Democracy and the Peaceful Transfer of Power in The Gambia

Steve Hilbert, policy advisor on Africa, USCCB

Steve Hilbert, policy advisor on Africa, USCCB

The United States just completed a long election season. It was at times divisive, unsettling and frustrating.  In the end, our institutions prevailed and delivered a peaceful transfer of power.

Four thousand miles away another transfer of power just took place in The Gambia in West Africa. This one almost ended in disaster.  A political unknown, Adama Barrow, a former real estate agent, took on President Yahya Jammeh, who had been in power for 22 years.  No one thought Mr. Barrow would win, but he won.  People were even more shocked when President Jammeh, known for his human and civil rights violations, conceded defeat.

On a continent where personality politics has yet to give way to strong democratic institutions, President Jammeh subsequently withdrew his concession. He claimed the election, run by his own government, had been fraudulent.  The President also called a meeting with the Islamic leaders and the Christian Council of Churches to demand their support.  For a President who always appears in public with a Koran in hand, this endorsement was symbolically crucial.  Instead, the religious leaders told the President to bow to the will of the people and step down.

Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chair of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote to Bishop Robert Ellison of Banjul to share appreciation for the courage that he and his brother religious leaders had shown. He expressed solidarity with the people of The Gambia.

When the head of the national army pledged his troops’ allegiance to President Jammeh, it looked like democracy for and by the people would fall.   But the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) stepped in to resolve the crisis.  Four West African Presidents met with President Jammeh to convince him to step down.  Jammeh refused.  ECOWAS then announced that they were prepared to use military means to force President Jammeh from power.

President-Elect Barrow fled to Senegal and was sworn in as President in The Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal. The Senegalese army with support from Ghana and Nigeria crossed into The Gambia with a final ultimatum.  Mediation trips by two other West African leaders convinced Jammeh to leave the country.  Reports say that he left with a transport plane full of luxury cars and $11.4 million in government funds.

President Adama Barrow hopes to seek the return of state resources. He has also called for a truth and reconciliation commission on past violations of human and civil rights.

This is not the first time West African leaders have intervened to avert a crisis. They ended a coup d’état in Mali in 2012 and supported the ouster of a recalcitrant coup leader in Burkina Faso in 2015.  In the 1990s they sent troops to end a long civil war in Liberia.  These efforts are strong indicators that African leaders are increasingly committed to democratic rule.  Other countries in West Africa like Ghana, Senegal, Benin and Nigeria are building stronger democratic institutions and a solid track record of democratic rule and the peaceful transfer of power.

International support for African efforts to promote democracy, free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society and human rights are crucial. Africa has made slow and steady progress towards democratic rule and economic prosperity.  It has a long way to go and depends on continued support from the United States to meet these goals.  The United States can show positive leadership in the world by working with countries that strive to build democracy and peace.

Steve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Going Deeper!

Explore the work of the USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace, which assists the bishops in advancing the social mission of the Church, especially in its advocacy for policies that advance justice, defend human dignity and protect poor and vulnerable communities around the world. Join USCCB and CRS in advocating on behalf of those who are vulnerable around the world, through Catholics Confront Global Poverty.

Promoting Peace in Northern Ghana

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Kris Ozar, Country Representative for Catholic Relief Services in Ghana

In Pope Francis’ statement for the 2017 World Day of Peace, he notes that “the Church has been involved in nonviolent peacebuilding strategies in many countries, engaging even the most violent parts in efforts to build a just and lasting peace.”

At Catholic Relief Services (CRS), our peacebuilding work often tries to anticipate conflicts and to defuse them before they explode into violence. A good example is an ongoing project in Ghana leading up to this month’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections.

You might not think Ghana, known as a beacon on stability in West Africa, is a country that needs peacebuilding work, but its northern regions are particularly troubled where a significant number of recurring conflicts that have at times erupted into violent clashes with fatal consequences. The country’s stability can be threatened when elections exacerbate simmering political, religious, and ethnic tensions.

Ghana’s youth constitutes about a third of its 26 million people. For this reason, the CRS peacebuilding project, dubbed “Promoting Peace in Northern Ghana,” is focused on helping people between the ages of 15 and 25 understand and act out their role as agents of peace. Working with partners, including three dioceses in Northern Ghana, during the several months leading up the election, CRS trained approximately 675 youth in peacebuilding and preventing electoral violence. In addition, 30 youth leaders, called Young Peace Ambassadors selected from communities particularly prone to violence have been implementing community-based peace advocacy activities to promote peaceful elections in December 2016.

