Sr. Mary Margaret’s 12 Step Program for White Privilege

by Dave Nimmer,* Guest Blogger

Sister Mary Margaret, VHM

When I first heard about Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie’s idea to start a 12-Step Group to deal with the corrosive effects of white privilege on her life and on others, I was skeptical. I’ve been going to 12-Step meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for more than 15 years, and I couldn’t quite see how this would work.

I thought AA’s goal was simple: to help people abstain from drugs and alcohol. In contrast, such a group for white privilege could turn into a debating society – edgy, angry, and defensive. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that those 12 steps are a blueprint to living a spiritual life of honesty, humility, integrity, and charity. And that’s what Sr. Mary Margaret’s life and the lives of her Visitation Sisters have been about for almost 30 years in north Minneapolis.

Besides, this was Sr. Mary Margaret asking, and she’s been an elder, a mentor, an adviser, and a spiritual mother to me since we first met in 1989. When I’m down on one knee sucking for air, I run to Sr. Mary Margaret for comfort and counsel.

I also think that Sr. Mary Margaret, still dealing with the effects of a stroke she suffered in 2016, has a desire to put her spiritual house in good order, dealing with circumstances that shaped her life: growing up white in Decatur, IL; going to nursing school in Springfield, IL; and earning a degree from Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.

I haven’t thought much about white privilege, but I grew up in Fond du Lac, 60 miles north of Milwaukee. As I reflect on it, I had all the advantages: a stable home, a steady income, a good school, a welcoming community, and a grandmother with some money to take us traveling to California. So maybe I did belong to what Sr. Mary Margaret sought.

She chose the first participants in this group of 10 that meets once a month on a Sunday afternoon. We are black and white, men and women, younger and older. We are bound by a desire to heal old wounds, make amends, and improve our awareness of the plights and problems of our brothers and sisters.

Like our AA predecessors, we listen as much as we talk. What is said in the meeting stays in the meeting. Our desire is not to “fix” our colleagues but to heal ourselves – by talking honestly, listening carefully, and thinking soulfully.

The steps we follow are lifted out of the AA Big Book, something we do with respect and reverence. We have tailored them carefully to suit our mission. The first step is to “admit we are powerless over the pervasive and persistent presence of white privilege and the resulting racism and bigotry, and [admit] that our lives have become less than they could be.” Then, the second step is to “come to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to the loving, caring human beings we are intended to be.”

The last step, 12, comes directly from AA’s Big Book, with no change at all: “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, try to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Our first meeting was in January 2018, and we’ve shared stories that are personal, poignant, painful, and powerful. Sr. Mary Margaret set the tone in that initial meeting when she read from a poem by Maya Angelo, “Touched by an Angel”:

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

To one degree or another, our souls are laid bare in these meetings, sometimes with resentments from the discrimination of police officers, Christian clergy, or public officials, and sometimes with the residual guilt from our own good fortune.

I recall an incident when I was a high school senior, riding around on a Friday night with a couple of guys I didn’t know very well. We pulled into a gas station, bought a couple of bucks’ worth, and before we left one of the guys lifted a tin of car wax and slipped it into his back pocket. I didn’t know about it until we were a mile away, but then I did not insist that we go back and return it.

The next day a police officer appeared at my door. The station owner had matched one of the guys from a photo in a high school yearbook, and he fingered me as a ride-along. I quickly “fessed up,” and the cop gave me a five-minute lecture on the doorstep about honor and honesty. He also told my father. What he did NOT do was arrest me.

I’ve heard enough stories from the black men at our meeting to know they were not afforded the same privilege I got from a cop who knew my father. I have no doubt that a black kid in my situation would have been taken downtown, written up, and saddled with a record. I got away clean, and that’s the way I entered the U.S. Army and the University of Wisconsin. That seems to me to describe white privilege.

When we started our little group, I wondered how steps promulgated to deal with an addiction would deal with an attitude. Months later, I’m satisfied with an answer: they work. We belong in this milieu. Consider the last paragraph of the first half of AA’s Big Book:

Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to God and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the fellowship of the spirit and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.

Thanks to Sr. Mary Margaret, we have begun the journey.

* Dave Nimmer, journalist for the Minnesota Good Age magazine, is a frequent contributor to the Visitation blog, especially in his series of profiles of Visitation Companions and North Side neighbors. We hope you enjoy these stories of the blessed community that surrounds the monastery and sustains us in our ministry of mutuality.
LIVE + JESUS! 

