Children for Sale

When we hear the ugly word, trafficking, what comes to mind? We may think first of the congestion on highways at rush hour. But human trafficking is a far more horrible thing. The average age when first trafficked is 13 for girls, 12 for boys.

Let’s first imagine that you are 15 years old, male or female. You live in perpetual fear. Not of algebra tests or getting a prom date or passing the driver’s license exam–the usual worries of your peer group. No, you are the possession of a human trafficker, who uses and abuses you, exploits you at whim and keeps you isolated. You are convinced that no one knows about your private hell; no one cares. No one has ever told you that you’re bright or beautiful—or that this deplorable situation isn’t your fault.

Somewhere deep within you know this isn’t right, that somehow you are better than this. But you have no idea how to break out of your cage. Once trafficked, your life expectancy is 7 years. It’s unlikely you’ll ever celebrate your 21st birthday.

Until one day—the freedom you’ve dreamed of arrives. Police beat down the door where you’re held captive and arrest your owner. “You are free!” they announce.

Except that–you don’t know what this means. Furthermore, there is nowhere to house you.

Let’s leave your imagining there, and interrupt with statistics. 100,000 children a year in the US are trafficked; it’s a $32 billion business nationally. The U.N. estimates that 2 million children world-wide are trafficked.

There are only about 300 beds available in the US for those who are rescued. Most kids wind up in foster care or juvenile detention. Neither placement is appropriate: often, they ran away from foster homes which were abusive or negligent. And they’re the victims, not the criminals. Read next week about what a group in Oakland, CA is doing to provide a house of healing for minor victims.

Meanwhile, if you have suspicions that someone, especially a child under 18, is forced to engage in sex or a labor activity and cannot leave, call:

National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888

De-Sanitizing the Saints

For some mysterious reason, we want to prettify our holy ones, make them antiseptic and perfect: a great dis-service which places them on a distant, unattainable pedestal. (And easily gets us off the hook of becoming like them!) Since St. Clare’s Feast was Aug. 11, let’s look at how it happened to her.

One of the most famous images of Clare was her holding the monstrance high, so that Saracens invading Assisi shrank back in fear and left her monastery alone. It’s true that soldiers did enter her home, San Damiano, but they were European mercenaries hired by Frederick II. The monstrance didn’t exist then—in 1240.

What Clare actually DID, confronting the genuine threat of invasion far outside the city walls where she and her sisters lived unprotected, was take “her usual posture for prayer,” lying prostrate.  It seems the exact opposite to a demonstration of power or strength, and yet it was effective. The invaders retreated, causing no harm.

Her strategy fits perfectly into what Richard Rohr describes in Eager to Love as a topsy-turvy insistence on living without privilege or guarantee. Totally dependent on God, spending 40 years in one small house and garden, she discovered freedom and joy. The process of letting go her ego and learning to mirror God is far more dramatic and transformative than the phony images we use to beef up the saints. So why not focus on the true story?

For more about St. Clare, see:

Blessed Among Us: Day by Day with Saintly Witnesses by Robert Ellsberg for more about the book and a 20% off introductory offer.

Feast of St. Mary MacKillop (1842–1909) — Aug. 8

She could be the patron saint of people who have some cringing disagreements with their institutional churches. Her father’s financial failures meant the loss of many childhood homes, and constant moving with her 7 siblings. But at least he educated the children. At 14, Mary went to work to help support the family. With two of her sisters, she eventually started a school in a Penole stable. (Cue “Away in a Manger”?)

When in 1867, Mary founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, their school was revolutionary for admitting both paying and non-paying students. She was the first religious sister outside the cities, and first to educate children in far-flung regions. With characteristic humor, the Australians called the nuns the “Brown Joeys,” after the color of their habit.

Then the story gets really interesting. The audacity of the congregation being directed by an elected mother general, rather than the local bishop caused predictable grumbling among Australian hierarchs. Worsening the situation, the sisters lived in the community, not in convents—Mary even consulted a neighbor about the fish she was trying to cook, which crumbled. Not the way nuns did things! When Mary and her sisters reported a priest who’d sexually abused children, the tension with Australian bishops hit a peak: for a time they excommunicated her. (A diorama in Sydney shows the bishop railing at her and kicking her dramatically out on the streets.) The country people supported the sisters, and Mary named those who caused this suffering her “most powerful benefactors.” From a remote corner of the Australian outback, she tapped an insight known to the world’s wisdom traditions: we sometimes learn more from our “enemies” than our friends.

While the bishops’ names are mercifully forgotten, Mary became Australia’s first canonized saint in 2010. The Harbor Bridge in Sydney bore her name in lights, and Australians at the Vatican belted out their raucous Olympic cheer, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!”

For more about Mary and other creative upstarts, see:

Blessed Among Us: Day by Day with Saintly Witnesses by Robert Ellsberg for more about the book and a 20% off introductory offer.

Feast of St. Martha

St. Martha might admire the take-charge brilliance of Hillary Clinton. She’d also know what it means to get bad press. In comparisons to her sister Mary, she usually comes off as the officious social director, fussy and anxious, when her sister’s contemplation is “the better part.” But let’s look again at her role in the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-53).

