveyard in the real dark, under the star-lit sky, and a couple of them even tried driving a tractor!

Before bed we said our prayers, discussed the highs and lows of our day and painted candle holders to represent who we are and how we were to shine our gifts through our experience.

Day Two: Meeting the Stranger

Tuesday.  After a delicious homemade breakfast served by our hosts, we gathered in a circle for morning prayer and reflection. We heard the word of God proclaimed:

“When Jesus and his disciples drew near to Jerusalem,
to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives,
he sent two of his disciples and said to them,
“Go into the village opposite you,
and immediately on entering it,
you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat.
Untie it and bring it here.
If anyone should say to you,
‘Why are you doing this?’ reply,
‘The Master has need of it
and will send it back here at once.'”
So they went off
and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street,
and they untied it.
Some of the bystanders said to them,
“What are you doing, untying the colt?”
They answered them just as Jesus had told them to,
and they permitted them to do it.
So they brought the colt to Jesus
and put their cloaks over it.
And he sat on it.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road,
and others spread leafy branches
that they had cut from the fields.
Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out:
“Hosanna!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come!
Hosanna in the highest!”        – Mark 11:1-10

We contemplated how we could respond if someone were to ask us “Why are you doing this?” upon entering their villages.  We thought about what we bring and what “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” could really mean.

We then made a giant diagram and played a game to think about the challenges and experiences of people who live in rural areas.  We thought we were ready to go and meet some strangers in villages and try to bring blessings to their lives.

Our first stop was a visit to Valley Community Schools, in the middle of the country between the towns of Elgin and Clermont.  This is my alma mater.  Now the entire school district- preschool through grade 12- is in one building. Many of the young children stared at my students. I was impressed with how they helped each other through the awkward experience by reminding each other that many people may have never seen black people there before.

Next, we went to Gilbertson’s Park in Elgin for a picnic lunch and a service project.  A couple of us helped the Naturalist build a fence, which was a thrill.  Most of us helped clean mud, sticks and rocks off a paved trail to improve accessability for people with disabilities.  It was hard work on a beautiful day.

From there we went to the Shepherd of the Hills Food Shelf in St. Olaf.  We had fun working together to stock the pantry’s shelves.

We were amazed to learn that all the food put on the shelves would be gone in about a week.  For a county with a small population, that’s pretty fast!

Speaking of food, the next thing we did was learn where some of our food starts.  First, we visited a fish hatchery tucked into the woods along the Turkey River.  If you look closely at this picture you can see the fish swimming in the water.

Then we went to my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm to help with milking chores. For some of us, this was the highlight of the entire trip.

My uncle helped some students milk cows.

And my aunt helped them feed the calves.

One of the calves had been born the morning that we visited and was named after the youngest person in our group.

We also got to have the experiences of playing in a hay mow and jumping in a corn bin.  Before leaving, we learned all about the expensive farm equipment and tried sitting in the machinery.  As we were leaving I heard one of my students say that he was never again going to let people bad talk farmers, as they are some of the hardest working people he has ever met.

Afterward, we played basketball in the town park and had pizza and root beer floats before evening reflection and prayer.  It was a great day!

Stay tuned to hear about the adventures in the Spirit over our next three days!

 

adventures in the Spirit, part 1

I am an urban-educator who grew up in the country.  I often feel like my entire life is a Truth-seeking adventure.

I grew up in Northeast Iowa in a very rural community.  Currently, my parents live in an unincorporated village where the town welcome sign proudly announces 27 residents.  Practically everyone I knew growing up looked and sounded a lot like me (fair skin, light eyes and hair, with a twangy Iowan accent).  I attended public school until I went to college (even though I have always been interested in Christianity) because it was the only option.  I didn’t live a sheltered life, really, but I was actually pretty isolated and protected. The woods, fields and pastures were my playground and I only heard gun shots during hunting season.

Now I live in Chicago-land, a sprawling urban area that has a population of over 9.8 million residents!  I teach at an all boys inner-city, Catholic high school pretty much right-smack in the middle of all the action on Chicago’s south side. Today some of my students were casually talking about how they heard gun shots during their baseball game in the park, in the way that my high school friends would talk about hearing thunder during a game.  “It was all right,” they said. “We got to keep playing because they weren’t too close.”  I am worlds away from where I grew up.

