Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pandora's Hope

Three distinguished campaigners for peace, justice, and sustainability presented a panel discussion on “Pandora’s Hope: A Livable World in a Nuclear Age,” Thursday, July 17, at Skyridge Church of the Brethren in Kalamazoo.

Tom Small, environmental activist, who introduced the panel, and Robert Weir, author of “Peace, Justice, Care of the Earth,” who moderated, explained the Greek myth of Pandora, whose curiosity compelled her to open a box of “gifts,” which released all the evils now afflicting humankind. The last gift in the box, however, was Hope. Is there hope, they asked, in this age of crisis, threatened with nuclear annihilation, disastrous climate changes and massive extinctions of species.

Each panelist addressed the question in a different way. Mike Nickerson, a founding member of the Green Party of Canada and author of “Planning for Seven Generations” and “Life, Money and Illusion: Living on Earth As If We Want to Stay,” explained that throughout humanity’s very long childhood and adolescence, more people, more powerful tools, and cheaper, more efficient energy enabled us to better provide for each other. But now that we’ve reached maturity, filled the earth, and are exhausting its resources, this same process is drastically undermining our well-being.

“The main obstacle,” he said, “to solving our present complex of problems is the customs and institutions that were established in the past to encourage growth. It’s a question of direction. Will we continue to expand until we cause irreparable damage, or will we choose a new direction and provide for our needs in a way that can be sustained indefinitely on this wonderful planet?”

Nickerson is the husband and activist partner of Donna Dillman, who spoke of the destructive power of uranium weapons and uranium mining. When uranium mining was to begin last fall near her eastern Ontario home, she fasted for 68 days to protest and to raise public awareness of the dangers.

“When the full cycle of mining, generation, atomic weaponry, and waste disposal is considered, nuclear technology is not cheap, not safe, not clean, and certainly not affordable,” Dillman stated.

"When dealing with one of the most serious matters on the planet,” she said, “drastic measures become necessary.”

The third panelist, Cliff Kindy, organic farmer and long-time peace activist, spoke of his experience as a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq, both before and during the current Iraq War, most recently to teach nonviolent peace-action techniques in the northern Kurdish area.

While there, Kindy learned of radiation contamination illnesses and birth defects which increased dramatically in areas most affected by the depleted-uranium weapons used by the U.S. Kindy now leads protests against and studies of the effects of the manufacturing of depleted uranium weapons by Aerojet Ordinance in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

He spoke of the destructive effects of depleted uranium and the fact that though the U.S. continues to manufacture DU weapons, Europe and the U.N. have banned their use.

The forum concluded with animated discussion between the audience and the panelists on ways to change direction and hopes for achieving a livable and sustainable world in a nuclear and destructive age.

Dillman’s final words were, “To protest and to raise public awareness of the dangers we face, we’ll need to be in the streets. I’ll see you there.”

Many thanks to Tom Small who submitted this post.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Prescription for Peace: Moving from Control to Compassion

Father Michael Crosby, OFM Cap., was in New York on September 11 and saw the smoke streaming from the World Trade Center towers. Two days later, as the wind shifted in his direction, his eyes began to water and his mouth and nose became parched. He thenrealized that the smoke contained the remains of both the perpetrators and the victims.

“It was a most powerful experience. In the smoke was the world of good and evil,” he said.

With only a white board, a red and a blue marker and a Bible, the author, lecturer and retreat director led a two-hour discussion on how to counteract violence in our world at the Transformations Spirituality Center of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Nazareth, Mich.

“Control is at the heart of all violence in the world. That is why we have terrorism and counter-terrorism,” said Father Crosby, 68. “And it won’t stop. Power is the ability to influence, it can be a force for good or for harm.”

Totalitarian regimes, for example, use their power by exploiting others, he said. As a market economy, American advertisers use their power by manipulating people’s feelings and identities and by preying on our insecurities. Likewise, the Catholic Church uses its power to dominate others, especially women, through fear and intimidation.

These negative uses of power injure and abuse people and they all come down to the obsessive need to control others and not care about them, he said. And power that employs violence severs relationships in many ways through physical, emotional, sexual, even verbal abuse.

“Verbal abuse all by itself can destroy a relationship,” he said. “It can be a warning of physical abuse to come.”

Father Crosby also railed against institutionalized violence where the system supports unequal relationships as the norm. He illustrated this point with the example of a Pakistani woman who sought a divorce and was murdered by her parents in the name of family or community honor.

“Institutional violence is why we have racism, sexism, ageism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, tribalism, elitism,” said Father Crosby who added that the source of violence is WITHIN us, not outside of us.

"When we are violent it means we don’t care about whether we inflict injury or impose our will on another person. Violence in any form, however, is never justified. It is always a sin.”

Father Crosby criticized the violence done by political commentators like Ann Coulter who call dissenters of the Bush administration’s policy to wage war on Iraq “unpatriotic” and “traitorous.” The Catholic Church has done the same thing by calling people who disagree with the Holy Father disloyal, heretical, and deserving of excommunication.

