Church of Displaced Persons

Eight years ago I wrote a short article about why our Church needs victim-centered reform, a reform that first listens to the victims of abuse and then takes appropriate action, without defensiveness or denial. I argued that Christ is most present to us in those victims of abuse who have long suffered in silence.

In those eight years, I’ve been perpetually disheartened by the inability or unwillingness of our Church to create mechanisms of accountability and transparency that apply to our bishops—or more importantly, our unwillingness to take stock of how power is too often acquired and exercised in a most unchristian way by those in our Catholic Christian Church.

I have felt—as have many Catholics—like a displaced person, a refugee from my own religion.

And so I turn to literature.

In Flannery O’Connor’s The Displaced Person, the brilliant Catholic writer illustrates how God is perpetually pushing us out of our comfort zones. The short story begins with the arrival of Polish refugees fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust. Their arrival, facilitated by an aged and senile priest, intrudes upon a delicate social balance on a farm in the American south. The displaced Guizacs are reluctantly welcomed by the landowner, Ms. McIntyre, but the tenant farmer family, the Shortleys, are immediately suspicious. The Guizacs, however, quickly prove to be more efficient workers than the Shortleys, and the Shortleys are fired, becoming displaced persons themselves.

During their indignant exit from the farm, Mrs. Shortley has an apocalyptic vision as she suffers a fatal stroke:

There was a peculiar lack of light in her icy blue eyes. All the vision in them might have been turned around, looking inside her…  her huge body rolled back still against the seat and her eyes like blue-painted glass, seemed to be contemplating for the first time the tremendous frontiers of her true country.

In the end, Mrs. Shortley’s vision turns inwards as her sense of this world dissolves. Even as tenant farmers, she and her family had enjoyed certain privileges, their race and religion affording a certain psychological comfort, but the Guizacs’ presence, and her impending death, utterly shatters those illusions.

The hope we have in a God who will somehow spare us the tenuous journey towards divine intimacy, who will stay forever, to quote Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, “a ragged figure… moving from tree to tree in the back of our mind,” is quite simply, impossible, given who God is and how God chooses to break into our comfortable realities.

I think many of us Catholics are feeling like Mrs. Shortley or Ms. McIntyre, like our entire world has been turned upside down with the continuing revelations of abuse, conspiracy, and the forces of division who hope to use this crisis to fight their side of the culture war. I imagine, with many dioceses choosing to open their records to their local attorney general, that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

As much new pain and trauma as this will cause, it is an absolutely necessary step in repenting and helping us begin to see again the “tremendous frontiers of [our] true country.” Namely, it will point our Church towards the utterly humble and self-emptying cry of the One who calls us to sincere repentance and new life.  But that call can easily be ignored.

Ever present throughout O’Connor’s The Displaced Person are peacocks, who freely roam Ms. McIntyre’s farm (as they did O’Connor’s own). Ever a cynic and realist, she simply calls them “another mouth to feed,” and explains to the priest responsible for bringing the refugees that she’s let twenty or thirty of them starve, as she “didn’t like to hear them scream in the middle of the night.” But the priest remains ever transfixed by their presence:

The peacock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of small pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. “Christ will come like that!” he said in a loud gay voice and wiped his hand over his mouth and stood there, gaping.

Mrs. McIntyre tries to get him back to the subject at hand, namely, the refugees and the trouble they have caused her: “It is not my responsibility that Mr. Guizac has nowhere to go… I don’t find myself responsible for all the extra people in the world.”

Finally, exhausted by the complications that the displaced have brought into her life, she exclaims: “He didn’t have to come in the first place.”

The priest replies: “He came to redeem us.”

In listening to the victims and their terrible stories of injustice, perhaps we too can be redeemed and can come to realize that our picture of the world, however comfortable and coherent, was incomplete. More importantly, the degree to which we have been deaf to the cries of the victims is the degree to which we have been deaf to the call of Christ.

If there’s any hope, it is that this time, our reform may be real, radical, and utterly transformative.

Michael Sanem has a theology degree from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and writes at incarnationiseverywhere.com. He has written for US Catholic, God In All Things, and the Leaven, among other publications.


Millennial of the Year 2018: Lizzie Velásquez

Our 2018 Millennial of the Year is anti-bullying activist, author, motivational speaker, and role model to countless young people Lizzie Velasquez. Lizzie is on the front lines in the battle against the throwaway culture, championing love, kindness, solidarity, and the fundamental worth and dignity of every single person.

We live at a time when it’s no longer possible to deny how pervasive both bullying and the objectification of others are—vividly seen in the misbehavior of the rich and powerful and experienced regularly by everyday Americans. Sadly many Christians are seen defending both, not just in justifying the words and actions of their favorite politician, but more broadly. Cruelty is dismissed as “kids being kids,” and the objectification of women—ignoring the dignity and integral nature of each person in order to revel in capricious societal and individual biases—is defended as a (supposedly inevitable) manifestation of human nature. Free will is essentially denied, as immoral behavior and a degrading culture are defended.

But Lizzie—a 29-year-old Roman Catholic woman from Texas with Marfanoid–progeroid–lipodystrophy syndrome, a rare congenital disease that prevents her from gaining weight—has put forward an authentically Christian response to this culture of dehumanization. She has not only confronted the culture of cruelty, but regularly displays compassion for the hurt and insecurity that so often underpins those engaging in this cruel behavior. Her understanding of the root causes of cruelty extends to her recognition that consumerism fuels the widespread obsession with conforming to fleeting notions of attractiveness. Corporations foster and prey on insecurities in order to sell products and maximize their profits.

