Faith Journey

As a young child I acknowledged God’s existence, but I didn’t understand who or what God is: someone that watched over me, a being that was everywhere I went, or a force very far away. Needless to say, the farthest my faith education went was the show “Veggie Tales.” My family did celebrate Christmas however it was more out of custom than the celebration of Christ’s birth. My parents’ focus was raising me to be a kind, intelligent, and thoughtful person, which can be achieved without a faith upbringing. Ironically, they were not raised that way: both of their upbringings were centered around God.


My mom was born and raised in Shorewood near where I currently live. She and her two older brothers were taught the Catholic faith. My dad, on the other hand, was raised Muslim. Born in Cairo, Egypt, my dad immigrated to the United States at the age of four. For both of my parents, faith was a very large aspect of their lives, and just the thought of marrying one another seemed so abstract. Although they idolized the same God, the idea of a Catholic and a Muslim dating—and later marrying—seemed strange on both sides. Over time both families opened their hearts to one another and quickly learned how incredible not only the individual was, but their family was as well.

When it came time for mine and my siblings’ upbringing, faith was not the foreground. And it did not concern me until I reached middle school. Throughout the years I have juggled ideas of atheism, undeveloped versions of Christianity, Agnosticism, Deism, and more. When I came to Dominican High School, nothing scared me more than faith. I could make friends and get good grades, but I cared so much about not revealing to people I wasn’t Catholic. My dad’s biggest concern was that my beliefs shaped simply because of those around me, and I am sad to admit that they did. Although I may have developed understanding of some aspects of the Christian faith, I really didn’t believe any of it to be true. The issue was that while I was trying to open my mind to God, I was also trying to prove myself to my school and friends. I demonstrated some internal conflict I had to them, but many did not understand. They didn’t get that my faith was not integrated into every single aspect of my life growing up. Once when I was trying to explain this to my friend, she responded by saying “Amira, God is real. He just is.” But she didn’t understand that that was not enough for me. And if I did decide to develop a faith, why is it automatic that I turn to Christianity; I should get the chance to explore other denominations as well. All of it was easier said than done.


In time my faith grew, and I could discuss and debate it with my friends; we all broadened each other’s perspectives. What really established my faith was my Junior Kairos retreat this past fall. The retreat opened my eyes to the incredible talents of myself and my peers. Additionally, I learned that God places obstacles in front of you that he knows you can conquer; this idea was put to the test the day I returned from the retreat and had to learn a new role for Dominican’s fall show in ONLY 6 days. This challenge tested my strength and capabilities, yet I rose above it. Without my renewed faith I do not know if I could I overcome that obstacle.

Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.
— Proverbs 3:3

Faith is a very personal thing. Although I accept many Catholic beliefs, I would not call myself a Catholic. Throughout the rest of my life I know that my faith will alter, evolve, and may change entirely. Over the next few months I will share with you a monthly blog about how my faith is evolving especially during my senior year in high school.  Who knows how my faith will be impacted by school work, retreats, school activities and the planning of my post high school life?  No matter what happens; what will never change, no matter the faith, is that I know humans must treat each other with compassion, equality, and tolerance.


Questions for Reflection

  • What has influenced your journey of faith? 

  • What makes you proud of your faith tradition?  What questions or uncertainties do you have about your faith tradition?


Amira Elsafy, a rising senior at Dominican High School, lives in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin.  She attended the local public schools until high school where she has become active at Dominican.  She has been the class Student Council President,  a member of the honor roll for the past four years and loves to volunteer.  Outside of the academic world, you will find Amira on the stage, recently winning an award for playing the Witch in “Big Fish”. In the next year, she will share her experiences of failure and success, friendships, family her senior journey through the college process and ultimately how all of this impacts her faith.

Moving From... To...

Laura Hancock.jpeg

Laura Gilmartin Hancock is the Campus Minister at Messmer High School.  She is blessed to be accompany young people as they grow in their lives of faith, service, and leadership. 


I've been thinking a lot about transitions lately.  I'm not totally sure why.  I don't think I'm in the midst of any great life transitions... at least not that I'm aware of yet.  I mean, I know that as an educator I'm in the (awesome!) transition between one school year and the next (hello, summer vacation!!). I also know that I've just completed a major project that took years to move from the visioning stage into a lived reality.  So, I do have a sense of needing to reflect on the fullness of that experience, and to consider what the impact that this project will have, not only on my personal world view, but also on how it will impact what I do as a professional.

