A History Divided

The Poverty Initiative Immersion toured much of Wilkes-Barre on Sunday. Images of deindustrialization, of the human and environmental toll of a changing economic structures are staggering — calling us to deeply question how we are forming economic, political and human communities

January 19, 2013

Ranwa Hammamy

The second day of our immersion found us beginning once more in AD30, discussing three concepts that could each be the focus of a semester-long course of their own: rights, religion, and race. We opened our reflection with a conversation on the necessity of education and analysis in the generation of effective social action. What struck me the most about the group’s discussion was the knowledge based in the experience of working with others who have organized movements for change without first engaging in an in-depth exploration of the system at hand. The ideas put forth by the group beautifully connected with the tree metaphor presented in the previous day – when we don’t engage in an intentional analysis of what exists beneath the diverse struggles we face, we end up focusing not on the roots, but on the leaves of the tree. As a result, the system stays in place, firmly planted, and new problematic leaves grow. Intentional analysis has the power to bring us together more effectively, as it encourages us to look beyond what we face as individuals or specific communities. The informed combination of our struggles creates a form of social action that all remain connected to, regardless of the issue at hand in the present moment, because we can better appreciation its relation to our universal well-being.

The discussion then transitioned to a focus on “rights” and almost instantaneously we came across our first major concern – what do we mean when we say “rights”? Martin Luther King, Jr. in his campaign spoke about shifting the focus from “civil rights” to “human rights”, leading me to believe that there is something more universal that must be at the core of our efforts when we are working to bring people together. As one student said, he envisions rights as being “the minimum, the floor” that all are entitled to have. The question we must then ask is what are those basic rights? What do we define as universal, can we even define what is universal in a society that is as diverse as this one? The reality facing many social movements is their inevitable limitation: whomever is at the forefront represents one voice from the margins. Thus, there is a danger for movements that attempt to achieve basic human rights to unintentionally exclude others who have been pushed into the margins. This pattern can run the risk of continuing the division among the dispossessed…unless we remember to engage in the intentional analysis that brings attention to the systemic concerns behind each of our struggles. Later, when the conversation incorporated the Declaration of Independence, the “God-given rights of people”, I could not help but wonder if we need a change in our view of this document’s message. The Declaration of Independence is often seen as a self-assertive document, and thus has served as a reference point for many individual movements. But for an effort such as this one, which places unity at the forefront of bringing essential change, should we adapt our interpretation of this statement as a reminder to observe the rights of others? When our own rights are violated and denied, it is easy to become trapped in a concern for the alteration in our own situation. But if our social framework is based in an understanding of others’ rights, in a gratitude for the humanity and worth of those around us (as well as ourselves), appreciating needs different from our own and uniting across lines becomes a more natural response.

When the conversation shifted towards the nature of “rights” in religion, I admit that I became a little uncomfortable. Having been raised I a non-Christian environment, I am concerned when conversations on religion in social movements remain focused on Christianity and the Bible. While that conversation is an essential part of our discussion, particularly when examining the oppressive forces at play in US history, rights (if they are truly universal) cannot be defined by a religious, let alone solely Christian, framework. I realize that this statement is potentially controversial, and I do not mean to say that religion plays no role in our work to assert or defend our human rights. But the defining work, in order to be universally applicable and unifying, cannot be based in an element of society that not all share. That being said, our reflections on and protection of these rights can only be strengthened by a deep religious understanding of their relevance to whatever faith we may proclaim.

