with restless hearts

reflections, critiques, comments, and questions of a 20-something catholic in pursuit of truth and justice in a dualistic world


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oh madonnas, memorare: remembering those lost to shootings and violence

Last night’s shooting at the Batman movie premiere was certainly a tragedy, and my heart and prayers go out to all of the families, community members, and others affected by it. As the current count stands, 12 people lost their lives in one of the most unthinkable manners last night. As I made the commute to work this morning, the radio was full of messages of consolation and hope, and truly, the outpouring of charity and empathy from nation-wide onlookers has been heartening.

Since the radio was the first mention I had heard of this story, as soon as I had access to a computer, I went to the Chicago Tribune website in the hope of learning more details. Sure enough, the main headline of the day was on the shooting. But then, just as I was about to click on the story, another, much smaller headline caught my eye: “Two sixteen-year-olds dead, 4 wounded in South Side Shootings.”

And there it was, two more kids, two more of my community’s kids gone overnight. I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that it feels like every single morning that I check the Tribune only to find more shootings, more deaths, and tragically, it’s almost always kids or young adults.

And I’m sick of it. I’m sick of my heart breaking for the friends and families who lost a loved one. I’m sick of frantically trying to research to see if the victim was a family member of one of the kids with whom I work. I’m sick of being tempted by the media to think of these losses, these lives simply as another number adding to the staggering statistics. And if I – privileged, employed, white, insured, educated, well-fed, mobile I – feel these losses so acutely, I cannot imagine what it must be like for the mothers, grandmothers, younger brothers and sisters, fathers, cousins, friends, teachers who know the faces and the stories behind the numbers.

Over a March weekend not too long ago, a deadly weekend left 10 killed and 40 wounded. Again, I know the circumstances are extremely different, but compare that last night’s numbers. Aside from a few newspaper articles, this was considered just another weekend. Another sobering statistic to throw out there – since September 2008, over 300 children (18 and under) and over 600 youth (under 26) in Chicago alone. I believe with my whole heart that this is a scandal.

In the words of the wonderful Urban Dolorosa ministry,

This devastating loss is unacceptable. Almost all of these children are African-American or Hispanic. They are from our poorest neighborhoods. They live and die in fear, and yet because they are poor, because they have no voice, they are easily forgotten. This is inexcusable.

I want to be very clear here; I absolutely think that the Denver story is worthy of the media attention and general public outcry, and what I say next is not intended to call into question if the victim’s stories should be told on a national platform. Of course they should, every human life is precious, endowed with unfathomable dignities, and it is right that we publicly honor that dignity when possible. And I also understand that a mass shooting is very different from the recent Chicago shooting to which I am referring. But still, I have to ask, where is the public outcry for these children?

Urban Dolorosa, the ministry I quoted above, is dedicated to the radical mission of reclaiming urban childhood. In November of 2011, they called for a city-wide pilgrimage in honor of children killed by violence. The tagline was, “Five Churches in Five Neighborhoods; One Sorrowing City.” I was privileged enough to attend one of the nightly vigils, and I found it to be one of the most heartbreaking and eye-opening events of my life.

One of the most powerful pieces of the night, at least for me personally, was a reinterpreted Stabat Mater, in which the congregation intimately called upon the intercession and pity of Rachel and Mary. The lines still haunt me with their beauty and vulnerability.

Oh Madonnas, Memorare!
Mary too, once lost a Son.

It’s impossible to explain how absolutely humbling it was to stand shoulder to shoulder with mothers who had buried their children within the past year as those lines were sung.

And now, with the tragic violence of last night, new sorrowful mothers have been created, new disconsolate voices to add their cries and prayers to the mourning of Mary and Rachel. And so this haunting hymn now too rightfully belongs to them.

A voice is heard lamenting, weeping:
Bitter, angry, unrelenting.
Rachel – yet a thousand Rachels –
Weeping for their children,
Refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.

As I’ve already stated, my deepest prayers go out to those who lost loved ones last night; in the Denver-area, and in my own backyard. I praise everyone for taking last night’s tragedy so personally, for seeking out the stories of lives cut short and for striving to comfort the suffering. I also challenge everyone to open their eyes and their hearts to the other stories of violence and loss – to pray with just as much fervor for those whose names and faces we know and for those who only appear in our morning paper under the vaguest of terms. Every life is precious; every life has value; every life deserves to remembered, mourned.

