Pope Francis shared a reflection about being missionary disciples recently, and some of his remarks resonated with the road I'm on, and on the general theme of "mission to the poor." So I got a little spark in me and expanded on them a bit to share some of my own thoughts, especially as it relates to Barriers To Bridges.
(Reference: Pope Francis: All Baptized Called to Witness)
"This mission is only authentic if it begins from its immutable center, which is Jesus…. The Apostles have nothing of their own to proclaim or their own capacities to demonstrate, but they speak and act in as much as ‘sent,’ in as much as messengers of Jesus."
Although we talk about language, or fundraising, or poor or wealthy, although we talk about sharing and cultures and traveling and everything else, everything that I do is centered on my relationship with Jesus. Everything comes out of this relationship and is guided by it. That's why this effort has a distinctiveness to it: it's rooted in a spirituality, in the person of Jesus. It's a fruit of experiences and reflection on those experiences in the light of the Scripture (especially the Gospels), in the sense of the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the presence and accompaniment of Jesus.
That doesn't mean that everything is perfect, but it means that paths and steps are decided by much prayerful reflection on the scripture and relationship in prayer. There's a depth to the different dimensions of what I'm doing, and if you dig, I'll think you'll find the scripture and the Holy Spirit at the root. That doesn't mean that things don't change or that they are perfect. Just that they are a best effort guided by a long experience of discernment of the experiences of life in the light of the essentials of being a disciple of Christ. Then, all the activities, even though not expressly 'religious', are a form of a bridge to Christ - they connect us to God and one another.
Back in 2016, I had come to the school in the community of Chontal with some bracelets that were handmade by a group of friends back in Boston. We had enough for all the kids in the school, and then some leftovers. I was walking along in the village, I was joined by a young girl I know, and she asked me for one for her mother. As we walked along, she was silent for a few moments, as if taking in all the experiences with me going back years, and she said to me, "Jerome, Jesus is going to give you a great reward some day." I smiled as I couldn't help but be moved by her simple insight and honesty, but I also couldn't help my response. I said very deliberately: "He already has," and left her to think about it. And I'll leave you to think about it, too.
In short everything starts with Jesus, and goes back to Jesus, especially as revealed in the 4 Gospels.
"The mission has a face…. (It is a) poverty of means … The Master wants them free and light, without supports and without favors, certain only of the love of Him who sends them, strong only from His word, which they go to proclaim. The staff and the sandals are the pilgrims’ supplies because such are the messengers of the Kingdom of God, not omnipotent managers; not immovable functionaries; not divas on tour."
There is a need to be poor with the poor, if you want to be a messenger of Christ. There is a need to be vulnerable, someone "below", and not someone "above". To be messengers of the Kingdom of God, you can't come as a competent organizer with resources and projects, or a person with special social or civic or religious office, and certainly not the circuit preachers and authors and personalities that move around the Catholic and Christian churches! Posters about coming talks or preaching by the big-name folks - that is completely foreign to the proclamation of God's Kingdom. It is, literally, all talk. You can't come as the person who is going to "teach" and "give" and "lead", with your project and "helping" and "evangelization". That is not how Jesus came into this world. When Jesus descended from having everything beyond our imagination, to become a newborn in a poor family - with all the vulnerability and weaknesses and poverty that that includes - that was his foundational teaching, his foundational giving, and his foundational leading: follow me. All that has to be in place, before a person can understand the mission he began 30 long years later.
I came to Chontal hardly knowing the language at all. I stumbled saying so many things, pulling out my dictionary all the time. We all laughed. To be vulnerable and make a lot of mistakes in front of people says in a loud voice, "I trust you". To go where they tell you without things being clear, in the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world, it says, "I trust you."
I came out of shape - deliberately. I didn't do any teaching or leading or organizing. I loved to be with the people, accepted their invitations and hospitality, their helps, what they showed me, where they took me. I listened and learned and grew to be friends. I danced and sang at the fiestas, I shared in the community goings on. I brought out all my goofiness and friendliness. I played with the kids! One morning, I was eating breakfast in someone's house. They said, so Jerome, are you going to give us a teaching? (That would be the custom for a religious leader.) I said, "When I'm happy to eat this breakfast with you, that's a teaching. When I pay with your kids, that's a teaching. When I speak my funny words, that's a teaching." I said, "I didn't come here to teach you someone new or to judge you. I came because you already have a treasure on the inside, and I want to see it come out!" In that way, my vulnerability and constant freedom and smile, my joy to be with them - even after their humiliation from natural disasters - had a powerful effect on the community.
That is exactly what Jesus does when he comes to us - he trusts us. That’s God's first step, and it can win us to trust Him. In fact, Jesus on the cross is naked and humiliated, and it is that that he refers to when he says, "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself." (Jn 12:32) Vulnerable comes from the Latin "vulner", wound. It means, wound-able. Jesus is born and dies vulnerable, and Paul demonstrates how to live that in sharing the Christian message: When I came to you, brothers, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive (words of) wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. (1 Cor 2:1-5)
Jesus' mission is to win our trust, win our hearts and live inside of them. Once he's inside, he can accompany and lead out the good that already exists inside of us. He's the True Shepherd.
