Category Archives: Global Church
A “Call to Act Together” for reconciliation and unity concluded the recent Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Charged with sharing the message of “a unity founded in God’s love” the 4000 Assembly delegates cited the scripture “the love of Christ urges us on”. The delegates represented many of the World Council’s 325 Orthodox and other church bodies active in 120 nations. There were also 160 Roman Catholic observers attending the most diverse gathering of Christians held every seven years. Jewish and Muslim observers also attended the 11th Assembly.
Since the founding Assembly in 1948, Council membership has shifted from a majority European and North American body to a gathering which reflects the growing number of Christians in the global South. Summarizing the experience of living and listening together for 11 days, the delegates celebrated that “amid all our diversity, we have relearned in our assembly that there is a pilgrimage of justice, reconciliation, and unity to be undertaken together. ”
The Assembly experience and its “Call to Act” stands in contrast to the current trend of political leaders worldwide to foment division and distrust. Its call should be taken as a response to the use of division and disinformation to gain unfettered power. Voters in the U.S. would do well to consider the language and aims of their preferred candidates as the Republican Party sows distrust, antipathy and scorn of others. Over 150 Republican candidates in this week’s U.S. midterm election reject the 2020 presidential election of Joe Biden.
The Republican candidate for Governor in Wisconsin, construction company owner Tim Michels, promised that were he elected his Party will never again lose an election in Wisconsin. (as reported by Martin Pengelly of The Guardian, Nov. 2, 2022) Republican candidate for Governor of Arizona, former Fox News anchor Kerri Lake, was asked if she would accept defeat in the election. Appearing prepared to challenge such a result, Lake responded she would not lose.
The U.S. election featured the former President Trump campaigning for midterm candidates backing his “Stop the Steal” denial of results of the 2020 election. No one doubts he will again run for President in 2024 particularly should his Party seize control of Congress in the midterms. His campaigning takes place following dismissal of dozens of court cases in which his backers advanced claims of election malpractice and fraud. In the cases where a ruling called for an audit, no evidence was found of malfeasance.
In an era when the global economic order is incapable of effectively responding to the climate crisis, increasing inequality, and unprecedented migration of people, the World Council Assembly’s reminder of God’s vision of unity is especially timely. “As reconciliation brings us closer to God and each other, it opens the way toward a unity founded in God’s love.”
See all the photo galleries from the Assembly at:
The thirteen points of the Assembly’s Call to Act Together can be found at:
Elena Huegel is a “Mission Co Worker” in San Cristobal de las Casas , Chiapas, Mexico. She is assigned to work with INESIN, a local human rights and peacemaking agency, and leads workshops for the staff and community. INESIN is one of many “partner agencies” of the Global Ministries work of the theologically progressive U.S. Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Disciples of Christ (DOC).
Like most partners of Global Ministries outside the U.S., it is ecumenical in nature and does not aim to found churches. Mission churches started decades ago with the help of missionaries of the two Global Ministries denominations are now self-governing and self-propagating. Most are growing much faster than the U.S denominations and benefit from Elena’s and other Mission Co Workers’ presence in the their programs of community economic development, agriculture, healthcare, education and protection of human rights.
Elena’s grandfather, Frederick Huegel, went to Mexico early in the twentieth century, as a missionary trained in preaching and evangelism with the intention of growing the Disciples of Christ presence in central Mexico. Elena’s parents also worked with the new churches of the Disciples of Christ in Mexico. Bilingual at an early age, Elena has been a Mission Co Worker in Chile for over twenty years and in Paraguay before returning to Mexico to work with INESIN staff.
The following interview with Elena Huegel took place last August while driving her to a speaking engagement in the U.S.
DS: So Elena what does INESIN stand for?
EH: The Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research.
DS: Tell us a bit about the history of that organization.
EH: When Rios Montt was President of Guatemala and all the refugees from the country were crossing the border into México, the Catholic Bishop (Bp Samuel Ruiz) had people all along the border helping with the refugee crisis. The UCC and Mennonites from the States had mission workers helping as well and they all got to know each other. In fact when opportunities opened for resettlement back into Guatemala the mission workers all began to accompany them back as human rights watchers. That resettlement began in January of ’94.
