Celebrating Francis

Today is the feast day of one of my favorite saints, Saint. Francis of Assisi. Even during the years I practiced Buddhism, I felt a great affinity for Francis. I am not alone; this is a saint who is beloved by many, including the current Pope, who took Francis’ name.

In a talk I gave this past Monday night, at the first session of a monthly series on Christians mystics I am co-presenting at St. Catherine’s, I reflected on several elements of Francis’ spirituality.

One of the central elements of Francis’ spirituality was a life of poverty and concern for the marginalized. Francis looked at the Gospels and read:

“if you wish to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions, and give to the poor…and come, follow me.”

“Take nothing for your journey, neither staff nor knapsack, shoes nor money.”

“If any will come after me, let them renounce self, take up their cross and follow me.”

Francis read these lines and he took them seriously. For Francis, poverty was a way both of imitating Christ and of growing in love for his brothers. It was also a way of avoiding the temptation to sin that exists when one has property. In the words of Sister Ilia Delio

Just as Francis realized that God humbly bends over in love to embrace us in Jesus Christ, so too he realized that the suffering of humanity and all creation could only be lifted up through solidarity in love. Francis lived a poor, itinerant life but he wrote very little on poverty. What was important to him was to live—not without possessions—but without possessing (sine proprio). He was keenly aware of the human person as weak and fragile and thus prone to greed, selfishness and power. To be poor is to live without possessing anything that could prevent true human relatedness as a brother.

In a similar vein, Steven Clissold writes:

Francis passionately believed that the love of material possessions lay at the root of society’s ills and of man’s estrangement from his maker. Property implied the needs for arms with which to defend it, and led to the struggle for power and prestige and to the chronic warfare which was the scourge of his times.

We would do well to emulate this aspect of Francis’ spirtuality. His wisdom is as relevent today as it was in the 12th Century.

Note: I neglected to record the talk I gave on Francis last week. But for those who may be interested here is the prayer material I distributed to participants for their individual reflection during our session.

I’m Sorry For What I Said When I Was Hungry

A friend of mine posted a picture of a t shirt on Facebook yesterday that read: “I’m Sorry For What I Said When I Was Hungry.”

I recognize that the shirt’s message is intended as a joke, but underneath the joke is the, at least half-serious suggestion, that I ought to be excused for what I say when I haven’t been fed well. That others should understand that when our stomachs are growling, and we are distracted by our desire for food, we should be given some slack. It doesn’t express true sorrow, remorse or repentance, so much as offer an excuse for what we might say or do in the face of our hunger.

What makes it really a joke, in my mind, is that most of the people who would wear such a t-shirt or post a picture with its message are never really hungry the way people who can’t afford enough food are. By hungry we tend to mean, I didn’t get a chance to eat lunch so I’m feeling a bit peckish. Or, I’m dieting and so am a bit irritable because the yogurt or fruit I had for breakfast wore off a few hours ago. And so we exclaim, “I’m starving to death.” That is not the hunger of those who live in abject poverty.

The first thought that came to mind when I saw the picture of the t-shirt was: I wonder whether we would give the same slack to the poor. Do we forgive the homeless beggar on the corner who says something abrupt or rude to a passerby, recognizing his hunger means he is not at his best? You can substitute various versions of the question, but I fear they would all be answered the same.

And not in a way that is to our credit.

Helping the Homeless

I attended a presentation the other day by two representatives of Portico Interfaith Housing Collaborative, a group dedicated to ending homelessness in the Twin Cities. In addition to operating emergency shelters, they work hard at providing affordable housing alternatives for homeless and lower income persons.

Adele, the member of Christ the King’s Sowers of Justice group who introduced the speakers, began with a story that is worth sharing. She spoke of hearing a pastor who had long been involved in work on behalf of affordable housing explaining why he did what he did. He explained that his family had had a long tradition of visiting shelters on Christmas Eve, bringing gifts for the people staying there. They did this year after year, and doing so gave them all a good feeling. He continued the tradition into his adult life.

One year, however, he had a conversation with one of the woman at the shelter. She thanked him for the gifts, but then said, “It is well and good that you bring gifts here on Christmas Eve. But please remember that tomorrow morning, you will wake up in your warm bed, and I will still be homeless. And I will be homeless the day after that. And the day after that. I don’t need you to bring me Christmas gifts. What I need is for you to help me find some place that I can afford to live with my children. A home where I can raise my kids in a stable environment.” That conversation spurred him to realize he needed to do more than he had been doing.

