Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Lessons from a Small City

Two thousand years ago, in the cloaked hush of a Judean cave, surrounded by the smells and sounds of animals, our Lord Jesus Christ opened human eyes on the world.

Out of the nothingness of that shrouded night, angels sang of glory, poor shepherds left their fields, and rich kings headed out to find their God.

Out of seeming nothingness, our God appeared and consecrated the forgotten, the abandoned, the overlooked space of a simple cave. Our homeless God showed that wealth is a matter of perspective, a matter of looking into the dark forgotten spaces of our hearts, of opening our souls to the impossible and turning our thoughts to the divine.

Out of apparent nothingness, God landed helpless in this world, born of the least of it’s members, a woman who opened herself to the potential disgrace of premarital pregnancy, who risked rejection and even stoning for the sake of her God.

And throughout all of Jesus’ life, from birth to the moment of crucifixion and beyond, he continued to point to the possibilities for hope in the rejected, desperate people and situations he encountered.

Recently, Brockville made the news as one of the most economically difficult places to live. The loss of jobs is taking its toll on our community. And certainly, as the number of visitors to the Food Bank rises, we know that things are not easy for many of our citizens.

But there is hope in this season. You would think with our economic problems, generosity would be scarce in Brockville. You’d think people would be hoarding their pennies. You’d think stinginess would rule this most beautiful of seasons. This is not the case.

The people of Brockville have demonstrated an overwhelming generosity during the past weeks of Advent. While there are many examples of this, from charitable organizations, the Salvation Army and each of the Churches, my most recent experience of Brockville’s generosity comes from the St Mary CHS canned food drive.

Every year the students of St Mary have blown away their record food collection. Starting with 2000 items in the year 2000, they collected 36 290 last year. Yesterday, we learned that this year's total topped 50 000. That's FIFTY thousand items from a city of 22 000 people, and a school of 750. In proportionate terms, that would be like a school in Toronto collecting 4.5 million items (more than two cans for every citizen). How does it happen??

The students take to heart Jesus’ message to care for the least of our neighbors. But this story is so much bigger than one school’s efforts. The community of Brockville has backed this drive 100% since it began. Students have been amazed as donors have responded to their requests for help. Out of nothing, hope has been born by the people of Brockville.

One example out of many: A group of three students told me the story of approaching the check out at the Walmart grocery exit with their cart full of cans, only to have people in the line insist on paying for their order – of over $100. And the donors refused to give their names.

Like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus calls out to us across the ages, “Feed my people”. And though we may feel we have nothing, this community has a wealth of caring that cannot be measured.

Christmas reminds us to be on guard for the miraculous, to take nothing and no one for granted, to open our hearts to the forgotten, and to roll up our sleeves and work for the kingdom. We are all on a journey to the manger, every day of the year, and none of us walk alone.

Thank you Brockville, and merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

SOA Watch November 2010

We stand under clear sunlit skies, small white wooden crosses clutched to our hearts, thousands of us, gathered together to mourn the deaths – the murders – of the innocent in Latin America, victims to soldiers trained at the facility before us, the infamous School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia.

From the temporary stage set up in front of the School – carefully fenced and protected by a line of police against us cross-bearing, peace-wishing unarmed vigil-keepers – the announcers slowly sing out the names of the dead. We respond to each one in a single voice, ‘Presente!’. For the dead live on in our hearts.

My husband, son and I have come for the annual School of the Americas Watch, a Peace Vigil that gathers thousands from across North America and the world each year to call for the closing of the SOA. We have participated in workshops and listened to presentations on social justice and peace throughout the weekend. Those of us who are Christian have prayed and worshipped, and I have had the sense of coming home to a church that still believes peace is possible, that still tries to walk in the footsteps of Christ. Today we gather for the last procession in front of the SOA.

I wait, and listen for the name on my cross: Angela Del Mir, 5 years old. What crime did a 5 year old commit that soldiers trained at this school had to kill her? What sin could you commit at that age which would make it acceptable in anyone’s mind to gun you down in cold blood? I can find no answer. And Angela is not the youngest of the victims whose names are called.