For much of the next year, efforts will focus on further strengthening the role of youth as productive citizens and positive contributors to the Ghanaian economy by continuing to work with youth leaders and building up the peacebuilding capacity of diocesan units.

At CRS, we know from experience that violence can be contagious. But so can peace. Projects like this one in Ghana are like stones tossed in a pond, rippling far beyond those directly affected.

As Pope Francis said, “in 2017 may we dedicate ourselves prayerfully and actively to banishing violence from our hearts, words and deeds, and to becoming nonviolent people and building nonviolent communities that care for our common home. ‘Nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer. Everyone can be an artisan of peace.’”

Kris Ozar is Country Representative for Catholic Relief Services in Ghana.


Going Deeper

Read Pope Francis’ message for the 2017 World Day of Peace. Join with Catholics Confront Global Poverty to advocate with others to change the conditions that prevent peace globally.

Hope “pierces the heart” of a diocese new to organizing

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The closing of the liturgical year and the Feast of Christ the King fell, this year, just after the U.S. presidential elections. Such timing prompts me to ask, what does God’s reign look like on earth? Among a divided world, how does one rule with peace and justice? Who would be better equipped to ensure the good of his people than one who knows suffering, family poverty, and being outcast?

prophetic-voting-hitting-the-streetsIn my diocese here in the Northeastern corner of Indiana, the sovereignty of Christ’s power has been made manifest in new ways throughout the last six months. A humble group– immigrants, returning citizens, foreign priests, low-income lay leaders, and average every-day parishioners – heard God’s call for justice and participation and took on new habits, words, and ways of seeing themselves and the world.

What does their love look like in public? Here are a few freeze frames:

  • Pastors dismayed by their parishioners’ disinterest in current events, slimmed attention spans, and even illiteracy issued calls from the pulpit about the need to consider the entirety of Church teaching when forming their consciences and challenged them to move beyond partisan comfort camps;
  • Ethnicities unfamiliar with working together shared stories of similar pain and worry with each other and partnered to knock on the doors of some of the most destitute neighborhoods in our diocese;
  • Undocumented immigrants, who cannot vote and barely survive in the shadows, held voter registration tables and conducted hundreds of calls to encourage those who can to vote their values, even when those values stood in stark contrast to their own;
  • Men and women working multiple part-time jobs made time, often despite family criticism, to be trained in Catholic social teaching, the parameters of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, and the kinds of decisions local and state governments make every day that determine the conditions of our lives.

Even the night when our country finally elected its president, Christ’s kingship still rang out across our land. Amid moments of frailty and fragility, as those same leaders from the voting effort were working the third shift at a manufacturing plant and their co-workers exchanged excitement for the time when “immigrants will go running like cock-roaches”; or, in the days that followed, as students hid in lockers as kids chanted brazen slogans in the hallways and parents were caught speechless as their children gaze into their eyes asking “what is going to happen to us?” – the Kingdom keeps yeasting.

stpatligandbrothersIn the quiet solitude of our hearts, we remember a reality that is unchanged – God is the King of the World. We let the truth radiate outward from there, and soon we cannot help but recommit to the work of overcoming hate, indifference, and ignorance through the hallmarks of mercy and the audacity of hope.

As people of faith, we must continue our efforts to keep immigrant families together, promote religious liberty, ensure the vulnerable have access to adequate health care and emergency assistance, work for racial justice, reform the criminal justice system, and care for all God’s creation.

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:28). And organize!

 

audrey-davisAudrey Davis is the Director for the Office of Social Justice for the Diocese of Fort Wayne- South Bend, Indiana.

This pocket of former manufacturing and agricultural glory is today home to the 17th highest incarceration rate on the globe, and where only 30% of jobs pay a family wage. Through the Prophetic Voting Campaign, the diocese partnered with IndyCAN to make its foray into community organizing, through which four low-income parishes joined together to hold sacred conversations with 1,787 low-income voters, register 80 new voters, and spread the message of human dignity and justice through 6 news stories.


Going Deeper

Visit the PovertyUSA.org map to find out where people of faith are organizing for and with those who are poor and vulnerable in your community. Join them!

 

Finding God in the Aftermath of the Presidential Election

Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM

Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM

Tuesday night, Nov. 8, I stayed awake past midnight, anxious to find out the results of the Presidential Election. Finally, I rested my weary head on a pillow. “O God where are you in the midst of all this?” I sighed. “And what do you want me to do?”