After lunch, we returned to discuss perhaps the most complex topic yet – race. The presentation by Jeffrey Perry began with a powerful statement – “there is no white race.” Having read some of Tim Wise’s anti-racism work, I was familiar with some of the ideas surrounding the intentional construction of race, but this presentation offered a deeply historical analysis that was conducted by Theodore Allen. Allen’s theory identifies race as being a social construct carefully crafted by the ruling class. His analysis beginning in early-colonial America presents the invention of the “white race” as a way of preventing those in the lower classes from coming together against the wealthiest members of society. By dividing the poor with the invention of the “white race”, the wealthy created a system that united Euro-Americans of different class levels against poor African-Americans. Thus, “plantation politics”, as defined by Du Bois, began to take hold of our society in its earliest days, pitting poor whites against African-Americans, and creating a system of social control that left the wealthy untouched. Class unity among the poor was effectively prevented with the creation of this new social construct. Among the inevitable conclusions of this analysis is the reality that modern-day racial oppression only serves to perpetuate class division, and serves as one of the greatest hurdles to the creation of a movement that unites the poor and dispossessed. So long as racism is allowed to continue, there will not be an effective effort to address the glaringly unjust economic disparity in our society. Perry’s presentation was a powerful reminder of why efforts like the Poor People’s Campaign and the Poverty Initiative are needed – to show the shared story, to create a class-consciousness that unites across different lines, and to recognize what is at the root of our experience of oppression so that we can come together to assert our truly universal human rights.

Our day ended with a tour of different key sites in the Abolitionist (and anti-Abolitionist) movements, highlighting once more the division that perpetuates the oppressive systems in our society. One of the prime examples was our stop at Five Points, where the poor of different backgrounds co-existed peacefully for some time. However, this harmony dissipated with the institution of the draft in the Civil War, and division between Euro-Americans and African-Americans surged. Seen as the cause of the draft, African-Americans became targets of hostility, which came to a peak in the “Five Point Riots”, in which dozens were killed and unity among the poor in the area was destroyed. Our tour continued to the site of Collect Pond, which had been a location of poor living conditions for many across colorlines, and the African Burial Ground, now a national monument identifying the location where hundreds of Africans were buried in the 17th and 18th century. One of the memorial walls had an inscription that dedicated its existence to those who “are not forgotten”, an important message to remember as we examine the roots of the division ad oppression present in our society today. We continued to Printers Row and City Hall, where the role of mass media in generating social movements through the endorsement of a particular stance on a divisive issue was considered in relation to our work today.

Our tour and day ended with visits to Zuccotti Park and Wall Street, key sites of the Occupy movement. During our visit to these sites, we were reminded of how they were places where people were united against oppressive economic systems, showing us how barrier-crossing was possible and functioning today. But we were also reminded of one of the greatest risks of coming together – that is when the attempts to divide us are the strongest. The lessons of the day flowed through my mind – our actions must be grounded in deep reflection on and understanding of the forces at play. Only then will we be able to move beyond our own narrow understandings of what rights we are struggling for, and create a universal movement that is based in bonds that defy past, present, and future attempts to prevent unity among the marginalized.

“Never give up.”

The community of Perquin, capital of the FMLN during the war.

Our final day in El Salvador found us waking up in Perquin to head to Mass led by Padre Rogelio Poncel, the Priest we had met the day before over breakfast. Padre Rogelio preached about John the Baptist, calling particular attention to the differences between the messages of John and Jesus. For the Baptist, Rogelio claimed, the stress was “on the rights of God” and therefore of the need for all humans to cherish God and follow his demands. For Jesus, the focus was on “the rights of human beings.”  For Jesus we can respond to God only if we are responding to our fellow human beings. He concluded that it is in loving our neighbor that we love God and that in cherishingthe rights of our neighbors that we respect the rights of God. There is no going to God without going to our neighbor.

The mass was also punctuated with lively singing, in the popular style, further reflecting an impulse we had experienced time and time again in our travels: the impulse of the Salvadoran people to make their worship responsive to their community’s historical and present context. From the community of Romero’s crypt, to the Christian Base Communities and their formation schools, to now the parish mass in Perquin, Salvadoran religious leaders and lay people had a strong confidence in their own assessment of their liturgical needs, and a willingness to carry on as they needed to, even in opposition to the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Following mass we loaded onto the bus and Daniel drove us to a short way to the community of Agua Blanca in Cacaopera, Morazán, where we met with Acción y Vida, an organization of youth leaders seeking to improve quality of life through sustained social and political engagement. We heard from a new generation of leaders who, while inspired by their formation in communities of resistance, feel unrepresented of the language and models of their parents. They are engaged in inspiring work to offer sexuality education to their communities, educate people about HIV/AIDS, and continue to insist that the voice of rural youth be a part of the formation of El Salvador’s future. Still, like many of the groups we have met with, their voices are on the distant margins of the national conversation, out of the boundaries of the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, and maybe even not central to the discourse in their local communities, still they continue their work with impressive energy and a gentle but persistent spirit.