It’s more important than ever to recognize that dehumanizing someone isn’t only bad when it results in genocide or sexual assault—that objectifying another human being is always wrong and never benign. This is essential for understanding the nature of human flourishing and what the common good looks like concretely.

Against the destructive rugged individualism in our society, she’s notes that no man is an island. And she encourages people to not be afraid of reaching out to others. It’s easier to battle consumerism, materialism, insecurity, and dehumanization when we have the support of others, who recognize our inherent value and worth. The strong support of her family has likely helped her to appreciate this.

Lizzie reminds us that “uniqueness is a good thing.” This is inseparable from human dignity and worth, and it is no surprise that those who dehumanize others are often promoting bland conformity to an impersonal paradigm. One of her main goals is to get people to know that they are loved and accepted for exactly who they are. Appreciating our uniqueness and the uniqueness of others allows for genuine authenticity.

Her effectiveness in delivering this personalist message comes from her openness, honesty, vulnerability, humor, compassion, and the fact that she too is battling these things. She is open about battling insecurity and self-doubt, even as she describes their sources. The pervasive force of these is something few women and girls can escape entirely. Girls are taught to objectify themselves and that their self-worth and beauty is not innate. This has to be consciously resisted and deprogrammed. And we see Lizzie resisting in real time, and at the end of the day, she can say that she does not want to change the way she looks in any way, even as the struggle continues. It is her witness that is powerful.

It is for this witness against a culture of cruelty, materialism, and dehumanization that our 2018 Millennial of the Year is the remarkable, the relatable, the beautiful Lizzie Velásquez.


Learning and Living Magis

I am the product of 14 years of Jesuit education. I see the world through the lenses of Cura Personalis and “Women and Men for and with Others.” I am who I am because of Jesuits – and many lay partners in mission – aspiring to be ever more attentive and responsive to God’s activity in the world.

The Jesuits didn’t teach me what to think, but how to think. We read challenging texts, learned how to account for our biases and presuppositions, considered arguments from a number of perspectives, and engaged in lively debates about issues that matter for human dignity, loving and just communities, and the common good. We learned to see faith and reason as complementary rather than competing, much like religion and science. My eyes were opened to the grandeur of creation and my responsibility to help take care of it. I was fortunate to have teachers and mentors who saw great potential in me, challenged and encouraged me, and motivated me to use my interests and abilities AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam), for the Greater Glory of God.

We learned about the Jesuit ideal magis, which I understood as “striving for the more.” For a long time, my favorite quote – attributed to Saint Ignatius of Loyola – was: “Pray as if everything depends on God. Work as if everything depends on you.” (Later, a Jesuit would kindly mention to me that this line likely inverts what Ignatius intended to communicate.) Magis inspired me to maximize every opportunity and experience. Never be complacent. Never settle. Always aim for more.

But magis isn’t about the best, the most, or the greatest. It can’t be reduced (as it often is) to banal or bourgeois terms like generosity or excellence. Magis actually gets distorted when we conflate it with doing more. Magis is more about being than doing, and more interested in becoming than achieving.

* * *

One of the most formative experiences of my life happened in a garbage dump in the Dominican Republic. I was 17 years old and part of a team of 10 students who raised funds to build a school for a rural community. To prepare for our time in the campo, we learned about Dominican culture in the capital city, Santo Domingo. We visited a lighthouse built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing on the island, and right after that, we took a trip to the city dump. I didn’t understand why we were driving through these piles of garbage, until I began to see that people were living there. In the garbage. Our Jesuit teacher, Fr. Brennan, explained that these people used to live where the lighthouse stood, but their housing was demolished to build the tourist attraction, and the local government provided them no assistance to relocate, so many families were forced to make their homes among other people’s refuse.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so distant from other people as I did in that moment: me, a white, middle-class boy from the suburbs of Milwaukee, driving in an air-conditioned van while other people look through garbage for anything they can eat, use, or sell. Then Fr. Brennan stopped the van and told us to get out.  We opened the van doors and were hit with a wave of heat, smoke, and stench. The dump was called “Cien Fuegos” because it was perpetually on fire, in order to make room for more garbage. The heat and stench were sickening. But we weren’t able to dwell on it for long because in seconds, we were tackled by children who lived there: kids wearing rags who hugged us like we were old friends.  We were human jungle gyms for the next few hours, holding kids by their hands and swinging them in circles, playing tag, and acting like we were family.

Eventually, a man approached Fr. Brennan and asked him if he would bless his home. So we walked through the garbage, greeting people as they hunted for anything of value amid the smoldering trash. When we reached the man’s home, we saw it was a small cave in a hill of garbage. He invited us into his tiny shelter, just room enough for some towels, linens, and clothes – where he and his family slept – and there was a table, a chair, and a framed picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The same image that was hanging on the wall of my home parish.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but it took that image of Jesus for me to recognize God’s presence in the garbage dump, in the people that we had met. I have long thought about that icon and what it’s like for Jesus to look through that image at us, a world marred by divisions and unjust inequalities, as well as what Pope Francis calls “the globalization of indifference” at the suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters. The man who invited us into his home grabbed our hands and said, “Hermanos, rezemos.” (Brothers, let us pray.) Magis is the power to shatter the illusion that we are separate from each other, even when it looks like we’re living worlds apart.

