by Bob ShineBob, with Jeannine Gramick SL and Frank DeBernardo.
Bob is a Loretto Volunteer at New Ways Ministry, a Catholic LGBT justice ministry in Washington, DC, where he will be transitioning to a staff member in August. He regularly writes at Imagine the Kingdom on matters of Catholicism in the world today, and tweets at @bobshine89.
I pondered over (almost) the whole year before writing this, combining my ministry and the volunteer community, external relationships and the spiritual inner life to tease out how exactly this volunteer year affected me. Divine omnipotence seems more fitting to a philosophy essay than this reflection, but it persistently seeped in to my thoughts. If I am honest, this year is one arching tutorial in God’s omnipotence for me.
Before I continue, let me clarify what I mean by divine omnipotence. Traditional articulations factor into my thinking, but it is not really about controlling power from an authoritarian God. Rather, this omnipotence I write of is the liberating power from a loving God.
Entering the Loretto Volunteers ended the bubble of my college years. Challenges have emerged from the diversity of those I live, work, play, and struggle with in ever-new ways. There are the major differences of belief and identity, the more minor differences of lifestyle and taste, and the uniqueness of each person’s personality. Adjudicating interpersonal and community relationships that account for this vast diversity eventually meant choosing.
Entering New Ways Ministry thrust me headfirst into LGBT advocacy as a straight ally. Days into my work, I confronted unacknowledged ways that homophobia and transphobia impacted my thought, speech, and perspective. Confident in my ability to understand Catholic theology, I finally admitted the (persistent) knowledge gap about LGBT issues necessary in this ministry. Neatly ordering my mind about this work eluded me in the most frustrating way. Here too I needed to choose.
What exactly is this choice?
The choice was simply the choice Jesus Christ confronts each person with, just in a new articulation for the signs of my life: will we be captured by the laws of humanity or liberated by the love of God?
I tend to strap new experiences into established categories and concepts, understanding them through rational analysis more than faith. Everything is sensible (and as such, controllable) if only we find the right paradigm within which to fit it. In college, my studies in theology and philosophy provided ample opportunity to reflect on life and control the world – I could explain why evil exists, how this moral issue is solved, and even make claims about other people. By senior year, I considered myself capable of capturing almost any quandary into pre-existing paradigms.
This volunteer year ended any false certainty I felt, as too many new experiences with too little time to reflect overwhelmed me. The common response to novelty like this is rejection where lack of understanding translates into a moral position against. Captured by the laws I established, the experiences of my community members and those I met through ministry tore apart a comfortable worldview.
Sure, I was a progressive Catholic supportive of lesbian and gay equality, yet what about queer theory and gender identity issues? I did coursework in interreligious relations, but proved unprepared to live the practicalities of daily interfaith life. I was raised to be grateful for my many blessings, and still privilege and injustice presented new discomforts as the volunteers went to marginalized communities. I claim, fervently, I seek to love as Christ did – but what does this mean when community life suffers and those we love cause pain to others and ourselves?
I read once that Thomas Merton had an epiphany in Louisville (it all keeps coming back to Kentucky this year…) where he realized how connected he felt to everyone around him:
“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes.”
It is a passage that challenged me since, to love so unhindered by human frailty and love as if others shone like the sun is beautiful. It is also beyond rational comprehension. Before I proceed, I am clear that I cannot claim an epiphany like Merton. Yet, this year enabled to grasp at a deeper understanding of what Merton writes.
A reasonable question this far along is where all the talk of God’s omnipotence injects itself. Finally it became clear as I sat with questions and more question these last few months: an omnipotent God is just that – all-powerful!
Instead of rationally comprehending each person and situation, I can collapse into God’s infinite ability to create people who are unique, in a creation that is unbounded by human controls. In admitting God’s omnipotence, it frees me (when I am not resisting at least) to truly engage a person, learning about them and from them in a listening posture. It liberates me to see their sunshine in growing glory, as a reflection of God’s image, and bring our connection closer. However a person comes to me, however they appear or identify or speak or believe, there is no need to declare moral judgment or fit them within a paradigm.
Paraphrasing Scripture, they are who they are. So be still, sit down, keep silent, and answer Christ’s question by choosing simply to love. This tutorial is not nearly over for it lasts a lifetime, but the volunteer year immersed me in God’s omnipotence as never before.
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.