Unprofessional

I recently observed an online discussion in which a full-time church minister who had just become a new mother was lamenting the fact that she was not allowed to bring her new baby with her to the office. She felt she had valid reasoning to do so and made a good case for her ability to juggle work responsibilities and care for her child at the same time. However, she was ultimately denied; told by both the pastor and the office staff that such a request was unprofessional.

mom-baby-working-computers
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam.

There is a growing movement in the Church, especially in the world of ecclesial lay ministry, to become more professional. This has come to mean an impulse to not only become more credentialed, certified and educated, but also to acquire the trappings of professionalism—to dress a certain way, keep certain hours, have shiny equipment and ban kids and pets from our offices.

And it leads me to ask the question: is this really what we want the Church to be? More professional? The current professional climate of the white-collar world is all-too-often filled with stories of sad, inverted priorities and temptations to be greedy, overly ambitious and self-serving. Many places of employment now ask people to work endless hours with no pause or rest, and it’s pushing us beyond our limits. Our obsession with achievement and accomplishment is creating a whole culture of people who feel resentful of their families or who consider abortion a thinkable option in effect to finish a thesis or get a promotion. Our desire to achieve and be professional is literally killing us. The Church’s job is not to emulate these practices, but to build a better world instead.

I have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of that better world. In my previous job I worked at a nonprofit that delivered environmental education to inner city kids. The work culture there was tremendously unprofessional—staff members frequently came in shorts and t-shirts, brought their kids or their pets in with them, and kept odd hours. But it was by far the healthiest work environment I have ever experienced. It was a culture in which people were encouraged to find multi-faceted identities; in which it was recognized that good work requires good rest; in which the reality that we all had families and friends in addition to jobs was celebrated. In turn, these values created an environment of high achievement. Our executive director made it clear she didn’t expect us to be professional in the standard sense, but she did expect us to be excellent. There were no excuses for doing a bad job: you were expected to come in and work well and work hard. And you did work hard because you felt like you were a member of a team instead of just a serf.

baby-filing-Steven-Cottam
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam.

Though I have moved jobs since then, I’m lucky still. I currently work as a youth minister. My office is next door to my wife’s, who is the church’s religious education coordinator. We frequently bring our young daughter in with us and everyone benefits from it. My family gets to spend time together. The church gets co-workers who collaborate really well, working hard because we are grateful to this place that nurtures us. We save money on childcare and therefore accept lower salaries. The office gets an adorable cheerleader on tough days. But, perhaps most telling, is the health of the parish. It’s no coincidence that the numbers in our family and young child programs have risen sharply in the last 18 months. So many potential new parishioners or those fallen away come to me and ask “Is the Church really welcoming to young children and new families? Or will we be viewed as an inconvenience?” And I get to look at them and honestly say “I bring my daughter with me all the time. We love it here. This is her second home.”

I know everyone’s situation is different. And the lived reality of it is far messier than this short description might make it appear. But I do sincerely believe we are all happier and healthier because we are focused on the concrete needs of the people we are ministering to and ministering with, which has led us to largely ignore the abstract bar of professionalism.

The Church should strive for excellence in its ministry. We should deliver the highest level of quality in everything we do. We are servants, and our parishioners deserve the best we can give. But the best, from the perspective of the Gospel, does not mean the most professional. It does not mean the flashiest or the cleanest or the nicest. It certainly does not mean the most regularly scheduled. The best ministry means unburdening the oppressed and advocating for a saner way of life. In this day and age, that might mean going to the office with a baby on your hip. It certainly means throwing off the ungodly burden of false respectability and seeking lighter yokes instead.

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.

Work and rest

 

This last month was a strenuous one in my youth ministry. It involved back-to-back weekend events, and I found myself putting in tons of extra hours and working for a 21-day stint with only a single day off. It involved late nights and early mornings. It was hard, tiring work.

Work & rest
Photo courtesy of Steven Cottam

During one evening of this labor I found myself murmuring. I was reciting facts of my overwork to myself in my head but in that whiny, grumbly, self-pitying voice that we all have at times when we think we’re being put upon. “Poor me. Working so hard. Does anyone notice?” Pout … pout … pout.

Tired of working (and feeling lazy and aimless) I did what any normal American millennial would do: take a quick break for some Facebook browsing. As I clicked and browsed around, I noticed that a similar complaint was being made by a number of my Facebook friends—but in entirely different tones of voice.

