Blessed Oscar Romero will be canonized a saint in Rome this coming Sunday, October 14th. You can view the live Canonization Mass on EWTN starting at 3:30 a.m. ET or again at noon. In honor of the upcoming celebration, I offer you a review of the film about the last three years of his life that I wrote as part of my coursework at Catholic Theological Union.
Saint Oscar Romero, pray for us!
When I taught high school, a poster hung in my classroom that read, “Stand up for what’s right even if you’re standing alone.” To my theology students, the poster presented a message about the cost of discipleship; Jesus and his early followers were persecuted for standing up for justice, and through the centuries Christians have been persecuted for living the Gospel.
For three years (1977-1980), Oscar Romero served as archbishop in El Salvador. By his courageous leadership, all people in El Salvador — no matter if they were rich or poor, powerful or oppressed — were challenged to unite together as one body of Christ, as a stronger Church, more focused on the mission of Christ. He confronted systemic injustice, challenged the status quo, and stood along with the poor and oppressed. In the end, his courage caused martyrdom for Archbishop Romero.The true story is a reminder for us all that the cost of being Church can be persecution.
A FILM OF TRUTH AND PAIN
The courage and Christ-like love of the archbishop during his poignant and brief period of leadership is captured in a 1989 film that bears his name, Romero. In addition to telling the tale of Romero’s leadership, Romero says much about ecclesiology through images of the Church as a Persecuted Body of Christ. A major theme of the film Romero is a contextual presentation of a definition of Church; as we see people unite together as the Body of Christ and build the Kingdom of God, the people come to embody the persecuted Christ.
Viewing Romero stirred up deep emotions in me. It felt like an act of prayer to journey with the Salvadorian people, and I became deeply saddened by the truth of their suffering. I remembered my experience protesting at the School of Americas in Georgia; I felt shame to know that my country was on the side of the oppressors in this conflict. Additionally, I became curious about the authenticity of the Romero quotes and the historical accuracy of the film.
I viewed the film in light of my reading and learning in an ecclesiology course at Catholic Theological Union. I was stunned to realize how highly theological the film Romero is and what it says about the global Church in the Post-Vatican II era. I noticed that the film featured several local “non-actors” which served to emphasize the ways in which the poor are the people of God who make up the Church. With this in mind, the faces of the ordinary people became strikingly beautiful as I watched. I realized the meaning was presented through the film’s strategic design of layering the pictures of the people with the sound of Romero’s speeches. The juxtaposition of my deeper theological understanding with the Truth of the story caused me to feel horror each time the film showed an image of Christ or the dignity of a person violated.
THE PERSECUTED BODY
In each period of Church history, there has emerged a new understanding of what it means to be Church. In the 20th century, after the Second Vatican Council, the meaning of Church became multidimensional. Church is a pilgrim people, the people of God on a journey. We are the Body of Christ. In Romero, we see this ecclesiology manifested within the context of the conflict in El Salvador. More significantly, we see how the archbishop responded to the tensions by presenting a way of being a Church that builds the Reign of God through action. As noted by Dulles, “to be fully effective, images must be deeply rooted in the corporate experience of the faithful.” This is, in part, why Romero’s focus on the people being the persecuted Church was effective within the context of El Salvador.
In one particular chapter of the film, we see a simple village church that has been converted into a barracks. The archbishop courageously enters the church and announces to the uniformed soldiers that he has come to retrieve the Eucharist. A machine gun-bearing soldier hears him and turns to point his weapon toward the high altar at the front of the church. First, we see Jesus’ body hanging on the crucifix above the altar as it is sprayed with bullets. Then, we see the doors of the tabernacle blast off as the surrounding altar, wall, and flower vases fill with bullet holes. The soldier turns to the archbishop and tells him to leave the church, and then smiles with satisfaction when Romero does. Romero goes into the street and looks into the faces of the people who stare back at him with concern. Romero then re-enters the church, returns to the high altar and tries to pick up as many pieces of the Eucharist as he can from the floor while more gunfire sprays toward him. As he crouches and gathers his beloved Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, a soldier approaches and kicks him to the ground. For the third time, the archbishop leaves and returns, now wearing his priestly garments and walking through the streets of the village toward the church with people following him. Romero leads the crowd into the church. Together, they gaze straight ahead and move unflinchingly past the soldiers who are pointing guns at them. Despite the confused and shocked looks upon the soldiers’ faces, Romero and the people fill the church. Archbishop Romero stands near the altar, looks into the faces of the people and speaks. He declares that he and the people have come to
… retake possession of this church building and to strengthen all those whom the enemies of the Church have trampled down. You should know that you have not suffered alone, for you are the Church. You are the people of God. You are Jesus, in the here and now. He is crucified in you, just as surely as he was crucified 2,000 years ago … And, you should know that your pain and your suffering, like his, will contribute to El Salvador’s liberation and redemption.
