A wonderful tribute to Br. David Buer, OFM, written by the Episcopal Bishop of Arizona.
By The Rt. Rev. Kirk S. Smith, Bishop of Arizona
The Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, Phoenix
This week, I would like to say more about St Francis (his feast day is October 4), and I would like to do so without mentioning animals. I always think that it is interesting that our association of St Francis with animals is based on just a few isolated stories of his life, while his interactions with the people of his day are largely forgotten.
Francis has often been called “the most popular Christian religious figure apart from and the Virgin Mary.” He did not get that way simply because he preached to the birds or chided a ravening wolf. He was, and is, immensely popular because he modeled Jesus in his own life more than anyone else we know. Indeed, his life was so perfectly conformed to that of Christ, that legend has it that he carried in his own body the stigmata, the marks of the crucified Christ, in his hands, feet, and side.
Francis’ Christlike life was most manifest in his care for the poor. He himself embraced a life serving “lady poverty”, giving up all his possessions (his father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and Francis began life as an indulged playboy), and living life as a beggar. His followers for a while embraced this “mendicant” lifestyle, going from house to house begging bread. Moreover, his whole life of service was to the poor, including the most untouchable members of society, the lepers.
This summer, I had a chance to spend some time with a real life Franciscan, Brother David Buer, OFM, who lives in Tucson. If anyone thinks that the life of a Franciscan friar is one of quiet contemplation set amidst the palm trees or splashing fountains of whitewashed Spanish missions, tagging along with Br David will quickly disabuse them of that notion! I followed him for the better part of a week. Most of our time was at Poverello House (named after St Francis himself–“the little poor one”) where Br David has begun a small-scale mission to homeless men.
But we also went to a rally at City Hall to keep the bus fares low for working class folks, folded newsletters for anti-nuclear activists, dedicated an icon to the St. Don Diego (the first new world Indian peasant to be canonized), visited an elderly African-American man living near Poverello house whose son had just died, and carried water into the desert for immigrants who had crossed the border. If there was one theme that ran through all this work, it was that of serving the poor, and not by providing programs or even money, but simply by being present. Where there was need, just like Jesus, that is where he would be.
And there was no cushy retreat to go home to either. One night, I got a dinner invitation to the Priory. It turned out to be a converted corner of a cinder block community center in South Tucson. Dinner was spaghetti with Ragu sauce, with some Wonderbread with garlic powder on top.
And to drink, water!
There are two images I will always keep of Br David. One is my arriving a few minutes late for my early Sunday morning shift at Poverello House. I was supposed to cook breakfast. He was already there, hard at work, and eggs, bacon, biscuits and coffee were set out for the men lined up outside.
The other was the trip we took to the border to drop off water. It was early summer and quite hot, and yet Br David was wearing his long brown habit and sandals, not well-equipped for a hike in the desert, I thought. When I trudged behind him, through the cacti and mesquite, it occurred to me that except for the plastic bottles we carried, this was a timeless scene. We could have been in the Holy Land in Jesus’ time or medieval Italy in the Thirteenth Century. The message was the same, as Br David called out in Spanish to the seemingly empty wilderness landscape–“Brothers and Sisters, we are from the church, we have water, we won’t hurt you. We are here to help.”
I feel blessed to have experience some of the spirit of St Francis this summer. Just like the Spirit of Jesus it is alive and well in the lives of those who have dedicated their own lives to serving, “the least of these.”
Another Franciscan I like, Richard Rohr, wrote in his daily online meditation this week about the spirit of St Francis. He tells how at the great basilica church at Assisi, there is a statue of the saint, not looking up towards heaven for guidance as we might expect, but down towards the earth. He writes:
“Francis recognized and took to the logical conclusion the implications of the Incarnation. If God became flesh in Jesus, then it is in the world, the physical, the animal, in the natural elements, in human sexuality that God must be found. Speak of embodiment, physicality, and the world—use whatever words you want—these are the hiding places and the revelation places of God. This is how Christianity was supposed to change everything. Most of us just kept looking up, when God in Jesus had, in fact, come down. (This is the foundation of Franciscan mysticism.) On this day in 1226, Francis died at sunset and asked to lie naked and exposed on the earth as he died. The friars were embarrassed, but conceded to his wish. Now you know that it made total sense.”