We don’t get it, though it’s right before our eyes. The years of abuse and violence have created endemic pain, mistrust, anger, frustration, etc. With no sense of hope — in fact, with more and more signs of hopelessness, as we see how widespread this is — all of that negativity was bound to come out sideways. The people have never been given any other way to resolve it. Baltimore was a powder keg waiting to blow, and there are others all over the country.
Yet we have a government that exacerbates the problems by ignoring them, by reinforcing a system that benefits the 1%, and by pouring energy into promoting a puritanical religious agenda rather than addressing fundamental issues of human need and justice. We like to point to our “progress” and claim that we have moved beyond racism, but by trying not to talk about it, by suppressing the conversation, we’ve only forced it underground and added to the building pressures.
Now a privileged system, which has been treating people with violence for so long, calls for nonviolence from a community that has had its fill. Again, it shows that we don’t get it. Under pressure, things start to break apart at the weakest spot. It is easy for me to say that nonviolence is best (and I believe it is). Middle class folks of all ethnicities can perhaps see the preference for a peaceful resolution, because of their perspective from a place of economic and educational privilege. And that would be a lovely way to resolve this: sit-ins, folk music, and conferences with lots of impassioned speeches and break-out sessions to discuss the future.
But the impoverished, young, raging African Americans in Baltimore and elsewhere can’t see that. Their perspective is quite different. All they know is that we have had our boots on their necks for too long, and they have had enough. (And I mean “we” because I am well-enmeshed as a beneficiary of the oppressive system.) Call their lashing out a crime. Call it sin. Call it counterproductive, as President Obama did. It may be all those things, but it is also the predictable response of a people who have been pushed and pushed until they have reached their limit.
Yes, there are those who showed up in the streets of Baltimore to get their share in the looting. And yes, some quite consciously drove in to be part of the fight. But most people don’t go looking for a fight and the fact that so many became engaged in one underscores the fact that this was a community that passed its collective breaking point.
We don’t see all of this because the system also conditions us not to recognize it. We’re told that everyone has the same opportunities, and if people fail it’s their own fault. Our unfettered love of wealth and our commitment to making the rich even richer teaches us to disdain the poor. When my heart is filled with disdain for anyone, I find that it’s hard for me to imagine why helping him is my problem.
Unless we can recognize the reality of what’s going on and become serious about dismantling the American apartheid which is sustained by the status quo and further empowered by our current political leadership in Congress, these episodes of civil unrest will grow into something much, much bigger.
I don’t believe there are simple answers to solving our social ills, but I do believe there are clear directions in which we are called to move, from a Gospel perspective. In first-century Israel, there were a number of political groups who struggled against the Roman occupation and oppression of the Jewish people. (There were also some parties were complicit with Rome, such as the Herodians.) It was a time of revolutionary fervor and there were occasional outbreaks of violence.
We know from the Gospels that Jesus so identified with the oppressed peasants who struggled under Roman rule that he was ultimately executed as an opponent of Caesar. His way was one of nonviolence, which should ultimately be our model, but he was so closely aligned with others who were insurrectionists that he was identified as an enemy of the state. In fact, Mark’s account of his last week before the crucifixion has Jesus publicly speaking out over and over against the dominant cultural powers. The fate of anyone who speaks truth to power is often not a happy one.
As Christians, we must remain personally committed to nonviolent means of healing our nation. But we must also heed our Lord’s example of so closely aligning ourselves with those who are oppressed that we may, in fact, be mistaken for them. The only time Jesus found himself in Herod’s palace was as a prisoner, not as part of a political party. Those who claim the name of Jesus ought to find themselves more at home in the streets of Baltimore and Ferguson than in the halls of Congress, because our calling includes standing right next to people in their pain. As Pope Francis put it, the shepherds should smell like sheep.
Standing with the oppressed in this case means, at the very least, getting close enough and quiet enough that we can hear them. Quit criticizing long enough to listen to their stories. Learn to see life through their eyes. And if, at the end of the conversation, you still see things the same way, go back and sit down with them again until you get it.
If we are going to help bring healing, we must learn to distinguish the disease from its symptoms. The violence will not end until we learn to recognize its underlying cause and our part in it.
As you probably know, Arkansas has been making the national news for the work of its legislature, and not in a good way. The passage of SB 202, with the misleading title of “Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act” was intended to stop local anti-discrimination laws from being passed if they went further to protect people from discrimination than state-level laws. (Read: If they protected LGBTQ folks.) Our governor chose to allow it to become law without his signature.
