Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Image result for cubs world seriesRelated image

   I really can’t root for the Cubs.  I was born and raised in Chicago to a family devoted to the White Sox.  Well, most folks in my mother’s family were Cubs fans, but we forgave them for that and for the most part simply ignored their Cubi-ness.  The year I was born (1935) the Cubs won the National League Pennant and, of course, lost in the World Series to the Detroit Tigers.

   In a vain attempt to convert me, my uncle Bud took me to a Cubs game in ’45.  He was not happy when I laughed at Bill – Swish – Nicholson when he struck out.  The Cubs lost in the World Series that year to Hank Greenberg and the Detroit Tigers.

  A neighbor, Steve Austin, was a long time associate of the Cubs.  He knew the players from way back and also was a friend of gum mogul Phil Wrigley the Cubs owner.  Steve took my brother and me to Cubs games.  We went as a duty. Mom said we should be nice to Steve, but my brother John once told Steve that the Cubs were “all gummed up.”  It wasn’t his fault – our Aunt Helen told him to say it.

Johnny Evers 1910 FINAL2sh.jpg

 My claim to fame is that Steve introduced me to Johnny Evers who played in the last World Series won by the Cubs.  Even my Dad was envious.  The double play phrase ‘Tinker to Evers to Chance’ is still used.  I remember also – ‘Miksis to Smalley to Addison’ a border street of Wrigley Field which codified Cub’s shortstop Roy Smalley’s wild throws to first base.  The first black players for the Cubs were hall-of- famer Ernie Banks, shortstop, and Gene Baker, second base.  Double plays were described by Cubs’ announcer Bert Wilson as “Bingo to Bango to first.”  It may be that Bert Wilson is the cause for extending the Cubs’ curse to the present and perhaps the beyond.  
   After the war, (WW II) our aunt Carlotta and uncle Ed lived briefly  with relatives close to Wrigley Field.  Aunt Carlotta took John and me to a game on Ladies’ Day.  A foul ball into the screen behind the plate seemed to be the most exciting event in the ball game.   The crowd sung, and John with them, “whoop boom” as the ball went up and down the screen then to the ground.  I was embarrassed – this is baseball?

   I made friends with the kids in the neighborhood.  We would charge a dollar to watch a parked car during a game to assure it wouldn’t be damaged.  There was more money in this than delivering newspapers or caddying, but then, Carlotta & Ed moved to the far South Side. 

   The Cubs’ opponent in the World Series is the Cleveland Indians.  I think of Lou Boudreau, the manager and star shortstop of the 1948 world champion Indians. Cleveland won the series but lost the first game on a controversial run scored in the eighth inning.  Phil Masi, Boston Braves catcher, was picked off second base by pitcher Bob Feller but was called safe by the umpire.  Photos show shortstop Boudreau tagging Masi out.  A base hit followed and Masi scored the only run of the game.  


   A baseball card show in Milwaukee was attended by Johnny Sain of the old Boston Braves – wining pitcher of the controversial game and Bob Feller of the Indians who, despite pitching a two hitter was the losing pitcher.  Our son Joel asked Sain about the game and to write his comments on an 8 x 12 Johnny Sain photo.  He wrote:

Bill Stewart made a great call when he called Phil Masi safe   John Sain

The next day I accompanied Joel to ask Bob Feller what he thought.  We caught Feller as he entered the hall and he started to apologize for being late.  We showed him the Sain photo and asked for a comment.  Bob Feller was angry and wrote on his photo:

Phil Masi was out by 2 feet in the 1948 WS in Boston World Series we won    Bob Feller

That was the last World Series that Cleveland won.

   Lou Boudreau went on to be a broadcaster for the Cubs then manager – then broadcaster.  Boudreau was from Harvey, a Chicago area town, a University of Illinois basketball player, a great baseball player but not as good as Luke Appling of the White Sox.

