A Catholic Woman in Ministry

For many years, I have listened patiently, while others have stood in front of me with righteous indignation, stating that the Catholic church doesn’t allow women in ministry positions. Sometimes, they’d run out of breath (I’m a patient listener) and I’d get to walk away, to resume my work as a woman in ministry in the Catholic church.  The irony is that they’d stand there, red-faced & cussing about this all the while dissing me. This post is a reflection and a response to all those tiresome, one-sided conversations I’ve endured.

I graduated from NCSU in 1996. From there, I moved to Boston to coordinate volunteers and programs at the American Youth Hostel. I think it was kind of an extension of growing up on a campground. I loved hospitality and travelers. I saved lots of money during that year (I made about $7.50/hour and managed to save $5,000 that year). I left that job as soon as I could after spending 13 months at that job. It was  pretty dysfunctional work environment so I made myself stick it out so that my resume could indicate that I spent a year at my first job but I didn’t stay there a day longer than I had to.

trash 1I spent the next year traveling around the world. That’s how I sum it up, anyhow. I slept on a friend’s couch in Boston for 3 months, went to Europe for 3 months (I won plane tix from a radio station & earned the Eurail pass by passing out magazines for a travel company). From there, I returned to mom and dad’s house for 2 months. I got a job at brugger’s bagles. My little brother would come in to buy breakfast with his high school friends and there I was, a college gradate at 23 making their sandwiches! It was an interesting situation. I knew it was temporary, though. I managed to save some more money then took off for California. Another good friend let me sleep on her couch for 3 months. During that time, I visited Oregon, had east coast friends come out on vacation so I hung out with them in Las Vegas, the Bay Area etc. I also stayed with my older brother in Hawaii for a few days. He was the youngest captain of a coast guard ship at the time (at age 25). I spent the summer in Boston working at another bruggers and hanging out with friends before heading to Hartford for a year.

During that year of travel, I knew I wanted to have a year of giving back to the world. A solid year with a place to live, people to live with and something useful to do would give me a solid footing from which to decide what was next. I felt the world was my oyster, having traveled so much that year, I saw myriad possibilities of a life one can build for themselves and I wanted to make a good decision about what was next, with time to think about it.  I had spent hours pouring over “Response” the booklet published by Catholic Vol. Network every year. In fact, I’d had a copy of that each year since I was an undergrad, imagining living in all those different places doing all those different ministries. I chose one in particular because  I met a couple of older 20somethings in Boston who had volunteered with that reputable program and seemed to turn out okay. The program is JVC. Since that time, I’ve been very involved with year-of-service programs and I have gotten to know many wonderful ones which I would recommend before I recommend JVC. It is not the best program, but it is the biggest and the easiest one to find alumni who can vouch for it.

JVC placed me in Hartford, Connecticut where I was a youth counselor at an emergency homeless shelter for teen girls. I saw some tough stuff that year. I wasn’t a social worker, so I did not have to go too deep into their files. Mainly, my colleagues and I were there to help create a safe, fun environment for teen girls who’d been taken from their families by the state and had nowhere else to go. Some had been in foster care and could no longer live with families because they abused fellow foster kids. Some were let out of “juvie” and their own families were so messed up they didn’t want to take them in again.  There are terrible stories. All had been abused, mostly by their own family members. They were all ages 13-17. At 18, they aged out of the foster care system and were set up to live on their own. I lived with four other people that year who were also Jesuit Volunteers. Two of them left in the middle of the year. One of them was an alcoholic who returned to Hartford after visiting her boyfriend and often came back with black eyes. She said they were from falling down drunk. I have no idea. I was pretty clueless then so I didn’t even realize she was an alcoholic until we discovered dozens of bottles in her room after she left. Another volunteer who lived with us practically moved in with a bartender she’d met during our first week. She left mid-year as well, making her announcement while three of us were in the living room watching TV. “I’m leaving,” she stated. Oh, okay, where are you going, we asked. “I’m going back home. I’m quitting this program.” There was no conversation about it-she just left. Fortunately, I did not grow up in a dysfunctional family so these types of experiences were brand new to me as a 24 year old. That person also left us to pay her share of the phone bill which was a lot of money to us then since we were making $75/month for food and about $75/month for “other” expenses as full time volunteers.

