Monday, April 9, 2018

NY Dialogues: Gun Violence, Race and Gender Issues


For years, I’ve willed and participated in efforts to make my house a space for meaningful dialogue.  Since the end of 2017, I’ve had the joy of having Bina as a housemate, who has significantly increased the level of commitment to dialogue within the house.  We recognize our unique opportunity in New York to bring people from different backgrounds together under one roof to share in meaningful dialogue, community and fellowship with one another.  

The New York Dialogues started on January 20, 2018 and the second one was held April 8, 2018. Each dialogue has a theme; April's was Gun Violence, Race & Gender Issues.    



About 10 people gathered together and shared thoughts we had prepared in advance. Sara opened with a candle-lighting; recognizing that prayer does still matter, despite the emptiness felt in many previous Black Lives Matter vigils. Our hope for today is for meaningful change to come out of our discussion.  

Other thoughts shared:
·       Poetry: Black Man in America: An Endangered Species?   
·       Corporate power within the gun industry and its thirst for wealth, going so far as to even resist safety features, including childproofing, because it fears it will make cost more expensive for a price sensitive market
·       The U.S. is a signatory on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which means we can drag the U.S. to an international court of justice. Nations were called to create national programs of action.
·       The UN declared guns are killing people all the way back in 2001
·       How news agencies systematically choose photos that demonize migrants by showing them in large groups versus humanizing them by showing close-ups and eye contact of individual human beings
·       How the world spends $1.4 trillion on weapons industry and how 55 cents of every dollar we pay in taxes goes to U.S. military expenditure
·       A true story with a positive outcome of turning the other cheek to a mugger in the Bronx
·       Breaking down the concept of “good guys with guns”
·       How one participant’s parents pulled him out of public school in Georgia after the public schools started arming teachers after the Columbine shooting, because the parents realized that if there was a breakout of shots, Black boys might be most likely to be shot first
·       80% of victims of gun violence are women and children
·       Every minute 20 people are displaced in the world, so 28,000 people are displaced every day
·       There may be somewhere between 2-4 million Syrian refugees outside of Syria, but 8 million refugees inside Syria, who no one ever talks about  
·       Books shared included:
o   Uncommon Valor by Melvin Claxton and Mark Puls
o   The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
o   Lethal But Legal: Corporations, Consumption and Public Health by Nicholas Freudenberg
·       Reflections: While there is a systemic nature of corporate power, and cycles of violence, there are also reminders of goodness. And when we appeal to someone’s inherent sense of good, we can overcome violence.  
·       We can process our pain through creative means. Syrian artist Rashwan Abdelbaki from the Artistic Freedom Initiative shared his art. I was particularly moved by the Last Supper, First Wall painting.

©Rashwan Abdelbaki
Titled: Last Supper .. First Wall
العشاء الأخير .. الجدار الأول
200 x 330 cm
Acrylic On Canvas
NYC 2017
#RashwanAbdelbaki #Art #Painting #NewYork#Virginia #NY #VA #Damascus #Rome #Beirut#Dubai #London #Vermont #Italy #Syria #Lebanon#UK #USA

(At first I thought he said "First World"...but really the meaning isn't much different, as it is in a "First World" country like the US that our president wants to build a wall.) I am particularly moved by this piece, because of the striking irony of the prisoners sitting behind a wall, at the table of the Last Supper. My tradition of Christianity/Catholicism teaches that the Last Supper was one where Jesus shared with us how we can partake in His divinity through sharing in His Body and Blood - a carnal image for sure, but one of ultimate sacrifice, and one that reminds Catholics of the beauty of the incarnation every time we celebrate the Mass at church. If those of us who truly believe that Jesus was communicating about the divinity we can all share with Him in - that each human being has a spark of the divine and deserves all the dignity and respect in the world - then what does a painting like this tell us about how well those of us who are Christians are living out this message? What would Jesus say if he were alive today and saw this painting? Because the message the painting communicates seems to me to be pretty much on the mark. There are many practicing Christians and others who are oppressed, who are prisoners in their own lives, stuck behind walls or silos of ignorance and fast-paced society that separate them from human compassion. To me this painting represents the base communities such as those that liberation theology stands for: Christians and others who respect Jesus' message, crying out to be heard, to be seen, to not just be regarded as "other" and treated brutally and often even killed, but instead treated as unique and dignified human beings who deserve to be listened to. I pray we can use this and other meaningful art such as this to spark dialogue for true inclusivity, hope, and change. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Water and Health in the Bronx: Protecting the Sacred

