by Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde, Visitation Companion
“We are present in the inner city to ‘Live Jesus’ by being part of this multi-cultural community-to share prayer, hope and God’s blessings with the people in our neighborhood and to receive their blessedness. These, our friends, are drawn into a circle of faith that brings us all to a clearer vision of the face of God.” – Mission of the Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis
My first year of teaching in the inner city of Minneapolis, I was invited to two birthday parties that occurred on the same evening hosted by my students’ families. My participation and presence at these two celebratory events still stands out in my mind. The experience in each of my pupils’ homes marks something in my heart — something that stays with me to this day and connects me in my faith and social justice practices alongside that of the Visitation Sisters’ of north Minneapolis.
On the birthday night in question, I traveled between Maria Gallardo’s* home in South Minneapolis, to the dwelling of Margaret Benning in St. Louis Park. The Gallardos were celebrating my sophomore student’s son’s birthday. (Enrique was turning two, and it was nothing short of a miracle, as the child had survived several surgeries addressing a hole in his heart. Maria was excited when she handed me the invitation to come and be part of her son’s life — and beaming when I accepted). At the Benning’s, on the other hand, we were toasting Margaret’s 16th birthday. As a pupil in my Pre-IB English class, I was equally honored to be invited into her home; I took note of the auspicious invitations extended on embossed ivory card stock.
“As a catholic steeped in the principles of social justice, I recognize that my work hinges upon such intimate and privileged encounters that allow me glimpses into the homes and foundations of those I serve, those I love.” -Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde
What was I to see, learn, be privy to? Who was I going to encounter?
I marveled at the privilege I felt to be included in both of these festive occasions and noted the overlap and juxtaposition of the evening’s celebratory circumstances. As a first year teacher in this inner-city setting, I wondered what God was inviting me into? What was I to see, learn, be privy to? Who was I going to encounter? Might I be changed in the process – and how?
In south Minneapolis, I entered Maria’s parents’ place through a door off the alley, passing through a high chain linked fence gate and walking around a dog’s kennel. Inside, we were packed adult and children’s bodies in the kitchen flowing into the living room; the space was illuminated by neon beer signs. I walked by a giant pot of posolé and a keg of beer, with pitchers of Kool-Aid alongside. At the dinner table, I was introduced as “maestra” and seated at the head. Spanish greetings and conversation filled my ears that early evening, as I smiled and nodded, attempting to keep up with the tales told – translating as rapidly as possible in my head. Two year old Enrique crawled into my lap; Maria’s mom took a photo of us. After 90 minutes, the second seating for dinner began at Casa de Gallardo, and I made my way out, bidding “Gracias y hasta luego!” and then venturing across town to Ms. Margaret’s home.
“I was just lucky to be invited in, you know? What a joy to have an opportunity to break bread within each home, and inhabit, at least for a few short hours, the intimate space of family – outside my own- and witness the generosity, love, and devotion of parents and siblings connected to me through my vocation, my profession.”
What relationships do you draw on that infuse your sense of social justice?
Entering the Benning residence, I was met by Margaret’s father (an elected public figure) extending a champagne flute filled with a bubbly concoction and inviting me to be seated next to the fire place where an array of cheeses and fruit were spread. The party of 12 moved from one room to another, from hearth to dining table where place cards marked our seats, and freshly cut roses and more delicious food adorned the space. The celebration was rounded out with champagne toasts, a few speeches reflecting on birth and rites of passage, followed by an elegant flourless chocolate torte.
Can you see these separate events? Can you imagine the smells, sights, sounds, and the feelings that might be awakened in your own spirit? Can you fathom the experience of my heart in each privileged space?
On a simplistic level, I could reduce the evening to separate, broad categories, labeling the family and respective experiences in each setting:
Refined and elegant. Simple and casual.
But this naming dramatically misses the mark, and I step back to explore the more dynamic and complex nature of such an experience in close proximity to my students’ lives.
I was just lucky to be invited in, you know? What a joy to have an opportunity to break bread within each home, and inhabit, at least for a few short hours, the intimate space of family – outside my own, and witness the generosity, love, and devotion of parents and siblings connected to me through my vocation, my profession. Beyond any marker of financial status or cultural notations, were the trappings of love and abundance. There was a spirit, fire, devotion present in each home that evoked the holy, that brought closer to me the Divine in our midst.
As a catholic steeped in the principles of social justice, I recognize that my work hinges upon such intimate and privileged encounters that allow me glimpses into the homes and foundations of those I serve, those I love. I know on many levels of my heart, spirit and mind that the education afforded me by such lived experiences is truly what creates the possibility for me to be my best self in action and service. It is these lessons with the seemingly poor and at once marginalized – coupled with the on-the-surface privileged, that inspires a transformational stance in the world, one that isn’t reductionary, but rather elevates compassion and fuels social justice action.
Are you called to visit or work alongside the Visitation Sisters of north Minneapolis?
I recognize that years after this initial encounter in Maria’s and Margaret’s homes that when I met the Visitation Sisters of north Minneapolis - their presence in the inner-city and first hand knowledge of the people in their community – echoed the encounters of my career and calling in urban education. I felt like I was at home with the sisters. I felt like I belonged. I felt like they got “it” – and “got” me: they understood and lived the very tenets of social justice teaching that anchored me in my vocational work.
I close this contemplative narration extending queries for you to ponder and pray with: What intimate experiences have you had that have informed your ministerial action? What relationships do you draw on that infuse your sense of social justice? What invitation or encounter do have do that brings you closer to the face of God? Are you called to visit or work alongside the Visitation Sisters of north Minneapolis?