The youngest is an unnamed baby, 3 days old.

I weep as I hold my cross, and we step forward slowly in one united procession. I weep and I wonder how it is possible in this great country of America, that there would be a school set up at taxpayers’ expense explicitly to train Latin American soldiers to oppress their own people.

For that is indeed the purpose of the SOA, recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The School of the Americas had garnered bad press for itself. Apparently American taxpayers were less than impressed when word finally got out about the killing of unarmed villagers as in the case of the hundreds who died in the slaughter of El Mozote, or unarmed missionaries as in the case of the four Maryknoll women, or unarmed Bishops as in the case of Archbishop Oscar Romero, or unarmed priests as in the case of the six Jesuit priests in El Salvador and their housekeeper and her 16 year old daughter. But why change the focus? Just change the name.

There are no wars between Latin American countries. There are only battles within Latin American countries. Why then does the US fund a school to train their militaries?

The answer is simple. By training Latin American militaries to oppress their own people, these militaries will facilitate the operations of American corporations. No US company need fear union formation within Latin American countries. They need not be concerned that they should ever have to pay a living wage, or benefits, or offer job security, or respectable hours. The military will take care of union busting. Slavery is safe with SOA graduates standing by.

No mining company need worry when they take over ancestral lands that the local villagers will stop them. The military will take care of evicting people. Where they go is of no concern to the company.

Safety regulations within mines or factories need not keep company presidents awake at night. The military will ensure that nobody says a word of protest, nobody speaks up for justice, nobody gathers to improve their lives or protect their land.

The graduates of the School of the Americas are in the business of creating silence. There will be no protest from the people. There will be no complaint from the workers. And if there is, death provides an easy solution. The illusion that American companies are bringing jobs to Latin America, that this is not modern slavery, will remain intact behind the guns and helicopters of the graduates of the SOA.

This is why we are here. This is why thousands of us have gathered. We must be the voice for those who have none. We must be the presence for the murdered, the threatened, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the forgotten, the silenced.

I look at the flimsy white cross in my hand, so delicate, so makeshift, no strength to it on its own, then I reach out and place it in one of the openings of the fence, as thousands of others do the same. I look at the faces of those around me, I see their tears, I recognize them as part of my Church, this church of conscience and peace, this church that tries to stand at the foot of the cross, this church that can and must speak for the poor, the mourners, the marginalized, the suffering, the dead. And suddenly my little cross becomes part of something bigger.

We gather here on the second weekend of November, on the anniversary of the deaths of the Jesuits. But speaking out against the SOA must be a year-long endeavor. Even as I write someone in Latin America is forced into silence because of the graduates of the SOA.

Join your voice to all those who call for an end to the SOA. Go to

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In the Footsteps of Moses

Moses, of course, was a murderer.

It’s one of those often forgotten bits of his life story. He kills an Egyptian slavemaster who is beating a Hebrew slave. In Exodus 2:12 we discover, “He [Moses] looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

You’d think the slave would be grateful. You’d think Moses would be celebrated as a hero. But long before ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ is handed down on stone tablets, the people recognize that murder is wrong. Moses has sinned. The slaves reject him, Pharaoh finds out, and Moses must flee to Midian.

Forty years later, Moses has rebuilt his life in exile. Sure, he’s left his kin behind. Sure, he no longer has contact with his brother, his mother, his sister, his people. But he could continue for the rest of his days to live this way, surrounded by his new family, caring for his father-in-law’s sheep on the hills of Midian.

And then the unexpected occurs. As Moses moves the flock through its pastures, something captures his attention: A burning bush, unconsumed, alone on a hilltop. Such a thing has never happened before. Such a thing simply cannot happen. But Moses, the murderer, does not dismiss this apparition as a figment of his mind. Instead, scripture tells us that Moses ‘turned aside’ to examine the bush. And that single decision changes everything.

