Saturday, June 23, 2007

Trust God and Jump! The Franciscan Mission to Kazakhstan

Friar David Gaa writes:
I came to the friars as an “older vocation” at age 32, after having completed the university and worked for some years. If anyone had told me when I was first discerning my vocation as a friar that one day I would end up living and working in Kazakhstan I would have laughed. It certainly wasn’t part of my plans for my life. I think it was while I was a novice in 1991 that the old Soviet Union fell apart and Kazakhstan became an independent country.

What do I do and how did I end up where I am? Well, the Franciscan Mission to Kazakhstan is part of the Order’s larger project known at the St. Francis Foundation for Russia and Kazakhstan. The Foundation, like all projects of the Order of this type, is international in make up, with brothers volunteering to serve coming from many different provinces. In all of Russia and Kazakhstan there are six friaries and about 25 friars. In Kazakhstan I live in a city called Taldikorgan (population 125,000) which is located in the upper northeast part of the country, not far from the Chinese border. There are three of us in the friary, two of whom are ordained priests.
But we Franciscan brothers do much more that just staff a parish. Our Franciscan life in Kazakhstan is really more of a life of quiet presence. This is what St. Francis told us to do in the first Rule of 1221-- just to go and live among others, and when we were able, to preach the Gospel. The reality is that we are quite restricted by the government in terms of what we can actually do for ministry. So we do what St. Francis suggested we do-- we just live and work among the people and witness to our faith by the way we live our lives. Most of our neighbors are Kazakh Muslims. There are also many Russians who are Orthodox Christians. The entire Catholic population is less than 1% of the total population of Kazakhstan, so you can see how small we are. The overall goals of the Foundation have been set by Rome: implantation of the Order, service to the existing Roman Catholic population, and dialogue with our Muslim and Orthodox brothers and sisters.

I ended up here in Kazakhstan because after my solemn vows I read in one of our Franciscan newsletters about the International projects of the Order directly under the Minister General in Rome. These projects are in Africa, Thailand, Turkey, Russia and Kazakhstan, and perhaps some other places that I have forgotten at the moment. At that time I was working as a parish priest in the Southwest of our province (Tucson, Arizona) when Rome was asking for volunteers for our project in Morocco. In my heart the international projects of the Order kind of struck a cord, and so with the blessing and permission of my local Minster Provincial of the St. Barbara Province, I applied. A letter came back from Rome asking if I would be available to work in Kazakhstan instead of Morocco. I wasn’t even sure where Kazakhstan was located, except somewhere in Central Asia! But I took that leap of faith and said “yes”, and have never really regretted my decision.

In my life as a friar I have tried to be open to the Holy Spirit working in my heart , so I agreed, with a little nervousness in my heart, to serve in Kazakhstan. I was somewhat apprehensive. Could I learn Russian? Would it be too cold?, What would the ministry be like? and so on…. It reminded me of when I was first looking at religious life. I was full of questions and had many reservations then, too. Could I live as a celibate friar? Would I be happy living with so many guys? When I took my vows, could I live them? But my life here in Kazakhstan has proven, like my life as a friar, that if God is calling, He will give you the grace to live the life. I have found great joy and fulfillment as a friar and I have found great joy and fulfillment living and working in Kazakhstan.

So I am starting year five here in Kazakhstan. I am still a member of the St. Barbara Province, but on loan to Rome to serve in the St. Francis Foundation. Currently we are trying to build a little church (see photo) since we currently celebrate Mass in a house. The “parish” is on the first floor and we friars live on the second floor. Thanks to generous support of my Franciscan brothers in the province and the generosity of others, our new church is becoming a reality. The grandmothers are overjoyed to be seeing an actual church building rise!