So, the Kingdom of God is proclaimed not from a position of resources or power or above-ness, but from poverty, vulnerability, weakness, and being at the bottom. That is the foundation of this mission. If you want to learn the language before going, if you want to be sure you yourself are not in a position of poverty and vulnerability, if you don't accept ways to be below and dependent on the local people, and rather think of only "helping" people or evangelizing people (a position of having and being above while the people are in a position of poverty and being below), then you lack TRUST. That is not the mission of Christ to the poor. In fact, you’d be well served to be evangelized by the poor you imagine you can help, lol!
"This, too, is poverty: the experience of failure. Jesus’ experience, who was rejected and crucified, prefigures the destiny of His messenger. And it’s only if we are united to Him, dead and risen, that we succeed in finding the courage of evangelization."
There is a necessity to following Jesus: detachment from everyone and everything. There has to be a willingness to lose everyone and everything. There's no compromise in that: "If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple… Everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple." (Lk 14:26,33) That is not just for missionaries or clergy or some special Christians. It's for every Christian.
But the willingness to lose everything doesn't mean that you'll necessary lose it. In fact, that's how you save it: "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." (Lk 9:24) If you are willing to lose it, you'll get it back - and then some - if it's good for you. If it's not, then, yes, you will lose it. And save your integrity.
Have you ever decided to take the risk of losing a job or money or a relationship because you needed to take a step in authenticity? You felt you needed to have a discussion that could put those important parts of your life at risk - or at least you imagined they would be at risk. You felt the fear and hesitation, and yet your conscience bothered you to act against those resistances. And then you did what you thought you should do, and the response was exactly not what you expected. Your relationship actually got better! Your manager surprised you and accepted what you said, and now your job environment felt so much better. And above all, you felt you had taken a step forward in your own authenticity and freedom, you felt more whole inside. Not every time that you are willing to risk losing important things for your integrity are you going to lose them. You get them back.
There are also times where you don't get them back. That can be deliberate - you may not want to ever go back to a certain type of job or relationship or lifestyle. Maybe you've outgrown it, or you’re a new person as you begin a new experience of what God's grace is bringing forth inside of you and it no longer fits into your call or your path.
But there are also times where you don't get back what you gave up, and you wish it were different. These are the toughest. The other person or people don't accept your move to integrity, and there's rejection. You lose the job, (or at least you get put on the passive aggressive train out the door) or you lose the relationship. It carries the strong sense of failure. But in those cases, you still come out with an inner strength and freedom, and a clean conscience from having taken a step forward in integrity.
Failure is a part of Christ's mission. It's a different perspective from that of the business world, which is the perspective we embrace in our culture, even if many want to deny it. The business culture is like a gas that has found it's way into everyone's psyche. Paul would call it the spirit of the world (1 Cor 2:12). It's mark is "success". Failure in the business world is failure, even if it's a learning moment. If your product is ultimately rejected, if you don't ultimately earn a profit, you've done something wrong. You can learn and keep learning until your product - or your next one - is sufficiently accepted, and you then are successful. You climb the ladder upward in life, from failures to successes.
But failure in the practical things of life can be success in the eyes of God and the Christian, and not just a learning experience or stepping stone to a future success. Being rejected in an interview process or losing your job can be a success. You may have done everything "right" according to your conscience and established your authenticity, and you may never be able to get work again professionally - but you've succeeded. The blind man who was healed in John 8 was kicked out of the Temple. It was quite a success - he was not only healed of his lifelong blindness, but he was joined with God on the outside and separated from the abusers on the inside. I had a friend who started teaching math and was so effective and popular that other teachers got jealous and got him fired. He didn't fail - it's that success in God's eyes is different from what we are formed to be since a young age: good subjects who get successful results.
Its the same in any Christian mission. In fact, if things are "successful", I sometimes question the authenticity of it. It is very easy to shift a mission in Christ toward a "success" by subtly incorporating those means that work so well in business. It is a subtle shift toward dependency on people who materially have more, instead of on God. But to allow for rejection and failure, to allow that something, after all, isn't a fit, that resources invested haven't produced an obvious tangible result in a project or building or program; to allow for the fact that people's free choices in the presentation of the Gospel is itself a success (if you couldn't say no, it couldn't be free), is to understand what the mission is really all about. It's to understand that the mission is - at its core - nothing more or less than to simply make Jesus present through one's own self. If you're rejected with him, then you'll rise with him. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. (Rom 6:5)
Whew, if you want to talk about failure and rejection, go no further than this path I'm on, lol. If you've followed the updates here, you'd be aware of just some of the activities and relationships that have fallen apart, the doors closed, the rejections. It can look like a waste of time, like it's a dead end - if you're looking through the everyday business eyes. But somehow, I get back up to follow again, and the most amazing things happen, not the least of which is learning more about myself and about others and Jesus, more about the mystery of salvation and the simple purpose of life. There is a richness in poverty, success in failure.
Finally, I want to end with Francis' words "finding the courage". The courage to give the space and time to that voice that calls to let Jesus in more, the courage to take steps to hear his call to us from within, to take the risk of vulnerability and poverty before others who are poor and vulnerable, that is something that I continually hope for and pray for, for each one of us. In my own discipleship of Jesus, I have experienced countless things that I don't think can really be explained, that reach to my core being in the deepest peace and joy, and I have grown to be more full and authentic. There are other costs, though, that can't be denied. But I have no regrets at all. The promises are already being fulfilled, life is just as much a mystery as ever (if not more so!), and if someone might think that Jesus would reward me for my way of following him and doing what I'm doing, you know what my response would be.
He already has.