During that year, I knew that whatever was next for me would have something to do with hospitality and young people. I liked the transient nature of our shelter, another reminder of our campground where I grew up and the hostel where I’d worked for a year, adapting to new people every few days. In the case of the shelter, it was getting to know new kids every few days, treating them without any baggage and just trying to make them feel safe and cared for in the short time they’d be with us at the shelter. My mom set up a phone call with a friend of hers who was a campus minister back home in the Diocese of Charlotte. I recalled attending Mass sometimes at the Western Carolina campus ministry center when I was a kid.  I liked the comfortable feel of that building and the easy going students we’d meet at pot lucks, etc. I learned that the diocese where I grew up, Charlotte, had an internship in campus ministry. At 23, I’d already been an apprentice (to a storyteller in Maine) and an intern (parks and recreation department)  but this program seemed to be a good  fit. Making $500/month seemed like a fortune compared to what I had been making as a Jesuit Volunteer. In addition,  I learned there were scholarships would allow me to study for a master’s degree in ministry. This is something I never would have dreamt possible. As I learned more about what studying ministry entailed, the more I realized that was something I wanted to do. Campus ministry  combined hospitality and young people and an ever-changing population of people (just like the campground and the hostel) since students were typically in college for 4 dynamic years, full of change and challenges and then they’d move on to the next step in their lives. I took the train from Hartford to NC for the campus ministry interview. My little brother, who was a freshman at a nearby college, was kind enough to drive me to my interview with the Diocesean head of campus ministry and the campus minister who was assigned to Wake Forest University. I had him hide out as I walked around campus with my interviewers because it seemed unprofessional to have had my kid brother drive me to an interview like that.  I had a hard time being on that campus since it was move-out week and I saw piles of furniture, electronics, clothing and food at the dumpsters. The overabundance of stuff I saw was contrasted with the ghetto where we lived and the homeless shelter where I worked. That contrast bothered me a lot and was the main obstacle to my envisioning spending the three year internship assigned there. However, a few conversations with the Franciscan priest who was the campus minister and the diocesan head of campus ministry helped me understand the role of the campus minister and helped me understand that I had something to contribute. It took them a couple of months to sort out some arrangements before they called me to make an offer and get my answer. I decided to go for it. Helpful conversations with lots of mentors helped to steer me in the direction of saying yes. I moved into the spare room of an apartment owned by the parish. My roomate was a nun. Coincidentally, my college pal had joined another group of Franciscans that same month so he gave me his rickety but running Oldsmobile Calais, which got me through that first year.

Now, what I’ve described here is from my perspective these 18 years later. It was a gradual process of realization, discernment, prayer, mentors and good conversations that brought me to the point of saying yes to a 3 year internship in campus ministry. I don’t tend to describe things in a flowery or poetic way, I’m just kind of laying out the facts for you here.

I was accepted to Fordham University as a graduate student and went there for 4 summers to earn the M.S. in Religion and Religious Education. A scholarship from the Catholic Extension Society paid for my education since I was serving in a mission diocese. My 3 year internship ended as another 8 years of serving there began. Some more money was scraped together, year after year, through fundraising which paid me more than the internship. Eventually, I lived on campus, with the university very generously extending a sort of “staff” status to us campus ministers. I enjoyed my 4 years living in the faculty/staff apartments where I could bike and walk to everything we did on campus. I was single so my vocation was to serve the church by serving others, something I did wholeheartedly for those many years. We had meetings at 10pm, made 2 service trips a year with students, had a Mass schedule of 3 Masses on weekends, served dinner for 60 once a week and so much more. It was a dynamic ministry and I’m very proud of our accomplishments during those 11 years with a tiny operating budget and enthusiastic students to pull it all off. Since I love travel, I remember fondly the service trips we took to Philly, Syracuse, Western N.C.,NYC, Costa Rica and India.

At the end of my 11th year there, it was time for the Franciscans to rearrange where their friars were serving, I learned that the one assigned to be a campus minister at Wake was to be assigned elsewhere. This helped me begin my own process of discernment which led me to leave that ministry for something else which, at the time, I only knew the name for: Franciscan Passages. I have never looked back, never wishing I had stayed for year #12 and #13.I loved my years in campus minstry and would not trade them for the world. I am grateful for everything I got to do and learn during that time and also grateful that I left at the right time as well. One  of my proudest accomplishments is helping to create a spirit on campus where people avidly looked for year-of-service opportunities for after graduating and saw that as a viable option. I co-created a year-of-service job fair on campus and had many conversations with students who decided to go and serve. I think 10 of our students served with one particular program: FrancisCorps, which is a ministry of the friars I worked with. Another few dozen went all over the U.S. and abroad to serve others and to discern their own next steps in life.

I am now finishing up my 7th year with Franciscan Passages, through which I have given presentations, classes, workshops and retreats to thousands of people. My focus is always on the writings of St. Francis and St. Clare. I’ve done this in two languages in two countries and 15(?) states.