There’s so much wrapped into the short heart-stopping story of the burning bush. God captivates humanity with the impossible, the curious, the unusual, the sacred. Imagine: flames licking, God calling. And Moses answering, “Here I am.”

It’s all there. “Here I am.” Three words as powerful as ‘I love you’.

Moses, the sinner, gives himself fully to God in the Here I am. And God? God does the same. God embraces utter vulnerability, giving God’s very name to all humanity for the rest of time. YHWH: I Am Who Am; I Will Be Who Will Be. Eternity beckons in this name that speaks to past, present and future all at once.

The giving of a name signifies trust in most cultures. Historically and even in the present, names are understood to carry the essence of our self. We use titles for those who are remote, and first names with those who are closest. Giving one’s name is an act of trust, care and hope for the future.

So when God gifts the name YHWH to the world, a name so sacred that Jews still do not pronounce it, God says you may do what you will to me. I will be your victim. I will be your saviour. I will be who will be. The stage is set for Jesus. Love him. Kill him. Your choice.

And who did God choose to represent us in this eternal moment? None other than the murderer, Moses. Not because he was innocent, not because he was powerful, not because he was successful or smart or popular. He was none of these things at the time – just an exiled murderer, offspring of an enslaved people. But in his simplicity and sinfulness, Moses represents both our best and our worst.

Whatever sins haunt you, whatever sorrows assail you, keep your eyes, ears and heart open. God knows your name, and offers redemption. However imperfect we may be, we can each choose to turn to God. However perfect we maybe, we can each choose to turn away. The call is God’s; the answer is ours. The question is whether or not we’ll give our ‘Here I Am’ to life, to forgiveness, to our neighbour, to God.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

God's Hand

Jesus waits, steady on the shifting water, his feet caressed by slow lapping waves that hide the depths of darkness below. He sees the fishing vessel and looks for Peter. Under that sparkled sky, silently expectant, the Son of Man knows the miracle will happen.

Or does he? Humans are untrusting and untrustworthy creatures, lacking in faith, enchained by the mundane, blindly obeying the laws of physics, of society, and of religion, even though they are blessed by choice, freedom, possibility, and hope. Humans frequently, even usually, let God down.

But Peter, grasping at last the fullness of Truth, rejecting finally his fear, breathing deeply as if for the first time, grips the boat’s gunwales and steps boldly onto water. As called. As required. And stands, eyes wide, pulse smooth, in the impossibility of God’s grace.

This one moment, this one choice, this one decision, this eternal memory, lives in the hearts of believers forever, empowering all risk takers, rule-breakers and faith seekers for generations to come. For the ones who speak for change, for the ones who stand for justice, for the ones who work for peace, for the ones who won’t give up – for all of them, for himself, for God – Peter walks on water.

It doesn’t last of course. Behind him in the boat, the other disciples, the friends of Jesus, quake in fright, trembling in terror, shouting loudly that it isn’t possible, that Peter will drown, and refuse to join in and step foot out of the boat. And Peter, although he wants to believe and struggles to make the moment last by desperately clinging to his splintering faith, begins to doubt and starts to sink.

Jesus’ hand snaps forward, quickly reaching, firmly catching, and pulls Peter back from the abyss. Gasping and still wide-eyed, believing and doubting together, all at once, Peter, the repeatedly redeemed one, the frequent failure, standing for all humanity, looks not at the water, not at the boat, not at the stars, not anywhere else, but at the hand of God that holds his own.

