Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hearing the Unheard

A few years ago I took a very small group of teens and chaperones (nearly equal numbers) on a service trip to Guatemala City with International Samaritan.

Let me set the scene. Picture the worst poverty you have ever seen first hand. Got it? Toss that mental image out the window because it probably doesn't hold a candle to the poverty of the individuals who live in the city garbage dump community. Think Slumdog Millionaire and you're closer to this reality.

I was rather squished into my seat on the flight down between some rather large gentlemen. Think defensive line for it? Okay, that's where I was. These were guys who were former military were going down there to train with the police or Guatemalan military. We struck up a conversation and they were impressed I was crazy enough to be doing this. I didn't blink.

Then we get to the zone (that's what the areas of the city are called zones - there are two that are the garbage dump community). And my breath was taken away from me. First you are hit with the physical force of the stench of the dump. Then you are assaulted by the shacks assembled from scavenged material, sewage, dust, and devastation. Once you survive all that, you encounter the worst volley - the poverty of soul and hope in the people staring through their huts.

That is what the single greatest part of the service trip is. Recognizing that the little we do over the week or 10 days is inconsequential. What is so very crucial is the sense of hope and validation we brought to those people. They are forsaken by their countrymen who hold to a class system. We, the strange Americans, noticed them, they were heard, and they were cared for. It was not our wealth or our citizenship. It was not our clothes or our technology. It was our ears and hearts that they wanted.

They wanted their stories told. They wanted hope for their children. They wanted their voices to be heard.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Two Handy Tools

Switching gears, here are two digital tools I find incredible -

This handy little app for your computer, iPhone and so forth allows you to clip text, websites, etc. and come back to read them later. You can sync it with your Twitter app on your phone which I find helpful when there's a link I want to follow but at that moment the dentist calls me back for that pesky appointment. It is also great because it works well with ....

I am hardly the first to extol the virtues of this handy little application. However, I am really digging it right now as I am working on my workshops. I have three workshops to present prior to the end of the month. Two deal with media and technology so I am creating handouts and finding articles online. Since I do some of the work at home, some at work, and some on the go, it allows me to have access to the info no matter where I am. You can also directly email someone your files from Evernote. Images, websites, text, it all falls neatly into Evernote and you can easily create notebooks and tags to keep things organized. The app for my iPhone is also great so I can add a note if something came up in conversation or while reading something.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Unexpected Composition

We have now had two Sundays of youth group for this year and we have an unexpected composition forming this year.

Being of an internationally minded community courtesy of the large university in our area, many families host youth from abroad. A few drop in to youth group, some stay, some find it a bit too foreign for them. Most years we don't have a steady number, maybe just one.

This year a mom brought a carload on the first night - 5! We had Korean, Japanese, German, and Mexican students at our session. This past week brought four of those back plus another boy from China. One or two of them aren't Catholic, but still came for the community and perhaps something else.

It is quickly teaching me a few things that may be of use to those out there.
  1. Once you know you have kids from another country - be aware of language issues. While their conversational English may be better than yours, how is their biblical English. A German girl was unable to really participate in small group until she found the text in German on her smart phone. Try preparing the texts in the languages to give to the youth so they can feel comfortable.
  2. Help them through the paperwork - they may not recognize the phrases we toss around like parent/guardian on a form or what phone number we're looking for on that particular line. Explain why you are collecting that data. They may not be familiar with those requests.
  3. Determine how you and your ministry can best work with the host families. If they are parish members, great, your job just got a bit easier. If not, determine their comfort level with your faith community and make sure to keep lines of communication open.
  4. Watch the money issue. For many of the youth, they may have limited funds available for additional trips and retreats. Look into ways that these youth can be sponsored for those events or (if you're lucky) offer them financial aid from your budget allocation.
  5. Find ways to connect them with the youth. Introduce them to kids that go to the same school (we have 4 major schools that feed into our youth group). Find connections about likes and hobbies. Doctor Who is an obsession for a group of our girls and a few of the exchange kids like the show too; they spent a long time chatting about it last week.
  6. Pay attention to their specific needs - are they home sick? Do they long for more familiar food? I was at an international conference in Italy where the food was fantastic. However, a young man from Burma just wanted the simple rice dish traditional to his home.
Most of all, I try to be as warm and hospitable as possible. This is all strange to them and having been in far away places often enough myself, a friendly face with a listening ear can be a blessing.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