   I remember Boudreau being picked off third base by Tony Cuccinello of the White Sox using the ‘hidden ball trick.’  I reminded Boudreau of the incident at a card show, and he said that jogging back to the visitor’s dugout behind first base from third base was very embarrassing.  After all he was the manager, and he considered Chicago as his home town.   
       Will the curse continue?  It is Halloween time, and I wonder what influence the long-gone-but-present-in-spirit Lou Boudreau will have?  Then there’s of course my Aunt Helen and I suspect she may have the most influence in heaven among all the baseball saints. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

School of the Americas Protest 2016

Joanne and I had seen the effects of U.S. imperialism first hand for years in Bolivia so when we returned we naturally took to protesting the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, GA.  The S.O.A. has trained troops for Latin America since 1946.  It was established in Panama then moved to Fort Benning in 1984.  Protests began in 1980’s by Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois and continue to this day.  The purpose of the protests was to close the “School” but without success.  This year the protest was in the split border city of Nogales:  Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico.

   We were more than willing to go this year; the protest at the border directly related to our work at the Milwaukee Immigrant Worker Center Voces de la Frontera and The New Sanctuary Movement.  I will relate our personal experience of this year’s protest which, of course, does not capture the totality of the event.  It’s not a story you will find in the corporate media.  (oops –see N.Y. Times Sunday Review 10-17-16)    
   We flew to Phoenix to meet with family living there, then drove to Tucson to meet with Milwaukee friends who would accompany us.  The many Milwaukee\ans who went on the trip were related to “Voces” and/or St. Benedict the Moor parish.

   We drove with two companions both long time S.O.A. activists.  In Tucson we went to the beautiful campus of the University of Arizona to attend an exhibition of border crossing quilts made from clothing of those who risked death in a desert crossing to escape poverty and violence.  The courtesy and kindness of the students in directing us to our destination on campus was moving.  We talked of bringing the exhibition to Milwaukee.

   We headed north of Tucson to the Eloy Immigrant Detention Center run by Corrections Corporation of America.  It is a “for profit” detention center, isolated in the desert, where prisoners receive minimal medical attention and many die as a result.  We were joined by two Capuchin brothers one from Milwaukee and one from Chicago to witness and challenge – evil without shame.

   The first event in Nogales was a Veterans March.  The veterans were protesting against war and the militarization of the border.  The veterans informed us that many undocumented Mexicans who had served in the U.S. military were deported to Mexico after discharge.

  We joined the march where it split; half going to Mexican side of the border.  We went to the Mexican side with our Voces – Sanctuary banner without a problem at the check point.  For some of us it was our first visual encounter with the wall.  It was intimidating and humiliating; we were out in the open in a desert town, but I had a sense of claustrophobia.     

   After a brief rally Joanne and I attended three of the workshops on the Mexican side of the border: “Migration Crisis; From Europe to the United States and Beyond,” presented by CODEPINK; “Borderland Identity: Expectations and Realities” presented by: Colectivo de Dialogo Transfronerizo; and “The Climate Crisis: Refugees and Martyrs in the Americas,” presented by George Martin and Julie Enslow of Milwaukee.  The presentations were excellent – hope was expressed and tears were shed.  The image of Don Quixote jousting with Maquiladores dominated my consciousness.  Workshops were also available on the U.S. side.


 We went to an evening interfaith prayer session at the border that featured offerings by various faith groups.  It was affirming and an inspiration to action.  I became more aware that Faith is a matter of trust and not simply an ascent to particular doctrinized myths.  A Sufi Muslim leader made the connection between Justice and Mercy.

          AL KORAN- Chapter I  IN THE NAME OF THE MOST MERCIFUL ALLAH – Praise be to Allah, the Lord of all creatures; the most merciful, the king of the day of judgment.