Charity is important, and I certainly don’t want to discourage efforts to provide gifts and other forms of charitable donations to those who need. But charity alone is not enough. We need to do more than feed and provide temporary shelter to the homeless; we need to find a way to find them homes, to help them have some stability in their lives. We desperately need to find ways to promote affordable housing initiatives if we are to care adequately for the least among us.

Portico has some great projects. If you are in the Twin Cities and are not familiar with them, check out their website linked above. If you are elsewhere, check out what initiatives there may be in your area.

Wisdom of the Ages: Understanding Poverty

The final chapter of Rowan Williams’ Where God Happens, which I mentioned the other day, is a selection of sayings of the desert fathers and mothers put together by Laurence Freeman, who also wrote the introduction to the book. It is a wonderful collection of comments on important qualities including patience, modesty, humility, charity and discretion and offers a lot to reflect on.

One of the things Freeman talks about is the desert fathers’ and mothers’ understanding of poverty. The kind of voluntary poverty that is a virtue does not consist of merely depriving oneself of things. One can go without and be miserable about it, filled with a desire to possess.

The poverty that is a virtue is a freedom from material anxiety and the complications of ownership that allows one to “enjoy everything or be happy with nothing.” Poverty is not about what things one has or doesn’t have, but “of fundamental attitudes and nonpossessiveness.”

Developing a peacefulness of soul that seeks nothing takes a lot more work to develop than merely going without. And it is clear from Freeman’s discussion that the desert fathers and mothers understood 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?

The Stories of the Suffering People Around Us

Several weeks ago, a youtube video of a homeless man named Ted Williams with a “godgiven gift of voice” had an extraordinary result. The video quickly went viral and more than 3 million people watched it. As a result, Williams became an overnight sensation and, after an appearance on the Today Show, was offered numerous jobs.

Commenting on the impact of the video, an America editor writes in the current issues of that magazine:

It is admirable that Ameircans rush to respond to an individual’s need when they know his story. It is too bad the the millions of other hard-luck tales – of missed opportunities, fractured childhoods, substance abuse and mental illness – that tell the indiviudal stories ofthe nation’s poor and suffering people cannot likewise be uploaded to YouTube. Maybe if we knew the stories of more hurting people – even those who are not as talented as Mr. WIlliams – we would not dismiss our responsiblity to them so easily.

My first reaction when I read that was to think: OK, what can we do to put a face on the suffering people around us? To depict, in the words of the America piece, “the individual humanity of suffering people among us.”

But then I stepped back and thought about the comment again. Is it really admirable that we need to know someone’s story before we are willing to help them? That it takes something like the Williams youtube to rally us to action?

Jesus saw people in need and he helped them. He didn’t ask for a CV first. He didn’t need to hear their particulars. Why do we?

By all means, let’s put up more Youtube videos if that will generate the response the Williams video did. But it seems to me that it is also worth reflecting on why we need something like that to act. Why isn’t the suffering face of our brother or sister enough?

Appreciating our Bounty

I posted during the summer about my friend Joel’s trip to Nairobi with his family to do some work with Made in the Streets, a school for street and abandoned children. Joel made a presentation to us at lunch this week to talk about their experience and the work that they did. His wife and one of his children, his 10-year old son, Benjamin, joined us.

After Joel’s talk, I asked Benjamin what he felt was the most important thing he learned from his experience this summer. He thought for only a minute and said that he thinks the most important lesson is how people in America use or misuse what we have here. When I asked what he meant, he talked about how we deal with food. He observed that people in this country often sit down to a meal and, not being completely full after their first serving, get seconds. But, he said, he noticed that people often take too much “seconds,” and then think nothing about tossing away what they have no room to eat. Benjamin said that he saw so many children in the areas in which they travelled who often go a whole day without any food at all, that it seemed very horrible to him to be so wasteful.

As I told Benjamin, I had a very similar reaction after returning to the United States after living in Nepal, India and Thailand (and especially after visiting Sri Lanka, where intentionally maiming children to make them more effective beggars is not uncommon). When one becomes painfully aware of how many people in the world never have enough food to fill their bellies, it is very hard to watch how much food is wasted in this country. I told him I have the same reaction to water, after having lived in places where water is so scarce. That is also something Benjamin could easily identify with: One of the things he and his family saw this summer was how far children often have to walk to get water and how many people do not have access to clean drinking water.

I’m happy for my young friend Benjamin that he got a chance to experience what life is like for so many people in other parts of the world. Hopefully his sharing of his experiences will help others here to realize how blessed we are and encourage us to be more appreciative of the bounty that is ours.

