“The God of peace is never glorified by human violence,” wrote the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Whether it’s on an individual, city, national, or international level, violence always dishonors God, and makes bad situations worse. The recent Baltimore City riots were no exception: people were injured, neighborhood stores were burned, and violence was further engrained into a city and world already steeped in violence.But, and this is a big but: What are the reasons that led to violence? What motivated some African-Americans in Baltimore to riot? To ask and to try to answer these questions – in dialogue with the rioters – is certainly not meant to justify the violence; rather it is a necessary step on the road to ending it. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”I grew up in Baltimore. And in the 1950’s and 1960’s when I was a kid there, Baltimore – while it certainly had significant problems like racial segregation – overall was a kinder and gentler place to live.In those days crime was much lower, there were no gangs to speak of, drugs were far less a problem, schools were good, neighbors watched out for each other’s children, and blue-collar Baltimore had lots of good manufacturing jobs – like those provided by Bethlehem Steel – that offered hard-working people of all colors a living wage. Sadly, those days are mostly gone.I spoke with Brendan Walsh, who with his wife Willa, co-founded Viva House – the Catholic Worker House serving homeless, poor people located in southwest Baltimore where some of the rioting occurred.Walsh who has lived at Viva House since 1968 shared with me his reflections regarding root-causes of the rioting that occurred after the death of Freddie Gray – who died from a fatal injury that happened while in transport by Baltimore police, according to an initial investigation.Walsh noted that many U.S. corporations have moved their operations from cities like Baltimore, to very poor countries where they can get away with the injustice of slave labor (see www.iglhr.org), and in the process have left many Americans without decent paying manufacturing jobs.Walsh asked, “What are people to do when there are so few blue-collar jobs available that pay a living wage”?Walsh believes that every city police officer should be required to live in the city. He said this would help police to better under the difficulties faced by many city residents, and in the process better relationships would be established.Walsh noted there are not nearly enough drug treatment facilities. He said people need to be medically treated for drug addiction, not thrown into prison. Many years ago I remember police districts in Baltimore ran recreational centers where kids could go to play sports, games, and do homework with police officers who offered guidance and friendship. Back in those days numerous companies offered students summer jobs. For a couple of summers I worked for the Baltimore Gas and Electric company in their machine shop. We need to bring back the recreational centers and summer jobs. Federal, state and city governments, in partnership with corporations, need to create a comprehensive, well-funded plan to rebuild our cities.Baltimore’s Catholic Archbishop William E. Lori, perhaps said it best here: “For without love, respect and personal relationships, our lives make no sense. We shouldn’t expect a person whose life makes no sense to pull himself up by his bootstraps into a productive and prosperous life.”
Who would have predicted it?Who would have imagined on Feb. 23, 1977, the day of his appointment as Archbishop of San Salvador, that the highly conservative Oscar Romero – who was suspicious of the Catholic Church’s involvement in political activism – would die a martyr’s death for courageously defending his people against the murderous assaults of the Salvadoran government, military and right-wing death squads?Romero’s appointment was welcomed by the government, but many priests were not happy. They suspected their new archbishop would insist they cut all ties to liberation theology’s defense of the poor. One of the priests who worked with Romero, Father Inocencio Alas, recalled key moments leading to the archbishop’s dramatic conversion. According to Alas, the archbishop began realizing that the poor laborers waiting for work at the coffee plantations were sleeping on the sidewalks. “What can be done”? Romero asked. Alas replied, “Look at that big house where the school used to be. Open it up!” And Romero did. Next, he started talking with those poor workers, and began to understand their problems. But Romero had difficulty believing Alas’ claim that plantation owners treated workers unjustly. Alas said, “Why don’t you go to the plantation of this friend of yours … Go find out for yourself.” After visiting the plantation, Romero said to Alas, “You were right Father, but how is so much injustice possible?” Alas replied, “This world so full of injustices is exactly what they [the Latin American bishops at their famous meeting in Medellin Columbia] were talking about in Medellin.”But the most important event affecting Romero’s decision to wholeheartedly stand with the poor and oppressed was the assignation of his close friend Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande; who was promoting land reform, worker unions, and organizing communities to have a greater voice regarding their own lives.Romero, who was deeply inspired by Grande said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’”A shameful chapter in American history reveals the U.S. government supplied the brutal Salvadoran military with millions, and later, billions of dollars in weapons and training.In a letter to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Romero warned continued U.S. aid to the government of El Salvador “will surely increase injustices here and sharpen the repression.” Romero asked Carter to stop all military assistance to the Salvadoran government.Carter ignored Romero. And later, President Ronald Reagan greatly increased military aid.During his March 23, 1980 Sunday national radio homily, Romero said, “I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army … You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters … The law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God … In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people … I beg you … I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”The next day while presiding at Mass in the chapel of the hospital compound where he lived, Romero’s loving heart was pierced with an assassin’s bullet. On May 23, the holy archbishop of San Salvador will henceforth be known as Blessed Oscar Romero. But for the people of Central America, especially the poor and oppressed, he is already known as Saint Oscar Romero.