Please pray for the Franciscan Mission in Kazakhstan and may God Bless all of you discerning our way of life. Trust God-- and jump!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Walking the Walk Along The Migrant Trail

CT: What was the original impetus for the Migrant Trail Walk?
Friar Adrian Peelo (AP): I believe it started with a group of friends who decided to walk in solidarity with the migrants and who decided they would continue to walk until the issue was settled.
Friar David Buer (DB): That’s right. When the walls were put up along the border in urban areas, it created a "funnel effect" which has lead to deaths in the desert. It is estimated that last year (2006) alone, between 200-250 migrants died in the Tucson sector alone. A total of about 4000 have died along the entire border in the last ten years. And these are only the known deaths, where the bodies have been found.
CT: Who were the sponsors of this year’s event?
DB: This year’s event was supported by a wide range of groups, both faith-based and others, including Derechos Humanos, Humane Borders, No More Deaths, Phoenix, and Borderlinks. Faith-based groups included the Casa Maria Catholic Worker, Catholic Relief Services, and the Franciscans’ JPIC (Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Office) for the Province of St. Barbara. The Mennonite Central Committee (West Coast Region) was also involved, as well as one wonderul Buddhist monk.
CT: A Buddhist monk?
Adrian Peelo (AP). Yes, his name is Arjahn Sarayut. He’s from Thailand and works in Tucson. He told us he came out of his own curiosity and because of his work with border issues. You know, it was quite extraordinary. I had come to help as a support person for the group. So as the friars were getting out of the car, I said, “ You know, wouldn’t it be great to have Buddhist monks in this?” Then, just as they went off, I looked out the window, and there was a Buddhist monk in his saffron robes was standing right there!” We started chatting and he ended up cooking several meals for the group himself and bringing food to the marchers. We were like a little community together. He had a Franciscan humility, a generosity about him. He wanted to help, to do as much as he could.
CT: Adrian, how did you get involved in the Trail Walk?
AP: You know, people on the margins, on the periphery of society are often so desperate/. They can be hurt or even killed—exploited so easily because they have so few resources to serve them. ….The receiving community needs to be more sensitive and welcoming to them.....I can’t help thinking of my own country’s history—of people fleeing Ireland during and after the Famine in the 19th century. People crossing the Atlantic, desperate for opportunities, Many of them traveled in the notorious coffin ships and never made it to America. So, for myself, I wanted to be there for others in my own lifetime. also wanted to be with the brothers, as part of the Franciscan witness. It was not a question of just hanging out; I felt a moral imperative.
CT: What about you, David? You walked for four days and helped out with the organizing committee.
DB: I remember back to 1979. I was in Chicago when Pope John Paul II was there. He told the half-million people gathered in Grant Park: “Your ancestors came here for a better life. Today, people coming from the South and the West for the same reasons.” That really affected me. Now that I live right at San Xavier, I realized—here we are giving people water, fresh clothes. (The migrants) are literally at our doorstep…. Also, my own background has been working with homeless people over the last 25 years. I've led six pilgrimage groups the 65 miles from Las Vegas to the Nevada Test Site, so I undertstood the importance of pilgrimage. When I got settled in Tucson, I got involved with human rights groups like No More Deaths and Samaritans.
CT: What did people do during the Walk?
DB: The walkers had their own daily routine: They usually got up at 5:00 AM, and were on their way by 6:00 am. It was higly disciplined. They had to take down tents, pack their gear and get it into trucks, grab a quick bite and a cup of coffee, all within an hour. Then they walked all morning until noon, stopping to camp at a prearranged site. Along the way, we had a water stop every evey 1.5 miles. And every 3 miles, there was a rest stop with snacks. The marchers averaged 10-12 miles per day.
AP: I can tell you from my experience marching last year. It’s a mixture of conversation, sharing, getting to know each other. You see, we were people of all sorts of backgrounds, in it together. There were also quiet times, as well. Times for silence, meditation, walking in a single file as well. It was very moving, very contemplative. The walk itself became a spiritual practice.
CT: How did you see your role as Franciscans?
AP: I tried to make the entire experience a spiritual practice. We talk about the preferential option for the poor (until) it is almost a cliché, but the Walk is a real testimony to that. It’s very much in keeping with our Franciscan tradition of being should to shoulder with people of different backgrounds, people of all kinds in a humble way. Here we were, inserted into the community, not looking for privileges or attention. Pitching our tents, queuing up, sharing the hardships with everyone else. It was eminently Franciscan. I reflected about St. Francis, when he moved out of the town of Assisi into the Portiuncula, near the leprosarium, beyond the safety of the city walls.
DB: I agree. It was a taste of the migrant experience. The temperatures were in the high 90s, there were rattlesnakes. Days without being able to take a shower. But the Walk itself was peaceful, nonviolent, and in solidarity with the immigrants. We Franciscans weren’t in charge, though sometimes called to say a prayer once in a while. It was definitely a ministry of presence.
CT: What did you learn from your experience?