 

Peace on Plymouth: An Advent Response

The Catholic Spirit

In this season of Advent, of awe and wonder, we tune into this sacred and holy birth, marveling at God becoming one of us. It’s from this place of the Incarnation, buoyed by our faith, that we pray and act in solidarity,

Click to read the article in The Catholic Spirit

Click to read the article in The Catholic Spirit

in our unity and oneness.

This article in The Catholic Spirit highlights this faith that we are living in the face of the recent upheaval in north Minneapolis. Perhaps it will speak to you, in your own wonder, prayer, and unique call to act?

Click to read The Catholic Spirit article, Peace on Plymouth, by Jessica Trygstad.

Please note the companion piece to this article, featuring Visitation friend and Companion, Bob Briscoe, also published by the Catholic Spirit:  In sharing experiences, Ascension parishioner hopes to initiate change

 

In Solidarity with the Sisters: Silent prayer

S. Katherine on Retreat at ARC

S. Katherine on Retreat at ARC

by Melissa Borgmann-KiemdeVisitation Companion 

“There is a healthy silence that heals and bonds us all.” — S. Mary Margaret McKenzie

The Burkinabe freedom seeker with his fist in the air. The Syrian mother lowering her babe into a boat. Pope Francis lifting the Eucharist at mass in Cuba. The police officer turning on his siren and lights just a few blocks away. The principal at my daughter’s school reaching for my kindergartner’s hand to walk her inside.  A quiet woman standing before a slow moving stream. These are images that come to mind in my prayer this day.

Sitting on the front porch of my Selby Avenue home in St. Paul, I hold a prayerful space alongside and for the Visitation Sisters who are on retreat this week. I’m in silent solidarity with all. No matter the distance, or circumstance, we are all bound up in this mystical body of Christ – in our common humanity, with our beating hearts, breathing bodies, seeking spirits. And it is a loving silence which unites and heals us all.

“Silence makes us whole if we let it.  Silence helps draw together the scattered and dissipated energies of a fragmented existence.”
– Fr. Thomas Merton Love and Living.

In a prayerful meditation on silence last spring, S. Mary Margaret described a quiet that unifies and bonds us; a silence where wholeness is revealed, compassion and reconciliation germinate.  I was in the living room at Fremont House with a group of other lay men and women discerning community life alongside the Visitation Sisters in North Minneapolis. S. Mary Margaret’s meditations struck a deep chord in me. I scribbled her words onto a slip of paper: “There is a healthy silence that heals and bonds us all.” 

The Visitation Sisters’ community is immersed in quiet this week: on the second floor of Girard, on the back porch at Fremont; up at the ARC retreat center; over in Collegeville; lakeside at a friend’s cabin; down in Fairbault. Each sister is entering into the fullness of silence — in that echoic room of her heart where God’s voice booms, Love pierces and connects all things — and softens all stances into a compassionate embrace.

In my own attempted practice of daily silence or stillness on my front porch, I have these fleeting glimpses of unity. I can travel around the world, into the darkest corners of my own neighborhood, contemplate the warring factions of humanity riddled by poverty and hunger, a desire for power, or freedom. I can see these across the river in Minneapolis, in my husband’s home country of Burkina Faso, in the headlines reporting on the Middle East, and inside my own beating heart.

The silence doesn’t scare me. It’s a silence that invites me. It’s a silence that contains all the ills and joys of the world, and melds them into a wholeness, a reconciled beauty that I have few words for, save Love.

I invite you into this meditation today, into solidarity with our Sisters on retreat. Can you carve five minutes of quiet in your day?  Find a spot in your home, in your car, on your block; in your church, temple, mosque, in a park, in a space you might claim as sanctuary? Go inside your heart. Find the beating, pulsing reality of your interior being. Ask for God to show you Love’s peace, Love’s will, Love’s desire for you this day.

Will you join me and the Sisters in prayer?