It is hard to not be awed by the scale and tremendous care that goes into supporting the gigantic system bringing water to New York City and the surrounding counties. Flowing from the Catskill/Delaware Watersheds and the Croton Watershed, approximately one billion gallons of water are consumed in New York City every day, serving 8.5 million residents as well as millions of tourists each year. In all, the New York City Water Supply System provides nearly half the population of New York State with high-quality drinking water.
It is humbling to realize just how dependent all these millions of people are on the water supply functioning the way it is supposed to. Water constitutes about 50-70% of our bodies as human beings. Water from the reservoirs, aqueducts, and street-side sampling stations is quality tested by the Department of Environmental Protection’s scientists, with nearly 630,000 analyses performed on the samples in four state-of-the art laboratories (NYC DEP).

Photo © Kelly Moltzen, NYC Watershed Tour

In my own tradition of Franciscan Catholicism, we are called to protect water as a component of creation care, protecting the Earth and our bodies as temples of God. Saint Francis of Assisi heard a call from God to “repair my house, which…is falling utterly into ruin.” While initially he took this as a call to repair a physical church, he eventually came to understand it as a call to repair the institutional Church and the universal house of God, the common home that we all share here on Earth. His spirituality grew to such depths that he came to regard Earth as Mother Earth, and water as Sister Water. By protecting water, we are protecting our health and that of our fellow sisters and brothers with whom we share the Earth. Unfortunately, in many places in the United States and across the world, oil spills from pipelines, contamination from hydraulic fracturing, and runoff from nuclear power plants and industrial agriculture threaten water supplies. Thus, I see the call to watershed discipleship as extremely important for people of faith.

Photo © Kelly Moltzen, NYC Watershed Tour

Pope Francis explained the risks of water pollution in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, which many people of faith are using to make the case for why we should care for our common home. He dedicates a whole section of the encyclical to the issue of water – noting the importance of fresh water for healthcare, agriculture and industry; the prevalence of droughts and water poverty; the outbreak of water-related diseases among the poor; water pollution resulting from certain mining, farming and industrial activities; the phenomenon of water privatization by large multinational businesses; and the link between water scarcity and the cost of food and various products which depend on its use. He also notes, “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right.”

Photo © Kelly Moltzen, NYC Watershed Tour

Yet, my concern about water quality and safety stems not just from the threats modern society and corporate greed pose to water safety. I am also concerned because water is the healthiest drink. I work at Bronx Health REACH, which partners with school districts and a number of faith-based and community organizations to promote water as the best alternative to beverages of poor nutritional quality. In this work, it is necessary to make sure we can point to sources of safe drinking water if we want people to switch away from unhealthy drinks like sodas and drinks high in sugar.
First, I’ll share a little bit about why we are advocating for people to drink more water, and then share about other environmental and health concerns related to our water system. Finally, I’ll mention the work of a number of faith-based and community organizations in and around New York City that work to ensure there is safe drinking water, and that people are accessing it in healthy amounts.

Photo © Kelly Moltzen, NYC Watershed Tour

Soda, sports drinks, fruit-flavored drinks, and other sugar-sweetened beverages may sound appealing and some drinks (such as sweetened teas) sometimes get marketed as “natural” and healthy. Society is swamped with marketing campaigns that make these consumer products sound appealing thanks to billion-dollar advertising budgets, but these products are contributing to high rates of diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases, with higher and higher rates of these diseases showing up in young children. In turn, this causes rising healthcare costs for dealing with these diseases.

