Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Week In Thailand

Last week I was in Thailand.

I was attending a Leaders’ Conference hosted by Franciscans International. They brought together a large group of Franciscans from around the Asia-Pacific region (which embraces everything from Pakistan and India to the Solomon Islands and New Zealand, and Mongolia!!). I went to speak about the Solomon Islands training Franciscans International helped us with (and to remind them that Franciscans International is an ecumenical organization). It was a good meeting, and I made friends with a wide array of people.

Our visit began with a visit to the United Nations offices in Bangkok. We met with a staff officer from the Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific, and then we listened to a panel of experts representing a variety of organizations within the UN. We were reminded that the UN is “a member State driven organization.” I took this to be a reason why the UN is so often perplexingly silent. Some of the speakers expressed frustration with the UN yet at the same time they endorsed it as one of the few international organizations to which most of the nations belong. Our FI staff said the real power of the UN is in its ability “to name and shame” member states. What happened to Libya is an example.

Franciscans International will be spending a lot of time and effort this year looking at the plight of women and children who are trafficked for cheap labor or sexual exploitation. Because these are big issues, we have partnered with other organizations, especially ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking), Save the Children, Caritas and Jesuit Refugee Service. These NGO’s offer direct service to at risk and exploited children and they advocate for them at the UN. Those countries that do not have laws or systems in place to protect children will get some pressure from other countries at the UN, with a big push from FI and our friends.

In addition to advocacy at the UN, Franciscans International does a lot of “capacity building” among Franciscans. This means they come and do training about human rights, and how to develop social justice ministry like they did for the religious orders of the Anglican Church of Melanesia in the Solomon Islands. I was able to talk about our experience and the possibilities we now have as a result of the training.

But we couldn’t ignore what was happening all last week in Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia, Egypt, Iran…did I leave anybody out? It was an amazing week to watch Al Jazeera television during my jet-lagged nights, my body unable to sleep. The conference received messages asking for our prayers in solidarity with all of the people caught up in the amazing changes. We heard about some Franciscan friars living and working in Libya. I was happy to know that friars and sisters live and work in these countries, though all of us were deeply concerned for their safety.

Peace is not just an ideal. It is a process. And all of us, especially those who profess and call themselves Franciscans must find ways to engage people, break down barriers of suspicion and hatred, raise up the common ground of men and women in the world today. I finished my time in Thailand by going to visit the place where Thomas Merton died.
He’d gone to Thailand to engage in an interreligious dialogue and had spoken about Marxism and Christianity. He died when a fan shorted out and he was electrocuted. We stood in Star Cottage where it happened and shared a moment of prayer: I prayed that I might find ways to reach out to those of different traditions and cultures like Merton did.

Of course 21st-Century barrier bashing and social change is very different from 40 years ago. The “Arab Spring” is due to the internet. Crowds are galvanized by Facebook and Twitter. Cell phones transmit pictures and stories; these are posted, shared and read out over the television. Anyone can report on what’s happening. All of us have the possibility of “being a contender” and offering what we can to encourage the forces of democracy and freedom and peace.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Gratitude List

This photo is of Dolores Park, right across from San Damiano Friary in San Francisco. I took it Saturday afternoon, after finishing my 4 mile run: a beautiful spring day! It is the perfect image for how I am feeling: grateful!

Flying across the country two weeks ago, the Delta airlines magazine had a section on "Things we liked in 2010" or something like that. Along with the Old Spice Guy, they included a special box on gratitude: how important it is to a happy productive life. I was reminded then of a verse from psalm 66 "Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people." This verse caught my attention a few weeks ago and prompted me to reflect on the wonderful things God had done in my life, and the link between being grateful and my willingness to keep my vows. Last Friday a group of us were telling stories about the things we are grateful for in our lives today. For me it is the chance to spend time in San Francisco (escaping the snow in New York!!), for meaningful work, for my health, and all the people in my life who love and support me.

On a more micro level, I really enjoyed eating a "Proposition 8" hot dog (two weiners in one bun!) at Zog's Dogs in San Francisco, coffee at the original Peets in Berkeley, cooking dinner for the brothers.

Perhaps it sounds too Pollyanna, but I have discovered that especially at times when I feel aggravated and unhappy, the best way to move through it is to start to list the things that I am grateful for. Eventually the glass is half full, and before I know it it is overflowing.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Forty years in San Francisco

I left New York last Tuesday, possibly one of the last flights to get out of JFK due to an ice storm. What a relief to arrive in nearly 60+ F weather!

Tuesday evening the brothers in the Bay area gathered with the retired Bishop of California, Bill Swing, and his wife Mary for Holy Eucharist and dinner. We began to tell stories about the early days of SSF in San Francisco. It is humbling to think of all the brothers who have lived at San Damiano, and the breadth of their ministries over the past 40 years. Bishop Swing spoke movingly of his perception of our contribution to the life of the diocese.

Wednesday evening, the Feast of the Presentation, we gathered again with the sisters of the Community of St. Francis. After dinner Br. Robert Hugh gave a brilliant talk about the early years. Arriving in San Francisco in February 1971, we originally lived in a apartment until the present location on Dolores Street was found--a "marginal" neighborhood in those days, he said. We moved in a floor at a time over the course of nearly a year.

In those days the men who came to us were like as not to be seeking a way to avoid the draft, something which our commitment to peace and non-violence made an obvious option. But, as Robert Hugh observed, the formation process became more about helping late adolescents mature into adulthood than an in-depth exploration of Franciscanism, though the two are by no means mutually exclusive efforts. I think Robert was being a bit modest as he was very involved with the formation program in those days.

One of our earliest ministries in the Bay Area was welcoming young people who came to San Francisco through the Haight Asbury help center. People needing a place to stay were given chits to present to the brothers who provided showers, beds and food. Later we offered the same resources to refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.

San Damiano was a new kind of effort for SSF in those days, at least in the American Province, because it was not affiliated with a parish. Then, as now, the brothers were involved in different parishes and ministry initiatives.

Sister Ruth, one of our First Order Sisters of the Community of St. Francis has also lived in San Francisco almost the whole 40 years of our presence in the city. CSF came to San Francisco shortly after the brothers. She is justly famous for founding Family Link, a ministry to families of persons affected by AIDS. Now it is for families of people who are affected by illness of any kind and needing housing. But before that she was a contractor and also a nurse to the founder of the American Episcopal Franciscans, Fr. Joseph. She spoke after Robert Hugh finished, and told some poignant stories of the old man's last years. I wanted to laugh and weep at the same time.

Its a joy to hear such a generous assessment of life and ministry.

1971 was also the year the brothers moved into Patteson House in the Solomon Islands. We shared the house with the Sisters of the Church, another Anglican religious order. Initially the brothers and sisters shared the main house: kitchen, dining room, laundry and common room. But within a year or so, a wall was built so that each community could have it's privacy.

So the experiments in community living carry on. It is exciting to me to think of where we have been, and encouraging as we dream about where we can go. We've been out there, challenging culture, welcoming strangers, ministering to the sick and needy, experimenting with the forms and norms of religious life.