An Inspiring Evening by Jenn Reyes Lay
by Mark Chmiel
I was once again inspired and on fire this evening from the beautiful collection of stories from Brazil compiled by Mev Puleo entitled The Struggle Is One. Gathering with many who have also been touched by this book, the spirit of Mev and those she interviewed was alive and flowing through the conversations and questions posed. To begin the conversation, we were invited to think about three things: pretext, context, and the text itself. My own pretext for joining in the gathering and discussion this evening was that I love this book, the people and stories it contains, and wanted a chance to share a bit of the impact it has had on my life since I read it almost 6 years ago. In short, this book helped change the course of my life. I read it at a time that I was already seriously questioning the religion and institution that I had been raised in, and in a context of being in a foreign country experiencing challenging questions and realities on a daily basis. I believe that God brought this book into my life to inspire me and give me hope. Through the reality I lived in El Salvador and the stories of liberation theology at work that I read in the book, I was introduced to a new face of the Church and God at work in the world. This was a Church and faith that made a preferential option for the poor, that lived solidarity with one’s neighbors, that was awake to the reality that we belong to one another and the struggle is one. This was a Church and faith that spoke to me and challenged me to learn more, to be more. I returned to SLU to switch my major to theology to study more about liberation theology, feminist theology, and other theologies inspired by the people in a ground up not top down flow.
In reflecting on context, I conversed with some friends about imagination and creativity. Our context today is not the same as it was 20 years. While some struggles and systems remain the same, we cannot limit ourselves by what has been done in the past, but rather constantly reevaluate our current reality and context to come up with new, innovative, and pertinent solutions. Re-evaluation Counseling theory teaches that the mark of human intelligence is being able to come up with a completely new and fresh response to each new situation. So given all that, what do these stories have to teach us today? Is a book written about the reality of life in Brazil 20+ years ago still relevant today? Is this spirit and practice of liberation theology still pertinent and at work today? I think it is, now more than ever. I see the work being done by those who were inspired maybe 40 years ago and are still in the struggle. I see a generation of young people connected to the world in ways previously unimagined, and inspired to work for change through these connections. The reality has changed, but we still belong to one another. The faces of those in power, those who abuse their power, or do anything to maintain it, might have changed, but there is still truth to be spoken. And it quite frankly still needs to come from those on the bottom, those at the base, whose struggle is a daily struggle to survive, to find and create beauty and order, to maintain their hope and exercise their joy. We need to first listen to one anothers stories, and then share them with others. That was a beautiful part of the gathering this evening and many such similar gathering on Sunday evenings: the sharing of stories to inspire one to discover and share their own story.
And we are constantly writing our own stories. We have the power of text. The words we choose to use, the conversations we seek out or don’t shy away from, the questions we ask. Text can inspire, can move someone to action, can reawaken one’s own imagination. What is the story that I am telling? What will others glean from my text? If I returned to Brazil and interviewed these same people, I am sure their stories have changed. It would be a completely different book. And that’s beautiful. Our stories do change. From one chapter to the next, the text can take us in all different directions when new characters and situations are introduced. Whether something worked or didn’t in the past isn’t the question to ask. We need to look at our current context to determine what new ideas we might be able to dream up.
The stories in this book and many other stories I have been blessed to hear and share throughout the years, do give me hope in a people inspired by faith to live justice, to shake things up, and do things differently. Do I think liberation theologies have changed and will continue to change? Absolutely. Because inherent in the theory and practice is that it comes from one’s lived reality, which is also going to continue changing. But do I think it is still relevant? Absolutely. We need to step out of our comfort zones, to come face to face with those whose reality may differ from mine. I believe people of faith are looking for inspiration and community, and not finding it within an institution of exclusion that claims exclusive access to God’s truth and teachings. There is a phrase that I can’t remember where it comes from, but to be “evangelized by the poor.” To be reminded that we still have work to do. Our faith and religion should challenge us to learn more, to be more. And we need to be open to that challenge and inspiration coming from the people on the street, rather than the pulpit.