Reflections

What’s Running Got To Do With It?

Every morning Mark Benson gets out of bed, brushes his teeth, puts on his running shoes and heads out the door for a 3-mile run. He’s done this for years, in Chicago, New York, California. It is often the best part of his day. “I like being alone, seeing what is going on in my neighborhood, hearing the birds.”

Shola Richards doesn’t run in the mornings, he doesn’t even walk alone in his neighborhood. Here’s why. “Twice a day, I walk my dog Ace around my neighborhood with one, or both, of my girls. I would be scared to death to take these walks without my girls and my dog. In fact, in the four years living in my house, I have never taken a walk around my neighborhood alone (and probably never will).

When I’m walking down the street holding my young daughter’s hand and walking my sweet fluffy dog, I’m just a loving dad and pet owner taking a break from the joylessness of crisis homeschooling. But without them by my side, almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks. Instead of being a loving dad to two little girls, unfortunately, all that some people can see is a 6’2” athletically-built black man in a cloth mask who is walking around in a place where he doesn’t belong (even though, I’m still the same guy who just wants to take a walk through his neighborhood). It’s equal parts exhausting and depressing to feel like I can’t walk around outside alone, for fear of being targeted.”

Shola’s experience is a revelation to many white people. It elicits strong emotions of compassion, guilt, and anger, but the biggest revelation for many is how few black and brown people they actually know. So, how do we respond? There is a moment in St. Francis life that illuminates one path forward.

In the 5th century Muslims controlled Jerusalem. The Catholic Church responded by going to war to overtake them and bring Jerusalem back into their control. St. Francis went in a different direction – he encouraged others not to fight in the Crusade, and when they ignored his advice, he decided to go to the Sultan’s camp to meet him himself. It was a dangerous choice. Christians knew very little about the Muslim faith or customs, but the popular narrative characterized them as a violent enemy. Francis was walking into a war zone. What gave him the desire and confidence to meet Sultan Mal-al-Kamil? Perhaps it was his belief that we are all brothers and sisters to one another, each created by the same God. Perhaps, this was one way he lived out that belief.

Francis’ approach to Sultan Malek-al-Kamil, was as a brother. Upon entering Muslim territory, Francis was captured, beaten and brought to the Sultan. Francis remained in the Sultan’s quarters for weeks. What they talked about is unknown, but records exist describing their time together as respectful, brotherly and peaceful. They displayed curiosity and openness toward one another.

Francis returned home a changed man. The encounter, including being present and respectful with those he did not know and did not understand, interacting with the Sultan, observing the Muslim habit of stopping to pray five times a day, and sharing meals all influenced Francis. He amended the rule he wrote for his brothers, so that any brother that felt called to go be with Muslims should be allowed to do so. Later, he wrote a prayer called The Praises of God that is very similar to the Islam prayer, The 99 Beautiful Names of God.

Francis’ visit to Sultan Mal-al-Kamil didn’t put an end to the Crusades, it may not have changed others, but it changed Francis. It also broadened and enlightened the Franciscan perspective that social justice begins (but does not end) with individuals entering into respectful, peaceful encounters with one another – so that they, like Francis, may be changed.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Do I know individuals of color within my community? What have I learned from those relationships?
  2. What leadership positions do people of color hold in your ministry and on your board?
  3. How does your ministry encourage and facilitate person-to-person interactions with people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds?
  4. In what ways does your ministry support or advocate for racial justice?
  5. How has your ministry responded to racial injustice?
Holy Newness

Give me someone with Parkinson’s disease, cancer, or a stroke, I told my hospice supervisor, I just can’t handle another person with dementia. This conversation took place in my third year as a hospice volunteer and after the third time I visited Alice. She lived in a small home with six other residents. Alice liked to watch TV. When I showed up, she eyed me in a way that made me feel dismissed and immediately turned back to her TV show. I tried not to be offended. I suggested we turn off the TV and listen to music, which I was told she enjoyed. She said no. I decided to sit quietly and watch tv with her. After a while, another resident nodded her head toward me and asked Alice, “Who is that.” “I don’t know,” she replied with utter disinterest. I was trained to work with people with dementia; I tried all my tricks; I summoned up all my patience; but ultimately, I had to admit that I couldn’t overcome my need to be recognized. I needed a smile, a word, if not recognition of my talents, at least recognition of my presence.

