O my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Lead all souls into heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.
The Lincoln Highway was the first roadway to cross the United States. Dedicated in October 1913, it ran between Times Square in New York City and Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Originally over 3,300 miles long, subsequent deviations eventually led it to span Atlantic City, N.J., in the east and Astoria, Oregon, in the west. Later most of the road became designated as US Route 30, and some parts of the route became Interstate 80. Much like the fabled Route 66, which was officially removed from the US highway system in 1985, a drive along the Lincoln Highway is to be impaled through layers of US history like being drilled through rings of a tree trunk.
On a recent driving vacation, I picked up Route 30 in Canton, Ohio, and headed east into Pennsylvania, abandoning the immense flatness of the Midwest and into the Allegheny Mountains through which European coastal folk labored before coming upon the plains that could only be called great. The straight flat eastbound road suddenly becomes winding and often slow, grasses are replaced with slender trees redolent of sweet cool pine, and little historical surprises leap from around corners – small old churches, clapboard or deep red brick; town squares with gabled county seats surrounded by law offices and bail bondsmen; abandoned rail crossings whose adjacent former terminals turned into brewpubs or flea markets; villages-become-towns built where the turn in the stream follows the edge of the mountain, and old couches on porches outnumber wheel-less rusting cars on the lawns.
Historical markers abound. (In Settler-X-town) “Here was where Settler-X, tired of the journey west, met a bride and settled to build a forge and raise a family. Having prospered with the railroads, Settler-X-town came upon its decline with the advent of the Interstate Highway system.” Or something like that. But just east of Pittsburgh a surprisingly new and deliberate marker leaps out, a reminder that history is not just from the 1700s and tri-corner hats. “Flight 93 National Memorial.” Yep. That flight 93.
A hard right turn off Route 30 in rural western Pennsylvania near Shanksville is a path quite different from Ground Zero in Manhattan and the Pentagon near D.C. The events of 9-11 were not only urban and proximate, they were also rural and remote. No subway takes you near there; you seek it out just for its own sake, or you stumble upon it. But there is nothing like it, near it. One goes there to be there, and only there, and not because it is close to a zillion other things to check out while you are there anyway.
We know the story (there was a movie) about flight UA93 from Newark to San Francisco: how it was hijacked westbound near the Pennsylvania/Ohio state line about a half hour after the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York; how it banked radically east after passing Cleveland and dropped off radar; how some passengers, learning of the New York attacks, rushed the cockpit to subdue the hijackers and ditch the plane so that another unknown target might be spared; how the plane crashed in the remoteness of the mountains of southeastern Pennsylvania, instantly killing all aboard.
In Manhattan, sirens and traffic compete for one’s ear while entering the sanctuary of the site made holy by the death of thousands when the stricken World Trade Center collapsed – among whom was a beloved Franciscan brother, fire department chaplain Friar Mychal Judge OFM. But in Shanksville, there is no such competition for attention. Acres of wildflowers have overtaken the broad field not skitted along haphazardly but pierced deeply by a plummeting jet that dove straight into the rolling hills. Birds chirp and play, butterflies dance in the wind, breezes bend the grasses, even the few human whispers seem to float away. Nature has its way when left undisturbed.
Yet, it was disturbed. Nature was deeply disturbed.
Yes, the natural mountains had long been disturbed by the coal strip-mining that had denuded the landscape, prompting the government to mandate years ago the beginning of its restoration by the filling of its open sores, hoping that nature would restore what had been broken. Much is on its way. Perhaps a million years will complete the healing. And in this place, we seek not only the healing of nature abused by human greed but also the healing of seemingly everything abused by whatever is dark in the human soul.
These kinds of memorial sites can tend toward the macabre. Where exactly did this or that truly happen? What are the details? Which direction did the plane bank? Where did it hit? Where were the bodies? But there is also something ancient in wanting to remember details like this – the tea was thrown into this harbor; the battle was fought on this field; Saint Francis rebuilt this chapel; Jesus died on the cross on this hill.
And on this leisurely summer vacation drive, I am standing at this same place. Not then, but now.
