Losing a Mentor and Friend: Larry Rosebaugh

Losing a Mentor and Friend, Fr. Larry Rosebaugh, OMI by Steve Clemens. May 20, 2009
[Note: I received word last evening that an American Catholic priest had been murdered during a robbery in Guatemala on May 18th.]

Fr. Larry was a gentle person, one with few possessions or needs. I remember his joy at being moved to solitary confinement at the Potter County Jail in Amarillo, TX one week after our arrest for praying at the assembly plant for all U.S. nuclear weapons (Pantex) in 1981. When we saw each other at the arraignment, he beamed and said, "They gave me my own little prayer cell".

What I didn’t know at the time was that Larry had joined the other five of us because someone else who had planned on taking part of this witness against nuclear weapons was sick so Larry decided to take his place. Prior to the six of us being booked into that jail, we were held together in a cell while the FBI attempted to interrogate us. It was at that point that Larry told us about his imprisonment and torture in Brazil while serving the poor under the inspiration of Dom Helder Camera. After describing what he went through there, I knew I could survive this, my first long-term stretch in the slammer.

Because we were locked in different cellblocks for all but the first week together, I didn’t get to spend much time with Larry – but what time we shared was precious. I learned about his previous experience in prison as the result of his participation in burning Vietnam-era draft files as part of the Milwaukee 14. But what really made an impression on me was his statement on why he scaled the 12’ fence at Pantex that cold February morning in 1981. He said when he worked with the “street people” in Recife, those young, homeless kids had no idea what an atomic bomb was –or what it was capable of doing to its victims. Larry said, “I don’t know too much about these bombs myself, but I know enough that I have to speak out on their behalf.”

It had been less than a year since Archbishop Oscar Romero had been martyred in El Salvador but Larry must have picked up the mantle that dropped when Romero fell about being “a voice for the voiceless”. Larry tried to tell the jury at our trial about his experiences in the slums of Recife and why it propelled him to go to the Pantex plant but Judge Robinson cut him off and stated it was irrelevant to our “crime” of trespass. Larry was sentenced to a year in prison for praying for peace at the “wrong” place. But while still in the county jail, before being transferred to federal prison, the local Catholic bishop came to pay this renegade priest a visit. It was after Bishop Leroy Matthiessen visited Larry in jail that he made his own act of conscience and courage: the bishop publicly asked all those of conscience to stop working for that bomb factory. And what a firestorm that caused!

If Fr. Larry and the other 5 of us had tried to devise an action to compel the local Texas bishop to denounce nuclear weapons, I’m sure our efforts would have failed. But Larry did a simple act of faith and conscience and, as a result, his “sowing of the seed bore much fruit”. Because the newspaper mentioned in the story that a Catholic priest was among the 6 arrested and held in the jail, one of the Pantex workers had a crisis of conscience. Why would a priest be willing to go to prison to protest at the place where he worked? When that worker talked to the bishop, the bishop had to find out for himself.

I joined Fr. Larry once again a couple of years later when he, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, and Linda Ventimiglia came to Koinonia Partners and told us about their intended campaign at Ft. Benning where Salvadoran troops were being trained. (This was just prior to the School of the Americas being moved there.) They invited some of us who were vigiling by the base gate every Thursday to join them in what turned out to be their final action in a very busy week. Several of us joined the 3 of them and we planted our crosses on the Base Commander's front lawn before we were arrested and hauled off. My last time seeing Larry was at their trial in 1983.

I'm grateful for his life and witness. Rest in Peace, my friend and brother.

Remarks at Interfaith Vigil on Anniversary of Postville, IA Immigration Raid

Remarks for Postville Vigil. By Steve Clemens. May 12, 2009

I was asked to share a few remarks about why I chose to join the act of Civil Disobedience last Wednesday at the Immigration and Custom Enforcement Office (ICE) in Bloomington. Most of the 30 who were arrested for blocking the entrances and (hopefully) preventing or delaying the deportation of individuals from this country that day were close to half my age.

I came to political consciousness about the plight of immigrants in the U.S. during the early 1980’s as many families and individuals were fleeing U.S. sponsored or supported wars in Central America. At the time, I lived in southwest Georgia and was part of a sister community to Jubilee Partners, an intentional Christian Community in northeast Georgia who ran a program called Ano de Jubileo. This program attempted to help Central Americans seeking safety and political asylum from those wars to come to Georgia for 6 weeks of language study and orientation to North American customs before driving them to political asylum in Canada. [The US denied political asylum to 95-98% of those who applied from El Salvador or Guatemala.]

Besides helping to drive their bus loaded with 30 refugees at a time, our community also hosted a couple of families during this period as well. In learning of their stories and needs, it was natural to act on my values of Christian compassion and seek to work in solidarity for their needs. In so doing, I was driven to learn more of the Biblical tradition of “welcoming the stranger or sojourner in the land” – for, as the Bible says, “in so doing, we have often entertained angels or the divine.”

The call from my own faith tradition comes primarily from Matthew’s Gospel, the 25th chapter where Jesus reminds us “what we do to the least of those who are marginalized in our society, we do to him.”

Some fellow citizens would argue today that many immigrants are not true “political refugees” but rather migrating here for economic reasons. That may be true but does that make their suffering and needs significantly different? Does that mean we are excused from the Biblical call to compassion? Economic refugees are not just created by drought or other natural forces. Many are created as the result of a globalized economic system that allows capital and material resources to cross borders but not people. When profits come before people, our faith and values must take precedence over our greed and our demands for “low prices”.

In the Christian scriptures, the faithful are called to live as “strangers in a strange land”. For a Christian to identify with a nation-state over the fictive kinships we have with one another is to confuse our own identities.

My friend, Ched Myers observes: All social groups establish boundaries—whether physical impediments, such as fences or borders, or symbolic and cultural lines, such as language or dietary laws. Such boundaries can be a good thing, especially when they help protect weaker people from domination by stronger people. More often, however, boundaries function in the opposite manner: to shore up the privileges of the strong against the needs of the weak. It is this latter kind of boundary that characterizes the current U.S. immigration debate and that the Bible consistently challenges. …
To be sure, issues related to the continuing and often involuntary migration of peoples, and to the geopolitical definition of human communities, are complex in the modern world and deserve our careful reflection and deliberation. But these are finally theological and pastoral issues for Christians, and we must seek to know immigrants and refugees not as statistics but as human beings who endure extraordinary hardship and trauma in their struggle to survive.
And for U.S. citizens, these are issues of national identity. Israel’s ethic of compassion toward outsiders was shaped by its own history of pain: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). We, too, are a nation of immigrants. Amidst the current culture wars that marginalize immigrants and refugees, then, our churches must choose which America we embrace.

Taking It To the Courts

Taking It To The Courts by Steve Clemens. May 12, 2009

The immigration system in the U.S. is broken. Partisan political bickering compounds this political hot potato. Maybe the only branch of our tripartite government that can look at this issue dispassionately is the judiciary. It seems both the legislative and executive branches are bombarded by both interest groups and fear-mongering and remain immobilized to doing something.

But do we really want a dispassionate look? Yes and no.

Yes, because in a democracy, one needs a clear analysis of the situation, making sure that the majority doesn’t trample the rights of minorities. Fears, xenophobia, racial and ethnic stereotyping need to be set aside when determining correct public policy.

No, because I also want a passionate look at immigration. There is genuine suffering that presently occurs on both sides. Arizona cattle ranchers on the border with Mexico find their fences cut, cattle being killed outright or poisoned from eating the detritus left behind by migrants traveling through their lands. On the migrant side, families are being torn asunder. People are desperate to feed and provide for their families amidst Mexico’s economy which has been shattered in some sectors (agriculture, manufacturing, …) by globalization pressures. And that desperation drives them north, trying to find ways to survive and thrive. I want compassion – literally “with passion”.

The U.S. is not an island. Our economic and political policies drastically affect the lives of millions around the globe. Some Americans are truly fearful of being overrun by “outsiders” – maybe in similar ways to what our Native American ancestors experienced. By global standards, most of us have more than enough, certainly more than our fair share.

So, how does one bring it to the courts?