But, beyond these two contexts, I have been unsure why "transition" has been such a strong word for me lately.  I'm not getting married.  I'm not changing jobs.  The size of my family is not changing.  I'm not going off to start college or to live in a new city.  I mean, these are the major transitions of life, right?  I'm not in any of them!

And still, none the less, "transition" is with me.  So, instead of fighting against the word and declaring to be irrelevant at this stage of my life, I've been praying with the word and watching it rise up in my consciousness.  And as I've done so, I've come to realize that I need to transition from the person I was in the world yesterday, or last year, or five years ago, into the person who is needed in the world today.

I think as an educator and as a parent I am completely comfortable with thinking of transitions within the context of developmental milestones.  I've definitely exclaimed, "Ooooh, will you look at that?? My baby started walking today!!"  Or, as an educator, I have transitioned from one unit of study to the next and am trained to look for the signs of readiness and proficiency. Or, even looking back at my own personal growth, I vividly remember the transition from college student into... ??? what will come next for me?  This developmental transition is part of the beauty of a gap year program like 12 plus 1 for young people who are struggling with identifying their personal transition into, "what's next?"

But, putting all of this aside, I think the reason the word "transition" has been so present in my life lately is precisely because I'm not in a developmental moment. The transition occurring in my soul is the transition of daily life. 


                                    Can you relate to this?



Can you sense a tension in your soul... not a bad tension... but a tension between what was and what is being called forth TODAY?  I feel it all the time.  I feel it as I scroll through my various news feeds and on social media. I feel my soul wondering, "What am I being called to do here?  How am I being called forth to engage in the world at this particular moment in history?"  I feel it as I continually seek to be a better parent.  I feel my soul stretching, "Is there another way to handle this situation?  What does my child need in this particular moment to help her grow into the strong child of God that I know her to be?"  I feel it as I navigate relationships of various kinds. I struggle mightily to figure out, "What are the right words to say here?  How can I best respond to this situation?"

I was recently at the Milwaukee Public Museum with my family.  As we typically do, we started our experience in the museum by wandering through The Streets of Old Milwaukee and generally having a fun time exploring local history.  And, eventually, as we often do, my daughter and I made it down to the butterfly pavilion.  This is NOT my favorite place.  The butterfly pavilion has live butterflies flying around and, although the goal for my daughter is always to have one land on her, the butterflies actually kind of creep me out.  However, on this visit, for the first time, I saw a display of actual, active, cocoons that were in the midst of their transition from caterpillar to butterfly. I had never noticed this display before.


And let me tell you: they are not pretty.



And that's when it hit me.


these small daily transitions from who I was to who I am called to be, can have monumental impacts on our collective experience.

The truth is: these transitions that I'm experiencing are not monumental moments.  These transitions of daily life are not the moments of getting a driver's license or getting married or divorced.  They are not the cocoons of big becoming.  Rather, they are often small and insignificant.  So insignificant, in fact, that they can be overlooked.  But when noticed as opportunities of transition, these small moments can suddenly feel huge.  At least, they feel huge to me.  When I become mindful of the many opportunities for daily transition in my life, I find the need to summon immense courage to live into them... and that can feel ugly, just like those cocoons.  It takes tremendous courage to be aware of one's context, to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and to take one more step into becoming... even when it's uncomfortable.

The transition of daily life is not made up of monumental personal milestones, like a cocoon is in the life of a butterfly.  But rather, these small daily transitions from who I was to who I am called to be, can have monumental impacts on our collective experience.  We have the opportunity in each of these transitional moments, throughout our days, to bring more love into our relationships, into our neighborhoods, into our workplaces, and into our shared civic spaces.


Questions for Reflection

  • What are the ways that you are being called into the transition of daily life?

  • Can you identify ways of being that no longer fit your present reality? What can you do to begin moving beyond them?

  • Where is your sphere of influence?  How can you bring more love into those spaces?


18 Going on 60!

One month from today I will be turning twenty-eight and I am thrilled. I love birthdays. More than Christmas. More than tacos. More than spontaneous road trips with friends. I love birthdays. I’ve been counting down the days. It’s not that I’m vain and I like the attention. Don’t get me wrong, that bit is lovely, but I like celebrating life. Mine, yours, my cat’s, your cat’s. Everyone’s. I genuinely do not understand why some people do not want to make a big deal out of their birthdays. I try to be respectful of this and give said crazy person their space, but I usually fail. Just ask my friend Kimberly, she said she did not want to celebrate her birthday so I set up a mini celebration for every day of her birthday month. Ok, I don’t try hard but I do try.