My own path to ministry has been something I never could have planned out as an undergraduate. I majored in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management with a minor in Spanish and one in International Studies. I studied abroad in Costa Rica for 6 months as a junior, which solidified my Spanish. I lived in an international hall with international roommates and friends which deepened my love for all things international. I’ve said “yes” along the way when I didn’t know what the heck I was getting into. Counting back from the time I entered Jesuit Volunteer Corps, it has been 19 years that I have been serving in ministry. So often, well-meaning people come at me to complain about the Catholic church not putting women in leadership roles. This happened a lot when I was in an academic environment. They’d stand there, in front of me, spewing vitriol at my Church because of this. Meanwhile, they’re standing there talking to me. While dissing me. I’ve often chuckled at that. Their seemingly righteous anger that women leaders in ministry are not recognized while they stand before someone who was a relatively young woman serving in ministry, in fact, in an official capacity for 11 years as an appointee of the bishop.  Bless their hearts as we like to say in the south.

I am grateful for the scholarships I have received to study.  The Conventual Franciscan friars gave me a scholarship to study for the M.A. in Franciscan Studies at the Franciscan Institute of  St. Bonaventure University, a place I went for 5 summers. Since then, I’ve worked there for 4 summers, helping coordinate the summer program. I even got to teach there last summer, my 10th summer there.

So, if you are reading this and you think you may be interested in ministry, I encourage you to keep looking into it. There are lots of ways to serve in ministry. Yes, in our Catholic Church. Yes, if you are a woman. Talk to lots of people, find some good mentors and don’t let the conversation die. Find ways to volunteer and to be involved. Maybe you should do a year of service like I did. I recommend certain programs over others, if that’s the case. (Namely, Colorado Vincentian Volunteers, Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati, Christian Appalachian Project.)

I just want to share my own story in case it helps one other person live out their own story.

In Boston, there’s a statue I loved to visit. It depicts a dude in a ball cap with a waterproof jacket. I discovered it on a walk at age 22 and have tried to live it out his advice since then. Engraved are his words, “Dream dreams, then write them down. Aye, but live them first.”

My 3rd Movie: 300 Years of Good

I’ve just spent the past month working on 300 Years of Good, a compilation of stories by women religious (a.k.a. nuns) from around North Carolina & South Carolina. I interviewed 15 sisters, 9 of whom are in this movie. There are 64 sisters in the Raleigh Diocese, 100 in the South Carolina Diocese and I’m not sure how many in my own Diocese but I’d guess around 100. I’d like to share some details of what this journey entailed and about what happened along the way.

In December, I was informed that I would receive a $1000 grant from National Catholic Sisters Week to show a documentary during this week in March. Not only is the money covering popcorn (for 80 people), soda (for 60 people) and a rented cooler ($20), but it also covered the cost of the making of the documentary. I did not receive any payment for my work. I have spent a few hundred hours planning, interviewing, traveling and editing but my time has been my own contribution to the project, a labor of love. Although this has been a very solitary experience, especially these past few weeks spent in our guest room/home office editing until well after midnight most nights, I have not been completely alone  and all sorts of people came out to help me along the way. I met Rachel at a filmmaker’s meetup in Charlotte in January. She sat down with me to help me figure out which days I could travel during February and in the past couple of weeks of editing, checked in on me. Friends like Courtney, Caitlin, Cathy & Sr. Eileen put on their thinking caps when I asked about sisters they knew in NC and SC. If not for those four people, none of these interviews would have taken place. Wow. I realize just now how important they were to the making of this. In the credits, I give thanks to two men: my own husband who supported this project wholeheartedly and Jim, who helped me learn a lot about South Carolina and bought me lunch while in Charleston.

In the Company of Women

I traveled to Cary, NC, staying at my friend Betsy’s house for the night with her cute animals and lively conversation.  I stayed in a hotel in Sumter, SC on my way to the very remote Kingstree, SC which did not seem to have any chain hotels nearby when I booked in Sumter (almost an hour away). I enjoyed 2 nights with the Poor Clare sisters in Traveler’s Rest, SC, enjoying the foods they stocked in the small guest apartment where I stayed. I enjoyed a delicious pot roast in Kingstree and lunch with the gentle and lovely fellowship of the Felician sisters there.  In Belmont, I got to meet several sisters who were archivist and a woman in her 30s who is a professional archivist as well. Their explanations of their work helped me find words for my own as I am also seeking to capture, preserve and share stories of women religious. I enjoyed breakfast and lunch in the main kitchen at the Belmont Mercy’s place, running into some sisters I’ve known from my 42 years, most of which have been spent in the Diocese of Charlotte.  In Cary, Sister Anne took me out for delicious burritos at a place with dozens of hot sauces (which I love) and treated me to interesting conversation and warm hospitality.

