Epistle from the desert #18

by MaryAnne Somerville

I live on the border between the United States and Mexico. Our town of Sierra Vista is located 17 miles from the border, in Cochise County, in Arizona. In the Civil Rights era of the sixties, this would be like living in Selma, Alabama. My husband and I moved here in 1999 for jobs. I am a retired teacher and he is a retired priest of the Episcopal Church. Both of us were actively working when we moved here from northern New York state. Our children are grown and have been out of the nest for thirty years. We have lived all over the country. This area is unique. Our population is made up of ranchers, military personnel, educators, doctors, lawyers, domestic workers, construction workers and contractors. The Tea Party has a cell here, the Patriots have a place, the Vigilantes are here, the Democrats and Republicans are here. This is a “Republican District” for the House of Representatives but we elected Gabrielle Giffords and Ron Barber for that seat. Our governor is Jan Brewer, a notorious state’ s rights advocate, and an anti- immigration spokesperson.

With these things in mind, the setting from which I write might be surprising. Over the last six years I have written my Epistles from the Desert and have emailed them to friends and those who request copies. I began this journey because a seminary professor, Dr. John (Jack) Gessell, requested that I give our view of the border issues to others. He taught at the University of the South, St. Luke’s Theological School, in Sewanee, Tennessee. This is number 18 of the series. I think it is time to review where I began and where I am now. At the beginning I referred to myself as “faith based”, but now I am adopting a friend’s label of “person of conscience.”


This is the great hope for all of us. Justice and Peace in our world is dependent on it. The recent crisis in Syria certainly brings it to our consciousness. While legislation languishes in the Congress, people are dying from the heat in the desert. Volunteers from my area take water trucks into the desert on the Mexican side and end up calling for rescue help from the Red Cross and/or recovering bodies that have shriveled to nothing, while the migrants walk through the 110 degree heat. They come for jobs, to pick vegetables, fruits, nuts, and to care for sheep on the high ranges of Colorado and Wyoming, and to herd cattle for ranchers in our Western lands. They also clean manure out of dairy farm barns, and butcher chickens. They take care of our children, clean our homes, cut our lawns, build our houses, and make the beds in our hotels. They are not all Mexicans, some are from Guatemala, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. These pilgrims walk many days and many miles to get to the wall between our two countries. Once they arrive at a border town on the Mexican side, they must still get across the 13 foot wall and walk, at night, 3 more days. There are five kinds of rattlesnakes, scorpions, spiders, ants, etc. in our desert. Along with the creatures of the night, the pilgrim must evade the U. S. Border Patrol, who have night vision goggles, guns, and sensors in the ground.

Would anyone “choose” to live like this? Not only that, some cross every year according to job availability and seasonal work. Many leave their families in their home country and send their money back to support them. Yes, some are involved in the drug trade. Most migrants I have talked to , do not carry drugs unless their families are threatened with death by the Cartels. I have never seen a fight, heard a gun, or been disrespected by a migrant. I have seen old men cry. I have seen grandfathers with shredded shoes and bloody feet. I have seen young men struggling to stand up. I have heard “Gracias” many times, for a glass of water, a bean sandwich, or a cup of coffee.

The rate of crossing the border has dropped with the low economy in our country. Migrants still cross if they have word that their are jobs available for them. They cross if they left family here when they returned to their country for a sick parent or a funeral of a loved one. I have heard “I have to get back to North Carolina, Alabama, West Virginia, or fill in the blank.” Their children are there. Their hope is there. Building a new or better wall is laughed at by our people that have ranches along the wall. “Build a 15 foot wall, use a 16 foot ladder.” That is the saying. Shooting young men in the back because they were “throwing rocks”, makes no sense. If your neighbor throws a rock across your fence at you, are you allowed to shoot him?

Life on our border is not what you see in your newspapers, or your TV. No one is murdering residents in their beds here. Children are not taking advantage of your Social Security by not paying taxes. Drugs are not sold on the streets, unless you are looking for them for yourself. Migrants are not taking your jobs, unless they are jobs you would not do.


Join me in being a “person of conscience”. Every day, every minute, what you think and say matters.

Peace and love in Christ, Mary Anne Somerville SHCS

Mary Anne Somerville has a history of justice and peace work all over the United States. "One more victory for the little man," is her mantra. She has written the Epistles for six years. After retiring from 43 years of teaching , Mary Anne began a second career of volunteering for the Children's Orthopedic Clinic for Mexican children on the border, for CANTER, a therapeutic horse program for special needs children and adults, and for helping Native Americans, especially Navajos and San Carlos Apaches. She has followed the call of the Lord with her husband, Ben, an Episcopal priest.

Behold, I stand at the door and knock

Tricia Gates Brown

Celebrants press wall-to-wall into houses where we gather, forty to sixty people, grandparents to infants, night after night reciting the prayers and singing the songs of Las Posadas. Steamy windows emanate light into winter’s deepest dark. Posadas (translated literally as “lodgings”) take place for nine nights, from December 16 through Christmas Eve, and reenact Mary and Joseph’s attempt to find lodging in Bethlehem. The tradition, over four hundred years old, originated in Spain and was carried to Mexico. The uniquely Mexican version seems to have started in 1538, when Spanish friars intent on assimilating the faith with Aztec rites, combined posadas with the nine-night winter ritual of imploring the sun god’s return. Mexicans still celebrate posadas, enlivening them with balloons and papel picado, and the shrieking of children as candy erupts from handmade piñatas.

