Compassioñeros on the Liberation Frontier

• Christopher J. Doucot

Back in April when I met with Rev. Read and her team she mentioned that they had been engaged in a yearlong dialogue with some of you, exploring how we, people of faith, are to exercise our liberty. This is a seminal, and perennial American question. What does it mean to be free in this land of freedom?

Trinity Commencement program

For much of our history the pursuit of freedom was conflated with notions of conquering the frontier. Perhaps this comes from our creation myth of a persecuted people crossing the frontier of the vast Atlantic Ocean seeking religious liberty in Plymouth in the 17th century. In the 18 and 19th centuries the frontier was the seemingly boundless land west of the Mississippi river. “Go West, Young man” Horace Greeley is alleged to have exhorted New Haven’s own Josiah Bushnell Grinnell in 1833. Going west captivated the imagination of the nation for a century, and was reenacted, repeated and re-imagined through song, sonnet and film long after the frontier was closed. Closed, that is, until 1962 when President Kennedy declared the moon to be a new frontier which we must conquer because, in his words: “there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people”. A few years later Gene Rodenberry, through the voice of Captain Kirk would declare in the opening monologue of each Star Trek episode that space was the final frontier. Forgive me if you are a Trekkie- but Kirk was wrong.

This afternoon I hope to set you on the path of exploring the greatest, most overlooked and perhaps the most difficult frontier of humanity. It is a frontier that can’t be conquered but could be closed. It is a frontier that exists at once in space- not outer space but right here in Hartford among other places, and at the same time it exists in our hearts and minds. It is a frontier that ought to challenge perceptions and limitations of freedom with the more potent potential of liberation. The frontier I’m speaking of is that chasm between Lazarus and Dives. It is a frontier that renders a caste of people untouchable in India just as it renders them invisible in America as they clean our homes, care for our aged and infirmed, or simply beg for spare change outside a Dunkin’ Donuts.

In a most un-American way this is a frontier that we not only have shied away from- it is one we have built walls around to protect us from it. In Detroit it is represented by a half mile long wall built in 1940 to separate Black people from white people in order to protect the home values on the white side. In Florida it is represented by the gates of neighborhoods where the stranger is explicitly unwelcomed. In cities across our land we have encircled our downtowns with moats of parking lots and interstate highways to protect these islands of suburbia from the alleged danger that lurks in urban neighborhoods. In its most despicable form this frontier is marked by the razor wire and concrete behind which 2.3 million Americans are currently imprisoned. This frontier is the margin of our society. A place where hungry folks fed today by a Salvation Army will be hungry again tomorrow, and the next day, if we can’t muster a liberation army- a nonviolent liberation army that is. It seems to me that salvation and liberation are flip sides of the same coin. When we engage in liberation struggles we are partnering with God in a holy effort to vanquish those remnants of the kingdoms of this world which now delay the full realization of God’s kingdom in our midst.

In our romantic collective recollection of Pilgrims, Cowboys and explorers our default perspective is that of the Pilgrim, the cowboy and the explorer; and so their tales are noble ones that reflect core American values of freedom, independence, and individualism. But we know a more honest recounting of how we settled the frontier requires consideration from the perspectives of the other people present. What did the Massasoit and the Nauset people think about the Pilgrims? And what did the Taino people of Puerto Rico think of Columbus? What did the enslaved survivors of the middle passage think of the Sons of liberty? How did the slaves living in Monticello understand their owner’s declaration that all men are created equal? And what of the Chickasaw and the Choctaw, the Apache and the Navajo; what did they see from their side of the frontier?

Expansion or invasion? Settlement or occupation? Explorer or conquistador? Freedom fighter or slave holder? An honest accounting of our pursuit of the frontier reveals a series of counterpoint tensions: while we pursued freedom we owned others, while we celebrated independence we relied on the labor of others, as we declared freedom of religion we forbade the religion of others. Left unexamined these contradictions will continue to bedevil our national psyche and imperil the future of America’s grand experiment in freedom. A freedom that doesn’t include the “other” is not exactly freedom.

We cannot go back in time, it is too late to prevent these contradictions but a frank exploration could tap the energy inherent in their tension to transform ourselves and our society. Just because we were a society where plantation mansions existed because slave quarters existed, and where homesteads prospered into cities while civilizations were slowly erased on reservations, and just because we are today a society where ghettos exist because suburbs also exist, we don’t have to remain a society where liberty is sparingly parsed out to those on the margins by those in the center. The current economic inequality and racial strife in our land need not be our destiny. This frontier of the margins is not a product of nature but of our own making; to cross it we must first confront a more foreboding frontier inside ourselves.