I serve in a culture that is not my own.  This high school is much more lively than mine ever was.  From the elders to the children, there’s a different style than I am used to.  Even though I have been in this community for about three years now, I am still frequently exposed to food, music, art, history and speech that is so foreign to me that it seems a passport should be required.  I have had to adapt my teaching style, my expectations and learn a new way of communicating and making jokes.  Everything is interesting and fascinating, and yet I am constantly self-evaluating to make sure I am not subconsciously behaving paternalistically.  Fortunately, I have been embraced by the community and have experienced success.  I am here to serve and it’s an honor and blessing to be so welcome.

Beloved:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,
and everyone who loves the Father
loves also the one begotten by him.
In this way we know that we love the children of God
when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this,
that we keep his commandments.
And his commandments are not burdensome,
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world.
And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
The Spirit is the one that testifies,
and the Spirit is truth.   -1 John 5:1-4, 6

During Holy Week 2012 I went on a Truth-teaching adventure.  Eight of my students, a school colleague, and an urban 10-year-old (a chaperone’s son) and I squeezed into a van and drove five hours to the foreign land where I grew up.  We stayed four days and nights growing as a team through many fun experiences, service-work, reflections, challenges, prayer and communion.  God was up to a lot of good.

When I get to witness the Spirit at Truth at work, I am amazed I am part of it.  I am amazed I get to see God in action.  Observing enlightenment is like watching a flower bloom or a sunrise, a glorious newness emerges so gradually and quietly.

Before my students and I went on the trip, we had meetings to get ready.  At one meeting I made a huge chart on the board that looked something like this:

We  had a very interesting conversation when we tried to fill in the gaps. Before our trip we left the Truth row blank. Finding the Truth was named as one of the trip’s missions.

Jesus was our trip companion.  Although we were in the hills of Northeast Iowa, I tried to keep my Holy Week spirit with Jesus in the streets of Jerusalem.  Jesus is the man who is the best at teaching the Truth!

Like he said: “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” -John 8:31-32

In this blog series, adventures in the Spirit, I’ll write about all the Truth that was taught and learned by my students in Iowa during our Holy Week adventure.

love upon my heart for teens like Trayvon

A teenage boy, Trayvon Martin, was killed a month ago in Florida. Since then his death has heated up the national news and sparked highly emotional questions, comments, protests, prayer, rallies and vigils.  We’re angry, lamenting and mourning.  In our hearts we know something is wrong and we are acting for peace.

Last week a teenage boy (my student’s good friend) was shot in the park near our school.  He was playing basketball on a beautiful sunny day.  Just like Trayvon’s story, there have been no arrests, no explanations, and he isn’t known to have been doing anything wrong.  The innocent victim, 15 years old, died later that night in the hospital.  Unlike the story of Trayvon, no national outrage erupted.  This mindless death happened quietly and has caught little attention.  I can’t find any news stories about what happened and my student casually shared the news with the class.  His casual manner alarmed me but it made total sense to him.  “We’re used to it, Sister,” he said.

It is dangerous to be a teenage boy. It is hard to cope with violence and injustice. It’s not surprising that young people turn numb.

Our school serves all African-American teenage boys, one of the most vulnerable populations in our country. It is one of three schools in the nation founded particularly for that purpose.   My students are teens, just like Trayvon.  They eat skittles and drink ice tea, wear hoodies and talk on their cell phones to girls.  They love playing basketball in the park on beautiful days and avoiding homework.  They’re typical teenage boys.

My students know that they are vulnerable to being misjudged simply because they are black teenage boys.  They have to be careful about where they go and what they do.  They know that their appearance causes people to be suspicious of them for no right reason.  Their parents warn them about this and it is something that they have to learn how to deal with as they become more independent.

My students should not be in danger for being who they are.  No one’s safety should be at risk because of where they are and what they look like.  Even though humanity keeps messing things up, our hearts know that this is not OK.

…For they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.   -Jeremiah 31:32b-34

I love my students dearly. They impress me daily by their brilliance, hard work and strong faith. They have taught me much about the realities of inner-city life, African-American urban culture, hip-hop, sports, slang and social justice.  I have learned about life on the margins from my students and this has brought me closer to Jesus.  My students have taught me new dance moves and beautiful new songs.

It is somewhat ironic that I teach all African-American boys in a big city like Chicago.  I am a white woman from the farming hills of Northeast Iowa.  I don’t think I spoke to a black man until I went to college, only because I didn’t have the opportunity.  I dreamed of being a missionary in Africa when I was a little girl but people kept telling me that I didn’t need to go so far away to do God’s work.  To my surprise I ended up teaching on the south side of Chicago and still feel like I am half a world a way from home. (But I am only a five hours drive away from where I grew up!)