On foggy and chilled Oregon coast nights, in the homes of immigrants who work mainly for dairies among the cows and hay of our nativities, who struggle to find open doors at banks, at college departments of financial aid and dental offices, at the Department of Motor Vehicles, we await the advent of Jesus, the one with no place to call home. I stand shoulder to shoulder with my Mexican friends in their rented houses that have seen better days, that sleep several children to a bedroom and boast a shrine of mother Mary displayed in her Guadalupe form, surrounded by frolics of icons, plastic decorations, Christmas tree and lights. I step outside and sing along with the “posada song”, pretending to be Mary and Joseph at the door of the inn (or on other nights, the innkeeper, roused from his sleep and ill-tempered). And as each night passes, I begin to understand a part of the Christian story I have previously not understood. Mary and Joseph were like these Mexican immigrants, and I, standing there in my invisible cloak of white privilege, will find it harder to know them.

Mary and Joseph were Galilean. And the people from Galilee were belittled in Bethlehem and throughout Judea. In a reversal of geography, they were the disregarded neighbors from the backwater north, the presumed uncouth and superstitious and freeloading and rebellious and lazy. Down in Judea where they went to pay taxes, they were often shut out as a matter of course. Galileans were stereotyped by Judeans as lawbreakers because of their reputation for bucking the status quo. Galilee was a renegade land that tended to spawn messianic figures who gathered peasants into movements awaiting the coming of the Lord, a new day of fairness. These movements, started by leaders like “the Egyptian,” or “Judas the Galilean,” were historically successful. That is, until the Romans got miffed and sent riot police to disband or kill them or paramilitary troops to intimidate them, or turned on them their own client kings like Herod Antipas, who lived luxuriously by wiling away the wealth of his subjects, sending them to border towns to pay their dues.

In some ways the term “Galilean” was used in Jesus’ day to simply mean an outsider, especially of the political sort. Galilee was a center of economic protest, where the Messiah named Jesus would wax prophetically on wealth and the sharing of it, on how the rich couldn’t make it into heaven any more than they could make it through the eye of a needle, or the Rio Grande, or a few days in the Arizona desert. In his last years, Jesus’ friends and audience were Galilean fisher-folk, and in the Roman Empire, dwelt at the bottom of the labor pool. In the words of Cicero, quoting the well-bred Terence: “The most shameful occupations are those which cater to our sensual pleasures: ‘fish-sellers, butchers, cooks, poultry-raisers, and fishermen’” (Cicero, On Duties 1.42). In our day, Cicero might have added hotel cleaners, line cooks, gardeners, vineyard or dairy laborers, makers of Versace denim jeans.

At posadas, we are reminded by word and ritual that God chose an indigent, young Galilean girl, “Alegría, alegría!” We pray for the immigrants facing deportation, for the women with back pain and diabetes, who need strength to rise each day and make two dozen beds. We pray for the children, for the church and its message of good news. We pray for the high school students fighting for a chance at a dream. We pray to live lives that are generous and just.

The litany, prayers and songs culminate in a meal, a feast of hospitality that night by night includes carnitas, tacos, Mexican barbequed chicken, tamales, saucy burritos, pozole, or taquitos, always accompanied by rice and beans and a prismatic display of salsas. After dinner, children swing at brilliant piñatas.

For reasons unknown, the children flock to me and my husband, throwing hugs around us like coats on a rack. They glow with beauty and unyielding hope, and in America they are not unlike Jesus and his friends running about Jerusalem at Passover, yet unaware of how they are seen, or who they will become, only that they love the songs, the traditions of Christmas, the smell of the Passover tamales, and the community of Galilean pilgrims who love them. These children know only that Jesus and his parents were poor and had to stand at a door and knock only to be ignored, and then finally let into our broken and peregrine hearts as the queen and kings of heaven.

Tricia Gates Brown is a writer and garden designer residing on the Oregon Coast. More of her writing can be found here. She is the author of Jesus Loves Women: A Memoir of Body and Spirit, released in 2011.

On immigration: Are we heeding Moses and the prophets?

Not long ago, we asked people how they preached on the difficult gospel passage below. The Rev. Bill Carroll responded.

By Bill Carroll

Jesus said, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"
(Luke 16:19-31)

I wrote this sermon for one of the women who cleaned my parents' house when I was growing up. Her name is Gilda, and she took over the job from her mother Lupe, whom my mother hired not long after we moved to San Diego when I was ten. Gilda spoke very little English. She was a Mexican citizen with documentation to work in this country. Twice a week she worked at our house, and I assume she had other jobs during the week. She came by public transit from Tijuana, Mexico, some twenty-five miles away.

I remember my mother's efforts to be fair. She paid Gilda more than the going rate. She made or bought lunch for her every day, and she tried to give her a ride to and from the bus stop, which was about a mile from our house. At the same time, however, even as a child, I was aware that Gilda was living on the edge. She must have been bone tired, emotionally and physically weary. Nearly every day, she was harassed and shaken down for bribes by officials on both sides of the border. Despite the fact that she needed the job and seemed to appreciate kindnesses that her other employers did not extend, nothing can really change the brute, social facts surrounding our relationship.

