determination

'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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Nuclear Summer

AS YOU READ this column, diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, and the European Union are working with their Iranian counterparts to finalize a deal concerning Iran’s nuclear program. I strongly believe that Christians should support the framework for this deal, announced in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 2, as the best chance to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state and—equally important—the best chance for the United States to avoid armed conflict with Iran.

In the days following the announcement of this framework, Sojourners authored and published a statement of support, which was signed by more than 50 Christian leaders (see statement here). Part of that statement reads as follows: “It is the sacred responsibility of all those entrusted with political power to pursue, with patient perseverance, every option that makes the destruction of war less possible, in order to protect human life and dignity. This becomes an even more urgent moral and spiritual imperative when we have the chance to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, with their terrifying potential of mass destruction ... a goal that reflects the binding commitments made by 191 U.N. member states, including the United States, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

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July 2015
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A Miracle of Resilience

MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson, was born in 1890 in Camden, S.C., with a different last name from all the other people in her household. Three generations later, we have no idea where the name Johnson came from.

Lizzie grew up working plantation land owned by her grandmother, Lea Ballard. Lea received the land in the wake of the Civil War: We don’t know how or why, though one theory speculates that Lea, who was listed as a 42-year-old mulatto widow on the 1880 U.S. Census, may have been the daughter of her slave owner. He may have given the land to her after the Civil War. We don’t know. We only know that Lea owned it, that she had 17 children who worked that land, according to family lore, and that the city of Camden eventually stole the land from her by the power of eminent domain. This we know from records I hold in my possession.

Lizzie married a railroad man named Charles Jenkins. Lizzie and Charles had three children; Charles later died in a railroad accident. Lizzie had a choice: endure the brutality of the Jim Crow South alone with three kids, or move with the stream of black bodies migrating north. Lizzie migrated to Washington, D.C., and, eventually, to Philadelphia and took her lightest-skinned child with her.

Both mother and child were light enough to pass for white. My caramel-toned, straight-haired grandmother, Willa, and her brother, Charlie, were too dark. So they were left behind in the care of their elderly great-grandmother. Willa and Charlie joined others on the plantation and earned their keep working the fields.

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July 2015
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Latino Evangelicals Say No to the Death Penalty

THE NATIONAL LATINO Evangelical Coalition announced in March that it would no longer support the death penalty, making it the first U.S. evangelical association to take this stand. Coalition president Gabriel Salguero announced the change at a press conference in Orlando, Fla., and urged NaLEC’s 3,000 member congregations to work toward ending capital punishment nationwide.

“As Christ-followers, we are called to work toward justice for all. And as Latinos, we know too well that justice is not always even-handed,” said Salguero.

This groundbreaking move by Latino evangelicals puts them at odds with the pro-death penalty stance of the National Association of Evangelicals, although “sources within the NAE say that leadership is considering a change in the months ahead,” according to Religion News Service.

NaLEC did not come to this new position lightly. It came after two years of prayer and reflection accompanied by intensive dialogue between NaLEC’s leadership and Equal Justice USA and the Constitution Project, two leading anti-death penalty organizations. In addition, coalition members met with a number of wrongly convicted former prisoners such as Fernando Bermudez, who spent 18 years in prison in New York for a murder he did not commit.

According to Salguero, selecting Florida for the announcement was intentional. Florida was the first state to reintroduce capital punishment after the Supreme Court struck down the 1972 moratorium. Since executions were resumed, 25 people on Florida’s death row have been exonerated. This record of mistaken convictions is the highest of any state. It is particularly disturbing that Florida has on its books the so-called Timely Justice Act that mandates a swift execution process. With 394 people currently on Florida’s death row and the prevalence of mishandled cases and inadequate defense, especially for minorities, this law exacerbates existing problems in a system plagued by errors.

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July 2015
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