A Message of Hope in the Desert of Fear

Being a news junkie today is to be hit daily by an avalanche of bad news, a lot of it sensationalistic. News of mass shootings, deportations of the parents of young children, and the rise in hateful speech – so casually spewed – often overwhelm me. That is not to say that I am unaware of the good going on. I just wish there were more of it.

This is why I was refreshed by the tone and message of a pastoral letter issued last week by Bishop Mark Seitz of the diocese of El Paso, Texas. He addresses the situation of migrants and refugees in his border city, separated from its sister city Ciudad Juarez, Mexico by the Rio Grande. Rather than just lament the suffering, poverty, and violence that brings migrants to the USA, or dwell on the ways that fear of round-ups and deportation migrants face in the current political climate, he speaks a word of hope to all people caught up in these realities.

The title of the bishop’s letter, Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away, comes from Isaiah 51:11, which tells of the final joyful entry of the dispossessed and exploited in Jerusalem. It’s a message of God’s promise of salvation being fulfilled for his beloved suffering people. He goes on to connect the literal desert in which El Paso is located—in which many migrants die trying to cross—and the metaphorical desert of fear and marginalization migrants are facing today, with Isaiah 35:7-10, which prophesies that the desert will turn to springs and burning sands to pools of water.

This is not a head-in-the-clouds letter, however. El Paso has a history that resonates with these scriptures and this vision of hope – and the bishop stays grounded in that history. The bishop recounts that the area is the ancient home of several indigenous groups, then a long list of migrants have come in turn—first the Spanish, then from the Republic of Texas, the young United States, Ireland, China, refugees from the Mexican Revolution, escapees of the Cristero War, and now those fleeing Mexican and Central American drug lords and gangs. The city’s ability to welcome and absorb each group has created the integrated shared culture that freely spans the border.

Echoing Pope Francis’ constant exhortation to build bridges, Bishop Seitz blames no particular group for the current mess. Starting from what is common—a shared agreement that our immigration system is broken—he proposes a vision of reform that upholds both national security and the right of people to migrate when life becomes untenable at home. This is not a new message. The US bishops have been advocating comprehensive immigration reform for many years, and Congress has continually failed to act. This pastoral letter, however, takes the matter from the level of policy and principle and roots it in contextual spiritual discernment that is incumbent upon each person and the community at large.

He names three sequential steps: (1) encounter, (2) conversion, and (3) compassion. El Paso has been and continues to be a place of encounter between people of different backgrounds. In an encounter with others, approached with openness and the belief that all people are made in the image and likeness of God, God is revealed. This leads us to conversion, because we encounter God in the other and are challenged and changed. Conversion then motivates us to do things and to do them differently – with Christ-like compassion. More than a pastoral approach to a problem, Bishop Seitz offers a model for unity of the Church, the unity of the Body of Christ, which we manifest and pray for in every Sunday Eucharist.

Bishop Seitz is connecting many dots that we often fail to: linking worship, the web of relationships, Catholic teaching, public policies, and collective action. The message is clearly focused on what can unite rather than divide, build bridges rather than walls, encounter rather than isolation. This message of reconciliation is so unusual and refreshing to me in the United States of 2017.  I’d like to shout it out from the rooftops: Sorrow and Mourning Flee!

This article by Brent Otto, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.


A Letter to My Younger Disillusioned Self, In a Time of Similar Upheaval

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The world you inhabit has suddenly become dark. You are seeing things you had, until this point, only read about in books. The brand of Christianity that you adhered to–that you wanted to lay it on the line for–has started to unravel under the weight of injustice. You will begin to shed layer after layer of piety.

In what becomes an act of bravado, you start to go to coffee shops on Sunday mornings instead of looking for a “Bible believing church” in your new city. When folks back home ask if you checked out their cousin’s fellowship, you smarmily reply that it is in the suburbs, a land of white privilege that doesn’t warrant your time or effort. When you do visit an urban church that seems promising (on a Sunday night–practically subversive), they happen to sing a chorus from your youth and you abruptly depart.

A family in the neighborhood where you are serving as a year-long volunteer dies in a fire that could have been prevented. Except that not everyone perished. The infant son is pushed up and out and over the iron bars on the windows that hemmed in the rest of the family as flames enveloped the house. Hesurvives. The poverty that led them to use the gas oven for heat persists all around. The stench of burnt vinyl siding lingers in the air for a few days afterward. You walk by the stoop daily and see a growing pile of fruit and candles, offerings for the deceased to take to the other side of life.

Soon, you will stop going to church altogether. No God you want to know would be alright with what you have seen in a few short months. The effects of addiction. The crippling poverty. The nightly sounds of battery and pop of gun shots. The alarm and confusion turns to anger and then to cynicism. A couple of teens from your after school program get picked up in a “sweep,” a common practice of rounding up young black men who “fit the description” of petty thieves and drug dealers. They remind you that it doesn’t pay to play by the rules because they will be targeted anyway, simply for the color of their skin and where they live.