DB: On the humility side-- even from the beginning in Sasabe-- people on the Mexcian side of the border hosted us with a delicious meal. Other groups of people lovingly provided our meals along the way, often bringing them to us in the desert wilderness. We carried three coffins to the border: representing the children, men, and women who had died crossing. At the border itself, a Native American man gave us his blessing as we entered the US.
AP: I learned the value of our being together. What unites us is our common humanity. Jesus blessed our humanity by becoming one of us. When we are united together in a common cause-- coming from different ethnic, religious backgrounds-- it begins to dawn on us what really unites us. The way we have all been created and blessed by God. We are connected to each others, responsible for each other.
CT: How this experience reinforce your own sense of vocation at Franciscans?
DB: The Franciscan presence and witness is a gift to the world. Often times the world responds positively when it sees that witness It has to do with a spirit of prayerfulness, peacefulness, and solidarity with the poor.
AP: Every time I got out of the car, people just came over to me to talk, to be blessed. I remember that at one place, the Serenity Baptist Church, the pastor called out to me: “Oh Brother!” And some of his flock came out to shake hands, I was very moved; I didn’t have to explain that I was a friar, or what that meant. It was humbling. This year I was in the background like David, but when I saw Luis and Martin all covered with dust and perspiration, I felt a huge sense of pride in the friars for giving this witnesss. It’s a wonderful way to preach the Gospel.
DB: Yes, it was great. The fraternal support of our brothers coming together, sharing this witness.
CT: Any words of encouragement to our inquirers and discerners?
Both: Come!
DB: We’ll be marching next Memorial Day weekend, too. Join us!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Pictures from an Ordination: Father Ed Sarrazin ofm

Take some time.
Listen to your heart.
What does your heart tell you?
What does God tell you when you pray and listen?
Are you willing to say ‘yes’ to what God is asking you?

(Tucson, June 16) “So what advice would you give to someone discerning a call to priesthood or religious life?”, I asked. It was just about 1:00 pm when I had the chance to sit with our brother Ed Sarrazin for a couple of minutes to chat. Friars, family and friends had already wolfed down a generous portions of chili, beans, potato salad, fruit salad, soft drinks and a big gooey sheet cake. The Wa:k Traditional Dancers from the Tohono O’odham nation had just finished their performance here in the wonderfully cool school cafeteria at Tucson’s historic Mission San Xavier del Bac. Everyone was about ready to mosey on home—slowly, slowly, slowly—in the ferocious desert heat.

Ed, now Father Ed, had been a priest for all of ninety minutes. Yet he seemed to have been born to the manner. Here, in the midst of all the hoopla of his own ordination, Ed himself was the picture of serenity. I was amazed. “I’m usually pretty calm in situations like this. But later on, when everyone’s gone home, I know I’ll start to crash.” Thank goodness for that! Ed was human, after all; just like the rest of us.

The truth, though, is that Ed is a pretty calm and patient man. Both our Provincial Minister, Father Mel Jurisich, and the ordaining bishop, Gerald Kicanas of the Diocese of Tucson, noted as much during the liturgy. In presenting Ed to the bishop for the rite of ordination, Father Mel spoke of Ed’s “sincerity…(and) kindness…. (his) calming presence” as a friar. He also spoke of these and other gifts Ed would bring to ministry, including his “ simplicity and humility…. his acceptance of people as they are… and his particular interest in the needs of the Native Peoples.”

