A Glimpse into Catholic Social Teaching (by some super rad nuns)

12/22/16

I've been friends with the Dominican Sisters of Hope for about a year now and I'll tell ya what, these ladies are the real deal.  They make me proud to be Catholic and inspire me to continue pressing on towards a more just world.  It is with eager fingers and full heart that I introduce you to them today.  Consider it your Christmas gift from me.  ;)

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Google Catholic Social Teaching and you’ll get pages-long responses talking about justice as it relates to everything from the Earth to solidarity. No doubt, Catholicism’s relation to justice is important, but it’s not the most succinct teaching of the Church. That’s because living a just life —treating every individual with respect, caring for the Earth, and ministering to the poor and marginalized— isn’t clear-cut or formulaic.

According to Pat Jelly, OP, a Dominican Sister of Hope, Catholic Social Teaching focuses on the concept “that we are not here alone.”

“We have a responsibility to each other,” Sister Pat explains, “And not only those immediately around us. We have a responsibility as members of a community, whether we are speaking about our family or a larger community that we happen to be a member of: our family, our congregation or parish, our town, our world.”

Catholic Social Teaching calls us simply to ask what we can do or plan to do to bring God’s reign closer for our community at large.

Chicago Daily News photo, courtesy of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries.

As a congregation, the 150+ sisters spread throughout fifteen states and Puerto Rico that comprise the Dominican Sisters of Hope have a dynamic perspective on this. Our mission is to preach the Gospel of Hope to the world, especially to the poor and marginalized. But, as each sister pursues her own unique skills and talents, the practice of Catholic Social Teaching plays out in a myriad of ways.

Sister Pat Jelly advocates for education rights, immigrant rights, and victims of human trafficking.

As a retired professor of Philosophy, Sister Ann Stankiewicz lists tuition costs or themes of study as her take on Catholic Social Teaching.

Sister Monica McGloin is devoted to workers’ rights. 

Sister Nancy Erts, who traveled to Iraq in 2001 in order to get a view of true life there and share it with American media, now ministers in eco-justice and eco-spirituality, which means she leads retreats and serves on multiple boards to help protect and preserve the Hudson Valley area.  “Catholic Social Teaching relates to what Jesus taught in the Gospels: practicing equity and mercy, and living collegially,” Sister Nancy Erts explains.

Sister Mary Feigen, who serves as the community’s Justice Promoter, shares petitions, marches, and other activism opportunities with the community at large.  

“We ourselves, and all of creation, are the Universe unfolding and revealing itself,” Sister Mary says. “We respond as Dominican Sisters of Hope to the call to a right relationship with all. We stand together against the named injustices and global concerns.”

Sister Pat Jelly, center

But how are these “named injustices” chosen? And who chooses them, specifically? In 1891 Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical letter called Rerum Novarum, raising the issue of the common person and his/her inherent dignity.  Pope Leo XIII highlights seven themes on which workers for peace and justice might concentrate: Life and Dignity of the Human Person; Call to Family, Community, and Participation; Rights and Responsibilities; Option for the Poor and Vulnerable; The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers; Solidarity; and Care for God's Creation.

Rerum Novarum doesn't stand alone. Our community has frequently used documents from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops such as Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions and even a document on Faithful Citizenship, both of which have served as foundations for us in our years of teaching.

Over one-hundred years later, these teachings on caring for the poor, solidarity, protecting and preserving the Earth, believing that we belong and are responsible to a global community, standing for economic justice, family support, workers’ rights, and overall human rights are more pertinent to our world than ever. 

We have this expansive teaching, beginning with a single document but branching out to centuries of history, that calls us to work for global justice. Where do we begin? 

In this way, perhaps the Dominican Sisters of Hope are most instructive in their example. Dominican Sister of Hope Lois Dee summarizes Catholic Social Teaching by saying: “It’s not so much a topic that I study, it’s the way I live.” 

This fall alone, Sisters Sharon Yount and Diane Trotta went down to New Orleans to help build houses for folks who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina. Sister Bette Ann Jaster is on the front lines of the fight to stop the Algonquin Pipeline, a major fracking threat in New York. Sister Mary Headley traveled to Haiti to deliver goods to help rebuild and get people food, water, and medical care after the hurricane. As a community, we collected stamps and stationery for families in detention so that they can communicate with family members back home over the holidays. And, we’re currently working with local parishes and Cardinal Dolan to change the local landscape for refugees.

Right now, Sister Beth McCormick is seeing hope in prison. Sister Debbie is finding hope in Nicaragua's poorest communities. Sister Beth Jaspers is discovering hope in the persistence of the people of Appalachia.

Sister Bette Ann Jaster

How might you get involved in a way that’s genuine to you? 

