Taking Action

Prisoners With No Crime

Thousands and thousands of Third World refugees are languishing behind bars in the land of the free. They're not criminals. They're "detainees," impoverished and desperate people who entered the United States without the proper credentials. Most have been held for months; some for years. Many are seeking asylum from political persecution in their countries; some now just want to go home. All have to wait until U.S. immigration authorities determine their fate.

Some, however, have had their "sentences" shortened, thanks to the Catholic Legal Immigration Network and its team of attorneys who know their way around the detention centers, federal courtrooms, and what was formerly the INS bureaucracy.

"CLINIC" can point with pride to scores of success stories. In the past year the agency interceded on behalf of immigrants from Somalia to Lebanon, from Iraq to Haiti, Brazil, and beyond.

Take the case of two young Haitian men who fled to Florida in a rickety boat to escape political persecution. One had been imprisoned and beaten severely for speaking out against abuses by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's government. The other had witnessed the assassination of an uncle, who was an opposition leader. CLINIC lawyers presented their appeals for asylum and the two were freed after four months of detention.

"We've had a lot of success," said Kathleen Sullivan, CLINIC's director of detention projects in Boston. It demonstrates that justice is served "when people who are indigent have competent, hardworking representation."

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2003
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Treating Systems, Not Symptoms

The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. —Isaiah 41:17

Every Honduran in the capital city of Tegucigalpa and its surrounding communities pays at least $1.50 each month for a city water connection. But those living in the wealthy areas of the city receive water for up to 10 hours each day, while those living in the very poor communities of Nueva Suyapa and Villanueva only receive water once every 30 days. The residents of Villanueva may spend $26 each month, up to 20 percent of their already inadequate incomes, to buy often-contaminated water from a truck and carry it home. Yet there is hope.

In February 1998, a group of Honduran and U.S. Christians with many years of experience in community development in Honduras formed the Association for a More Just Society (AJS). They had seen that while most development organizations and government agencies focus on meeting immediate needs, these aid efforts often failed because many policies, laws, and unethical businesses don't respect the needs and rights of the poor. AJS knew that real justice in Honduras required work at the macro-level of government policy and legal matters.

In Nueva Suyapa AJS began locally, researching water issues and educating the residents. The community elected a new water board, repairs were made, and distribution was increased to a few hours once every 15 days. Then AJS turned to injustices of the broader system, organizing a delegation representing various segments of the community that went directly to the national water company, SANAA, to present a petition. After a year of negotiations, the national company has agreed to nearly all the proposals made by the community and AJS, including pumping more water to the area, improving the distribution network, and assigning a water engineer locally.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2003
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Tennesseans Moving Mountains

The Bush administration has launched an attack on laws and regulations protecting the environment that has most environmental watchdogs on the defensive. One grassroots organization in Tennessee, true to its nature, is anything but.

While administration policy has been especially kind to the coal industry, Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) is fighting back. Recently, members of the group requested a public hearing with the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM) to voice their concerns about a proposed 2,139-acre strip mine in Elk Valley, Tennessee. If approved, this would be the largest strip mine ever opened in Tennessee.

SOCM members are concerned because the proposed mine is within a half mile of the local elementary school and about 75 homes. Besides safety issues related to blasting, SOCM is concerned over the mine's potential to contaminate wells, cause landslides and flooding, and create hazardous driving conditions along haul roads. In addition, the mine threatens the federally protected Cumberland blackside dace fish downstream from the blasting zone. The project is now on hold until an environmental impact study is completed.

SOCM has been working on issues of environmental, social, and economic justice since 1972. Such longevity is rare among grassroots citizens groups.

In 2000, the organization succeeded in saving the Fall Creek Falls watershed from the potentially devastating effects of strip mining. Group members fought for the preservation of the watershed for 25 years. Perseverance paid off, and the watershed was the largest area ever declared unsuitable for mining by the OSM.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2003
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Veggies for Jesus

It's a partnership that reads like a parable: Invest some talents around springtime, trust the farmer to sow good seed, then bring home the harvest all summer long. Inspired by the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement, churches across the country are replacing the "c" with "congregation," preaching food-system justice and creation care, providing a market for local family farms, and leaving the sanctuary on Sunday mornings with a week's worth of veggies.