Three Movies

With delight, when I sat down after interviews to sort through the footage, I realized I actually have three movies sitting in front of me! This became clearer to me as I went along. Over the next few months, I will be putting together a separate movie for the Poor Clares and for the Felicians. Since I got to spend so much time with them and to film so much outside of our sit down interviews, I know these will be very colorful portraits, or rather, snapshots of what I saw when with them. Both happen to be Franciscan communities, so I might have to work a little harder and really think about how to incorporate some of Francis & Clare’s writings (my specialty) into the films.

What I’ve learned

Precepts I try to follow when making a movie include a.)don’t be preachy and b.)don’t try to teach someone a lesson through it. So, I will share what I learned and I believe that the stories are different enough that they will touch people in various ways. What I learned is that these women have drawn from a well within themselves that others do not have or have not found. I believe that well is kept filled by God by way of their community life, ministry, liturgical and sacramental life and especially by their own personal prayer lives.  They had so many stories that I had to leave out ones like how one person helped get a man off death row or how another one worked in AIDS care back when people with AIDS were treated as lepers. So many stories.  I know that not everyone is going to like this movie. That’s fine. I will be glad to teach anyone who wants a different movie what I have taught myself in the past 16 months so that they can go out and make the movies they want to watch.  My questions were focused on what these women have done and who they have met along the way. Those are the stories which appear in the movie.  I do not preach or teach in this movie but I do hope people are motivated to think about what they can personally do to reach out to others as these sisters have done.

Celebrating National Catholic Sisters Week

I got to show the film on Wednesday night to the campus ministry students of Winthrop University. My parents came up for it, Rachel and her mom came and several students and others .It was great to sit in the back row and gauge their reactions. After that showing, I put in another 20+ hours to bend and mold it and tweak it and cut off some excess so that it is the best movie my current abilities allow me to make. I am happy with it. In the coming weeks, I would like to find composer to create an original score. I need to continue to consider doing a voiceover narration, something I have eschewed so far since I feel it would be invasive and my whole point is to let people tell their own stories, as Francis would say, “without gloss” (summary and commentary).  I believe that 2017 will be a time for me to travel with the film to some convents, schools, campus ministries, parishes and film festivals. My respect for these women and what they have done is evident. I had zero agenda except to showcase some stories of women religious and am proud of the decisions I’ve made while traveling, interviewing and editing which have kept that priority at the forefront. I hope you’ll get to see it sometime. Invite me to your town to show it and we can watch it together!

 

 

 

 

 

This Grief is an Arroyo

tr-aroDo you know what an arroyo is? I’m from the American Southeast, so this is something I’ve learned about only recently, over the past few years since I have gotten to travel around New Mexico and Texas. It is a streambed which doesn’t have water in it 100% of the time. So, it is an occasional river. I guess local people know the ebb and flow of these things. I would not know how to predict a flash flood.

I’ve heard a story about east coast tourists who were thrilled to find a comfy, flat spot for their tents when camping out west. In the middle of the night, they heard shouts and people freaking out and managed to get out of their tents to safety right before a huge wall of water would have pushed them down the creek bed, in a knot of pillows, tent & sleeping bags that could have drown them.

A dear friend of mine died last year. I’ve been thinking about her a lot over the past few days. As I search for a metaphor to describe the grief that has reappeared in front of me, I think of an arroyo. It is not a stream or river or an ocean, but it is as an arroyo. I think about her often. I’ve cried a lot. The thoughts in the beginning tended to be the mundane ones about stopping by to see her during the normal errands I did in the area where she worked. Now, I have to follow up those thoughts with a reminder that I cannot see her. The grief is not there 100% of the time. I saw her in person very regularly yet not very often. Often, my thoughts turn to her and I smile and move on. Sometimes, though, the same line of thinking or memories surprises me with a flashflood of tears.

Her family gave me a scarf of hers which I did not wear until this past weekend, where it saved me from an unusually cold February in Los Angeles. When I got home from that trip last night, I went through all my bags and realized I left that scarf somewhere between a 40,000-person conference, a shuttle to the airport and LAX-an impossible task to track it down. I can only comfort myself by remembering that so many things passed through her hands-donations, clothes, furniture, plants, flowers, food, and passed through her station wagons-always on their way to someone else, so I hope that scarf ends up with someone who wants and needs it, too. That’s what I’m telling myself to keep the arroyo dry, otherwise, I’m going to be out of commission for an hour today, crying over the loss of the scarf but really crying over so much loss.

