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.

Continue reading

On Bearing Witness at the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion

This is a post by Emilie Bouvier: a community organizer and artist living in St. Paul, MN. Emilie serves the Minneapolis area ELCA synod as Congregational Organizer for Environmental Justice. Her art website is www.emiliebouvier.com. These are a few words that Emilie shared with us in a spirit of ecumenism about her experiences last week/weekend holding vigil for Philando Castile at the Minnesota Governor’s residence.

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For the first few days I felt kind of numb. Gathering for prayer, for worship, for lament was what I needed, but I could hardly even start speaking about things. It all felt like a jumbled pit in my stomach… disgust at the state of racial injustice in our nation, heartbroken that yet another black body was broken in the street, 1.8 miles from my apartment, overwhelmed by the horror of the particular glimpse we got into the last few moments of Philando’s life, bitterly angry at the constant resistance on behalf of white folks to the radical re-orienting of our selves and the structures of a society built on oppression.

Spending some long hours at the Governor’s Mansion yesterday afternoon and evening didn’t change those things, but it was such a powerful place of community, story, compassion, and truth-telling that I suddenly could feel my feet on the ground again — re-grounded and recommitted by the love and voices of those who showed up in that space to process the events, tell their own stories, give hugs, and even just dance.

I watched a beautiful healing dance performed by two Native American teenagers who made powerful statements about standing in solidarity with the black community – dancing as a way to show support, offer healing, and inviting all of us who were gathered around to join in.

I heard a young African American man start a story with “you know, when it’s hot out and you just really want an icy?” and end with describing how an officer demanded he confess what he was hiding, sure that the empty icy cup was a drug stash. It was nothing other than a soggy paper cup. (Can I just say, never in my life has anyone interrogated me about and then actually gone into the trash can to examine something that I’ve thrown away.)

I listened and teared up as an eleven year old African American girl stand up and speak through tears about how adults say that if you’re in trouble you should call the police, but now she’s sacred to. Even in her nervousness and occasional pauses to wipe tears, she had the most courageous strength and composure of anyone I heard come to the mic. And she kept talking. She talked about how things need to change. She talked about how she wasn’t going to stop speaking. Someone in the crowd asked for her name again, then shouted “Ellen for President!” We all started cheering her name and she smiled and cried as the leaders at the mic came around her and held her in a group hug. I hope she now knows that her community sees her as a leader and that she will in fact run for office. I vow to work on her campaign.

I heard a mom talk about how her daughter is 18, got straight As in school, was involved in her community, and went on to serve in the military. She’s proud her daughter is serving. But then her daughter calls her up and says “Mom, I feel “conflicted,” I feel like I’m serving a country that hates me.”

I also listened to people processing the events of Saturday night’s protest. Some talked about their own experiences being held in handcuffs that weren’t cuffs but ties that were drawn so tight they still had wounds on their wrists. Others talked about how moved they were by the white allies who helped act as a buffer in the midst of the 94 shutdown. Another talked about how someone in the neighborhood offered her a warm shower and lent her clothes. She said “I’m still angry, but I understand love now. I understand humanity now.” And many talked about how they saw and participated in peaceful demonstration – how violence was not present and not what we’re about here. How those white anarchists who were throwing bricks were not with us, and how infuriating it is that the media and those we’ve elected as officials don’t see the difference. There is a huge difference. The movement of people standing up for racial justice, taking the streets, disrupting business as usual, is not violent. We need our cities’ leaders to be held accountable, not let a few unaffiliated protesters be political grounds to write off the movement.

If you’re like me, you might be feeling overwhelmed and frustrated and like you’re just floating, or in a slog, or paralyzed, especially when reading about this stuff online or trying to process by yourself or even just trying to process with people who look like you. Go out to the Governor’s mansion (or join the Black Lives Matter folks near you). This community space to gather and hear stories is not going away. Is a place of love and story and openness. Go and sit for awhile. For a few hours, actually. Just listen. Just do it.

 

Honored Guests

 This is a 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.

  

pharisee and tax collectorSimplicity, simplicity. I subtract the wisteria breeze and Miles Davis and the smell of hot carpet and my saints and the cold lentil soup I just ate from this moment, and see if simplicity remains. I decide: this is as good a moment as any to be simple.

 

What if what I needed to be happy and well and full of meaning lay entirely inside me? Maybe this is what Emerson meant when he offered that “every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth.” The challenge of this, of course, is that you can really wait for something only if what you’re waiting for has already begun.

