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franciscan - January 2004

The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

Franciscans in the Midst of Empire: The American Province SSF

by Thomas SSF

To be Franciscan in the Episcopal Church of the United States is a deeply counter-cultural project.  Although the United States is in many ways a religious country, we approach religion as a highly individual pursuit.  The idea of living in a religious community, of tying the salvation of your soul to the salvation of souls not your own, of living and praying with relative strangers, seems to most Americans to be insanely romantic, a symptom of deep pathology, or at the very least vaguely cult-like.

In addition, the Episcopal Church, which has both catholic and protestant roots, has historically had no easy time with the whole question of religious orders.  The very first Franciscans in the Episcopal Church, the Society of the Atonement, joined the Roman Catholics because they felt there was no support for the religious life in the Episcopal Church.  Even today, religious orders are a bit 'off to one side' in the general polity of the Church.  This is both our burden and our glory: on one hand, we're free to witness to who we are without being saddled with the restraints of the wider institutional church; on the other hand, we continually complain that 'no one knows about us,' and 'we are the best-kept secret in the Episcopal Church.'

Having said that, it's amazing to me, given that there are only fourteen of us brothers at this writing, how much we affect the life of the Church in those places where we live and work.  We are a real presence in the life of the three dioceses of the Episcopal Church where we have houses, but our reach actually extends much further.  We've made mission visits to the Dioceses of Panama, El Salvador, and most recently, Mexico.  We have a house in Brownstown, Jamaica, and run a parish in Trinidad.  We have active dialogues with Franciscans in Puerto Rico and Brazil, who are interested in deepening their ties with us. 

The other miracle which is being constantly worked in our midst is the ways in which we, a community composed primarily of Caucasians of Northern European stock, continually reach out to cultures and ethnic groups which are not native to us.

In San Francisco, Brother Guire has worked for the last five years or so as curator of the museum at Mission Dolores, one of the string of Franciscan Churches which dotted Spanish California.  He's the first Franciscan to work there in well over a century and has opened really meaningful dialogue with the Olone tribe - the native people who once inhabited the area around the mission.  Guire's focus has been to document the accomplishments of the mission system and to witness to the abuses committed at the missions in the name of religion.  Both, he says, are ways in which justice can be served by an accurate telling of history.

At Little Portion Friary on Long Island, NY, Brother Clark is the Protestant Chaplain at Stonybrook University - the local branch of New York State University.  In this overwhelmingly secular context, Clark has made contacts with Hindus, Moslems, and non-religious students.  He's revived a heretofore moribund chaplaincy by inviting speakers like the Rev. Matthew Fox and the poet Robert Bly to speak at the university and conduct quiet days at the friary.  In addition, he works with Long Island Can, a justice organization fighting for the rights of immigrants in that part of Long Island. 

At St. Elizabeth's Friary, Brother John George and the other brothers run the Stephen Biko Center for Family Life.  The Biko Center is a compendium of programmes aimed at children and their parents in this very poor neighbourhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn.  The Center offers homework help, a computer learning centre, after-school and summer programmes.  It also provides a safe place where the neighbourhood's teenagers can gather.  They've actually formed their own company "Biko Inc.", which has periodic 'breakfast sales' in order to raise money.  So occasionally, we're treated to the spectacle of about ten huge seventeen-year-olds cooking bacon and eggs for their neighbours.

As for me, my time since my return to New York from seminary in San Francisco has been spent at the Church of the Redeemer in Astoria, Queens, NY where I am the assistant priest.  Redeemer is an amazing place: there's a small English-speaking congregation and an enormous Spanish-speaking one.  The Hispanics come from every country in Latin America except Paraguay.  They face all the problems of immigrants everywhere - no documents, no English, and sometimes, no friends or family.  This winter, St. Elizabeth's put up two Honduran men who showed up at Redeemer having walked and hitch-hiked from Honduras to New York City.  My first year at Redeemer was spent learning to know these terrific people in our Spanish speaking congregation, and glorying in the open-hearted and generous way they worship God.  Now my boss, Father Juan Quevedo, wants me to concentrate my efforts on the English speaking congregation.  These are, after all, my people.  So I, who have been among Guyanese, Jamaicans, Hondurans and Mexicans, must now learn to be with my own!

Lastly, we at St. Elizabeth's have spent the last six months or so living with our newest brother, Freddy Gildemeister, SSF.  Freddy came to us from Lima, having been a Roman Catholic Franciscan for 28 years.  He's spent the winter, spring and summer living with us, learning English, learning just how different we are from our Roman brothers.  It's been an amazing, confusing and rewarding experience wading through the vagaries of language and custom.  There have been lots of misunderstandings and lots of understanding.  Last month we restored the habit to Freddy, just as we had at Chapter to our brother Richard Carderelli (both are former Roman Franciscans).

To be a friar in our Church at this terrible time in our history is to witness to the ways we daily maim the Body of Christ - through war, through the greed that is endemic to Western capitalism, through our rejection of our immigrant selves.  But it is also to witness to the daily revelation of Jesus in front of us, around us, within us:  In those who are different, in those who are just like us. f


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