Photo © Kelly Moltzen, NYC Watershed Tour

In the Bronx, a third of adults consume at least one sugar-sweetened beverage per day, and over half of children do. A third of Bronx children are overweight or obese, as are two thirds of adults (NYC DOHMH).
Not only do sugar-sweetened beverages contribute to the desecration of our own bodies, but often the industrial processes used to create unhealthy beverages also place undue harm on the environment and make public water sources less and less accessible to the people who need them most. None of this is healthy for people or the economy, but these practices line the pockets of corporate executives. By infusing a sense of value on drinking water, Bronx Health REACH is working to ensure the continued safety of our water supplies.

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Photo © Kelly Moltzen, NYC Watershed Tour

In addition to drinking water directly, water is also used to grow food for our local food system. Some of us in the watershed are teaching children about growing food and getting local food into schools, restaurants, and churches. There is even a farm run by Catholic sisters who sell the produce to local parishes for use in farm shares, food pantries and soup kitchens. Bronx Health REACH has been instrumental in developing a “Bronx Salad” that encourages consumption of culturally relevant foods while also encouraging community members to grow some of the produce locally, such as in community gardens. A feature of this salad is the dressing made from the Bronx Hot Sauce, which is made by a local chef with peppers grown in the Bronx. A version of this salad is becoming increasingly available in NYC school cafeterias, thanks to a partnership between school gardening and Farm to School efforts in NYC. As we seek to develop a regional food system and reduce the environmental impact of our food system, we must also seek to protect the water supplies that nourish the crops.

Photo © Kelly Moltzen, NYC Watershed Tour

While the water delivered to NYC is pristine and high quality, many New Yorkers remain skeptical of its safety. Therefore, I recently took a tour of the watershed that supplies water to NYC to learn just how safe the water is to drink. The watershed tour guide was immensely knowledgeable, and I became even more deeply aware of the tremendous gratitude and respect we owe to those who work around the clock to make sure that our water is safe. I gained an even greater understanding of the importance of ecology when learning about how the Department of Environmental Protection plants trees upstream from a river to help keep the water pure by filtering out toxins and impurities.
Despite the fact that high-quality water is delivered to NYC, I hear a lot of anecdotal concerns about water safety, at least in the Bronx. Legitimate concerns have been raised since water testing in NYC was examined more critically after the Flint water crisis. It turns out that the pipes bringing water into homes and schools are often old and made of lead, increasing the likelihood of lead leaching into our drinking water. Water samples from 2016-2017 found high levels of lead in some samples of NYC water delivered to schools, leading to outcries about the water’s safety. Even though the NYC Health Department affirms that no cases of lead poisoning have resulted from the high lead levels found in water, any level of lead that makes its way into our bodies is too much. We can reduce the likelihood of lead leaching into our water supply at the individual level by letting the water run before drinking it, only drinking water that comes out of the tap cold (since lead dissolves in hot water), or using special filters that remove lead.
Ideally, we could have well-funded public education campaigns about how to drink water safely, and to replace old pipes with non-lead pipes. But in order to get government and funders to prioritize water safety and public health, we need to tap into our internal spiritual wells, which drive us to improve the quality of life for all, and build increased momentum for the needed changes through advocacy and organizing.