The line of flight from the sky into the dark soft earth is marked by a cut in the new concrete walls that wrap the hills edging the valley of martyrdom. The “impact site” left behind the jet that hurdled at 536 mph nearly perpendicularly into the earth has long been cleared of debris, the largest of which measured only a few square feet. The original site had been marked only by the clear imprint of a jet plane as if a ghost had blasted an image upon crops or a wild field. Now, there is merely a field wildly reoccupied by grasses, flowers, and butterflies.
And a rock. A boulder, actually, a 17-ton boulder placed at the site where instant death of global importance happened in the middle of nowhere. The final site of one of the most complicated pieces of human design is marked by a simple rock. Busses of tourists disembark seeking one thing, and only one thing – Have you seen the rock? Nobody can leave until they have seen it. “There it is, Honey! Out there! See it? OK, now we can go back…” This boulder is an altar, the place where heaven and earth come together, where the mystery of God and the human mystery of self-sacrifice meet in an eternal silent embrace.
Instinctively I fingered at the rosary in my pocket as if it had called out to me for its grasp. What to do here but to pray the rhythmic and anonymous beads clutched nearly out of sight of passers-by? The challenge of which mysteries to pray here (Glorious) gave way to the stunning audacity of the prayer at the end of each mystery:
O my Jesus – Yes, all I can do is to sigh and call upon you, Jesus.
Forgive us our sins – Yes, I, too, am a sinner and I add to the sinfulness of the world.
Lead all souls into Heaven – Yes, I truly want all people to know your loving mercy.
Especially those most in need of Thy mercy – Wait a minute!
You mean, those? Lord, you cannot mean the terrorists on that plane? Can they be the ones most in need of Thy mercy? Am I actually right now praying for those guys, at this place? Is this what you mean by praying for our enemies? If I am praying for these guys, who else am I praying for, who might be most in need of Thy mercy? Racists? Abusers? Nazis? Yes, these, and more.
The most devotional of prayers, the rosary, challenges us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. One cannot clutch beads without bringing into prayer precisely those who we are least inclined to pray for. Reviewing the highway and pathways of our lives will reveal to us precisely those whom we need to lift into prayer, hoping and longing for the day when all will be reconciled with the God who brought everything into being.
I first heard stories about the Navajo Missions way back during my seminary days in the 1980s. The late Friar Peter Paul James, a friar Cincinnati, Ohio, who was a long-time missionary in the Philippines and seminary professor, shared with us about the Navajos in some of our classes with him. I don’t think he was assigned in the Reservation but most likely he made some visits to the place that evidently made lasting and significant impressions on him. This was shown by the enthusiasm and passion he exuded whenever he shared about the Navajo missions to us, young aspirants, then.
Fast forward four decades, I was already a provincial counselor when our provincial minister, Friar Baltazar Obico OFM, informed us in one of our council meetings about the request from Our Lady of Guadalupe Province of Southwest USA, thru its provincial minister, Friar Gino Correa OFM, for our friars to work in the OLG province, especially in the Navajo Missions, among others (e.g. the pueblos and/or Filipino ministry). All of us, provincial counselors, are Friar Peter Paul’s former students and the mere mention of the word “Navajo” brought back all those memories of our former mentor’s stories. The chance of accepting the offer was rather high. In no time, the council already approved the sending off of two friars from our province: Friars Florecito Pabatao, Jr. OFM (a.k.a “PJ”) in 2011 and me in 2013.
The Navajo Tribe is the second largest Native American group (first are the Cherokees) in the US. There are about 350,000 Navajos who live in the Reservation and a good number them dispersed in other states like California, Colorado, Oklahoma and Nevada, and some major cities like Albuquerque, Phoenix, Flagstaff, Salt Lake. The term “Navajo” was given to them by the Spanish-Mexican settlers in the 1600’s although the people really refer themselves as the “Diné” (pronounced as ‘dee-néh’) which means people and their traditional land as “Dinétah”. The Navajo tribal government is autonomous and the territory it covers is called the “Navajo Nation” or “Reservation” although the US Federal exerts plenary power over all decisions. They elect their own executive leaders like the president and council and have their own legislative and judicial branches. Navajo is the major language although most of them speak English. The Navajo language was taught and handed down orally in the past. It was the Franciscan missionary pioneer Friar Berard Haile OFM who first codified the language.