Through the combination of the words of Romero and cinematic technique, the film presents an image of the Church. We see that the Church stands with the oppressed; the Church itself is persecuted, for it is the Body of Christ. The scene mirrors the ecclesiology defended by Romero in his pastoral letter The Church, The Body of Christ in History in which he writes, “no one should be surprised that the Church is being persecuted precisely when she is being faithful to her mission … It is the Church’s belief that this persecution affects Christ himself; what touches any Christian touches Christ, because he is in personal union with all Christians — especially in anything that involves the poorest of society.” Romero’s particular attention to “the poorest of society” by his words and action is especially significant in the context; the Church was accused of being Marxist and “meddling in politics” because it stood beside the poor. Within the same pastoral letter, Romero defends the Church’s actions against these accusations by especially emphasizing that the Church “has done no more than fulfill her mission.” Part of that mission, he insists, is to promote the inclusivity and unity that is core to the Reign of God, for the Gospel does not exclude any person, rich or poor. As he wrote, “… the Archdiocese has been faithful to the Gospel, and for that very reason she has been persecuted. Yet out of this persecution arises a stronger unity that helps her to offer the people more effectively her message of hope and love.”
AS ONE BODY OF CHRIST
Throughout the film, as they respond to the sociopolitical tensions in their country, we also see how the poorest Salvadorian people arise united by their ambition to build the Reign of God. The film begins with a scene of the military of El Salvador providing surveillance at a political rally in February 1977. As the people in the crowd cheer to a speech that calls for a free election, it becomes clear that the people are united in their desire for freedom and confrontation of the power system. As the film progresses, the people persevere with unwavering determination, even while more and more people are assassinated, arrested, tortured and raped; disappear. Their cause is the Gospel that promotes the dignity and freedom of all people, but their courage is a threat to the power of the right-wing government and death squads.
Immediately after the martyrdom of Romero, the last scene of the film shows a group of ordinary poor people, old and young, moving along a crowded road. Mothers walk with their children holding their hands. One young woman carries a bucket while another carries a basket on her head. An older man guides a mule. As we look into the people’s faces and see their poverty, we hear Romero’s voice one more time: “I’ve often been threatened by death. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadorian people. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be a reality. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” With this conclusion of the film, we are once again given an image of the Church as the persecuted people of God.
LESSONS FOR OTHER CONTEXTS
Although the image of the Church that is present in Romero is particular to the sociopolitical context during and after Romero’s time, the image of the people of God being a persecuted Church is not unique to that historical situation. Images of Church “suggest attitudes and courses of action; they intensify confidence and devotion,” but they really are not effective if they don’t fit the experience of the members of the Church. Nonetheless, I can apply certain lessons from Romero to my particular context because I relate to the experience of persecution as a member of the Church.
As a Franciscan Sister, I regularly find myself in a state of discernment about how to live the Gospel no matter the cost of discipleship. Even though my experiences are not as drastic as the violence dealt with by the Salvadorians, I also must confront my fears about the price of discipleship. Romero fed me the courage needed to be a Christian in contentious times; I now expect persecution since I am part of the Church. As a member of the Body of Christ, I will do what the poster in my classroom said and “stand up for what’s right” when the Spirit calls me to. Because of my faith, the difference is that I will be united with my Christian brothers and sisters in Christ’s love. I will not be, as the poster says, “standing alone.”
James R. Brockman, “Pastoral Teaching of Archbishop Oscar Romero” Spirituality Today40, no. 40 (1988). Online.
Oscar Romero, “The Church, the Body of Christ in History,” in Voice of the Voiceless and Other Pastoral Statements, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985), 69 and 79.
Antonio D. Sison, “Reign-Focus: Theology, Film, and the Aesthetics of Liberation” New Theology Review 24, no. 3 (2011): 45.
Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium (1964), in Vatican Council II: The Counciliar and Post Counciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Northpoint, NY: Costello, 1998), nos. 13 and 50.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 13.
“Unity,” Romero, directed by John Duigan (1989; USA: Paulist Pictures/Vision Video), DVD.
Romero, “The Church,” 79.
Romero, “The Church,” 78.
Romero, “The Church,” 79.
Romero, “The Church,” 72.
Romero, “The Church,” 76.
Romero, “The Church,” 76.
“End Credits,” Romero, directed by John Duigan (1989; USA: Paulist Pictures/Vision Video), DVD.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 13.
Happy Easter! And, blessed day of the martyrdom of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to you all! Rev. King was shot on this day, April 4th, 1968 — 50 years ago. He was only 39 years old.
The night before he was killed he gave his final speech, a prophetic message of ringing with Easter challenge and hope. May his witness continue to energize us to live the Gospel, to follow the nonviolent Jesus, to have the courage to take bold risks for the sake of the greater good.
What follows is his speech (from this source, where you can also listen to the speech).
In his words (below), I have bolded particular phrases that I believe contain an Easter invitation, lines that hold true challenges for us to be peacemakers enlivened by the Resurrection in our time. For if we believe in the Resurrection we have no reason to have fear; we have every reason to have courage to advocate for justice and peace.
May the words of King and the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ strengthen us so we can proclaim the Good News, no matter the struggle ahead! Amen!
Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’ve Been to the Mountaintop
~ Delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee
Thank you very kindly, my friends. As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about. It’s always good to have your closest friend and associate to say something good about you. And Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world. I’m delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning. You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow.
Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.
I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn’t stop there.
I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but “fear itself.” But I wouldn’t stop there.
Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”
Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.
Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”
And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.
