What is the relationship between prayer and social justice work? Just as the physical landscape changes with the rhythm of the seasons, so too does the cycle of our interior life find us moving through seasons of prayer and action. When my kids were young and I found myself tense or nearing exhaustion, I would often retire to my rocking chair. Over the years I often rocked and nursed a baby to sleep as the older children played, and the older children learned to respect it as a quiet space in our home. Eventually as the kids grew older it became my place of prayer during hectic, tiring days. The gentle rocking eventually soothed and the rhythm of prayer and the rocking of my body became one until I felt the energy arising within me to get up and start moving again. I came to understand that through prayer, God brought the rhythm of my life into balance. So it is with prayer and action in our everyday lives and throughout the years of our lives.
People sometimes view contemplatives as “withdrawing from the world,” but their immersion in prayer fuels their lives and gives them the energy and the focus to serve God by working with God’s people. Teachers of prayer and our great workers for justice (Dorothy Day, Pope John Paul II, Teresa of Avila, and Mother Theresa to name but a few) all live in that eternal rhythm of prayer. Their prayer became their life. Prayer rooted their actions as they each responded uniquely to the signs of their times. A life of prayer leads us to push through any cold, hardened ground of our times in order to allow the gifts we have from God to flower in the light of God’s will and God’s love.
Jesus himself is our greatest model of prayer. When his followers asked “Lord, teach us to pray…” he taught them the words to the Lord’s Prayer. In Luke 11:9, he tells us that our prayers will be answered. And he prays for his followers in John 17. But we also have instances of how he taught us to pray by how he lived and made prayer a priority in his own life. When he said “Follow me,” he opened the door to following him into a rich prayer life as well as working for justice in this world. The following are a few examples:
“Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.” Mk 1:35
“…he took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray.” Lk 9:28
“After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, saying, ‘Father if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.’” Lk 22:41
Those who would follow Jesus must find a way to practice prayer regularly. We too must find the “deserted place”, “withdraw” from the crowds and daily activities and pray to know God’s will. Even those immersed in a practice of daily prayer will find God surprises them by calling upon them to act for justice in ways they never would have dreamed possible. Many ordinary and not so ordinary people never expected to become great leaders in justice work. A man who worked closely with Archbishop Oscar Romero related how Romero dealt with the conflict of whether to align himself in solidarity with the poor or to ignore their human dignity and their great suffering and need and continue business as usual. He explains that as the crisis peaked, Romero (already a man who practiced regular deep prayer) “went upstairs to pray. And when he came down the next morning, we had our prophet.” Eventually, Romero would be assassinated by graduates of the “School of the Americas,” a military training facility for foreign military personnel located at Fort Benning, Georgia and funded and staffed by the United States.
Studying the values of Catholic social teaching is only part of our lesson in working to eliminate injustice in the world. It must be partnered with a discipline of prayer. When we speak out against injustice, when we work to eliminate root causes or to alleviate immediate suffering, we must always come from that place of prayer where we allow the Spirit to guide us. Whether it’s a letter to the editor, working in a soup kitchen, or committing an act of civil disobedience, we must remain rooted in God and realize it is God’s follow in bringing about justice, not that of our own ego.
Whom do prophets address? Kings and queens, presidents, whole nations, individuals? Whose were the prophetic voices in scripture? Who are the prophets of our times challenging us to lead gospel lives? In Mt. 7 Jesus tells us that by their fruits we will know the false from the true prophets. What does he mean and can you give any examples?
Dorothy Solle in “To Be Amazed, To Let Go, To Resist” (Mysticism and Social Transformation, Janet Ruffing, Syracuse University Press 2001) speaks of the peace found in turning oneself over to God through prayer. “This experienced peace signifies two things in the mystical tradition,” she writes. “God’s invitation to enter into the stillness and at the same time the transferal of life, the giving of oneself to God.”
Many who are arrested for acts of civil disobedience speak of experiencing a great freedom. While this might sound strange or impossible coming from people sentenced to serve prison time, merging one’s will with God’s will can create such freedom. Have your students ever experienced freedom in unexpected ways and situations? What role did prayer play in realizing that freedom?