The Navajo Nation covers a land area of almost 150,000 acres that extend to the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah in the Southwest of the US. It is the largest reservation in the US. The Navajo culture is very rich, and their tradition is still very much alive, although the influence of western (American) culture is gradually creeping in and threatening their unique and colorful expressions into possible extinction. Many young Navajos today are not even fluent in the Navajo Language.
Missionary Work Among the Navajos
Although I had already heard stories about the Navajo Missions in the past, coming to this part of the world was really a “duc in altum” for myself as I was “put out into the depth”, not of the ocean (no such body of water here!!), but of a not-so-familiar territory that is utterly different from where I am coming from: the high altitude as against the low sea coastlands where our towns & cities are mostly situated in the Philippines, the very dry climate contrasted with the high humidity, the cold winter/snow set against the all-year-round summer weather, the dust storms versus the tropical typhoons, and the wide open spaces here as against the demographically dense parishes back home.
My assigned ministries in the Reservation are also a far cry from the communities that I used to serve at home. There are much fewer churchgoers here compared to the pretty crowded Mass celebrations back home. Sunday masses are celebrated with only 5 to 10 people in Round Rock, the 20 or so in Many Farms and the 30 to 40 warm bodies in Lukachukai and Piñon. Our parish churches in Chinle and St. Michaels have much bigger congregations on the weekends but it still cannot be compared to the standing-room-only celebrations we have in the Philippines. It is also not uncommon that you barely hear the congregation sing and say the responses during the Mass. There are more funerals for the deceased than infants being baptized, and rarely do we have couples getting married in the church.
The Navajo language (Diné Bizaad) is one tough nut to crack. But there are some Navajo words that are somewhat similar to our Filipino language, like: ‘yes’ is ‘aoo’ in Navajo while it is ‘oo’ in Filipino, ‘salt’ is ‘ashiih’ in Navajo and ‘asin’ in Filipino, ‘cat’ is ‘masa’ (Navajo) while ‘musang’ is wildcat in Filipino, and ‘I don’t know’ is ‘hwola’ in colloquial Navajo and ‘wala’ in Filipino is ‘none or nothing’ or could also be used to mean ‘I know nothing’.
Am I less excited or do I get bored in doing missions here? Or, am I just wasting my precious energy, time and talent being here? My response is: Not at all! I am very much aware that five centuries of Catholic Christianity have taken a much deeper root in the Philippines compared to the just century-old Catholic church in the Reservation. But that should never be seen as a feather in my cap. I would rather think that it should, in fact, motivate me more to roll up my sleeves and work harder. St. John Paul II’s encyclical, “Duc in altum,” makes more sense and relevance in this kind of setting.
New evangelization which is the theme of the papal encyclical, is indeed at work here. And it is what makes the missions more exciting and challenging. I believe that the first missionary friars who arrived in the Reservation in 1898: Friars Anselm, Leopold and Placidus and the others who followed thereafter, felt and thought that way too, despite finding out later how tough and difficult the mission was because “there was really no house to live in” and “the Navajos speak no English”. I try to convince myself that applying the most salient points I learned in Missiology and Franciscan ‘ratio missionis’ will, for a great part, do the work.
It has been almost five years now that I have been in my ministry with the Navajos, but I consider myself still in the learning stage. I have to know a lot more about their culture, traditional spirituality and piety, and hopefully, in the long run, their language. The Diné culture is rich and the people are very friendly and peace-loving.
To be able to appreciate the nuances of their cultural heritage is for me to begin to claim it as my own as well. It is not in a sense that I must always have ‘corn mush’, ‘navajo tea’, ‘fry bread’ and ‘mutton stew’ as my daily treat, or participate in the Navajo Dances or ‘pow wows’ or in the ‘kinaalda’, a ceremony of passage to puberty, but in the sense that I am able to enter their world while taking the Divine Word with me in my journey. There is still much to do in the Navajo Mission and we, Franciscans, here can accomplish just as much. I am convinced, ‘though, that this is the right place where the Franciscan ‘missio inter gentes’ is still very much needed.