And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I’m happy that He’s allowed me to be in Memphis.
I can remember — I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn’t itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.
And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying — We are saying that we are God’s children. And that we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.
Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.
Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.
Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be — and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That’s the issue. And we’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.
We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces; they don’t know what to do. I’ve seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”
Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.
And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.” And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take ’em off,” and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” And every now and then we’d get in jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham. Now we’ve got to go on in Memphis just like that. I call upon you to be with us when we go out Monday.
Now about injunctions: We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.
We need all of you. And you know what’s beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, “When God speaks who can but prophesy?” Again with Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me,” and he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”
And I want to commend the preachers, under the leadership of these noble men: James Lawson, one who has been in this struggle for many years; he’s been to jail for struggling; he’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggle, but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people. Reverend Ralph Jackson, Billy Kiles; I could just go right on down the list, but time will not permit. But I want to thank all of them. And I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry.
It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preachers must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.
Now the other thing we’ll have to do is this: Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. Now, we are poor people. Individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively — that means all of us together — collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine. Did you ever think about that? After you leave the United States, Soviet Russia, Great Britain, West Germany, France, and I could name the others, the American Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than thirty billion dollars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States, and more than the national budget of Canada. Did you know that? That’s power right there, if we know how to pool it.
We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words.We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say,
“God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.”
And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy — what is the other bread? — Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on town — downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.
But not only that, we’ve got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a “bank-in” movement in Memphis. Go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that we don’t do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we are doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an “insurance-in.”
Now these are some practical things that we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.
Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school — be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base …
Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.
Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem — or down to Jericho, rather to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1,200 miles — or rather 1,200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2,200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.
You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said, “Yes.” And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, your drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.
It came out in the “New York Times” the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,
“Dear Dr. King,
I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.”
And she said,
“While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.
If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.
If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.
I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.
And they were telling me –. Now, it doesn’t matter, now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you.But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
I had a knot in my stomach all day. I couldn’t focus at work. I lost my appetite. I felt exhausted as soon as I woke up. My mind was running with a thousand scenarios of things going wrong. I became keenly aware of that familiar feeling: a low-grade but persistent anxiousness; a lump that sits somewhere between my heart and stomach warning me of something to be feared; an impending lack of control.
It was March 1, 2017. Ash Wednesday. For the past three weeks I had been meeting with fellow community members of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker and our friends from the Mennonite Worker to plan a vigil and direct action. Our intent was to lovingly, but boldly, address the American Catholic Church’s reluctance in naming the xenophobia and racism that have characterized Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and presidency. We sought to implore Archbishop Hebda and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to release a public statement directly addressing the rise of xenophobia in our Church and society.
After work I sped home to prepare for the action. My mind was spiraling as we packed our car with a banner, ladders, candles and ropes. I thought of my heroes and their steely determination. Their seemingly complete lack of fear. I thought of the iconic photo of Dorothy Day picketing with Cesar Chavez, calmly gazing into the eyes of a police officer right before her final arrest at the age of 75. I thought of Daniel Berrigan on trial for burning draft files in Catonsville, Maryland. Seemingly unaffected by a pending three–year sentence to federal prison, Dan boldly proclaimed to the court, “We have chosen to say with the gift of our liberty and if necessary our lives: the violence stops here.”
With my mind and heart racing amidst a cascade of doubts and fears, I felt like I had missed the memo. The seeming difference between my anxiousness and their prophetic conviction was laughable. I wondered about Dorothy’s doubts and Dan’s fears. Did they have them? Or had God given them some kind of divine courage for holy conflict that rendered their doubts and anxieties obsolete?
And, most importantly, when will God give that to me?!
As a white Midwesterner, conflict avoidance is my cultural bread and butter. Growing up, tension or disagreement were to be feared and resented. They were signs of something gone irrevocably wrong; something over which to feel tremendously anxious. Yet here I was, about to help manufacture an almost-assuredly tense situation within a Church I call home. I found myself doubting, searching in vain for Dorothy-like divine courage. Is this worth it? Am I doing the right thing? Is the conflict, the worry, the anxiousness necessary?
While I wrestled with these doubts, fears and questions, a small inner voice (which I often resent) assured me that Jesus’ answer would be a resounding “Yes!” It’s become painfully clear to me I cannot claim to be Christian and deny Jesus’ call for direct action, which leads to inevitable conflict and anxiousness. While it’s incredibly important for me to take care of myself and not stretch beyond what I can handle, Jesus’s social vision clearly calls the most comfortable of us into discomfort. As in Mark 10: 17-27, Jesus did not lovingly challenge the rich, young man to give safely within the confines of comfortable charity but to relinquish all his wealth for the service of others.
Jesus’ is an orientation toward loving and creative tension; a tension resulting in Christ’s inherent opposition to oppression. Soon before he was crucified Jesus and his disciples staged a direct action at the Jerusalem temple, confronting temple authorities’ collaboration with the Roman Empire and exploitation of the poor. In analyzing Jesus’s incident at the temple, the biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg writes in his book “Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark” that “Judaism was not the problem [for Jesus]. The problem was the imperial captivity of the temple and its authorities’ collaboration with the Empire.”
