My hair stills smells of the fragrance of our fire

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.
(CNS/Catholic New World/Karen Callaway)
(CNS/Catholic New World/Karen Callaway)

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Immersed into the deepest parts of Oakland and San Francisco, I'm on day seven of an eight-day encounter with seven high school students and a colleague.

We began our experience many months ago. Our group of nine met each week for six weeks, building community, growing in experience and exploring the six values of our program: simplicity, service, social justice, spirituality, solidarity and sustainability. Prepared to trust one another and grow in an intimate knowledge of ourselves, God and others, we packed our bags and left the familiarity of our school.

To my surprise, our local urban farm serves as a platform for the Great Turning, the planetary shift from an industrial-growth society to a life-sustaining society as stated on Canticle Farm's website. We began with receptive silence, conversation in a circle, and my kids were hooked! They felt at peace, they felt heard, and they cherished this new experience of inclusivity and love from their new friends Pancho, Sam, Shayna, Lotan, Anne, Nick, Terry, Chiara, Kevin and Tim.

We prayed, worked, sang, spoke, listened within an environment whose design reflected God's design of life, birth, death and cooperation.

I think of Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who served on the Western Front. His writings often were rejected by ecclesial authorities. Yet today, we gain great wisdom from his mystical writings on evolutionary nature and development. He says, "Our duty, as men and women, is to proceed as if limits to our ability did not exist. We are collaborators in creation."

The students cultivated their own sense of self and sense of community as they planted, harvested, created, ate and shared.

We prayed in the tradition of the loaves and fishes eucharistic prayer and huddled around a bonfire for two nights. My shirts still smell of the rich embers and smoke of our urban fire.

Teilhard de Chardin writes, "Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire." Our students rediscovered fire -- both externally and internally -- and now I have the smell to prove it.

The timing of release of the papal encyclical Laudato Si' is not lost on me. Here I am on an urban farm with students from a Catholic school with a Center for Environmental Studies, and we are exploring the suffering caused poverty, homelessness and marginalization.

Now, sitting in a San Francisco hostel sensing the hyperproductivity and noise, Pope Francis' demand rings in my heart:

"The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. Here I want to recognize, encourage and thank all those striving in countless ways to guarantee the protection of the home which we share. Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world's poorest. Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded" (Laudato Si', Paragraph 13).

Young people are demanding change. I hear them each day. They long for good, clean water; good, clean experiences; good, clean friendships. They demand our attention and our honesty. They demand our apologies and our guidance. They demand our commitment and our ability to see and recognize the truth.

Pope Francis once urged priests during the 2013 Chrism Mass to serve as "shepherds living with the smell of their sheep." Yesterday, I spilled lemonade all over my shoes as I was busing a table at the world famous St. Anthony's Dining Room in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. As I laughed at myself, I thought of all those whose access to showers, to restrooms, to housing, to health care, to employment, to friends and community, to love are limited. I looked up to see a young boy laughing with me. I couldn't help but sense a deepening understanding of joy amid the turning, joy and laughter amid the challenge of creating again and again with God.

Let us continue to pray for our generation and all the generations that are to follow us. Let this conversation continue, and let us offer this prayer from Teilhard de Chardin:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability --
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually -- let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don't try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

[Jocelyn A. Sideco is a retreat leader, spiritual director and innovative minister who specializes in mission-centered ministry. She teaches bioethics, feminist theology, Christian sexuality, and Christian Scriptures at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, Calif. Visit her online ecumenical ministry, In Good Company, at Her email address is]

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