In my experience, invoking the meekness and humility of our founder St. Francis, through the lens of a privileged dominant group, have advertently or inadvertently undermined the struggles of people of color in reconciling conflicts with our White brothers (and sisters) in religious life.
Three decades have passed since Peggy McIntosh wrote “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through the Work in Women’s Studies” in 1988. Salient among her insights is the conflict ignited by the dissonance she describes among White people where a White Supremacist can be nice and kind and yet embody a belief system where only White people make knowledge.
This is a dilemma for us people of color. Often I am asked, “Do you really think that White friars are evil for being ‘clumsy’ in their language or micro-aggressions?” This is a wrong question to which people of color in the Church are under no obligation to respond. This locates me in a place of deficiency because it privileges white sensitivity over my experience of marginalization, which is already micro-aggression. How can there be reconciliation in such questioning when it structurally falsifies what truly creates the language of “us-versus-them”?
This is why McIntosh asserts that a White person can be both nice and oppressive (Rothman, 2014).
Rather, a person of color must ask, “Who am I to reject my dignity and bend to such questioning as if my experience of exclusion never mattered from the very beginning?” This is where I often face resistance, defensiveness and a demand for an apology, which I cannot honestly offer. More importantly, this is where I intentionally heighten my consciousness so that I do not internalize this manner of oppression towards others and myself. When I do, I usually shame those who shame me. It is self-sabotage and wrong.
The meekness and humility of our Brother Francis cannot negate the experience and dignity of those who are marginalized. We must restore what they truly mean to Francis — nakedness before God, in which all that we are is illumined by the indiscriminate, relentless, and merciful love of God. It is but just that our contemplation according to Thomas Keating yields to an “awareness of our own biases, prejudices, and self-centered programs for happiness, especially when they trample on other people’s rights and needs”.
For further reading
Keating, T. (1999). The human condition: contemplation and transformation. New York, NY: Paulist Press
We moved a lot when I was a child. I was born in Boston, but we quickly moved to Marblehead, Mass. When I was three, we moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., and when I was six we moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. Looking back on my life, I was incredibly fortunate to have been in an environment of a mixture of diverse peoples that is Hawaii at such a formative age.
I do remember moving to Virginia when I was nine-years-old and being confused by the antipathy shown to African-Americans there.
The Northern Virginia to which we moved in 1963 had raw, blatant, state-sponsored discrimination. It was still against the law for whites and blacks to marry one another! (The supreme court case which forever ended anti-miscegenation laws, Loving v. Virginia, wasn’t handed down until 1967.)
Childhood can be a confusing time. Those who attended grade school in the states will recall the confusing taunt of “You’ve got cooties.” We didn’t have any idea about what cooties were, but we knew that we didn’t want them.
In my grade school, I remember a similar taunt, “You’re a n*igger lover.” I can remember being as confused with this taunt as I was with the cooties one. As an adult, I now know that racism has to be learned. This taunt was simply how racism was being taught to and reinforced among the young, the next would-be generation of racists.
Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of races. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights. It mocks the words of Jesus: “Treat others the way you would have them treat you.” Indeed, racism is more than a disregard for the words of Jesus; it is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.
Unfortunately, almost 40 years later, we haven’t moved very far. The march in Charlottesville, the flood of YouTube videos showing the oppression in which people of color suffer daily, the remarks by the president about “sh*thole countries,” the exclusion of people from Muslim countries (recalling the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act), the suffering inflicted upon those fleeing violence and seeking asylum are all reminders that America’s original sin, racism, is still alive and growing stronger.
I urge you to reflect on how the bishops ended of their pastoral letter:
There must be no turning back along the road of justice, no sighing for bygone times of privilege, no nostalgia for simple solutions from another age. For we are children of the age to come, when the first shall be last and the last shall be first, when blessed are they who serve Christ the Lord in all His brothers and sisters, especially those who are poor and suffer injustice.
