In the 1980s, then-seminarian Thomas Zinkula volunteered with the Missionaries of Charity in Washington, D.C., where he assisted young, gay men of color dying of AIDS. He did not have much experience with people of color or with people who were gay, and AIDS was a new and terrifying disease. He had to overcome his implicit biases and prejudices. The experience took him out of his comfort zone, and he is grateful it did, he told participants of a Sept. 2 Lunch and Learn session on Zoom titled “Going to the peripheries with Bishop Zinkula.” His question to them, and to all of us: How do we get out of our comfort zone and interact with people who are not like us?
The work of social action, the focus of the webinar, is an essential element of our Catholic faith and often requires us to respond to the question: How do we get out of our comfort zone? In our world today, we concentrate on our personal needs, wants and interests; getting out of our comfort zone is not a priority, but something we resist. The insecurities and uncertainties of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have increased our immunity to interaction or encounters with people who are not like us — whether in political views, religious beliefs, social status, sexual identity or gender, intellect or ethnic group.
Bishop Zinkula has spent his adult life intentionally seeking opportunities to get out of his comfort zone, sitting down to lunch with the hungry and homeless at Cafe on Vine in Davenport, joking with core members of the L’Arche Community in Clinton, interacting with prisoners in Iowa’s correctional facilities, visiting with Muslims and Hindus in a slum in India. Getting out of his comfort zone includes listening to people upset by decisions he has made.
Getting out of our comfort zone requires humility to recognize that we are children of the same God, no better than another person, patience to listen to another person whose values, beliefs and ethics do not mirror ours, and awareness of God’s presence in our encounters. Getting out of our comfort zone requires grounding ourselves in prayer and reflection to enable us to go to the peripheries, geographical and existential, to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to others through word and action.
We need to let go of anxiety that can get in the way of getting out of our comfort zone. Bishop Zinkula still feels a little anxious when he visits prisoners at correction centers because he can’t help but imagine what it would be like to be in their place or the place of the families impacted by their crimes. But he experiences God’s grace in their shared humanity.
We need to let go of the feeling of awkwardness that comes with engaging in conversation with a nursing home resident we don’t know but could use a little companionship. Or the person waiting in line at a meal site for the hungry. Or the family whose daughter suffered a mental health crisis, even if we are not sure what to say. “Sometimes, we just want someone to listen,” her father said.
Getting out of our comfort zone requires a willingness to educate ourselves so that we can advocate effectively on issues we care about. The Iowa Catholic Conference (iowacatholicconference.org) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (usccb.org) and our diocesan website (davenportdiocese.org) are great starting points for gathering resources and information on issues important to the church and ourselves. This newspaper is another great source for education, information and inspiration.
When we dare to get out of our comfort zone, we discover it grounds us, helps us to recognize our blessings and to appreciate our common humanity, as Bishop Zinkula has discovered. When we take the time to get to know people, we lose the impulse to demonize them and gain the desire for friendship.
Pope Francis tells us, “Seeing ourselves from the perspective of another, of one who is different, we can better recognize our own unique features and those of our culture: its richness, its possibilities and its limitations.” A “healthy openness never threatens one’s own identity” (Fratelli Tutti, Nos. 147-48).
Let us follow the example of Bishop Zinkula, getting out of our comfort zone for an encounter with someone who is not like us, but can help us to see the presence of God.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor