Persecution: Solidarity in Suffering

Persecution of Christians and other religious minorities is not a abstract concern for me. It is deeply personal.

Two years ago in Erbil, Iraq, I looked out the window of my hotel to see tents packed together on the grounds of a chapel.  Christian families, displaced from Mosul, now lived in tents.  I remember strolling through the narrow, mud-caked paths among the tents.  Families, many with young children, shyly peered out from their tents. In one tent there were 2 families and 11 persons.

In a “deluxe” camp for displaced Christians, families lived in “caravans” (small trailer homes).  I remember seeing blankets and mattresses neatly stacked in a corner, a silent testimony to the family members who shared one room.  A mother broke down in tears as she described their night flight from Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS).  They fled with only the clothes on their backs.

In Dohuk, north of Erbil, I met a 34-year-old Yezidi policeman.  His family of 8 fled on foot to Mount Sinjar where they spent 12 days with little food in scorching summer conditions, hiding from ISIS.  Kurdish fighters rescued them.  They now lived in one room in a nearby village; 5 other families were in the same house.  He hoped to return to his ancestral village when security allows. He was in Dohuk for a Catholic Relief Services distribution of kerosene heaters, kitchen kettles, carpets, and blankets to get them through the cold winter.

A year ago in Jordan, I met an Iraqi Christian family, mother, father, and three young adult daughters.  They too had fled ISIS in the middle of the night.  On the road to safety they saw young women being kidnapped and thanked God that they were able to flee safely with their daughters to Erbil and later Jordan.

A young male student from the University of Mosul wanted to continue his studies, but he needs to leave Jordan because he cannot work.  I wonder if any country accepted him as a refugee.  I worry that our nation is closing its doors to many such fine young men.

It is important that we pray and work for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, have designated Sunday, November 26, as A Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians that initiates “Solidarity in Suffering,” a Week of Awareness and Education.

USCCB is collaborating with the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Relief Services, CNEWA and Aid to the Church in Need on this project.  There are resources available to assist parishes, schools and campus ministries in observing this Day of Prayer and Week of Awareness at  www.usccb.org/middle-east-Christians.  There you will find homily notes, intercessions, recommended aid agencies, prayer cards (in English and Spanish), logos for local use (in English and Spanish) and much more.  For social media, we are using the hashtag: #SolidarityInSuffering.  I hope you will join us in this effort.

As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has said, “To focus attention on the plight of Christians and other minorities is not to ignore the suffering of others. Rather, by focusing on the most vulnerable members of society, we strengthen the entire fabric of society to protect the rights of all.”  Persons of all faiths suffer persecution.  In the Middle East, Christians, Yezidis and Shia Muslims suffer from ISIS.  We must express solidarity in suffering with our brothers and sisters.

Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Respect Life Month: Working to End the Death Penalty

“Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.” Pope Francis, March 20, 2015

This memorial dedicated to Sister Paula Merrill, a member of the Sisters of Nazareth, and Sister Margaret Held, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, was blessed and dedicated May 20 in Durant, Miss. The women, who were murdered in their home last fall, were nurse practitioners at a local health clinic. (CNS photo/Ruthie Robison, Mississippi Catholic)

Just over a year ago, two Catholic nuns were brutally murdered in Durant, Mississippi. Sister Margaret M. Held, a School Sister of St. Francis, and Sister Paula J. Merrill, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, were beloved and committed nurse practitioners serving some of the poorest children and families in the country.  The community health clinic where they worked is in the 7th poorest county in the country, in the hungriest and poorest state in our nation.

The sisters’ ministry embodied what the Church calls “preferential option for the poor.”  The senseless loss of these sisters has caused tremendous pain for their families, their local clients, and their religious communities.

If you have followed this story at any length, likely you have been captivated by the courageous, Christ-like response the sisters’ religious Congregations shared following the murder, in part: “We want to reiterate our beliefs as women of faith, that we value life. For years now the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis have worked to abolish the death penalty, even as we seek justice and truth.”