In the Smoke

For days following September 11, 2001, it was eerie in Manhattan. Bustling streets were haunted by the thousands of feet and voices that would never again echo down the pavement. Smoke and debris covered the ground like shockingly painful snow.

Beyond the physical ramifications and clear tragedy of the day, we were left in a state of questioning. To quote my favorite fictional President, "What's next?"

The days wore on and months turned to years. We sent men and women to battle in two far off countries. The outpouring of patriotism, solidarity, and compassion turned into something else, something a bit less idyllic. Patriotism became a political tool for some. Solidarity turned into partisanship. And compassion, well, that was inconvenient.

Now, ten years later we are left with a haze that affects us all and we need to be aware of it in ministry.

In college I had a very good friend freshman year in the dorms. We had gone to middle school together but she moved away before high school. Inadvertently, we ran into each other soon after beginning university. She was Muslim. She was a good friend. Four of us young women, a Buddhist, a Catholic (me), a Muslim, and a Catholic turned agnostic/atheist ate dinner together about once a week. My Muslim friend and I periodically turned our discussion to our faith. At a public and very liberal university, we both faced attacks periodically for our faith from fellow students and even some of the professors and TAs. However, she and I found solidarity with each other. She chose to wear her head scarf. Her mother didn't, if I recall correctly, and no one forced, coerced, or argued her into doing so. I don't think they would have succeeded if they tried. She was educated, eloquent, and faithful. She was the sort of friend you wanted in your corner.

We got strange looks at time. I would often have my Bible study things on the table next to me since I would dash down the drive after dinner to the next dorm where my Bible study took place. She would have her Koran and other materials for the Muslim student group she was very involved in at her elbow. My crucifix or cross necklaces would stand out even more vividly next to her beautiful scarves.

We would laugh and commiserate like every other student in that cafeteria - after all papers, exams, boys, the unique dorm food, concerned us just as much as anyone else.

But our friendship could go to other topics. She would understand when we talked of faith and the struggles of having value systems not held by the majority of students. She understood the pressure I faced when my hall mates went to the big party or talked of their colorful weekend exploits. She knew what it was like to go to a professor with a question about the class and end up defending your faith and your right to wear that crucifix or headscarf while maintaining your individual identity as an educated young woman.

Unfortunately she and I fell out of touch. As sophomore year came we both became increasingly committed to our respective campus ministry programs, work, school, and different groups of friends. As we lived on opposite ends of the large university, we no longer had the simplicity of a shared dining hall. I regret losing touch with her.

But I think of her often. When I read of those who wish to burn the Koran, I think of her. When I read articles about young Muslim women in the US who are pulled aside for pat downs each time they fly, I think of her. When I frustrate and anger myself by reading ignorant comments on news articles online that mention the words Islam, Muslim, or terrorist, I think of her. When I hear people who in fear and ignorance think all Muslims wish harm on others, I think of her. I think of her and I have great hope. When I see the wary looks otherwise good people give to those who look different, practice faith differently, I think of her.

I think of her when I face a room full of youth or young adults and we discuss identity, faith, prejudices, fear, hatred, ignorance, and true friendship.

It has been just over ten years since I last had a good conversation with Fatima, but I think of her often and pray for her safety, well-being, and joyful life often.

As I do for all men and women of faith and good-will.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Day Before

Everyone in ministry always is thinking of "the day." The day you need to deal with tragedy, suffering, mourning. We prepare. We have that file of counselors, therapists, extra leaders, local resources. We dread the day, but we know that it will come.

But what of the day before? We never know when "the day" will hit. Today could be the day before.