Now we have a companion bill, HB 1228, presented as a “Conscience Protection Act”, which would allow a person “to act or refuse to act” based on “sincerely held religious beliefs”. The bill is designed to legalize discrimination such as refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. It allows the claim to “sincerely held religious beliefs, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief”. In other words, your church or synagogue or mosque or scriptures don’t have to teach the kind of discrimination you want to practice to “protect” your action under this law. You get to act or refuse to act “without limitation”. (Read the bill here. It’s only four pages long. It doesn’t take much space to express nonsense.)
This bill simply provides legal protection for bigotry. Similar attempts at perpetuating injustice are happening around the country.
From a religious perspective, I find it quite bizarre. You can’t engage in business transactions with sinners? I don’t know about your religion, but mine teaches that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God“. That pretty much eliminates the customer/client pool, if all sinners are to be avoided when doing “Christian” business.
Maybe it’s just “notorious sinners” with whom we should not do business. Now, “notorious” doesn’t mean “worse”, but that their sins are well-known. So unless you are better than average, there will be a lot of folks who slip under your gaydar. You’ll sell that guy a necktie and never know that it was to take home to his husband. But unlike sexual identity, some things are pretty well known, like who the CEOs of the credit card companies are. That makes it “notorious” that they are lending money at interest, prohibited in the Hebrew scriptures over and over. Are you ready to refuse to bake the cake for the straight moneylender’s wedding? If not, your ethic is inconsistent, particularly if you are a Christian, since Jesus himself never spoke about homosexuality, but he clearly stood by the poor.
Folks, this is a justice issue. And there is an attempt underway to get HB 1228 out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and onto the Senate floor for a vote. It needs to die in committee.
This afternoon, I sent an e-mail message to every one of the Senate Judiciary Committee members:
Dear Senator _______,
I am writing to ask you to help keep HB 1228 off the table. While the bill purports to protect the free exercise of religion, and its sponsors would like for it to be known as the “Conscience Protection Act”, it is a thinly-veiled attempt to legalize discrimination against certain classes of people in our community, specifically our LGBTQ friends. Those who support it have no clear understanding of religious liberty nor of Mr. Jefferson’s vision of “a wall of separation between church and state”. Indeed, they seem to be interested in protecting only their own religious perspective.
As written, the bill would essentially allow anything to be protected, based only on a person’s appeal to his or her religious freedom, as it defines the exercise of religion as “including without limitation the ability to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief” (Emphasis mine.) So, regardless of whether a given religion does, in fact, formally teach that doing business with a gay person is wrong, if a person believes it is (or just doesn’t want to), that person would be protected in discrimination by this act, as long as he or she claims “sincerely held religious beliefs”.
This bill is already damaging our state’s reputation and will have a negative impact on business and tourism — I am sure you have already seen the meme posted online showing the sign at the Arkansas border indicating that gays are not welcome here. It is certain to be challenged successfully in court, causing us to spend thousands of dollars defending the right to discriminate. If that happens, will the law also protect any of my tax dollars from being used, as defending discrimination is substantially contrary to the teaching of my religion (Christianity)?
Please help Arkansas overcome its parochial image by stopping this proposal to legalize injustice. I urge you to let this bill fail. It is the right thing to do.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Fred Ball, OFR
San Damiano Ecumenical Catholic Church
12415 Cantrell Road
Little Rock, Arkansas 72223-1727
I don’t know that having done this will make a difference. I do know that we cannot remain silent in the face of injustice.
If you are willing to contact the Senate Judiciary Committee, their names and e-mail addresses are:
Senator Johnson – David.Johnson@senate.ar.gov
Senator Woods – email@example.com
Senator Rice – Terry.Rice@senate.ar.gov
Senator Elliott – Joyce.Elliott@senate.ar.gov
Senator Chesterfield – firstname.lastname@example.org
Senator Burnett – David.Burnett@senate.ar.gov
Senator Collins-Smith – Linda.Collins-Smith@senate.ar.gov
Senator Hutchinson – Jeremy.Hutchinson@senate.ar.gov
The meeting reminder popped up yesterday afternoon as it does every Monday: “Bryan — Tomorrow at 7:30 AM, Root”. The appointment has been on my weekly calendar since December, when we decided to go ahead and nail down a regular time for coffee, rather than trying to set a new date each time.
When the reminder appears, I am prompted to check to see whether we are still “on” for the next morning. With the varying demands of work and family, we sometimes have to reschedule — that has particularly been true this summer — but it always brings a smile to see my young friend’s name on the phone, even if we can’t get together as planned.
Not yesterday. For the first time, that reminder came as a gut-punch of grief rather than the usual delight. You see, Bryan was killed in a jet ski accident in Florida five days ago. When my iPhone lit up with his name, that unreal reality hit hard again. It was devastating to think that I would no longer be able to enjoy my Tuesdays with Bryan.
