Friday, November 25, 2016

St. Kateri Tekakwitha, We Give Thanks for You

We all know that Thanksgiving is a time when Americans recognize the importance of expressing gratitude for the abundance which the Earth provides us with, and for the family and friends with whom we share it. Thanksgiving commemorates the hospitality offered by Native Americans to the European Puritan colonists, as winter was setting in and the colonists were unprepared for the cold months ahead. The Native Americans provided food and support. However, the history of Thanksgiving is much more complex than that, and also involves violence, conflict, and massacres. It was actually not celebrated as a national holiday until the midst of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln declared it a holiday and a time for families to re-unite. This history is important to think about as present-day armed security forces inflict horrendous abuses to Native Americans at Standing Rock in North Dakota and those who are standing in solidarity with them as they protect their land and water from exploitation.  Which is why this year especially, I have felt conflicted about this holiday, a sentiment I believe is shared by many people across the country.

We cannot stand idly by and pretend like Thanksgiving can be the same as it has been celebrated for generations. The situation at Standing Rock brings to the forefront a history of centuries of exploitation, trauma and broken promises experienced by Native Americans.  Not to mention the insult to injury added to non-whites overall, through the terrible racism which has surfaced with the 2016 election. The United States has always been a place of violence and abuse of Native peoples, and of other people of color, even as it sees itself as a beacon of freedom for all. How can we now hold up that beacon, even as the armed forces inflict violence against our own people? 

Over the past few years, I’ve come to learn about the roots of much of this violence, by learning about the Doctrine of Discovery, the 1493 papal document which allowed explorers to lay claim to any land they “discovered” that was not owned by Christians.  This doctrine, which has not yet been officially renounced by the Vatican, still governs U.S. Indian law today, still being cited into the 21st century.  I really do wonder how likely it is we will begin to see Native Americans and their land treated with the respect they deserve until this document is rescinded and removed from U.S. law.

Meanwhile, over the past year and a half, Catholics and non-Catholics alike have had the opportunity to read and discuss Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si.  This modern document, which discusses at length the dual “cry of the earth and cry of the poor,” calls us to dialogue and action on behalf of all of God’s creation. Through dialogue, we can identify actions that help us carry out the work to which our spirituality calls us. 
It was through such a dialogue that I came together with several followers of Pope Francis to plan a potluck meal this week in honor of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.  Through a network of kind-hearted faith-rooted social justice advocates I know in NYC, several of us, especially Sara Jolena Wolcott from Union Theological Seminary, Tom Dobbins from the Catholic Charities office of the Archdiocese of NY, and Terry Michaud from the Blessed Sacrament Social Action Committee and the Metro NY Catholic Climate Movement, and myself, came together to organize a dinner and discussion around the topic of indigenous peoples, and food, water, and climate justice, in honor of St. Kateri.


Held in the dining room of the Blessed Sacrament rectory, the dinner was attended by members of Blessed Sacrament’s Social Action Committee and RCIA program, members of the Metro NY Catholic Climate Movement, Tom Dobbins, Sr. Odile Courier from Holy Name Parish and Franciscans International, and several others. After prayers, we went around our circle of about sixteen people sharing what brought us into the room. People asked rich questions around food, climate, spirituality, faith, and history of the church. We started off with everyone sharing what brought them to the room. Responses were rich, and varied across the topics of food, climate, spirituality, faith, and history of the Church.  Some were concerned about food waste, portion sizes being so big, how food is valued so much less now than it used to be, why is food a privilege, and why are food dyes and other toxic chemicals fed to kids in the form of junk food. Others discussed the poor state of recycling, and how overproduction stems from a fear of not having enough. Sara reminded us that wastelands used to be referred to as “the commons,” a far cry from what most wastelands look like today. Some wanted to learn more about St. Kateri and contemplate how we can better “welcome the stranger.”

There is a thirst to learn what will wake up the planet in regards to climate change, to reconnect with creation, and to learn, what is the liturgy to support sustainability in the Catholic Church?  One woman who grew up in the Bronx reminded us that “life grows through burned buildings and cracks in the concrete,” and that, “life has to have its day.”  Sr. Odile shared how working with the indigenous people in the Philippines taught her about what it means to be close to nature/creation, and how we are so disconnected from it. A French citizen, Sr. Odile reminded us to keep our ethnocentrism in check: the U.S. is important but other countries' backgrounds are important too and we need to act together. Someone mentioned that we need to have the moral courage to talk about economics; the financial bottom line not always being the most important factor to take into consideration when making decisions.