In her “National Catholic Reporter”article Jamie Manson explains that many American bishops likely refrained from critiquing Trump’s hateful campaign rhetoric because of social and economic gains to be gleaned from his presidency. She writes, “In the course of the presidential campaign, the bishops’ conference put out one press release about promoting Catholic-Muslim dialogue and one release about “partisan divides” on migration issues. But as Trump inspired hate-speech, xenophobia, bias crimes and violence toward women, the bishops remained mum … the evidence suggests that the bishops’ conference threw under the bus the needs of these vulnerable peoples for the sake of advancing their anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, right-wing religious liberty agenda.”
The bishops’ behavior is tragically similar to the conduct Jesus condemned at the temple within his own religious tradition. Their silence is proving lethal. President Trump has engaged in an unprecedented campaign of intimidation and violence directed at many of the most oppressed and marginalized. Much of his executive action is in direct contradiction to the core of Catholic social teaching. In an attempt to follow Jesus’s call into discomfort and to mirror the loving tension he manufactured within the religious institution he called home, I came to see our Ash Wednesday action as not only necessary on a political level, but completely in line with my Catholic identity.
I have also come to see the inevitable anxiousness as not only necessary but also sacramental. While I must be aware of my limits and the reality of unhealthy anxiety, especially in the form of mental illness, I see some level of anxiousness as a gift; a signpost on my journey toward Christian discipleship. An indication that—with God’s help—I can to learn to embrace fear and then to let it go.
We pulled up to the Cathedral of St. Paul during the evening Ash Wednesday service, gathered our equipment, took a deep breath and were off. We ran up the stairs and leaned extension ladders on the two large marble pillars framing the cathedral’s front door. Two Catholic Workers ascended the ladders and hung a large banner reading “Speaking up for unborn lives more than black and brown lives is white supremacy – #silenceissin” across the door, calling on Church hierarchy to condemn racism and xenophobia with as much tenacity and consistency as it does abortion.
After hanging the banner we spent 20 minutes in silent prayer. Several of us engaged with passers by and church goers leaving Mass. We encountered a range of reactions from disdain to joyful support. Eventually, a priest came out with a small group of men. He read the banner, immediately instructed the men to tear it down and quickly moved back inside, choosing not to engage with us. (Check out this time-lapse video of our experience.)
Before leaving we sang a beautiful but haunting rendition of the Kyrie. As the doleful melody rose into the snowy sky, I felt the anxiousness drain from every limb of my body. What replaced it was a confident calm and deep joy. In that brief moment, I felt the fortitude of Dorothy and Dan within me. I let the cold air slowly fill my lungs, breathing out all the tangled thoughts, unraveling the knot in my stomach. The anxiousness died and resurrected, transformed within me. Another deep breath. I was right where God was calling me to be.
Note from the Editor:
Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis Bishop Bernard Hebda makes reference to these events of Ash Wednesday in the March 9 edition of “The Catholic Spirit.” Read it here.
ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER
Joe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia through the La Crosse, Wisconsin, community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse. Now he spends most of his time working at Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.
“Death comes for us all, Oroku Saki, but something much worse comes for you … for when you die, it will be without honor.”
~ Master Splinter, to the Shredder, in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie” (1990).
At the climax of one of my favorite films, the 1990 cinematic masterpiece “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the wizened and heroic Master Splinter squares off against the film’s main villain, the evil ninja leader Shredder. At the film’s climax, Shredder and Splinter go head-to-head at the top of a New York City skyscraper. Though Shredder vows to kill Splinter, Splinter seems unconcerned. Calm, collected and prepared, admitting that he does not fear death, he is ready for what comes next. Death is inevitable. What he fears is dishonor.
The fear of death seems to be lurking everywhere these days. And this fear is leading us to cloud our judgement and to behave dishonorably. Right now our borders and our airports are filled with the homeless, the hungry, the oppressed and the suffering; all desperately seeking safety and stability. Vast numbers of them are children who never committed any wrong except being born in a country that lacked our blessings. And we are turning them away because we are afraid admitting them will make us unsafe.
Let us ignore for the second that there is no basis in fact for that assertion. Let us set aside, for the moment, that there is no verifiable evidence that admitting these refugees has now or ever made us less safe. Though it’s not true, just for the sake of argument, let us assume that letting these people into our country will make us less safe—that bringing these suffering masses into our cities and our homes will risk destruction to our property and our persons. Assuming this, I turn to the Church and I ask: “So what?”.
So what? What of it? Does that change anything? No. The duty of virtue and honor, the obligation given us by Christ, remains. We Christians do not put our stock in the things of this world, and that includes comfort, safety, and ultimately our own lives. The Gospel is not filled with asterisks and addendums, telling us we don’t need to be faithful when it’s scary. Feed the hungry, help the stranger—always. If it’s hard, Christ says take up your cross. If it’s threatening, Christ says you should seek to lose your life so you might gain it. If it kills you, Christ says that there is no greater love than this; that you will be with him in paradise.
In his book “Follow Me to Freedom,” Shane Claiborne addresses this very topic: “Fear is powerful. At some point, especially as Christians, we say with Paul, ‘To live is Christ, to die is gain’ … if we die, so what? We believe in resurrection. We’ll dance on injustice till they kill us … then we’ll dance on streets of gold. Many Christians live in such fear that it is as if they don’t really, I mean really, believe in resurrection.”
