As the program manager of a small nonprofit education and advocacy center in Cincinnati, you could safely say that I am up to my elbows in social justice issues. Actually, it often seems more like I’m keeping my head barely above the surface! Planning and hosting events around human trafficking, capital punishment, and racism are all a part of my daily ministry, and there is certainly no end of the work to be done in sight. Sometimes it feels as though I am bouncing from one insurmountable injustice to another, and I struggle to stay grounded and peaceful. It’s times like that when a line from a prayer or piece of Scripture serve as a mantra that connects all that I’m doing, making it feel less fractured and overwhelming and reminding me that we really only have one mission. I received an unexpected and very special gift of just such a reminder in the mail a few weeks ago.
IJPC had just held the fourth gathering in a continuing initiative called Rethinking Racism, which is a series of open space community forums that provide a safe place for people interested in having honest but challenging conversations about our continuing struggle with racism. A local reporter joined us that evening and I spent a good bit of time with him after the event talking about how things were going. We shared with each other our frustrations and deepening sadness about what seems like a lack of progress in overcoming systemic and institutionalized racism. He published an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer shortly after, and included a quote from me in which I say that though some of us haven’t realized it yet, all people lose in a racist society. White privilege keeps us from experiencing it in the oppressive, painful, and sometimes lethal ways that our nonwhite community members do, but the lives of white people are also severely diminished as members of a society that keeps us separated, ignorant and fearful of one another. We too, lose out on the richness and vibrancy of a diverse community. We too, are affected by the blatant disrespect and disregard of human dignity when our brown and black sisters and brothers are treated unkindly and unjustly.
A week or so later, I was preparing myself emotionally to make a visit to Kentucky’s Death Row. A group of religious sisters from different communities have been making an annual trip for years and invited me to join them. They have earned the trust of the prison officials and are allowed a “contact” visit where the inmates are in the same room with the visitors, and not kept behind a glass window as usual. Though I wanted very much to go, there was a part of me that resisted. A voice in my head kept reminding me that I was going to be locked in a room full of people who had committed horrible violent crimes, and I had to wonder a little at myself for doing that by choice. I was clearing off my bed so I could actually get in it to go to sleep that night, and noticed a piece of mail I hadn’t opened. It was a note from one of our long-time Associate members, Liz Maxwell. She had cut out the newspaper article I mentioned above and written to tell me that she was proud of IJPC and of the work I was doing. She also included a colorful artful rendition of a quote by Blessed Frances Schervier (who founded the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor to serve the neediest of the needy). It read, “Love all without distinction.” There was that unifying and edifying intonation I was so in need of at that very moment, and how very grateful I was for it! I could now answer that pesky little voice that was asking me, “Why go?” with confidence, “Because we are called to love all without distinction, and that’s what I’m trying to do!”
In the weeks that have followed, “Love all without distinction,” is the mantra often on my lips. It has helped me navigate from that death row visit to a Black Lives Matter march of nearly 5,ooo people, to the Circle the City With Love prayer event before the Republican Convention in Cleveland, to the memorial we hosted for the victims of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan 71 years ago, as well as the 160 million civilian casualties of war since then. I serve and pray for people who have the same perspective as me and for those who don’t, for both the victims and the perpetrators of crime, war, and racism as I try to live out my call following the way of Jesus to love all I encounter. I even said it as I pulled over to rescue a box turtle in the middle of the road as I left the prison that day, thinking, “All includes you too, little brother!”
IJPC website: www.ijpccincinnati.org