I haven’t allowed myself to process the news yet — to fully enter into the stupor of grief and be tossed about by it. I’ve talked some about Bryan — I even mentioned him in my homily on Saturday evening — always maintaining the practiced distance that comes from decades of making emergency hospital visits and presiding at funerals. Pastors become pretty skilled at demonstrating compassion without getting too emotionally caught up in things, in order to be able to help families through their crises.
So, I realized last night that I needed to keep our standing appointment at The Root. I’m now sitting at the table where Bryan and I had so many conversations about so many things. I was a bit apprehensive as I drove downtown, wondering what it would be like to sit across from “Bryan’s chair”. What I have discovered here, however, is a deep sense of joy about what was, for me, such a delightful relationship.
I met Bryan and Claira and their baby daughter, Irie, when they attended a new members class at St. Michael’s last fall. I was sitting in on the sessions, enjoying the conversations about being church. (And, as always, looking for material I could co-opt for San Damiano!) At our first meeting, it struck me that they were exactly the kind of young adults who might be interested in Franciscan Earth Corps, so I invited them to participate. They did, joining us for a nature walk out at Pinnacle Mountain.
It wasn’t long before Bryan asked for our first coffee meeting. He wanted to talk about church. Not necessarily about St. Michael’s or San Damiano, though those became particular examples in our conversations. Bryan was interested in Church — the Body of Christ — and what it meant to be followers of Jesus. He had such an openness to learning and growing that I was renewed and energized by talking with him. He was very curious about our Franciscan order and shared that, before he met Claira, he wondered whether he might have a vocation to religious life.
He certainly had a vocation to the Gospel life and brought to it his vocation as a filmmaker. The Observatory, his ongoing film project, was a spiritual quest, quite Franciscan in flavor. From his website:
I uncover the beauty of the ordinary. I invite you to be present with me to the mundane artifacts of life, which are hidden beacons of gratitude and significance — if we are only open to see and be seen by them. Each moment is a unique invitation into being.
We discussed ideas, Franciscan stories, ways of seeing, books to read, and more. I always came away from our coffee time full of joy at seeing such a gifted young man who was excited about his spiritual life. I am convinced that communities can be transformed by the presence of a few young people like that who “get it” with regard to the Gospel, which is about making humanity and creation whole in relationship to God and one another.
Bryan was interested in helping however he could and when I mentioned that we were thinking about a new logo for the Franciscans of Reconciliation, he offered his artistic skills. He came up with an initial draft, based on what we thought we wanted, but he wasn’t satisfied with it. I wish I could remember now his funny description of the fingers in the image! We had a good laugh and agreed that it still needed some work. It remains an unfinished project.
Bryan also wanted to talk about his family. I heard about them every week. His deep love and admiration for Claira was evident every time he spoke about her. I saw in him a deep desire to give himself fully to his wife — the passion shone through his face. He talked about their relationship, their dreams, significant conversations that they had about life and spirituality, and their experience of community here in Little Rock. We discussed the nature of marriage and the struggles that every young family faces as a couple grows together in love. I heard about the adventures of living in an old schoolhouse. I rejoiced with him as he and Claira realized their dream of getting their own place, where Irie could play in a yard and Claira would have a place to do her pottery.
And of course, we talked about Irie! We swapped stories about our children and talked about parenting. Bryan’s joy in being a father was contagious. Through him, I recalled the delight, wonder, and fear that comes with being responsible for a new human being. He enjoyed watching Irie grow, learn, and discover her world. He was committed to spending time with her and providing what she needed from him. There are too few husbands and fathers like Bryan in our world.
My last conversation with Bryan at this table was about his vocation. He wondered whether he might have a call to the priesthood. We talked about what that is like and about what some of the indicators are of such a vocation. That’s one of the many conversations I wish we could have continued — whether or not he ended up in ordained ministry, to journey with him through that exploration would have been a joyful privilege, as each conversation with Bryan was. He was a priest already, as a baptized child of God, mediating God’s presence and communicating God’s beauty and love through his family, his film, his questions and curiosity, and, to me, through his friendship.
I’m glad I came for coffee this morning. Despite my fear of it being disorienting, this has been an occasion of reorienting, for Bryan showed up for coffee, too, to touch me again and remind me of things that matter.
I want my tagline back.
When the San Damiano community began to meet at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in January 2007, we also began to run a weekly ad in the Arkansas Times. Our little ads have been remarkably successful in reaching people who were looking for a church like San Damiano, as well as in getting our name out around the community in general.
The ads are fairly simple. Besides the name of the church, the ECC cross logo, and some contact information, they typically feature a brief tagline intended to catch the attention of readers and communicate something about the nature of our parish.
