Thesis writing as Activism

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For now, writing my thesis is my activism.

These words slipped out of my fingers as I was replying to what I had thought was a simple-enough Facebook post turned comment war, and I don’t know that I really believed them at first. Writing for a blog for Call to Action, and being the post following one on Standing Rock, I suppose I don’t really need to explain why I’m talking about activism on a Catholic blog. But let me just say that it’s in my DNA. I grew up with parents who write letters to political leaders and take part in protests out of a sincere desire to live out the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. Much has been made of the debate between Catholics and Lutherans over whether one is saved by works or by faith alone, but whatever the answer, the good side of it is the motivation to get out and do something.

But what if you find yourself so busy that you really can’t fathom doing another thing? Certainly sometimes this is a sure sign that you’ve over-extended yourself in unimportant areas and need to refocus on what is important. For me right now, however, I have all I can do to focus on work, thesis writing, and being a good boyfriend. In that case, it helps to turn to these words attributed to Oscar Romero:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

If I can’t add to my plate right now, perhaps I can see this plate in a new light – as doing something. I remind myself that I chose to work at the library because I was genuinely excited about being able to serve everyone. I know that my interactions with my boyfriend, on their best days, bring Christ into the world both for him and for others who see us.

And I warm up to the idea that perhaps writing my thesis is activism. I’m writing about different Catholic responses to the transgender community, and I hope to spur some healthy dialogue. If just one person reads my thesis and starts on the path of being a voice for transgender people, I will have at least done something. And yet, even without this outcome, my research is changing me. While I consider myself an imperfect but decent trans ally, I’ve realized that I had never taken the time to really look at the Church’s thoughts on being trans and pull them apart. If we agree that the Church needs a radical transformation on its stance, knowing that stance precisely is the first step toward an effective counterargument. At the same time, my understanding of the liberal Catholic response has evolved from “they think the official teaching is wrong” to an appreciation of the beautiful, creative theology being written by these groups to carve out a well-deserved place in the Church for trans people. When my thesis is finally signed off on, hopefully I’ll go back to the traditional forms of activism, but for now – and I now say this with conviction – my thesis is my activism!

About the author: Francis Beaumier is on the leadership team for the Dignity Young Adult Caucus and an active member of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Family as well as Angels of Hope Metropolitan Community Church. He currently works for Brown County Library as an IT Specialist and is pursuing a Master’s in Liberal Studies at St. Norbert College.

Bridge-Building and Radical Forgiveness: Standing Rock and Beyond

This is a post by Jacob Taylor who is a native to the Maketewah watershed in southwestern Ohio. His work is primarily concerned with the intersection between watershed literacy/eco-spirituality and Christian discipleship. All photographs in this post are his.

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I decided to take a break from a few years of relative FB silence to voice support for anyone considering making the jaunt to Standing Rock. I’m really happy to share information from my (limited) experience there.  If it’s been on your radar, I think it’s a really good time to start making plans. If it’s not, there are a lot of avenues for you to extend support to that struggle from home, for real.

On another note, amidst a lot of heaviness, I feel an immense gratitude for all of the demonstrations of courage, solidarity, and bridge-building I’ve witnessed in the past two days. I sat in a mosque basement last night (I would’ve maybe never found myself there were it not for the election results) with a group of Muslim sisters and brothers to talk about how we can support each other in the coming days, and for every tearful voice that said, “I’ve never felt more vulnerable in my life” there was another that said “today I feel strong. Today I feel love towards those who would demonize me. I choose to extend compassion and listen to the pains and concerns of those who would cast a vote against my life.” We wept and laughed and ate pizza and it felt like holy sacrament.

Last week I stood on broken glass with 500+ Christian clergy members against a giant police and National Guard barricade to renounce our complicity and silence in the midst of so much earth-pillaging in ND. I heard a Lakota elder, pointing up over the hill towards the construction workers currently ripping up native sacred sites and in the process effectively endangering the water supply of 18 million people, and towards the militarized police defending them, say “we must pray for them, for their well-being and and for the well-being of their families. We must forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.” As a group, in ceremony, we acknowledged and mourned five centuries of profound violence, and pledged solidarity with the indigenous represented and renewed covenant with earth. We found out that the number of clergy enrolled in the Standing Rock delegation was 544, exactly the number of years since the Doctrine of Discovery.

