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.

Where does hope come from?

A blog from Wednesday, January 9, 2013:

Mercedes, Laurel, and Alvaro, students from the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador. Overhead posters of Oscar Romero, UCA martyr priest Ignacio Ellacuria, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

You’ve been reading about our extra-busy days and extra-profound discussions and experiences.  Today, Wednesday, was no different.  We began the morning with a panel of distinguished invited guests, the heads of the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Reformed denominations.  These are three of the Protestant denominations who supported the people throughout the times of conflict.  In the afternoon, we visited with three theology students from the University of Central America (UCA), the Jesuit university where liberation theology is still taught by the likes of Jon Sobrino.  Later we met with the former Human Rights Ombsbudswoman of El Salvador, a position that was created by the Salvadoran Peace Accords in 1992 to report human rights abuses of in El Salvador.  In the evening, we attended a house concert by Guillermo Cuellar, a Salvadoran musician who worked with Romero writing and performing songs expressing the struggles of the people, including the Salvadoran Popular Mass.

Right to Left: Episcopal Bishop Martín Barahona, Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez, Reverend Santiago Flores of the Reformed Church

In the panel of the three church leaders, Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez talked about how he was disappeared and tortured for his role accompanying poor communities during the war. International ecumenical pressure demanded his release.  The leaders talked about the role of the church in the more recent history, including how the Catholic Church helped negotiate a “truce” between the two major gangs in El Salvador in spring 2012.  One leader said that these churches understand themselves as united by a common ecumenical “Theology of the Cross”, which is a commitment to never abandon the most vulnerable.  This refreshed a place in me because I understand my own call to ministry to have such a theology, yet sometimes I feel timid to say it in front of church leaders and committees because I am constantly called on to defend how that is a legitimately “ordainable” church ministry position. The Salvadoran church leaders confirmed that an ecumenical and interreligious coordination between the north and the south of the continent is necessary to change the systems of injustice that are continental and worldwide in scope.  What form will and must that take?

The Human Rights Omsbudswoman was the biggest wake-up call yet for our group to the actual reality of El Salvador.  Our group came on this trip seeking to learn the liberative spirituality and praxis of Romero and his challenge for today.  But this takes for granted that much liberative spirituality and praxis based on remembrance of Romero exists here in El Salvador. Up until now on the trip we have been surrounded by the minority in El Salvador who do care about Romero and practice a liberative spirituality.  The Omsbudswoman laid out a frank reality in which the dominant consciousness has little commitment to follow Romero in a justice-seeking way of life and of being church. As I listened to the conversations in the bus after our visit, I heard such things as:  How could the Omsbudwoman say that the Salvadoran people are not a revolutionary people?  How could she say that the people are more status-quo than seeking to change the reality, after all we’ve heard about Salvadoran history during our visit here?

Lest we think that El Salvador is any different in this regard than the United States, I point out the quandary that the Salvadoran leaders with whom we speak must struggle to reconcile: how delegations of concerned people from the United States come to learn from El Salvador’s history; meanwhile, during the war and now, the US government’s policy toward El Salvador seeps life out of the Salvadoran people.  During the Salvadoran Civil War, the US sent $1 million EVERY day to fund the war that killed over 75,000 of the Salvadoran people.  And today, the United States dictates CAFTA free trade laws and norms of “development” and “aid” that benefit the world’s oligarchy more than change the systems sustaining poverty.  Deregulated flow of capital steals the wealth produced by Salvadoran workers in factories out of the country.

“We have to say the truth, without minding who it will bother. -Jon Cortina, SJ”

To reconcile these ironies, the Salvadoran leaders we speak with say “Oh, we know that the US government is different from the US people.”   But I no longer feel excused by that excuse.  The convicting question to us from the United States is thus:  are we a revolutionary people, with all the positive connotations this word can carry—of seeing through the lies to create domestic and foreign policies that work toward better lives for the majorities both in the US and countries like El Salvador?  Is the government in the US really much different from the dominant consciousness of the US people?  Can we use that excuse today?

Guillermo Cuellar, a Salvadoran musician who worked with Romero writing and performing songs expressing the struggles of the people, including the Salvadoran Popular Mass.

Sometimes when considering these difficult questions, I wonder if, and how, we’ll ever change dominant consciousness in the US enough to improve our own conditions and those of El Salvador.  It’s a question we’ve asked to many of our speakers:  from where does your hope come?  How do you keep doing the work you do amid frustration and violence?  In a meditative service at the Chapel where Romero was assassinated, our facilitator asked us what word we think best describes Romero. I responded “Inspiration” because I think that he was inspiration to people of his day and to us today to summon the courage needed for the required work to counter the normative power relationships and consciousness.  I accepted the facilitator’s suggestion to adopt this as a commitment in my own life for the next segment.  Thus, in the night, Guillermo Cuellar’s songs washed over my body and into that space where fear and courage negotiate.  He interwove his songs with the stories that inspired them.  He told stories of encounters with Romero and of the faith, suffering, and resistance of the Salvadoran people.  Contained within the Salvadoran organized “pueblo” and in the music that sustains them is the sometimes unutterable, often unspoken, assumption that we will ever seguir adelante (continue forward).

Having been in the city of San Salvador up until now, we have most of the country undiscovered—both its geography and its conditions.  Thus we head to the mountains today.  We have yet to have encounters with so many more things that are the realities of El Salvador:  poverty, young adults with fifth grade educations, scorched earth massacres, communities built in refugee camps.  Que nos vaya muy bien.  (May we have a good trip.)

- Jennifer Wilder, MDiv 2013

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!


Thank you, President Jones

Thank you for your contribution to Project Union Responds.  You were the first to answer to our call for a Christian witness to LGBTQ youth–and your involvement as the leader of our community was crucial.  Without knowing it, you inspired us and galvanized a whole community into action–straight people, genderqueer people, queer straight people, lesbians, gays, queer people of color, butches, femmes, bisexuals, queens, trannies, aggressives, tomboys . . .  we turned up.  Thank you for helping to ignite the flame that’s turned into this roaring blaze.

Follow the link to view President Jones’s uncut contribution to Project Union Responds:

Click to view