Telling the Stories that Matter: March 28 – Maria Skobtsova, Martyr, Twice Divorced, “Righteous Among the Nations”

The woman who would eventually be known as Mother Maria or Maria Skobtsova was born in Latvia and named Elizaveta Pilenko. Elizaveta’s family was considered “upper class” in Latvia in the year of 1891. When she was a teenager, tragedy visited her family in the death of her father. She was crushed at this loss and began to doubt the faith she had been taught as a child. Soon, she was an avid proponent of atheism because of a hurt that viciously denied the presence of a loving God. Shortly after the death of her father and Elizaveta’s faith, the family moved to St. Petersburg in Russia to hopefully leave behind bad memories and start a new and hopeful life. When she was a almost twenty-years-old–and nearly seven years before the Bolshevik Revolution–she married a man named Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev. He was a Bolshevik and heavily involved in the intellectual and revolutionary circles of Russia at the time. The marriage didn’t last long (ending approximately three years after it started) but Elizaveta became involved with poetry and literature because of it and gave birth to one child named Gaiana. She began writing her own poetry and this talent would serve to sustain and inspire her for years to come. More than that, though, it helped effect her conversion to the Faith of the Christians. She began writing about the crucifixion and death of Jesus because of its dramatic cultural importance. As she wrote and contemplated that terrible and wonderful moment, she felt her faith rekindled. When she considered that God has not simply left us alone in our suffering but had joined with us in all of it–even the lamenting–she converted.

Following the Bolshevik revolutio in 1917, she became deputy mayor of a small town in Southern Russia. When the imperial army came to take the town back, the mayor fled and Elizaveta became mayor. She was arrested for being a Bolshevik and put on trial but her judge was a teacher she had studied under in years past by the name of Daniel Skobtsova. She was acquited with Daniel’s help and they soon fell in love and married. They were forced to flee because of political complications. First they fled to Georgia where she gave birth to a son named Yuri. Second, they fled to Yugoslavia where she gave birth to a daughter named Anastasia. Finally they fled to Paris and found a place to call home for a little while.Elizaveta began studying theology and the faith that now gripped her but this was interrupted when Anastasia died from influenza. Elizaveta’s daughter Gaiana was sent to boarding school and the marriage between Elizaveta and Daniel soon broke into pieces. Daniel left Paris with Yuri and Elizaveta further devoted herself to ministry among the poor and outcast. She had now been divorced twice but she eventually agreed to become a nun–at the urging of her bishop–on the condition that she did not want to be isolated from the people she was learning to love. It was she took her vows that Elizaveta became Maria.

Maria’s home became a convent of sorts but mostly it was a house for refugees and the poor. She served meals, she provided beds, and she listened to stories of heartbreak and tragedy–in the part of Paris she lived in there were plenty of stories and not nearly enough meals or beds. The Nazis eventually occupied Paris and began rounding up Jews, outcasts, and dissidents to send them to concentration camps. Maria waged a war of mercy against the Nazi efforts to destroy. She convinced sanitation workers to do something revolutionary–they would carry garbage cans out of the city once Jewish children had been secreted in them. This worked for some time but soon her home also became a hiding place for Jews and others the Nazis wanted dead. She and her priest offered baptismal certificates to Jewish children and families so that they could wear the cloak of Jesus even if they were not his disciple–they offered mercy wrapped up in deception. Eventually, Maria was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, Germany. There, she again served as minister to outcasts and those in need. Finally, on Good Friday in 1945, she felt called to lay down her life for another. She was inspired by memory of that terrible and wonderful when Jesus laid down his life for us. She took the place of a Jewish woman on the way to the gas chamber and died that day only a little while before the camp was liberated.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: March 24 – Oscar Romero, Martyr, Friend of the Poor, Enemy of the State

Oscar Romero spent most of his free time around the Church when he was a little boy. Sure, he was active among his friends and did all the things that little Salvadoran boys did but when he had a stretch of free time you were likely to find him down at one of the local church buildings. He had been raised in a Christian family–son to Santos Romero and Guadalupe de Jésus Galdámez–and received a limited education. His limited education was not because of lack of intelligence or priorities but because of a relative lack of need for education within El Salvador in the early twentieth century. Oscar’s school, for example, only offered three years of education for its students. After that, a student would need to receive private tutoring if they were going to received further education.So, for the Salvadorans it was better to learn a skill or a trade than to receive an education and so Oscar learned carpentry from his father. Oscar showed some talent at carpentry but it did not prove to be the calling that was first and foremost upon his life. He did have receive private tutoring but academia was also not his primary calling. Instead, he became a priest in 1942and answered to a calling that had been brewing in his young mind on those lazy afternoons when he was likely to be found around the Church and its ministers.