What are we doing to prepare ourselves and the people we work with? Are we laying the foundation of healthy spirituality and faith to sustain them through the time of pain? Are we making sure that they know and experience God's love?

As prepared as we may be to cope as ministers in our programing, are we equally prepared personally? Do you have someone to turn to for comfort? Do you know who you can call if you become overwhelmed? Do you have a network for support? Do you know how to identify when you are overwhelmed?

The vast majority of days are average. But for every extraordinary day, there is a day before.

Friday, September 9, 2011


I wasn't there.

I was on the second to last step of the beat-up house I rented with 7 other Catholic women during my junior year of college. I was confronted with my other early-rising roommate who simply said, "Can you believe it?"

She thought I already had been up and watching the news. She and I were routinely up by 7:00 am CST allowing us the chance to watch one of the major network morning news shows. We would eat our cereals on the mismatched sofas and I would drink my coffee; we'd discuss the news and commentary of that particular morning.

However, on September 11, 2001, I woke up a bit late. I was just heading down to get that bowl of cereal and cup of coffee. My roommate caught me off guard. We went to the living room. The cereal remained untouched.

Together we watched the second tower strike and sat, wordlessly, as the Towers fell.

Shaken, but caught somewhere between needing to have a sense of normalacy and the every present avid student, I walked to my first class. It was a constitutional law course. My professor had been at the State Capital in Madison that morning (I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison). He had been evacuated along with the rest of the officials and visitors.

I do not remember much of that class. Snippets still are etched in the recesses of my memory - discussions about the legal repercussions, refusing to give in to terror by canceling class.

Later I sat on a hill by "The Tower of Babel," or as more commonly called, Van Hise building that housed all the foreign languages. I had brought a radio with earbuds to campus. I listened to an interview of Tom Clancy. I sat in line of sight of the Capital. I sat in a flight path that was normally humming with regular flights into the regional airport just a few miles from our campus and the Capital. I sat in that path's silence.

Yet later I would walk by the famous statue of President Lincoln at the top of that hill. I would walk down the eerily quiet Bascom Hill to the Catholic Campus Ministry Center of St. Paul's. There I would work my first afternoon as a peer minister at the front desk.

I would make copies of song sheets on our ancient copier until it literally shuddered. The songs were songs that were carefully chosen to fit the non-denominational, interfaith prayer service that was coordinated by one of our campus ministers. We had to make sure the music would be appropriate for all Christians, Jews, Muslims, and the rest of the mishmash of faith found on and near our campus.

I stood on Library Mall amid that crowd. There was sound and there was silence. I can't recall.

September 11, 2001, remains much like an art film. A few moments of shocking clarity surrounded by out of focus and confused chaos.

The days that followed remain much the same. I attended lectures. Many continued to be visibly shaken. I remember the moment I heard the first flight overhead when the airspace was reopened. I was in Bascom Hall for a Congressional Politics class. I was early. It flew overhead, directly towards the Capital. I held my breath, looked up, said a prayer as I watched the window. Silence. I went back to my book.

That book. In the days after, I needed comfort. I prayed. I talked with friends and mentors. I played my flute. I read. Somehow my usual comfort I could find in Jane Austen was inadequate. I picked up The Magician's Nephew. Over the next five or six days I read The Chronicles of Narnia. Perhaps it was merely escapism. Perhaps it was knowing that the world has been thrown into chaos before and it is possible to survive.

Ultimately, that first official day I worked in ministry wove together with all the other moments to lead me into a call to ministry and not law.

On Sunday when I wake up, I will have some cereal and my mug of coffee just like I have done every day for ten years. And I will remember.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Just have a few moments before a staff meeting.

I've dropped a few things into Delicious, but for those not using that service, here are a few items of interest:

The Beloit Mindset (yet another great thing from my homestate of Wisconsin). A fascinating look at this year's freshman college class. Also, likely the only time that Ferris Bueller and altar servers will be on the same list.

A great article on Millennials and media.

