Warning: Long Post Ahead! I encourage a cup of coffee or tea and a nice fireside background. Lying in your underwear in bed or sitting in the car at the grocery store building up courage to go inside will do.
Imagine four white women. Two Irish religious sisters and two American lay people. Three senior citizens and one 20-something. Three morning people and one night owl. Two sarcastics and two non-stop workers. Four volunteers who are trying to run a shelter that contains only one family during the COVID-19 pandemic in the quiet city of El Paso, Texas sitting around a picnic table at 9:45am on a warm spring day.
As I am sure is true for most households around the globe, we are musing about the impacts that the virus might have on our own community.
“I am happy to be cremated – spread my ashes wherever,” says one of the sisters, an 80-year-old going on 50.
“Me too,” says another elder who says her children support her from far away. “You can spread me beneath the Franklin Mountains.”
“Um excuse me, that is not okay with me! I do not want to see you die and I do not want to spread your ashes anywhere!” I say, laughing and serious at the same time. The possibility of this is a reality that we have all been wrestling with for a few weeks.
“You can wrap my body in a blanket and dig a whole in the backyard,” says the eldest of us all, partially facetious, mostly serious.
“No!” I say, pleading with them that this is not necessary. I laugh while hoping this is not really the plan for these ladies.
One of the volunteers (and my co-lay person) has buried her two husbands – she tells me she always liked “older foreigners” – and she started sharing about the ash-spreading ceremony she had for the later of her late husbands.
“Isn’t that against church doctrine?” I say, genuinely curious since I have not really read up on the Catholic Church’s teaching on ash spreading. “I thought cremation was fine, but that the ashes should stay together?”
“I don’t believe in all of the church’s doctrines” she quickly replies. “I asked God and she said it was okay.”
I start laughing. I am blessed to be in the presence of these three strong, experienced women – who are so close to God and so close to me and the present and the holy ground we walk on. Then the conversation moves to an unveiling; Apparently, in busy funeral homes, large numbers of the deceased might be cremated at once – meaning, the bag of ashes you get for your grandma may very well be the neighbor from down the road whose name you never learned. The conversation progresses.
“Do you believe in the doctrine of discovery?” asks the eldest of the group, conversationally. “That European nations had the calling from God to dominate new lands and ‘civilize’ heathens?”
“Oh, I don’t believe in heathens,” she replies, a former Peace Corps member and Maryknoll lay missioner. I know that none of these ladies hold a Savior or Paternalistic complex. In fact, they have each been converted by the people they’ve worked with in Latin America, not the other way around.
Then we turn to the third elder who is not responding to the cheeky conversation.
“Do you see all of these wrinkles on my arm?” she says, looking down at the evidence of decades of hard work and wisdom. We all burst into teary laughter.
These are my coworkers, my colleagues, my roommates during this quarantine. I can promise anyone on the outside that there is never a dull moment in this house.
Since the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, things have turned eerily challenging around here. Many volunteers have gone home to protect themselves and the community from exposure and to be with loved ones. Visitors and all educational tours have been cut off, as well as community members who were previously donating their time. The border policy has changed yet again; every single person who attempts to cross the border between ports of entry (in other words, cross the river, jump the wall, or come through the desert) is being ‘expelled’ (which is neither deportation nor voluntary removal, but a third thing that does not require any length of “detention time”). People’s fingerprints are taken in an open air facility, their criminal history (if any) is reviewed, and they are walked back across the border into Mexico. It does not matter if they are from Mexico, Chile, Guatemala, Cuba, China, Angola… because we are undergoing a global health emergency, we do not need to follow traditional international protocols. We say, once again, that Mexico can deal with it (which, by all of my accounts, is an absurd and irresponsible lie).
The reality of this pandemic is tragic and difficult for everyone (except, perhaps, Mother Earth); people of every age, race, class, and nation are being affected. Of course, not to the same extent (by any stretch), but it has got us all who do not perform essential jobs on lockdown.
My heart is so heavy for all of the health care workers who are fighting so hard against this tidal wave of infection. I imagine that is so stressful, scary, and painful – seeing so much death in people who were once seen as healthy and safe from harm. It is also heavy for all of those around the whole wide world who do not have emergency funds at hand and who are hungry, in this very moment, because they were living paycheck to paycheck before losing their jobs. I think of all those who live with mental health conditions, as well as addictions, who found respite in group therapy, work, and community events, and are now stuck at home left to face their burdens alone.
I have also reflected on the relative luxury that I am living in now! Perhaps before, people saw the living conditions of Annunciation House volunteers as something sacrificial, humbling, ‘not for them’ (which is exactly what it is supposed to be, of course). Now, I bet that so many of my companions are jealous, because I have work to do, a stocked fridge, no expenses to pay, and a lot of space to do yoga, dance, build obstacle courses in the backyard, and a community of beautiful, funny, life-filled people to share the days with.
Similar to how it has always been, all of my current needs are met here, and I do not have to worry that they will be taken from me anytime soon. That is a privileged state of being which has me wondering “didn’t I come here to forgo some of my privilege?” It has found its way back to me…
But, where I am wanting to go with this (stay with me) is in the way of an invitation to everyone who shares a similar existence of “met-needs” with me. My relatives, friends, conocidos, who have the freedom and privilege to stay home and know that there are reserves for more food, electricity, and healthcare. I want to ask you something.
How are you spending this time?
What are you choosing to do each day?
How do you feel about it?