Photo © Kelly Moltzen, NYC Watershed Tour

A loose coalition of organizations in the New York City area partner to ensure a safe water supply and to encourage water consumption. Food & Water Watch has policy campaigns to improve pipe infrastructure. The New York City Health Department and Bronx Health REACH have campaigns to encourage water consumption and educate people about the health risks of sugar-sweetened beverages. Water2Kids is a business started by twin children in the Bronx (with the support of their mother) who wanted to see water — instead of sugar-sweetened beverages — marketed to their age group. Groups like Religious Organizations Along the River (ROAR), the Metro New York Catholic Climate Movement (a chapter of the Global Catholic Climate Movement), and the Center for Earth Ethics of Union Theological Seminary work to protect the New York water supply from projects that could threaten the safety of our water. Churches, including Franciscan and other Catholic parishes in NYC, organize film screenings about water and other environmental issues.
As interdependent creatures, human beings must rely on one another and our ecosystems in order to access the most basic of necessities required to sustain life on Earth. Because of our reliance on our watershed and other natural resources, ensuring our water sources remain uncontaminated is vitally essential and part of the call for us to steward creation. As we are interdependent with the Earth to meet our physical human needs, so the parts of the body of Christ are also interdependent with one another. We all need one another in order to make the impacts we want to make.
It can often feel overwhelming to try and address all of the overlapping and interconnected issues related to ensuring safe and healthy water and food supplies. However, as Wendell Berry says in the documentary Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, we must work on putting the pieces together one at a time, rather than all at once — such as starting with our own watershed. By taking bite-sized steps to address our ecological crisis while continuing to recognize the interconnectedness of issues and our interdependence with the local ecosystem, we can put faith in action by creating a livable, sustainable future for current and future generations.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Some Thoughts on Accompaniment

Accompany.  This word struck me particularly as I finished reading “In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez,” a book that makes connections between global health and liberation theology.  Dr. Farmer and Fr. Gustavo both share the importance of accompanying the poor in order to address a root cause of health disparities and the biggest scandal of theology: poverty.  When we accompany, we start from a bottom-up approach and acknowledgement that we are called to stand in solidarity with others because we are one. As Dr. Farmer reiterates again and again, we do not live in “First World” and “Third World” countries; we live in one world.  An example of this I learned when visiting San Diego recently is that there are pollution concerns in San Diego travelling up the coast by air and water from Tijuana; wouldn’t investment into the public health infrastructure in Tijuana lessen the burdens not only of the Mexicans but also the Californians? 

I am also struck by the world accompany for several other reasons.  First, its root is “con pan” – with bread.  When we break bread with others, we are standing – or eating – with one another in solidarity.  When we can ensure that no one is excluded from our table, but that there is bread for all, we are really living as if everyone on earth is our kin.  Next, this is a word used by immigration activists, as immigrants benefit from having people to accompany them to trials when they are facing deportation:  immigrants are often treated more humanely when accompanied by a U.S. citizen who recognizes their human dignity and knows something of the danger that often awaits those who are forced back to their home countries.  Also, I found out that there is a retreat within the Methodist/Protestant traditions that parallels the Day by Day Agape (DDA) retreat I went on as a teenager at Capuchin Youth & Family Ministries, that the Protestants call “A Walk with Emmaus.”  The Emmaus Walk as I have come to experience on my DDA and other retreats, is also one of accompaniment.  It’s accompanying a fellow human being on their walk with God – a shared experience that can be truly transformative for both parties.

Accompaniment in the search for global health, food justice, immigrant rights, spiritual discernment, or any other human journey has love for the other at its root in all cases.  It’s the same root as the motivation of St. Francis of Assisi when he decided to embrace the leper on the side of the road, and the same motivation that St. Francis spoke about when he told a fellow friar “charity, not food” is what was important in the breaking of bread with a hungry friar. Charity, that is, in the context of the original meaning of the word it is derived from (caritas) – love for one’s neighbor.  In this holistic understanding of the word charity, we come to accompany our brothers and sisters in a way that honors their dignity rather than sees them as recipients of handouts that does not allow them to have a role in their own liberation.  This type of accompaniment has allowed Dr. Paul Farmer to build up the organization of Partners in Health to have 13,000 employees, two thirds of them being local community health workers, many former patients who many have never had a job in their lives before.  It’s an accompaniment that sees people holistically, acknowledges the social determinants of health, creates jobs, and helps people lift themselves out of poverty. 

