Journeys of Courage: Remarkable Stories of the Healing Power of Community, by Joy Carol. Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2004. ISBN 1-893732-79-7. Pb., 256 pp. $14.95.
If you have ever put the newspaper down after reading an account of some recent horror, and said aloud or to yourself, “How will these people carry on after this? What will they do with all the anger and pain from this atrocity?” then here is a book for you.
If you ever despair for this sin-saturated world and wonder if, in fact, evil does not often have the last word, then here is a book for you.
Or, more practically speaking, you face the weekly task of mounting the steps to the pulpit and you need some fresh material to illustrate your sermon, then here is book for you.
Joy Carol, spiritual director, author and counselor, gathers story after story from world communities that have endured the traumatic impact of “man’s inhumanity to man.” These communities “responded to their dilemmas by courageously facing them or changing their reactions to them.” Through these “journeys of courage” the communities “underwent some kind of transformation, some kind of healing power.”
This is storytelling, pure and simple. Carol does not reach for extended theological reflection; she does not seek to offer biblical connections. In fact, she does not profess that this is a Christian book, per se, though many of the stories come from Christian communities of faith.
Carol gathers these stories because she knows that “telling and hearing stories can be powerful medicine.” The stories of moral, spiritual, emotional courage are mined and shared to en-courage others. And they do.
There are 17 stories in the book, that is, 17 accounts of communities that have experienced healing and redemption arising out of suffering. Ten of the accounts come from Carol’s current hometown, New York City, and relate to the horrors of September 11, 2001. She sits with the sanitation workers who respectfully searched and removed millions of tons of debris from Ground Zero; with the member of the NYFD bagpipe band who played for 450 burials of fallen firefighters; with the firefighters of Firehouse 217 around their “kitchen table;” with the saints at St. Paul’s Chapel, that haven of hospitality that never closed during the grim aftermath of 9-11.
The second half of the book is a collection of seven stories from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Carol brings to us the story of Bishop Willie Walsh of County Clare. Bishop Walsh led a Pilgrimage of Reconciliation to repent for the sexual abuses of the Roman Catholic clergy of Ireland. Every day from November 26 through December 19, 1999, in darkness and freezing rain, the bishop walked from parish church to parish church throughout his diocese, stopping at each to pray the liturgy of reconciliation. Sometimes parishioners walked with him, sometimes he walked alone. At each place, he confessed the sins of the church and asked for the forgiveness of the people. As a current resident of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, in which the clergy sexual abuse scandal continues to plunge into ever-darker depths, I found this story of penitence by church leaders stunning.
And there’s more: stories from the H-block of the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, from the Dochas Center of the Mountjoy Women’s Prison in the Republic of Ireland, from the Cuan Mhuire Addiction Center, the Survivors of Trauma Center, Corrymeela Community, and Restoration Ministries in Belfast.
The strength of the book is the people behind the stories. Joy Carol has access to remarkable people, made even more remarkable by their ‘ordinariness.’ These are not people who stride large across the world stage. These are men, women, and children, who are courageous enough to refuse to allow sin to defeat and define them, and so they strive to do the hard work of reconciliation and forgiveness.
There are places where the reader may be inclined to think “this is sentimental or naÃ¯ve.” Repeatedly, the moral of the story is that if people can just talk to their enemies, or talk about their traumatic experiences, reconciliation happens.
But then the reader remembers that these are first-person accounts of men on the H-block of the Maze Prison, of women who have been raped, mothers whose sons have been blown to bits. Who but these people can speak such things with authority? Their credibility humbles and inspires us to learn from, and try to live by, their example. Carol has done us a tremendous service in bringing them to us.
I don’t recommend reading the book in one sitting. To read straight through blunts the power of these remarkable stories, and runs the danger of rendering them trite because in the end, many impart the same message. But taken one by one, the stories convey the tenacity of grace that draws healing out of the darkest corners of human existence.
Carol begins her book with a quote from the Dalai Lama: “We human beings cannot survive alone.” These journeys of courage testify to the power of community to help us survive trauma, war, abuse, grief — and not only to survive, but also, to heal.
KAREN PIDCOCK-LESTER is co-pastor of First Church, Pottstown, Pa.