I didn’t dwell on my failure, but I did start to listen more closely when people spoke about their family members with dementia. I noticed a common theme; it was that the person with dementia was in some way disappearing. Unrecognizable as the person they once were, unintelligible in their communications, they were believed to be no longer there, not even to themselves. “He is no longer himself,” they’d say. “There is nothing left of him.” “My mother is gone; she doesn’t even recognize me.”

It is quite a blow when your own mother doesn’t know who you are, and it is quite a sorrow to not recognize your mother when she is sitting right in front of you. It makes me think of the account in the bible of Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb looking for Jesus in John 20:11-16.

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”  Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

In this gospel passage recognition goes both ways. Though Jesus is right in front of Mary, she doesn’t recognize him until he calls her by name. It is only when he recognizes her, that she recognizes him.

Sr. Janet Marie, a Franciscan nun and nurse working with people with dementia suggests that perhaps the person we knew is still there, and with effort, can be recognized, even in their dementia. She writes,

“There is a reason for every behavior, even if your loved one isn’t conscious of it himself. These behaviors have to do with the past and are linked to a desire for something positive, familiar and comforting. For instance, “Jim” would go around the house turning on every faucet and leaving them running. It perplexed his wife until she realized it was related to his experience as a plumber.”

Another example is “Linda” who would insist that she had to leave the nursing home. She would wait by the door, agitating the nurses. Finally, someone asked what she was going to do after she left. Linda replied that she had to feed her children who were waiting for her at home. She was acting out a maternal instinct which was a major part of her adult life.”

Maybe dementia patients aren’t disappearing, maybe seeing them just require paying closer attention, the way Sr. Janet Marie does. I wonder if those with dementia long to be recognized. If rather than focus on my need for recognition, I had focused on recognizing Alice, would things have been different?

When St. Francis was ill and close to dying, he thought back on the young man he once was, a man full of vigor and ready to conquer the world. He longed for that old self as he acknowledged his new limitations. His body was failing him, but what was deep in his heart, his desire to serve God, remained constant. The way he put it to his brothers was, “Let us begin brothers, to serve the Lord God…” Each day was a new day, a new beginning and an opportunity to begin again to pursue what Thomas of Celano describes in The Life of St. Francis as “holy newness.”

Perhaps, disease does not diminish us so much as forces us to discover ourselves in new ways. Perhaps, seeking holy newness in others as they grow old and sick, we will discover that they have not vanished but are still themselves, and also new and holy and transforming.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Have you ever felt unseen or unrecognized? What was the situation? How did it make you feel?
  2. Have you ever encountered someone who seemed “to not be there?” How did you respond?
  3. What does your ministry do to help recognize people others may overlook?
  4. When and how has your ministry “begun again”? What are some examples of your ministry’s holy newness?
The Generosity of Golfers and Monks

Brandon Mathews is a 25-year-old professional golfer. He was in a tie for the championship of the Argentine Open when during his final putt someone in the crowd yelped. Distracted by the sound, Mathews flinched, missed the putt and lost.

Back in the clubhouse he was angry until he was told that it was a man with Downs Syndrome who made the sound, unintentionally, out of excitement not malice. Familiar with the struggles those with Downs Syndrome face, Mathews immediately went to meet the man.

Mathews described their encounter this way, “I gave him a hug and I asked him, “Hey, are you doing OK? Are you having fun?” I just wanted to make sure he was enjoying himself, that he had no hard feelings, that he didn’t feel bad about what happened. I didn’t want anyone to be mad at him. I didn’t want him to be mad at himself. I wanted to make sure he knew that I wasn’t mad. That’s all I wanted to do.”

This kind of attentiveness and responsiveness to the needs and feelings of others is a cornerstone of Franciscan living. Brother Bill Short, a worldwide Franciscan scholar, and professor at our Franciscan School of Theology, tells another story that demonstrates this kind of attentiveness. It takes place within a monastery where monks eat their meals in silence. Brother Bill relates that since no one can say, “pass the potatoes”, or “I’d like some more water,” they live by a rule that requires them to be attentive to the monk on their right and the monk on their left. It is up to them to notice if they need potatoes or salt or more water.

