Well, somebody got the timing right: January 15 was designated by the OFM Franciscans of the English-speaking world as the annual Day of Prayer to End Racism. Landing on a Monday morning, I can only say, “Good timing!”
After the recent reporting of the president’s remarks about immigration, and the reaction from a variety of viewpoints, including political and religious leaders. The most honest of them branded our president as “racist” for remarks attributed to him and confirmed by those present.
It’s good to call out such remarks, no matter who voices them. But after the shock and repudiation of the president’s remarks wear off, there remains a deeper issue—systemic racism. And on the remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we have an opportunity to address that issue.
Some 25 years ago when I was helping to produce a video on Thomas Jefferson, race and slavery, one Southern historian we interviewed called slavery “the original sin” of America. That remark has stayed with me.
The historian was, of course, using the metaphor of “original sin” not in a theological sense, but to underscore how our country was born with racism as part of its fabric. I don’t know why white leaders–politicians or bishops or news commentators—shy away from this fact. If you were born into our culture, you are prone to that original sin. I speak here as someone from white society, of course, which is the only way I can. A black preacher would address this issue from a different point of view, perhaps.
The “original sin” of slavery means that racism touches each of us—black and white—who have grown up in this culture. It is possible that, on a given day, I might act in a racist manner myself. I have done so. I was taught to be racist by my grandmother, who warned me not to drink from a Coke bottle because “black people drank from it before you.” What else is a little boy to think?
“You’ve got to be carefully taught,” went the song in the musical South Pacific. And the society—white society—I was born into taught me to be a racist. But that doesn’t make me unredeemable. That was part of the message of hope brought to us by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He learned it in the Gospels. He declared:
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
And with Dr. King, we can profess: Thanks to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, I have a way out! Thanks to the Lord’s grace, working with many great teachers, black and white, who confronted me and mentored me over the years, I can choose not to act in a racist way.
That gives me hope for our present-day situation. What people were careful taught, can be “unlearned.”. That is the good news of our Scriptures. Hear again what St. Paul tells the Romans and us:
Therefore, sin must not reign over your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires. …. For sin is not to have any power over you, since you are not under the law but under grace.
If I can share the life of Jesus, which draws me out of death, out of deadly choices, I can choose life. This is what we pray for today. This is what we must preach, and this is how we must act.
The shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. (Luke 2:15-16)
At the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., where I live, over the last couple of weeks I have been privileged to help two friends of the Monastery, Roger and Marguerite Sullivan, on a special project. The Sullivans, over a number of years, have collected some 500 display their extensive collection of international nativity scenes. The couple both work in professions which require international travel. Roger brought a crèche back from a trip to Peru and that started the collection.
We’ve spent many hours installing the crèches in display cases in our Monastery’s tour lobby, where visitors come daily to see our church and its replicas of Holy Land shrines. Providing an interesting setting for nearly 150 of the Sullivans’ nativities—some very large, other no bigger than a thimble—has been a creative challenge. I’ve used yards of fabric, shaped Styrofoam with a heated carving tool, stacked plastic boxes, and carefully placed artificial greens and berries around each selection.
In the process, I’ve been forced to reflect on the varied ways people from around the world interpret the Christmas story. Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus are people of the color and culture of each country. The manger is surrounded, not only by oxen and donkey and sheep, but elephant, giraffes, and tigers. I especially was struck by the thoughtful expressions on figures from South America and the detailed costumes of the Asian figures. A modern crèche from the U.S. depicts the Magi on Segways, and Joseph taking a selfie of Jesus and Mary!
The story of God becoming an intimate part of the human story is a mystery which can never be fully exhausted in our meditation. And each Christmas we have the opportunity to take time to revisit it again as we assemble our home manger scenes.
In 2016, a writer-friend, Joe Kay, a journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio, recalled his experience of the setting up the crèche in an article entitled, “The Subversive Manger Scene.” Joe wrote: “The manger is not only a reminder that God is with us, but a challenge to live in a way that brings God more fully and radically into our world. The Christmas story is a subversive story. It erases those lines we draw between ourselves and others, and it turns our values and our ways of thinking upside-down.”
The great Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed in 1944 by the Nazis, wrote in a Christmas sermon, “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.…”
Allow yourself to be touched by the crèche in your home or in your parish church in both its beauty and challenge. May you find your place alongside the shepherds in the nativity scene this Christmas. And, as they did, make known to all what you have experienced about the newborn Child in the manger.
