Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Visitation: Sharing God's Glory

Written for the Fairfield University Alumni Advent Reflection Series. Additional reflections can be found online.

Luke 1: 39-45
Mary set out in those days and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth. 
When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said,
"Most blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy. 
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled."

I do not know what thoughts and feelings accompanied Mary on that journey to Judah, or why she set out to see Elizabeth in the first place. Did she go forth in haste to serve Elizabeth in solidarity, as my young nun friends in South America attest? Did she go to witness Elizabeth's pregnancy as a confirmation of her own private revelation, as my bible footnotes? Or, as my roommate who has supported several friends through young and unplanned pregnancy asks, did she pick up and go in order to avoid the shame that likely would have plagued her in her hometown? Did her total self-giving and the promise of the annunciation protect her from the daunting realities of an unwed pregnancy and save her from all doubt and anxiety?
Whatever questions and emotions may have traveled with Mary on the path to Judah, she must have arrived there in overwhelming joy and awe at the Word made flesh within her. Why else would just the sound of her voice cause such an exalted response from the depths of Elizabeth's being? Only immense hope could make Mary's greeting so powerful that her joy spread like wildfire, even causing the infant in Elizabeth's womb to dance. Of course this young Jewish woman went to be with her cousin. Who can keep the wonder of God's glory all to herself?
Mary's active embrace of her own truth filled her with a deep joy, a wholeness that is fulfilled and confirmed when shared with Elizabeth. She arrived in Judah not only as herself, but as a carrier of God's own Being. Elizabeth, because she also knows the power of God's grace, is immediately capable of recognizing the Divine Presence within Mary, proclaiming her blessed. Her response to Mary is one of deep humility and reverence: Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
In her spirit of exuberant joy, Mary is teaching us that by living in union with Truth, we carry Christ to others and have the power to ignite the life deep within them. Elizabeth, in her reverence, is asking us to allow God's grace to sensitize us to the Spirit flourishing in our neighbor. Together these two women, pregnant and enlivened by the Spirit, share a common holiness as prophets and witnesses to God's extraordinary mercy and love in the most unlikely circumstances.
May the Word take root in our innermost being, be nourished by our faith in the promise of God's grace, and spread a contagious fire of joy, palpable in the mere sound of a greeting, the vibrations in the air that go forth before us.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Non-homily brought to you by a young lay woman.

A 'reflection' that I gave 'during the time of the homily' at a parish in Winchester, MA this weekend to fundraise for Rostro.


Actively awaiting the kingdom. All three readings this morning speak to us of a participating in, trusting in, and awaiting God’s Kingdom. The first reading from the book of Wisdom depicts the faith and courage of the Jewish people as they longed for salvation. In the second reading, Paul recounts Abraham’s complete and total submission in faith to God’s will as he left his homeland for an unknown destination—the promised land—because he believed that the one who made the promise was trustworthy.

Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus proclaims the parable of the servants who are rewarded for their active vigilance while their Master is away. Upon his return, the vigilant servants, those who cared for one another and that which the Master has entrusted to them, are invited to recline at table, and the Master Himself serves them. Contrary to this, the ignorant and lackadaisical servant is severely punished for his disengaged attitude and mistreatment of his fellow workers.

What are these readings demanding of us? Not only that we wait in joyful hope for the Kingdom and trust completely in God’s promise of salvation, but that we actively participate in the coming of this kingdom through total faith and service to others.

Now, who am I to be speaking about any of this, and why am I the one standing before you today?

My name is Elyse and I want to share with you my experience of the readings we heard today.

After graduating from Fairfield University, I joined a year-long volunteer program called Rostro de Cristo—which means, in Spanish, the face of Christ—in hopes of more concretely exploring my faith while dedicating myself full-time in service to the poor. Similar to Abraham, I was called to go out to a place – Ecuador – and I went out by faith, sojourning in a foreign country, not knowing exactly what God had in mind.

