Sunday, April 19, 2015

we remember... April 19, 1995

For those of us who live in Oklahoma, it is difficult to believe it’s already been 20 years since that fateful April 19th morning when a bomb exploited in downtown Oklahoma City, taking the lives of 168 people and injuring hundreds more.
Everybody here knows exactly where he or she was that Wednesday morning at 9:02. The sound and trembling from the blast. The plum of smoke. Everyone knows someone who was killed, injured, or forever marked and haunted by that one moment in history.
So many of the victims and survivors have become intricate to our shared community narrative—like those family stories that are so intimate, so familiar, that any member can finish another’s sentence,
The baby girl carried out by a first responder and into the arms of fireman rescuer. The woman whose leg was amputated in the midst of the Murrah building rubble. The miraculous moment when the final survivor was pulled out of the rubble 13 hours after the explosion. The mom pleading on television for help finding her baby. The children from the daycare.
It is heartbreaking to say, but I know that the people of New York City and Boston now understand how one incomprehensible evil act can and does forever alter the spirit and essence of one community. There are so many others, like Newton, CT... Littleton, Colorado... Virginia Tech...Killeen, Texas. 
I have no doubt in my heart that in those moments of such massive death and suffering, the veil between heaven and earth becomes so thin that we can, literally, recognize God’s Presence in our midst.
It is important that we remember... that we never forget days like April 19, 1995.
Remember the lives of those who died, not only where they died. Remember the victims' families. Remember those who survived and are still struggling to heal. Remember the stories of tireless rescue workers (many who traveled from other states!) who risked their lives in the still-trembling building to find survivors, and eventually, to bring the dead home.
Remember how there was no looting in that wrecked Oklahoma City downtown—and how crime was virtually non-existent for several days in this city of 500,000. Remember the thousands of devoted community volunteers. Remember how the money turned in after the blast from the Federal Employees Credit Union vault housed in the Murrah building exceeded the money originally held in that vault.

It is important that we remember that the stories of human goodness, generosity, and compassion will always overwhelm and conquer one despicable act of evil. 

Oklahoma City National Memorial
+   +   +   +   +
Five years ago I wrote a blog post on my experience as a journalist covering the Oklahoma City bombing for Catholic News Service.
Here is how it begins:
When I first arrived at the site of the Alfred P. Murrah FederalBuilding on April 19, 1995, to report on the Oklahoma City bombing for Catholic News Service, police lines and makeshift shelters had already been drawn. 
Budding spring gardens had instantly succumbed to military tents, hastily erected to serve as temporary morgue, as ATF/FBI evidence gathering sites, and as a canteen for rescue workers. Law enforcement and fully armed military personnel lined the streets. Breathing masks, bloodied bandages, and broken glass testified to the human carnage that had taken place there hours before. Thick grey dust covered everything. 
Northwest of the building, a block-long square area had instantaneously become an international media center, camera crews mixing with fallen debris, van food vendors, and cars demolished by the blast. Overhead, helicopters circled the downtown radius accusingly pointing floodlights at the empty streets. The sounds of sirens, voices, and motors blended effectively with the humming of drilling equipment at the site, where workers used lighted cranes to continue rescue operations around the clock.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

"Why are you crying?"

"Las Tres Marias at the Empty Tomb"
(Mary Magdalene, Mary Caifas and Mary Salome)
by Angel Rodriguez-Diaz
painting at San Fernando Cathedral, San Antonio,
in commemoration of the cathedral's 275th anniversary in 2006

“They have taken the Lord out of his tomb and we do not know where they have laid him,” Mary Magdalene said, and we can say this with her in times of doubt and questioning. Then there’s that last glorious chapter of Saint Luke, where Jesus says, “Why are you so perturbed? Why do questions arise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see.” 
Yes, sometimes it is most surely an exercise of faith for us to see Christ, especially in each other. But it is through such exercise that we grow, and the joy of our calling assures us we are on the right path. Most certainly, it is easier to believe now that the sun warms us, and we know that buds will appear on the sycamore trees in the wasteland across the street, that life will spring out of the dull clods of that littered park. There are wars and rumors of war, poverty and plague, hunger and pain. Still, the sap is rising, again there is the resurrection of spring, God’s continuing promise to us that he is with us always, with his comfort and joy, if we will only ask.

