“You are building a career off of the misery of the marginalized and poor people you are serving,” once chided my friend. Though meant as a joke I mulled over it for months. It bothered me because it may be true. If it were, it was an indictment of how I have carried myself as a Franciscan religious working with and for the people of God. Since my postulancy to simple profession, I have not really explored other ministries that did not involve the poor, people of color (like me), the ill, or marginalized sectors of our society. That may be a good sign for most Franciscans but any Franciscan knows better. Underneath the adulation with which people shower our ministries, are human beings who strive to be who they are before God. Before God we are a composite of many facets of our selfhood. To lead a meaningful life these facets must find unity. When it does not, we face tension and feel the stress that comes with it.
The stress of oppression: its beginnings and dynamics
Art by Ramon Mesa
In Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), we have what we call social location. It is a description of realities integral to our relationship with society, which we cannot neglect because they play a huge role in responding to our ministry. Social location is critical because this is the first evidence of a minister’s presence in a helping relationship. For example, I have seen how my being a brown-skinned Filipino impacted my encounters with my patients in Baltimore Medical Center and Georgetown-Medstar Hospital. When wearing my friar habit, I found it easier to skip usual questions as, “Where are you really from?” or “How come you don’t have an accent?” from patients. I never heard similar incidents of the same frequency from Caucasian chaplains. To a person of color, this can be very exhausting. I found myself even doubting if those patients were convinced of my capacity to care for them not as a nurse, or medical aid but as a spiritual support minister. But this is my social location, and there is a system beyond hospital walls that influences my patient encounters. Yet, due to power dynamics, I possessed greater control and responsiblity to be mindful of how I felt and managed the exhaustion intrinsic to my social location as a Filipino religious brother ministering to patients asking me those questions.
I can deal with the fatigue, which those questions bring me. However, I consider the trivialization and intellectualization of the impact of those questions on me as oppressive and an undue burden created by those who have never experienced how it is to be a person of color. By this I mean consciousness gained neither by a visit in a black barbershop nor through immersion in a poverty-stricken Latino or African-American community but by being exactly a person of color.
Then comes the challenge of finding integrity in the teachings of the Church, particularly abortion and the right to life. I will always be pro-life. My view on the pastoral implications of being pro-life evolves but not the stance. However, I want to focus instead on the debilitating failure of the Pro-Life Movement to include black and brown lives in its fight for the right to life. How does this affect me? I am a person of color and without my friar habit I am not only a person of color but I also represent a regulated narrative already written and framed for me long before I even have the chance to do the narration myself . I admit that to myself and accept it as a reality from my vantage so that I can resist that forced narrative through conscious recognition of its forms. Before I welcome invitations to present evidence of this claim other than what I had earlier shared, I rather revert the invitation to those who are on the side of privilege to reflect on the instances where they benefit from their own privilege.
My main point however in citing anti-abortion is that for many, it is a fight against abortion, not for life for all. Fighting for black and brown lives has been dismissed as a prudential matter and not a moral imperative like abortion. Measured against people of color facing discrimination in all forms, this standard can be very stressful. Yet, racism is never called an intrinsic disorder and an objective evil at least by the moral theological authorities of the Church. For a person of color facing racism, it is an evil force in and of itself. But again, apart from the life in the womb facing abortion, how can truth and data in the lived experiences of the oppressed shape moral codes when our space at the table is always regulated and never seen as a resource in and of itself? I happen to view that no one owns the table because it is God’s table and it is God who invites us.
If the movement were pro-life, rabid anti-abortionists would find that even without laws legitimizing the killing of black and brown lives, there already exists a system that undermines and threatens people of color through social policies, culture, biases, and the unconscious of white privilege for centuries. The fact that some people still find this incredible and hypothetical reflects a profound systemic failure to accept people of color who narrate their experiences of struggle and triumph against oppression in their own terms.
For example, Filipinos can easily call the Balanginga Massacre a genocide during the American occupation in which, Gen. Smith ordered American soldiers to kill Filipinos 10 years old and above. Based on experience, save for a number of White Americans, I have never faced opposition arguing for this point with African Americans or Latinos. Or a more recent example would be a House Bill that slashes budget for school lunch programs and nutrition budget for Title 1 schools where majority of students are African Americans and Latinos. Another obvious example is the ecological degradation that impact mostly people of color like African Americans in Flint, Michigan. Another inconspicuous example are the rulings against recent voter registration laws that disenfranchise the specific African American demographic. Of course we cannot neglect the heart-wrenching cases of police brutality and a justice system that seems to tilt against people like Treyvor Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Gardner, Philando Castille among the many. The failure to include black and brown lives in the right to life campaign is a startling dissonance for a person of color like me living in a modern era. It smacks of disingenuous demonstration of fidelity to the aspirations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The tension between humility and prophetic responsibility
For a religious like me this is where I feel the tension. Many will argue that it is not my place as a religious to debate my experience of racial injustice or engage in politics. First as a response, I find it hard to treat aspects that contribute to the diminishment of my God-given dignity as just being political. I will not hold it against anyone who feels inclined to say so and is tempted to invalidate my point. However, I will tell anyone that doing either is oppressive. The narrative I write is not really open for validation from any vantage of privilege and power that are never grafted unto the struggles of people of color and the marginalized. If it were it will never be called privilege and power but service and credibility. If anyone finds him/herself actually with this tendency allow me to direct you to this question: how would you benefit by making me seek your validation before I present my narrative? Now that we have addressed that part I will share the tension I feel when speaking about injustices.