Oscar’s ordination took place in Rome and he stayed a little while longer to continue his studies in theology. In 1943, however, things were becoming increasingly tense on the geopolitical scale and Oscar was summoned to return to El Salvador. When he finally made it home–he was held and detained occasionally because of his presence in Mussolini’s Italy during World War II–he began to serve the Church as best he knew how. Eventually, this entailed becoming bishop and even archbishop in El Salvador. His appointment to these positions of power was not always well received because he was not fully invested in the liberation theology that was so popular in El Salvador at the time. Further, he seemed to have no Marxist leanings and Marxism was becoming more and more popular with the less politically conservative members of the priesthood in Latin America. Everything changed, though, when Oscar’s friend Rutilio Grande was assassinated for advocating for the poor and politically undesirable.

Oscar had been a friend of the poor for years but not the extent of Rutilio. With the deafening thunder of the machine guns that made a martyr of Rutilio, Oscar was awakened to the incredible struggle that was already going on in El Salvador. He would later explain that Rutilio’s death impressed upon him that Rutilio’s cause had been good and just. In other words, the martyrdom of Rutilio Grande convinced Oscar Romero that the poor and disenfranchised were worth dying for. As archbishop, he was called to shepherd the People of God and care for its ministers. When Oscar realized that both were being killed, he said,“When the church hearts the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.” He wrote letters to Jimmy Carter–the President of the United States of America–asking that the United States stop sending money to the Salvadoran government because of the injustice that was being perpetrated with those funds. As he further invested himself in the life of the people he began to be questioned about why he would agree to do this since it likely meant he was signing his own death warrant. He responded, “I am bound, as a pastor, by divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadorans, even those who are going to kill me.

In 1980, he was officiating the Mass at a chapel and knew he was woefully under protected according to the security expectations of world leaders. Yet, he understood his calling to be a matter of commitment regardless of danger or potential cost. Just a few days before, he had told a reporter what it was he wanted to say to any who might be planning on killing him: “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” As he lifted the bread during the Eucharist the doors at the back of the chapel were flung open and gunfire was heard. A single bullet hit Oscar in the heart as he lifted the bread above his head and spoke of a God who loved the world–the poor and the rich, the powerful and the hopeless–enough to die for it. He had been executed by one of the governing body’s death squads. At his funeral, they threw bombs into the crowd–numbering nearly 250,000–and snipers fired into the panicked masses. The struggle was not over but Oscar had played his part well and with passion. He died a martyr and drew the attention of world leaders who began to suspect that something wasn’t right in El Salvador. He purchased this attention with his blood.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: March 17 – Patrick of Ireland, Slave, Bishop, Missionary

Patrick’s father was a leader in his community and was named Calpornius. He was a deacon in the congregation they attended in Wales. Calpornius’ father–Patrick’s grandfather–was named Potitus and he was a priest in the area where they grew up. He offered the sacraments and mysteries of the Church to those who had ears to hear and eyes to see. Patrick had roots within the Church and found himself drawn to the ministry that his father and grandfather had likewise felt themselves called to. He was receiving an education that would likely end up with him becoming yet another member of his family in service to the Church when one day he was kidnapped by Celtic bandits and slavers on the Western coast of Wales. They forced him into chains and carried him back aboard their ship so that they might force young Patrick–only sixteen years old–to work for the highest bidder. In this case, he was bought by a man who made him a shepherd by trade. Patrick ended up on some lonely hillside–a stranger in a strange land–watching over sheep that were not his own.

For his six years as a slave to Celtic leaders he was mostly in isolation on some verdant Irish hillside. Since he was alone as he worked he began praying to himself. He began with the prayers he had learned as a child and these expanded into his own spontaneous prayers. He sang songs and hymns to sustain himself as he spent many lonely night with only sheep and goats for company. Finally, he began to hear God speak of liberation and escape. He heard a voice saying he would soon be free. A few days later a voice told him his ship was waiting for him and so he fled from his master that very day. He traveled for some time and through harsh conditions until he arrived at a port in eastern Ireland (200 miles from the place of his captivity). He boarded the ship and finally returned to his home in Wales. They greeted him with joy and gladness and toasted his return but after the parties had faded Patrick came to the stunning realization that he had missed six years of his life. All of his peers were well into their professions and careers and he had fallen woefully far behind in his education. His dreams of becoming a minister like all of the others had been shattered aboard the slaver ship that had stolen him away.Patrick ended up in the home of family–a stranger in a familiar land–watching his friends go on without him.