“On the evening of that first day of the week,” according to the Gospel of John, “when the doors were locked, where the disciples were … Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ ”To his closest followers, who feared that they too would suffer crucifixion, Jesus stood in their midst on Easter Sunday, and shared with them his peace. But the peace Jesus offered them, and us, is greatly different from the “peace” offered by the world. The secular world’s view of peace is often referred to as “peace through strength” – meaning military strength. Its proponents claim that when their nation is overwhelmingly militarily powerful, potential opponents are too afraid to confront its military might. The classic example of this view was the Pax Romana or so called Roman Peace which lasted approximately 200 years – including the time of Christ. During that period there was little warfare taking place within the Roman empire – largely because of Rome’s military iron-grip on its conquered territories.But Jesus came to liberate us with his peace – the only true and lasting peace: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27). The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. But shalom conveys much more than an end to armed hostilities. Shalom means wholeness, health, welfare and safety. This fuller meaning of peace, this shalom, is also a roadmap to ending war and other forms of violence.If we work to help everyone achieve the basic needs of health, welfare and safety the likelihood of engaging in armed conflicts and other forms of violence greatly decreases. As Blessed Pope Paul VI famously put it, “If you want peace, work for justice.” That was the title of his Jan. 1, 1972 Day of Peace message. And in that message he explained that peace is rooted in a sincere feeling for humanity. “A peace that is not the result of true respect for man is not true peace. And what do we call this sincere feeling for man? We call it justice.” And the virtue of justice calls out to each person, and every nation, to work so as to ensure that every human being has adequate access to the spiritual, economic, political, educational, medical and cultural benefits due to daughters and sons of a gracious God. Blessed Paul linked his Day of Peace message on justice to the Synod of Bishops’ 1971 document “Justice in the World.” In that prophetic document of Catholic social teaching, a cross-section of the world’s Catholic bishops proclaimed: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.” This powerful teaching makes clear the church has the right and duty on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, to actively engage in the political, economic and cultural arenas of society.Genuine peace is the work of justice. But we cannot possibly accomplish it relying solely on our own efforts. We need to invite the wisdom and power of the risen Jesus – the source of peace – to fill our lives and direct our actions. “Peace be with you.”
According to the New York Times, during a White House luncheon in 1954 Winston Churchill said, “To jaw-jaw [talk-talk] always is better than to war-war.”While clearly not a pacifist, the United Kingdom’s World War II prime minister had seen upfront the absolute horror of war, and became convinced that tirelessly striving to resolve disputes through respectful dialogue was always preferable to war. Yes indeed, “to jaw-jaw always is better than to war-war.” But then why is it that when faced with differences of opinion we often opt for violence instead of dialogue? When harsh words are directed at us, why do we often respond with a harsh reply? When spouses continue to hurt each other, why do they often resort to a mean-spirited divorce? And when different ethnic groups, tribes, religions and nations find themselves at odds, why do they so often take up arms to kill each other?I suspect that the sin of pride – the foundational sin of all other sins – is at the center of all this. Pride puffs up the ego, which tempts each one of us to selfishly concentrate on what we want, often with no thought of the God-given rights of others. Instead of taming the pride-filled ego with honest humility, we often allow it to dominate our thoughts, words and actions which make respectful dialogue nearly impossible. And when respectful dialogue is absent, violent words, violent actions, murder, and the mass murder of war take over.Unfortunately, many people often rationalize that violence must be met with violence. They have not learned the tragic lessons of history. Violence never leads to genuine lasting peace. Instead, it plants the seeds for future violence which grows like weeds.Respectful dialogue is absolutely necessary to root out the weeds of violence. Respectful dialogue communicates first and foremost from the heart. It speaks from the heart and listens from the heart. It is heart-to-heart communication. It tries to genuinely understand the other person’s legitimate needs, and the pain of not having those needs met. Respectful dialogue walks in the other person’s shoes. The late Marshall Rosenberg, teacher of peace and founder of The Center for Nonviolent Communication (www.cnvc.org) insightfully said, “When our communication supports compassionate giving and receiving, happiness replaces violence and grieving”! The late Jewish philosopher Martin Buber offers wise and lovely insight here. In his book I and Thou, Buber explains that there are two primary ways of being in relationship with others: “I-Thou” or “I-It.” We are in an “I-It” relationship when we think of, and treat another person as an “it,” that is, as an object to be measured, manipulated and used. How sad it is so many persons today are treated as an “it.”But when we are in an “I-Thou” relationship we see each other as another self – another human being of equal dignity. Buber further explained that this respectful view towards each other invites us to relate our entire being to another person. This in turn leads to a response of give and take for the mutual good of both persons. This is what respectful dialogue is all about; where, as Buber points out, real communion with each other is possible, and God’s presence is experienced. In the words of Pope Francis, “All wars, conflicts and troubles we encounter with each other are because of a lack of dialogue.” Instead, we must “dialogue to meet each other, not to fight.”
