Yesterday I got a sudden glimpse of myself. What I saw wasn’t pretty! It happened as I was leaving Peace House, a community begun by a now deceased Sister of St. Joseph of Corondelet some thirty years ago. Sr. Rose envisioned a gathering place where Minneapolis’ poor and homeless could gather to form a community of their own – a place where their voice is heard, where their priorities are expressed, where they are in charge, hold leadership and exercise roles of service. Yesterday I left questioning what had just gone on. A certain discomfort and disappointment rumbled in my heart and gut as I walked out the door.
We have a quote from Neale Donald Walsch on our kitchen bulletin board: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” I have been going to Peace House for a few hours each week over the past couple months. Peace House gets me out of my comfort zone. It also flies in the face of my propensity to be in control. I generally prod myself on Wednesdays to show up by 11 a.m. for thirty minutes of visiting with folks before “Meditation” from 11:30 to 12:15 followed by lunch and more small talk until until 1 or 1:30. I also go to Peace House in obedience to some inexplicable need/desire to be in direct and mutual relationship with the economically poor and those on the periphery of society.
My “sudden glimpse” sprang out of what had taken place during meditation – a very generous term to describe community announcements, shared discussion of a given topic, then five minutes of naming people for whom we ask prayers. A core group of “volunteers,” people who look and talk a lot like me, provide a thread of continuity. Many knew Sr. Rose and attempt to carry on her charismatic presence three years after her death. Generally the same volunteer moderates the meditation on the same day each week.
Despite the moderator’s intention to lead us in a reflection of the Serenity Prayer, we got off on a discussion of the President’s State of the Union address. In retrospect that seems especially strange because only three of the thirty folks in the room had even seen the address given the night before. Soon the conversation spun further off onto “politicians”, the fact that women earn 77% what men earn for the same work, the various merits of Democrats and Republicans, etc. Eventually, someone recognized that all the steam and most of the voices were coming from the visiting “volunteers.” It had become very much the sort of conversation you could expect to have in our south Minneapolis living room. Finally, someone interjected, “I want to hear from some others, especially those who are having a hard time jumping in or people who don’t often get a chance to speak.” The pause was something that certainly could not be recreated in our living room!
A homeless woman who had lost custody of her children was the first to speak of her desire to “be her old self.” Others added their stories. A Thai man, who is literally homeless in that he lives on the streets and not in a shelter, softly shared his perspective. The man from India sitting next to me explained that our speaker was brought to the U.S. for protective political asylum. When not speaking to the group, he continuously mumbles a harmless dialogue between himself and some unseen others. This time we all were listening. In a a tone hardly above a whisper, he told his story of coming to America ten years ago with the dream of becoming an American. He told of losing that dream. “There are no jobs. … Why do Americans hate Asians so much?” A broken man now holds on to his impossible dream, returning home to Thailand. This gentle man of soft words poses profound questions.
While driving south on Portland Avenue toward home it hit me. OMG! I am easily verbal and convinced of my well founded opinions! I love a good intellectual conversation about pressing social issues. After all, my liberal bona fides are well polished and something I want others to recognize. I think of myself as a compelling speaker and rightly informed on all manner of topics. OMG! I had a sudden, embarrassing glimpse. Do I know how to listen? Do I respect the need and recognize the right of others to speak, especially out of their lived experience and practical reality? How often do I “talk over” others or remain comfortably fixed in the realm of ideas, disembodied policy and abstract values? These questions push me beyond my comfort zone.
Coincidentally, if there really is such a thing, I came upon a reflection after arriving home by yet another Sister of St. Joseph of Corondelet, Mary M. McGlone:
When we have identified our brothers and sisters most in need of the light of God’s love, when we listen to their cry, we have begun to hear Jesus’ call. That, of course, is not yet the beginning of real discipleship. Discipleship, the spreading of Christ’s light, only happens when we are willing to leave behind every political or ecclesial position that hinders or prevents us from acting on behalf of people in need. We may find ourselves with unexpected partners; we may even need to avoid discussion of certain contentious topics. But in so doing, we will learn the unimportance of our opinions in the light of the magnitude of the needs of our brothers and sisters.
We may not be able to leave behind our occupations, the nets and boats necessary to sustain daily life, but we can accept the grace of being freed from the encumbrance of our viewpoints, the ideologies and prejudices that prevent us from joining together with everyone else called to proclaim the kingdom of God in deed, and then, if necessary, in word.”
To this I can only add my faltering, AMEN!
Mary M. McGlone’s complete reflection in the National Catholic Reporter may be found at: http://ncronline.org/blogs/spiritual-reflections/spreading-christs-light
Excellent post! I am a bad listener (and I was a reporter!) and very enamored of my own opinions, experiences and ideas. My passion is good, but I struggle to tuck it in and listen to others. I find the more I meditate, the quieter and more grounded I am and that somehow that leads to better listening. Imagine that!
Thanks for your generous words.