Can Small Acts of Courage and Compassion Really Save the World?

Can Small Acts of Courage and Compassion Really Save the World?

I have to be honest. I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to all-encompassing spiritual proclamations. You could call me a “yes, but…” doubting Thomas-type person when conversations get a bit “spirited” or overly idealistic. And my friends and I sometimes do have some spirited conversations about spiritual matters.

It’s not that I want to argue for the sake of arguing. It’s because I’m stuck in my own way of thinking but am willing to be nudged into their point of view. Maybe if you could just reframe your point of view or provide more information, please? I’m open to being educated.

So when Sam Rahberg asked me to write something special about Kathleen Atkinson, I politely asked why. Why is she so special? So he tells me.

It seems one day she called the local prison and asked if there was anything she could do to help. That was six years ago. Today, that phone conversation has evolved into an organization called Ministry on the Margins. It now has 90 people volunteering every week, ministering to those who “fall through the cracks during times of transition.”

They offer hospitality, coffee, meals, a food pantry, prison-to-society support, a worship service and other services to almost 1,000 people on a weekly basis. Kiely Roska Todd tells me Sr. Kathleen’s work exemplifies the radical nature of Benedictine hospitality. “It’s not about politely pouring tea for visitors,” Kiely says. “It’s about our hearts being uncomfortable enough to make other people comfortable.”

Radical Hospitality. I like that concept, but …

More about Kathleen Atkinson

Kathleen Atkinson is a Benedictine Sister of the Annunciation Monastery in Bismarck, North Dakota. And isn’t that what Sisters are supposed to do? Feed the hungry. Give to the poor. Minister to prisoners, etc. (See what I mean about that “yes, but…” mentality?)

What if I work sixty hours a week and don’t have the time or energy to visit inmates, or stack food shelves or read to the blind? Or what if I’m working two jobs to feed my family? Or five kids are pulling me in a hundred different directions? How can I realistically find time to help others? And even if I did, maybe I could do it for only two or three hours a month. What good would that do?

Sr. Kathleen will tell you, “you can do a lot of good even when doing a little.” She plans come to the Benedictine Center in February to help you clarify what that means, explore your questions, and ease your doubts, all while conveying the joys of helping others. At that time, she and Rev. Zanne Ness will tell us more about “Radical hospitality.” They’ll show how each of us—with our unique gifts, strengths, weaknesses, faults, foibles, imperfections—can change the world with just a few small grace-filled acts.

They’ll assure us we can still reach out to help others no matter how hectic our lives. Kiely puts it this way: “You will be inspired to do something differently; you will come to see how your small acts of courage and compassion can change the world.”

A Weekend in February

Here’s what they have planned:

Beyond Fear: Helping Communities Choose Welcome
On Thursday, Feb 27, Sr. Kathleen and Rev. Zanne will lead a professional day for leaders of faith communities to “welcome all guests as Christ,” –even when these guests challenge our desire to be hospitable.

Radical Hospitality: Social Engagement in the Key of Benedict
On Friday evening, Feb 28, they will give a public presentation explaining how Ministry on the Margins was formed by people believing in miracles, that miracles still happen, and that practical Benedictine values can make them possible. And that it’s worth considering how we might be part of the possibility.

Everyday Prophets: How Small Acts of Courage and Compassion Can Change the World
On Friday thru Sunday (Feb. 28-March 1), they will lead a retreat based on the idea that we are “everyday prophets.” Yes. Everyday prophets. The brochure says Sr. Kathleen and Rev. Zanne are skilled guides in awakening our imaginations so we can embrace that truth, and then help in some way to create more compassionate, just communities—even in these cynical, problematic times, even as we juggle our jam-packed lives. And then, between talks, we can practice the prayerful rhythms of the Monastery and see how the quiet and solitude help us figure out how.

A Quick Conversation with Kathleen Atkinson

I had a chance to talk to Sr. Kathleen as she was waiting to board a plane for a two-week trip to the Holy Land. I asked how it feels to create something so valuable to those in need and so vital to the community.

She talked instead about what she’s learned from the people she serves: “I’m often surprised and shell-shocked,” she says. “I never knew people don’t have money to buy t-shirts. Or that food stamps don’t cover toilet paper.”

She recalls one woman who asked for help paying the $2 copayments for her four prescriptions. It turns out four people in her household also had to pay those monthly costs for their prescriptions. So they took turns going without for one month. Three months with drugs; one month without.

“I see them as creative survivors and have so much respect for how they find ways to solve huge problems. I am humbled, grateful and in awe of their human essence.”

What’s in it for Me?

What does she want us to know about the four-day event in February? “I want people to believe they can make a difference and can accomplish something with a small action,” she says. “These are cynical times, but we can still sit and listen to what people want and need and hopefully figure out what to do next.”

This weekend in February, says Sam, is designed for anyone who wants to make a difference in their community but doesn’t know where to start. It starts with a conversation, he emphasizes. “The problem is bigger than me. I want to have an effect, but I don’t know where to start. What do I do?

“Kathleen will get this conversation going, reassure us of our purpose and help us find our grounding. She will share her philosophy and passion and show us how to connect hope with possibilities. She will rekindle the light inside we already have.”

Okay, but you may be still asking: Four days with Kathleen Atkinson. So what’s in it for me?

Kiely explains it this way: “You will be inspired and come to see how small acts of compassion can change the world. You don’t have to be Martin Luther King, or the president, or some big shot to make a difference. You will come to see that as everyday prophets, in your own unique way, you can make a difference.”

A Respected Member of the Community

When I asked Sr. Kathleen why her work is so well-accepted and respected in the Bismark community. She answered immediately, “Because I have street cred. I have the respect of the Corrections system.”

Street cred.

How can you do a “yes, but….” to the goodness and goals of a down-to-earth, practical woman with street cred?


Learn more about Kathleen Atkinson and her upcoming events, as well as other opportunities to learn and practice Benedictine spirituality.

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