New Wineskins

A Measure of Compassion

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1995
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A Ritual Recovered

O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, which teems with things innumerable, living things both great and small. -PSALM 104:24-25

I'd heard about the incident days before. Interested, but busy with the usual list of daily tasks for urban living, I thought little of it until

an evening telephone call. It was from a friend who works with an Indian tribe in Washington, a few hours north from the university neighborhood where my family and I have lived for the last 10 years. He had witnessed the event, offering further details. It's come to haunt me with lingering images of tragedy, compassion, and mystery.

In late February, during a week of intermittent rains, a 30-foot minke whale became stranded on the shores of Lummi Island, 90 miles north of Seattle. The media made minimal notice of the event, probably because the island is an isolated, beautiful, protected geography inside the jurisdiction of an American Indian reservation, mostly ignored by outsiders.

The situation immediately drew the attention, however, of the National Marine Fisheries, the federal agency whose job it is to protect marine mammals under provisions of the Endangered Species Act. A designated law enforcement officer soon arrived and discovered there were already dozens of Indian people present from the nearby reservation, many of them in the shifting tides near the whale trying to move it back into deeper water.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1995
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The Uneasy Prompting of History

I began this piece on the 50th anniversary of D-day-June 6, 1994. During the commemoration of the Allied invasion of Europe, I was moved by the remembrances of the soldiers and astonished by the magnitude of their undertaking and their loss.

Then as now, just days after the 50th anniversary of Hitler's surrender, I have conflicting emotions. One difficulty is this: Is affirming the courage and sacrifice of those who fought the same as affirming the war?

I understand, at least intellectually, that Jesus calls us to love our enemies and not kill them. I also feel strongly that it is neither appropriate nor loving to denigrate those who fought and died.

Remembering war is a slippery business, though. Words like valor and heroism are on my lips and at the tip of my pen. I don't ordinarily use those words. The emotion of what I see, hear, and read pulls me closer to the violence; it is a seductive tug and I can't readily identify what is happening, I only know that it is happening.

One never knows, but I can imagine that, had I been alive at the time, I would have rejoiced in the "liberation of Europe" and hailed the defeat of Nazi Germany. It is not difficult for me to imagine that I could justify violence in the face of Hitler. Yet I am aware that an important struggle is taking place within me during these days of reflection, and I know that the stakes are high.

IN THE MIDST of the journey from D-Day to V-E Day, I have been thinking about a visit I made to Dachau, a German death camp located just outside of Munich. I was 20 years old at the time, not so many years ago.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1995
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A Lesson in Listening

"A group of women who have had abortions will be meeting" read the sign on the women's room wall. Immediately I knew I wanted to go. But why? I had never had an abortion. Just seven months earlier I had lost a child to miscarriage. What was drawing me there?

The sign went on: "We are a group of women who, having shared this experience, have come together to support and heal ourselves and each other."

"This experience." Did I share it?

"We are beginning to heal through sharing our different experiences and realizing our common feelings and struggles through our conflict about having had abortions."

Would we have some common feelings about what we'd gone through? Certainly we would have differences in both our experiences and our feelings.

"Women who have had abortions are invited to come and share, ask questions, or just listen. All discussion and attendance are confidential."

Did I have a right to be there? Would I be infringing upon their privacy? Why do I really want to go? Wasn't I through processing my loss? I'm pregnant again; what will they think of that?

I went.

I WAS VERY NERVOUS as I walked into that first meeting. I am one of a team of campus ministers and thought about offering my "services" to them in this role. I knew though that this was not appropriate. They hadn't asked for my services, and inside I knew that I would be using my role as a buffer. Something to put between me and them. No, I needed to go on my own. I needed to be as vulnerable as they were.

No one said much at first. It wasn't clear who was leading the group or what would happen. There were seven or eight of us there. At some point one of the members who had, I later found out, founded the group the year before, suggested we go around, tell our names, and say a bit about why we were there.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1995
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A Proud Welfare Queen

I am a welfare queen. There, I've said it. It is really hard to admit it publicly, especially now that we (did I say we?) are being assigned primary responsibility for adding zeros onto the national debt. But it's true. Now wait, before you dial up the "turn-in-a-welfare-queen hotline," give me a chance

to defend myself. It snuck up on me, honest.

