Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Diary of a Spring Break in Texas

The inevitable failure of my words haunts my attempt to tell you about seven remarkable days traveled with five students in Austin, Texas, for the Taizé Pilgrimage of Trust. A friend of mine has it right, I think. He says that, for really important things, he's given up on words altogether. "If someone pushes me for a deeper explanation, these days I'll just say, 'Follow me. Come and see.' It worked for Jesus. It's the only way I've found to do the adventure of faith any kind of real justice..."

But another friend tells me that a story only becomes a story when you tell it. So I'll try.

We arrived in Austin late Monday afternoon and settled into our accommodations for the week at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest. The Taizé event didn't begin until Friday, but our trip the year before in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, had taught us that Taizé gatherings are about reconciliation. Living with the Lakota in Pine Ridge for four days, it was not hard to see both the wounds and the place for reconciliation in our common life. Texas would be more difficult, I thought, not because there wouldn't be wounds, but because there would be so many, some prominent, others less obviously visible. So we came to Austin early to learn a context for reconciliation.

The Oscars have nothing on our Spring Break team and Br. Emile!
Weeks before our arrival, a friend of mine who lives in Austin had listened patiently as I explained our group's desire to put reconciliation in context. "Immigration, incarceration, and homelessness," she said after some thought. My friend has experience working in a couple of the downtown ministries; she helped us begin to piece together a plan.

The plan is how we found ourselves the first morning at Trinity Center, a dignity-restoring ministry run out of St. David's Episcopal Church, serving the 7,000-plus neighbors in Austin experiencing homelessness. With so many homeless neighbors, Trinity Center is clear about its mission: not ending homelessness, but respecting the dignity of every human being and loving their neighbors. The result is a ministry made for human flourishing: meeting basic needs, yes, but also providing for things the outside world might view as luxuries in the context of homelessness. Art. Music. Choices that empower.

So it was that, while on a tour of St. David's, we met Roger - one of the neighbors - who played a gorgeous, impromptu concert for us on the church's grand piano, for which he has access whenever he wants, for reasons immediately obvious to anyone lucky enough to hear him play.

Pursuit of reconciliation is also how we came to spend a morning preparing and serving over 300 lunches at Caritas, a non-profit that regularly serves hundreds of meals each day, all free, no questions asked. Reconciliation is what led us to seek out the George Washington Carver Museum, dedicated, says their mission, "to the collection, preservation, research and exhibition of African-American historical and cultural material." As in Wisconsin, incarcerated populations in Texas are disproportionately African-American. Reconciliation took us to El Buen Samaritano, where we spent an afternoon building modest compost structures and mowing grass in the neighborhood's community garden.

Working at the community garden at El Buen Samaritano
We spent time relaxing, too. (It was Spring Break, after all!) We ate as much Tex-Mex as we could and spent as much time outside as we could, shaking off the Wisconsin winter and stubbornly wearing our sandals and shorts, even on days ordinarily not warm enough to warrant them. 

On Wednesday, the Episcopal campus ministry at the University of Texas invited us over for dinner and treated us to homemade fajitas, guacamole, and queso. My heart overflowed. 

After dinner, Brother Emmanuel, one of the brothers from Taizé, led the combined UT/UW group in worship and spoke a message that challenged us to broaden our understanding of reconciliation. Reconciliation must mean reconciliation with God and our neighbors, of course, but also - he added - reconciliation in one's own life, with one's own self. One student later asked the message in a question, "Are you on speaking terms with yourself?" 

On a free day, some of us scored a boat tour of Lake Austin through a local friend's generosity. We watched the bats emerge from under the Congress Avenue bridge. We ate more tacos. 

The following day, after hiking Enchanted Rock, we arrived at the site of the Pilgrimage of Trust. Several hundred young adults gathered principally for the purpose of prayer. Something like 5 hours of prayer over a 24 hours span, the rest of the time committed to workshops and friendships, old and new.

Two themes stay with me from our pilgrimage of prayer: 
  • friendship with and in Christ, and 
  • the surprising possibilities made open to us by the Gospel.
Three icons lined the front of our worship space. The first two were familiar: the crucifixion of Jesus on the left; the resurrection of Christ on the right. But there, in the center, an icon I'd never seen. Jesus and an unknown man. Staring back at us. The man next to Jesus looked bewildered, but the most surprising aspect of this icon was the fingers on the other side of the unknown man's shoulder. Jesus had his arm around the man. For an icon, the image was alarmingly affectionate. 

As it turns out, the icon is a 6th century Egyptian icon of Abba Menas, a beloved saint of the Coptic Orthodox Church, standing next to Jesus. In the Louvre, where the icon hangs, the icon's title is simply "Christ and his friend."

There, in the mysterious space between cross and resurrection, friendship with Christ. Surely the alarming possibility of friendship with Christ rests at the heart of reconciliation. And this is how I find myself transformed at Taizé gatherings: every stranger - and there are strangers from all over the world - is regarded as simply a friend not yet made; the possibility of friendship born of desire for Christ.

The brothers talked openly about the difficulties of seeing and receiving the possibility of reconciliation and the subsequent new life reconciliation makes possible. Quoting Kierkegaard, Br. Emile observed that "we can be affixiated by necessity." But "to pray is to breathe, and possibility is what oxygen is to breathing." 

When we returned to the bus stop from which we had first departed, not much appeared to have changed. Yet so much had changed. In the week we shared together, so much was beautiful. Without diminishing for a second the gift of warm temps and tacos, if our week was a true breath of fresh air, it was surely because of the God who met us again and again and again in rhythms of daily prayer, in rhythms of the possible, in the compassionate gaze of Christ.

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