The best way is to simply get started: find a cause that speaks to you and attend meetings, participate in online activism, join a community, reach out to others. Joining an active group should give you a sense of particular issue for you and what needs to be done. Our Cultivating Change page has a multitude of justice stories outlining causes that are always seeking support. 

Beyond just getting involved, of course, it’s crucial to consider the attitude with which you’re getting involved. Are you acting prayerfully? Are you acting humbly? 

And, as Sister Pat Jelly reminds us, “we’re called to not be overwhelmed by it all,” but to approach these issues with daily prayer as well as action.

“We’re called to be touched by the pain of others [including the environment] and to see what we can do,” Sister Pat says. “We can’t fix the world, but we can do something. And we should pray everyday to become aware of that which we can change. We have a responsibility today, and all we have is today.”

That’s the thing about Catholic Social Teaching: even though it’s a big, bulky concept, it makes it clear that, however you want to do it, the time to start working for justice is now. Pray. Research. Commit to some sort of volunteerism or activism, no matter how small. Commit to, as Rerum Novarum reads, “loving God and [each other] with a love that is outstanding and of the highest degree.”

Indeed, in a fragmented world, Catholic Social Teaching just might be the answer to alleviating suffering and achieving justice. What would happen if we further inculcated ideas of solidarity, of caring for the poor, of protecting the Earth, of defending each individual’s human dignity into our daily lives?

As Rerum Novarum asks: Would it not seem that, were society penetrated with ideas like these, strife must quickly cease?

The Dominican Sisters of Hope 150+ Catholic Dominican sisters who are committed to living and preaching the Gospel message of hope. We now live in fifteen states and Puerto Rico where we serve largely in justice, social, healthcare, and education ministries. We’re excited to share with you the ways we bring hope to it all: www.ophope.org

Muslim in 2016 America: An Interview

12/13/16

I try to be intentional about listening carefully to the voices of minorities and really, in this age of social media that's easy to do.  I have black, latino, gay, and transgender friends whose feeds I am constantly seeking to learn from because there is no way for me to truly know what their experience is like unless I listen to them.  

But I'm going to admit something to you today that feels like eating humble pie: I can't think of a single Muslim American whom I follow closely.  Now that I've realized that, you can be sure I will be remedying it, but that's the truth of it today.  I thought that maybe some of you might be in the same boat, so we find ourselves here with this interview.

Kristin Hassan was my housemate and close friend in college, though she wasn't a Hassan back then.  ;)  Two years ago she married a loving, gentle Egyptian Muslim man named Mahmoud and they live in the Washington D.C. area. I have absolutely loved hearing about their tender relationship and I have appreciated the unique lens that Kristin offers as an American-born now in a Muslim family. 

I asked Kristin if she and Mahmoud would be willing to do an interview for the blog, and she enthusiastically agreed.  The answers are written in her voice, as he is not as comfortable addressing these types of questions in his second language, but they worked on them together and her answers are meant to speak for them both.

Grab a cup of something warm and settle in with an open mind to hear about a reality likely quite different from your own.  Join me in giving Kristin and Mahmoud a very warm welcome!


Tell us about how you two met!

I had begun working full time in refugee resettlement in Texas and was enamored by the beauty and resilience of each person I encountered. I wanted to learn all the vibrant languages that made up an enchanting symphony in our office on the daily. I decided to start with Arabic. Mahmoud and I were fatefully matched as online language partners and a friendship blossomed right there in the interwebs. I visited Egypt, met Mahmoud in person, and set out on a larger journey than I was expecting; we’ve been married now for a little over 2 years. For me, the biggest challenge and gift has been experiencing that ache that I’ve heard described by others but never understood; that ache to create and see a world realized that is good enough for this man that I love so much and for the family that we hope to have one day. I want a world that is fair, unapologetically open, and safe for all.


Kristin, you worked professionally with Muslim refugees for years before marrying Mahmoud. I saw how emotionally invested you were in the lives of your clients/friends even then, but your marriage has surely made the Muslim experience in America even more personal to you. How has being married to a Muslim man shaped your perception of religious prejudice here?

My time working directly with refugee clients all occurred in post-9/11 America. I think the implications of that really informed my emotional investment in my Muslim refugee clients. In many ways, my Muslim clients seemed like underdogs; they were fighting to build a life in a country that was increasingly more suspicions of them and certainly more suspicious of them than of the Christian refugee clients I encountered. I saw religious prejudice or preference as well as the reality of the immigrant experience long before Mahmoud arrived to the U.S. I can say for certain that all of these things became more personal to me once he was here trying to carve out his own place in our society. Would he be treated well? Would he find meaningful work? Would he be able to be himself without shame? Suddenly, the questions that I asked myself often about my refugee clients became heavier as they became real questions bouncing off the walls of our own home.

