Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Black Joy & "The Embrace"

The following is my latest column from Global Sisters Report about the experience of witnessing the unveiling of the new monument in Boston Common, "The Embrace" and what its message and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King has to offer us in understanding Black joy and the call to community and justice. 

 
On Friday, Jan. 13, a new sculpture honoring the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, was unveiled in the Boston Common. Standing over 20 feet tall and 40 feet wide, the bronze sculpture depicting a joyful embrace following the announcement that Dr. King was being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize has been met with praise for its innovative concept and much maligned for everything from its disembodiment of the figures to confusing perceptions of what one is seeing when they look at the statue from various angles.

What was lifted up for weeks on the local news in Boston and nationally as a beacon of hope and a monument to love is now facing the question: "Will the public embrace 'The Embrace'?"

Making my way to the Boston Common — the United States' oldest public park — on the morning of the unveiling, the divisive maelstrom yet to come was the furthest thing from my mind. Emerging from the "T" (Boston's subway system), I found myself immersed in an atmosphere of excitement. Despite rainy weather that gave way to overcast skies, crowds gathered in anticipation of the unveiling.

Like many of my fellow onlookers, I was surprised to find the monument and grandstand for the celebration quartered off by metal fencing covered in opaque material. We all apparently had missed the memo that the ceremony was by invitation only and yet as crowds assembled both inside and outside the designated 1965 Freedom Plaza, a celebratory spirit filled the air.

This project, after all, had been a community effort. While "The Embrace" was the vision of artist Hank Willis Thomas, executed in concert with the MASS Design Group, the larger project that led to this day was a years long effort of consultation, community-building and consciousness-raising.

Beginning in 2017 with the intent of honoring the Kings, whose relationship began in Boston and whose civil rights work returned them to the city over the years, the nonprofit organization Embrace Boston solicited financial backers for a memorial and engine of social change in the city (with projects reaching far beyond the memorial to affect change in neighborhoods historically underserved in Boston).

That same year, the organization put out a call for artists that yielded hundreds of proposals for a monument. Eventually the field was narrowed to five candidates by the memorial's sponsor, and with public input, Thomas' "The Embrace" was ultimately selected to be erected in the Common.

Positioning myself on an incline overlooking the day's festivities, I watched as people dressed in suits and skirts mingled with those in destressed denim and sneakers. Everyone had gathered for this momentous occasion. No rain or restricted views could dampen spirits. The fabric on the fences was soon torn down by onlookers, so that despite the metal fence they too could have a vision of the monument.

As bands began to play and politicians gave speeches in commemoration of the Kings and their legacy, I watched as parents ushered school-aged children up to the fences, the closest onlookers making way so that the littlest could have a front row (or at least fence) view of the proceedings.

The thing that was most palpable, though, about the day was a sense of Black joy. Embrace Boston's vision statement commits to "a radically inclusive and equitable Boston where everyone belongs and Black people prosper, grounded in joy, love, and wellbeing."

Joy isn't something you can fabricate. It comes naturally from the heart. Joy rises out of freedom, liberation, fullness.

"The joy of Black faith is a people coming together, praising and saying hallelujah to a God that is freedom," the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas told Kidada Williams on the podcast "Seizing Freedom." "Because to me that is an affirmation of life in the face of death. It's God's 'No!' to anything that would deny Black life."

This joy is a resistance. It has the last word and it calls forth justice, so that all may be free.

As I listened to the speakers at the unveiling of "The Embrace," the words of Jha D Amazi, a principal partner in the MASS Design Group that helped bring the statue to life, resonated with me.

"It has been very hard for me as a daughter of Boston to maintain composure and not bawl," Amazi told the crowd gathered. "This is such a beautiful moment for me as a person but then you add the layers and the intersectionality of my Blackness, of my womanhood, of again me being a native of Boston and then to be offered the opportunity as a architect, as a young Black architect educated in this city to participate in a moment like this where we honor the Black experience, Black joy, Black love, in the oldest park in the country."

That joy and love were freely wafting in the air.

"I am reminded that we are called to do this work. And — this y'all — this is on purpose. This is on time. This is on our shoulders."Amazi concluded.

In this moment, the call was clear — it was a call to joyful embodiment, freedom and resistance. Here, a community had come together for the good of the whole. The beloved community that the Kings advocated for throughout their lifetimes was made manifest then and there. Was it perfect? No. But there was union in purpose, solidarity in joy, and hope in community.

As Coretta Scott King wrote, "To me, the Beloved Community is a realistic vision of an achievable society, one in which problems and conflict exist, but are resolved peacefully and without bitterness."

