Co-Creators Through Christ

Not shown are the other 25 people working to make the campus more ecologically just.

Not shown are the other 25 people working to make the campus more ecologically just.

When we think of Creation, I imagine most people don’t get much further than the first Genesis story: God created the cosmos out of a formless waste, and after six days, God rested. From this story alone one might come to the conclusion that Creation was a static event in history, something that happened at one particular moment and is now finished.

And yet, when we look around our world, we do not see a static cosmos that was created once and for all many years ago: we see an ever-growing, ever-changing existence in which species of life are coming into and out of existence, stars are being created and destroyed, and the whole of the universe continues to expand. How do we explain this change?

The answer, I believe, is in part tied to our conception of the Trinity. As I wrote a few months back, there could not have been one “moment” in time when Jesus was “begotten” of the Father because Jesus is coeternal with the Father; for there to be an exact moment of “begotten-ness” there would have to be a time when Jesus did not exist just prior to that, making him not coeternal. How, then, was Jesus begotten and coeternal? “The only possible answer to this question is that it has always been happening… There can never be a moment in which God the Father is not creating through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, past, present, or future” (A Retreat With Saint Bonaventure).

Thus, when we look at Creation, I think that it is only logical that God, being a Creator by his very nature, is in and through every moment of Creation as it continues to happen. Creation was not a static moment in time, but rather continues to happen as God the Father sends forth his Son in the Holy Spirit.

But as Creation continues to unfold, God is not the only one in control of Creation. As Genesis 1:26 says:

“Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.”

This is profound to say the least. Not only are we as humans created in the image of God (wow) and entrusted with the care for God’s creation (wow), as rationale beings capable of wielding enormous control over the world in which we live, what God is saying in this passage is that we are actually co-creators with Him through Christ (WOW). It is completely within our power to learn from nature or to manipulate it for our own gain; to bring life or to destroy it; to care for what God is continuing to build or to pollute it and break it down. It is clear, in the unprecedented rise in global temperature, the increasing acidification of the ocean and decrease in life therein, the ever-growing landfills and toxic areas of our planet, and the displacement of so many due to ecological destruction, that humans have the ability to truly shape the world around us and that we have not always lived up to our role as just caretakers.

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For almost six hours we moved dirt and rocks. Not all justice work is glamorous…

No more, said the parishioners of St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, MD. No more would they be ignorant to the ways in which their church was adding to polluted waters and higher temperatures. No more would they stand idly by refusing to see that energy and pollution were as much “life issues” as anything else. And despite being a place of worship, St. Camillus was as guilty as anyone. You see, as we continue to cut down natural areas and place parking lots in their place, there are fewer opportunities for the water to be absorbed into the ground. When it rains, water collects very quickly and carries off both nutrients from the soil and harmful chemicals from the hard surfaces, flooding drains and streets rather than nourishing the plants and soil, and sending it all to freshwater sources. At St. Camillus, the tremendously-sized roof only exacerbates the problem, pouring a waterfall of rainwater down the hill directly into an unfiltered drain.

As a church, they decided that they could make a difference. On Saturday morning, forty volunteers strong showed up to the church for phase one of the project: removing the top layer of sod, displacing five inches of soil, turning over an additional five inches of soil, and mixing in three inches of fresh topsoil. For six hours, we cut, shoveled, picked, and carried literally tons of dirt and rock from one place to another, laying the foundation for drainage gardens (to be installed next week) and natural water filters made of many layers of rock.

The best part? We had fun doing it. Not only were we putting in an honest day’s work for the sake of the earth and our brothers and sisters throughout the world, we were building community. There’s a true sense of camaraderie and brotherhood/sisterhood when you spend most of a day with people on an incredibly tiring and worthwhile project. How can you not feel a sense of accomplishment when you work together to move a ton of dirt and rocks? How can you not feel a sense of accomplishment when you just did something that will actually care for the extraordinary world that God has created rather than destroy it?

And so I ask: As co-creators with God through Christ, a people endowed with a special gift, what will we add to God’s masterpiece? It is my hope that every part of my life, the way I eat, travel, shop, work, consume, and put back, will be a positive addition to the work God has started, and that it will continue as God continues to create the world anew each and every moment. Won’t you too?

If You Want Peace… Community Organize

Of all the many accomplishments of organizations like this, the biggest is that these students develop confidence in themselves and in each other.

Of all the many accomplishments of organizations like this, the biggest is that these students develop confidence in themselves and in each other.

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled “If You Want Peace, Work For Justice” that made this distinction between social charity and social justice: charity identifies a need and fulfills it while justice asks why there was a need in the first place and then attempts to change the system that caused it.

