Don’t Forget About Me

A couple of weeks ago, I had to get to the St. Paul campus of St. Thomas University to speak at an evening program. As I knew my friend and colleague Mark Osler also had an evening event on that campus, I asked him for a ride. His response was “Sure, so long as I don’t forget.” To ensure that he didn’t, I grabbed a post-it, wrote a note on it, and stuck it on the outside of his door. When I pointed it out to Mark, he promptly moved it to the inside of the door, reasoning he was more likely to see it there.

Here is the note I wrote:

I was able to photograph it because two weeks later and the note is still on the inside of Mark’s office door. And he has decided to leave it there. It is a good reminder he says, and he is right.

Not a reminder to give me a ride – although it did serve that purpose the evening I wrote it. In the larger scheme of things, however, that was pretty unimportant; if Mark had forgotten me, I would have taken a shuttle door-to-door and been no worse for it (save losing some good conversation with Mark on the ride to St. Paul).

But a reminder that it is cold out there. And that there are many people who are homeless and lack a place to sleep at night. Or who lack warm enough clothing to keep out the cold winds. Or who have a place to sleep, but no heat in their building.

It is all too easy to forget about them. It is good to be reminded not to.

It is cold out there. Don’t forget about the people who need our help.


Please Support City House

As we approach year-end, I am writing to ask for you support for a non-profit organization on whose Board of Directors I sit – City House. I wrote about this entity about sixteen months ago, but I do so again in the hope that some of you are still looking for charities to support at this time of year.

The core mission of City House is spiritual conversation with people on the margins – including those experiencing poverty, addiction, and imprisonment. Trained volunteer Spiritual Companions meet one-on-one or in groups with participants at social service agency sites where they live or are receiving services. City House also offers a spiritual friendship program and leadership development for people in the mainstream who want to deepen their relationship with those experiencing life at the margins.

As most of you know, I have been a spiritual director and a retreat leader for a number of years. I have seen the difference it makes in people’s lives – people of all faiths and people of no faith – to have someone to whom they can tell their story, someone who will listen fully to them without judgment and with an open heart.

All the more important is this encounter to the people served by City House. In the words of the director of one of the social service agencies with which we work, “The social service system sees our tenants in terms of their deficits; City House does not do that. City House sees them for what they have to offer, for their innate spirit and for what they can give back to society. Sometimes this is the first time someone has seen them like that.” City House brings non-judgmental, compassionate listening to those who are feeling their brokenness, transmits wisdom across boundaries of culture and economic disparity, and connects people in the mainstream and margin. Among other things, this makes it part of the solution in a culture of polarized viewpoints and demographic segregation.

City House relies on volunteers for much of its work – including the service by its board members, who receive no compensation for our time. But running it does require funds for paying it small staff, conducting training of its listeners, and paying various costs associated with City House operation and the programs it sponsors.

Many of you have been reading my blog for a number of years and have written to me telling me how much you have benefitted from my posts and podcasts. Many of you have remotely participated in retreats I’ve given, using the prayer material and podcasts I freely make available. Despite repeated suggestions by friends and others that I offer online retreats for a fee, I have never and will never ask for anything for myself in connection with what I offer here and on my website. But, if you have benefitted from anything I’ve posted here, please prayerfully consider making a donation to City House.

You can make a donation on-line or by check. If you prefer an on-line donation, please visit the City House website and click on the Donate button at the bottom of the home page. Alternatively, you can send a check payable to City House and mail it to City House at 1730 New Brighton Blvd #253, Minneapolis MN 55413-1248. A donation in any size would make an enormous difference to the work we can do.

Thank you for considering this.

Protecting Widows and Orphans

This is an appeal for support for one of my students, Teri Guhl, who has a legal internship through the International Justice Mission (IJM) to work in Uganda this summer to end violence against widows and orphans.  As Teri explains,

When I came back to the U.S. [after visiting Uganda last summer], I began researching property grabbing and other international violence against women issues. This year, I have been a part of my law school’s Legal Services Immigration Clinic. I am representing a young girl who fled gang violence in Central America and is struggling to make a new life in the United States. The impunity for violent crime committed against young girls in her home country is so widespread; she is convinced she will be killed if she returns home. As I have worked on her case, I have thought many times that we need to not only assist people who come to the U.S., we need to empower local people to make communities, like hers, safer, so kids do not have to travel across the world just to survive. The impunity of violent men hurting vulnerable women must end. This year I have thought of this verse many times. “Learn to do right. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” -Isaiah 1:17 I want to go to Uganda to impact systems that allow for impunity, and to learn how to empower local leaders to create safe communities.

She gives as an example of the hardship she would like to help remedy this one:

When a male head of household dies, many families face violence through property grabbing. Since most rural widows’ livelihood depends on the food they grow in their garden, this violent crime not only costs the victim’s home and possessions, but their food and income as well. Now, I have been given the opportunity to be on the IJM team in Kampala who works to end this!