Teresa Oliver farms near the Flint Hills in Burlingame, Kansas, and drives to Grace Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Topeka every week. She arranges the bounty of Prairie Rose Farm buffet-style, along with canned goods, fresh bread, and homemade soap. Twenty-five church and community members pay $12 a week to fill their bags. A weekly newsletter describes the day the cow got out or offers a recipe for rhubarb pie. In the fall everyone's invited for a potluck and farm tour.

Margaret Pennings and Dan Guenthner grow 55 different vegetables, fruits, and herbs on the bluffs overlooking the Saint Croix river near Osceola, Wisconsin. A 14-year-old CSA that began with friends at Grace University Lutheran Church has expanded to 220 shares distributed weekly to 11 drop-off sites in the driveways of members' homes. Common Harvest Farm's 40 acres were purchased by the CSA as a conservation easement, and when Margaret and Dan invested to diversify the farm, some members paid up-front for seven years of $450 shares. "Imagine them trusting us for that long!" says Margaret. "When we despair about the world, we look to our members."

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2003
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Straddling the Border

BorderLinks, a binational organization educating people about the realities of the U.S.-Mexico border, has always been good at getting personal without thinking small. More than a thousand people from the United States participate in its educational delegations each year, and almost all stay overnight and break bread with families in the colonias (poor neighborhoods) of Nogales, in the state of Sonora, Mexico.

"What distinguishes BorderLinks is that it's very relationship-based," says staff member Heather Craigie. That commitment has stayed constant during the past 15 years, as the group has become a vibrant combination of community center, think tank, conference catalyst, micro-enterprise innovator, and educational tourism bureau.

Born in the late 1980s as part of the sanctuary movement, BorderLinks initially brought delegations to the U.S. border to experience the realities faced by refugees from U.S.-supported conflicts in Central America. Today, the group focuses on globalization's impact. NAFTA-induced changes in farm policy are driving many former campesinos to U.S. service jobs or low-paid urban labor pools for Mexican maquilas (foreign-owned export factories), and communities face health problems, massive poverty, crime, and environmental devastation.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2003
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With 'Friends' Like These

Women's Re-entry Network in Cleveland is like many nonprofits—it is financially pinched and has a big-hearted but overworked staff that struggles to meet the needs of its clients. Founded in 1994 and sponsored by Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, WREN provides a web of services—psychological counseling, case management, legal assistance, GED preparation, job coaching, and more—to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their families. The women are usually poor, drug addicted, undereducated, and the victims of lifelong domestic and sexual abuse. Foundations have been generous, but the dollars are never quite enough.

Fortunately, WREN has creative allies. Three Catholic sisters have formed a support organization called Friends of WREN, which has drawn more than 50 regular volunteers to bolster WREN's efforts on behalf of incarcerated women. Friends of WREN functions like a bionic body- suit for the nonprofit: It fits itself neatly around the nonprofit's mission and adds dozens of eyes, arms, and legs to work on needs that WREN itself lacks the time, staff, and resources to address.

Several years ago a chaplain doing outreach work with prisoners invited Beverly Anne LoGrasso to experience what it was like behind the clanging bars of Cleveland's county jail. Once inside the jail, LoGrasso—social justice coordinator for the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland—paused to sit with one of the female inmates. "I was hooked," LoGrasso recalls. "She was so lonely and desperate. I thought that if these women needed someone to sit, talk, and pray with them, I could do that."

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2003
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Theater of the Soul

In the spring of 2000, a sold-out crowd of volunteers and union organizers, parents and students, hourly wage earners and salaried policy wonks, mohawks and buzz cuts, Latino and black, white and Asian, Christian and Jew packed a small auditorium in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood for the first official show of Washington, D.C.-based arts organization Sol & Soul. The show, titled ¡Ya!, began with the backstage sounds of shaking spray paint cans and drumming. Suddenly, a half dozen breakdancers took center stage as graffiti artists decorated the sets and musicians drummed in the background.

Within the first two minutes the audience members were on their feet, responding to the unexpected collaboration of visual art, sound, and movement. Or to seeing "street art" on the stage. Or to the adrenaline rush from the first appearance of Spoken Resistance, the youth and young adult performance group of Sol & Soul.

