Embodiment’s GraceJuly 15, 2021
Recovering the gifts of human finitude.Continue Reading…
Beholding GroundJune 22, 2021
“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked. The disciples said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
I have found the most compelling repairs are the ones that make themselves visible, that leave evidence of the breakage and also of the imagination by which the breakage becomes transformed. Such repairs are always provisional, imperfect, and ongoing. Like a nest, they involve continual mending. They ask for a willingness to keep remaking what is perpetually at risk of falling apart. It is this remaking by which a home, and a life, may come: not in spite of what has gone before, but because of it.
—Jan Richardson, Sparrow: A Book of Life and Death and Life
This entire project was born out of an ache.
It was an ache of wanting birth to stanch the flow of death.
It was an ache of watching institutions that I love shudder in dread of shuttering as the lockdowns took their early swipes.
It was an ache of sensing that my own nation was at its weakest physiological state in its brief yet storied history, weakened in all the things that allow a collective to endure a global wallop and stay standing: social trust and goodwill, respect for authority (with that authority then stewarding its legitimacy with honor and an eye for service), a shared identity and agreed-on origin story, civic maturity that puts the life of the whole ahead of oneself. It was an ache of doom before still further fragmentation, a doom of dread that a common vision of reality itself was evaporating.
I suppose at some instinctive level Breaking Ground was born also from the ache of an artistic brain trained to pay attention to the currents that run beneath the surface of shock and havoc, and to find there hints of revelation. I knew early that I needed multitudes of others smarter and differently skilled than I for this sort of societal scuba dive to come up clear (thank you, Susannah Black! thank you, contributors!); the question was how to gather when “scatter!” was the order of the day.
Thanks to the agility of digital tools, and to the awakened sense among many institutional leaders that the old way of doing things on one’s own would not cut it in the face of the interconnected social earthquake that was steamrolling our days, gather we did, albeit with fewer gigabytes blessing our communion. This platform publicly launched just hours after the first memorial service was held for George Floyd one year ago, and as I said in the gray twilight of what would become the violent summer of 2020, “Breaking Ground is first and foremost an act of hope.”
It was an act of hope that the church might yet prove itself agile in the fact of widespread suffering, and that a public space for reflection, conversation, and yes, skilled disagreement, too, could hasten helpful action. It was an act of hope that amid our society-wide need for energy and creativity, the technocratic and utilitarian would be tutored by the moral and the humane. It was an act of hope that today’s Christian minds might be prepared to light the kind of candle for vigil and next steps that a post-Christian society like ours might still recognize in the vestiges of buried longing. And it was an act of hope that a still-potent, still-faithful God was working and shifting and creating in our global upheaval, if only we could develop the patience to see.
But how to see, exactly? And with whom? How could we be confident that what we were seeing and naming was real, and not simply our own glass?
The central task facing our society as we exit the COVID-19 pandemic is to build a common vision of reality.
I have neither the philosophical nor neuroscientific chops to dissect the nature of reality: Is it a question? Is it subjective? But answering the above triad with care has been Breaking Ground’s high calling and, in a year of epistemological rupture, our thorny task. For it turns out that reality, like suffering, is iconoclastic: Each new drama shatters our preconceived notions of what’s actually going on, what works and what’s effective, what the categories for our understanding should be, what the questions are that we should be asking, and, most painfully for so many this last year, who our tribe actually is (or ever was). This shattering builds into a redefining process that can be as exhausting as it is indiscriminate, challenging individuals, institutions, whole nations, a generation.
It turns out that reality, like suffering, is iconoclastic: Each new drama shatters our preconceived notions.
What we tried to do here, in this pilot year of a conversational exploration and, hopefully, longer-term community, was dive into these trenches with you and trace in real time the contours of those shards so sharply lacerating our common life. We looked at the abject failure of our politics to stop mass death, a failure superseded only by the failure of our own Christian community to meet the moral opportunity presented by the nation’s awakening to the realities of ongoing racial injustice—a failure of clarity, unity, and grace that ceded the floor to the pagan poles. We reflected on the renewed attendance so many of us have found ourselves paying to proximate goods: the household, the family, the neighbor, the village. We named the weakening authority of expertise and sought a more capacious understanding of wisdom worth following, and how to cultivate cultural receptivity to such wisdom. We debated justice’s relationship to peace and vice versa as our streets shook, and revisited what unity in a polis even is. And so much more.
Woven through all the unmaskings of this year, of course, was the final crumbling of a narrative of self-sufficiency that has proved to be as false to the way we are wired as it is destructive to the tomorrow we need to build. Somehow, in the very paradox of social isolation, I think we’ve all finally realized that we cannot secure ourselves. As Walter Brueggemann said so softly in the first of six contemplations that set the tone for this whole endeavor, we can only be secured by someone who is faithful to us. We need someone to hear us, which in turn demands that we continually train to become the kinds of people worthy of another’s need to be heard and seen. This includes our neighbor. This includes God.
We need someone to hear us, which in turn demands that we continually train to become the kinds of people worthy of another’s need to be heard and seen. This includes our neighbor. This includes God.
And this is where we land. The central task facing our society as we exit the COVID-19 pandemic and return to some semblance of physical normalcy is to build a common vision of reality. We happen to be living through an institutionally neutered moment, when people are choosing totalizing explanations based on the psychic rewards of belonging to a particular group. It’s increasingly yielding extremists, but—and here’s my hope—it’s also squeezing out a chastened remnant. And it’s this remnant I’d like to speak to as we close.
It may be too late to build a common vision of reality, and it may never have existed in the first place; but without it, the system of relationships that we know as “society” will continue to disintegrate. “Common” does not mean complete; it is God, the ultimate iconoclast, who alone has that perch. But my hope is that those tethered to his love might yet be moved to create spaces like this one, on and off the page, for honest reflection, dialogue, imagination, and especially grace. For it is in the neighbor’s face that we behold God’s face, it is in the neighbor’s pain that we find our assumptions softened and our numbness dispelled, and it is in the neighbor’s story that our own story is tutored, shaping, as we perceive and listen and learn to love, the ground for us to stand on, and for us to build once more.
This piece was originally published as the coda to the year-long publishing venture of Breaking Ground, a collaborative web commons Anne created in June of 2020 to engage a year of layered crisis with patient, probing site, ingenuity in re-imagining the future, and, crucially, hope. You can find the specific contours of the fractures alluded to here at BreakingGround.us, where dozens of thought leaders and moral exemplars reflected in real-time on a world being remade.
O Virtue, Where Art Thou?April 5, 2021
In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.—Abraham Joshua Heschel
I confess I’ve never reacted all that well to the recruitment posters created to enlist soldiers in the First and Second World Wars: Lord Kitchener, Uncle Sam, John Bull. Chalk it up to my distaste for a certain flavour of male demand or a generational mismatch in messaging, but the infamous propaganda tools inspire jumpy nerves more than motivation.
Still, when I step out of my own time and ponder what that great tool of recruitment was attempting to achieve, I find that I admire its effectiveness in awakening the everyday citizen’s desire to serve. That loud pointing finger called forth a deep hope of nobility that beats unbidden in each one of us, and instead of gesturing toward some vague moral high ground, it provided a pathway wherein one could take responsibility and act in a battle for good to prevail in a troubled world.
Much has shifted since the mid-twentieth century. We no longer have the clarities that gave such propaganda power: an agreed-on enemy, a known good worth protecting, a patriotism without caveat or a cultural code that said you were better than nobody and nobody was better than you.