One way is through civil disobedience. It becomes a way to protest unjust laws and unjust situations and creates a public crisis by forcing the judicial branch to look at it. Granted, for the most part in U.S. history, the courts have done a pathetic job. We only have to view the “guilty” verdicts of abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights agitators, and anti-war activists to see the failure of the judiciary in retrospect. But there have been a few victories; some judges find a defendant technically guilty but refuse to sentence them to any penalty.

Witness the recent case of a member of “No More Deaths” who was arrested and charged with “littering” for leaving bottles of water in the desert for migrant workers trying to get a better life for their families. He was found “guilty” but the judge refused to sentence him. In an ideal world, the Judge would refuse to pronounce the guilty verdict and instead fall back on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the U.S. has signed in 1948 as a justification for the humanitarian action.

Or remember the Federal Judge in Minneapolis who refused to find guilty demonstrators against the Vietnam War or nuclear weapons. Some prosecutors have chose to dismiss charges, not because they don’t have enough “evidence”, but because it is not in the public interest to criminalize some behavior. It may appear to outsiders that some of these decisions are made for other reasons (cost of a trial, difficulty to prove intent, busy court docket) but I hope it is due to the conscience and political sensibility of some prosecutors. Maybe some prosecutors are sensitive to world opinion and International Law that often gets short shrift in the U.S.

Some courts and some judges have done a better job on death penalty issues than the political process. It has been the courts that have led the way for some initial movement on the rights of GLBT people to marry – and now some legislators are trying to catch up. Maybe the courts can provide an opening for a just and compassionate resolution to our immigrant policy impasse.

My friend and retired trial attorney, Peter Thompson, reminded me that the best vehicle for getting the courts to address the immigration issue is not via civil disobedience where the court is left to only decide guilt or innocence -so conviction or acquittal doesn't really get to the issues, except indirectly. Civil disobedience cases really don't develop the law; civil disobedience can help build public opinion -it is rather through finding compassionate and determined lawyers to take up the thousands of cases of those caught up in this broken system. To get to the social and justice issues a judge needs to have a case before her that raises those issues. The way to reach these issues is through litigation of the deportation or exclusion cases of immigrants. The big problem here is that most lawyers won't take these cases.

Until or unless we can find and fund the lawyers who will, we’re left with artificially creating the crisis for the courts: by filling their dockets with those of us willing to sit or stand in the way, hoping to protect our brother and sister immigrants who are in danger. Sometimes it seems that civil disobedience is all we can do in the interim while we wait for (and create space for) the political process to catch up. I remember Dan Berrigan said after one of his many courageous and insightful protests, “I could not NOT do it”. That’s one reason for my civil disobedience last Wednesday at the ICE/deportation center in Bloomington, MN.

Am I Getting Too Old For This Stuff?

Am I Getting Too Old For This Stuff? By Steve Clemens. May 8, 2009

Déjà vu hit me when I starred at the one piece stainless steel toilet and sink on one side of my cell and the cracked pathetic excuse for a mattress and pillow laid out on the concrete slab bunk across my 8x10 cage. Was it really more than 28 years ago that I had my first prolonged taste of jail?

In February of 1981 at the age of 30, I joined five others in scaling the fence outside a nuclear weapons plant in Amarillo, TX and was rewarded with 6 months of “hospitality” at the hands of the government. I was “blessed” with three months in the Potter County Jail followed by three months in the Federal Prison in Texarkana. At that youthful age, I was fascinated by the life on the “inside”. As a college graduate with a sociology degree plus a year of social work graduate studies, the jail and prison experiences were like an extended field trip, studying the norms and mores of some new, exotic culture. It wasn’t so difficult to hop up into the upper bunk and you took whatever limited space was available for your exercises.

Yesterday was my first time in jail since my three months in federal prison in 2006. The years haven’t been as kind as I’d like. My back was aching despite taking ibuprofen before the planned civil disobedience action at the immigration deportation center. I supplemented it with extra strength Tylenol a couple of hours into our protest just before we sat in the driveway prior to our arrest. Fortunately our affinity group only sat down on the asphalt 15 minutes before arrest so we could quickly move to another spot if the action coordinators determined that to be the best strategy to prevent or delay the deporting of immigrants that day. But even the 15-20 minutes were uncomfortable and several times I had to unlink my arms from those of my fellow protesters to better brace my aching back.

