Franciscan friar, Father Richard Rohr is among the most challenging of contemporary spiritual teachers and a long-time favorite of mine. I have at least a dozen of his books on my bookshelves and a drawer filled with his recordings. His CD series, Great Themes of Paul, transformed every bias I had held about St. Paul and, seeing Paul from Richard’s perspective, have come to love and revere him.
For a while I was a Rohr groupie and showed up at every lecture, class or conference he gave in Southern California and I attended several weekend conferences that the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) presented in Albuquerque.
In January of 2004 I was thrilled to be accepted for a 10 day internship at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico which was founded by Father Rohr.
I mistakenly presumed that I would be spending plenty of time with Richard. As it turned out, the interns spent one afternoon in his company.
In my eagerness to bask in Father Richard’s wisdom, I had neglected to read the description of the intern program. I was surprised, after my arrival, to learn that the heart of the internship would be a three day pilgrimage to Ciudad Juarez where we would be living in the homes of members of Centro Santa Catalina, a faith based community founded in 1996 by Dominican Sisters for the spiritual, educational and economic empowerment of economically poor women and for the welfare of their families.
The first few days at the CAC the interns were instructed in the culture and living conditions of Juarez and the Centro. When I was told how little these women earned, I was shocked. “How they could possibly live on four dollars an hour?” I asked. “Not four dollars an hour, Jim” I was corrected, “four dollars a day.”
I decided it would be wise to listen rather than ask questions.
As we drove from Albuquerque to El Paso, the thought kept running through my mind: “What if God calls me to Juarez?” “OK, God, if you want me, I’ll go. But what’ll I do about my contact lenses? Where will I get my skin care products?” Ridiculous crap! But unfortunately that’s how my privileged mind, left to its own devices has alternately tortured and amused itself as it has since I was a paradoxically self-centered and altruistic sophomore in a Jesuit high school.
We spent the night before we crossed the border from El Paso into Juarez with a Maryknoll priest who further prepared us for our time there. The contrast between El Paso and Juarez shocked and shamed me. These are our neighbors! Later I would see similar contrasts between the Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods in Israel. In India I saw magnificent estates and slums existing almost side by side. Juarez, however, was my first exposure to the realities of desperate poverty. In Israel and India I could retreat from the poverty to first-class hotels. Juarez was an immersion.
We were greeted at the Centro by two nuns and the women and their children who had prepared a meal and a party in our honor. The soup was so full of chilies that I cried and wiped my eyes throughout the entire meal. This delighted the children who kept laughing and pointing at my tears and shouting, “Gringo! Gringo!”
After the meal we played a game in which a balloon is tied to the ankle of each of the participants. The object of the game is to stomp on and pop the balloons of all the others while avoiding having your own balloon stomped. A boom-box blasted Mariachi music as both the adults and children raced around the room laughing and cheering and stomping each other’s balloons until only two of us were left—the doyenne of the group and me. (I’ve always been ruthlessly and annoyingly competitive—my brother-in-law, Jack, once threw a Trivial Pursuit board at me.) The two of us circled each other, dodging and faking. When I realized she was just toying with me, she swiftly moved in and took me out. We laughed together and she gave me a great hug, patted me on the back and said, “Bueno, Gringo.” I learned later that as far as anyone could remember she had never been defeated.
Playing this game seemed to bring everybody into the present moment—the suffering and the poverty evaporated for a moment in the joy and laughter flooded the room.
We were given instructions for the following day and then each of the interns and the CAC staff was accompanied to the home of the Centro family who was hosting us.
The Centro is separated from the home I was taken to by a three block wide garbage dump which looks like a crater from another planet. It was picked clean—no cans or bottles or anything else of value—all that remained was the sun-bleached carcasses of a couple of unfortunate animals.
My host introduced me to her family and showed me to the room I would share with her 13 year old son. The home had electricity but no running water. A truck delivered water to the neighborhood and filled the tanks that sat on the roofs of most of the houses on the hill. The home I stayed in had a cement floor. I found out later that the majority of homes had dirt floors, none had running water, and some had no electricity.
