The Heartbeat of Union: An Introduction

I had a personal pre-orientation initiation into Union. On Saturday August 23rd, I went to a protest in support of Eric Garner and his family. Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island after being apprehended by an officer for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. The officer used an illegal chokehold move that killed Eric Garner, and the death was ruled a homicide. His death was a reminder that extrajudicial killings are still happening in this country.

In this spirit, thousands gathered on Staten Island on this particular Saturday to show support for Eric Garner and to resound a chorus of voices against the incredibly bloody summer. Garner’s story was just one drop of water in a bucket of chilling ice water over the heads of Black people. I was drowning.

Michael Brown. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Aiyana Jones. Rekia Boyd. Renisha McBride. The list unfortunately goes on. James Baldwin reminds us that to be “Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” And this summer seemed like a continuous flow of reminders that I was not worth defending as a Black American, as a woman, as a person. I was angry. And unapologetically so.

When I remember that people are continually abused by a system that pretends to protect, I am enraged. I find this rage liberating and compelling to action. But I also acknowledge that it can be paralyzing. What moves me to action is the community of friends that promise to hold me accountable to a larger goal– making sure this never happens again. While I really wanted to curl into a ball and never leave my bed, I felt a tug to be near other people who were also hurting. I needed a community.

I think of formal protest activities as analogous to church membership. Sitting in church does not make me a Christian, and going to a rally does not make me an activist. But tethering in these communities connects me to people who are like-minded. When done right, participation in these communities keeps me accountable to my values. I am among people who are on the same journey. I can do the work because I have people who hold my hand.

So on this particular Saturday, I was with a beloved community of friends from my home church. By some divine order, our group ran into another group of activists and faith leaders. I saw a woman with a “#myUnion” orientation t-shirt. Part of me had not yet transitioned into my new identity as a Union student. My pastor nudged me, “Go talk to her! This is a classmate of yours!”

Shy and nervous, I introduced myself.

“Hi, I’m Candace. You go to Union? Me too, this is my first year!”

“I’m Rebecca, I’m a first year, too!”

I don’t remember anything after that conversation. I was so struck by the “coincidence” that everything after our initial greeting dissipated into the deep recesses of my mind. Of all the people I could have met that day, I ran into a soon-to-be-classmate. What was the Universe trying to teach me in that moment?

Most times, when I imagine God’s voice, I imagine Morgan Freeman from Bruce Almighty. I’m still reminding myself that God speaks through coincidences. What if running into this eventual classmate was a reminder that my faith was indeed an integral part of my identity as an activist? What if this encounter was a message that I was not alone? What if this experience was a nudging from the Heavens to stay true to my politics, my faith, my identity as I embark on this new journey? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’m growing in wrestling with them. That’s what seminary is for, right?

That’s why we’re starting a blog called “The Heartbeat” here at Union. In our bodies, the heart’s beating is nothing short of magic and miracle. The heartbeat is a sign of life, originating in our chests and pumping blood throughout a complicated system. But the heartbeat isn’t isolated. We get a sense of the heart’s beating from the pulse in the wrist and neck. As our heart beats to reminds us that we live, social justice is the reminder why we live. It is our charge and our responsibility. It is the “rent we pay” for living on this Earth, as Shirley Chisholm challenges us.

The Heartbeat will cover stories of social justice beyond the walls of 3041 Broadway. Each of us has taken a special journey to this place, and we honor this journey by proving the work we do at Union is meaningful. We can use theology to speak to people, rather than speaking beyond them. The Heartbeat of our institution is social justice. Let’s check our vitals.

If you have a story you’d like us to cover here at The Heartbeat, email Candace Simpson at cs3282@utsnyc.edu . We’d love to have you.

Faith in Action

Reflection by Vandalyn Kennedy – Day 4

Every minute of every day has been amazing here in El Salvador, however today’s experience resonated with me in a POWERFUL way. If you are reading this blog you know that a group of 12 students and 3 Faculty members from Union have traveled here to study the Liberative Spirituality of Bishop Oscar Romero. One of our classmates, Blanca Rodriguez, made a statement this week that is symbolic of our time here.  She said, ”We cannot solely be educated through books but must have experience.” This statement became truth to me today like no other. Before coming to El Salvador, we spent the semester in a Guided Reading group learning about the life of Romero, examining the context of the country both before and after his death, seeing films, reading books and analyzing the impact Romero had on this war torn country. However today, WE LIVED IT!

Today we visited the Divine Providence Hospitalito, the place Romero was killed. We filed into the Chapel and were met by a young religious woman (nun) Mercedes, who facilitated our session. Students from Dayton University also joined us as she took us through a moving account of events of the day of Romero’s death. She also gave us a clear history and timeline of events from his early priesthood to death – for me the clearest that I have heard so far. She described his conservative background but how he slowly converted to becoming the people’s pastor after seeing his people suffer unjustly at the hands of the oligarchy and military. She was very engaging and gave full account as to the physical place he was standing and exactly what he was doing at the time he died. She also pointed out that he had to have seen the shooter, as he was standing behind the altar in the center and the doors of the modest sized church were open. During his homily, a red car pulled in front of the church but instead of Romero running, screaming, or doing what most of us would do if someone was pointing a gun at us, he continued his homily. The reality was that Romero received many death threats and could have had bodyguards and taken all precautions to protect his life. However, that day, he told the altar boys and others who usually serve at the altar with him that he wanted to serve alone. In essence, he offered up his life, and in a homily given a few days earlier said, “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in my people.” Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he knew the imminent danger, however he chose to sacrifice his life for his people.  If I had to put him in US context, Romero is definitely the Martin Luther King Jr. of El Salvador.