That’s also when Canada, the U.S. and México signed the Fair Trade agreement (NAFTA) and the Zapatistas had said that if the trade agreement was signed they were going into open warfare against the Mexican government. It was signed and the revolution explodes, the heart of it being San Cristóbal and the communities around it. So with that the inter-religious turmoil that there already had been between Catholics and Protestants was heightened. It took on a whole different turn because the government began taking advantage of the Protestants who were among the most oppressed of the population. The government encouraged creation of paramilitary groups among the Protestants. The groups were mainly children of Protestant converts from what I can tell.
DS: But you say there had been turmoil and tension between Protestants and Catholics before the Zapatistas came on the scene. What was that about?
EH: This is a simple question to a very complex situation. To read more I suggest:
There are many points of view as to why there are conflicts between the different protestant and Pentecostal groups and the different Catholic groups as well as newer religions (mainly Muslims) in Chiapas in general and the Chiapan Highlands (including San Cristóbal de las Casas) in particular. I would summarize by saying that there have been and are political and economic forces that have used religious differences to divide and conquer the Mayan communities. Nowadays, organized crime has also come onto the scene sowing further confusion and chaos within communities and, in some cases, bringing different religious groups together in the struggle against the cartels while in others causing further unrest and division. There is a very long history of violence connected to the different religious expressions, with victims and perpetrators connected directly or indirectly to different religious affiliations.
DS: So the Protestant grievances about the Catholics had been long standing and were used by the government.
EH: The government was trying to get at the Zapatistas from different directions. And as the inter religious strife got worse the Bishop (Samuel Ruiz) realized that he needed someone to help him build a bridge and talk to the Protestants. He had already done quite a few things to build bridges. There were a whole lot of Protestants driven off their lands in the Chamula area and he supported the ones who fled to San Cristóbal. As the Bishop saw better what was happening, he went to the UCC and Mennonites who had worked with Catholics on the border and together they went on to found INESIN, the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research. It was to create a space for inter-religious and inter-cultural dialog using various forums and projects to do that.
DS: Did the UCC have people in place there to participate in INESIN’s creation with the Catholics, Bishop Ruiz in particular?
EH: The UCC overseas mission office, Global Ministries, had a couple down there at the time. The couple were preparing to go down in late ’93 but finally arrived in February ’94 and were there then for some pretty incredible things. They were Paula Biddle and George. They knew the area as they had been working with Guatemalan refugees in Chicago and had been traveling back and forth from Chicago to Chiapas since the refugees began crossing the border.
DS: And what are you doing at INESIN now?
EH: So I am helping in staff development and education in trauma healing and conflict transformation primarily with the staff of INESIN. Protestants in Chiapas have seen INESIN as a Catholic organization and there is a lot of distrust and suspicion of any Catholic program among the Protestants. It’s going to take a long time of trust building before they join with Catholics in a process of trauma and conflict healing. So I’ve had some small groups and I’ve done some Christian Education trainings for Protestant Sunday School teachers which have attracted larger groups. I do other things as a way to start building up trust and relationship. I am also the local, national and international coordinator, facilitator, and trainer of the Retoños en las Ruinas: Esperanza en el Trauma (Roots or New Shoots in the Ruins: Hope in Trauma) program with facilitators in Chiapas, different states of Mexico and 5 other countries in Latin America.
DS: In addition to your training for trauma healing and conflict transformation you’ve been trained in environmental education?
EH: My undergraduate training was in recreation and outdoor education and my first love has always been environmental education.
DS: What is the tie between trauma healing and the environmental education?
EH: I came to realize there is a soul wound in our relationship with the earth and that’s one of the great things about being here with the Mayans. There’s the opportunity to come full circle. It used to be environmental education was concentrating on how we take care of the earth. Now, coming full circle with the help of the Mayans and other indigenous groups we understand better how the earth takes care of us.
We can’t be fully healed unless we attend to this relationship with the earth and how this is an essential part of our wholeness. Many people among the Mayans have that very clear. How a healthy relationship with the earth is essential to our relationship with oneself, with others and with God. So I’ve been thinking more in the last four years here about how our reconnecting with nature brings about our healing and how for example a sense of awe is essential to our recognizing something bigger than ourselves, something where hope lies, something that moves our souls. I’m doing more work around that now. How immersing people in nature can be part of their healing process.
DS: So how is this Mayan tradition of relationship with nature transmitted these days?