Instead, the terms of good and evil have proliferated and moved inland, finding potent expression in domestic politics and creating a mess of heated rebellions along the way. We live in an era newly awash in moral language of the systemic and the social, but instead of deploying it to frame the battles occurring on other shores, the moral lines are here—on our turf, in our relationships. Our history is being told and retold by a wider array of voices. Hearts once content are being challenged to expand.
It could all be very hopeful but for the timing: A society steeped in “my truth, your truth” is poorly equipped to navigate fuller tellings of social truth. The pervading frameworks for “what’s really going on”—white supremacy and systemic racism, illegitimate political authority and a corrupted elite—are at once vast and pointed, each one requiring a humility and robust moral vocabulary that we seem to have lost. It doesn’t bode well that structures of power are dominating our mental maps while odes to self-care seduce our souls. Whatever happened to conceiving of agency as something more than the individual’s rights and desires? Where is forgiveness in our calculus of what is owed?
This issue of Comment seeks to walk us out of these cultural cul-de-sacs and reunite virtue with the social ends God intended for us. As many of us awaken to realities of history that seem to be demanding something new from our lives, the conscientious person is asking, Where is the way of wisdom? How do I avoid becoming paralyzed, or worse, reactive and destructive? What’s the call on persons when the stakes most discussed are not able to be pinned down to a person? Is there a call?
Love is a Neural HighwayMarch 16, 2021
What happens when the best of science is sandwiched by the best of love?
This is the question that Jacob’s Ladder school has been answering for 27 years as it has helped guide more than 4,000 children with neurobiological disorders toward hope and a future.
Amy O’Dell founded the school in Roswell, Georgia, as a way of making a better life for her youngest child. Jacob had been “born with such a sweet and beautiful spirit, but such a broken body and mind,” she says. Pervasive developmental delay was the diagnosis, a life sentence handed down with piles of documents at once condemning and disaggregated.
“I was told to adjust to the reality of the disability and to try to get pregnant again and hope for a ‘better child,’” she recalled. “It’s still really painful to remember those words.” Where medical experts declared little hope for any kind of change in her son, Amy saw a soul fighting to be seen.
“There was something in his eyes,” she says. “I couldn’t let it go.”
Amy had learned in the years before Jacob’s birth never to give up on a person deemed a lost cause by the accepted systems. She had worked in both adolescent and adult psychiatric care at Woodridge Hospital in Clayton, Georgia, using her degrees in activity therapy and counseling.
But home life was becoming a struggle, as her husband’s job was bringing in an annual income of just $3,000, and she, only able to work part time, wasn’t adding much more. They were borrowing more and more from Amy’s parents while credit card debt compounded. Meanwhile, Jacob’s needs were demanding more attention, and rural Appalachia didn’t have the infrastructure she felt he needed.
Things came to a head one day when Amy dropped off 15-month-old Jacob at a daycare center. As she paused outside the window, she watched as he struggled to hold himself upright. Each time Jacob turned his head upon being released by a caregiver, he toppled over.
Something twisted inside Amy. She watched as the workers moved on and Jacob ceased crying. Perhaps, she suspected, Jacob had decided that if his mother was leaving him, and the cry didn’t work, he was going to sit and be quiet until she came back. “He’d gone into a shell,” she says, shuddering at the memory.
She turned around and picked Jacob up then and there. Placing him on her hip and leaving, Amy drove to Woodridge and quit her job. She then dedicated herself to figuring out how to care for Jacob—pursuing certification in neurodevelopmental growth and intervention, studying programs around the country, working with Jacob eight hours a day, and reading all she could about brain injury and rehabilitation.
When Jacob was five, Amy and her husband decided they could no longer keep their marriage together, and with that finality, she moved with Jacob and his younger sister to Atlanta. Amy knew no one in the big city; she just sensed that hope for her son could be built here.
“I just remember waking up one day and saying, ‘No more. No more information. It’s not going to be information that changes my son’s life. It’s going to be me picking a path and then giving myself to it fully.’”
Love is a method
“Who was I to do a seminar on anything?” Amy says, chuckling at the memory of her early chutzpah as a stranger in Atlanta. “But I hung up some flyers, and people came.”
Amy had decided to offer free seminars at night for families who had kids with special needs. One of the first parents who attended was a wealthy real estate investor. After asking Amy if she could work with his daughter, he gave her an empty nail salon at a shopping center and helped her re-furnish the space. She continued offering the free seminars, but as more families participated, she decided to start charging for evaluations.
These evaluations were novel at the time, pairing an intensive interview with a quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG) brain scan. Using a noninvasive cap on the patient’s head, the scan maps the brain by measuring electrical activity in the form of brainwave patterns associated with impulsivity, cognitive inflexibility, anxiety, and other symptoms. Using this data, Amy could design custom programming.
Each case was unique. One family thought their son was blind and deaf, only to learn through Amy’s evaluation that he was dealing with a cortical deficiency, which the brain could be trained to overcome. Other kids would come in wheelchairs, unable to walk. Amy would focus heavily on mobility, encouraging at least six hours a day out of the wheelchair, and for many, a new mental map would form.
“In the early years,” Amy says, “no scientist thought I should be running something like this.” Amy didn’t have the right credentials or a PhD. She hadn’t prepped her hands-on work by spending years in a lab. “The common refrain from the experts was, ‘Wait, you?’
It was the 1990s, and the reigning neuroscience was cautious about the capacity of compromised brains to grow new pathways. Attachment theory—the idea that a secure relationship with a loving authority figure was the necessary basis for healthy development and eventual individuation—was just beginning to be explored as not only psychological in orientation, but possibly physical too.
Amy wanted to explore the possibility that love might not simply be a posture but could define an entire methodology. When paired with recent discoveries in neuroplasticity—the ability of brains to form and reorganize synaptic connections after a traumatic experience or physical injury—could love make the difference between surviving and thriving?
Parents found something hopeful in a leader who believed their children had the capacity to change. Word began spreading that Amy was a different kind of neurodevelopmental clinician, and soon a few children became dozens, and dozens became hundreds.
Amy’s fees became her salary, with a growing surplus that enabled her to hire her first three employees. Jacob’s Ladder hung up its sign in 1999.
When paired with recent discoveries in neuroplasticity, could love make the difference between surviving and thriving?
“We do two trainings for staff at Jacob’s Ladder,” Amy says. “Training in the hope, truth, and love methodology, and training in the science methodology. When you apply both, and you do so very consistently, the brain responds and stretches into new terrain.”
The name Jacob’s Ladder reflects this philosophy. While it honors the inspiration of her son, as well as Amy’s identification with the story of Jacob wrestling with God, there is also a notion of steps, of linkages built one on the next to heal neural connections in the brain. Amy doesn’t believe in dead ends, not for children, not for the human brain.
“Our ethos has always been, ‘Let’s just meet each child where he or she is at, right here, right now, and not worry about 20 years in the future,’” Amy says. “When the child gains that momentum, and covers that ground, [our task is] to be acutely aware of the next step.”
The interpersonal whole-brain approach
With a curriculum customized to each child and a 1.6-to-1 teacher-to-student ratio, Jacob’s Ladder welcomes those with conditions as varied as autism, Down syndrome, attention deficit disorder, anxiety disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, and bipolar disorders, among others.
