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.
At this time of year, we hear of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt for asylum following King Herod’s decision to murder the Holy Innocents. We also remember a year filled with political rhetoric directed against refugees and migrants.
At the Christmas Mass which I attended this year, the celebrant presented a poem in his homily — a poem which presents a very different message when read top to bottom, as opposed to bottom to top. Here is that poem, in both versions, first top to bottom and then bottom to top:
They have no need of our help So do not tell me These haggard faces could belong to you or me Should life have dealt a different hand We need to see them for who they really are Chancers and scroungers Layabouts and loungers With bombs up their sleeves Cut-throats and thieves They are not Welcome here We should make them Go back to where they came from They cannot Share our food Share our homes Share our countries Instead let us Build a wall to keep them out It is not okay to say These are people just like us A place should only belong to those who are born there Do not be so stupid to think that The world can be looked at another way
The world can be looked at another way Do not be so stupid to think that A place should only belong to those who are born there These are people just like us It is not okay to say Build a wall to keep them out Instead let us Share our countries Share our homes Share our food They cannot Go back to where they came from We should make them Welcome here They are not Cut-throats and thieves With bombs up their sleeves Layabouts and loungers Chancers and scroungers We need to see them for who they really are Should life have dealt a different hand These haggard faces could belong to you or me So do not tell me They have no need of our help
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.
Evil was visited upon me and almost everyone I loved fifteen years ago today, Saturday noon on Dec. 7, 2002. A much-beloved friend, mentor, pastor, housemate and brother was murdered with a handgun wielded by an angry young student friar whose life was unraveling. The arson of the rectory could conceal the crime for barely more than a day before (former) Friar Dan confessed to shooting Friar Willy in the chest and setting the fire.
My own life is measured by that moment like B.C. and A.D. splits the calendar. “In an instant, in the blink of an eye.” (1 Cor. 15:52) Everything, truly everything looks different before that and after that.
Each year at this time of year, the events of 2002 unfold in current time. It starts at the Feast of Christ the King when Dan, a student friar in formation, first learned of his upcoming transfer from our amazing and challenging ministry in urban Cleveland at St. Stanislaus Church. The faithful at St. Stanislaus were deeply committed to their Church and in love with the Franciscans who had served there more than a century. Although the need for the transfer had begun months before, when it was clear that Dan’s awkwardness and temper had been disturbing to school families and others he had encountered, the end of November and early December were really hard on everyone — uniquely hard on Dan, to be sure, and soon for all of us.
It is still hard on lots of us. Perhaps in prison, Dan thinks about these days and weeks in the same way. Perhaps not. But what happened, happened.
Just before lunch on the last day of a friar meeting in Wisconsin, the news burst forth frantically with a breathless phone call from Cleveland. That urgent and tear-filled phone call brought me right back to Ohio: “The rectory is on fire. We can’t find Friar Willy. Please get back home as soon as you can!” There was a fire at the rectory — the massive 1913 friary adjacent an even more massive historic Gothic church in the heart of a working-class community. Announcements about the fire interrupted CYO basketball in the neighborhood, news crews were on the spot, and Bishop Pilla canceled his appointments to be with the community. Friar Willy wasn’t answering his cell phone, and there were rumors of a body being found.
While in the airport in Milwaukee ready to board the next flight to Cleveland, a phone call from the bishop confirmed it: “The fire is out, I am in the rectory, and this place you had called home is destroyed. Be ready for that. And there is more – there is a body, and it is Friar Willy. I am standing right here. I am so sorry.”
Each detail of each moment of those days is etched in my memory in a way no other event before or since. Fifteen years is like yesterday. “There are also many other things…” (Jn 21:25)
One clarifying moment turned the whole thing around. The next morning, Sunday, I opened the church in the very early hours after not sleeping at all. The walk through the dark, cold, wet, and scorched rectory on a frigid December morning was a walk through a dead place. The dim lights in the tranquil space revealed an early visitor who came to pray and who asked a simple loving question. “How are you? We are so worried about you.”
That night I hadn’t slept at all, tossing around my bed in my room on the guest floor of the convent as I remained stuck in the awareness: I have nothing. Everything I own has been burned in the fire, I even had to ask parishioners to buy me new clean underclothes to wear for the weekend Masses. Willy is gone. My ministry as it had been, is gone. Everyone I love is hurt and changed. So I told her this, and said, “I have nothing.”
And from the compassionate and tender heart of this angel came these transformative three words: “You have us.”
Yes. I had the People of God with me. I had my family, the Friars, my friends, the Church. And I had Jesus. So I had everything.
That’s when I became a Franciscan.
Oh, I had made my vows years before and been faithful to my promises. But at that moment I was suddenly aware of what St. Francis meant when he called his brothers to live sine proprio, without anything of one’s own. From that time on I became deeply aware of the cloud of grace and prayer surrounding all of us from all over the world. It didn’t change the situation at all, but it assured me that I was not alone. Christ was with us in our suffering – he cried with us, he held us, he walked with us, and over time he revealed the strength of his cross and resurrection: strength that is revealed in brokenness, strength given to those who suffer, the strength of hope to those tempted to despair. And that presence spoke with the Great Lakes accent of the people of a hard-working city that still won’t give up.
Later I learned that Dan was mostly angry with me, and likely the bullet that took Willy’s life had been meant for me had I been home to take it. So I live without fear, having dodged a probable bullet, though I sometimes wonder what that final moment was like for my good friend Friar Willy. As he breathed his last, knowing he was close to the end, was he mad? Confused? Sad? When my own time comes to cross that threshold, this is the first thing I want to ask God. Until then I have to believe that Willy forgave Dan and that somehow in the divine communication he sees everything clearly. Dan’s heart, my heart, our hearts.