Close family members and fellow sisters alike say that coming forward with a statement to oppose the death penalty was clear and certain for them. Given the strong faith-held convictions and the life-long healing ministries of Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret, everyone immediately understood the merciful action the sisters themselves would have wanted to respond to such a tragedy.

The modern Catholic Church is against the death penalty; the last three popes have made the Church’s opposition very clear. And while more Catholics are opposed to the death penalty than ever, statistics reveal that upwards of 43% of U.S. Catholics still support capital punishment.  Given this sobering reality, the response made by the families and sisters is even more courageous an example for us and witness for our times.

The truth is the death penalty is coming to an end and the time is now to make a difference.

As we observe Respect Life Month this October, we are invited to reflect on the depth of our convictions related to dignity of all life and our pro-life stance.  At the time of this writing, a disturbing six executions are scheduled throughout October. These executions demand action.  Catholic Mobilizing Network’s Mercy in Action Project  is an easy way to direct your faithful advocacy to end the death penalty and take a stand for life.

In their living, Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret sought to heal people on the margins of society.  In their dying these sisters left their legacy of life – lived, shared and sacrificed; a story we recognize by our faith in Jesus Christ.

 Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy is Managing Director of Catholic Mobilizing Network. She is co-author of Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures.


Going Deeper

Respect Life Month is the perfect time to recommit yourself to our faith’s pro-life call.  To facilitate this, Catholic Mobilizing Network has created a Respect Life Month Toolkit to help your parish community renew its dedication to all life. This toolkit is full of resources to help you educate, advocate, and pray to end the death penalty, including a pro-life prayer service, social media ideas and bulletin articles. The toolkit also contains CMN’s new initiative, the National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty, a great way to begin your advocacy for all life, consider signing the pledge if you haven’t already.

The Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence

Marie Dennis, Co-President, Pax Christi International

Marie Dennis, Co-President, Pax Christi International

Many people around the world are living and making peace, caring about each other, and striving for social justice and right relationships with the rest of creation. Yet, war, gang violence, gun violence, terrorist attacks, fear and enemy-making, and the structural and systemic violences of poverty, racism, environmental destruction, and gender violence are present in every person’s life…virtually, if not personally. Continue reading

A Public Witness for Peace in Our Community

 

ray-kelly1

Ray Kelly

It was already 90 degrees at 9:00 am on this Saturday morning, not the ideal day for a clean-up effort. The forecast was for a heat index of 115 that afternoon. None-the-less, we were on a mission and we had a job to do. I am the Co-Director of a community advocacy group in West Baltimore called the No Boundaries Coalition. We work to break down the boundaries of race, class and neighborhood within the eight diverse neighborhoods that surround Baltimore’s (in)famous Pennsylvania Avenue.

Our coalition came about when, after serving in just about every ministry in my parish since birth, St. Peter Claver/Pius V Catholic Church in the Sandtown/Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore, I realized that while the work we were doing in faith formation, evangelization, and youth outreach was important, it wasn’t necessarily bringing faith into dialogue with the root causes of issues that face our community. And, no one really believed in themselves; our community had lost hope.
nbc-intersection
Since then, St. Peter Claver/Pius V and the No Boundaries Coalition have worked to break down boundaries and build hope. After the riots which occurred after Freddie Gray’s death, we conducted a listening campaign because in the midst of the media attention, our residents didn’t feel heard or felt forgotten. We also created the West Baltimore commUNITY Commission to document instances of police misconduct and published a report that was later used by the Department of Justice in their investigation into policing in Baltimore. Recognizing that one reason our voices weren’t being heard was because of low voter turn-out, we launched a Get out the Vote effort, which we called “Double Up 21217”—which ended up recording the highest voter turnout in the history of polling place 015-018 (Gilmore Elementary School) in Sandtown/Winchester. At the same time, the Archdiocese of Baltimore created the Racial Justice Circle, which facilitated an open conversation about white privilege and systemic oppression. The parishes involved became some of our biggest supporters and volunteers and still are to this day.