 It reminded me of a passage in Zechariah referenced by our New Sanctuary Coordinator, Nayeli Rondin-Valle:

          This is what the LORD Almighty said: Administer true justice – show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner  or the poor.  Zech. 7: 9-10

   On Sunday there was a demonstration at a Check Point north of Nogales.  We were not able to participate because of our various old-age infirmities.  The action lasted several hours and no one was arrested.

   The S.O.A. Watch rally in Nogales was a valuable experience.  We learned a lot and it was a joy to reunite with old friends and to connect in solidarity with the oppressed all over the world.

  It is a frustrating struggle but there is still Hope.  It looks like Humpty Trumpty will get some help in falling off the wall from Latinos as well as other minorities and allies.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Working Catholic: Broken Ladders by Bill Droel

Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, grew up in a small Texas town. There were six Mexican-American families on his block and others nearby. One large family “was unique,” writes Ramirez, a member of the Basilian Fathers, in Power from the Margins: the Emergence of the Latino in the Church and in Society (Orbis Books, 2016). How was this family unique? “They gave high priority to school.”

All parents want the best education for their children. But all families are simultaneously nurtured by and restrained by their environment. An environment that has responsive institutions and thick supportive networks makes it easier for a family to be successful, whole and holy. By contrast, an environment with unaccountable institutions in a relational desert requires extraordinary effort to gain success, wholeness and holiness. There has been deterioration in the “family environments” for Puerto Ricans, Dominican-Americans and Mexican-Americans over the past 40-years, says Ramirez.  A glaring symptom of this deterioration is a high dropout rate.

Latinos have the highest high school dropout rate; double the black rate. As Ramirez implies, this rate has grown by about 50% during his 40-year timeline. Of those in college, the majority do not attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling. Of those Latinos who begin at a community college over 75% do not earn a bachelor’s degree even within eight years. These attrition rates come at a time when a degree is the primary economic ladder.

Ramirez profiles a handful of small though suggestive experiments designed to improve the education completion rate for Latinos.  Cristo Rey High School Network is sponsored by the Jesuits. There are about 30 of these schools with perhaps 300 students in each. Each student is matched with an employer—someone identified through Jesuit contacts among the order’s alumni and friends. The student is employed at least five days per month at the company or firm. Often a mentor relationship emerges through the employment. There is, as befitting any Jesuit school, rigorous classroom study and homework.

Nativity Miguel Network drew inspiration from the Jesuit experiment. It gained momentum from the De LaSalle Christian Brothers. It has 64 middle schools that require extended hours in the classroom during the week. These schools also have a longer academic schedule. The graduates are monitored/mentored into high school.

Ramirez mentions the Alliance for Catholic Education at University of Notre Dame. As part of their degree program, some Notre Dame students teach in Catholic schools. A typical placement is in a Latino neighborhood for two years. In addition to their competence, the college students bring the social capital of their friends to the project—not only during the two years, but ideally for the near future.  

The notion of social capital is critical. One student alone will not likely move up the ladder. It is only by joining lots of otherwise disparate pieces that Latinos will succeed. Cristo Rey and other promising programs know the importance of getting the entire family into the school picture. After that, success parallels the interest taken by small businesses, community organizations, parishes and more.

Social capital is not automatically accumulated; it cannot be assumed. Deliberate face-to-face encounter is necessary. Thus any intervention or program on behalf of students cannot be only about tutoring for information content. It is about the fourth R: reading, [w]riting, [a]rithmetic and relationships.
Ramirez puts the secret in faith language: Effective school programs must allow people to personally and collectively interpret their own story as “a real occasion of grace” and understand it as a contribution to “the entire church,” the whole people of God.