He didn’t know what to do with his life but he couldn’t shake the strong calling he felt upon his life. As he was adrift in his life and uncertain how he should continue he had a vision. In the vision a man named Victoricus came striding across the Irish Sea toward Patrick. In Victoricus’ hands were many scrolls. Each scrolls was a letter–written to a certain person–and he was handing them out to those God had called to serve. Patrick waited eagerly in his vision and received a scroll titled “The Voice of the Irish.” In it he heard the laments of the Irish people who begged the former slave to come back and bring the Gospel that taught love for enemies and forgiveness from all sins. He must have wondered if this wasn’t a mistake to be sent back to the people who had enslaved him as a missionary. Yet, as he reflected upon the vision he became more and more certain that God was calling him to be a missionary to the Irish. So, he went–one of the first Christian missionaries to leave the Roman Empire. Patrick ended up in some foreign boat on his way back to Ireland–a stranger crossing the Irish Sea–following after a calling that God had given him.

Patrick baptized thousands of people in Ireland as he brought his own particular style of preaching and teaching to them. He did not have the same education as his many peers and colleagues but he knew well the people he had been called to serve. He confronted Celtic warlords with bravery and courage knowing that they would respect him for it and want to know what faith he held that gave him such courage. He brought the faith to the Irish in a way that mediated the sacraments and mysteries of the Church to a people unfamiliar with the history and symbols of the Body of Christ. Patrick became the vehicle by which the grace of God was translated into Irish hearts. He ordained thousands and became a bishop missionary welcome in countless homes throughout the hills of Ireland. Patrick ended up in the land of his enslavement–a hero in a beloved land–watching over sheep that had become his own.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: March 14 – Fannie Lou Hamer, Civil Rights Activist, “the lady who sings the hymns,” “that illiterate woman”


Reverend James Bevel had preached several sermons just like the one he had just preached. In it he proclaimed the liberation and healing that Jesus promised to those who would take up the yoke of discipleship. He fearlessly identified the racism inherent in the system and the use of it by those in power to oppress and repress black Americans. James Bevel was a part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was a friend and colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was well aware that there were costs associated with activism because he had been involved in the activist life that led to pain and punishment at the hands of those who opposed them all. Yet at the end of his sermon he went ahead and asked if any of those who had heard it would volunteer to be a part of the solution–to register to vote even though it might cost them something significant. Fannie stood up and volunteered nearly immediately. She had already suffered at the hands of the powerful when she had been unknowingly sterilized a year before. The powers had decided that black citizens in Southern Mississippi could be controlled if they weren’t allowed to reproduce–so they took it upon themselves to perpetrate atrocities. Fannie volunteered to become a voter and have her voice heard.

Fannie lost her job as soon as her employer found out she had registered. She would later say of that night: “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they [white people] could do was kill me, and it seemed they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.” Fannie’s faith lent her a prophetic awareness of what was happening in the United States–people were giving up their lives piece by piece so that they might not lose it all at once. They were purchasing a degree of security by selling any hope of future security or equality. Given the lynchings and abuse suffered by those who did not agree to this Faustian bargain it is understandable but tragic. Fannie boarded a bus that was loaded with people like herself who were going to register. As they traveled and anticipated the vicious resistance that would meet them there, Fannie began singing hymns and inviting others to join her. As they sang “This Little Light of Mine,” Fannie must have considered how this bus ride represented a painful commitment not to “hider [her light] under a bushel.” Fannie’s use of the hymns underscored to those who joined her that this was a spiritual struggle and not simply a matter of politics and influence.

In the summer of 1963 she and others on a bus returning from a literacy class were arrested on a trumped up charge by police officers looking to punish black people for being unsatisfied with the status quo. They were taken to prison and were offered the opportunity to leave by the police officers. Though they were tempted to do so they refused because they knew what was down that path–the police officers would shoot them in the backs and later claimed that “those savage blacks” had attacked them and tried to escape. Instead, they were incarcerated, beaten savagely, and left unfed in their cells to defecate and urinate on themselves. Some nearly died from these abuses. They were eventually released when it was determined that their nonviolence could not be manipulated to defame or kill them.