Welcome! To the founding of our Resident Visitation Lay Community

By S. Mary Margaret McKenzie

Heidi shares in Phase II resident lay community conversations

Heidi shares in Phase II resident lay community conversations

If the following characteristics gathered during Phase II discussions of the Resident Visitation Lay Community Invitation inspire and call you, think about, pray about commitment:

  • Relational, by being residential and in the midst of the neighborhood;
  • Mutual, in living as well as in decision-making;
  • Dedicated, to Gospel living through the lens of love inspired by Salesian spirituality;
  • Stable, through the stability of a life lived by “being where you are and being there well”;
  • Prayerful, in personal prayer and solitude to “know who you are and be that well”;
  • Prayerful, in communal prayer with faith sharing for support in laying down life in the dailiness and ordinariness;
  • Diverse, by living into and learning that diversity is our most valuable resource for moving us into the oneness into which we are baptized;
  • Inclusive, in respecting all others by affirming their dignity and creating a place for their belonging in the oneness with which God gifts us.
Untitled

S. Mary Frances shares during a Phase II conversation

Possible ways the Sisters might support the common good could include providing a facilitator for communication; installing a security system; forming a 501c3; exploring medical insurance; funding community educational opportunities. Community members would be responsible for funding their own lifestyle, housing, utilities, transportation, and insurance. The lay community’s presence in the neighborhood would require ongoing study of resources and learning from the neighbors in order to facilitate connectedness in north Minneapolis. In living near to us, they would join us for prayer when possible, enjoy an occasional dinner, participate in Salesian studies and other related topics along with reviewing the Sisters’ call to affirm the place of the laity.

The call gleaned by the Sisters from the Phase I listening sessions added depth to the vision of a residential Visitation Lay Community and is very specific:

  1. To strengthen their legacy from Francis de Sales that “all are called to holiness;”
  2. To support the laity in a way of evangelization for our time;
  3. To affirm the moral authority of the laity;
  4. To be with the laity in their leavening-living of the Kingdom in the church and in the world;
  5. To be and to model conversion from separation to communion;
  6. To pass on to others their faith in the future of the church.

Phase II closed with a bonded community, all its own, creating a clear pathway to founding a residential Visitation Lay Community while holding the vision with heart and hope.

 

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This is reprinted from our Summer 2015 newsletter. To read the initial invitation and proposal, click here.

On Contemplative Presence: Notes from Phase II Resident Lay Community Conversation

What is contemplative presence?

How do you practice contemplative presence in your life?

We’ve been meeting every other Sunday since January. In our convening for Phase II* of the Resident Lay Community conversations, lead by Sr. Mary Margaret McKenzie (and the Holy Spirit), there is a richness — a provocative nature to the questions posed, the stories shared. On any given Sunday, as our room of 8-12 lay women and men meanders into the Sisters’ formal invitation to unpack their Essentials of Community Living, there is an a informal integration at work of these Salesian principles of monastic living into our own lives.

The following are notes from a recent meeting for Phase II of the Resident Lay Community Conversations. Perhaps they will speak to you?

CONTEMPLATIVE PRESENCE and SALESIAN STABILITY

-compiled by Brenda Lisenby, Monastic Immersion Experience resident

The meeting began with an introduction of the essential “contemplative presence” and Salesian stability by Sr. Mary Margaret:

“Be where you are, and be there well.”

– an adaptation of St. Francis de Sales “Be Who you are and be that well.”

Contemplative presence is the stability of the present moment…to be at home, to be at rest, to give yourself wholeheartedly, to enter into relationship believing God is there, here, today, at this moment, to enter into our alive Center.

Question: How do you practice or realize stability/contemplative presence in your life?

Responses:

  • Trying to be very aware of God’s presence throughout the day—when I do this, I have a sense of stability, a continual little nod to that Presence
  • Practicing contemplative presence with bread baking, a contemplative activity
  • Have  a sense of stability by having a change in bread making method—changed from machine to hand’s on, and I feel more alive, feel more ownership, feel more stable
  • Contemplative presence is the awareness of the present moment, whatever the activity (chopping carrots, ironing, etc.)
  • For me it is an image: the process of centering the clay; nothing happens until it is centered; in the same way, nothing happens until I am centered, then can be in the moment with others
  • Being, not doing—to be with people, to be part of community
  • Contemplative presence is the slow work of God; an image that comes to mind is gardening—slow work; presence is also loving the place where you are, a place to give and receive love
  • Contemplative presence is a spaciousness; it is the economy of grace (vs the economy of meritocracy)
  • Contemplative presence is to receive all that comes in the moment as coming from the hand of God…from the beginning of time, God has held this moment for us and so we receive it as a grace gift and TREASURE it
  • To live in the world as a contemplative is to be present, to have a receiving stance of all things, all things received through the senses (smelling, seeing, touching, hearing)…the 20 minutes of centering prayer each morning allows me to develop the muscles to be in this open heart space, to be present…this is contemplative presence, and it allows us to live into transformation of self and world
  • “touching the now”, being open to what is happening immediately
  • “being at home”, making where I am home for me and others
  • There is a sense of “rightness” when I am present in a contemplative way
  • Singing…being fully present to the moment—the words, my voice, the music, is a time when I am fully present, and open to inner transformation by the Spirit
  • Bro Lawrence, “Practicing the presence”, a way of being present in the world through all the ordinary daily activities (washing dishes, cooking, etc.)—being present to the moment, which puts one in the presence of God, and is a stance of continual prayer
  • Contemplative presence is being open to receiving the moment, the gift of presence given by others
  • Contemplative presence is also related to identity as well, because we bring our “other places” with us to where we are—other “places” of gender, age, race, culture, etc.
  • A reminder that “all is done through love, nothing through force.”
  • A comment: Phase II has been an experience of contemplative presence, an organic unfolding.