One friend was just finishing up a huge project, but was pleased with herself and her team’s accomplishments and reveling in the large bonus she and her co-workers had received as a result of their success. A different friend had just completed a master’s thesis and another had finished a doctoral dissertation; both were celebrating the completion of well-written study and the reward of new degrees they’d receive as a result. Yet another had just finished laboring over a piece of art, and was now wearily showing off the completed work of her hands.

All were tired, all were fatigued, and yet they were leaning against their shovels and smiling. All had taken hits and suffered sacrifice, but were pleased because the task was worth it. And here I was, working in the vineyard that I chose and to which I believe God called me, and all I was doing was grumbling.pull-quote

We were made for work. Work has dignity, and it calls us to be co-creators in this world we have been given. But if you listen to a lot of talk about ministry these days, it seems like the biggest fear facing us as ministers is the possibility of working too hard. Set boundaries on your time and space; limit yourself; be careful; and, whatever happens, don’t burn out. The world is on fire with fear and despair and loneliness yet it’s putting in some overtime that worries us.

I am not saying there isn’t some real truth in avoiding overwork. We live in a world that is obsessed with busy-ness and work for work’s sake; that has forgotten the meaning of the word Sabbath and the importance of rest. We need to believe in a God that is bigger than our efforts, and to avoid the idolatry of self that believes we are the world’s savior and it’s all up to us. We do need to take time to stop, to breathe, to rest, to recover.

But in avoiding the one extreme, we must avoid falling into its opposite. In order to truly rest, we must truly work first. It is good to wear ourselves out, and there are few things holier than falling into bed at night after fully exerting ourselves in the labor of a task worth doing. And if we must always count on Christ to fulfill our shortcomings and complete our labors we must also remember that, until he comes again, Christ is counting on us to be his hands and his feet in this world.

I frequently recall that, after a presentation all about avoiding burn out, a religious sister once said, “Yes, we should avoid burn out but let us not forget that, in order to burn out, there needs to have been a flame burning in the first place.” If we are tired from our work, perhaps the salve for our souls is not less work, but to remember why we started working in the first place. Conspiring with God is so much easier when we are inspired by Him. Keeping our eyes on the goal—remembering for what purpose and for whom we work—makes yolks easy and burdens light.

 

80/20: following the rules of the Pareto Principle

If you have ever looked to improve your time management, you’ve most likely come across the 80/20 rule (more officially known as the Pareto Principle). The Pareto Principle states that frequently, the majority of effects (roughly 80 percent) come from a minority of causes (roughly 20 percent). You will most often find this principle applied in business and economics—it’s not uncommon for 80 percent of a business’s revenue to come from 20 percent of its customers, or for 80 percent of a company’s profitable work to be done by 20 percent of its employees, etc.

Pareto Principle (courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com\(flytosky11)
Pareto Principle (courtesy of iStockphoto.com\(flytosky11)

The application-to-time management is obvious. It would not be strange to find, according to this principle, that 80 percent of the benefits you receive in life come from about 20 percent of your time, or that 80 percent of the meaningful work you do in your job comes from about 20 percent of your tasks. So the way to optimize your time and your life would be to focus on that meaningful 20 percent and expand it, and to find out what is useless in that other 80 percent and reduce or eliminate it.

I will say that I have used the Pareto Principle to some great effect with some of my lesser habits. In terms of browsing the web I have eliminated (well, lessened) time on sites that I find unenjoyable and which add no value to my life, and increased time reading articles that are interesting or useful. On a day off I spend less time puttering around and doing menial, tedious, and frequently unnecessary tasks and more time tackling big projects or doing things I really enjoy. I’m not sure how true the Pareto Principle is in its business applications but I, at least, have found some personal value in it.

pull quoteRecently, I turned the lens of this principle to my youth ministry program. And lo and behold, I was shocked to find out how true it appeared to be! With a bunch of my different programs, I found that 80 percent of my time was spent on about 20 percent of my participants. It was always the same 20 percent who called because they forgot the calendar, lost their book, forgot their permission slip, couldn’t get a ride. It was always the same 20 percent of parents who had a problem or a concern or a question or an angry comment.

It was true on the positive side of things too—it was about 20 percent of the parents who stepped up and took a role in the program, who would help teach and chaperone and lead small groups and bring snacks; and it was about 20 percent of the kids who could be counted on through thick and thin to show up on time, come prepared, and lead their peers.