When they came to arrest me, I mentioned my carpal tunnel problems with my wrist and the police fastened one hand with the flexi-cuff and attached it to a pair of metal handcuffs for the other. Then the cuffs were linked together behind my back in a way that wasn’t as painful as one pair of standard cuffs would be for the 15-minute ride to the jail. I chose to walk with the arresting officers rather than expecting them to carry me off like most of the youthful protesters had before me.

At the jail, most of the men were crowded in to the same holding cell that contained two concrete benches and the requisite stainless toilet and sink. For much of the time there were 13 of us in that “hold”, waiting to be called one-by-one for the booking process. Prior to being put in the holding cell, we were patted down and had to remove all but our T-shirts, trousers, and socks. The cellblock was cold and with only a T-shirt, I was slightly chilled.

But most of my fellow prisoners didn’t seem to mind the temperature. Jerry, the only other protester over 40 who was arrested, had already been processed after he nearly passed out when confined earlier in the arrest process. All of my holding cellmates exuded youthful energy while I was mostly content to sit and reflect on our nonviolent action. It was a long wait for the booking process and it became clear that we were not going to be given any food despite the “jail rules” sign on the wall that stated the meal times with the proviso that you had to eat your meal “within 30 minutes”.

Andrew had been kept in a separate cell and we requested of the police guard that he be allowed to join us after a few others had been booked and moved out of our cell, “Tank 2”. When they finally brought him to join us, he had somehow avoided having to surrender his watch, probably because his T-shirt was long-sleeved and covered it. He told us it was 1:30. I had arrived about 10AM with the last group of arrestees; the first group had arrived about an hour before. Careful reading of the “jail rules” posted in the hallway clarified that meals happened only after you were booked. I guess until they took your photo and fingerprints you didn’t need anything. Thank goodness none of us were diabetic.

I was asked to sign a form twice that I had received my “property” back before I could even check if it was all there. I thought I’d be able to get to put on my shirt (and jacket!) before my imminent release. I knew it was about 2PM. I passed some of the women who had been arrested with me as they were being ready to be escorted out of police custody. They had their clothes and property with them. They unlocked a cell door for me and I assumed that was where I could get dressed.

Instead I found it to be a solitary cell to wait until my fingerprints had been compared with the databases of the BCA (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in MN) and the FBI. “It shouldn’t take too long,” one of the booking officers told me. And I was instructed to leave my plastic bag of my possessions outside before the door was slammed shut and locked. Somehow, those loud clangs of prison cell doors being slammed quickly invade my memories of 28 years ago! That’s when I found myself with the familiar “mattress and pillow” and the one-piece toilet/sink. I was too tired to care that there was no sheet, pillowcase, or blanket. I just stretched out my tired body on the concrete slab and dozed off. I was startled awake by a pounding on the small inoperable window with the obscure pane to allow light but not vision out near the top of the outer wall of the cell. I later discovered it was my “jail support” friends on the outside trying to let me know I was not abandoned.

Finally, at 4:40, seven hours after being placed under arrest, the door opened and I was instructed to grab my stuff and leave. I was told “the computer was down for awhile”. I was hustled out to a waiting room outside the booking area before I could open my bag and retrieve my belt, driver’s license, ATM card, shoes, shirt, pen, jacket, and my “Get Out of Jail Free” Monopoly card that my captors laughed at when I handed it to them. “That card doesn’t work here in Bloomington,” the police said. I signed my citation stating that I had been arrested for “disorderly conduct” and “trespass” with a June 16 court date in Edina. I know the drill. I’ve been there before. But disorderly conduct? We were nothing if very orderly and respectful before, during, and after arrest.

As I quickly dressed in front of a mother and her pre-school child in the waiting room, one of the jail support team entered and said with excitement, “Steve, we’re glad you’re out! Everybody’s waiting for you outside!” I walked into the sunlight and warm air to be greeted by at least 20-30 people and made to run the “gauntlet” of outstretched hands to give me “high 5s” for the protest action. They gave me a bottle of water, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and an orange. I wanted to sit down, enjoy the sunshine and warmth and be grateful for these new friends.

