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.”

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9/11 Scared the Heck 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 heck 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.

Why I’m Writing a Prisoner

This morning, after piling my 2 fried eggs atop toast and covering it in a glob of green chilies (a taste acquired in New Mexico), I pulled out my pad of lined paper, a plain white envelope and one of the decent pens we own, not one of the cheap 50 pens we’ve acquired from the months we’ve spent in hotel rooms with my husband’s job over the years. I sat down at our dining room table and began to write. I hardly know this guy. He is the friend of a relative of a relative but I know they love him and vouch for him that he’s a good guy, despite his recent circumstances.

Why I'm writing a prisoner.
Why I’m writing a prisoner.

This is the second prisoner I’ve written over the past four years. When my friend’s relative spent a year in the federal women’s prison in West Virginia. I wrote her about once a month. I took my cues from her. As she wrote me a letter, I wrote one in response. Honestly, I loved getting back into the habit of writing actual letters again. This is what Pope Francis promises us is part of our encounter with the poor. It is an exchange, where there is something to be found for both people. Its not just a one-way giving spree. There’s satisfaction to be found in the exchange. As a person who is 41, I have had the pleasure of living in both worlds: the by-hand and the digital world. Over the years, I’ve let go of the boxes and boxes of cards and letters people sent me when I lived away from home (Spain at 16, Maine at 17, college at 18, Costa Rica at 20). Those cards accompanied me during my time away from the familiar. My Aunt Bonnie was the best and most consistent card writer. Her slanted left handed scrawl was unmistakably recognizable. In her honor, I bought a box from a yard sale this past Saturday. It will allow me to write down people’s special dates and to sort the cards into folders so that I can be totally on top of these things just like she was. I miss so many birthdays, anniversaries of deaths and weddings that it’s really shameful. I hope this system, bought for $2 will help me be more like Aunt Bonnie.
Since I live primarily in this digital world, it is easy to forget that some folks have been thrown back to 1993, technologically speaking. These include my pal who is in a hospital in Washington, DC, who treasures the cards sent to her by friends and family, my grandma in Wisconsin and this guy who is in prison.
tra 1So, what do I write to the guy? Well, I guess I start with the premise that I don’t have to be extra clever or profound or even extra interesting. I just start writing. It turns out that it took me four pages this morning to tell him all about that friend of mine who is in the hospital in Washington, DC. I told him about her lifelong ministry to the poor, something she was doing way before Pope Francis helped make it trendy again. I described visiting her at her office about once a week for over a decade and the circumstances surrounding her recent hospital stay. As I wrote to him, a clever phrase did come to mind and I took the liberty of re-writing it neatly in the margins, “Just because her body is in a prison doesn’t mean her heart and mind have to be.” Nice, I thought. I need to find out if he’s allowed to be sent books or at least photo copies of pages of books (every prison has differing rules). There are probably people with more profound things to say than that, like Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor who described life in the death camps. Someone like Nelson Mandela. I’ve never read anything he wrote but the guy spent decades imprisoned. Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul the Apostle, there are lots of other people. For us, on the “outside” we can read what they have to say and admire them for being so deep in the midst of such desperation. I’m guessing that a prisoner would read another prisoner’s words with an even greater understanding of the journey they are on.
So, when I write to this fellow, I know I’m getting a lot out of it. I got to spend 30 minutes thinking about how much I love and admire my friend about whom I was writing. Re-reading my own writing is a strange pleasure, especially when it has come together and is actually pretty good stuff. In my first letter (this was my second letter, written in response to the one he sent last week), I was very blunt about my intentions for writing to him. Being a Christian is pretty easy sometimes since there is nice, concise instructions on how we are supposed to do this thing. If you look up the 7 corporal (“bodily”) works of mercy, you’ll see that visiting the sick and visiting the imprisoned are actually spelled out right there for us. I don’t expect to visit him in prison but my letters are a way to distract and maybe give him something new to think about for a few minutes, which is like a visit. I don’t know where the correspondence will go but I think I will just keep telling him stories about all of the wonderful people I’ve met in my life. I was blunt about my intentions.
St. Francis himself was imprisoned too. That was in the 13th century so I guarantee you he didn’t have a window, 3 hots nor a cot. We could come up with a long list of imprisoned people we’d have loved to correspond with throughout history. In the meantime, if you don’t plan on visiting someone in prison then I suggest you ask God to help you find someone you can write to in prison. I recommend spreading the word around. According to a statistic I just read, it looks like about 1 in every 300 Americans is currently in prison or in jail. Put out an APB on Facebook and ask folks to tell you the name of their aunt, godmother, stepdad or brother-in-law who has been locked away for a time. I rely on the people we know in common to vouch for the guy so I know I’m not getting mixed up with someone who is a danger. If you need help finding someone, I can help spread the word for you. It is taboo to talk about our relatives and loved ones who are in prison but with statistics like 1 in 300, you’ve got to figure that just about every single person you know knows someone who is in jail or prison right now.
So, that’s why I’m writing to a prisoner. It’s also why I think you should write, too.


How this relates to St. Francis:
1. If St. Francis’ prison term was happening right now, how would you get his address? What would write to him?
2. Like Pope Francis, St. Francis was all about seeking out those who are on the margins. Ask God to show you who are on the margins that you can reach out to.
3. In typical colorful medieval metaphor, it is said that St. Francis’ “whole body was a tongue” which means that his whole being actually spoke the Gospel even louder than his voice preached it. As we mediate on the instruction to visit prisoners and we recall that our hero, Jesus was brought to trial, convicted and sentenced to death, how can your actions speak, telling the world you believe this stuff?