A few of my favorites:
The beauty is in the balance.
St. Francis saw Christ in all of creation.
We see Christ in you.
Just when you thought
you knew all about
I don’t write all of the taglines. Some of them have been borrowed and adapted from other ads or built on ideas contributed by church members. In late 2008, we ran our ad with a tagline written by Guy Lancaster:
Because it’s not about rules.
It’s about relationships.
It is a great tagline. It speaks to those who have been wounded and marginalized by the rules or disciplines or interpretations of scripture that have told people, for example, that they couldn’t remarry without first receiving an annulment, or that if they did remarry outside the church, they could no longer receive communion. These are ways in which people are kept from the sacraments — something we don’t want to happen at San Damiano.
But the tagline is just a tagline, not a new rule in itself! Marketing taglines are almost by definition hyperbolic. They overstate and oversimplify to draw attention and make a point. Their message is often not best discerned through a literal reading. For example:
The Holy Eucharist:
there really is enough
to share with everyone.
The truth is that our altar bread is about six inches in diameter. If we are careful, we can serve about 40 people with one piece. That’s not really everyone. The point of the message is that we have an open communion policy, welcoming non-Catholics to share in the sacrament with us. The real message is not about “how much”, but “who may”.
I’m glad that our ads have been popular and helpful examples to other communities in the ECC. Unfortunately, however, several people have seized on the “rules … relationships” tagline and abused it to the point that I am ready to recant and repent of ever having shared it. It is, ironically, as if they have turned the slogan into a new rule declaring that there are no rules and that, because our relationships are all that matter, everyone may do what they want, when they want, in order to achieve their own purposes. “Are you holding rules over me now??”
Let’s be clear: It’s about rules and relationships.
All relationships are governed by rules, contracts, covenants — however you wish to label them. Some of our contracts are explicit and some are implicit, but they are always present. Spouses are expected to be faithful to one another in their marriage. House guests do not steal from their hosts. If I agree to purchase something from you at a given price, I pay it. I do not get to abrogate any of these agreements and cry, “But it’s not about rules …”
So, in a religious order like the Franciscans of Reconciliation, our rule and form of life describes how we have covenanted to be with one another in relationship as a community. To have a document which describes and reminds us of our agreement about our life together — which we voluntarily enter — is not oppressive but, in fact, life-giving.
Likewise, in the ECC, we have voluntarily agreed to live under a common constitution. Those rules provide us with agreed-upon ways to elect bishops, form dioceses, receive clergy, establish religious orders, financially support the ECC, etc. They are representative of our agreements on how we will be together as a communion. If anyone chooses to ignore and willfully violate those agreements (rules), our relationship is damaged.
We need specific agreements for how we will interact, deal with conflict, and be accountable to one another. St. Francis apparently thought this was important, as well, and most of the Rule of the Franciscans of Reconciliation draws directly upon his words. Any legitimate expression of Franciscan life will do the same.
Is it okay for people not to accept our rule of life? Of course it is. It simply means that they are not in relationship with us as Franciscans. For us, the rule and our relationships go hand in hand.
In the larger context of the ECC, it is the same. Some want to say, “Forget the legalistic technicalities. We are a church and should act like one.” Our canons are not simply “legalistic technicalities” — they are how we agreed we would share our common life. Still, when we cite them, some folks cry out, “But it’s not about rules …”
Yes, it is.
The Latin word for “rule” is regula. Our constitution is the way we have agreed to regulate our relationship. No one forces a person or community to agree to it, but once one does, it binds our behavior. To seek to act contrary to it does violence to that relationship. The constitution should only be changed by mutual agreement through the actions of the Holy Synod, not the clamor of those who want no rules.
Want to be part of the so-called Free Churches and their “creed-free faith”? Knock yourself out. But as the ancient cartographers warned, hic sunt dracones — here be dragons. I have sojourned there, and have no desire to return. Instead, I have cast my lot with intentional communities where the people declare to one another, “This will be our life.”
I’ll be faithful to our agreements. Or I’ll seek to change them by following agreed-upon procedures. Or I’ll leave.
But I will not stand in the midst of the family and do violence to it.
I want my tagline back.
On Ash Wednesday this year, working with St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, we offered our third “Ashes on the Go” event, spending the day in a parking lot at Pleasant Ridge shopping center, where we shared conversations, ashes, and prayer with nearly 100 people. I wrote about my experience the first year we did this and I continue to enjoy our public outreach.
The local media also finds this project of interest each year, and we’ve received a good bit of attention with it. This year, two television stations and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found it worthy of their time.
I like it when San Damiano’s name is in the news, even though experiences with the media can certainly vary. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Exposure in Central Arkansas helps us to get the word out about this wonderful community of faith, so I am grateful to those who gave us some attention.
