I didn't think traveling to Assisi with a Franciscan pilgrimage group would be that much of a challenge to this wizened woman. Afterall, I tutor theology. I've studied various religions and have mostly been faithful to Catholicism. So this journey felt easy. But I didn't expect to discover deeper roots to land, and Francis, and ultimately to find an affinity to St. Clare.
In the coming weeks, I will post insights and pictures from the trip. It's been two months since I left the Italian countryside, headed to Germany for a private adventure, and then returned to my home, changed.
In 1998 I was awarded a scholarship by the Catholic's Women's Council of Cincinnati. It was a one-time scholarship that gave me the courage to seek knowledge in ways I never could have while living in the oppression of poverty and domestic violence.
Thinking back to the years preceding that award I realize that the chains of poverty that had gripped my family were coming unloosed. During the early 1990's, living under the thumb of alcoholism, I tried my best to give my children every opportunity. I worked 12, 13, sometimes 15 hour days, caring for other people's children in my home. It afforded me the opportunity to be with my children, protect them, and encourage them.
While I tried to scrimp and save back then, my first husband drank up most of our money faster than I could make it. I'm not blaming him. I'm recognizing a symptom of alcoholism. I struggled, believing what my Catholic upbringing had taught - that if I stayed with my husband, no matter what, and prayed hard enough, that everything would be okay.
A dear friend entered my life during that time with tools to help me survive. For three years this member of the St. Vincent De Paul Society offered support to me and my family. When I wasn't sure how I was going to feed my children, she would call to tell me she had boxes of food to deliver, and it wasn't even Thanksgiving. When I needed to figure out how to pay my electric and heat bills she helped me learn accounting, and negotiated for me with the energy company. And when I needed to learn what it means to be humble - she opened that door too.
I have a picture of my oldest son when he was 9-years-old opening a box--a large, long box, taller than he was--on Christmas morning. The utter joy and expectation on his face said it all, still does. The gift was a set of used golf clubs which were part of a parcel of gifts the my friend had arranged for my family to receive. If those gifts hadn't been delivered to our home, there would not have been anything under our tree but for a few homemade things.
My children are no strangers to hunger, and gratefully this friend, and others made sure there was something for them. My children have drank milk that was three days expired. They know what powdered milk is, and also various ways to fix Spam. There is nothing today, that they turn their noses up to, knowing that you just have to try it once. The friend, my guiding light, died suddenly in 1997, leaving a hole in a community she served.
When she would bring things to my home--food, gift certificates for Kroger's, a check to pay a bill--she always touched my arm and said, "Now, remember, don't tell anyone where this came from."
This week I have struggled with the great political division in our country. If you are still friends with me on Facebook, you have a clear picture of where I stand, politically and religiously.
When someone walks into a St. Vincent De Paul facility and wants a photo-op for his own gain, I have a personal stake. I feel akin to Jesus in the temple with all the money changers. I want to voice how angry it makes me to hear someone of my faith doing this. It brings shame upon us all.
When nuns are faced with abhorrent behavior of ultra conservatives, who demean them and perpetuate discrimination against women and people of color, I cannot stand by. I keep hearing the invitation of the sitting governor of Massachusetts who said, "Grow a backbone."
When a man who's belief is that all Catholics are "soul-less" runs for president, I am compelled to point out that this is part of his religious beliefs. And that I have experienced first hand, the discrimination born of that philosophy. I don't understand his choice in a running mate except that it may serve his own purpose, not a greater purpose.
So there's no mistake, let me voice what I believe: I believe that every person in our world deserves to have enough.
There is no rhyme or reason to the greed that grips people. I learned in the 1990's that ensuring basic necessities of life allows people to come out of poverty. It allows for college, healthy relationships, love and respect. I know it cannot happen on the backs of churches alone, that governmental agencies must be involved in the compassionate service of the poor.
My challenge to anyone who cares to read this post is this: look within yourself and define the poverty in your own life, and learn how to change it.
The movie http://www.thelinemovie.com/ presented by Sojourner Magazine reveals the new face of poverty. An enlightening film,to say the least, but it caused me to begin thinking about the population that I work and live with, To help clarify the definition of poverty.
One definition of poverty is lack of money. I have a good friend, I call her friend because I look forward to meeting her on the weekends at the corner where she sells newspapers. I look forward to hearing what she has to say about the grandchildren she takes in, the car she recently bought, or to share a half-eaten sandwich with her.
There are other forms of poverty such as the couple who wait to see a counselor, sitting in a lobby of a social service agency. She is a large woman, her legs are the size of railroad ties, her brillo pad hair is parted in the middle, and she has no teeth behind a swollen lip. He is just as large, mostly through the torso, under a worn out tee shirt, and ragged jeans. She picks up a magazine and it's apparent she is just looking at pictures. He is quiet and I cannot see what he is holding until she throws the magazine on the table and looks over his shoulder. He mumbles something about a pig, and I'm intrigued enough to wonder what he is reading. It's a Winnie the Pooh book that is about a third-grade reading level. The woman's lips begin to move, she stops, furrows her brow, and points to a word. The man says, "I don't know."
Poverty is also a young woman who is college age, pregnant, working for a temporary agency for $9.00 an hour. She wants to go to college. Her eyes sparkle with the expectation that she might break free of the cycle. She has been hounded by a for-profit university to enroll in their program. She says that the not-for-profit universities didn't call her like this university did. They hounded her. Now, she's on the line for an enormous amount of money for an ambiguous degree that she completes on-line with no interaction with a professor.
I recently challenged some friends who live comfortable lives to think about the question of my brother's plight. My brother lives on public assistance-worker's compensation, medicaid, and Social Security-due to an accident that happened nearly 40 years ago that left him severely brain damaged. My question to my friends was: What about this man, whom you know, what about his plight? If we cut the "entitlement programs" what happens to him?