The following morning after a breakfast of fried bologna and homemade tortillas, my host and I walked back across the dump toward the Centro. She paused suddenly and put her arm across my chest to stop me from moving; she bent down at my feet and pulled a small green sprig from this wasteland. She sniffed it, smiled with pleasure then held it my nose. “We’ll put this in the soup,” she said. Her whole attitude was one of gratitude—gratitude for a single sprig blooming in a wasteland.
Again, joy! There are moments of grace and there are moments of grace!
Saint Ignatius of Loyola teaches us to “see God in all things.” I have never before or since had such a powerful tutorial.
We gathered in the Centro’s classroom. The women, some of them illiterate, had picture books, like children’s coloring books. These, however, were not ordinary coloring books; they were revolutionary feminist coloring books. Each picture was about women’s empowerment and self-esteem. One drawing showed a father seated at the dinner table, his young son on his right, his daughter to his left. The mother is serving the family dinner. One of the nuns asked the women what was wrong with the picture. It took a moment or two before one of the women raised her hand and said “There is no chair for the mother.” There were “aahs” as the class saw what the first woman noticed. In the lengthy dialogue that followed, the women became more animated, more vocal, and playful. Some of them made jokes about how they spoil their husbands and children. When the conversation turned more thoughtful, the women became indignant that there wasn’t a place for them at the table, that they were treated like servants in their own homes. In another picture, this one of a town meeting, the women are all in the back of the room behind the men. The women instantly recognized the second-class status of the women. The discussions became more serious and impassioned as they considered actions they might take to change that status. The nuns occasionally facilitated the conversation always encouraging the women toward the most practical and powerful choices.
Every weekend, the two nuns, neither of them young women (one has since passed away), loaded up their small van and traveled back and forth across the border between Juarez and El Paso. Apparently it did not occur to the border guards that the good sisters are fomenting revolution. The men of these communities will not know what’s hit them
Our last afternoon there, the women gathered into small groups and shared New Year’s resolutions. The first woman in my group said, “We take care of our husbands and children, but if we don’t take care of ourselves, that’s a sin.” The women nodded in agreement. The second woman said, “Our husbands are not our bosses or owners, they are our partners. We need to talk with them and they need to talk with us, and they need to listen to us. If we don’t do this, it’s a sin.” Again, they nodded. The third woman said “Our children are becoming too materialistic, and we have to pay attention to this. If we don’t pay attention, that’s a sin.” (In my naiveté, I could not detect any sign of materialism in this community; quite the opposite. It was later explained to me that the woman was talking about the seduction of their children by drug cartels.)
As the women spoke I realized how much their desires had in common with those of my own spiritual directees. And I recognized, of course, that God was not foolish enough to call me to Juarez: a.) I had no skills and b.) I already had an assignment.
The experience at the Centro filled me to overflowing with gratitude and joy. I was surprised to find out when we had returned to the CAC that some of the staff had expressed doubt, even skepticism, about my ability to handle the challenges that we faced in Juarez. Much to their surprise, and probably mine, I loved every minute of it.
I encourage you to take the time to visit their website and check out the beautiful work done by the women of the cooperative.
Back in Albuquerque, a woman spent an afternoon at the CAC with us. She spoke about her time living in India with Mother Teresa and about the two terms she had served in federal prison for trespassing to protest US foreign policy.
She had long desired to work with Mother Teresa and it had taken her over a year to get the appropriate visas. The government of India wasn’t all that excited to have Americans coming to live in Calcutta and shining and spotlight on the city’s poverty. Finally she was allowed to go. “I so wanted to go, but when I got there nothing had prepared me for the smells, the noise, the crowding and, most of all, the suffering,” she told us. “After about seven or eight days, I went to my room, fell to my knees sobbing and said “I’m sorry, I can’t do this. I just can’t do this.” Then I heard a voice say, ‘Finally; now get out of the way and let me. Let me do it all. You remain here and I’ll do it all through you.’” She stayed.
She served her first prison term at a federal prison not far from her home.. The second time she was sentenced, the judge decided to make an example of her by sending her to a prison far from her home. The facility was near a toxic waste site where some of her prison-mates were nuns who had been sentenced for similar protests.
