Ever since I was part of Capuchin Youth & Family Ministries, a Franciscan youth ministry center in Garrison, NY, during high school, I have always thought of the lifestyle of St. Francis an admirable one.  Retreats centered around St. Francis and St. Clare and led by friars and brothers who have devoted their lives to following in the Franciscan path made my times spent at CYFM more than memorable. It's no wonder my CYFM friends alluded to the retreat center as a "heaven on earth." We were called to take our experiences back with us when we returned to the "real world" at the end of the retreats. 

While I moved on after high school, the agape love that I experienced at CYFM never left me.  In college I joined the Catholic Campus Ministry but my thirst for the feeling of the Franciscan community led me further, and my junior year of college I finally visited InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I felt a similar sense of Christian community here to what I had experienced at CYFM, although this time it was amongst Christians of many denominations.  And in IVCF I participated in a book study where I learned about and read a book by Shane Claiborne - a book that convicted me so much it changed my life - "The Irresistible Revolution."  This book taught me how fulfilling it could be to live among God's people, those that far too often are neglected and thrown to the sidelines. 

One of my most memorable times during a CYFM event was during Vacation Bible School during a Capuchin Appalachian Mission trip to Harlan, Kentucky. We were singing Proverbs 3:5-6, complete with hand motions that the kids participated in with so much excitement it was contagious. While I'm not usually very good at memorizing Bible verses, this one stuck with me: 

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,

and do not lean on your own understanding.

In all your ways acknowledge him,

and he will make straight your paths.

Somewhere along the way - perhaps through the numerous retreats and activities I participated in at CYFM - I developed a strong commitment to volunteerism and serving others. That commitment steered me towards a career in public health nutrition rather than as a lab scientist or clinical dietitian.  Then, as I continued to follow God's call as I completed grad school, it led me to a job with an organization that was funding a project led by NY Faith & Justice in New York City - a connection I'm eternally grateful for.  NY Faith & Justice puts into practice a passion for putting "the least of these" first and seeking God's kingdom here on earth.  It's given me a place to foster the idea of food justice and put it into practice, merging the calling of God with my professional expertise in nutrition and public health.  And it does so in an ecumenical sort of way, rooted in Christ but with a commitment to interfaith work needed to bring God's kingdom to earth. 

Is it any wonder, then, that this path led me to the Ecumenical Advocacy Days Food Justice conference this past April?  A conference where the Franciscan spirit was certainly present and I even came across the table of the Franciscan Action Network (FAN).  FAN works to transform the world in the spirit of St. Francis - through advocacy around caring for creation, peacemaking, poverty and human rights.  I like that so many people are intrigued by the life of St. Francis that there are multiple Orders practicing his lifestyle- from Catholics, to Protestants, to straight up Ecumenical. I truly believe this welcoming walk of faith is the kingdom Jesus called us to, and to which St. Francis sought to live - a life where all are one in unity, living a simple life of humility, caring for the poor and speaking out against injustice. Jesus didn't come to have a new religion created for him, new shrines of gold established in his honor. He came to call us to a life where we give up all we have and follow him, loving all we encounter along the way.  This is what is so attractive about the Franciscan lifestyle. 

And, perhaps this is why there are so many people intrigued by the new Pope, who has named himself after none other than this St. Francis of Assisi.  Maybe there's something to be said about the Pope's namesake.  

Today I was at my home parish visiting my parents for Mother's Day, and was fortunate to hear the homily by our priest, Fr. Michael Keane, who happens to be a Franciscan.  He spoke about the value of working ecumenically and how what God seeks for His people is unity.  He told a story about 11 clergy of various denominations who had come together in a cancer wing of a hospital to learn more about the disease, so they could better relate to and serve those they minister to who were affected by the disease and their families. What came out of their experience was a sense of being united in Christ, not of the petty details of one denomination over the other. Fr. Mike also spoke about the story of Margaret Patrick and Ruth Eisenberg, a Black Christian woman and a White Jewish woman, two pianists who had lost the use of one of their hands due to strokes. Margaret was unable to use her right hand and Ruth unable to use her left. They were introduced by the program director of a senior center, and fit together like two peas in a pod, able to create music together in a way neither could do on her own anymore.  This story is a beautiful example of how we can cross religious, cultural and racial divides to create unity and harmony.  It is unity, love and peace that God desires for each of us, not fighting over land, dogma or materialistic things. 

God called St. Francis to help him rebuild his house. Perhaps now that we have a new Pope who has named himself Francis, we can continue to be inspired by St. Francis and help him fulfill the task God had called him to. For, "It is only through the lens of history that we can see that the “repair” that Christ commissioned was neither accomplished when Francis rebuilt the small Church stone by stone, nor was it accomplished in his miraculous life. In fact it took the hope surrounding the election of a new pontiff to remind us that the call to “repair my house” has remained dormant to much of the global consciousness."  (Taken from the new Franciscan Earth Corps blog.) 

There are many organizations out there doing good environmental, social justice, and human rights advocacy work that we can follow. Some of these may be faith-based and some may be secular. However, it is important to keep in mind that many of society's problems today and throughout history have been caused by fundamentalists who have a skewed, extremist understanding of their own religion, and what I call "bad theology."  The best antidote for bad theology is good theology - theology that gives life and love to all, and honors God's creation.  In the faith-rooted organizing trainings I've been a part of, I've learned that policymakers (at least in the U.S.) value the opinions of people of faith, and create policies based on the beliefs of these people.  If more "Conservatives" and "evangelicals" took a pledge to follow in the footsteps of Jesus the way St. Francis did, humbly calling for values of love and grace to guide decisions made on Capitol Hill, perhaps we could turn the tide of extreme poverty in this world and finally help to rebuild the house that God called St. Francis to do in the 12th century.