Interestingly enough, when I put a familiar face to the diatribe of "We're spending too much" my dear friends could not believe that the critical services that my brother needs would be cut. My point is, that people who live in comfortable surroundings have no understanding of, can envision where people such as the woman who sells newspapers go. Or how someone whose an adult has a third grade reading level.
"Women's circles form one at a time," writes Jean Shinoda Bolen, author of the Millionth Circle. "Each circle expands the experience of being one to more women. Each woman in every circle who is changed by it takes this experience into her world of relationships. Until, on one fine day, a new circle will form, and it will be the millionth circle — the one that tips the scales"
In a recent discussion with a Presbyterian friend, I thought about the theory of the Millionth Circle. My friend described the Presbyterian Women's Circles. While the stewardship office of the Presbytery contacts members regarding their ability to tithe, the P.W. Circles hold luncheons each month determining the needs of their community. A collection is taken referred to as: Least Coin Collection. Each woman is asked to empty her purse of change. The practice is based on the story of the "Widow's Mite." While wealthy people in the temple could give without consequence, Jesus witnesses a widow offering her last two coins. As the story goes, Jesus remarks that her two coins will do more than most, because she gave from a point of sacrifice.
Thinking about my own experience as a Catholic, there are few women's circles like the circle of religious women. In today's world, working with under-served populations, sometimes going against the hierarchy of the church, Nuns are the backbone of Catholic teachings. From the earliest times, religious women have modeled obedience and faith. I remember hearing about a nun who lived in a poor neighborhood riddled with drug dealings. She didn't carry a big stick, or yell at her neighbors, but walked the community, getting to know the drug dealers. She befriended them and in turn was able to decrease the incidence of drugs in her neighborhood. How was she able to do such a thing? When she entered her home, she entered the circle of sisters who supported her efforts.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints the strength of the community lies in the focus on family. Early in church history the Women's Relief Society was formed. The Relief Society is a strong component today, providing support in every stage of a woman's life, from religious formation to marriage to child birth. You get the picture. The wisdom of this arm of Mormonism is that the web of support is there between women to help raise children and simultaneously care for the elderly, encompassing all women. There is an honor to these women that often knows few boundaries.
Jean Shinoda Bolen's theory is not religious in nature, isn't supported by any religious practice that I know, but is part and parcel of women's groups within religions. She suggests that if women were to lead governments and countries there would be an automatic reduction in wars, due to the fact that very few women want to see their child fight, or possibly be in harms way.
I’ve been overzealous in supporting women religious in this country, posting numerous articles and comments on Facebook. Articles regarding the short-sightedness of the Catholic Bishops Conference, who are bent on fulfilling an edict from Rome, which I believe is intended to close the doors to a religion once so accepting and tolerant.
In posting these articles I assumed that anyone taking the time to read them was like-minded. Much to my surprise an entry appeared from a man I know. His comment was lengthy and pertained to reasons why the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the Conference of Bishops might be right in clamping down on the nuns. After taking the time to read his post, my response was: You just don’t understand this is about power and control.
After I wrote that comment, he continued the conversation with a rather belligerent post, and the only piece that has stuck with me is: “You and your nuns are the reason why abortion exists today.”
Me and my nuns?
I couldn’t believe he wrote that, me and my nuns? Careful reading of many articles in support of Women Religious in the United States convey the reason many nuns walk the gauntlet of protesters to help women access basic healthcare at Planned Parenthood. And it isn’t to perpetuate abortion.
Many, many women know that – in order to change behavior you must first model good behavior. The nuns support these women with the hope that their practice of unconditional love and acceptance will help women to change their behavior.
The divide between Catholic patriarchy and the people is growing deeper. However, my guess is that women religious, resourceful to say the least, will continue to serve the poor, the marginalized and those in need. They will do so in quiet ways without fanfare, without the blessings of a Pope who wears Prada, and has his own specially designed cologne.
We are at a juncture in American culture and the American Catholic Church, no denying and the most pressing question that seems to reappear is: Whose God am I serving?
Hey Sister, wanna join my posse? I am certainly on your side.
You’ve got the music in you, don’t give up, this world is going to pull through. On the ITunes page is the album cover; a yellow square with a caricature of a man with too big feet. And as sound emanates from the dash once more my feet remember the pointed toe, the arch, the movement of muscle under my heart that makes me smile.
In recent days religion has sent me to the edge. I drew my nightly warm bath trying to find ways of self-soothing. Can it be that I will have to live with centuries of patriarchy once more? Wasn’t it just forty years ago when I was fourteen that the world began making sense.
If in that tub of warm water I began writing a letter to the Catholic Church that I wanted to be known now as EX – who would I send the letter to?
A little, old man in Italy who wears Prada and has a cologne designed especially for him?
An archbishop who wouldn’t allow Muslims and Christians to have a conversation at an all girls’ school for fear of terrorism?
Or how about his right-hand man, who is a Yes-Man I worked with, only to realize how foolish I felt when he manipulated me for his own gain?
How about the university President who’s hand I shook at two graduation ceremonies as I strode across the stage having found my voice in the theology of freedom? Can it be that was just eight short years ago?
The song – You’ve got the music in you-resonates. The voice says – when you’re near the breaking point just bend. Shall I bend? Shall I do as the Tao reading of the morning light suggests and live in obscurity, because to know anger I must first have known happiness. To live in obscurity, anonymous – to be invisibly supportive is to make peace with the ego and allow the world to make its own sense.
In life there is fight, but there is also flight, or perhaps inaction. Perhaps the solution is no solution, the letter unwritten, and the thoughts carried on the breath of the wings of a butterfly.
I write because I struggle to accept the things I cannot change.