And, finally, just because we need to laugh, a Friday piece of humor:
My parish in Gallup, New Mexico is composed of two hospitals (County & Indian), three nursing homes and hospice patients living at home. These are my “parishioners” as a hospital chaplain.
The first thing I notice when someone comes into the hospital is one of two reactions: Either, “I’m in trouble and I need God’s help,” or, “Why is God punishing me?” It is the Chaplain’s ministry to find out where each person is at in their life right now, to acknowledge how they feel, and to gently lead them to see where God is in this situation. That is not always an easy task, but with the Lord’s help, it can be done.
Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There is a lot of wasted suffering in hospitals.” By this, he was referring to redemptive suffering. We try to alleviate all suffering in the hospital, nursing homes and with hospice patients. But sometimes we can’t. Here the chaplain needs to encourage the suffering person to unite their suffering with Christ’s suffering on the Cross. When they do that, their suffering becomes a powerful blessing for themselves, their family and the entire world.
I started out in hospital ministry at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2003. This was no small-town institution, and it included a trauma unit where I was regularly called on at all hours of the day and night. Comforting and ministering to patients with extreme injuries – and often their deaths – can take a heavy toll on a priest. But fortunately, I have a personality that can come into a crisis situation and just try to sense what’s going on and not panic myself.
All chaplains are affected in one way or another. There was a young mother with two little children. She had a virus that went to her brain. I went into the hospital room and administered her the Anointing of the Sick. I was asked to pray the Rosary for her. While praying I said to the Lord, “Let me suffer and let her get better.” She ended up dying. I remember going home and just started crying. So, you get affected by it no matter who you are.
To accompany someone in their suffering means to be empathetic to their suffering, like St. Paul says in Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” What a privilege it is as a hospital chaplain to bring Christ presence to those who are suffering and vulnerable!
The Rule of St. Francis, and the Declaration of Independence
Twenty-five years ago I was blessed by an unrepeatable adventure in Franciscan life: to help grow the new Franciscan presence at the United Nations by developing interest among Franciscan Friars around the world. What was at that time a budding dream, Franciscans International, has since become a well-respected presence among non-governmental organizations at the United Nations. But in those early years, there was concern that the initiative, which had a decidedly North American and Western European beginning, needed to embrace the worldwide Franciscan movement more deliberately. I had been ordained only two years prior; but my previous work in the planning phase, plus a Master’s degree and thesis on the topic, led to my being asked to take on this next phase.
The next three years were the most thrilling of my vocation! Almost everywhere I went, friars were intrigued and excited about the idea of advocating for the poor, for peace, and for the care of our creation within the halls of the one place where literally the whole world was somehow present. Of course, for me that meant a lot of travel – sometimes months at a time living out of a simple suitcase (which I still use!) crossing two or three continents at a time. Over the three-year assignment, I worked in 28 countries, always staying with friars who frequently lived among some truly poor people. The courageous example of the friars, especially those living close to people who struggled with the immediate effects of war and extreme poverty, is among the most deeply impressive things I have ever witnessed.
And with all that travel came the frequent experience of borders. National borders. The world was much different then – the Soviet Union had just left Central Europe, there was no Euro, Britain still possessed Hong Kong, and the US had no embassy in Vietnam. So I’ve crossed many different kinds of borders. Some crossings were as easy as barely waking up in the train crossing from Italy into Switzerland, groggily flashing a passport to a bored agent. Some were frightening, like the barbed wire and landmines still crossing the farm fields separating Austria and Slovakia, the swaying golden wheat completely uninterested in passports and visas. Stepping into Vietnam — only twenty years after the US left Saigon, nineteen years after I graduated high school, and still without US diplomatic relations – was singularly other-worldly. Crossing briefly into North Korea (yes, that North Korea) involved a trip to and through the DMZ, which is the most heavily fortified territory in the world; stepping into the “Truce Village of Panmunjom” where a small rectangular building straddled both sides of the border; walking around a simple wooden conference table where, on the “other side” a phalanx of uniformed soldiers beyond the windows snapped photos of our every move.