I’ve grown accustomed to getting arrested with nuns in their 70s. We are often treated more quickly and respectfully by arresting officers and booked on-site. Somehow, this seven-hour ordeal seemed to communicate that someone takes our protest more seriously. I may be getting older but I’m still inspired by the Marv Davidovs, the Dan Berrigans, the Betty Mckenzies, and the MacDonald sisters in my life. It’s too late to turn back now. Until justice comes …

Demonizing Dissent [Again]

Demonizing Dissent [Again] by Steve Clemens May 8, 2009

At first, I was neither surprised or shocked to be met by helmeted Bloomington Police at the demonstration/civil disobedience action at the ICE/immigration deportation office on Wednesday. I had confronted the police in all their riot-gear fantasy outfits at the Republican National Convention when I was part of the Minnesota Peace Team. The equipment was the same. Some even had the squad numbers from the RNC on the sides of their helmets. The only thing lacking was the silly Ninja Turtle-like armored body suits.

With gas masks in their carrying cases strapped to their thighs, one of the more than 30 police present carried an M-16 rifle with a scope and clip of ammo in place. At least two police officers carried tear gas guns. Two others carried huge pepper spray canisters – much larger than the ones I saw used on the streets of St. Paul in September – with two additional canisters across the back just in case the 30 nonviolent protesters couldn’t be subdued with an initial application. Those officers not carrying that offensive gear all had the long batons and all carried Tasers as well as the traditional Police sidearms.

What were they expecting?

At the training prior to the demonstration, the Minnesota Immigration Rights Action Coalition (MIRAC) leaders were explicitly clear to all potential participants: our tactics and attitude would be nonviolent. Our protest was directed toward the victimization of immigrants who came to our country in an attempt to feed and support their families; families which have be devastated by NAFTA, CAFTA, and other “free trade/globalization deals which allows capital and consumer goods to freely cross borders but not people. Anyone paying attention would be aware of the devastating consequences this has had on the small family farmers and other working class families in Central America, especially Mexico.

Oh, we’ll pay a little attention to Mexico when we are frightened by stories of a swine flu pandemic but otherwise we can remain blithely ignorant about the daily realities of our neighbors to the south. Folks along the borders in the desert regions of Arizona and New Mexico may feel inundated and overwhelmed as the walls and fences we’ve constructed on the border callously funnel those desperate enough to cross to risk their lives walking through the desert – hoping to stay on the migrant trails, not getting sick, running out of water, or being caught by “la migra” before reaching Tucson or Phoenix.

So when American citizens want to nonviolently protest our government’s inhumane policy of deporting agricultural, domestic, food-processing and serving, and construction workers for lack of proper documentation, we are met with police in costume designed to intimidate. Although the police who did the actual arrests of the civil disobedients were courteous, a few of the police who handled the booking process at the jail could barely disguise their contempt for us.

In a nation founded on dissent that is celebrated every July 4th, we quickly relegate the responsibilities of citizenship and instead demand to be entertained and distracted, relying on the police to dispatch anything that might “disturb” our oblivion.

The demonstrators I joined on Wednesday are not merely “sunshine patriots” but are engaged, concerned, and dedicated citizens who are demanding a more just, equitable, and caring society. They/we don’t want our compassion and calls for solidarity to stop at artificial national boundaries but realize that our abundance often comes at the expense of others and it is time we recognize it.

Busted at ICE and then "put on ice”

Busted at ICE and then "put on ice”. By Steve Clemens. May 6, 2009

The five of us blocking the west entrance/exit from the Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) office in Bloomington, MN were chanting with our arms linked together. “2-4-6-8, Stop the raids, Stop the hate! 3-5-7-9, Destroying families is a crime!”

We were one of four teams of activists who planned an action of civil disobedience unless President Obama announced an end to the ICE immigration raids and subsequent deportations that have increasingly taken place over the past several years despite the obvious brokenness of the present immigration system and policies.

There were two reasons for selecting Wednesday May 6th. It closely follows the 100th day of the Obama administration and it coincides with the normal deportation schedule from this ICE office. On many Wednesday mornings, undocumented people are driven from this building within eyesight of the Mall of America to the nearby MSP airport for deportation. Our goal was to try to physically block any deportations from happening that day as well as to put Obama on notice that a new policy must be forthcoming.

