By Art McDonald
There are times, I presume, in most all of our journeys when certain events change our perspectives and even our lives; maybe even transform us. I’ve had a few of those times: in the military, in Peru, meeting MS Melanie (“The bishop”), finding UU, coming to Essex, etc. One other such time was while doing ministry in the Bronx in 1980.
In March of that year, the archbishop of El Salvador was murdered while celebrating mass. Then, in December, 4 church women, 3 nuns and a lay Catholic, were brutally raped and murdered because of their work and solidarity with El Salvador’s poor. We, especially in the Catholic community of religious, many of us who had spent time in Latin America and were transformed by that experience, were devastated and angered. Devastated that such a cruel and brutal thing could happen to such loving and dedicated religious women, and angered that our own government was supplying support and arms to a vicious Salvadoran government that was serving the interests of Salvadoran elites, the wealthy few, by suppressing calls for change on the part of the poor masses. The Salvadoran government had ordered these murders, history later showed, and military people carried them out. Once again our political leaders were on the wrong side of God’s people.
Before his death, Archbishop Romero had written President Carter, imploring him to cut off aid to this oppressive regime. That didn’t happen. When the Reagan administration came to power in early 1981, things got worse. So many of us in the U.S. began to mobilize, especially in the religious community, and thousands signed what we called a “pledge of resistance,” committing ourselves to doing all we could to resist and alter our own government’s misguided, immoral and self-serving policies.
When Melanie and I moved to Pittsburgh in 1982, we immediately joined with solidarity groups there that were working in similar fashion. I took a full time job doing nothing but that. We lobbied our congress people, we traveled to Central America to experience first-hand what our U.S dollars were doing, we organized vigils and marches, we did civil disobedience and went to jail. One day I received a phone call from a man who said he had been watching me, observing my participation in rallies and demonstrations. He also said he had followed my wife as she drove to a Catholic school every day as a teacher and he described to me the exact route she took, street by street, and named the school. Then he threatened me if I kept up such activities; I asked who he was and would he be willing to meet for conversation? He hung up. Some months later, as my activities didn’t change, I received a call from a lawyer who said he was filing through the freedom of information act for various people’s FBI files and my name appeared on a list; he asked if he could send for my file. Of course, I answered. He subsequently sent me that file, over 20 pages, mostly blackened out because, he was told by the FBI, I was a national security threat and part of a “terrorist” organization. It was right around “1984,” thank you George Orwell, and indeed, “Big Brother” was watching.
Sadly, U.S. foreign aid to the government of El Salvador was not finally cut off until 1989, shortly after 6 Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and young daughter, were brutally murdered, much like 30,000 other Salvadorans who were killed by the government. In that same 1980s period our government was caught selling arms to Iran, of all nations, while using that money to supply arms to another vicious group called “contras” who were trying to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Nicaragua.
Fast forward to 2017, and, once again, an even bigger resistance movement has quickly formed, with huge participation on the part of religious leaders and many denominations, to attempt to counter, this time, primarily domestic policies of our government, though with significant international implications, as we truly live in a global community. Melanie and I were in Boston, with so many others in this congregation, as others were in DC, for the women-led march a week or so ago, and I was with 250 clergy this past Tuesday, to focus primarily on the recent ban on travel to the U.S. from seven countries in the Middle-East, whose populations are primarily made up of Muslims.
For myself, I was very troubled when our new president said on inauguration day, that from now on it is “America First.” Such a statement violated all of my religious upbringing to love neighbor as self, to put the needs of the other ahead of oneself, to work assiduously for the common good, the good of all, not just for oneself. As our bumper sticker reads in reaction to the phrase “God Bless America,” “God bless the rest of the world too! And then, a little over a week ago, the presidential directive to halt immigration and travel from 7 different nations, thus throwing into chaos the lives of so many individuals and communities, not to mention creating an atmosphere of fear of what might come next and how many families might be torn apart.
And, curiously, in the liturgical cycle of Christian churches on this Sunday, all across the world the faithful are hearing the words of the prophet, Isaiah, “If you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in the darkness and your gloom will become like midday.” (58:10) And at the press conference in Boston on Tuesday, we heard a Rabbi read from another part of the Hebrew Bible, Deuteronomy, “You shall also love the foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” And didn’t we just hear at our Christmas vigil in this very sanctuary, that the Holy family, Mary, Joseph and Jesus, had to flee their native land and go into exile for a time, into Egypt, because of the threats from a tyrant named Herod. Jesus’ adult life, then, back in his homeland, was primarily focused on preaching God’s kingdom to those who were marginalized, disenfranchised, homeless and frightened, as he often railed against the authorities of his day. His ministry was focused on resistance to injustice and cruel treatment of God’s most vulnerable. It eventually got him killed as we know.
And, so, in these worrisome times, I am so energized and gratified that so many of you and others I know, especially in the religious community, are stepping up and committed to upholding our highest principles as a people, and resisting our country’s worst xenophobic and nationalistic instincts.
