Love Must Win Out

Bethany Welch

Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D.

For nearly a year now, I have had the distinct privilege of accompanying two asylum seeking families from the Horn of Africa. When I look back at the appeal letter that I wrote to garner support for their arrival in South Philadelphia, I am both humbled by what has transpired since and embarrassed by how naive I was when the journey began.

I believe in the power of advocacy. I work on systems change. I go to protests to shine a light on injustice and I have made a career of helping urban neighborhoods build capacity to fight the effects of poverty.

What I have not done is let love prevail. Until this year. Which is why, now, I believe firmly that love sits at the intersection of mercy and justice. Not the love of paper valentines and heart shaped boxes of candy, but a radical, transforming love manifest to us in the Incarnation.

My part of the story begins in late August of 2015 when, in response to the call of Pope Francis to give shelter to migrants and refugees, St. Thomas Aquinas parish and the adjacent social justice center, which I direct, began to consider providing material support for specific families. This would be above and beyond the work that we already do as a community of immigrants and refugees around education, advocacy, leadership development, legal outreach, streetscape revitalization, and more.

As I wrote to donors then, the story of the two families that we did receive is a universal tale of struggle to find safety and a chance at a better life. They escaped torture and assault. They made their way from one country in Africa to the next, up on through South America and eventually to the Texas border. When these two single mothers and their young children landed in a detention facility in Pennsylvania instead of the wide open streets of a democratic America, it was compassionate pro-bono legal counsel who contacted me to discuss the prospect of finding a welcoming community to support them. It turns out that, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would not allow them individual freedoms while awaiting an asylum hearing, they could be “signed for” by a U.S. citizen with a valid address and be released to his or her care.

Fighting for justice, motivated by righteous anger, does not sustain you when the system is this broken. The flame burns you up and out. I have seen this happen to dear colleagues and I’ve suffered from it myself. The difference this time was that I took on the system in the context of a loving community of believers who proclaimed hope in the face of despair and I did so without a political agenda. There is a valiant and important movement to close the detention center where these families were held, but this round, that wasn’t where my efforts were focused.

Instead, I was asked to enter into the suffering of strangers by staying present with them, every day, rain or shine, for fun errands like shopping for Christmas dresses and in the profoundly raw moments of listening to a proud, beautiful 25 year old woman sob with the indignity of having to explain why she needed to find a long skirt that would cover the lacerations caused by the ICE issued ankle monitor bracelet, a condition of her release from the detention facility.

In 1977, a few years before he was murdered in the act of celebrating Mass, Blessed Oscar Romero said, “Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Let us not tire of preaching love. Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love, love must win out; it is the only thing that can.” This kind of love is what these two women and their children have demonstrated to me during our time together.

Love says goodbye to your parents and siblings in the hope that you can make more of a difference in their lives by leaving than by staying.

Love is months on the road, at the hands of smugglers, in order to extract your four year old from what will be a life of famine or military conscription by a corrupt government.

Love is not giving up on humanity when you ask for asylum from the nation held up as a model of a free and fair society and instead, authorities place you in a prison.

Love maintains a persistent, echoing cry for medical care when that four year old son is plagued by gastrointestinal viruses that rip through the close quarters of the detention facility in the same way cholera and dysentery take hold in a refugee camp in a developing country.

Love hopes all things, even when your court date for a preliminary hearing is postponed yet again.

For one of these families, love did win out. The first pair were granted asylum in late May, which situated them to receive refugee style benefits and we were able to match them with an affluent suburban parish to accompany them for the next year of life in America. For the second, the finish line keeps getting moved, even as they become more and more invested in the life of our parish and take on a larger part of my heart. While I continue to see my calling as one of fighting injustice through advocacy and innovative community building projects, I have learned that the work must be rooted in love, for this is the only force that will overcome the world.

Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D. is the founder of the Aquinas Center in Philadelphia, PA and recipient of the 2014 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award granted by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Nominations for the 2016 awards are being accepted through July 31, 2016.

