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Center for Social Concerns


Charlie Kenney

By Charlie Kenney

I. Introduction

I would like to begin by thanking Andrea Smith Shappell and Fr. Bill Lies for making it possible for me to be here. It is always good to come home.

But mostly I want to tell you how honored I am to be here with you today. You are an extraordinary group of men and women, and your parents should be extraordinarily proud of you.

I would like to share with you some reflections on what one needs to succeed in service, and let me begin with a short story:

One day three men were hiking and unexpectedly came upon a large raging, violent river.
      They needed to get to the other side, but had no idea of how to do so.
The first man prayed to God, saying,
      “Please, God, give me the strength to cross this river.”
Poof! God gave him big arms and strong legs and he was able to swim across the river in

      about two hours, after almost drowning a couple of times.
Seeing this, the second man prayed to God, saying,
      “Please God, give me the strength and the tools to cross this river.”
Poof! God gave him a rowboat and he was able to row across the river in about an hour,
      after almost capsizing the boat a couple of times.
The third man had seen how this worked out for the other two, so he also prayed to God,

      saying, “Please, God, give me the strength and the tools and the intelligence to

      cross this river.”
And poof! God turned him into a woman. She looked at the map, hiked upstream a

      couple of hundred yards, then walked across the bridge.

Now, as Christians, we know that what we need is faith, love, and hope.

By faith, says Augustine, we know God is.
By love, we know God is good.
By hope, we know God ’s will, will be done.

II. Faith

I am convinced of something,
      something your parents may have said
      (or may be thinking without saying it):
You don’t know what you are doing.

I don’t mean to insult your intelligence:
      you are all bright, competent, and compassionate men and women,
and thanks to the education your parents and your university have given you,
      you are highly skilled and very knowledgeable.

But, if my own experience is any guide, in choosing to serve
      you do not know what you are doing.

When I first joined CILA and began working with kids from disrupted families,
      I did not know what I was doing.
When I went to Peru to live for a year among the poor,
      I did not know what I was doing.
When I went to California as a Holy Cross Associate,
      I did not know what I was doing.
When I returned to work with the Church in Peru,
to live my life there among the poor and to serve them,
      I did not know what I was doing.

When I met my wife, Caridad, and we got married,
      I certainly did not know what I was doing.
And when we began having babies and raising children,
      we did not know what we were doing.

It would be presumptuous of me to tell you the truth
      about what you are doing.
I do not know what you are doing,
      but I believe something about what you are doing.

I am convinced that what you are doing is seeking God.

What you believe about God probably has as many nuances
      as the different places to which you are being sent,
      and the variety of gifts you will offer in ministry to the people there.
But I am convinced that in choosing to be sent
      you are seeking God.

When I went off to Peru that first time,
      I thought I was going to be in solidarity with the poor and oppressed,

and quite honestly, my faith was shaking like a leaf in the wind.
I wasn’t too sure about God,
      and what I was sure about the Church did not lead me to embrace it.

Much later I came to the realization that in going to Peru
      I had been seeking God;
      Or maybe God had been seeking me.

That year, much to my surprise, I met God.
I met God in the scripture that I had never cared deeply about in English,
      but now savored in Spanish;
Not only was I reading the Bible with new eyes and ears, new questions,
      but God’s Word was reading me, interrogating me,

      lighting a fire in my heart.

I met God in the people in my neighborhood, neighbors who became friends, friends who

     became family;
Poor and oppressed? Yes, most certainly.
But they were not “the poor and oppressed;”
      they were Iraida, José, Angela and Rubén.

I met God in priests and nuns with whom I worked,
      so given to the Church,

      so committed to serving God in their neighbor.
Flawed? Yes, but as precious jewels are flawed.

The thing is, most of the time I did not know that I was meeting God.
I saw friends, flawed ministers, personal suffering, and terrible injustice.
I became convinced that I needed to dedicate my life
      to responding to what I experienced that year.
It was not until much later that I began to understand
      how God was becoming present to me.