Another example of this level of attentiveness and ability to sense and respond to the needs and feelings of others comes from one of our own ministries, the San Damiano Retreat Center. Wildfires in the area destroyed hundreds of acres and left dozens of people living in temporary shelters during the holidays. The staff recognized that being away from home on Christmas was difficult and might lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. In response, they agreed to work during the holidays, to provide meals, community and a sacred space for the victims of the fire.

These are examples of what we call “poverty.” As St. Francis reflected on Jesus in the gospels, he saw that He was always attentive and responsive to the needs of others. He didn’t cling to his gifts or possessions, rather, when faced with someone in need, he freely and generously gave away whatever he had. This poverty wasn’t imposed on him, Jesus chose it. It was the kind of poverty he recommended to the young man in the gospel of Mark 10:17-27.

Following in Jesus’ footprints, St. Francis also chose to live a life of poverty and he encouraged his followers to do the same. That is, to live without possessing, to be attentive to those around them and to freely and generously share, or give away, the material, spiritual, and emotional resources they had to meet the needs of others. But also, to recognize their own needs and ask others to help them, thereby, participating in a rhythm of giving and receiving that includes everyone.

Brother Bill Short points out that our institutional poverty as a ministry means that we give freely and generously to others, both of our possessions and our time, while recognizing that we are also in need and depend on the generosity of others.

Reflection Questions

Individual

  1. How attentive are you to the needs of others? Can you think of an example of when your attentiveness led you to generously give of yourself for the benefit of another? What was the gift you shared? How did you feel about it?

Group

  1. What is your reaction to the idea that institutional poverty means that we notice the needs of others and give freely and generously to them, but also, that we too are in need and constantly depend on the generosity of others?
  2. Can you think of a story where your ministry practiced the radical generosity we think of as poverty? Are the stories well known throughout your ministry? If not, how can they be shared?
Utterly and Particularly Unique

When I was in my twenties, I met and became friends with a woman named Kate. She was fun and funny. She was a big reader and always had something new and interesting to talk about. Sometimes, when she’d been drinking, she’d talk too much and too loudly, and get into some trouble, but I liked her and accepted that just as she accepted me and my quirks.

One day she told me that she had decided to stop drinking. “If I keep drinking, I’m never going to be the person I think I’m meant to be, she said, I’ll never really be myself.” I didn’t ask her to explain. I knew what she meant. Don’t we all have an inner inkling of our true self? Maybe it is something we can’t quite articulate, or even totally understand, but something we have a sense of, and know, when we are straying from it?

Duns Scotus, a philosopher inspired by St. Francis, called that ineffable, unique thing about us, our “thisness.” It is what makes each individual utterly and particularly different from every other individual. It is a gift from God, but not a gift for us alone. Our thisness is like an irreplaceable puzzle piece. Without it, the world, like the puzzle, would be incomplete.

Mary Beth Ingham CSJ, a professor at FST, our theology school, and expert on Scotus puts it this way.

“I’m just me and all I can do is be me. That’s the only thing I can do, and I can do it better than anybody else. If I don’t do it, nobody will do it. So often we spend our lives trying to be other people. Yet God says, ‘I made you, and I like the you I’ve made, so just do your best and be yourself, and I’ll be there to help you.’ It’s not something we have to do alone, but something we grow into.”

I think this is what Kate was talking about. She was ready to grow into her “thisness.”

Reflection Questions:

  1. What are the implications for how we treat people, or develop programs, when we consider people by their shared characteristics (homeless, democrats, high earners, catholic, fearful) versus considering them as individuals with a particular and unique “thisness.”
  2. What concrete actions do we take in our ministry to encourage and celebrate our staff’s unique and particular gifts?
How To Sell A Car, Franciscan-style

Did you know that it was during St Francis’ life, spurred by the growth of the merchant class, that money first became widely used in Italy? In the midst of this growth of commerce, the friars developed a deep understanding of how economics affects people and communities. Coupling their observations and theology, the Franciscan developed an economic vision that prioritized relationships. They believe that buying and selling shouldn’t be about self-interest or maximizing profits, but about maximizing relationships, strengthening community ties, building mutual trust, expressing generosity, creating reasonable profits and focusing on the common good.