I was thinking about Gilda when the House of Bishops met in Arizona recently. There was some controversy about whether they should meet there at all, in light of recent events in that state. One of the positive things to come out of that decision was a delegation of thirty bishops, who spent two days on both sides of the border, meeting with everyone from immigrants to ranchers to border patrol agents to clergy ministering along the border. The bishops also adopted a pastoral letter, drafted by a committee chaired by our own bishop (Bishop Tom Breidenthal of Southern Ohio), on comprehensive immigration reform.

The letter is available here. It is addressed to "the People of God." As is true of any letter written by committee for a diverse audience, the letter strives for balance. The legitimate concerns of ranchers, law enforcement, and border security advocates are acknowledged. Nevertheless, our bishops do manage to say something clear and substantive. More importantly, they put front and center the needs of poor people crossing the border for work, whether documented or not. Here is the meat of what the bishops had to say:

(1) Ours is a migratory world in which many people move across borders to escape poverty, hunger, injustice and violence. We categorically reject efforts to criminalize undocumented migrants and immigrants, and deplore the separation of families and the unnecessary incarceration of undocumented workers. Since, as we are convinced, it is natural to seek gainful employment to sustain oneself and one’s family, we cannot agree that the efforts of undocumented workers to feed and shelter their households through honest labor are criminal.

(2) We profess that inhumane policies directed against undocumented persons (raids, separation of families, denial of health services) are intolerable on religious and humanitarian grounds, as is attested by the consensus of a wide range of religious bodies on this matter.

(3) We call on the government of the United States and all governments to create fair and
humane immigration policies...

In taking this stand, which will not be popular in every corner of the Church, our bishops have done what they promised at their ordination. Among the vows that bishops take is a particular promise to "be merciful to all, show compassion to the poor and strangers, and defend those who have no helper."

But the bishops, seeking to encourage us all, appeal not primarily to this promise of theirs but instead to the baptismal covenant they share with all of us, wherein we promise to "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being."

In their role as teachers of the Word of God, the bishops also cite the Scriptures. In particular, they mention the law given to Moses on Sinai, as recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Numbers: There shall be for you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord. And they refer to a glorious passage from Ephesians, chapter two, which speaks of how in Christ, we are no longer "strangers and aliens" but "citizens with the saints and...members of the household of God."

The bishops might just have well referred to the story of Lazarus and the rich man, appointed for Sunday right after their letter came out. This Gospel is one of several passages in the New Testament, the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew also comes to mind, where it is made clear to us that our decisions about how to respond to brothers and sisters in need, particularly when they are poor and vulnerable, are decisions for or against God and God's Kingdom.

In this life, the rich man ignored the cries of poor Lazarus, who lay wounded and hungry at his gate. Perhaps he could scarcely see him for who he was. Even if he did see him, he averted his gaze, ignored him, and tried to pretend he wasn't there. He certainly didn't respond to his needs, get to know him, or find out what gifts he had to offer.

I believe that for Christians living in the United States, which despite our recent difficulties is still the richest country on earth, this parable provides a challenge and a warning. Do we see the poor of the world? Do we see the poor who are already among us, both immigrant and "native-born"? Do we see the growing underclass among us, as poverty and extreme poverty rates continue to climb?

How do we respond when we notice these children of God lying at our gates? Do we cover our eyes? Do we call the cops? Or do we invite them in, offer them a seat at the table, and find ways for them to contribute and belong? We dare not turn a blind eye to the fundamental realities already on the ground. Immigrants are already contributing mightily to the economy, to the communities they live in, and to the society as a whole. There are law enforcement challenges to be sure and no one has all the answers, but the existing laws are out of touch with reality. And the climate of fear and scapegoating is dangerous. It runs contrary to both our best instincts as a nation and the Gospel mandate to tear down every wall that divides human beings.

This commandment from God is rooted in Israel's history as a nation of migrant workers, who came to Egypt to avoid famine and were mistreated by Pharaoh, until GOD came and set them free. This is why, again and again, the prophets remind us of our obligation to create justice for the poor and vulnerable among us: remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

In the story from Luke 16, when the rich man asks father Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, Abraham tells him that they already have Moses and the prophets and should listen to them. Truly, brothers and sisters, if WE will not heed Moses and the prophets, and respond to our brothers and sisters in need, there is perhaps no hope for us. No, not even if someone rises from the dead.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

On not going to Arizona

By Lauren R. Stanley

For the past several weeks, I’ve been watching the debate and the reactions over the new immigration law in Arizona that basically makes it illegal to be a stranger in a strange land.

I know well what it is like for immigrants in that state, and I know the fears they face, because for nigh on five years, I have been a stranger in strange lands. I know what it is like to not fully belong, to stand out, to be easily tagged as “other.”

I know what is it like to be viewed with suspicion.

I know the fear of having police stop me and demand my papers, and the terrors that descended upon me when those same police told me that my papers were no good, despite the fact that they were.

I know what it means to be somewhere illegally, even though it was the right thing to do.

