In reading about Birgitta of Sweden, the question comes more to mind what she didn’t do than what she did. Birgitta was a spouse and mother as well as a nun; she was from a relatively remote area in Sweden as well as a world traveler. It should be noted that her home, Vadstena, wasn’t remote for long. Eventually the Abbey there would become the largest landowner in Sweden and a center of pre-Reformation Roman Catholic spirituality, not least due to the leadership of her daughter Catherine, who was also canonized a saint. Birgitta tangled in theological disputes and hassled the popes, and had an impact strong enough for Martin Luther to go to the trouble of dismissing her more than 150 years later. Her order, the Brigettines, is still thriving throughout the world despite its near demise as Sweden became Lutheran.
Birgitta had visions of Jesus, the first at age 10. The habit of the Brigettines is crowned with five red marks symbolizing Christ’s crown of thorns and 5 wounds because he spoke to her about the pain of his crucifixion. Birgitta also had a vision of his birth, in which Joseph held a candle and the Christ child emanated light from his body. The images she shared would continue to influence Christian iconography for years.
Birgitta is… a lot.
My own daughter is about to turn 13 and is not about to get married and have eight children and then found a centuries-long lasting church community. As far as I know she does not have visions of Jesus Christ. My guess is that Birgitta’s mother didn’t think any of those things about her, either.
As I was thinking about Birgitta’s extravagant feats of religious power, and those of her daughter, I heard a story on the radio about Dollie Burwell. Burwell’s activism in Warren County, North Carolina pretty much single-handedly birthed the modern environmental justice movement. Toxic waste was being dumped in her community (a site chosen by the governor himself), home to predominantly black and low income residents. Burwell brought churches and people of all ages together to protest. Five hundred people were arrested in just six weeks, but Burwell kept going. She cites her own mother’s instruction in keeping her focused; “She often told me, ‘Dollie Ann, God wants you to DO JUSTICE and that means you got to always stand up for what is right, even if you have to stand alone.’”
Now, forty years after Dollie Burwell and her eight-year-old daughter blocked the road to prevent trucks full of PCB-contaminated dirt from getting through, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan came to her town to announce the creation of a new office. The Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights Office will support the work of the EPA at every level to analyze the impacts of discrimination and offer resources for climate justice. The thing that caught my attention was hearing Burwell (now 74) saying, “I was not trying to create a movement. I really wasn’t! But to see forty years later these young people fighting for environmental justice, I’m good to go now.”
What was good enough for Birgitta?
For Dollie Burwell?
Even in these stories of profound impact, there is a holy humility in it, of faithful people taking the next step. I wonder if Birgitta just moved forward, in faith, doing the next thing as it came up (or, as she’d probably put it, as Jesus instructed her). There is no arrival in movements for justice or faith. There is always one more injustice, one more heart to change, one more step to take. Dollie Burwell and Birgitta also remind us that there are also always people that God will send to continue building the path.
Learn more about Dollie Burwell from this 2017 piece from the United Church of Christ: A Case for the Mother of the Environmental Jus tice Movement: Dollie Burwell.