“We promise families that their child will have a very specialized approach to their learning and developmental needs,” Amy says. “But each carefully designed day will be wrapped within the constants of heavy psychological safety, security, relationship, compassion, and unconditional positive regard, no matter how difficult someone’s behavior becomes.”
Kids arrive to teachers wearing “Choose Love” shirts and are ushered into one of three learning environments: the Ladder, which serves students needing intensive one-on-one care; The Hope School for students with emotional, behavioral, and relational challenges; or COMPASS, which works with young adults in need of job training and community-based instruction. Bolstering the three pods are various licensed specialists: occupational, physical, speech, and mental health counselors, as well as a consulting clinical psychologist who specializes in neurofeedback and brain mapping.
“We don’t waste a moment of a child’s day,” Amy says. “We take every opportunity we can to integrate each lesson with one another—from their language base to their relational skills to their conflict resolution skills to their self-regulation skills when stress hits them. It may look like this fast-moving river to the visitor, but it’s all very intentional.” Children are taught to be growers and nurturers, tending to gardens, raising goats. Outdoor play happens daily.
“I was skeptical at first,” says Rachel Pereira, “and then I saw the school.” Her son had been physically abused to the point of suffocation by a teacher in kindergarten. As he would lose self-restraint and increasingly lash out in violence as he grew, his elementary school years were, in Rachel’s words, “a nightmare.” She and her husband felt they had no choice but to confine him at home.
At their wits’ end when their son was ten, the couple was told about an “oasis of angels” not four miles from their house.
“You feel the love as soon as you walk on campus,” Rachel says of what is now a 13-acre property complete with butterflies, birds, walking paths, and gardens. “My son wanted to be a normal kid, but he simply couldn’t. Amy told me that Jacob’s Ladder was never going to give up on him, and I decided to believe her.”
After a first few tough months, Rachel’s son ceased having fits and breakouts. Amy’s own son Jacob—then 26 and a teacher at the school—built a trusted bond with him. “It’s a miracle,” Rachel says. “The school is a godsend.”
An invisible yet fierce circle of norms protects the Jacob’s Ladder experience. Phones and iPads are nowhere to be seen. Staff work to leave behind their life stresses on their commutes in.
“We expect our staff to learn what it means to be a vessel and pour into another human being, whatever the self-sacrifice,” Amy says. “We may not hit it every day all day, but just trying to do it daily makes a difference.”
Students are respected as those who pick up on the smallest signals of mental presence or absence. Regardless of neural condition, Amy believes, human beings intuitively know when they are treasured and when they are a burden.
“In the early years,” Amy says, “when I was working with Jacob, it quickly became clear that as much as I gave of my own thought and energy to the moment, that’s the amount he received. If I was trying to teach him to read the alphabet, he would learn the letters if I was 100 percent with him. But if I got distracted and would start thinking about my grocery shopping list … I could be physically right there, turned towards him, same everything on the outside, but he would falter.”
The school’s success with each student depends on many factors: the severity of the child’s condition, the child’s age, and the family’s degree of support toward the efforts. For some parents, a child just learning to use a hand that couldn’t be used before could be a giant gift of hope.
“When you undertake this work diligently, consistently, and with integrity, you will always see growth and change,” Amy says. “It could be slow and in very small ways for one child, and quick and dramatic for another.
The power of naming
Chris Hatcher and his wife had tried everything for their son: public school, private school, therapeutic programs, homeschooling. The boy had also experienced trauma early in his elementary education, and he now dealt with ADHD, emotional dysregulation issues, dyslexia, and more. He was breaking pencils, dumping desks over, threatening other students, and in one fourth-grade year was restrained 27 times.
A consulting firm mentioned The Hope School at Jacob’s Ladder. Chris looked at the website and read, “kids with complex problems … conduct disorder … high-functioning autism …” “It described our kid,” Chris says. He took the 11-year-old in for an assessment.
“From the brain scan, we learned that the fear center was all lit up in his brain, shutting down the speech center,” Chris says. “We learned that when he’s under a lot of stress, he goes quiet and can’t communicate.” Rife fear, it turns out, was drowning out the healthy development of other neural pathways.
This identification was a comfort all on its own. “Then Amy and her colleagues went through a very thorough set of questions to find out who at the school would be the right people for [him], customizing a program specifically to him,” Chris says. They learned that he liked to work with his hands, so they assigned him to help with maintenance on campus.
Two years after entering the program at a first-grade reading level, he’s catapulted to a seventh-grade level. He’s also in better control of his emotions when stresses occur. “We have seen his toolbox grow greatly for how he can deal with things,” Chris says. “Particularly the emotional dysregulation—the stuff that used to be explosive is just not there anymore.”
“I think other schools had an understanding of what we were going through,” Chris says, “but they still had their program, their way of doing things. And the one thing we always came back to was that they couldn’t handle the behavior. Jacob’s Ladder can handle the behavior.” All staff who work with kids with severe track records are trained and certified in crisis intervention, and the school keeps strict safety protocols.
But equally noteworthy? “Amy always tells us, ‘You’re the parents, you understand your child better than anyone,’” Chris says. “That is something that you rarely hear.”
Can love scale?
As success stories have multiplied and Amy’s public credibility has grown, so has demand from parents outside Atlanta to take the methodology global. As happened to many, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Amy to experiment with different ways of packaging the methodology for national—even international—use.
But can something so high-touch and communal in nature go global without losing its distinctive magic?
One figure in the Atlanta health tech scene thinks so.
Ross Mason has been a serial entrepreneur, a civic leader, and a triathlete. In 2007, he had a vision to make Atlanta the Silicon Valley of health, to inject market excellence and incentives into a system he thought was too self-satisfied. He founded HINRI (the High Impact Network of Responsible Innovators), a venture philanthropy group that “mirrors how angel investors help entrepreneurs build companies that can scale effectively and reduce risk for investors and donors,” according to its website.
Around this time, Ross and Amy met up for lunch. They had gone to Sunday school together while growing up in Madison, Georgia. Ross found in Amy exactly the sort of social entrepreneur HINRI existed to help. The two of them pledged to collaborate when, just weeks later, Ross’s life took a dramatic turn.
He was biking his normal training route when a bee snuck inside his helmet. As he tried to swat it out, he swerved sharply. He crashed, breaking his neck and enduring a C6 spinal cord injury.
Amy visited Ross many times in the hospital, praying with him and accompanying him through terrain she knew from her own journey. Their friendship blossomed, and in 2010, Ross began to approach foundations to launch the first capital campaign for Jacob’s Ladder. He put together a formal board of directors that he would chair.
Ross’s experience convinced him that health care experts exclude all but a narrow range of credentials tied to industry and prestige. Amy, by contrast, embodies qualities Ross believes could turn American health care around: personalism, holistic paradigms, praxis before theory,
“Amy is focused on ‘What does this child need?’ Not, ‘How do you fit into the research paper that I just wrote?’” Ross says. “She’s the kindest person you’ll ever meet, but she threatens the status quo.”
Ross is challenging Amy to put her methodology online and make it open source. He wants to turn the center in Roswell into “a mothership training center”—like a demonstration city—which would spawn replicas in Geneva, Jerusalem, San Francisco, and elsewhere. He wants, in short, to change the way the world treats human potential.
Eternity begins in the proximate
“As truth is revealed in the day-to-day moments of life,” Amy says, “and in the interchanges and relationships that surround me, I’m always awestruck at how the grace of God works.”
This attitude is not for lack of suffering.