Given the current U.S. political situation, there was a comment about the history of Church opposition to the Third Reich. An interesting comment was also made about the harm the church has done by perpetuating a false split between spirit and matter, to which I responded by saying this false split is debunked through recognizing the divine nature in all of creation including the food we eat, and the importance of food and faith in bringing us around the table together (one of the core tenants around which Christianity was founded). I also shared my discovery of the amazing parallels between Native American prayers and the Canticle of the Creatures by St. Francis of Assisi in praising creation, as I believe now more than ever, it is critical for us to recognize the parallels between Catholic and Christian spirituality and indigenous spirituality.


Sara Jolena then gave us a history lesson through retelling the story of where we are today in a way that tied together the fifteenth century Church, the Doctrine of Discovery, colonization, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and St. Kateri. The essence of the story is as follows: through a papal bull, in 1451 Pope Nicholas V gave permission to King Alfonso V of Portugal not only to explore but also to enslave the peoples of the West Coast of Africa who were assumed to be non-Christian "pagans," or "Saracens," or Muslims. This enslavement would become the Transatlantic Slave Trade. A 1454 Papal Bull gave the Church authority to the witch hunts, destroying the lower-class "indigenous women of Europe."  In 1493, when Columbus returned from the "New World," Pope Alexander VI wrote several other bulls that encouraged conquest of any land not inhabited by Christians. This became known as the Doctrine of Discovery. It supported Spain’s conquest of the New World, starting with the landsdiscovered” by Columbus. The Doctrine of Discovery had at its premise that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”1  [The tragedy, which was made painfully clear to me during a recent talk by a Colombian visitor to the Union Theological Seminary Center for Earth Ethics, is that indigenous peoples did not quite need to be “converted” to Christianity, especially through violent conquest which is against the core tenant of Christianity. The Natives already possessed a respect for the divine nature of creation and did not need to hear Jesus’ message as much as the people to whom Jesus preached and ministered to in his corner of the world.]

St. Kateri, meanwhile, was a Native American who converted to Catholicism and practiced a devout religious life. She chose the name "Kateri," the Mohawk form of Catherine, taking the namesake of Catherine of Siena.  Her short life was marked by illness, loss, sorrow and suffering as she witnessed her family suffer and become turned upside down in the contact with the Europeans, who brought disease, a monetary-based economy hungry to consume the natural resources of this land, and a faith that stirred her heart. despite her family's protests, she refused to marry anyone except Jesus Christ. She lived between two worlds: Catholic and Mohawk. So far as we know, she treasured both. Eventually she moved to a monastery in New France where she and another Native woman yearned to start their own nunnery; they were told that they were too young. She died at age 24 surrounded by her new-found community. According to the priests who sat besides her as she was dying, after her death, the scars from the small pox that had marked her face since she was suffered from the disease brought by the Europeans at age three vanished and her face began to brightly glow. It was one of many miracles associated with her.

Given this history and the current state of affairs with Native Americans, I find myself asking, what would St. Francis of Assisi do?  The Doctrine of Discovery didn’t come into existence until a few hundred years after Francis’ death. But he gave us the Canticle of the Creatures, which is of the same thread of understanding of our place within the ecological web of life as the beliefs held by indigenous peoples. He also gave us a lifetime’s worth of inspiring actions that he took in response to the simple command he heard through prayer to “repair the house” of God.  In the same way that Francis’ life and spirituality has been a source of inspiration for Franciscans for centuries, St. Kateri’s ability to bridge indigenous culture and Catholic tradition should be a source of inspiration for us all as well.  So, in the wake of human rights atrocities and what Pope Francis refers to in Laudato Si as “unbridled exploitation” happening at Standing Rock, may we remember that Water is Life, and do all that is in our power to protect it for one another and for generations to come.