Footnote: The terms Hispanic and Latino are, in my opinion, political contrivances meant to put several distinct cultures into a single voting block or a concise demographic. I prefer to use a hyphenated-American style. However, in keeping with Ramirez this article uses Latino.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Working Catholic: 501-C-3 By Bill Droel

According to an IRS rule, churches (and other non-profits) “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in or intervening in any political campaign.” The current Republican Party platform, reports Kevin Baker (N.Y. Times, 8/28/16), wants the rule overturned. The platform plank is a response to some evangelical organizations that desire more direct electoral influence. Catholic institutions wisely know that the current “no politicking” rule is better politically and better theologically.
The current tax-exemption rule is better politically because it saves face for Catholic institutions. They simply cannot deliver the vote. Catholic voters no longer take their cues from Church employees. In fact, when a pastor or bishop wades too deeply into a partisan area, his parishioners drift to the other side.
Likewise, a change in the tax-exemption rule would be bad for Catholic institutions because neither electoral party clearly reflects the moral positions of Catholicism.
A change in the no-politicking rule is also bad theology, or to use jargon, bad ecclesiology.
If a Catholic is prompted to reflect on models of the church, she or he might reply: “My parish uses a collaborative model” or “Our pastor has an authoritarian model.” There is, however, a less parochial way to think about models of the church.  That is, to think about how the church is situated within society and culture.

Back in the Middle Ages the church was nearly synonymous with society. Its bishops were the primary influence agents and—for better or worse—acted directly in the palaces and courts of the elites.

With modernity Catholicism (now differentiated from Protestantism) experimented with different models in different locales. For example, in what could be called the lay auxiliary model, Catholicism developed parallel organizations (unions, professional guilds, Christian Democratic parties) designed to extend “the apostolate of the hierarchy.” The goal was to offset some secular trends and, after 1848 specifically, to combat atheistic communism. This model was more popular in Europe than in the U.S.

Eventually at Vatican II (1962-1965), Catholicism adopted the cultural-pastoral model. Church institutions in this model are fully separate from civil and secular support. Not because Catholicism is opposed to modernity, but because it has better credibility if its institutions are apolitical. This model is premised on lay Christians taking full, independent responsibility for diminishing injustice in workplaces, bringing harmony to family and neighborhood life, promoting the common good in civic associations and enhancing dignity in culture. Lay people act not as representatives of their bishop, but as baptized Christians, eager to cooperate with God’s on-going creation and redemption.

 It is true that 50 years after Vatican II a bishop here and there speaks too specifically about partisan topics. Why? Perhaps because he doesn’t understand or accept Vatican II? Or maybe because he is bored with his proper duty? A bishop is to constantly and sometimes loudly teach Catholic doctrine, including its planks on the right to life, the right of workers to make independent decisions about labor unions, about the integrity of the family, about hospitality to strangers, about dignity regardless of race or sexual orientation, about the social sin of poverty and more. It is a theological and political mistake, however, when a bishop in his ecclesial role expresses an opinion about a zoning matter, about increasing or lowering government farm subsidies, about what he thinks is the best legislative approach for reducing the number of abortions, about allocation of police personnel in various city districts and more. In recent years a few bishops have even tipped their miter toward the Republican presidential candidate. (They cannot do so in the 2016 race because the Republican candidate is blatantly anti-immigrant among other objections.)

When told he is getting a tad too specific and thereby violating Vatican II’s cultural-pastoral model, a bishop says in effect: “Well, the laity are not properly formed in the faith. They even support some anti-Catholic public policies. I therefore have to set the record straight.” This is a circular argument. The more Church employees in their role as employees talk about partisan positions, the less interested are the laity in the teachings of our faith.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Working Catholic: Dick Allen by Bill Droel

Chicago White Sox hurler Chris Sale forgot that he is a member of a powerful labor union. Instead of following normal grievance procedure, he recently used a scissors to voice his objection to a management decision and destroyed team uniforms. Further, Sale by-passed his union steward, outfielder Adam Eaton, by whining that his manager should have addressed his grievance. He thus joins the list of rogue Sox.

