Activism

'Unless Somebody Steps in to Help...'

Illustration by M.P. Wiggins

TO ENTER la fortaleza where Jhonny Rivas was being held prisoner, I had to hand over my passport and undergo a thorough search, which included squatting naked on top of a mirror laid on the floor. I wanted to turn around indignantly and go home. Instead I faced the two female guards, girls really, one with braces, the other with the acne of a teenager. Por favor, I appealed. They exchanged an unsure glance, no doubt worried about el capitán strutting outside, then gestured for me to put my clothes back on. At the door, I embraced them.

Blessed are those who don’t follow unrighteous rules, for they shall be hugged.

I confess that I often practice my own beatitudes lite. It’s where I often want to stop, at the easier, feel-good variety of activism. But the beatitudes are as morally rigorous as those daunting Ten Commandments, albeit working through positive reinforcement—blessings rather than “thou shalt nots.” If you truly embrace them, they keep pulling you further and further out of the comfort zone of the self that always wants to stop at having done its part.

Which is why I had come reluctantly to visit a Haitian prisoner, whom I had never met. Why at every inconvenient step, I wanted to turn back.

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July 2015
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A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Faith in Ferguson

Leah Gunning Francis

Leah Gunning Francis

Young people ignited by injustice, refusing to back down. A nation waking up to the reality of racial disparities. And a church that can no longer remain silent. This, says Eden Theological Seminary professor Leah Francis Gunning, is the real “Ferguson Effect.” As she protested in Ferguson over the past year, Gunning collected interviews from clergy and young organizers. The result is Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership & Awakening Community (Chalice Press, 2015), a behind-the-scenes look at the role of the church in the Black Lives Matter movement. Sojourners interviewed Francis to learn more about the religious community’s role in supporting and sustaining a racial justice movement started by young activists.

Rainbows Over Dublin and the Arc of Bono’s Activism

Bono on the #U21e tour in Arizona on May 23, by aliza sherman on Flickr.com

Bono on the #U21e tour in Arizona on May 23, by aliza sherman on Flickr.com

When Ireland became the first country to legalize same-gender marriage by popular mandate, double rainbows appeared over Dublin, and an Irish rock band transformed their Arizona concert into a gay-rights celebration. Almost 30 years ago, Bono endured threats from angry Arizonans for his support of the U.S. national holiday for the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But on Saturday, Bono invoked King as peacemaker as U2 celebrated the victory of love, turning the song “Pride (In The Name of Love)” into an anthem for gay pride.

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Bono shared, “This is a moment to thank the people who bring us peace. It’s a moment for us to thank the people who brought peace to our country. We have peace in Ireland today! And in fact on this very day we have true equality in Ireland. Because millions turned up to vote yesterday to say, ‘love is the highest law in the land! Love! The biggest turnout in the history of the state, to say, ‘love is the highest law in the land!’ Because if God loves us, whoever we love, wherever we come from … then why can’t the state?’”

Divest from Fossil Fuels: Money Talks

LAST SPRING, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an architect of the South African freedom movement, called for “an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet.” Tutu—along with millions of people of faith and conscience—understands not only that it is morally right to address climate change, but that money talks. “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change,” said Tutu.

The fossil-fuel divestment movement has its roots in grassroots mobilizing, churches, local governments, and student campaigns. The movement has grown exponentially in the U.S. since Maine’s Unity College became the first campus to divest (in 2012) and the United Church of Christ became the first denomination to formally divest (in 2013). Today, divestment from fossil fuels is gaining momentum, with increasing numbers of asset owners committing to moving their money.

In fact, this campaign has grown faster than any other previous divestment movements, including those against apartheid in South Africa and tobacco. A number of factors indicate that we are at a tipping point. Here are four: 1) last year was the hottest year on record, 2) expenses related to climate change are skyrocketing, 3) significant financial risks are now associated with fossil-fuel investments and the divestment movement is growing, 4) and the economics of renewable energy products is improving, so investments in these products is growing.