“One of the greatest gifts about having Jacob was that it completely crushed the illusion that I have control in my life. … I was completely brought to my knees in the midst of that fear to see that, for me and my life personally, it was an opening to knowing there is a power much greater than myself that I can rely on. So rather than seeing my fear, I put the fear into action, and the action is called love.”
That love has worked itself out through steps, one at a time, in brains, hearts, and households. “Families will come in so despairing,” Amy says, “and by the time they leave, they are just so thankful that someone is believing in their child.” She coaches parents in principles of truth-telling, choosing joy, focusing on a child’s strengths, and, to borrow from Eugene Peterson, a long obedience in the same direction.
“This is the story God gave me,” Amy says. “He authored it, and I’ve done my best to walk it out.”
This story was originally published in the April 2021 issue of Christianity Today.
Building our CommonsJanuary 25, 2021
Embracing the call of solidarity and repair.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For the full experience, and to hear the heart behind the words, we encourage you to listen to the podcast episode here, from The Whole Person Revolution.
Anne Snyder: Greetings and welcome back. It’s January 2021, and we’re beginning a new season of The Whole Person Revolution, a podcast of Breaking Ground. I’m your host, Anne Snyder, and, where the first eight episodes last year took us to some of the more prescient community shepherds working in the crevices of a bruised and snapped-open landscape, THIS season, in the context of a new if wildly alert year, we’re going to build on the wisdom and witness of those heroes to ask: How might we imagine and actually each play a role in building a more woven, widely shared commons, a commons committed to solidarity and humbly receptive to repair, one that keeps human dignity front and center and sees all of life as gift? How could each of us – and each of the societal sectors that touch our lives, shift, perhaps softly, perhaps more dramatically, to sow this better normal?
To get us out of the gate this second season are two illuminated souls who have been laboring among some of the poorest of the poor in the United States. Fr. Jack Wall and Joe Boland come to us from Catholic Extension, a movement of the church that daily, intentionally walks in solidarity with those in our poorest regions to build up vibrant and transformative communities of faith. Every time I speak with Fr. Jack and Joe, I walk away with eyes alight. You’re in for a treat.
Fr. Jack, Joe, Thanks for joining me today.
Fr. Jack Wall: We’re delighted to be with you, Anne. It’s a very special honor to be with you and all that you’re trying to do in terms of weaving our country together.
Joe Boland: Happy to be here. Thank you for having us.
Anne Snyder: My pleasure. Could you each take a moment to describe the work of Catholic Extension? To give our listeners a sense of who you all are and what you do? What wakes you up in the morning?
Fr. Jack Wall: Well, maybe I could start by just saying that we are a movement of the church. You described many movements going on that build up the culture and build up the human family, and we’re a faith movement. And our purpose is quite simple but very profound, and that is to—as you described it—build up vibrant and transformative Catholic faith communities. Faith communities that are among the poor and in the poorest regions of the United States. And it’s out of a conviction that faith communities are one of the most beautiful things that our country has, that our world has, and it’s clearly the work of God from the very beginning when he says, “Form me a people. Form me a people.” And so what we do is try to continue that great mandate to build up vibrant and transformative Catholic faith communities, but in the poorest places and among the poorest people in the United States.
Joe Boland: And I think our core conviction then is that church becomes an important staging ground where unbelievable transformation can happen. It’s where a lot of community building happens. It’s where peace-building can happen. It’s where mercy-making can happen. So every church community that we support in these poor regions throughout the United States really does become a hub of so much life and hope. Every single one of them. We’ve been around for 115 years, and we’ve helped build and repair 12,500 churches throughout the United States and even a few abroad. And as I like to tell people, that’s more churches than there are Dunkin’ Donuts stores. So it’s a profound impact that we have, but also just a great reach. And as we’ll I’m sure talk about, the people in the communities we work with are such a blessing to all of us.
How might we imagine and actually each play a role in building a more woven, widely shared commons, a commons committed to solidarity and humbly receptive to repair, one that keeps human dignity front and center and sees all of life as gift? How could each of us – and each of the societal sectors that touch our lives, shift, perhaps softly, perhaps more dramatically, to sow this better normal?
Anne Snyder: What’s your personal story in this work? Your annunciation moment that catapulted you into Catholic Extension?
Fr. Jack Wall: I was a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago. All my work up until coming to the Extension has been in the archdiocese of Chicago, and I was in the unique opportunity to be a pastor of a church for twenty-four years. I served at Old St. Patrick’s, which is a center city church in the heart of Chicago. But when I came there, there were only four members of the church. I had the great privilege to work with wonderful people and create this vibrant and transformative Catholic faith community. And as I was doing a succession, I was asked to consider maybe taking that vision to a larger reality, which would be a national effort. Catholic Extension is about working in the United States as well as where the American flag flies across our world to build up these faith communities. I was asked to do that fourteen years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Anne Snyder: How about you, Joe?
Joe Boland: My fundamental identity is, I’m a father. I have three elementary-school-aged children right now. My wife is a teacher. I have been working in the nonprofit sector my entire career and most of that with the Catholic church. I met Jack Wall many years ago at a restaurant appropriately named Jack’s, and we hit it off. And as he stepped into Catholic Extension as president, he knew I was working over at Catholic Charities in Chicago. I was doing a lot of work with the immigrant community. I’ve been doing work with mostly Latino immigrants my whole life and career and have enjoyed that so much. And as he was looking at this organization that would touch so much of the country—and in fact 45 percent of the population it touches at Catholic Extension is the Hispanic community—he came to me, and we had a conversation about [my] coming in and joining this new venture at Catholic Extension. Well, really a hundred-year-old venture. But to do something new and build upon this tremendous legacy that exists here. So I’ve been with Jack now at Catholic Extension for twelve and a half years. And it is, as I said before, such a life-giving experience.
Anne Snyder: I have been thinking the last few years, and perhaps especially this last year where disease has rocked the world and for most of us, if not all of us, forced social distance and a lot of physical isolation. And in that, I think there was an awakening for many people, myself included, to how interdependent we are and notions of what it is to be part of the human family. What it is to be interconnected globally, and then of course within a bounded nation. Partly because some of us have had more time to think in solitude, but also because certain things were revealed in terms of on whose backs so much of our society is functioning. And in all of that I felt like the word “solidarity” was used with much wider fluency than you normally hear it.
And I’ve always felt that solidarity is one of those concepts that is among the most beautiful things to emerge out of Catholic social thought. But when words become widely used, they can also lose their richness — and also their reality. So I’m wondering if, given that in many ways you all embody solidarity by mission, if you could define it a bit. What does it actually require in real time? What does it actually look like?
Joe Boland: It’s a word that’s built into our own mission statement, so it’s a word that we have to give a lot of thought to. But the way we understand it in our Catholic tradition is that it’s a virtue, which means it’s something that is a habituation toward the good. And when we talk about it in the church context, solidarity is about working for justice. It is about peacemaking. But it’s really based on this idea that we’re all made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore we’re all children of God. We’re all sons and daughters of God. And I think where solidarity begins to come alive, where we experience a coming alive in our work, is that it’s premised on this idea of an encounter. That we meet someone, that we know someone. Maybe we don’t necessarily have something in common with them on the surface. But nonetheless, there’s a way for us to dialogue with them. To know them, to carry their joys and sorrows and glories in our own heart. And when we do that, I believe that we really affirm people’s dignity. And that is truly the essence of the mission of Catholic Extension, to work in solidarity with people.