It is not necessary to go all the way back to the 1919 Black Sox. Albert Belle, who played two seasons for the Sox in the late 1990s, exhibited a temper. So too on several occasions did Ozzie Guillen, a Sox infielder 1985-1997 and its manager 2004-2011.  Jimmy Piersall, afflicted with bipolar disorder, was not a Sox player but was fired as their announcer for his criticisms of management. Then there is Dick Allen, who in 1972 brought his controversial reputation to Chicago.

Unlike Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) and other pioneering black major leaguers, Allen “would not follow Branch Rickey’s (1881-1965) directive to turn the other cheek and accept subordinate racial status,” writes Mitchell Nathanson in God Almighty Hisself: the Life and Legacy of Dick Allen (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). That is, Allen was in the second generation of black players and was not into “protecting and promoting illusions.”

 Allen began his major league career in 1964 with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was used in unfamiliar positions, was injured on-and-off and was given a nickname (Richie) that was never before applied to him. In those days before a union and before free agency, Allen was annually a spring holdout for a higher salary. Allen also scuffled with other players, including a fight. He was late to the ballpark and violated curfew. To cope with his own shyness, Allen gave contradictory explanations to the press. In the opinion of some younger people, Allen was a cool guy. But many Philadelphia writers and fans considered him lackadaisical and the boors among them threw garbage, occasionally including a battery, at Allen. Although Allen “took no formal position” on race relations or urban discontent, Nathanson writes, he “became the symbolic face that unleashed white anxiety and discontent.”

How did Allen perform? During his seasons in Philadelphia (1964-1969), Allen was Rookie of the Year and three-time All Star (seven total appearances in his career).

After shorter stints with two National League teams, Allen came to our Sox and promptly staged a 41-day salary holdout. But, at least for awhile, Sox’ manager Chuck Tanner (1928-2011) knew how to handle Allen without ridicule or excessive pushback. In fact under Tanner, Allen was named team captain. As Nathanson wisely notes, Allen didn’t suddenly change his personality. “What changed was his employers’ understanding of him.”

Cubs’ manager Joe Madden, who at the moment is revered in Chicago, says he learned from Allen: “The more freedom the players feel out there, the greater discipline and respect you’re going to get in return.” If in any company, Madden continues, “employees have to come in and be concerned about a bunch of tedious nonsense, it’s going to prevent them from performing.”

Speaking for many of us on the South Side, former Sox’ executive Roland Hemond says: “Chuck Tanner and I both felt that Allen helped saved the franchise” by boosting fan interest. There was at the time pressure from some Sox’ owners and other club owners to move our team to Milwaukee or maybe Seattle.  

Nathanson does not absolve Allen from problems that swirled around him. But “the true villain in [Allen’s] story was bigger and more all-encompassing than any individual.” Racism, of course. In Allen’s case it took the form of expecting each black to meet so-called traditional expectations. The wider lesson, however, is one that applies to all sports, to the tech industry (particularly to the biggest companies), to food growing and distribution industry, to hospitals and colleges that rely on part-timers, to major retail stores and more. Allen, writes Nathanson, opposed the idea that workers “were property to be bought, sold, valued and discarded by owners at their whim.” Despite the intentions of any one executive or any one employee, there can be an entire “system geared toward exploitation.” This, by the way, is what Catholicism means by saying exploitation is an objective sin, even if an executive is kindly or if an employee labors out of necessity or even to serve the church.

Allen’s stats qualify him for the Hall of Fame. Yet baseball philosopher Bill James is opposed, not because of any specific disruption, but because Allen “did more to keep his teams from winning than anybody else who ever played.” The decision is now up to the Golden Era Committee at the Hall. It meets in 2017 and will vote on the matter.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free printed newsletter on faith and work.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Hail the Fifth Irish Brigade

My son Joel who lives in London and his in-laws are aficionados of Irish folk music.  Recently Joel gave me a delightful CD with songs written and performed by Irish folk singer and writer, Christy Moore.  I was especially fascinated by a ballad called “Vive la Quinte Brigada.” (Christy Moore’s version of the Spanish - “Viva la Quinta Brigada” – Hail the Fifth Brigade.)