 

*A brief articulation of the phases:

  • Phase I: a time of listening to constituents response to the Sister’s proposal
  • Phase II: a time of exploring and/or addressing practicalities through the essentials
  • Phase III: a time when individuals who feel called and are free to respond to the call move forward in discernment and commitment.

Read more about the Resident Visitation Lay Community.

 

 

Visitation Resident Lay Community: “Phase Two” Under Way

by S. Mary Margaret McKenzie, VHM

What is contemplative presence?

Heidi shares during Phase II conversations

During “Phase One” we gathered listening groups from our various constituents. As we listened, the Sisters’ own call to foster an intentional, residential Visitation community of the laity was more clearly defined by the dedication of the laity to strengthening the church today. The multiple, practical questions we heard in considering the possible lived-experience has guided us into “Phase Two.”

“Come as you are to live communally in north Minneapolis.”

Those who had participated in our listening sessions and who seemed open and interested without yet moving to commitment, were invited back to help formulate “Phase Two.” Beginning in December 2014, there have been fourteen who gather every other Sunday afternoon from 2:00- 4:00. These individuals are mature, experienced, gifted and diverse in age and background. They seem to share easily and in depth with one another, and have increasingly begun to show leadership. They have already expressed interest in what and where living together would look like. Their non-negotiables are family, pets, no-pets when there is allergy, and important dietary needs. After talk- ing about the essentials of commu- nity they decided to be guided by the Seven Essentials that the Sisters have gleaned from the experience of living their Constitutions in the modern world: prayer, community, recreation, silence, presence, conversion and hospitality.

What a privilege and blessing it is to come together to flesh out the legacy of Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal, sharing with optimism and joy the good news of the Gospel that God’s love is at home with our humanness in the life of Jesus and with us as we “Live Jesus!”

 

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This is reprinted from our Winter 2015 newsletter. To read the initial invitation and proposal, click here.

Homeless: In the Shelter of our Hearts

The following post is from our Newsletter Archives. It first appeared in our Winter 1994 Newsletter.*

"da homeless mother and child" by the artofgriffin.

“da homeless mother and child” by the artofgriffin.

by S. Mary Margaret McKenzie, VHM

Homelessness happens: tenants have to move because a landlord can’t meet the mortgage payment; a single parent needs more space for growing children; a family of nine cannot stay indefinitely with already crowded relatives, but what the law requires for housing seven children is not affordable; a person in recovery from chemical abuse slips, loses his job and therefore, his apartment; a young woman volunteering her time and talent for the enrichment of children no longer has a place when the outreach is cut back; a young mother involved in some “activity” has to move before she is evicted or reported; another mother away from her abusive husband with two small children knows the quickest eviction of all from a catastrophic fire. Theres are our neighbors, our friends, and their options are few.

“..until we could enter into our own suffering, we would not be able to support others in theirs.” 

The man in recovery sleeps on a shelter floor for the first time. The large family is dreading the shelter, but if they go, they will get emergency help from subsidizing housing which has a two year waiting list. Without newspaper, phone or car the long search for a “place to stay” begins. We have never heard the homeless talk about a place to “live.

It did not occur to me as a child, even though I grew up during the Depression, that homelessness could happen. Children in North Minneapolis know that it does. The young boy whose name means, “heart of the valley” came home from school one day to find that he was moving that afternoon. His mother told him to come with his little sister to say “goodbye” to us. They appeared at the door during Evening Prayer in too much shock and pain to talk, just looking at us out of a numbness that was holding on to everything. They left with many embraces and a care package. Each time they turned to wave, another one of us began to cry.