This community works to eliminate poverty and hunger, bigotry and violence, for the sake of all.

To attain this Beloved Community requires that enough people commit to education and training, courage and sustained action, especially those in the white community. It requires embracing joy and recognizing that our joy is only complete when it is joined with the joy of others, those who are oppressed, and with God's joy.

Amid the debates over the design of "The Embrace" as a monument — its figural exclusion of the Kings' faces, its perceived diminishment of their radical message to one of simple love, and challenge of perspective to the all-encompassing vantage — it would be a shame if the gifts of community that went into its creation and the joy it encapsulates were lost.

That is the joy with which the Kings embraced originally when Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize. That joy is tied to justice, to the love of God active in the world and in the Kings' relationship. Sustaining joy and justice are our call today.

As Martin Luther King declared at the end of his Nobel Lecture in 1964,

I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life's restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.

If we can embrace that vision of a love that does justice... Finish the piece here

Saturday, December 10, 2022

From Give Us This Day: "Not the Glory We Imagine"

For those of you who subscribe to Give Us This Day  from Liturgical Press, today's reflection is my own. If you don't subscribe (you really should!), I'm happy that they have given me permission to share it here. Blessings of the dawning light to you all....

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December 2022

Reflection

Not the Glory We Imagine

Anyone who has watched the sun rise knows the soft glow that develops on the horizon right before the sun emerges. This dawning light ushers in the new day.

In these Advent days of waiting, John the Baptist is the dawning light of Christ. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John cries out. As if to say, “Soon the Son will be here, the light in all its fullness will shine forth.” Inviting us to open our eyes to the glory of God dawning in Jesus, John fulfills the role of an earlier prophet, Elijah, on whom today’s readings focus.

Elijah’s prophetic greatness was well known, as the book of Sirach recounts. What’s more, he never died but was taken up in a chariot of fire. Thus, in Jewish tradition, Elijah will return to make way for the Messiah, the Anointed One who is to come.

Jesus’ disciples would have known and believed this. That is what makes Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel all the more scandalous. In fulfilling Elijah’s prophetic role, John the Baptist foretold Jesus as the Messiah and was killed. Despite the glory of the Transfiguration (complete with Moses and Elijah), which immediately precedes today’s Gospel, Jesus is telling the disciples that the Messianic light they are anticipating may not be the glory they imagined.

This is a good reminder in these Advent days. The glorious savior we anticipate will take the form of a vulnerable, marginalized child. Following his way will lead us into uncomfortable territory where we are called to give our whole selves in scandalously expansive love. By doing so, we prepare the way, witnessing to the dawning light and trusting that God’s light will give us life and our lives will shine Jesus’ light in the world.

Sr. Colleen Gibson

Colleen Gibson is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder (beingmyvocation.blogspot.com), she is currently pursuing a Master of Theological Studies degree at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

[CREDIT]   Sr. Colleen Gibson, “Not the Glory We Imagine” from the December 2022 issue of Give Us This Day, www.giveusthisday.org (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2022). Used with permission.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Immaculate Reconceptions: Engaging Advent and moving beyond ourselves

In my latest column from the Global Sisters Report, I examine what it means to engage Advent and move beyond ourselves as we enter more intentionally into this season. How might God be inviting us to make room for new ideas, new emotions, and new conceptions of classic themes that move beyond "me" to "we"? I pray we each may strive for that movement these Advent days. Blessings!

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This Advent I've begun to notice a particular sense of expectancy all around me. Perhaps the best way to put it is that I have been encountering pregnant pauses.

Watching as the Advent wreath is blessed and lit at Mass one day, I find my attention drifting to the woman in the second row of chairs gently caressing her growing stomach, the soft stretch of maternity-wear elastic along her sides. A dear friend calls to deliver the news that he and his wife are expecting, a pulsating wave of ecstatic love and nervous joy pouring through the phone. A prayer intention of knowing grief hangs in the quiet of a women's group as a member prays for a friend who has suffered a miscarriage.

Babies. Mothers. Pregnancy. All around me. Expectancy. Emotion. Embodiment.

Standing at the entrance of a friend's baby shower, I pause as I hold a tiny slip of paper. The placard in front of me explains that my friend and her wife have not yet chosen a name for their little one, who will arrive very soon. "Suggest a name and tell us the meaning behind it," the prompt suggests. As I fiddle with my pen, I think of all that a name holds. I think of the pregnant pauses, the expectancy, and the virtues I wish for this little one.

I pause to pray for my friends and for the world in which all these pregnant pauses exist, where peace and flourishing coalesce with fear and trembling — a world that God chooses to enter and a world where we are asked to welcome God in.

