Testing the Waters

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, December 2009
– PDF version –

I was shocked at the results of my eighth-grade aptitude test. I thought for sure when I sat through the exam that it would easily reveal my future career. I figured my entire life would be outlined in this simple assessment completed even before high school. Instead, when I received the results, I knew my future was not going to be so easily defined. The test revealed only one area of real strength in the 90th percentile range, everything else was in the 20-30th percentile range. The graph revealed that “agriculture” was my strong point and that my identity would rest on these skills.

I glance way back to the eighth grade because I now have perspective on God’s grace and sense of humor. Life is not as cut and dried as I hoped as a child. I could never have predicted my life’s tests, sacrifices and wrong turns or the beauty of experiences and relationships. The irony of my life now is that I live on a concrete farm in an urban parish in downtown Portland, Oregon. I minister in an environment where there is no grass, no potted flowers, no home-grown spices, and no garden vegetables and not even visible soil. It is also the place where my faith is put to the test and where my life is open for surprise.

This test goes well beyond my eighth-grade exam. Each day brings new demands beyond my abilities. People here are embedded in fear about how to survive the unfortunate circumstances of their lives. They live with the hard lessons of economic pitfalls, horrible addictions and the blame that their homelessness is their entire fault. There is no time here for pretense or false piety. There are no black and white answers to issues of poverty. We have no patience in this setting for power struggles and stodgy clericalism. The soil here for ministry takes many years to plow. Reaping is in God’s hands alone.

The real test for me centers on my ability to let go of my preconceived notions of my strengths, weaknesses and even my ability to trust God. Here, God calls me beyond my imagining, leaving me clinging only to the everyday seeds of trust, fidelity and gratitude. My real life test is to live the life reflected in love of the sacraments and my commitment to the poor.

Working among the poor has tested my faith completely. Several years ago I had the idea of offering a day of retreat for people preparing for initiation from around the Archdiocese. I wanted people who are searching for identity within the Church to discover even for a few hours what I have found here. I wanted people to learn about God’s fidelity among people who have less than themselves. So for the past half-dozen years our parish has hosted this five-hour Lenten retreat at the Downtown Chapel.

The Elect and Candidates, sponsors and team members are offered the opportunity to assemble in our urban setting where ministry puts us all to the test. The purpose of the retreat is to expose everyone’s vulnerability in prayer. This emptiness or loneliness in God allows us to serve those who are physically poor. Our neighborhood in return then shows everyone on the retreat that we are all the same; we all need God no matter how much money, power or possessions we own.

Many of the Elect from other parishes are not exposed to how the Church responds to people on the margins of society. They have not yet experienced the social Gospel and have not been taught the lived history of social justice within the Archdiocese. I discover that people want to test out whether or not the Church is practicing what it preaches.

I begin the retreat asking people about their experiences of prayer. Many faces go blank because they fear they will give a “wrong” answer. I ask them not to test them, but to find some bedrock of truth to explore our relationship with God. After a few minutes of surface answers and polite conversations we get down to the real issues of life. A sponsor finally opens up about how difficult prayer can be when guilt suffocates her. A young candidate from the suburbs whispers that surrender is most difficult because of her addictive and controlling behaviors. A mother reveals that her prayer is still about the grief she carries because of her miscarriage. One man acknowledges his experience in prayer as, “Fits and starts.” A young woman struggles in her prayer to listen. An elderly woman admits her “Restlessness.” And an admitted addict speaks of prayer as “Only love.”

I struggle to authentically articulate how the poor teach me to pray. If I am honest about my own life, I know how I push God away and then complain that I do not belong within the boundaries of God’s fidelity. I hear every day from people who have next to nothing in life. However, they reach out to touch even the hem of Christ’s garment because that is so often their last possession.

To demonstrate this I ask someone in the group to “play” God. I usually ask a woman to stand up and I introduce her to the group as God. God who is all love, not just “sort of like love”, but all love stands with open arms. I walk to the other side of the room, face against the wall and yell out how we all live in our own power leading to addictive behaviors, isolation, and false authority. “God” calls my name and I slowly turn into the direction of love, finally being reconciled into the loving embrace of God who accepts me and brings me home.

I learn this honesty in new ways from people who suffer mental illness, severe loneliness and even from people who suffer unimaginable abuse. I speak as openly as I can about my own inability to be honest in my quiet moments with Jesus. My challenge in silence is to pray the truth of my life and not try to reach God from the emotional masks and even sin I hide behind.

I try to get across to our visitors that if we are going to serve authentically, we must pray with genuine hearts. We cannot serve thinking we have solutions to other people’s problems. We cannot be convincing if we have not first found ourselves in the embrace of God. Otherwise we become just a church of, “Do-gooders” instead of people who are compelled by God to serve others in the world.