* * *

The meaning of magis is complex. In a thorough study of magis in the Jesuit heritage, Rev. Barton Geger, SJ suggests the best translation of magis is “the more universal good.” This definition can be traced all the way back to Saint Ignatius, who advised the early members of the Jesuits to discern how their choices could be guided toward what is most conducive to the “greater service of God and the universal good.” Magis is inseparable from the unofficial motto of the Society of Jesus, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (often abbreviated as AMDG), which means “for the Greater Glory of God.” Geger explains that the “glory of God” refers to “God’s truth, beauty, wisdom, and power becoming evident to human beings.” Truth, beauty, and wisdom not only bring us closer to God, they also make us more fully human. For this reason, it might also help to recall Saint Irenaeus of Lyon’s claim that the “glory of God is the human person fully alive.” In this way, AMDG or magis implies a call to work for the fullness of life for all, the conditions that allow individual persons and communities to flourish. Magis is a religious and moral responsibility to defend human dignity, deliver on human rights and responsibilities, and dedicate ourselves to the common good of all.

Standing in that garbage dump, I more fully grasped how magis is tied to solidarity and justice. If we take seriously the claim that God is our Source and our Destiny, this makes us siblings with every other person on the planet (past, present, and future). Moreover, this means that we are all equals in the eyes of God; those children searching through garbage for anything they can eat, use, or sell have the same share of dignity as I do. Magis reminds us there is no “us” and “them” – only us. The “greater good” is the good that includes everyone, leaving out no one. This isn’t a utilitarian position that calculates the trade-offs between what is good for the many at the expense of the few. That risks trampling over the equal dignity, rights, and hopes of those who may not have as much privilege, power, or opportunity. It usually pits the weak against the strong and does little to dissolve the categories of “us” and “them.”

As Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ suggests in his most recent book, Barking to the Choir, magis “refers to an affection for God,” a “devotion” that takes the shape of a “pervasive familiarity and union with God, a desire to want what God wants.” God’s heart must break to see precious little ones with no choice but to live in that garbage dump in Santo Domingo, surrounded by squalor, deprived of not only dignity, but freedom. The same is true for anyone denied dignity and freedom, those who are discriminated against or excluded because of their race or ethnicity, social status or economic class, sex, gender or sexual orientation, physical or intellectual ability, mental health, religion, or age.

It’s not enough to lament the state of our unjust world; we have to discover the root causes – the sinful choices and systems that exclude and oppress – so that we can prevent and solve these problems. This is what it means to desire what God wants, and this is the purpose of Jesuit education. Fr. Jon Sobrino, SJ attests, “To believe in God is not just to love life, but to work so there is life.” God wants life in fullness (John 10:10) for each and every person. Jesuit education cannot be reduced to acquiring knowledge or preparing for a profession; it is training to become more aware of reality so that we can take responsibility for transforming it.

Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ, the former Superior General of the Jesuits, described his vision of student formation in this way:

You are called by the Society of Jesus to be men and women who reflect upon the reality of this world around you with all its ambiguities, opportunities, and challenges, to discern what is really happening in your life and in the lives of others, to find God there and to discover where God is calling you, to employ criteria for significant choices that reflect godly values rather than narrow, exclusive self-interest, to make decisions in the light of what is truly for the greater glory of God and the service of those in need, and then to act accordingly.

This view of Jesuit education provides a fundamental horizon of meaning (to be in relationship with God), calls each of us to be partners in mission (for inclusive human flourishing in justice), and empowers us to think, speak, and act with moral responsibility For the Greater Glory of God. Magis reminds us that who we are is God’s gift to us, and our gift back to God is what we do with who we are, especially when we work for justice for those deprived dignity, rights, and freedom. Pope Francis discusses magis as “the fire, the fervor of action, that rouses us from slumber.” It is what drives us “to leave an imprint or mark in history, especially in the lives of the smallest.”

This is not an easy mentality to maintain. We’re bombarded with images and messages that convince us that self-interest is best, that we should view others as competitors for scarce resources and fear vulnerability. This makes it easier to close ourselves off to others or create distance, reinforcing categories of “us” and “them,” those who we can care about and trust and those we can disregard or distrust. Worse, we’re told that the poor deserve their fate because they’re lazy or just want to cheat the system – which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s far easier to judge other people than try to understand them. But judgment won’t bring change. As Fr. Boyle writes, “We are at our healthiest when we are most situated in awe, and at our least healthy when we engage in judgment. Judgment creates the distance that moves us away from each other. Judgment keeps us in the competitive game and is always self-aggrandizing. Standing at the margins with the broken reminds us not of our own superiority but of our own brokenness. Awe is the great leveler. The embrace of our own suffering helps us to land on a spiritual intimacy with ourselves and others. For if we don’t welcome our own wounds, we will be tempted to despise the wounded.”

Magis implies humility, the grace to know the truth about ourselves, the whole truth that includes our strengths and weaknesses. It means being authentic instead of trying to impress. It requires that we accept ourselves and others, that we practice patience and trust, courage and compassion. Instead of fearing vulnerability, it demands it, because without vulnerability, it’s impossible to accept ourselves and others, be open to learning and growing, and cultivate relationships of mutual respect and responsibility. Magis invites us to build communities that are ever more inclusive and equitable. In the face of so much division, distrust, and despair, magis means asking ourselves if we can really imagine belonging to each other, even across real differences.