EH: I would say that not all Mayans today practice or have experience of the relationship. One of the things that the Institute has been doing especially on the Catholic side is helping to reconnect to that spirituality that was connected to Mother Earth. So one of the things that is still practiced but not everyone practices is the Mayan altar. The Mayan altar is always transitory. It is made from things from nature. It is created by the community. Using different flowers but it can also have dirt and seeds and fruit. These are placed in four quadrants representing the four cardinal directions.
And that transitory altar also has candles on it. Once the candles are lit they’re not put out. And the altar lasts as long as the candles last and once the candles die down, the altar is taken apart and the fruits are eaten and everything goes back into nature again.
DS: And the altar is built at a certain time of year.
EH: No it can be at any time the community needs to gather. And we at INESIN always have groups that visit us build a Mayan altar together.
For years Mexican women crossed the border for an abortion in the U.S. Until medication was developed which can terminate a pregnancy the options in Mexico were limited in the second most Roman Catholic country in the world. Following the unanimous Mexican Supreme Court September decision ruling the border State of Coahuila’s anti-abortion law unconstitutional, Mexican activists have been offering assistance to Texas women seeking an abortion.
Co-founder of the Coahuila women’s rights organization Accompañtes Laguna, Laura Hernández, told The New Yorker they had already helped 3 U.S. women and are establishing the protocol to aid more. “It’s painful to know that not everyone can access the same rights,” Hernández said. “We feel a great responsibility toward women there.”
Two drugs enable a woman to terminate a pregnancy. While they both require a prescription in the U.S., in Mexico they are prescribed for treatment of gastric ulcers and other disorders and sold over the counter. As the Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gerson explains however, a new Texas law criminalizes delivering those medications to women in the seventh week of pregnancy and beyond, potentially placing at risk anyone making them available.
Another Mexican Right to Choose organization, Las Libres (“The Free Ones”) is now busy building a “confidential network to give women instructions on use of the drugs and accompanying them throughout the procedure.” They offer close oversight on the day the medication is administered and daily check-ins thereafter. A Las Libres organizer was asked if she is worried about being sued in the U.S. for aiding the women. “No, not really.” When asked if Las Libres has found a way around the TX law she responded, “We are doing it.”
In the U.S. today, the right to abortion is threatened as never before since the historic 1972 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Laws restricting access to abortion and calling for harsh penalties if violated are being considered and passed in many States with Republican majority legislatures. In Texas with the 2021 SB 8 TX law, the New York Times wrote that “effectively, nearly all abortions in the state have been banned since the law went into effect.”
Appointment during the Trump administration of a sixth conservative justice to the 9 member U.S. Supreme Court has placed on alert activists and the public majority in the country which favors a woman’s right to choose. With the Court decision to hear arguments in December against a harsh new Mississippi anti-abortion law, Mexican women’s assistance of women in Texas and other States takes on added significance.
Although a minority, the strategies of packing U.S. courts with ideological conservatives, taking control of State legislatures and further restricting access to voting have paid off for Republicans. Some of the super wealthy intent on expanding their fortunes are bank rolling right wing thinkers in universities, foundations and politics. At a time when U.S. young adults openly denounce capitalism, some conservative voices have been heard espousing authoritarian rule and the pitfalls of democracy. Utah Senator Mike Lee wrote a pair of tweets last fall arguing that “democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace and prosperity are.”
Throughout the “American century”, as the publisher Henry Luce named the last century, U.S. relations with other nations sought to promote capitalist economic policies as essential to a democracy. It now seems likely that this doctrine will be increasingly disputed by partisans of the right and the left. In such a time of confusion and uncertainty, with little consensus on what is truth and its most reliable source, some of us find cause for hope in the actions and voices of world citizens outside the U.S.
The solidarity of Mexican women with U.S. women choosing to have an abortion is another example of the role of international support and solidarity in the defense and progress of human rights in the world today. Christians celebrated Sunday November 28 as the first Sunday of Advent, the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. Traditionally, the theme for that Sunday is hope. As we contemplate sources of hope in our lives, on the social plane the work of the Mexican activists on behalf of us all stands out.