I was reflecting on all this rather militantly as I walked from my office to daily Mass. I thought, I’m going to hack and slash! If you’re a kid and you can’t figure out how to get your permission slip in on time, then you’re not coming! If you’re a flaky helper, then you’re not going to get to be a part of the program anymore! I’m going to expand the role of my good 20 percent and eliminate my bad 20 percent! Optimization! Efficiency! My program will flourish as I begin to focus on the kids and families that really matter!

I thought about it throughout the opening procession and introductory rites; all through the first and second readings. Right up to the beginning of the Gospel for the day:

“What man among you, having a hundred sheep, and losing one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)

A slap across the face from the Lord. I recovered my senses.

The Church is not the world. And we are called to differ from the world in many ways. This is no more true than the insistence that every life, every person, every kid matters. In fact, the one who is difficult, the one costing all the time and energy, the one you struggle with—that is the one who really matters. In youth ministry and in every ministry, we are here for all. That is the Gospel.

I walked back to my office after Mass very humbled. The Pareto Principle is great for optimizing my Internet browsing and useful when I need to balance my budget … but terrible in deciding which kid needs attention. In that case, I am called to the 99/1 principle. So I sat down, picked up the phone, looked up the first number on my “permission slip missing” list, and dialed. “Hello, this is Steven from Church. How are you? Are you still planning on coming on the retreat? That’s great. Do you have your permission slip? No worries, I can get you another copy. You need a ride? No problem, we can make that happen.

“Whatever you need.”

 

Ugandan faith lesson #5: hope

Faith lessons from my Ugandan family

Editor’s note: This is the final blog post of a five-part series “Faith lessons from my Ugandan family”  (see lessons #1, #2#3 and #4) by Messy Jesus Business guest contributor/Rabble Rouser Nicole Steele Wooldridge about her experiences in Mbale, Uganda.

More than almost anyone I know, my Ugandan host parents embody the “American Dream” of hard work and righteous living resulting in opportunity.

Ugandan host family, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Ugandan host family, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Bufamba (Ugandan host family father's home village), courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Bufumba (Ugandan host family father’s home village), courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

My host dad’s story almost seems too inspiring to be true (but it is): he grew up in a traditional clay house nestled within a small subsistence-farming village. A self-described “naive village boy,” he was eight years old before he saw an electrical light bulb (and the story of his first encounter with a toilet would have you in stitches). During secondary school, he walked 14 miles every day to attend class; as the top-performing student in his district, he earned a scholarship to attend university in Uganda’s capital. From there, he was recruited for a prestigious post-graduate program in development studies in Dublin, Ireland, and now works as a professor at the local university in Mbale. He is in the process of completing his dissertation (focused on emergency response to climate change-related landslides in the foothills of Mount Elgon), and will soon be awarded his PhD.

My host mum is no less impressive (indeed, my host dad would be the first to tell you—with great pride—that she is his boss at the university). Together, they are a force of wisdom, intellect, and tireless work. With their credentials and connections, they would have no problem establishing an easier, more convenient life in a Western country.

But they have no interest in doing so.

girl from Northern Uganda, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
Courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

They have made the choice to remain in Uganda and put their skills to use in service of their people. That choice is fraught with daily sacrifices—sacrifices which probably would have overwhelmed me many years ago. But for my host family, whose every breath is rooted in transcendent hope, the trials of life in Uganda can do nothing to diminish their sense of fulfillment in doing their work … or their sense of joy in knowing, truly knowing, they are loved by God as they do it.

Of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, hope was always somewhat nebulous to me. What does it mean to hope, and how is that different from having faith?  But life with my Ugandan family made real to me just what it looks like to dwell in the joy of belonging to the Lord.

The Catechism describes hope this way: “The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man … Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.” (CCC 1818) My host family’s hope cannot be stymied by the setbacks and tragedies they experience in Uganda, because their hope is written in their hearts by Someone greater.

The unmistakable fruit of that hope is their relentless joy.

When I am asked to describe my host family, the first word to come to mind is always “joyful.”  But words really cannot do justice to the sheer jubilation that is infused in my Ugandan family. They are radiant with it. It is palpable, contagious … It is, quite frankly, exactly the sort of thing that can change the world.

It has certainly changed me.

hiking trip to Sipi, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge
hiking trip to Sipi, courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge

For reflection: How can I nurture a spirit of true hope in my family, so that our joy and generosity are not influenced by our circumstances?