You are going to die. Someday, somewhere, death will come for you. There is no way around it. In the meantime, how will you live? Will you live as Christ, living a life of sacrifice and service out of love? Or will you live as Judas, betraying Christ in his hour of need? Make no mistake, that is precisely the choice presented us at this moment—it is Christ who is waiting in our airports and at our borders, waiting in the disguise of the least of these his brethren. And we are betraying him; not for silver, but for security.
If this is a seemingly depressing note to end on, know that it need not be. It is only depressing if we turn away. These are the moments when saints come forward, when heroes are made. “Perhaps this is the moment for which You have been created?” (Esther 4:14).
Courage, Church! If our God is with us, then who can be against us? I do not know to what action specifically God calls you, but I know it is not a timid one. As Pope Francis told our Catholic youth, now is the time to ask Jesus what he wants from you, and then be brave.
Death comes for us all, dear reader. I do not ask God to spare us from it. But please, O Lord, save us from dishonor.
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, his adorable daughter and his very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.
Lately a certain Gospel instruction is has been grinding challenge into my life, really giving my heart a doozy of a talking to.
Jesus says it a lot, in many different ways:
Do not be afraid.(Luke 1:30; Mark 5:36; Mark 6:50)
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:27)
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.(Matthew 6:34)
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.(Matthew 6:25)
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27)
Jesus is, after all, a very encouraging savior, a source of strength. He needs us to be brave if we’re going to do the hard work of building up the kingdom of peace and justice in the here and now.
Plus, it makes sense that the Gospel would be packed with messages telling us to persevere in faith. By the time the Gospels were written down—a few decades after Jesus walked the earth—those early Christians were dealing with some pretty intense fear. Uprisings and persecutions were becoming common. The Roman Empire was increasing its control, getting more oppressive to anyone who wasn’t … well … Roman. With such heavy darkness, it must have felt like the world was falling apart. Sort of reminds me of the world we’re living in today.
Jesus’ demands are not about darkness, though. We are children of Light.
I get it: to be a Christian means I am a person full of vibrant hope, love, and faith in God. Like a ceaseless trust that God can handle anything and shine light and peace into any situation. I know Jesus is trustworthy.
Yet. The “Be not afraid” words straight from Jesus’ heart stir up a gray space inside me; a place where I am not letting my trust in God illumine my faith life. Ultimately, anxiety corrodes the place where God’s light could glow bright.
In the past few months I have been reminded that my anxiety out-of-order is neurological, a condition made by realities beyond my control: genetics, trauma, biomechanics. I wake in the dark of the night with my heart pounding, my body vibrating with restless energy. My mind races with irrational thoughts; electric brain waves I struggle to redirect toward hope, trust and acceptance. My muscles cramp with tension; pinch nerves. Tears of pain moisten my eyelashes. I am afraid of things that I can’t even name and my body lets me know it.
Some might argue there’s good reason to worry. The news doesn’t sound good; happy headlines are hard to find. From Aleppo to South Sudan to the cracking corners in communities throughout the United States, the trouble only seems to be getting worse.
Faced with burdens and commissioned for Christ, we’re overwhelmed. Hearts are heavy with abundant hurt and there are many wounds to tend to. It continues to feel as things will just keep getting worse before they get better. Genuine cries and terrified screams are causing racket in our hearts and dreams as we do as we’re called to do: move toward the pain with servant hearts open wide.
When my body begins to manifest the anxiety that somehow settles into me, it can take hours for me to know relief, to relax into the dark, to rest and calm down. Often, what causes the most comfort when I am in the thick of fear is the calm of silence, the stillness of solitude and wide open spaces, like expansive skies.
At times, within the gaps of seconds ticking, I somehow come to gradually feel a holy, healing Presence; a fleeting consciousness that I am not ever alone; that Jesus himself knew—knows—the darkness and fear. (That’s Emmanuel, God with us.) Other times, my racing heart and shallow breath either normalize gradually or cause me to pass out from exhaustion.
Because the fear is real and intense, I find myself thinking of holy folks who have dealt with it well; who have modeled for me trust in God. I think of how the Holy Family were no strangers to a climate of fear, a culture of death. I imagine how oppressed the common person in Nazareth must have felt as they tried to survive on subsistence farming and continued to pay heavy taxes for fear of torture, robbery, murder, or the kidnapping and raping of their children. Certainly, they were desperate for a Messiah, a redeemer to liberate them. I meditate on how a very pregnant Mary must have felt; filled with discomfort and concern as she awaited the arrival of her son. I consider how uncertain Joseph must have felt; how he worked to remain steady and kind even while his heart and gut flipped in fear. I pray with Jesus squirming within the dark womb.
There are other words in the Bible that give me strength, that calm my fears—important messages first given to the early Church:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our Godby which the daybreak from on high will visit usto shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.(Luke 1:76-79)
Yes: no matter how strong our fear or how deep the darkness, we are children of Light. During the darkest days of the year (at least in the Northern hemisphere) we look for the light in the darkness, we decorate our homes with glowing bulbs, we observe the nature of light. We imitate the rays of light that unite together and illumine a way to peace, providing hope to all.
