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Co-conspirators in the Faith that Does Justice: The Legacy of the Martyrs of El Salvador Inspiring Water Justice in Detroit

One would have to be morally tone deaf and blind to the signs of the times to talk of justice and peace tonight without acknowledging the grim and graced reality of the present moment. This is truly a revelatory moment – a biblical moment – a moment when the curtain is being pulled back with a terrifying ferocity.

Despite the very real dangers of the present moment, this is also a season of grace . . . if we have eyes to see.

After this election cycle, no one can claim innocence – say they don’t know – plead ignorance. The consequences of Dr. King’s giant triplets of evil – poverty, racism, and militarism – have come home to roost in a way that is terrifying and inevitable and on full display for all to see. And once one sees, one cannot un-see, which means one must act – calling to mind the words of the great Jewish rabbi-mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “Not all are guilty, but all are responsible.”

The veil has indeed been lifted and now that all is laid bare to see, no one is exempt from the work at hand.

This is a moment that goes far beyond partisan politics – it is not a matter of this political party or that – but rather a moment of seeing ourselves as we really are through the eyes of a God who continues to be crucified in the marginalized and least among us, a God who calls us, in the words of Jesuit Jon Sobrino, “to take the crucified people down from the cross.”

Tonight is a good night to remember and celebrate the lives of the martyrs of El Salvador – the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter – in light of our present historical reality, a lived reality here in the city of Detroit where Jesus is crucified in babies, elders, the infirm, entire families living without water. A city crushed by the giant triplets of poverty, racism, and a military budget that starves the poor in order to feed the greed of this nation’s massive war machine.

Last week’s election is in many ways the culmination of a history that refuses to look in the mirror and see the painful truth that will set us free if – and it’s a big if – we can muster the courage and compassion to really look deeply.

martyrsTonight it is appropriate to turn to the martyrs of El Salvador – not to place them on a pedestal that we drag out once a year, but rather, to but to lean into their lives as examples of what it means to seek truth, and do justice, and take risks during times of oppression and fear.

Rather than focus on that terrible night, 27 years ago yesterday, when they were dragged from their beds at the UCA and executed in cold blood by an elite Salvadoran battalion trained at the School of the Americas with U.S. tax dollars . . . rather than revisit the image of UCA rector and renowned philosopher Ignacia Ellacuria, sprawled on the grass his brain removed and left beside his body, a warning to the people of El Salvador that this is what you get if you dare to think, to speak, to act for justice . . . rather than focus on that awful night, it is better to follow their example in the context of our own historical moment.

Better to celebrate and emulate their lives then dwell on the details of their deaths. They are martyrs not for the way they died; but rather, for the way they lived. Tonight we commemorate the intelligence, the passion, the scholarship, the goodness of Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramon Moreno, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, and Amando Lopez and ask ourselves how we too can place our studies, our hearts, our very lives in service to the poor and marginalized, the crucified Christ who walks among us here in Detroit.

Ellacuria was a brilliant intellectual– a philosopher whose writings are often dense and difficult, but there is a short phrase that Ellacuria’s friend, Gustavo Gutierrez, recalls him saying more than once that I would like to focus on tonight: “Here in El Salvador, life is worthless.”

I encountered this quote in a blog post written by Matt Cuff for the Ignatian Solidarity Network during the peak of the water shutoffs and recall being struck by its jarring, caustic truth and its sad relevance in a completely different context: Detroit 2014.

The brevity and bluntness of this simple phrase – “Here in El Salvador, life is worthless” – says so much and captures the lived experience of not only poor campesinos of El Salvador but of so many in the city of Detroit living in poverty and struggling to survive without water.

Here in Detroit, life is worthless.

The bitter truth of that statement became apparent to me in a gut-wrenching way on a hot July day in 2014 when I found myself sitting on the front porch of a friend in the North End packing plastic baggies with baby wipes for elders on the block living without water. Life-long workers now retired whose pensions had been cut, loving grandparents and great-grandparents, elders on kidney dialysis – all of them waiting on baggies stuffed with baby wipes.

