Thursday, February 23, 2017

I left My Heart in Calais

For the month of January I lived in the Maria Skobtova Catholic Worker House in Calais. I went to help with the ministry with migrants and people seeking asylum started by Br. Johannes Maertens a monk of the Old Catholic Benedictine Community of the Good Shepherd. In this photo Br. Johannes is lighting a votive candle in front of the huge icon of Our Lady of the Jungle painted by a young migrant from Eritrea. It was a centerpiece of the Eritrean Orthodox Church in the Jungle. When the Jungle was destroyed by the French Government in October 2016, Br. Johannes had the image moved to a studio he uses as a chapel. In coming weeks it will be moved to Paris to an Orthodox Church there.

Most of the people in the Catholic Worker house were young men who were 16-19 years old, a few were older. They were fleeing Eritrea's forced conscription--which international observers have compared to slavery as the conscription has no end time, and the pay is "ludicrously low." Most wanted to get to England to join up with family. The UK was their destination of choice because English was the most common second language among them--Eritrea was a British Protectorate. Eritrea produces 5000 refugees a month.

When the Jungle was closed the UK government said it would allow for a family reunification program, but it has welshed on this promise, and most of the young people were sent to "welcome centers" far from Calais. The young people are determined and have come back to Calais by ones and twos to try and find a way across the English Channel, which is at its narrowest at Calais. There is nothing easy about "passing over" as they call it. Barking German shepherd dogs, guards with cattle prods, extreme temperatures and a mayor in Calais implacably opposed to migrants. Even the local Bishop of the Catholic Church the day after the Pope called on Catholics the world over to help migrants and refugees refused to open local parishes to house these desperate young people. Officially, there are no migrants in Calais. But in January we knew of over 400 on the streets; nearly 700 lived in a camp in Dunkirk run by local authorities.

The old site of the Jungle has been completely cleared. From 10,000 people at its most populated, there is almost no sign it existed. I helped transport materials from the Old Jungle to the Secours Catholique office one day, and watched workers demolishing the containers used to house people--housing that could be used especially in the cold months. Johannes and the supporters of the Maria Skobtova House do not officially encourage the migrants to try to cross as that is against the law. But they do offer a place to stay, food, clothing--also against the law, but they do it anyway as the alternative is to force the young people to face exposure and death. The house optimally held 16; at one point we hosted 21. It was a one toilet, one shower, three bedroom house. I haven't had so many room mates since my college fraternity days when we slept on a sleeping porch in bunk beds. Every few days Johannes and I would decide we couldn't take any more people, then the door bell would ring and some cold, sick, tired child would be pleading for help. We always welcomed them in, then many times Johannes would make phone calls trying to find them accommodation. Very reluctantly we let three on a wet, freezing night sleep on the floor of our prayer space. Our tiny house waas the only place tha offered overnight accommodation. Those outside spent the nights trying to get to UK on trucks, and then spent days hunched miserably wherever they could to sleep

I spent my days doing a little cooking, a little cleaning, a lot of praying. I drank gallons of tea. I ran as often as I could to get out of doors. Often people came to meet with Johannes--local activists, board members of the house--and we had meetings in English and French to address the rapidly changing situation, strategize about the future of the house, where would the ministry best serve people--should it move to Lille or Paris? All huge unwieldy subjects. There was a wonderful community of people supporting Johannes--the Auxilaires Sisters joined us for Morning prayer and the Evening program which included dinner and a prayer service.

The young people sometimes called me "Papa" which I was told was a title of respect for a religious person, but it struck directly at my heart. These kids could have been my children or grandchildren (barely!). I can't publish their photos as I promised them I wouldn't. But they would come and sit with me and tell me the stories of their travels from Eritrea to Calais. These were horrendous tales of treks across the Sahara and the Mediterranean leaving corpses of friends and acquaintances behind.

I experienced great community, a sense of people responding to a terrible situation and I saw the very best of what it means to be a Christian and a person of faith--there were many Muslims, too. I experienced the disorientation the migrants experience in a place I didn't speak very much French. My days had huge gaps of time when I was just waiting, being present to all that was swirling around me. When they young people would bundle up and leave at night to try their luck, I would close the door behind them and then weep.

Walls, cattle prods, barking dogs, these are not sufficient responses. There needs to be more pressure put on government leaders to create just living situations, promote education, reunite families. Simply put the basic human needs of civilised people need to be given highest priority by our leaders. It is unconscionable that young people would have to choose between forced conscription and fleeing for their lives.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Catch up

During my time in the Solomon Islands I led a workshop for the brothers on Franciscan leadership, using a wonderful book "Leading Like Francis."
We met under a huge mango tree outside the friary at Hautambu. The workshop include conversation and role playing. Working with these 50 young men was a real highlight of my visit this year.

After the workshop we met for chapter. Here we are after the last session: still smiling...