There is reason for real concern. Anguish, even. But for despair, never. We’re about to dive head-first into some deeep and old historical traumas and wounds, and we’re going to bleed in the process. But we’re going to start the long work of healing. We’re going to bind up each others’ wounds and keep struggling towards Shalom. We’re going to build stronger bridges and alliances, more sustained resistance movements, give longer hugs, plant bigger gardens, and we’re going to call each other to unprecedented gestures of courage and solidarity. Our work has never been more cut out for us. This struggle is old as time, and as Canadian patron St. of heartbreak L. Cohen (rip) said damn, we have the music. And damn if I can’t see a couple stars out tonight. If even just a couple. You are loved. You are strong. Together we are stronger. Kyrie Eleison, now and tomorrow, come what may. God of Life, give us vision and courage.

Spirit Alive at Standing Rock: Nathan Holst’s Experience

This is a post by Nathan Holst.  Nathan works in faith formation and does racial justice work in Duluth, MN.  Nathan an his partner Sarah have led presentations at Call to Action events.

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photo credit: Matika Wilbur

Spirit come alive

Let us follow the current

Trace the sacred sighs

In the call of the earth

With seven generations

Standing before us now

May the Spirit come alive

 

These words from a song I wrote years ago were ringing in my ears this last weekend as I came with folks from the All Nations Indigenous Center in Duluth to join thousands of indigenous people at the incredible gathering at the Standing Rock Reservation to protect the water (and burial sites) from the Dakota Access Pipeline, slated to run just North of the reservation.   There truly was an incredible Spirit coming alive in that space where elders, children, families were all tracing the call of the earth to protect the water for future generations.

Here is a picture of what it’s like there: the front line camp is right off the main highway, situated right next to a river. When you first enter, you see signs that clearly mark “No drugs, no alcohol, no weapons”. It is a space for families (of which there were countless) and a space of nonviolence (which was made clear to us again and again in our time there). As you continue on, there are flags from every nation represented flying high, which was reported to me to be between 90 and 150. Then there is the check in tent, a tent for donations, a tent for media, and the main circle gathering space where there are constantly speakers sharing their story with anyone gathered to hear. At night, this space is filled with musicians and spoken word artists, ready to lift each other up with their songs and words. Drum ceremonies and sweat lodges run constantly. Both by day and night you can find people gathered in their small, spread out camps based on tribal affiliation, but porous as family, always intermingling with each other. There are elders telling stories and making jokes, people sharing meals together, and building family as well as a movement.

As reported (best, in my estimation, by Democracy Now), on Saturday afternoon, shortly before we arrived there was a group of peaceful protectors who stood in front of bull dozers to stop them from destroying burial sites where the people managing the Dakota Access Pipeline knew there were burial grounds and still chose to dig. In some news outlets, this has been reported as protestors attacking security guards, when the story from Indigenous folks is that they were peacefully trying to stop them from destroying their graves, only to have dogs unleashed on them, as well as pepper spray. And as the Huffington Post asked, “How would you feel if a construction company bulldozed a family plot in a local cemetery that contained the remains of your family?” These are courageous men, women, and children that know what they are willing to fight for and stand in the way of the violence being done to their ancestors, being done to our water.

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Folks from Duluth’s All Nations Indigenous Center at Standing Rock.

On Sunday, we marched with 500 people on the highway to the edge of where the graves had been unearthed. We gathered in a huge circle for a ceremony for the ancestors who had been disturbed, where all the spiritual men and women leaders were called to the center. Singers began, followed by medicine men praying to the four directions, as well as dancers joining in this incredible prayer for the ancestors. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced, and as I was filled with awe and wonder at what was happening, I tried to imagine if I felt this way as a white person, what might all the indigenous folks who are there feel? So many of those who came with us from Duluth said at the end of the trip, speaking through their tears, “I feel home”.

So after leaving what then felt like family and returning to Duluth, I am back here wrestling with fire in my belly, which I see as the longing for justice for my relatives, and showing up in the best way I know how, trying to share what I experienced with my community. I am trying to get the word out to everyone I know, especially since many newspapers are either not picking up this incredible story or distorting the perspectives of those at the camp.

But I am also caught with a vision. I have seen, tasted the incredible culture of elders, spiritual leaders, nonviolent warriors, and families and I can’t help but wonder: where are my people? Where are my elders? What would it look like for my white community to have this kind of powerful gathering to protect our water? I heard African Americans speaking to their history, acknowledging the help they received from Indigenous people to escape slavery. Now they’re showing up to support them in this movement and putting their lives on the line in gratitude. Is there someone in my white community that can speak in this way, to share gratitude for when indigenous people welcomed them to this land, even when we repaid hospitality with brutality? Is there a path for us to regain our humanity and to have this same kind of historical clarity, to recognize our place in this great story?