 

What if what you needed to be happy and well and full of meaning lay somewhere in between the Federal Housing Authority, the people whose job it is to arrest you for missing a probation hearing, the Department of Social and Health Services, the state appointees who take your kids away to the house of your aunt who won’t return your calls, and your own being, with its will to declare and defend itself? T. with the chipped tooth who spent high school living out of her locker and first shot black tar into her veins at twenty-five; M. who lost a grown son to a gang killing, began studies to become a minister on the inside, and then lost a second grown son the same way; K. who in a drunken punch-up stabbed her husband, accidentally fatally; E. who never had an educational experience that wasn’t trauma. What size is my students’ I when life is a series of things done to them? What hieroglyphic is visible in their life, the answer to the questions they would put? Continue reading

My journey with Islam as a Catholic woman

It’s not every day that you hear a proclamation of a “theological state of emergency.” Yet that is precisely the term employed by theologian Mary Hunt in her December 14 Religion Dispatches article calling for “theological first responders,” that is, “scholars and activists…to step forward in concrete, educational ways” in light of recent political rhetoric about Muslims. The words that follow are my modest attempt answer Hunt’s call for “strong and constructive countermeasures” and in union with the Women in Theology statement on anti-Muslim sentiment, out of my own experience as a Catholic woman enriched and blessed by dialogue with Muslims.

For several years, I was part of a Muslim-Christian women’s group in Central Virginia. We are Catholics, Quakers, Mennonites, and Episcopalians as well as Sunni and Shia Muslims, from the United States, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Jordan, Bosnia, Nigeria, Germany and Luxembourg.

We met monthly for two hours, initially with a focus on building friendships. Though we would sometimes invite a guest speaker, generally a Muslim member and Christian member would speak on a topic from her own perspective. Some topics we explored were Mary/Maryam, creation, concern for the poor, the binding of Isaac/akedah, fasting, patriarchy, prayer and pilgrimage/hajj. We didn’t get into potentially divisive topics until we had spent many hours building relationships over cups of tea and plates of cookies.

In addition, we celebrated and broke bread together. We shared the iftar meal during Ramadan – feasting on fattoush and lentil soup. We attended an evening of Las Posadas with the Spanish-speaking Catholic community – feasting on tamales and arroz con gandules.

Since both faith traditions emphasize concern for the poor and vulnerable, we did service together. We spent Saturday afternoons creating a quilt that was presented to the pediatrics department of hospital in Turkey by a member during an interfaith delegation. We served a meal together at a homeless shelter and attended congregation-based community organizing meetings. After we had been meeting for several years, we hosted a “know your neighbor, love your neighbor” evening with the goal of sharing some of the fruits of our community-building.

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Group members presenting the quilt

correct MC quilt label

English and Arabic dedication of our quilt (photo credit: Judy Sayed)

I’ll let the testimonies of two group members speak for themselves.

“Being a part of such an amazing group of women has really enriched my life. We all come from different backgrounds and have different experiences and views but we all share an open-mindedness and a passion for listening and learning that….this group gives me so much hope because it is a movement towards that change we desperately need, a movement towards appreciating and respecting our differences while working together to achieve shared goals.” – a Christian member

“Because of the colonial mindset, at first I had the fear that everyone would try to convert me, but the more we are together, the less I have that fear. We share so many values, and the spiritual connection is the same.” – a Muslim member

Christians, Jews, and Muslims share similar practices and common Abrahamic roots. Without minimizing significant differences in beliefs, we sought to explore honestly places where our faith traditions converged and diverged. These conversations often led us to see familiar stories in new ways as we sought to look at them through the eyes of the other tradition. Reflecting on the various names/images for God found in the Christian Scriptures and the 99 names for God in Islam was a rich and challenging exercise. Knowing that God/Allah (which is simply the Arabic word for God) is infinitely beyond our capacity to describe in finite human words, how have the respective traditions layered images and words on top of one another to communicate something of that mystery?

Another insight shared by a Christian member after our discussion of Mary/Maryam: “In Catholicism, we have so many names for Mary, but I was struck when a Muslim woman told me that one of the most common titles for Mary is Islam is that of ‘prophet’ and that Mary is considered to be in the line of prophets which includes Abraham, Jesus and Mohammad. Thinking of Mary not only as ‘Mother of God’ or ‘Blessed Virgin’ but also as a prophet was a real shift for me.”

Our conversations also led to debunking stereotypes for both Muslim and Christian members. One Muslim member shared, “I never thought I’d see Christians who take their faith so seriously. I had a stereotype that church was just a club where people got together socially – I still thought that even though I’ve lived in the United States for so many years. These meetings have opened the window to meet Christians who share some of the same practices and values, with the same depth of commitment.”

For me personally, participation in the women’s group was only one aspect of engaging deeply with the Islamic tradition over a period of several years. I began studying Arabic, purchased a good English translation of the Koran, devoured books of Sufi poetry, took a course in Islam at the University of Virginia, read everything I could get my hands on about Islam and Muslim-Christian relations, and even traveled to Morocco where I visited mosques and heard the call to prayer five times a day.

My academic study and personal relationships led me to create a narrative about Islam and Muslim-Christian relations that is infinitely more nuanced than the oversimplified, fear-based portrayals we are all too often peddled by pundits and politicians. I was deeply encouraged to learn about the years of cultural flourishing and interfaith engagement during the Caliphate of Cordoba in Andalusia, Spain. The 1219 encounter between St Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malek al-Kamil in the midst of the Fifth Crusade is another hopeful example from the past. There is a history of not just co-existence but collaboration between Muslims and Christians (and Jews); there is fertile ground for learning and dialogue. There are also hard truths to be faced – and mistakes to be learned from – about violence, intolerance, and fundamentalism present in the history of both traditions.

