As fall was turning into winter we moved into a new house with a front yard and a backyard. Leaves still cover the ground, but we can still decipher remnants of a luscious garden that once was. A weathered greenhouse stands with a brick trimmed garden around it. We are told as the cul-de-sac welcomes us that the previous owners were avid gardeners. We continue to slowly brush away leaves to uncover dormant garden beds only to have more leaves hide everything away again. Each time we get a better glimpse of what Spring might bring. We also get an idea of the work we have ahead of us to help usher in a bountiful Spring and Summer. We watch where the sun hits throughout these short winter days in the hopes of scouting out a plot for a summer vegetable garden.
We can trust that the gardeners before us came and cared and we will patiently wait to see what blossoms. We will wait to see what is fruitful. And then we will slowly make changes with each season to form and perfect this garden before us. This is how we should also go about the work of social change. It’s not always sustainable to come in and rip up and re-plant right away. We must wait to see what’s there so we do not lose any previous good work that has been sowed. The good work of justice takes time. We must be prudential in what needs to be pulled and what may just need time and care to last through the year.
Let us learn how to slow down long enough to learn the soil and the light as it changes. Let us listen and adjust and be taught. Let us offer back beauty with patience. Good social change requires that we come alongside the community and take its lead. Good social change requires that we honor those that have come before us. We must listen from the back to the outcries from within before we start to move to action. Let us not carry ignorance and arrogance when we think our ideas are all that is needed. We enter into this work with humility that we come with hands to do the good work with others, not to or for them.
The work of ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven is good holy work, but it takes time and patience and humility. Let us be guided by grace. Let our faith move us to intentional and meaningful action, not defined by our good intentions, but defined by those suffering from the injustice.
Inspired by Advent with Saint Oscar Romero devotional written by Cameron Bellm.
Mel Ziegler: Flag Exchange, installation view at Frist Art Museum, 2020
It was in college that I first started to notice and become uncomfortable with seeing the flag for the United States at the front of churches. To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable to see them anywhere in a church. It’s at this same time that my eyes were really being opened up to the dysfunctional relationships between patriotism and Christianity in the United States. I was also delving pretty deep into rediscovering Catholicism. I was earning a degree in Global Development Studies at a Protestant Christian college. I had just started to sort out the philosophical contradictions in my life that I think a lot of first generation kids struggle with.
I had a hard time feeling proud to be from a country that so clearly exploited my father’s home country for its own economic gain. I ended up spending years reading and writing papers about the complicated relationship between the United States, Nicaragua, and the rest of the countries that make up Central America. I knew that I was supposed to be grateful to be living the life that I was, but I couldn’t help but feel guilty at what this all cost. I felt like I had lost out on honoring this culture that had so deeply shaped my identity.
I moved away from the Catholic Church in high school and I realize now that it was it’s own form of assimilation that I was going through. I was drawn to the progressiveness that one can find in nondenominational Christian circles. Where I grew up, this was largely compromised of a whole bunch of white people going on missions trips to countries that were ripe with Catholic history. I was being told that the Catholic Church was not the place for the social justice issues that I cared about. And even though in my gut I knew that I was Catholic, I kept trying to find a way to fit in with hip nondenominational Christians that claimed to be living like the first apostles. This carried over into a missions trip when I was 17 to Ireland and England that truly changed the course of my life. My relationship to Catholicism was something I was still trying to figure out all throughout my time in college and grad school.
The deeper I got into looking into my faith and my politics (by way of my choice in taking the academic route that I did) the more I felt out of place in Protestantism and the more I felt cynical towards the US. In researching for papers and projects about the United States and Central America I naturally started to stumble upon the important (and sometimes contentious) role Catholicism has plaid in recent Latin American history. A simple question of “why” led me to better understanding Catholic Social Teaching, liberation theology, and some badass religious. Why was Saint Oscar Romero willing to go toe-to-toe with the Salvadoran government? Why was Father Ernesto Cardenal willing to have his rights stripped as a priest to administer the sacraments to fight alongside the Sandinistas? So much so that it led to many of their deaths. Why were these government entities seeing Catholic nuns and laypeople as such a threat to their power?