Many of us might be at a loss for how we can reach those on the other side, but Fr. Boyle suggests that we first ask ourselves if we’re willing to be reached by them.  He explains:

We always seem to be faced with this choice: to save the world or savor it. I want to propose that savoring is better, and that when we seek to ‘save’ and ‘contribute’ and ‘give back’ and ‘rescue’ folks and EVEN ‘make a difference,’ then it is all about you … and the world stays stuck … The good news, of course, is that when we choose to ‘savor’ the world, it gets saved. Don’t set out to change the world. Set out to wonder how people are doing … stop trying to reach them. Can YOU be reached by THEM?  Folks on the margins only ask us to receive them.

What would it take to make ourselves available to others we have trouble understanding?  Take, for example, rising racial tensions in our country. Surveys show that white people don’t fully understand what people of color experience in this country, how the pervasive and pernicious effects of racism extend from personal bias to systematic segregation and injustice. It’s worth considering that a study found that three-quarters of white Americans didn’t have a single black friend and that two-thirds of African Americans didn’t have a single white friend. How can we build empathy and understanding across the color line (or the class line or party line) if we don’t know what it’s like to be something other than me? Magis moves us out of our comfort zone, not just so we encounter others who are different from us, but so that we realize our good is bound up with the good of others. In the work for justice, we don’t choose to have skin in the game; we have skin in the game because we belong to each other. Our humanity is diminished when we become numb to the suffering of others, when we accept injustice as inevitable, and excuse ourselves from showing up, speaking out, or stepping in. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

* * *

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He shared about his experiences fighting apartheid in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation so that we could be leaders in this kind of work in the world. He stated, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Tutu continued, “If an elephant is standing on the tail of a mouse, your neutrality does nothing to help the mouse.” Justice is not a fight for any one individual on his or her own; instead, we should think of justice like an orchestra: it takes many hands and each one of us has an instrument to play. I remember being a little disheartened by the metaphor because I have no musical talent and the rhythm of a tree stump. But Tutu exhorted each one of us to figure out what role we have to play in the orchestra of justice. He told us to find our passion and make that our instrument – even if it’s the triangle. Then play the hell out of the triangle for justice, he told us.

What makes an orchestra great is not just what each musician is doing on his or her own, but the effect produced by each member playing together. If someone were left out, the orchestra would be impoverished. The image of the orchestra reminds us that not only do we need each other to do what we can’t on our own, but life is more beautiful when it is shared through the gifts each person has to bring.

Magis isn’t about the best, the most, or the greatest. It’s not an exhortation to give more generously, raise our standards for excellence, or add more items to our to-do list. Magis is less about doing for others – especially when it is inspired by the white savior complex – than it is about being with others. This is how we come to better understand who people are, what they most deeply desire, and how we can partner with them to work toward that end. Not to be the voice of the voiceless (which may be well-intended but can nonetheless be paternalistic), but to be advocates, allies, and accomplices in the work for justice and peace.

My time in the garbage dump in Santo Domingo stays with me. It shaped my trajectory for what I studied in college and the clubs I joined. It inspired me to pursue graduate school and study ethics, especially in the tradition of Catholic social teaching that highlights inherent human dignity and responsibilities to the common good. It is part of my vocation: how I understand my purpose in life, what I most deeply desire, and what I’m willing to endure. It’s a major reason I’m passionate about teaching theology at Xavier University and it also extends beyond my job; it shapes the kind of husband, father, friend, and family member I want to be. I don’t just feel like I belong to the people I met in the Dominican Republic. I feel accountable to them. If we were to trade places, I often wonder, what would they do with my education and opportunities? How much good could they do with my salary or social media networks? What are the kinds of things they would hope that I think, feel, say, and do?

* * *

Magis is about being the kind of person who contemplates who God is and what God wants and who acts to be ever more attentive and responsive to participating with God in making this reality here and now. (Ignatius would approve this integration of contemplation and action and surely magis is a worthy goal for our ongoing formation as “contemplatives in action.”) If we belong to each other, then the “greater good” is a matter of interdependence and solidarity, not a cost-benefit-analysis based on self-interest or the greatest good for the greatest number. Magis requires careful discernment in order to pursue what will promote greater dignity, freedom, and responsibility for ourselves and others – or what will alleviate the suffering of others. It is allergic to the popular phrase, “I do me, you do you” which makes tolerance and nonjudgmentalism the greatest goods. Justice will not be accomplished by merely tolerating the existence of others; “live and let live” just as easily becomes “live and let die” or “live and let suffer.” Instead, magis guides our careful work to identify, analyze, and apply the beliefs and values, practices and relationships, systems and structures that ensure everyone has adequate access to the rights and duties necessary to flourish. This is, after all, what God wants.

Magis is learning and living in order to become more fully aware of reality so that we can take responsibility for transforming it. This is how we help realize what Jesus called the “reign of God,” or God’s dream for creation: the fullness of life for all. This is the gift and task of the Jesuit tradition we have inherited and must now pass on to others. AMDG


Manufactured Fear vs. the Christian Call to Solidarity: Failing to Bother to Love

One of my professors in graduate school defined sin as a “failure to bother to love.” In this description of sin, Rev. James Keenan, SJ, invites us to consider sin less in terms of breaking rules and more in terms of what we fail to see, think, feel, say, and do.

Looking at our southern border, it is clear that far too many of us are failing to bother to love.

The migrant caravan is not a national security crisis but a peaceful march of people – more than half of whom are women and children – uprooted from their homes by gang violence, economic deprivation, and political instability. These are people fleeing crisis, not trying to attack our border or organizing an assault on our country, as the President has falsely claimed.

