Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease
And builds a heaven in hells despair.
- William Blake
While in Los Angeles, we joined the LA Catholic Worker for their weekly liturgy while they were in the midst of their annual novena remembering, mourning, and crying out to God for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A novena is a series of prayers prayed over nine successive days in petition to God. They end this with a protest at a nearby weapons factory. For decades the Catholic Worker has been faithful to remember the crimes of our past and call out the crimes we continue to commit. This practice of regular lament and protest educates and holds us accountable for the crimes we forget, hide, and often justify. As a nation, we believe we are morally superior and have the right to police the world, and we repeat the rhetoric of fear that leads us to bomb other nations as preemptive strikes. The Catholic Worker refuses to let us do this. They refuse to let us forget that we are the only nation that has ever used the atomic bomb. They refuse to let us pretend we have to fear the rest of the world killing us, when in our history and now, our nation is the one to fear; we are the ones bombing others. They refuse to let us pretend we are morally superior as a nation when we have the blood of millions of innocent lives dripping from our hands. We so often are the source of hells despair in our world; under the Obama administration we have bombed seven countries. We are the bully at the global playground, obliterating any who would challenge us so as to intimidate the rest of the world into submission.
For our part in this hellish despair, we should follow the Catholic Worker’s example and lament. For this, too, we should protest and never let ourselves forget.
In LA, we also had the privilege of meeting Reverend Fred Morris, a Methodist minister who was tortured in Brazil for speaking truth to power, served the majority of his life in Central America, and who now, in his 80s, is faithfully running a refugee center for central americans who have fled gang violence in their countries. To give us an idea of the violence wreaking havoc there, he shared the story of one El Salvadoran woman and her son. She ran a cyber cafe from her garage, and had to pay rent to the notorious 18th street gang. They kidnapped her 10 year old son when she could not pay them the money they demanded, and threatened to send her son home in pieces. She scrambled to pay them, her son was returned to her, and she attempted to report the kidnapping to the local police. Instead of justice being served, several gang members and a police officer gang raped her for several hours to punish her. As soon as she could, she fled with her children to find safety in California. He shared one of hundreds of thousands of similar stories.
He also shared how the U.S. played our part in creating the situation in Central America in which gangs flourished. The US policy in Central America during the civil wars and conflicts in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador was to give support to whichever side favored us, prolonging the conflicts. We justified this involvement because we were in the midst of the Cold War, and drowned the atrocity of our involvement with abusive governments in our nation’s fear of communism. This created a refugee crisis in the 80s, but young children who came here as refugees were not truly welcomed and many found family in the gangs of LA. However, as soon as these children grew into men, the US deported them back to the countries they left as babies. Once deported, all they had was each other in a nation they did not know. Ravaged and weakened by the civil wars our nation prolonged, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala had little to no government or infrastructure to deal with gang violence, so gangs like MS-13 and the 18th street gang, flourished. Today, these nations are run by the gangs that began in the US.
Our nation has muddied its hands in Central America too much to say the violence people are fleeing is not our problem. Yet we treat immigrants like dirt. ICE, the immigration police, and the for-profit immigration detainment centers across the nation are notorious for human rights abuses. Obama has deported more immigrants than any president before him, sending them back into a world they fled for fear of being murdered, and where friends and family likely have already been murdered for helping these refugees seek safety.
The current political rhetoric of fear and hate of the immigrant is too loud, widespread, and uninformed to not speak out against. Speaking with Rev. Morris left the weight of anger on my heart at the situation, at the hate we give in to as a nation, at our history, and the brashness with which our government so easily meddles with other nations and the lives of their people. This is what so many people live and die in.
This we should and must lament. In this world we are Babylon and we must cry out for forgiveness and change.
If we take an honest look out our history and cease justifying our actions with cries of security, if we face how our choices have ravaged this earth, and if we see the blood of millions dripping from our hands, how can we not lament because of what we have done and continue to do? How can we be silent when this is our part in history? It is our problem, and we must mourn the history done in our name and protest its repetition in our present. We must sing a new song of lament for the numerous crimes against humanity and the earth that our superpower of a nation has committed. We must lament personally and nationally, and protest creatively.
Our hope is taking direct action in the midst of hell’s despair. We must work for heaven, instead of choosing fear and the idol of security over love and hospitality.
While we and so many others live in hell’s despair, there is hope in working for a bit of heaven together. At the Catholic Worker, at the refugee center Rev. Morris runs, and at Homeboy Industries, they are building a heaven in hell’s despair. At the Catholic Worker it is with a loud voice and a long legacy of calling out the grievous mistakes of our history. At the refugee center, it is through speaking faithfully of the wrongs currently committed against people in our nation and world, while faithfully investing in people marginalized by our immigration system. And at homeboy, it is with the committed persistence of asking and showing the city of LA, “what if we were to invest in gang members, rather than just seek to incarcerate our way out of this problem?” Each are symbols teaching the rest of the world what is possible when you choose love over fear. They each have faced their persecution and hate, but they all keep going. They know that doing our best to create a little bit of heaven with people who live daily in hell is worth it.
We at The Well have also had our share of hate from local people. Some people think what we do is noble, but they would rather not take part and rather it didn’t happen in their backyard. Some people have downright hate for the poor living on our streets. And their disdain is now focusing on the Good Samaritan Inn, where at least 100 otherwise houseless people live. We are being pushed out of the neighborhood, and those pushing us out now have their sights set on the Good Sam. They will harass them through code enforcement, threat of fines, and criminal charges if they can find them until it is shut down. If the Good Sam shuts down, there isn’t an alternative housing situation for the people that live there, many of whom have called it home for years. The Good Sam has been there for decades. That is 100 more people living without shelter in our city, simply because some new people in the neighborhood do not like a place that has been a staple in that neighborhood since long before they moved in.
From this reality locally, to the impeding on the sovereignty of the Lakota Nation with the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline, to the school to prison pipeline, to the racism built into our government and our hearts, to the killing and demonization of black men, to the bombing and killing of innocent people globally, to the moral high horse we think we’re on, to the fear that keeps us from welcoming more Syrian refugees, to the ravaging of the earth our culture of consumption calls for, we have plenty to lament. We must lament, and hold on to hope in the beauty we find together in this hellish world. Though there is still war, though Rev. Morris is in his 80s and has seen no change for the better in our treatment of immigrants, though Father Greg Boyle has buried over 200 young men, and though we at The Well must say goodbye to our current form and space, there is beauty and joy in the moments we have together for a time. Despite the hell many of our friends live in, and perhaps you yourself, we can welcome a little corner of heaven if we will commit to speaking truth and risking love.
In sharing these reflections, I have realized it may be important for anyone reading this to know more about the author. I have not grown up with the views expressed here. I am the daughter of a military family, was homeschooled by conservative parents, am a Rush-baby (every afternoon meant lunch while listening to Limbaugh's three hour program), went to conservative, evangelical world view camps as a teen, and bought into that worldview. As I've continued to seek truth, I've found I have been so wrong. I share these reflections as repentance for the years I justified my own hate and the oppression my people have caused and contributed to for generations.