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Faith and Circumstances

August 1, 2011:

Believers or persons of faith should have little difficulty in seeing how their religious conviction affects and is affected by their daily life. Yet for many of us, our daily life is so busy and our world so noisy, that we have less time to reflect than we might like. Procrastination is our familiar companion. And good intentions - as the proverb reminds us - pave the road to hell! My personal reflection on the way faith and circumstances influence each other, is offered as a stimulus to your further reflection on your own faith odyssey.

Thirty years ago I was in London, England, as a formation director working with men who were preparing for ordination to the priesthood. I had come from a decade in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where I had been thoroughly challenged and deeply content working as a missionary and pastor while also being trained as an anthropologist, learning about the culture of this African people. But before returning to Africa, I was invited for a year to Catholic Theological Union. Having taught at the Missionary Institute, London, transferring my experience and classes to Chicago seemed straightforward. After all, I thought, it was only for a year, and then I would return to Sierra Leone. So much for well-laid plans and expectations!

During that year in Chicago - 1984 - I started working with Edwina Gateley and Judy Hahn (recent CTU graduates) and Depaul Genska, O.F.M., (also based at CTU) at Genesis House, established by Edwina to offer hospitality and nurture for women getting off the streets and out of lives marked by various addictions and complications. But I was also spending some overnights at a shelter for homeless people. As a consequence, during a winter of crowded bodies and less than sterile conditions, I became quite ill. I was unable to teach, and once recovered, unfit to return to the physical rigors of Africa. But John Linnan, C.S.V., CTU President at the time, offered me a tenure track position. I never did return to Sierra Leone, my life changed beyond my imaginings, and my faith journey took me to places and people who shaped my theology, ministry, and faith in life-changing ways.

For eight years I would spend three or four nights a week at Genesis House, alternating with Depaul Genska as the "stable male presence" in a house of women in various stages of healing. Cooking, casual conversation, even faith-sharing - and "by popular demand" a series of informal sessions on faith and religion - brought me closer to the women and made me much more sympathetic to their difficulties. When Judy, Depaul, or I were frustrated about how to best to proceed, we would simply try to follow Edwina's down-to-earth advice in relation to the women: "Just love them," she would say, with her unique accent and intonation. Easier said than done! But my sympathy for victimized women, and my antipathy toward the men - "Johns", police officers, even clergy who abused, exploited, or condemned them out of hand - deepened and hardened, respectively.

It became impossible to read the gospels in the old familiar way. These women were not simply a category -- "sinners" of various stripes -- but individuals, loved by God if not yet by me. But the challenge was palpable and constant.

Meanwhile, the overcrowded shelter had evolved. The men, who had occupied one room in the church basement, moved to a different site. I expected to go with them. But the women, who occupied a different room and whom I had come to know over the previous two years, had other ideas. They surrounded me one evening and made it clear that my loyalty should be to them: after all, they reminded me, they had spent two years getting used to me, and they did not want to go through all that again with another person! That was 1986; and the same room in the same basement of the same church continues to be the nightly shelter for the women, and my meeting place with them as I cook fresh food for them as often as I can.

Our society, and our Church, has a less than proud record in relating to women and supporting their basic human equality. I thought I was doing my bit working in Sierra Leone more than thirty years ago. But by God's grace and Providence, a ministry to, with, and among disenfranchised women has helped some of the scales fall from my naïve and myopic eyes, and affirmed my faith in struggling humanity, in a God who is indeed with us, and in the possibilities afforded by whatever circumstances mark our lives - whether in the villages of farthest Africa or the windy city of Chicago.

 Anthony J. Gittins, C.S.Sp., is Professor of Theology and Culture at Catholic Theological Union.   

If you are further interested in this topic, there is a book containing the first-person stories of twelve women, and theological reflections on our Christian response: Where There's Hope There's Life: Women's Stories of Homelessness and Survival. Anthony J. Gittins. Liguori, 2006.    

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