I feel torn when I speak out against injustice. Fully aware that I too have a role in systemic injustice, I feel that I may be placing myself above others who are committing injustice. I sometimes doubt whether or not I am being humble and as a Franciscan, humility is a fundamental value in our spiritual lives and relationships. I would like to believe that God is already enough for me and that is the reason I joined religious life. However, the more I focus on the life of Jesus Christ, the more I see injustices around me especially when juxtaposed against Christ’s promise of a Kingdom where there is genuine love and concern for all.
The more I experience this gap, the more Christ’s passion and desire to move towards the marginalized makes more sense to me. When Jesus cleansed the temple, he targeted the turtle dove vendors because they usurped the little money which poor worshipers can afford just to give their whole-hearted praises to God in his holy temple. When Jesus stood in defense of a woman about to be stoned, he came as a son of a woman who was once in danger of being stoned. When he sat with tax collectors, he saw through them and entered their hearts to disrupt their corrupt and abusive practice against his people. Jesus loved God’s people so much that it was his constant prayer not to be separated from them.
On the one hand, the Gospel shows me how much more I have to work on myself. As I struggle to follow Christ’s example, I run into this tension of speaking truth of my experiences. Doing so is a source of discomfort for those including myself, who would soon realize how all of us use privilege and power to pursue a life of comfort that has been built on the backs of the oppressed. I do encounter discrimination but I use whatever privilege I have to survive and defend myself, my education included. But even my education is submerged in a regulated system of privilege and I too feed that system. It takes so much to reject it the way Jesus and Francis of Assisi did.
The grace of empowerment: light breaks into darkness
“Fear not.” “Do not fear.” “Be not afraid.” All of these Jesus mentioned multiple times in the Gospel for a purpose. It has never been in the heart and mind of Jesus Christ to leave any of us drenched in fear of sin and hate so that we cannot even cry out to God. Empowerment is always marked by the destruction of fear like the early Christian disciples who were empowered by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to their faith even under the threat of death. To reach that point, there is a cost to pay especially by those who are already marginalized and oppressed. More is asked of them to endure, to love, to keep faith, to forgive, to hope against all hopes, to trust in grace, to show courage in order to” slay the head of the serpeant,” as civil rights leader Dr. Eleanor Moody Sheperd would put it.
Photo by Ramon Razon, OFM
That said, we have a glimpse of the power of Jesus Christ who detested and sought to end injustice in order to push God’s agenda of relentless and irrevocable love and mercy. That glimpse is our light’s first break into darkness. When grace takes over, all things about us are illumined and it’s very difficult to unlight light itself even were everything around it is darkness. This is how the enlightened and the saints reversed the narrative of victimhood to one of empowered response.
The role of grace in empowerment
Grace makes a response possible but it does not make life easier. Soemtimes it comes like a flash and immediately transforms a moment into a new possibility. Therese of Liseux whom some psychologists now believe suffered a type of neurosis in her childhood probably also due to the grief that impacted much of the Martin household, shows this moment through what she calls “Christmas Grace”. One morning rather than breaking into her obstinate tantrums in reaction to a snide remark, she penetrated through her anguish and held herself in the midst of that tension and made a conscious decision to take another path and unshackle herself from a cycle of neurosis to embrace “all for all”. She placed herself into the “lift”, the grace of God that enabled her to overcome injustices in human relationships within her monastery and embrace pain and uncertainty all at the same time. She is now a doctor of the Church.
Sometimes, grace comes through powerful events of acute frustration. Oscar Romero attempted to offer John Paul II a different viewpoint from the one perpetuatued by his cirtics by showing the Pope photos of murdered El Slavadoran priests who were tortured and murdered for standing against the oppression of the poor of El Salvador. John Paul II made one conclusion, “Get them on line.” Frustrated, while on a plane to Belgium before returning to El Salvador, Oscar Romero found his peace and a renewed reassurance that he is excatly doing what he needs to do in standing with the people of God facing oppression. He moved forward without the validation of John Paul II. Oscar Romero is now beatified after a long era of Catholicism that convicted him of Marxist ties. The narrative of mercy and justice, now under Pope Francis, not only validates Oscar Romero’s life but rather is standing on Oscar’s work, life, and witness to the Gospel.
St. Clare of Assisi refused to relent to Pope Innocent IV’s pressure to compromise her vow of poverty. A woman of her time, she succeeded writing her own rule by following the empowered path of the widow in the Gospel. This was long after Francis had died so the relationship that would most inspire her to persevere amidst this challenge (save for her intimacy with God) was no longer in her life. Here lies the question, where does one get the strength and resources to believe and act in the manner of the poor widow demanding justice from an unjust judge? Clare drew strength from her vision with Francis, as a woman that she was. She did not wait for validation but made choices based on the truths that she had learned as a religious woman and one who had caught the gaze of her Savior. She mirrored that gaze on her view of the world and she never lost sight of that vision. In her heart she knew what she wanted and that empowered her.
The stress of facing disenfrachisement is great. Yet, as the life of Jesus Christ already illustrates, God’s relentless and abundant love can outlast hate and oppression. There is a cost each disciple has to pay. For our many failed attempts to follow the Gospel, we exactly know what the cost is on us. But that cost is where our empowerment lies. Lay hidden in that cost is grace that can catapult us to realizing a vision we thought was never possible. In that cost is love we thought we can never share. In that cost is faith that destroy thick walls of oppression. In that cost is the very self of who we are, standing before the gaze of God, feeling no less nor more as one gifted with dignity, bestowed and formed only by God. When this empowerment infiltrates our relationships we know that Kingdom of God is not far.
Fraternal Moment with Br. Michael Reyes, OFM on his Solemn Profession; with author and Br. Christian Seno, OFM.