As often as I think I am seeking other people out in order to get something for myself, the deeper truth is that I am hoping they will draw me out of myself. — Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
I began reading about Dorothy Day while a graduate student in Philosophy of Religion at Claremont Graduate School, in California. I had picked up a copy of the Catholic Worker in Los Angeles, a newspaper published to highlight social justice issues in the Catholic tradition. It was started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933 and has been published continuously ever since. I was taking classes in liberation theology and social justice at Claremont, learning about the movements in Latin America by Catholic priests to educate the people and to teach them to read, using the Bible. Then later, when I came to Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland to teach, I contacted the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, met Jim Wallis, the editor and co-leader, and became aware of some of the networks of Christians in the Metro area who were working with the homeless.
Eventually, I met Mitch Snyder, who was living and working out of a row house on Euclid St. in Washington, DC. He had been an adman on Madison Avenue before he dedicated his life to the homeless. He and some friends operated a soup kitchen in an abandoned garage across the street. My students and I would go down on Sunday mornings to cut up vegetables for stew and often we’d come back to hand out meals in the evenings. We continued to work with Mitch and his community over the years, as they advocated and cared for the homeless. Always aware of the official studied neglect by governments of the homeless, he fasted to the brink of death until the city capitulated and opened the DC Shelter on 4th Street in Washington. Many students worked and helped out at the shelter over the years.
My friendship with Mitch continued even after we were no longer actively involved in the community. One evening, he asked if I’d like to go up to Baltimore and meet Dan and Phil Berrigan, the Catholic priests who had been in the vanguard of protests against the Vietnam War and who had worked for decades in the civil rights movement. When we arrived we were ushered into a row house filling with young people as well as grizzled veterans of the peace movement. As the sun was going down, light streaming into the windows, Phil Berrigan led us in a worship and prayer service for the homeless. For me, this was a golden moment, a revelation of the commonalities of Christian activism that begin with prayer and are sustained through worship.
My interest in the Catholic Worker movement had begun much earlier, when a friend from college decided to become a Catholic priest. We were graduate students together at Andrews University and unbeknownst to me he was taking catechumen lessons at Notre Dame University. The night before Easter Sunday he was baptized into the Catholic Church. We stood in for him as witnesses, since his family, staunch Seventh-day Adventists in Southern California, had rejected him and his calling. He felt his calling was to work in East LA among the barrios, the poverty and the gangs. His life, after baptism, was brimming with hope; his enthusiasm for the Catholic Worker movement and its mission to reach those in poverty led him to give up his comfortable upper middle-class life and to enter a vocation that was open to the Spirit’s leading in all parts of his life.
Witnessing his baptism and seeing his joy caused me to reflect on what had brought him from Adventism to Catholicism, from wealth to voluntary poverty. While he was one of the most intelligent people I’ve known, it was his single-minded direction toward Christian activism that stirred me.
Years before, as a teenager newly-awakened, I was keen to witness. I wanted to fix the spiritual errors that I saw around me and to confront those, especially in the Catholic Church, who I felt were perpetuating these errors. One of our high school faculty, our Bible and history teacher, invited a Catholic priest to his home one Sabbath so that some of us could learn more about Catholic beliefs and his friend’s faith. I confronted the priest with all the bravado and ignorance that a 15-year-old on a mission from God could muster. He graciously answered my questions, parried my thrusts, and generally treated me with respect and interest. I came away feeling that I had made a holy fool of myself.
While at graduate school at Claremont I took a course in Liturgies of the Church. We studied all the major liturgies and their history, from the time of Justin Martyr in CE 155 up to John Wesley’s “Service of the Methodists in North America,” written in 1784. One of the requirements of the course was to attend a worshipping community outside of our own faith for the semester. At that time, I was an active member of the North Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Claremont, but I easily found an Anglican church in Ontario and began attending their Sunday services also.
I was immediately struck by two things. One was the homily delivered each week (without notes) by the priest. It was literate, deeply Scriptural, and invariably opened windows into the life of discipleship. It brought together the liturgy, the Scripture, and current news in ways that set my imagination on fire.