It is hard to describe exactly how overwhelming it can feel to suddenly feel immersed in the minority experience. As a white, college educated, middle class girl, I have never had to worry. Not once. Not about whether my name would cause others to judge me. Not about whether my capabilities or ability to learn would be called into question. Not about whether others may be suspicious of where my loyalties lie. But now, I do worry. I worry about all of it for Mahmoud. He is the best, he takes it all in stride.

It is no secret that we are living in an era of distrust of the Muslim community. I don’t really know what to say about how it has impacted our lives, but I can say without doubt that it hurts my husband. I’ve seen him watch the news defaming Islam or engage in conversations with those unwilling to entertain the idea of Islam being a religion of peace, and watched the light within him dim. His faith is personal to his very core and to live in a society that does not always value his faith is exhausting.


In the few years that Mahmoud has lived in the U.S., has his experience been more positive or more negative than he originally expected?


Mahmoud does a great job of avoiding the chatter, which likely contributes to his ability to remain calm, warm, and open to others. He does not have a single social media account. Mahmoud is a very ‘mind your own business’ type of guy; he desires to go about his daily life without bothering anyone and hoping to find others offering cordial exchanges. Although he makes conscious efforts to stay away from drama, he is not oblivious to the rhetoric around him. 

He is keenly aware of who offers a safe space for him and who may not. Overall, on the micro level, where he meets with individual coworkers or perfect strangers, the experience is typically positive. It’s in those macro level, national rhetoric type conversations that certainly feels more negative than he expected. The main confusion lately has been this overwhelming feeling that these cordial individuals, who engage with Mahmoud in an open, friendly manner, go home and nod their heads in agreement with the larger negative rhetoric. Even if not nodding in agreement, failing to say “no way, this is utter foolishness” amounts to the same thing—passive agreement. 


In the past year-long election season, when the idea of a ban on Muslims entering the country was initially presented, and of course ultimately with the shocking election outcome, have you felt the general attitude of Americans change towards Muslims? Or does it feel about the same as it did a year ago?

America is the greatest experiment on the face of the Earth. We are a nation of immigrants, utilizing the ingenuity and strength of diverse individuals to build a strong and cohesive society. Somewhere along the way it just feels like we have forgotten that we belong to one another. We’ve been personally hurt this election season as we have seen those we love fail to stand up to the bigotry.

In terms of American attitudes changing toward Muslims, there are numerous examples of this. Failure to call crimes against Muslims hate crimes, such as the Chapel Hill shooting that took the lives of three promising young American Muslims. A knee-jerk response to all crimes committed by someone with a Muslim sounding name or Arab decent to be labeled as terrorist acts, while angry white men on shooting rampages are called mentally disturbed. Calls by some to only admit Christian refugees into our country, as if Muslim refugees will certainly plan to hurt us regardless of the fact that they too are running from terror. Numerous hate crimes which are on the rise since the election season began. Some examples of hate crimes targeting Muslims include a tourist in NYC with a hijab on who was set on fire, a teacher told to hang herself with her hijab because it “isn’t allowed” in Trump’s America, and relentless threats of deportation for those that appear Muslim regardless of their citizenship, including a NYC cop. The Muslim community has reported that they feel less safe since the election season began than they did in the aftermath of 9/11. That is scary.


Have you or other Muslims you love experienced any acts of hate or xenophobia in the past month?

I have not and I have not heard Mahmoud talk about experiencing that in the last month. He has had the luck of being out of the country visiting family during the final stretch and immediate aftermath of the election. We also have the distinct luxury of living in a bubble. We live in the greater DC area where we walk outside our front door every day and see a mosaic of humanity. Frankly, I chose to move here shortly before Mahmoud arrived to the U.S. for this very reason. This is not to say that acts of hatred do not exist here. However, when we are in parts of the country that do not feel so diverse, I do sense personally and from Mahmoud a tense feeling. We know the xenophobia is out there, and of course we will do what we can to avoid meeting it in a dark alley.


After the election, were there certain responses from friends or family members that were particularly comforting to you?

To be perfectly honest, I did not really hear from friends or family unless they had some reason personal to them to be stressed about the election results, be it a mom friend raising a dark-skinned child, a mom raising a child with disabilities, a friend who identifies as a minority ethnicity American, a friend who is in a same sex marriage, or a fellow Muslim. From these friends, I received encouragement that I am not alone in my worries and that we will at least have each other for the next 4 years. I wish I could say that I received any comfort from others, but sadly that’s just not the case.


Were there responses that were particularly hurtful?