This program, Rostro de Cristo, invites young people from the U.S. to live and serve in Ecuador in order to experience the prophetic presence of Christ among the poor. Every morning I tutored at a Catholic school in a classroom with a dozen young teenage girls who were at a third grade reading level. Why? Because the insufferable poverty forced them to drop out of school in order to work to help feed their family. Every afternoon, I opened the doors to an after-school program and without fail, in came running up to fifty children who would otherwise spend their afternoons searching for new toys amidst heaps of trash or simply playing soccer in the dirt streets because they have no pens at home to complete their homework.

Some of my fondest memories come from my time as a catechist in a local parish. Gathering weekly in a wooden church about the size of this sacristy, seated in a circle on plastic chairs, I was challenged time and time again to understand the Gospel message through the eyes of my young students: Cindy, a feisty sixteen-year-old who lives in a two-room cane house with her mother and two sisters, or Anthony, an eleven year old whose narrow frame shows evidence of childhood malnutrition. What would they think of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel: “Be vigilant…Sell your belongings and give alms...”. What belongings? Yet day after day, week after week, I was astounded at the generosity, truly the charity, of my friends and neighbors in Ecuador. Rarely was I able to enter a home without being offered a small meal or glass of soda—almost as if I were the Master returning home in Jesus’ story. Together we were actively awaiting the Kingdom—a kingdom of love, of justice, of right relationships; a kingdom of needs met, where a mother does not have to choose which one of her four children she will send to school while the others work in the streets, a kingdom where basic healthcare and clean water are universally accessible. Together we were the servants, caring for Christ the Master by serving one another – through offerings of rice and beans, open hearts, and sincere presence.

As a young adult Catholic, my faith and worldview were radically transformed by participating in the lives of the poor in Ecuador. Never again will I see my life as mine alone. I am now acutely and irreversibly aware of the deep responsibility each of us has to create a more just world and to ease the suffering of those around us, as near to us as our siblings, and as far as our brothers and sisters across the world. But I am just one. Every year, Rostro de Cristo hosts up to sixteen young adult Americans who live and serve as volunteers in Ecuador for one year. In addition to this, we annually host around three hundred high school and college students on week-long immersion retreats in order to be radically transformed in the same way. Not only does Rostro de Cristo work to accompany and meet the needs of the poorest of the poor, it is an extraordinarily formative and life-changing experience for the young adults—the future leaders of our Church and our world—who participate in this program.

I humbly invite you today to join myself, hundreds of other Rostro de Cristo participants, and all of our neighbors in Ecuador, in being a servant in today’s Gospel, actively awaiting the Kingdom. Without a doubt, each of us is called to live out our common vocation of faithful service in unique ways—as parents, teachers, caregivers, students, etc. We are also called, in particular by today’s Gospel, to give alms. A second collection will be taken up today to support the good work of Rostro de Cristo in Ecuador. I invite you to prayerfully consider how your generosity will contribute to this Kingdom of justice and needs met. Your donations will directly impact the lives of our neighbors in Ecuador by allowing Rostro de Cristo year-long volunteers to continue serving full-time in health clinics, hospitals, schools, shelters, and after-school programs. In addition, your generosity will offer this powerful immersion experience to hundreds of young people every year.

There is more information about Rostro de Cristo and our work in the pews. I will be available in the lobby after mass, along with another Rostro de Cristo alumni volunteer, Jon. We look forward to speaking with you in more detail about Rostro de Cristo and our volunteer experiences.

On behalf of Rostro de Cristo and all those whose lives are touched by your generosity, thank you. May God bless you today and always as together we actively and faithfully await God’s Kingdom.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What was the point? Part 1. (subtitle: an apologetics of short-term immersion trips)

So, I've been back in the States for 9 months now, and havent blogged in almost a year. Do I have any readers left? Either way, this is the first in a two-part (maybe more?) series of my reflecting on my experience as a Rostro de Cristo volunteer in Duran, Ecuador.

