Zachary (“Zach”) Johnson begins work as Call To Action’s Executive Director on March 27. Vision Council member Debra Nell Brittenum says “Zach brings to CTA commitment with the right communities through his life, work, and ministry to companion our harnessing the light in this time. Thea Bowman speaks to what excites me most about Zach and his model of leadership: ‘I think the difference between me and some people is that I’m content to do my little bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change. But if each one would light a candle we’d have a tremendous light.'” Here are Zach’s reflections on his own relationship with the church and the ways he has tried to follow the call of Jesus.
I’ve been Catholic my whole life. Like many cradle Catholics, my religion felt more like an inherited culture than a chosen spirituality. The way I hear my grandparents talk about being Polish and German is how I’ve often felt about being Catholic.
When I was 19, halfway through college, I moved into the Place of Grace Catholic Worker house in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, mostly because I needed a place to live. I lived there for three years. At the start of the third year, I helped start and work at the new homeless shelter in town.
It was around this same time that I began to understand the holy power of the works of mercy. It took a lifestyle where some of these works became the unreachable aim of my mundane daily routine for me to take the works of mercy seriously. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, bear wrongs patiently, comfort the afflicted–these were some of the more obvious ones I practiced at the time. Suddenly, trying and failing and trying again to do these things with my body gave me ears to hear that these are the basic, practical call of Jesus.
I left the Place of Grace and moved to Minneapolis to get married and move into the newly formed Rye House Minneapolis Catholic worker. I got a job at the Harbor Light Center, a huge homeless shelter in downtown Minneapolis. Daily life in the worker and daily work in the shelter mingled in my prayers, especially after I found that I could sneak away for noon Mass at a church which was only a 10 minute walk from the shelter.
I’d pray through the Mass and hear reading after reading of oppressed people crying to God in the Old and New Testament readings. I realized in time that the normalized, monetized, commodified poverty in the shelter where I worked were modern capitalist echoes of the same biblical oppression. It’s taken a long time to come to terms with the full measure of what the logical next step means: my response, and the proper response of the Church to oppression ought to also echo the prophets of the Bible, and of course the actions of Jesus.
It’s taken time, because I understand the ramifications of this response to which Jesus calls me and my church. Jesus explains the ramifications of his way when he tells his friends, family and followers that they were headed to Jerusalem, the state capital and seat of social power to directly confront those powers, and that, “whoever wishes to come after me must deny their-self, take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:35). His followers knew exactly what he meant when he references the cross–as we should today.
The cross was the ultimate sign of state oppression on the marginalized people whom Jesus gathered to himself–not the diluted symbol of self reflection or personal transformation, as modern interpretation suggests. The personal work to which Jesus calls us is found in the stories where he widens the discipleship circle–usually because his disciples have tried to make it exclusive!
Our church needs these lessons. It too often mistakes exclusivity for purity. This is exemplified especially in its wrong-headed practices and teachings concerning women and LGBTQ people in this church. In other areas, it is less vocal in its marginalizing tendencies, but the results are the same. In matters of racism, Islamophobia, and class, the church uses the weight of silence to condone the miserable status quo of exclusivity.
Despite my disappointment with the church I’m still Catholic. I’m in love with the culture of mystery, ritual, sacrifice, sacrament, celebration, and assumption that paradox is as natural as water. This is the Catholicism I’ve inherited, and it social teaching springs from and is nourished by this culture.