I think where solidarity begins to come alive, where we experience a coming alive in our work, is that it’s premised on this idea of an encounter. That we meet someone, that we know someone. Maybe we don’t necessarily have something in common with them on the surface. But nonetheless, there’s a way for us to dialogue with them. To know them, to carry their joys and sorrows and glories in our own heart. And when we do that, I believe that we really affirm people’s dignity.
Joe Boland: It is so beautiful when we’ve accomplished that. And oftentimes it happens in very small ways. For instance, just this past summer: We work with a small, African American, Catholic community in rural Mississippi. We have been in partnership with them for many, many years. Beautiful community. So vibrant, so wonderful, so transformative. And they did a wonderful oral history of their community, because many of the elders have lived through this Jim Crow era in Mississippi and had a story to tell. We published a lot of those stories in one of our most recent magazines and did a little digital showcase on it, and I got a nice letter. I brought this letter. It’s from the sister that organized that oral history. And I thought she really summed up what solidarity means. She says, “We live in a time when the loud and the powerful try to make us less open to one another’s gifts.” And I think that’s the essence of solidarity—that we be open to one another’s gifts.
Anne Snyder: Wow.
Joe Boland: “Thank God,” she said, “for Extension and others like you who are willing to find the goodness in each of us and empower the gifts of those who might otherwise feel discounted and forgotten.” That was a small act of solidarity, and we’re hoping to multiply those acts of solidarity constantly.
Anne Snyder: Yeah. That’s beautifully said. Father Jack?
Fr. Jack Wall: I think the other thing too, just in terms of all of us, the consciousness of solidarity is important. When you think about what we’re grounded in, it’s this mystery of God loving all of us into life. Each one of us is a gift of God. We come from the divine reality. We’re immersed in that divine reality. We’re called in terms of our destiny to become one with the mystery of God’s life-giving love forever. And it’s our deepest truth that we are one with God. And if we’re one with God, then we’re one with God’s mission. And that is to bring the world into life. In all of creation, the creative God who’s calling us to be co-creative in the world. So this mission of solidarity is a deeply spiritual awareness that I think drives Catholic Extension. We’re just so aware of the presence and the mystery of God in every community that we enter into. We’re not bringing anything into it. We’re opening our hearts to the mystery of God’s love that’s going on and being revealed in God’s blessing in the communities that we serve.
So essentially it’s a consciousness that turns into a concern. And I think that that’s what Joe was trying to describe. If you are aware that this is your deepest truth, that we’re not monads, we’re not in a solipsistic kind of world, but we’re people that belong to each other. We have a social identity. We literally belong to each other because we belong to God. And I think the beauty of Catholic Extension is it’s a very concrete expression of that mystery of God’s love at work for us and its particularities in the United States, in our American community. But we’re so conscious of that and we’re trying to bring, in a very concrete way, people together from different places, different ideologies and all that, and say, “Forget about all this. This is the deepest truth. The mystery is our oneness. The challenge is building community.” And that’s where the mess occurs. But the mystery is in the mess.
We live in a time when the loud and the powerful try to make us less open to one another’s gifts.
Anne Snyder: Reflecting on your many years committed to this consciousness that becomes concern, as you put it, how would you describe the usual obstacles for attaining true solidarity? What are the things that keep us closed?
Joe Boland: Certainly a lot has been said about the fracturing of our society and the fact that we exist within our own bubbles and don’t move outside of those. And certainly that’s true. I think another thing though, is the failure to see the God-given goodness that exists in everybody in the midst of that. How did you frame it, Jack? The mystery of the mess that is where life happens. And I think where I’ve seen that most powerfully is where people shed those preconceptions about the other. They shed the jump toward a conclusion of judgment, of demonization of the other. One of the things we do at Extension besides build churches, as I referenced before, is also just support ministries in places where they couldn’t happen otherwise because of financial reasons. And one of the places that takes place is in prisons and this whole idea of restorative justice.
So here you have a group of people in prisons that have obviously, many of them, done very serious things and committed crimes. And yet, as I have gone in with prison chaplains and met with them as they do this work of restorative justice, what amazes me about their work is in spite of what that human being’s history might be, they refuse to overlook the God-given goodness and the dignity of those people. There’s one priest I know in Arkansas that we support. Wonderful gentleman. On his days off, he’ll drive a hundred miles to go to the supermax prison so he can work with the inmates on death row. Just because he believes in the potential of these folks. And some of the most powerful things that I’ve seen in terms of conversion of the human heart, transformation of a person, has been often behind those closed walls in the prison where this work of human restoration is happening. And to me it’s a great example, again, of solidarity expressed, the fruits of it, and also overcoming the normal obstacles that I think prevent solidarity from happening—which is just the jump to judgment and preconceived notions about who this person is and what their worth is.
Fr. Jack Wall: Another dimension is that sometimes we put words together that really don’t belong together. And one of them for me is “gated communities.” Joe was talking about prisons, which are also gated places, but I think it’s in all of us. There’s an innate fear of the other. I think that Pope Francis’s call toward encounter is so critical. This is not to toss blame on anybody. It’s part of the human condition. But I think what he’s calling us to, and what I think Catholic Extension is trying to be an instrument of is this effort of breaking out into this fabulous mission that each one of us has in our hearts. And that is to embody this mystery of God’s all inclusive, all-embracing love. And we all have to do it in our own clumsy human fashion, but we’re not ourselves. So often I think [about] when we think about our identities, and I think really now in America we’re trying to figure out our identity as a people. And it can’t be a fractured identity. It’s built on a dream, a vision of life. And to have that sense that each one of us is called vocationally to embody the mystery of becoming God’s blessing to one another and receiving that blessing.
And I think Catholic Extension is just trying to, in a very beautiful way, in a very intentional way, say we belong to each other. And that faith communities are powerful witnesses of the larger mystery of becoming a human family. And you don’t become a human family without a bit of risk. The first time you hold a baby in your arms, you’re taking a risk. It’s changing you. All of the sudden I’m becoming a mother, becoming a father. I’m going to be giving myself. But the power of being able to do that . . . the pope’s other great message. The world’s about a revolution of tenderness. How to tenderly love and care for one another and receive that love and care. But it’s risky. And we have gated communities because people are fearful of the other being a source of danger to them. And it’s a legitimate fear because that’s part of the human condition. But the other side of it is it’s also an invitation to break out of this and really discover the beauty of being in this world of mutual blessing.
Some of the most powerful things that I’ve seen in terms of conversion of the human heart, transformation of a person, has been often behind those closed walls in the prison where this work of human restoration is happening.
Anne Snyder: Speaking of risk, this is being recorded one week and one day after the US Capitol was sieged, by a crowd that became a mob of protesters. And of course the whole country continues to reel about this in up-ways, sideways, backward, forward as we head into an inauguration and hopefully a peaceful, or what has historically been a peaceful, transfer of power. And insofar as among other things this latest event is kind of a very physical and visceral manifestation of just a deeply, deeply divided era in the US specifically. I think there are a lot of people, whether you’re talking about conscious communities of Christian faith insofar as Christian symbols were visible last week in this sort of violence, as well as just as Americans within families, within old groups of friends that are now fractured. There are a lot of people very earnestly and urgently asking what is it to love one’s neighbor and how to love their enemies too. So as we talk about solidarity and the messiness of actually building community, could you maybe tease out some of the moral underpinnings here and complexities and criteria for keeping peace and seeking peace?