However, I do feel compelled to point out two places in the coverage by one of the television stations this year that missed the mark. In one case, they were simply wrong; in the other, I understand the perspective but disagree with it.
First, the plain error. In THV11’s story, “Ash Wednesday becoming trendy?”, I was referred to as the person “who started ‘Ashes to Go’ in Little Rock.” I was not. I have no idea where the idea came from that I was — it was not something we even talked about on Wednesday, that I recall.
I don’t know that our 2012 event was the first in the city, but if it was, Lisa Hlass of St. Michael’s gets the credit for what we did. It was Lisa who told us about the “Ashes to Go” movement, which began in the St. Louis in 2007. She, in turn, gives thanks to The Rev. Mary Vano of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church for our involvement.
My second issue with Channel 11’s story was the attempt to spin our outreach as “trendy”, referring to it in the same breath as “fad fasts” (What are those? The story never explored that idea.) and trying to create a tension between Ashes to Go and “traditional” approaches to Lent.
I can understand why some people view doing public ministry in the shopping centers as novel — it doesn’t seem to happen much anymore. But I want to suggest that the idea of doing ministry outside of a church building is so old that many people have forgotten it. Going to where the people are is as old a Christian tradition as, well, Jesus.
It is ironic that people who for the past few Sundays have been hearing the Sermon on the Mount would think it “trendy” that we spent a day in the street …
As Jesus began to attract followers, he preached not only in the synagogues but also on the hillsides. He sent his disciples from town to town and house to house, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. It is ironic that people who for the past few Sundays have been hearing (or preaching about!) the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) would think it “trendy” that we spent a day in the street, declaring a hundred times “that it is only by [God’s] gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
No doubt some found it novel when, in 1208, St. Francis of Assisi cast off his staff, shoes, and leather belt, and began to go about barefoot in a simple tunic with a cord around his waist, preaching “peace and good” to the people in the streets. It wasn’t trendy at all, however. Francis got the idea from the Gospel, as well, when he heard Matthew 10:7-19 read on the Feast of St. Mathias at Mass.
The real novelty, historically, came when people began to think of buildings, rather than people, as “the church”. In the earliest years of the Christian movement, we understood ecclesia (the New Testament word translated “church”) neither as a building nor as some distant and complex hierarchy, but as the assembly. Wherever the assembly happened — where two or three gathered in the name of Jesus (cf. Matthew 18:20) — there was the church. And as often as not, when Jesus (and later, St. Francis), would send his followers out two by two, preaching good news, the people didn’t go to church. The church went to the people.
Unfortunately, after a while, the Jesus movement began to be trendy. Once it became a more acceptable, fashionable thing to be known as Christian (once a derisive term), folks who had been gathering in simple, private houses began to long for buildings. They adopted the Roman basilica as a model and “church” began to be the place where they met, as well as the assembly, which they were. Their numbers grew, so their organizational infrastructure did, as well, and people eventually began to think of “the church” as “the hierarchy”, something separate from the people (much as many think of “the government” as something distinct from the citizenry).
This was the real “trendiness” that moved the church away from its roots and, consequently, away from those on the margins of life, the people in the streets, who were always to be the objects of the church’s care. Our desire to look like the fashionable culture around us led us farther from our mission.
Let me also suggest that it is not “trendy”, not fashionable, not de rigueur to spend a day outdoors in 30° weather, sharing one’s faith. Nor is the Franciscan habit which I wore a particularly popular fashion in Little Rock in 2014. I have no doubt that there were interesting comments made by the passersby. But I was not out there to be trendy, nor were the other clergy and volunteers. We were there to bear witness to the great joy we know through Jesus Christ. We were there to provide an opportunity to fellow Christians who could not be with their usual assembly that day. We were there to be the church in the midst of the people and share good news with whoever would hear it.
Please don’t misunderstand. I enjoy the “traditional” Lenten observances as much as anyone does. I said Mass at 7:00 AM and attended at 6:30 PM on Ash Wednesday — hearing the traditional readings, observing the silences, confessing my sins, and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. But to set Ashes to Go in tension with that experience is to miss the point.
In several conversations with people in the parking lot, I observed that it is better to be “at church” for the full Mass, when it’s possible. Many Catholics regretted that they couldn’t attend the liturgy at their parish that day. But because we were there, they had an opportunity to gather with the church — to be part of the assembly — albeit a small assembly outside a closed Johnny Carino’s restaurant. They received their ashes, that simple sign of their mortality and penitence, and prayed with joy as they entered Lent.