I got an answer a few days later when, out of the blue, an image and a story popped into my mind. That image was one of Giotto’s frescos in the Upper Church of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. The fresco tells a story. St. Francis was passing by the city of Arezzo, which was in a grip of an intense conflict. According to the story written by St. Bonaventure, “St. Francis saw a multitude of demons rejoicing over the city and instigating the angry citizens to destroy each other.” The people were deeply divided along economic, social, and political fault lines. Many felt disempowered. That disempowerment, in turn, gave rise to fear, resentment and hatred. It bred mistrust, mutual demonization, and even violence.

In response to that scene, St. Francis sent Br. Sylvester as his herald to preach a message of peace. On the fresco, you see Br. Sylvester standing in front of the city of Arezzo while St. Francis, down on his knees, is in a deep contemplative prayer. As a result of the intervention of the two friars, “the tumult in the city was appeased, and all the citizens, in great tranquility, began to revise the statutes and regulations of the city, so that they might be duly observed. Thus, the fierce pride of the demons, which had enslaved the miserable city, was overcome by the wisdom of the poor. The humility of Francis restored it to peace and safety.” The fresco depicts the demons fleeing Arezzo.

In this post-election season in America, there are – and I’m speaking figuratively – demons hovering over our cities and the entire nation. They are the demons of fear, callousness, and incivility. Those demons incite intolerance, discrimination, personal, and systemic violence.

What can we do to follow the lead of the two medieval Franciscan friars who put evil to flight?

I’d like to offer three observations and suggestions:

  1. St. Francis and Br. Sylvester were contemplatives in action. Francis was, down on his knees, praying. Likewise, our efforts for justice and peace must go hand-in-hand with cultivating prayer and contemplation. Only by going deeper will we be able to draw on these inner resources. Only then will we have the power to deal with fear, anger and helplessness. Only then will we be able to let go of the rigid ideologies that shackle us and hinder us on our path toward the Kingdom of God.
  2. St. Francis   and Br. Sylvester didn’t flee from the conflict – they took personal risks and engaged that conflict with compassion, creativity, and courage. They brought opposing groups of Arezzo’s citizens into a civil discourse. Are we willing to follow their lead? As a response to the 2016 Presidential Election, Franciscan Action Network invites us to make this make this commitment to Civility in Dialogue:
  • Facilitate a forum for difficult discourse and acknowledge that dialogue can lead to new insight and mutual understanding.
  • Respect the dignity of all people, especially of those who hold an opposing view.
  • Audit yourself and utilize terms or a vocabulary of faith to unite or reconcile rather that divide conflicting positions.
  • Neutralize inflamed conversation by presuming that those with whom we differ are acting in good faith.
  • Collaborate with others and recognize that all human engagement is an opportunity to promote peace.
  • Identify common ground, such as similar values or concerns, and utilize this as a foundation to build upon.
  • Support efforts to clean up provocative language by calling policy makers to their sense of personal integrity.
  1. According to the biography of St. Francis, the devils fled the city of Arezzo when its citizens sat down together in a civil dialogue and “began to revise the statutes and regulations of the city.” The key point here is that an authentic dialogue leads to restorative justice. The 1971 World Synod of Bishops reminds us that “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.” The Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation ought to compel the ordinary Christians – men, women, youth, and children – to civic engagement, and not just during times of elections but throughout the year.

I hope that, just like St. Francis and Br. Sylvester, our faith communities will continue to inspire and empower people to live out a Gospel that is not truncated but, rather, is inclusive of civic engagement.

So, where is God in this tumultuous post-election period?

As typical of our God of surprises, he might be waiting to be found in your commitment to deeper prayer and contemplation, in your pledge to civility in dialogue, and in the tenacity with which you stay engaged in various community or advocacy efforts without giving in to despair or cynicism. I know it gets tough. But God believes in you.

Jacek Orzechowski, OFM was born and grew up in Poland. After immigrating into the U.S. in 1988, he joined Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province and obtained a Master of Divinity degree from Washington Theological Union. For the past eight years, he has been ministering at the St. Camillus multicultural parish in Silver Spring, M.D. He also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Franciscan Action Network and he is involved in the Archdiocese of Washington Care for Creation committee.


Going Deeper!

Catholics around the country are involved in efforts to transform their communities on a year-round basis. Learn what ongoing faithful citizenship looks like by visiting the WeAreSaltAndLight.org Success Stories page, where you can learn how faith communities are working on racial justice, predatory lending, immigration, caring for God’s creation, and more.