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I sent this blog post to my friend, Rev. Amy Vaughan, a North Carolina poet. Within the hour, she wrote this beautiful poem. Please share all of this with anyone you know who may be grieving.  You can read another of her poems here: http://wnccumc2.tumblr.com/post/157191692511/on-waiting

Arroyo*
Amy Vaughan       February 27, 2017
*With thanks to Julie for the inspiration
That occasional river
Flash floods when 
I least expect it,
But mostly in the mundane tasks
Of daily life,
Like in the ice cream aisle 
At the grocery store,
Looking for the two-fer sale,
Like you would have,
Or when a can of purple plums
Falls hard on my foot from the pantry shelf
As if you’d pushed your favorite down
Just to make me smile.
In Texas and New Mexico, my friend tells me they call
These places of 
Occasional rivers
Arroyo,
A dangerous place to be in the middle of the night
In a tent,
When you thought the flat ground 
To be an ideal camping spot,
Until that rushing water 
Appeared and you escaped
But just barely,
From being drowned in a froth of 
Tent poles and sleeping bags.
I think my grief, too,
Is like the arroyo,
The occasional river,
Dangerous,
Unexpected,
Creeping up on me
Just when I think I am safe,
Like when I am trying to comfort someone else
On their loss, not mine,
And it is me who ends up
Weeping uncontrollably.
These arroyos,
I have learned,
Can also serve to bring
Water to desert animals,
And so I wonder if my
Grief slakes the thirst of a small
Chuckwalla lizard or a 
Clever javelina
Like compassion or
Resilience?
And, too, these
Occasional rivers are sometimes
Used as pathways,
Routes to make the going easier
When the way is dry and smooth.
Can my grief
Take me where I need to go,
If I am careful not to let it 
Drown me when 
The water rushes in?
Occasional river,
Deep arroyo of 
Grief,
School me, that I can
Drink in all that I can learn
Without drowning 
In the flood.
Amy Vaughan       February 27, 2017
*With thanks to Julie for the inspiration

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What does this have to do with St. Francis of Assisi?

St. Francis died in his early 40s. He left behind 5,000 people who looked to him as their leader. His closest companions had been with him since before his conversion. They must have grieved him for the remainder of their lives.

9/11 Scared the Shit out of Us

I teach English as a Second Language.

Well, that’s not actually true.

Yeah, that’s not entirely true. It is not just me. There are several of us who go every week: Raul who is 84 and might just be the Dos Equis “World’s Most Interesting Man” who has been part of English Conversation Hour for 17 years. There’s also my friend Mijin who volunteers alongside us. She’s a professional English teacher in her own country and she recently aced an English competency exam. There’s also Lisa, a housewife from Louisiana who is there most weeks.

I don’t teach it-it is a conversation hour so we sit in a circle and talk about different stuff from week to week. Sometimes one person dominates, sometimes we break up into small groups, sometimes we pair up and sometimes everybody takes a turn to talk.

It is not a second language. Most of the participants grew up speaking one language at home, another language in school and maybe even some additional ones before taking on English. My own grandma grew up speaking only German at home. She didn’t learn English until she went to kindergarten. Eventually, everybody hated Germans so she squished the language far down & to this day does not remember a word of it. What about your grandparents? Or theirs? Who hated them when they first got to the U.S. If your ancestors are Catholic, that’s an easy one-I can give you a whole list of everyone who hated ’em.

This past week at English Conversation Hour, I looked around the room and there were people who once lived in Iran, Dominican Republic, Columbia, California and Saudi Arabia. Now, we all find ourselves in Charlotte, NC either by choice or circumstance. I did not choose to live here but my husband’s job has brought us here. I share that in common with several people in the room.  We talked about our upcoming weekends, our families and methods we’ve found useful for taking on new languages (my personal fave is to use the free app DuoLingo. I learned Italian in 8 months last year, inspired by the progress I’ve seen in English learners).

Like a lot of my fellow Americans, certain images come to mind when I hear the word “Iran” or when I see a woman with a hijab (headscarf). Similar images come to mind when I heard the word “Beirut” or hear Arabic spoken. 9/11 scared the shit out of us. I’m going to say that plain and simple. I was a campus minster at the time and so grateful we had daily Mass that day on campus. It was packed. The priest read from the liturgy meant to be read “In times of national crisis.” He cried during it and the floodgates opened with lots of scared people crying our eyes out. I spent the night next door to my house, sleeping in the chapel of the Franciscan and SSJ sisters who lived next to me. I literally showed up with my sleeping bag and pillow, not wanting to sleep alone in my apartment that night.  We’d never thought much about Islam at that point. But, since 9/11 scared all of us, it has been hard to separate 9/11 from Islam and Islam from 9/11-like the red and white components of a candy cane, they seem twinned in our minds.

