On Exodus Journey, God Brings Us Together

Diverse group learns about Catholicism, becomes community

This article appeared in the May 10, 2002 issue of National Catholic Reporter.

by Ann Naffziger

Murder, rape, prostitution, drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, domestic violence, poverty and cancer. These are the stories the members of my adult education group were bringing to our small community on Thursday nights this year as we approached the Easter season. And when they bring them to the group, they bring them to God, and God, through us, was holding each person ever more closely en route to their Easter rebirths.

A dozen people from five different parishes, African-American and Anglo, 23 to 99 years old, gathered together last fall to find out what the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, popularly known as RCIA, is all about. Some knew with certainty they wanted to become Catholic. Some wanted to ask a lot of questions before they committed themselves to the process. Some wanted to learn to pray the rosary, some liked to shout “hallelujahs” to the heavens, and others admitted they were practicing Buddhist mindfulness meditations “on the side” and they didn't want to give that up if they were to join the Catholic church. Immediately I felt daunted by the diversity of our group. How, I asked myself, will we ever form a community with so many differences among ourselves and within our faith lives? Can we manage the journey to Easter together? Will we bond into a tightly knit group, or will our differences keep us distant and separated? As we began our time together, I wasn't humble enough to admit that if it had been up to me, we would not have grown into a community. Yet God seemed to relish the task of forming us into just that. When a sweet old woman in a wheelchair confessed with amazement a few weeks ago, “This is the best group I’ve ever belonged to—it's even better than ‘Grandmothers Against Crack,’” I knew God was getting a thrill out of doing the job well.

Our first several meetings last September were polite and uneventful. Then one week we were reflecting on Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan. A participant broke down and cried. “I ran out of money this week and I couldn’t buy groceries for my son. The first two food banks I went to turned me away because I didn’t live in their neighborhood. The man at the third food bank was a Good Samaritan.” What followed was a reverent silence. As the meeting ended, I saw one woman slip the other woman a $20 bill and our Exodus had truly begun.

A few weeks later, a team member gave a talk on Catholic beliefs about God. She spoke passionately of the belief that human sexuality is holy because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and because God is revealed in and through our bodies. A participant approached me within the next week to tell me how moved she was by the presentation and the ensuing conversation because she had been molested by her father when she was a teenager and later raped by an acquaintance. She related that the presentation enabled her to feel God’s healing touch break into her life for the first time in two decades.

She said she had always wanted to believe that her sexuality is a gift, but she had never learned to respect and love herself after being victimized. In coming to me, she was captivated by the idea that God grieves with her and for her since she was violated. And she wanted to hear more about the God who wants her to be healed and whole. Since that week, she has been experiencing tremendous healing as she prayerfully looks back on her experience, knowing God is present with her.

At another meeting, a guest speaker mentioned off-handedly that 20 years ago he had gone through a period of being mad at God. A woman whose nephew had been murdered a month earlier and then more recently was diagnosed with cancer said she could relate to that experience. As soon as the speaker was gone, she looked around at all of us and shouted, “I am beyond mad. I am angry with God! I've lived more than half of my life on the streets and I’ve been clean for almost 10 years. I’m just now beginning to live and it’s a blast. Why is God doing this to me?” She railed against God like a small child beating on her mother’s legs in frustration and then she broke down and sobbed in anguish. We put her in the middle of the circle, laid hands on her and prayed over her while everyone, everyone, in that room held her and spoke to her with reverence and gentleness.

If I have been surprised by the amount of suffering and painful experiences shared in our small community these past few months I have been even more surprised that the sharing doesn’t end there. No, despite the members’ difficulties, or maybe because of their difficulties, the group has been acutely attuned to God’s faithful activity in their lives. After stories of violation and injury, stories of addiction or need, the sharing always continues on with exclamations of amazement and wonder at the work that God is doing today, this week, this month. Indeed, the woman and her son in need of food were provided for, the sexual abuse victim is growing in freedom, love and forgiveness, the woman with cancer is being cared for in her sickness. And as a group of 12 incredibly different human beings, we have grown to love and care deeply for each other.

When I imagine our group as making an Exodus journey out of Egypt, I think, of God’s words to Moses during the Israelites’ long sojourn in the desert. “I will perform marvels such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the Lord; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you” (Exodus 34:10). If this is the desert, I can hardly wait to cross over into the Promised Land.

Ann Naffziger is director of RCIA for the West Oakland deanery and a student at the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, Calif.