   The song, relates the story of Irish volunteers who traveled to Spain to fight the Fascist General Franco to prevent him from taking over the Spanish Republic in 1936.  The Spanish civil war was a prelude to WW II.  The song narrative also relates that the Irish Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Irish media supported Franco.  With the encouragement of the Bishops and the newspapers, Ireland also sent troops to the aid of Franco.  After claiming infallibility in faith and morals, (Vatican I – 1869-1870) the Vatican supported Franco whose Fascist cause was facilitated by troops, arms, and bombing raids by Hitler and Mussolini. Franco prevailed in his “golpe del estado” In 1939.    Adam Hochschild writes in his book, Spain in Our Hearts:

“In Madrid, Nationalist troops, plus units of their German and Italian allies, marched through the city in a victory parade, while war planes were arrayed in formation to spell out Viva Franco in the sky. The exodus of refugees, mostly on foot, grew to half a million. ‘Lifting our hearts to God,’ said a telegram of congratulations to Franco from Pope Pius XII, ‘we give sincere thanks with your Excellency for the victory of Catholic Spain.”

   The Fascist tendencies of the U.S. Republican Party, such as extreme nationalism, racism, attacks on voter rights, and a militant anti-labor stance make Christy Moore’s “Vive la Quinte Brigada,”  in the current political milieu of the U.S.,  more than just a delightful ballad.   The megalomania of the Republican Party’s candidate for President is an alarm clock to wake us to the possibility of a Fascist type of government in the U.S.    

   For me Christy Moore’s ballad is enjoyable Irish music, but it is also historically interesting and politically relevant.  Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address indicated that U.S. Democracy is a work in progress. We constantly need a politics of adjustment in every historical situation to make our democracy more a rule “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” But Fascism is not the answer.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Labor Day Reflection 2016

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time - Cycle C
4 September 2016
St. Benedict the Moor Parish
Milwaukee, WI

I have been asked to share some remarks in light of it being Labor Day weekend. Naturally, there are many ways that one can develop a reflection for this annual September observance. We could talk about the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. We could be risky and make some witty comments about the November election and issues like free trade deals, the “Fight for Fifteen” and maternity leave policies. We could talk about the decline experienced in union membership. We could speak about rights in the workplace.

Perhaps a better place to begin is Pope Francis. From the beginning of his Pontificate, my jaw has dropped from his gestures. Days after the conclave, he returned to his pre-conclave hotel to pay the bill himself. I like to imagine him saying, “Oh, yes, I checked in under a different name.”

At about the same time, he called the kiosk in Argentina to cancel his newspaper subscription. Or remember when he visited the Vatican print shop or ate with Vatican workers in the cafeteria.   I suspect that everyone finished their vegetables that day before launching into dessert!

What then, might Pope Francis be calling us to, given this example? First, Pope Francis, over and over again, gives witness to seeing the poor who are most often invisible to us.

Second, in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis asks us to see our participation in the economy more clearly. So much of what he has written in recent years is structured around the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Frankly, I hear him talking about confession far more than his recent predecessors. His recent book, The Name of God is Mercy, recounts stories of Pope John Paul I as a great confessor, and Pope Francis shares advice to priests about being a confessor. On Thursday, Pope Francis’ message for the Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation is structured around the Rite of Reconciliation:  an examination of conscience, the confession itself, “a firm purpose of amendment,” and, perhaps a penance in the additional corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

