JPIC: Building a More Peaceful World One Nail at a Time

Michael Johnson Features

The article below is fourth in a series from friars and Partners in Ministry (PIMs) of the Province and the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Directorate who are sharing reflections on Franciscan peacemaking. Their observations are based on experiences as well as on their impressions of an aspect of history.

In 2005, I had the privilege of participating in a Habitat for Humanity trip to El Salvador, building houses with folks from across the United States. One thing that struck me was the powerful impact this experience has on the volunteers. Their eyes were opened to the reality of how life is lived in the rest of the world. I witnessed how the Spirit kindled in them a desire to bring about a more just and peaceful world.

I remember asking one of my Baptist teammates why he built. He told me, “My wife and I believe in pre-emptive peacemaking.” I shared with him how Holy Name Province had just adopted a resolution calling for us to be pre-emptive peacemakers.

As I worked on the houses, I thought about this conversation and said to myself, “This is all so Franciscan!” Pre-emptive peacemaking, solidarity: with the poor, simplicity of life, ecumenism, the experience of global solidarity; there were so many ways these mission trips resonate with the values of Franciscan Spirituality.

After reflecting on the commonality between Habitat ideals and Franciscan values, I decided to try to merge the two into a Franciscan Habitat for Humanity experience called St. Francis Builds. On these trips, we reflect on how Francis initially responded to God’s call in his life by rolling up his sleeves and rebuilding a church that had fallen into ruins. That in turn led him to undertake a much larger mission of rebuilding and transforming the Church and the world. During these 10-day trips, it is our founder’s life and example from which we draw our inspiration.

Reflecting on how Francis experienced conversion by embracing the leper, we come to understand that, through embracing brothers and sisters of different cultures and economic stratus, we have had the way we view the world inexorably altered. In talking about the Poverello’s openness and humility in his journey of peace to the Sultan, we discover our model for how we are called to be a community in mission. In speaking about Francis’s incredible ability to encounter God, we become more open to all that our God of Surprises has to teach us.

Whenever I lead groups on these Habitat for Humanity trips, I am struck by the deep sense of community – Franciscan community – that rapidly develops within the group. There is a powerful sense of esprit de corps that comes when people feel they are working together to make a difference. By working shoulder-to- shoulder with the families, we form relationships with them as well.

It is a wonderful sight to behold the faces of the families, many of whom have lived in shacks, as they watch their new homes rise. These caring relationships put a human face on the problem of poverty throughout the world. From such encounters emerges a true conversion. Suddenly, the abstract and impersonal figures that tell about the hundreds of millions of people who live in dehumanizing poverty around the world become en-fleshed  in a specific human person – be it Juan, Marta or Oscar. This is a simple and yet profound transformation.

Having embraced the poor and worked with them side-by-side in the construction of their new homes and a new future, the people who come with me to Bolivia or Guatemala begin to ask critical questions, such as, “Why are Juan, Marta and Oscar so poor?” They begin to consider some of the historical, socio-political and economic factors that have given rise to their marginalization. They come to an understanding of how the conditions of powerlessness, poverty and injustice can be catalysts for violence in our world.  We also talk about the role our government has played in contributing to these conditions.

These trips also help to introduce people to advocacy on behalf of those who are powerless. After returning to the U.S., the members of the delegations are more likely, for example, to write to their members of Congress concerning a piece of legislation on trade issues or American foreign policy in that region. At a time when the international reputation of the United States is not particularly positive, these trips demonstrate to the people of other nations that people from the United States can be compassionate and altruistic, despite some impressions to the contrary left by some of our government’s policies.

I truly believe these semi-annual Franciscan Habitat mission trips to places like Guatemala, Bolivia, and El Salvador are a great way for people to satisfy a yearning for an encounter with the living God. In the process of helping the poor to realize their dream of a decent place to live, participants create a more just and non-violent world through their increased awareness and advocacy efforts here in the United States.

 — Fr. Mike is a parochial vicar at St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Md.