Despite unmistakable signs that climate change is spiraling out of control—from unprecedented droughts to sea-level rises—20 years of global negotiations have not slowed the emissions of heat-trapping gasses. A new, effective lever of change is clearly needed.

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Excerpt: Something Transcendent

Rosemarie Freeney Harding describes the reaction of her friend—Albany, Georgia-based civil rights leader Marion King—to a physical attack.

In the summer of 1962, in the middle of the Albany campaign, Marion and I were both pregnant. During the campaign, Marion often visited movement workers who were jailed in local facilities throughout Dougherty and Terrell counties—taking them food, checking on conditions where they were kept, relaying messages. On one occasion as she exited a jail, a policeman who felt she was not moving fast enough kicked her in the back so that she fell to the ground. Marion fell so hard that she lost the baby.

Some of us went to see her at her home when she was released from the hospital. As we waited our shock and pain mixed with anger. ... We naturally assumed she would share our sense of indignation and assault. But something else was happening. When Marion came into the room, walking slowly so as not to exacerbate her pain, there was something in her face. A kind of light. Like a victory, a resplendence. It’s hard to explain, because it wasn’t prideful and it wasn’t false. It helped to quiet us—our anger, our judgment. And we recognized it.

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Parenting and Resistance

SOME PEOPLE (I was one) will initially read this book to learn what it was like for the author to grow up in Jonah House, a faith-based community of peacemakers in Baltimore, with internationally known activist parents Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister providing strong ballast when not spending time in prison for nonviolent civil disobedience. I wanted to know what formed the vibrant Frida Berrigan, with whom I work on the National Committee of the War Resisters League. I learned about Frida’s birth in a basement, about Jonah House folks reading the Bible before days of work as house painters or being arrested at protests, about Frida and her sibs watching television on the sly, about the nitty-gritty of dumpster-diving at Jessup Wholesale Market.

But I learned much more from It Runs in the Family, and the “more” is at the heart of this fascinating book, which blends memoir, parenting advice, and connections between the questions parents ask about their children and the questions we should ask about the world. Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister taught their children about the woes and warfare of the world; in this book, Frida also gently teaches us, while describing both her life as a child and her life as a mother to Seamus, Madeline, and stepdaughter Rosena.

For example, when Frida talks about the visits she and Seamus make to their “Uncle Dan” (Phil Berrigan’s brother Daniel Berrigan, a priest, poet, and activist) and the special bond between the nonagenarian and his lively great-nephew, she also tells us of ONEgeneration daycare in California, where toddlers garden, read, and play with seniors. Then she comments on the increasing number of grandparents who have primary responsibility for their grandchildren and the economic structures that contribute to this phenomenon.

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Why We Must Change How We Change the World

Photo courtesy World Relief

Photo courtesy World Relief

It’s hard to be optimistic about changing the world when our news cycle is dominated by terrorism, violence, and disease. When world events shock us, sometimes our best hopes cave in to our worst fears. Even the most radical activist may be tempted to give up.

But there is a different narrative that summons those of us who dare to care. It begins when we confront the things that have kept millions from breaking free from poverty and injustice. It ends when we find the courage to change how we change the world.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, which consistently ranks among the poorest countries in the world and the most dangerous for women, a group of peacemakers are changing the narrative. Last year I met a Congolese woman who told me how her husband was killed in crossfire between warring militias, how she was violently assaulted by the soldiers who were supposed to protect her, and how she fled her village with her eight children under the cover of night. In the wake of her suffering, she joined a group of women to save small amounts of their own money each week. From her savings, she launched a soap-making business. Over time, she employed others and taught her sisters how to do the same. She helps others to forgive their perpetrators and, together, they are determined to stop the violence against women in a land known as the rape capital of the world.

Today thousands of peacemakers like her are changing Congo, and their numbers continue to swell. They are “waging peace” to save Congo one village at a time.