The Sluggish Pursuit of Racial Justice

(CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

(CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

The U.S. Bishops said it back in 1979 with “Brothers And Sisters to Us.”  Their words continue to have a powerful impact in the Catholic community:

“Racism is a sin, a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.  Racism is a sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race … it mocks the words of Jesus, ‘Treat others the way you would have them treat you.’”

Racial and ethnic strife have remained issues the Church has addressed from the very beginning. Now in our present day, in a climate of ever-expanding freedoms, every Christian is obliged to apply Christ-like critique to personal preferences and judgments in effort to steer clear of seeing others as somehow different.

“They are not like us” is something we hear commonly said.  So, we avoid their neighborhoods.  We avoid social interaction with those people.  We stand from a distance and imagine how bad they are in order to justify our lack of involvement with them.  And ‘because those kinds of people are different, they are not necessarily entitled to, or they don’t deserve, or are not interested in working toward what resourceful and otherwise people like me are entitled to or work for.’

Added to this is the fear of shortages, the fear that we are not treated fairly in comparison to others, the fear of foreigners entering our space.  Regular media reports about the encroachment of refugees and migrants seeking respite from war and conflict, religious or ethnic persecution typically stir fear in people.  While it is a human penchant to differentiate, differentiation acts counter the sensibilities of the Christian message of love of neighbor we received from Jesus Christ.

We look to the Christian template in Acts 2, which inspires mixed class, mixed race and mixed generational communities, and we see that it must translate to our faith communities, as well. Communities in which we would never aspire towards mono-racial parishes because we would recognize they are incomplete, admitting that we are responsible for the application, punctuation and scheduling the universality of God’s kingdom, which is always the higher rubric in the Christian dispensation.

Indeed, the social imperatives found in the gospel are some of the most challenging messages to get across in preaching and Christian formation. It is a genuine struggle getting these ideals across to people, even to sincere Christians.  Material wealth and well-being are deemed manna from heaven. People prefer to live this way – economic advantage and opportunity enable us to live this way. But as positive as advantage, free enterprise and choice are deemed in our democracy, they unwittingly work a divide in the human community.

The City of Chicago is often representative of some of the most glaring disparities in opportunity: housing, education and access to health care.  Disproportionate numbers of people of color live in misery, condemned to lives of desperation, fueled by depression, and crime chosen as a path by anti-social elements in the sub culture.  Adding to the challenge of the Christian task are the people on the other side who easily dispense themselves from indifference and numbness felt in the face of some overwhelming social inequities surrounding us.

Whereas our nation has addressed many legal barriers to ending racism with civil rights legislation, we must continue to be vigilant for we are now challenged to deal with attitudinal and economic barriers to ending racism. The Church’s voice, strong in instances, muted in others, has tried to break through social walls that divide.  We find that people listen and may even nod in the affirmative to what is preached, but certain stubborn social patterns continue.

Christian faith affords us opportunities to reach to the deepest recesses of our hearts to search out attitudes and dispositions and information from our rearing that need discarding if we would live as a redeemed people. For example: ‘From where do my impressions of others originate?  Do I tend to label people or place them in categories?  Do I tend to expect the worse or the best from others regardless who they are?  When are the numbers of minorities close by too many for my comfort level?

What attitudes and approaches are we leaving to the young in legacy so they can help eradicate this original and pernicious sin of our society called racism?

Most Reverend Joseph Perry is an Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago and Episcopal Vicar for Vicariate VI. Bishop Perry is the Diocesan Postulator for the Cause of Canonization of Father Augustus Tolton.

This blog post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version on the Catholic Chicago Blog.


This week, Catholics from all over the country are gathering to pray and learn about what it means to dismantle internalized judgments of our neighbor. The Social Action Summer Institute hosts a number of sessions to help bring about this clarity at Saint Xavier University on July 17-21st. For more information, visit: www.chicagopeaceandjustice.org/SASI. You can also follow the conversation on social media #SASI2016.

Suffering With Others for the Sake of Truth and Justice

Maria Cintorino, Education and Outreach Intern

Maria Cintorino, Education and Outreach Intern

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in his message to the Mexican Bishops in 2005 that “it is necessary not only to relieve the greatest needs but to go to their roots, proposing measures that will give social, political and economic structures a more equitable and solidaristic configuration.”