There were other borders as well, not defined by treaty or marked by war, but nonetheless just as real. There was a train track that separated the apartments of Mumbai (then, Bombay) from one of its largest slums, a slum where thousands lived in huts among pathways defined by open sewers. Airport customs lines entering countries of brown-skinned people had two kinds of lines: one for fellow brown-skinned people, whose baggage was searched beyond humiliation; and one for white businessmen (like me) who were whisked through with barely a glance. Basilicas have sacristies open to friar-priests but not to the laity. Old Jerusalem has streets set aside for Jews, Muslims, Armenians, Orthodox, and Catholics – and neighborhoods in cities like Chicago or Cleveland (or Mostar during the Balkan war) have streets that, if crossed, get you marked for gunfire.
So, I know borders.
Yet there is something about a border that is simultaneously forbidding and inviting. You know you are not from the other side, but you just wonder what might be there. Saint Francis of Assisi had this fluid relationship with borders. Unwilling to be confined to monastic walls, he sent his brothers in small groups wherever the Spirit would lead them – often with mixed results. Crossing the Alps from Italian to German-speaking lands got some friars in trouble with locals who thought they were heretics. Though their first foray into Islam led to martyrdom, yet later for Francis, it was an introduction to a most unusual friendship with a sultan during the Crusades. Indeed, the entire “world was his cloister” where the Order had extended from Italy and France to the British Isles, Slavic countries, Germania, the north African coast, and Palestine by the time Francis died.
Saint Francis also knew the other borders that were unofficial but ever so real. He was a rich kid who chose poverty; he came from an established family and chose to be a wanderer. He fed lepers and welcomed women into his new movement. He built a bridge between the mayor and the bishop, and he wouldn’t let his disabilities impede composing the first lyrical poem in the Italian Renaissance.
So, Saint Francis knew borders.
Maybe that is why he included for his friars this description in his Rule of Life from 1223: “As pilgrims and strangers in this world, let (the brothers) go seeking alms with confidence, and they should not be ashamed because, for our sakes, the Lord made Himself poor in this world.” The call to be pilgrims and strangers in this world led to Franciscan Friars accompanying Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to what he thought to be a new world. My first mentor in the Order, a long-time missionary in the Philippines, said to me while I was a much younger friar student, “Where is home for a friar? Everywhere, and nowhere.” Indeed.
For the next week in the United States, we will be celebrating Independence Day. As we prepare for the cookouts, the travel and the parades for the Fourth this year, borders (namely, our own national ones) are very much on the minds of just about anyone who has a TV or a smartphone. In addition to the official territorial borders, let’s also remember the many unofficial but deeply real personal, economic, cultural, racial, religious, and sexual borders as well. On this day when we celebrate one of our foundational documents as a nation, it is worth reading the whole Declaration of Independence.
Perhaps the lines we learned in eighth-grade civics class are still deep inside our heads: “When in the course of human events…” “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Etc. But the better part of the document lists the various explicit grievances that gave rise to the founding fathers taking this extraordinary step to which they would “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Would you be surprised to know that two of the references were to their status as immigrants? One of the grievances against the king was his “Obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners.” And in another place, “We have reminded them (our British brethren) of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.” Yep, there it is. In the Declaration of Independence.
Until I take my last breath I will be grateful for the brotherhood that entrusted me with a unique mission to the world while I was still young and untested. Likewise, I am grateful to have been born in a country whose passport was, and so far still is, respected in every corner of the known world. International travel opens new horizons, challenges one’s view of one’s own country, and leads to a renewed and wiser love of one’s home. My country assured my safe passage literally around the world; my brotherhood let me embrace my wanderlust so that I could cross the unofficial human borders as well. The passport let me see the world, the brotherhood helped me to love it. Reasonable people exercising their best prudential judgment can disagree about particularities of immigration law. But no one who goes by the name Christian, let alone Franciscan, can allow themselves to be led to find an enemy in every face that looks at borders and longs for what is on the other side – especially when our side is life and peace, and their side is death and despair.
On this, our Christian tradition and true patriotism are not opposed at all.