The President’s dehumanizing rhetoric – describing migrants with denigrating terms, whether rapists and murderers, criminals or animals, or gangs and mobs – is not only inaccurate, but it is anti-Christian, as Cardinal Dolan pointed out more than three years ago. It is also dangerous for all immigrants, regardless of their nation of origin.

No doubt, this vilifying language is part of a political strategy to defend the escalation at the border, sending troops before the midterm elections at the tune of $200 million. It helps justify the Administration’s efforts to make it harder to seek asylum at our southern border, which is at odds with international law. ICE enjoys a budget of $7.6 billion, even while it abuses thousands of migrants physically and sexually with complete impunity (even destroying records that document abuse).

Christians cannot abide this kind of discourse, and certainly not the kinds of policies that separate children from parents (some of whom may have been ripped apart permanently), detain families indefinitely, or use tear-gas, which is a weapon of war (even though it is not unprecedented in its use at the border). It is immoral that companies are making huge profits in what is now a billion dollar industry of detaining migrant families along our southern border. It is unconscionable to profit from the misery of such vulnerable people, but this is what happens when people of faith remain silent.

This isn’t just about the migrant caravan or the separation of families. This is about a deep-rooted fear of the other, a xenophobia that has haunted America for years. It is linked to white supremacy, a fundamental distrust of black and brown bodies, a presumption of guilt against them, and legitimizing violence against them. The president has no problem calling himself a nationalist, even while it so often connotes such virulent racism and anti-black violence, which seems to be emboldening hate groups, generating more anti-Semitism and hate crimes.

Embracing fear is easier than understanding the root causes of why people are being forced to flee – especially when so many of those root causes point to US involvement in Central and South America. US demand for illegal drugs gives power to the cartels that inflict violence and practice routine extortion in many villages. US trade policies make it cheaper to buy US products than those made in Latin America, driving unemployment in places like Guatemala. US political involvement has destabilized countries like Honduras. The list goes on.

The populist nationalist understanding of American exceptionalism thrives on amnesia of our past abuses, sins of commission and omission. #AmericaFirst – ignoring our obligations to other peoples and nations – repeats a shameful history of turning our backs on people fleeing persecution and violence. “America First” is idolatry. It too easily becomes isolation, which does not result in peace and security. Not for us, not for others. Moreover, it is a failure of solidarity, the logical extension of the great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. (There are no non-neighbors as Luke 10:25-37 illustrates; Christians are commanded to love even enemies – see Luke 6:35 – so no exceptions apply.) American Christians are called to a kinship that reaches across borders.

Most American Christians might acknowledge this in theory: that we are all equal in the eyes of God, all brothers and sisters in God’s family. The Mexican and US Catholic Bishops reinforced this message with their 2003 Pastoral Letter, “Strangers No Longer.” Pope Francis illustrated this call to unity in a profound way by celebrating Mass at the US-Mexico border in 2016. In his homily, he reflected on the need to reinforce the bonds of belonging to “one single family and one same Christian community.” If we are to end our failure to bother to love, we must embrace solidarity and join Pope Francis in demanding, “No more death! No more exploitation!” What a powerful image, to see the Body of Christ – united in a spiritual sense – divided not just by the border, but by fear and distrust of those who do not share citizenship with us. Our citizenship is in heaven, Saint Paul reminds us (Phil. 3:20). Our allegiance is first to Christ and the reign of God, not America.

This is not to suggest all American Christians are xenophobic, anti-immigrant, or failing to bother to love. (In fact, one Gallup Poll found that 75% of Americans say immigration is a good thing, but you don’t see that being reported much these days.) However, we need to confront the problems associated with some of those who profess to love the poor and support the Church’s social ministries, including in Latin America. Each year 2 million American Christians go on short term mission trips to countries like Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador, raising and spending $2 billion. It’s laudable that so many Americans go – or support others who go – to places of great need. But these service trips risk becoming an ego trip for social media, a resume-builder, or a guise of the white savior complex, if they are not motivated by a sense of solidarity and respect for the dignity of all. Too often, they are more focused on broadening the horizons of those who go than offering meaningful assistance to those being served. Not only does that paternalistically make the poor pawns in the learning experience of American youth, but it creates a vicious cycle of dependence, a toxic form of charity.

If we really loved the poor, we wouldn’t love them on our terms, for the brief duration of a service trip, or from the safe distance of our homes, schools, and churches. Love requires freedom, which means creating the conditions for the poor to be agents of their own future. That means that we do more than hop on a plane, help out for a while, and then come home. People have a right to migrate and to seek asylum. They are entitled to seek peace, security, and freedom for themselves and their families, to flee persecution, coercion, and other conditions that cause premature death. Would any one of us silently succumb to the poverty that results from unemployment or the fear and violence perpetrated by gangs and cartels? Is there any limit to what we would do for our children to provide them safety and a better future? How can we fault these parents for doing everything in their power to do what we ourselves would also do if we were in their situation?

Even though migration is legally protected (and ardently defended by Pope Francis), Christians still object. They say migrants should follow laws, that immigrants will bring more crime, take away jobs, demand handouts, and change our culture. But we should also consider that not every law is moral. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. raised this concern in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, reminding those who objected to his peaceful protests, boycotts, and other nonviolent public demonstrations that everything Hitler did was perfectly legal. King enjoyed very little support during the Civil Rights movement (including just 13% of black churches), which he often attributed to those who preferred order to justice. But, “justice delayed is justice denied,” he countered. We have a broken immigration system, and while partisan differences persist, Americans overwhelmingly support immigration reform. But Congress has failed to make progress in this area. One thing every one of us can do is to hold our elected officials accountable to a more humane immigration system. Not open borders, but a system that works for those who want to come here to work (many of whom want only to stay a short period of time and return home), to be reunited with family, or to create a new future by contributing to American society. Every church and school should be on board with this effort, in defense of human dignity and the principle of solidarity. Boosting foreign aidnot cutting it, as Trump has promised – could also help improve conditions in Latin America, which would make people less likely to leave for the US border.