Also twinned in our minds are images of Muslims and terrorists. The point of terrorism is to terrorize people and their hope is to have ramifications beyond the individual actions that they do. When the fear/terror of terrorism begins to be invoked by our own leaders to terrorize us, the bad guys have won. Their point has been made. Their branding has taken hold and now they sit back and relax while others continually scare us. I’ve read that more people are accidentally killed by toddlers than terrorists in the U.S. in a given year, yet we’re all paranoid now, aren’t we?

Just sitting around a room together in Charlotte, talking about simple things like family and travel and days off, we realize we have more in common than we have differences. We worry about the same categories of stuff, we like good food, music has a place in our lives, we want what is best for our loved ones. If you wonder where immigrants come from, sometimes it is as easy as looking at some recent history of the U.S. being involved in something in their home country. Do you know anyone who emigrated from Vietnam in the 70s, 80s or 90s? Or from Iraq in the 90s or 2000s?  If so, guess what, they were most likely “on our side” during whatever was going on over there at the time. That’s why they have the preferential status of refugee.

I’m taking a basic filmmaking class at the local community college this semester. Our instructor was teaching us about lenses and filters, f stop settings, glare and reflections tr-1when he told us that the widest range of skin tone from the lightest to the darkest skin is really just a few shades apart in the grand scheme of the color wheel and its zillions of colors. I’ve seen photos on facebook of Franciscan friends holding a quote from Jesus, “I was a stranger…” I know that not everyone is as fortunate as I am to sit in a room of adults who all have a common goal of working on a new language together. I’ve also been able to experience being a stranger in many countries over the course of my travels (to 23 countries) where I was one of few Christians or few Catholics (heck, that’s the place I grew up in the NC mountains), few white people, few Americans, few English speakers, etc. I just ask you to remember that once upon a time, your grandparents or great grandparents were reviled. Businesses had signs up to warn Irish or Italians not to bother coming in. I’m going to continue going back to spend an hour a week with English conversation hour and I hope people continue to come, from all over the world to sit in a circle and talk about simple things. Sometimes we have little pot lucks and get to sample chocolate from Italy or a casserole from Columbia. Although I may have been inundated with negativity associated with the word “Iran” or with negativity about a woman who wears a headscarf, when I actually sit next to someone from Iran or someone with that head covering, we talk and listen, remembering that just like, in the grand scheme of the colorwheel, where our skin tones are not that different, neither are the things we hold dear: our husbands, our families, their well-being, our friendships and even stuff like whether the app called Mango really is better than the one called DuoLingo when it comes to learning another language. (I recommend DuoLing0.)

God bless America.

Review of Minimalism: A Documentary about Important Things

A Franciscanist reacts to the documentary Minimalism: A Documentary about Important Things

I heard an NPR interview with the two guys who call themselves “The Minimalists” last week. I stopped what I was doing to listen to the entirety of the interview. They’ve got a lot of things right. When their movie “Minimalism” popped up on my Netflix feed this evening, I got comfortable, happy to have an alternative to going out to see Star Wars (where my family went) for the evening. As someone who has spent a lot of time reading St. Francis and thinking about him, I have a few things to share after watching this movie.

The documentary follows two guys as they travel around the country promoting their book and ideas. Their shtick is that they’ve pared down their belongings to the bare necessities. We don’t catch a glimpse of the living quarters of one of the fellas, so there’s no chance for that curiosity to be satiated, but that’s alright. The film features interviews with several people who advocate for aspects of minimalism: a neuroscientist who thinks we spend too much time looking at screens, tiny house dwellers, a handsome millennial who eschews an apartment in order to couch surf and use Airbnb (presumably). I like all of this. While listening to the guy talk about screentime, I paused the movie to further adjust the limits on the app on my phone (App Detox) which limits how much time I spend using my phone. They give great advice, examples, stories and statistics that will cause viewers to take a minute to consider their own consumption. St. Francis of Assisi jumped up excitedly, recognizing “This is what I want!” when he heard the readings where Jesus tells a young man to go, sell everything he has, give the money to the poor in order to follow him properly. So, these ideas are as old as the hills, but it is great to see them repackaged in 2016 style and to see that 100s of people show up to their book signings/bookstore appearances. They’ve got quiet the marketing machine in place, which gets them interviewed by all sorts of media so kudos to them for going “maximalist” on the P.R. front.

I guessed correctly that there would be some nod toward Buddhism and articulation of its ideas about possessions. There was and it was explained by a former news reporter/drug addict who found through mediation a way to focus and worry less. I wish there were more Francis-loving filmmakers out there who might be able to tell a story like this with a nod to Francis, but that’s not their problem.