Get Out and Vote, Faithful Citizens!

7-342-Catholics-Care-Catholics-Vote-1We are in our last few days before the presidential elections. The previous months have been filled with speeches, debates and campaign ads. Our natural reaction, in the face of incivility and personal attacks by candidates from both parties, may be to feel tempted to withdraw from the political process altogether. But that’s not what we’re called to, as disciples of Jesus and as faithful citizens.

Sunday’s Scripture readings are perfectly timed, a breath of fresh air to remind us that God is the center of our existence; that his vision for us is one of hope; and that he loves us and cares about the difficulties and challenges we face.

In the first reading (2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14), we hear the story of the martyrdom of a mother and her seven sons. They receive strength and courage in the midst of an unimaginable challenge. In the second reading, Paul likewise seeks to “encourage” and “strengthen” the Thessalonians (2:17), exhorting them to embrace “the endurance of Christ” (3:5). In the Gospel reading, Luke reaffirms the applicability of faith to the serious issues and challenges that we face, for “he is not God of the dead, but of the living” (20:38).

In the face of challenge and discouragement, we are invited to receive strength and encouragement from God. We remember that God loves us and is present and active in our lives, and in the challenges we face as individuals and as a society.

This love requires a response. The U.S. Catholic bishops write in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, quoting Pope Francis and the Gospel of Mark, “Love compels us ‘to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15)’” (Evangelii Gaudium [Joy of the Gospel], no. 181).

For Pope Francis, being people of faith means that we recognize and experience the “inseparable bond between our acceptance of the message of salvation and genuine fraternal love . . . God’s word teaches that our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the incarnation for each of us: ‘As you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt 25:40)” (Evangelii Gaudium [Joy of the Gospel], no. 179). Receiving God’s love requires that we extend love to our brothers and sisters, whom God loves.

What an appropriate reminder for us as we approach the elections.

In their statement on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Catholic bishops highlight a number of pressing issues that affect our neighbors (nos. 64-92). Some of these include:

  • Addressing abortion and other threats to life and dignity, such as euthanasia, the use of the death penalty, and imprudent resort to war;
  • Protecting the fundamental understanding of marriage as the life-long and faithful union of one man and one woman and as the central institution of society;
  • Achieving comprehensive immigration reform;
  • Caring for God’s creation, our common home;
  • Helping families and children overcome poverty;
  • Providing healthcare while respecting human life, human dignity and religious freedom; and
  • Establishing and complying with moral limits on the use of military force.

As Catholics, we believe that “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, no. 13).

By voting, we can put love for God and neighbor into action by caring for the needs of those who are most vulnerable in our society: the unborn, the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the homeless, and the immigrant. They need us to act on their behalf.

Put your faith in action by voting this Tuesday.

But also remember that Catholics’ responsibility to be involved in political life does not end after the elections. You can be involved by serving those in need, advocating on their behalf, working to change unjust policies, or even running for office yourself. This is what faithful citizenship is all about!


Going Deeper

 Visit FaithfulCitizenship.org for Part 1 and Part 2 summaries of the bishops’ statement on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, a Faithful Citizenship 101 video, and additional materials in English and Spanish.

Voting: One Way to Oppose Injustice

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Omar Gutierrez, manager of the Office of Missions and Justice, Archdiocese of Omaha

Recently, I was speaking with a friend who is involved with politics. We were talking about the election, and he told me one of his biggest frustrations is the low level of participation.

Our conversation reminded me about St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, otherwise known as Edith Stein (1891-1942). Remarkably intelligent, Edith earned a doctorate in philosophy and a university position at a young age. One night, while visiting friends, she found herself in their library and picked out a book from the shelf. She sat and didn’t put it down until the early hours of the next morning. When done, she said out loud, “This is truth.”

The year was 1921. The book was “Book of My Life” by St. Teresa of Avila. And the next year Edith came into the Catholic Church, eventually entering the Carmelite order and taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was of Jewish heritage, however, so she was eventually arrested by the Nazis and sent to her death in Auschwitz in 1942.

So that’s Teresa Benedicta. Now for the reason I remembered her after my conversation with my friend. Once, the nuns in her convent were voicing their frustrations over whom to vote for in the upcoming election. Why vote, they said, when everything is so obviously rigged in favor of the Nazis? What does our vote matter?

St. Teresa Benedicta, who was sitting close by, put her work down and chided her sisters. They must vote, she said, because every opportunity must be taken to voice opposition to injustice. Not to vote meant being silent, and silence becomes approval of injustice.

