Las Posadas: Welcoming the Stranger

by Gabino Zavala, Justice and Peace Director

Mary and Joseph traveling to BethlehemOne of my fondest childhood memories of Advent was celebrating the Novena known as Las Posadas that takes place from December 16 to December 24. This is a Mexican Advent tradition commemorating the journey that Joseph and Mary made from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of safe lodging (Posada) where Mary could give birth to the baby Jesus. Not finding a place of welcome in the crowded inns of Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary were forced to seek shelter in a nearby stable.

As we celebrated each Posada, a child dressed as an angel would lead the procession with a candle. If the community had statues of the peregrinos (pilgrims) Joseph and Mary on a donkey, they would be carried following the angel. If there were no statues two children would dress as Mary and Joseph. These pilgrims would stop at two homes and ask for Posada (a place at the inn) in song. The reply that there was no room would be sung in response. Finally, in the third home, the pilgrims would be welcomed. The people following the procession would enter with Mary and Joseph and the community would enjoy hot chocolate and Mexican bread while the children broke the piñata.

As Mary and Joseph are turned away and finally find welcome we should consider who is the stranger that we are called to welcome? It may be the refugee, the asylum seeker, or someone of a different color or culture. Could it also be the person with whom we vehemently disagree? We must never forget that immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, those different than us, and those that we vehemently disagree with are human beings; we have a responsibility to care for one another as part of the human family.

We are facing the worst global displacement crisis in history. We are challenged by this reality today in refugee camps in the middle east or in camps where migrants gather in hope at our border. Pope Francis writes in Fratelli Tutti that “global society is not the sum total of different countries, but rather the communion that exists among them” 149. We are all part of the human family, the vulnerable family all over the globe, and the vulnerable family in our local reality. As members of the human family, how can we express love and solidarity with our sisters and brothers in times of crisis?

During this Advent season, as we remember Mary and Joseph searching in hope for a place of welcome, let us ask to keep our hearts open to welcome and embrace the poor and vulnerable, the refugee and the stranger, those who are different than we are and those we disagree with, those in our midst and those in our global community. Who are you going to welcome today?

Turning to One Another

by Fr. David Kelly, C.PP.S., Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, Chicago

picture of Fr. Dave KellyIt was a Saturday afternoon and I just finished doing some lawn work around pbmr. As I was walking from the Center to the Mother Brunner Home, I noticed Michael sitting alone on one of the benches near the basketball court. His phone was by his side, book bag on the floor, and head buried in his hands. I could sense that something was bothering him and, so, I walked over to see if he was ok.

Michael is a real quiet kid, tall and thin, around 15 years old and loves basketball. Even while he wasn’t quick to share much, I did get a little something out of him. When I asked about who he lived with, he told me his 23-year-old brother. I asked about his mother, and he said he didn’t know where she was. She left some time ago. We talked some more, and he said that he wanted more hours, meaning he wanted to earn more money. He is part of one of our programs and earns a little money, but, apparently not enough for his needs.  

It would be easy to fall into judgement or condemnation. What kind of mother could leave her child? But of course the underlying reality is much more complicated, and the only way to know the answers is to sit and listen to the child, to listen to the mother, and to seek to understand. I have found  that when you begin to untangle the story, when you hear people’s experiences of homelessness, trauma, poverty, etc., those initial judgements are quieted and understanding begins to set in. Judgement always impedes my ability to understand.

There is a poem that has helped us in these uncertain times.  It is by Margaret Wheatley, entitled “Turning to One Another.” Here is just a bit of it:

There is no power greater than a community
discovering what it cares about.
Ask “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?”
Keep asking.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear…
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.

For me the poem calls us to not fixate or simply cast judgement on the problems we see in others, but to seek solutions, paths of healing for their flourishing. Michael doesn’t need people judging him or his mother; he needs a world that cares. He needs people to hear his story without judgement, to listen with understanding, and to accompany him toward solutions that meet his and his family’s needs.