See, up until recently I've never owned my own four walls and a roof. Like most other welfare queens (irony is, in those days I was not a we), I just wrote out a monthly check to my landlord and that was it. I never saw the money again once it went down that dark hole.

Then last year I bought a home. So now, instead of sending a check to a schmuck who lives out in the suburbs and works at a bank, I send a check to a schmuck who works at a bank and lives out in the suburbs. Not that earth-shattering a change, really. Or so I thought.

But my world began to crumble last week when I got this official-looking letter in the mail informing me that I was now eligible for a new program. The message was terse: "Congratulations. You are now living in subsidized housing."

It turns out that every single penny that I had sent that schmuck in the bank was going to be subtracted from my taxable earnings. In short, I was in line for a balloon payment from Uncle Sam. Sure, they gussied up the language with technical terms like "mortgage interest" and "income deductions," but I knew. It was nothing but...[gulp]...public assistance.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1995
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When Community Comes Apart

"And so the disciples returned to their own homes..." —John 20:10

Scent of cedar smoke and candle wax, a whiff of sage. All the years' struggles, hopes, and dreams gathered into a smell in the back of my mind, settling in among other images of our community's life together, now gone.

With fits and starts, faith and fear, laughter and confusion, we walked the path of Christian community together for five years, calling ourselves "Galilee Circle." Each former member has their own way to describe what happened: movement of the Spirit; the cycle of birth, death, rebirth; "murder"; cutting off artificial life-support systems; running out of gas. What God had brought together had now come asunder, and few guideposts lead the stumbling journey from this desolate outpost.

How do faithful followers of Jesus continue when a once-vibrant community experience comes to a grinding halt? We hadn't a clue. We promised ourselves we'd have a grand closing ritual, inviting all the friends and associates of our actions over the years to ritualize our ending. It hasn't happened. After hundreds of gatherings for Bible study, action planning, seasonal rituals, and potlucks, we haven't been able to do a single blessed thing together.

My own feelings have run the predictable gamut: anger, frustration, relief, freedom, sorrow, confusion, in no particular order. Remaining is an empty gnawing at the pit of my stomach, a terrible yearning for a new start, a call from Above to come together, to renew the discipleship adventure, to return once more to Galilee with a Word from a corpseless tomb.

But no call has come, or at least not been heard. Like a recent divorcee who believes in marriage but lacks a suitable partner, I wander through my days, missing a piece of myself. My God, why did you abandon us? Or did we abandon you? Or? The options seem endless, and without possible resolution. Onward we trod, every man and woman for themselves.

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Sojourners Magazine November 1994
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The Long Shadow of El Mozote

It’s necessary for the people of North America to understand the reality that we live in El Salvador, because in some places it is known but not believed. When I hid as they were looking to kill me, I told God that if I escaped I would tell the story of our people. I took on this commitment before God for my whole life and I think it was accepted.

I feel very emotional because I’ve seen a change in the mentality of the United States toward helping El Salvador. During the years that so much military assistance came, many children also died of hunger. But now we expect help to reconstruct our country for the future of our children who are still alive. After such suffering it is necessary that we live in peace.

I give thanks that my words are heard—a campesina who has lived a life of such exploitation. Previously I didn’t even want to converse. I was a very sad woman and very afraid. Now I reflect about how God has transformed me. I couldn’t even tell you about it without the help of God.

In El Mozote, we were very simple, humble people who were into development. It was a beautiful place, populated on all sides with dwellings. It had coffee, sugar cane, and pineapples, and wood on the outskirts. We worked in the fields. It was quite lovely there, because if you wanted to eat a pineapple, you just ate one. There were days when one would have lunch eating a piece of sugarcane—I’d have all my children there eating cane too. We were very happy.

Now there is no sign of all that. They destroyed everything. This is the impossibility that the exiles feel. How can we ever go back to our place of origin if we don’t have anything there? We would have to plant again, and the energy to do that has been lost. The most difficult thing is that the people know the government does not protect or help us in difficult moments.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1994
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Pastoring Those Excluded by the Pope

Never have I written on a more difficult subject than the pope’s recent letter on women’s ordination in the Catholic Church. As the product of an Irish-Catholic family, the church I share with John Paul II is my roots, my home, my tradition. In addition I have had the joy of being a member of the Franciscan order for more than 40 years. In the ceremony of admission to that religious institute, we pledge obedience to the rule of life set out by St. Francis himself, part of which prescribes obedience to the pope.