Without any indication of biological sex, I think of the myriad names I could offer on that tiny slip of paper — big names that take a lifetime to live into and names that carry memories and aspirations. With Advent on my mind, I think of hope, faith, joy and love. What do those things mean to someone waiting to welcome new life into the world? What do they mean to someone whose expectancy is met by the unexpected?

Those are the questions we carry with us as we enter into this Advent season. This time of waiting and reflection prepares us for the promise of Christmas and yet, as I consider the many pregnant pauses I've encountered these days, I wonder if it might also invite us to reconceive of the way in which we prepare to welcome that new life into our lives and our world.

As I wrote on these pages on the cusp of a Christmas past, our God "is a God of brokenness … born under cover of night, in the lowliest of places, fac[ing] insurmountable odds." This is the God we believe in, the One who became human, who dwelt among us, who became poor to be one with us at our most vulnerable. I think we can forget this or, perhaps, choose to look past the fact that God opted for poverty and invites us, in this season and all seasons, to do the same.

This last point is particularly poignant when considering how easily Advent can become a season focused on inward, personal transformation. In the quiet and the waiting, we pray to become something new. This desire is sincere, no doubt. But whom and for what are we transforming?

In this season of wonder and candle-lit darkness, we pray that we might be transformed so that God may come to life in us. We ready ourselves to receive the gifts of the Incarnation and the Christmas graces of Emmanuel. This is a beautiful desire and admirable goal but if our Advent actions stop there, we've missed a critical aspect of the season.

The One who is coming, the Christ we ready our hearts to receive in a new way, is Emmanuel — God with us. Note the plural there. God with us, not just me. This One is not a personal care package or a boost to my spirit alone. The Christ is not incarnated in isolation, confined to the insular creche I prepare in my heart. No, Christ comes into the world and our lives on a much grander scale. This is the One who comes for all people, in all places, especially those places that are broken or abandoned. Our lives and our personal relationship with Jesus may very well be the avenue through which Christ becomes apparent, but the gift that in that advent of Christ offered is for everyone.

Broadening our conception of Christ's coming at Christmas also begs us to reconsider what else about this Advent season we might be holding captive in the confines of our heart. Recalling how Mary pondered all things about Jesus in her heart and Joseph reconsidered the plans he had made in light of God's dream, we're invited with each passing week of Advent to ponder how Christ's coming calls us to reconceive the themes we meditate on in this season: hope, faith, joy and love.

The question becomes not only what do these things mean to me, but what do these concepts mean to us?

Reconciling God's preferential love for the poor with our own call to love in the world and encounter God in our neighbor begs us then to reconceive the very themes we meditate upon. In this context, the hope we pray for, which so often is a plea to God for a personal pick-me-up, becomes a prayer that we might find hope in what is hidden and offer hope despite what is unknown. With this hope, our meditation on faith becomes a seeking of understanding about why God would dwell among us and what our belief in such incarnation should do in the world. We make room for a faith that is not independent but interdependent with God and with others.

Finding faith and hope straddling the inner and outer parts of ourselves, we are surely swept up in reflecting on joy as the full-bodied rejoicing that God is with us no matter what. More than mere happiness or expectation, this Advent joy reflects the abundance of God, the fruit of pregnant pauses that put flesh on the gift of God’s gratuitous love and rejoice in finding joy and wonder in the existence of others. It is a joy that is not just about our inner peace but peace on earth and goodwill toward all.

This naturally leads us to love. For God so loved the world that God sent Jesus, Emmanuel, to be one with us, to dwell in our love and to unite us in loving relationships of mutuality and grace. Increasing our awareness through faith, hope and joy, we prepare room for love to finally rest in the humble dwelling place of our being.

This final movement in the Advent cycle allows us to receive love as God offers it in prayer and in relationship and to offer it, in turn, freely to others and God by opening our hearts in vulnerability and surrender. It is the work of expectancy, emotion and embodiment immaculately conceived in us by God and reconceived over and over in our lifetime. As we undertake this work in a renewed way this Advent, may our prayer bring us beyond ourselves to reconceive of the gifts God offers us … finish reading the article here

 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

A New Podcast: Beyond the Habit!



Exciting news! After months of planning, I'm happy to announce the premier of Beyond the Habit, a podcast about moving beyond everyday assumptions of what it means to be Catholic and live the gospel, hosted by myself and Sister Erin McDonald, CSJ!