This red, white, and blue flag standing at the front of churches started to feel like a betrayal to the parts of me that I felt most confident and connected to: I’m Catholic. I’m the daughter of a Nicaraguan refugee.
I wish I could say that coming back to Catholicism in all of its fullness was the reconciling I needed to seeing those flags at the front of all those churches that I hopped around. For awhile, it did, I suppose. But the reality is that there are times when it feels like the political world of Evangelical Protestants have hijacked the ancient Catholicism that radicalized the likes of Peter Maurin, Servant of God Dorothy Day, Father Ernesto Cardenal, and Saint Oscar Romero. The search to make this all make sense hurts in a different, deeper way this time around.
It has been hard to find Catholics on the world of the Internet and social media that I could relate to in a meaningful way. Back in college I scoured blogs and endlessly Googled trying to find someone who related to my Hispanic Catholicism and my bi-cultural upbringing. The closest I got were finding Catholics that were also passionate about social justice. I settled with that for a long time. Finally, just in the last couple of years I have started to connect with other comadres and it has been life giving. But it’s also made a glaring wedge to some of the ways the Catholic Church in the US has failed to work in solidarity with and for some its most devout.
Whether we are talking about abortion, civil unions for the LBGTQ+ community, Black Lives Matter, or immigration policy many Evangelicals and Catholics alike are tone deaf to how their words land. The way in which many decide to defend the Church and her teachings end up leaving harm and hurt in their wake. A documentary recently came out with a clip of Pope Francis talking about how we should be protecting our friends and family that identify as LGBTQ+. The Catholic response was so quick to remind people that Catholics “don’t believe in gay marriage” that they missed the whole point: we also need to first come to people with love and compassion. We need to recognize that our obsession with the legality of marriage between certain people have made for rhetoric that is perceived as hateful and unwelcoming. It’s making people feel like they will never be loved or worthy by the Church our her followers.
This is true, too, for the rhetoric around abortion, immigration, and a whole host of “progressive” causes, is it not? Language calling women murders and splashing pictures of tangled fetuses is not only lacking compassion, it is traumatizing. In what ways could we all be better at entering these conversations not to tell people to not have an abortion, but instead actually be proactive about meeting the needs they identify as most important? Instead of insisting that our current immigration policies are someone else’s fault or assuming those crossing those invisible lines are ruthless criminals ready to take down the integrity of the United States, maybe sitting down and truly listening to the stories about why someone chose to make that journey would do us some good. Something that I have learned from these years I have spent in the nonprofit field is that the most successful and effective programs and policies are the ones that are led by the community that the work is intended to serve.
I am not totally hopeless when I look around at my fellow Catholics. I do find myself startled time and time again to come across people who understand so much of the faith, but totally miss the mark on these issues. There is a way to defend the faith and share the ancient traditions with those around us without causing so much harm along the way. It’s worrisome to see the blurred lines between our faith and patriotism. I pray that us Catholics start to do a better job of honoring the legacy of social justice in our Church and that we commit to doing a better job in the future. I pray that The reality is that a lot of us shy away from certain movements (ahem, Black Lives Matter, for example) because we don’t agree with all of the tenets of the organizers or the mission at hand. Instead of inaction because you don’t agree with the loudest voices, I encourage all of us to figure out how we can still be moved to action. We cannot use the politics of anybody else as an excuse to sit any of this out. That may mean we pave our own path, but that in no way means we should ever turn our back on the injustices of our time. And that might mean that we hold our Church as our home to welcome all lives into as our number one priority.
Some further reading and listening that may be of interest to you:
One of my sincere hopes from all of this work is that anyone who claims to be pro-life understands the full spectrum of this stance. That is one of my goals in being so outspoken about Black Lives Matter, immigration, the death penalty, disability rights, and pretty much any social justice issue or cause. What it boils down to is that these issues cannot (and should not) be ranked. Catholic Social Teaching instructs Catholics in 7 principles: Life and Dignity of the Human Person, Solidarity, Care for God’s Creation, Call to Family, Community, and Participation, Option for he Poor and Vulnerable, Rights and Responsibilities, and the Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers. I would argue, in order to fully understand one principle you must understand how each principle interacts with the other.