“Today, empires are striking back in new forms, with their own dictatorial requirements of allegiance to mammon, market, consumerism, militarism, sexism, racism, fascism, and fundamentalism.” Summarizing the context for global mission in our time with these words, 1000 plus delegates from churches around the world issued the 2018 Arusha Call to Discipleship . Inspired by the theme of “Moving in the Spirit: Called to Transforming Discipleship,” the Conference adopted the Arusha Call challenging the world’s 2.4 billion Christians to live in “transforming Discipleship”. Unfortunately, most Christians, clergy and lay, in the world’s largest “Christian” nation, the United States, have never heard of the Call much less studied any part of it.
Organized by the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Mission and Evangelism the Conference represented the largest international gathering focused on Christian mission since 1910. The World Council is “a fellowship” of 350 plus churches in 110 countries representing over 500 million Christians. Nearly all formerly “mainline” U.S. Protestant denominations are active, and multi-national Orthodox and Roman Catholic leaders participate in some of the meetings as “observers”. Church bodies based in the global South, now out number the Council members from the North thus mirroring the profound change in world Christianity over the last hundred years.
The Arusha Call bears the stamp of church leaders in Africa, where the number of Christians and churches is growing fastest, and in other poor nations of the southern hemisphere. The Call departs significantly from the historic 1910 Edinburgh “World Missionary Conference” emphasis on conversion in the context of colonial rule. Chaired by U.S. Methodist John R. Mott, the Edinburgh 1910 Conference was guided by the theme “Evangelization of the World in This Generation”. The charge it made to Protestants, especially in the U.S. and Europe, led to significant increases in recruitment of missionaries and the funding of mission conceived by most as a project of conversion of people and nations to Christianity.
With a new conception of evangelism, the Arusha Call urges all Christians to see themselves as “missionaries”: “If we wish evangelism to be convincing today, the first thing we must do is to be disciples”. Its section on “Disciples Committed to Evangelism” concludes with the clear statement, “The more we are true disciples of Christ, the more effective our evangelism will be.” In the introduction to the Call, it is described as issuing a warning against the attitude of some former missionaries and mission agencies, “Humility and sacrifice are urgently needed to liberate the gospel from captivity to projects of self-aggrandizement”.
Charged with leading the way in interpreting and supporting implementation of the Arusha Call is the World Council’s Commission on Mission and Evangelism. One year after the Conference in Arusha, the Commission leadership noted that the “Call to Discipleship” has been seen as “exhilarating, transformative and challenging to the point of discomfort for some”. The Commission’s Moderator, director of the Student Christian Movement in India, Metropolitan Dr. Geevarghese Mor Coorilos commented on one of the roots of the controversy over the Call, “It is a specific exhortation to ensure the purity of faith, to make sure that the faith was not corrupted.” Rev. Dr Janet Corlett, vice moderator for the commission and a former Director of the South London Mission, also commented, “The Arusha Call was the outcome, the consensus of the meeting, and I believe it was a very prophetic call.”
One month after the Call was published by the World Council and its Commission, the chief leaders of four North American churches – the Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran Churches in the U.S. and their counterparts in Canada commended the “richness of the Arusha Call to Discipleship and invited their members to embrace the call”. To this date, there has been little to no attention to the Arusha Call among other North American denominations. A leading source of news on religion in the U.S., the Religion News Service, has ignored the Arusha Call.
The Arusha Call to Discipleship and accompanying commentaries by the Conference participants can be downloaded free from the World Council of Churches’ website:
“We represent a growing number of evangelical Christians who are unwilling to support mission events led by American evangelist Franklin Graham. We find it hard to reconcile his public and partisan statements on such issues as immigration, poverty, gun control and Israel with our understanding of the teaching and values of Jesus Christ.”
These words began a February 7 letter to The Guardian newspaper written by seventeen “evangelical Christian” pastors who oppose Franklin Graham’s upcoming tour of the U.K. The leaders serving parishes across England and Wales wrote in support of the action of eight commercial venues which recently cancelled the Graham team’s booking of their space. The Guardian reported that in justifying the cancellation, many of the venues had indicated that statements by Graham “were incompatible with their values, and that his appearance would be “divisive, could be disruptive or lead to a breach of the peace.”