The second thing was the compassion and respect shown toward the gay couple that attended from week to week. This was in 1977, not a particularly easy time for gays, and especially not the norm for the Anglican Church. But each week that they were there they were surrounded by people who obviously cared about them, who did not regard them as either a curiosity nor an abomination, and who did not shy away from sharing the cup with them during the Eucharist.
There is a sociological and communications theory known as Symbolic Interactionism that counts among its strengths the idea that “it is through social interaction that (our) identities are formed, maintained, and changed,” as scholar Joel Charon puts it in his Symbolic Interactionism. Founded on the work of George Herbert Mead and extended by Herbert Blumer and others, SI says that we form our self-identity through interaction with others. We are social beings, said Mead, and we shape each other through our interactions. That may seem self-evident, but Mead believed that it is only through what he called ‘role-taking’ that we can communicate, develop a self-identity, and become part of a society.
Role-taking relies on imagination, a central characteristic of humans that makes it possible to put ourselves in the place of others. The ones who influence us the most are our significant others; they may be parents, friends, role-models, heroic figures, people we emulate or admire. They may even be people we fear. We imagine how our actions will affect them, and we imagine what they might be thinking, feeling, and understanding in certain situations. It’s impossible to ever take on another’s role with complete accuracy, but it’s essential for everything that we do as human beings to try our best. As we grow more capable of it we become more understanding of others, better communicators, more able to anticipate the expectations of others so that we can conform, rebel, choose and exercise our will in relation to others.
Mead called another group of people our ‘generalized other,’ a combination of several significant others who make up a group or a community, a society of sorts that we visualize as we act. We might think of ‘my friends,’ or ‘my family’ or ‘my church’, or even ‘my generation’ and ‘my country.’ Another term for this is a reference group, a group of significant others we hold in our imagination.
While we need to take others into account in almost everything we do, there are two exceptions to this: those who are extremely selfish and those who hold extreme power. Those who are almost totally self-centered may regard others as simply objects to be manipulated, and those who have extreme power may actually do so. Of course, by provoking fear or anger in others, such people can expect retaliation in kind, which generally reinforces their selfishness. As long as their power is intact they are personal hurricanes of chaos. They lack the imagination and the social intelligence to take the role of anyone but themselves.
Symbolic interactionism gives us perspectives through which we can actively and consistently see ourselves and others in a new light. It provides a consciousness which can be turned to great good or to evil. We can learn to empathize with others or to manipulate them. It means that we go through our days with eyes wide open, continually attempting to see the world—and ourselves—through the eyes of those we are communicating with.
As a Christian, a person attempting to live in grace by faith, it helps me to visualize and imagine the lives of others. It helps me to learn from those with whom I interact. To try to see the world through the eyes of a person in the LGBTQ+ community or to try to imagine how a Protestant asking a Catholic about sexual abuse by priests must seem to a Catholic — those are exercises of the imagination worth attempting.
In recent years I have been teaching at two universities, both embedded in the history of the renegade order of nuns who came to America from France and established colleges for young women in the early 20th century. My friendships with colleagues at both schools have opened my eyes to larger issues of justice, education for the disadvantaged, and the power of a constant witness to Biblical activism in the nation’s capital. In a way, the ripple that began at The Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame on that Easter many years ago has finally lapped against the shore. The sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, whom I have gotten to know at Trinity, were once as young as my college friend. In their lives of devotion to scholarship, service, and compassion, I imagine the trajectory of my friend, now lost to me these many years. He moved me to question how fervent was my faith; the sisters’ lives are testament to a steady will in a singular direction.
These kinds of moments might have come to me in other ways. Perhaps because of temperament, inclination, opportunity, and curiosity, I leaned this way instead of other ways. I needed work, they opened their doors, it turned out well for both parties. Going forward, I did not have a long-range plan. We rarely do in life. Nor did I determine to follow a specific course to meet people who understood and practiced faith in ways different than mine. Rather, I found myself responding to intuition, the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the openness of God to “strangers,” and the curiosity that searches out how others worship and come to know God.
The experiences that we have and the people we meet may seem random, but there is reason to believe that the paths we cross with others can be seen, in time, as part of a larger pattern. God has a multitude of ways to meet us in unexpected places and to reveal the moments of grace we need in the midst of the mundane, the sublime, and the tragic.
Photo: Inbal Marilli, Unsplash.com