Fr. Jack Wall: One of the great things we do at Catholic Extension is to give an award every year. It’s called the Lumen Christi award. The light of Christ. And this past year we’re honoring a wonderful priest, Father Ron Foshage, in the little town of Jasper, Texas, that experienced one of the great horrors of the twentieth century. That was the terrorist murder of a black man by a few white men. And it just ripped apart the community—this very small community of people. This one man just had a different vision. And I think when you talk about what needs to be done, his vision was—how do we pull this back together? One of the mysteries of the divine is reconciliation. It’s healing. It’s forgiveness. It’s pushing people down to a deeper level. And for decades he’s been doing this. And with some very remarkable results from it. First of all, the healing in the community itself. But all of the sudden that message from this place got exploded across the country and actually ended up with kind of national-level law around hate crimes. So I think it’s a mystery of the courage and the fortitude and the perseverance to realize that it takes time. And who’s in it for the long haul?
I think one of the things we witness in our work is people who are really in it for the long haul and trying to create a different vision of what humanity means and breaking through the divisiveness. There’s always that temptation to exclude and all the other things. It’s a real challenge. But you need courageous people, people with a vision of solidarity, people who see the possibility of people converting their lives. That underneath it all the mystery of God’s at work in every one of us. And everybody gets upset about religion being twisted and convoluted and turning into cults that exclude, when you know that the heart of good religion is about a servant God who is trying to build up the whole human family and bring us to justice, peace, reconciliation, compassion, concern. By their fruits you will know them. And are those fruits happening and how can we continue to be creative about building those signs of that?
But you need courageous people, people with a vision of solidarity, people who see the possibility of people converting their lives.
Joe Boland: We work on the US-Mexico border very intensely. It’s actually one of the most densely Catholic areas of the country. It’s also one of the poorest. And so Catholic Extension for 115 years has been working with faith communities there. In fact, we helped organize Pope Francis’s binational Mass that he held on the US-Mexico border in February 2016. Very proud that we were part of that. And one thing that they always teach us is in these border communities where it’s so heavily militarized, there’s the constant presence reminding you that there’s that side and then there’s this side of it. And what so many of the people in those communities will say is, “That’s just an imaginary line. Over on that other side I’ve got friends. I’ve got cousins and family. I’ve got people who I know, people who I trust and I believe in. And they’re my community.” El Paso’s a good example of that because literally they think of themselves with Juarez as one city just with an international border running through them.
Joe Boland: So I think that’s a great mindset for all of us to have—that sometimes there is more than meets the eye. And though on the surface it looks like there’s unbelievable, impenetrable division, sometimes it’s just a figment of our imagination and the constructs that we create. Do we have it in us to see past those imaginary lines? By the way, when the Capitol riots were happening last week, I was in a snowy wood on vacation, and I was walking by myself. I did not see another human soul except for one moment I had to come upon a road to cross over. A man stopped me, and it was the only human interaction I had for four hours. He rolled down his window and said, “Man, are you okay?” He probably thought I was nuts walking out in the woods by myself. I probably looked pretty rough. But he was obviously availing himself to me, this guy walking along the road. And I thought to myself, “What a guy to roll down his window and offer help to this complete stranger who could have been anybody.”
Then I got back to my car and turned on the radio and heard everything that was happening at the Capitol. It was all the narrative that we’re all falling apart and we have nothing in common. And I think at that very moment when that was happening, where seemingly humanity was coming apart, I was the recipient of an unbelievable gesture of goodwill that I believe still exists as the fundamentals of this country, of the people who want to do good. Again, so I would take my cues from the communities we support who say remember, oftentimes those points of division are kind of figments of our imagination. We need to look beyond those to see the common humanity and beliefs that we share together.
Anne Snyder: That’s a powerful story. Thank you.
Tacking a little here, you all work, as you’ve said now, in some of the poorest parts of the US and yet you also strike me—even the way you describe quite a few of your communities that you work with—you strike me as just some of the most contagiously hopeful people. So I’m just curious if you can explain to our listeners that seeming paradox. At least paradox to American listeners.
Joe Boland: I think we get to see the human spirit, human creativity, at its best. And why do we see it in the poorest communities? Wouldn’t it be natural to think that they’re just miserable and that horrible things are going on in these communities? I think so often what we encounter are people who don’t have anything to take for granted. So what happens is they end up focusing on the essential. The essentials of their security, of the future of their families, their children. They take nothing for granted. And that’s very refreshing to meet people who have nothing else in life to keep them distracted. They’re very focused on that which is most essential. And then I think too in some of the poorest communities where they lack many resources and opportunities, what people like me might enjoy is seeing unbelievable ingenuity, creativity, innovation. Again, something very powerful happening in the human spirit. And that changes you. That makes you hopeful that the people who have the least are oftentimes showing you the sheer power of the human spirit, which we as people of faith would attribute obviously to the Holy Spirit. But there’s something powerful going on in us and in our humanity. So that’s how I would respond to that. I think they just give us a million reasons every year, the communities we work with, to remain hopeful.
You don’t become a human family without a bit of risk.
Fr. Jack Wall: And hope is at the heart, I think, of believing communities. This conviction that we experience over and over and over again that people see themselves as more than their circumstances. And we experience that in the concrete day by day of people in really dire poverty, in places in the United States that are almost Third World–ish in their realities. And it’s there. It’s a tremendous challenge. It’s a great difficultly. But you experience people of great aspiration. And I’ve just been blown away in a very personal way by the aspiration of good, good people who just happen to be poor. And to experience them taking that gift of their own life and doing all they can to build a life for themselves and for their families in very dire situations is just . . . it’s a profound experience. It serves a great encouragement, I think, for all of us to witness people in these situations Joe’s describing. And these are not places you go to for your vacation, but they’re part of the American experience. And it’s something I think we should be very proud of as Americans that within our country in some of the poorest communities are just wonderfully good people whose hearts are filled with hope. They’re bound to build a better world for themselves and for their children and for the larger community.
Anne Snyder: In the context of probably so many beautiful and probably layered, complex stories that you all get to witness, hear, and be in relationship with the people in those stories of transformation—individual and communal—how have you thought about the relationship between local and national?
Joe Boland: I think we’ve seen that some of the best things happening in the country or in the Catholic Church, which we work with, oftentimes happen as a very small movement—a very small expression that’s got the right inspiration and the right passion and turns into something enormous. And we’ve witnessed that in our work all over the place. Part of our job is to help to shine a light on it. But one example, just to take you back to the border for one more second, is—I can distinctly remember in 2014 getting a call from the bishop in the diocese of Brownsville, Texas, which is the very southern tip of south Texas. He was talking to us about a new surge of asylum seekers coming in and how there was no place to shelter them, so the Catholic Church was sheltering them. They needed some assistance and didn’t have any formal shelters. They would just open up a parish hall of a church that we were supporting and said, “We’re going to house the people in this church hall.”
And then they pulled a sister into doing that work. That sister was none other than the now very famous, known as the pope’s favorite nun, Sister Norma Pimentel. Many people know her as the Mother Teresa of the Rio Grande valley, and she’s done so much work to raise awareness of—not just what’s happening in her diocese, in her neck of the woods—but this global phenomenon of migration. And for us, it was such a privilege to be there at the beginning of that whole thing. It really did morph into this small movement of a local diocese and a local parish opening up their parish hall. And then soon every diocese across the border was doing it, and then there were subsequent migrant surges. It was a great expression of hospitality and solidarity with the poor and those who had no other place to go. So to me that’s a great example. And I think there are other examples I could give to you of that. Oftentimes it starts as a very small movement or thing and then grows into something very powerful and very special.