It’s this type of accompaniment we can use in building one to one relationships when organizing for a goal, for those who seek to do something to manifest hope as an alternative to the utter hopelessness we can feel in challenging situations where we see so much suffering around us.  Fr. Gustavo speaks a good deal about hope amidst suffering, as well – citing Jeremiah 32 and Job as influential Biblical texts to meditate upon.

Ultimately, it is especially up to those who have privilege to decide to accompany those who suffer at the hand of unjust policies and systems, recognizing that we can gain strength from the hope that lives in the wells of our own and others’ experiences.  And of course, the person being accompanied must choose to be accompanied. When we befriend those we accompany, the journey becomes a shared human experience from which both people can benefit. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Building a Catholic Food System

Mass is a celebration of the Eucharist – the body of Christ, the physical manifestation of the divine presence on Earth.  Millions of Catholics go to mass every weekend and celebrate the Eucharist, and Christians of other denominations similarly celebrate the meal Jesus had with his disciples through weekly services. But what could it mean to take the celebration Eucharist even more literally, to live out the spirituality to which our faith calls us?  
“Give us this day, our daily bread,” we pray.  How can we let Christ live through us in a way that better helps to ensure the world’s hungry receive their daily bread?  This question is one that necessitates seeing ourselves as interconnected with our brothers and sisters across the world, so we can maintain the spiritual stamina needed to create a more equitable food system.

Photo credit: Gerald Wen, member of Harmony Farm CSA & St. John the Baptist/Holy Cross Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Care for Creation committee. Used by permission.

In December 2016, I helped to facilitate a food justice breakout session within a Catholics of Color Climate Justice workshop, organized by the Franciscan Action Network in partnership with Climate Reality Project. One participant asked how we might build a food system based on Catholic principles.  I started brainstorming what this might entail.  
A food system based on Catholic principles would value the five components of the Good Food Purchasing Policy of the Center for Good Food Purchasing: local economies, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, animal welfare, and nutrition.  A Catholic food system would care for the hungriest among us, both on the other side of the world as well as the other side of the street, making sure everyone not only has access to food but gets fresh, quality, nutritious food, that doesn’t degrade environmental sustainability but promotes ecological well-being instead.
Picture this: going to church and picking up a farm share with food grown on an organic and biodynamic farm owned by a religious congregation, and having surplus food that is grown be donated to the church’s food pantry or soup kitchen, thanks to the support of other parishioners who can help to subsidize the additional food.  Having quotes from Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” sent out in your weekly emails reminding you to pick up your vegetables from the farm. Coming together with parishioners to discuss integral ecology and spirituality – how our faith informs how we live out our engagement with the earth. And having the opportunity to visit the farm, meet the people who are growing your food, and even pick some of the produce yourself.
That is exactly what is happening through Blessed Sacrament Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. Blessed Sacrament has partnered with a lay Catholic community known as Benincasa (after St. Catherine Benincasa of Siena) that is supported by the Dominican Sisters of Blauvelt. Benincasa Community and the Social Action Committee at Blessed Sacrament host a “Community-Supported Agriculture” program and support the church soup kitchen in providing farm-fresh food to the community. Grown on Harmony Farm and offered alongside a discussion group and excerpts from Laudato Si in a weekly newsletter, the food provided by Harmony Farm is spiritual as well as physical nourishment.

Photo credit: Kelly Moltzen, taken at the Care for Creation retreat at Harmony Farm