We are required to care about every single human being REGARDLESS of conversion or some great testimony of their life turning to one that *we* would prefer. It’s why the Catholic Worker didn’t turn people away. It’s why Homeboy Industries is so effective in its community. Servant of God Dorothy Day and Father Greg Boyle created environments in which the only thing that mattered was that you were a human being in need of something.
We are not called to cast judgement on the importance of a life-centered issue based on our understanding of innocence or righteousness. This creates tribalism, in which those that live their lives how we best see fit or live their lives like us are deemed the most important. It is why it is far easier for many to go through great lengths to support anti-abortion activities than it is to loudly denounce the death-penalty. However, at the end of the day, the accused murderer, the unborn child, and everyone in between are all sacred lives in God’s creation.
I often hear from anti-abortion advocates that the reason they focus on abortion is because if people can’t accept the dignity of sacredness of life in the womb then they can’t accept those principles outside of the womb. I understand this sentiment to start at the beginning of life to protect life throughout – from womb to tomb. However, I would argue that the human mind is not this simplistic. By oversimplifying pro-life matters to only abortion and assuming the rest will flow from it, we are losing out on the depth and richness of this conversation by focusing solely on one stage of life. For some, the protection of the dignity of life of the person sitting in front of them is going to better convince them of the dignity of the life inside the womb.
Here is what Catholic Social Teaching understands about social change: pigeon-holing a cause for your narrative is not as effective as looking at the complexity and inter-connectedness of an issue and speaking to all parts of it. In the same way that we understand 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 to say that each individual part of the Body of Christ is as important and critical for the care and growth of another part, we must also see that in the work of all pro-life issues. There is room to talk about all of it, but there is no room to ignore any of it. Let’s be careful to recognize when we are sacrificing one part of the body for the sake of our own ideology.
A dislike for a particular organization and how it is run is not a reason to dismiss a movement or a cause all together. I want to be clear that there are many protests and vigils and calls to action that are not affiliated with Black Lives Matter, Inc. To vilify the slogan that the organization grew out of is nearsighted and unproductive.
I’m seeing pushback from Catholics because the organization Black Lives Matter, Inc. explicitly supports the black LBGTQ+ community. As a nonprofit professional I am here to offer some insight on this wording from this website: it’s called intersectionality. By definition, as provided by Google, it is “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” At it’s core it’s about bringing groups of people together to work for a common good: dismantling systemic racism. There is also language on their website stating: “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.” This is not an “attack on the family,” as I’ve seen some people claim. That is an incredibly narrow focus on the understanding of family. By stating this, the organization is recognizing that we belong to one another as a community. There is nothing threatening about this.
This is something that we need to talk about because Catholics should not be turning their back on the black community by refusing to take a stand, or uttering a slogan, because ONE organizing body is involved that they don’t like. By saying, “Black Lives Matter” you are not claiming allegiance to any particular organization. This is about the fight for racial equity, justice, and the dismantling of racist systems. There are many organizations and groups that you can still support. You can still say “Black Lives Matter.” Believing this and being Catholic are not mutually exclusive.
For people who are struggling to know which organizations or people to support with their time, treasure, or talent I’ve been working on some guiding questions to help weed through the noise.
What gives me any special voice in this? Well, imposter syndrome has held me back for too long. I am a nonprofit professional with expertise in restorative justice, community development, and social change. I am a white-passing first-generation Latina and I have learned that I have a unique voice to lend to these conversations, especially to help educate my fellow white humans. There is A LOT I’m still learning about anti-racism because learning is life-long. It’s a journey and we have not yet arrived.
So, let’s get to it. How do you decide where to put your money, time, and energy if you are ready to support the dismantling of racism?
Look local. There are more than likely churches, community groups, or nonprofit organizations near to you that are hosting protests, prayer vigils, or opportunities for education and discussion. There are probably social change organizations already working on dismantling racism in different capacities. Giving resources (time or money) locally often means some serious return on investments because tangible change can be made.
What is the mission and vision of the organization or group? The Internet is your friend, but you have to do the work. It’s not hard to find the mission statement or vision of a group or organization. If it is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization these things, in addition to who is on their Board of Directors, are easy to find.
Board of Directors and leadership in the organization or group is another valuable thing to look at. What you’re looking for is representation in their leadership that reflects the group of people they are trying to serve. This can include women, people of color, Black people, and/or youth.