One hundred people, praying in a parking lot. Okay. I give. If that’s trendy, it’s a trendiness I can get behind. But I believe it’s truly something so old, it’s new again.
I met a homeless man today. That is not terribly unusual, of course. We have been involved with homeless people for years as a parish community. What was unusual was the way this fellow was introduced to me.
I was downtown at a coffee shop this morning, where I met with a Methodist minister to talk about the upcoming bus tour by the Fast for Families movement, interfaith relationships, and other Very Holy Things. As I was waiting for him to arrive, I was greeted by one of two men who were having a conversation.
“Good morning, Father — how are you?” Then he spoke to his companion. “Bill, do you know Father Ball?”
We shook hands and exchanged greetings, as my friend continued his introduction.
“Bill is on the streets, but it’s not his fault. He lost his job. That is, it was bad luck, not bad decisions. And I really like him. I especially like this jacket.”
Bill spoke in reply. “Yeah, every likes a Patagonia jacket.”
I looked at Bill, and he looked like every other person who happened to be in that section of Community Bakery this morning. He was a well-groomed, well-dressed, middle class, middle aged white man. No wonder my friend liked him — he looked like one of us! And to reinforce that message, I had been let in on the secret that he is one of us. Professional. Hard working. Intelligent. Cultured. Just down on his luck.
Not really like a homeless person, you see. Bill is different. Bill is okay. And I liked Bill, too.
I sat down again with my coffee. Then it began to dawn on me what had just happened. I had been seduced by the notion that because Bill is like me, he somehow deserved a warmer welcome and a sympathetic ear as he explained his circumstances. Bill didn’t make me uncomfortable, the way some homeless folks can, or offend me with the smell of poverty, so I was happy to look into his eyes and really see him.
Now, I do believe that it is important to realize that we can’t always look at a person and tell that he is homeless. I never would have guessed that about Bill. It’s also important to be aware that the streets are full of women and children, as well as men. We should know that there are “people like us” who will sleep in the cold tonight and that many people are “one paycheck away” (or the lack of one paycheck) from disaster. All of that is true.
But it is also important to realize that when we try to sell people on supporting efforts to help the homeless by focusing on those who are “acceptable” because of their age, gender, background, cleanliness, mental aptitude, sobriety, etc., we are failing to call them to conversion. To help someone whom I perceive as being somehow like me and who I believe is worthy requires very little of me.
On the other hand, to recognize that the homeless person who is not like me, who unsettles me in some fashion, is absolutely worthy of being looked in the eye, of receiving a warm handshake, of a getting a hot meal, and of having a secure place to sleep, simply by virtue of being a beloved child of God requires me to change my thinking (metanoia, repentance) and to “turn with” (conversion) the Spirit.
Conversion is absolutely essential if we hope to move beyond almsgiving, which is ultimately a band-aid approach to homelessness, and be a transformational presence in our world. Conversion allows us to move from simple acts of charity to relationship building. While I am grateful when people give food or money to help the poor, what I really pray for is conversion of heart that no longer sees the person on the street as “the Other“, but as neighbor.
In his Testament, written shortly before his death, St. Francis described his conversion with regard to lepers in this way:
The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I worked mercy with them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world.
I long to “leave the world” as Francis did, in the sense of leaving behind the world’s way of distancing itself from those who are poor or different or challenging. I want it not to matter to me that someone stinks. I pray that I will learn to welcome people with genuine warmth and hospitality, regardless of their appearance or what they can do for me.
Yet, I know myself. I recognize why I was so easily moved by that introduction to Bill. My friend meant no harm, of course. In fact, I know that he is regularly engaged in ministry with folks on the streets, many of whom are not the “worthy” kind people. His words were intended to be affirming and supportive, and that is probably what Bill heard this morning. But my reaction to those words points out again that I still need conversion, daily, until that which seems bitter to me is finally turned into sweetness, and I freely love as I am loved.
A powerful image of Pope Francis has been making the social media rounds. Indeed, there are several photos of him embracing and kissing a man who suffers from horrible disfiguration due to neurofibromatosis. These images move us as we recognize that Francis is doing what many people would not do. We tend to avoid the Other — the one who is different from us in ways that make us uncomfortable. Maybe it is the smell of the homeless man who approaches us on the street, along with our fear that he will ask us for money. Maybe it is the dementia of the woman suffering from Alzheimer’s that frustrates the flow of our communication and makes us wonder whether the conversation even matters, if she’s not going to remember it. In this picture, the Pope embraces one whose appearance frightens us and we are confronted with the question: “Would I be able to do that? To truly see this man as my brother and freely offer him love?
One of the striking things about Pope Francis is that this kind of scene is not unusual with him. Many times over the months, we have seen him reaching out to touch, to embrace, to let someone know that he really sees them. Often it is someone who has been pushed to the margins, whether a disfigured man, a child, or a lonely senior adult.
