Thursday, April 14, 2011

Voice for the Voiceless – a critique

Last Saturday evening, RoseMary (my wife) and I were invited by a very dear friend of ours to attend the Voice of the Voiceless Dinner 2011, which was a fundraiser for Annunciation House. Annunciation House is a shelter, owned, I believe, by the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, and staffed by volunteers.

Annunciation House is a hospitality shelter for undocumented migrants in El Paso. From their website

The undocumented are the heart and soul of the work of Annunciation House. It is a conscientious decision to see in them the Gospel call of treating the “least among us” as we would the Christ. Nobel Peace laureate and poet, Elie Wiesel, while addressing a group working with refugees said, “There is no such thing as an illegal human being!” If there be truth to that statement, if the Gospel be heard, then volunteers coming to Annunciation House must be willing to say to those who come to the door, “Bienvenidos! Mi casa es su casa.”

Our friend who invited us to this dinner, whom I will call R----, was also a volunteer at this dinner, and is heavily involved with the local Catholic activist community. R---- considers all her work for the undocumented migrant as a calling from God and a witness to her Catholic Faith.

‘Atheist’ is not a word I typically use to identify myself, but it is an accurate label. R---- knows I am a non-believer, but she does think that I do secretly believe, and that someday I will again proclaim the Faith. She has also told me that she believes that without God, she would have no focus or moral direction in her life. Also, based on everything I have seen, Annunciation House believes in the same source of morality. The application to volunteer at Annunciation House asks specifically for the applicant’s religious beliefs and backgrounds. The assumption is made that without religious beliefs, the applicant is not qualified to serve the poor, needy and destitute.

I mention all this because I want to write this article as a review of the Fundraiser, and my experiences attending as a non-believing outsider of a strictly religious function, not as a review of a political function. Here in El Paso, border security, immigration and the ongoing war just across the border in Ciudad Juarez are all very sensitive and controversial topics, and discussions surrounding these topics can get very heated. Most everybody has family on both sides of the border, so it is a moral, humanitarian and family concern just as much a political one. And in many ways, I agree and sympathize with the work done at Annunciation House, and I admire R---- along with the many priests and nuns who have dedicated their lives to these humanitarian efforts. It takes courage, commitment and bravery to work in a place that shelters people, some of whom are, for example, victims of kidnap-for-ransom gangs.

But for this article, I want to distance myself from the humanitarian and political issues surrounding Annunciation House, the Catholic Church, border security and immigration, and just focus this review on one thing: my perspective as an atheist attending a strictly religious fundraiser. I did not attend thinking I was an outsider, but as the fundraiser activities progressed, I could sense that my lack of religious belief was making the entire effort very distasteful for me. Even my Catholic wife, RoseMary, felt uneasy by the end of the function.

Rosemary and I arrived a little early at the Amistad Center of Santa Lucia Parish, here in El Paso, where the Fundraiser was held. Lining the walkway leading up to the parish were the Catholic ‘Stations of the Cross’, handmade by volunteers to represent the ‘Immigrant who is being crucified as Jesus was’.

Many of the Stations were made out of items found out in the desert: scraps of clothing, barbed wire and empty canteens. Some contained cartoons of brown immigrants being stopped by white border patrol agents. Some of them contained vague charges of racism. From the fundraiser program:

Upon entering the hall this evening, you walked through a Migrant Stations of the Cross. Each station’s cross was adorned by a parish group as a part of its Lenten reflection. The adornment of each of these crosses reflects a unique theme, a particular way in which today’s immigrant is placed on the cross. Parish groups have committed to taking these crosses back to their communities for further reflection and discussion during Lent.

Each station was annotated, in English and Spanish, with its religious meaning, and its extrapolated meaning for the undocumented immigrant. For instance:

First Station - Jesus Condemned to Death; Lack of Land, Food, and Word Force Migration.

Segunda Estacion - Jesus Acepta su Cruz; Los Inmigrantes y los pobres cargan el costo de bienes y servicios baratos y globalizados.

and the like. People were standing around and admiring these stations, so it was not always easy to take clean photographs of them – but here are some:

RoseMary and I sat down at the table reserved for us by R---- in the name of St Pius X Parish. RoseMary and I were the only people at this table who were not regular members of this parish, although we had both previously attended Mass there many times. Still, we did not recognize anybody there, and there were several curious nuns who approached us. I was afraid they would ask us which parish we were from and, not wanting to make a scene, I promised RoseMary to simply tell them that we were there as guests of R----. To our relief, everybody we met was very pleasant and did not pump us for details about our church attendance.