It’s not easy serving in a culture not my own. I don’t always understand the things my students say and do, and they don’t always understand me.  Although the diversity is a challenge, it is more of a blessing.  When we unite across difference in action, learning, and peacemaking we build the kingdom of God.

Next week I will embark on one of the greatest experiments in my career as an educator.  I am leading a service-learning trip to my home.  I will bring eight of my students to Northeast Iowa and they’ll spend a week learning about rural life and social problems by visiting and helping at places like farms, parks, schools and food pantries.  We’ll pray through Holy Week as we journey together.  They’ll get to meet teens who are very different than them and understand more about humanity.

The service trip will be interesting and amazing.  We’re really excited about the inevitable adventures and fun.  I am thrilled and honored to be able to do the work of bridging cultures and opening others to Truth.  I have faith that God will be doing great things in our hearts and we’ll all grow in our knowledge about the law of Love and peace.  God will do the teaching and I’ll get to witness.

It’s true that teenage boys don’t enjoy the same freedoms that I do and they aren’t always safe.   Yet, I have hope.  They’re willing to be brave and go new places to grow in the truth.  Together, all humanity is learning the truth.

The truth is, God’s Law is about love, peace and justice.  God’s law is written on all of our hearts.

This is one of my favorite songs that I learned from my students.

“What if it’s too hard?!”

My students are brilliant.  They endure so much and remain hopeful and faithful.  Prayers of gratitude pour out of them easier than on-time assignments.  Every day I hear praise that God gave them another day.  It’s amazing to me.  But, it shouldn’t be. They’re teenagers and they know they have a life of greatness ahead of them.

In this part of the world there is abundant chaos, confusion and distraction from what is true and right.  Gang warfare, poverty and drug addictions are thick.  We know people who are in jail and people who have been shot.  I shudder at the violence, racism and sexism I have been exposed to around this city.  It seems to me that the common culture tries to convince the youth of today that consumerism, sex, drugs, violence and selfish living are the meaning of life.  The teens are beginning to believe lies:  success is about fame and money and freedom means you aren’t locked up.  It’s an awful, tough world indeed.

Yet, the young come.  No matter that they’re required because they’re in a Catholic school, they still come and are very good.  My students arrive in religion class and argue about whose turn it is to lead prayer because many of them want to do it.  They love to meditate together and have no problem being silent and peaceful.  They listen and work hard.  They ask me tough questions.  Their silliness and playfulness helps me laugh and lighten up.  Their reverence is deep: a hush falls over us as we gaze into the sacred, living words in the Bible.  They want to believe and understand.

In my classroom I preach a lot. I preach that God is good and God is with us.  My students seem to be convinced that they have dignity and they are children of God.  The struggles begin when I start to talk about action.  I preach a lot about how we are called to treat all people in a way that honors their dignity, so they also know they are children of God.  Because we are Christian, I say, we must be different. We must act differently. We must live and love differently.  We really can’t fit into the popular ways of the world, because the world’s ways don’t fit with God’s ways.  We need to act like we believe that Love is the most powerful force in the world.

This week I’ve been teaching about forgiveness. I explained that because we are children of God, we are supposed to forgive like our loving Parent does.  I said that when we wonder how to forgive we can look at Jesus on the cross and see that it takes great sacrifice. I asked them that if we believe it, then what are we supposed to do?  In a world where pride, grudges and even violent retribution is as normal as nonsense, how can we act like children of God?

"cluttered stations" Art by Julia Walsh, FSPA

We read God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu last semester and we remember that it’s up to us to help God’s dreams come true. Tutu has a lot to say of smart things to say about forgiveness:

I keep challenging my students (and therefore, myself!) Their exam essay question asked “what attitudes and actions could you take to help create a society that values forgiveness more than retribution?”

One student raised his hand and said “Sister, what am I supposed to say if I really don’t think it’s possible?”  I said that just this one time, I’ll give a hint about what he could write about.  The first step might be to try to have faith.

Faith isn’t easy in this messy world.  I understand that the world is not sending the same message of God’s goodness and might plus there’s a lot of evidence pointing to other ideas.  I understand that Jesus is asking a lot of his followers.  So, when I preach about the real, un-cozy and uncomfortable challenges of living the Gospel the reactions I hear make a lot sense:

“What if I don’t agree with the Ways of Jesus?”