Both in the church and in society we have become polarized; we have become a society of judgement and exclusion. Richard Rohr says Jesus was never about exclusion or expelling or isolating people. Quite the opposite, for him that was the problem. Jesus was about transforming and integrating. He was always sending the lepers and those healed back into the city, back to the priests (Rohr, Hope Against Darkness).

PBMR was founded almost 20 years ago because we were confronted by a system that only knew punishment. There was no healing or transformation for people experiencing brokenness, only punishment and expulsion. And so we set out on a journey to focus on healing, reconciliation, and understanding.

Isn’t that what the world needs? To be listened to? To listen? I dream of a world where more people are willing to listen to those they know, those they don’t know, those they never talk to, and rather than being offended by or afraid of the differences we hear, to be intrigued and compelled. I long for a time where instead of casting judgement about “What’s wrong,” we can come together in relationship and begin to ask, “What’s possible?” 

Now, because of that short conversation with Michael, when I see him in the parking lot or in the neighborhood, he stops, reaches out to shake my hand, and says hello. “Creative solutions come from new connections” (Margaret Wheatley).

Remembering ASC Martyrs

The ASC sisters who were martyred in 1992

This week we remember the five Adorers of the Blood of Christ (ASC) who were murdered in 1992 while serving as missionaries in Liberia. Barbara Ann Muttra, Mary Joel Kolmer, Shirley Kolmer, Agnes Mueller, and Kathleen McGuire were the first victims of Operation Octopus, during Liberia’s brutal civil wars that claimed over 150,000 lives. Twenty-nine years later, we still seek justice for these war crimes.

Seven years ago Martina Johnson, a former commander of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), was arrested on suspicion of war crimes and crimes against humanity. She was arrested in Belgium where she resided since 2003. This was the first time an alleged Liberian perpetrator was charged for crimes committed in Liberia during the first civil war. Victims implicated Martina Johnson for participating in mutilation and mass killings—including the ASC sisters in 1992—under the infamous military offensive by the Charles Taylor’s NPFL on the capital Monrovia.

Martina Johnson was placed on conditional release shortly after her arrest. Belgian authorities still need to investigate in Liberia before they can bring her to court. Belgian investigators report that Liberian authorities are not cooperating. Additionally, the pandemic is holding things up. We can only pray that they will eventually be able to follow through.

Justice from the U.S. Courts

This September, a former Liberian military commander was found liable under U.S. law for participating in extrajudicial killings and torture. Moses W. Thomas supervised the slaughter of hundreds of unarmed civilians at a church during Liberia’s civil war. The decision was issued on the testimony of four anonymous plaintiffs who lived through an assault on people seeking safety at a Red Cross shelter on the grounds of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. They recounted hiding under dead bodies to survive, smearing blood on themselves to fake death and hiding in the pulpit, clinging to a Bible.

Yes, the blood of Christ still cries out for justice. Thank God for U.S. District Judge, Petrese Tucker, who heard her call to truth and brought to justice, Moses W. Thomas. The lawsuit said that Thomas was in command as soldiers fired into the packed church from the front door through windows, targeting those trying to escape. His actions as a colonel for the armed forces of Liberia made him liable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. May this gesture by a judge in our country give us hope that the same can happen in Belgium.

“Roamin’ Catholics”

by Phillis Fuller-Clipps, Cleveland Western Reserve, Ohio Companion

image of Cleveland Western Reserve Companions of the Missionaries of the Precious BloodPrecious Blood spirituality is the welcoming feeling you receive when you enter a parish or a room for the first time and you feel at home. It is feeling appreciated as a person; it is being welcomed to share your gifts and talents with your church community. It is being missed when you do not attend Mass. It is the overwhelming feeling of “Hey, where have you been?!” when you return to Mass after missing a few Sundays for whatever reason, with no questions or judgement. It is the love and support you receive through the struggles of life just by attending Mass.

Our nurturing and spiritual stories as African American Catholics in Cleveland are intertwined with the history of St. Adalbert/Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament (sa/olbs) and St. Edward parishes. Both were staffed by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and Precious Blood priests, brothers, and sisters. We learned life lessons about faith, family, perseverance, and challenging work. Some of us attended Catholic schools and were taught the value of daily prayer and discipline. Some of us are converts as a result of our children becoming interested in the Catholic faith while attending St. Adalbert school.

