“Brothers Walking Together”: finding the face of God among the poor

Finding the face of God among the poor is one of the goals of “Brothers Walking Together”, a formation programme for newly professed young brothers from six US provinces. The ten-month Franciscan pilgrimage formation programme has seen eight brothers from the US provinces leave their comfort zone and put themselves at the service of the marginalized and in the process grow in openness, flexibility, patience,  persistence and of course humility. This was reported by Br Michael Johnson, director of this programme and also of the Franciscan Urban Pastoral Centre in Hartford, Connecticut. In view of the second edition, which is starting soon, Br Michael explained the origins of this formation programme. “I had organized everything before the pandemic, but when we were about to launch it, it was no longer possible to travel, and the programme was actually to send the brothers abroad,” explained the friar. “The following year, then, I identified places that could be reached  more easily from the United States. 

The brothers were therefore sent two by two to some small/medium size Franciscan fraternities in Philadelphia, San Francisco, the Mexican border and Jamaica. The idea was to find a way for the brothers to get out of the bubble of formation, to experience the joy of encountering another culture and serving the poor. It was a long journey, so demanding that it changed the lives of the brothers, just as it had happened to Brother Michael so many years before. “During the period of my formation, I was sent to Bolivia three times and those trips changed me,” he explains. “From then on I returned to Bolivia annually for 3-4 month to do vocational rehabilitation in prisons. 

Before leaving for their designated destination, the brothers in the programme attended a four-week intensive course, with a view to being prepared to undertake a ‘long pilgrimage’. Moving from place to place, the brothers were trained through a variety of activities: from repairing  a church, to doing hurricane reconstruction in Puerto Rico with the laity, to serving in a soup kitchen to watching films  and reading books on mission. “For this kind of experience, certain characteristics are needed,” explains Br Michael: openness to God’s action; flexibility, because things work differently from what one is used to; patience with oneself, because one will learn new things; persistence, to continue on the path”. An example to follow in this radical journey must always be St Francis: “a man of prayer, respectful of nature, courageous”.  

The brothers leaving for their service experience were also provided with psychological support, to give them the tools to face this journey. In the first weeks of formation, the sharing of experiences was very important: from a Franciscan perspective, the brothers told of beginning to experience the joy of the simple life. “A key piece of the whole project is to see the face of God in the poor and marginalized, to experience God’s grace through them,” explained Brother Michael. 

Initial formation was followed by sending them out two by two to the different service locations, where they had a designated mentor, to be guided in this new experience. Through at least 30 hours a week with the poor, the brothers were able to have an immersive experience, to realize that the Franciscan world is not just the small province they come from. 

The newly professed tried to offer themselves for what was asked of them: serving the poor and spending time with street children in Jamaica, supporting the homeless in Philadelphia, helping drug addicts in San Francisco, standing by migrants at the Mexican border. “It’s not always easy to be a source of God’s love in places like that,” said Fr Michael. “Yet, when we had a final meeting at the end of ten months and I asked them to write down what they felt they had grown into, they spoke of humility. They could not choose where to go, who to go with, but they discovered the presence of God where they were sent. One of them said: it doesn’t matter where I am, the important thing is that I am with the poor”.