Sol & Soul has kept its fans and audience members on their toes—both through the challenge of its social justice mission and the fact that most shows are standing room only—for the past three years. The programs sponsored by Sol & Soul (usually pronounced and sometimes written with the "and" in Spanish: Sol y Soul) include Spoken Resistance; the solo work of the organization's artistic director, Quique Aviles; artistic residencies and performances by visiting artists; free creativity and art workshops for the community; and El Barrio Street Theater, Washington, D.C.'s only street theater project.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2002
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A People's School

In a recent Sunday at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, prayers of mourning were offered for a group of Mexicans—including a 2-and-a-half-year-old child—who had died the previous week trying to reach the U.S. border. Volunteers were solicited for "Samaritan patrols" in the desert, where temperatures had reached well over 100 degrees, to carry water and transport refugees to safety. Almost two decades after leaders in the sanctuary movement were arrested and put on trial for similar actions, the "conspiracy of compassion" continues.

Tucson—with its proximity to the Mexican border, its indigenous cultures and desert spirituality, its long history of labor and environmental struggles—provides a unique space in which to take a stand to live out the Word of God. It is an appropriate next stop for a moveable feast known as "Word and World," a new educational venture based on the belief that rich theological and social reflection arises when the Word of God and the realities of the world come into dialogue in a local context.

THE FIRST WORD and World school was convened in April in Greensboro, North Carolina, a perfect place to launch this radical discipleship endeavor that involved participants from all over the United States and five other nations. Visits were made to the downtown Woolworth's, where the first lunch-counter sit-in sparked the student movement of the civil rights era; and to the site of the 1979 massacre of labor marchers by Klan and Nazi members—sacred spaces where we paused to pray and remember. Participants and witnesses to these events—and to ongoing struggles around labor and race issues—were our teachers, inviting us every morning into their powerful stories.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2002
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Round, Round, I Get Around

‘Every once in a while, a truly brilliant idea comes along: the wheel, Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Cannoli...you get the idea." So say Tom and Ray of NPR's "Car Talk" radio program about the Good News Garages in Vermont and Massachusetts. Following the example of the folks in New England, people in Charleston, West Virginia, have established their own Good News Mountaineer Garage.

The agenda is simple. They fix cars and give them away. As Tom and Ray joke: "Not a good business plan!" Unless one is in the business of helping move folks from welfare to work.

"People want to help others—I believe it is a part of our basic nature," said the program's executive director, Barbara Bayes, who grew up in an impoverished area of eastern Kentucky, "and this program addresses the most difficult barrier for poor people in rural areas" in their efforts to break their cycle of poverty.

"In West Virginia, one out of four low-income people listed lack of transportation as the main problem in maintaining employment or getting to job training," said Bayes, citing the West Virginia Research Task Force on Welfare Reform. It was to deal with that problem that the Good News Mountaineer Garage was developed by the West Virginia Council of Churches, the state Department of Health and Human Resources, the Bureau of Family and Children, and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

The garage, which was founded in 1999, serves Kanawha and Lincoln counties. Lincoln county has no public transportation. Kanawha, which includes the state capital of Charleston, has a limited amount.

People living along the public transportation routes are less likely to receive a car from the program, because the group's leaders don't want to discourage the use of public transportation.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2002
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The Church of Mary Magdalene

When one thinks about homelessness, it's unlikely that the terms "network" or "mentoring" come to mind. To women who are homeless, though, banding together and creating communities is a matter of instinct and survival. They "network" on a daily basis.

The Church of Mary Magdalene has been a community of support for homeless women in downtown Seattle since 1991. Founded by Presbyterian minister and social worker Jean Kim, the ecumenical church began as a cluster of women who needed a safe and nurturing environment to explore their spirituality. Now the church is community to 850 women, providing not only a weekly worship service but a gathering place—a living room of sorts—for women to connect with one another and muster strength for the next day.

Weekdays, the church serves as a day shelter called Mary's Place. Here, amidst the cozy couches and overstuffed chairs that encircle the basement room, women have access to meals, laundry and shower facilities, community services, and learning opportunities. Several times a week, area volunteers lead workshops. Topics vary wildly. Women can learn tae bo in the morning and the ins and outs of transitional housing applications in the afternoon one day; on another the focus might be journal writing and drug treatment.

The activities and the quiet atmosphere of Mary's Place sets it apart from other day shelters, according to Sephora, a soft-spoken woman with slicked-back hair and expressive eyes, who carefully brushes shimmery pink polish on long fingernails. "This is a place of peace for us," she says. "Women in general need to take time out for ourselves, to relax and fill back up before we go out into the world again."

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2002
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