I believe we have an invitation in front of us. There is an incredible gathering of tribes from across this land (and the world) standing up and protecting our water that gives us life. What is the legacy that we want to leave? What story do we want to give those who come seven generations after us? Though life can often be complex and simple answers sometimes elude us, the choice is still right in front of us, and those who come after us are waiting to see what we will do.

 

 

 

Call to Standing Rock

This is a post by current Young Adult Catholics blog editor, Sarah Holst. Sarah is a Masters of Divinity student and artist living in Duluth, MN.  She plans to be ordained a Roman Catholic Women Priest and start a survivor-centric, watershed discipleship church community.  Sarah is active in racial justice work in Duluth.

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Yesterday at dawn, my partner Nathan Holst left with a group from Duluth’s All Nations Indigenous Center to bring supplies and support to the Sacred Stone Camp and Red Warrior Camp on the Standing Rock Reservation.  Over 5,000 indigenous people representing over 100 tribal groups have gathered at the camp in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which not only threatens Standing Rock cultural and burial sites, but could possibly affect all people, farmers and ranchers that rely on the Missouri River for clean water.  This is a historic event, the first time the Seven Fires Sioux Nations have come together since Little Bighorn.  Even historical enemies, like the Crow Nation (which I am connected to), brought gifts and joined hands in the effort to stand for Treaty Rights and protect the land and the water.  This is a gathering both created and sustained on prayer.  Many believe that it is a fulfillment of the White Buffalo Prophecy.

I could have gone along, but opted to stay in Duluth so to not to miss the first week of classes.  Thus, I found myself in the position of reading Abraham Heschel’s The Prophets and receiving notice that things at the Red Warrior Camp had escalated.

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“To speak about God and remain silent on [Standing Rock] is blasphemous.”  “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” -Abraham Heschel

The company behind the pipeline, Dakota Access LLC, had skirted the protestors’ camp and started “preparatory work” on another tract of land without completing standard procedures such as Environmental Impact Statements.  The company steamrolled through sacred burial sites.  When the Water Protectors heard of this, they ran out and bravely put their bodies in front of the bulldozers.  Private security officers, hired by Dakota Access LLC, were there and intimidated protestors with pepper spray and dogs.  Several people were bitten, including a pregnant woman and a young girl.  (You can watch Democracy Now’s coverage of the event here.) Nathan and the rest of the group from Duluth were fine.  I, at home at my desk, was outraged.

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Why I don’t like working in soup kitchens

Reposted from article in Patheos of the same title, July 20, 2016. 

Last week I served at the Emmaus Soup Kitchen in Erie, PA. The next day, Sr. Mary who runs the kitchen asked me how my experience was. I hesitated before telling her the truth; I didn’t like it and actually, I don’t like soup kitchens in general.

All I did was serve fruit on the line this time. In the midst of asking guests if they would like what I’m serving and then scooping canned fruit onto plates with as much dignity as possible, I overheard quite a few conversations.

For example, one woman begged a server to help her carry her plate. She had just suffered a miscarriage, she said, and by the looks of her, it must have been recent. She appeared so weak and pale in the face, like all of her energy was drained. Regardless of how strong she was at the time she still needed to eat; and I was impressed at her ability to get herself to the kitchen to get a meal.

Another woman who appeared much younger than me (and I’m 26) came up asking for seconds. She mentioned she was pregnant so I took that as an invitation to engage in conversation. I asked when she was due and if this will be her first child. She said this will be her second but her first was stillborn. And she told me this in the same peppy way she asked for more food, like it were normal and not much more than just something that happened. After she left with her food, I wanted to go in the back of the kitchen, sit on the floor in a corner and cry. It wasn’t her peppy response that made me sad; everyone deals with pain in different ways. It was the realization that within less than two hours I had met two women who suffered through unsuccessful pregnancies and found themselves in a soup kitchen to provide for that day’s meal.

My thoughts immediately jumped back to my time as a graduate student when I often followed the doctors and nurses on their rounds in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). As a non-medical student, the doctors or other students would often explain to me in layman’s detail about the conditions of the babies. What I learned is that not all, but too many of the babies spending their first days, weeks or months in the NICU were suffering from symptoms linked to inadequate prenatal care. The ethics folks, with whom I was working, would later explain to me that many of the mothers of these tiny infants came from poor or impoverished families in which prenatal care was not a financial priority.