Every year I try to visit the friaries, this year i made it to all 9 friaries in the province. I travelled by ship, truck, on foot--once I had to swim a flooded river Indiana Jones style, and here we are launching the new canoe with outboard motor. We are on the beach after a three day visit to the new friary on Ysabel Island. The terrific paint job in the colors of the Solomon Islands flag caused a lot of comment!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

God's Gift to the Church

There is a great deal of hurt in the Episcopal Church about Anglican Communion's implementation of "consequences" in reaction to the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the church. The decision that the Episcopal Church needs to step back from full participation for three years hurts. But the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry has articulated the heart of the matter: "Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all."

These are powerful words and they reflect the reality of the church's position. It is a position taken in love. I believe in time there will be a reconciliation, the challenge will be to reach out, as another friend Barbara Crafton reminded us with the word of Abraham Lincoln: "with malice towards none..."

In the midst of this highly emotional week, I read "The Extraordinary Heart" by Nicholas Benton. As a gay man I was feeling a bit defensive about my identity and was wondering how to "give back" to the Church which has taken such a risk for me and many others like me. Benton writes about gay identity and giftedness:

"There is a "third way," alluded to in everything I have written in this series about nature's role for homosexuals in the creative order. It embodies all the attributes I have derived from the homosexual experience, outside of sexuality per se, such as a gay "sensibility," including a heightened empathy, an alternative sensual perspective, and a constructive non-conformity.

In the context of Greek mythological archetypes, it is identified with the mythological role of Prometheus.

Prometheus! Who would have thought of him in association with homosexual identity?

That's the nature of our gay revolution, to call into being something new, a new idea, and thereby to redefine ourselves and, thus, the world around us.

The myth of Prometheus fits. He was the Titan deity who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals, a great champion of mankind that the fifth-century B.C. playwright Aeschylus, who in his Prometheus Bound credits him with also providing mankind the arts of civilization, including science, math, agriculture, writing and medicine. His gift of divine fire symbolizes the spirit of creativity and constructive revolution, of humanity's liberation to reach its full potential."

It is an extraordinary book, and I found it especially helpful because he doesn't base homosexual identity on sex acts but on the precocious creative potential, the desire to live differently in the world, free from the straight jacket of nine-to-five job, a mortgage etc., the deep empathy for the poor, sick and outcast. My celibate commitment fits very comfortably in this generous definition of gay identity. Instead of feeling handicapped or diminished by my calling, Benton has helped me to see that all of the things that I cite as evidence of my Franciscan calling are deeply organic to who I am as a gay man. Becoming a friar wasn't hiding but assuming the responsibilities necessary for my full acceptance of who I was created to be, the calling I have received through God's grace. I gave an interview to a man in 1992 who was writing an article about the spirituality of gay men, and when he asked why I was so drawn to work with homeless people, I said it grew out of my empathy for them, a sense of being and having overcome homelessness myself as a gay boy. I was never actually homeless, but the feeling you don't fit is a very close second...

So now is the time for gay people in the Episcopal Church, lay and ordained, to be ourselves with all the clarity, passion and creativity we can muster. To embrace our promethean archetype and empower our several vocations to bring the church and civilization to a place of deeper integration with the vision of God's reign among us, with malice towards none...

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Visit to San Francisco

I have spent almost three weeks in San Francisco, staying with the brothers at San Damiano Friary. It has been a wonderful visit. In addition to the daily prayers and the usual sorts of things we do every day in any friary: daily office, Mass, diary meetings, cooking, shopping, cleaning...I spent several happy days weeding and pruning in the back garden, especially cutting back Br. Jude's blackberry bushes ("brambles" as he calls them), which present an ever malignant threat to the rest of the garden. I am from the Pacific Northwest, and the notion of planting blackberries in your garden is just shy of shocking. But these are heavy with berries, and will be ready for harvest in a week or so. Such are the bizarre glories of gardening in California!

I preached for the brothers shortly after I arrived, and made a visit to the Community of St. Francis house here in San Francisco where I celebrated Mass for them. It was a poignant visit; Sr. Cecelia might have known who I was, but she certainly couldn't hear anything I was saying. She rests in bed all of the time now, and the sisters and often the brothers along with other care givers do their best to keep her comfortable. She is a remarkably strong woman; I have so many good memories of her: especially of my time here as a novice. She had just finished as Minister General, I believe. At any rate she was full of good humor and showed me warm affection both in 1992 and now in 2015.

This past week I spent time with our two SSF novices, Juniper and Damien Joseph on the vows. I talked with them, using my book, The Vows Book as the basis for our conversations. They are alert, inquiring men, and we had some very fruitful, engaging times together.