As a Franciscan, I love seeing a pastor of the Church who really grasps the significance of the Incarnation. A Catholic News Service blog (which includes several photos of the kind I’ve mentioned) quotes the Pope as saying, “God meddles in our miseries, he approaches our wounds and heals them with his hands; it was to have hands he became man.”
While many people (myself included) have thus far seen Francis’s papacy as primarily a matter of style and focus, rather than portending a major shift in the doctrine and discipline of the Roman Communion, it is a very important change as he turns the world’s attention so decisively to the poor. We would do well not to discount or underestimate what the Spirit may do when the people of God put their energy into caring for those on the margins.
It has always been our hope that San Damiano will be a hands-on kind of community, directly engaged with people who suffer. If we claim the Wounded Christ as our teacher, we must learn to embrace his woundedness as we encounter it in others. Only as we seek and serve Christ in every person are we transformed into his image. We cannot be like Jesus until we learn to see Jesus in all the wonderful, awful, comforting, shocking, reassuring, and disarming places he shows up. Let’s keep our eyes open, so that we can spot Jesus — along with open arms (to embrace him), open hearts (to love him), and opens minds, to allow our thinking to be stretched and renewed by him each time we meet.
Though we celebrated it last Saturday, today is our official titular feast — the feast of Sts. Cosmas and Damian. Twin brothers born in the third century in what is now Turkey, Cosmas and Damian were physicians who combined their medical skills with a profound faith and commitment to caring for the poor. Refusing to accept any payment for their services, they became known as “the silverless“, offering healing and love out of a deep sense of gratitude for the love of God and the spiritual healing they had found in the Gospel. Their ministry attracted enough attention that it was perceived as a threat to the Empire — radical life flowing from radical love often is — and they were martyred under Diocletian.
Ultimately, we take our name from one of those faithful martyrs — Damian. We use the Italian spelling, Damiano, however, because we take the name immediately from the little church just outside of Assisi where St. Francis spent so much time and had one of his conversion experiences as he prayed before the Crucifix in that place. Thomas of Celano, his first biographer, writing in 1247, tells the story:
Led by the Spirit he went in to pray and knelt down devoutly before the crucifix. He was shaken by unusual experiences and discovered that he was different from when he had entered. As soon as he had this feeling, there occurred something unheard of in previous ages: with the lips of the painting, the image of Christ crucified spoke to him. “Francis,” it said, calling him by name, “go rebuild My house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.” Francis was more than a little stunned, trembling, and stuttering like a man out of his senses. He prepared himself to obey and pulled himself together to carry out the command. He felt this mysterious change in himself, but he could not describe it. So it is better for us to remain silent about it too. From that time on, compassion for the Crucified was impressed into his holy soul. And we honestly believe the wounds of the sacred Passion were impressed deep in his heart, though not yet on his flesh.1
“Go rebuild My house.” Francis immediately set about the business of doing just that — repairing the church of San Damiano, as well as two others in the area. In the process of doing this work and continuing his life of prayer, however, he was taught by the Spirit that the intent of Christ’s call was something much broader. As St. Bonaventure would later write, “the principal intention of the words referred to that which Christ purchased with his own blood.”2 It was not a call to rebuild a church building, but to rebuild the Church itself.
Yet, I believe it was even more. As we look at Francis’s spirituality, particularly as it is articulated in Bonaventure’s theology, it is not too much to understand the house of God to be creation itself. All of creation is the concrete expression of the word of God, who speaks things into being. Every created thing is, then, an incarnation of God’s word — created and sustained by the fountain-fullness of God’s love, eternally overflowing in grace.
Look around you at creation — behold God’s body! And behold what we have done to it! Especially for contemporary Franciscans, living as we do with the consequences of our abuse of the planet, participation in the ongoing call to “go rebuild My house” must include not only the renewing of the Church, but the renewing of entire house of God. Care for creation is no less a part of our spiritual mandate than is the care of souls.
Look around you at creation — behold God’s body!
Care for creation begins by learning to see creation for what it is — the incarnation of God’s abundant, fecund, generative love, which is never exhausted and in which we are invited to participate. When we understand the sacramental nature of everything, we will begin to follow in the footprints of Francis, who sought even to tread gently on the rocks as he walked, and put honey and wine out for the bees to help them through the winter. (That wouldn’t be a bad idea today, given what is happening with our bees. I’m glad to see that the Pope is doing his part to help them out!)