nbc-greeningWhich leads us back to our clean-up effort on a too-hot day in July. By eleven thirty, the heat index was 100 degrees, and we had been through 160 trash bags, but our volunteers, social action team members, and Archdiocese Racial Justice Circle participants were working hard. We were out together, with brooms, shovels, trimmers and mowers, being “visible” and proving we are capable of changing things for the better. When our work was finally complete, we partied together like it was a family reunion. There was music, dancing and so much love in laughter, as we picnicked in a park that a few years ago was surrounded by vacant houses, and near corners that are usually overrun with drug activity. We felt proud that this was our home.

The by-product of all of these efforts is the re-introduction of hope in a community that gave it up decades ago. Once again, the power of God is igniting the power within our hearts and our community.

Ray Kelly is Co-Director of No Boundaries Coalition, in West Baltimore, and a life-long member of St. Peter Claver/Pius V Catholic Church.

Going Deeper
Learn more about efforts for peace in West Baltimore, including the work of St. Peter Claver/Pius V with No Boundaries Coalition, and Bishop Madden’s peace walks. Watch this recorded YouTube Live event about how three faith communities, including St. Peter Claver/Pius V, in West Baltimore, are taking action.

Visit the USCCB Racism page to find out more about how communities of faith can work together for peace and racial justice.

 

5 Ways You Can Cultivate Peace and Work for Racial Justice

USCCB president, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, recently announced a Day of Prayer for Peace in our Communities, to be celebrated in faith communities across the country on September 9.

In interviewing numerous faith communities in preparation for this day about their responses to violence, racial tensions, and systemic racism, we have encountered amazing stories of deep faith, persevering hope, and effective action to build peace and counter racism.

nbc1In West Baltimore, St. Peter Claver Catholic Church was on the front lines in responding to unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray. Parishioners continue to build on efforts begun four years ago to address neighborhood safety and improve community-police relations. They also participate in Bishop Madden’s prayer walks in neighborhoods plagued by violence.

In Ferguson, MO, parishioners at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta are engaging a “Lean In” listening process across cultures and raising awareness about racial issues. Children at the parish school study saints of various cultures to reflect on how they can imitate these heroes by engaging in efforts for dialogue and peace. All around St. Louis, MO, parishes are joining with congregations of other denominations so that people of faith can have Sacred Conversations on Race (+ Action), which challenge participants to encounter one another and discuss the uncomfortable topic of racism.

In Dallas, TX, Holy Trinity Catholic Church is working with other faith groups to improve police-community relations and work on racial and economic justice. Because of the interfaith group members’ long work to build relationships with law enforcement, Holy Trinity and others were prepared to respond immediately when the recent shooting of police offices occurred. They now seek to address problems with housing, healthcare access, and payday lending that are connected to racial disparity.

Other stories of hope abound—in Minneapolis, New Orleans, Savannah, Springfield, and countless other cities.

If you feel as inspired by these stories as we do, then take that as a sign of encouragement from the Holy Spirit to discern how your own community might be called to respond.

Here’s how you can get started.