So was this an ordination or a canonization? Bishop Kicanas was not to be outdone in his affirmation of Ed’s personhood and gifts: “I can just imagine why these two carved lions (in the sanctuary) are smiling today,” he began. “And I can just imagine why two other lions in the sanctuary (Father Mel and Vicar Provincial Father Tom West?) must be smiling as well.” The bishop went on to tell us some things about our brother that many of us, his Franciscan brothers, had never known ourselves:

“Ed was born to Irene Sarrazin in July, 1960,” the bishop started. “John F. Kennedy was running for president that year…. And the Pittsburgh Pirates (did the impossible and ) beat the New York Yankees!” A few years later, Ed with his French Belgian and French Canadian roots, headed off to public school and CCD (“Christian Combat Duty”) classes for religious instruction. Somewhere around Confirmation, Ed got the call and later spent a college year with the Benedictines in Shawnee, Oklahoma. But it didn’t take. A teacher later reminded him that St. Augustine had a circuitous journey in his vocation as well and urged Ed not to give up. A later stint with the Vincentian community in Perryville, Missouri didn’t work out as he had hoped, either. Still, Ed didn’t give up his search.

The bishop fast forwarded to Ed’s move, with his mother, to Oceanside, California, where he spent still more years in discernment-- thirteen years total, according to his own reckoning. Father Michel Gagnon, ofm, pastor at Old Mission San Luis Rey at the time, vividly recalls Ed’s journey with the friars:

“I remember Ed when he first came to us. He was selling shoes in the mall. He was shy-- bit of a wallflower. He came to me and told me he might like to be a Vincentian brother. So he started to work as a sacristan at the Mission and we discovered he had all kinds of organizational skills and talents we never knew about.

“After that he said he’d like to work with the Confirmation preparation class—about a dozen middle-school kids. So I told him: ‘Are you sure you want to do that? Those kids will eat you alive.’ ‘So what do I have to do?’, he asked me. I told him: ‘You have to lift up your head, stick our your chest, and show them that you have confidence in yourself. And if they give anything to you—you give it right back at them! And he did! Six months later, he had the kids eating out of his hand. He came to me and said: ‘I don’t want to be a Vincentian brother anymore. I want to be one of you guys, I want to be a Franciscan friar!” And by golly, he did!’

I asked Ed himself what was the final tipping point in his own decision to become a Franciscan. He was characteristically sanguine in his response: “Someone had given me a copy of the Constitutions and Rule of the Franciscan Order,” and as I was going through it, I thought: ‘This is the life I’m already living right now. So why not try it in community?’” Ed entered postulancy in Portland in 1999 and started his novitiate at Old Mission San Miguel, California, the following summer. By 2005, he had finished his theological studies at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, and was ready for a mission insertion experience in Baja California. As Bishop Kicanas reflects, “It was in Cabo San Lucas that Ed realized that he was (like St. Paul) an ambassador for Christ…. He saw the face of Christ in the people he served there.” Ed took that same sense of engagement to his Clinical Pastoral Experience (CPE) hospital training—and to his most recent assignment at Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson, accompanying the Tohono O’odham people.

At the conclusion of the Mass, Father Mel announced that Ed would remain at Mission San Xavier as his first priestly assignment. “And by the way, you have the 8:30 Mass tomorrow morning!” he chuckled. And the congregation roared.

Ed Sarrazin’s path toward religious life and priestly ordination has been, by his own description, a circuitous one. Yet all along the way, it is clear that this very down to earth man has followed his heart and committed himself to the same quietly disciplined way he now urges upon others: Take some time. Listen to your heart. What does your heart tell you? What does God tell you when you pray and listen? Are you willing to say ‘yes’ to what God is asking you?" …. Well? How about it?//