Rebuilding the People’s Church


(Image via Christians for Socialism)

I recently completed a research project on the ecumenical dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). As a Roman Catholic student at a Disciples of Christ seminary, I am interested in the historical relationship between these two communions and the broader complexities of ecumenism and dialogue across lines of difference. This research interest led me to remarks by World Council of Churches ecumenist Aram I, who serves as the Catholicos of Cicilia and head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Aram spoke in 2005 to representatives of the Joint Working Group (JWG) dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. In this dialogue, he offered a challenge to ecumenical workers, urging them to make their work relevant to the Church universal:

“How many churches, clergy or theologians are aware of the work of the JWG? Its work is confined to a limited circle of ecumenists. To address this situation, the work of the JWG must be related to the life of the church on the local level, and must be appropriated by the churches through a process of ecumenical education. Reaching the local churches: I consider this a major task before the ecumenical movement for the years to come.”

 Aram’s call for a relevant ecumenism that speaks to the needs of the local church reminded me of another challenging call to the Church by Sheila Briggs. At the 2000 gathering of the Women’s Ordination Conference, Briggs challenged dominant views of ordination:

“Sheila Briggs, an African American Catholic religious studies scholar, stated that ordination is by its very nature an elitist practice, one that by definition excludes women (and men) who are not highly educated. She asked, ‘when will the poor begin to celebrate the Eucharist?’

Like Sheila Briggs, Roman Catholic labor leader Dolores Huerta challenged the elitism of Roman Catholic power structures in negotiations with the Catholic Conference of California. When César Chavez asked for a priest to support striking farmworkers, corporate interests convinced bishops to take the priest away.

“Dolores Huerta lead a group of farm worker women into Bishop Manning’s office in Fresno and asked, ‘Why did you take our priest away from the farm workers? We’re not going to leave until we get an answer.’ Bishop Manning said ‘I’m going to go now and pray.’ Two hours later, he came back and said ‘I’ve been praying to the Holy Spirit.’ Dolores and the women said ‘We are the Holy Spirit incarnate. We are the poor!’ He thought about it and agreed.”

The words of Huerta, Briggs, and Aram challenge people like myself who are invested in the world of academic theology. They shake our ivory towers, reminding us that God’s transformative reign of global flourishing, peace, and justice will not be brought about by academic elites. The good news cannot be proclaimed on high from comfortable seats of abstract theological discourse. Our theological debates are meaningless if they have nothing to say to the poor and exploited, to lay members of the local church, and to those whose voices and priestly callings are repressed by the Church because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

How can we debate the two natures of Christ without resisting the exploitation of nature itself? How can we examine the intricacies of the Eucharistic meal without working with those who have no food to eat? How can we wonder about the details of God’s embodiment in the Incarnation without demolishing the material oppressions that the United States’ racist warmongering, policing, and deportations inflict on the bodies of people of color at home and around the world? How can we inquire about the metaphysics of Jesus’ healing while our neighbors die because they cannot afford healthcare? In the words of St. John Chrysostom, how can we see Christ in the chalice, but not in the beggar at the church door?

If we believe Dolores Huerta’s words, that the Holy Spirit is incarnate in the lives of the poor, oppressed, and exploited, then we must change the voices we value:

  • Instead of uncritically praising Pope Francis, we must turn to the survivors of clergy sex abuse he has harmed, the women whose priestly calls he has denied, and queer and trans people who have suffered under the church’s oppression.
  • Instead of centering popular Catholic voices who have the backing of hierarchs and celebrities, we must turn to academic thinkers, church workers, and revolutionaries who have faced excommunication and marginalization for questioning the racialized, gendered, and economic power imbalances of our Church.
  • Instead of believing that the Good News can only flow from respectable institutions of Catholic higher education, we must turn to those workers whose union rights have been denied by Catholic colleges and universities. We must turn to those whose neighborhoods have been gentrified by Catholic schools, and to those who suffer under the boot of US imperialism while Catholic colleges allow military training on their campuses.
  • Instead of presidential candidates, priests, and popes, we must turn to the witness of workers and the laity, knowing that “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17)

We must revive the call of liberation theologians, re-building a “theology from below” that forms the foundations of a “People’s Church.” When it comes to war and the environment, we must stop thinking like Catholic hierarchs and start thinking like Catholic Workers.

When we dare to dream of a liberating future for all of humanity, we must turn to the witness of the People of God enacted through groups like Christians for Socialism, the Movement for Black Lives, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, and the Poor People’s Campaign. Instead of dancing around controversial issues in the Church, we must fully affirm the lives, loves, reproductive freedom, and priestly callings of women and LGBTQIA+ people.