The Arizona laws touch me personally because I was supposed to go to there in September for a clergy conference. I wanted to go to Arizona, I really did, but then the immigration law was signed, and I thought to myself, “I just can’t go there.”

How could I – how can I – go to an eight-day clergy conference for my own respite, focusing on myself and my needs, my desires, when so many of my sisters and brothers are living in the same fear that I experienced for so long as a stranger in a strange land?

Once I made the decision, I notified the conference sponsor and was gratified to find out that I could move my conference to another time, another place, no questions asked. That made me feel better, but then I began to wonder: Had I done the right thing? The House of Bishops has decided to go ahead with its meeting in September in Arizona, in part to be a witness to what is happening there. Perhaps going to Arizona would have been the better thing to do, I thought.

And then I heard a preacher who opened the Scriptures for me in a new way, and I knew I had made the right decision. This preacher explained the significance of Jesus’ statement to his disciples, “A new commandment I give you, that you love on another as I have loved you.” This new commandment further refined the Double Commandment, the preacher said. The latter, to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” is hard to obey, she said, because we don’t always love ourselves. But this new commandment – to love one another as Jesus loved (and loves) us – well, that’s a whole new ballgame.

Listening to this preacher, I was struck to the core. I can’t go to Arizona, I thought. If I do, I’m not loving one another as Jesus loves me. Jesus’ command calls us to work toward bringing God’s kingdom – a kingdom of love – into being in this world, at this time.

I will not participate in a law that forces some of God’s beloved children to live in fear, that punishes people because of how God created them.

Basically, what it comes down to for me is this: There are no “us’s” and “thems” is God’s very good creation. Going to Arizona while this immigration law is in effect would make me an accomplice to the idea that indeed we can divide out the people, and declare some to be lesser human beings.

And I simply cannot do that.

My protest is very small, I know, and in the greater scheme of things will not affect a single thing in Arizona, except to deny the state some money. I know that Arizona is not going to change its draconian law based on what I do or not do.

But that’s not the important thing.

What is important is that I listen – very hard – and work – even harder – to love my neighbors as Jesus loves me. Not going to Arizona is the best way I know to live out that love.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary serving in the Diocese of Haiti.

Why is it so sad?

By W. Nicholas Knisely

A few years ago, because of some local political controversy, we offered a safe place to worship to a group of Latinos who no longer felt safe traveling to another part of Phoenix. That small group of ten or so souls has now grown to over 300 people with nearly 100 or so regularly gathering on Sunday mornings. I've learned a great deal from this experience. One of the most important things I've learned is that when Americanos and Latinos work to make common cause, it's less important to be bilingual than it is to be bicultural. (Full credit given to Canon Carmen Guerro for leading me into this understanding.)

Why bicultural? Because sometimes we Americanos do something with the best intentions and find out that we've misstepped. Consider this year's Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) observance at Trinity Cathedral here in Phoenix. We've tried to do something to mark this important folk celebration of All Soul's Day in Mexico and other Latin American countries given that there is a very large number of Latinos living in the neighborhoods around the Cathedral. Generally though we (Americanos) constructed a beautiful altar in the Art Gallery part of the Cathedral, collected important artistic works and thought we were doing bicultural ministry. The displays were very lovely and lots of folks from the Anglo congregation brought their friends by to see the exhibit.

But now that we have a vital Latino congregation it was important to me that we move away from an observance of the day and toward an authentic worship experience. So we decided together that the proper place to put this year's altar of the dead was not in the gallery but in the Columbium (which is where many of the beloved of the Cathedral congregation are interred). One of the priests on our staff, who has a real gift for design, was asked to put the altar together on Friday and Saturday in preparation.

He did a superb job. It was striking, sensitive and theologically rich. It sent a message of our Christian hope, founded in baptism, that in Christ our lives do not end, but that death brings our transformation. He created a three part altar, covered with beautiful black cloth, a display of marigolds, focused on a cross and pascal candle; all of which were dramatically lit. It was elegant, understated and just what I had hoped it would be. We were very pleased with ourselves.

Then on Saturday morning we had a group of parishioners and other friends come in to create decorated lamps that we were going to use in procession on Sunday night. Some of the women from the 12:30 (Spanish language) congregation wandered in to see the altar. It was not what they expected. I was upstairs in a Commission on Ministry meeting. I was sent a note that told me I needed to come downstairs as soon as possible. "It's very important."

The ladies had gone to Canon Guerro very concerned about the altar. "It's so sad!" What I had seen as elegant and understated, they saw as effectively communicating a message of restrained grief; not the exuberant celebration of joyful transformed lives that Dia de los Muertos proclaims.

So, with my "permission" the ladies set to making it a proper altar. They went out and bought candied skulls, crepe paper and lots of colored votive candle holders. And they spent a couple of hours making paper flowers, bunting and streamers. You can see part of the result in the picture on my personal blog, linked to in the comments below. (I'll post more there as soon as I have time to create a proper album.)