Over the several decades of my life as a priest, I have had occasion to glory in some wonderful expressions of Catholicism. For example, I was a direct beneficiary of the Latin American church’s conversion moment at Medellin, Colombia, in 1968. There our bishops spoke of the "institutionalized sin" that afflicted and oppressed the majority of our people, and they called the whole church to a preferential option for the poor.

Working for the most part as a pastor since my ordination, I have consistently endeavored to help people encounter the Lord Jesus in and through, despite and beyond, the necessary rules and regulations of our worldwide body. This has sometimes proven most difficult, but I believe I can say honestly that I have remained faithful to that ideal.

It is this pastoral preoccupation that makes the present moment in Catholicism so difficult. In the face of Pope John Paul’s letter forbidding women’s ordination in our church, we are left with pastoral concerns that seem overwhelming.

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Sojourners Magazine August 1994
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In Jail, Keeping Watch

John Dear, S.J., Philip Berrigan, Lynn Fredriksson, and Bruce Friedrich are currently being held in the Chowan County Jail in Edenton, North Carolina, for their Pax Christi-Spirit of Life Plowshares action in December 1993. They were convicted in four separate court appearances in mid-April, one of which involved a jury taking just six minutes to return a guilty verdict. They are to be sentenced on July 5.

John’s hand-written article arrived in our office with a note of explanation. Apologizing first for writing in pencil (they are only allowed to write with 1 1/2-inch pencil stubs), he went on to say that the judge in their case had issued an order prohibiting them from mentioning 13 items in their trials, including the U.S. government, military, or foreign policy, war, nuclear weapons, God, religious principles, international law, and Nuremberg principles. On the other hand, John wrote, their chief jailer has become a friend, and he has ordered and is reading their books. —The Editors

Each morning here in jail, my friends and I begin our day by opening the Bible. We read a passage from Mark’s gospel and then spend hours discussing and applying it to these violent times.

The Jesus we encounter in our Bible study sessions summons us to prayer, faith, and nonviolent resistance: "Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid" (Mark 6:50). Deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me (8:34). "Everything is possible to one who has faith" (9:23). "Have faith in God" (11:22). And in Gethsemane, "Remain here and keep watch....Watch and pray" (14:34, 38).

Watch and pray! What better place to keep watch and pray in a time of war and nuclear weapons than here in this North Carolina jail? In its essence, prayer is a request for a deepening of faith. Faith in God requires nonviolent resistance to the oppressive, war-making state. Prayer, faith, and resistance are the essential ingredients of Christian discipleship.

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Sojourners Magazine July 1994
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Finding the Future in El Salvador

Thirty years after Mississippi Freedom Summer, 3,000 international observers return from El Salvador’s postwar "democratic elections." Thirty years after voter registration workers Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were killed in our country, we are again called to stand with people long insulted by a history of "democratic" mirages as they dare to build free and fair processes. North Americans in solidarity with these struggles must look beyond a "sitcom" approach to history and reject the temptation to see them as separate episodes without past or future.

Two days after the Salvadoran elections, The New York Times declared "victory" for ARENA, the well-established party tied to death squads. "The left," they stated, "is given scant hope." Most of us who were observers, who watched 10 hours of voter lines creep along more slowly than our sweat, were resigned to accept their verdict. Mourning the popular movement’s loss, we trudged into the Center for International Solidarity.

"Whatever we win is victory, no matter what it is," declared Mercedes Peña, an FMLN representative. "Before we had no FMLN mayors or deputies. Now we have 20 in the legislative assembly."

Other speakers emphasized that to move in 16 years from being a persecuted social movement running from gunfire in the hills to participation in elections is a great success. Pro-claimed one, "The task ahead is to celebrate what we’ve won."

Celebration does not mean rest. Salvadorans are careful to distinguish between trusting their power together and trusting the electoral process. The United Nations estimates that 25,000 registered voters were not allowed to vote at sites and 300,000 eligible voters were denied voting cards. Like our history of poll taxes and literacy tests, the Salvadoran voting process continues disproportionately to exclude the poor.

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Sojourners Magazine June 1994
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