In the sixth chapter of the Christian gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers about how to give to the needy and how to pray, he admonishes them to have a right relationship with money and to have confidence that God will provide for them. And then he tells them to “first seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness”. In the gospel of Luke Jesus reveals that this kingdom will be found by looking inside ourselves, which may well be the last place most of us would think to look. Introspection is not among the more recognizable character traits of Americans. Indeed, as I’ve just described, much of the American project has been outward looking. If our gaze is perpetually outward we may find some measure of personal liberty but we will never find true liberation. Liberty is too often a solo project, sought for and by individuals or, at best, a particular group. Liberty is freedom to speak, to pray, to gather, or to be left alone. Whereas, liberation is a human project which seeks to free all of us from assaults on our inherent dignity. Liberation includes the aforementioned freedoms but it seeks to balance those freedoms with responsibilities to one another and especially to the vulnerable among us. The pursuit of liberty is not the project of liberation if it doesn’t lead to freedom from hunger, freedom from fear, and freedom from second class status for all of us.

Before there was Facebook, an exclusively exterior project that is all about portraying a best, and false, version of ourselves, many folks kept diaries and journals which were never meant to be read by anyone but themselves and perhaps their God. This was an exclusively interior project where we often searched for our authentic selves- maybe one of you will develop an app for it, but until then turn off your phones if even for just a half an hour a day and look within.

To look inside we must practice some type of mindfulness discipline be it prayer, yoga, meditation, fasting, whirling like a dervish, chanting like a Buddhist, or sitting silently like a Quaker. Even a cursory look inside ourselves reveals that fundamentally we are all the same. We are all sacred temples of the Holy formed by the clay of this earth, forged by the wombs of our mothers, and animated by the Ruah, the breath of God. Before we are rich or poor; white, black or brown; male or female; young or old; before we are American- we are human. We are sisters and brothers of one family equally deserving of a fair share of the bounty of this world sufficient to live a dignified life. This is not news to you, indeed it is the basis of the Golden rule which can be found in just about every faith tradition.

I am Catholic, in my faith tradition I am instructed by Jesus that if I am to love God with all my heart, mind and soul then I must love my neighbor as myself and I must love my enemy too. When I was an undergrad at Holy Cross in Worcester my limited understanding of love made this sound at best quaint and at worst absurd. And then I read several of Dr. King’s speeches in which he broke down love into the three Greek terms for love: eros, philios, and agape. When Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies he isn’t suggesting that we get romantically involved with them, that would be eros. And when he tells us to love our neighbors he isn’t suggesting that we are going to be best buddies with people who have different tastes and personalities, that’s philios. Rather he is telling us that we must feed hungry people as we expect to be fed and clothe naked people as we expect to be clothed and we must house homeless persons as we expect to be housed. And we must also be patient with others as we hope them to be patient with us, we must forgive others as we hope to be forgiven and we must teach others as we too hope to know more. This is agape.

As a young man on the cusp of adulthood I was faced with a dilemma, one that maybe you are facing right now. I was calling myself a Catholic, and yet there was no clear evidence in my daily life that I was loving my neighbors as myself and at that point in my life the thing most important to me was to be authentic. I didn’t want to be what Holden Caulfield from the Catcher in the Rye called a phony. I didn’t go around claiming to be a football player just because I went to football games on Saturdays so why should I call myself a Christian just because I went to church on Sundays? It was around this time that I learned about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement she founded. There were people trying to actually love their neighbors, and enemies, with food, shelter and community rather than empty words. I was full of zeal and full of myself.

One Friday night of my junior year I took a homeless guest staying at the Worcester Catholic Worker to dinner in the main dining hall at Holy Cross. My companion’s name was Kenny. He was in his early twenties, he was unshaven, his hair was wild and he could have stood under the shower a bit longer that morning. On our drive from the Catholic Worker to Holy Cross a beggar approached us while we sat at a red light, before I even thought to do a thing Kenny had given this man the change he had earned that day collecting bottles and cans. Our dinner at Holy Cross was a disaster. Kenny was clearly a stranger at a place that struggled to welcome strangers in their midst. It didn’t take long for the snickers, smirks and dirty looks to become too much before Kenny asked to leave.

I was furious with my classmates.

It took years of looking inside for me to accept that I should have been furious with myself. In my haste to cross the exterior frontier between the privilege of Holy Cross and the poverty of the streets, I had neglected to confront my interior frontier. I had gone about things in reverse because I never for a moment gave serious thought to how dinner at Holy Cross would likely be very uncomfortable for Kenny. Closing the frontier between Kenny and the center of society doesn’t require Kenny to move to the seat of privilege, rather it requires the privileged to move to the margins and meet Kenny there. Liberation is not about asking the oppressed to visit their oppressors in their halls of plenty, it is about abandoning halls of plenty in search of authentic relationships, right relationships with the oppressed.

It took me twenty years and a couple of experiences in concentration camps in Darfur during the 2005 genocide to finally get this. My first experience took place in Kalma camp. There were 100,000 people in this camp, mostly women and children. Many of the women had been raped. They arrived in this camp after walking across the desert for weeks after their villages had been burned to the ground. The camp itself was little more than endless rows of desert igloos, huts maybe four feet high and three feet wide that were made of woven twigs covered in burlap and litter. When I stepped out of my air conditioned Range Rover I was punched in the gut by the furnace blast of the sun. It was 120 degrees outside, the air was still and the sky cloudless. The only shade to be found was inside these huts and I learned that shade was the only thing in these huts when an elderly woman stepped forward, took my hand, led me to her hut and motioned for me to go inside. In doing so I filled the entire space and so she sat in the sun outside the entrance as we spoke through an interpreter.