I thought of this scene because many people today find themselves busy, pulled in so many different directions. But so many people today are deeply concerned about our future. In the last few months, a consistent two-thirds of the nation has said that our country is going in the wrong direction. So many are hurting.

We may be tempted to say in the face of it all, “What’s the point in voting?” But when we are tempted, or when we hear others say it, let’s remember St. Teresa Benedicta’s lesson for us. Not voting means being silent in the face of injustice. Not voting bars us from the opportunity to voice our opposition to injustice and show solidarity with the unborn and the single mom who is struggling.

What’s more, we’re called to do more than vote. Prayer and fasting also are important in the democratic process. We believe in things visible and invisible after all. So let us pray and fast for our nation, for our leaders and our fellow citizens.

Finally, some may be called to run for office. We need Catholics willing to run for office and shape a better future for us all. If you feel called by the Lord, answer that call and he will give you strength.

Let me close by just saying that I pray everyone reading this column votes. If you are in the habit of voting, make sure you encourage your family members and friends to vote. It’s our responsibility and it’s our opportunity to really make a difference. Because if Christianity teaches us anything, it should teach us time and again the difference one voice can make.

St. Teresa Benedicta discovered that so many years ago in that book and we can, too, as we step in the booths to vote.

Omar Gutierrez is manager of the Office of Missions and Justice in the Archdiocese of Omaha. This blog post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at the Catholic Voice Online.


Going Deeper

Catholics around the country are involved in non-partisan efforts to help get out the vote in their communities. Read about one effort here.

“It shall be a Jubilee for You”: Civic Engagement in the Year of Mercy

“‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, … [He] has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; …to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, … to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’ (Is 61:1-2) … I present, therefore, this Extraordinary Jubilee Year”.

Pope Francis quoted this passage from Isaiah, (proclaimed by Christ at the beginning of his ministry), to formally declare the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Isaiah speaks of his call to participate in the Divine work of creating a more just world. His joyous call is our call as well. There are as many ways to be missionaries of mercy as there are people, but I propose yet another way – a way vibrantly lived out by St. Vincent De Paul Parish in Philadelphia, namely, that of civic participation.

St. Vincent de Paul parishioners prepare for voter engagement work

St. Vincent de Paul parishioners prepare for voter engagement work

The parish is a member congregation of the interfaith community organizing group, Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER).  POWER, which is funded in part by a Catholic Campaign for Human Development grant, will have more than 20 of its congregations participate in Get Out the Vote initiatives. This non-partisan effort will start internally. They aim to ensure that 100% of the members of each participating congregation are registered to vote. The congregations will then go forth into their communities with voter registration forms in hand. Members will participate in door-knocking campaigns, and be trained to assist citizens in the voter registration process.

What does voting have to do with mercy? Mary Laver, a lay leader at St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Outreach coordinator for POWER, and co-author of the PICO Year of Encounter program, says that the answer lies in Catholic social teaching’s (CST) emphasis on the necessity of participation. Our civic participation is an “extension of the belief that Catholics have in the dignity of the human person” Laver says. She believes that Christ’s call of mercy in Matthew 25, (the call to give food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, and company to the prisoner), points beyond these immediate needs to the “need for every person to be a tangible part of how society is run…” and ultimately “to the need for mercy and justice.”

CST proclaims that it is our duty and basic human right to participate in society for the advancement of the common good. David Koppisch, associate director of POWER Philadelphia, says that the spirit of Get Out the Vote campaigns, and consequently the spirit of merciful participation, should continue beyond election day. POWER groups, particularly St. Vincent De Paul, work to keep voters engaged on social justice issues year round. After helping people feel included in the civic process by encouraging them to vote, POWER congregations then encourage them to be ‘year-round prophets’ by speaking out about injustices in our communities between elections. In 2014, they worked to pass a ballot referendum that would provide just wages to airport subcontractors, most of whom were living in poverty. Bringing good tidings to the afflicted. POWER organizations are also working to ensure that public schools in Pennsylvania that serve our poorest children get the resources they need.

This year, may we view our right to civic participation as an opportunity to be instruments of mercy.

marsha forsonMarsha Forson was a summer intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Going Deeper!

You too can help your faith community form consciences and participate in political life! FaithfulCitizenship.org includes dozens of resources in English and Spanish, including bulletin announcements and inserts, a Faithful Citizenship 101 video, a voter registration guide, tips for conducting a candidate forum, and guidelines for appropriate, non-partisan political activity.