While both charity and justice are integral aspects of Catholic Social Teaching, and understanding that neither can fully work without the other, I find myself stressing justice over charity. Don’t get me wrong. Charity is desperately needed and I wouldn’t want to downplay the life work of someone like Mother Theresa. There are times, though, when charity is nothing more than a bandaid on a fatal wound: it prolongs life but it never allows those in need the freedom of authentic human development. As the adage goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” Justice looks to the future, treating the problem not just the symptoms. In practical terms, it means being a voice for the voiceless by demanding quality education, safe environments, and equal treatment under the law so that all people may be able to feed themselves instead of relying on others to feed them.

In my time so far in Camden, however, I have learned that there is actually another layer to this distinction. While justice (as I have defined it) gives a voice to the voiceless, community organizing helps those without a voice find their own. While traditional means of justice may eliminate a systemic problem in order to make life better for many people, (something I obviously DO NOT want to downplay), there is still a sense that it is a form of charity because it is done for someone without enabling them to do it themselves. Not only that, there’s no denying the fact that movements are more vibrant and longer lasting if they come from the people and for the people directly affected by injustice. Thus, in the case of feeding a man from above, community organizers might say, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; show a man that he can fix his hunger by hiring a fishing teacher and he will know how to find solutions for a lifetime.” Through effective community organizing, people gain the confidence and skills to take control of their lives without relying on wealthy donors or educated activists to do everything for them.

A great example of this is the Student Leaders’ Von Nieda Park Task Force at St. Anthony’s school. Comprised of 6th-8th grade students, this group meets each week to identify problems in their neighborhood, research who has the power to make changes, and elicit the skills needed to professionally approach those in power. These students chair a monthly meeting at the park, attend city council meetings, organize cleanups, and travel to Washington, D.C. each year to give a presentation. In the past two years, they have transformed what was once called “the nation’s most depressing park,” into a comfortable neighborhood park for the whole family. How? They saw a need in their area, worked together, and convinced local officials to help make it happen. In two years, the city has installed new basketball nets, trashcans, fences, and now, brand new lights, a project that cost the city and county $365,000. I’d like to remind you that these are 6th-8th graders… When people come together around an issue, great things can happen.

That’s not to say that it’s easy to do or that it’s without setbacks. Community organizing requires tremendous patience and perseverance, thick skin and a short memory. The friar responsible for the Student Leaders here reminds us often of the women who once told him, “Father, ain’t nothing ever going to change in Camden.” This is a common response, and it’s understandable. If you had been rejected and lied to by powerful people your entire life, wouldn’t you be a little hesitant to get excited too? The key is building confidence with small victories, showing people that hope is not useless; change can happen.

More importantly, and much more difficultly, community organizers must not let impatience or frustration move them to act on behalf of the community. Sure, the community organizer may be able to do something successfully on her/his own, but how has this helped the community find its own voice? The sign of a great basketball player is not the amount of points s/he scores, it’s how much better the others players play around her/him. It’s about building the team, not just the tasks. It requires relying on others and giving people the chance to succeed. This might mean being a little less efficient, dealing with a few more frustrations, and even accepting more frequent setbacks than doing something on one’s own. It’s a type-A personality’s nightmare. But what good is it to go about it alone? More importantly, what good is it if we always treat those around us like children, never showing them how to lead themselves?

As brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s not about winning the race, it’s about making sure everyone is able to make it to the end. Community organizing does just that. By focusing on local issues with local people, it involves those closest to the issue and gives them ownership over their lives. While it may not effect the sort of large-scale systemic changes that other forms of justice can, what it does is build community and build confidence. It does not hand people a better life, it helps them work for it themselves. If you want peace in your neighborhood, community organize.

Do This in Memory of Me

What Jesus shared with us was a meal and his life.

What Jesus shared with us was a meal and his life.

In each of the four eucharistic prayers in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the words “Do this in memory of me” are spoken by the priest in what is called the Institution Narrative. Although some of the words change for each prayer, these are repeated in each one: “Do this in memory of me.” They are significant words that help guide us in our understanding of this celebration.

In one sense, it is a clear reminder that the reason we meet each week in the Church is because Jesus gave his body and blood to the disciples through the celebration of the Last Supper just prior to his Passion. His words invoke the memory of this religious celebration, the great institution of the sacrament that gives us life and offers us salvation.

But our memory cannot stop there. In another, maybe more significant sense, the memory we must have when we celebrate the Eucharist is of Jesus himself. When we take his body and drink his blood, we are not only remembering the final meal he shared with his disciples before his Passion, we are remembering all that he was/is and all that he did. In one complex moment, we call to mind his triumphant Incarnation and his glorious Passion; the miracles he performed and the words he preached; the love and forgiveness he brought to the lost and the least, and the truth and justice he brought to the corrupt and powerful. Our memory of Jesus is not simply one of a religious feast or liturgical action, it is one of love, forgiveness, humility, simplicity, openness, mercy, unity in diversity, sacrifice, friendship, and most of all, justice.