As the minds and hearts of Christians throughout the world focus on the suffering, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, we naturally think of the Holy Land.Throughout much of history, in the land where the world’s savior taught human beings to love one another as he loved us, instead of experiencing love, Palestinians have often experienced the great suffering of injustice, war and foreign occupation.And today the story is sadly much the same. In the Occupied Territories of the West Bank in Palestine, Israeli government and military oppression is very real, and yet under reported by corporate owned U.S. media sources.According to B’Tselem (www.btselem.org) – an Israeli human rights organization comprised of academics, attorneys and members of the Israeli parliament (Knesset) – tens of thousands of hectares of the West Bank including farmland, has been seized from Palestinians by Israel, so that hundreds of thousands of Israelis could populate more than 200 Jewish settlements established in the Palestinian West Bank.The International Court of Justice ruled that these Israeli settlements are illegal. It also decreed that the Israeli separation barrier of walls, barbed wire and trenches in the West Bank is also illegal. This barrier – built overwhelmingly in occupied territory – effectively takes more land away from the Palestinians, and prevents many Palestinians from normal access to their vineyards, olive groves and fields. A friend of mine, Dusty Tyukody, participated in an educational trip to the West Bank sponsored by Friends of Sabeel North America (www.fosna.org) – an ecumenical Christian peace organization. She emailed me a photo she took showing Palestinians herded like cattle into a narrow passageway where they stood for a long period while waiting to pass through an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron.Another injustice according to B’Tselem is that Israelis living in the West Bank enjoy an unlimited supply of running water all year round, while Palestinians are allotted a small fixed amount, resulting in constant water shortages. In many ways the situation in Gaza is even worse. With an Israeli land and naval blockade in place, Gaza is known as the world’s largest outdoor prison. And last year’s Israeli military offensive against the militant group Hamas in Gaza resulted in the deaths of 1,462 civilians, including 495 children according to the United Nations. This offensive also leveled much of Gaza, leaving many with little to no water, food, or habitable shelter.The U.S. annually gives Israel approximately $3 billion – mostly in military aid – with virtually no conditions. Instead, the U.S. should demand Israel end all injustices towards the Palestinians, and commit to a timetable towards the finalization of a viable independent Palestinian nation and a secure Israel.Please go to the “US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation” (www.endtheoccupation.org) and sign the petition. And visit www.holylandprinciples.org and click “join the campaign.”Also, kindly consider making a donation to help our suffering Palestinian brothers and sister by going to Catholic Near East Welfare Association (www.cnewa.org) and under “ways to give” click “Palestine.”At the conclusion of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009, he said “Let it be universally recognized that the State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders. Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely. Let the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream.”