Rebuilding the house of God also requires rebuilding ourselves within — inviting the Spirit to take us apart, stone by stone, and to reconstruct us on a sure foundation. Like Francis, we need that deep interior change which only comes about through daily conversion. On this feast of San Damiano, we would do well to join with Francis in his constant prayer before the Crucifix:
enlighten the darkness of my heart
and give me
and perfect charity,
sense and knowledge,
that I may carry out
Your holy and true command.
1Thomas of Celano, The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, 10, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Volume 2: The Founder, ed. Regis J. Armstrong et al., New York: New City Press (2000), p. 249
2Bonaventure, The Major Legend of St. Francis, 2, in op. cit., 536.
I spent this past weekend in Washington, DC, participating in a training program and launch event for Franciscan Earth Corps, the newest project of the Franciscan Action Network (FAN). It was a great weekend with some wonderful people.
Franciscan Earth Corps is a national movement of Franciscan-hearted young adults who are engaging in a variety of local “care for creation” projects. Sponsored by a local Franciscan organization in their area, Earth Corps chapters are built around the pillars of spirituality, eco-justice, and community. This is a wonderful way to connect with the “green”, “local”, and other environmental issues which are so popular now, supporting them with the ancient spirituality and wisdom of our tradition.
Earth Corps is not a pre-packaged, turnkey program that can be ordered from FAN and implemented in your community in three easy steps. It very much depends upon grassroots organizing and development. For this reason, the training weekend included some time talking about community organizing basics, such as one-to-one conversations to build relationships and discover passions.
As part of the spirituality component, Sister Ilia Delio offered a wonderful presentation on “The Emergent Christ and Franciscan Spirituality”. We toured the sustainability projects of the Garden Guild at the beautiful Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, where the training took place. Besides their work to maintain the public gardens, they raise herbs and vegetables, do beekeeping, are working with solar energy, and more.
The weekend wrapped up with Mass at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, a local Catholic parish, followed by a neighborhood gardening project. The idea was to clean up and beautify an abandoned/neglected lot, located about a quarter of a mile from the church, planting flowers and transforming an eyesore into a place of beauty. The neighbors in the area were enthusiastic about the idea, but the owner of the lot was unresponsive to attempts to contact him. Without the owner’s permission, the plan was not dropped — it simply was transformed into a case of guerrilla gardening.
As you know, the call to St. Francis from the crucifix at San Damiano was to “go and repair my house, which you see is falling down”. I thought the guerrilla gardening project was a wonderful way of “waging peace” by infiltrating with beauty a part of God’s house — creation — that had fallen into disrepair. Like St. Francis’s original efforts to rebuild the little church at San Damiano, this project represented much more than the beautification of one abandoned spot in the city. It was a living parable of the Franciscan way of life, actively engaging a broken world and transforming it, one flower at a time. What a great way to wrap up a weekend that was all about engaging our local communities and making a difference!
As we develop Franciscan Earth Corps here in Central Arkansas, we may engage in some guerrilla gardening. We will certainly be participating in some existing programs related to eco-justice, adding to them the component of Franciscan spirituality, as well as developing our own projects. St. Clare of Assisi referred to herself as a “little plant of our Father Francis”. Whatever we do, like St. Clare, what we are ultimately planting is ourselves — investing our lives in our communities, praying that we may be instruments of God’s healing of creation.
Maybe “guerrilla gardening” really describes the essential nature of being Franciscan. We are called to faithfully be about the business of beautifying our world with joy, hope, and love, with or without permission, determined to be God’s “little plants” wherever we happen to find ourselves.
I was in Chicago for several days this week with two fellow Franciscans, Bp. Rafe Adams and Br. Ray Knapp. We met for the purpose of beginning a major revision of the constitution of the Franciscans of Reconciliation. I made the trip anticipating that I would enjoy seeing my two brothers, but also that I would be engaged in hours of tedious-but-necessary work.
What I experienced, instead, was a remarkable sense of renewal. Yes, we spent hours each day gathered around a conference table with papers, books, and computers, and I was plenty tired when we stopped work each evening. But as we prayed, read, wrote, and discussed the Franciscan way of life, we found that we were deeply stirred again by the Franciscan charism. I flew to Chicago expecting to have to force myself to stay focused while discussing organizational policies ad procedures; I flew home feeling as if I had been on a spiritual retreat.
What made the difference? I wish I could distill the various factors into a marketable formula, guaranteed to work every time, but I can tell you that at least part of it was the way we reframed our task. Instead of thinking about what rules we needed to cover various contingencies, we talked about our relationships.
Yes, we do have to have some written guidelines, as does any organization. But their number and nature changes dramatically when we have a shared vision of who we are and how we want to live life together. Those things which we put to paper should flow from that vision, rather than the other way around. Because just like in our parish, it’s not about rules. It’s about relationships.