Transitioning to a New President

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

The friars who contributed to this article. Top row (l to r): Ross Chamberland, Hugh Hines, Julian Jagudilla. Middle row: Abraham Joseph, Jacek Orzechowski, Steven Patti. Bottom row: Dennis Tamburello, Jud Weiksnar, Paul Williams.

Change requires adjustment. For several years, Americans have been preparing for a transition in national leadership. They have considered issues and candidates, and they have discussed, researched, prayed, and voted. During the past 18 months, the people of the United States have also sensed discord; they have heard about it through the media and they have felt it in their communities.

To get an idea of the mood at locations around Holy Name Province, the Communications Office requested feedback from nearly a dozen friars. They were asked to describe what they have observed and, more importantly, how Franciscans can help heal divisions. As the joint letter to president-elect Donald Trump, written by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and Leadership Conference of Women Religious said “We all need to be dedicated to respectful and dignified civil discourse with those whose positions differ from our own.”

The HNP members who provided feedback have, like people across the country, varying backgrounds and experiences.

  • Ross Chamberland, OFM, executive director of the Lateran Center for Catholic Identity and faculty member of St. Bonaventure University, Allegany, N.Y.
  • Hugh Hines, OFM, St. Anthony Shrine, Boston, Mass.
  • Julian Jagudilla, OFM, director of the Migrant Center of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, New York City
  • Abraham Joseph, OFM, student at Catholic Theological Union and resident of St. Joseph Friary, both in Chicago
  • Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, guardian of St. Camillus Friary, Silver Spring, Md., and chair of the HNP Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Directorate
  • Steven Patti, OFM, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C.
  • Dennis Tamburello, OFM, professor of religious studies at Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y.
  • Jud Weiksnar, OFM, guardian of St. Patrick Friary, Buffalo, N.Y.
  • Paul Williams, OFM, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Wilmington, Del.

Below are responses to two questions posed to friars at varied ministries during the week before the inauguration. They offer ideas about collaboration, hope, healthy dialogue and bridge-building.

In the area where you live and work, what emotions have you noticed in response to the election? What are people talking about that you think is specific to this presidential transition and inauguration season? What have community members seemed concerned about?

Ross: We have the great blessing of living in an academic community where diverse ideas and opinions can be shared, and challenged, with love and respect. There is a creative tension that develops when God’s people engage in respectful disagreement, and there has been plenty of that in this part of the country. Western New York seems to have a mostly satisfied response to the presidential election.

The creative tension that I mention comes with interfacing that regional majority with the members of our university community who struggle to find security, comfort and clarity, inside what they feel to be exclusionary possibilities.

Julian: People are talking about the difference between the Obama administration and the incoming administration regarding deportation. The Obama administration deported more than 2.5 million people from 2009 to 2015. This was done without calling it to the public’s attention, whereas Donald Trump’s announcement to deport 2 to 3 million people incited fear and heightened tension in the immigrant community, especially among the undocumented. What aggravates the situation is the lack of information and education and a plan that offers immediate hope and assurance.

Abraham: During this past election season, I observed a lot of negative feelings, such as fear, sadness, confusion, disappointment, and anger. I have also seen people pleased by the results and hoping for a better economic condition. The issues of race, religion, and refugees were in the spotlight during elections here in Chicago, but this year it was taken to another level. Instead of having honest conversations on the issues, the different sides were engaged in a war of words. The lack of civility was disturbing. Each group was so certain of its righteousness that people see any differing perspective or opinion as evil.

Here in Chicago, many were comforted with the message of hope from the outgoing president. The hope is because the younger generation seems to be engaged and ready to do a better job in changing this country. I see the problem as a spiritual one, in essence. Spirituality can be seen as setting priorities between realities like God, self, family, church, nation, political parties, and the like. It seemed to me that the people have given first place to their political parties’ agenda.

Jacek: A lot of parishioners at St. Camillus Church feel apprehensive about the future. Many are immigrants from Latin America and Africa. They say they are disconcerted about the overt racism and anti-immigrant posture and xenophobia that they see on display in Donald Trump. I’ve heard that some children and youth from our French-speaking African community are scared to walk the streets at night fearing that they may be attacked for being black. The election has eroded their trust in the system. Many people of color anticipate a rise in work-place discrimination based on race. A lot of adults fear losing health care coverage that their families are able to have thanks to Obamacare.