This past Tuesday, along with my Franciscan brother, Friar Benjamin Owusu, I have been accompanying a group of pilgrims in the Holy Land. As I have written in this feature recently, pilgrimage is a special experience—for some, it is life-changing. No one makes a pilgrimage without being affected in some way.
If you want one word to describe pilgrimage, it easily can be encounter:
with the land, the stones of memory related to our ancestors in the faith, and mostly importantly, Jesus himself;
with the Word of God as it is proclaimed there;
with the “living stones,” the people of the land;
and, finally, with each other—fellow pilgrims.
Through all these, we encounter God.
I think the Holy Land itself speaks most loudly—if not always the most clearly. Mountains, desert, water, vegetation, cities, ancient ruins, confront the pilgrim. The land forces the pilgrim to adjust.
Today, I walked with one of our group who was breathing heavily as we climbed “Tell es Sultan” in Jericho, the site of ancient Jericho. As we took deep breaths, he commented that he thought the desert would be flat—not hilly! Deserts, he told me later, were not his thing—“not even close!”
“The stones are emblematic of this land—part of the culture,” another pilgrim said. Of course, pilgrims are drawn to the “stones of memory,” the rock of Calvary, the Tomb of Jesus, and so many more. “Who am I,” a pilgrim marveled, “to touch these stones?” He felt humbled.
“It’s the common stuff that touches us,” another said—marveling on the simple fact that Jesus may have walked on the stones beneath us.
“They keep reminding us of Jesus,” one woman noted, much as things in our homes recall our loved ones.
At each holy place, we have read from the Scripture, most often the Gospel story. We try to evoke the memory of what Jesus said or did, on or near that spot. Our liturgies in each place mark the key events of salvation. “It brings you into the moment,” a pilgrim said.
Our pilgrims have met and interacted with the people of the Land. For some, it is their first encounter with Palestinian Christians, like the quiet, friendly man who drives our bus. They marvel at the various forms of dress among Orthodox Jews. On the first morning, the calls of the muezzin, from Jerusalem’s mosques at five a.m., awakened one of our pilgrims! Faith in God is expressed here in different ways among the three “Peoples of the Book.”
A member of our group bent down and kissed a woman in a wheelchair seated near the Anointing Stone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “How did you get here?” my pilgrim marveled to the woman, and a moment of encounter followed. “It’s Christ in us,” she recalled later. Another said, “It’s finding Christ in our fellow human beings.”
Finally, in getting to know each other, our pilgrims are also discovering the Lord. People who were previously strangers share their common experiences of discovery, of helping one another, of shared prayer. “They’re not strangers, one of my group said, “because they love Christ. It’s a deep connection.”
The discoveries of pilgrimage will continue, as we journey into Jordan and later next week, the Galilee. I am praying to allow God to reveal new surprises as we continue.
From Italy, I’m writing this Frate Venerdì—Friar Friday. Since Sept. 24, I’ve been a “nomad,” wandering a bit around Italy, taking some days of vacation before beginning a weeklong pilgrimage with students from Ohio and Indiana. Today they arrived, and with them, I am now a pilgrim.
It’s a good time to begin a pilgrimage. Franciscans all over the world celebrated the Feast of St. Francis this past week, remembering his death (The “Transitus”) on Oct. 3, and his birth into heaven the next day.
I was fortunate enough to join the friars of St. Isidore’s College in Rome. Founded centuries ago by a famous Franciscan scholar, it has served as a center for learning for Franciscans from around the world. The community there celebrated a beautiful service commemorating Francis’ death—by candlelight in their ancient chapel. The next day, we marked the Feast of St. Francis with a morning Mass, and two celebratory meals (two, because we are friars, after all!)
The reflection for the feast day was given by Friar Bill Short OFM, a Franciscan scholar from California, now residing in Rome. Bill called our attention to two images—mosaics—which grace a courtyard at St. Isidore’s, just off the chapel. One is of the San Damiano Cross, the other is of Francis receiving the Stigmata.
I’d like to share with you my understanding of what Bill said, although he spoke in Italian, and I was translating for myself, and may have missed a lot of his nuances! Basically, though, he invited us to imagine ourselves standing between these two images.
One, the San Damiano Cross, recalls Christ’s instruction the young Francis of Assisi: “Rebuild my house, which as you see is falling into ruins.” Francis sprang into action after hearing this message. He sold cloth and a horse belonging to his father and used the money to begin rebuilding the little church of San Damiano, which was crumbling around him. Later, Francis would see a different understanding of “rebuild,” applying it to the Church—at least as he interpreted a mission to preach the Gospel.