To be honest, I did have a moment of hesitation about celebrating this particular birthday. My friend Annah and I were chowing down at our weekly Old Lady Dinner (We eat dinner and are in bed before 6:00 every Monday because you know, Monday.) when I did some quick math. In thirty-two years I will be sixty. I have no idea why my brain chose sixty or why it was even doing the math – I never do math. But there I was crunching numbers over 燒烤 (shāo kǎo; Chinese bbq). This thought process goes directly against my love for birthdays. I don’t fear growing older. It’s something I relish and look forward too. Yet the thought of turning sixty gave me pause. Annah chalked it up to a fear of impending wrinkles and insufficient plans for retirement and moved on with the conversation. My brain however, did not.

I laid awake that night, trying to sort out what it was about sixty that was freaking me out. Thirty-two years is a long time. That’s longer than I’ve currently been alive. And sixty is far from old. Clearly this was not an issue that was pounding down my front door, begging to be dealt with. And that’s when it hit me. That was the problem. There is no way I can control the outcome of this. Imagining my life at sixty is quite literally impossible, I have no idea what it will be. To be honest, I don’t even know what I want it to be. Turning twenty-eight or even turning sixty is something I have absolutely no control over.

Each birthday I celebrate all of the things I have done over the last year. I look back. I don’t look forward. For whatever reason this time I looked forward and that’s where the fear started. I cannot fathom where I will be for my twenty-ninth birthday let alone my sixtieth birthday. My life has become far more transient than I ever anticipated. For the longest time I had simple yet ridged goals and never in a million years did I think I would deviate from the path that would lead me to them. Well I did and I have and all of those goals have been tossed out the window in favor of new ones that resonate much more deeply with my soul. But they are abstract ideas, not ones that I can map out and plan my years by. So sixty? I have no idea what that will look like and I’m realizing now that that terrifies me.


On a day to day basis I love that I do not know what the universe and God have in store for me. I know I have love in my heart and that will bring me to great things. That is more than enough for me. But when I look out, beyond tomorrow I realize how little control I have over it all. That’s when my not so well hidden control freak and anxiety bust out a frenzied dance with complicated steps that leave all three of us breathless and weak in the knees with our heart in a knot that would stump even the best Eagle Scout.

This is the part of my faith that is a constant struggle. That love in my heart that I mentioned earlier, I know that if I keep doling it out in big handfuls like I try to do, that same love will come right back to me. And on the days when I struggle to share it, it’s ok because no matter what God is there, loving me. That is all I need to carry me through my life. But it’s not always enough. I want more. There’s that icky part of me, riddled with jealousy, anger and other not so great qualities that craves for more. That’s the bit of me that is worried about turning sixty because it has no idea what that will look like and that is terrifying.

In theory I should sit here keep passing out love by the bushel and work, work, work. Then, whatever my sixty is, it will be beautiful. That makes sense in my head and my heart. My glorious faith has tied up that glowing logic in a beautiful bow and I’m set. Until that icky party of my rears up and stomps its gnarly feet all over the beautiful gift that my faith gave me and says, “Nope. Not today. I need more.”

Do not dwell in the past. Do not dream of the future. Concentrate the mind on the present moment.
— Buddha

So how do I get past this? How do I let go and let God? How do I set aside the jealousy and anger that are learning over the fence, threatening to ruin my birthday party? How do I stop worrying about being sixty? In three weeks I move back to the United States. In four I turn twenty-eight. In six I move into a new house. In seven I start a new job. With so much newness happening in such a short time, how can I possibly predict what my weeks will look like thirty-two years from now? I can’t. In fact, I don’t know how to answer any of these questions.

What I do know is that it is a process. One that I’ll probably be working through until I’m sixty, if not longer. I also know that it is something I can start working on right now. I can focus on that love. I’ve got loads of it so there is plenty to keep me busy. I can spread it around on my birthday and every other day until I figure this out and keep doing it after. I can build up my faith, protecting it from that icky part of me. Building it. Trusting it. Learning from it. And someday maybe I really will be able to give it all up to God. No hesitation. No anxiety. I won’t worry about what my life will be at sixty or eighty or even one hundred. I cannot imagine a more perfect birthday gift. So I’m going to keep wishing and working until I get there. Bring it on sixty. I may not be ready for you now, but I will be.


