This past weekend I was fortunate to spend time in intentional retreat with a group of thirty women, most of them in their forties, fifties, and sixties, but one as young as twenty six who fit right in with the rest of us. It was especially bittersweet for me, knowing that I have only one month left in the States and that I will not see the majority of them for a long, long time. I know these women through a particular church – one with a very liberal, progressive, and non-dogmatic theology – that I began attending in 2008, many years after fleeing Catholicism in disgust during early adolescence. I don’t see all of them every week; in fact, this annual weekend retreat represents my sole contact with more than half of them. Amazingly, we pick up right where we left off the previous year, somehow still close in heart and mind despite having spent little or no time with each other in the interim.
My issues with organized religion are familiar to a host of others, I’m sure, who have been unable to resolve the ethical and moral dissonance demonstrated constantly in the disparity between message and action of so many self-identified “Christians.” The Jesus who is portrayed in the gospels has no similarity, for me, to the “Christ” of those who denigrate and disparage others because of their ethnicity, vulnerabilities, sexuality, gender identity, alternate stories of God, or any one of the myriad qualities that define us as radiant, unique personifications of inspired creation.
What is refreshing and altogether captivating about being with these women is that for some 48 hours I am actually living within a community that aims to substantiate the gospels’ exhortation to love wholeheartedly and without judgment. For a brief two days, barriers to acceptance are lowered and one can dangle a toe or finger in the heady waters of unconditional love. There are tears and confessions and expiation and deep belly laughter and an ephemeral joy that sometimes swells and lifts us to epiphany.
They are not saints, or angels, or martyrs, these women; we complain, and kvetch, and gossip, and share private jokes that could prove to be hurtful if aired. We are human and often fail to fully embody the challenging ministry set forth by Jesus to love all others unreservedly. But girding our weaknesses and missteps is a powerful commitment to see and hear and hold one another, to create a safe space where vulnerabilities and transgressions can be revealed and acknowledged, shared, and reframed into a basis for learning and growing. We are able to look unblinking into each others’ eyes and sing “You are beautiful, you are whole, and you are perfect; you are a gift to this world.” As corny as this may sound, it takes an unusual degree of trust and hopefulness do this with conviction, with no hesitancy or shame or embarrassment.
It is experiences like this that I will miss so much, and wonder how to recreate in a land where the language is not innate to me, where the cultural mores are different, where religion is embodied in unfamiliar rites and rituals that have deep historical significance for its practitioners, but no meaningful resonance for me. Yet this is one of the integral reasons I had for joining the Peace Corps: the wish to surmount fear of the other, the uncomfortable, the foreign or strange. So much in our current post-9/11 experience emphasizes our separateness, preys upon our anxieties regarding anything foreign, and magnifies our convictions that we as Americans personify the best way of being in this world. But if one examines the basis of these fears and anxieties and convictions, one might be surprised to discover similar mental constructs separating us from our unmet neighbors; the homeless guy at his post on the off ramp; the hoodie-shrouded youths approaching on a darkened street; the sea of unfamiliar faces at a professional convention; the intimate huddles of conversers at a cocktail party; an authority figure presiding over an important aspect of our life; or a group of foreign travelers sharing our same flight. We project dark forces and magnificent foes into the void of the unknown, imagining, conversely, that which is familiar to be somehow more fitting or appropriate to our survival or comfort, even if sometimes it has proved just as dangerous or malevolent in its manifestations.
Both times prior to my venturing into unfamiliar countries – Ecuador and Peru, then Guatemala – I have nursed an amalgamation of irrational fears, visualizing roving bands of armed thugs predisposed to hijacking tour buses; cunning tricksters sidling through crowds to surreptitiously liberate my passport or wallet; Kafka-esque labyrinths of unexpected bureaucracy that would entrap and preclude me returning to the US; narcotized, hallucinating drivers piloting rickety taxis over precipices; or sardonic vendors who would sell me tainted food in revenge for my perceived affluence. All of these anxieties, while traceable, perhaps, to some apocryphal story of a friend of a friend or inflammatory media depiction aimed at the consuming masses, were born of the amorphous stew that bubbles up from the hippocampus, warning us to regard anything unknown as suspect and inherently dangerous, an ingrained, primal reaction that the disciples of Jesus so elegantly surmounted by welcoming the traveler, the Gentile, the leper, the thief and the prostitute into their midst.
I am so profoundly grateful for these women, their actualization of Christian love and the buoyancy they have breathed into my spirit as I embark on my lengthy sojourn half way across the world. I trust that their legacy of love and encouragement will help me build connections with the new women I will meet, and find familiarity and comfort in them and their husbands and children and parents and siblings and neighbors and teachers and priests. I am learning to acknowledge, then stay my irrational fears, relinquishing them in favor of an enfolding trust that all that is human is in common with me and is synonymous with the face of God.
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar.For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
1 John 4:20