Sounds nice – but how would it play out in real life?

Well, one example might be the way writer Firoozeh Dumas’ dad sold his car. She writes that he, an Iranian immigrant, loved all things American, especially big cars. When it came time to sell his cherished Chrysler Lebaron, he asked her, his 13-year-old daughter and advisor on all things American, to write the ad. Here is how she tells the story.

“When it came time to decide on a price, my father wanted $1,000. I suggested that if he wanted $1,000, he should ask for $1,200. My father, with his tendency to agree with all my ideas, good or bad, consented. A parade of potential buyers started coming to our condo. I made sure to always be there, standing next to my father. My perfect Valley Girl English put people at ease, mitigating my father’s thick Persian accent.
One evening, a man showed up with his two daughters, who were around 8 years old. After looking under the hood, he decided to buy the car and told us that he would return the next day. We waited with great anticipation. As promised, he showed up the following evening, again with his daughters. After exchanging pleasantries, he removed a wad of cash from his pockets and counted twelve $100 bills.

My father took the bills, thanked the man but didn’t put the money in his pocket. He kept staring at the wad of cash. After a moment, he peeled off two of the bills and gave them back. “This is for your beautiful daughters. Please take them to Disneyland and buy them whatever they want.”
The man looked confused, almost annoyed, like he was being pranked. “Please,” my father repeated, pushing the money into the man’s palm. “You must take your daughters to Disneyland.” The girls started to squeal. The man paused for a moment, then hugged my father vigorously. As he drove away in his new used LeBaron, the sisters waved furiously at us.

That evening, my father could not have been happier.”

This is not a perfect example of Franciscan commerce, but it is a pretty good one. The dad wants a fair price, nothing more. He is not clinging to “the money” as a possession he deserves. He sees it as a gift that he can share to increase the joy of others. His act of generosity fostered trust and moved all the individuals involved into a deeper sense of connectedness, relationship and gratitude.

Reflection Questions

  1. Can you recall a similar story in your life, or ministry?
  2. Are you attracted to the Franciscan view of economics? If yes, why? If no, why? (To find out more, read A Free and Fraternal Economy by Fr. Martin Carbajo, one of our Franciscan Theology School professors.)
  3. If your ministry adopted the Franciscan view that our financial exchanges should be driven by generosity and a desire to build relationships, community and trust, (in addition to reasonable profits), how might your approach to vendor negotiations, investments, severance, pricing, and consuming goods, change?
Dinner Parties for Widows and Millennials – An All Soul’s Day Reflection

When you hear the word widow, what do you think of? Old ladies, spiders, the city of Nain, two copper pennies? Well, Amelia Nierenberg, a food writer for the New York Times, thinks of dinner! It is not as big a leap as it may seem. The idea that food soothes grief runs deep. It is the reason why once a death becomes public friends and neighbors start showing up with trays of lasagna.

Yet, in her article, For Many Widows, the Hardest Part Is Mealtime, Niereberg learns that grief is often heightened around mealtimes. “It’s simple things like, ‘What do you want for dinner?’” said Pat Smith, 60. “And it’s like, ‘I don’t know. What do I want for dinner?’” Ms. Zawadzki agreed: “You don’t have somebody to bounce your ideas off anymore.” “And then you think to yourself,” Ms. Kantak said, “‘How do you not know what you want for dinner?’” She paused. “But that’s something the two of you would have decided together.”

The article goes on to explain how non-profits like, “Culinary Grief Therapy, which uses demonstrations and group discussions over meals to teach participants how to cook, eat and shop for one, alongside other widows” have responded to this issue.

But widows and widowers aren’t the only ones whose grief is softened by group meals. The Dinner Party, an organization that has expanded in more than 100 cities is building a worldwide community of 20- and 30-somethings who have each experienced the loss of a parent, partner, child, sibling, other close family member, or close friend. Their motto is: We know what it’s like to lose someone and we aren’t afraid to talk about it.