One of the reasons I chose to join the action was I had noticed the obvious lack of “gray hairs” in the planning and training sessions. I felt some of my 40+ years of experience with direct action and public protest might be helpful among a group that appeared primarily in their 20s and 30s. But I was pleasantly surprised at the discipline and commitment I saw evidenced by my fellow activists. The level of energy and enthusiasm was inspiring and I was proud to be included in their midst. They did the “heavy lifting” (the planning and coordination of the action) and I was happy to join these “young people” whom I’ve too often dismissed in the past.

Most of the teams had 7-8 members and after inter-locking arms they stretched a clothesline on which hung children's clothing to symbolize the age of some of the victims of this policy which has routinely separated a parent from their children under the guise of “enforcing the law”. As a push-back of my own, I carried with me a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which many nations around the world adopted at the UN 61 years ago. Its language reminds we signatory nations of the basic rights of all people – no matter their nationality, race, or status.

After we were informed we were under arrest for “unlawful assembly” and would be charged with trespass, we were handcuffed and carried to an awaiting bus for transport to the Bloomington jail. That’s when we were “put on ice”. I was in custody for seven hours before being released with my citation and order to report to criminal court in mid-June. Although more than 2/3s of the 30 arrestees were released before me, 5 or 6 still languished in the holding or solitary cells after more than 8 hours had past and I had to leave. Fortunately, a spirited group of “jail solidarity” folk remained behind to greet and thank the rest when they walked out.

What we were told was holding up the process was the claim by the police that we had to give our Social Security numbers as part of the booking process – this despite that many of the others who had already been processed and released had failed to disclose such! The Bloomington Police involved in the booking process had become a law unto themselves, deciding what to require before writing the citation for the misdemeanor charge which many other police departments like Edina and Eden Prairie have learned to do right on the scene of the arrest. Most of my previous arrests for similar civil disobedience involve processing in as little as 15 minutes!

We wanted to focus our attention on the immigration policy rather than the police but I came to realize both come down to the same issue: is priority given to paper over people? ICE officials hide behind policy that says, “if only their documentation was in order”. The Bloomington police had the driver’s license/ID of all the arrestees but that wasn’t enough for them – they wanted fingerprints, photos, place of birth, and other info besides the mysterious demand for a Social Security number – all for a misdemeanor!

But lest it sound like the lengthy processing time was all drudgery, I should mention two things. Our inconvenience and discomfort are a small price to pay in comparison to the fear and anger caused by the dismantling of families our deportation policies engender. And our time in the holding cells allowed for a lot of bonding and camaraderie. We discovered we could hear some of what was said from the women’s holding cell if we listened carefully from the vents in the ceiling. So the men and women traded songs and chants back and forth. Not only were the women more creative than we men, but both groups managed to keep the focus predominately on the immigration issue rather than the growing awareness that we hadn’t been fed at all while in custody - well in excess of normal eating hours. But again, our jail solidarity friends came to the rescue once we were finally released, greeting us with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, oranges, and cold water. What a blessing!

While sitting in the jail, the thought came to mind: what if all law enforcement personnel treated civil disobedients with the same respect that they would treat Dr. Martin Luther King today if they had him in their cells instead of us. Who knows how history will judge those who today challenge the status quo in the same way he, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, Thoreau, and others did in their time.

Today, it was “no business as usual” at the ICE office in Bloomington – at least for three hours this morning. Now we all have to continue to keep our elected officials accountable for addressing the grievous wrongs these policies have wrought. Much of this is the result of NAFTA and other global economic polices which allow capital but not people to freely cross the border. We must put people before profits as well as people before paperwork!

Pillar or Pest?

Pillar or Pest? By Steve Clemens. May 4, 2009

On Friday evening, my brother Phil was honored at a banquet/fundraiser by the Harleysville Senior Center as a “Pillar of the Community”. It is a well-deserved honor for someone who has donated his “time, treasure, and talent” [Phil’s words] back to the local community. In his gracious and eloquent acceptance speech he hit most of the right notes. He observed that the honor really belongs to the entire team that embodies the Clemens Family Corporation and that he was accepting this on behalf of the “team”. His speech was peppered with the words generosity and stewardship. He acknowledged the role that family and faith has played in his economic and social “success”.

