WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
JANUARY 18–25, 2023
PRAYER / WORSHIP: Commentary on the Scriptural Text
“Learn to Do Good, Seek Justice”
By Cynthia Bailey Manns
Dr. Cynthia Bailey Manns is the director of adult learning at Saint Joan of Arc Catholic Community, whose vision is to be a visible, progressive Catholic Community, compassionate and welcoming to all. She holds a DMin in Spiritual Direction from the Graduate Theological Foundation and has served as professional faculty in the Theology at St. Catherine University, as the coordinator of the Spiritual Director Certificate Program, and as co-director of the Thriving Congregations Lilly Grant. She has also served as adjunct faculty at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota and Drew Theological School, teaching courses in human development, spirituality, spiritual formation, soul care for lay and ordained leaders, and sacred activism. She is a contributor to the anthology, Embodied Spirits: Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color (2014), and she is an experienced soul companion, supervisor, and retreat leader. She lives with her family in Bloomington, Minnesota.
In the fall of 2020, the World Council of Churches invited the Minnesota Council of Churches to convene a group of persons of color (POC) to write the materials for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2023. The members of this writing group were men, women, mothers, fathers, storytellers, and healers. They represented diverse worship experiences and spiritual expressions, both from the Indigenous peoples of the United States and communities who have immigrated – both forced and voluntary – with varying levels of access to their individual linguistic and cultural histories, who now call this region home. Members represented urban and suburban regions and many Christian communities. This diversity allowed for deep reflection and solidarity across may perspectives.” 1
This group came together in faith knowing their Christian love for God would manifest in their love for each other and justice.
In February 2021, I was asked by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota to join this group as the Catholic representative. I remember thinking that this was an intriguing opportunity, and I was humbled and excited to be a part of this important, sacred work. I was drawn to the members’ commitment to the eradication of racism and oppression, as well as to their insistence that justice exist for all God’s people. And although the group had met twice before I joined them, they welcomed and supported me as we began our journey together grounded in our deep commitment to our love for God and our deep responsibility to justice. Our focus on the prophetic call in Isaiah 1:17 to “do good, seek justice” encapsulated the full range of our fears, longings, challenges, and hopes for God’s human family.
Learn to Do Good
I am a soul companion / spiritual director who understands and experiences the deep, often painful work of self-reflection, personal truth-telling, self-compassion, love, forgiveness of self and others, humility, and gratitude needed to “do good and seek justice.” Contributing to the healing of God’s world requires us to be grounded in God’s love and participating in spiritual practices and sacred encounters with others and with Mother Earth, which help us be aware of God’s presence in our everyday life experiences. We cannot do this work alone, so we engage in this sacred work with trusted spiritual companions and communities, and with God’s unending guidance and presence.
When I joined the group, I was fully engaged in the day-to-day demanding work of “learn to do good; seek justice.” Isaiah was clear that God wanted Judah to practice justice and always to do the right thing. I know that my responsibility is to be accountable to this principle. In Luke 10:25-36, we are told: “He asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” This parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us to go beyond socially established boundaries in our doing good. Instead of asking “Who is my neighbor?” we are to ask: “Who isn’t?” The answer “No one” ensures that we love and care for those who have been silenced, excluded, and discarded. The answer to this question leads me to abide in faith that God will help me discern what is mine to do.
When Covid-19 shut down the United States in March 2020, I was serving as the Adult Learning Director at Saint Joan of Arc Catholic Community, whose vision is “to be a visible, progressive Catholic Community, compassionate and welcoming to all.”2 We navigated through the uncertainty of how to continue to be in community with one another as we moved Masses and programming online. We focused on tenderly caring for our neighbors inside our parish by calling them to hear how they were doing and to ensure them we were lovingly holding them in prayer. When we began to feel that we had found new ways of being our beloved St. Joan of Arc, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an African American man, was murdered by a white police officer 1.6 miles from our faith community.
We were overwhelmed. Grief-stricken. Angry. Afraid. We were tired and still reeling from COVID-19’s reminder of the fragility of human life. Our laments of “God, how long?” now included our pleas for police officers to stop the disproportionate killing of African Americans and other people of color. I found myself constantly asking God “What is mine to do?” to which the response was “go deeper.”