If you’re looking to donate money, consider giving a recurring donation instead of a one-time donation. As a previous Fund Development Manager, I can attest to you that recurring donations are preferred by organizations. On-going committed volunteers are also helpful!
Every Lent ends the same way. The altar is stripped. The tabernacle is empty and left open. Jesus is not physically in our churches. It’s always jarring and humbling. This year though, having a picture of it sent through email by a priest made it that much more shocking. I shuttered when I opened this picture of St Patrick Catholic Church in Nashville. This particular parish has been a breath of fresh air many Sundays while we have lived here. It has always been a reverent experience. That’s what makes this scene feel so meaningful. For some, this pandemic has made it easier to focus on Lent, but not for me. I’ve been distracted and things have been disordered and mis-prioritized without the order of the liturgy. I cherish the rhythm of the liturgical year and this year I’m reminded deeply why that is. Tomorrow, we will claim His resurrection. But not tonight. Not yet. Tonight we find stillness in the humility of His death. We are shuttered and shocked to see the altar stripped bare and the tabernacle empty and open. Thank God for tomorrow.
Before writing this I asked for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I crossed myself and took a deep breath and asked Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Oscar Romero to pray for me. As a Catholic, it’s helpful to know that I am not alone in my struggle for justice. There are thousands of saints that have walked this earth that dedicated their life to a cause that would now fall under “social justice.” Many of those saints lost their lives because of that struggle, that fight for justice. The Internet is a weird space to figure out where you belong. It’s a new frontier – still after all of these years – and we are all trying to figure out who we are in this space and how we want to be represented. And it’s a space for the fight for social justice to continue, but there is no roadmap on the right way to do it. I’ve largely abandoned Facebook because of the incessant fighting and chest puffing and chest pounding that became the norm of any sort of discussion on that platform. And I found my happy place in Instagram. Driven by images and short narrative it was a medium that felt more creative and meaningful, but my voice was lacking. I have found myself floundering – drowning really – in my own thoughts and convictions about justice and I have been wanting to write boldly about these ideas for a long time. So here I am, wobbly and uneasy, stepping back into the social justice Internet game. It’s just taken a lot of energy to muster the courage to sit down and write this. It will take another gallon of courage to post it, too. But what I am left sitting with each day is that I see these conversations all over the Internet and there are pieces of these discussions and discourses (and Facebook fights) that are missing some key elements.
It’s so easy to parrot what we hear other people say and accept it as truth or accept it as fake news or propaganda depending on the political bend we assume it takes. We have forgotten where opinion lays in the in between – in the gray area – and we have bought into the divisions. My hope is not to create a deeper canyon, but to ask that we all start thinking more critically, more skeptically, and start the road to expecting more intellectually out of each other. I learned a lot from my dad about how to talk politics and hard issues with people that you don’t agree with. He and I both get heated and animated when talking about these issues and it stresses my sister out. Even though we sometimes (ahem okay more than sometimes) disagree on how things are said or what stance the other person is taking, we can always end the conversation laughing and moving on and still accepting and giving love to the other person. This is a lot easier to do, however, when both parties understand the rules and enter the conversation with the same mindset. The Internet fades and distorts that. We often don’t see the other person as an equal and we don’t often see the exercise as just that – an exercise or an opportunity to stretch and flex in order to have a more articulate argument later. We’ve lost the patience for the slow burn of a playful debate after dinner and over some drinks. We want the other person’s mind to be changed in the immediate and we want it to be public and grandiose.
That is my very meandering way of saying this is going to be long and I hope that you will journey with me. When you feel your gut push back or your cheeks turn red, I ask that you take a deep breath and question where that is coming from and continue to read. I ask you to continue to read because it’s okay to disagree and not know why. It’s okay to disagree and want to turn away and roll eyes. But we aren’t going to get anywhere if we all keep avoiding each other. So, after you have read this whole piece I invite you to ask my questions. Pretend we are in a classroom together and you are just trying to learn more.