The weather has been generally beautiful, and I have used the opportunity to run, working on speeding up! I've decided that 2016 will be the Year of the Race. Perhaps a marathon, definitely a half marathon. Since September will be my "holiday time" I'm considering a run in Jackson Hole, Wyoming or in Arizona. The run in Arizona has the added attraction of being sponsored by the Hopi People. I would love to run that; conditioning is my only worry.

After searching around on-line for articles about running a marathon, I've found lots of advice. I am trying to do the work that seems most common-sensical. That includes gradually increasing my distances, taking rest days, and doing other exercises to strengthen my core. I can do 10 push ups and about 20 stomach "crunches." I think my concern about conditioning is legitimate!! On the other hand I can run about 13 miles fairly easily. One trainer writing in a magazine article posted on the internet suggested jumping rope. I have lots of happy memories jumping rope as a school child, so I bought one. But I have found I feel very self conscious jumping rope on the city side walks of San Francisco, and keep forgetting to take it to a park...I'm trying to push my boundaries at the same time practice a little loving kindness for myself, which I still see as an awkward, uncoordinated self!

I find encouragement from Bruce Tift, a psychotherapist and teacher at Naropa University who has written: The basis of compassion with ourselves and others is to stay embodied and present with the difficulty of being human. That's how we actually keep our hearts open, not trying to transcend our difficult feelings.

Running a race is not just about exercise. It is a very mental challenge, one of the biggest mental challenges is stilling the voice that says "You are a fool! Forget about it. And besides you are too old." My mental riposte is that is pure nonsense.

So why do I keep thinking about it?

Monday I leave San Francisco and go to Seattle for Christmas with my family--the first time since 1988. Every Christmas since has been with the brothers. But since this is the first Christmas after my father's death, the brothers thought it would be a good idea for me to be with my Mother; so do I!

Below is a picture of the burly brothers of San Damiano.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Unconditional Cheerfulness

Saturday I attended a wonderful day of reflection at San Damiano Friary facilitated by Dave Richo. He gave each of us a booklet of "Quotations to Ponder" and among them was this one which I have been pondering:

"Empowered to turn negativity into a resource, I found flowering in me an unconditional cheerfulness and patience that is indestructible, because it is not based on the rejection of obstacles. . . I learned how to crack my habits open and discover the luminous, enlightened energy frozen within them--energy which became available for creative work and joy. . . I understood that virtues are always cultivated from their opposites: patience is the ability to accommodate impatience, courage is the ability to handle fear, and wisdom is not possible unless confusion is allowed to emerge. Therefore I developed immense respect for my mistakes; without them, my discoveries could not have been made." by Stephen T. Butterfield.

Reading this I was reminded of a comment my bishop Vincent Warner, Bishop of Olympia in 1990 when I wrote to him about the confusion of joining a religious order, the confusion of coming out, the confusion of wondering what I was supposed to be about in my life. He wrote back: "We need to have the courage of our confusion!" I took that to mean stop chasing after answers that won't come until its the right time. I always wanted answers right away.

Now I still wonder the same things, but the answers are right there alongside the questions. The only thing I need to do is to be open to the challenges these answers present.

Do I want more intimacy in my life? I am surrounded by men who want the same thing, do I have the grace to accept what God is offering me? Do I have the charity to see them as God sees them?

Do I want to be a great advocate for social justice and a leader of people? I am surrounded by situations and people who need help. Do I have the humility to help those at my right side and my left? Or do I simply long for the spotlight of glamorous aid given to people in the news, far away?

Do I want more joy and laughter in my life? I am embedded in a life of serendipity and weird connections, extraordinary "synchronicities" (to coin a phrase) and hilarious absurdities.

These are the sustenance for the road. With them I can share my faith, serve the world in Christ's name. Joy and unconditional cheerfulness can come from being aligned with reality. Reality exists apart from my fondest dreams, It is something I have to actually accept on its own terms. When I live a reality based, love infused life, I discover (over and over again, alas--such is this amnesiac) the joy of my life as a man, a friar, a priest--Lover writ large.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Franciscan pacifist

A friend of mine, Barbara Crafton, has observed that the list of names and titles at the beginning of the Gospel passage (Luke 3:1-6) are often used to establish the preaching of John the baptist in history, when it happened. But, she wonders, perhaps it’s not the when but the WHO. Not to Tiberias, not to Pilate, not to Herod or Philip, not to Lysanias, not to Annas nor Caiaphas. Not to the political and religious leaders. Not to the “big boys” (as she calls them) at the helm of the important institutions of government and religion. But the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the desert. It came to a virtual nobody, nowhere.

