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