It should be pointed out that most immigrants do enter the country legally, per federal data. At the same time, the complex, overloaded process, for legal immigration includes numerous obstacles. Unauthorized immigration should be seen as an act of desperation more than deception. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Imagine the agony a parent experiences at the prospect of either staying to endure violence or risking it on the journey. When journalists interview those who come to our border, they routinely say, “We will be killed if we stay.” Leaving home is their last resort for survival. If the Catechism (no. 2408) teaches that theft is not a sin in a situation of necessity, then we should not be so quick to judge those who believe the only way to survive is to brave a most perilous journey northward.

While it might be easy to condemn parents for not following the rule of law (“But they’re illegal!”) or be indifferent to the crisis at the border (“It’s so far away! What can I do?”), consider also the reasons why they leave their homes and the horrors they endure along the way for the peace, security, and freedom they seek: they risk injury and death, extortion, dehydration, extreme weather conditions, getting separated from their family and sold to traffickers, and for as many as 70% of women and almost as many children, sexual assault. For some, there is no legal path. In light of these realities, perhaps it would be more accurate to treat these families as refugees than migrants.

Anti-immigrant myths lead folks to believe that immigrants steal jobs and commit crimes. They do not. Immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They are much less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. And while they sometimes compete with low-skill workers, they mostly take jobs most Americans don’t want and make many positive contributions to the economy.

But we shouldn’t welcome immigrants because it benefits us. We should welcome them because it is what Christ commands. Matthew 25:31-46 depicts the Final Judgment not based in piety or prayer, but love. The sheep (those who are saved) are just as surprised as the goats (those who are condemned) that they are welcomed into the kingdom of heaven because they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and welcomed the stranger. And if that was the standard even before Jesus offered this instruction to his disciples, then so much so will it be for us who have been warned. This scene represents a fitting test or examination of conscience for whether we are failing to bother to love God, self, and neighbor as Jesus commands.

In our American context, we too often restrict our moral duties to our immediate family members and friends. This stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ teaching in the gospels. While Jesus affirmed the respect owed parents and elders (Matthew 15:4), he also minimized the importance of blood ties by saying, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister, and mother” (Mark 3:35, Matthew 12:50, and Luke 8:21). Going even further, Jesus reminds us that the demands of discipleship supersede family obligations (Mark 10:29-30, Matthew 10:34-37 and 19:29, and Luke 12:51-53 and 18:29-30). He warns, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-26). While this can sound rather harsh to modern ears, it is a prophetic admonition intended to keep family bonds from becoming idolatrous, preventing us from being attentive and responsive to the needs of those we fail to recognize as kin. Jesus expands his followers’ conception of family so that it is no longer defined by blood, but love—a  love that “has no alibi” when it comes to others in need. That doesn’t mean that we love migrant children the same as our own, but it does mean that we are called to make room to love the children whose need is far greater than that of our own.

We need to be honest with ourselves about our failure to bother to love. And we need to get to the bottom of why it’s so hard for us to love people who are so different from us. Maybe it’s because we don’t understand what it’s like for them to be who they are, to face these struggles, and to make choices that might differ from the ones we’d make. But the command to love our neighbor as our self – the Greatest Commandment, as Jesus taught – means that we don’t impose qualifications or differentiate between who is worthy or unworthy. As Thomas Merton wrote, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business, and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”

When we fail to bother to love like this, we sin. It’s not enough to acknowledge that; we have to repent and make amends. We should financially support direct service to those in need along the border and participate in the campaign for hospitality to #sharejourney with migrants and refugees, to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate them into our communities, as Pope Francis has urged. We extend God’s welcome to all because, as Scripture reminds us, we were strangers once. We belong to each other, as members of one single community, God’s family. Each one of us will have to answer for how we used our freedom and the limits of our love, just like the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. Just as God never fails to bother to love us, so we must keep striving to bother to love as much as we can.


The Garden of Cats: On Heroism

“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”  J.R.R. Tolkien

A couple of years ago, I spent several weeks learning everything I could about the war in Syria. I was writing a story set in Aleppo about a Syrian-American doctor who provides medical aid to war victims, and I researched the topic by studying news articles, maps, and timelines about the conflict. As I forced myself to look at pictures and videos of the dead and wounded, I remembered a comment one of my professors made after presenting a conference paper about spousal abuse in the Middle Ages. “Never write about anything,” she wearily advised us, “that it makes you sick to think about.”

I haven’t followed her advice. I’ve written about drug cartels, animal cruelty, murder, and other unpleasant, even painful, subjects. But I can’t say that the full meaning of her words ever struck me the way they did during those weeks of immersing myself in the details of the greatest humanitarian disaster of our time. My fictional characters were always just that, and though their struggles certainly felt real to me as I mapped them out in my imagination, they had never been individuals whose real-life antecedents were drawing breath even as I wrote.