2016 was the first year of the farm-to-church partnership. In 2017, Benincasa is starting to expand the program to other parishes.  The parish of Holy Cross/St. John the Baptist, run by the Capuchin Franciscans, has taken up the challenge, and parishioners have decided to donate funds for a bulk farm share that will be purchased for a new soup kitchen. The soup kitchen will be parishioner-led, too: several people have already taken the Food Protection Course and are now licensed to supervise the many volunteers who are ready to prepare food and service the soup line.
Biodynamic, organic farms such as Harmony Farm are practicing regenerative agriculture, which can trap carbon in the air into the ground, thereby helping to reduce carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. If regenerative agriculture was practiced globally, 100 percent of current, annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would be sequestered (1). This is a refreshing alternative to food from a system that is a significant contributor to climate change and environmental degradation.
Because of our industrial growing practices and cultural habits, red meat and dairy contribute nearly half of the greenhouse gas emissions of all foods.  The beauty of eating a plant-based diet with foods grown locally, organically, and even biodynamically, is that we can build a new food system while simultaneously providing climate solutions.  Creating a system that feeds the hungry with nourishing food from the earth also puts the power and responsibility back into parishes and takes it away from the food industry, a harmful system that perpetuates food insecurity as Andrew Fisher recently made clear in his book Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups.
Ideally we can work towards the full meaning of the root of the word charity (caritas), or “expressing one’s love for God through love for one’s neighbor and oneself,” a love that includes dignity of the receiver, and also keep in mind the roots of charity in the Judaic tradition, where the highest level of charity is when receivers are able to become self-reliant.
To make more sustainably, ethically grown produce available at an affordable price for all, we would need a Farm Bill that is committed to biodiversity and incentivizes produce rather than subsidizes corn and soy as staple crops.  More affordable fruits and vegetables would also support equity for communities of color that are disproportionately affected by health disparities. We also need to make sure children are being taught from a young age about healthy and plant based eating, and provide them with opportunities to learn how food connects them to the earth and others.  There is a great model for this in WANDA, or Women Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics & Agriculture.  In ensuring that young girls are educated about the healing power of food, we can build a new generation of leaders who have the capacity to sustain themselves and one another.  
By focusing on growing more fruits and vegetables and promoting a plant-based diet, we can also reduce our reliance on the resource-intensive and often unethical practices involved in raising animals for meat.  The Saint Francis Alliance is a network of Catholics who advocate for vegetarianism because they recognize the inherent value and dignity of animals, and know that an ecosystem which treats animals well will also be one that is sustainable and healthy for humans.
Equipping ourselves to build a food system that honors the dignity of all of creation promotes improved food and water security for everyone, which can also help reduce violence and conflict especially in areas where resource scarcity is a threat to human livelihood.  Yet creating this new food system is not an easy feat: in order to accomplish the task, we must recognize the challenges that come with defending creation, ethical treatment of farmworkers, and the poor’s access to land. This became a lifelong struggle for Cesar Chavez, and Oscar Romero was assassinated standing up against corruption and in the name of Christ, and for the right of the poor to have access to land.
A food system based on Catholic principles is one based on the premise of integral ecology – recognizing our profound interdependence with the earth and one another.  It’s based on Catholic Social Teaching, including honoring the dignity of all, rights of workers, a for the poor and vulnerable, and the care of creation.  And it’s one that allows us to fully live out the three dimensions of eco-conversion: the spiritual dimension, lifestyle dimension, and advocacy dimension. It’s one based on grace, where the incarnate is not desecrated, but its sacredness is instead honored as we share meals through community.
(also posted at christianfoodmovement.org)  

(1)  Rodale Institute (2014). Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming. This compelling statistic is backed up by Rodale’s Farming Systems Trial (FST), the longest-running test comparing organic and conventional cropping systems.

Friday, November 25, 2016

St. Kateri Tekakwitha, We Give Thanks for You

We all know that Thanksgiving is a time when Americans recognize the importance of expressing gratitude for the abundance which the Earth provides us with, and for the family and friends with whom we share it. Thanksgiving commemorates the hospitality offered by Native Americans to the European Puritan colonists, as winter was setting in and the colonists were unprepared for the cold months ahead. The Native Americans provided food and support. However, the history of Thanksgiving is much more complex than that, and also involves violence, conflict, and massacres. It was actually not celebrated as a national holiday until the midst of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln declared it a holiday and a time for families to re-unite. This history is important to think about as present-day armed security forces inflict horrendous abuses to Native Americans at Standing Rock in North Dakota and those who are standing in solidarity with them as they protect their land and water from exploitation.  Which is why this year especially, I have felt conflicted about this holiday, a sentiment I believe is shared by many people across the country.