Lately, falling has been on my mind. The season for this is approaching, as leaf after leaf will soon let go and make its journey downwards, trusting the winds to take them where they need to go.
I have been thinking about the sensation of falling, but not for the reasons you might expect. It has little to do with the approach of the season of autumn, or my clumsy nature. (I’m no stranger to falls of the physical sort!) Rather, falling is on my mind because I am in transition. I recently moved into a whole new ministry and living situation, so I have been adjusting to and enjoying my new environment. During the first week here, I awoke in the dark of the night with the thought that …
This last month was a strenuous one in my youth ministry. It involved back-to-back weekend events, and I found myself putting in tons of extra hours and working for a 21-day stint with only a single day off. It involved late nights and early mornings. It was hard, tiring work.
During one evening of this labor I found myself murmuring. I was reciting facts of my overwork to myself in my head but in that whiny, grumbly, self-pitying voice that we all have at times when we think we’re being put upon. “Poor me. Working so hard. Does anyone notice?” Pout … pout … pout.
Tired of working (and feeling lazy and aimless) I did what any normal American millennial would do: take a quick break for some Facebook browsing. As I clicked and browsed around, I noticed that a similar complaint was being made by a number of my Facebook friends—but in entirely different tones of voice.
One friend was just finishing up a huge project, but was pleased with herself and her team’s accomplishments and reveling in the large bonus she and her co-workers had received as a result of their success. A different friend had just completed a master’s thesis and another had finished a doctoral dissertation; both were celebrating the completion of well-written study and the reward of new degrees they’d receive as a result. Yet another had just finished laboring over a piece of art, and was now wearily showing off the completed work of her hands.
All were tired, all were fatigued, and yet they were leaning against their shovels and smiling. All had taken hits and suffered sacrifice, but were pleased because the task was worth it. And here I was, working in the vineyard that I chose and to which I believe God called me, and all I was doing was grumbling.
We were made for work. Work has dignity, and it calls us to be co-creators in this world we have been given. But if you listen to a lot of talk about ministry these days, it seems like the biggest fear facing us as ministers is the possibility of working too hard. Set boundaries on your time and space; limit yourself; be careful; and, whatever happens, don’t burn out. The world is on fire with fear and despair and loneliness yet it’s putting in some overtime that worries us.
I am not saying there isn’t some real truth in avoiding overwork. We live in a world that is obsessed with busy-ness and work for work’s sake; that has forgotten the meaning of the word Sabbath and the importance of rest. We need to believe in a God that is bigger than our efforts, and to avoid the idolatry of self that believes we are the world’s savior and it’s all up to us. We do need to take time to stop, to breathe, to rest, to recover.
But in avoiding the one extreme, we must avoid falling into its opposite. In order to truly rest, we must truly work first. It is good to wear ourselves out, and there are few things holier than falling into bed at night after fully exerting ourselves in the labor of a task worth doing. And if we must always count on Christ to fulfill our shortcomings and complete our labors we must also remember that, until he comes again, Christ is counting on us to be his hands and his feet in this world.
I frequently recall that, after a presentation all about avoiding burn out, a religious sister once said, “Yes, we should avoid burn out but let us not forget that, in order to burn out, there needs to have been a flame burning in the first place.” If we are tired from our work, perhaps the salve for our souls is not less work, but to remember why we started working in the first place. Conspiring with God is so much easier when we are inspired by Him. Keeping our eyes on the goal—remembering for what purpose and for whom we work—makes yolks easy and burdens light.
On most days at work, I sit down and eat lunch with at least a few people who are, more or less, on the opposite side of the political spectrum from myself. While we agree on many of the problems our country faces, our ideas on how to solve them vary wildly. There are, of course, some issues on which we harmoniously agree, but they seem rare. And in our current political climate, in which nuance is lost and all that matters is who you finally cast your vote for, the candidates for whom I vote are not the candidates for whom my co-workers do. I cannot imagine voting for the people they support.
And I am told that, thus, we are enemies. They are foolish and ignorant; what’s wrong with America. My co-workers are possibly evil, and reasoning with them is of no use. These people must be defeated and crushed—preferably at the polls—but if that fails perhaps more drastic action is needed. And I’m sure this is exactly what my office mates are told about me.
But for the life of me, I cannot see them this way. They might be my political rivals, in some certain contexts, on some certain days when we must both fill out our ballots … but they are also my friends. They are my family. They are good people who live generous and beautiful lives.
I do not fear them. I do not hate them. I love them. And I do not mean this in some abstract, detached way. I know their names, and they know mine. I love them and long for their good and, I truly believe, they long for mine. I work and relax with these people—they have watched my daughter play and grow. On workdays we share the lunch table and on Sunday we gather together around the table of the Lord.
Our divisions only become truly dangerous when we do not know one another. Danger creeps in when we start to fear people as nameless, faceless bogeymen waiting for us in the dark, rather than flesh and blood persons with real names and real stories. With a person, no matter how different they happen to be, you can compromise, you can learn something, you can conspire goodness together. You can’t reason with faceless shadows … you can only fear them, and then hate them.
