For not being at all Catholic, Saint Francis of Assisi keeps appearing in my life in strange ways.
The first time was during my freshman year at university, when I went to a meeting of the International Social Justice Club. The leaders passed around green cards printed with the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. With utmost sincerity and seriousness, we read the prayer together and pledged to devote ourselves to the work for justice.
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.
For me, this prayer, without a lot of thought for the man who wrote it, was an inspiration to think seriously about making a difference in the world. That small green card, posted on my dorm room wall, played a part in my career choices and therefore, eight years later, to my trip to Choco last week.
During the first few days of our time in Choco, we went downriver to visit a couple of communities only accessible by boat. When we arrived, we were met by farmers whose food crops of cacao and rice had been destroyed by aerial fumigations, funded by the United States as part of the war on drugs.
My colleagues and I sat and listened to story after story: dead plants, airplanes and helicopters; complete lack of credible government response; contaminated water; and a sense of frustration about future options. After all of the work of learning how to grow new crops instead of choosing the more profitable path of coca, the source plant for cocaine, only to be fumigated anyways, what was the point?
When we got back to Istmina after visiting farmers, we wandered downtown for some ice cream and internet and straight into a parade. It was the start of week long festivities in honour of the Choco version of their patron saint, Francis, or as he is know here, San Pacho.
We arrived just in time for the hairstyle parade. Moto taxi after moto taxi passed, roof tops removed to proudly display couples with elaborate hairdos fashioned after flowers. There were multiple bands, dancing women in traditional costumes, people throwing candy, and of course an aguardiente truck handing out free shots to everyone. The sheer energy was contagious and joyful.
I could write about hope in the midst of challenge, resistance in the middle of difficulty. But I think that life is more complicated than simple platitudes and to overwrite someone’s sorrows just because they also have the ability to celebrate does not do justice to all of the complexity of emotions we experience as humans.
I will say, however, that of all the incarnations of Francis so far in my life, San Pacho is my favourite.It is powerful to witness the way an Afro-Colombians can take a Catholic saint, part of a belief system that deemed Africans to not have souls in order to enslave them, and defiantly turn him into an excuse for a giant party to celebrates a vibrant Afro culture.
When he was elected, the current pope chose as his name Francis in remembrance of the ancient Saint’s dedication to the poor. In his speech to Congress today, he stated:
We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good….If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.
The current Pope is yet another version of Saint Francis, one that the world needs to remind us that policy should serve human dignity, not sacrifice it. When I read his words, I think of the War on Drugs, a specific policy that created situations like those of farmers in Choco.
In many ways, I have come a long way from that tiny green card hanging on the wall. As other trips to Choco have demonstrated, life is often more complicated than simply a desire to go out and do good. I still want to work for justice, but with the spirit of San Pacho: a sense of defiant fun that refuses to take itself to seriously. Yet, the message of the Pope still rings true: we are all connected and that what happens in one country directly impacts the lives of those in another. What would Francis do?