As she spoke, all I was thinking is I am such a wuss. I don’t have what it takes to go to India and work with Mother Teresa. I don’t have what it takes to go to prison for my beliefs. She stopped mid-sentence and looked me in the eye, as I were the only other person in the room. She pointed her index finger at her heart and said, “That’s mine to do! That’s not yours to do! Do you understand? That’s mine to do!” she repeated. “Every day you wake up and you ask God, “What’s yours to do? Every day! Nobody says God is calling you to go to Calcutta or go to prison!”
And here’s how my mind works.
Instantly, I was shot back to the mid-1970’s when I was hired by mentor, Bob LeMond, a talent manager, who discovered John Travolta and later Patrick Swayze.
I was on disability because of a back injury. Bob hired me to answer phones, relay messages and feed and clean up after his two Dalmatians for one week while he was on a publicity tour for Welcome Back Kotter, shortly after the sit-com began airing, with the 21 year old Travolta.
Two or three days into the tour Bob called me from Chicago and said, “We’re in the middle of blizzard, the schools are closed, buses aren’t running and yet our hotel lobby is filled with hundreds of teenage girls screaming “Vinnie Barbarino” (the name of John’s character on the series).
(Bob was a mythologist extraordinaire. It’s possible that no more than a half dozen girls had braved the storm to see John at the hotel.)
“Wow!” I said or something similarly inspired.
“I think I have a genuine teen idol on my hands.” And then in his trademark Texas drawl, Bob continued, “I might could use some help and I want to talk to you about that when I get back to L. A.”
(This is not a mistake; “might could” is a Texas idiom.)
“What would I do,” I asked. I wasn’t particularly excited by the thought of answering phones and cleaning up after his dogs.
“We’ll talk as soon as I get back. Gotta go,” he said, and hung up.
When he returned, Bob took me out for lunch and said, “I’ve become so good at what only I can do, I need to be free to only do what I can do. I’m hiring you to do the rest.”
Before I could respond, he continued.
“Now I’ll be honest with you, a lot of the work will be shit. But I promise you that if we discover what it is that only you can do and I find it valuable, we’ll hire a third person.”
A year later, Bob and his partner, Lois Zetter, had a production deal at Paramount and I was made Director of Development. Bob and Lois went on to hire a third, then a fourth, then a fifth person and so on.
At the time Bob introduced me to the idea of “only do what only you can do,” he didn’t intend it to be spiritual guidance and I didn’t hear it that way.
As years have gone by I’ve come to see it as a profound and guiding spiritual principle. The great Irish writer, John O’Donohue, has said that “when you think of God as an artist everything changes.” He continues on to say that a true artist never duplicates his work. God, I believe, calls each of us in a singular way.
When the woman in Albuquerque exhorted me to “ask God what’s mine to do” it instantaneously fused with Bob’s idea of “only do what only you can do.”
“What’s mine to do?” and “Only do what only you can do” have been part of my discernment process ever since.
I know full well that I have lived a very privileged life. It is because I have lived in a privileged bubble that I mistook the wage of $4.00 a day for $4.00 an hour. Before my time in Juarez, I couldn’t have conceived of the latter.
The question becomes how do I use the advantages and experiences of that privilege to be faithful to “what is mine to do” in service of my vocation and ministry.
In the late 1990’s, I was contracted as a consultant for the Metropolitan Community Church of Los Angeles. I made a date to have coffee with two of the community’s African-American leaders of the community (one male and one female). Shortly after coffee was served the woman, who was quite formidable cut to the chase and announced that “the solution is for white men to give up all of their power.”
I paused for a moment hoping that God would put the appropriate words in my mouth because I sure didn’t have any. I took a deep breath and said, “You can have all of the white male privilege you can scrape off of me, but if you want power you (the church) will have to grow your own.” After a suspenseful moment of silence, she smiled. We’ve remained good friends ever since.
I continue to scrape off privilege; underneath the veneer of privilege I continue to discover enormous stores of gratitude. The work is never finished. I am grateful for that.
Quote: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
― G.K. Chesterton