Our introduction to Precious Blood Companions was a courtship. Our pastor invited a group of us to dinner, where he prepared the meal, we had light conversation and discussions about spirituality and Precious Blood Companions. In retrospect, he served us and taught us about Precious Blood spirituality the same way Jesus served and taught his disciples. There were about fourteen of us; nine completed the process to become Companions and have enjoyed our relationship with the Precious Blood community since 2005.

These are the lessons and charisms we learned from our Precious Blood priests and brothers for over seventy-two years, but when our parish was suppressed in 2010, we were forced to see how unloving, unwelcoming, and unappreciated we really were as African Americans in the larger Catholic Church. We visited approximately fifty churches within the Cleveland diocese. Sadly, the ethnically-centered churches (Hungarian, Sloven, Slovak, Polish etc.) tended to be the most indifferent as well as intolerant.

Because we understand that Catholicism is really “universal,” we continued undaunted and revisited places that were unwelcoming, not to intimidate or agitate, but to show that we are the Church, not our nationality or the color of our skin. Some treated us the same as the first visit, while others were more welcoming. The coldest comment we heard was, “We hope you find a parish.” The most insensitive gesture we experienced was when no one would join the line we were in for Communion but joined a separate line. During the same Mass, the priest refused to distribute the Blood of Christ, leaving it on the altar. It should be noted that though this occurred in a Hungarian parish, it is located in the heart of the African American Community. The church had the appearance of being closed, but we found the Mass schedule on the Diocesan website. Thank God for technology.

We were not looking for a church home; we were being challenged to continue the life lessons we had learned through our relationships with the Precious Blood community while appealing the decision to close our parish. We had become “Roamin’ Catholics.”

The visits had a range of eye-opening experiences, both positive and negative, and gave us opportunities to form and continue relationships. Along our journey, we met people from other churches that had been closed who appealed their parishes’ closings. Like us, some of those parishioners had begun visiting other parishes or just stopped attending Mass. The Mass was and continues to be important to us because we are one with Jesus each Sunday that we gather at the table of God and share in the Eucharist. The body and blood of Jesus sustains us always, gives us the encouragement, energy, and hope to continue. 

During the appeal process, we gathered with former sa/olbs parishioners in January to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.; early summer for Black Catholic Sunday at the Sorrowful Mother Shrine in Bellevue, Ohio; and in the late summer for a healing Mass with Fr. Gene Wilson. We also continued to gather monthly as Companions, visit with fellow Ohio Companions for an annual gathering that rotates between Cleveland and Columbus, as well as attend retreats at Maria Stein and St. Charles.

Finally, exactly two years after our parish was closed, it was allowed to reopen. Although we were delighted, we were also heartbroken because the Precious Blood community had taken its leave from Cleveland and would not be returning. We worked through our adjustment with a diocesan priest using the circle process with the assistance of the Precious Blood community to help us express our fears, expectations, strengths, and weaknesses. 

We Companions met with our new pastor and a Precious Blood priest at the main altar of our church. It was a very difficult and rewarding process. We were able to openly and honestly express how each felt about the two years without our parish, the loss of Precious Blood community, and the acceptance of a diocesan priest. We were able to acknowledge our differences and were reminded it was new situation for each of us. We shared stories of our spiritual growth and traditions. Most importantly, we learned of our similarities. We agreed to disagree and work together to glorify God and carry his message in our community.

Our new journey has been challenging. Over sixty percent of our parish members had joined a new parish, stopped attending church, changed churches, or had passed away. All of the “Roamin’ Catholics” returned to sa/olbs and have served as church leaders and organizers. Developing a relationship with our new pastor was difficult for us because we longed for the spirituality we had experienced with the Precious Blood community that wasn’t there with our new pastor. He is a wonderful person, and we have grown to know, love, and trust each other. We were blessed to learn that he had volunteered to be our pastor when he learned we would be allowed to reopen. And so we let go of the past, treasure our memories, and forge ahead with new relationships, a new beginning, and the opportunity to continue to share our lessons learned. 