And the question that returns ever again, that nags and persists always and forever, to each generation, to each individual, to me, is simply, if God asked me to do the impossible, if God beckoned me to come to him, if God suggested that I embrace the absurd, if God required me to ignore all human wisdom, all experience, all history, all law, if God called me to walk on water, would I trust in his hand and give it a try?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's been a long long time since I've posted. So much happening. I'm so proud of all the students and their participation in our recent Walk Against Poverty. We fundraise a lot (and it's a great thing!), but in the long term justice may serve people better than charity. [Picture by Kayla Kennedy]

Friday, April 16, 2010

More on Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church

The following is a letter that I sent to the CCCB last October. Several Brockville friends signed it with me. Sadly, but not surprisingly we received no response. Here it is:

October 25, 2009

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
c/o Most Reverend V. James Weisgerber
President of CCCB
2500 Don Reid Drive
Ottawa, Ontario
K1H 2J2
Dear Archbishop Weisgerber and Bishops:
We are a group of practicing Catholics, deeply concerned and disillusioned by the ongoing procession of mishandled cases of sexual misconduct by Catholic clergy. The recent arrest of former bishop Lahey is only the latest in a series of such incidences. These cases have led to the unimaginable suffering of too many youth, and, as a side product, tainted the vocation of the Catholic priest. We write to you today to insist that an investigation be mounted into the system established to deal with this travesty of morality and justice.
The case of Raymond Lahey breaks the heart. To discover that Church officials were aware of his dealings with child pornography at least twenty years ago, and yet did nothing, defies rational explanation. The subjection of children to sexual slavery for the entertainment of adults surely cannot be acceptable to our Church leaders. Why then, did Raymond Lahey retain his position until he was finally arrested? How many children were photographed and demeaned for his pleasure? How could those who hold positions of trust in our Church not intercede for them?
We had expected that the issue would be raised during your recent plenary session. Yet there is no evidence that the topic was considered at all, according to your website. Is this not a ‘life issue’? Does the question of sexual abuse not matter as much as Anglican-Catholic dialogue?
We are disheartened. We are disillusioned. And yes, we are angry. As lay Catholics we have stood by, trusting those in authority to deal in an honourable manner with these kinds of cases. We were wrong to do so. Too many children have suffered both in Canada and overseas by our silence, and our willingness to trust our leaders to put children first.
Change is long overdue. It is time for laypersons and clergy to convene, and together devise a system that will not allow for cover up in the case of sexual immorality and abuse. Self-regulation of the clerical structure of the Church has failed and must be redesigned.
Difficult questions must be asked: How can the voices of women and married men be included in future decision-making beyond a simple advisory capacity? How can trust be restored to those who feel their children are at risk, and their needs abandoned? What can we do to make sure nothing like this happens again, ever?
We write to you with faith in Christ. We remind you of His words in Matthew 25: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my own, that you do to me.”
Our children, our faith, our Church. Help us save them.

Catherine Cavanagh
And others

Monday, April 12, 2010

Inspiring Biblical Women

I enjoy reflecting on the true stories behind the sketches we get in scripture of the biblical women. For me, fleshing out their stories is as valid a way of interpreting scripture as any other, and in fact follows the ancient Jewish tradition of midrash (the retelling of a biblical story to make a moral point). Here's my version of the Mary Magdalene story, originally published in the Brockville Voice and in New Catholic Times. It's not the Da Vinci code, just a reflection on God's love for humanity:

