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Hope that “A New World is Possible” Motivates Arrest

August 8, 2011

Photo Courtesy of Common Cause

By Jean Stokan, Institute Justice Team

Last week, I went to jail with a group of religious leaders who were praying in the US Capitol Rotunda as a gesture to call on our country’s leaders to craft a moral and just plan to raise the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit. Amidst the divisive political debates on this in Congress, our non-violent witness was offered as a plea to keep in mind the human costs of federal budget cuts on the poor and to call on Congress to remember their role to work for “the common good.” 

The witness was just one of the many ways that our Mercy family has been raising our advocacy voice in these last many months of the debate. Mercy’s Extended Justice Team, made up of justice coordinators from throughout the country and the Institute Justice Team (IJT) here in the D.C. area, rallied Sisters, Associates, co-workers and friends of Mercy to make calls and send hundreds of emails to legislators to elevate our concerns. A member of the IJT worked tirelessly in visits to Capitol Hill and in some cases administrators for Mercy-sponsored social service centers joined those meetings by phone to share how budget cuts would harm the poor. Profound gratitude to each and everyone who has been involved.

Our last-minute attempt to put our bodies on the line in the Capitol Rotunda was organized by Common Cause as an interfaith action, for which I represented Mercy as the one Catholic in our group of 11.  The last time I had been in the Rotunda was when Rosa Parks was laid in state.  I had brought my then-5-year-old daughter to walk past her casket and honor that history-a pre-dawn excursion completed before her kindergarten start time.  So it was meaningful to be back and kneeling on the spot where Rosa Parks and other s had laid.

As we prayed together before the arrests, we shared stories of our faith traditions. I spoke about Catholic social teaching, our Mercy ministries in service of the poor and marginalized, and our Critical Concerns.  I also spoke about our commitment to nonviolence and the need to drastically shift funds from the Pentagon budget to meet the needs of ordinary Americans.  I remembered my father who took part in the Civilian Conservation Corp, a jobs program in the Depression, and wondered how to stir the moral imagination of our country to again develop such initiatives given the massive unemployment today.

Photo courtesy of Common Cause

One by one we were handcuffed and taken to jail for processing, and let out in the early evening with a citation to come to court Sept. 7.   The official charge was “unlawful conduct.”  It made me ponder about our bickering legislators and how they could be charged with “immoral conduct” – especially now given that the resulting budget deal did nothing to generate income from the just taxing of millionaires and billionaires.

Going to jail for a few hours seems a minimal risk.  In these past two years of monitoring human rights violations in Honduras our Institute Justice Team receives daily report of targeted repression directed at those who speak out.  Honduran priest Fr. Fausto Milla just fled the country last month after receiving a multitude of death threats for his role in a Truth Commission there; farm leaders struggling for land rights have been decapitated; and the litany goes on.

I think of the massive protests in Wisconsin, when the governor sought to cut workers’ rights.  Tens of thousands converged on the capitol in Madison, sleeping in their Rotunda, trying to dramatize all that was at stake.  There also are the images from the non-violent protests in Egypt , all of which challenge us to consider what is needed in this phase of our country’s history.  The questions I ponder are “what is my next level of commitment, how can I risk a bit more?” and “how do we shape a dramatically new direction for our country, grounded in justice and mercy?”

Surely we need to keep finding ways to elevate our Mercy voice in the public discourse, be it calling our member of Congress, writing a letter to the editor, offering a “prayer of the faithful” that addresses a crying need, or calling a talk radio show to stand up to the “hate” messages that scapegoat the poor, immigrants, Muslims and others who need our solidarity.  So much is needed, and while it is hard, it is wonderfully meaningful to be part of a community of believers of hope that “a new world is possible” and we can help build it, with God’s strength and grace.

Below is a reflection I wrote after last week’s civil disobedience to a circle of women who attend a singing retreat with songwriter Carolyn McDade each March at Kirkridge retreat center. I offer it in gratitude to all who keep at it-who keep trying to wake up our country’s leaders to the scale of human suffering going on, in hopes that a flood of compassion can be poured out on our people.

As we were praying in the Rotunda, one of the few songs offered was We Shall Not Be Moved – and I too sang it with all my heart.  But our group of eight men and three women were not much into singing…and i kept yearning for more.  As I was handcuffed and taken away, I remembered my favorite lines of Etty Hillesum’s from her diary “An Interrupted Life.”  As she and her family were being put on to the transport train to be taken to the death camps, she gave her diary to a friend…and many years later it was published. She, always trying to keep up the spirits of others, had apparently en route slipped a note out the wooden plank of the train. A farmer found it and it was reunited to her diary as an epilogue.  It read: “tell them we went away singing.”  So I just sang on my own until I was placed in the paddy wagon with the two other women from our group.

As the paddy wagon drove us to the police station, I shared with the two women about Carolyn’s music and the way she has bridged “We Shall Not Be Moved” with her song “we SHALL be moved, we SHALL be moved…by love.”  So I sang it for them, taught it to them…
…and we went away singing…how we were moved BY LOVE.

(Photos courtesy of Common Cause. Originals can be found at their Facebook page.)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Helen Marie Burns, RSM permalink
    October 17, 2011 10:44 am

    Jean, many thanks for your witness on behalf of those who are poor, violated, and oppressed – not to mention our Mercy Community and tradition! Your life speaks eloquently and your words enrich the message. Peace.

    • Jean permalink
      October 17, 2011 11:15 am

      Thank YOU dear Helen Marie. Credit goes to those most marginalized, whose hope and determination–challenge and inspire me. Thank you for all you are and do on your end. We had our day in court last week, and the follow up blog should be posted in the next few days…the penalty was minimal. Grateful and sending best wishes, Jean

  2. Jeanne Ward permalink
    October 24, 2011 12:44 pm

    Jean, I was very moved by your account of the witness you and others did on behalf of those who cannot speak to our Country’s leaders. You speak for all of us as sisters, and
    you are in my heart and prayers. (I am in the office next to Kathleen Erickson in Omaha, and have heard of your courage and commitment to justice)! God bless you.

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