I would like to close with the words of another hymn used in the peace and prayer vigils of Urban Dolorosa, this one like a mantra, sung over and over again. Here, I offer it as equal parts consolation and summons.

Pour out your heart like water
For the lives of your children.
Let justice roll down like waters
Righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.


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hollywood, trafficking, and the loss of our girls

One of the social justice issues that I am most passionate about is that of domestic human trafficking and child trafficking in particular. This week saw the publication of a wonderful if not sobering article on the role of the media in child trafficking. The article, written by a survivor of child sex trafficking can be found here.

Really?

In it, the author argues that child trafficking (she deals with girls although trafficking certainly affects boys too) is in some ways legitimized, or at the very least, enabled by the media and popular culture’s portrayal of women. We all know the story – the media’s ideal of feminine beauty is becoming more and more youthful and young girls are being more pressured than ever to buy into their roles as sexualized, and therefore allegedly empowered, objects of desire.

Now, this is definitely written from the perspective of one woman’s experience of story, and the Hollywood enticement strategy is one that is only attempted on (and works on) certain youth populations. Despite this minor caveat, though, this short piece powerful truths, and the one that grabbed me the most was this:

 A sex trafficker once said that he didn’t have to groom his victims because society did that for him.  I can personally attest to this.

I harbor no illusions that I am by any means an expert in child trafficking, at least not yet anyway, but I have had experiences that have brought me face-to-face with it’s ugly reality. And for what it’s worth, and for what my experience has taught me, I can personally attest to the above statement as well.

So what’s the answer to all of this? Surely we can all agree that child sex trafficking is debasing, disgusting, and just all around appalling, but agreeing with something and actually doing something are two totally different things. As a society, are we willing to part with our night clubs, bars, and strip clubs that serve as a front for trafficking and forced prostitution? Are we really willing to boycott the movies, television shows, and magazines that invite us to imagine young women and girls as objects of self-gratification rather than as dignified daughters of God?

I think that the answer, at least as it stands now, is not yet. But I honestly believe that this because people today are not as educated about this issue as they should be. How can we even talk about taking away women’s “right” to earn money by selling their bodies and men’s “right” to participate if no one is talking about the fact that legitimate strip clubs in this country are few in number and that most are a front for trafficking?

Another, equally frustrating road-block to real conversation and change that I repeatedly encounter is the false notion that trafficking affects immigrants and foreign women, not americans. Well news flash, trafficking is in the United States, in your city, in your schools, quite possibly in your neighborhoods. Young girls are approached by pimps and traffickers at malls, at the movies,on their commutes home from school. This is not just some other country’s problem. This is our problem. These are our girls.

I could go on about this for hours, but I also understand that if I want to contribute constructively to this budding conversation, I need to do more research and be able to back up my claims. So I will, and I’ll write about this more in the future. In the meantime, though, I just want to leave with a word of thanks to those who are beginning to push this issue into the main sphere of ethical journalism and political discussion.


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come now, let us set things right

A significant factor in beginning this blog was that it would be a creative means of holding myself accountable for engaging in regular spiritual reflection and critical thinking. For the past few weeks, however, I’ve shied away from this personal commitment in favor of savoring the present moment.

This past week, after a nearly a month of gradual goodbyes and “lasts,” I transitioned out of a year long post-graduate service program in which I lived in an intentional, faith-based community. This time last summer, we were strangers, but somehow, through the joys and pains, laughter and tears, arguments and embraces, we were transformed into a family.

Even more difficult than the transition out of community, however, is the transition away from the work. For the past year, I have been so unbelievably privileged to have spent myself in the service of disadvantaged and marginalized youth. Day in and day out, I was blessed to spend my hours with kids that did not look like me, talk like me, or think like me, and whose personal narratives I could barely being to comprehend let alone find any detail about which I could claim to relate.

The sad irony in this is that a few years ago, I would have walked past so many of them on the street as quickly as I could without so much as a second glance, except perhaps to fear for my safety or belongings; I would seat myself away from them in movies or restaurants; I would hope that I never found myself alone with them. I’m still not quite “there” yet. I still struggle with making assumptions, expecting the stereotypical norm in interactions, buying into the heavily prejudiced and racialized narrative of humanity that is force-fed to us by the media and even some history books. But thank God, I’m also not who I once was.