The Catholic church relies on ritual and emotion to convey any message it may have, and this was especially apparent during the opening ceremony. I cannot think of any other organization that would include a dramatic musical parade to open a fundraiser, but I consider that as evidence of the Church’s reliance on emotional spectacle. Just as the priest and his entourage parades up the center aisle of the congregation to begin the ceremony of the Mass, so in this fundraiser, the rear doors opened to allow the Stations of the Cross to be paraded up the center aisle to be displayed in front of the stage. The doors opened, the stations were solemnly displayed, the guitar slowly strummed and the chorus sang in woeful, morose, gloomy tones:

Were you there when they crucified my people?
Were you there when they fled to save their lives?
Were you there when they knocked upon your door?
Were you there when they thirsted in the desert?
Were you there when they put them behind bars?
Were you thee when they turned them into scapegoats?
Were you there when they tortured them for money?

This was sung once, very, very slowly, to allow time for fourteen handmade stations to parade up the center aisle. As each station made its way up the aisle, and as the song droned on, the theme of each station was read aloud:

“…Sexta Estacion: Veronica Limpia el Rostro de Jesus; Las polizas Injustas de Immigracion Perjudican y Humillan al Migrante…”

The final station was then followed by a giant wooden cross, which was also marched up the center of the aisle to the depressing musical strains, and planted as a centerpiece for the display of Stations of the Cross.

This whole sentimental display was a classic example of the Catholic tradition of burdening its participants with guilt. The ceremony is designed to make the Christian think of the Savior, crucified on the cross, dying to bare the burden for their sins. These particular crosses, however, were also carrying the immigrant, our fellow human being, who is being crucified on that cross along with Christ himself! The words of the opening song, told from the point of view of Jesus to his Christian followers, dictate how the Christian is to emotionally grasp these symbols:

“Were you there when they crucified my people (the immigrants)? Were you there when they fled to save their lives?…”

I can think of no other purpose for this whole mock Passion Play, the crosses, the singing, the parade, than to instill some kind of survivor’s guilt into each of us in attendance.

The Christian is to think, “What am I to do when I see people tortured for money, when I see them behind bars, when I see them thirsting in the desert? I live a good life at home with my spouse, kids and creature comforts, but alas, these poor have nothing! They are dying on the cross! They are the Others, marginalized by those of us Fortunates who hold the bulk of the wealth”.

Then the Survivor’s guilt sets in. This is what the Catholic Church, and the organizers of this event thrive on. Is there a proper and non-emotional response to this guilt?

After the opening ceremony, our meal began. It was a simple and delicious meal of beans, rice, jalapeños and corn tortillas – peasant food that I still love to eat. I quietly whispered to RoseMary that I was surprised they did not do a mock torture on the giant cross with a church volunteer to represent a crucified immigrant. RoseMary looked at me aghast like I told a bad joke, but I was not kidding. The center of Catholicism is the worship of one who was tortured and killed, and the continued reverence of those who are tortured for their Faith. Some of the Stations of the Cross featured political cartoons involving border patrol agents along with charges of racism. It would not have surprised me if the opening ceremony included a Mexican being tied to the Cross by other volunteers playing border agents and wearing Border Patrol uniforms instead of Roman togas.

After the meal, it was time to listen to the guest speakers. The first two were a reporter and a librarian, both of whom risk a great deal in their own personal lives to document the epidemic of murder in Juarez, and the corruption of the Mexican government. Both told many stories of the horrors they had witnessed, and I am awed by the courage of these brave people.

Next came the keynote speaker, the Bishop of the Diocese of Saltillio, Coahuila, Mexico, the “Most Reverend Bishop” José Raúl Vera López. The Bishop’s passionate delivery was heartfelt and emotionally urgent, in fact, his Spanish was so powerful and fast that I could only catch about every other sentence with the aid of an interpreter. He also spoke of the abuses of the governments on both sides of the border, of the dangers of hiding immigrants sought by Mexican gangs, and some of the trials faced by Annunciation House.

Again, I do not doubt the courage of these men and women, and I marvel at their dedication towards the cause of social justice. I agree with much, but not all, of what they stand for politically and morally, and I am convinced that they are sincerely seeking justice for their exploited and abused brothers and sisters. But like all who look to the authority of Jesus to justify their actions, they select Bible passages to pass their agenda and make Jesus whom they wish him to be. The Catholics who advocate border justice desire the Jesus who ministered to the poor and who cared for the sick. They have little use for the miracle worker, the judge of the world or the apocalypic prophet. The Bishop cited a portion from Matthew 25:35-40, one of the flagship Scriptures for the Jesus of the Social Gospel:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