VIDEO: Nashville Sit-Ins

In the 1960s Rev. Dr. Sam Dodson, a Methodist pastor in Nashville, Tenn., received pressure to stop his unpopular desegregation activism. He and many others who were a part of the ecumenical “clergy movement” were considered the black sheep of the Methodist church, facing resistance from their own congregations for their actions.

Read “The Cost of Discipleship” (Sojourners, March 2015) to learn more about Dodson and the clergy who supported civil rights in Nashville. Check out the video below to see what the black community and their supporters faced during the Nashville Marches.

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The Cost of Discipleship

BORDERED BY strip malls, chain restaurants, and drug stores, four-lane Hillsboro Pike in Nashville, Tenn., carries cars from the Vanderbilt University area out to suburban neighborhoods. Every afternoon, thousands of drivers heading home from the city crest a ridge and pass a long, red-brick church.

That church, Calvary United Methodist, is where I was confirmed, participated in youth group, and sang in the choir. In the archives room off the education wing, a visitor can open a filing cabinet drawer, flip past photos of youth group retreats and church league basketball games, and find a manila folder labeled “Rev. Dr. Sam Dodson, 1958-1965.”

The folder is thin, but its contents are weighty. A letter to the local Methodist bishop from the church’s board explains that Dodson cannot adequately minister to his congregation while participating in political activities and suggests he be demoted to assistant pastor. A newspaper clipping from 1965 announces that Rev. Dodson and his family will be moving to Athens, Greece, where he will head St. Andrew’s American Church. I recognize some of the names signed to letters calling for Dodson’s demotion—an usher who pressed strawberry candies into my palm whenever I asked, a woman who looked me in the eye when I was 11 and told me I would be a leader in the church someday.

During the months and years immediately after the relative success of the 1960 sit-ins and before the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed Congress, a wide range of activist groups and individuals in Nashville sought to desegregate restaurants, movie theaters, churches, schools, and recreational facilities, many in predominantly white areas of town. “The ‘Whites Only’ signs were down, but we had not yet seen the white mind behind those signs,” remembered Kwame Leo Lillard, a college student in Nashville in the early ’60s who participated in Freedom Rides to the Deep South to desegregate interstate buses.

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A Farm Grows in Brookland

ON A TWO-ACRE parcel of land in Washington, D.C., tucked behind the provincial house of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Gail Taylor offers a visitor dragon’s lingerie.

“It kind of looks like fishnet stockings—that’s how it got the name,” Taylor says, holding up the heirloom snap bean, its pale yellow-green hull mottled with purple.

Across the aisle, Jack Be Little miniature pumpkins hide under leafy canopies. There are tomatoes and mustard greens, eggplant and legumes, lettuce and squash. “We’re doing a lot of intercropping and companion planting now,” Taylor says. So asparagus lies next to parsley, both behind a bed of raspberry bushes. Flowers also abound, with bursts of hot pink blossoms and purple clover that beautify the landscape while attracting pollinators.

For nearly 100 years this area, owned by the Oblates, a Catholic religious order, was only a grass field, a place where the priests would sometimes play soccer. In 2011, Taylor approached an Oblate priest and requested use of the land. “They were amenable and excited,” Taylor says. “They’re ecologically forward thinking, and they lead the Catholics in creation care.”

The space has become a location for Three Part Harmony Farm, the urban agricultural project Taylor established in D.C. She hopes it will become the first commercial farm in the District of Columbia since 1939, producing locally grown food to be sold in stores and farmers’ markets. First, there are some hurdles that the 36-year-old farmer must clear.

Taylor came to Washington in the late 1990s to work in social justice organizations. During a period of unemployment in 2005, she began volunteering at a farm in Upper Marlboro, Md. She enjoyed the work and began to think about a career change. The farm offered her a job the following spring, and she spent the next five years learning farming techniques.

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