It’s not easy to do personal battle with these subtle cultural and institutional injustices, but it is what Christ demands of us. The Gospels are an oft-quoted source of motivation and mandate along these lines, but the Hebrew Scriptures are full of similar summons. A personal favorite comes from the beginning of Isaiah:

Put away your misdeeds before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphans plea, defend the widow! Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD.
Is 1:17-18 (NABRE)

I love the Hebrew Scriptures for the incredible depth, beauty, and context they bring to the New Testament, but at the same time, there is a danger in reading passages like the one cited above, and unfortunately, I think that it’s one that far too many Christians fall into when extracting moral and social instruction from the Old Testament. Namely, there is a tendency to over-historicize it, to disregard the Truth while over-obsessing over the details of context.

Yes, the writer of Isaiah was speaking to a specific people in a specific time and place, but we cannot claim that our work is done simply because orphans and widows occupy a different space in contemporary society. This challenge from Our Lord never expires, the actions and populations named are simply redefined as some injustices are corrected only to be replaced by others. Yes, in some ways it’s a never-ending battle, and we know that we’ll never quite get there this side of heaven (Mark 14), but there are two ways to take that message. We can either allow it to discourage us or desensitize us to Jesus’ radical call or, and I’d highly recommend this choice, we can allow ourselves to take comfort in the knowledge that we can’t do it all on our own, turn our eyes eastward with earnest longing, and in the meantime, keep soldiering on simply because He told us to.

All of this, at least today, brings me back to the youth that were loaned to me this past year – those beautiful, wounded, strong, heartbreaking, inspiring, hilarious, tragic, and joyful kids who have endured every evil imaginable. As I reflect on this summons from Isaiah, my mind is flooded with the faces of these teenagers who taught me where to find the orphan and the widow today, in my own time and neighborhood. These kids may never know the profound depth of the impact they had on my life or that I saw the face of Christ in them every single day. When possible and appropriate, I try to find ways to show and tell them of the inherit goodness I see in them, but I also respect that they aren’t always at a place where they are ready to receive that message of acceptance and love.

Thankfully, I have had the time to prepare them for my transition, and even more thankfully, I will be able to continue working with them in the future, albeit in a very different capacity and with less regularity. And then there’s that additional detail that with the end of the year of service, so too ends the sense of self-sacrifice that I carried with me every day of uncompensated work with them.

Although I find it difficult to let go of the gifts of this past year, I do recognize that this – as the cliché goes – is not a true ending, but rather a new beginning, and I am excited to journey forward in my relationships, work, and schooling. More than anything though, I want to publicly thank my kids for allowing me to journey with them and for changing my life.

Thanks to them, I have gotten a little closer to understanding one of the greatest mysteries in life, how love, true love, is redemptive suffering. I will be the first to admit that at times, all the forces working against them simply seem too big, too powerful and it makes me question if what we’re doing it’s making a difference, if it’s worth the fight, but then, I remember that this is what love is, what love demands. And I will continue loving them, if for no other reason that because it’s what He told me to me do.

.


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racial injustice and youth incarceration – a summons to love

Yesterday I came across a short article in the Chicago Tribune that I ordinarily would have simply skimmed over, but decided to read a bit closer. It recounted an all too familiar tale – model citizen attacked and burglarized by a group of rowdy teens while riding public transit. The article does not mention race, although a picture of the victim coupled with the article’s description paints him as a young, white, heterosexual male – just about as privileged as you can get in our nation today – but despite this, the article practically begs to be read in racial terms, especially if one is familiar with racial layout of Chicago. The attack happened on the Red Line, the train route that travels from the primarily white yuppie, hipster, and just-out-of-college neighborhoods, through down town, and all the way down to the southside where the primarily black/African-American neighborhoods are. And so although the article doesn’t specifically say that the group of attacking youth were black, I’m going to make that assumption – and sadly, based on the article’s poor portrayal of the group, I think that that is a fairly safe assumption.

In the article, the Tribune and the victim weave together a narrative that highlights the teens’ tendency toward violence and crime, alleged targeting of the victim, an exaggeration of the actual physical violence, and the slow and inadequate response of the authorities.

Now, I am not suggesting that the youths’ act of violence should be condoned or excused, but I do find the victim’s final call to action to be very disturbing.

The man said he wants police and the judicial system to hold the attackers accountable.
“They need to get the word out and they have to start convicting these people instead of just taking them in and letting their parents pick them up,” he said.