I doubt that anyone could have remained untouched by all that I read and saw: people gasping for breath after chemical attacks, a full-term baby scheduled for a breech delivery killed by sniper fire as his mother walked to the hospital, small children whose hands were blown off by cluster bombs they mistook for toys. I saw parents who refused to relinquish their dead children, a screaming man carrying the body of a headless boy, a couple whose five children were all ripped apart by the same barrel bomb. In June of 2016, pro-Assad warplanes bombed a health center for newborn babies, among other medical facilities in the city of Aleppo. By November, there were no hospitals left.

Studies have demonstrated that people who read literary fiction tend to possess greater empathy, and, as I imagine that goes double for those who write it, my reaction was perhaps unsurprising. Seven thousand miles from Syria, surrounded by my family, in good health and with nothing in the world to complain about, I spent several weeks in an emotional state bordering on a full-scale depression. Then, as a presidential campaign predicated on discrimination toward Muslims in general and refugees in particular unfolded in my own country, my sadness began to turn to anger. As Pope Francis prayed for Syria, François Hollande mourned the “martyred city” of Aleppo, and world leaders like Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau welcomed in the displaced, Donald Trump announced his plan to prevent any Muslim’s immigration to the United States and, as if to add insult to injury, his son posted a tweet comparing Syrian refugees to poisoned candies. I had never been so ashamed of my country.

But amid the almost entirely bad news from Syria and the campaign trail, I unexpectedly began to encounter stories that affected me very differently. Fred Rogers, PBS’s “Mister Rogers,” used to recount how in times of crisis his mother reminded him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I wasn’t looking for such people, but I found them—individuals with stories of incredible heroism and courage even in the face of unimaginable suffering. People like Doctor Firas al-Jundi, one of a few remaining surgeons at the only hospital left in Maarat al-Numan, and Malaika (last name unreported), head nurse at the Aleppo Children’s Hospital. Without enough medicine and with water too dirty to perform surgeries, Dr. al-Jundi stayed on, providing what medical assistance he could. When a reporter asked the doctor why he didn’t leave Syria, he replied, “If I did that I would abandon my conscience…Who would treat the people? I am prepared to die rather than to leave.” Malaika, whose family fled without her, slept at the hospital after an airstrike destroyed her home. She continued working, even as she underwent multiple surgeries to remove shrapnel from her own wounds. When asked why she stayed, Malaika—whose name means “angel” in Arabic—responded, “The children… If we leave these children, who will be here to help them?”

Mohammad Alaa al-Jaleel, an engineer from Aleppo who began driving an ambulance during the war, found himself caring for several cats who’d been abandoned by their fleeing owners. Over time their number grew to several hundred, and, with the help of an Italian liaison foundation, Alaa built a cat sanctuary that doubled as a playground for the besieged city’s children. I’ve watched videos of him, surrounded by cats and children in his Garden. “Someone who has mercy in their heart for people,” he says in one, “has mercy for every living thing.”

I write about these people in the past tense because I don’t know whether or not they’re still alive. In the hope that they are, I pray for them among my more general prayers. It gives me solace to say their names aloud—names that won’t appear in history books like Bashar al-Assad’s and Vladimir Putin’s, and that may never be spoken again once this generation dies out. These people and countless others like them remind me that no act is without meaning and no living creature too insignificant to merit kindness. They show that ordinary people can be extraordinarily good and noble, and that the Arabic proverb Lesa el donia bkhair—”Still, the world is good”—is true after all.

April Vázquez is the winner of the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and a Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Orison Anthology award nominee. Her favorite line from a novel is “Jane had occasionally tried to develop her own hidden depths, but she never could decide what to hide or how far down.”


Romero Remains Relevant

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All day, every day, I hang out with about 55 Salvadoran teenagers. I’m a teacher, and I work with immigrant students in a neighborhood full of pupuserias and cumbia. Inside the walls of our bright, beautiful schools, the kids make it clear—they miss El Salvador. Their families aren’t clinging to Salvadoran culture because they want to change the US, but rather because they didn’t want to leave their homes at all. The journeys across the deserts and rivers of Central America and Mexico were not to come benefit from some mythical American dream, but quite literally to save their lives and the lives of their children.

The Death Squads of the Civil War have become history, but the violence continues. After the Salvadoran Civil War, the US had one major export to El Salvador: the gang culture of Los Angeles, which filled much of the power vacuum in the wake of the Civil War. In the San Diego International Law Review, Juan Fogelbach wrote about the risk factors that lead Salvadoran youth to the gangs: neglect, violence, poverty, lack of opportunity, and a family relationship to gangs. When seeking a solution to these problems, few options are offered to the poor of Central America.

In El Salvador, a handful of elite oligarchs continue to disenfranchise the rest of the nation. Even as mining revenue grows the country’s GDP, most families continue to live in abject poverty. Archbishop Óscar Romero, soon to be a saint, saw the same forces at work some forty years ago. He recognized that taking on the cause of the poor is dangerous, for individuals and for the Church. But without taking that danger upon ourselves, we cannot fully live Christ’s greatest commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

In the month before he died, Romero traveled to Europe, where he accepted an honorary document at Louvain and implored St. John Paul II against supporting the government in El Salvador. When speaking at Louvain, Romero said, “Once again it is the poor who enable us to understand what has really happened. That is why the Church has understood the persecution from the perspective of the poor. Persecution has been occasioned by the defense of the poor. It amounts to nothing other than the Church’s taking upon herself the lot of the poor.” Romero must continue to be our model for taking on the passion of the poor and accepting our own persecution for the defense of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Salvadoran community in the US continues to experience persecution. Our government has stripped them of protection, and our immigration laws put families trying to escape violence in danger of deportation that is more like a death sentence. Can we put ourselves and our Church on the line to protect them the way Romero did?