Opposition to the Graham tour has come from a variety of civil society groups and jurisdictions. The newspaper referred to “protests by LGBTQ+ activists, petitions and requests from local councils”. Contributing to the ardent opposition is widespread dismay among some of the most prominent Christians in the U.K. over Graham’s outspoken support for Donald Trump’s policies. Liverpool’s Bishop Paul Bayes has said ‘If people want to support rightwing populism anywhere in the world they are free to do so. The question is how are they going to relate that to their Christian faith?”
Without naming Franklin Graham, Bishop Bayes singled out “self-styled evangelicals” in the U.S. for criticism, “Some of the things that have been said by religious leaders seem to collude with a system that marginalises the poor, a system which builds walls instead of bridges, a system which says people on the margins of society should be excluded, a system which says we’re not welcoming people any more into our country.” Bayes’ statements at the end of 2017 coincided with implied rebuke of Trump in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas Day message the same year. In a remark widely interpreted as aimed at Trump, Archbishop Justin Welby denounced “populist leaders that deceive”.
Franklin Graham’s endorsement of Trump came as no surprise to those who knew of the Southern Baptist preacher’s fervent support for the War in Iraq,
blanket condemnation of the Muslim religion, and his ongoing denunciation of homosexuals. His characterization of Islam as an “evil and wicked religion” soon after the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks helped build the case for the invasion of Iraq two years later. He is a leading advocate of “conversion therapy” and has compared the conversion of individuals from ‘gay’ to ‘straight’ with the experience of conversion to the Christian faith.
For U.S. citizens in a presidential election year, the perception of U.K. Christians that Graham’s positions sow discord and division within the culture should be especially troubling. If a leader and spokesperson for “evangelical Christians” in the U.S. is deemed capable of “disturbing the peace” in U.K. communities, we are led to question what has been the high profile pastor’s effect on communities in his own country. Some of us find it disturbing that notice of the cancellations and opposition to the tour in the U.K. appeared in a British-based newspaper and in none of the leading U.S. news outlets. In contrast to non-coverage of the British Christians’ response to Graham, an Oct. 5, 2019 article in the Los Angeles Times reported on Graham lauding Trump during a tour of several U.S. cities in the midst of the House impeachment inquiry.
When the columnist covering Religion for the left-leaning Atlantic magazine in the U.S. chooses to describe Franklin Graham as representing “the best impulses of Christianity” (Emma Green in The Atlantic May 21, 2017), one has to wonder if journalists in the U.S. have opted for “kid glove” coverage of Billy Graham’s son’s public pronouncements and actions. One also has to wonder if the high profile Christian leader’s ill-informed, thoughtless positions on present day social issues make it much harder for U.S. young adults to feel they belong in a Christian community or claim the Christian faith as their own.
Honest, true to oneself interpretation of life in another culture is a calling in our day and age. It is also for us Americans counter cultural. The U.S. culture has not customarily celebrated what we learn and how we grow through cross-cultural encounters. As a child in the 1950’s I was assured that the U.S. was the best country to be born in as well as the most generous, best intentioned democracy on the planet. Following our leadership in defeating the fascist armies in WW II, we had seemingly become that “city on the hill” that the pilgrim envisioned in migrating to our shore.
We now know better that such youthful exuberance can lead to hubris, a sense of entitlement vis a vis other countries, and arrogance. How do we as individuals and a nation pursue relationships of equality and mutual respect with other nations when we at some level believe we know how to fix everything and can deploy the resources to do it? How do we relate to other cultures and other nations as individuals and as a nation?
Whether we embrace cross cultural encounters or view other cultures with suspicion and fear is a vital question in all eras. But it assumes greater importance in a time when the U.K. has voted to abandon its membership in the European Common Market and the U.S. foreign policy protects its “national interests” by repudiating former agreements and treaties. Since the 2016 U.S. election, the U.S. has rejected participation in the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear agreement. We have also ceased funding of the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court, and withdrawn from the Global Pact on Migration and the UN Arms Trade Treaty.