Because of this, taking part in the mystery of the Eucharist does bring to the present a moment in history, the Last Supper, and allows us to share in the once-for-all sacrifice of our God; but it does much more than that. Taking part in the Eucharist brings to the present the whole life and teaching of Jesus. How can we possibly celebrate the feast without remembering the person celebrating it?

When we remember the person of Jesus, we radically open ourselves up to a new experience of and response to the Eucharist. If what we are remembering when we take the precious body and blood is how Jesus “emptied himself” to become human, we are forced to ask ourselves how well we act with humility and grace. If we remember how Jesus showed mercy and forgiveness to sinners, we are forced to ask ourselves how well we forgive those who wrong us. If we remember how Jesus loved the poor and cared for the outcasts of society, making them his primary focus because no one else would, we are forced to ask ourselves how well we love the poor and outcasts of society and whether or not we are missing an opportunity to love someone unloved by anyone else. In every way, if we remember the person of Jesus, we will be forced to compare our lives with the life he lived, challenging us to grow closer to the one who wants nothing more than to be in perfect union with us.

Jesus says, “Do this in memory of me.” My prayer is that, the next time you receive the Eucharist, you will be flooded with the powerful memory of Jesus’ life and teachings, that it may be such a powerful experience of remembering the person of Jesus that all you can do is let him pour out of you for the whole world. That is the memory Jesus wants us to have, and that is the true thanksgiving meal we share with one another. Only when Eucharist transforms us in this way can be it called the “source and summit” of our life.

 

Franciscan Justice: A Life of Minority

A viewing of this 1984 movie kicked off our monthly JPIC fraternal gatherings.

A viewing of this 1984 movie kicked off our monthly JPIC fraternal gatherings.

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.

Withholding Judgment

Nobody, even Tina Fey, wears judgment well.

Nobody, even Tina Fey, wears judgment well.

“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” (Mt 7:1-2)

“Do not speak evil of one another, brothers. Whoever speaks evil of a brother or judges his brother speaks evil of the law and judges the law. If you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is to save or to destroy. Who then are you to judge your neighbor?” (Jas 4:11-12)

“Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things.” (Rom 2:1)

Passages such as these are easy to come by in the New Testament and secular culture alike. Find me a person who has never quoted, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” or “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” or “He who has not sinned cast the first stone.” It’s nearly impossible. The admonition against judging others is so pervasive in the New Testament that its practice would seem to be intrinsic to Christianity, and thus, the Western world.

And yet, I find myself judging others on a regular basis. I don’t believe that I am alone in this. As Christians, we are a people with high ideals regarding justice, morality, and faith. We believe that we should act a certain way, and that others should act a certain way toward us.  We believe that we hold the Truth, and that God is on our side. This may in fact be the case. Unfortunately, it does not resolve the issue at hand: what do we do when the world around us, or even the world within us, does not match the world we are hoping for?

I think that we are called to get to know the world.

The problem with judging others isn’t that we are incapable of knowing the Truth. While we may not know everything that is true, God has revealed to us at least some of it, and there are at least basic things that we can assert. The problem with judgment is that it is often done without true discernment, and it unnecessarily creates divisions in the human family. When we are quick to judge, we build resentment and ruin relationships.

The fact of the matter is that each and every one of us brings to every situation a lifetime of unique experiences that has formed our conclusions about the world. Undoubtedly, some of these conclusions will be misguided and distorted. But there is a difference between condemning our neighbor outright for a wrong conclusion and entering into a discussion to understand what may have led them there and in what ways they may actual bear the Truth in a light different from our own. To believe that we or anyone else is ever COMPLETELY right or wrong, that we are without sin or blemish, is preposterous. In this way, there is a true sense that if we are ever going to grasp what is the Truth, it is going to be something we do together, open to understanding even the most condemnable people around us.

Which brings me to a resolution I have for this year.  Recognizing the resentment and condemnation I build up in myself because of failed ideals, my goal for the year is to withhold judgment of my brothers and sisters, to live comfortably in the tension between asserting the Truth I have found and being open to my understanding of that Truth changing. I wish withhold judgment as long as possible, and even when I have come to certain conclusions, I wish to remain open to God’s grace in a new way. The Bible is filled with stories of unexpected people (dumb, lame, dirty, foreign, etc.) bearing the Truth for a whole people to hear, and yet I still find myself judging people prematurely, writing them off before I am able to know them, and ultimately cutting myself off from the grace God has worked through them. I guess in the end, I hope to withhold judgment from my brothers and sisters because I’m ever thankful that God has chosen to do the same for me. If I’m still growing, learning, and failing, it seems only fitting that I be able to recognize that in my neighbor.