It is a movie that could only have been made in 2016, by my compatriot Americans from a certain economic class (upper middle) and has all the predictable conclusions about minimalism boosting personal happiness. There are a few interviewees who toss in ideas about the earth’s resources and for a minute I thought that the statement which started with (I’m paraphrasing here), “It is hard to believe that in a time when Americans enjoy so much comfort and wealth…” was going to end with an assessment of the world around us and the lack of comfort and wealth in much of the world. However, the remainder of that statement was something like, “…and yet everyone is so unsatisfied.” I believe that lots of us Americans are unsatisfied and believe that we need to acquire more and more. I live in a town where all the 1960s and 1970s houses are being torn down to make way for sad, oversized McMansions. So, yes, they are on to something. However, it is compelling and true that we need to take a look at how our choices affect others. Also, about how we can harness the power we have (the money we control, for example) to be a force for good. And, how we need to see ourselves in the context of the whole world. I’m not saying that my fellow Catholics are all knowlegable to analyze these things in light of Catholic Social Teaching and the teachings of our Popes, but it would add a layer of depth to the film. St. Francis of Assisi did not eschew his family possessions and status because he wanted to be happier, but because it is what God called him to do and freed him up to love and serve others all over the world.

I recommend watching this film. It makes a statement which doesn’t get heard very much amongst the din of commercials which are our steady source of information on materialism and how to embrace it. It opened my eyes up to some new vocabulary and I was encouraged to see the number of people showing up to hear them speak. No doubt, they are on to something and they have hit a nerve. I heard a lot of ideas which have been popular for a few years-about working minimal hours so you can chill more. Sounds good to me.

 

I’d like to know what you think about The Minimalists and their movie, Minimalism.

St. Francis invented Live Nativity Scenes

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I love Living Nativity Scenes. This Advent, my goal is to try see 4 or 5 of them, inviting friends and family along with me. One of the most extraordinary descriptions in the first biography of St. Francis (written just a few years after his death) is about the Living Nativity which he pulled together. More precisely, he delegated it, like a smart leader, and had a lay man, John, pull together the townspeople of Greccio, plus an ox plus an ass. I try to imagine how spectacular this scene was for folks who loved a good tableau and the occasional entertainers who came to town. I wonder what it was like for John to talk people into letting him borrow their ox for the night. “No, really, we just want to put it on display next to the so-and-so family who has already agreed to depict Jesus, Mary and Joseph for the evening.”

I love when churches put a lot of effort in to these Living Nativity Scenes, sometimes called Live Nativities or other words. Some churches put on a drive-through experience or a walk-through experience. Yes, I will concede that in most cases, a medieval historian was not consulted to get the costumes just right and, in many cases, peoples’ own bathrobes account for most of the costumes, but the sentiment is right and before I criticize other people, I have to remember that THEY are the ones doing it while I did not lift a finger to help.

I hope that you will take some time to find a living nativity in your town. A lot of northerners have told me they’ve never heard of such a thing-poor lambs. I know that in the south here, we have plenty to choose from . Many of them are just a few nights and most of them close shop way before Christmas, so start looking now. Francis and John put together the first Living Nativity Scene because they wanted the scene to come to life for people and for the reality of the incarnation to be more tangible for people who got to go there, huddling against the cold, singing and enjoying the candlelit scene. I hope you jump in the car with some in-laws to check one out near you. It is what St. Francis would do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Garbage Flowers

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Garbage Flowers by M.G.

O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous…
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

(This passage is from the Gospel for yesterday. It is from the Book of Luke, Chapter 18.)

My friend Matthew took the above photo, Garbage Flowers,  on his way to his bus stop for work last week. When I look at it, it makes me think about the beautiful things we create and our attempts to share them with others. This image lingered in my mind yesterday when I went to an early service at a Methodist Church to hear my friend preach. Afterwards, my husband and I went to Mass at our parish. Because both followed the lectionary readings of the day, I got to hear the same Gospel reading twice. Above is an excerpt from the Gospel. It goes on to say that we’re not supposed to spend our time thinking of all the ways we’re more awesome than the next person and envying them for their success.  Garbage Flowers and this admonition to not be a “playah hater” merge in this blogpost.

I’ve made a couple of short documentaries in the past year. They are not perfect. I know that.  I am not a perfectionist. The worst part of perfectionism is that people allow themselves to be intimidated and afraid to the point that they will not let their work be seen by others. I have a relative who is a talented artist but doesn’t want others to see what she’s drawn. I have another relative is plain and simple, really good at what he does so he writes many plays each year, all of which are performed publically. I’m not as good at my art as he is, but I’m also not afraid to put it out there, like she is.  I created these films and decided to take the next, bold step of submitting them to film festivals. Each film has been accepted to one festival apiece so far. Each has been rejected from a handful of festivals as well. I’m waiting to hear back from a few others and of course, I hope they are selected.