And for us as Catholic Extension, our hope and dream is that so many of these communities will transform not only their communities but [their] societies. They’ll transform hearts. They’ll transform our world. And that’s what we look to and want to have happen.
Fr. Jack Wall: And I think the other reality in terms of making that happen is why we’re involved in this movement called Catholic Extension. It’s not just in one place, but it’s literally thousands of places, thousands of these communities across the country. And we’re doing a simple thing. Just trying to build community. I keep on reaching back historically to Tocqueville when he talked about the United States. His big thing was the genius of the American experience was just doing this: creating these vibrant, transformative communities. And they’re intertwined and interconnected. And not only that, for us it’s also connecting affluent communities with the poorest communities. So I think this kind of movement across the world is . . . we hope it’s a sign. We think we’re an instrument of doing something that is both powerful in terms of building the faith communities and what those faith communities can be. As Pope Francis keeps on saying, we’re not self-referential. It’s about transforming the world. It’s transforming the communities and making a society that is better.
So we see ourselves as involved in something that’s not just in one place. I mean, we’re talking about thousands of places that are doing this. And I think you just trust. Those lights all of the sudden are experienced in broader and broader ways during very troubling times. My big faith story in this has always been the scriptural story of Philip and Nathanael talking to each other. One of them says, “I found the Messiah.” “You found what? The messiah? The future? The dream of God? You found it? Where?” And he says, “In Nazareth of Galilee.” And he throws back, “What good can ever come out of Nazareth?” And that’s what we live on. We’re going to these seemingly godforsaken places. And I think that’s what Pope Francis is saying. That the periphery might be the place where the biggest energy is going on, and if you can do this you’re really creating—I think—human solidarity by going to the edges, you know?
…the periphery might be the place where the biggest energy is going on…
Anne Snyder: Yes. Could you talk a bit about the relationship or the yin and yang between individual transformation and community transformation?
Joe Boland: Well, during this moment of pandemic, I guess the way to describe it is that it becomes contagious. What can happen in terms of transformation when one person becomes committed to something is that you can see it take root and really become contagious in a community. And we see that happen. By the way, I should mention that the main thrust of what we do at Catholic Extension is try to invest in the leadership in these communities. It’s giving them educational and training opportunities to deepen themselves so that they can serve their community. What we’re not trying to do is impose on them a certain way of thinking. We want to make sure that they can be leaders within the context of their own community. Which, as we mentioned before, it’s very diverse. We’re working everywhere from Alaska down to Puerto Rico. How leadership is expressed in a remote, native village of Alaska versus a small mission in the rural mountains of Puerto Rico is very different.
Joe Boland: But one of the people I always think about and think is an example of a person going viral in terms of how they’re able to move the community is migrant farm workers. Talk about a group of people who fall between the cracks. These beautiful, essential workers who are so critical to our own survival and comfort in this country who, thank God, this past year we’ve started to pay attention to. But Catholic Extension for many years has been working with migrant farm workers, and there’s a woman who’s an indigenous woman out in the Coachella Valley. Sadly right now the [COVID-19] infection rate’s about 40 percent to 50 percent, and most of them are migrant farm workers. And she just started rallying her community together. They speak a different language that most others in the immigrant community don’t recognize. And she said, “I need to pull this community together.” And so they’re living in this unincorporated trailer park, and she decided that she was going to advocate for street lights and then paved roads and a local park for all the children who are living there. And she was able to make that happen.
And lo and behold, other people start coming, and they say, “Yes, let’s build a community here.” And this is where they came to Catholic Extension. They said, “We need a church here. And if we had a church here and a firm presence, we’d be able to come together with greater regularity and really form deep bonds with the community.” We’re working on this project with them right now. But to me it’s a great example on a very micro level of someone who is deeply convicted—who has this experience that moves others into action—and it sort of rolls on from there. And I could speak a lot more about that, but I think that’s a great example of the contagiousness of leadership that we see in these communities.
Anne Snyder: I love that. A contagion of care.
Joe Boland: Very well put.
Anne Snyder: Father Jack, do you have anything to add?
Fr. Jack Wall: One of the things I was thinking of was that so many of the people that we are working with are in leadership positions, but forming leaders are Women Religious. They really are a remarkable experience in our country. It’s one of the great gifts I think that the Catholic community has given to the American experience. And I think any Catholic would think about the ways that Women Religious who are teachers and work among in the impoverished and what that has meant, et cetera. But one of the things that we experience is a sister that’s a missioner and going into these very, very impoverished places. And what they’re finding is a lot of people are just very isolated from one another and have very little self-confidence. They’re missing a lot of the tools that would bring people together. But they’ve been able to bring women whose husbands maybe are out working somewhere and they’re locked in a trailer somewhere and bringing them together. And all of the sudden you see this tremendous, as you describe, individual change or transformation occur. Very impoverished people, isolated people, primarily women themselves who all of a sudden discover their own power and their creativity and their own giftedness.
And then all of the sudden you find these people not going off individually, but forming community that then begins transforming all kinds of other things. Discovering new ways to work and different ways to be married, different ways to raise families, different ways to feed their children. So things that start out as individuals isolated all of the sudden discovering community together empower themselves and then also empowering each other.
Anne Snyder: That’s wonderfully said. Going back to this theme of these local micro manifestations of hope and how they trickle upward, I’ve been reading quite a bit of Pope Francis more recently in the context of reflecting on these times of crisis, and he wrote a wonderful little book that you all may have read that came out I think toward the end of last year just called Let Us Dream. And I was struck once again by this notion that when you go to the edge, as Jesus’s whole life actually, including his very birth, was. Not only in the sense of “therein is the Kingdom,” if you believe in the Sermon on the Mount, but therein also are some answers I think for how we understand even what happened last week at the Capitol. Or maybe not understand it, but how we understand . . . as things come to the so-called center, whether that be a capital city where I live or a lot of people in some of the worlds I’m in. To be an intellectual class is to be invited into a noble responsibility, but there can be a default mindset of, “How do we figure everything out from top down?” and the bevy of assumptions that go along with that.
And I think there’s something in the charism, particularly of Pope Francis’s emphases on encounter and personalism and accompaniment, that suggests that sometimes quite beyond our own expectation we find the compass for the powers that be, for the center. Because I do think you need top down as well as bottom up. But you find that north pole in these unexpected, hidden, off-the-beaten-path places. And my instincts are speaking more than my experiences right now, but I just was curious if any of that resonates, or if you could phrase it more articulately than I just did?
Joe Boland: I think absolutely. I think it’s clear from the Scriptures that the heart of the kingdom are the poor and the meek. And that’s where we discover the face of God. So if you’re on this quest to find God, as some people are, at least for me personally, and I believe this was the case for Pope Francis too and I think that’s why he talks about the periphery so much because I know that he’s had a personal experience of encountering the poor and understanding that he finds the face of God there so vividly manifested. And that to me has always been the case. I happen to be working in an organization that keeps the poor front and center and obviously keeps the reality of where God is present very vivid to me every day as we work with these folks. And to be in solidarity with them is a great privilege.