We cannot stand idly by and pretend like Thanksgiving can be the same as it has been celebrated for generations. The situation at Standing Rock brings to the forefront a history of centuries of exploitation, trauma and broken promises experienced by Native Americans.  Not to mention the insult to injury added to non-whites overall, through the terrible racism which has surfaced with the 2016 election. The United States has always been a place of violence and abuse of Native peoples, and of other people of color, even as it sees itself as a beacon of freedom for all. How can we now hold up that beacon, even as the armed forces inflict violence against our own people? 

Over the past few years, I’ve come to learn about the roots of much of this violence, by learning about the Doctrine of Discovery, the 1493 papal document which allowed explorers to lay claim to any land they “discovered” that was not owned by Christians.  This doctrine, which has not yet been officially renounced by the Vatican, still governs U.S. Indian law today, still being cited into the 21st century.  I really do wonder how likely it is we will begin to see Native Americans and their land treated with the respect they deserve until this document is rescinded and removed from U.S. law.

Meanwhile, over the past year and a half, Catholics and non-Catholics alike have had the opportunity to read and discuss Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si.  This modern document, which discusses at length the dual “cry of the earth and cry of the poor,” calls us to dialogue and action on behalf of all of God’s creation. Through dialogue, we can identify actions that help us carry out the work to which our spirituality calls us. 
It was through such a dialogue that I came together with several followers of Pope Francis to plan a potluck meal this week in honor of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.  Through a network of kind-hearted faith-rooted social justice advocates I know in NYC, several of us, especially Sara Jolena Wolcott from Union Theological Seminary, Tom Dobbins from the Catholic Charities office of the Archdiocese of NY, and Terry Michaud from the Blessed Sacrament Social Action Committee and the Metro NY Catholic Climate Movement, and myself, came together to organize a dinner and discussion around the topic of indigenous peoples, and food, water, and climate justice, in honor of St. Kateri.


Held in the dining room of the Blessed Sacrament rectory, the dinner was attended by members of Blessed Sacrament’s Social Action Committee and RCIA program, members of the Metro NY Catholic Climate Movement, Tom Dobbins, Sr. Odile Courier from Holy Name Parish and Franciscans International, and several others. After prayers, we went around our circle of about sixteen people sharing what brought us into the room. People asked rich questions around food, climate, spirituality, faith, and history of the church. We started off with everyone sharing what brought them to the room. Responses were rich, and varied across the topics of food, climate, spirituality, faith, and history of the Church.  Some were concerned about food waste, portion sizes being so big, how food is valued so much less now than it used to be, why is food a privilege, and why are food dyes and other toxic chemicals fed to kids in the form of junk food. Others discussed the poor state of recycling, and how overproduction stems from a fear of not having enough. Sara reminded us that wastelands used to be referred to as “the commons,” a far cry from what most wastelands look like today. Some wanted to learn more about St. Kateri and contemplate how we can better “welcome the stranger.”

There is a thirst to learn what will wake up the planet in regards to climate change, to reconnect with creation, and to learn, what is the liturgy to support sustainability in the Catholic Church?  One woman who grew up in the Bronx reminded us that “life grows through burned buildings and cracks in the concrete,” and that, “life has to have its day.”  Sr. Odile shared how working with the indigenous people in the Philippines taught her about what it means to be close to nature/creation, and how we are so disconnected from it. A French citizen, Sr. Odile reminded us to keep our ethnocentrism in check: the U.S. is important but other countries' backgrounds are important too and we need to act together. Someone mentioned that we need to have the moral courage to talk about economics; the financial bottom line not always being the most important factor to take into consideration when making decisions.