Whether he means to or not, the use of these people carries serious racial implications. But what really upsets me about this is the equation of a safer community with harsher legal consequences for juveniles. The reality of the juvenile delinquency system in our country is, in my and many activists’ opinions, anything but just, and for anyone to suggest that more youth need to be incarcerated demonstrates almost a complete lack of knowledge on the issue.

I understand that statistics can be misleading and there are often hidden factors involved, but try on these for size:

  •  One in three Black men between the ages of 20 and 29 years old is under correctional supervision or control.
  • Blacks account for only 12% of the U.S. population but 44% of all prisoners in the United States are Black
  • Blacks are incarcerated at a rate that is more than six times that of Whites.
  • According to the Sentencing Project, even though African American juvenile youth are about 16 percent of the youth population, 37 percent of their cases are moved to criminal court and 58 percent of African American youth are sent to adult prisons.
  • The U.S. Sentencing Commission stated that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than white offenders for the same crimes
  • According to the Human Rights Watch, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have higher rate of arrests. African Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.
  • A report by the Department of Justice found that blacks and Hispanics were approximately three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists. African Americans were twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.

And here’s one a little closer to home

  • In Chicago, only 30% of Black males graduate from high school, of these only 3% of them obtain a bachelor’s degree by the time they’re 25.

Really, America? Don’t these numbers say that something is broken with our system, and I refuse to believe that longer and harsher sentencing is the answer – especially when we’re dealing with a population that’s already receiving disporportionally harsher and longer sentences.

The good news in all of this, though, is that after 40 years of the so-called “War on Drugs” that brought on so many of these injustices, people are finally bringing this to thoughtful conversation that is charged on a sense of justice rather than hate. One of the leading voices in this conversation is Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. I haven’t had the opportunity to read the entire book yet, but the excerpts I have read seem promising. I want to share one quote from Alexander that comes from a 2011 interview. It’s a bit dense, but it near perfectly captures the real issue at stake in all of this.

I think the fundamental question posed by this system of mass incarceration is whether we as a nation are willing to see every human being as worthy of our collective care, compassion, and concern. And I believe the fate of poor people of color in this country depends on our willingness to answer that question, ‘Yes.’

Even if their behavior we find objectionable or reprehensible, we will not stop caring. We are capable of the kind of love—what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as unsentimental love—reflected in our policies, practices, our rules of law, our ways of being, structures and institutions. Unsentimental love that keeps on loving, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.

If we continue to look the other way and believe that some people are not worthy of our moral concern, caste-like systems will be a permanent feature of American life. It’s always possible to demonize or criminalize people along racial or ethnic lines to make certain groups of people be viewed in the public eye as bad and wrong. If we allow those kinds of tactics to cut us off from our own capacity for compassion, then we are conceding to a system that is dehumanizing millions.

And there is is again – LOVE. It certainly has an annoying habit of sneaking its way into everything. But it’s true. Like so many other issues that we have become so accustomed to viewing through the colored lenses of partisanship and politics – addressing issues of racism, juvenile delinquency, and community violence really is ultimately all about love.


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a word on love

Today I randomly came upon an article that was recently run by Catholic News Service simply entitled, “Reminding those in despair of God’s love.” It was written from the perspective of a priest whose ministry has brought him face-to-face with the feelings of confusion, fear, rejection, and self-loathing that accompanies the navigation of sexual identity for too many young people today.

His piece did not waste time weighing the possibility or merit of same-sex unions, marriage, or adoption. There was nothing said of the theology of full communion with the Church or the distinction – that I suspect causes many people of both “sides” to cringe – between the tendency and act, the sinner and sin. In fact, the article was nearly entirely devoid of any reference to politics at all, and therein, I believe, lies its beauty and potency.

What this priest touches upon so poignantly is that this discussion isn’t about “rights” or equality; it’s about love. Too many youth in our country lose their sense of self, their faith, and their lives because they hear (or interpret) so many voices in their lives telling them that they aren’t worth it, that there is something wrong with them, that they are unloveable. Regardless of where you stand on the Church’s stance on homosexuality, or perhaps non-heterosexuality is a more accurate rendering, we should all be able to agree that there are young people (and some not-so-young people) who have been deeply wounded as a result of their sexual identities and they should be told that they are beautiful, loved, and wanted.

As the article strongly concludes,

 “No one should feel excluded from God’s love. No one should ever be driven to despair. Ever.”