Is it enough to change one heart at a time in our world? Can one person’s transformation of heart ripple out and change others’? What examples can students give of seeing that ripple effect of justice?
Can we live a Gospel life without immersing ourselves in scripture as part of our prayer life? What does it mean to speak of the “Living Word” in our lives? How might we develop a pattern of regularly reflecting on the Gospel?
Can we utilize the full potential of the seven core values of Catholic social teaching without developing a prayer discipline? What role does our prayer life, personal and communal, play in living out the values of Catholic social teaching? How does prayerful reflection on current issues create a space in which to visualize our core values in action or conversation with the world at large? Is it enough to ‘know’ the values or is it necessary for those in social justice ministry to root their work in prayer?
Each year the November vigil sponsored by the School of the Americas Watch founded by Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois attracts thousands of people of all ages to the gates of Fort Benning. They gather to protest the school’s existence and to bear witness to the atrocities committed by those trained there. The graduates of the schools have been implicated in torture, kidnappings and murders for decades in various countries. In 2005, an estimated 19,000 people gathered at the gates of Fort Benning to peacefully and prayerfully demand the closing of the facility and a change in United States foreign policy. Protesters speak of the link between the evil deeds committed by SOA graduates in Latin American countries and the evil deeds at Abu Ghraib and human rights abuses in the United States. The cries to recognize human dignity in all and to join in solidarity with the poor and suffering everywhere reverberate throughout the weekend.
The closing ritual is a funeral procession which winds around the street leading to Fort Benning and in which the names of all those murdered are read or, in the case of tiny babies or others where the names are unknown, their lives are still honored in the litany though they are unnamed. Those in the procession (19,000 men, women and children last year) carry white crosses they have made and on which they’ve written one or more names of the dead. The litany of names is read while protesters walk in silence raising their crosses to cry out “Presente” at pauses during the litany. At the end of the procession, marchers place their crosses in the chain link fence surrounding the grounds of the military facility.
Some will continue on to cross onto the grounds of the facility where they face arrest. In the past those arrested have included people of college age as well as those well past retirement age. Religious orders of men and women walk in the procession, college and high school students, families with babies in strollers, older women with oxygen tanks, a man who is blind, people in wheelchairs and thousands of others join in prayerful protest.The day before the procession and the morning of the event, individuals and groups can be seen throughout the area standing or kneeling in prayer.
This year’s vigil weekend takes place November 17-19. Have your students visit the website of the SOAW where they will find the history of the institution and a list of crimes committed by graduates as well as the list of those murdered. Have students read the statements of those arrested in the past and follow the trial and sentencing of those arrested, tried and sentenced this year. (Most trials will not take place until early next year) Many of the past sentencing statements make reference to scripture and prayer. Sponsor a prayer hour in support of those who will gather in prayer to demand an end to torture by graduates of this facility and for those who will commit an act of civil disobedience and face months in federal prison as a result. Invite someone who has protested at the SOA to come address your class. After sentencing takes place, perhaps your class might want to write a letter to one of those serving prison time.
Hold your own vigil, have students make crosses of poster board or lathe strips and bring them for the prayer where someone will read the names of the dead while others raise their crosses and cry out “Presente!” Names of those murdered can be accessed on the SOAW site listed in resources below. The list is very long, however, and it would take well over an hour to read aloud.
One of the banners frequently seen at the SOA vigil is one representing Mary as the Mother of the Disappeared. The phrase Mothers of the Disappeared originated in the 70s with a group of Argentinean women protesting at the Plaza de Mayo walking in prayer around the plaza. Their children had been taken from them and were victims of military regimes with a history of human rights abuses. As someone who has had a loved one in prison and who accompanies women with loved ones in prison, I find this image of Mary as Mother of the Disappeared a very moving and life-giving one and one that flows naturally in prayers concerned with all marginalized persons and the victimized of our world. Your students may be familiar with the U2 song regarding the Mothers of the Disappeared and perhaps already know the background of the image. Have students read the story available at the link below. Discuss how giving this name and role to Mary as an image of mothering the disappeared adds life to prayers for justice. Perhaps students could come up with other images of Mary to fit other peace and justice work and create a piece of art or a litany with the various names such as the one in the prayer below.