By the time Mo gets shot, you are drinking your way through cynicism a few nights a week. You’ve stopped answering phone calls from some friends and family. You feel that you are too busy doing important work. Your only spare time is spent with the other full-time volunteers in your program. They are the only ones who “get it.” All the pain. All the brokenness. They’ve had the same conversations you’ve had with the dope-sick prostitutes on the avenue as you open the community center in the early morning. A friendly hello. A wave to the pimp nearby as you lock up late at night. This is normal now. Even welcome. No one back home would understand, so why try to explain or even describe it? Read More


Approaching 2016 with Hope

Patheos has a new series on Engaging the New Year. Millennial co-founder Christopher Hale’s contribution is “A New Year, a Time for Hope”:

Against this grim backdrop, we come upon a new year. What ought we to expect for the next twelve months? What will we encounter on the way? A Christian can and must go forward with hope. “The one who has hope,” Benedict XVI tells us, “lives differently.”…

It’s time for hope to be lifted up again in 2016. When we walk in faith but that faith wavers, and we aren’t sure where to go, all we can do is hope. Hope is the attitude of heart that is most humble because its very presence tells us that in this life there is more than meets the eye. Perhaps we’ve unintentionally been living without hope. Maybe that explains the success of a political campaign some years ago built on this oft-neglected theological virtue. No matter one’s politics, it’s striking how eagerly vast portions of the United States desire to hope, confident that such hope isn’t false, but active and inspiring.

It’s important to note that this hope isn’t blind. It isn’t thinking that everything is okay and will be okay because it always is, and because good people somewhere will always do the right. It isn’t cheerful nor naïve. It isn’t the refusal to see the somber realities ahead and instead dream of a world without such obstacles. Hope doesn’t deny an awful reality; it looks it in the face and hopes. It acknowledges that there is good in this life even if it can’t be seen right here and now.

Millennial Catholic Emily Conron (who has written on “Prioritizing the Poor in Global Health” for Millennial) writes on “Global Successes, Global Hopes”:

Working in global health, it is necessary to focus on needs and draw attention to gaps, but it is equally important to celebrate successes. When I look back on 2015, I grieve that less than half of those in need of inexpensive, effective medicine to treat and prevent neglected tropical diseases (such as hookworm and elephantiasis) received it. And at the same time, I rejoice that Mexico became the third country to eliminate river blindness, and that the Nobel Prize was awarded to two scientists who discovered the drug that made it possible. Holding in my hands both successes and failures, clearly seeing the work that remains and appreciating the progress made thus far — this is the spirit of clear-eyed optimism I hope to live in 2016.

A large reason for it is my Catholic faith. In college, I was introduced to the rich Catholic social tradition that brings ancient wisdom to modern social problems. My classes taught me about our Church’s view on war and peace, wealth and poverty, and I learned that as a Catholic I am expected to be an active participant in the building of the Kingdom of God in the here and now. I also learned that even as we are called to be ever-vigilant to suffering, we must look at the problems of this world in a spirit of faith, hope, and love, confident that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied in the fulfillment of the Kingdom.

The full series, Engaging the New Year, can be viewed here.


Why Christmas Matters the Other 364 Days of the Year

After weeks of anticipation, the frenzy of shopping for gifts and making travel arrangements, and all the excitement of the big day, Christmas has once again come and gone. For many, Christmas’s passing is cause for major consternation. Each year, millions of people fall into depression in the weeks following Christmas and New Year’s. It seems that Christmas day inevitably fails to meet all the hopes and expectations pinned upon it year after year by so many people around the world.

The irony of it all is that this is a conundrum of our own making. We build up all sorts of expectations for Christmas day, but more often than not neglect the reason behind the celebration. This is ironic because the thing we most easily lose sight of amidst the busyness of the holiday season is the only thing—the only person—that can fulfill our hopes.

Fortunately for us, the fact that another Christmas has come and gone does not mean that we’ve missed our chance, that we are resigned to a state of depression until the next holiday. Yes, the gifts have been unwrapped and the food consumed, but we still have the opportunity with every new day to turn our attention to what matters most—Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose Incarnation we celebrated (at least in theory) this past Thursday.

Here’s the reason why we can rest assured this opportunity remains open to us: The Son of God may have been born on a particular day, which we commemorate on a particular date each year, but it is not entirely accurate to describe the Incarnation as a one-time event. When Jesus was about to ascend to heaven—that is, when it seemed he was about to leave the world—he told his disciples that it was to our benefit that he should go, for he would send his Spirit upon us (Jn 16:7). The author of John’s letters reassures us, “And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us” (1 Jn 3:24). Not only that, but Jesus promised that when we eat the bread and drink the cup in memory of him, we are truly receiving him within ourselves. All of this points to the fact that the Incarnation is ongoing. Jesus is always coming into the world in each one of us.

I, for one, find this fact immensely comforting. Recognizing that the Incarnation is ongoing takes off all the pressure we tend to put on one day of the year. It frees us up to welcome God into the world and our lives on a day-to-day basis. To be sure, doing so requires more effort than stockpiling gifts once a year. Like anything worthwhile, it demands patience.

