A snow day brings a little more clarity...

Today we are having a "snow day" in the Berkshires.  As my friend Martha notes, "Not a bad way to spend part of Christmastide, yes?" All the schools pulled the plug last night. The shop where Di works is going to close early.  And our steep driveway has yet to be plowed so our light weight truck can't get enough traction to get us over and out. So, it is a day for putzing and cleaning and more winter reflection.

Last night I started thinking about how my perspective to ministry has matured. I sensed a call to ministry at 16 while on a youth mission trip to the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC. During the creative liturgy in The Potter's House - a working coffee house/art gallery - a voice as clear as my own kept "whispering" to me: "YOU could do this." I don't recall anything else that was said or done during that worship, because the "voice" was so insistent and unrelenting. Like Mary the mother of our Lord, I kept these things and pondered them in my heart for a few days before going public. And then I only said, "I think I might want to explore being a minister" and NOT "I sensed the call to ministry through the presence of God's Holy Spirit 'talking' to me during worship." Such a mystical articulation was just not something a boy from a New England Congregational church said out loud.

Now here's the thing: while I have valued reading about and visiting the various ministries of the Church of the Savior - and there is an vibrant connection between the Potter's House outreach to artists and my own creative focus - these groups never really shaped my yearnings or my practice of ministry. The same would hold true for the liberation theologians and civil rights activists I celebrated and respected starting with MLK in 1966. Their expressions of solidarity with human suffering, their prophetic challenge of the status quo and their radical articulation of sacred compassion have certainly informed my theology. And it is very clear their insights have stretched and enriched me beyond the limits of my straight, white, middle class male worldview. But I cannot think of one of whom I wished to emulate in my quest for a way into a living ministry. 
No, truth be told, the first mentor whose practice of ministry energized me was a Jesuit priest living in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis: Fr. John Little. I was working as an organizer with the Farm Workers boycott and Fr. John helped me meet people in his area of town. He had been in Chile when the coup against Allende took place and worked to smuggle people out of the country. Eventually the junta deported him and he returned to pastoral duties in the US. One of my most vivid memories - and clearly one of those experiences that have shaped my ministerial commitments - was bringing the Eucharist to elderly and home bound people. Before our various activist meetings, Fr. John would bring me with him as he visited the lost and forgotten of his parish. He would sit and listen to his beloved friends, make sure they had enough food and then celebrate Holy Communion by their bedside or at their kitchen table. He took me into places I never dreamed existed - and shared with me something of Christ's gracious presence - and THAT is where my first vision of my ministry took shape and form. 

Throughout seminary I served three years of internships with two wonderful Protestant pastors. And while I learned a lot about the healthy practical realities of ministry from these men - and still hold the love we shared close to my heart after all these years - it was clear to me that they embraced a different practice of ministry than the one I held in my heart. It wasn't until about 13 years after seminary that I was introduced to my second deep mentor: Fr. Jim O'Donnell in the great city of Cleveland. Jim had been a diocesan priest who began a deeper ministry after his retirement - a ministry influenced and guided by Charles de Foucauld - a ministry of presence and transformation in the heart of the ghetto.

I was introduced to Jim through another community activist during the dark days of my divorce. After an organizing meeting around public school justice, he said something like, "I know this priest who you might like. He's got a retreat house over in the projects and celebrates Eucharist every Thursday night. Maybe you would like to talk with him." I did - Jim became my spiritual director - and I became part of that little ministry while still serving my own congregation. The guiding spirituality comes from Caritas, the Little Brothers and Sisters of the Eucharist, who articulate their ministry like this: Our mandate is to become bread and nourishment for a hungry, broken and fragmented world. We are called to become the bread which Jesus takes into His hands and blesses, breaks and shares with the world.

When I reread those words last night I was struck by how accurately they describe both my deepest yearnings in ministry, and, my most satisfying experiences.  To live and serve as bread taken and blessed by Jesus and then broken and shared with the world. Fr. Jim was friends with Henri Nouwen - another Roman Catholic priest who has influenced me profoundly - and gave me his little book, Life of the Beloved, as one resource to ponder as I entered an embodied Eucharistic spirituality. I suspect that I was the only Protestant in the Thursday night community. When I asked Fr. Jim about whether that would be a problem, he paused and then smiled and said, "It could be... but let's see what the community thinks." It never came up so it was never discussed again.

For almost three years I hung with the Little Brothers and Sisters of the Eucharist on Thursday nights.  I spent time in retreat at their Oasis House and entered spiritual direction with Fr. Jim. I came to cherish the quiet devotion of this spirituality and honor the careful and tender way their ministry of presence helped transform their neighborhood. Block by block they worked with Habitat for Humanity, neighbors and the Holy Spirit to reclaim blighted property into beautiful homes or community gardens. After 25 years, their area of Cleveland that once resembled a war zone is remarkable in its renewal.

More than any other, these two Roman Catholic priests have helped me shape and comprehend my calling into ministry. Today I give thanks to God for our snow day; it has given me time to reconnect with my deepest spiritual roots. I also return thanks to God for Fr. John and Fr. Jim - and also Fr. Henri. As I search for my new spiritual director, I now have some clues about where to find sustenance. 
(credits:  I am pretty energized by the visual art of Robert Lentz and his contemporary icons, too.)


Popular Posts