The bishop, somewhere in his talk, arbitrarily inserted the word “immigrant” into the scriptural citation, as in “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these immigrants, ye have done it to me”. “Immigrant?” I don’t recall Jesus ever saying anything about immigrants. I know that most Catholics understand the point Jesus is making – that immigrants are among the least of the brethren of Jesus, so they feel free to insert that word into Scripture. This should not bother me, but I confess that it does, just because I have seen, over the years, the Bible and Jesus used to support every cause, to justify every position, to enforce every action imaginable. I do not believe the Bible has any “authority”, but those who do view it as having some authority, and to those who traditionally do not read it (like Catholics), do not understand that. I do think, they are being lied to in a very unconscious and subtle way. I do think that when a person of unquestionable authority, like Bishop José Raúl Vera López cites a quotation from Jesus regarding “Immigrants”, they will believe it – and that is just a recipe for abuse. Just as those same Catholics likely do not know the whole context that Matthew 25:35-40 is pulled out of, and not cited – the entire harangue of Jesus regarding the judgment of the saved sheep and the damned goats. These particular Christians of Social Justice want Jesus to be the caretaker of immigrants, but they do not want Jesus to be the judge of the damned – so they will pull words out of Scripture and insert words into Scripture to give themselves the authority they desire.

Again – I am not bothered by their own interpretations of Scripture. I am not a Christian. I do not care. But I do care when authority figures blatantly misread authoritative texts to an unquestioning crowd. It is a quick and easy way to exercise power over crowds and to make them act in the way the authorities wish. It is a power that is too easy to abuse. And I have seen it over and over and over again in my own life, and in my reading of history.

Here is my secular reaction to this tactic. If we must continually hunt and peck for the appropriate Scriptures to create the Jesus we wish, and leave all other Scriptures out, I say “What is the point?” The Bible and Jesus can be, and has been, made to say absolutely anything! So what is the point of using it as an authority? If these people have an argument to make in favor of Border Immigration, in favor of Social Justice, then I wish they could just make their arguments intelligently and factually, instead of resorting to manipulating Holy Books and claiming that as their unquestionable authority!

I do believe that sound arguments can be made for all these emotionally sensitive concerns, but I did not hear a single one during the entire Fundraiser. Instead of argumentation, instead of direction, instead of agendas and courses for action, we got high-strung emotion, guilt-laden ceremonies and meaningless slogans. The fact that no solutions to the Immigrant problem were proposed or offered left me wondering what I was being asked to do by the organizers of the Fundraiser! I could give money to help fund Annunciation House, but that was done at the door before we even entered the building. So what, during the ceremony, during the dinner, during the speeches, was I, personally, being asked to do to alleviate the problem of migrant abuse?

What solutions or proposals for action did the Bishop, the volunteers at Annunciation House, or the many priests and nuns involved with the Fundraiser have to offer for us in attendance? The only thing nearing a call to action was contained in the opening ceremonial song:

Were you there when they thirsted in the desert?
Were you there when they put them behind bars?

… and this is telling us to do… what? I know this sounds heartless on my part, but this is a serious question the more I think about it. I truly do not know what they were asking of us, beyond feel guilty about our own comfortable situations. Annunciation House has strict eligibility rules for volunteers, and working there is a lifestyle commitment that few of us can make. What were they asking us to do? Nothing that I could tell, except be aware, and be guilty. RoseMary understands this as another Catholic tradition. Even the most secular of concerns are wrapped in emotionally exhausting cermonies, pageants, and in this case, reminders of the “crucifiction of the immigrant”, with no plan to improve the situation, and no agenda items to actually alleviate the suffering of the dispossessed immigrant. The genuinely interested and concerned person who wishes to help is left with no direction on how to actually do so.

I thought, okay, we feed and care for the destitute immigrant. Then what? They keep coming. Did anybody at this fundraiser have any ideas about how to actually solve the problem from the root? Beyond vague references to “an equitable society” I heard nothing. RoseMary has told me many times that the Catholic Church is good at feeding people, caring for the poor and the sick, and ministering to the most needy. What they are not good at is actually solving problems from the core, actually dispensing medication before the sickness takes its toll, or advocating a political agenda to solve the immigration crisis. The Catholic Church views poverty, suffering and sickness as a virtue. Catholics believe that God allows suffering to occur so that he can allow his followers the privilege to be caring and compassionate through him. This is evident to me in one of the favorite slogans of the Border Justice Catholic, “No Human is Illegal”. The common use of those who cross the border illegally is “illegal immigrant”, but the Border Justice Catholic is loathe to use that term. In addition, immigrants are collectively and reverently depicted by the Border Justice Catholic as abused, despised and hiding in the shadows. In one broad brush, this crowd views all immigrants as despised. When I hear such broad generalizations and slogans, my critical mind starts to dissect them. I assume that immigrants are despised by those that are legal, but if no humans are illegal, does that mean that all humans are, instead, legal? What about the criminals, drug lords and thugs who actually commit the crimes of murder, torture and kidnapping? Are they legal or illegal? Or do they believe that “legal” and “illegal” are terms that do not apply to anybody? And if that is the case, why does the application form for Annunciation House commit the height of irony in requiring each applicant to disclose information for a criminal background check? In addition, RoseMary is an immigrant from The Philippines, so does that mean that she is abused, despised and hiding in the shadows? Is she hanging on the cross with Jesus and the rest of the suffering? Of course, I am being absurd in this wordplay, but I do it to make a point. The vagueness of the slogans that we were offered are actually as meaningless and emotionally charged as the speeches and ceremonies. Blame was quickly pointed in the direction of political authorities, the Border Patrol, and apathetic Christian, but nobody placed a word of blame on actual, drug smuggling, kidnapping, murdering, gun-toting criminals!