It is time to break free of institutions that stifle, and to enact God’s live-giving presence against oppression and exploitation in our local and global communities.

“Who is suffering?”

Chicago-area readers might be familiar with “Someone You Should Know,” a regular local news feature hosted by CBS 2′s Harry Porterfield. It is as it says. Porterfield profiles someone in the local community who is not on your radar yet, but should be.

I have followed the work of Sarah Kendzior for a while. She is “Someone You Should Know.” (Readers with long memories will know I’ve referred to her work before.)

Kendzior is an anthropologist, writer, and consultant. She is a Central Asia scholar, with particular expertise in how the internet is used in authoritarian states. Since fleeing the abysmal academic job market, she has become a prominent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

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On the occasion of Syria: Timeline of a peacenik

I am a senior in high school. I am eating mozzarella sticks in the cafeteria. A fellow student sits down across from me. He wants to talk about an anti-war poem he found in our English textbook. He is a pacifist.

I stonewall him. I do not like this fellow student because he is scruffy. He smokes. He takes art classes. He is an atheist. He sleeps with his girlfriend. I identify all this with weakness. Therefore pacifism is weakness, and so I am not a pacifist, Q.E.D.

I am a college freshman and it is September 11, 2001. The World Trade Center disappears, and the world metamorphoses, on a cloudless sapphire Tuesday morning. I walk across my silent, mostly deserted university campus to Latin class. I wince when a military jet roars over my head. It is the only thing interrupting the no-fly zone above the Chicago lakefront.

It is September 14, 2001, the feast of the Holy Cross. I attend Mass celebrated by a Jesuit. He says governments have a right to defend their people from threats like Al Qaeda. But individual Christians should aspire to be as defenseless as Jesus was, even to the point of crucifixion.

Complexity hacks its way into my thinking. Suddenly I can break patriotism and Christianity apart. I can analyze and compare them. I can pit God against Caesar and not assume they work together. Yet my new talent lies dormant for a while.

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in their own words – one immigrant mother and her children

Today, the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, 68-32.  In the coming days, in the headlines and on the news and in social media, there will be much spin and analysis about who voted for and against and why, what the political ramifications of it, and so on.  But I’m hoping to get to you before all that…to ask you to take a breath and read these words and remember what it this bill is about:  real people, real workers, real families.  As part of an effort in my local community to gather the testimonies of immigrants to share them with legislators, I’ve heard a lot of stories in the last few days.  So instead of using my monthly blog post to share my own words, I asked my friend “Guadalupe” if I could use her words, and the words of her children “Cecilia” and “Marcos.”  Please read prayerfully and thoughtfully, and know that these are only three of the millions of people in our nation whose lives would be changed with the passage of this bill. 


Guadalupe (undocumented mother and worker):

I have lived in this city for seven years with my family…my husband and I are immigrants from Latin America.  One of the reasons that we immigrated to this country was to keep my family together and to give my children a better life and education.  I know that many say that it is our fault, and we should face the consequences of our actions for infringing upon the law.  But if we think about it consciously, I believe each one of us would do whatever was necessary to keep our family together and to give our family a life that is more peaceful.  I feel we deserve to be treated with dignity because we are human beings, regardless of our skin color or the language we speak, as long as we are working to incorporate ourselves into society and learn the language.  Often we are afraid to express what we experience or feel because we think that no one will listen to us or we will experience some problem since we are undocumented.  So because of our fear we often don’t raise our voice and it is difficult for us to participate in activities like this of sharing our testimonies for fear of discrimination.  Keeping quiet is the best option that we’ve found even though it hurts to sometimes to see the injustices that exist.  Even so, in this beautiful country there are many kind and good people who help us to achieve our dreams, since many of us try to make ourselves and our lives better.  For example, in my case, two years ago I attained my GED with the help of some good American friends who generously shared their time and knowledge with me.  I understand how difficult it can be for others to approve a big immigration reform, but I appeal to the goodness of your heart, please no do not permit more families to be separated, help us to fulfill our dreams and in this way to be able to together move this great nation forward.  May God bless you!


Cecilia, age 11 (US citizen):

            I am going to tell you why I think immigrants shouldn’t be deported.  People say “No human is illegal” and I agree completely.  Immigrants come to this country to find education, a job, freedom, and fun activities. They don’t want to do wrong to this country. I am also part of the Hispanic community and it is a good community, we dance, play, sing, have fun, and help each other.  Families are being separated; parents are being separating from their children, friends are being separated and that is so sad…I was born in the USA. I hope my parents won’t get separated from my siblings and me, just because they are immigrants.