“How am I supposed to believe this?”

“How can I possibly do this?!”

“Sister, what if it’s just too hard?!”

In my witty way, I tell them that they can take it up with Jesus. I gesture at the cross and tell them that I blame God that it’s so tough.  We can complain but we don’t need to give up.  Jesus made it simple, but not easy, so let’s take it up with him.  “Sit down with Jesus,”  I say, “and have a little chat.  Ask him for some help and grace and understanding.  Let him know how you really feel about it all.  If you really want to believe and be a follower I’m pretty sure God will help you.  You might be surprised.”

I sure hope I am right. I hope they’ll be surprised by the graces God gives and how they’ll be able to do great things with God’s help.   I hope that as my students mature they’ll discover that Jesus’ Way is the best there is.  I hope that it can be the only Way we’ll know.

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

stories that shoot the truth

Last week there was a shooting at the Walgreen’s near the school where I work.  I couldn’t find stories about it online and it didn’t make the evening news. It probably will never make the news at all because the victim, a teenage boy, survived.

I found out about the shooting because it happened after school and one of my students went to the store to buy a poster board to make a project I had assigned.  “Sister, there was a shooting in the Walgreen’s before I got there. I saw the boy go off on the stretcher. He’s okay, his eyes were open, he just looked scared.”

I listened and was amazed. I was very upset, as I am every time my students tell such stories.  Every time I learn the truth about the violence my students live with I am stunned, speechless, scared and angry. I cry with sorrow and pain when I get home from work.  I am shot down by the stories; I am disarmed and powerless.

I know most of my students know someone who has been shot.  Many of them know someone who has been killed. Several of them know someone who is in jail.  When I learn the truth, I want to share it. I really want to survey all the students and uncover the statistics so I could publicize them to the entire world and compel others to care and pray and work for change.

A while ago I asked a group of my students how they felt about my survey idea.  I said I wanted to tell the world about what they have to live through.  I was surprised with their response.  They were very unenthused by the idea, not because it was unimportant to them or insulting, but because they didn’t think that it would change anything.

“Sister,” I heard, “if you really want people to know about the violence we live with, then gather a group of us and let us tell our stories.”

Of course!  Duh me!  I know that stories are more important than statistics.  I know compassion is developed through relationships.  I believe that Jesus modeled how to listen and to teach through storytelling.  When we serve and love we need to know the people we are concerned about.  This is ancient history:

The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.God is with you statue
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”Lv 19:1-2, 17-18

And then of course Jesus inspires us:

““You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?”    –Mt 5:43-46

We can’t love our enemies unless we really know who they are.  Once we really know someone and have heard what they have lived through — no matter what they have done — it is hard not to love.  God’s designs are perfect.  If we heed the words and the ways, the world will surely be changed. The kingdom of God will come.

In my classroom we discuss the challenge of loving our enemies, like Jesus and the Bible teach us.  The students understand the theories of non-violence very well, much better than I did at their age.  As they walk through real battlefields between school and home, their youthful ideals are challenged.

Yet, I know storytelling changes things.  My senior Peace and Justice students have been examining the influence and the power of non-violence by watching a documentary that tells stories, not statistics.  Through media, we are meeting people around the world who have really changed the oppressive systems by loving their enemies.   The film is appropriately called A Force More Powerful.

I admire my students very much.  Their hearts have been broken, yet they believe in the power of love.  I asked the students to tell  me why non-violence is called a force more powerful.  Here is a sampling of their responses:

“Non-violence makes the people who are hitting them feel bad because they are not being hit back.”

“Non-violence is more powerful than any other method of difference-making because it requires the most discipline, endurance and mental strength.”

“Non-violence is a force more powerful because it is showing ultimate love and resistance towards evil and violence.”

“Non-violence is more powerful because it makes people look at the opposed as if they are wrong when they become violent.”

“Why is non-violence a force more powerful? Because it makes a social revolution in the lives of everyone through reason and dignity.  Violence cannot do this.”

I teach non-violence in the middle of a war-zone.  Our entire globe is at war too, fighting for rights and freedom.  The cries for democracy in the middle-east and protests at state capitols cause us to wonder how peace and justice can truly emerge.Peace sign

What will it take for our rage to transform into love?  Parker Palmer, modern-day prophet, says that it is storytelling.  I agree.  When the real truth shoots us down, we have to reach to the other to rise up into change.

hearing and seeing, then proclaiming the goodness

When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”  – Matthew 11:2-5

Jesus tells us to say it like we see it, and like we hear it.