Romero doesn’t only matter in the face of violence and injustice. He is also relevant to a Church battered and divided by politics. Especially in the US, it can be so easy for us to align ourselves with a party and to assert that a “real Catholic” votes a certain way. It isn’t so easy or simple. Romero’s only partisanship was to justice, to truth, to holiness. He didn’t broadcast the names of the missing and killed because he was a Marxist member of the Liberation Front. No, he preached against repression and murder because he believed in the unalienable dignity of the human person. The only label he wanted for the Church was one of unity and Incarnation.

In a homily given on November 11, 1979, less than six months before his assassination, Romero said: “We are not being political when during the homily we point out political, social and economic sins. Rather this action is the result of the Word of God becoming incarnated in our reality which often does not reflect the Word of God but rather the reign of sin. Therefore, the Word of God points out to people the paths of redemption.”

Santo subito.

Brigid Hogan is a teacher, writer, and reader who lives in Northeast DC


Why Do People Enjoy Films?

Why do people enjoy films? What is it about the cinema that we find so captivating? What draws us to sit in a dark room with strangers or alone on our living room sofas and stare at a screen for hours—sometimes experiencing a story we’ve visited many times before? From the first public film in 1895 to the thousands of films per year produced in 2017, audiences show up time and time again to watch light dance across a screen and tell someone else’s tale. Why? It can be argued that, initially, the human fascination with cinema stemmed from a sense of wonder at the possibility of harnessing and projecting moving images in the first place. It may not have mattered what was on the screen, for the very fact that a moving image was, in fact, on the screen garnered interest and allure. A century after film’s origination, this reasoning cannot explain why film is an 88-billion-dollar industry. While there are certainly still people who regard the ability to harness, manipulate, and project light an amazing feat, the vast majority of film-viewers must be drawn to the medium for alternate reasons. I suggest that the human captivation with cinema exists not because of what film is—controlled shadows and light—but because of what film does—sacramentalize existential human experiences.

I, myself, am intrigued and repeatedly fascinated by film’s ability to sacramentalize human experience. Having dabbled in the field of film production for several years, I appreciate the artform and understand the unique combination of creative instinct and technical skill required to produce a film. However, having more thoroughly immersed myself in the field of theological study, I am continuously intrigued by the myriad ways that these two areas of study illuminate each other. In doing theology, I often study God by studying God’s creation—creation that includes the wondrously multifaceted being referred to as “human.” While the human is just one being among many interconnected and mutually dependent creations, I have found a focus on the human (albeit not exclusively) to be beneficial to understanding how God works in the world. Viewing films with a framework of theological anthropology allows any film that captures human experience and shares it on screen to also provide a window through which one views the divine. It is this opportunity to witness film’s sacramentalizing effect on human experience that repeatedly draws me to the cinema. It is this invitation to experience humanity from different perspectives that encourages me to watch and re-watch my favorite films. It is this convergence of storytelling, life-experiencing, and meaning-making that captivates me, as a theologian, and insists that I participate in the ongoing love that humanity has for the cinema.

For the theology scholar, film offers “a compelling alternative route to religious experience at a time when we desperately seem to need it, with film functioning either as proxy for religion (Lyden, Plate) or a means of enhancing or perhaps even revealing existing faith (Sison, Nayar)” (Joseph Kickasola, John C. Lyden, S. Brent Plate, Antonio Sison, Sheila J. Nayar, Stefanie Knauss, Rachel Wagner and Jolyon Baraka Thomas, “Facing Forward, Looking Back: Religion and Film Studies in the Last Decade,” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 17: Iss. 1, Article 32: 53). Storytelling, life-experiencing, and meaning-making are all things that can be achieved through a written narrative, as well. But, there is something different, and I argue advantageous, about participating in this process via film. Using film in theology allows one to explore major theological themes in a contemporary climate, reminds one that theology has an unavoidable and important public dimension, and enables one to awaken the emotional and aesthetic aspects of faith that are often left unstimulated when reading text on a page: “Precisely because film as a medium works through the creation of an emotional response first and foremost, as a reaction to the visual image presented, film invites theological reflection to begin through an emotional channel” (Clive Marsh, “Film and Theologies of Culture” in Explorations in Theology and Film, 32-33). Viewers experience the material sensually and then think about it, instead of encountering the material intellectually and then being asked to apply it to lived experience. The primacy of sensory experience allowed by incorporating film into the study of theology provides a new way with which to engage theological material that is beneficial to the rigorous theology scholar and the non-scholar, alike.

Film’s power of visual imagery results in great influence over modern society. People are often likely to have more vivid memories of something they see and hear than something they read. Because of this, film’s influences naturally persist outside of the theater complex: “Film has stepped down from the screen to infiltrate political, social and religious lives. The argument here is that religion and film leave the temples and theatres, synagogues and living rooms, and meet in the streets, stairways, parking lots, weddings, funerals, cities and deserts of the US” (S. Brent Plate, Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World, 79). People do not leave their filmic encounter at the door of the cinema. Once experienced, it unavoidably informs their lived experiences from that point forward. In a sense, our film viewing experience is nothing short of sacramental.

Stephanie Clary serves as the Manager of Mission Outreach and Communication for the Diocese of Burlington and the Assistant Editor of Vermont Catholic.