To See as God Sees

I spent the second half of May in Accra, Ghana as part of United States Africa Command’s United Accord 2017 (and here’s the wrap up press release). Getting to our exercise location each day, I traveled the same route through the densely populated outskirts of Accra, Ghana, via charter bus, taxi, and once in a tro tro. Here’s a reflection I wrote during and after those trips:

There’s a tedium to this daily route, but it’s counter-intuitively captivating at the same time. Through the quiet of my window, I watch. Life is truly visible. So many people, of all ages, going about the business of daily life. Selling foods. Cleaning clothes. Taking children to school. Fixing vehicles.

This splendor of the ordinary brings to mind Fr. Thomas Merton’s recollection in  Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1968):

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people…that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate…now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun….If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.

But we can’t. At least not yet. See, these busy streets of Accra I travel are what the United Nations defines as a slum. Lack of toilets. Water shortages. Make-shift housing. Too many people crammed into small rooms.

Poverty in no way changes a person’s inherent dignity. No lack of resources makes a person any more or less made in God’s image. But poverty does obscure that image of God in the eyes of others. That “shining like the sun,” as Merton described it, that reveals our true origin and destiny can become obscured through our own sinful eyes.

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early morning photo of Nungua Beach

Our sins “give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness” and “pervert” our social climates (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1869, 1896). Our sins create a lens through which we struggle to be in communion with the poor, to experience love and joy together.

For Christians of the first millennium, sin was understood “as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division” (Spe Salvi, 14). Pope Benedict observed, “Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence ‘redemption’ appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers” (Spe Salvi, 14).

Begins to take shape. What powerful words! When we see the world as Merton did, redemption begins to take shape. God’s plan “to unite all things in Him” moves forward (CCC 772, cf. Ephesians 1:10).

Yet how can I–a resident of the United States with vastly greater material wealth and quality of life in terms of healthcare, education, security, etc.–be in union with people in the outskirt slums of a city in the developing world? I can’t answer for unjust practices of the past and present. I can’t answer for “social sin” (CCC 1869). And as Pope Benedict reflected, “No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering” (Spe Salvi 42). A unity, an undoing of Babel that was purely spiritual, purely in my mind or heart, simply would not be complete. “God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace” (Spe Salvi 44).

This sense of void or yearning for something more points us toward God. We experience that dissatisfaction human divisions, that yearning for perfect union with all because it’s what we’re made for. Each of us is made in God’s image. Created in the image of perfect love. Living in eternal life with God “presupposes that we escape from the prison of our ‘I’” to freely love (Spe Salvi, 14). To see God “as he is” and to see one another the way God sees each of us (1 John 3:2).

Pre-Evangelization, Labor Day, and Desire for God

How can we share our faith with others when the people around us just aren’t interested in “religious” things? You know–the situations where the mere mention of “Church” or “Jesus” would bring the conversation to a standstill. It’s called pre-evangelization.

Pre-evangelization is our Christian witness and dialogue (General Directory for Catechesis, §47-48). It’s the conversations we have where we don’t explicitly proclaim the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, but we do show how basic human needs include a desire for God, a longing for the transcendent–for something more. When followers of Jesus transform communities and the world and live in a new way–this is part of the dynamic of pre-evangelization.

The idea of pre-evangelization is important because it’s a reminder to each of us that before many people are ready, interested, able, or even willing to hear the Gospel message, they need to first recognize that desire for God, the desire for something more. When we find the touch points that allow us to make these meaningful connections with those around us, we’re doing pre-evangelization.

Our civic holiday today in the United States, Labor Day, offers a great opportunity for this kind of dialogue.

Work is part of our basic human existence. It’s something almost everyone can relate to, regardless of whether “work” means paid-employment, volunteering, care giving, parenting, or being a student. But most Americans struggle to make sense of work. Are we supposed to like it? What about when we don’t? How do we avoid a system where people are trapped in jobs that don’t pay enough to sustain one’s family? Does our choice of work set or shape our identity? Do I work too much or too little? Would my work be satisfying if I was paid more or less? What if my work isn’t not my real calling? How do I balance work and personal relationships?

Part of the richness of Church teaching is that it includes centuries of meditation on these oh-so-human questions. As Pope Francis asserted, “Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment” (Laudato Si, §128). Don’t be afraid to enter into conversations with friends and family members about basic human realities, like work. Ask others what they think. Listen. Explore how work does or does not connect to a person’s spiritual beliefs [remember, most Americans have spiritual beliefs even if they don’t identify as “religious”]. Share how your understanding of God illuminates the reality of work. How your challenge as a Christian, living a transformed life is to experience work “at its best” as “a deeply holy thing that ought to honor our dignity as we help God ‘maintain the fabric of the world’” (Laudato Si, §128). Share what troubles you about work in our world, how the God-inspired dignity and basic humanity of all persons is not affirmed and respected when work becomes a form of oppression and opportunity for sin and injustice.

When those we witness to are nudged toward considering the basic human desire for God, for a deeper purpose to work, for transcendence in the everyday world, we’re doing pre-evangelization. With the help of the Holy Spirit, the space we create and spark we inspire through our pre-evangelistic witness around the most basic human realities (even something as mundane as our work) cultivates the conditions for curiosity about the God who teaches us to think so differently about our world.

Yes, we want to be ready to give the initial proclamation of God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ at all times. But, if the person we’re encountering isn’t curious, isn’t yet sure that spiritual longing even exists, this is where pre-evangelization fills a gap and creates opportunities for on-going relationship and conversation.

This post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

Memphis Teacher Residency: An Example of Church Partnership for Scale and Social Impact

As virtual participation in this year’s Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, we’ve talked about transformative scale and opportunities for partnership and social impact in social ministry. Today I saw a creative example of churches supporting the public sphere through a creative and entrepreneurial extension of education ministry.

Check out this article on the Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR). MTR has much in common with Teach for America, and even more so with the ministries of the Notre Dame Alliance for Catholic Education and Providence Alliance for Catholic Teachers.

The main difference worth highlighting is that the MTR uniquely partners those explicitly motivated by a call to distinct Christian witness with public education–this is an excellent example of the different structures of education we in Catholic ministry/parishes ought to be considering during our own annual, Catholic Schools Weeks (that in my opinion, fail to live up to their full potential).

Here’s an example of how something like MTR could help a local parish move to a larger scale or greater degree of social impact:

“MTR only goes into neighborhoods where there are already community development programs with which we can partner, because education is only one piece of the puzzle,” Jemison said. “If a neighborhood has a great school but poor housing, no health care, no healthy food, no jobs, no transportation, that great school isn’t going to make that much of a difference,” he said. “That is why it has to happen in the larger community-development context.”

While a parish might not have an especially large number of young adults (I’m guessing the primary source of MTR teachers), a parish might have existing modes of delivering food assistance, health care advocacy, etc. A parish might have an old convent that could be used to house teacher-residents. A parish might have members with fund development experience who could use their expertise and gifts to generate the scholarships for teachers. A parish might have the extra land to start a community garden. The possibilities are endless. The key take-away is that impact matters. Yes, there’s authentic faithfulness and Gospel witness in starting small (say, an annual August “backpack drive” of school supplies for a local public school). But, we must also be attentive to times when the Holy Spirit is leading us to take bolder, more audacious steps as we live out our mission of reaching all nations with the Gospel, starting in the overlooked places right in our own cities or regions.