I believe we as individuals do have models to follow for mutually beneficial relationships with other cultures and nations. Consider the testimonials of U.S. citizens serving in other countries. The Global Ministries’ Division of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Christian Church Disciples of Christ (DOC) in the U.S. calls them “Mission Co-Workers” to emphasize how they work in a partnership of mutuality with citizens of the countries they serve in. One of the more than 100 “Mission Co Workers” now working in such a partnership has written about her life in Morocco, a majority Muslim country with very few Christians. Born in Haiti, Emmanuela L’occident wrote the following in her first year of service in North Africa:
“My biggest challenge here is to go beyond what I know of the world and grasp whatever this new country has to offer. Daily, we face some things we’ve never seen and we are sometimes prone to reject or to impose our way of thinking. Having a position of power here is a really complex dynamic where I constantly have to analyze and make sure to give my brothers and sisters, who are also my colleagues here, the opportunity to decide freely while benefiting of my input. I am forever grateful for all the things I have learned so far and how transformed I am by what I’ve seen, heard and lived.”
In a recent Opinion piece for the New York Times David Brooks urged Democrats to counter the current U.S. administration’s anti-immigrant policies and language “with the pluralist mind-set (which) acknowledges that God’s truth is radically dispersed”. In the column titled “How to Beat Trump on Immigration” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/opinion/trump-immigration.html?searchResultPosition=2) Brooks suggests “Pluralism offers us the chance, and the civic duty, to be a daring social explorer, venturing across subcultures, sometimes having the exciting experience of being the only one of you in the room, harvesting the wisdom embedded in other people’s lifeways”. What Brooks calls the “pluralist mind-set” is beautifully described by another Global Ministries “Mission Co-Worker” living in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico.
Now in her twenties, Abigail Fate writes, “My coworkers thoroughly address all my concerns and go out of their way to make sure that I have fresh coffee and that I understand what I’m doing. The children we work with in markets around the city have begun to recognize me, and eagerly tell me about their lives. They listen carefully as I explain the games we’re playing, while still giggling and correcting my Spanish.” Summing up her experience to date, she writes, “I have been met with unwavering patience and kindness in every aspect of my life here. Though there are many challenges, and it’s often difficult, I can already see this city and these people becoming home. And I can’t wait to see how my story will continue to unfold.”
Abi and Emmanuela are committed to value, respect and learn from the cultural traditions and lifestyle in their new homes. Like all “Mission Co-Workers”, they find that the mutuality approach of our international Church partnerships greatly assist in meeting the challenges of life in a very different culture. As representatives of two U.S.-based Christian denominations (U.C.C. and D.O.C.) working for mutuality and equality among cultures, they would agree with Brooks that “Only people who are securely rooted in their own particularity are confident enough to enjoy the encounter with difference.”
I am convinced that in this time of unprecedented devaluation of other cultures and of our nation’s agreements with other countries, we may discover new, larger dimensions of our “particularity” as Christians, and as human beings, in a multi-cultural world. That Jesus proclaimed God’s love is universal there can be no doubt. That it has always been challenging for followers of Jesus to reflect that love in relationships with persons of other faiths and other cultures there can also be no doubt.
Today as citizens of the U.S., the nation with the largest Christian population, we need not leave the country to respond to the calling to demonstrate love and respect for persons of other faiths and cultures. In the U.S. of our time, we are offered opportunities on a daily basis to live with “a pluralist mind-set”. In our “particularity” as U.S. citizens, Christian and non-Christian, we can progress towards a more “pluralist mind set” by learning and growing through our encounters with people of other cultures. Living today in the U.S., we all can be transformed by what we’ve “seen, heard and lived” among people of other cultures.
U.S. poet Carolyn Forché has written the book of her lifetime and that of many other young U.S. citizens who left their homeland in the sixties and seventies and returned as changed persons to their homeland like “strangers in a strange land”. In Forche’s life, it was El Salvador in the late 1970’s that left the indelible marks on her consciousness that she has since interpreted with her poetry and the poetry of other witnesses to resistance and courage. It took her forty years but we can now celebrate her devotion to the truth and her craft that compelled her to write the story of her expanding awareness of what it was like to be a Salvadoran shortly before the 12 years of Civil War in the country.
Before the poet’s first visit to El Salvador in 1978, she might have read that the life expectancy of a Salvadoran male was 47, that of a female slightly longer. Eighty per cent of the population lived without running water, sanitation or electricity and one out of five children died before age five. Forché might also have read the 1931 dispatch of a U.S. military attaché that still held true after fifty years of dictatorship backed by the military: “30 or 40 families own nearly everything in the country. They live in almost regal style……The rest of the population has practically nothing.” Her empathy and her heart compelled her to learn the truth behind the facts and communicate what she learned with this book.