Those working with IJM must raise their own funds to cover travel and other expenses.  Teri has set up a gofund me site, which you can find here, to raise some of those funds.

I have already made a contribution and I hope you will also.

As regular readers of this blog know, I never have (and never will) ask for any compensation for myself in connection with this blog.  But I have (and will continue t0) occasionally bring opportunities dear to my heart to you.  Many of you read this blog regularly, hundreds receive it in their e-mail each day.  If even a significant number of regular readers made a small contribution (really, any amount helps, no matter how small), it would make an enormous difference to Teri’s ability to make a difference in Uganda this summer.

I would be grateful if you would prayerfully consider making a donation.

If you are looking for other worthwhile donation recipients, consider supporting City House (which I wrote about here) or the work of my friend Fr. Aidan Rooney in Bolivia (which you can support here).

Objects vs. Collaborators

Many things have been written in the aftermath of the racist chants by Oklahoma University fraternity members.  One of the most thoughtful pieces I have read was written by Rev. Dr. Maria Dixon Hall, who teaches at Southern Methodist University.  Critical of the way OU handled the situation, she suggests that the University missed an opportunity to use this incident as a teaching tool.  In her piece, she outlines four “teachable moments” that were missed.

While there are many points in her piece that I think worth thinking about in connection with this incident, what struck me most was a comment she made in discussing one of those teachable moments, a comment that makes an important point that has meaning beyond this particular context.

Describing racism as a “congenital heart condition”, she suggests that children learn lessons of bigotry in many ways, far more apparently benign than explicit racial slurs.  Among other things, she writes that “[y]oung white adults suffer myocardial infarctions of bigotry when their churches either ignore race by erasing it or frame people of color as ‘objects of mission’ rather than collaborators in the Great Commission.”

“Objects of mission” rather than “collaborators in the Great Commission.”  That is the description that really jumped out at me.  It is not just about how we frame people of color, but how we frame any marginalized individual or group we are trying to “help.”

Do we see them merely as object of mission?  Or do we see them as collaborators in the Great Commission  to proclaim God to the world?  Are they objects or subjects?

Asking that question invites us to think about how we are “helping” others.  For example, are we empowering them by treating them with respect and dignity and encouraging their growth?   Are we giving them a say in how they are helped or acting as though we know best?

You can think of other questions I am sure, but I the fundamental distinction between object of mission and collaborators is centrally important.

Charity and Evangelization

Yesterday morning I spoke at Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis on the subject of Charity and Evangelization. This was the first of a three-session series on Catholic Social Teaching and the New Evangelization that kicks off a new year of Adult Faith Formation at Lourdes.

My talk focused on two broad questions. First, what is the meaning of charity from a Catholic perspective? Second, how is Catholic charity related to evangelization?

Charity is not optional. As Pope Benedict said in his Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate, charity “is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine. Evangelization is no less central for Catholics, indeed, all Christians.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 35:54.

P.S. I now have about 170 podcasts on a variety of topics posted here on Creo en Dios! You can see them all listed on the podcast page here. You can also find them all on iTunes.

Remembering Frederic Ozanam

Today the Vincentian Family celebrates the feast of Blessed Frederis Ozanam and the bicentennial of his birth. Ozanam modeled himself after one of my great heroes, St. Vincent de Paul, and founded the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic lay organization dedicated to assisting those in need.

Ozanam understood the dual virtues of justice and charity, once observing that “[c]harity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveler who has been attacked. It is justice’s role to prevent the attack.” That understanding is reflected in his work. He put tremendous energy in to directly and personally serving the needs of the poor. And he was also a passionate supporter of workers and his ideas ultimately helped shape the first labor encyclical on the rights of workers, Rerum Novarum.

On the Vincentian charism is seeing Christ in the face of the poor, Ozanam wrote:

It we do not know how to love God as the saints did, it is because we see God with the eyes of faith alone, and faith is so weak. But the poor we see with the eyes of flesh. They are present. We can put our fingers and our hands into their wounds, the marks of the crown of thorns are plainly visible on their heads. There is no place for unbelief here … You poor are the visible image of the God whom we do not see, but whom we love in loving you.

Blessings to all of my friends in the worldwide Vincentian family on this feast day.

P.S. You can find a treasure trove of information about Ozanam on the famvin website here.

What Do We See In Others?

I just started reading Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.

In the introduction to the book, Brian raises the hypothetical question of how Jesus would react if approached by Moses, the Buddha or Mohammed. In answering it, he talks about the image of Jesus we get from the Gospels writing:

According to the four Gospels, Jesus had extraordinary insight into human character. He saw value where others saw only flaws. He saw the love of a sinful woman who anointed his feet with tears at a banquet, the spiritual thirst of an oft-married woman at a well in Samaria, the big seed of hope in a little chap named Zaccheus, the undeniable faith of a Syrophoenician mother, the flinty strength of loudmouth Peter, and the deep and spunky wisdom of Mary of Bethany.