And a way to address 9/11. I found this video as a great thing to use for youth group where most teens have no real memories of the day. A pilgrimage through Ground Zero with Fr. James Martin, S.J.

Friday, September 2, 2011

In the Heat of the Moment

I was going to wait a couple of more days before diving into my reflections on this most recent WYD. Perhaps it was the quick trip to Trader Joe's in 100+ degree heat index that brought back far too vivid memories? Perhaps it was a 20 minute phone call with our travel group? Or perhaps it is the greatest truth of WYD...

Since we took such a small group, only 13 total, I most frequently deal with the, "Is it worth it?" question from people. In the years leading up to WYD 11 and in the weeks that have followed. There is no doubt in my mind that the answer is a resounding, if slightly exhausted, "yes!"

I will be the first to admit, this WYD was a particularly difficult struggle for me. I got sun poisoning on our first day in Rome (that was new). Then my ankles swelled up (looked like I had water balloons in my sandals) on the flight from Rome to Madrid. Then I got a migraine at the vigil (best way to cure a migraine - cool, dark, and silence - that was so not going to happen).

Thankfully I had an incredible group. The lovingly called my sun poisoning, "the plague." They offered to pour water on my ankles and take lovely photos to be posted to Facebook. When we were waiting for our luggage in Madrid they pushed me to the floor, stacked up a few backpacks and had me prop my feet up. A couple then kept poking my ankles and giggling, "They feel like Jell-O!" At the Vigil, where I sported a great sunburn and dust spattering to the point that the kids didn't recognize me when I came up to them after going to the bathroom, one girl drenched a bandanna to tie round my neck (mine was already dripping around my head). The kids made it okay for me to be flawed and imperfect. That was lesson number one - no one is perfect and the more imperfect you allow yourself to be, the greater the gifts that others are allowed to show.

But mostly I say it is worth it because of the moments -

The moment when I looked down from the altar at the catechetical site (I was an animator) and saw my whole group talking during Cardinal George's talk. I was annoyed. Then I nearly wanted to cry - they were all talking to come up with the wording for the question they wished to ask him and who would ask it. They were engaged. They were a community. They were church.

The moment when they didn't complain. When it was hot. When they were given the wrong food at the sandwich shop. When they were hot. When we had to walk an extra hour. Maybe they offered it up. Maybe they heeded my "no whining" rule. Maybe they did not see those moments as burdens. I saw them as blessings.

The moment when the girls invited me to walk through the Prado with them. I learned some things about art. I shared a bit of what I knew. I shared my love of sticky notes (who knew you could buy a little book of sticky notes at the Prado?) with another teen who bought the same items as me at the shop.

The moment in the Prado cafe where I enjoyed a cold soda and the mom in the group drank an espresso. She shared some of her concerns for her child and some of her own story.

The moment my sister-in-law and I sprayed my brother's feet with Febreeze. Then were still laughing when we went to dinner and could barely explain our mirth to the rest of the group.

The moment when the group helped encourage others on the Saturday pilgrimage walk by singing everything from Queen to MuLan to Spirit & Song.

For me, seeing the Pope is incredible, but it isn't the moment. Rather that moment comes when I see the joy of God in the youth and young adults. It is the moment when I see their strength, weakness, honesty, their hope.

For me, World Youth Day is about the people and those moments.

The Dust Has Settled

Quite literally. I pulled out the umbrella I took to Cuatros Vientros for the Vigil and a cloud of dust descended. Should have cleaned that previously.

I fully intend to share my reflections. However, today is just my second day in the office after being out of the office for a month (literally from August 2 to September 1).

Should you wish to hear what we did for our WYD pilgrimage, here's our website.

Now my biggest problem is deciding two things:

  1. Do I want to lead a group to WYD 2013 in Rio?

  2. If so, do I accept the offer from the diocese to lead the diocesan group? (Or, hopefully, co-lead with another minister, I'd take control of the young adults and she would take control of the youth.)

Hmmm...not too much time to decide. I want to be able to announce my decision by the October 2 family night at youth group.

As always stay tuned...