Annoyed by Jesus’ delay after she’d sent him word that her brother was critically ill, she spewed pure venom: “if you’d been here Lazarus wouldn’t have died!” But Jesus, like a forgiving friend, continued their conversation. Oddly, he seemed to need something from Martha, an affirmation before he raised Lazarus and proceeded to his own death. So few people understood him; perhaps all he wanted was the support of one person. Martha gave it.

When he walked purposefully to the tomb, then to the fate awaiting him in Jerusalem, did he hear Martha’s words echoing in his ears? Only one other person had affirmed him as Messiah, Peter. But a few verses after that bright spot, Jesus called him Satan because his understanding was so woefully inadequate. Where Peter challenged, Martha supported. Where Peter doubted, Martha energized. Happy feast to her and all women who speak boldly.

Excerpt from Hidden Women of the Gospels by Kathy Coffey, Orbis Press.

Witness and Prophet

Let’s hope that on the Feast of Mary Magdalene July 22, we all did our part to correct the misperception of her as prostitute. That error, a conflation of three Biblical texts, was given authority by Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century, and not corrected for 1400 years, until revisions to the Roman calendar of 1969.

Luke’s gospel names her as one of several financially independent women who supported Jesus’ ministry. But her role is more important than financier. Dan Brown’s best-selling Da Vinci Code gave her a romantic role, but again, her centrality in the early Christian community was more than simply a private relationship. All four Gospels agree she was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. When Jesus calls her name in the garden, it is a pivotal point of human history. Her name is the hinge to a new order. She was the first to realize that God could vanquish even death, and to tell the other disciples. She convinced them and skeptics throughout history that “love is stronger than death.” To silence her voice and discount her authority does her a great disservice.

Excerpt from Women of Mercy by Kathy Coffey (Orbis Books).

A Long Journey of Small Steps

Hooray for the California legislature, passing stricter gun control, and for Gov. Brown signing 6 of the measures! In 50 years, these may seem so obvious that we’ll wonder why such common sense was ever debated. Limiting magazines of more than 10 rounds? Background checks on ammunition? Yet these steps make CA more restrictive than many states. Maybe sensible gun control is a long journey that begins with small steps.

After the Orlando killings, some said that the hatred once projected onto the GLBT community was simply shifted onto Muslims. But as Ramadan ended this week (with a courteous reminder from the mosque president about increased traffic in the neighborhood), I remembered that same celebration several years ago, in Omaha.

Some of us, summer graduate students at Creighton University, had prepared carefully for our visit to the local mosque.  We’d gotten scarves and managed to fashion them into awkward hijabs, wanting to be dressed appropriately for the prayer that evening.

Our leader was a Franciscan following directly in the footsteps of St. Francis, who urged Crusaders to stop battling, and engaged in dialogue with the Sultan of Egypt. Some of the same issues he faced in 1219 continue today, but at that time popes promised eternal life to those who would kill the “enemy.” Instead, St. Francis entered the world of “the other,” and apparently established rapport with the Sultan, who after their three week visit, sent him away with protection and a horn which summoned to prayer.

We weren’t prepared for the warm hospitality we met at the Omaha mosque. Our guide, a Creighton graduate, would always refer reverently to Jesus, repeating, “Blessed be his name.” (People are often startled to hear that Mary, Jesus’ mother is mentioned 34 times in the Koran.)

Muslims who had fasted since dawn had prepared a large and delicious meal for us. (Unknowingly, we’d already had dinner in the cafeteria.) They spoke of how local police had gotten used to hate calls targeting them. (One day, a young boy, bored with long services, had played with a paper airplane outdoors, tossing it against the wall. Neighbors had phoned in with dire warnings of terrorism. An innocent barbeque grill, purchased for outdoor meals, was immediately branded a mysterious weapon.)

Yes, some Moslems are violent. So are some Christians, Jews, and Hindus—in short, humans. But what kind of projection is going on when we foist off our own evils, our untended wounds and shadow selves on convenient scapegoats? Didn’t Jesus try to put an end to scapegoating, once and for all?

When Sitting Down Is Standing Up

My 3 previous posts about gun control as a life issue were written before the Orlando shooting. Events since then, such as the Senate’s tragic refusal to enact the most basic restrictions on guns, have led to further development. As on any issue, I feel strongly about this, but I may be wrong…

“Where is the heart of this body? Where is its soul?” John Lewis challenged members of the House of Representatives who have failed to act despite countless tragedies involving guns. Coming from the man who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and marched on Selma, the questions rang with authority.  On Wednesday, he then led a sit-in on the House floor. That nonviolent protest proved effective in the Civil Rights movement, and hopes are high it can work again.

It was accompanied by the powerful rhetorical device of the unanswered question: “What is the tipping point? Are we blind? Can we see? How many more mothers and fathers must shed tears of grief before we do something?”

Republican Representative Ted Poe responded, “The chair would ask members to leave the well so the House may proceed with business and decorum.”

So where was the decorum at Columbine? Or at an Aurora movie theater where a 7-year old girl lay bleeding to death on the floor? “Business” was sadly interrupted at Sandy Hook, when in a contemporary version of the Pieta, teachers tried desperately and sometimes ineffectively to shield 6-year olds from bullets.

There seem to be arguments again every bit of legislation that’s proposed, but this catastrophe has dragged on far too long, while gun manufacturers make millions. So why not try? Why not follow the lead of every other nation that solved this problem long ago?