A few weeks ago, my fellow CCHD interns and I had the opportunity to visit a parish that has taken these words to heart. Saint Camillus serves a diverse community of around 4,500 each Sunday who come from over 100 countries.

Franciscans staff the parish and have attended to the spiritual and social needs of the community since 1984.

Just last year Saint Camillus parish made the decision to join Action in Montgomery (AIM), an organization that has received funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), and which encourages residents in impoverished or low-income neighborhoods to transform their communities. With AIM’s help, Fr. Jacek Orzechowski and a team of parishioners went door-to-door in the surrounding neighborhood to listen to the community.

They soon learned that residents of Northwest Park Apartments, a large complex near the parish, are experiencing high rent, black mold, infestations of mice and bed bugs, and broken laundry facilities. Despite complaints from the tenants, management has failed to fix any of these problems. Residents reported that if they persistently asked for any of these issues to be resolved, management threatened to discontinue that their leases. Residents fear that they will become homeless.

Many residents of Northwest Park are low-income families. Apartments there cost about $1,800 per month, or $21,600 per year. With the average family living in Northwest Park earning about $25,000 per year, two or three families sometimes share one apartment to afford the cost.

The exploitation of the tenants by the management insults the dignity of the tenant and of us all. Saint John Paul II, quoting Gaudium et Spes in Evangelium Vitae, rightly speaks of subhuman human living conditions as “infamies.” Whoever insults human dignity, he writes, poisons human society. When we neglect to care for our neighbors, or treat them in ways which degrade their inherent dignity bestowed by God, we offend God, in whose image our neighbors are created.

When the sacredness of human life is violated, our proper response should be “to suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself” (Spe Salvi). The ability to suffer with another and to become an advocate for another is part of our Christian duty.

Fr. Jacek and lay leaders in the parish seek to suffer with others for the sake of truth and justice, as they work with their tenant neighbors to improve conditions at Northwest Park Apartments. Their example recalls the words of Saint Paul: “if one member suffers, all suffer together.” Supported by Saint Camillus and other community institutions that have joined the struggle, the tenants are now standing up for their own dignity.

Hearing and seeing the work of Saint Camillus with AIM at the beginning of my internship was a tremendous blessing. Their commitment to defending human dignity is inspiring and exemplifies the complimentary roles of evangelization and social justice. The example of Saint Camillus further fuels my passion to defend and to protect man’s inherent dignity given by God, and to educate others about social justice issues in their own communities. This visit has encouraged me to learn about groups such as AIM who are making a difference in my own community and to further explore how our political, economic, and social structures can be improved in the fight for Truth and Justice.

Maria Cintorino is the education and outreach summer intern at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. She currently teaches at a Catholic school in Northern Virginia.


Go Deeper!

This year, 29 Catholic emerging leaders are serving in dioceses around the country in the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) Internship Program.  Applications to the program are accepted annually, beginning in January.

Wage Theft: A Threat to the Worker and to Economic Development

Don Bosco's Gonzalo Cruz with Cardinal Dolan at Pope's Workshop

Don Bosco’s Gonzalo Cruz with Cardinal Dolan

Wage theft is not only an urban problem. Don Bosco Workers began as a parish program at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Westchester County in 2000. The program was in response to the growing social unrest in Port Chester over “workers on the corners” and the alarming levels of wage theft as a consequence of workers being uninformed and unaffiliated.

A Catholic Campaign for Human Development — the domestic anti-poverty program of the Catholic bishops of the United States — grantee beginning in 2006, we incorporated in 2008 including a worker-driven board of directors. Today, we represent more 200 paid members organized as a General Assembly of Workers who decide on how to strengthen the organization through skills training, leadership development, and education.

In September 2014, in collaboration with Communications Workers of America, Local 1103 in Port Chester, we launched a new campaign to address wage theft as a threat not only to the Westchester worker but to economic development throughout the county. No Pay No Way: Wage Theft Is Bad For Business educates the community on how responsible business owners suffer, when other businesses fail to follow labor law. Research shows responsible businesses are simply less competitive because their cost of doing business (paying their workers) is higher.