The Chapel at Divine Providence, El Hospitalito, the site Romero was killed.

When Mercedes began the session she told us to choose a word that represented our thoughts about Romero. One by one we gave the word we felt embodied Romero, and at the end, she asked us to come to the altar, say our word one at a time, then take a place in a circle around the altar. That was simple enough – I chose the word COURAGE, and proudly announced it before taking my place in the circle. Then, as we stood in the exact spot Romero was killed, she challenged and charged us in an unexpected way telling us to think about our word and how it applies to our lives and the struggle against social injustice. She asked us to take the word home with us and make it our business to utilize that word in a way that will make the world better. My eyes, like many of my classmates’ were filled with tears. With all the talk about Romero, King and every other person who has helped to make the world better, we have to ask ourselves, “What about me?” Am I just learning about others or have I made a personal commitment to fight against political and social injustice? This is not just about Romero, but how to apply the principles of Romero’s life and use his example as a way to integrate faith with social justice issues. I may not have to physically die for a cause, however, I ask myself, as I ask you- what are our lives being used for?

After that experience, we went to Romero’s house, on the campus of the Hospitalito. Though he could have had a big house elsewhere he chose to live in a very modest home, furnished with only the necessities. The home has been converted into a small museum that houses his clergy attire, church papers, and other personal articles.

Romero’s bedroom in his modest house on the grounds of Divine Providence. He wanted to stay with the people instead of moving to the larger home offered to him by the Diocese.

We then headed to the Monument to the Truth and Memory at the Cuscatlan Park, dedicated to the victims of the civil war. The site that has over 30,000 names of people disappeared and killed during the years of political unrest and is a result of the Peace Accords signed in 1992, in which the government agreed to give reparations and honor victims by at least acknowledging them in a public way. This is significant, as many families do not have graves to visit, as many bodies have never been recovered. On the National Day of Remembrance, many Salvadorans go to this monument to honor their loved ones. (This monument is missing over 45,000 names, as it is documented that over 75,000 people in total were killed or disappeared).

Monument of Truth and Memory at the Cuscatlan Park, dedicated to the civilian victims of the civil war.

We then boarded the bus and headed to the beach where we spent the afternoon. After such an emotional day, it was the perfect place to reflect on our word given by Mercedes as well as everything we witnessed thus far in El Salvador. We ate dinner beachside and ended the evening with our nightly class reflection, again beachside as the sun set.

To say that my life will never be the same would be a gross understatement. I am so thankful and blessed to be here, learning and growing with this community of students and faculty-things I could have NEVER learned from a book. I am also thankful that Dr. Knitter and his wife Cathy Cornell chose to share their experience of solidarity and love for the El Salvadoran people, Romero and social justice. Unfortunately, I had never heard about Romero before this class but believe that EVERY seminary student should learn about this man who embodies Union ideology. He is a perfect example of faith in action. In learning about the strength and courage of a Priest, I also discovered the fortitude of the people this priest served. Romero has risen in his people, and they have taken his principles, organized, and now continue the fight for the poor and marginalized. I pray that the spirit of Romero will rise in me as I seek to do my part in fighting against injustice and helping to make the world a better place.

Painting in Divine Providence chapel by Artist, depicting Romero’s love for the people and faith in action.

Glenn Beck

Screenshot of Glenn Beck from politicsdaily.com

Screenshot of Glenn Beck from politicsdaily.com

Glenn Beck, ultraconservative infotainer and TV host, has recently decided that “social justice” is a code word for fascism. When I first heard this news, I couldn’t believe it was not a headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion. What tortured and specious logic could he possibly employ to literally link Adolf Hitler to Archbishop Oscar Romero? Apparently, the Nazis were for social justice. Never mind that anything the National Socialist Party in Germany may ever have said about the rights of the workers came directly atop a wave of antisemitism, xenophobia and nationalism. These can hardly be called the hallmarks of Theological Liberalism, Liberation Theology, Political Theology or any church-led movements for social justice. According to Beck’s “reasoning”, Martin Luther King, Jr., Stalin and Hitler belong in the same social movement.

In general, I try to steer clear of polemic. It rarely accomplishes much more than emotional inflammation and frankly, there’s an argument to be made that it is wholly inappropriate for either Quakers or Buddhists. Given my religious identification with both those groups, it seems that neither God nor the Dharma particularly wants me to get into what I’m about to do. But all things in moderation, including moderation, at least according to Mark Twain. I hope that I will be able to separate act from actor and belief from believer here, but also beg forgiveness if I don’t manage.

Glenn Beck’s program is a cancer upon society. He employs the worst kind of populist know-nothingism to justify his racist and classist thinking and he’s got a prime-time show on the most watched cable news network in America. His program is frankly the shame of our nation. We can be better than this and we must be better than this. Redistribution of wealth is not anathema to Christianity, as Beck subtly argues. It is in fact part and parcel of Christianity. What else would it mean to care for that which is of God in the least of our sisters and brothers on Earth? If we look to the book of Acts, we see not a proto-capitalist market economy, but an anarch0-syndicalist collective. If anything is anti-Christian in the sociopolitical world, it is in fact captialist market economics.

The time for meeting polemic with reasoned analysis has passed. It doesn’t work. You cannot send reason to meet unthinking passion. For every Glenn Beck, we need a Michael Moore. It pains me to say so, as a “good theological liberal”: I’m much more comfortable on the so-called high road, but it’s hard to be on that high road when the opposition is hurling filth from the sewers.