  1. Pray Together. Use these prayers from the USCCB during Eucharistic celebrations. Gather to pray and reflect. Many faith communities are using the bishops’ letters on Brothers and Sisters to Us and What We’ve Seen and What We’ve Heard, as well as Bishop Braxton’s The Racial Divide, as starting points for reflection and discussion. You can access all of these on the USCCB racism page as well as a video, other reflections materials, and more. The WeAreSaltAndLight.org diversity and racial justice page also contains some excellent resources for reflection.
  2. Reach Out Together. Create intentional opportunities for members of your faith community to listen to the stories and experiences of people of ethnicities, languages, and cultures different from their own. This resource on Building Relationships, Creating a Culture of Encounter through One-to-Ones can help guide your efforts for encounter. Another fantastic resource for facilitating encounter between different ethnic groups within a faith community is PICO’s Year of Encounter with Pope Francis program.
  3. Bring what you’ve learned through reaching out to pray and reflect on the hard questions. Gather with other representatives, including decision makers, in your faith community and ask the hard questions: Does the leadership of our institution reflect the diversity of those we serve? Are the many faces of the diverse body of Christ represented in decision-making processes? How are we inviting and forming leaders? Who is missing around the table? In our worship together, and in activities of our community, do we cultivate welcome, hospitality, and participation for people of all cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds? How do we invite our members to reflect about and understand racism? Privilege? The dignity of all people? Whose untold story do we need to listen to? Are we preaching on, and praying together about, these difficult issues? How are we currently working to change perspectives and address the causes of racism?
  4. Learn Together. Make an effort to learn more about racial disparities and the causes of racial tension. Learn about the historical struggle for racial justice in the United States and some of the challenges that remain. In recent years, there has been ample media coverage on disparities in education, housing, employment, the justice system, and other areas. Use the Process for Group Discernment to draw from your experiences of prayer, reflection, encounter, and study to discern what action the Holy Spirit might be calling you to take as a community.
  5. Act Together. Some of the faith communities highlighted above chose to reach across faith traditions, joining ecumenical and interfaith efforts to work together on racial and economic justice. You can discover what efforts might already be happening in your community at the PovertyUSA.org website. Other communities felt called to commit to practical changes in the ways they practice hospitality, cultivate leaders, and celebrate cultural traditions. Others are just beginning, but are engaging in important encounter and dialogue that can lay the groundwork for future efforts.

What is the Holy Spirit calling you to do, together with your family, neighborhood, parish, school, or other faith community? What will be your first step?

What have I done for the tortured ones in my midst?

Dianna Ortiz, OSU

Dianna Ortiz, OSU

My theme song for 2016 is “What Have We Done for the Poor Ones,” by Lori True. It is a song that serves as a moral compass that inspires and nudges me to live and to work for social justice.

For several years, I have managed to bury in the tomb of my soul the memories of my torture in Guatemala. Often, they threaten to overwhelm me but almost miraculously I’m able to keep them buried—preventing the memories from contaminating my consciousness. But on days like November 2, the day that I experienced and bore witness to the torture of others and to man’s inhumanity, and June 26, the U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the memories emerge.

I find myself facing twin realities. Yesterday’s memories return, sharpened and accompanied by their old companions of fear, insecurity, and distrust in humanity. With them are the voices and smells of my torturers.

The second reality, one that I find more troubling than the first, is the survival skill that has graced me with some peace of mind, but has made me a person of indifference. I say this with shame and a profound sense of failure to my fellow survivors and to humanity.

In 1998, I founded the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC), an organization that seeks to empower survivors, their families, and communities and works to end the practice of torture wherever it occurs.  After serving as its director for ten years, I chose to walk a different path—one that allowed me to see and hear about torture from afar.  After escaping from my torturers, I swore that I would never allow anything that resembled a blindfold to cover my eyes. Ironically, I have placed a blindfold over my own eyes.

Lately, I find myself asking, “Have I done enough for the tortured ones in my midst? Have I failed to do enough to spotlight the governments’ and rebel forces’ use of torture? At times I feel that I have done my share, but at others I believe I could have done more. In this election season, it is my moral responsibility to bring to the attention the principles of Catholic social teaching before presidential candidates and other who are seeking public office—mainly those who advocate for the use of torture.

Pope Francis has condemned the practice of torture. On June 22, 2014, from St. Peter’s square at the Vatican, he proclaimed, “Torturing people is a mortal sin. It is a very serious sin.” He reaffirms that not only is torture ineffective and illegal, but also immoral and cruel.

As we join the global community in commemorating the nineteenth anniversary of the U.N.’s International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, let us ask ourselves: What have I done for the tortured ones in my midst? And, how can I join with others in abolishing the practice of torture in today’s world? With Pope Francis and all those engaged in the anti-torture movement, “Let [us] engage and collaborate in abolishing torture and support victims and their families.”