“Prayer does bond us in our mutual suffering.” 

Archbishop Roach warned us that it would be “hard, very difficult, terrible, awful” to stand with such pain and be helpless. We were not expecting it to come in the homelessness that seems to have plagued the neighborhood this winter. We have often recalled the counsel of Bishop Carlson that until we could enter into our own suffering, we would not be able to support others in theirs.

“Windsock time” with the children has prepared us for “phone time” with some who use our phone to make real estate appointments. While they wait for calls to be returned, we pray with them or they join us for one of Hours of the Office. One woman brought her sister-in-law along just for the prayer. Prayer does bond us in our mutual suffering, and once prayer brought a friend willing to make his properties affordable to to any reliable tenants we could recommend. Also, there is that amazing grace that flows in and through and around us when the homeless stand by us, too, in our helplessness in helping them and we learn that the “heart of the valley” is not the terrain of hopelessness.

 

***

Original article: Homelessness by SMM Winter Newsletter 1994

 

Advent: God the Father, Pacing the Waiting Room Floor

by Melissa Borgmann-KiemdeVisitation Companion

“I am praying to God, the Father, this Advent. I know he’s not on this list of saints we are invoking, but he’s central to our prayers. Who is God, the Father? He’s a new dad, pacing the waiting room floor, waiting for Jesus to be born. And he’s pacing the the floor for all of us in our ongoing birth-processes and new life journeys.”

S. Mary Margaret’s words were deeply moving to me as she spoke them to our circle of Vis Companions and Sisters convened last Saturday for our annual Advent Retreat.

Gathered around an alter of candles at the Girard House in north Minneapolis, contemplating the blessed saints and wise figures of this Advent season and offering prayers, we lit candles one at a time invoking the holy women and men’s names and the gifts they offered to our Advent contemplations.  I heard Dorothy Day‘s name spoken, St. Francis Xavier, St. Nicolas, Etty Hilesum, John of the Cross. And then: God, the Father. The image S. Mary Margaret offered of Our Father as an anxious, expectant father, concerned with Mary and his first born‘s well-being fired my own imagination.  It has stayed with me ever since.

***

A month ago, I turned 45 years old. In the weeks leading up to my birthday, I spent time inhabiting stories of my early life in Nebraska, going so far as to invite my parents to tell me again of the circumstances surrounding my arrival as their first born child.

My mom was enlivened by the assignment, recalling amusing, minute details of the day leading up to my birth. While baking a chocolate cake and gathering ingredients for brown sugar frosting, her water broke — though she wasn’t quite certain what was taking place in her body. She called her doctor, who reportedly said, “Well, call me when you are sure what’s going on.” At the age of 21, my first-time pregnant mother then dialed the neighbor, a nurse, and sought her counsel. In the end, she and my dad took off for Bryan Memorial hospital in Lincoln,  and 8 hours later, I emerged.

My father’s recall process came in spurts and fits, with his self-described exasperated efforts at aiding my mother in the breathing process during her labor, and his subsequent “failure” at keeping her calm. Apparently, my dad had my mother breathing so erratically that she hyperventilated, couldn’t relax, and so he was sent from the labor and delivery room by an attending hospital nurse.

The tale comes vividly today into my mind’s eye, as I imagine Mary and Joseph on the night of Christ’s birth. What did either of them know in the way of child birth? Was lamaze training part of the birthing preparation 2000 years ago? In my meditations, I see these holy humans amidst the air, earth, straw, elements; they are attentive, anxious, intent.

And then creeps back in God, the Father: pacing. He is no different that my human father: waiting, hopeful, trusting, walking to and fro in his father’s room.

Can you see this with me? Imagine Abba, Father, Daddy, for these moments, reduced to the uncertain expectation we all experience in the intense births of our life? How does this imagined scene fire your own identification with the incarnation tale? Can you fathom your own holy wonderings and human divinity as God paces alongside you, or breathes deeply and awaits news of your arrival?

Happy Advent Contemplations!

 

Snapshots from the Sisters: Title This!

Image and text by Brian Mogren Director of the St. Jane House, Visitation Companion

“One of the things I love about this time of year is finding a REAL fire burning and a hot cup of tea ready when I stop by to visit the Visitation Sisters. Oh, and great conversation, but that’s year round with any sister!”
(Sr. Mary Margaret is pictured below.
) —Brian Mogren.

Care to provide a creative caption?

Care to provide a creative caption?