Category Archives: vocation

The new and the old

Today feels like the start of a new year.

Maybe it’s just that the Christmas season, in the church calendar, is finally over. But it could also be that this morning’s Gospel reading is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Walking by the shore of the lake, he calls his first four disciples – to be fishers of human beings, a revamping of their occupations.

In some ways God calls us to something new, something that may radically change our lives.

That doesn’t mean that we have to abandon our current vocations, though that is a real possibility. It means that we are called to look upon things in a new way.

But I have found that when God has called me, even making what seems like the drastic move to Honduras at he age of 60, I was prepared to do this – not in a pre-planned way, but in the way that I had lived my life before.

God uses who we are and what we do to call us out of ourselves, to better serve God and God’s people.

So a philosopher, a campus minister, a single man comes to Honduras and finds the call to be with the poor in a rural parish, in a country that has experienced natural disasters, political disasters (like the 2009 coup), economic disasters, and violence.

I also find myself working with catechists, most of whom have at most six years of formal education.

But I find that my philosophic training helps me analyze the situation; my involvement in non-violence training using popular methodology helps me in finding ways to help catechists understand and communicate their faith in new ways; my campus ministry work helps me see the importance of being available and present to the people. ( I think it was the Dominican Timothy Radcliffe who called for “loitering with intent” as a part of campus ministry.) My experience in El Salvador and in Iowa has given me a love for the countryside and a deep love of the small farmer.

I’ve been prepared. But what’s next?

God calls us where we are, using who we are, to become more.

Going where we do not expect

Come over to Macedonia and support us.
Acts 16: 9

 I never expected to spend almost seven years in Honduras – and probably live here until God calls me elsewhere.

A 2006 service trip with students to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina opened up something in me.

I applied for an opening in El Salvador, a country which I had visited every year since 1985. I was interviewed and the Des Moines-based committee wanted me to go to be interviewed by the Salvadoran staff.

But soon after the New Orleans trip I had written to a friend, Dubuque Franciscan sister Nancy Meyerhofer, if I might be of help there. She told me that when I came on a planned visit in May I should speak to the bishop.

The Saturday before I was to see the bishop was the Saturday of the fifth week of Easter, with today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

Paul seemed to be trying to figure out where he should go to preach the Gospel. But the Spirit prevented him from going to some places in Asia Minor (now western Turkey). The places weren’t bad places to go, but God had something else in mind. At night, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia who told him to come to Macedonia to help.

In some ways my days in Honduras in May 2006 were like Paul’s vision: “Come to Honduras to support us.”

Sometimes God calls us where we hadn’t planned to go. And so I am in Honduras.

“Why Honduras,” some have asked me, “and not El Salvador where you have connections and emotional ties?”

Only God really knows but for me Honduras is poorer and has less solidarity than El Salvador.

And so I am here. Thanks be to God.


King and the dignity of manual labor

Forty-five years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. He had gone there to support the striking sanitation workers.

It might seem strange that he had gone to support a struggle of workers, this man who spoke against segregation and racism, who protested the Vietnam war and US militarism. Yet I think support for workers was central to his Christian understanding of the human person and the dignity of work.

I heard Dr. King in person once, about 1965, in a church in North Philadelphia. A friend and I were two of the few white faces there, but I felt at home. When King came he spoke strongly of the value of the human person.

I remember well one part of his speech, which I found in a sermon he gave in 1956:

Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

This struck home to me and has affected my life and my ministry in profound ways.

When I worked with college students I used this quote in my talk on the Antioch retreat to emphasize the dignity of all work as sharing in the work of God.

Here in Honduras this quote inspires me in my work with the poor to treat all of them with deep respect and to help them see the dignity and worth of all they do.

Since I’ve been here I’ve always greeted the street sweepers in Santa Rosa who pick up the litter on the streets. Some of them respond and a few months ago, one woman greeted me warmly and told me she wondered if I was still there.

In the countryside it’s also very important to affirm the dignity of manual labor – in the home, in the fields, building houses. The people in the countryside are looked down upon – “people of the mountains” [“hillbillies”], as one politician called them a few years ago. But they have an inestimable dignity in the eyes of God and their work is important.

And so Martin Luther King challenges us to respect the worth of all labor, especially manual labor, as he challenges us to work to rid the world of racism and war.

May his words and his actions inspire us to be with the marginalized of this world, respecting them, and helping them see the dignity of their lives and their work.

A personal note:
Only recently have I realized why affirming the dignity of all work is so much a part of me. My parents, who grew up in the depression, never finished high school. They both began as blue collar workers. My dad was promoted to the office because of his skills, including an incredible ability to do complicated mathematical calculations in his head. I grew up in a lower middle class, mostly blue collar, neighborhood and I finished college at the University of Scranton where many of my classmates were the first to attend college in their families, as was I. My roots in the blue collar worker of the lower middle class have, thanks be to God, survived many years of education and even professional work in the church and the university.






I urge you to walk worthily
of the call
to which you have been called.
Ephesians 4:1 

Often, in Catholic circles, the word “vocation” has been restricted to vocations to the priesthood or religious life. However, our calling comes from our baptism and we all have a vocation, a calling.

I have long tried in my ministry to inspire people with a vision of life as vocation, as calling.

When I was a campus minister I would often include this quote from Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking, in my talk for the student retreat called Antioch:

      [Vocation] comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work one is called to by God.
There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest.
By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.
Neither the hairshirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you is the place where your deepest gladness and the world’s greatest hunger meet.

I still think this description of vocation as the intersection of the world’s needs and your joy is an important insight. But I think it lacks at least one aspect of vocation, every true call has a communal dimension.

I believe that a true vocation needs to be within a community, for the sake of the common good. Otherwise, we can fool ourselves.

As I thought about coming here to Honduras over five years ago, an important part of the discernment process was consultation with others – not only the bishop here in Santa Rosa de Copán, not only my spiritual director and several close friends, but also with the St. Thomas Aquinas Church community in Ames.

A calling is not just about my joy, or even just about the needs of the world. It is about serving in and with the Body of Christ, as Paul notes in today’s first reading, Ephesians 4: 1-6.

Let there be one body and one spirit, for God,
in calling you, gave the same Spirit to all.