Finally, after a 5 hour ride back to San Salvador, we gathered for dinner with Fr. Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit, who taught at the Catholic University. He is alive today only because he was out of the country, at a conference in Thailand, the night that is colleagues and their two housekeepers were murdered by the death squads. Sobrino’s talk captured the spirit of so many groups and individuals we had met. His theological affirmations were rooted in the reality of the lived experience of the people of El Salvador, and he was insistent that all true theology must be grounded in experience.

The people of El Salvador call Romero a Saint. While it may take generations for the Catholic Church to agree, Sobrino told us “reality makes things obvious.” Those who are grounded in reality know that “in Romero, God walked with us in El Salvador.” Sobrino spoke beautifully, clearly, and succinctly, without straying into complex reasoning or cloudy questions of ontology and metaphysics. He insisted that we all keep our eyes squarely on the suffering of the world, and act to end it, drawing on the stories and teachings of Christianity to reflect on and frame that action. Finally, he offered a perfect closing mantra for the fullness of what we met in El Salvador. Quoting from Micah he reminded us that our task is to walk humbly with God. Like Madre Alicia who walked into the teeth of an empire for the sake of truth, sustained by the potent power of a mother’s anguish; walk. Like the women who carry on a weekly mass in Romero’s crypt despite pressure from the Archbishop to stop; walk. Like the 6 year-old Children in formation schools in the countryside, learning the tragedy of their history and the hope of their parents struggle; walk. “The one thing we have learned here” Sobrino said, “is never to give up.”

The Union delegation with Fr. Jon Sobrino (front center).

Resurrection and Trespass


As our bus made its way to the national cathedral on Sunday morning, my mind was flooded with images of the various events we had read about taking place there. I had read and seen images of these events so many times that my thoughts came to me as if they were memories. But the reality is that these memories are not my own.  The crypt, located under the main cathedral is where the body of Monsenor Romero now lies- but the Monsenor is hardly at rest. We were there to attend a special mass organized by a group of local lay women who have named themselves “Community of the Crypt.” The first thing I noticed was the cloth hanging on the lectern, which displayed one of the many powerful statements of solidarity with the people made by Oscar Romero. Aware of the many threats to his life, Romero proclaimed to the country that even if he was to be killed he would be resurrected in his people.

Coinciding with the sound of a thundering fire cracker (or two) which signaled the start of a protest on the front steps of the cathedral, mass began with statements from members of the Community of Crypt. During the service there was a constant flow of motion around Monsenor Romero’s tomb and even though a mass was taking place (seemingly unperturbed), so were many other things. This is perhaps a good reflection of what Romero’s ministry must have been like. Daily dedication to the eucharist (i.e. the sacrifice of Christ) surrounded by seeming chaos.

Following mass we were fortunate enough to talk with some of the women from the Community of the Crypt. They explained how the group was founded, how they went about planning weekly mass, and the challenges they sometimes face in their relationship with the diocese of San Salvador and its officials: a challenge rooted in the tension between living the gospel of the poor as Oscar Romero did in his life and serving dogmatism, as the hierarchy of the institutional Roman Catholic Church so often does. After paying respects to Romero’s tomb we also spent some time in the cathedral above. As we departed from the national cathedral, Dr. Knitter pointed out the irony of how accurately the cathedral/crypt placement mirrors the predominant dynamic in the Catholic Church. The church of the people which preaches justice, peace, and solidarity takes place in the “basement” while the traditional mass of the institutional church takes place above in the grand cathedral. Fortunately, Monsenor Romero, as he did in life, takes his place with the people, in the basement, where his presence is palpable. Although I had expected to find a place of mourning and sadness, the tomb of Oscar Romero was a space overflowing with joy, hope, and purpose. I felt immediately that Romero was correct. He has been resurrected in his people.