Explaining why she went, she wrote, “Although I had a college education, I knew very little about the rest of the world.” Her translation of a revolutionary Salvadoran female poet had brought her to the attention of the man who drove hundreds of miles to issue the invitation to learn about his country and the world. In many ways the main character and driving force of the book, Leonel Gómez Vides, describes her task during her first experience of rural El Salvador, “You could use your time here to learn what it is to be Salvadoran, to become that young woman over there who bore her first child at 13 and who spends all her days sorting tobacco leaves according to their size.”
Her host, guide, protector, mentor Leonel is a well connected, highly accomplished member of the Salvadoran elite whose coffee plantation and wealth allow him access to all sides in the country’s looming conflict. The movement to break “the silence of misery endured” is growing and Leonel tells her, “The Civil War is three years ahead, five at the most”. In persuading her to accept his invitation he avers it will be “like visiting Vietnam before the War there”.
There are indeed many disturbing parallels with the horror Americans became accustomed to hearing about during the prolonged U.S. War in Southeast Asia. On her 7 “extended” stays in El Salvador between her first visit in January 1978 and the outbreak of the guerrilla fighting in mid 1980, Forché is a witness to the torture, intimidation and dismembering of the poor and those who side with them. She meets with leaders of those carrying out the gruesome repression, the Salvadoran intelligence and military men who are “trained by U.S. advisors”, the unsettling refrain we have become accustomed to reading and hearing since the early 1960’s. Before she reaches age 30, Forche is taken inside a prison on the Guatemalan border where captives are held in wooden boxes the size of washing machines, reminiscent of the “tiger cages” used for political prisoners in Vietnam.
Three times Forché is herself pursued by “death squads” responsible for “disappearing” suspected opponents of the ruling elite. That she continues to return to a country threatening terror and death is powerful testimony to the conviction and courage of those serving the Salvadoran poor and to the impact of what the poet is learning from them. Describing herself as a “fallen Catholic”, she finds herself interacting with priests and church servants as the leading defenders of the poor. She meets a priest in a rural “Christian base community” who tells her, “To be with God now is to choose the fate of the poor, to be with them, to see through their eyes and feel through their hearts, and if this means torture and death, we accept. We are already in the grave.”
Without polemic or any socio economic analysis of the historical background or U.S. economic interests in El Salvador, Forché simply and directly relates the nature of U.S. involvement in the country. It is apparent that the involvement prioritizes a heightened military repression of the people and organizations dedicated to improving the living conditions of the Salvadoran poor. The official at the U.S. Embassy responsible for U.S. health aid to the country explains she doesn’t have time to visit the clinics and hospitals the U.S. aid intends to support. “I have plenty of work to do right here at my desk” she responds pointing to a pile of papers. In spite of the Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights, the new U.S. Ambassador tells Forché that the truth about the U.S. citizen dropped from a Salvadoran army helicopter during the previous Ambassador’s term will not be pursued. Forché later learns that most of the plastic latrines distributed in the health official’s “latrinization program” were dismantled for housing construction.
In taking the land and the suffering of the people to heart, the poet finds it hard to return home as the armed conflict nears. Among the book’s homages to Archbishop Oscar Romero is her account of how “the voice of the poor” encourages her to return home and tell the truth about the conflict in his country. When she expresses doubt she can do that “he assured me that the time would come for me to speak and that I must prepare myself and I could do that best through prayer.” She last speaks with the saintly Archbishop days before his assassination in the capital’s cathedral, not long before the outbreak of Civil War.
During 12 years of armed conflict, 100,000 lives are taken, 8,000 “disappear”, 500,000 citizens are displaced and 500,000 flee the country, thereby beginning the tide of Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S. Concluding the book’s masterful portrayal of the elusive character of Leonel Gómes Vides, Forché describes his leading role in bringing about the peace accord. The mysterious stranger who appears on her San Diego doorstep at the book’s outset is revealed in the end as the heroic reconciler of the factions.
After the peace agreement is reached, Forché finally began to write her account of what she has seen and learned. Fifteen years later this important, lyrically written document was published not long after Leonel died in a hospital. Among his achievements was choosing Carolyn Forché to tell the truth about his country’s suffering. He told her early on, “I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing, this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.” Most readers will agree that Forché has succeeded on all three counts with this book. She has overcome all the difficulties of immersing us in the agony of contemporary El Salvador and making us and the Salvadoran people, some of our neighbors today, more human.