Mary Magdalene

Before dawn Mary strides through the garden, searching for the cave, the tomb, while the gardener stands motionless, waiting for her. The chill of Judean nights gives no hint of the warmth of Judean days. Only his eyes travel, while her feet stumble on the path.
They told her not to come, those so-called friends, those disciples of his. They told her not to risk it. But she will not be denied. Not now. Not ever.
It takes an eternity to find the cave with a flickering candle. And the jars full of oil to anoint the dead weigh heavily in her arms. She presses on until at last a deeper dark rises before her, a cleft where there should be rock.
Someone has moved the entrance stone to the tomb. She is grateful. She leans gingerly into the hole, dreading and hoping, and light dances against rock. She steps closer, then gasps. The shadow of a crumpled linen trembles in the candlelight.
She finds the cave empty, silent, abandoned.
He is not there. There is no one, nothing, just a gaping emptiness in the rock and in her heart. How can this be?
Mary bows her head. It isn’t possible. It has been so hard; the hope shattered by his death, her own new beginning cut off, ending as he took a last struggling breath on that monstrosity of wood. She allows her tears to fall, disappearing into the darkness at her feet.
Time passes, silent, endless in the loneliness of the cave.
At last she places her hand on the cool stone, and feels courage flow towards her from the yawning hole behind. A vestige left from him perhaps. Or a gift from an angel.
She raises her head, strengthens her resolve. She will not allow this to be the end, nor concede this moment to defeat. Freed by his hand of seven demons, her heart will no longer be contained. She has already won this battle for her soul.
She thinks, breathes deeply, remembers his words: “Seek and ye shall find, ask and it shall be given to you”. She deposits the now useless jars of oil, senses the new lightness in her arms, the freedom to move, and peers into the darkness of the garden.
There was a presence hiding out there earlier, a shade hidden in the trees. The gardener. She turns and moves back along the path, pushing aside bushes, scrambling through hedges. Where is that gardener? Where is that man?
He waits while she struggles.
It never occurs to her to walk away, that the search may be futile. The seeking itself creates a strange alchemy; it builds her strength, turns sorrow to anger, transforms grief to fire. And when the fire is burning like a watch fire in the night, when it is flaming in her belly like a sacrificial pyre, he is before her, rising out of the mist, surfacing from her dreams, this gardener, this keeper of God’s creation, this caregiver of fragile earth.
She cries, she demands, “Why have they stolen him? Where have they taken him? What have you done to him?”
For a moment, there, in the greyness of rising dawn, he says nothing, savouring this instant, delaying this hoped for resolution, which for three days has kept him from infinity, held him back from the temptation of nothingness, the escape from a beloved but ungrateful humanity, an adored but uncaring world.
Now, humanity has come to him after all, he who was beaten, dead, and lost. Here stands the evidence of faith, the meaning of resurrection, the revelation of God, the hope of all tomorrows.
He breathes softly the word on his heart, in his soul, to this faithful disciple: “Mary.”
And she knows. She understands. Even before the first rays of sun break across the horizon, even before the first bird launches into song, even before the first waft of heat and light hit his face, she knows. The later storytellers will tell how she collapsed before him, how she called him ‘Teacher’. But for an atomic measure of time, an eternity of existence, seeker stood before sought, God stood before mortal, and hope bound itself to love in one enduring embrace.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church

I'm saddened but not surprised to read that the attempts to bury Priest sexual abuse of minors has finally tainted the Pope. Of course the Pope has been involved. Either he and his predecessors sanctioned the willingness to ignore abuse over the years (including in their earlier Vatican roles), or they're incompetent for ignoring it. Or worse, as seems the case with this Pope, they deliberately contributed to letting the perpetrators get on with it. Either way, I'm deeply frustrated by the degree of moral corruption in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church.
The hierarchy rarely seems to put the needs of the poor and the marginalized first despite the Church's beautiful teachings to do so. It's frustrating to speak up against oppression within the Church over and over again, and hear no answer from our so-called leaders. Why don't they listen to women, children, the poor, the laity? Heck, why don't they listen to God?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Olympic Moments

The first update in forever (or at least since the games started)! I love the Olympics. Love the spirit behind them, the excellence of the athletes, the camaraderie of the fans, the coming together of nations. Having said that, and I hardly dare ask this, but if we spent that kind of money on global education or health care, could we not solve a lot of problems? Is there some way to do both? Just wondering...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Keep the Conversation Going

Thanks to Pastor Jonathan Zinck and the members of the Pier Church for inviting me to meet and speak with the congregation last Sunday! Everyone made me feel so welcome and the service was outstanding. When we take the time to converse, we all grow in understanding. Thank you so much for helping me grow.

Here's the story about the midwives that several people asked about:

Then the King of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives*, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” (Exodus 1:15) [*Egyptians who ministered to birthing Hebrews]

A Baby is a Baby:
Shiphrah and Puah glide into the hut after dark, their footsteps muffled by sand and by the moaning of the woman on the mat. Little Miriam continues pressing her fingers into her mother’s back. She kneads and pushes, as the shadows fall across her. Miriam’s mother looks up in desperation. The baby twists and assaults her. He is strong.