My next experience took place with my then 12 year old son in Derej Camp, which was an unauthorized camp that held 12,000 people. This camp was unauthorized because the people there had strategically set it up across from an African Union Force military barracks. The dictator, Omar al-Bashir, had warned all the aid agencies that if they attempted to deliver food or water to the people of Derej their workers would be arrested and their ability to minister to the 2 million people suffering in places like Kalma would end as they would be kicked out of the country. So my idea was to bring food to this camp every day for a week in a nonviolent effort to provoke the dictator into deporting us for feeding hungry people in order to bring awareness to the world at large about what was going on. (In fact I was inspired by the lunch counter demonstrations in the American South that were organized by your commencement speaker the Rev. James Lawson.)

The dictator ultimately ignored us but on our last day we witnessed the miracle of loaves and fishes and learned its true meaning. We had purchased two cows, had them slaughtered and brought the beef to the people on the edge of the camp. These people would have arrived during the previous 48 hours. We asked them what they had eaten the day before and they told us that they were not among the “lucky ones”- their words. It turned out that the lucky ones were those folks who had received a modest bag of nuts and dates that my son and I had been distributing that week. We were able to give away maybe a thousand of these bags every day and each bag was scarcely enough to provide a single person a single meal. So the people on the edge of camp told us they were not among the lucky ones but then they told us the lucky ones had shared.

Here’s what I learned from Kenny and the people of Darfur:

Kenny taught me that charity can be an occasion for sin. Here I am defining sin as a strain on one’s relationship with God. Charity is unavoidable in this world but it can be an occasion for sin when it is done without regard to seeking an authentic relationship with the recipient. Because I had only done charity and had never received it, I was utterly ignorant of how humiliating it often is to beg for a basic human right. This humiliation is, in my mind, directly proportional to the pride experienced by the giver. By entering into an authentic relationship with oppressed persons we become aware of this humiliation and we hopefully seek to prevent it by partnering with oppressed persons to seek justice, and end the need for charity. This is the process of practicing Shalom- not simply seeking peace but seeking right relationships. If we desire a right relationship with God we must seek a right relationship with the poor and oppressed.

The people of Darfur taught me that if we want a right relationship with the poor and oppressed we must seek a right relationship with wealth. When the old woman welcomed me into her hut she gave me everything she possessed, which was the shade in her hut, to relieve my suffering. I use the word possess rather than own, because how does one own the shade? The people of Derej took this lesson a step further when they shared the food that my son and I had shared with them. They recognized that the food they possessed did not belong to them alone but rather to all of their companions who were likewise suffering but because they were unlucky enough to be in a different place in the camp they were unable to get a bag for themselves. The food the lucky ones shared was through them but not from them. Likewise the food we gave to the lucky ones was through my son and me but not from us, we possessed it because we had received from others the money to purchase it. Isn’t this the nature of all the wealth of this world? Ultimately the bounty of these lands and the water of this planet do not belong to us. They belong to the One who created all things of this world and they have come into our possession, rightly and honestly or not, in order for us to be just stewards of love. When we share we are nothing more than God’s middlemen and women pursuing of justice.

These two profound lessons were not taught to me by doctors of philosophy in the exclusive centers of learning I attended- Holy Cross and Yale- but by invisible and forgotten practitioners of love living in the frontier of the margins. What lessons await you at this frontier?

The distance of this frontier between the privileged and the marginalized is very often much greater in our minds than in our lived reality. Your four years here at Trinity should have revealed as much since just past these hallowed halls, across your lush green fields and on the other side of a wrought iron fence this frontier beckons you. Many of you ventured into this frontier before you sat through your first lecture when you participated in Do it Day four years ago- let Do it Day be a rehearsal for a Do it Life.

The time for phoniness, both personal and national is over. Our history, our integrity, and the precarity of the current moment in America confront us with two basic questions: will we reproduce patterns of segregation in our choice of where to live? And will we perpetuate systems of oppression with the careers we choose to pursue?

When we limit our meaningful relationships to those who come from our same race, class, gender or generation we miss out on the wholeness of God and we stunt the possibilities of walking into a just, joyful and jubilant world.

If America is to keep her promise of liberty and justice for all we must cross the rubicons of inequality and injustice, not as conquistadores of noblesse oblige performing anonymous acts of charity but as Compassioñeros of liberation seeking shalom.

Resist the triumphant voice of a nation that once urged you to go west. Resist that voice as a siren’s song whose chorus is to look away, look away, look away, and instead look inside yourself and listen to God speaking to you through your conscience. If you can’t hear God there maybe you need to get closer to where you can hear Her in the cries of the persecuted or in the laughter of the poor. Whirl like a dervish, or chant like a monk but above all listen closely and you ought to hear God calling you to the margins.

Go to the margins young Compassioñeros, go to the margins.