Just about one year into No Pay No Way, we collaborated with the Attorney General of New York in the prosecution of a local restaurant owner for wage, overtime, and safety violations for five female workers. The employer was sentenced to repayment of $47,000. The women are now thinking about investing their recovered wages in a worker-owned eco-cleaning business.

Last year, we were honored to construct the chair that Pope Francis used when he celebrated Mass at Madison Square Garden. We were called the Pope’s workers, and this continues to inspire our work for justice.

When workers are treated fairly according to the law, workers and responsible small business thrive, and there is greater economic development for all.

Gonzalo Cruz is the Director for Don Bosco Workers, Inc.

Go Deeper!

As Don Bosco Workers, Inc. works to protect worker rights, visit this page from WeAreSaltAndLight.org which contains resources on ethical practices for business leaders and institutions.”

Recognizing Romero

Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador in 1979. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador in 1979. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

I met Oscar Romero most memorably, most personally on a winter day in 2003 on the coast of Massachusetts.  Of course, I didn’t meet him “in person.”  At the time I was on a silent retreat spending days in prayer and reflection.  The freezing waves of the North Atlantic in January crashed on the rocky shore outside the retreat house.  I couldn’t have seemed further from the tropics of El Salvador, where Romero served as Archbishop of the capital city from 1977 until he was martyred as he celebrated Mass on March 24, 1980.

Although I never actually met him in person, I encountered Oscar Romero in some way as I prayed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who encouraged participants in this prayer experience to imagine real people who reflect Christ in the world.  I still had much to learn about Romero and his place in history, but fragments of stories I knew about him surfaced in my prayer, and on that retreat I recognized him as a personal model of faith.

On May 23rd, the Church will formally recognize and declare Oscar Romero to be among the Blesseds of the Church, a key step toward possible eventual recognition as a Saint.  Over 250,000 people are expected to participate in Mass on Saturday morning at San Salvador’s cathedral, and I am grateful that I will be among them.  I will travel there with ten members of my Washington, D.C. parish, and our pastor, who himself left El Salvador as a teenager in 1981 in the midst of civil war.

Our parish group felt called to make this pilgrimage on this occasion when the Church will recognize in a special way Romero’s great witness of faith — to pray, remember, and celebrate among the people whom he loved, in whom he found Christ, and for whom he gave his life. This is, after all, one profound way that the lives of holy people and the Communion of the Saints touch us.  Their witness calls us to follow on the journey, and draws our attention to grace in our own time and place, even in the most desperate circumstances and darkest hours of history.

Monseñor Romero offered us an example in his capacity to notice and respond to God’s grace in the lives of the people he encountered each day.  He didn’t grow in this gift alone, but was formed by the witness of many others, and in a special way by the movement of grace in people suffering the crushing weight of economic exclusion, violence, and war.  If he could preach to us again this Saturday, he would without a doubt direct our attention to the ongoing suffering of many of our sisters and brothers in El Salvador and neighboring countries, and their continuing need for justice and peace.

The Central American civil wars of the 1970s and 80s formally ended decades ago, but the lives and wellbeing of many people continue to be threatened today by violent drug cartels, abusive practices of multinational corporations, and persistent corruption among police, military, and civic leaders.  In March of this year, El Salvador suffered one of its deadliest months since the end of its civil war in 1992, with at least 481 murders, many through gang violence.  Families continue to send their children away in search of safety.  They often undertake dangerous journeys to the United States, which represents a confusing and tragic mix of promise and peril in the lives of ordinary people in Central America.

In many ways, it is to the people of El Salvador that our parish group goes on pilgrimage this week, and among whom we seek to hear God’s call and recognize God’s grace.  Such recognition may be sudden, or can take many years.  It is often deeply personal, but is especially rich when shared with others.  As with those travelers on the road to Emmaus that we hear about in the Gospels, it always calls for our response.  We are still growing to recognize God’s grace in the life of Oscar Romero.  His memory reminds us also to look for it among our neighbors near and far who are overlooked or oppressed – and to respond.

Ian Mitchell photo - close cropIan Mitchell is Catholic Social Teaching Education Coordinator in USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.