Marcos, age 12 (US citizen):

            I like America and that’s the truth, it is a wonderful place. There are a lot of kind people that help you. Plus people also are able to get a better education here than in other places in the world.  I see in the news that families get separated because of the same reason that they can’t be here. It is sad to see this happen because it makes me think that it might happen to me. I know that it is hard to be here illegal, but it is even harder when you get your family taken away.  When I go to school and I hear the pledge of allegiance, I listen to the last part where it says “liberty and justice for all.” I say to myself how I wish that were true.


Memorial Day: “Both saved and sinner”

On Memorial Day, Dad and I always drive the five minutes to the local war memorial. It’s on a leafy boulevard a couple of blocks away from where Dad grew up.

We stand under a catalpa tree, bowing for the prayer and listening to the speeches. Depending on the confidence and advanced age of the speakers, we may or may not hear most of what they say. We watch while the veterans, fewer and fewer each year as they process through their eighties and nineties, lay a wreath near the electric bulb serving as an eternal flame.

I know I must go to the ceremony. I know I must also feel awkward about it. I have learned to live with that.

Both sides of my family served in World War II and I grew up immersed in that legacy. Anthony, my maternal grandmother’s brother, fought in the Red Army of the Soviet Union and died. My maternal grandfather was in the Polish army when Hitler invaded. He went to Germany a prisoner, hoeing vegetables and picking fruit for years until the Americans freed him.

On Dad’s side, Uncle Eddie went into the U.S. Army, Aunt Alma into the WACs, and Grandpa and Uncle Harold into the Navy. All were listed on a huge wooden plaque in their Lutheran church, along with everyone else in the congregation who went to war. It’s still there and I like looking at it.

Grandpa rose to aviation machinist 3rd class and served in the Pacific Theater. Once, while refueling a plane, he was abruptly engulfed in flames. His chest bore a giant scar for the rest of his life.

After the war Grandpa promptly joined the local VFW and American Legion. Uncle Eddie was for a time the VFW commander. Grandpa lived long enough to receive a certificate from the Legion celebrating fifty years of membership. We display Grandpa’s flag, provided for his funeral in 1996, in the living room.

Military service seemed of one piece with all that made my family dignified and honorable. Back stateside, they served in the church when asked, volunteered for the fire department, got elected to the school board, and were steelworkers and carpenters. It all apparently ran together, connected by a straight line from their enlistments onward.

I was much older when I learned another side of war, one of gamesmanship and manipulation. I learned that claims of weapons of mass destruction, wielded like a cudgel to get us into Iraq in 2003, were false. I learned we had bases where we trained Latin American troops to work for dictators, to keep their own people down. For three Novembers I went to Fort Benning, which houses the since-renamed School of the Americas, to protest this injustice.

I learned that “just war” or not, everyone who returns leaves dead friends behind, as did my buddy who went to Iraq. And I learned that you return with scars seen and unseen, also like my buddy, who gets headaches.

Meanwhile I probed another side of the Christian tradition, one that would never have placed a giant wooden plaque in a church. The early followers of Jesus took his injunction to “put down your sword” literally. According to the Canons attributed to St. Hippolytus of Rome, Christians could not become soldiers by choice and were never to kill, even under orders. If they did, they were barred from the sacraments.

In the fourth century, Christianity became the Roman religion. Church and military grew more congenial toward each other. But even then, the future bishop St. Martin of Tours resigned from the army, saying: “I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight.”

“In theological terms, war is sin,” writes Father William P. Mahedy, a Catholic chaplain in Vietnam, in his book Out of the Night: The Spiritual Journey of Vietnam Vets. “This has nothing to do with whether a particular war is justified or whether isolated incidents in a soldier’s war were right or wrong. The point is that war as a human enterprise is a matter of sin. It is a form of hatred for one’s fellow human beings. It produces alienation from others and nihilism, and it ultimately represents a turning away from God.”

I take every bit of this with stone-cold seriousness. But I have no illusion that there was some other way to stop Hitler. And I respect soldiers for being mission-oriented, self-sacrificing, and equipped with finely-tuned B.S. detectors.

My Catholicism accustoms me to ambiguity, to a church that is simul justus et peccator, both saved and sinner. I accept the ambiguity of war and peace. I will keep going to Memorial Day observances. I also expect to protest at the SOA again relatively soon.