On the weekend of July 8-10, I was at a conference center in Washington, D.C. for the CTA 20/30 leadership training. To my understanding, this is the first one we’ve ever had.
We had a crash course in community organizing, the sine qua non of Church reform. We opened with the question, “How do you define ‘power’?” Idealists like us sometimes trust so much in the inevitability of peace and love that we do not understand the realities of power: how to discuss it, how to get it, how to use it.
We had media training. We got the thumbnail sketch of how to place an op-ed, how to conceive campaigns that stayed on message, how to parry tricky questions from sly interviewers.
But the underlying, unifying theme of the organizing and media workshops was this: stories. If you cannot compellingly articulate why you are here, you cannot motivate change. People will not organize with you. Your fifteen minutes in the public eye will only be so much ticking of the clock. Stories are all.
Thus our Saturday workshops flowed directly from our exercise on Friday night: namely, telling the whole group how we wound up with Call To Action in the first place.
I listened to story after story of how my fellow 20/30s directly and personally clashed with the Roman Catholic Church. I heard of trusts betrayed, self-righteousness shed, sexualities discovered, women disrespected. I learned of priests and bishops who knew exactly what power was, who knew how to get it and use it, and who used it to exclude honest, inquisitive young people who did not know how to play the game. And for not a few attendees, Call To Action was a safe harbor where they remembered they were not crazy.
I held my story almost until the end. Partly this was because I am often inarticulate as an extemporaneous speaker. Partly this was because I did not consider my story compelling compared to those I was hearing. But I realize now that if stories really do build a movement, then I am a prime case in point.
You see, I by myself am story-less. The Catholic Church, in its official, conventional form, provides a comfortable sense of self for people like me: white, male, straight, middle class, punctilious and obedient, untouched by tumultuous or transgressive love affairs, not subject to great misfortunes. And for years I partook of the comfortable sense of self provided.
But I began stumbling over the stories of my friends, stories as dramatic as those I absorbed two Friday nights ago. My friends were often not born into my great tripartite convenience of being white, male and straight. They wilted if they were always docile and orderly.
They spoke of trusts betrayed, self-righteousness shed, sexualities discovered, women disrespected. In stuffy study lounges, in car rides late at night, in the altered reality born from the haze of sangria and tobacco smoke, I listened with my mouth shut to struggles I’d never had and that no ecclesiastical imprimatur ever honored.
I wondered why they felt safe blurting out so much. My very bearing screamed of my insulation and inexperience. Sometimes it still does.
Because of the trust placed in me, I had to choose. I could prioritize the institutional Church, which, as I now understood, often spoke profusely of things it did not understand to people it never met. Or I could be loyal to the real, messy lives now intertwining with mine.
After fits and starts, I chose the messy lives. And, after debating what it meant for me as an individual to so choose, I volunteered at Call To Action’s national office. There, although on the surface I mostly upload computer files and play with the copier, I represent my people before the Church I still love and still think is somehow Christ’s body on earth.
Father Pat Twohy, S.J., writing of his vocation in Jesuits in Profile (Chicago: Loyola UP, 1992), uses words that could easily be mine: “I started to understand that this is where I was meant to be, somewhere between God and my friends; not completely with God and not completely with my friends….It was simply a journey I began as a young man and have continued to this day, no matter how confusing or how dark the path, no matter how difficult the climb up, beyond all friendships with the living and the dead.”
I, conservative by inclination, changed because other people dared to tell me who they were. The power of storytelling is the font of a just, inclusive Church. I hope all the other folks from D.C. remember that if they remember nothing more.