The indignity of elders bathing with Wet Naps and the depraved policies that would shut off water on poor senior citizens while giving the golf course a break on its overdue water bill led me to the heartbreaking truth that “here in Detroit, certain lives are worthless.”

That summer as water shutoffs escalated as part of the austerity plan that was at the heart of the city’s bankruptcy, it became clear that the real bankruptcy was a bankruptcy of spirit, of compassion, of basic human decency. Profits – and not the ones speaking of concern for the widows and orphans – became the bottom line because here in Detroit, like elsewhere around the world, life is worthless if you are poor.

Some of you know Francisco Mena Ugarte from CRISPAZ, the organization that hosts UDM on accompaniment visits to El Salvador. Francisco gave a workshop on the Jesuit martyrs at last weekend’s Ignatian Family Teach-In in Washington, D.C. and made a very important point that I think we should remember when we talk of injustices, such as the water shutoffs.

He explained that the Salvadoran Jesuits, especially Ellacuria, were firm in their belief that we cannot talk of injustice in vague terms as we so often do, removing the names of the perpetrators from our discourse and removing subjects from sentences so as not to offend those in power.

The willingness of the Jesuits to utter the names of those committing the violence, Francisco explained, is one reason they were so hated and, ultimately, killed.

And for us, it is no different. We cannot speak of water shutoffs without naming emergency managers, and mayors, and governors, and contractors if we hope to correctly analyze and remedy the injustice.

While we pray for those who are making decisions that crush the poor, we must also not be afraid to speak their names on behalf of truth, even as we proceed with humility and an honest desire to reach the kind of reconciliation that is the fruit of justice.

jes3One of the most important lessons the Jesuit martyrs have left us is the truth that we cannot separate our faith from the reality around us. We cannot compartmentalize our life by retreating into religion as a way of running from the world. We either meet Jesus in our neighbor – especially the one deemed worthless – or not at all. And this is where we place our feet. As well as our butts.

As one of my favorite Jesuits, Dan Berrigan, once quipped: “Your faith is rarely where your head is at and rarely where your heart is at. Your faith is where your ass is at! Inside what commitments are you sitting? Within what reality do you anchor yourself?”

In other words, where do you choose to stand? And with whom?

Like many others, I had to respond to the urgency of the moment and leave some other work behind during the summer of 2014 to stand with those trying to live without water – a reality that continues to this moment. I could not un-see what I had seen that summer – elders bathing with Wet Naps, mothers lacking water to mix infant formula, school children needing water to bathe, entire families getting through the day water to flush toilets, clean wounds, or brush teeth.

After marching and writing letters and issuing statements and answering water hotlines and watching privately contracted trucks shut off water with impunity and then marking the sidewalks in front of shutoff homes with bright streaks of spray paint, a cruel mark of shame the color of water, many of us – people of faith and conscience who believe no life is worthless – felt compelled to act.

After prayer and discernment, some of us, including my friend here, Sr. Mary Ellen aka Sr. Mary Felon, felt called, in the words of Daniel Berrigan, to put our butts on the line by blocking the shutoff trucks with our bodies in a nonviolent action that has resulted in some of us being prosecuted in a protracted trial that is still going on.

We may have been in and out of court and waiting for a trial for over two and a half years now, but that is nothing compared to the waiting that the poor do on a daily basis as they wait for water, as they wait for justice, as they wait to be seen by those who would deem them worthless.

As the UCA martyrs knew and often said, their suffering was, in many ways, a choice, the result of their choosing to walk with the poor in their struggle for liberation in much the same way that Rutilio Grande, Oscar Romero, and the four American churchwomen – martyrs all – chose to plant their feet and their faith in the bloody soil of struggle where they stood shoulder to shoulder with the countless and often nameless martyrs from among the poor of El Salvador.

Like the Jesuits, many of us working on the water issue are acutely aware of our privilege and recognize that we do this work in a spirit of solidarity and humility, knowing full well that the struggle for justice must be led by those most directly affected.