We continue to share our Precious Blood spirituality with everyone who attends our parish. We continued the practices and lessons learned from the Precious Blood community.

REMEMBRANCE OF HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI

from Gabino Zavala, Justice and Peace Director

At 8:15 am on August 6, 1945, Hiroshima became the first city to suffer an attack by a nuclear weapon. Many were immediately incinerated. Thousands more died in the next four months because of the effects of nuclear weapons.

Three days later, on August 9 Nagasaki was also attacked by a nuclear bomb. Historically, Nagasaki was the center of Japanese Catholicism since 1549 when the Jesuit Missionary Francis Xavier began his missionary work in Japan. That day 8,500 of the 12,000 Catholics were killed.

The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki commemorate the bombings every year. They have made a commitment to ensure that the memory of these horrific attacks is not forgotten and to continue to pass on  information about the bombings so that we might work for nuclear disarmament and world peace.

Nuclear weapons continue to be a serious threat to human life and to all of God’s creation. Justice and Peace are intimately linked with the issue.  Where there is armed conflict, injustice thrives, and injustice provides fertile ground for violence. This time of commemoration of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can help us to focus on prayer, reflection, and action on behalf of peace and nuclear disarmament.

PRAYER IN REMEMBRANCE OF HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI

May the God of Peace, the God of healing be with you,
may the love of Christ dwell deep within your hearts,
may the spirit enlighten your way.

We remember the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
We stand in the presence of all those who perished.
We pray for the victims of these unspeakable atrocities.

We elevate the voices of those who have witnessed the destructive power of nuclear weapons.: the Hibakusha, the Pacific Islanders, the downwinders.

We pray for those who awoke on a beautiful morning and saw the sky suddenly rain down fire. Thousands were instantly incinerated, many others severely burned.

In the homes, streets, gardens of those cities the agony and suffering began with flames smoke and destruction.

We ask for forgiveness again, seventy-six years later. And we will continue to ask for forgiveness.

We ask you in the midst of this broken world where nations raise weapons against other nations, where innocent women, men, children and the elderly are the victims of violence, that we learn to act as peacemakers.

May you inspire us to create a peaceful world.  May we call our leaders to accountability and to remind them  that more weapons of war do not bring peace. Make us a peaceful people in a peaceful world. Amen.

The Bond of Charity Must Extend to All

by Fr. David Matz, C.PP.S., Sonnino Mission House, Berkeley, California

As vaccinations allow the re-opening of all that was closed during the pandemic, it is a delight to see children in the school playground in Berkeley again. A coach was out with the children when I heard him say to a smaller group, “Positivity! I want to hear positivity in your words! You don’t like it when others talk bad about you. I want you to talk positive about your teammates because it makes you feel good!”

As a member of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, the bond of charity has always been a value that we strive to show to all. The coach’s words reminded me of this bond. Like we learned in kindergarten and grade school, we must affirm and encourage the use of positive words and actions in the realm of religion, politics, and power rather than words and actions that demonize, divide, and label other people.

Unfortunately, since January of this year, hundreds of bills that target LGBTQ people have been filed in state legislatures, which is creating a “state of crisis,” advocates say. The bills “attempt to erase transgender people and attempt to make LGBTQ people second-class citizens,” says Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “Until now, 2015 held that record, with 15 anti-LGBTQ bills enacted into law; so far this year 8 bills have been signed into law, and another 10 are sitting on governor’s desks awaiting signatures.”

In Arkansas, state lawmakers voted overwhelmingly, by a 3-1 ratio, to override a veto from the Republican governor, Asa Hutchison, and effectively banned gender-affirming medical treatments, such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy, for trans youth under the age of 18. Many people gave testimonies both for and against the bill. While families and experts who work with transgender youth spoke against the bill because of its damage to the wellbeing of those who would benefit from medical treatment, what is disturbing is that those who sought to block these treatments, had little or no experience with these youth.

