A few years ago, when the neighborhood center I currently minister at was just a dream, a group of sisters set out to find a physical space for the project to call home. Having served in the city of Camden for over 150 years, our sisters began by visiting parishes that they thought might be willing to partner with us or which had empty properties our congregation could rent. Their dream was to open a center where neighbors could meet and grow in community and where neighborhoods (and the neighbors they contain) from throughout the city and suburbs could come together for opportunities of connection, enrichment, and empowerment.
As the sisters met with pastors and described their vision of a beloved community their message was met with regrets of inadequate capabilities, hopes that more profitable plans would come along, and reservations about a vision that the pastors couldn’t quite comprehend. Time and again, the sisters left meetings with hopes that maybe the next appointment would offer more promise.
After many months, having exhausted the prospective parishes in the area, the sisters finally faced the fact that their message wasn’t getting through. The mandate for the neighborhood center had come from a Congregational Chapter and so, we believe, is dictated by the Holy Spirit.
Filled with that Spirit and shaking the dust from their feet, the sisters set out once more. This time they searched far and wide, looking deep into the heart of the communities they wished to serve. In time, they came upon a little Lutheran church a few blocks from a once-wished-for site at a Catholic church. The congregation of the Lutheran church was small- maybe 25 people on a good Sunday- but they were intrigued by the plan the sisters set forth and were willing to rent their old Sunday School building to the sisters so that they could give it a shot. As the pastor would come to say, “We’re all just trying to live out the same Good News.”
Reflecting on today’s readings, I’m amazed by the way that Good News speaks to each of us. One of the things I love about the Easter season is the way in which our readings put into context the call of Christian discipleship. Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” These beautiful words from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel come in response to the pressing question of if Jesus is the Messiah. “Tell us plainly” (John 10:24) the people demand in the lines right before today’s reading. “I told you and you do not believe.” Jesus replies before going on to speak about how his sheep know his voice and follow him.
Like good sheep, Paul and Barnabas show us the way of their shepherd in action. When they declare the word of God to the Jews their message comes in two parts. First, they tell those who hear and believe to “remain faithful to the grace of God.” To those who object to their manner and message, they boldly declare that they will then speak to those who will hear them. This delights the Gentiles who are eager to hear and take up the Gospel message.
In an age when division runs rampant, though, I am cautious of the way today’s readings, or even my own story, could be interpreted. A cursory glance might easily draw party lines, creating an us versus them narrative. Nothing is further from the Truth of the Gospel.
As the psalmist sings out: “We are God’s people, the sheep of his flock.” God knows us and loves us, even when we don’t hear so well. At a moment in our church and our world when people have stopped listening to one another or are selectively listening to the voices they agree with, we must remember- no one is greater than the others- we are all sheep.
Created in the image and likeness of the Lamb, we are called to follow him wherever he leads. To do this, we must remain faithful to the grace of God, acting as instruments of salvation, striving for justice, and allowing joy and the Holy Spirit to be pervasively present in all we do.
The Easter season is one of rejoicing. Jesus is Risen! The Good News dwells among us! Despite times of great distress and division, God has a vision for our world. It is a vision of a world in which every nation, race, people, and tongue are united. It is a vision looking for a home in our hearts; it begs for us to listen and I pray, that in this Easter season and in all the seasons of our lives, we might live faithfully enough to bring it to birth.
Colleen Gibson, SSJ
Sister Colleen Gibson is a Sister of Saint Joseph who currently serves as the coordinator of services at the Sisters of Saint Joseph Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey. Rooted in a love of God and neighbor without distinction, this sponsored ministry of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia provides opportunities for connection, enrichment, and empowerment with and among neighbors and neighboring communities in Camden and the surrounding areas.
Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, Sister Colleen is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, National Catholic Reporter, and Global Sisters Report, and has been published in various periodicals, including Commonweal and America among others. Her firm belief that each person’s story has the ability to reveal God’s presence in the world directs her efforts to bring people into dialogue with their own personal experiences, the stories of others, and the grace of God at work in the world. In addition to her writing, Sister Colleen shares her gifts as a speaker and retreat director, inviting participants to explore issues of call, spirituality, and culture from an Ignatian perspective.
Prior to her work at the SSJ Neighborhood Center, Sister Colleen served as a campus minister at Chestnut Hill College. She has also worked in community development, social services, and pastoral ministry and is a proud graduate of Fairfield University, where she studied American Studies and Religious Studies.
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