The DREAMers feel extremely vulnerable, fearing that they and their families may be deported and torn apart. In addition, many people feel that President Trump is utterly unqualified; they feel that he is a dangerous man who will take our country and the rest of the world backwards.

Still, many people don’t give in to despair. In fact, they want to get more involved in the local community and make a difference wherever they can.

Steven: My sense of things here is that there are a good number of people who are upset and alarmed by Donald Trump’s victory. In particular, there is concern about the tone of the campaign he ran and how that tone will carry over into his presidency. There is also real concern about his temperament and character, which make people wonder – is this man really going to represent our country?

His gilded image, his reality show background, his seeming disregard for the nuances of critical issues, his comments about women, immigrants and disabled people elicit curiosity and worry. There is a real sense of disbelief and shock among many here that he has actually been elected president. On the other hand, I am sure there is a fair amount of people here who support Trump. One day before Mass, one man said to me as he walked into church, is there room here for us “deplorables”?

North Carolina was a swing state and ended up going for Trump. While driving one day to St. Francis Springs north of Greensboro, through the rural countryside, I could not help but notice the number of Trump-Pence signs lining the country highways. One sign said, “Don’t believe media lies.” Trump supporters seemed to be fed up with a perceived sense that the Democratic Party had lost sight of them, and were drawn in by a promise of a return to a real, or imagined, sense of America’s former greatness.

I’ve noticed a big divide here between the educated “elite” of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area with its colleges and universities and the rest of the state. Overall, among many of either side, there seems to be a growing unease and uncertainty over what we as a nation have wrought.

Dennis: The mood here at Siena is mixed, but I would say that, in general, people seem unhappy. One colleague spoke of Inauguration Day as “the end of the world.” There seems to be only a small number on campus who are Trump supporters, but there may be more than I think. People are talking about many issues: climate change denial, conflict of interest with Trump’s businesses, the nightmare of repealing Obamacare with nothing reasonable to replace it – not to mention Mr. Trump’s seeming to cater to the far right and giving certain groups new traction (like the KKK). Our Muslim students, and other minorities, are afraid.

Jud: Most people seem to be walking on eggshells since the election. While some friends, acquaintances and co-workers have admitted to a feeling of depression, and others have felt inspired to join in protests, most of the people I know are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected, love her or hate her, people would have known pretty much what to expect. With Trump, it seems that everything is up for grabs. Up to now, that uncertainty has produced more anxiety than protest. However, that could change if/when policy ramifications start taking a toll on the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable.

Paul: St. Joseph Parish is about 85 percent black, with the other 15 percent being a mix of white, Hispanic and Asian people. The black parishioners are made up of African Americans, Caribbean and Africans. All of our parishioners were upset with the outcome of the election. Our white parishioners seemed the most outraged. There are a lot of older people in the parish and we remember past elections, especially Nixon and Reagan. The older folks, while disappointed, know that a president or an administration can go but so far, realizing that in two short years, things in Congress could change.

The younger people seem to be the most distressed.  They believed in President Obama and hope, and now many do not see that hope realized because of the harsh words that were spoken in this past election season. I was personally disappointed, but like the older group of which I am now a proud member, we know that in the end, people will get tired of the ugly talk and yearn for sobriety. When I was a child I learned a wonderful song that I now think about. The lyrics go like this: “He got the whole wide world in his hands.” I think a lot of people will now start to vote and take their voting privilege seriously. I truly hope so.

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Las Vegas in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore)

How can Franciscans act as a bridge at a time when people across the country are divided and a lack of civil discourse often characterizes the mood? How can friars help heal divisions among groups and encourage respect?

Ross: I truly believe that in order to act as bridge builders and healers, we friars must witness the very civil discourse that is so often lacking in our country. We can do this in our homes with one another first, witnessing to charitable dialogue and hope-filled speech. As is proper to our charism, what we share in fraternity we bring to the ministerial community. I intend, with the help of your prayers, to take this on as a personal challenge in this new year and new administration.

Hugh: As friars, we can go back to the Gospel as well as the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: both emphasize justice, both promote the general welfare, and both stress liberty. The community here at St. Anthony Friary generally reflects the politics of the Boston area, though of course some were delighted by the election.

