HEREFORD, Arizona—The desert is a harsh place. Without warning, dry gullies can turn into raging currents after a rainstorm, even a rainstorm miles away.
Just last August. Bulmaro Garcia Guerrero moved through the desert seeking a better life. He moved stealthily, trying to avoid the border patrol, with their dogs and heat-seeking sensors. He moved quickly up the dry gully, stopping to listen to make sure the way was safe. Then, he heard what sounded at first like a good thing in the desert: water! But the noise kept getting louder. He turned to run and tried to climb out of the side of the gully when the waters reached him. Bulmaro was 32 years old when he drowned.
Despite a decrease in migrant crossings and Border Patrol apprehensions on the southern border, the number of bodies recovered from the desert remains high. Bulmaro was one of over 6000 men, women, and children who have lost their lives crossing the US-Mexico border in the 18 years of this century.
On August 19, a group of Franciscan friars, School Sisters of Notre Dame, and like-minded lay people from around the Arizona border town of Douglas, gathered to “plant a cross” near the spot where Bulmaro drown. The group did this, as they have so many times before, to ensure that those dying in the desert are remembered, not as cold statistics, but rather as the people they were.
In a ceremony composed of a mixture of Christian and indigenous religious customs, the group commemorated Bulmaro’s life and tragic death. They prayed for his family and those who miss him. They prayed for the hundreds who will die similarly lonely deaths this year. Before leaving, the group left gifts and mementos on the cross.
“The severe and unforgiving land here is responsible for the majority of these deaths. Most die from exposure, which includes heat stroke, dehydration, and hypothermia,” said volunteer Karen Fasimpaur. “Crossings are happening in more rural and rugged areas. We’ve done cross-plantings in every corner of the county.”
I’ve been a news junkie since the fourth grade, reading the daily newspaper Chicago’s American every afternoon after school, first because I liked the comics but later because I found other “comics” elsewhere in the paper. Later I learned that those other “comics” were actually political cartoons. This section of the paper was the editorial page, which I devoured. Some addictions actually do start when you are young.
I also started reading the Bible in the fourth grade, when Sister suggested we start with the Gospel according to Matthew. Sure, the Christmas story part was pretty familiar, but the stories about John the Baptist and Jesus in the desert seemed a little weird and hard to understand. Yet the stunning jolt in chapter five still gives me pause today as it did in 1967: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” From that time on I’ve been fascinated, indeed grasped by, the audacity of the preacher from Galilee.
The turmoil of the mid-1960s met the bold clarity of Jesus in the mind and heart of the little kid who ended up becoming the friar writing this now. Politics and religion, the two things Mom said we should never talk about in polite company, are still entwined passions. It’s amazing I still have friends.
A couple years before this personal epiphany, Time Magazine wrote the following tribute upon the retirement of one of the most famous Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Barth:
“Barth recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians to ‘take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’ Newspapers, he says, are so important that ‘I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church—in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him—either East or West. He should make it his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there peace on earth is implicit.’” (Time Magazine, May 31, 1963)
At that time the world was consumed by the danger of a polarized world, the East-West conflict between the Soviet Communist bloc and the United States. The hope that East and West could “live without a clash” seemed remote at best, if not impossible. Today we live in a world that is polarized again, although the fault lines are not as clear, and many wonder whether and how we can move forward in our Church and civil society “without a clash.” Perhaps it is still possible to disagree without necessarily questioning one’s intelligence, religious faith, or patriotism.
The word “politics” has taken on such a foul association with corruption and power that we forget the classical meaning from Greek and medieval Christian philosophy that considered politics as the means by which people seek out a common sense of meaning and make plans to attain the common good. As religious people, we believe God has given us in Jesus a clear sense of meaning and purpose, not just for ourselves but indeed for all people everywhere. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the Beatitudes are an essential foundation to that vision and that the Christian vocation demands we propose that way of life in the public forum. Millennia of the faithful witness of saints and martyrs attest it is possible.
Many of us are familiar with the phrase, “The longest distance is the path from the head to the heart.” It means that we need to be as aware of our emotions as we are about our ideas. Lately, it seems that many of us are moved neither from the head nor the heart, but from the gut – where reside anger and fear. In the United States, we are in the heat of another voting cycle. Though many people simply tune out, that is not an option for a serious Christian. Too many of us lurch instinctively from urges deep in the bowels, not thinking before speaking and hurting others. It seems critical thinking skills are as necessary as they are sparse.
In the next few weeks we are once again being called to our hearts — not to some mushy and sentimental place, but the origin of our deepest desires. Instead of asking ourselves what we are afraid of (the gut tells us that), or what ideas we find convincing (the head), we need to be clear about what we love. If our love leads us anywhere else besides the Gospel, then before we cast a ballot we should pray for the blessings of the Beatitudes
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