My colleague from another parish, Deacon Brett Edmonson, fashions the vulnerability that has been raised in conversation into a model of prayer. He takes these seeds of honesty and opens people’s lives in the model of prayer called, “Lectio Divina.” This process of slowly reading the Scriptures offers people an opportunity to sink soul-deep into the consolation of the Holy Spirit within the Scriptures. The loneliness and fear that rises up from the discussions rests in the Holy texts, not to resolve the fear, but to allow God to receive it.

These contemplative frameworks for prayer suggest to people that our complications and worries are lived and supported in the mystery of God’s love for us. I watch people’s attentive facial expressions as they realize their prayer comes from their vulnerability. They seem to relax into God’s care when they confront these tender life issues. They rest in a new silence that seems full of insight when people make the connections to their own poverty.

These genuine discussions and silent moments seem to relieve the anxiety people had initially about coming to this urban area in the first place. Their eyes light up when their own questions of life are acknowledged and their fears are spoken openly. This creates a new place in the hearts of all the participants now to leave the confines of the parish building and go into the streets to tour our neighborhood.

Members of our staff lead the participants in small groups from our parish lobby into the streets to discuss the issues of our neighbors. Since our parish does not have any free-standing homes in our boundaries, we speak about the struggles people face within the single room occupancy hotels. We tell stories of people dealing with exploding numbers of bedbugs, over-priced rooms, lack of insurance, minimal health care and drug-induced violence. I tell stories of engineers, contractors and workers cutting corners in their work because the building they were building was to house the poor. People are introduced to the nightclub adjacent to the parish that plays music until 6:00am on weekends and are told of how the sound reverberates in my bedroom.

We walk with a new awareness of what the poor face every day and the issues so many people want to ignore. We stop in front of several non-profit organizations, similar to praying a public Stations of the Cross. We pause, tell stories and pray for the care the agencies provide. Slowly our friends on retreat realize the complexity of life for people who are homeless, addicted and mentally ill. Our participants speak of how they have been so blind to people around them and how their families still cultivate fear about poor people.

I explain on our pilgrimage that even one issue would be enough to speak about for our retreat. If we just focused on homeless women, the stories would be vast about the lack of shelters and care for women. We could spend days speaking about the horrific issues of domestic violence and how the women roam the neighborhood at night so not to be raped. We could spend the rest of the day speaking about the women who sit at night around the perimeter of our chapel building hoping to be safe.

When the groups end the pilgrimage they walk back into our building to debrief their new experiences in the chapel. There is a new silence, a hush of observations and insights that fill the space. Some bear the weight of the test with tears, with a new desire to volunteer, and a new realization that suffering must be surfaced in every parish community. One woman shared that her grandmother was homeless and that the walk around the neighborhood was extremely exhausting and painful. All along the way, reminders of her relative’s struggles pierced her conscience and pulled at her heart. She felt so much guilt because she could never fix her grandmother’s pain.

We close our day with ritual prayer. I speak to them about showing up with every emotion, tension, sin, heartbreak and joy to the Easter Vigil. I invite them to “show up” to the feast of the Sacraments, not only physically, but with every aspect of their lives. Then the Holy Spirit will heal what needs healing and open for them a new path of fidelity and love. They will be tested beyond their abilities, loved further than they can imagine, and called to serve in ways they least expect. We end our day with the Elect and Candidates standing around the altar and the sponsors and team surrounding them. We chant this litany of blessing for all people who will be initiated into the Easter Sacraments.

Response: Bless us, O Lord
In our waiting for love,
In our longing for integrity,
In our searching for hope,
In our striving to belong,
In our wanting to serve,
In our bridging the rich and poor,
In our working for peace,
In our serving the outcast and forgotten,
In our befriending the destitute,
In our speaking words of healing,
In our embracing the sick and marginalized,
In our walking with the tired and lonely,
In our committing our lives to others,
In our standing in truth and fidelity,
In our hearing the cries of the oppressed,
In our asking for forgiveness,
In our hungering for the Eucharist,
In our believing in the Word,
In our claiming your prophetic message,
In our calling to live Gospel justice,
In our daring to speak the truth,
In our living in community,
In our reconciling with our enemies,
In our renewing our Baptismal promises,
In our hoping to be saved,
In our calling to die and rise in Christ,
In our following the guidance of the Holy Spirit,
In our relying on God alone,
In our remembering of saints, prophets, martyrs and guides,
In our resting in your loving Kingdom,

Every Lent after the retreat I escort people to the red doors of our chapel to say goodbye. I believe God is continuing to test me through my fear and loneliness by planting seeds of new relationships. I stand in the doorway grateful for new people believing in love and listening to the Baptismal call to serve within the Church in ways we all least expect.

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