Where did we misstep biculturally? Well first, in my own sense that the beautiful altar was finished... Our staff priest actually designed the area to serve as liturgical "scaffolding" with the idea that it was going to be remade by the 12:30 congregation. But most of us, myself and the ladies of the 12:30 congregation included, didn't see that. It was so elegant that we didn't imagine that possibility. Where else did we misstep? It was in the idea that the ladies needed to get the permission of el Dean to make the altar their own. My understanding was that it was to be theirs from the beginning. But they could not imagine changing it without asking "The Man". Clearly we have some work to do to make them feel that they are full and vital members of the congregation, not people whom the rich Americanos tolerate out of some sort of noblesse oblige.

So, we have some work to do. But it's good work. I'm rather looking forward to it. Because, by pointing out my own misunderstanding of the basic nature of celebration rather than somber mourning surrounding Dia de los Muertos, I found myself rethinking my own relationship to my family members who have died. Particularly that to our youngest daughter.

The idea that she is attending an eternal fiesta in the presence of God held in the arms of her grandmothers and her namesake grandfather is a totally different way for me to envision her today, the 12th anniversary of her death. I like the idea of Fiesta much better. And so I'm grateful to the ladies of the 12:30 service for giving me a new set of lenses to see the world around me. I think our family just found a new folk custom that we shall keep all the days of our lives.

The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz. He served as Chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication, is active in ecumenical works and was originally trained as an astronomer before he was ordained. His blog is Entangled States.

Religious freedom in a diverse, secular society

By Luiz Coelho

It took several hours and the hardwork of many skilled professionals to install the huge Vermont-granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court in Montgomery. The sculpture, which was donated by benefactors, weighed more than five thousand pounds, and the process of installing the monument was so arduous and impressive that it was filmed by professional cameramen. However, despite the difficulties, Chief Justice Roy Stewart Moore was proud to announce to the media on the morning of August 1, 2001, the successful installation of the monument.

This story might sound like an ordinary episode in the history of public administration in the United States. It was not, though. The monument also portrayed, alongside the Judeo-Christian foundations of moral living, quotes from the Declaration of Independence, the United States’ National Anthem, and various sayings of the Founding Fathers. Many were in favor of the creation of the monument; however, many were also opposed to its installation in the Supreme Court rotunda, because they felt it overstepped the bounds of separation of Church and State. Several organizations filed suit in the United States District Court, asking for the removal of such a monument. Moore, who was already known for trying to implement prayer before trials and for taking his own portable Ten Commandments tablets to court, used the powers of his Office to resist the removal of the sculpture as long as he could. However, eight members of the Alabama Supreme Court intervened, unanimously overruled Moore, and ordered the removal of the monument. In the end, both the monument and Judge Moore were removed from the building.

Moore's story is not an isolated case. In several other instances of American public life, the Courts have removed religious symbols, such as crosses, crèches, and ten commandment tablets, from the public square in the last fifty years at least. Prayers in such environments are also heard less frequently. It can be said that in the United States, religion has been playing a less and less important role in public affairs altogether, even though conservative Christians are still seen in prominent circles both in society and the government.

Some see this trend as a direct attack against “traditional American values”, and – at least their perception of – the society that the forefathers of the United States worked to create. They often cite how peaceful and prosperous life was in the past, when “the Christian God” had a place of public honor among Americans. Many would argue, also, that freedom of religion has always been guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution, and that religious minorities have always had the right to build houses of worship. Are these views and arguments valid? Was religious freedom so evident in the past? Or, was it plainly masqueraded by a certain majority who belonged to one kind of faith only, and who created a set of structures to secure it? How worse, or better, are we now?

Like many people of faith, I dearly welcome the advent of real religious freedom, especially because it frees us to deal with symbols related to the religious life. It might be interesting, then, to see some examples of how public expressions of religion actually have changed in the last fifty years, and if they really helped us achieve more tolerance and full separation between church and state.

It would be inconceivable nowadays to demand anyone to hold to a particular religious viewpoint or to express a belief in God in order to hold a public office. Yet, fifty years ago, it was possible for public organizations to have prerequisites that would limit access to such jobs to people of faith only. For example, in the early sixties, Roy Torcaso was denied his appointment as a Notary Public in Maryland because he refused to declare a belief in God. Article 37 of Maryland's Declaration of Rights stated that a declaration of belief in the existence of God was necessary for any office, profit or trust in that state. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1961, and the Justices unanimously found Maryland's requirement a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. That decision established a legal precedent which created a paradigm shift in the role of faith in the public square. From then on, an acknowledgement of a given religious belief ceased to be a prerequisite for public jobs in every part of the country.

Another example of changing attitudes toward the place of religion in the public square during the last fifty years can be seen in the public schools. The elderly can still recall that it was not uncommon to say prayers, sing religious hymns or even have obligatory religious services in public schools. A series of court rulings, however, has changed the possibility of such practices today. These rulings were the results of complaints by citizens, such as a group of parents of students in New Hyde Park, New York, who complained in 1966 that a public prayer to “Almighty God” was against their beliefs. The case, which became known as Engel v. Vitale, went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that government-directed prayers in public schools are a violation of the Establishment cause. Since that ruling, it has become more and more difficult to hear prayers said in public schools, and subsequent attempts to allow them have been defeated in court. Prayers in educational institutions are confined nowadays, to chaplaincies, religious clubs or associations of common-minded people. But, in no case may a person be obliged to participate in public prayers in school.