I can’t say that we received intentionally hurtful responses, but there has been this sense of dismissal of our concerns and worries which is so very hurtful. We’ve been encouraged to “wait and see”, “don’t take it personal”, and maybe it won’t be as bad as we’re expecting. It feels like our concerns fall on deaf ears. I was even told not to worry about a Muslim ban or anything of the sort until someone showed up at our door with a deportation order. I was floored. Should I not worry and just let this thing ride out until there is nothing left to be done? No way. I will fight this tooth and nail. Elie Weisel once said that “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”


I know you – and others like you – are hurting. What do you need from us, maybe specifically from your Christian friends and family?

There is a real need to get back to the true teachings of your faith. Jesus stood by the outcast, the poor, the oppressed. What do we need from others? Every child learns it from very early on—treat others as you would like to be treated. That includes standing up for others when they are knocked down. That includes standing with them to ask for their rights, even when their beliefs or lifestyle differ from what you would choose for yourself.

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Thank you to the Hassans for this vulnerable glimpse into their lives and hearts! I hope it doesn't need to be said, but any negative or hypercritical comments (either here or FB) will be immediately deleted.  There is a time and place for civil discourse, but this is not it.  This is simply an invitation to listen to your neighbor.  Thanks for understanding and respecting that!

Advent, and What We're Waiting On

12/6/16


It's been awhile since I sat down to write with no agenda.  It looks like the best time to do it is 10:51 pm with my husband crashed on the couch and little boys grunting in their sleep up creaky stairs.  The darkness is the best time, of course, to birth something you hope to be light.

It's Advent now, but my world doesn't feel hushed like I wish it did.

Advent, they say, is a "little Lent": a time of examen, of preparation, of waiting.  I make pathetic attempts at waiting, and then sneak Christmas music in on the side.  This year I just can't bear to wait in the darkness.

We wait, we say, for the baby.

Or we wait, we say, for the Second Coming.

I gather my children, pull all those Y chromosomes in tight, and we light purple candles and sing Emmanuel and we sing for Him to come and I wonder if they can make heads or tails of it.  They just like to watch the beeswax drip and we'll be working on proper execution of the sign of the cross until they graduate high school.  Their utter lack of self-consciousness is refreshing.

They're screwing up Advent, and they don't care one bit.

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Back in May, I was waiting for labor; I searched for it every day, my swollen feet making laps around the neighborhood.  I logged in miles trying to will that baby out.  I drank castor oil first thing in the morning on my very own birthday.

Come, baby, come let me adore you.

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Fr. Richard Rohr notes that we love to worship Baby Jesus.  Man, we love to wait for that Baby.  I know I do.  Advent and Christmas are easy.  The Baby elicits awe and gratitude from us.  The Baby requires nothing from us.

It is so embarrassingly easy for me to love Baby Jesus.

Baby Jesus doesn't tell me to pick up my instrument of torture and follow Him.  Baby Jesus doesn't tell me that whatever I do to my fellow human, I have done to Him, and he SURE doesn't tell me that whatever I don't do for my fellow human, I haven't done it for Him.  Baby Jesus doesn't tell me that the first will be last or that the poor are the blessed, or that I'm supposed to turn the other cheek.

Baby Jesus comes to tell me that I am loved and that I am lovable.  And -just as importantly- that you are too.

And I will spin myself in circles for two months with euphoric, pine-scented zeal over that fact and rarely (more rarely than I'd ever want you to know) think about the rest.

The Baby who demands nothing of us, we all so clearly know, becomes a Man who asks everything.  Jesus the Man lays before us a path of action, a path of justice, a path that requires discomfort, heartache, loneliness, and fear.

O come let us adore You.

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Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

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My sister teaches second grade in an urban elementary school in Nashville.  Her kids aren't lighting Advent candles with their families at night.  Her kids are coming to school scared, coming to their safe teacher asking impossible questions about the country that is supposed to be theirs but they know is not. They know it isn't.

Children in Aleppo are burning while my boys watch flames on our dining room table, and I didn't want to write that any more than you wanted to read it.

{Can't we just have Christmas? Can't we just have a break from caring about the pain of the world?}

Can't we worship the Baby and not the Man?

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We wait, they say, for the Baby.

Or we wait, they say, for the Second Coming.

The children of the world call our bluff.  The children of the world sing loud through their eyes, sing tidings not of comfort and joy, but of begging and pleading.  Wake up.  They don't wait for our apologetics, they wait for the restoration of all things.

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I may await the Baby by lighting candles in the darkness around the table with my family, but I await the Christ by reaching out my hand to the foreigner, the alien, the refugee, the homeless, the imprisoned, the handicapped, the poor, the hungry.

If there be any tradition I hand down to my children when all year is Advent, all year we wait for restoration, may it be that.

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Someday, the light will shine like a sun through my skin & they will say, 'what have you done with your life?' & though there are many moments I think I'll remember, in the end, I will be proud to say, I was one of us.

(Brian Andreas, Storypeople)

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