One thing that struck me was the courage Phil showed in addressing the crowd that certainly included some of the “movers and shakers” of the community. He cited statistics about some of the economic realities affecting our world. Paraphrasing his remarks, he told us that more than 50% of the world lives on less than $2 per day – the “poor” and among that group, many live on $1/day or less – “the extremely poor”. The people populating the middle include the middle income group making the equivalent of $4,000-6,000/year and the Middle Class earning up to $11,000/year. The balance of us, including most of those often labeled as “poor” in the U.S. are the affluent. In this context, Phil called on us to be good stewards of what we have been blessed with by God and to, in turn, be generous to others with our time, treasure and talent.

On the table before each of us was a piggy bank inscribed with a quote from Phil calling us to “live to give”. He asked us to place it on our dressers at home and every night to empty the change from our pockets and put it in that piggy bank. When it gets full, we are to take it to a charity and donate it for their work. It could be a start for each of us to put into practice Phil’s challenge to us. We could follow that small cash donation with offering to volunteer at that charity, sharing our talents and time as well. Phil’s remarks were well spoken and were received well as evidenced by the standing ovation at the end.

But I left with conflicting feelings. I have a lot of pride and gratitude for what my older brother has done for both the family business as well as the broader community. But the question that nagged at me was the recurring question, “why?” Why is more than half the world’s population living in abject poverty? Why does Phil identify even the “poor” in the U.S. as affluent? I don’t quarrel with his facts but I think we need to ask another question beyond the call to stewardship and generosity. What about the call to justice?

Charity is both good and necessary but it doesn’t challenge the structures which insure its own continuation. It reminds me of the famous quote from Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil in the 1970’s: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why people are poor, they call me a communist!” Of course to ask these kinds of questions when one is being honored by one’s home town would be considered in bad taste. But Phil at least had the guts to even remind us of the global reality. For that I give him credit. But if you ask Dom Helder’s question, you quickly move from being a pillar to a pest.

The Harleysville Senior Center is a modest attempt to help rebuild “the commons” and the community. In years gone by, one’s immediate family or neighbors took care of the elderly. Today, our society seems to promote greed, individualism and privatization. Even though this state is known as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the idea of holding wealth in “common” has long been dismissed as quaint and old fashioned – if not down right socialistic. So while the “affluent” within our society entertain themselves with the latest electronic gadgets and toys or go on “get away” trips, the less affluent Harleysville seniors depend on their Senior Center. It is great that it exists and has a staff that really is committed to serving those who use it. But how many neighborhoods have such a center, supported by ever-in-demand tax dollars?

I hear the complaints of many about the burden of taxation without the corresponding analysis of what should be commonwealth for all. While many industrialized countries have universal healthcare, Americans are told to fend for themselves. Many are fortunate to have jobs which help cover those costs but a growing number do not. It is not a matter of some are “lazy” and others “industrious”. Do you think most family farmers are lazy? Yet many of them have no ready access to affordable healthcare. The amount of physical energy expended by the local roofer, house or hotel cleaner, or even restaurant waitress is certainly greater than the corporate executive yet one has health insurance with all the bells and whistles while the other often goes without, hoping to survive the next medical crisis.

It isn’t simply a matter of greed although the recent reports of hedge fund managers and banking executive bonuses exhibited quite a bit of what could only be seen by others as avarice. When the economic system we are in seems to inevitably lead to a growing gap between the rich and the poor, charity becomes a Band-Aid when surgery seems to be more the need.

When we start honoring prophets instead of those who make profits (justified or excessive) as pillars of our communities, maybe we’ll have less need for charity and instead all share equally in the benefits of justice. The Clemens Family Corporation’s companies have practiced “profit-sharing” with its employees since 1951. That is certainly a step is the right direction. Healthcare has been an additional benefit for those who work for it. Terrific! But notice that word: benefit. Why is it not considered a right? Why should ones ability to get medical care be tied to ones employment?

Charity encourages generosity, and that is good. Justice demands we don’t leave others behind, and that is better.