This choice is Good News. It privileges our puny lives. God chose the weak to shame the strong (sounds familiar to Franciscan ears, doesn’t it?), and to let the “big boys” know that they won’t last forever. The meek will inherit the earth; “every valley will be filled up, every mountain levelled off…” We tend to think of the meek as the milquetoasts, but really it is the poor people the minores. They can be brave and endued with power when they work together. John’s message is a warning to the rich and powerful: “Watch out!” Things are going to change, you don’t know when, but they will change when you least expect it. John got his head chopped off for speaking truth to power. but his populist message is durable. It is part of our cherished tradition and recalled as requisite in our preparations to welcome Christ at his coming. In other words, you can make a difference, and every one of us matters. The people around John were the Occupy Judea Movement. Who isn’t stirred at the thought of a capacious and inclusive vision like John’s? Maybe the rich, but that’s the point!

The trouble is that fear can corrupt the populist message of hope and inclusion, turning it into vigilante nightmare where ordinary people become judge and executioner, arming themselves with guns rather than equipping themselves with skills of negotiation, reserves of compassion, the attributes of love. This fear based flip makes it extremely important that Christians cultivate a profound awareness and relationship with Jesus Christ. Now is the time to make the Christian difference felt. The qualities of forgiveness and love and skills of negotiation and collaboration are the truly good qualities that St. Paul tells the Philippians only Jesus Christ can produce. We know that they are produced in every religion, but our profession requires a radical Christ consciousness. To make the road ready for the Lord we need to pray for love. For forgiveness. For courage to speak truth to power. For the largeness of heart to transform the fears we have into vulnerability. For the grace to be vulnerable and honest.

Our country is grappling with a watershed moment of truth about guns. Instead of guns, I am calling for courage to enter conflicts unarmed. Instead of protecting self and loved ones with bullets I am calling for skilled listening and negotiating, radical forgiveness. This foolish approach has worked with Boko Haran in Nigeria, where the Anabaptists have faced the terrorists in their villages, befriending them in some cases, and at the cost of their lives in others. As a Franciscan friar it is the only way I can live out my commitment with integrity. It is a chance to show the world what being Christian means. We cannot just wring our hands about this terrible situation. Each of us must live differently, gather under the banner of John in the desert where we can confess our sins and prepare ourselves as heirs and heralds of the most radically loving God-initiative in human history.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The 75%

At our last Chapter of the province of the Americas in May Dave Richo spoke to us. One of the things he said was that 25% of our needs for affection, support, affirmation should come from other people, and 75% from within ourselves.

I have been brooding over this ever since.

I used to think at least 50-50; I harbored hopes for 100% from the Order, of if I got lucky from somebody else. But Healthy intimacy and spirituality apparently is weighted in favor of inner strength, self-nurture and affirmation. At the same time I understand it is not the same as being selfish.

What I have come to understand is that looking for love, connection, etc., begins with prayer. Opening myself to God and then in full view of God’s loving gaze take stock of myself. It’s not “I’m the best” or “I’m the greatest!” or any other jejune adolescent attitudes. Rather, it is about “I’ve done my best,” “I forgive myself for my failings and look for ways to make the situation better for myself and others.” I am grateful for the love and support of others because I know I am worthy of their love.

For me as a Christian, it is about Jesus in my life, shaping my thinking and values around the texts I hold as sacred. Loving others—even those I have difficulty with; I love because God first loved me. Recognizing that nothing can come between me and God’s love, not even those rat-tailed creatures that lurk in my brain gnawing away at my self-esteem.

I’ve developed some techniques for soothing myself and getting back on track (although sometimes it takes 9 months or a year to feel securely on the rails—no quick fixes here): just sitting quietly and letting my brain sift through things, picking out what is beautiful and good, and giving thanks for all that still bewilders and upsets me. Running is another technique. It grounds me in the weather, the world outside, I feel my body pushing and sweating. I love tired muscles—I am a creature. God made me, and I give thanks. Worries get put into proper perspective when my concern is breathing, keeping moving, or my attention is caught by beauty around me. This awareness and the work it invites us to do is the big piece of happy functioning in the world, a healthy spirituality.

The other 25% then comes flooding in; people do their best to show their love. There are kindnesses and generous acts all of the time if I can only see them.
Last night there were bombings in Paris, the world is struggling with violence and hate. I think one of the greatest contributions we can give to the world is to live with calm assurance of God’s love and care. Not to give into fearful worst-case scenarios. Love and forgiveness are applicable to ourselves to our neighbors and to people far away. Grounded in love we can speak to the terrorists: “Peace, Brother!” Like Francis to the wolf or the robbers or the Saracens (Muslims of his day). A friend posted on Facebook that she was okay in Paris, had been with friends. Her message was of reassurance, of love of prayer in the midst of the trouble. This is the Christian way. It is the best way for us to live—personally, with friends and community, globally with political troubles around us.

The Society of St. Francis Ministers Meetings at Hilfield Friary in Dorset, UK concluded this week. For me, the result of it all was a renewed appreciation of my community, love for my brothers in their struggles and tenderness, and a deep gratitude for the gifts I have been given. And the greatest of these is love.