The grieving don’t always come to mind when I think of our Franciscan commitment to serve the poor and disenfranchised, but reading this article on All Soul’s Day, a day we especially remember the dead, reminds me also of those left behind, and of this bible passage “…the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled…” Deuteronomy 14:29

Individual Reflection Questions:

  1. How do I respond to other’s losses?
  2. Is it helpful to talk about those I’ve lost, or do I prefer not to?

Ministry Reflection Questions:

  1. How does our ministry respond to the losses of those we work with?
  2. How does our ministry respond to the grieving among those we serve?
  3. What have we observed about the relationship between meals and mourning?
Is Bill Gates’ Daughter a Franciscan?

Netflix is currently airing a three-part series on Bill Gates. It provides a great glimpse into a complicated man, his personal journey and his impact on society. At one point in the show, Bill describes becoming aware of the horrible physical, economic and social consequences polio has on the people who contract it. Though polio has been largely eliminated in the west, it is still prevalent in many parts of the world.  Reflecting on this, he decides that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose slogan is “All Lives Are Equal. We are impatient optimists working to reduce inequality,” will focus its resources on eradicating polio.

Excited about his audacious plan, Bill shows his daughter a video of a young girl with polio and explains that in the future no one will have to suffer the way she is. In response, his daughter asked, “But what are you doing for that girl?”  “We are going to eradicate the disease,” he says with great enthusiasm. “Yes, but what are you doing for that girl,” she asked again.

It can be argued that Bill’s response to polio represents the best of capitalism, creativity and the allocation of personal resources for the greater good. As Franciscans, we applaud the good in the approach. However, our Franciscan sensibilities are better expressed by Gates’ daughter.

While people like Bill Gates focus on the general—on the thousands affected by a terrible disease—we, like his daughter, are drawn to the particular, to the individuals with the disease. Rather than wonder, how can we eradicate a disease, we wonder, who is this person? What is her name? What are her individual needs, her particular personality, and her unique circumstances? What can we do for her?

 

Individual Reflection Questions:

  1. Are you more drawn to the lawn (general) or to an individual blade of grass (particular)? To the class (general) or to the student (particular)?
  2. Accepting that both approaches are good, what are the pros and cons of the one you tend toward?

 

Ministry Reflection Questions:

  1. What are the ways your ministry focus’ on each particular individual you serve?
  2. What are the ways your ministry acknowledges the particular gifts and preferences of staff members?
  3. Can you recall times when you had to choose between giving attention to an individual you serve or to running an effective and efficient group meeting or program? Which did you choose? What was the outcome? How do you feel about the choice now?

 

October 2020

For more reflections click here.

Reflection: Serving Others as Brothers and Sisters

September 2019

The centerpiece of our Franciscan ministry is the Gospel and its call to be disciples of Christ by serving others, especially the poor, the forgotten, and the marginalized. ~ Franciscan Leadership Guide

You probably know who painted at least one of these paintings, even though you may have never seen them before. How? What makes it obvious to you? Style, composition, colors. All these elements come together to reflect their creator.

St Francis understood that that is true of God too. As he looked upon creation, he saw in each person, rock, donkey, mountain and sunset, a reflection of their Creator. When Francis walked down the street, before he recognized someone by their name, Thomas, or their occupation, baker, or their socio-economic status, rich, he recognized them as God’s creation, just as you may have recognized one of these paintings by its creator. He especially recognized God in the poor and forgotten and marginalized.

As creations of God, Francis realized that we are all brother and sister to one another. This idea of being family extended beyond humans. It included sister moon and brother sun; each mineral, animal and mountain is a brother or sister to us.

Francis understood God through the natural world – sometimes referred to as the “book of nature.” Another book that informed his understanding of God and our relationship with the poor, was the Gospels in the bible. At a time when many saw the poor or marginalized as “deserving” of their bad fortune, Francis saw each as brother or sister. He followed Christ’s example of touching the leper, serving the weak, consoling those in grief just as we would with any family member or relation.

Individual Reflection Questions:
Who do I see as brother and sister?
Do I know people who are poor, forgotten or disliked? How do I feel about them?
How does the gospel, and Jesus’ example of serving others, influence how I serve those on the margins?

Group Reflection Questions:
Who does our ministry serve as brother and sister?
Who don’t we serve or treat as brother and sister?
Does our ministry use both the book of nature and the books of the gospels to lead us?

 

September 2019

For more reflections click here.