1 http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/indig-inter-caetera.html

*Updated to include edits from Sara Jolena Wolcott 

You may also find this resource useful:  How to Give, and to Give Thanks, to Standing Rock  

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Light Game

"Through a young intern’s experience in a garden, we come to see how learning the incarnational art of growing food and coming to a deeper realization about why we’re here go hand in hand. In this simple narrative, Mary craftfully weaves together a story that reveals the connections between organic farming, religion, science, energy, light, and life to bring us to reflect on life’s deepest questions. The Light Game is a must-read for anyone searching for deeper answers, who questions religion, or who questions their own life. It will help us more clearly see the light inside each of us, and show us how we can each bring more light into the world."   - Kelly Moltzen, MPH, RDN, Franciscan Action Network board member & Wake Forest University School of Divinity Re:Generate Fellow
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LW7JEED/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_dp_t1_1DQ0xbA0YRJ3Z
The Light Game, available for free on Kindle until September 14

"What if life is a game and there is only one rule?"

We are all searching for answers about the meaning of life. So much so that we often forget about the core truths about what it means to be human, and that people of all religions are in search of the same thing. Those of us who practice religion all seek to understand the "cause, nature, and purpose of the universe," which is how dictionary.com defines "religion."  But what if it all is actually very simple?  In my own tradition, I've realized that the very premise of the religion - that Jesus' life was about sharing what it means to live as an incarnational human being on Earth - becomes an elephant in the room when considering the schism between the life Jesus taught us to live and the human predicaments we find ourselves in at this moment in time. Catholics and other Christians often forget about the incarnationality of the religion, spending entire livelihoods deliberating on philosophical and theological concepts instead of living out what the religion tells us is important: how we live life on Earth.

To be in-carnate is to be in the flesh. The word represents a spiritual being residing in the flesh, in human form.  To fully live as humans we have to know how to nourish ourselves with food from the Earth, and so it is important for us to consider how the food we eat is grown, and even better, to grow some of that food ourselves.

Mary Colborn helps us make a critical discovery about the nature of the energy that produces our food in her new book The Light Game. As an organic farmer and lifelong spiritual Catholic, Mary helps us see that the energy that is used by plants to produce oxygen and food comprises the same vibrating molecules that make up the energy we live off of and is shared in our interactions with one another. Through the various parables (many rooted in the natural world) and healings performed by Jesus throughout his lifetime, Jesus was telling us the same thing. We are Light. We are all made of the same divine energy as that which created the cosmos.  And therefore, each of our lives is critically important, as we are all part of the whole.  We all have an integral role to play during our time on this Earth.

I met Mary through the Global Catholic Climate Movement and had a chance to visit her farm in Michigan recently after supporting her Barnraiser fundraiser earlier in the year.  I've been interested in supporting her work especially after realizing our shared interests in promoting regenerative agriculture within the Catholic Church. While at the farm, Mary read me an almost finalized version of The Light Game. As the book is about a young intern working in the fields of Mary's farm and wrestling with questions about the meaning of life as Mary ponders these questions out loud with her, it felt almost as if I was in the book itself, as I helped harvest produce and talked to Mary about the contents of the book. We picked green beans and raspberries and reflected on Franciscan spirituality, integral ecology, and the challenges of trying to sustain a farm in this day & age with little government support for small-scale organic farmers. I met Mary's sister Tina, saw the chickens, barns that need repair, and acres and acres of unused farmland potential that could be created into a teaching farm with student interns as Mary envisions. I also saw the giant Love Letter on the side of her barn that she talks about at the end of the book. As a struggling small-scale organic farmer, Mary hopes to use the proceeds from the book to revitalize the farm, create a food hub and internship program for young farmers. She's not working alone, either- Mary hopes to do this in tandem with the Kalamazoo Valley Community College Food Innovation Center, which is building a food hub for farmers in the Kalamazoo Valley of Michigan.


I cannot stress enough how exciting this project is, and how profound The Light Game's message is. I would really like you all to read it, and so would Mary.  In honor of World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10), Mary is making her book available for free for five days, downloadable on Kindle or the Kindle app.  Please check it out and share your comments - we'd love to hear what you think! 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

New Heaven, New Earth: Musings on Permaculture & Integral Ecology

There has been oppression, corruption and war for millennia – this, we know, is not something new.  Jesus and other prophets have actively taught means of interacting within corrupt systems to bring about Heaven on Earth.  Many of these people, Jesus included, did their ministry and prayer work in natural environments, and told parables that led people to contemplate the natural world. Coming to these realizations throughout my lifetime, I immediately recognized myself in the story of permaculture expert Bill Mollison, as told by Fred Bahnson in Soil and Sacrament:   