People like my friend, Sharon, who lived without heat and water for seven months in an upper flat not far from here at Dexter and Davison. Sharon had a stroke that left her incontinent, confined to a wheelchair, and dependent on weekly water donations. Her partner gave up paid work to take on the full-time job of care taking for Sharon and her two young sons. Sharon lived in fear that her children would be removed from the home by the state because of a law that has criminalized poverty by placing children in foster care if there is no water in the home.

For seven long months, this family survived on deep prayer and thick faith and donated bottled water for all its needs.

Thanks to the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Sharon and her family have been moved to a lower flat on the east side that has water and heat and a wheel chair ramp – a real resurrection story. Although in the eyes of the city, her life is worthless, Sharon’s fierce will to take care of her family and her willingness to share her story speaks of the hard-fought resistance of those with the lived experience.

People whose only sin is being poor.

It is important not to forget the Jesuits’ housekeeper Elba and her beautiful, 16-year-old daughter, Celina whose only sin was being poor and present when violence showed up at the UCA on that violent November night. While the Jesuits were targeted for their intellectual contributions to the struggle for liberation, for their tenacious truth telling, for their demanding that the university become what Ellacuria called, “a social force” that must “transform and enlighten the world,” Elba and Celina were senselessly murdered simply because “in El Salvador, life is worthless.”

Which is where we find ourselves today.

Our failure to see the awesome worth and dignity of the human person. Our failure to look deeply at one another so that we can see that, as Thomas Merton said, “people are walking around shining like the sun.”

If we truly saw reality as it is – people as they are – we would never succumb to shutting off water on people like Sharon. We would never think of rounding up Muslims or deporting immigrants or grabbing women. We would understand deeply that Black Lives Matter and that everyone deserves to love and be loved regardless of sexual orientation.

We would know that all lives have worth beyond imagining – whether those lives are rooted in El Salvador or Standing Rock. Detroit or Darfur. Ferguson or Flint.

Behind the water shutoffs is a matrix of injustice in which poverty and race intersect with a rapacious economic system that devours its young in order to continue feeding a military-industrial complex that will always have money for war, even if it means denying the poor water – the consequences of King’s giant triplets come home to roost. Pope Francis has spoken of this, and we know that God is not mocked.

At times like this, it is good to turn to the martyrs of El Salvador who stood on the side of the poor in the face of unimaginable brutality and systemic violence. They learned as we must that despite the horror of the historical moment “we are,” in the words of Guatemalan poet Julia Esquival, “threatened with resurrection.”

children's march 2While we cannot make the claim that the historical reality in El Salvador during a period of bloody civil war and our own historical reality during a period of gross and intersecting injustices, including water shutoffs, are the same, we can commit ourselves to taking the poor of our own time down from the cross by leaning into the threat of resurrection.

Threatened with resurrection – which means – like the martyrs of El Salvador, like Sharon – we plant our feet and our faith in this historical moment and bet our very lives on the truth that life has worth and that human dignity and justice are worth struggling for despite the risks.

Tonight we began with a meditation that had us by breathing together – which is no small thing – since to breathe means to conspire. The actual meaning of the word conspire is to breathe together, which means that all of us in this room are now co-conspirators in the faith that does justice.

Let’s conspire in demanding that the dignity of all people be upheld during these dangerous times. Let’s conspire to cease the oppression. Eradicate poverty. Dismantle racism. Let’s conspire to take on hatred. End the greed. Stop the water shutoffs.

If we are convicted as co-conspirators, let us be convicted for heeding the call of Charity Hicks, the Rosa Parks of the Detroit water struggle who shortly before her untimely death, reminded us to “wage love” in the long, hard struggle for justice.

If we are found guilty of conspiracy, let it be for giving without counting the cost, for fighting without heeding the wounds, for toiling in the fields of justice without seeking for rest, in the manner of the martyrs of El Salvador.

If we are condemned for conspiracy, let it be for doing Your will. Which always comes down to speaking truth and waging love . . . wherever it leads.

jes      “The Legacy of  the Jesuit Martyrs Inspiring Water Justice in Detroit” at University of Detroit Mercy,                                                                November 17, 2016