Dr. Mukwege’s Nobel Peace Prize represents an advance of the Congolese people – and all humanity. Could it be that his award will do more to bring about the political change desparately needed in in Congo than all the millions of dollars and the lives expended in peacekeeping in the still war torn nation?
On April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King spoke out against the U.S. waging war on Vietnam. His “Beyond Vietnam” sermon will undoubtedly stand as a landmark speech in the history of the United States. Among the words of powerful prophecy we read,
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality [applause], and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about…
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It’s been a miserable week. Monday morning at 6 am it began at the Poor People’s Campaign rally with someone reminding me that the Trump administration would that day confirm the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In protest of the provocative change in U.S. policy and the conditions of their virtual incarceration in Gaza, over sixty Palestinians were shot and killed and 2700 wounded by Israeli troops on the border. Official U.S. response was to condemn the Palestinian support for Hamas as their true representatives followed by opposition to any U.N. investigation of Palestinian unarmed civilians being shot down by the Israeli Defense Force.
As the week ends, the first death from the ebola virus is confirmed in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo where I lived more than two years and have many friends. Monday a friend had posted on Facebook that in the town of Boyeka where he pastors 14 persons, 11 from the same family, had died from ebola back in January and February. Rev. Prosper Elombe’s reports of the deaths to Congolese government health officials had gone unheeded.
Another friend, Dieudonné Boleko, who works in the Disciples of Christ headquarters in Mbandaka wrote on Facebook of Rev. Elombe’s efforts, “No one paid attention to your cries of distress. Finally (with the deaths in the more populated Bikoro area) the national government has awakened and declared the cause to be an ebola outbreak.” On Monday Boleko commented further, “I remember well your warnings and you should now be considered a hero. It’s a disgrace that the health services of the State did nothing.”
Alarmed by the disease’s potential to spread in the city of one million people, international health agencies have now sent equipment to protect those treating the ebola victims in Mbandaka’s Equateur Province. The Disciples Church administers 6 hospitals, 9 maternity centers and 42 health clinics in the Province and its first hospital, established in Bolenge over one hundred years ago, is located only fifteen kilometers from Mbandaka. To educate the populace on ebola’s symptoms, precautions they need to take, and to avoid the overwhelming of the health services by those wanting to be tested for the disease, Dieudonné Boleko is coordinating a team to present information at churches, schools and markets in the Mbandaka area.
The week concluded with the news from Texas that 10 more children had been shot and killed – by a classmate this time – and 10 wounded. As I sat down to write this, I was distracted by thoughts of how the epidemic of mass shootings had become our ebola crisis in this country. As I compared the response to the scourges challenging our two countries, there was little doubt that Congo was far ahead in stemming the spread of ebola. In this country, those favoring the absurdly dangerous proliferation of sophisticated weapons have halted any progress on diagnosing the cause of the U.S. epidemic of mass killing. As a result we lag far behind in agreeing on and implementing measures of prevention or cure.
One diagnosis and cure for the illness afflicting the U.S. has been offered through the leadership of Rev. William Barber and others organizing the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign. I celebrate their reminding us all of Martin Luther King’s diagnosis in 1967: “A nation spending more on weaponry and armaments than on services for the poor and disadvantaged is approaching spiritual death” King declared. As for the cure, King called for, and Barber emphasizes today, the need for “a revolution in values” in this country.
A story told of Dorothy Day casts light on a life dedicated to the “revolution” King envisioned. On inquiring where she might be found in the Catholic Worker house in lower Manhattan, a journalist was told she was in the kitchen. As the writer approached the small gray headed woman helping wash oversized pots, Dorothy Day asked if he wanted to speak with her or the shabbily dressed, homeless man next to her. On recalling the story this time I realized it is not about Day’s humility. In the context of mourning and concern for the devaluing of human lives on display in our international interventions and current U.S. domestic policies, Day’s respect and love for the worn down man with her stood out. Her love for all human beings, all children of her Creator, that drove and shaped her whole life shines forth as the cure we all need.
Respecting the privacy of my Congolese friends, I have changed their names for this blog posting.