So my challenge to you is—is there any one person or group that you fear? If so, see if you can break bread with them. As Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Fear is the real enemy, and I have found that nothing banishes fear like a sandwich split in two.
“An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don’t accommodate, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.”
— Abraham Joshua Heschel
Wednesday night I woke from a deeply disturbing nightmare. My mom was shot and killed. She was right outside our house, the house I grew up in, checking to see what a stranger wanted. It was late at night and I’d wanted to stop her, to tell her to let my dog run out first with her snarling bark that usually annoys me but every once in a while helps me feel safe. But Mom is too hospitable for such things. Somehow, instead, I was still upstairs, looking out the bathroom window onto the scene as it happened.
When I woke, my feet were icy and tingling, the way they get when a bad dream has chilled me to the bone. My mind returned to what had initially kept me from falling asleep in the first place. Just before bed, my husband and I had read about the shooting in San Bernardino, California. Fourteen people were killed and 21 injured at a center for people with mental disabilities who were in the midst of a holiday party.
I am so heartbroken and bewildered. Why did this happen? How must the surviving loved ones be feeling? How terrifying and devastating for all those present. I’m struggling with this tragedy, not only for its own sake, but also because of the tragedies it recalls. I have read that this is the largest mass shooting in the U.S. since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary three years ago. More troubling still, this is the 355th documented mass shooting in the U.S. for this year alone. And surrounding all of this is the ongoing refugee crisis, terrorist outbursts in Iraq, Kenya, Paris and elsewhere; the innumerable wars and pseudo wars wreaking havoc on the lives of men, women and children.
Dwelling on all this I am filled with despair, outrage and, reluctant as I am to admit it, fear. However, what I am afraid of is not a terrorist attack. Nor do I dwell on being caught up in the violent outburst of a mentally deranged person. And certainly not dread of foreign invasion. I’m afraid of a tendency I’ve noticed to consider purveyors of violence “outsiders.” I am afraid of a general lack of willingness to look in the mirror and recognize that the violence erupting in schools and churches, in city streets and now even in a residential home, are not about the “other,” they are about us; you and me, as individuals and as part of a community and country. Each of these acts are awful opportunities to examine our culture and ask how and why it compels and enables such violence. Yet, again and again, that opportunity is passed over and we are left with only sorrow, rage and despair at the devastating destruction of precious lives.
Most of my heart, however, is consumed by the fullness of my womb, filtering everything through the lens of an expectant mother. When I was at this place of unborn fullness with my son Eli, who will soon be two, a friend asked if I was not afraid to bring a child into this world. At the time I said no, I was not afraid. What I didn’t realize then is that being a parent would in fact cause me to be more concerned for safety, more aware of danger, more sensitive to the precarity of life.
There were many nights when I would contemplate horrifying scenarios that would end with either one or all of us dead. I would consider how absurd it is that I should expect and feel entitled to safety in my home when so many others live without it, when so many whose lives are taken had no part in inviting such violence. However, I continue to see participating in creating and nurturing life (whether through pregnancy and parenting, art, activism or other means) as the greatest act of hope, of love, of resistance to violence and despair that we can offer this world. And so I pray that fear never be what stops me from sharing in such acts.
And this brings me back to the dream. I was troubled by the dream not only because of Mom’s death, but because of where I stood as it happened. I remained removed, hiding within the walls of our house, hiding behind my dog’s ability to intimidate. It is my mom, in this dream, who is the one stepping out in an act of love. I don’t consider myself to be in the wrong for having been afraid, but I am disturbed by my choice to follow fear and remove myself or drive away whatever or whoever triggered that fear.
Fear and anger have a place. They are important signals that tell us something is very wrong. But staring at the wrong does not lead us to what is right. I am grateful for the times that I have a visceral response to tragedy, for the times that I am still surprised by violence. I’m grateful because it means in that moment I am living outside of apathy and inside communion with living beings. However, if I become overwhelmed with anger or fear, judgment or disgust, I try to redirect those feelings toward grief. Turning to mourning allows sadness to soften and open my heart, creating a pathway for the grace and wisdom of the Spirit to enter in and do it’s healing, guiding work.
There is a piece to this dream I failed to recount initially. As I am standing at the window, I am aware also of the presence of a few of my friends from Witness Against Torture who (in reality and in the dream) had just returned from Cuba. In the dream I am vaguely aware that they too have tried to get Mom’s attention, tried to ask her to wait. They, however, are not asking her to wait so they can send out the dog, but so that they can go with her.
An American Dream was originally published by Amy Nee in her blog, Amy the Show.
Note to the reader: throughout this piece there are links that have been attached to statements and ideas that I thought might require further explanation or that I would have liked to share more about but others have already collected the information more efficiently or articulately. If you are interested in or object to anything that was said, please feel free to follow the links for further exploration.
Additional note to readers from Sister Julia:
I recommend watching this video to learn a bit more about the recent fast and protest by Witness Against Torture activists in Cuba:
I only took my eyes off of her for a few seconds …
It’s so cliché, but so damn true.