Women in poverty are suffering with the consequences of inadequate educational and health care systems that fail them in so many ways. We need better education about learning our own bodies, specifically as it relates to sexuality, birth control, pregnancy, birth, and parenting. And we need way better health care that provides every woman with prenatal care no matter who they are and how much or little they can pay.

This inequality of privilege is due to the realities of human life and, accordingly, the corruption and brokenness of our institutional systems as too many fail to put the needs of the most vulnerable first. Soup kitchens are places in which the reality of humanity is displayed more than anywhere else I have ever seen.

But it doesn’t take a conversation with a guest of the kitchen to demonstrate the realities of brokenness; rather one just need sit at a table and watch who comes through the doors and what interactions are had. But I find it difficult to get through a conversation without any of this coming up, either verbally or in the actions of another.

I understand the necessity of soup kitchens. They serve all sorts of people. The humans who arrive (to eat and to serve) in different ways exemplify struggles of mental illness, addictions, homelessness, poverty, loneliness, inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, trafficking, prostitution, the inadequate health care system, lack of adequate education, lack of parent involvement, lack of positive parenting, and more. These realities take all different forms; some of the humans are the perpetrators, some are the victims, and some are just trapped in systems that don’t support their development into becoming a full human being.

This is exactly the reason why I don’t like working in soup kitchens. Because when I’m there, I can’t shield my eyes from the poverty or inequality or injustice that people struggle with on a daily basis. Nor can I ignore my own privilege of health, financial stability and community I too often take for granted. When I’m there, scooping fruit from a can onto someone’s plate with as much dignity as possible, I am forced to face the reality that humanity is broken and our systems (which ought to be healing our wounds) are corrupt. I am forced to recognize my own responsibility in doing something to stop this corruption, to heal the brokenness.

I am forced to consider what my options are for becoming involved in working toward wholeness and justice. And I am forced to question the beliefs I profess: that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of a Loving Creator and therefore deserve their innate dignity and the ability to flourish into their fullest selves. Do I really believe this? If so, why am I not working in the soup kitchen each day? Why am I not standing up to the corrupt systems, raising my voice, and begging for the dignity of all? Sister Joan Chittister says that we don’t need to try to save the world—because we can’t—rather, we all need to do what we can where we are in order to make a difference. I suppose, then, I need to move beyond my dislike for soup kitchens—for the reality of humanity that it throws in my face—in order to be a part of the change for the better, in order to act in accordance with the beliefs I profess.IMG_3017.JPG


Breanna Mekuly just finished a summer internship withSister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. Before working with Sister Joan, Breanna graduated in 2014 from Vanderbilt Divinity School with a masters in theological studies and an emphasis in biomedical ethics. She then worked as a university minister at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, WI. Later this summer, Mekuly will be moving to Indiana to live, pray and work with a group of sisters who raise chickens, bees and alpacas on an organic farm. Breanna is the co-creator of an online monastery for progressive young female- and Catholic- identifying adults, ” Seekers and Discerners.”

The Last Time God Died: Anxiety, Consolation, and the Limitations of Spiritual Language

This is the final of a three-part post by Jay Aquinas Thompson: a poet, activist, parent, and an adult convert to Catholicism. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he attends St. Mary’s Church and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.

  1. Spiritual individualism and abiding grace

the_nones_are_alrightReally, the key question the Death of God theologians grapple with—“how will God be able to respond to this present crisis?”—is one plenty of Christians ask. But it’s a question that can be asked with too much urgency. The “present crisis” I often hear people of faith fretting about now is that of the “spiritual but not religious.” In my own community and time, the spiritual language among progressive folks is often framed entirely in terms of individual wellness. Many of us come to spirituality (from meditation to church to yoga) asking what belief and practice can console or enlighten us. The desire is to improve our well-being, rather than to engage personally and radically with our community or minister to the suffering Christ in our oppressed fellow-humans. For my own part, the longer my spirituality is confined to my own head, my own thoughts and feelings, the more it starts to spoil. I’m close with plenty of spiritually sensitive folks whom I want to call to vigorous and liberatory work in the world, but I believe it’s a misuse of energy to greet this (somewhat-gnostic?) spiritual individualism either as the herald of a new era or as a menace. The hype about our time is that this form of spirituality is our future; I don’t see it that way.

But I wouldn’t have come to this perspective without having watched Alitzer and Hamilton buy into their own era’s discourses, preoccupations, and intellectual frameworks so completely. This is not to deny the seriousness of Hamilton’s commitment to worldly service, and Alitzer’s pain at God’s perceived self-negation. In their book, Alitzer and Hamilton accept bourgeois liberalism’s claims about itself, and define their understanding of God’s “transcendence” so narrowly that it’s snuffed out of any possibility of being.