Shiphrah and Puah deposit their urns of water and oil, then lay out cloths – clean linens even for a Hebrew slave. A baby is a baby. Even so, they hope it is a girl.

The command was clear. Kill all the Hebrew boys.

Miriam relaxes into the background as the partners take over. They whisper encouragement, give hope, inject fortitude. Stories unfold in the night. The midwives bring peace and a vigilant eye.

Hours disappear, and at last the mother grabs the rope securely tied from the roof. She holds, pushes, groans – a tiny cry, a fist, and the midwives have caught the infant. The woman has produced her third. A boy.

Miriam reads the worry in the midwives’ eyes even as they smile, murmur congratulations, and wrap the child. Her mother cries softly, and holds the baby close.

Then Shiprah speaks, “It’s amazing you had that baby so fast, even before we got here.”

“A miracle birth,” adds Puah. “You Hebrews are so strong.” She shakes her head in feigned wonder, her long silhouette quivering against the mud wall.

Miriam’s mother looks up, eyes wide.

“Well, since we have nothing to do, we’ll go,” says Shiphrah. She begins to pack their cloths, the soiled beneath the clean.

Miriam’s mother sits and cannot speak. Then gestures to Miriam to bring the flatbread wrapped in the basket in the corner for the women to take with them.

“We cannot,” says Puah. “If we take anything, they’ll think we’ve helped you with this birth, and of course we arrived too late.” She smiles, gentle. “There are plenty of Egyptian women who provide for us. A baby is a baby.”

And the two women disappear into the night, hushed as an infant’s breath.

Miriam and her mother sit together in the sand-shrouded hut watching the infant suckle, counting his life-minutes, while possibility and hope grow slowly between them. Egyptian women know that a baby is a baby. An Egyptian woman, one of them, might raise a Hebrew child.

A decision is made. A plan is born. History unfolds.

Miriam remembers this night all her life, long after her baby brother has become Moses, adopted son of Egypt, hope of the Hebrew nation. She remembers it every time a slave cries, every time hunger arises, every time hate and despair try to ensnare her.

Years later the memory breathes light and courage into her, when Moses tells her that only those houses anointed with the blood of the lamb will be spared. So when the lamb is slaughtered, the journey about to begin, the retribution about to unfold, she requests a pause, an hour. Just one.

Then, silent as an unborn child, she steals through the Egyptian community, and finds the houses of Shiphrah and Puah. In the utter silence of that darkest of nights, she stands alone. Slowly, carefully, lovingly, she anoints the doorframes with sacred lamb’s blood.

A baby is a baby. A life is a life.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Idle at Yes

"Idle at Yes." That's a quote from my brother's best friend, Mark Alessio, who died a year ago while travelling in Madagascar. He was the kind of person who lived life to the full, every day a new adventure. Last night my brother presented a memorial award in his name to a deserving basketball player at Queen's University. He and Mark had met on the squad years ago.
I like the quote, a great reminder that opportunities are offered every day. Sometimes we just need a reminder to say 'yes'.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Prayers and peace to all those suffering in Haiti. See my article in this coming weekend's Voice for reflection on God's presence in suffering.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Justice and Righteousness

It's interesting that in the French translations of the bible, the word righteousness is translated as 'justice'. It reminds me that when I think of being right with God, I need to ask myself how well I am promoting justice and peace. Something to consider.
The picture shows my daughter Deborah participating in a peaceful protest outside the School of the Americas in Fort Benning Georgia a couple of years ago. Graduates of the school have killed hundreds, particularly in South America, including most famously Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

It's a wonderful new year full of fresh possibilities to excel, and frequent opportunities to mess up. I don't really have any resolutions. I'm still working on all the old ones: Be kind. Be open-minded. Work for justice. Write for peace. And forgive every day - especially myself. Best wishes to all!