In the meantime, another film has come to my attention. I’m in search of benchmarks as I wonder how I’m doing in this new-to-me endeavor, so I’ve been checking out the stats on this other film. I realize it is not a good practice and I need to stop doing it. It is like comparing apples and oranges. Our films are not in competition and they are two different things. However, Mamma Mia! It has the support of hundreds of people, almost two dozen organizations and a well-known Hollywood personality. When I learned all of that, I let it bother me because it got a lot more financial support than what I gathered for my films before jumping in.

When I try to temper that comparison and focus on my gratitude instead, I think about this:

I spent about $2000 (including $1000 given generously from National Catholic Sisters’ Week) and yes, had lots and lots of awesome people come forward to offer me other kinds of (non-financial) help along the way. People offered me places to sleep, generously took me out to lunch and kindly introduced me to the women who were featured in my films. Not only that, but many of the women featured in my films were recruited at the last minute. For example, I stayed with a friend in Philadelphia who discerned that it was not her time to be interviewed, but she told the women she lived with and as a result, I got to interview them and they are in it. This happened again and again along the way. I have so much more to be grateful for than to be envious of. About 10 people took a look at it before I released it, giving me much-needed pointers and tips. A musician from Scotland composed the music for one of the films, scoring it from beginning to end. He did this for the love of doing it and did not ask for any money. People came from all directions to help bring these films to life.

I get worked up when I think about this other film (just as the Gospel reading depicts someone getting worked up over other people) because the film uses the personal stories of several people to thrust forth its own agenda.

This is where the Gospel reading really hit a chord with me. As I compare my project with theirs, I get annoyed and angry and, yes, even envious. But, this Gospel reading tells me to get over that and to focus on my own stuff.

When I shift my focus away from this other film to my own work, I can reaffirm my commitment to work ethically.

My agenda for these films is to tell the stories of women who serve the poor. When you make a documentary, you realize there is a great moral task at time. There is a great ethical factor in every decision you make. Imagine you have 1 hour of footage from an interview you did with someone. The person is comfortable with you and likes you, so they speak freely after a while, as though they are speaking right to you. The camera is situated so that it is off your shoulder a bit. That way, they can talk directly to you, which allows them to relax and be open an honest, while the camera is right there, recording it all in an unobtrusive way. When you sit down to take a look at the footage, you realize the power you have in your hands. You can snip together pieces of an interview to fit any agenda you have in mind. In one interview I did, the person, as part of our friendly banter at the beginning, told me about some of the foods she did not like in a particular place where she once lived. This is a simple example but it illustrates the decision that must be made. Do I want the 3-4 minutes of this woman to be marked by this comment? It was made in an innocuous way as we were making conversation. However, it can be used to such an effect that it makes the speaker look like a jerk who complains. Of course, I did not use that footage, but you see my point about how easy it is to be the puppeteer. Anyhow, these kind of ethical decisions are made every time you piece together an interview.

When I shift my focus from seeking accolades…

The last thing I want to talk about is recognition, accolades and awards. I was fortunate enough to attend the two film festivals my two films have been accepted to so far. It was so awesome to sit in the audience and hear peoples’ reactions. I enjoyed answering their questions afterwards and yes, accepting their compliments. I hope to do this a few more times with each of these films. I also know that accolades cannot be my main goal. I guess the main goal is to create something beautiful and to release it into the world. I guess we don’t really have control over how many people see something or how they react to it, including the people who review films and make selections for festivals. I wanted to make a film which documents the stories of religious women (aka nuns) who serve the poor. I wanted them to tell their own stories, in their own ways. Out of the 1 or 1.5 hours of footage I gathered from each woman, I selected the story each one told which brought out the most emotion in her. I even have a hunch that this is something I’m supposed to be doing for the next few years, collecting their stories and packaging them in such a way that the rest of us can hear them and be motivated to serve the poor as they have.

What does this have to do with St. Francis of Assisi?

tra1Well, every post, movie, book, meme and video I make has something to do with St. Francis of Assisi, sometimes overtly. In this blog post, I think that there is a place for Francis’ admonitions to not be too hung up on our things. That even means the things we create-one’s “brainchild” for example. I think we can be excited about the stuff we create and put a lot of work into but that ultimately we have to let it go and let others do with it what they will.

I don’t know if this blogpost makes sense to anybody else out there. If it does, I’d love to hear about your own experience with this stuff (being envious, getting over yourself, filmmaking). Thanks for taking the time to read it, in all its glorious imperfections, and yes, you can make the Garbage Flowers your screensaver if you’d like.