Such lawsuits and governmental measures have not appeared out of nowhere. They reflect, in fact, a very noticeable paradigm shift on the American religious scene. When the British allowed European settlers to establish colonies in these lands, most of them belonged to Christian religious groups, often Protestant denominations, although some Jewish settlers found a home here as well. With an increasing immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this profile changed to include more Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Judeo-Christian religious ideology was still the norm, however, and it is reasonable to say that fifty years ago the overwhelming majority of Americans were Christians, or believers in God. This pattern started to change when immigration from non-Christian countries began to increase.

In their American Religious Identification Survey, researchers at the City University of New York discovered that from 1990 to 2001, the number of people in the United States ,who have a religion other than Christianity increased from 5.8 million to 8.7 million. Such a number, albeit still small, reflects a sizeable minority, which practically did not exist years ago.

Much more significant than the increase in non-Christians is the increase of people who identify as atheist and agnostic. Non-religious people were usually a very small and intellectual minority in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, they compose about fourteen percent of the American population, as pointed out in the aforementioned study, after having more than doubled in size from fourteen million people to practically thirty million people between 1990 and 2001. Together with non-Christians, they compose practically twenty percent of the American population – a percentage that is growing, according to the study.

The gradual secularization of the public square is merely a response to a more religiously diverse society. It is now impossible to ignore non-Christians and those who profess no faith at all. The removal of religious symbols, sometimes under serious protest, is the most neutral answer to a truly pluralistic society, rooted in the freedom of religion articulated in the United States Constitution and several other historical documents of this country.

It has to be said, though, that not only has the percentage of those who identify with a specific religion changed, but the profile of the typical religious American has also changed. In The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict, Robert Ellwood argues that religious traditions in the 1950s were largely intensified by socio-political conditions. He believes that religious organizations used to provide a very important framework upon which families built their lives in the postwar period. Routine religion was part of what was perceived as normalcy, and after all the chaos of previous decades, people needed normalcy. Religion was also seen as the amalgama of American families – especially at a time many families were marked by the loss of beloved relatives. Finally, being religious was a sign of anti-communism; and, the cold war, with all of its implications, was often portrayed as a kind of Armageddon in many households. Back then, religion was completely intertwined with the way society was organized.

However, throughout the last fifty years, a series of movements in American society, such as the sexual revolution, women empowerment, the end of the cold war and fast communications, have drastically changed what Americans might call “family”. What is perceived as a familial arrangement in today’s society does not always correspond to the vision our grandparents shared. There are manifold types of families in our times and a direct genetic link between relatives does not exist in all of them. Families now include both heterosexual and homosexual partners, stepchildren, adopted children, remarried spouses, half-siblings, close friends and a myriad of other groups of people which would take pages to define. Religion, under this new context, is not necessaily the glue that holds families together. Common Sunday after-church luncheons have given way to cell phone calls or even e-mails. And with the rise of the so-called “religious right” in the government, the merger between religion and politics à la the cold war is not viewed favorably in more liberal circles.

Such conclusions are often misinterpreted as the final defeat of religion in the United States. Yet, it can be said that religious freedom was probably never more celebrated and protected in U. S. History as it is in our contemporary, pluralistic society today. The largely-Christian/largely-familial religious environment of the fifties posed a much greater threat to freedom of faith. People were often forced, by social conventions, to follow the same religion (and in many cases, the same denomination) as their parents and grandparents. Marriages often took place within such religious circles, regardles of the true beliefs of the participants. The scenario, nowadays, is markedly different. The latest survey by the Pew Forum of Religious and Public Life reveals an astonishing piece of information: nearly half of American adults leave the faith tradition of their upbringing, either to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether. Roman Catholic and Protestant mainline churches have lost members to newer Christian groups. Those who lack faith, are increasingly comfortable in leaving religious organizations they once belonged to for primarily social reasons. Yet once people find a religion that fulfills their needs, they are moe likely to adhere to it faithfully, and to try to engage in all the possibilities that it provides. Religion is to our generation, therefore, is much more a matter of personal choice than it was fifty years ago.

When the religious spectrum was monolithic, public manifestations of the majority faith were not bothersome to most people. Now, in a much more varied religious climate, it seems logical not to encourage any particular brand of faith in a public space. Thus, the much-criticized secularization of public places is actually an important step toward protecting religious freedom, and creating a more diverse and equaitalbe society. It helps reinforce the values enshrined in the U. S. Constitution and respects people's rights to choose whether to have a faith or be part of a religious institution. It also protects newer churches and religious groups from state-sponsored propaganda of older ones. And, as long as religions have the right to worship in their houses of prayer and act according to their beliefs, their rights are protected. The ongoing changes are definitely for the common good.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

Prayers for Camila

By Sarabeth Goodwin

I am Latino missioner at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Just a year and a half old, the Misa Alegria is the youngest of the six Latino/Hispano congregations in the Diocese of Washington. By the grace of God and those who travel the way with me, I have been given a special gift: an invitation to cross into a different culture. I share in the journeys of many who live in the shadowlands—a parallel world often hidden from the mainstream where pain and challenge are daily bread, but faith endures. Here there are crossroads where the biblical stories intersect lives not as metaphors, but as realities.