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St Francis of Assisi and the Sultan

It was on an airplane from Richmond to Boston that I realized how deeply I had been impacted internally though my years of engagement with Islam. While I’m not a nervous flyer, I was startled by the unexpected turbulence that hit shortly landing at Logan Airport. The plane lurched and rocked, and flight attendants gripped seat backs and wobbled precariously in the aisles. The turbulence worsened and I heard several gasps from nearby passengers.

 

La ilaha ilallah are the opening words of the Shahada (Muslim proclamation of faith). The Arabic words mean: “there is no God but God.” I had heard my Muslim sisters recite these words, seen them inscribed in beautiful calligraphy in mosques, and heard them repeated as dhikr, mantra-like, by Sufis.

Steeling myself against the bumps and dips, these were the words that rose up from somewhere deep and unexpected inside of me. I took a deep breath in, silently reciting: la illaha il allah. And exhaled: la illaha il allah. This carried on for the fifteen turbulent remaining minutes, until the plane landed at Logan and relieved passengers applauded.

It is said there are no atheists in foxholes: in life-or-death moments, our true spiritual colors are revealed. Safely on the ground and waiting at baggage claim, I felt a pang of guilt. Did this make me a bad Christian? Shouldn’t I have found consolation in the words of a psalm or traditional Catholic prayer? After all, I was on my way to study New Testament and ecclesiology!

Yet the shahada’s monotheistic statement of God’s oneness is just as Catholic as it is Islamic. Grace comes as God offers it, not as we would dictate. The grace offered to me during the tense moments of that flight came in the form of an Islamic spiritual practice. This revealed how my heart and soul – not just my mind – had been touched through my years of engagement with Islam. Something in my internal landscape had changed. Engaging deeply with the beliefs, practices, sacred text, and history of Islam alongside Muslims has altered my spiritual fingerprint. For this I am grateful to God. I believe am a better Catholic for it.

A Muslim woman in our group sent us a thank you email after we had gathered for a celebration. I share her words as a benediction for each of us who deeply engage with our own and other religious traditions for the sake of peace with justice in our world.

Alhamdulillah, this was a precious evening, and one that I will treasure and relate over and over to my friends and family. May God bless us, and may He allow our work together to radiate like a thousand suns the world over, until our earth is filled with spaces like those we shared this blessed evening, inshallah.”

Wendy L Wareham photography

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities.. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press). A native of Middleton, WI, she lives in Dubuque, IA.

My Advent in Review

Wichern_Adventskranz_originated_from_GermanyAs someone who writes for this blog once per liturgical season, I’m always on the lookout for an overarching theme for the current season. Sometimes finding this theme (or understanding what I’m taking away from a given chunk of the year) feels like hard work, and sometimes it just stares you right in the face. Guess which one this Advent has been! Let’s take a look at a few examples:

  • I was leader for the second week of Advent at the MCC church. Our keyboard player kindly pointed out to us that that week’s theme, according to our Advent song, was “peace.”
  • One of my choir directors at my Catholic church picked this year to dust off “Peace, Peace”
  • Fast forward to the third Sunday of Advent, and I can’t get the line from Paul’s letter to the Philippians out of my head that talks about “God’s own peace, which is beyond all understanding” (4:7, The Inclusive Bible)
  • One of the Norbertines asks if I’d be willing to do the Christmas proclamation for Christmas eve at a rural Wisconsin parish, and I shoot back to him the only line I can remember: “Is that that ‘the whole world was at peace’ chant?”

Clearly Advent is trying to tell me something! Admittedly, I never seem to have much time for Advent – it always comes at the end of the semester, when there’s a big rush to turn everything in before it’s too late. And just when I’m done with that, it’s time to make sure that everything is in order for Christmas. Therefore, I’m grateful for the reminder to slow down and experience some peace.

Thinking about it some more, searching for peace is quite an appropriate Advent thing. Every Mass, we are reminded that we need to be at peace with those around us before we can receive Jesus – that’s why there’s the sign of peace immediately before communion. As a precursor to Christmas, Advent should function the same way.

In an effort to “let peace begin with me,” as the famous song says, I’ve been more observant of my own inner peace. There have been a couple times when I’ve done well: I’ve had a few days at work where things that would normally get to me just haven’t bothered me, and I’ve been able to take a couple moments when I’m not singing during my choir rehearsals to simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the music. Yet at other times, I’ve still let stress and frustration get the better of me. (I’m still not any good at Mondays!) I am certainly open to your suggestions for finding inner peace. In any event, I am grateful to have not completely missed Advent this year. And since half of my examples were Christmas songs anyway, maybe Christmas can be about peace, too. As we wrap up Advent and move into Christmas, I pray that the peace “beyond all understanding” is with us all during this season and beyond.

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.