How do we see others? With the same openness, generosity and compassion as Jesus?

Or do we only see what appears on the surface, judging others by the flimisiest of evidence?

Jesus’ example invites us to look deeply at others. To see what may be hidden at first glance.

And not only to see, but to nurture and respond to the seeds of love, spiritual thirst, hope, and strength we can find in others if we really look at them.

A Child Is More Important Than Boots

In a reflection I read the other day on Jesus’ comment to his disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, Peter Feldmeier, offered a challenge inspired by Peter Singer:

You just bought yourself a new pair os suede boots for $200 and you are walking by a pond where a toddler is drowning. You would not hesitate to dash into the water to save the child, even though this would ruin your boots. A child is more important than boots! Now consider the moment just before buying the boots, knowing that those $200 could feed a starving child. Do you buy the boots or do you give the money to a charity that feeds starving children?

The hypothetical raises a good question for our consideration. Why do we think differently about saving the drowning child than feeding starving children?

To be sure, the drowning child is right there in front of our face and the starving children are not. But we know they exist. We know that children die every day because they lack sufficient food or access to clean water or something as simple as a mosquito net.

There must be reasons we react differently to the two scenarios in the hypothetical. And some of those reasons may or may not be legitimate. But we won’t know that unless we ask ourselves the question. And I suspect we often fail to do even that.

Helping People Find Their Voices

In my mind, one of the most powerful moments in The King’s Speech occurs during a heated exchange between the prince who is about to become king (Colin Firth) and his speech teacher (Geoffrey Rush). The scene is very emotionally charged and at one point, the teacher asks why he should continue to waste his time listening to the prince. Interrupting the teacher in mid-sentence, the prince exclaims loudly, “Because I have a voice,” to which the other quietly responds, “Yes, you do.”

Yesterday morning, I attended Mass at St. Joan of Arc parish in Minneapolis. The Mass included a talk by Cathy Heying of St. Stephen’s Human Services, talking about the work of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. I found her talk very powerful at a number of levels.

The most powerful stories she told relate to what moved me in The King’s Speech – those in which the people her group has worked with discovered their voice. She spoke of one woman who went from not being able to speak with them unless a video camera pointed only at her hands and not her face to testifying on behalf of the continuation of General Assistance Medical Care in Minnesota. She spoke of another, a marginalized woman with untreated mental problems, who was instrumental in getting the news to cover the St. Stephen’s work. She commented at one point that it was the relationship developed with such people – a relationship of trust and respect – that allowed them to use their voice in a way one could not anticipate or expect.

One of the incidences of poverty we don’t tend to talk about is the lack or loss of voice of those who experience it. Everything tells them that they have nothing to contribute, that they have nothing to say…certainly not anything anyone would want to listen to. And so they stay silent…marginalized…at the fringes.

Charity is not enough. Feeding people so they don’t starve to death is great. Getting the homeless off the streets so they don’t freeze in winter is wonderful. But it is not enough. We need to think harder about how to help those without one to find their voice. To become meaningful members and participants in the community of which we are a part. And that requires forming relationships with people and finding ways to bring them into community.

So an important question to ask ourselves, as we continue to be generous in our charitable efforts, is how we do we help others find their voice?

P.S. Although I’ve framed this in terms of those in poverty, because I think the problem is tremendous there (and because our charitable efforts can sometimes blind us to the need to do more), there are other people who are marginalized by things other than poverty about whom we should ask the same question. How do we help them find their voices?

What We Demand of Ourselves

I was very troubled by something I heard a priest say in a sermon recently. He said that he decided to call some of the people in his community who were involved in charitable work of various kinds to ask them why they did what they did. As he recounted his question in the homily, it went, “Why do you do these things? After all, all you really have to do is show up in church on Sunday, so why do you do these other things.”

I’m going to give the priest the benefit of the doubt and believe that he didn’t really mean to convey by that statement the message that all people really have to do is show up at Mass once a week and they are covered. (In no version of the Bible that I have ever read did Jesus say, “Go to Mass once a week and you shall inherit the Kingdom.”) But I am concerned that some people might take that meaning from his words.

I am all in favor of expressing gratitude to people for the good words that they do. But it is too easy for people to think that charitable and other activities we engage in for the sake of our brothers and sisters are “extra credit projects,” things that are “above and beyond the call of duty.”

Jesus is quite clear that taking care of the least of our brothers and sisters is our duty. And in the parable of the servant in Luke’s Gospel that a servant it owed no special gratitude for doing that which he was commanded to do.

We need to be sure we are demanding enough of ourselves. The question is not why do some people do good works, but are we all doing as much as we can.