Mollison had grown up in a small village in Tasmania, and became horrified as he saw fish stocks collapsing and large sections of forest disappear. He began to protest against the political and industrial systems that were to blame. ‘But,’ he wrote in Introduction to Permaculture, ‘I soon decided that it was no good persisting with opposition that in the end achieved nothing.’ For the next two years Mollison withdrew from society. When he returned he realized he did not want to oppose anything ever again and waste his time. He wanted to come back only with something positive, ‘Something that would allow us all to exist without the wholesale collapse of biological systems.’ What Mollison came back with was the beginnings of permaculture, a ‘whole human system.’

I likewise decided early on to focus on building a holistic system. Thus, my career has focused on nutrition, public health, and promoting sustainable food systems whenever possible.  What I’ve realized since the 2015 release of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si is that these ideas about permaculture are very much in line with the concept of integral ecology.

We can use systems thinking to create an integrative food system where food grown is connected with healthcare and mental health systems and a more sustainable environment. We can put the systems in place to put Laudato Si into action. To do this, we will need to educate, but we will also need to organize and advocate.  While Bill Mollison may have chosen not to oppose anything and Jesus did much of his ministry in the fields, we must also remember that Jesus also flipped over the money tables in the temple.  It’s clear in the Bible that man cannot serve God and mammon, and that we shouldn’t worship the golden calf. Yet, that is what so many corporations are doing now.

According to Citizens United, corporations are people – but of course, we know that’s not true. We know the people making up the corporations are people, not the corporations themselves.  We also know it is not good to wish ill on the people making up the corporations. It is good for them to have livable wages to support themselves and their families, healthcare, and meaningful work.  To make sure everyone has a fair chance for these necessary components of healthy living, the people who are most enmeshed in corporate greed – amassing gross wealth off the backs of the working poor – need to back off a good deal from their possessions and materialism, and open up to more of a communal, humane way of interacting with the marginalized.

With decent financial and human investment, we can create more green jobs, include people affected by injustices in the decisionmaking processes, and capture carbon back into the Earth to mitigate and prevent catastrophic climate change. This is just as true in the Bronx as it is in Harlem, as it is in the bayous of Louisiana, as it is in Haiti, and every other place affected by environmental injustices.

In Soil and Sacrament, Fred Bahnson also quotes Rainer Maria Rilke:

All will come again into its strength:
the fields undivided, the waters undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong
and as varied as the land.

What a vision of shalom! When I read this I thought first of bringing shalom to Haiti, where the water has been dammed up leading to much dry, barren land, exacerbated by deforestation due to the burning of wood for cooking fires.  It reminded me of the holistic vision for restoration of this island nation that I’ve begun brainstorming with several others over the past few months. But this prophetic poetic excerpt can apply to anywhere we wish to restore with shalom - God’s holistic peace.

So, how can we begin sharing the stories of people creating a “new heaven and a new earth” and living out Laudato Si?  When will we begin to create a truly holistic system of integral ecology and shalom?

1Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” – Revelations 21: 1-4

Friday, August 26, 2016

“So That They May Be One”: John 17 and Catholic-Protestant Dialogue



Yesterday, I stepped foot into the Bahá’í House of Worship for North America on the outskirts of Chicago with my good friend from high school, who happens to be Jewish.  The Baha’i faith is one that is inclusive of all religions – actually, the Bahá’ís believe “the religions of the world come from the same Source and are in essence successive chapters of one religion from God.” After my experiences with religious unity with GreenFaith, it felt so good to be able to return to this feeling of oneness, this feeling that I did not need to feel separated from my brothers and sisters of other religions and other denominations, despite the world’s great attempts to keep us all divided.  Growing up in the public school system, I have always had friends of other religions and denominations, and the divide between us because of my connection to the Catholic Church has always saddened me.  So, it felt good yesterday to be able to share in worship with someone who, other than babysitting kids at her temple during Jewish holiday services as a teenager, I had not previously shared a religious experience with.  