The other image, the Stigmata, is how we picture Francis at the center of a deep interior life, so open to God that Francis receives, bodily, the wounds of Jesus crucified in his hands, feet, and side. Bill spoke of “suffering” as a way of seeing this image—but for me, it also depicts how Francis was enabled by God to let go of nearly everything, and allow God to fill him with love. Such a love encompasses suffering, as it did in the great gift of Jesus on the cross.
Bill suggested that we friars live in between two poles—a life of activity, of mission, and an interior life, which embraces suffering, and love. (I’m paraphrasing and interpreting here, for sure—I know he said a lot more!) These two poles are for me part of my lifelong journey as a friar. Sometimes, I’m more focused on action, my ministry, the mission of the Order, or of a parish, or my local friar-community. At other times, I am drawn to the interior life. It is frequently a tension, occasionally a conflict (usually from my point of view, not God’s!) and at its best, a balance.
Could you also experience these two poles in your life as a Franciscan, a Christian, a believer? Action and contemplation, mission and mysticism, doing and being—people of all beliefs seem to move between one and the other. And I think that’s a healthy rhythm. The holy people whom I admire—of various religions, belief systems and simply life-choices—seem to get it right. The rest of us struggle from time to time.
As we Franciscans conclude this week of feasting, and as I begin my pilgrim’s walk to Assisi, I wish you peace in your mission in life, and patience on the interior journey of suffering and of love!
In two weeks, I’ll be leaving the U.S. for seven weeks of travel to Italy, Israel, and Jordan, with airport stopovers in Frankfurt and Munich, Germany. This long trip will conclude the busiest year of my life in international travel (I was in Pakistan and Italy early this year, and spent long hours in airport terminals in Dubai, Abu Dabi, Frankfurt, and London.) With air travel as it is today—whether you’re flying overseas or domestically—things can be unpredictable. On a recent round of travel, I was delayed in terminals by two airplanes with mechanical problems—on the ground, fortunately! Maybe that’s why none of the other friars want to fly with me!
As I prepare to depart for this trip, I recall a comparison the late Franciscan pilgrim guide Friar Roch Niemier OFM made between a pilgrim and a nomad. He used the two terms as metaphors for living as a Christian, at the of a pilgrimage in Italy 15 years ago,
A pilgrim, Friar Roch said, is someone who “goes to places that are holy [where] sacred characters [like Jesus or Saint Francis] stopped there in the past.” A pilgrim usually has a guide, who cares for the needs of the pilgrims, gets them safely to and from the holy places, and helps them get in touch with the stories of the holy men and women who were there.
In the next seven weeks, I will be such a guide for two groups—high school students from the US, and adults journeying to the Holy Land. Together, we will visit holy places in Rome, Assisi, and the Holy Land. These pilgrims will be in my care. I will try my best to tell the stories and lead them in prayer. As always, I trust that God will be at work in all of us as we travel together.
But being an actual pilgrim in the Holy Land or to other shrines may be a privilege something one has the chance to do once or twice in life. The rest of the time, Roch suggested, we are nomads. He described a nomad as one “who goes to unknown places for holiness, places that yet need to be made holy in the present or the future. The nomad has no guide, other than God.”
Roch concluded his reflection to us (who were pilgrims at that moment) with the injunction: “Be nomads! There’s so much work to be done to have the Kingdom of God come about….So much to be done!”
I am conscious that over the next seven weeks I will be a pilgrim guide, and I’ll also be something of a nomad before and after my pilgrimages. I have a couple of weeks off to visit in Italy, seeing friars, and my family there, as well as working in Jerusalem, researching stories for our magazine, The Holy Land Review. As a “nomad,” I’m certain that I will meet people along the way who will reveal the Kingdom to me, if I am attentive. Perhaps I will do the same for them.
I said above that being a pilgrim to those special sacred places is a rare privilege. But truly, our lives are made up of many small “pilgrimages” to the places sacred to us in our lives—our homes, our parishes, the circle of our families; there, we tell our own “sacred stories” and God speaks to us through them.
The rest of the time, we are “nomads” in the sense that Roch described. We’re “on our own” in the world, traveling to places which are not yet holy, where we can help the Kingdom of God to take root and flourish. It might be your college campus, work place—or even an airport terminal!