A year later she became a leader in a new political group known as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. These “Freedom Democrats” insisted that Mississippi was unfairly represented at the Democratic National Convention–all of the delegates were white and there were active black voters in Mississippi. They insisted that changes be made and that Mississippi democrats needed to send black delegates. Lyndon Johnson became upset with this group because they represented a thorny political issue that would eliminate his southern support. Fannie was an easy story to cover for the news outlets because of her hymn-singing and soon Johnson was wondering what it would take to shut up “that illiterate woman.” He sent a delegation to negotiate a compromise that might leave him politically powerful but Fannie was unpersuaded by their attempts to buy off their support and play political games. Her faith guided her and she rejected their compromise. She said she would “pray to Jesus” for them. She did but it cost her her seat on the negotiation committee. Eventually, a compromise was struck that stipulated that one of those delegates could not be Fannie Lou Hamer because she could not be trusted to play the political game.

Fannie Lou Hamer died in 1977 and was buried under a grave marker that read: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

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Telling the Stories that Matter: March 9 – Forty Martyrs of Sebaste

The Twelfth Legion (historically identified as Legio XII Fulminata) was a historic and legendary group of soldiers that commanded both fear and respect within the Roman Empire. Their thunderbolt emblem immediately identified them to the populace as the soldiers that had been conscripted, trained, and implemented first by Julius Caesar in 58 BC. They had fought battles that were immortalized in stories told to young men to inspire them to courage and valor. To serve in the Twelfth Legion was to be an integral part of the Roman power system as they served under not only Julius Caesar but, also, Mark Anthony. Thus it was considered unacceptable in 320 when the Twelfth Legion, which was guarding the Euphrates River at the time by order of the emperor Licinius, was found to be harboring forty Christians shortly after persecution of Christians was renewed.These forty were given the opportunity to renounce their faith and when they refused they were condemned to die.

So, they were led to a frozen pond by members of their legion and informed that they would die in the most painful way the emperor could imagine at the time. At the point of their colleagues’ swords they were stripped of their clothing and forced to march to the center of the frozen pond so that they might die of exposure. As the forty men huddled together they began rotating who would stand on the outside of the group and who would experience the relative warmth of the interior. They knew that the biting winds would eventually kill them but they comforted each other with prayers and songs. In a moment of diabolical creativity, the guards began building hot baths on the shore of the frozen pond as Licinius had ordered them to do. They called to the huddled Christians that any of them might leave the pond at any time and warm themselves in a bath and by the fire if they would renounce their faith. Finally, one of the Christians broke and ran whimpering to the warm bath. He was willing to sell his faith for relief and though we cannot know his suffering we can look back through history and offer him our pity mixed with knowing compassion.

The remaining thirty-nine were surely shaken by their brother’s renunciation but they had little time to reflect upon it as the derisive cheers of their guards soon turned to astonishment when one of the guards dropped his weapon, stripped himself of his clothing, and joined the thirty-nine Christians on the pond. He came screaming his confession of faith and was welcomed with shouts of joy and happy songs. As the once-again-forty martyrs slowly died of exposure they shared their faith with the one who had recently converted at the testimony of thirty-nine men willing to die instead of renounce the Faith that sustained them. That guard received his first instruction in the Faith barefoot on a frozen pond only hours before dying. As the cold began to claim its first victims, the guards became tired of the affair and gathered up the lethargic and unconscious Christians. They burned them alive and scattered the ashes. After they had left, Christians came and collected what remains they could so that they might bury the men who had chosen faith over life and honor.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: March 7 – Perpetua and Felicitas, Martyrs, Mothers, Brave to the End


The emperor Septimus Severus decided that the Jewish and Christian religions must be curtailed if Rome was truly to rule and command the masses it lorded over. There was no room for any other lord within the iron grip of the Roman empire and Septimus Severus had finally decided on one very specific way to put an end to non-Roman allegiance: outlaw conversion upon penalty of death. To further strengthen the decree he made it retroactive a number of months. Perpetua and her servant Felicitas were recent converts and they were caught up in the chaos of legalized death and persecution. Before the authorities could seize them, they were baptized by the priests of their congregation even as they knew this was signing their own arrest warrant. They, along with a few others, were arrested and imprisoned for the crime of their faith. Perpetua had just given birth to a baby boy and Felicitas was nearly eight months pregnant when they were imprisoned.