As a teenager, I was very active in a Franciscan ministry program for youth called Capuchin Youth & Family Ministries. The Franciscan charism then left me thirsting for more than I was able to get from the Catholic church on my college campus, and I began exploring the non-denominational, ecumenical, and Protestant angles of Christianity, where I felt a unity and inclusiveness that reminded me of the Franciscan charism I had previously experienced.  Since then I have felt I bridged a divide between the Catholic Church and non-Catholic Christians.  I also had a spiritual awakening during this time that “we are all one.” 

“Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are” is a line from a verse in John 17.  This verse, as it happens, has also inspired others within the Christian tradition to come together in unity across denominations.  The John 17 Movement seeks to bridge the divide between Catholics and Protestants, and even includes a moving message from Pope Francis about unity:

Pope Francis message to John 17 Movement on May 23rd, 2015 in Phoenix, AZ from John 17 Movement on Vimeo.

I am deeply inspired by this movement for unity, and as a board member of the Franciscan Action Network, which represents all branches of the family of followers of St. Francis of Assisi – Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Ecumenical – I am committed to learning what more we can do to bring unity to Christians everywhere. We share a common heritage, one of following the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  Now in this moment in history, when the world has been turned upside down by Pope Francis, may we ask ourselves, “What Would Jesus Do?”.

May we return to the prayer of Jesus in John 17, and learn to seek unity between the gaps that divide us.  

Friday, May 13, 2016

David Choquehuanca, Foreign Minister of Bolivia and "Bien Vivir"

I had the honor of introducing David Choquehuanca, Foreign Minister of Bolivia, at William Camacaro's May 12th Alberto Lovera Bolivarian Circle event about "Bien Vivir," or "Living Well."  This is an indigenous concept of humanity living in harmony with nature that is so simple it may seem radical (which actually shouldn't surprise anyone, as the word radical means "to the root"). 

David's comments about Bien Vivir, Bolivian culture, and its earth-honoring traditions echoed Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si in profound ways. He spoke of a "crisis of values, morals and world outlook," the need for us to be integral human beings, living in alignment with Mother Nature / Mother Earth, the need for a focus on equality, the concept that we all belong to one big family, and the similarities and distinctions amongst humans and between humans and other aspects of nature. He spoke of many indigenous terms and concepts that show us the deep wisdom our world has fallen away from, such as the symbolism in the Bolivian flag that we must learn to nourish ourselves and seek nutritional sovereignty, not just learn how to eat.  Bien Vivir is possible for those committed to self determination, dialogue, and resisting capitalism but transcending socialism, to a new way of pushing forward to decolonization in order to support all of life.  This concept is best captured in the Quechua-Aymara term "Jallalla," which Pope Francis greeted crowds with when he visited Bolivia in 2015. The more we compare this indigenous wisdom with the recently unearthed spirituality of the Church that Pope Francis has unearthed and shared in Laudato Si, the more I believe we will see just how similar these worldviews are.

As we know, Pope Francis took his name from St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis exuded and lived out a spirituality that displayed his kinship with all of creation - a worldview that is actually quite similar to the indigenous worldview David Choquehuanca spoke about. I find great value and importance in working to bring this spirituality back to a Church that needs our support to instill the teachings of Pope Francis in a meaningful way.

I am therefore grateful to be part of organizing a Laudato Si workshop series with the West Side Deanery, which includes Catholic Churches along the West Side of Manhattan in the Archdiocese of NY.  The next workshop, the second of a two-part focus on Chapter 5: Lines of Approach and Action, will be held on Tuesday, May 17 at 7pm at St. John the Baptist Church on West 30th St between 7th and 8th Avenues (refreshments at 6:30pm). We'll be sharing about several Catholic and religious organizations working to address climate change and other social justice issues, that people can collaborate with to bring various ecological initiatives back to their home parishes or organizations.

Another opportunity to continue the conversation is by participating in Tierra Sagrada (Sacred Earth, Sacred Trust) - a global day of worldwide, multifaith prayer and action for creation on June 12.  Organized by people of faith from Latin America, this day will mark six months after the Paris Climate Agreement, join the celebration of International Environment Day (June 5) and the first anniversary of the publication of Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si (June 18). While 175 countries have already signed the Paris Climate Agreement, "we are set for temperature rises well above the critical 1.5°C limit that governments agreed to, and that scientists, activists, and vulnerable communities are fighting for with the cry of '1.5°C to Stay Alive'." It seems we still have a long way to go to realize the vision of Bien Vivir that David Choquehuanca speaks about so eloquently.