“Before God and with God, we live without God,” Bonhoeffer said. This is the unbearable paradox that Christians have to sit with after a century of organized horror, in the pervasive alienation of secular modernity, and in the countless small experiences of contingency, corruption, and death we encounter in a life. But it’s a paradox, not a death-knell: a call to make God manifest in the world through radical love, ardent faith, and spiritual self-renewal. “Abundance and destitution are two facets of the one face of God,” as Christian Wiman says, “and to be spiritually alive in the fullest sense is to recall one when we are standing squarely in the midst of the other.” This equanimity isn’t always easy to summon—in rapture or in desolation—but it’s a precious gift, in that it’s a call to the faulty communities of worship, the all-too-inadequate symbols of religion, and ordinary human love, whether God feels intimate or impossibly remote. We encounter Spirit only in corporeal things, and experience God only in history; and this idea can bring us overflowing peace, not just the anxiety that grips Alitzer and Hamilton. Or, to quote R.H. Blyth, writing from a radically different tradition: “Culture is our making the will of God prevail, but the will of God always prevails anyway, and when we know both, there is Zen.” The longer I sat with Alitzer and Hamilton’s book, the more limited it felt: the authors shedding tears at the graveside of old pieties, believing they were crying for God.
Image sources:

http://www.godisdead.info/

http://blog.oregonlive.com/lifestories/2012/02/william_hamilton_the_god-is-de.html

http://www.orbisbooks.com/the-nones-are-alright.html

http://www.reversespins.com/dionysius.html

http://www.amazon.com/My-Bright-Abyss-Meditation-Believer/dp/0374534373

The Last Time God Died: Anxiety, Consolation, and the Limitations of Spiritual Language

This is part two of a three-part post by Jay Aquinas Thompson: a poet, activist, parent, and an adult convert to Catholicism. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he attends St. Mary’s Church and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.

  1. Profane prosperity

As many New Things in intellectual life wind up, Radical Theology and the Death of God feels, in its anomie and consolation both, utterly of its very specific time. Their analytic philosophical language (either God is or is not, either the language of worship is factual or false) hadn’t yet been buffeted by Continental anti-foundationalism, nor anything like Derrida’s formulation of God in the language of desire rather than fact. Hamilton’s distinction between “God” and “world” bespeaks the cerebral, slightly anxious tone of Karl Barth and a discomfort with paradox. The book mentions Vatican II zero times, nor the experience of Third World Christians.

pseudo-dionysiusFor his part, Alitzer seems ready to enter a dark night of hopeless (or, literally, objectless) hope, but he doesn’t speak of the Desert Fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius, or any other apophatic Christians, who a thousand years earlier had found rich spiritual meaning (and consolation) in negation and the non-objectification of God. Likewise, though he began his career writing on eastern mysticism and Biblical eschatology, Alitzer’s repeated insistence in the “radically profane” nature of modern life shows no awareness of Buddhist ideas of the identity of the noumenal and the phenomenal. This is extra-surprising because he refers to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s idea that “a religious life which would respond to the death of God cannot direct its prayer and mediation to a transcendent or numinous realm, but instead must open itself to a divine ‘center’ that fills the whole body of the cosmos, and a ‘center’ that has no existence apart from the movement of the cosmos itself.” This inward-not-upward motion completely eludes him in his insistence on dialectics: to fully enter the world, he believes, spirit had to cease to be. His heartbroken insistence leads him to muddle very separate ideas of the forgetting of, the ignorance of, the non-existence of, and the phenomenal presence of the transcendent.

Crucially—and this was the lesson for me the reader—Alitzer and Hamilton also share a very early-60s assurance that capitalist liberalism would keep its promises, and was in the process of creating a “grownup” society of generalized human thriving. This consoles Hamilton—at last, outgrowing our primitive need for a God who’ll fix things!—and depresses Alitzer, but they both accept it. They believe the hype about their own time, and frame their spiritual questions solely in the language of their own time. They even share the same bland assurance that the “Negro movement” will renew the church’s tradition of engagement with the world. Radical Theology is thus an odd mixture of liberal optimism and classic paranoia—in the sense of externalizing one’s anxiety onto outside objects. Instead, as history as shown, liberalism failed to keep its promises, and the social contract that once suggested universal well-being (or even American well-being) has been frayed to virtually nothing. Perhaps we “need” transcendence—and a radical vision of the present—after all.

Final reflections—on “the death of God” and our present era—in Part 3.