For ten years, I’ve passed by the same building at the University of San Francisco nearly every week wondering what it was like inside. I started at USF as an undergrad and stayed after graduation to be a full-time staff member. As a Catholic, I was initially drawn to the University’s Jesuit Catholic mission and tagline “Educating hearts and minds to change the world.” The city of San Francisco also appealed to me to learn more about the fullness of humanity. Today, USF’s Jesuit mission and core values strongly inform how I choose to live my life in a world that doesn’t always favor a young woman who is still a practicing Catholic. My faith and relationship with God has always motivated me to question what is just and how is justice best achieved. However, I would be lying if I said I it has been easy for me or I haven’t had any moments of doubt. Over the years, I have “church hopped” a term I’ve used to mean that I jump from parish to parish not committing to one in particular. This has lead me to discover some beautiful churches in San Francisco but it made me realize that by “church hopping” I’m missing out on being a member of a church community. Back to that building I started talking about earlier! It is the mother house of the Sisters of the Presentation. I was invited to have dinner with the sisters on March 5th shortly before our campus had to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every sister I talked with told me to come back and visit anytime. Our dinner and conversations together was a gift I will always treasure.
During my visit with the sisters, we discussed a variety of topics. It was a rare space for me to be in considering the fact that we were all Catholic women expressing our stories, hopes, joys, and struggles with our faith. The sisters warmly received my stories of how I’ve struggled with the Church as a young woman and how I have been faced with adversity in San Francisco when I share with others that I’m Catholic. Hearing the sisters’ stories of being on the frontlines of major social justice issues made me realize there is so much more to the Catholic Church than the hierarchy and hypocrisy. Some of the sisters had developed programs for abused and abandoned children in San Francisco. Others shared their stories of caring for prostitutes in the Bay Area while other sisters beamed with pride sharing stories from their days of teaching in parochial schools. I felt fulfilled on a deep spiritual level getting to be a part of these important conversations. These incredible women have lead radical lives dedicated to serving others and they are a part of a strong community. In an American society that values individualistic tendencies, these sisters are constantly thinking of others and how to be there for one another. They have a community and sisterhood that many of us will never have. It became even more clear to me how much I need a church community to keep me going when I have moments of tension in my spiritual life. This realization stings even more as I sit in my room “sheltering in place” for the good of humanity during a pandemic. There are a lot of things I’m excited for when the shelter-in-place is over, but getting to visit the Sisters of the Presentation again is certainly at the top of my list.
Faith and justice are deeply intertwined. Jesus, who had an ability to be both a humble, down-to-earth person while also being a voice who spoke truth to power, is the ultimate model of this relationship between faith and justice. Jesus was also a healer, and as a registered nurse, I love to imagine the intimate moments that Jesus shared with people when healing them. I’ve been incredibly privileged to get to be with people in some of their most stressful moments in life. Nurses frequently see patients in their most vulnerable state, and have an incredible opportunity to be with and lift people up in those moments. I’ve worked in community health during my short four years as a registered nurse, and I’m constantly amazed by the ways in which community health clinics live out their mission of caring for and welcoming the most vulnerable – for example: transgendered patients, the undocumented, pregnant teenagers, etc.
It’s often hard for me to reconcile that the religion I practice is not as welcoming as the clinic that I work in – even though it often claims to be. I dream of a church which truly lives the mission it preaches – that all are welcome and celebrated regardless of sexuality, gender, skin color, etc. I dream of a church which values me, a woman, as much as it values men. After getting to converse with Catholic Sisters and lay women, I’m saddened that their gifts and talents are not valued as much as men in the church. I hope that the church recognizes quickly how much it is missing out on by not welcoming women into every form of leadership and pastoral ministry, and I hope that the church learns from nurses and Jesus – that all people deserve to be welcomed, celebrated, and cared for.
My life reveals that the relationship between faith and justice is fluid, fragile and unbalanced while simultaneously strong and beautiful. Although I have been involved in social justice work for several years, it wasn’t until very recently that I was able to make the connection between my innate call to justice and my questionable faith. Moreover, the relationship between justice and faith has been increasingly apparent in all facets of my life (academics, personally, in my job). My thesis research brought me to Mexico where I discovered that the Church is one of the only actors providing much-needed humanitarian aid to Central American refugees and asylum-seekers stranded at the U.S.-Mexico border. My father, a self-identified Catholic who is full of faith but can’t recall the last time he attended mass, recently took up volunteer work with the Diocese of Oakland as a result of his newly found free time in retirement. And lastly, I surprisingly found myself in a new job as a research assistant at the University of San Francisco to aid a professor in her research surrounding churches practice of sanctuary in the San Francisco Bay Area in the effort to present the practice of sanctuary as a way for churches to express who they are or announce who they are becoming. Eventually, it was abundantly clear: the fruitful and extraordinary relationship between faith and justice is manifest in my life and the life of others around me.
Isaiah 6:8 – Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Consider Isaiah, standing in the presence of the Lord. There Isaiah was, just a simple, ordinary man surrounded by divinity. Yet, when the Lord called out for a willing heart, Isaiah did not hesitate. He knew he was the most qualified for the job. Throughout my life, I have oftentimes felt like Isaiah. I hope the Catholic Church continues to embrace and reflect the essence of Isaiah’s message today and in the years to come.
“Make heaven crowded” is a little Pinterest inspiration that I saw online and it got me thinking – am I living my life in a way that promotes dignity and puts me in solidarity with all people? It felt really easy to get involved when I was a student at USF because it seemed like the right thing to do as a member of the St. Ignatius Institute. I graduated in December 2019, and it’s been a process to realize that my faith life is something personal that I am completely in charge of. There aren’t necessarily going to be activities that are going to hold my hand. To my surprise, there was when I got an invitation to talk to women my age and religious women who were living out the mission of social justice and were interested in talking about that call for justice and the women’s role in the Catholic church. These were topics that I had spent some time reflecting on but not nearly enough I realized after gaining so much insight on other people’s ideas and opinions.
I brought up a question – how do you approach people who think it’s contradictory to be a woman and a Catholic? I was kind of initially confused by the first response. The religious sister talked about how women have played such a key role in providing relief through their social justice movements. It wasn’t really answering my question but follow up responses made me realize that I was ignoring the massive role that religious women and lay women have also played in the Catholic Church. These women, through their actions, were sending a message of hope to the world. Although sometimes it feels like women are unjustly held back in the church, I have found comfort in hearing about and also personally participating in acts of service. Justice can’t happen without faith. This is because without faith you don’t have hope that things are going to change and without said hope, you will burn out. After this dialogue, I felt deeply called to participate in Catholic ministries that serve the poor because it reminded me of the joy of service that I had experienced in my undergraduate years. The connector between faith and justice is hope – “Dwell in hope.” -Psalm 16:9. I encourage you to pray and discern where God may be calling you to a mission of hope through acts of social justice.