Take Mary and Joseph for example. They knew their child was to be the Son of God (Lk 1:35) and the savior of the world (Mt 1:21), yet, for the most part, he was a child like any other. As an infant, he cried and nursed. As a child, he ran and played and scraped his knees. It was only when he reached the age of 30 (or thereabouts) that Jesus began to manifest the divine power at work in him. For all the years prior, his parents had patiently watched him grow, waiting for the day when he would reveal himself to be all that he was foretold to be.

Like Mary and Joseph, we must show patience if our Advent hopes are to meet with fulfillment rather than letdown. We do not have the privilege of watching the Son of God grow from an unassuming infant into the wonder-working Messiah. However, we do enjoy the blessing of witnessing the Incarnation at work in the people around us. Where Mary and Joseph faced the challenge of seeing God in a child who depended on them to feed him and wipe his bottom, we face the challenge of seeing Christ in the people around us who are irritable and self-centered, who lie to us and let us down, who don’t behave as we think Christians ought. Jesus did not reveal himself to be God in a single day. Neither, then, should we expect Jesus to reveal himself in others all at once. The Incarnation is ongoing, and we need to have the patience to watch it unfold gradually.

God did not intend for the joy of Christmas to be limited to one day a year. It awaits us in the dawning of each new day and in every loving encounter with another person. Whether or not we experience that joy depends on our ability to see Christ in others and to have patience when his likeness is slow in emerging.


Despite All the Evidence to the Contrary

I get asked a lot why I am so obsessed with travel. The answer varies from day to day, but I think the core of it remains the same: I travel because it reminds me how infinitely good the world is, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

If ever you were looking for one week to justify the argument that the world sucks, last week would seem to be it. The United States’ moral struggle with how to treat the most vulnerable in our midst (child migrants fleeing violence in Central America) was interrupted by the shocking news that a passenger jet was gunned down over Ukraine, only to be interrupted by the news that fighting has reached new levels of intensity and violence between the Israelis and Palestinians. I read a shocking story from my hometown about three teens who beat two homeless men to death by smashing their faces repeatedly with bricks. The world, for all intents and purposes, really seemed to suck last week.

What do we do when the world throws so much pain and darkness at us?

I think there is a tendency to want to retreat from it, to crawl under our covers and pull the blankets over our heads. Some may call this apathy, but I think it’s much more complex: we run not because we don’t care, but because we worry that we might care too much. So what do we do? In times like these, people like to talk about prayer—which reminds me of a story I once heard.

On the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, there was a rabbi in the crowd. He had lost his entire family to the Nazis, and upon moving to the United States took up the cause of civil rights for African Americans. He knew loss, suffering, and constant fear at a level I hope I won’t ever be able to imagine. Rather than retreat from the world, he sought to place himself right in the midst of its pain. On this particular march, the rabbi was asked if he had time to pray. “I prayed with my feet,” the rabbi replied. The message is simple enough to me: show up. No matter how hard, no matter how confused, the most important thing we can do to help another person, to honor the loss of life, is to show up and be a counter-protest to the senselessness that creates so much pain.

Photos like like these and this moving video bring tears to our eyes because they are reminders of our shared humanity. Yes, the Dutch, in their pain, have reminded us what the best of humanity looks like as tens of thousands of them line streets and overpasses, churches and public squares, to mourn in silence the loss of life.  And so we cry–for them, but also with them.

When I traveled in Bali, I was really overwhelmed with emotion at the typical Hindu greeting of Namaste, something I wrote about in a recent blog post. My favorite translation of this sacred greeting is that the divine in me recognizes the divine in the person in front of me. Take a moment and imagine that. What if we went into the world and with each person we encountered, no matter how much they annoyed us, no matter how much we disrespected their views or opinions, we said “Namaste” and really tried to mean it. Imagine looking into a stranger’s eyes and-no matter how hard it is-acknowledging that the divine really lives in them. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit who founded Homeboy Industries, the largest anti-gang program in the United States, always says that each person is better than their worst mistake. Are we willing to not just believe that, but to really, truly embrace living it?

My travels around the world time and time again have introduced me to the goodness that exists in the midst of so much loss and destruction. I’ve encountered the bad—I’ve been robbed, mugged, and cheated. And yet when I think back on my travels, those are never the memories that surface. Instead I am reminded of the generosity of countless strangers, and the way they changed my life. And while I’ve seen the suffering that poverty (both spiritual and material) can create, I have met some heroic people, rich and poor, who have made it their life’s mission to fight this poverty and the structures that create it.

I don’t mean to downplay the tragic events playing out on the international stage, but rather to pay homage to the good people who are victims in the middle of senseless violence. So pray with your feet, like the Dutch. Show up, even if you don’t know what you will do once you are there. Seek out the goodness and rest assured that as hard as it is to believe, the light is stronger and more abundant than the darkness in this world. And if enough of us do that, I’m convinced that in our own small but intimately meaningful way, we change the world, despite what often feels like evidence to the contrary.

Patrick Furlong directs immersion trips at Loyola Marymount University and runs a millennial travel blog called Two to Travel and Tango with his wife Laura.