Margaret Russell is an almost thirty something who has looked for God just about everywhere – even China. Nothing about her journey has been traditional and it turns out that is exactly how it was supposed to be. She thinks. Maybe. With a background in education, a self-awarded doctoral degree in tacos and a propensity for the ridiculous, Maggie hopes to spend the rest of her life loving as loudly as she laughs and sharing the joy that is her faith.


Dark Night of the Soul

St John Of the Cross

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

There is a dark place my mind can go.  It is a place filled with worry and anxiety.  My thoughts start racing and overwhelm me with the idea that I am not good enough, am going to fail, and have failed too often to ever get another chance.  My heart rate goes up and it is a struggle to remain in control.  These feelings are so strong that I lose sense of myself.   It feels like the walls of the world are closing in around and will suffocate me.  All the while I am paralyzed to move.  The degree to which these feelings are present in my mind vary.  Sometimes they are subtle and lingering in the background and other times, they are an untamed monster.  Whatever the feeling the source seems to be the idea that I am simply not good enough, forgivable or love-able.  There is an internal battle between what I know in my head (I am a capable person who has made a significant impact in the lives of others) with feeling utterly worthless and alone.  Longing for a God who I know is there somewhere but seems distant and unfamiliar.  While it is scary to write this, I want to assure you, and maybe myself, I am not crazy!  I suspect having moments where one is overwhelmed by feelings of panic, fear and isolation is not unique.  Even St. Teresa of Calcutta confessed to her spiritual guide that she had profound moments of loneliness.  Coping can alternate between choosing to exercise (good decision) or eating a Hershey bar (bad decision).  Too often the candy bar wins.  The other day I knew I needed to change the dynamic of my thought process, so I mowed the lawn.  During that time, I had, at least what seemed to me, an insight to dealing with worry.  Live in the moment.   Find God in the moment.

Existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard stated it this way, “Life has its own hidden forces which you can only discover by living.”  The first time God interacts with Moses, he asks, “What is your name?”   God replies, “I am who I am.  Then he added: this is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me.” The word “am” comes from the verb to be.  God identifies himself as being.  The essence of God is to be- to exist – to live.  I interpret the hidden force that Kierkegaard refers to as God! The mystery of God, the hidden force we search for is within us and all around us.  By God’s own definition:  God is existence.  Therefore, God is in us, more than us, and all around us.  We can discover God in our joy, happiness, relationships, memories, experiences, suffering, anxiety, worry, chaos and uncertainty.  All of the created world is an expression of God even if an aspect of that created world causes us anxiety and worry.  God is mysteriously involved.  Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM speaks of the paradox of living in daily life,

Life has its own hidden forces which you can only discover by living.
— Soren Kierkegaard

“A saint is one who somehow voluntarily chooses to trust the daily paradox of life and death as the two sides of everything. We, too, can walk this path of welcoming disappointment and self-doubt, by “suffering” the full truth of reality. Our vocation is a willingness to hold—and transform—the dark side of things instead of reacting against them, denying them, or projecting our anxiety elsewhere. Without such a willingness to hold the very real tension of paradox, most lives end in negativity, blaming, or cynicism.”

If we want to experience God- just be.   By simply existing and taking a step back, we will realize that what caused us worry, anxiety or panic isn’t real.  I am always OK in the moment.  If only I could remember that in the moment!  It is the past and the future that causes worry.  How much do we worry about in the future that ever comes to pass?  What from the past can we change?  Often, what causes us panic or stress is not what is happening at the moment.


In Star Wars Rogue One, Chirrut Imwe, recognizes the presence of God (the force) to which he belongs and with whom he is unified. This is an example of what it means to see God as existence- and it is contagious! When stressed consider this mantra:  "I am one with God and God is one with me."


Scripture scholars tell us that the predominant message of Jesus is the kingdom of God is at hand.  During the time of Jesus, many interpreted this message as God restoring the nation of Israel to its previous glory.  Others saw it as Jesus stating that through him God was present in a new and unique way.  Perhaps in our busy culture, we should interpret this as the presence of God is at hand in this moment.  Jesus was reminding us that God is existence; right here, right now.  One of the most powerful, spiritual and life shaping experiences for me was a mission trip to the Dominican Republic.  The slower pace of the Dominican culture made this experience meaningful.  We took time to be with one another.  Each evening, after teaching vacation bible school each day, we would gather with our families, sit in a circle and tell stories, sing songs, play games.  These were some of the poorest families on the planet who offered us hospitality, were filled with joy and happiness.  When we gathered there was no agenda.  Our only purpose was to be.  This experience reminded me who I was-a child of God.  God’s presence was obvious, profound and overwhelming. 