Writing a column on social justice and peace offers me plenty of timely issues to choose from. And I always truly sense from God the exact issue he desires that I write on. I’m not claiming here any special revelation. God’s active, guiding presence is available to everyone. All we need to do is deeply trust, quietly listen and patiently wait. Now in my case, God knows I’m on a deadline. And almost always his Spirit graciously gives me plenty of lead time. But regarding this particular column, the Spirit seemed to be silent, that is, until I visited a parishioner at the Little Sisters of the Poor’s home for the elderly in Baltimore.On their grounds, amidst a lovely wooded area, stand 14 Stations of the Cross depicting Jesus’ grueling walk to Calvary. At each station stands a rough, life-size wooden cross with a stone craving revealing a different scene along the Lord’s painful route to his crucifixion.On that day several inches of snow covered the path along the stations. But I decided that a little snow down my shoes was a small price to pay for the deep spiritual reward that awaited me. And so I made my way to the first station of the cross: “Jesus is condemned to death.” There I meditated on the stone carving depicting our innocent Lord standing humbly before Pontius Pilate. Washing his hands as though that empty gesture could clean him of guilt, Pilate cowardly turned Jesus over to those who would kill him.How often do we in our lack courage, in our comfortableness, in our self-centeredness, in our silence, wash our hands of our responsibility to do the right thing – for peace, for the war-torn, for the unborn, for the poor and hungry, for the sick, for the homeless, for the undocumented, for the prisoner, for the earth? Next stop, the second station: “Jesus takes up his cross.” He, who was without sin, took on all the ugly sins of the world, nonviolently purified them, and gave them back to us as unconditional love.Here we are starkly reminded of Jesus’ words: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” When all else has failed, our suffering, our cross, can lead us out of selfishness to selfless love – the essential virtue needed to experience the salvation won by Christ.Therefore, carry our cross we must! There’s no way around it. The late, highly esteemed theologian Father Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “It is to the Cross that the Christian is challenged to follow his Master: no path of redemption can make a detour around it.”Authentic discipleship also demands that we earnestly help carry the cross of our suffering brothers and sisters near and far; knowing that in the process we are also mystically helping to carry our Lord’s cross.Next, I prayed at the third station, the fourth station, and onward until I reached the 12th station: “Jesus dies on the cross.” Looking back I saw the path my steps in the snow had made, and deeply felt that to a certain degree I had made the way of the cross with Christ. And, more fully, I realized that his journey did not end in death, but of course in the awesome joy of the resurrection! But also, I understood more deeply that in our Christian journey toward the resurrection, the cross must always come first.
“In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills,” writes the prophet Isaiah. “Many peoples shall come and say: Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain … that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths. …“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”This prophesy will certainly be fulfilled when Christ comes again and his kingdom is totally established. There’s no stopping it. But it could happen even before then. If only we would go up to the Lord’s mountain and allow him to instruct us in his ways, and wholeheartedly walk in his paths. But instead it seems like so much of the world, and so many people in power, are committed to going down into the dark valley of violence and war, ignoring the Prince of Peace’s way.As I write, the U.S. Congress is poised to grant President Obama’s request to use expanded military force – including boots-on-the-ground – to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In his request known as the “Authorization for Use of Military Force,” Obama is asking Congress to approve the deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq for “enduring offensive ground combat operations” for at least three years. Didn’t the nearly nine years of war in Iraq teach us anything? Military action against the Islamic State is playing into their hands. They want to draw the U.S. into a ground war, so they can trumpet the message that “Christian crusaders” have launched an invasion upon Islam. Such a scenario would flood their ranks with radical Islamists from around the world. After the start of the first Gulf War in 1991, St. John Paul wrote, "No, never again war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war."It can be strongly argued that the devastation caused by the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq largely set the stage for the birth of the Islamic State and several other Jihadist groups.Instead of fueling more war and terrorism, we need to pressure our government to provide far more humanitarian assistance to our fellow Christians, and all others, who are suffering from the barbarism of the Islamic State. Also, we need to kindly consider making a generous donation to Catholic Relief Service’s emergency fund for the Middle East. In his famous 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Rev. Martin Luther King said, “Our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.”And the same is true with terrorism today. If we will muster up the faith and courage to redirect the vast resources dedicated to war, and instead put them at the service of removing “those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are fertile soil” in which the seed of terrorism grows and develops, we will have then finally beat our swords into plowshares.
