In July, I was one of 71 Catholics arrested by the U.S. Capitol Police in the rotunda of the Russell Senate building in Washington, D.C., for “crowding, obstructing, or incommoding” while praying the rosary. My prayer was — and is — to end the warehousing of immigrant children in cages, seven of whom have died after being in federal custody since September. More than a dozen Catholic orders and organizations sponsored the event. Seven Catholic bishops sent letters of support.
Before the demonstration, my 11-year-old niece Sorelle tweeted her support. Thus began my conversation about liturgical direct action with a rising 6th-grader at a Catholic school. Below is our exchange.–Rose Berger
Rose: I just wanted to give you all this update. I’m risking arrest tomorrow, Thursday, at the Russell Senate office building as part of the Catholic Day of Action for Detained Immigrant Children. We have legal representation and have talked to the Capitol police. Everything should go relatively smoothly. Likely outcome is that I will sit the a holding cell for 6 hours with a bunch of Catholic sisters.
Sorelle to Rose: good luck I love you and call us when you’re out were so proud of you aunt rose.
Rose to Sorelle: I’m out. Everything went fine. Do you want to write an article with me about my arrest on Thursday? Here are some questions to think about: What happened at the Senate building? Who was there? Why did they do it? What were the responses to what they did? Who did they do it for? What did you think about it? Would you ever consider doing something like this? Why was it important that this event was with Catholics? Would you talk about the event at your school? Would you like your teachers to discuss this event at your school?”
Sorelle: “The Catholic Day of Action. On July 18 at the senators’ building in Washington DC, Catholics were peacefully protesting about the situation at the border. The priests and religious sisters were try to get the Trump administration to view immigration as a pro-life issue. With current American politics, this is a long up-hill fight, but it is one worth fighting. The situation at the border is one that is not only racist towards Mexicans, but it gives all people of color presumption of guilt. The current president doesn’t understand that they are born with presumption of innocence. I think the situation at the border is proof that history repeats itself. In the 1920s, we had to fight for women’s suffrage. Before that we had to fight against slavery. Now in 2019 we have to fight against these border problems. At some point Trump has to realize that we’re all created equal and stop assuming that whoever comes into America is a drug dealer, because he has no right to. At my Catholic school, they are not allowed to tell us about politics or the border. But this [day of action] relates to Jesus loving everybody. It’s important for people to say what they believe. Catholic Day of Action was just that.
by Rose Marie Berger (Sojourners, August-September 1992)
September 3, 1992, was the first anniversary of the fire in the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. Emmett J. Roe, the owner of Imperial Food; his son, Brad Roe, Imperial’s operations manager; and plant manager James N. Hair were indicted in March 1992 on 25 counts each of involuntary manslaughter.
That man dressed fine as Sunday every day of the week. Owned Imperial Food Products– poultry processors. Had a plant right here in town. Every morning, early, the workers would line up at the front gates–mostly women, mostly black folk, some with joints froze up from working those machines, some with emphysema from working the pantyhose factory down the road, but all wanting their babies to eat half as good as what sat on that rich man’s table every evening ’round supper time. Well, he got to worrying that some folks might start stealing his chicken parts, so he took to locking up the factory doors once the morning shift was in place. The time came when a hydraulic line blew on one of the deep-fat fryers and black smoke filled up the room, followed by grease fire. None of the state-of-the-art, automatic, carbon dioxide sprinklers ever came on. Most folks died at the south end of the building near the walk-in freezer. They had headed for the exit, but it was locked. Then they were drawn on by the gulps of cool air. Some died down at the loading dock. Piled up on each other trying to get through the small hole between the wall and the truck blocking the platform. There was Mary Alice Whit.
She was dead. There was Peggy Fairley. She was dead. There was Lillian Mary Wall, who’d only worked chicken a few months. She was dead. And Margaret Banks. When they brought her out, you could already tell she was dead. All in all, there were 25 who died that day. The Hamlet police lieutenant said you couldn’t tell whether the bodies were white or black on account of the smoke; but the angels, who pay no mind to color, came and carried every single one of them up into the arms of Abraham. Now, all of this happened the day after Labor Day. And even though Imperial didn’t allow no organizing in its plants, the North Carolina Textile Workers Union still sent dresses (and suits for the men) to use as burying clothes. At the First Baptist Church the mourners cried out “Lord, Lord,” maybe because in the confusion they had missed the angels. They cried out “Slavery time’s been over! How much longer is it going on?” To which there was just no good answer. What all happened to the rich man was never much covered in the newspapers, but the actual truth is his story’s been told before.