Okay, enough of a build up and let us dive into the topic that is weighing heavy on my mind as of late. The term “pro-life” is a term that is deeply political, but I have come to learn that it means different things to different people and that is becoming problematic in our current political atmosphere. For many, when they hear the term “pro-life” they automatically assume anti-abortion and for a long time that has been widely accepted as the definition. However, especially if you are Catholic, that is only one pillar in the pro-life worldview. According the the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, as listed under Pro-Life Issues on their website here, abortion is just one of many issues that fall in this category, including: African Americans/Culture of Life, Assisted Suicide, Capital Punishment, Human Cloning, Conscience Rights, Contraception, Disabilities, Embryo/Fetal Research, End of Life Issues/Euthanasia, Health Care, IVF/Reproductive Technology, International Issues, Morning After Pill, Partial-Birth Abortion, Post Abortion Healing, Roe v. Wade, RU-486, Stem Cell Research, Unborn Victims of Violence Act, Women and the Culture of Life, and Youth.
Whew. That is quite the list, right? Some of these can certainly be grouped together as abortion-related and these activities make up a good portion of this list. However, when we are talking “pro-life” issues, as Catholics we shouldn’t just be talking about abortion. In fact, the essence of being pro-life is accepting and protecting the dignity of each person as a beloved child of God. Being pro-life means that God’s love, compassion, and grace is offered to each individual simply based on that person being a person, a human, an individual. And in turn, as followers of Christ, it is our duty to also show love, compassion, and grace to each individual simply based on that person being a person, a human, an individual. Doesn’t that sound nice? If we could all just do this, wouldn’t so many problems be solved? None of us are naive enough to accept it that simply, though, right? Anyone who has had to share small quarters with another individual, or drive down a busy highway, or has worked in customer service knows how quickly love, compassion, and grace can be hard to come by in the day-to-day mundane tasks of life. We were never promised easy. In fact, we were told repeatedly that this life following Jesus would be hard and arduous and persecuted. Many faithful Catholics have been willing to put our necks out to fight for unborn children and their mothers, but how many truly understand all of the issues that encapsulates all of the issues that make up the pro-life platform as curated by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops?
I am deeply concerned how the term “pro-life” has been co-opted by the anti-abortion movement without much regard for the other issues at hand. I am even more concerned how many Christians are willing to look away or accept behavior from people, such as President Trump and Vice President Pence, and when questioned respond with a form of pleasantry such as “at least he is pro-life” or claiming that the duo has done a lot for the pro-life movement. As faithful Catholics, we are called to more than concern regarding abortion. We are called to protect the dignity of all persons. Full stop. Even throwing out the personal dealings of President Trump, this administration is not pro-life in the Catholic understanding. I am not sure if there has ever been an administration in the history of the United States that could actually claim that legacy. Recently, the current administration has decided to resume federal executions. This is a huge loss for the pro-life movement. The hard reality of being pro-life is that we, just as God does, hold the life of an unborn child to the same love, compassion, and respect as we do the inmate sitting on death row. As Saint Pope John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae, “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.” As Catholics, we don’t get to judge for ourselves who is and isn’t worthy of human dignity – regardless of legality of one’s actions. Which brings me to another big scar on the current administration’s pro-life report card: the treatment of migrants and refugees at the border. If, as Catholics, we accept that even those on death row deserve dignity, then we, as Catholics, must also accept that individuals seeking entrance into the United States – regardless of legality of entry – also deserve dignity, honor, respect. From what we know about what is going on at the border and what we are hearing coming out of this administration’s mouths, the crisis and chaos at the border is not being dealt with in a pro-life manner.
My hope is that as we enter into a new election cycle in 2020 that we all have a more full understanding of Church teaching. My hope is that we don’t allow our allegiance to one issue blind us from fully realizing our call as Christians. We must stand up and fight for justice for all of God’s people, not just the ones that it is easy for us to fight for. If we are voting on a pro-life platform only, we will be hard pressed to find a candidate that will fully fulfill that role. We must use our power, through activities such as voting and freedom of speech, to protect the sanctity of all life. Despite what many anti-abortion folks will tell you, that might mean considering a candidate that won’t do much to abolish abortion as we know it, but might do a heck of a lot to protect the rights and dignity of other groups of people. I know this will be scandalous for many and outrageous to some, but maybe if we all take a deep breath and say a prayer for those with whom we disagree we can seek to understand one another in a more meaningful way. There is a bridge across this canyon and I am willing to help build it.