“The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” With these two compelling sentences – as recorded in the Gospel of Mark – Jesus inaugurates his ministry and sums up what his mission is about: to break the shackles of sin that enslave humanity, to put us on the path of liberation from all oppression, and to teach us how to unconditionally love one another.But what does it mean to repent? Striving to avoid sin and living virtuously is certainly part of what it means. But there’s more. In the Gospels the biblical word used for repentance is the Greek word “metanoia” – a radical change of mind, heart, soul and action. It happens when one changes course and turns around to walk in the right direction. Metanoia means a life-changing conversion. That’s what Jesus is calling us to when he says “repent.” Think of some of the great saints who deeply repented, who truly experienced a metanoia. St. Paul did a complete about face. He went from persecuting the followers of Christ, to championing their cause and suffering with them.St. Augustine of Hippo turned from fleeting unmarried sexual pleasure and unsatisfying philosophical pursuits to a totally fulfilling surrender to the will of God. In his famous autobiographical “Confessions” he sums it all up so well: “You [God] have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” When we allow our heart to rest in God, we become a new creation, fully dedicated to advancing his kingdom. But this takes humility, honesty, much prayer and hard work. Not for the faint-hearted.The respected English writer and theologian G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”And making it even more difficult, a life dedicated to listening to the Holy Spirit concerns itself not only with personal repentance/metanoia, but also with the conversion of the nation.Sharing the good news that God desires to save all people from sin and all other forms of oppression, necessarily includes striving to dismantle what St. Pope John Paul called the “structures of sin.”And sadly, “structures of sin” abound in every nation. From the murder of unborn babies through legalized abortion, to the killing of the sick through assisted suicide, to the woefully inadequate response to poverty and hunger suffered by brothers and sisters throughout the world, to the insanity of war, to the state-sanctioned murder of the death penalty and to environmental degradation nations need to repent, change course, and begin walking in the right direction. Lent is that solemn time of the year when the church invites us to examine our conscience and honestly admit where we have sinned individually and as a nation. Since Jesus has assured us that with God all things are possible, let us confidently take our petitions to him trusting that a far better world can be built with loving hearts and hands.Let us pray:• God of life, inspire us to protect all human life from its beginning at conception to its earthly end at natural death.• God of justice, inspire us to fairly share with all people the resources necessary to adequately sustain life with dignity.• God of creation, inspire us to be good stewards of your wonderful world.• God of peace, inspire us to finally put an end to war. Amen.
Catholic social teaching is unfortunately the church’s best kept secret. But because it directly addresses the world’s most pressing social justice and peace issues, Catholic social teaching instead needs to come out of hiding and be discovered, read, preached, proclaimed and lived in our parishes, schools, universities, media, homes and society.Five years ago, a very valuable contribution to Catholic social teaching was given to the church and world by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. His encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”) was given a respectful but short hearing, and then put on the shelf to gather dust.Let’s shake off five years of dust, and really begin to appreciate this gem.Foundational to all just solutions to the world’s ills is unconditional love. And as our retired Holy Father wrote, “Love – caritas – is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace. It is a force that has its origin in God, Eternal Love and Absolute Truth.”Benedict insists that authentic charity or love needs the assistance of truth. “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way,” he wrote.He taught that the truth contained in the values of Christianity, are “essential for building a good society and for true integral human development.”He emphasized “the truth of Christ’s love in society.” And added, that “Development, social well being, the search for a satisfactory solution to the grave socio-economic problems besetting humanity, all need this truth. … “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society at difficult times like the present.”Pope Emeritus Benedict’s insights are right on the mark. Because the quest for love, a love influenced by truth, is not on the agenda of so many individuals – especially so many individuals who hold political and corporate power – social action is indeed largely serving private interests and the logic of power. Just consider how income and wealth over the last 30 years have dramatically increased for a tiny percentage of the population, while the working-class’ share of the economic pie has stagnated, and various programs to assist the poor have significantly been cut. While some claim that the Great Recession is over, that claim is of no consolation to countless human beings who are struggling with poverty, hunger, homelessness, unemployment and underemployment. And all of this painful injustice continues while corporate profits are at or near all time highs, and CEO’s are racking in astronomical salaries.A greedy, unjust toxic economic atmosphere is suffocating countless brothers and sisters. Social conscience and responsibility are not in the air. Although the atmosphere is foul, as disciples of the Lord we are called to be men and women of hope.For just as air pollution can be reversed, so too, economic pollution can be cleaned up. As Christians, we have the ultimate remedy: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.For as our retired Holy Father wrote: “The Gospel is fundamental for development, because in the Gospel, Christ, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals humanity to itself.”Christ became human to show us what true humanity should reflect: Divine Love and Absolute Truth.