Our first episode, featuring Sister Helen Prejean, is available now at http://beyondthehabitpod.com/ . If you scroll down the page you'll see a play button that will allow you to listen to this week's episode, entitled "Sneaky Jesus" (next Tuesday the second part of our conversation will be released). You can also see future episodes (the first season has 6) and more information about the podcast on the website as well.

I'd also like to ask a favor: If you could share the podcast with anyone you think might enjoy the conversation, we'd be most grateful! As a friend wrote to me recently, this is a "ministry of the mic"... and, as you know, a mic only works if people hear the message (our charism) it's broadcasting!  SO please share the link to the website far and wide and, if you're on social media, follow, like, and share our content on Facebook and Instagram.

So grateful to our wonderful production team, especially Elizabeth Powers and Sister Sarah Simmons, CSJ for their creativity, perseverance, and joy, and to the Congregation of St. Joseph and Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia

Happy Listening & Many Thanks, 
Colleen


Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Poor Cry Out: Blessed Be The Lord


 This Sunday we hear the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, in whose prayers we find lessons for each of us to reflect more deeply on. Jesus is asking us to examine ourselves more than these two figures... to look differently... to expand our vision. As part of my current studies at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, I offered a reflection on this Sunday's Scriptures. Click above to watch me preach or read the reflection I offer below.

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After the first full week of classes this semester, I found myself at mass early one Sunday morning, happy be in a familiar place of prayer and quiet. My head was swimming with thoughts about my classes- Should I add this class or drop that class? Was I smart enough to hold my own? Would I be able to do all the work that would be asked of me? How was God leading my studies and where was this all headed?

As I sorted through my own internal dialogue, the familiar refrain of today’s responsorial psalm broke through. “The Lord hears the cry of the poor. Blessed be the Lord.” 

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard this refrain from Psalm 34 in my life, but in that moment, as it interrupted my internal dialogue of doubt and worry, I heard it in a different way.  I had always presumed that the psalmist was saying that God’s blessedness is revealed in the hearing of the cries of the poor. And while this is true, I also realized that in so many moments of my life, I didn’t count myself among the poor. 

Like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel, I righteously considered myself separate from the rest of humanity. I do what is right, I study theology, I show up on Sunday morning.  Of course, God would hear my prayers.

Yet sitting there that morning, feeling poor in spirit and facing the limits of my capabilities, I could hear the tax collector’s voice deep within. “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Part of being human is recognizing our limitations. Part of being Christian is believing that by becoming human, God in Jesus Christ reconciles the world and each of us to God’s self. God knows and loves us in our very humanity.

As the first reading from Sirach today recounts: God doesn’t play favorites, when we cry out God hears us and our prayers remain with God until there is reconciliation. 

In faith, we trust in God’s steadfast presence, knowing the many ways throughout our lives that God has provided for us in our poverty and recognizing that God stands particularly with those on the margins- the excluded and overlooked, the oppressed and the materially impoverished.

With humility then, we are called to work for justice and right relationship, here and now. This work is not our own. It makes us no better than anyone else. In fact, if done correctly, it will humble us, making us face our self-deceptions and reminding us of the grace of our humanity. 

And if we can do this with humble hearts and utter dependence on God, we might just hear ourselves- the poor ones- cry out. “Blessed be the Lord!”


Friday, September 30, 2022

We are Living Documents: Synod Reports & a Spirit-led Church

My latest contribution to the Global Sisters Report focuses on the national synthesis of synod reports released in the United States on September 19th, my own experience of synodality over the past year, and what I think it has to teach us about the church as a Spirit-led institution. May the Spirit continue to guide each one of us, calling us to transformation and forming our hearts and institutions in the way of listening and discovery for all God calls us to!

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"I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." Or so I say every week. It's a church I have belonged to my whole life, a church I've given my life to, and a church still becoming a truer version of what it says it is.

Two weeks ago, on Sept. 19, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released its national synthesis of the synodal process in the United States. Bringing the diocesan phase of the synodal process to a close, this document provides an overview of the over 22,000 reports gathered by U.S. dioceses from individual parishes and other groups. As one of the estimated 700,000 people who participated in the synod in the United States, I opened the national synthesis with an air of both caution and hope.

To be honest, hope and caution were the feelings that accompanied me when I took part in a synodal listening session this past spring. Shuffling into a classroom with about 50 other people, a cautious hopefulness (or was it a hopeful cautiousness?) filled me. My hope was in a process that brought people together to listen and discern, reliant on relationships and open to the Holy Spirit. My reticence stemmed from a fear that either the process wouldn't live up to that expectation or it would be so expansive that the variety of voices speaking in the process would be lost.