Author bio: Nicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington area. She spent three months living and volunteering in Mbale, Uganda in 2006, and recently returned there with her husband to visit her host family and friends. She considers her experience in Uganda to be the greatest theology class she’s ever taken.

Fear and sandwiches

 

On most days at work, I sit down and eat lunch with at least a few people who are, more or less, on the opposite side of the political spectrum from myself. While we agree on many of the problems our country faces, our ideas on how to solve them vary wildly. There are, of course, some issues on which we harmoniously agree, but they seem rare. And in our current political climate, in which nuance is lost and all that matters is who you finally cast your vote for, the candidates for whom I vote are not the candidates for whom my co-workers do. I cannot imagine voting for the people they support.A slap in the face from the Lord

And I am told that, thus, we are enemies. They are foolish and ignorant; what’s wrong with America. My co-workers are possibly evil, and reasoning with them is of no use. These people must be defeated and crushed—preferably at the polls—but if that fails perhaps more drastic action is needed. And I’m sure this is exactly what my office mates are told about me.

But for the life of me, I cannot see them this way. They might be my political rivals, in some certain contexts, on some certain days when we must both fill out our ballots … but they are also my friends. They are my family. They are good people who live generous and beautiful lives.

I do not fear them. I do not hate them. I love them. And I do not mean this in some abstract, detached way. I know their names, and they know mine. I love them and long for their good and, I truly believe, they long for mine. I work and relax with these people—they have watched my daughter play and grow. On workdays we share the lunch table and on Sunday we gather together around the table of the Lord.

©iStockphoto.com\(kcline)
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.com\(kcline

Our divisions only become truly dangerous when we do not know one another. Danger creeps in when we start to fear people as nameless, faceless bogeymen waiting for us in the dark, rather than flesh and blood persons with real names and real stories. With a person, no matter how different they happen to be, you can compromise, you can learn something, you can conspire goodness together. You can’t reason with faceless shadows … you can only fear them, and then hate them.

So my challenge to you is—is there any one person or group that you fear? If so, see if you can break bread with them. As Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Fear is the real enemy, and I have found that nothing banishes fear like a sandwich split in two.

Daily grind and reason to praise

Many of us are in the daily grind of ministry and we don’t really know for sure if we are having a positive effect.

We show up at our service sites day-in and day-out. We chime in at meetings. We help others with willing hearts and joyful faces, enlivened by our belief that we’ll encounter Christ among the poor and marginalized. Between ordinary tasks like responding to emails and doing paperwork, we study Scripture and speak up on behalf of justices. We frequently pause to pray privately and as community. Yes: we are devoted to our routines because we are faithful to Jesus’ vision of peace and justice for all.

Our shoulders ache from the stress and our faces are sunk with exhaustion. Yet, as our awareness expands, so does our desire to make a good difference. For each task we cross off our to-do list, two more good intentions or invitations seem to come in. We know we can’t really keep up with all we could do, and all we need to do. But amazingly, by God’s grace, we keep going.

We put a lot of grit and love into our labors. We know what we do matters. Sometimes, though, we get discouraged and wonder if things are really changing for the better. We know it’s healthiest to remain a vessel, an instrument, and be detached from the outcomes. Still, it’s hard to stay dedicated when we’re just a tiny pixel in a huge picture—in God’s glorified reign.

This is the experience that has been defining my time and work lately.

But then, there are times when signs of hope and the good news of God’s ways triumph. The Gospel good news can be local or from our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world to whom we are united in mission. Beautifully, we are interconnected, we are working together, and God’s victory anywhere is a reason for us all to pause and praise.

In fact, in the past week I heard much good news and learned a lot about the great things that God is—through us—up to.  Right now I’ll tell you just two stories from a conference I attended last weekend in Chicago called The Global Call of Religious Life (and later I hope to share more).

Story 1. At the conference, I heard Sister Pat Murray tell about how a priest preached about human trafficking in his homily at his parish in rural India. One of his parishioners, who worked as a driver, remembered his homily when someone hired him to drive two teenage girls to the city to work in a restaurant. On the way, he realized that something was off about the circumstances and instead drove the girls to a center for victims of human trafficking run by a group of Catholic sisters. Now the teenage girls are on their way to healing and recovery.