We all belong to Christ. We know this to be true, yet we struggle with living into this reality. Isaiah directs us to intentionally and continually create a world with God and each other where love and justice are stronger than the harm we inflict on each other. Where we destroy our greed for power and the diminishment of “others” that creates relationships, communities, institutions, and systems of oppression. Where we respond to God’s reminder that we cannot separate our love for God from our love for others, as noted in Matthew 25:31-40: “I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” As Christians, we are forever connected in our responsibility to love and care for others, as we are loved and cared for by God.
When it seems the world around us is collapsing, it can be difficult to behave in a way that confirms our interconnectedness. Our inhumanity towards one another manifests in our blatant denial of each other’s human dignity and freedom. Yet, despite the suffering we feel in our bodies, minds, and spirits, we must have faith and hope – in God and in each other. We challenge ourselves to live into the words of Fr. Bryan Massingale, a leading Catholic social ethicist and scholar in racial justice:
Social life is made by human beings. The society we live in is the result of human choices and decisions. This means that human beings can change things. What human beings break, divide and separate, we can with God’s help, also heal, unite and restore. What is now does not have to be, therein lies the hope and the challenge.3
Our church community pondered these words and looked with eyes of compassion and empathy for those suffering within our faith community, especially those we failed to see in the past. We challenged ourselves to create new ways to love and take care of each other.
We continued to increase the number of those we served outside our walls. We reaffirmed our commitment to our four-year-old Anti-Racism ministry, with its vision that “we will become an intentional antiracist faith community actively working to dismantle racism in ourselves, our church, and the larger world. As we and our parish move on the continuum from ‘welcoming diversity’ to becoming actively antiracist, we challenge and sustain one another on this communal journey of faith.”4 Through this ministry, we increased our collaborations with other faith communities committed to being antiracist faith communities.
This work requires we say a loud, resounding “No” to injustice by dismantling institutions and systems of oppression. It is using our faith, strength, courage, and resistance to destroy the status quo. This work requires a resounding “Yes” to creating just and inclusive institutions and systems where we recognize, honor, and protect the human dignity and freedom of all God’s people.
In Jesus and the Disinherited, the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, who was spiritual advisor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., states that:
We must proclaim the truth that all life is one and that we are all of us tied together. Therefore, it is mandatory that we work for a society in which the least person can find refuge and refreshment. You must lay your lives on the altar of social change so that wherever you are, the Kingdom of God is at hand.5
Being “tied together” mirrors the ancient Nguni Bantu term “Ubuntu,” meaning “humanity.” It is sometimes translated as “I am because we are” (also “I am because you are”), or “humanity towards others.” The spirit of Ubuntu is to be humane and to ensure that human dignity is always at the core of your actions, thoughts, and deeds when interacting with others. Having Ubuntu is showing care and concern for your neighbor, and we understand that it is through our interconnectedness and our unity, that we can embody God’s love to fulfill our responsibility to love God together, learn to do good together, and seek justice together.
What Is Ours to Do?
We are one big family: God’s family. Together, united in Christian love, may we come together to work toward solutions for these questions:
How are the “least of these” invisible to you and your church? How can our churches work together to care for and serve “the least of these?”
How can we come together in Christ with hope and faith that God will help us heal, unite, and restore what we have broken, divided, and separated?
As the people of God, how are our churches called to engage in justice that unites us in our actions to love and serve all of God’s family?
God, Creator and Redeemer of all things,
teach us to look inward to be grounded in your loving spirit,
so that we may go outward in wisdom and courage
to always choose the path of love and justice.
This we pray in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen.6
1Minnesota Council of Churches, Resources for The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 8.
2Saint Joan of Arc Catholic Community Website: www.saintjoanofarc.org, accessed 17 October 2022
3Bryan N. Massingale. Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010), 180.
4Saint Joan of Arc Catholic Community Website: www.saintjoanofarc.org/peace-justice, accessed 17 October 2022.
5Howard Thurman, Commencement Address at Garrett Biblical Institute 1943.
6Minnesota Council of Churches, Resources for The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 29.