Greeted by an invitation to silent reflection followed by intentional listening and sharing, the session offered a safe space for participants to offer their hopes and desires as well as disappointments and disaffections. Naming what "we" do well as a church and what needs more attention, there was a respect in the room as we listened to the stories shared and gathered a vision of church that it seemed we all could recognize in one way or another.

As I looked around, I saw a room full of "living human documents," to borrow a term from Anton Boisen. Filling the classroom like a living library, we formed a full display of the lessons, lesions, and longings of faithfully lived lives of faith. Each one bearing their own story and sharing what they were able, naming from their experience the church for what it is and imagining what it could be in communion.

By the end of that session, I found myself hope-filled as I signed up to be part of a team of participants who would synthesize the reports from a series of synodal meetings. Later, combing through the written results of multiple sessions, I bristled at opinions I didn't necessarily agree with, priorities that didn't align with my own, and issues that I thought would never make it to the national synthesis. Looking at the report of mixed perspectives and priorities our team submitted, I wondered what would surface on the other side of the synod. Even as caution returned, I found myself confronted by the fact that there on the page was the voice of a church, nearly 2,000 years old, still finding its way.

Reading through the national synthesis, I've found the vision I feared might be lost in synthesis there on the page as well as those I'd wished would have been. One, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Voices speaking about the ordination of women as “as a matter of justice” and attention to racism and the need to cultivate means of welcoming LGBTQ+ persons as well as the disabled and disenfranchised were placed next to lamentations about “limited access to the 1962 Missal,” disengagement in parish communities accelerated by COVID-19, and the spread of cultural divisions reflective of larger societal polarization within the faithful, and especially within the hierarchy. One, holy, catholic and apostolic church, I reminded myself.

As James Joyce famously quipped in Finnegans Wake, "Catholic means 'Here comes everybody.' " That's part of the universalism that is being catholic. And while the oneness we proclaim may be a hard-forged unity, the national synthesis offers hope that even if it is not a full reality, unity is desired by people on all sides of the ecclesial aisle.

Studying reports on diocesan synodal reports and commentaries on the wealth of input released during the synodal process, I have been edified by the honesty and humility with which we, the church, have undertaken this process.

Has it been perfect? No. Did it take place everywhere? Also, no. Were enough voices heard? With an estimated 700,000 participants out of 66.8 million U.S. Catholics, a figure of about 1%, the answer once again is "no."

Yet still something is being done, voices are being raised, relationships built, consciences challenged.

Small though it is, the 1% is confronting the echo chamber that can be the church circles we choose to run in. Calling our attention to how we hear messages that challenge us in ways we feel comfortable, what voices we seek out to support our side, and where we search out conversation partners and companions on the journey. And the invitation from that small sample is offered to the whole church.

As Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, writes in the national aynthesis' introduction, "The publication of this document is not a concluding moment … it is a reflective, forward-moving moment. It is an invitation to listen, to discuss together and to discern together as the Church, about how best to understand and act upon those matters that sit deeply in the hearts and minds of Catholics in the U.S."

This is a moment. A moment which marks what has been and the conversations that have been had and also a moment that looks forward. The synthesis report does not leave behind what has occurred in parishes and meeting halls, it does not forego the work of future Zoom calls and homegrown gatherings. It acknowledges that these gatherings were fruitful. That in those spaces concerns and wounds came to light, desires and joys were shared with faith, hope and love.

For individuals, communities and the church writ large, this synodal moment is not over and the U.S. synthesis report makes that clear. To stop now would be to curtail the Spirit, to cut the conversation off mid-sentence.

We must keep on listening, speaking and acting, in the Spirit and with one another. As the synthesis advises, “Attentive listening in the Church provides the catalyst for engaging discernment.” With engaged discernment, we can read each other as living documents with openness, respect and curiosity, learning in the process and growing as the body of Christ.

As Flores again writes, “The Synthesis is, among other things, an expression of what we as a Church have heard each other say when asked about our deepest preoccupations and hopes for the Church of which, by the grace of God, we are all a vital part.”

As we continue this synodal journey in faith, hopeful if but cautious, we must remember that each of us is vital to this church. Together as living documents… read the conclusion of the article here


Tuesday, September 20, 2022

"Hope comes in the mourning"

In reflecting on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II this past week, I've found myself wondering if a true honoring of the Queen's legacy of faith would be to confront the colonial ties of the monarchy and to reform the role as a means of unification, reconciliation, and reparation in a post-colonial context. That reflection led me to write a piece for La Croix International on Monday, September 19, the day of the Queen's burial. To read the piece, entitled "Hope comes in the mourning," visit: https://international.la-croix.com/news/world/hope-comes-in-the-mourning/16620