Given the current U.S. political situation, there was a comment about the history of Church opposition to the Third Reich. An interesting comment was also made about the harm the church has done by perpetuating a false split between spirit and matter, to which I responded by saying this false split is debunked through recognizing the divine nature in all of creation including the food we eat, and the importance of food and faith in bringing us around the table together (one of the core tenants around which Christianity was founded). I also shared my discovery of the amazing parallels between Native American prayers and the Canticle of the Creatures by St. Francis of Assisi in praising creation, as I believe now more than ever, it is critical for us to recognize the parallels between Catholic and Christian spirituality and indigenous spirituality.


Sara Jolena then gave us a history lesson through retelling the story of where we are today in a way that tied together the fifteenth century Church, the Doctrine of Discovery, colonization, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and St. Kateri. The essence of the story is as follows: through a papal bull, in 1451 Pope Nicholas V gave permission to King Alfonso V of Portugal not only to explore but also to enslave the peoples of the West Coast of Africa who were assumed to be non-Christian "pagans," or "Saracens," or Muslims. This enslavement would become the Transatlantic Slave Trade. A 1454 Papal Bull gave the Church authority to the witch hunts, destroying the lower-class "indigenous women of Europe."  In 1493, when Columbus returned from the "New World," Pope Alexander VI wrote several other bulls that encouraged conquest of any land not inhabited by Christians. This became known as the Doctrine of Discovery. It supported Spain’s conquest of the New World, starting with the landsdiscovered” by Columbus. The Doctrine of Discovery had at its premise that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”1  [The tragedy, which was made painfully clear to me during a recent talk by a Colombian visitor to the Union Theological Seminary Center for Earth Ethics, is that indigenous peoples did not quite need to be “converted” to Christianity, especially through violent conquest which is against the core tenant of Christianity. The Natives already possessed a respect for the divine nature of creation and did not need to hear Jesus’ message as much as the people to whom Jesus preached and ministered to in his corner of the world.]

St. Kateri, meanwhile, was a Native American who converted to Catholicism and practiced a devout religious life. She chose the name "Kateri," the Mohawk form of Catherine, taking the namesake of Catherine of Siena.  Her short life was marked by illness, loss, sorrow and suffering as she witnessed her family suffer and become turned upside down in the contact with the Europeans, who brought disease, a monetary-based economy hungry to consume the natural resources of this land, and a faith that stirred her heart. despite her family's protests, she refused to marry anyone except Jesus Christ. She lived between two worlds: Catholic and Mohawk. So far as we know, she treasured both. Eventually she moved to a monastery in New France where she and another Native woman yearned to start their own nunnery; they were told that they were too young. She died at age 24 surrounded by her new-found community. According to the priests who sat besides her as she was dying, after her death, the scars from the small pox that had marked her face since she was suffered from the disease brought by the Europeans at age three vanished and her face began to brightly glow. It was one of many miracles associated with her.

Given this history and the current state of affairs with Native Americans, I find myself asking, what would St. Francis of Assisi do?  The Doctrine of Discovery didn’t come into existence until a few hundred years after Francis’ death. But he gave us the Canticle of the Creatures, which is of the same thread of understanding of our place within the ecological web of life as the beliefs held by indigenous peoples. He also gave us a lifetime’s worth of inspiring actions that he took in response to the simple command he heard through prayer to “repair the house” of God.  In the same way that Francis’ life and spirituality has been a source of inspiration for Franciscans for centuries, St. Kateri’s ability to bridge indigenous culture and Catholic tradition should be a source of inspiration for us all as well.  So, in the wake of human rights atrocities and what Pope Francis refers to in Laudato Si as “unbridled exploitation” happening at Standing Rock, may we remember that Water is Life, and do all that is in our power to protect it for one another and for generations to come.

1 http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/indig-inter-caetera.html

*Updated to include edits from Sara Jolena Wolcott 

You may also find this resource useful:  How to Give, and to Give Thanks, to Standing Rock