[this is a repeat of last year's Easter Sunday post!  Easter blessings to each of you :-) ] 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

dig deep, deep within

~David Haas, "Deep Within"

Deep within, I will plant my law, not on stone, but in your heart. Follow me; I will bring you back. You will be my own, and I will be your God. 
I will give you a new heart, a new spirit within you, for I will be your strength. 
Seek my face, and see your God, for I will be your hope. 
Return to me, with all your heart, and I will bring you back. 
Deep within, I will plant my law, not on stone, but in your heart. Follow me; I will bring you back. You will be my own, and I will be your God.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

confession... it's still all about me

“The first goal of spiritual combat, that toward which our efforts must above all else be directed, is not to always obtain a victory (over our temptations, our weaknesses, etc.), rather it is to learn to maintain peace of heart under all circumstances, even in the case of defeat. It is only in this way that we can pursue the other goal, which is the elimination of our failures, our faults, our imperfections and sins. This is ultimately the victory that we must want and desire, knowing, however, that it is not by our own strength that we will obtain it immediately. It is uniquely the grace of God that will obtain the victory for us, whose grace will be the more efficacious and rapid, the more we place maintaining our interior peace and sense of confident abandonment in the hands of our Father in heaven.”
~Father Jacques Philippe,
Community of the Beatitudes
as quoted in Magnificat Magazine

A funny thing happened to me on my way to Holy Week. 

I blame my good friend Susan Stabile, the prolific writer over at Creo en Dios. At the beginning of Lent, Susan wrote about an idea suggested to her by a friend -- where you take a calendar of the 40 days of Lent, and you mark each day the name of a particular someone you will pray for… with the caveat being it’d be someone who irritates you or drives you nuts or just rubs on you.

Here’s what Susan said:

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, chiding us that loving and caring for those who we love or are good to us is not enough.

Whether it is someone who has hurt you, someone who has done something to irritate you, someone who rubs you the wrong way, someone you are just “not too fond of”, why not find some time to pray for their wellbeing during this Lent. 

You can read the rest of her blog here.

The first thing I noticed once I decided to take up Susan’s challenge is that I needed more than 40 days!

Yes, it is true. I came up with more than 40 people whom I needed to pray for just because they “rubbed me the wrong way.” It was a humbling realization.

But what unfolded as I journeyed deeper into Lent also perplexed me. The further I moved into the season with this practice, the harder it became.

Before I knew it, the people rubbing me the wrong way were not merely names of people from my past or people in distant circles of my life—but rather pretty much everyone I am most intimate with!

When I took that revelation to confession last week, the priest seemed to get a real kick out of my admission of guilt.  With a smile on his face he simply said,

It sounds like the Holy Spirit is reminding you that you must be willing, 
but ultimately, even this good act--it is not something you can do by yourself!

How did I manage to turn even my Lenten prayer practice into an achievement contest?

In case you were wondering, the penance I received from my wise confessor was to pray with Psalm 51:

A clean heart create for me, God;
renew within me a steadfast spirit.

Do not drive me from before your face,
nor take from me your holy spirit.

Restore to me the gladness of your salvation;
uphold me with a willing spirit.

Friday, March 13, 2015

in honor of #NCSW, part dos!

A few years ago I wrote an essay titled "Mi Hermana Tess" about my admiration for and friendship with Sister Tess Browne.

The essay was published in a book that I mentioned last time -- "Thank you Sisters: Stories About Women Religious And How They Enrich Our Lives" -- a very appropriate text for this week, National Catholic Sisters Week! 

Edited by my friend and colleague in the Catholic press John Feister, the book is a collection of 12 essays written by several famous people
Cokie Roberts; Maureen Orth, award-winning journalist and special correspondent for Vanity Fair; Sr. Helen Prejean; James Martin, S.J.; best-selling author Adriana Trigiani... and more.
And as I've joked and pointed out since the beginning, clearly, I am one of the "filler writers" in the "and more"-- yet honored and grateful to have been included. 

Earlier this week I posted an excerpt from the essay describing when I first met Tess at the University of Texas Catholic Student Center. You can read that blog here

Today I'd like to post a different part of the essay, from a conversation I had with Sr Tess when our group of college students (including the guy I was dating and later married) from the Catholic Student Center went to witness the work of her community with the United Farm Workers in South Texas. 

Don't laugh too much -- here's what we looked like:

¡Si se puede!
University of Texas Catholic Center students visiting farm workers in South Texas, 
with Sr Tess Browne of the United Farm Workers, 1980