The recent failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform in this country has been followed by increased raids in homes, workplaces and on playgrounds in our area and elsewhere. Fear and anxiety are commonplace in our community. Current laws do not encourage the integrity of families. We have a broken system that ensures cheap labor while establishing an underclass that labors dutifully without benefit of rights and protections. How we treat the sojourner in our land is a moral question which we as Christians must examine through the light of Scripture and the bond of our baptismal covenant, humbly seeking the guidance of the Spirit.

I share here a story from the Misa Alegría family.

Raids, detention and deportation have been lurking around the Misa Alegría for many months now—nephews, daughters-in-law, friends—but until recently nobody from our immediate family had been affected by our broken immigration system.

Late in August, we felt the impact. Sunday, Aug. 19, we bid a sad farewell to two of our own, a farewell that will mean long years of separation to a young family. Sandy made the painful decision to return to Ecuador with her 3-year-old daughter, Camila. Her husband, Daniel (not his real name) must remain here in the U.S.

Misa Alegría welcomed Sandy and Daniel to our congregation last January. We baptized Camila on July 15. Because of her solid Christian formation, I asked Sandy to help us with church school for the youngest. She was hesitant. The next week she explained why. Her mother was gravely ill and she needed to return to Ecuador to be with her.

Sandy had come to the United States some years ago to work and to study. She met and fell in love with Daniel and overstayed her visa. Three years ago, Camila was born. When Sandy’s mother became sick, the family found itself in a dilemma. Should Sandy stay here and never see her mother again? Should she return to be with her mother, knowing that under the current laws she would be banned from reentering the U.S. for 10 years for having overstayed her visa? And would this country even issue her another visa? And what about Camila, a U.S. citizen?

Together Daniel and Sandy made the agonizing decision for her to return to Ecuador with Camila.

Daniel must remain here. He is the only member of his family in this country. His mother is undergoing cancer treatment in Mexico City and he is financially responsible for her medical care. Only by Daniel’s working here can the family afford her medical care. He must now assist his family in Ecuador as well. If he leaves this country to visit either his family in Mexico or his family in Ecuador, he will not be allowed to return.

The family’s final Sunday at Misa Alegría – the “joyful mass” – was very difficult. We prayed for a safe journey for Sandy and Camila. Then I wrapped my stole around Sandy and Daniel’s joined hands and blessed their marriage. I could hardly see to read the prayer for the tears. When they stood up and kissed each other, I can only describe the response of our congregation as a collective sob.

One bright spot for Sandy is that the Episcopal Church, which she has come to appreciate, is only three blocks from her house in Quito.

Daniel continues to worship with our congregation. He hopes to save enough money to join Sandy and Camila in Ecuador in several years. They talk on the phone every day. Camila misses her daddy. Please keep them in your prayers.

Editor's note: Shortly after returning to Ecuador, Camila underwent a complete battery of tests and scans to identify a malady that is affecting her bones and neuromuscular system. Both Sandy and Daniel will need to undergo genetic testing to help identify and treat the specific syndrome. You can help this family with your prayers and by making a donation to Camila's Care, c/o The Rev. Sarabeth Goodwin, St.Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, 1525 Newton Street, NW, Washington, DC 20010.

G-forces shaking up the Church and the world

By Kit Carlson

Forces are at play in our world and in our church, and one of the best assessments I have heard lately of those forces came from a community reform expert. Peter Plastrik, co-author of Banishing Bureaucracy and The Reinventors’ Fieldbook, spoke recently at a training session for community leaders in East Lansing, Michigan. He outlined five forces, five “Gs”, that are affecting communities across America.

As he spoke, it struck me that these forces are the same ones affecting our church.

Plastrik’s “Five G’s” are:

Grand Rapids – as a metaphor for the global economy. The internet, easy international travel, and the ability to move jobs anywhere in the world have changed the economies of communities once based on manufacturing and local enterprises.

Goat meat – as a metaphor for immigration and all the challenges it brings. Consumption of goat meat in the U.S. has skyrocketed as immigrants from countries that eat goat arrive, bringing their national cuisines with them.

Greenland – as a metaphor for global warming. The ice on this large Arctic island is vanishing, and with climate change comes a host of new challenges for each community.

Gay people – as a metaphor for all the cultural challenges surrounding gender, age, and sexuality.

Geoffrey Canada – creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a community-based organization that seeks to serve 9,000 children, providing support from birth through college. Canada serves as a metaphor for self-empowered citizens, who don’t wait for government or other institutions to solve community problems.

A member of the audience added a sixth “G”, the Graying of America, as the long-promised demographic shift of the Baby Boom into old age begins at last.

Plastrik’s “G-forces” made a lot of sense to me. When people ask, “What is happening to our church?” they often think in terms of political movements -- liberals versus conservatives, progressives versus traditionalists. Instead, one might look at the power of these forces, playing out in the parishes and dioceses and provinces of The Episcopal Church and of the Anglican Communion.

G-1: The worldwide Anglican Communion was not so prominent 30 years ago. As the global economy has taken shape, a global Communion emerged in prominence and consideration along with it. And just as a global economy knows no borders, ecclesiastical relationships that cross borders and jurisdictions follow the same pattern of connections that criss-cross the planet and minimize the importance of local communities.