Coincidentally, the evening of the day on which I spoke to Benjamin was Curriculum Night at my daughter’s high school. I was struck by the fact that in many of my daughter’s courses, there are two identical textbooks for each student – one for use at home and a second for use at school, so that the students don’t have to have the inconvenience of carrying the heavy books back and forth. In many poor communities, students either have no texts or are using incredibly outdated texts. I’m wondering how many of Elena’s classmates have any idea of the luxury they experience in having multiples copies of their texts. I’m guessing this is not something to which most of them give the slightest thought.

God’s Family and How We Deal with the Poor

One of the books I brought with me to read while on vacation is Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Becoming the Answer to Our Prayer: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals. (It is one of those books I flipped through when I first received and then put on my “to read” pile, where it promptly got buried.) I’ve written before about Claiborne’s earlier book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, which I thought was terific. If I had to pick one word to describe Claiborne’s books, I’d say challenging. He challenges us to not be satisfied with an easy, watered-down version of Christianity; he challenges us to form and live the kind of communities Christ intended.

Last night I was reading the authors’ reflection on the portion of the Lord’s Prayer that asks for our daily bread and was struck by how close the language was to language St. Vincent (for whom seeing Christ in the face of the poor was a central theme) might have used. After observing that throughout history, Christians have “recognized that we cannot pray “Our father” together on Sunday and deny bread to our brothers and sisters on Monday,” the authors talk about the difficulty of dealing with the hungry today – the fears and the guilt we experience, the difficulty of the compounding problems of drug addiction and mental illness. As a result, we address the problem by giving money to charities, who become that “brokers for our compassion for the poor.”

Charity, in the way we typically practice it – writing checks, certainly has its place (and it is surely better than nothing). However, as the authors observe

The problem with this is that we never get to know the poor. Though we have been made children of God together with them in Jesus Christ, we never sit down to eat with our hungry brothers and sisters. We never hear their stories. We never learn to see the world through their eyes. Many Christians are concerned about the breakdown of nuclear families (and rightly so), but we often just accept the breakdown of God’s family. We live like teenagers in a high school cafeteria – some of us eating at one table (our table), while others eat at another table (quite often, the soup kitchen’s table). What we miss is the gift of God’s new economy. And with it, our brothers and sisters on “the other side.”

It is a lot easier to simply write checks and be satisfied that we have done our part to help deal with poverty. But “deal with poverty” is different from bringing the poor into community with us. What Claiborne/Wilson-Hargrove suggest (and what Vincent sought) is a lot harder. The challenge for each of us is how we can contribute to the reunification of God’s family.

UPDATE: Someone added the following comment to my cross-posting of this post on nablomopo. What a great thought:

Last night my former sister in law challenged me to do something about a homeless women who sleeps on the bench of a local grocery store. In the past I would have given her money. I know that next to the store is a Wendy’s. I plan on getting her some gift card from there and making her a crochet neck pouch to put it in. Along with the gift cards I will put in a letter with some words of encouragement and maybe some info on help that she can get from some near by churches. Who knows maybe I’ll even make her a homemade sandwich and sit next to her. She is no different than me. Seeking solace on a bench just for a moment. Just for a moment she could be touched by the kindness of another human being. I will treat her with dignity when I see her.

What it Means to Have Friends

I was noticing how often my posts make reference to one or another of my friends; how frequently I refer to my friend John, my friend Maria, my friend Tim, my friend Aidan, my friend [fill in the blank]. I thought of how many times I share something one of them said to me, or gave me or introduced me to.

I thought of this in connection to the video currently being featured on the famvin website (maintained by my friend John). The video, a project of The Work of the People, is titled What is Poverty?

The speaker in the video begins by relating a question he asked a group of theologians: What is poverty? Their answers included things like lack of money and lack of housing, i.e., poverty defined in terms of lack of material goods.

He then asked the group this question: If you learned that you lost all of your savings, your house, your job, and everything you own, so that you are now homeless and have nothing, how much time do you think it would take you to find (a) something to eat? (b) a place to sleep? (c) something to do, some kind of job? Their answers were (a) minutes to find something to eat; (b) perhaps a couple of hours to find a place to sleep; (c) within a week to find work. Most of us would give similar answers, and we would do so because we are not poor.

In other words, he said, poverty is not simply about lack of material goods. It is about lack of relationships. Lack of friends. I could lose everything I have and not be poor, not experience what the poor experience. I have enough people I could call, could go to, who would help provide what I need.

And that tells us something important both about ourselves – about how blessed we are – and about how we need to think about addressing poverty. We need to do more than find some way to meet the material needs of others. We need to find ways to bring them into relationship with others, with ourselves.