As I’ve mentioned on a few occasions, one of the defining characteristics of Franciscans (and one of the main reasons that I was drawn to this life in the first place) is our call to peace and justice in the world. Since Francis’ meeting with the sultan during the Fifth Crusade, we have been widely known as a brotherhood of peacemakers. For this reason it is the Franciscans that have been entrusted with caring for the Holy Land.
As time has passed, the world has come to realize that there is much more to peace than simply pacifism: there is a call for justice to mitigate the causes of violence. As Pope Paul VI is famously quoted in saying, “If you want peace, work for justice.” In other words, people that are respected and well fed are less likely to act with violence than are people who are oppressed, abused, hungry, or dehumanized. In this way, peace will never be anything more than the lack of violence if all we do is treat the symptoms, that is, the visible flareups. True peace is achieved by recognizing the many forms of injustice all around us and treating those afflicted with dignity and respect. This is our call as Franciscans.
This is not without conversion, I must say. LIke anyone else, we as friars must be constantly called to look at our own lives and to reevaluate the ways our actions affect the world. Without careful examination and focused initiatives, it is very easy for us to lose track of what is important or to become apathetic to the issues of our world; without constant education and thoughtful action, it is very easy to come across as ineffective in our ministries or even detrimental to those around us; without a foundation in prayer and holiness, it is very easy to lose site of why we do what we do and even burn out.
For the Order of Friars Minor, that’s the role of the office for Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) and its animators, both on the provincial and house level. In our house, I’m privileged to be on the JPIC committee, and excited for the initiatives we have in store. Recognizing that we are a very large, busy, eclectic and academic bunch, we’ve decided that the best way to go about forming a corporate identity of justice was to devote each month to a different topic for education and prayer culminating in a movie, speaker, or fraternal event.
This evening was our first of these events. With Immigration as our topic, roughly fifteen of us came together to watch the movie El Norte and to have a brief discussion. (If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend it. You can see the trailer here.) Filmed in English, Spanish, and Maya, the movie depicts the lives of two Guatemalan exiles that flee oppression and violence in their village for what they believe will be the answer to all of their problems: the north. After a dangerous journey through Mexico, they realize that their idealized view of the United States is but a fantasy. Despite the affluence around them, they are no better financially than they were before. Life is difficult.
What I found most tragic about this story (a story with no happy ending, I might add) is the monologue the woman gives on her deathbed. She says,
In our own land, we have no home. They want to kill us. … In Mexico, there is only poverty. We can’t make a home there either. And here in the north, we aren’t accepted. When will we find a home, Enrique? Maybe when we die, we’ll find a home.
Can there be anything more tragic? I think about all of the people who live this reality each and every day, forced to leave behind all that is familiar for a new language, new culture, new climate, new set of relationships, and a new way of life, and it breaks my heart to think about the level of dejection they must feel. They have no home. They are strangers, outcasts of society.
When I look at my own life through this lens, it devastates me. In a material sense, look at all I have. In contrast, the characters in this movie fantasized about having a house with a toilet. But its much more than that. I can honestly say that the most dejected I have ever felt was in a language class. Here I was, a confident (even cocky), intelligent, comfortable guy reduced to speaking like an infant, unable to express myself, and feeling like an idiot because I couldn’t catch on. My whole world was reduced to nothing in those moments; I felt trapped and helpless. That was for one hour a day and it could end up ruining the rest of the day sometimes. Can I even imagine what it must feel like to do that for 24 hours a day, away from friends and family all the while living in fear of being caught without documentation. Such a level of dejection and dehumanization I will never feel.
Which brings me to the JPIC reflection for the month: how can I actually be minor when I know that people live like this minutes from my house. As a Franciscan, we are called by our General Constitutions “to have the life and condition of the little ones in society, always living among them as minors. In this social environment they are to work for the coming of the Kingdom.” (Article 66) How is this even possible? In a very real sense, the most devastating thing about this movie is that it forces me to look at my own life and to realize there there is nothing “minor” about it. The material possessions at my disposal, the social connections to guide and support me, the legal status that I possess, and the comfort I have in feeling that I am “home” in my own culture and speaking my own language ensure that I will never be as minor as those I serve. There is something about being comfortable that can never be minor.
And so I reflect. I take this with me to prayer for the rest of the month (and undoubtably longer) as I try to figure out how I can see to act justly in this world and to do so as a friar minor. Part of me knows that I will never come to the answer that is perfectly satisfying in every way, but that’s okay. As a friar minor, I am called to a life of constant conversion, a life of asking these questions and evaluating my life so to actually be the person I say that I am.