Speaking the truth is not as easy as one would think. One of the greatest challenges of telling the truth is that people aren’t always interested in it. It seems to me that it’s quite trendy to avoid pain and suffering. Many times my stories of ministry and my proclamations of passions have been responded to with cries of “It’s so depressing to hear about all that, Julia. Can’t you talk about something else?” Yet, paradoxically, crowds gather around TV sets watching reality shows, sitcoms and the news only to hear dramatic stories about people hurting one another. With laughter and groans, people of all types allow the painful stories to flow through their lives.

What about the goodness? When it comes to saying the good stuff—to giving each other reasons to hope—I think it can be radical to speak out. Sharing the goodness is an act of resistance to the oppression. I teach urban African-American teenage boys at a high school in Chicago, and it’s amazing. In attempts to respond to Jesus’ command to tell the good news, I could easily just babble on and on and tell you stories about how incredible my students are.

First though, I think it is important to acknowledge the influence of judgments when we hear who the stories are about. When I decided to take my job, some very good people that I knew became reactionary.  I actually heard really nice Christians gasp and say “aren’t you terrified?!”  When I asked them what their question was about—whether it was about race, or boys, or urban students—the conversation would usually boil down to awkwardness from fears of people different than themselves.

Jesus set us all free enough to speak the good news, however. When I hear people say they are impressed with my ministry (because of who my students are), I am tempted to get defensive and angry. Then I remember that we are all afraid of what we don’t know.

My students have admitted that they are afraid of the woods. I used to be afraid of the city (I grew up in the woods on a goat farm in Iowa).  To do this gospel work, we all must allow grace to guide us and set us free from our fears.  The truth is that my students are the same as all other teenagers I have worked with.  They’re diverse, passionate, caring, faithful, prayerful, complex, hungry, hopeful, hard-working and curious. They’re incredible.

So, the good news!  Teens are awesome because once they learn the truth they are driven to act.  They understand, with ease, that social change comes through awareness and meaningful non-violent action.

Last week, my students were so into discussing the Gospel challenge of serving the poor that they begged me to stay in class.  (And I am pretty sure that they weren’t completely trying to skip their next classes, really.)  They spoke of being inspired by the story of Dorothy Day and how they could relate to her because she went through a conversion and changed her life. Another group of my students were so full of ideas for service projects that they had trouble picking one and getting started.  And, this past weekend, I sat in a circle with another group of teens and heard their dreams for a better world and what they were already working on as peace projects.

We all are called to do projects of peace. We all are asked to feed each other with hope and faith.  I get “godbumps” anytime I see the boundaries of difference broken, diverse people gathered in prayer and working for social change. I am so grateful for the light that shines when a young person steps forward and works for change.  One teen I know is working with the pro-life club at her school to begin a suicide awareness and prevention movement.  Another is bridging a gap between the suburbs and inner-city youth and bringing her suburban friends with her to tutor at a junior high within Chicago. I also know a young man who is uniting his passion for sports and caring for people on the margins to organize a basketball tournament for people with disabilities.

I suppose that one might say that it is my job to support these teens.  The reality is that they support me.  They keep me going and keep me hopeful.  I am honored to listen to their good news, to bless and share.  I don’t have to look too far to see and believe that Jesus and the Spirit are working to transform us and our communities.

The power of the Spirit and the miracles of the Christian church certainly extend beyond what happens in the lives of teens.  Recently, I have also been blessed to meet some amazing leaders in the emerging Church movement.  Throughout our world young adults of various denominations are living intentional community, praying and radically serving the poor, and non-violently advocating for systemic change right now.  They soak up the great traditions of Christian history, such as praying the liturgy of the hours and monastic life, and allow the Spirit to guide them to new ways of doing the work.  For example, some young adults just wrote and published a new book that combines the traditional prayers with radical responses to injustice.  It’s called Common Prayer, naturally.

God is so good and God is up to some amazing stuff.  Deaf people are really gaining their hearing, blind folks can now see, the lame are picking up their mats and dancing around, and the dead are rising to new life.   It’s beautiful to witness.  Hope is a light that shines brightly over the new city of God being built here and now.  We’re getting ready because we don’t only know another world is possible, we see another world emerging.

Rejoice and be glad, and help us get ready.  Help us spread the good news, Jesus lives!