Those of us who are in a state of waiting, who are not working tirelessly to slow this pandemic down and accompany those who are being affected by it, have an amazing opportunity to rethink our whole lives. We have the opportunity to re-imagine and reassess – to decide if the paths we walk are the ones we want to walk, or if we have somehow ended up on them, not remembering exactly how or when we came to be here.
We have the opportunity to reassess our relationships. How do we treat those who are close to us, and who are far away? How do we treat ourselves, and the creation that sustains us? Do we want to be different in our relationships, do we want to go deeper, do we want to be more forgiving or kinder or listen more?
As a person of faith and as a Catholic, I am always challenged by the invitation and call by God and the teachings of my own church that every day is an opportunity to ask for forgiveness, forgive, and start again for the better. This includes my participation in the suffering of others, my complicity in the destruction of the earth, and my own apathy to the injustices that abound. To me, self-improvement must exist in relation to others and to the earth, since my humanity is interdependent on that of others and the Creator.
I have observed that so many of the neighbors around me do not see this invitation or calling, whether they are faithful or not. They spend their free time distracting themselves from pain, trauma, loneliness, an ever present need for mercy. It is really a part of our societal fabric to use the things around us – work, entertainment, and pleasure – to wedge a divide between us and our deepest-selves. We avoid asking ourselves how we truly are, or when we know, we are tempted to make it worse, believing we are unworthy of joy, peace, or healing.
In our busy, non-stop, activity-filled days, it is very common to normalize behaviors that are selfish, toxic, and dismissive of our neighbors and the earth beneath our feet and the very air that we breathe – despite the reality that we depend on every single one of these elements to survive. We do not listen to the commands of prophets who have preached love, dignity, compassion, and justice for the oppressed. We do not listen to the Indigenous peoples of the world who have been saying for generations how we are destroying the world with our oil consumption and the pollution that results from a neo-liberal capitalist economy which does very little to protect the limited natural resources we depend on. We do not even listen to the silenced cries of our brothers and sisters who we pass by, asking us for food, money, or companionship.
But if we go through history, if we go through religious texts, if we read the wisdom of philosophers and theologians and those who have dedicated themselves to going deeper, to understanding life and the fragile ecosystem we maintain, we know that our lifestyles are not in line with what we were created for. Our unbridled appetite for pleasure, for “better days,” for greater success and happiness is simply not good if the world around us has to crumble as a result. If the oppressed of all nations must work to provide us with the luxuries and pleasures of our lifestyles (which includes our produce, our coffee, our sugar, our clothing, our technology – I am not just talking about diamonds here…) and we are okay with that, then we are simply not in line with the God who created us, with God’s chosen people.
You might be thinking, Brinkley, what the heck are you talking about? Or, what the heck do you know?
It is fair for anyone to think I do not know what I am talking about… I do not know much after all, and each day is a learning journey. But, from what I know, I am sure and certain that this pandemic can be a second chance for everyone of us to transform our lives (since a lot of us require something drastic to see that kind of change through). Starting with personal reflection, we have to work away our ignorance, we have to think through our choices, we have to use the privilege and resources we know to change our very lifestyles and plant seeds of renewal and hope and commitment to future generations every step we take. That is the way forward, I think, in case you were wondering.
If you are still wondering, wait, wasn’t I just reading about an 85-year-old Irish nun in a floor length red nightgown? Me too.
If you are still wondering after that, “how do I know what questions to ask? How do I know where to begin to change my lifestyle?” (I am a wishful thinker!), I have included some questions from the Examination of Conscience from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that may guide you (Catholic and Christian and Muslim and Jew and Agnostic alike) (and continually guide me) to find where the need for forgiveness is and where you might dedicate energy to seek change. These questions are in light of Catholic Social Teaching.
Am I committed to both protecting human life and to ensuring that every human being is able to live in dignity?
Do I live in material comfort and excess while remaining insensitive to the needs of others whose rights are unfulfilled?
Am I disproportionately concerned for my own good at the expense of others?
Do my purchasing choices take into account the hands involved in the production of what I buy? When possible, do I buy products produced by workers whose rights and dignity were respected?
Do I see all members of the human family as my brothers and sisters?
Do I litter? Live wastefully? Use energy too freely? Are there ways I could reduce consumption in my life?
Are there ways I could change my daily practices and those of my family, school, workplace, or community to better conserve the earth’s resources for future generations?
I know that is so much to think about and so many questions to reflect on. It can be overwhelming to find a place to start. Some maybe are thinking, “I have my own problems to deal with. How can I begin to think about others?” That is fair – some of us are more free to venture out than others are. But wherever you can begin, even if that means considering how your own dignity needs more cultivating, is a worthy place to start.
I encourage you to pick two or three that strike you, and go deep on them. Journal, discuss, do more research, and commit to using this opportunity of having extra time. Rather than waiting for change to come, be a part of its coming. This is a question of love and of life, of self and of community. We are all together in this, which this pandemic may have helped some of us realize. If we make it out alive, I hope we can come out on the other side with a new vision for what life on this planet could be.
And, like my honest and cheeky and tender roommates, don’t forget to seek humor and laughter along the way!
I would love to be your companion in this journey!
With love and gratitude,
P.S. From the words of the opening title “balance (mufasa interlude)” to the album “Lion King: The Gift,” (which I can’t seem to stop listening to….)
“Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance
You need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures
From the crawling ant to the leaping antelope
We’re all connected in the great circle of life”
Some more goodness from Beyonce and this album: “Spirit” + “Bigger” Extended cut from Disney’s The Lion King
“Let love be the water I pour into you and you pour into me, there ain’t no drought here”