And this is what I wanted to share with you; what I have come to believe:
      God is never where we expect;
      God is never what we expect.
Every encounter with God surprises us,
      and we often do not understand what we are doing until much later.
Every encounter with God shakes us as the disciples were shaken
      by the empty tomb.
Every encounter with God fills us with joy, as were the disciples
      by their encounter with a fellow traveler on the way to Emmaus.
Encounters that initially disconcert, frighten, bewilder, anger,
      but finally burn in our hearts and are our joy.

We do not know what we are doing.
“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you
      or visit you when you were ill or in prison?”

Perhaps the wisest among us understand immediately,
      or perhaps they are wise because they understand
      that they do not understand,
but for most of us, understanding only comes later, if at all.

Only later do we begin to understand,
      do we give thanks for the people through whom God has come to us,

      turned our lives upside down,

      forced us to radically reconsider all that is important to us.
Only later to we realize how God has been seeking us.
Only later do we begin to understand what we have been doing.

III. Love

If by faith, we know that God is,

it is by love, says Augustine, that we know God is good.

Love initially seems to be the easiest of the virtues,
      but there is nothing easy about a love that is not mere sentimentality

      —ask any married couple.
Love can be love of the wrong thing, as Eliot reminded us.
What do we love? To what do we give our hearts?
Prestige? Security? Success?

     “wait without love,
      for love would be love of the wrong thing.”

There is a simple test of true love: it is never exclusive;
      it is always inclusive, universal, catholic.
This is why Jesus dedicated himself to serving the poor, the sick, the sinners;
      not to exclude the rich, or the healthy, or the saintly, but to make real God’s love for those excluded from society’s


This is why the Church is called to look first to the poor today,
      not to condemn the non-poor,
but to ask how to make God’s love real for those who are most excluded from society’s


Years ago, some asked how it was possible to talk about God’s love after the holocaust

      and more recently some asked the same after 9/11.
Gustavo Gutiérrez has asked how we can talk about God’s love
      during violence and poverty.

This is our quest, to allow God’s love for us
      to free us from loving the wrong things,

      and to free us to follow Jesus into true love,

      to love of God,

      to love of those we make our neighbors.
Then, as Eliot proclaimed,
      “the darkness shall be the light and stillness the dancing.”

IV. Hope

Finally, there is hope.
By faith we know God is.
By love we know God is good.
By hope, we know God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s will,
      will be done.
On earth as it is in heaven.

By hope we know God acts in history, in our personal lives
      and in the history of peoples.

But hope, says Augustine, has two daughters.

The first is anger.
Anger that the world is not as God’s love would have it.

In the words of Pete Seeger,

If you want to have great love,
      you got to have great anger.
When I see innocent folk shot down,
      should I just shake my head and frown?

When we see the world, in small ways and in large,
riven by injustice
we feel anger;
      anger that so many suffer so much,
           and so needlessly;
      anger that the world is not closer
           to the love from which it was created.

There is of course a danger with anger;
      a danger that anger may grow in our hearts
      that it may crowd out love.

As Seeger put it,

      If you want to hit the target square,
      you better not have blind anger.
      Or else it’ll be just one more time,
      The correction creates another crime.

However deep, our anger must be tempered by love,
      for those who are wronged
      and for those who do wrong.

The second daughter of hope is courage.
The courage to see the world as it is,
      peeling back the myths and comfortable lies;
the courage to listen to the Word of God and allow it to question us;
the courage to accept God into our lives,
      to shape our decisions, our choices, our destinies;
the courage to act through speech and deed,
      to expose our beliefs publicly and to risk disapproval, ridicule;

      to risk being wrong, to risk being weak.

By faith we know God is.
By love we know God is good.
By hope we know God’s will, will be done.

V. Conclusion

You know the Chinese proverb:
     “be careful of what you seek, for you may find it.”

By seeking God you are exposing yourself to great danger;
      the danger that you may find God in unexpected ways and people;
      the danger that you may let God into your life, upsetting everything;
      the danger that you may have to face uncomfortable truths
           about yourself and the world you live in; the danger that you may lose your selves.

But Jesus, who is the way, showed us the way:
      how to be open to the Spirit who shatters our preconceptions;
      how to be obedient to God whose love may lead us
           to that which we might not want to do;
      how to see truly, act justly, and walk humbly with each other
           and so with God;

           and so live in peace.

So we sing, like Mary, “Let it be done to me.”

May God be with you.






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