What might it mean for me to see more clearly? There is an old phrase: “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” How do I spend and what does it suggest about me? Since February, I go to the Metro Market on Van Buren and Juneau. Sadly, I do not know one employee there by name. They have been kind enough: they direct me to the item I need, they ring up my purchases, and they place my items in my durable bags. They keep the store clean and shelves stocked, and I have not bothered to learn one name. Also, if I reflect upon my purchases, I eat cereal with fruit almost every day for breakfast. Today, I had Honey Nut Cheerios with fresh strawberries. There is a boycott on Driscoll’s right now as some workers in Mexico claim that they are paid just $6 a day for their labors. My shirt was made in Bangladesh. The workers who made this shirt were probably paid about $2.20, not for this shirt, but for their day’s labor. When we go home for lunch, the lettuce on our sandwich or in our salad was harvested by an underpaid worker. If we stop for fast food or go to a restaurant, we know the wages cannot care for a family. Our cell phones, chocolate, coffee, and clothing are rife with supply chains that include human trafficking and systemic violations of people’s human rights. Is there anything we can do? Is the Gospel simply inspirational? Or is it programmatic?

The second reading, Paul’s letter to Philemon, suggests a personal way forward. As Catholics, our reading of the Bible is often uneven. Some may have read the Scriptures cover-to-cover, but, if you have never read a book of the Bible all the way through, here is your chance. Philemon is just 25 verses, and we heard a very significant portion today. To get inside it, we need to understand that we have heard just half of a conversation. Another half-- what lead up to it or what follows-- is shrouded in a certain mystery, but we can make some educated guesses.

Philemon was a wealthy man is Colossae. He gets a letter from St. Paul, who had baptized him. Paul was writing from prison, “a prisoner for Christ.” Getting a letter back in those days was an important thing, and such a letter would have been read aloud, often in front of an audience. In days before FedEx and UPS and the U.S. Postal Service, this letter was carried by someone close to Paul, by all appearances the letter was carried by Onesimus. Who was Onesimus? He apparently was baptized by Paul, served him during his imprisonment, and, now, Paul is sending a person dear to his own heart to Philemon. But there is another crucial detail about the message and the messenger. Onesimus, a runaway slave, had been a slave to Philemon. Paul’s message: receive Onesimus as a brother.

What is Philemon to do? He has three choices, it would seem. First, Onesimus is a runaway slave. If Philemon receives him as a brother, Philemon risks losing all of his other slaves. He also risks a shunning from his social and economic peers. He has every “right” to put Philemon to death. Second, perhaps, he could be merciful and give him a severe flogging or make him a “house slave” rather than a “field slave.” The third, most radical choice, is to do as Paul asks: receive him as a brother, again risking all on behalf of the Gospel.

Given such choices and ramifications, what did he do? I would suggest, as many others have, that he indeed did receive him as a brother. First, that the letter exists today suggests that this is  true. If he had killed or merely flogged Onesimus, he probably would have destroyed the letter. Instead, that the letter survives suggests that it was lovingly cared for and held in a place of respect. Secondly, and while this is far less assured to be one and the same person, following St. Timothy as bishop of the nearby city of Ephesus was a bishop named Onesimus. The romantic in me likes the notion that a former slave became a bishop in the early church.

We are embedded in networks of privilege, prejudice and power so commonplace that often neither oppressors nor victims are aware of them. Hence, the violence and pain that most afflicts us today is hidden:  the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relationships between communities and nations, that allows for a slow decay of culture and makes us indifferent.  Though not as noticeable as a bomb or a gunshot, these realities are just as deadly.  Like Philemon, we must have the vision to see and the courage to act.

We are called to re-imagine God’s preference for the poor. We live in what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture,” that treats people as things and is tempted to discard the weak and the vulnerable, those without money or power or voice. This story upends that vision and makes “useful” one who was deemed useless. It is life in solidarity, an old word, but our word. Solidarity is not a one-time gesture, but a permanent way of being in the world. The vision to see and the courage to act is about being in right relationship with God, with family, with my adversary, with the low wage worker, with care of our common home. The radical vision of seeing the other as Christ, of receiving the other as a brother or sister, is as powerful today as in the days of Scripture. If we really seek to live it, it will upend our world, and we will upend the world.

Christopher Cox
Campaign Manager
Human Thread Campaign