Julian: At this time, I believe our task is to help people transition from the “election campaign state of mind,” to help move people beyond the election rhetoric and promises, and to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Women, members of the LGBT community and many more groups seem to be in a crisis and are calling for an immediate remedy. But I believe the most endangered of all these groups, the group that requires an immediate remedy, is our undocumented sisters and brothers who are facing the possibility of being separated from their loved ones if they are deported. Our presence among them is an assurance that we are walking in solidarity with them.

Peace-building comes through dialogue especially those dialogues that do away with any myths associated with immigration. We need civil engagement that results in the raising of awareness that immigration is not only a human right but also an element that’s beneficial to a country’s economy.

Abraham: As Franciscans, we are called to preach the Gospel by words and actions, and the Gospel says, “Seek first the kingdom of God.” Franciscans must be visible examples of people who make the kingdom of God their first priority, and who are open to listening to all. First, we cannot stop reminding the world of the inherent dignity of each human person since they are an image of the Creator. Then, we should encourage people to change their hearts and see that everyone is equal. Finally, we can provide a safe space to share stories and pay attention to the pains of others.

Overall, if we want to see different results in human actions, we must change something in our way of doing ministry. We cannot leave room for separation or division. Collaboration between all is the best way to go.

Jacek: When I directed the above questions to several of my parishioners, they stressed the importance of friars serving as a bridge among people of different races, creeds and political persuasions. The intercultural circles offered at St. Camillus Parish have been amazingly successful. They bring together diverse groups of people, break their isolation and help them not only to deeply connect with one another, but also to find hope that our nation can heal its divisions.

“Franciscans can make sure that everyone is heard and treated with respect,” said parishioner Joelle Happi.

Amy, a fellow parishioner and a teenage leader, added, “Being a bridge and promoting civil dialogue must not erode the friars’ commitment to speak prophetically and defend the poor and marginalized. If our new president continues to reject basic science and create his own facts, then the friars must be a voice of reason and conscience. They should stand up to his dangerous fundamentalism. There is too much at stake. We must do what we can to be a consistent witness in favor of life, peace, justice, inclusivity, civility and objective truth. Franciscans should spare no efforts to protect the vulnerable and our common home. This is what young people expect of the friars.”

Steven: It’s a loaded subject and we have navigated it at our parish by trying to be respectful of all sides, but also with a growing sense that there are early signs with the incoming administration that we may need to find ways to speak out on issues. If we speak out on immigration or the death penalty or health care, we get pushback on abortion, even though we have a regular prayer of the faithful that addresses all human life and dignity issues.

I believe it is very much within our Franciscan tradition to preach a sense of listening, dialogue, openness to the “other,” and a gospel with a reconciling and merciful Christ at the center. In many ways, it’s a good time to be a Franciscan as we enter some deeply uncertain times. We have a tradition that speaks merciful and prophetic words, and we have a big pulpit here to do that.

Dennis: I think we do need to be reconcilers and to urge people to give the new administration a chance. But we also need to remember that there can be no peace without justice, and we need to insist on honesty and transparency (can you say “tax returns”?). We need to avoid judging those who voted one way or the other.

Jud: In terms of ministry, a good example is taking place at Hilbert College, a Catholic Franciscan school outside of Buffalo. Hilbert is holding transformational intergroup dialogue training, which strives through the use of purposeful questions, enlightening exercises, and thoughtful engagement to create new levels of understanding, relating, and acting.

However, the first dialogue that needs to take place may be among us. There is an assumption in many friaries that all HNP friars share a liberal/progressive agenda, but that is not always the case. Though Holy Name Province prides itself on being the Order’s standard-bearer for JPIC, there are friars who disagree with some of our stated positions and who supported Donald Trump, but generally remain silent, perhaps for fear of being judged. If those friars are looked upon in a judgmental or condescending manner, how can we purport to help heal divisions among other groups?

Despite the inherent challenges, fraternities where friars have different political views or look at the world through different lenses are more representative of society at large. Just as fraternity is our primary mode of evangelization, modeling healthy dialogue in our own fraternities, as difficult as that may be, should be our primary mode of bridge-building.

Paul: As friars, we should seek out ways to engage the various races and ethnic groups to dialogue with each other. We need people to listen to one another and do so out of human love and charity. I wish the new president well, and I will be paying attention to how he governs in these uncertain and stressful times. Donald Trump and the USA are in my daily prayers.

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

Editor’s note: A 2016 Election Resource Guide is available in the Justice and Peace section of HNP.org. It incorporates works from Pope Francis and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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