Have your students research various public figures whom they feel lived out their prayer life. Some suggestions would be Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, and Kathy Kelly. Check out the Joliet Peace and Justice site as well for local peacemakers stories and look for the role of scripture in their lives or how Spirit-driven they are in the stories they share.
Perhaps there are people in their own family, or persons in your parish or school who have worked for social justice, protested, or even committed an act of civil disobedience. Some may have worked in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s or the Viet Nam protests. Others may pray outside abortion clinics or march in support of immigrants’ rights. These witnesses could be invited to speak in class or students could interview them, ask their experience of prayer moving them toward their actions and share their findings with the class. Or perhaps even some of your students could share how their own prayer life has led them to work for justice or how it calls them to do such work. When students have compiled stories to share or when you have invited guests to share their stories of witness for social justice, begin the sharing with a prayer. The following is just one possible suggestion.
Prayer In the following prayer, students could take turns reading the various names of Mary while the class responds as a whole. You could begin and end with verses from a song dealing with justice themes and well known by your students.
Reading Mt 9:35-38
Voice 1:God of Hope, we gather today to hear stories of witness. We gather and remember those who have disappeared, through kidnapping, torture, and murder…. and also those in our midst who have disappeared from our sight through indifference, whether caused by ignorance of the media, government policies, failure of church communities or the darkness of our individual hearts.
Voice 2 We remember victims of war treated as statistics with no names or faces or souls, the people tortured in prisoner of war camps and in local police stations and by graduates of the SOA.
Voice 3 We remember the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill, those with no health insurance, hungry children, those with no voice and also all those who work for justice, and we ask Jesus’ own mother to pray for them and for us as we seek to follow Christ in this world.
Mother of the Disappeared R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Mother of Nonviolence R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Mother of Mission R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Woman of Questions R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Sister of Strength R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Ponderer in Prayer R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Voice of the Widowed R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Lament of the Lost R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Tears for the Tortured R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Speaker of Truth R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Shelter for the Homeless R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Companion of Refugees R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Empowerment for the Undocumented R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Sanctuary at the Borders R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Sister of Prisoners R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Friend of Activists R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Cradle of Commitment R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Rhythm of Resistance R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Stillpoint in Struggle R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Portal of Peace R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Embracer of the Spirit R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Bearer of Joy R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Heart of Justice R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Witness at the Cross R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Lap of Love R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Provider of Bread R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Womb of the Living Word R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Mystery of Motherhood R.Holy Mary, pray for us
Voice 4 Forgiving God, have mercy on us in our blindness and paralysis that aid the spread of evil and misery in our world. We are each of us diminished when we lose sight of Christ in our midst.
Voice 5 Give us the vision, wisdom, strength and hope to bear witness, to remember the tortured, the murdered, the suffering as we walk through life with open eyes and heart as Mary walked and remembered her son.
Voice 6 Let us be present at your cross as she was present. Send your Spirit to guide us, to birth Jesus, to bring light into our darkness and to heal the broken. We ask this in the holy name of our brother Jesus Christ.
http://www.paxjoliet.org/peacemaker_profiles/ The Joliet Diocese Peace and Justice Site profiles local peacemakers.
http://salt.claretianpubs.org/issues/worldcom/neighbor.html Claretian Publications feature “Who is My Neighbor: How Six People Came to Work for Human Rights” by Christopher Ringwald
www.soaw.org This is the official website of the School of the Americas Watch founded by Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois
http://www.sacredspace.ie/#advice site of the Irish Jesuits offers daily reflections
http://almaz.com/nobel/peace/MLK-jail.html Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail shows the link between his faith and his actions.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothers_of_the_Plaza_de_Mayo#U2 provides background on the Mothers of the Disappeared
http://www.paxjoliet.org/relatedorgs.htm#spirit check out the links under ‘spirituality’ for more resources on prayer and the link between prayer and action.
In this month of Thanksgiving, I give thanks for each of you in my prayers and ask that the harvest be plentiful for you and your students this school year. Know that the fruits of your work will mature throughout the lives of all those you teach and the harvest will be shared with those they encounter. Blessings, Colette Wisnewski