Again, going back to Scripture, Jesus places a child in our midst and says, “Unless you can become like this child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” I think in a special way in a lot of the work that we do, in a lot of the communities we are [in], they’re very young communities. Extremely young communities. There are kids everywhere. You walk into some of these trailer parks that we go into or some of these villages and you just see the face of youth everywhere. You encounter in those faces God’s face. And what Pope Francis has been writing about young people is they’re not only our future, but they’re also our present. And I think for us to be able to invest in that future potential, in many of these families, in many of these programs that benefit these young-adult leaders coming out of these communities, which is part of the scope of our work, is very powerful.
Joe Boland: So yeah, at the end of the day working with children, supporting children and families, supporting the poor, to me takes us right into the heart of the kingdom. It transforms us completely to have those kind of experiences and to work so deeply with these communities. That’s why Pope Francis keeps telling us, “Go back to the peripheries. Get out of the sacristies, go into the streets. And that’s where you’ll find the face of God.”
Fr. Jack Wall: Another kind of image that’s a metaphor shared by a poet and a theologian friend of mine describes Jesus as a border walker. And if you think about the larger vision of what the Christian story is, it’s about a new creation, a new way of being human. So we’re crossing a border. We’re going into a whole different consciousness [or] awareness of what it is. And part of that, to go back to your original thing, is solidarity. We’re building the future of the human family. And it’s all-inclusive. So you’ve got to go to those places where you’re on the edge. When you’re on the border of the future of humanity, you sense the spiritual bonding of people for meaning in their life, for purposefulness, and consider that we’re on this great beautiful journey to do God’s work in the world. And the way you’re going to sense the future is by going to the edges, to the borders, to the peripheries, that’s going to create a new way of being human that’s all-inclusive. We’re all in this thing together. And I think the church work is to be at the edge of that, to be the forefront of what the new humanity is going to look like. And I think it’s about justice, peace, reconciliation, creativity.
How do you create new ways of being together? How do you take advantage of the creative giftedness of everybody? And to trust the mystery that sometimes in the poorest places, there is genius. There’s brilliance. And you can’t leave anything on the table. That’s the other thing I love about the pope when he says we’re the “throwaway” society. Don’t throw away the potential genius and goodness and beauty and creativity that’s found in the refuse places of the world. And clearly there are places in the United States where we’re sitting on brilliant talent.
I have one more example. It was a community of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. This priest there of many years formed together a people, and the people wanted to know what they were going to do about their kids. They didn’t feel like they were getting an education, and to make a long story short, they ended up creating a school there. But in the first graduating classes of that school, they get one of these Native American kids who gets a scholarship to Stanford University in pre-med. That’s sitting in this community.
Anne Snyder: Wow.
Fr. Jack Wall: And what’s the potential that we are leaving on the table? I think that’s part of his genius, the pope’s spiritual genius, is saying, “If you go to the periphery, all you have to do is let people know they’re important.” We’re not doing anything for people. We’re just helping them come together and grow their own goodness and beauty and potential creativity for the world. We can’t let anybody by.
Anne Snyder: On that note, as we all find ourselves, certainly right now in the US, I think the whole country wherever you stand is shaken and worried. And I know a lot of people who are usually people of hope and steadfastness are having trouble sleeping, and there’s just a sense of foreboding in the air. So in that context, given that most of our listeners are in the States, how would you encourage the people right now in this moment of national fragility?
Joe Boland: I think the first order of business is make sure we don’t lose hope. To me, hope is that one theological virtue that really makes everything hang together. We know charity is the most important according to St. Paul, faith among those virtues. But hope to me is the one that really brings it all together. And as long as we have kernels of hope, I think there’s a way forward. When people have lost that sense of hope and have been dispirited, that’s when you really see things start to fall apart. So I would just encourage anybody to not lose hope, as easy as it is to lose it in times like these. We work with so many people who have just gone through epical crises. I mean, that’s part of the nature of our work. We’re not a disaster relief organization, but we oftentimes are in communities that are just going through unbelievable moments. I just think back on our experience with the Puerto Ricans. We’ve been working with Puerto Rico for 115 years, but after Hurricane Maria just rocked every corner of the island and the millions of people who live there, the first phone call that many of them made was to Catholic Extension asking for our solidarity.
As long as we have kernels of hope, I think there’s a way forward.
But the thing that was so beautiful to us is again, go back to that moment. They were without electricity for six months. Many of them didn’t have running water. Our government agencies couldn’t get bottles of water out to these communities. So the church realized it was incumbent upon them to do something. They were to be the bearers of light in a community that was literally sitting in darkness. And they did. The rallying cry that came out through all of Puerto Rico with a little Christian spin on it from our church communities was “Puerto Rico will rise.” And they said in the Christian community, “With God, Puerto Rico rises.” And it really became a rallying cry.
Anne Snyder: Wow.
Joe Boland: Quite frankly, we’re working with them now. They still haven’t fully recovered. But they haven’t lost hope either. So they’ve been doing that important work of finding a way forward, finding that one little thing that they can do every day that is to be a bearer of God’s light and joy. They’re doing it in very small ways and also very large scale and profound ways throughout the island. And again, when we talk about solidarity, they’re teaching us what we need to do in moments of just epical crisis. So I’m following the instruction of the Puerto Ricans. I have been since the beginning of this pandemic. [I’m noticing] what kind of attitude is going to be required for us to be able to move forward. And knowing that we’re in pretty choppy waters, but if we don’t lose hope we still have a chance.
Anne Snyder: Thank you.
Fr. Jack Wall: And I would echo what Joe is saying about hope. It’s the critical thing we need right now. I’m the oldest of the three of us talking here, and you reach back historically and think there’s been so many moments of crisis in our country. So often in the DC discussions of this past week, they’ve reached back to other moments of crisis. And when I first got ordained, I had somebody give me a little card with a quote from a British author and poet and playwright called Christopher Fry. And the words are so filled with hope. He says, “Thank God our time is now. When wrong comes up to greet us everywhere, never to leave us until humankind, the human family, the human soul takes the greatest stride of soul that we’ve ever taken.” And he says, “Affairs are now soul-sized.” I think that’s a powerful . . . Affairs now are soul-sized. “And the enterprise is exploration into God.” And I think with all of our conversation about solidarity and everything like that, where is the divine? Where is God?
If we’re to explore the mystery of God, where does God say he is? And he basically . . . Beautiful words of the Beatitudes. Go to the poor, go to the hungry, go to the naked, go to the suffering, the imprisoned, the lost. Going into those places builds this revolution of tenderness, connectedness, solidarity. And as Joe was saying earlier, the American story is bigger than what we’re going through. The idealism around it. And so much of that idealism and dreams were built around this saying that life is a gift of God, and what we’re called to do is become God’s blessing to others. So that’s what we’re about.
Anne Snyder: Thank you so much. Both of you genuinely have been, in the short time I’ve known you, one of God’s great blessings to me. So I just want to thank you for this conversation today. It takes actually in some ways wicked trust to become like a little child again and to have faith like a child but also have the humility and wonder of one. And I just think both of you in the way you see and the fragrance that brushes off on you from working with all these people in the US, I just want to thank you for sharing it with me today and sharing that with our listeners.
Joe Boland: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Feature Photo: At Holy Angels Parish in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Sister Daysis Evangelista Uriarte Benavidez played music in front of photos of parishioners taped to pews in a service streamed online. Although she was alone in the church, she says she was connected in spirit to the community she serves. Sister Benavidez is part of Catholic Extension’s U.S.-Latin American Sisters Exchange Program, which funds religious sisters from Latin American congregations to minister among Latino immigrant populations in Extension dioceses across the United States. The program is made possible in partnership with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.