I do believe that this reliance on emotionalism and the vague reverence of the suffering is one of the reasons why no solutions to the immigration problem were offered. The suffering immigrant is revered as Jesus on the Cross is revered, and Catholics will see Jesus in the suffering, and will minister to their needs while they are suffering, but I do not think they have any intention to actually solve the problem at the root of the suffering. As I once heard Christopher Hithens say of Mother Teresa, “She was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of Poverty”.

After the speaking, there was a closing ceremony. We were asked to sing along to another slow, depressing dirge:

For the dream I have today, I say yes my Lord, I say yes my Lord
To be a healer of the pain, I say yes my Lord, I say yes my Lord
Soy un serviente del Señor, Digo Sí, Señor, Digo Sí Señor
Y trabajo en los campos, Digo Sí, Señor, Digo Sí Señor

RoseMary and I left as everybody stood to sing along, in order to beat the traffic out. We were both emotionally drained.

Again, it pains me in a certain sense to write this critical article. But I looked online, and although I did see plenty of political critiques, I saw no religiously themed critiques. I do not believe that social causes done in the name of religion are above scrutiny, so I have sought to do so here. It has been difficult to put some of this into words. I love and admire these people and their social causes. We all have family across the border, and most of my friends are of the Catholic Faith, and I am lucky to have them in my life. I want to emphasize again, that I admire the courage of many of these Catholic believers, including our dear friend R----, who have dedicated their lives to this important cause. They have a spine that I will never have. I agree with many of their viewpoints regarding immigration. But I hope I have emphasized why I cannot agree with their strictly religious motivation.


D'Ma said...

I think you made your point very clearly. We have a crisis pregnancy support clinic here that has annual fundraisers where they do much the same thing. They send out invitations to donate in advance. If you donate you're invited to the banquet where they have an emotional presentation. I'm not sure if it's to substantiate the donations or what. Maybe they want you to feel all emotional about it so you can feel you're doing a good thing. I'm not sure what it's supposed to accomplish.

There's that old saying, "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime." Think that goes along the line of what you're saying. What is actually being done to alleviate the problem?

DagoodS said...

What I find interesting (in empathy) is how little religious people recognize the tendency to disenfranchise the non-religious. It pains me to attend a church function or even a wedding and hear how the only reason some couple will make it, because they are both focused on living Godly lives. Does that mean my wife and I are doomed?

You make a good point—what IS the Catholic Church doing to alleviate the problem rather than treat the symptoms? Like giving a person with cancer morphine. Sure, they have no more pain—but they will certainly die.

It is nice they are helping illegal immigrants—what are they doing to make them legal? What do they offer to provide not just food—but life?

Anonymous said...

I was at this dinner with a small group -- religious and non-religious. We were incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be included in ONE organizations steadfast commitment to serve.

It's easy to critique and I wonder what your credentials are. What have you done? How have you and all your kindred, non-religious skeptics organized to make a difference in an exacting way? Religion is personal. Perhaps you should have educated yourself in advance of attending this dinner to know what is the mission of Annunciation House. From there you could choose NOT to attend.

It's clear you're speaking from a place of privilege, even if you may have your own anecdotal stories of woe and awakening. You have a religion -- to NOT believe. That is your absolute right. However it is not only not your right, but downright offensive, to sling armchair critique at an organization who has a long commitment to offering sustenance and friendship to the voiceless. Further, how any person with conscience and reason could be unaffected by the quantitative atrocity of murdered journalist.... well, you like to write more than you think/feel.

Priests don't parade, they process.
Peoples from ALL OVER THE WORLD have rituals, not emotional spectacles.

Your words are ignorant. But you showed up to something of critical importance (it's called bearing witness) so that counts for something.

If you don't pray, get quiet. Take a walk along the ridge of the Franklins. Look down and imagine a line -- a contructed, political line -- representing the USA's complicity in systematic oppression and truthocide.

You don't have to feel guilty. You don't have to feel shameless. Just get the eff to work and start your own movement if you think you know so much.

HeIsSailing said...

Dear Anonymous, thanks for your comment. I responded to it HERE.