Dianna Ortiz is a member of the Mount Saint Joseph Ursulines.  She was an elementary school teacher in schools in Kentucky and later in Guatemala.  She is the founder of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International in Washington, D.C.  She also has worked with Guatemala Human Rights/USA and Pax Christi USA.  Dianna is the author of The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth (with Patricia Davis, Orbis Books), and she has received three honorary doctorates and has received numerous awards. Sister Dianna serves as editor of award-winning Education for Justice, a project of Center of Concern and serves on the Board of Directors for UNANIMA International.


Going Deeper

Watch I Am Miriam, an anti-human trafficking video, and visit its companion website entitled, “Against Humanity”. The video tells the story of a 26-year-old Ethiopian woman who underwent torture and sex trafficking as she sought asylum from violence against her family and herself in her homeland. The website provides educational and other resources for preventing, detecting, and responding to human trafficking through individual and collective efforts.

God Weeps

A carved wooden crucifix sits atop a green and white woven basket from RwandaLast night I dreamed of rows of machetes emerging from a farmer’s field, point first, like the tips of corn stalks. I saw many machetes during my recent trip to Rwanda – sharpened steel used to trim back vegetation and cut paths through the thick foliage of “the land of a thousand hills.”

Rwanda is also the land of a thousand views –the hills and mountains of the lush terrain provide endless scenic vistas of neatly-maintained crops. Rwanda’s equatorial location means that seasons are defined by rainfall. The rainy season is about to peak, and with it the annual April period of national mourning – the 22nd anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. God weeps from the skies.

Rwanda’s complex history – prerecorded, colonial, political and institutional – setting the stage for tragedy, may be another window on the land of a thousand views, or perhaps, viewpoints. To visit some of the genocide memorial sites, many of them Catholic churches where men, women and children seeking sanctuary were shot and hacked to death by the thousands, is to encounter, in the mounds of faded, bloodstained clothing and stacks of skulls and bones, a lesson we have not yet grasped. The murder of up to a million people over several months by their neighbors, fellow parishioners, family members and leaders, cries out to heaven – and to us, wherever we live.

How could they do this? How could we do this, within the last century or so – to indigenous Americans, Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Bosnians and so many others? As Good Friday approaches we line the route to Golgotha once again, watching the innocent led to slaughter.

How can we do this? By using real or contrived differences of race, socio-economic class, religion, lifestyle, language, or ethnicity to create communities of scapegoats, onto whom we pour the verbal venom of our fears, our hatreds, our ignorance, our insecurities. Once dehumanized and separated from “us,” the “final solution” can seem logical, necessary, patriotic.

At one parish genocide site, the Eucharist in the tabernacle was destroyed by gunfire before the terrified members of the Body of Christ, crowded into the liturgical space, were murdered. The heroes of genocide in Rwanda are those who hid their neighbors, sometimes at the cost of their own lives; those, like Sister Felicitas Niyitegeka, who chose to die with the targeted rather than be separated from their brothers and sisters in Christ and live. Accompaniment and solidarity were expressed in the laying down of lives.

Healing and restoration linger on the horizon in Rwanda. Many of those who survived, scarred and traumatized, have not been able to speak their stories – it can be dangerous to do so. Counseling resources are inadequate. The broken church is trying to be a vehicle for healing and wholeness. Many significant tensions are unresolved, as seen in the most recent refugee situation involving neighboring Burundi.

How do we move forward with justice, mercy and love, learning enough about ourselves as human beings to ensure that such crimes never happen again – anywhere? Such a perspective includes hard work, and open hearts, minds and ears; solidarity in action. The way forward is to experience and to share God’s love – the love, as the Easter Vigil testifies each spring, that never dies. Love that sees each life as precious. Love that finds new, respectful relationships, not weapons, emerging from ground soaked with the blood of our scapegoats.

Headshot of Susan Stevenot Sullivan, USCCB

Susan Stevenot Sullivan is director of education & outreach at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.


Go Deeper!