Below is a link to the audio of my presentation “Direct Transmission of Faith” at the June to the International Thomas Merton Society conference, where I challenged ITMS to “Keep Merton Weird” (I even had the t-shirt)!
“Prayer, in short, is the theater in which the diseased spirituality that we have contracted from the powers can most directly be discerned, diagnosed, and treated.”–Walter Wink, “Prayer and the Powers”
Carola Rackete and Megan Rapinoe are two
young women, both captains in their very different domains, of the sea and
soccer football, just over thirty years old, German and American respectively
who, in recent days, decided to defy authority, in different but equally radical
ways (“radical” in the sense of going to the root), to show us all the way to
build a “moral frontier” in one’s own identity, by openly and publicly
challenging authorities who were practicing inhuman orders.
disobedience against Salvini
Carola Rackete, captain of Sea Watch 3 (650
tons displacement, Dutch flag search and rescue ship), which is part of a
German NGO (headquartered in Berlin) of the same name which rescues shipwrecked
migrants on the Mediterranean Sea, on 29 June, docked her boat at the Italian
port of Lampedusa, in Sicily, in defiance of orders not to do so, in the
process ramming a Coast Guard launch which –invoking jurisdiction over Italian
territorial waters—was determined to stop her. Thus, she saved 40 migrants she
had previously rescued from the waters of the Mediterranean.
The migrants and crew were reaching the
limits of survival, and in total desperation; this was the deciding factor for
the captain to adopt this moral and material decision, made especially acute by
waiting for 48 hours in front of the port for permission to land. The
punishment requested by the extreme right wing Italian government was ten years
imprisonment on the grounds of disobedience, attacking a warship, aiding
clandestine immigration, and navigation in restricted zones.
“It was not an act of violence, but of
disobedience… I was under no obligation to obey”, said Carola. The Italian
authorities were ordering her to take the migrants back to Libya, from where
they had been rescued in their attempt to escape from a civil war.
Captain Rackete also added: “I feel the
moral imperative to help somebody who has not had the same opportunities I had…
I know what I’m risking, but the 42 shipwrecked migrants were in a very serious
condition. I brought them to safety”.
Her moral imperative is very clear:
disobedience in the face of what is inhuman as a personal and social “virtue”
with the intent of “doing good”. In other words, humanizing the species.
How many inhuman orders against the crew of
the Sea Watch 3 were there in this action? In how many acts of civil and
individual disobedience were Carola, her crew and the migrants forced to incur?
How many intellectual, epistemic and moral ruptures were all of them forced to
face, just to say “no!” and “enough!” to the authorities? Here we have the
challenges that all of us have to overcome before we can achieve a real
construction of the knowledge –individual and social— necessary for justice,
peace and nonviolent resistance.
has been interesting to behold, too, the international campaign by all sorts of
actors, including the German government, to put pressure on Italian Prime
Minister Mateo Salvini –leader of the Liga Norte Party, of the extreme
non-religious right—stating innumerable valid reasons and stacking praise on
Carola’s humanitarian action, which ultimately secured her release. It seems
quite clear, then, that Rackete’s civil disobedience action was not only
individual, but part of a long, collective humanitarian culture of defiance to
the legal character and legitimacy of authorities who carry out inhuman
actions. Without this enlightenment, our species would still be, culturally,
stuck in the Stone Age. Furthermore, it is also clear in this case that the
decision-making process also involved her crew, her organization, and the
In addition to these international
political actions – sittings, media and social network campaigns, etc. a boat
belonging to a Spanish NGO which carries out similar rescue missions on the
seas –Proactiva Open Arms—put into port in Strasbourg, near the parliamentary
seat of the European Union, to denounce all actions that criminalize migrants,
and to declare that they were “putting out to sea again to rescue men, women
and children who needed it”.
unjust and inhuman authority had attempted to stop the “spiral of civil
disobedience” which it foresaw. It was countered by a nonviolent weapon, an
exhibition of “political judo”, in which the punishment demanded by Salvini for
Carola was reverted against him, affecting his international moral legitimacy,
causing him high political costs for which he was obliged to give way. We
observe, once again, that the first nonviolent weapon or confrontation –the
first battle, as Foucault would call it—is joined around a moral challenge.
was a campaign in which nonviolent actions escalated, demonstrating the
“permanent firmness” needed to proportionately oppose actions of state violence
like those described. It was a struggle which offered a clear example
–applicable in considerable measure in Mexico—of the power of nonviolent
actions when they are well articulated, when they are backed by moral and
material determination in cases of noncooperation and civil disobedience, and
when part of the moral reserve (in this case, for example, the political class,
governments, intellectuals, artists, the Pope…) “interposes its body” in
direct, frontal and open support of a legitimate and just action.
Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, César
Chávez, the Zapatista movement, many ethnic, African and peasant peoples…
Christ himself, were always very clear about their struggles, always
privileging moral law over judicial law, legitimacy over legalism. Gandhi – who
made distinctions between civil and individual, direct and indirect
disobedience—proclaimed, as the cornerstones for the construction of personal
and mass morality, that: “Civil
disobedience is the civil violation of immoral and oppressive laws… We obey the
law according to our conscience, not through fear of punishment. Civil disobedience
is an inalienable right of each citizen. To waive this right means waiving the
“I wouldn’t go to the fucking White House”
wrote Megan Rapinoe when faced with the possibility of an invitation from President
Trump to the U.S. soccer team which was competing (and later won) the World Cup
in France. The now world champion – who was topped by the individual awards of
the Gold Balla – had already expressed
openly, when she didn’t sing the National Anthem nor place her hand on her
heart, that she rejected Trump. This is an action of non-cooperation with
authority, in the understanding that, if someone goes to greet that individual,
he/she is directly or indirectly signalling approval of him in his other actions,
and is giving him greater “moral strength” to continue with his inhuman deeds.
Her action, like that of Carola, is not
simply acts of individual rebellion but are part of a collective culture which
decides to publicly and openly oppose orders from authorities responsible for
inhuman acts. Similar to Rapinoe’s case – whose example was followed by other
members of her team—we have beheld in recent years a series of significant
public expressions of non-cooperation towards Trump on the part of outstanding
U.S. athletes, which kicked-off in August 2016 when Afro-American football
quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem as an act of
protest against the murder of the Afro-American population at the hands of
am not going to stand to show pride of a flag of a country which oppresses
black and coloured people”.
Rapinoe also declared: “Being gay and American, I know what it means to look at the flag knowing that it does not protect all your liberties”.
This benediction below was offered by Nadia Bolz-Weber at the funeral liturgy for Rachel Held Evans on Saturday, 1 June, 2019. Thank you to all who were present in body in Chattanooga. Many many more were present in spirit.–Rose
Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt. Blessed are those who have nothing to offer. Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are those whom no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers. The closeted. The teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried. Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.” Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
I imagine Jesus standing here blessing us because that is our Lord’s nature. This Jesus cried at his friend’s tomb, turned the other cheek, and forgave those who hung him on a cross. He was God’s Beatitude—God’s blessing to the weak in a world that admires only the strong.
Jesus invites us into a story bigger than ourselves and our imaginations, yet we all get to tell that story with the scandalous particularity of this moment and this place. We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God. May we never neglect that gift. May we never lose our love for telling the story.
I met with Nancy Wright in 2018 and was so impressed by the serious and dedicated way she approached congregational watershed discipleship practices. These two new watershed discipleship manuals are the result of her hands-on work in her watershed in Vermont.
Water holds a special place in Christian imagination and sacramental expression. We know from science of the essential nature of water to life. Our relationship with water is both spiritual and physiological and therefore demands a level of care that mirrors a sacredness for life.
We live in a watershed moment for the planet and for religious congregations. The threatening planetary water crisis demands a strong response. Congregations who engage in water-focused activities, education, and worship respond faithfully to the need to care for Earth and its waters, and they become engaged community leaders. They promote awareness and actions to care for local watersheds and thus play a part in ameliorating worldwide water justice issues. All religions value and promote awareness of water. Congregation members deepen in their faith by becoming leaders in watershed care.
Vermont churches are leading the way on congregational watershed discipleship models with the release of two manuals—one tailored for Christian congregations and the other for inter-religious communities. In 2018, Vermont Interfaith Power and Light (VTIPL) joined with local organizations to create a model for watershed stewardship, based on the experience of Ascension Lutheran Church in South Burlington, Vermont. The Reverend Dr. Nancy Wright, pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church, and Richard Butz, a member of the church, are co-authors of the manuals.
These are very hand-on tools for pastors who are ready to take positive action in the midst of climate crisis. The manuals provide direction on: How to grow leadership in your congregation while becoming watershed stewards; spiritual basis for water awareness; how to create waterside worship events; how to learn while having fun on the water; step-by-step instructions to become water quality monitors; and how to take positive political action.
These inspiring and practical 40-page manuals are available at www.vow4climate/store. By connecting your congregation with the water that flows in, under, and above your local landscape—your watershed—you can become part of the solution to achieve clean water for humanity and healthier ecosystems.