We turn on our faucets and out comes water – clean, refreshing, plentiful, life-sustaining water. But we rarely give it a thought. We just tend to take for granted that it will always be there. We even forget to thank God – the well-spring of life. But for 768 million fellow human beings, clean plentiful water is a distant dream, cites the United Nations. For them, the water they drink, cook with, and bath in, is polluted and often disease ridden, and must be carried long distances in many cases. According to figures released by the United Nations Children’s Fund in 2013, lack of access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene is a leading cause of death from diarrhea in children under five, amounting to approximately 1,400 children dying each day. For those of us who have nice bathrooms, we simply flush the toilet, and that’s that. But according to the U.N. approximately 2.5 billion people do not have access to toilets or even latrines. March 22 is World Water Day, a time dedicated by the United Nations to learn about the extreme importance of protecting this priceless gift from God and to motivate us to work for that day when every single person has access to adequate safe water and sanitation.According to Catholic Relief Services (CRS), in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, communities often use rivers as a drinking fountain, swimming pool, laundry and public toilet. Yet, every day, women fill old fuel cans with the contaminated water and take it back to their families. But with the help of kind-hearted donors families in an eastern Congo village are healthier because they are now able to sanitize the water they collect.You can contribute to water programs like the Congo village project by sending a check to Catholic Relief Services, P.O. Box 17090, Baltimore, Md. 21203-7090 or you can donate online http://crs.org/donate/. Also, please email and call your congressperson (Capital switchboard: 202-224-3121) urging him or her to co-sponsor the “Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act 2013” (H.R. 2901). According to CRS, this legislation is designed to help ensure that many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable human beings receive the clean water they need in a sustainable, equitable and conflict-free way.Since there is no similar bill in the Senate, it would be helpful to contact your two U.S. senators asking them to introduce a companion bill to H.R. 2901. While the U.S. is by some standards the richest nation on earth, there are many of its residents who lack easily accessible clean water and sanitation.I once worked at a parish in western Maryland – part of Appalachia – where I became familiar with people who lived in shacks with no indoor plumbing. They would have to haul water from mountain springs. And some folks did not even have outhouses.To provide help in your area, consider connecting with Habitat for Humanity www.habitat.org.A little reminder: During Lent we are called to improve our prayer life, fasting and almsgiving.If we pray, fast, give and work to ensure that everyone has access to adequate safe water and sanitation, when we stand before the Lord Jesus we will rejoice in hearing him say to us, “I was thirsty and you gave me drink. … Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
For quite some time I have had an interest in the plight of the homeless. I have read about it, prayed over it, and have done small things to help.But feeling that I could, and should, do more to make a difference, I concluded that living as a homeless man – at least for a very brief period – was the best way to understand what it’s like to have no place to call home. I decided that St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, on the fringe of downtown Baltimore, would be my first stop. Since the parish opens its basement to homeless people every Friday for a hot meal, and allows them to stay in the small park adjacent to the church, St. Vincent’s was symbolically a very good place to start my day as a homeless man.After praying before the Blessed Sacrament, I hit the sub-freezing streets with no money.After walking several blocks I reached Our Daily Bread Employment Center – a comprehensive facility run by Catholic Charities dedicated to supporting efforts of homeless people to secure stable employment and housing.There I got into a line of men, women and children waiting to be admitted into the dining room where a free hot meal is served every day.Once inside, I sat at a table with a young man who said he was trying to recover from drug addiction and was homeless as a result.From there I walked to Health Care for the Homeless – an organization dedicated to providing free medical care to people who have no permanent residence, and would otherwise go untreated. Inside were approximately 75 homeless women and men waiting to be seen by a nurse. There I spoke with an older man who had serious family problems that caused his homelessness.Next, I stopped at a hotel and fast food restaurant asking if they were hiring. They were not.From there I walked the streets of downtown Baltimore asking people – like some homeless persons do – for a little loose change to buy a cup of coffee. I politely approached approximately 35 people. About 30 of them ignored me, said they didn’t have any money, or simply said no. And I almost got arrested for approaching a police officer who sternly warned me that “panhandling” was a crime in Baltimore.But five people did offer me a small donation. I explained what I was doing, and thankfully declined their generosity. Asking strangers for a small favor was a humbling experience.Next stop was the Helping Up Mission – a multiservice nondenominational shelter where 53 homeless men can get a shower, laundry done, needed clothes, a clean bed, and a good supper and breakfast. But unfortunately, there was not enough room for everyone who came that cold evening.At the Mission, I talked with men of various ages who were down on their luck, had supper with them, and attended an inspiring Protestant chapel service.Later that night, as I walked back to my vehicle, I realized that I was a richer person for having lived one day as a homeless man. I thought about the homeless men and women I encountered, and their monumental problems. And I more clearly understood God’s call to each of us, our Church and our government, to work for the day when every human being has a decent place to call home.