This week our own UUA leadership issued a “Declaration of Conscience,” signed by many of us, which, among other things says the following: “At this extraordinary time in our nation’s history, we are called to affirm our profound commitment to the fundamental principles of justice, equity, and compassion, to truth and the core values of our (American) society. In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes, we affirm our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person….We will oppose any and all unjust government actions to deport, register, discriminate, or despoil…as we stand on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us…the time is now.” (UUA-UUSC).
And on Friday, a group of us Cape Ann religious leaders signed a joint statement on the recent immigration ban, primarily authored by Rabbi Lewis in Gloucester, as a Jew I think so appropriately as he quoted the Book of Exodus: “You are not to wrong or oppress the alien, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (22:21), which will appear in the Gloucester Times on Wednesday. In a difficult time, I am proud to say, the faith community is doing exactly what it is called by God to do. I’m worried about us as a people, yet so buoyed up by our response and resistance in the name of our very highest values.
Beyond my reaction to current events, mostly from my own faith and religious perspective, which centers my life, I went back and read one more time the amazing poem written by a woman named Emma Lazarus, at the erection of the Statue of Liberty, but which wasn’t mounted on the Statue until 1903, which reads: “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand, A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand, Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!,” cries she with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I life my lamp beside the golden door!”
I feel like someone just took a sledge hammer to this mighty woman in New York harbor.
A year or more ago when German chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced that Germany would open itself to 1 million refugees, I wanted to say that day I am German; such a contrast to our last president and the current one!
If we are to hold up our finest values, both as citizens of the United States and as people of faith, I believe we are called to offer resistance to many of the directives that have been coming out of this new administration, most especially at the moment this directive on immigration. And if we are to sustain such resistance as we hold up our highest values and attempt to live them out, I believe we need to ground this resistance in prayer, in meditation, in contemplation, centering on our core selves as individuals, but more especially as a community.
I’ve recently finished reading an amazing book by a now deceased German Christian theologian, who was a teenager during the Holocaust, entitled: THE SILENT CRY: MYSTICISM and RESISTANCE. Mysticism is an experience of God, of the Holy, the Sacred, that is an encounter in which we feel at one with the Holy. But, writes Dorothee Soelle, “What really happens in mystical union is not a new vision of God but a different relationship to the world-one that has borrowed the eyes of God. God is no private affair for a few who are naïve enough or who are blessed with a fortunate disposition.” By this she means, citing a medieval mystic, making use of “God’s senses.” This mystic believed she had received a revelation from God which said: “See, I give you my eyes, that you may see all things with them, and my ears, that you may hear all things with them; my mouth I also give you, so that all you have to say, whether in speech, prayer, or song, you may say through it. I give you my heart, that through it you may think everything and may love me and all things for my sake.”
So, for Dorothee Soelle, this mystical experience of oneness, becomes the basis of a life of loving action and, in this current time, action which resists. And, currently, what many cities and religious congregations are contemplating as a form of resistance to immigration directives is declaring sanctuary cities and churches, meaning we will resist cooperating with ICE, the federal immigration agency, and we will harbor and protect all immigrants, even the undocumented, unless they are guilty of some crime. Many of us have been at ongoing meetings on this very strategy in the last 2 weeks. And, soon enough, I will ask this congregation to have such a dialogue. Truly, our faith is on the line.
As part of our work back in Pittsburgh, as I’ve shared at least a few times, we declared ourselves a sanctuary movement, and we harbored two undocumented Salvadoran refugees, Gabriel and Maria, fleeing from war partly fueled by our own government. When I was asked to drive to a small town in Ohio, part of a new “underground railroad,” I was told by our lawyer that I was committing a felony by transporting undocumented people and, if prosecuted, it could lead to a serious jail sentence. I hate jails and I’m pretty claustrophobic, glad that my jailings have been short term. However, once I met these sweet, gentle, frightened refugees, who had left 9 children back home with grandparents, Melanie and I became their adopted abuelos (grandparents), and we and so many others gladly broke these unjust, self-serving, “America First” laws to keep them safe. It may come to that again, but I’m praying that our resistance and the courage of our political leaders will ultimately prevail, and justice and love will win out. But I’m aware it will take strong, massive resistance, to make that a possibility.
The brutal deaths of the 4 church women in December of 1980 changed my life and the lives of so many, especially after two of our government officials in the Reagan administration, UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, suggested on separate occasions, that the women were too politically active, and, possibly, even gun runners, both outrageous lies (“alternative facts”). Their lives have been written about; a recent biography of Sister Maura Clarke just came out. And years ago there was a documentary film made about another of them, a young 25 year-old laywoman named Jeanne Donavon; it was entitled; “Roses in December.” Let us sing as our final hymn (# 346), as a tribute to them, “Come, Sing a Song with Me,” – “for I’ll bring you hope when hope is hard to find, and I’ll bring a song of love and a rose in the wintertime.”