This summer was an unusually sweltering one in the Pacific Northwest, and our local splash park offered a welcome reprieve from the relentless heat. Facing yet another 90+ degree day in mid-August, I brought my girls there to fill the post-nap/pre-dinner block of time. They were happily rotating among the splash park, playground and sandpit.
My younger daughter, still beaming from her weeklong reign as the Birthday Girl (“I two! I two!”), was thirsty, so I told my older daughter that I was going to fill up our water bottle. The water fountain is perhaps twenty feet from the splash park. It took me less than a minute to walk to the fountain, position my two-year-old’s fingers so that she could “help” fill the bottle, and look back up to where I had left my almost four-year-old.
… and she was gone.
I scanned the whole of the splash area, noting the rambunctious “big kids” manning the frog squirter, the joyful birthday party at a nearby picnic table, the toddler crying in his mother’s arms. This was by no means the first time I’d ever lost sight of my daughter, so I was confident she would emerge from behind another child or a big water toy. But she didn’t. I stopped filling the bottle and scooped up my youngest. It occurred to me that perhaps her sister had decided to run back to the sandbox, and as I made my way there, I considered potential punishments for running off without my permission.
But she wasn’t in the sandbox … or at the swings … or in the bathroom.
I had now looked everywhere I could imagine her going by herself. Several minutes had passed, and panic was creeping in.
I ran up to the birthday party and asked if any of them had seen a little girl matching my daughter’s description. Though they hadn’t seen her, they recognized the fear in my eyes and sprang into action, each heading to a different part of the park.
I stayed close to one of the moms, clutching my two-year-old and sputtering useless details about my oldest daughter’s swimsuit, as if the tiny cupcake design on the front of it would be the deciding factor in locating her. I was starting to go in circles, looking in the same places over and over again; afraid to stray too far from where I’d last seen her in case she was looking for me too.
I glanced at my watch; I had been searching for too long. At what point do I call the police, if the first hour is so key? Do I dial 911, or is there some kind of hotline?
My thoughts were scrambled. My capacity for rational thought was unable to overcome the horrific “what-ifs” emerging from the periphery of my mind where I, like all parents, try to banish them. This community park is large and uncontained, encompassing not only the splash park and playground, but sports fields, a walking trail, and several open fields adjacent to parking lots. It would be impossible to lock it down.
This is also the park where many of the people experiencing homelessness in our community spend their days. To my utter shame these “least among us,” for whom I claim to have such great compassion, were featured prominently in the horror reel of “what-ifs” flashing through my mind. I could feel myself starting to lose it.
And then we found her.
A woman from our makeshift search party directed my attention to an anonymous dad waving in a distant field. Beyond him … my sweet girl; running happily with her arms wide open and her ponytail flying behind her. We were separated by 200 yards and—much further—by the ability to be turned completely upside down by an incapacitating fear of the worst-case scenario.
She had been missing for a total of 10 minutes.
I have no idea who (or even how many) helped me search for my daughter that day. By the time I reached her, I could barely choke out “thank you” to the people in front of me, never mind the others who had spread across the park. They are nameless, faceless heroes of mine.
I had been right, as it turns out, to relegate those insidious and terrifying “what-ifs” to the fringes of my consciousness. My daughter went missing, but there was no “stranger danger.” The only strangers with whom I interacted were doggedly working to help me find her. This story has no villains: no stalkers, no kidnappers, no opportunistic perverts.
By all accounts, my faith in humanity should be renewed. I should be a more optimistic mother.
Except I’m not.
Ever since that day, I have found myself keeping a tighter grip on my daughters as we walk through crowded areas. I have been looking more suspiciously at almost-certainly decent, help-you-find-your-daughter sorts of people in the park. I have been questioning the presence and motives of anyone who doesn’t fit my image of someone who belongs at kids’ events: young, involved, “vanilla” sorts of people … people like me.
In those ten minutes, the horrific “what-ifs” of parenthood became real to me in a way they had never been before. I began seeing enemies where they didn’t exist. It makes me wonder: What kind of person would I be if they really did?
The expression “there but for the grace of God go I” has really been resonating with me in the wake of those excruciating 10 minutes. If even I—with my privileged life and my happy ending—if even I have become more mistrustful and judgmental of others as a result of 10 minutes of unrealized “what-ifs,” then where but for the grace of God would I be?
If I had spent my life as an undocumented immigrant, or an unwelcome refugee, or an impoverished person of color, would I see the people around me as my brothers and sisters in Christ … or would I see them only as potential threats to myself and my children?
I majored in peace studies, so I can wax philosophical about “unmasking the other” and ubuntu and restorative justice until my lips turn blue. But I have never had to do so in the face of pervasive violence, instability, or oppression. Thanks be to God, I do not have to do so in the face of every parent’s worst nightmare.
But if that weren’t the case? If my worst-case scenarios dwelled not in the fringes of my mind but in my lived experience, would I be capable of the sort of compassion, hospitality, and goodwill that Jesus demands of his followers?
I seriously doubt it.
And so I do the only thing I can: I turn once more to Jesus, and say a prayer of gratitude for His grace, which has truly saved a wretch like me.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge lives in the Seattle area with her husband and two daughters. She hopes that her daughters do as she says, and not as she does … and that her emotional aversion to the local splash park has waned by the time next summer comes around.