“Creating Currents of Change” in Memphis
Recently I had the opportunity to migrate south for the weekend to gather with hundreds of justice-minded Catholics in Memphis, Tennessee. My destination was the annual Call to Action National Conference. Moving prayer experiences, dynamic speakers and conversation with other conference attendees in a city with deep roots in civil rights and musical expression challenged me to reflect on the theme, “The Well of Many Rivers: Creating Currents of Change.” The young adult conference activities were especially energizing, and even included a private Q and A session with Kerry Kennedy! Speakers John Sivalon, MM, Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, and Rev. James Lawson particularly elicited in me a new understanding of what it means to be Church, to work for justice for all the beloved community, in the here and now.
What does it mean to be Church?
John Sivalon, MM, former Maryknoll Superior General, spoke Saturday morning on “Francis and a Recovery of the Spirit of Vatican II.” Sivalon, with a strikingly humble and reflective tone, asked us to look closely at Pope Francis’ 2013 Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospels). There we found a renewed sense of Church as a Spirit-led people of pilgrims, rich in its diversity. We celebrated Pope Francis’ embrace of varied currents of thought, which in his words, “serve to bring out and develop facets of the inexaustible riches of the Gospel.”
Sivalon also pointed out mission as a central focus of who we are as Church. Pope Francis describes the Church as, “a mystery rooted in the Trinity, yet she exists concretely in history as a people of pilgrims and evangelizers, transcending any institutional expression, however necessary.”
A strong reminder that the Church is indeed the people of God.
How broad is God’s charity?
Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, in her keynote presentation Sunday morning left us with a challenge to inclusivity and movement toward eco-justice. She invited us to consider fellow creatures as part of the beloved community, included under the broad umbrella of God’s generosity. She asked the question,
“Is God’s charity big enough for bears?”
Johnson’s clever way of weaving together scientific and theological lenses challenged us to look out the window in addition to looking in the mirror to know Divine Mystery. The natural images used in Scripture, she observed, can sometimes convey the driving energy of the Spirit in the world with more raw authenticity than human images are able to express. With this value of the natural world in mind, she urged,
“We need to be converted to the earth.”
Johnson’s words were a strong reminder to me that by degrading the earth, we diminish the ways God speaks to us. In fact we diminish ourselves.
What is nonviolence?
The most astute and visionary speaker I encountered in Memphis would easily have been Rev. James Lawson. A legendary leader in non-violence and colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lawson quickly rewrote my understanding of nonviolence. As used by Gandhi, he said, nonviolence was not meant as an absence of violence, but a positive presence of love in action. In fact, Lawson explained, nonviolent action is often costly and does cause devastation to the brave ones who speak out. The heart of nonviolent struggle is the positive — the love engaged against hate, the seeds that are sown to grow justice.
Lawson called us to reject the climate of current public discourse that labels and divides. He said, “We are not primarily white or black, conservative or liberal. We are primarily human.”
He lamented the continued influence of racism, sexism, violence and plantation capitalism in public discussion today. Lawson urged us to find a different language outside the fear built up by politics and media — a language that is instead for the enrichment of life.
If we really want the new heaven and new earth we hear about in Scripture, he said, we must translate the Gospel of Jesus, the words of Gandhi and other prophets of peace, into the nonviolent struggle.
These summons and questions continue to echo in my heart, in my discernment of the future, in my relationships. Perhaps they resound with you, too.
Comment below to share what speaks to you — what it means to be Church, to broaden the charity of God, to live nonviolently.