“We have got to find another way of communicating,” said Father Crosby. “Not to engage in discourse encourages misunderstanding and the need to control. It is unhealthy. Jesus, by contrast, was a most powerful person but he wasn’t violent. The energy of Jesus is spirit….So if God is in me, I must allow God to be a force through me. This requires a change of heart from trying to control others. Then the reign of God is at hand.”

The effect of this change of heart is that we realize that we cannot avoid caring about others, especially when they’re in pain. Instead, we must CHOOSE to be in the reign of God and act on it.

Father Crosby suggests that an alternative response to the violence and counter-violence of 9/11 could have been accomplished through conflict resolution—in the same way that any interpersonal relationship would resolve its issues:

* Agree to stop fighting.

* Engage in active listening, i.e., understanding what the other is saying
without interruption.

* Accept the other person.

* Admit your part in what led to the conflict.

* Say you’re sorry.

* Forgive each other.

“When we become aware that we have been abusing our power, we develop a new pattern,” said Father Crosby, intimating that the United States has not always recognized its domineering relationships with other countries. He pointed out that the first Sept. 11 occurred in 1973, when the United States overthrew the democratically-elected Chilean president, Salvador Allende.

“Compassion is the whole goal of the spiritual world. Justice is making the relationship right. When we have justice, we will have peace.”

Father Crosby maintains a website at

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Death of a Parish

It’s exciting to build new things like churches. The difficulty comes with having to dismantle them, as many Catholics across the country have had to do.

This summer it happened to my hometown parish, St. Conrad’s, located in Melvindale, a small town outside of Detroit. Despite all efforts, the 210 families could no longer keep the parish going.

St. Conrad’s was one of 16 parishes slated to close in the Archdiocese of Detroit, according to a Spring 2006 strategic plan, which reduced the total number of parishes from 306 to 290. The last plan occurred in 1989 when 30 parishes were closed.

At its peak St. Conrad’s had over 400 families, however, the past few years have seen a decline in numbers because parishioners have died, found a new job, or moved to a new home in the suburbs. For the past three years the parish has had a part-time pastor, which means that the parishioners have pretty much run the parish.

What happened to St. Conrad’s reflects a national trend of demographic shifting, financial difficulties, and the priest shortage. So after 42 years as a faith community, St. Conrad’s held its final Mass.

Actually, I wasn’t going to go to the Mass. After seeing my elementary and middle schools and a college where I worked closed and demolished, I didn’t think I could take another “burial” of an institution that had been a vital part of my life. At the last minute, however, I changed my mind and went. And I’m glad I did because it got me thinking about the significance of closing a parish and its relationship to the changes going on in our world today.

St. Conrad’s meant a lot to me. One day, at a time during my greatest need, I turned to this church and kneeled on the hard, tiled floor praying for deliverance. A couple years later God answered my prayer: I became a Catholic and later joined a religious order, which launched my lifelong career in the human service professions. My sister converted to Catholicism at St. Conrad’s, too, and later was married there. My father never became a Catholic but he was married at the parish and eventually he attended weekly Masses, Bible study classes, and participated in various Christian service programs. The parish had provided him with purpose and friendship.

It may sound corny and trite but when you must let go of something precious, you suddenly realize its place in your life. At this last sad but jubilant Mass, parishioners—past and present—had an opportunity to honor the place St. Conrad’s held in their lives. What I also discovered was that even though I hadn’t been a member of the parish since 1975, I was still quite attached to it.

Attachment to a parish has an uncanny effect. A parish represents something bigger than you are, it has a purpose greater than your own ambitions, and it reaches more people than you could ever possibly touch. It also has an enduring presence, which produces fond memories that make you a part of the parish and the parish a part of you. When you lose your parish, it is like losing a limb!

This enduring presence is easy to take for granted because you believe that your parish will always be there for you. And although you can change parishes, you cannot always replace a faith community as you would a material possession that is lost or worn out.

The families who struggled to keep St. Conrad’s going felt a deep commitment to each other as neighbors and friends in a particular place. They knew they had something special and they didn’t want to change it. However, sometimes change happens to us as circumstances create an untenable situation. In losing their parish, the parishioners at St. Conrad’s had to witness yet another painful change.

For many parishioners this latest change was difficult. Some of them went through the Depression and World War II. Some sent their kids to Vietnam or Iraq. They saw the rise and fall of Detroit, the great industrial capital of the world. Most all of them went through the Vatican II changes.

In truth, the parishioners have been witnessing the dismantling of old structures, which is happening everywhere. It happened in New Orleans when the infrastructure could not protect the city from a devastating hurricane and in Minnesota when an interstate freeway bridge suddenly collapsed. It happened in New York City and Washington, D.C. on 9/11 when terrorists attacked the grand symbols of American economic and military might. It is happening now in California where drought has made the forest so dry that there are now 1,000 fires burning and in Alaska where the permafrost is melting and threatening people’s towns and way of life.

The parishioners’ faith has told them that as human beings we are forever challenged to cope with change and that we must differentiate between changing what we can and accepting that which we cannot change.

Saying good-bye to the parish through the Mass was an excellent way of honoring the life and ministry their small faith community had fostered these past 42 years. I have to believe that God’s grace will carry St. Conrad’s parishioners—and all of us experiencing these traumatic changes—into a new and vital future.