As a new mother, Perpetua was in pain and desperate to nurse her baby who had not yet been weaned. She suffered in her cell and struggled to maintain her faith even with the aid and comfort of her new sister Felicitas. Two deacons from her congregation bribed the jailer and secreted Perpetua’s son into the jail. Perpetua nursed her baby boy and would remark that this single act of mercy by the deacons confirmed her faith in her in a powerful way. Further, it gave her renewed resolve to withstand the tortures that most surely awaited her and Felicitas. She wrote that after that blissful moment she felt as if her prison cell had become a palace. They were given something resembling a trial and given an opportunity to renounce their faith and save their lives. They refused and were taken back to prison with the words of their punishments ringing in their ears–“Cast them to the wild beasts and let them be torn to pieces.”

That night Perpetua was visited by three significant events.Her father came to her carrying his grandson–Perpetua’s baby boy–and begged her to reconsider her faith. He first pleaded and then commanded her to renounce her faith so that she might be a mother to her baby. Perpetua held fast and insisted that if she renounced her faith then she would not be a boon to her son but only a disgrace. After her father left she had a vision wherein she stepped on the head of a dragon and climbed a rickety ladder to a meadow of great pastoral peace. From the vision she found great peace and it further renewed her resolve to be martyred. Finally, she went to Felicitas who feared that she might not be allowed to be martyred with the others because of her pregnancy. As she was telling this fear to Perpetua and they were praying over it, she went into labor and delivered her own healthy child. In the morning, they were marched to the amphitheatre where they would be martyred and Felicitas carried her newborn baby with her. Christians accompanied them on the march and Felicitas gave over her daughter to a Christian woman so that the child might be raised in the Faith for which her mother was willing to die.

Once they were in the amphitheatre, they were whipped and beaten before the bloodthirsty crowd. Wild animals were released into the arena to kill the Christians and all but Perpetua and Felicitas were soon dead. Perpetua and Felicitas were mortally wounded but this was not enough for the fierce crowd. They gave each other the Christian “kiss of peace” as their executioner approached with his sword. He killed Felicitas and then turned to Perpetua. He was shaking at the thought of yet more murder and so Perpetua guided the blade of his sword to her neck and gave him silent permission to perpetrate the Empire’s atrocities.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: March 2 – Engelmar Unzeitig, Martyr of Brotherly Love, Priest, Angel of Dachau

Engelmar Unzeitig committed an unpardonable sin against the German nation in the estimation of the ruling powers. He had used the pulpit of his congregation to resist and defy the Nazis who had already decided and proclaimed Jews to be the enemy, the problem, and the target for vengeance and victimization. Engelmar defended Jews from the pulpit and urged his congregation to stop believing the corrosive lies the powers were telling. He was a fairly recently ordained priest and as such his allegiance rested firmly with God and the Church before and above any other dominion or power. He could not keep his mouth shut because he felt a calling to speak truth in the face of great deception and confusion. Because of this calling and his carefully chosen words, he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Dachau to suffer for his refusal to bow before the powers of this world.

At Dachau he definitely suffered but he tried to see it in different terms than that of a concentration camp.He walked under the banner that proclaimed another of the great Nazi lies: “Work will make you free” but he didn’t believe it–he knew well that only the Truth could set him free. Engelmar saw Dachau as a mission field and set about his work of spreading faith and hope in the midst of death and oppression. In many ways, Dachau was spiritually formative for Engelmar and he would later describe it as a school of holiness. The suffering he experienced there as he went about the work of the Kingdom raked away his brokenness and corruption and replaced it with life more abundant. He did this alongside thousands of other ministers–Roman Catholic and Protestant. Dachau has been called the largest of monasteries because of the incredible density of ministers within its walls at the time and it is in this context that Engelmar formed and was formed by ministers from his tradition and those who under other circumstances might have been his opponents in argument. It seems that in Dachau those differences didn’t matter any more.

In his fourth year in the camp (1945), there was a vicious outbreak of typhoid fever. The hungry and sickly people only got a little closer to death as it swept through the camp with ferocity and sickening speed. Those who showed symptoms were quarantined in one dilapidated barrack and left to die in their own filth. Volunteers were requested to take care of the sick and dying and the general population was hesitant to volunteer as everybody knew it would almost certainly cost them their lives to provide this comfort. Engelmar and nineteen other priests volunteered and began living among sickness and death in the one dilapidated barrack. Their every waking moment was filled with bathing the sick, saying prayers, offering last rites, and feeding the dying. They offered the sacraments to the sick because it was important to them to continue offering the holy mysteries of the Church to those who approached death’s door with alarming suddenness. Finally, Engelmar succumbed to the disease (along with seventeen of the other priests) and died. Though he had been in comparably good health beforehand he sacrificed his life and his comfort to care for those in need at the moment. A few weeks later the camp was liberated and its prisoners released.

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