That second Sunday in Advent fifteen years ago we were given an unexpected Lent. The cross was imposed upon the wreath. We were challenged to light the brightest light from within our darkest darkness. Fifteen years and two assignments later I am a pastor again, closer to family and old friends. St. Stanislaus in Cleveland has lost the Franciscans (another, different pain) but is still a beacon of hope in a community that hasn’t lost its fight. They know tough.
And I know hope. It is the conviction that somehow the future is already held by God, even though we cannot see its contours or beyond its horizon. Because on the weekend of evil, I was also visited by immeasurable grace. Because I have experienced Easter after Good Friday. Because I have seen the “Light of the world.” (Mt. 5:14) I pray for Dan, whom I have forgiven though I doubt I can advocate his parole. I pray for an end to violence. I struggle to understand the allure of handguns, knowing first hand what easy access can do to a man and to a community. And I pray that the Prince of Peace will reign over the hearts of all – starting with mine.
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.
“But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” (Mt 13:32-33)
The summer of 1967 was hard on a kid in Chicago. At nine years old, I was aware of world events in a way that was unusual for a kid that age. The civil disruptions associated with the anti-war and civil rights movements were not lost on me; our neighborhood was red-lined and I had cousins who were Chicago cops. Air was literally unbreathable, and swimming in Lake Michigan was, well, treacherous. The 1967 war in Israel (in the midst of the Cold war) was couched in apocalyptic terms that even a kid could intuit. And there was immense personal, family tragedy. So when the tornado sirens sounded for real within the city boundaries that summer and Mom hunkered us kids down in the southwest corner of the basement (where we were told it was safest) under the table that held my Lionel train, provisioned with a transistor radio, a loaf of Wonder Bread, candles, and rosaries – well, it seemed like the end could indeed be near. I mean, as in “The End.”
It didn’t help that Mom was muttering, “Well, that Old Man upstairs must be really mad about something!” I knew He (capital H, back in the day…) couldn’t be mad at me, or at my family. I mean, we were pretty good people. God must be mad at, like, everybody… as in, the whole world. Otherwise, why would everything seem to be collapsing around us? Why else would we feel so powerless over these genuinely scary things? Praying the rosary in the basement on Wabash Avenue was something, at least something, we could do. And even if those prayers couldn’t change God’s mind, maybe He’d look kindly upon our little-huddled family amid the mess and, well, watch out for us.
Fifty years later, and we still live in scary times. But the world did not end then, and it will probably not end now. In the interim plenty of scary (9-11) and also amazing (Chicago Cubs) things have happened. Certain Christian groups like to read the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation, as a literal foretelling of what will happen in the secular day-to-day world -– and (spoiler alert), according to them things don’t look so good. They see in the headlines certain proofs of an impending end, “The End.” And they have plenty of material to work with: war, terror, famine, drought, storms, earthquakes, floods, fires, riots. Now, that is scary stuff indeed! But not scarier than the summer of 1967. Or September of 2011. Or June 1944, August 1945. Or…
In the month of November, the church turns its gaze toward what is sometimes called “The Final Things.” Death, heaven, hell, purgatory (yes, we still believe in that), and The End. The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls lead the month off with a reminder that on the other side of the veil awaits the Mountain of the Lord of Hosts. We have all loved people who have crossed that river. Many of them are assured of eternal blessedness; many more we are unsure about.
Saint Francis said, “You are who you are before God, and no one else.” So we pray for them now as much as we did while they lived. Maybe we pray even more, that whatever might still be holding them back from surrendering to the mystery of God’s mercy might melt in the gaze of God’s infinite unfathomable love.
As Christians, we face the end – our personal end, and The End – not as a threat but as a fulfillment. When I die, my life project is complete. When creation ends, God’s project is complete. Completion, not destruction. Eternity, not end. The term paper is handed in, the job foreman signs off, done. And then, celebration! The dorm party, the beer at the corner bar. And for those who are in for the long haul, a banquet that never ends, a permanent party!
When Jesus talks about these things in the Gospels, we notice this: he seldom talks about what it is like on the other side; when he does, he describes it like a feast; and he redirects our attention to the here-and-now. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus says that he himself doesn’t even know when it will all happen. (So, how can the TV preachers know? Subject for another reflection…) So what should we do in the meantime? The Gospel instructions are simple: Be watchful and alert. Don’t be caught off guard, inattentive, asleep. In other words, LIVE!
The ancient traditions associated with Halloween have less to do with celebrating ghouls than with defying them and mocking them. Many cultures take a holiday on November 2, heading to family cemeteries to spend time with those who are beyond time. Lit candles on the graves of loved ones, or even of strangers, is a defiance of light against darkness. Flowers at graves are signs of brightness against darkness, life against death. A glass of tequila on Abuelo’s grave, or maybe vodka for Dziadek or schnapps for Opa, is an ironic toss of spirit toward spirit that says to the Netherworld, “You do not have the last word here!”
So as we all lurch through another tumultuous moment in our personal and collective histories, uncertain of our future and unclear about the present moment, let’s open ourselves to those moments, however fleeting, that breathe life and light into the darkness that tempts us with despair and capitulation to that which is unworthy of our surrender. Because fifty years after that tornado tore through Chicago and the Holy Land erupted along with our own city streets, I am still here. Writing to you, praying to God, and remembering my Mom who now knows that the Old Man upstairs is not really very angry after all.