Listening to Tess’ stories, I was a bit star-struck. Like a female Tom Hanks in the movie “Forrest Gump,” Tess’ life casually crossed paths with significant moments in history.  Picketing alongside Cesar Chavez. Civil rights marches. A sit-in with Dorothy Day...  
Tess frequently shocked me, provoked me, and in a very real way, inspired me. As a Hispanic privileged enough to be attending college, I felt a special responsibility to learn more, to do more for these people, my people. 
So when she invited students interested in visiting the Rio Grande Valley to come learn more about the work of the United Farm Workers and the life of farm workers in south Texas, I jumped at the opportunity. 
Our group’s visit to the border towns of San Juan and McAllen is a blur in my memory. I remember going to UFW rallies, and being the one to introduce our students in Spanish to the farm workers gathered that night. I remember celebrating daily Mass and prayers with our hosts, Tess’s co-ed religious community.  But what stands out the most in my memory is the intense feelings I had throughout that weekend. 
It was my first time to encounter a situation so tragic, so horrible, so challenging, that I felt completely powerless and ultimately, deeply angry. I was livid about living conditions of children and their families in the colonias—dirt streets, no running water, houses that were truthfully shacks. It was like being in a third world country. I was broken hearted and infuriated conversing in Spanish with young women my age who had already lived profoundly painful lives. And in all honesty, I was irritated with my own ignorance, for not knowing this existed just five hours from my home. 
Sitting by myself in the community’s chapel one night, I cried weakly in my seething anger.  Sr. Tess walked in and just sat next to me, waiting until I could speak. When she sensed that I was ready, she grabbed my hand and looked at me.  
“How do you do it?” The words stumbled clumsily. “How can you do this work and see all this, every day, and not be consumed by the anger?” 
Without hesitation, Tess began, “*I* don’t do it. I offer up my day every morning to the One who can make a difference, and I leave the details up to God,” she paused but continued to look intensely at me. “I come to the Eucharist daily and let it heal me. And every night, I leave my anger, frustration, hopelessness, despair, right here, at the foot of the altar. I am not the maker, María, I am the instrument.”

With Tess, a mini-reunion of our University Catholic Center UFW group
at my daughter Michelle's wedding, July 2012

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

in honor of #NCSW, part one

National Catholic Sisters Week
Unlike many people my age, I did not experience the trauma and upheaval of the 1960s culture and the changing Catholic Church in the United States that many of my friends describe. 

My experience of the Church as a child was deeply Latin American, where the energy of the Second Vatican Council reforms and movements like Cursillo brought increased vitality and renewal to the parishes in Puerto Rico--and certainly to my own multi-generational, refugee home. 

I grew up surrounded by generous and devoted women and men, both lay and vowed religious. You can click here to read more about it -- and see more fun(ny) old photos of me!

My point is that I didn't know this was weird. How could I have known that other families didn’t have nuns and priests regularly in their homes and taking part of family activities?

On this Year of Consecrated Life, I've been pondering about just how graced I am to have a plethora of stories about sisters and nuns from my growing up--with many more from my youth and adult life. 

And now, as our children grow older and have children of their own, I see how our extended family continues to be deeply blessed by dedicated priests and faithful sisters and nuns.

So -- In honor of National Catholic Sisters Week I will focus on one special woman, my beautiful and inspiring heart sister, Sr. Tess Browne, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky.

Sr. Tess and I, 1992, at the
7th National Black Catholic Congress, New Orleans. I was covering it, she was attending!

Sr. Tess visiting our home, when our kids were in high school and middle school

A couple of years ago I wrote about Tess in an essay titled “Mi Hermana Tess,” published in a book that you may be interested in: "Thank you Sisters: Stories About Women Religious And How They Enrich Our Lives,"  (Franciscan Media).

Here's a snippet of my published essay, remembering when I first met Tess at the University of Texas Catholic Student Center, 35 (holy cow!) years ago. I was 19!
One day in the spring, my good friend and staff member Sister Anne, a Dominican from Houston, received a call from a Franciscan sister working in McAllen, Texas. She explained that a group from the United Farm Workers movement had come to Austin to speak to the convening Texas Legislature and to lobby on behalf of farm workers. 
They were looking for a place to stay for a few days and wanted to connect with college students at the Catholic Student Center who were interested in learning about their ministry. 
Sr. Marie-Therese Browne, or Tess, as she introduced herself, was a 37-year-old dynamo with a heart the size of Texas. She was a member of the Wisconsin chapter of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi. A native of Trinidad, Tess and I immediately bonded as we joked and shared about our experience living in the states as Hispanic women from the Caribbean islands. 
But as Tess pointed out in her characteristic direct style in an accent laced by the Creole and French spoken in her island, as a Black woman Hispanic, “I have one up on you!”
More on Tess in my next post...

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

what do You want of me?

If You want me to rest,
I desire it for love;
If to labor,
I will die working:
Sweet Love say
Where, how and when.
What do You want of me?

Calvary or Tabor give me,
Desert for fruitful land;
As Job in suffering
Or John at Your breast;
Barren or fruited vine,
Whatever be Your will:
What do You want of me?

Be I Joseph chained
Or as Egypt’s governor,
David pained
Or exalted high,
Jonas drowned,
Or Jonas freed:
What do You want of me?

Silent or speaking,
Fruitbearing or barren,
My wounds shown by the Law,
Rejoicing in the tender Gospel;
Sorrowing or exulting,
You alone live in me:
What do You want of me?

Yours I am, for You I was born:
What do You want of me?

~Teresa of Ávila,       
                                            from the poem “In the Hands of God”

Over the next few months I will publish here some of my favorite poems and writings in celebration of the 5th centenary of the birth of Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-2015)—a woman whose life, faith and candor has profoundly formed and influenced my faith journey!

[photo of floor mosaic:  St. John Neumann Catholic Church, Austin @SJNAustin]