The Arkansas bill takes effect in June 2021 and makes it illegal to give gender-affirming care to those who need it. One clinician told the legislature that she received hundreds of calls from her clients concerned about where and how they will continue their therapy. She cited the rates of suicide among transgender youth and warned that if they passed the bill, each time one of her clients die each of them will be receiving a call from her letting them know of their deaths.

Twenty other states are considering banning gender-affirming medical care for youth with “gender dysphoria.” Transgender persons make of 2% of the population but transgender youth have a 30%-50% higher suicide rate than other groups of young people. The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that gender-affirming care from multi-disciplinary teams, parents, and extended families significantly reduce the suicide rate. It is astonishing that America, which supposedly values a culture of life, is brutally disregarding a vulnerable youth population and devaluing their dignity.

Recently, a father from Kansas City testified in front of the Missouri House of Representatives, “For years I didn’t get it! I forced my daughter to wear boy clothes to protect my child and protect myself. My child was miserable! I had a child who did not smile.” The epiphany moment for him was when he saw his daughter in a dress. He told her she could not go across the street to play at a friend’s house dressed like that. His daughter then asked if she could go if she put on boy clothes. “It was then that it hit me, that my daughter was equating being good with being someone else. I was teaching her to deny who she is. As a parent, the one thing we cannot do, the one thing, is silence our child’s spirit.” He stopped silencing his child and allowed her to grow her hair long and wear “girl” clothes. “It was a total transformation,” he said. “I now have a confident, smiling, happy daughter. She plays on girls’ volleyball teams. She has friendships. She’s a kid.” He urged the legislature not to pass a bill banning transgender students from playing on sports’ teams. The bill “will have real effects on real people,” he said.

In a recent New York Times piece, columnist Frank Bruni writes, “It doesn’t matter if those youth are pleading for this kind of help or have already begun receiving it and found it to be lifesaving. It doesn’t matter if their parents, having wrestled hard with the situation and done extensive research, believe that therapy is crucial. It doesn’t matter if physicians, clinicians, and psychotherapists have concluded throughout the world that it’s in the youths’ best interest. ‘Politicians know best.’” Bruni concludes that in the interest of political gain politicians heartlessly identify vulnerable, marginalized populations and demonize them while making themselves think they are the experts. There are scores of active legislations across the nation that promote this heartless agenda.

We are Precious Blood people! We know that all life is precious and that the blood of Jesus doesn’t discriminate and that as the blood flows, the boundaries of God’s love increase to include all people. We have a special call to look for the most vulnerable people and advocate for them. Giving them the space to speak their truth. Breaking down our own boundaries and celebrating that we are all in relationship with each other—one in Christ.

This is personal for me as a missionary. Many straight people have asked me what I, a gay priest, have in common with someone who is transgender. Like you, I can think back to the culture wars that have polarized our communities. Gay people know what’s it’s like to have their identity, dignity, and happiness pressed into a cultural and political weapon. Two examples: in our Church in the 1990s there was a debate about whether a gay man could be ordained a priest and most recently, a decree saying the Church cannot bless same-sex unions. A legislative example was in 2015, when North Carolina declared that transgender people could only use public restrooms of their birth gender, which was repealed in 2016. The legislative bans related to transgender youth aren’t unfamiliar territory for us in the latest of the culture wars. Can we even comprehend what it is like to be born into a body that does not match our gender identity? Why are we creating laws to reject transgender people and deny their medical care? It’s exploitation and cruelty.

As Precious Blood people we know that sharing our story and our truth is vital for life. It is when transgender people share their story that we begin to learn like the coach with the children to live them in positivity. Benjamin, a transgender friend and coach of mine, has shared how in his transition he finally feels at home in his body and is able to live his truth. He coached me and together we moved from relating to him as a woman to now referring to him as a man—she/her pronouns became he/him pronouns. I am so grateful that he expanded my world with his truth, and I continue to honor him to this day!

As Precious Blood, we have a call to stand up for the vulnerable. While we may not feel like these laws affect us, we have an obligation to stand in solidarity with our transgender brothers and sisters and their families. In solidarity we create the playground of positivity and that is the Kingdom of God!