G-2: Rapid immigration into the United States brought Anglicans from around the world into American parishes. No longer is Anglican worship uniform across The Episcopal Church. Inculturation has come to us, and so we sing from many traditions, read scripture in other languages, practice Pentecost every day of the church year. The values and expectations of other cultures become part of our conversations about sex, worship, politics and a host of other issues.

G-3: The churches of the Gulf Coast still recovering from Katrina understand how climate change can affect our churches and communities. There is more to come, and Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana has already seen it coming. His call for the church to focus on ministries of relief and development instead of on schism and division comes out of hard experience.

G-4: There is not much to say that hasn’t been said about the cultural challenges of inclusion and acceptance of GBLT people. Joan Chittister said it best perhaps … the Anglicans just got to the issue earlier than most.

G-5: Self-empowered citizens, entrepreneurial community activists … the church is full of them. Duncan, Iker, Minns and those who would develop an alternate structure are entrepreneurs in their way. Why wait for the agonizingly slow movement of the Communion and its provinces to address Windsor, gay bishops, a Covenant, or any other issue? Why not set up one’s own alternative diocese, alternative province, alternative Communion?

Finally, there is that sixth G-force, one that Plastrik dismissed as not of interest to him. But the Graying of America, the graying of the Episcopal Church, is a real force. As I look across the faces of my parish, I see a community that has failed to effectively share the gospel with the generations coming after it. There are faithful elders and faithful Boomers … most of whom have grown children who do not themselves attend church, who are not raising the grandchildren in any faith, and who have abandoned religion as irrelevant. The leading edge of the church is dying off, and it is not replenishing itself.

And so the question is probably not – what to do about gay bishops or authorized rites of blessing. The question is really: How will we navigate these powerful forces? In a global, migratory, entrepreneurial, aging, culturally conflicted, climactically threatened world … how are we going to be Church? How will we proclaim the good news of Christ in the face of forces beyond our control?

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich. In 2003, she played the apostle Paul on the world's first internet reality series, The Ark, a project of the Christian humor website Ship of Fools.

Why I am an Anglican

By Kit Carlson

For many years, I was a serious Anglophile. I loved being an Episcopalian, because we talked like Thomas Cranmer every single week (at least until the 1979 revision of the Prayer Book). I was obsessed with the Masterpiece Theater series on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, and the connection between my local church and the its convulsive beginnings in the 15th Century was really powerful for me.

As I got older, I drifted in and out of churches. As a young 20-ish woman, there was nothing that spoke to me in most Sunday services. But on All Saints Sunday 1986, my husband and I wandered into Our Saviour Episcopal Church, just next to the Beltway in suburban Maryland. We had relocated to Silver Spring, I was pregnant with our first child, and I wanted to find a church we could settle down in as a family.

Our Saviour had a pipe organ. And a choir, one that needed a soprano. It worked for me. We joined.

Shortly after, something wonderful began to happen at Our Saviour. It had been founded in the late '50s as a "white flight" church, spun off from another Our Saviour in the Brookland area of Washington when things began to "change" in the neighborhood. But as the 1980s turned into the 1990s, Our Saviour-Hillandale also began to change. Folks started showing up, immigrants from Africa and China and India and the Caribbean.

It was another connection to British history, its history of empire and of conquest. For if once the sun never set on the British Empire, then it also never set on Britain's national church. There were Anglicans all over the world and as they moved to the United States, many of them made their home at Our Saviour.

Harwood Bowman, the founding rector, had planned for Our Saviour to be built next to the Capitol Beltway, then only a dream, because he wanted folks to come to Our Saviour from "all over." Folks were definitely coming to the church from "all over," from places Harwood had never imagined they might come, bringing their culture and customs with them. It became a Pentecostal church ... not the kind that rolls around in the ecstasy of the Spirit, but a church that looks like the feast of Pentecost, when each person heard the good news proclaimed to them in their own language.

Through these changes, Our Saviour flexed, painfully at times, but accommodated the shifts. When I worshipped there last month, for the first time in years (and for the last time for me as a resident of Maryland ...), it was very different and yet the same.

The congregation was more than three-quarters black. But not because the whites fled ... the old-timers were still filling the same pews. The parish had just grown and changed along with them.

The Mother's Union, another exported British tradition, had turned out to make a presentation. In their matching blue dresses and white hats, they claimed their pride of place as a force of feminine leadership. The sermon -- preached by the new young assistant, who is also the parish's pastor to its Latino congregation -- was free-form, delivered from the aisle, and powerful. The music was traditional (with ALL the verses of St. Patrick's Breastplate) and pietistic, with three hymns from LEVAS at communion, sung with great volume and joy. Some people waved their hands in the air. Others silently bowed their heads in prayer. It was my church. It was a homecoming.

Our Saviour is not a perfect parish. It has had its dissensions, its debates, its struggles over what is going on in the wider Communion and what is going on among its own members. But it is a community that has held together through those dissensions and struggles. It is Anglican in all the best definitions of that word ... international, comprehensive, thoughtful, traditional, yet open to the leading of the Spirit.

I am proud to have called it my church home. It has made me the Anglican I am today.

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich. She was associate and interim rector at the Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg, Md., for seven years.

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