Story 2. Also at the conference, I was inspired to hear Fr. Benigno Beltran, SVD speak about his ministry to the 25,000 people who live in Smokey Mountain garbage dump in the Philippines. Father Benigno has done many remarkable things with the people there by helping them to dream and foster integrity, solidarity and creativity among them. One accomplishment that was especially exciting to hear about was that he has developed a dance troop of youth who were born and raised in the garbage dump. The troop travels globally and are ambassadors for peace and the earth. Through the performing arts, the youth live from the place of their inherent dignity. They know they are not garbage but they have value and worth.

Photo credit: http://www.svdvocations.org/

 

Indeed, God is good and up to amazing things. In our particular part of the world, we don’t always know the effect we are having. Yet, when we connect with others and live in solidarity we can see that great things are happening through all our united efforts for God’s reign.

Rejoice! Alleluia! Amen!

 

 

God-centered mundane matters

God is the center of my life.

Really, I mean it. God is my life.  God consumes my life. Most of my time, thoughts, and tasks have to do with God.

I wish I could tell you it’s completely great.

Many mornings, as I hit the snooze button on my alarm, I think ‘God! Already!?” Then I fall back asleep imagining (No, actually knowing) that God is really right in my room with me, like a good, loving protector. When I finally do rally, brew and gulp coffee, I talk to God some more.

Then there’s my job, my ministry. I am a high school religion teacher and I am a Franciscan Sister, for goodness sake. Everything I say or do gives witness to my life with God. It’s constant faith sharing. I pray with my students, try to listen to them and do my best to love and teach with joy. I read a lot about God and learn as much as possible so I know what I am talking about (at least somewhat)! I prepare presentations, lessons, assignments and activities in order to inform and inspire others in their own journey with God. I grade piles and piles of endless papers and read essays by my students centered on–yup, you guessed it–God, again. It’s a lot of work and I never can keep up. Work all centered on God.

My non-teaching time (there seems to be so little of it nowadays) is spent on activities that are centered on God too. I think a lot about God. I talk to God. I make lists of all the God-related topics that I want to blog about for all of you here (and wonder when I’ll ever do it). When I do write it’s God-related, of  course. My other tasks like reading, up-keeping my relationships, eating and praying with my sisters, playing and even the too-rarely exercising also have to do with God in one way or another. Sometimes I get to be crafty, or cook or enjoy nature–or maybe I’ll do chores like my laundry. That’s God stuff too.

I am not complaining. I like it this way. I am grateful that I get to focus so much energy and time on God. God is the love of my life, seriously.

I am not bragging either–I’m just saying. Even though I am so all about God I feel so unsatisfied. My relationship with God is just as hard as anybody else’s. Desire is a funny thing. We can be so unfulfilled, even if we focus a lot on what we desire most. St. Augustine was onto something when he said “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, Oh God.”  Maybe the problem is the rest part.

I am beginning to wonder if my struggle this Lent (or is it during this phase of my life in general?) is about learning how to let my relationship with God evolve.  There was a phase in my life when I was totally head-over-heels in love with God. Wow, that was great! It was basically euphoric: I was consumed with joy because I kept experiencing God’s awesomeness. According to my friends, they knew I was well when I joyfully proclaimed “God is so good!” a lot. I still say that, but I wonder it’s just becoming more monotone.

Maybe my relationship with God is just getting more grown-up. I wonder if God just wants we me to accept maturity. Will I remain faithful and zesty even if I am not always feeling it? What is my love for God centered on?  How can I connect and keep going even when things start to seem strangely bland?

Maybe God and I really are getting to be like a long-married couple in different parts of the house together, quietly doing our thing and just having joy in the presence of each other. Awww.

But, what’s a sister to do when life is more than physical labor and she’s still wanting to just be with God in it all? What if the constant mind stretching, ever-chaotic work is an exhausting and demanding ministry of teaching? How can I connect to God in that mess?

I am reading a book that’s helping me feel a bit better about my dissatisfaction and inadequacies. This is one of its lessons:

“God’s incarnation in Jesus might suggest something startling about the importance of housework: like housework, redemption is physical. God doesn’t stand around watching humanity go to hell in a handbasket; he gets his own hands dirty by sending his Son to heave us in from the muck.  In Jesus, God is cleaning up the mess.”

I am starting to think that this same lesson applies to the mess and all the mundane tasks in my classroom. All work is probably a type of cleaning up.

God is all about creating order out of chaos. It’s hard, tedious, on-going, repetitive work. Grading papers shall be endless, like housework. The preparing, reading, and tidying will always build up on my desk. And in that messy, daily labor I too can unite with God.

It’s a good thing that God is the center of my life, I might pay better attention.

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!

 

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.