Are You Willing To Go There? A Reflection by Sue Belanger

I love the movies, all film genres, including Disney animations. I especially appreciate movie theaters with big recliners that you can lose yourself in. Add lights turned low, surround sound and popcorn, lots of popcorn, and I’m in my happy place. I also confess my guilty pleasure is Hallmark movies, which are sappy and all-too-predictable. Right now, I’m watching the Christmas movies, perfect for the season. Yes, please pass the popcorn! 

What I miss most about the movies in these pandemic days, is the chance to go with friends and family. Movie night was always my favorite date night. Especially when the film was somewhat complex, it was nice to be accompanied. The opportunity to debrief and hear another perspective was always eye-opening. It was often the case that I missed an important point in the plot. Talking about it provided some clarity. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve lost the opportunity to connect with friends and family in this way. Connecting is an experience I took for granted in the past, and it’s one for which I’ve gained a new appreciation.

In this week’s gospel we read the story of Mary’s visit with her elder cousin, Elizabeth. They greet each other excitedly, both women pregnant with welcomed but unexpected pregnancies. Mary, we know, stays three months with Elizabeth, and accompanies her kinswoman through the final months of her pregnancy. We can imagine the women engaged in storytelling, laughing, making clothes for the baby, completing daily chores, and more importantly, sharing the experience of being chosen by God. This is the type of kinship we can relate to, the kinship of family, friends, and loved ones helping one another and sharing important life experiences, faith, day-to-day life, the birth of a baby.

However, not all kinship is joyful. In our own lives, we can most certainly tell a story of someone who doesn’t quite fit in – the critical mother-in-law, the alcoholic uncle, or the ever-gossiping aunt. These are the ones who annoy us. We think nothing of avoiding them when we can. At times we’re called to accompany the sick and dying, or the financially challenged in our families. Do we avoid them? How do we respond to our more serious family situations, the nephew with substance use disorder, the sister experiencing more frequent psychotic episodes, or the son or daughter who finally gains the courage to say, “I’m gay” or “I’m not in my right skin”? These are the situations that challenge us as family members. Having loved ones who claim LGBTQ+ status is especially challenging. These are the times when we are called to step in, to be with, to accompany.

I’m a huge fan of Brené Brown. A sociologist and qualitative researcher, she writes on the topic of shame and vulnerability and the need we have to belong. One of her more recent books, Braving the Wilderness, includes a chapter titled, People are hard to hate close up. Move in. What I appreciate about this chapter title is its simple truth, people really are hard to hate up close. Brené helps the reader to understand that pain and fear are often the reasons for hate. In our media-rich, highly politicized society, it’s easy for us to hate those whose views don’t align with ours, those from a different political party, race, religion, or sexual orientation. As Brené notes in her book, it takes courage to overcome what we perceive as a threat, since it requires us to face our vulnerability and emotional safety. However, when we open our minds and hearts and get to know someone whose ideas and life experiences we reject, we discover they’re not much different from us – kind, committed, good people.

Father Greg Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program. His work is a great example of inclusivity, love and belonging. Fr. Greg’s actions speak loudly of “moving in” and learning to listen to the vulnerable. His program employs and trains former gang members to work in social enterprises, such as restaurants and bake shops, noting, “we’re in the business of second chances”. Some of my favorite and most challenging quotes come from his book, Tattoos on the Heart. The focus of the book is kinship and compassion.

Here are a few quotes:

“Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

And another one…

“Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle [of compassion], moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless.”

An excerpt from his book Barking to the Choir

“So we are encouraged to stand with the tax collector and the prostitute, the widow, orphan, and stranger, precisely because they are the judged, the scapegoated, the less-than, whose chances are taken away well before they are given. The principal cause of suffering for the leper is not an annoying, smelly, itchy skin disease but rather having to live outside the camp. So the call is to stand with them, so that the margins get erased and they are welcomed back inside. Jesus doesn’t think twice: he touches the lepers before he gets around to healing them.”

Father Greg’s work helps us to recognize “there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’, there is only us”. As we consider the idea of kinship, who stands at the margins in our lives? What relationships are we avoiding because they challenge us? Who do we see as “other”? More importantly, who do we say we fear or hate?

While we want to believe we are kind, loving people, research indicates we may have implicit biases. Even the kindest among us were influenced by news media, history classes, our cultural upbringing, parish life, even the movies. We are comfortable with the familiar. Ask us to step out of our comfort zone and we become uneasy. But that shouldn’t hold us back. 

In April of this year, I had the chance to spend a week with my sister’s family in an oceanside Florida vacation house. On one of our movie nights, we watched The Greatest Showman. My nephew claimed it was his favorite movie. After watching the movie and recognizing its beautiful story of inclusivity and sense of belonging, I asked him why he liked it. After thinking about it for a few minutes, he told me it was the music. While I’m sure there was more to his appreciation than the music, we can’t always clearly articulate why we’re moved by a great motion picture. 

People are hard to hate close up. Move in.

In the movie, actress Keala Settle, sings the anthem of the film, This is me. It’s a song about facing adversity and criticism but ultimately reaching a level of self-acceptance and self-love. This is the challenge of the oppressed, vulnerable and marginalized, the “oddities”. Where are we in their stories? Are we the ones who “cut people down with sharp words” or do we draw them in and help each person realize they are worthy of love and happiness? Are we quick to criticize and shame others or do we accept them as who they are? 

The film had a powerful message of acceptance and belonging. Individuals who were feared and shunned by society as “oddities” came together as entertainers, eventually forming a bond of community, friendship and love.

Fr. Greg reminds us, “The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place.” That means standing at the margins. Where are the margins for you and are you willing to go there?

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