A less spiritual encounter with Salvadoran culture filled our afternoon: grocery shopping for snacks. As we 13 Americans filed into the Super Selecto a Salvadoran man struggled to get past us. With an exasperated look on his face, the man whispered to himself “OH…MY…GOD!” which immediately triggered memories of many times I have done the same exact thing, annoyed by groups of tourists in New York. Although the experience seemed to connect he and I in some way (how similar we human creatures are) it also stirred a feeling that had been simmering since we arrived in El Salvador: trespass.

Although it would be easy enough to dismiss this sense of trespassing as simply reflective of feeling awkward as a foreigner (not knowing the language or custom, travelling in a pack, etc.), I suspect the feeling goes much deeper. What is obvious from even the little time we have spent in this country is that El Salvador is a land and a people defined by the atrocities of war and the demoralization of denial. Generations of people in El Salvador have only horrific crimes against human rights as the historical points of reference in their lives; massacres, assassinations, disappearances, capture and torture. It is upon this sacred collective experience that I am trespassing. The remnants of a country brought to it knees by American capitalism, the same society to which I belong.

Gene Polumbo, a journalist who has lived in El Salvador since 1980 (the year Romero was assassinated), expressed this concept well when he told our group that the blood of the 75,000 Salvadoran men, women, and children who were killed in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s is on our hands.  By “our” he meant the United States. By “our” he meant himself and those of us surrounding him. By “our” he meant most (maybe all) of the people who will read this blog. Our foreign policy has caused the massacre of tens of thousands. Our failure to act allowed 8,000 people to be disappeared. Our ignorance allowed these crimes against humanity to remain unknown. Of all the things Gene shared with us that evening, and he shared MANY things, this stuck with me the most.

In light of all these realities, I hope my trespass here in El Salvador will also be a true journey of solidarity and accompaniment, a mission to simply be with the pain of this people so that I might come to know truth better. I pray that the burning hope which I see vividly alive in the Salvadoran people will light aflame hope within me as well.

Many New Collections Available for Use

During the tenure of my Luce-funded project archivist position at the Burke Library, I will be processing, arranging and describing all of the collections in the Missionary Research Library Archives and the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library Archives. MANY new collections are available for use and research. These original, unique, primary source materials can greatly add to a Union student’s research. And, as the saying goes, ‘those who fail to study the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.’

Have you looked into any of these archives lately? You may be surprised how much they can add to what Union in Dialogue stands for: a discussion of social analysis, interreligious dialogue, embodiment, poverty, and a number of other pressing topics.

You can always look at the Burke Archives page, specifically at the Missionary Research Library Collection and William Adams Brown Archives links. We also make sure to post direct links through our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

One other option is through the Burke Archives Blog, which is specific to the Hidden Archival Collections of the Burke Library project. If you look at the tab called Completed Collections, you will see all of that which has been done since the project began in August 2011.

Any questions? Please don’t hesitate to contact me!


Healing a Community in Fear

by Elizabeth Bukey:

Yesterday afternoon we met two women who both work on healing in the Brownsville community: one a curandera and the other a medical doctor. An outsider, particularly an Anglo Seattleite outsider like me, might think that Maria and Marsha would be very different: a faith healer and an MD, a trance medium and a pediatrician. Instead, I was struck by the similar themes in our two visits.

Both women have a deep love for the community in which they work: the poor, Mexican-American, often undocumented population in this borderland. Both women connect spirit and health: Maria, deeply rooted in Catholic religion, is a medium for the spirit of a 19th-century healer; Marsha brings her background in theology to her work as a doctor. Both are affected by interacting with the illness affecting this community: Maria is exhausted after working and has to expel the bad energy she has received; Marsha spoke several times of the deep rage she feels over the injustice of the border, and needing an outlet for this rage “besides four-letter words.”

Most strikingly, though, was the way both women address the fear of the people here. People often come to Maria and other curanderas to heal illnesses which to me sound like symptoms of a community under enormous stress: overwhelming fright, panic, nervousness, upset stomachs, and many others. Marsha told us of the high level of fear affecting this community, affecting people who are effectively trapped here between the U.S.-Mexico border and the border patrol checkpoints 70 miles north of it. Wouldn’t you get sick if you were afraid to drive, afraid of being separated from your family, afraid of losing your job, afraid your children will have no future?