FYI: I'm currently working as the RdC Assistant Director in our offices in Boston, until August (no, I don't know what I'm doing next...do you?). Most of my energy is/was spent preparing the short-term immersion retreat groups, recruiting and selecting year-long volunteers, and preparing to send them off to Ecuador...among other administrative things. Today, my energy went to writing the following email to the adult leaders of a high school retreat group that visited Duran in February 2010:

I am glad to hear that the experience is taking root in your students and is bearing fruit. This calls me to reflect on a sentiment/struggle that both you and your co-leader articulated in the evaluations that you completed upon your return. You both bring up the questions of 'doing more harm than good' and the trip being 'more selfish than selfless...who were we helping more, us or them?...it was hard to see how we were helping others at points...it was difficult to understand our long-term influence.'

It is important to recognize and embrace the unique dual and mutual mission and vision of the Rostro de Cristo program. As you read our mission and vision, you will see that our mission begins with the "young people from the United States" and is lived "together with the people of Ecuador". RdC's impact is aimed at the young North Americans and the Ecuadorian community alike--and in that, the whole global community. Yes, it helps 'us' (the gringos) tremendously. Call this the 'selfish' part. The truth is, we (gringos, society, Church, and world) are desperately in need of that transformation. This is truly Fr Jim's vision of arriving at social justice--that the RdC experience radically impact the lives of these students in such a way that as they move through their lives into positions of influence and power (in corporate america, hospitals, high schools, parishes, family life, and relationships), the balance is gradually tipped toward using these positions justly, with a preferential option for the poor, building up the Reign of God. Obviously, we all may not be around to see "our long-term influence" on the students. To use the often-quoted Romero prayer, "we may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own". In the Ecuadorian communities, the long-term influence is seen when you zoom out and remember that we now host 26 retreat groups and 12-16 year-long volunteers each year, and have been doing this for 20 years (and God-willing, many more to come).

Yes, it is difficult to see how we are 'helping others', and I think that's precisely the point, to challenge our U.S. notions of 'helping' and 'serving'. RdC offers a way of 'helping' and 'serving' that can be painfully unfulfilling for our American appetites for progress and results. This moves us to understand that "we cannot do everything...this enables us to do something...it may be incomplete, but it is a beginning" (again, Romero). Call this the 'selfless' part. We are left unsatisfied. It is a dissatisfaction that will hopefully provide the energy and resolve to make "life-long commitments to service, social justice, and solidarity" (our vision)---commitments that cannot be reached by simply donating money to Damien House or Nuevo Mundo rather than flying to Guayaquil to encounter Truth in relationships.

So, how then does our mission serve ("help") the Ecuadorian communities as well? We provide human resources to our partner foundations--mentors to boys fighting to stay off the streets, English teachers to schools struggling to stay fully staffed, loving companionship to lonely Damien patients, after-school programs (necessary school supplies, homework help, value-based education, critical thinking skills, conflict resolution, a safe space, etc...) for dozens of desperate families and their children. At these after-school programs, our retreatants offer one-on-one attention to kids who (if lucky enough to attend school) sit in classrooms with 60 other students. Crafts bought at Damien House and in the neighborhoods add to families' meager monthly income. RdC gainfully employs a number of Ecuadorians from these neighborhoods.

At the end of the day, the most important benefits, and the true value of the program, is found in the intangible and the unquantifiable--the transformation of individual hearts and minds that eventually leads to the transformation of our world. It is seen in the lives of alumni volunteers who work for non-profits seeking to improve public education in U.S. urban schools, or are opthalmologists serving the poor in clinics in Honduras, or work on the USCCB Justice for Immigrants Campaign, or represent individuals detained at Guantanamo Bay, or serve with the American Red Cross in overseas disaster relief. It is heard in the countless stories of retreatants who are ignited with a passion for service and justice, eagerly seek post-graduate service opportunities, fundraise thousands upon thousands of dollars for RdC programs and partners, recall their experiences in Duran when considering extracurricular activities or employment opportunities, and seek Christ-like relationships with friends, family, and whomever they encounter in their daily lives.

The tension you feel is real, and is one that all RdC participants (retreatants, volunteers, and directors) wrestle with. Ours is not a perfect program, nor is it an end in itself. It is a mission that is living its way into becoming an effective means of bringing about justice, transformation, and the Kingdom of God.



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