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Unfortunately, our American culture is not very good at being.  Busyness has become a symbol of importance.  People are overwhelmed by the crazy schedule of their lives.  Carpools for kids, long hours at work, parent meetings, school activities, house chores, and the list goes on.  It seems as though we live a certain heresy that says we need to achieve in order to please God.  It is our very existence that offers glory to God.  In a Brave New World, Aldous Huxley implies if you want to eliminate God from society, make sure people are too busy to have time to reflect.  The busyness of our lives makes it challenging to find God, to find the hidden force that is only discovered by living.     Psalm 46 says:  Be still and know that I am God.  Be.  Just be.  Remember who you are and allow God to delight in you discover the hidden forces of life unfold before your eyes.

Joe Nettesheim, is the Director and Founder of 12plus1, Inc.  He has worked in parish ministry since 1991, serving as a Youth Minister, Adult and Family Minister, Pastoral Associate,  and teacher at both the High School and University level.   He and his wife Maribeth have a blended family of 5 kids, 2 son-in-laws, 6 grand kids and a crazy oaf of a dog, TS Eliot the golden doodle.  


Mystery and Metaphor of God

This is a reflection written by Richard Rohr and distributed by the Center for Action and Contemplation.  We invite you to subscribe to his daily email reflections.


Before 500 BCE, religion and poetry were largely the same thing. People did not presume to be able to define the Mystery. They looked for words that could describe the Mystery. Poetry doesn’t claim to be a perfect description as dogma foolishly does. It’s a “hint half guessed,” to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase. [1] That’s why poetry seduces and entices you into being a searcher for the Mystery yourself. It creates the heart leap, the gasp of breath, inspiring you to go further and deeper; you want to fill in the blanks for yourself.

When religion becomes mere philosophy, definitions, moralisms, and rituals, it no longer has the power to transform.

Poetry does this by speaking in metaphors. All religious language is metaphor by necessity, yet I must insist on this to every new group of students, especially Protestants who tend to understand the Bible in a more literal way. Religion points toward a Mystery that you don’t know—can’t know—until you have experienced it. Poetry gives you resonance more than logical proof, and resonance is much more healing and integrating. It resounds inside of you. It evokes and calls forth a deeper self. When religion becomes mere philosophy, definitions, moralisms, and rituals, it no longer has the power to transform.

For poetry to be most effective, I believe it should be spoken aloud, embodied. After all, God didn’t think, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). God spoke, and creation vibrated into existence. Isn’t it just like our Creator to imprint the subtlety and mystery of creativity in the thisness of each voice?

Cynthia Bourgeault says that she gradually learned the value of speaking the scripture aloud before beginning to prepare a sermon on it:

Nine times out of ten, when I finally read the passage out loud during the proclamation of the Gospel on Sunday morning, I hear exactly the phrase or innuendo that I should have preached on, but that escaped my reading eye.

Virtually all spiritual paths begin their training with breath and tone—conscious breathing, following the breath, vibrating the mantra—and for good reason: these are the actual tools and technologies for engaging and energizing our more subtle inner being. [2]

Poetry, like chant, is meant to vibrate through the uniqueness of our own voice for it to come alive. Don’t take my word for it! Find your favorite poem and see if it becomes real in a new way when you say the words out loud. 

One of my favorite poets is Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). Here is one of his poems translated from German by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows. If you can, read it aloud slowly, musically.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand. [3]

Gateway to Presence:
If you want to go deeper with today’s meditation, take note of what word or phrase stands out to you. Come back to that word or phrase throughout the day, being present to its impact and invitation.

[1] T. S. Eliot, “Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages,” The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (Harcourt Brace: 1980), 136.

[2] Cynthia Bourgeault, Chanting the Psalms: A Practical Guide with Instructional CD (New Seeds: 2006), 76.

[3] Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (The Berkley Publishing Group: 1996), 119. Used with permission.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Poetry and Prayer,” unpublished talks (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005) and Franciscan Mysticism: I Am That Which I AM Seeking, disc 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2012), CDMP3 download.