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Praying Left

[whitespace] Sister Mary Peter McCusker
Christian Soldier: Sister Mary Peter McCusker, at the forefront of the religious left movement, runs the Day Worker Job Center on Alum Rock Avenue as part of her work with a national institute whose mission is to work for systemic change in response to poverty, especially among women and children.

Photo by Christopher Gardner



While the Religious Right has been getting all the press, a group of progressive religious leaders is applying the lessons of the Bible to social activism.

By Kelly Luker

EVERY WEEKDAY morning, dozens of men, mostly Latino, line up on the corner of King and Story roads in San Jose and attempt to flag down a day's work. Just hoping to earn enough to feed their kids for another day, they accept backbreaking grunt jobs from construction superintendents or homeowners--digging ditches, breaking up concrete. Sometimes they earn three or four bucks an hour. Sometimes they don't get paid at all, but when that happens, they have nowhere to complain.

Many of these so-called casual laborers have also gathered at the Day Worker Job Center on Alum Rock Avenue. A nonprofit organization founded by the Sisters of Mercy and East San Jose's Most Holy Trinity Church, the center sees its workers are treated with respect and paid a fair wage for their labor.

The Job Center is one example of how churches and synagogues are responding to the needs of poor people. A congregation of Catholic women, the 7,000-strong Sisters of Mercy has formed a national institute whose mission is to work for systemic change in response to poverty, particularly among women and children.

Sister Mary Peter McCusker, RSM, is a member of that congregation and director of the Day Worker Job Center. The center began as a church project launched in response to the needs of parishioners--including the casual laborers lined up at King and Story.

Sister McCusker notes that by actively working for the poor, the Catholic Church has begun to come abreast of Dorothy Day, a famous and controversial leftist who converted to Catholicism in 1927 and continued to agitate for social justice. Her legacy, known as the Catholic Worker movement, continues today.

"It was a big battle in Dorothy Day's era because the church did not want her organization using the word 'Catholic,' " Sister McCusker says. "But the churches caught up to Dorothy, and now we know this is what they should be doing."

An even more controversial political outgrowth of religious commitment, the Plowshares group, has been engaged in more than 50 anti-war actions across the country since its inception in 1980. The group was founded by Vietnam war activists and Roman Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, who between them have spent more than a decade in prison for their acts of civil disobedience.

The Rev. Stephen Kelly, a former San Jose Catholic priest who is involved in the Plowshares movement, was sentenced last week to four months in prison for damaging a nuclear-equipped submarine in Maine. He also received a 21-month prison term for invading Sunnyvale's Lockheed complex to damage a Trident missile.

Although few are willing to sacrifice months--let alone years--to sit in prison for their beliefs, more churchgoers may be willing to align action with faith. Sister McCusker referred to recent political changes as the likely catalysts.

"I think that social activism with the church will follow welfare reform," she says. "When you see what's happening to the poor people around you, you have to do something."

God's Soldiers

THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT has dominated the political-religious discussion for the past couple decades, often overshadowing efforts such as Sister McCusker's, Kelly's or the ongoing ministry to the poor by the Catholic Worker movement.

That may be changing as men and women, concerned about the gradual erosion of rights for the poor, immigrants and what Jesus termed "the least of them," meld progressive politics with the power of faith and the biblical call to social justice. Slowly but surely, a movement some call the Religious Left is quietly asserting its connection to the Good Book.

Out of nowhere, the name Jim Wallis is suddenly all over the media. In the last few months, every rag from The New Yorker to George to financial tell-all Worth has profiled the activist-writer-pastor.

Based in the slums of Washington, D.C., the Rev. Wallis has worked to mobilize the religious community around such issues as racism, economic justice, inner-city gang problems and disarmament. He is founding editor of Sojourners, a monthly magazine dedicated to faith-based social justice, and has written several books, including the most recent, Who Speaks for God? An Alternative to the Religious Right (1996, Delacorte Press).

As someone who has been tossed in jail almost two dozen times for civil disobedience, Wallis can match social-activist credentials with the best of them.

Reached by phone at his Washington office, Wallis avoids the label "religious left," but he says he sees a rebirth in the dedication to social justice that, to be successful, must steer clear of the baggage connected with the secular left or religious right. Ironically, he sees that this movement is born out of the collateral damage created by both.

"The left has gotten hostile to morality and religion," Wallis says. "They've become elitist and left a lot of people behind--particularly the poor."

Yet it is the broadside attack against the poor which he sees being waged by the religious right that has brought the unlikely pairings of progressives and evangelicals, he says.

"When a hurricane is coming," Wallis says, "you pass the sandbags--you don't ask if you're a liberal or conservative."

While it has been the church's traditional role to do what Wallis calls "downstream ministry"--providing emergency shelter, food and medical care--he believes the brewing crisis in both the welfare system and immigration law has awakened religious institutions to move upstream and address political causes.

Savior of the Poor

THOSE UNFAMILIAR with the Bible will remain in the dark about its message if they rely on the religious right for interpretation, Wallis says. Homosexuality--a key issue for the Christian Coalition--is dealt with only "tangentially" in the Good Book, Wallis says. In comparison, the poor are mentioned thousands of times. The only subject mentioned more often, notes Wallis, is idolatry.

"But the Bible doesn't talk about people being poor," Wallis says. "It talks about oppression--landlords, employers. The Bible is very clear on structural causes."

Capitilizing on faith as a lightning rod for social change, Wallis also co-founded a national network known as Call to Renewal, which focuses on mobilizing religious communities to address--and, hopefully, change--those structural causes of social injustice.

"If there's any issue that's black and white, it's about the poor," says Wallis. "This is where people should be more literal about the Bible."

It may have been only a matter of time before religious revival would work its way to becoming the Hot New Thing. The void left by the Do Your Thing '70s and Greed Is Good '80s was still gaping, even with the cut-and-paste New Age mantras and affirmations that intertwined throughout the last few decades. But New Age thought, with its focus on self and pursuit of "fulfillment," was bound to fall short, according to the purveyers of the new tradition.

Not that the Big Guy--or Gal--is far from most Americans' consciousness anyway, it turns out. A few factoids gleaned from dozens of recent polls reveal a profoundly religious nation: 96 percent of Americans believe in God or a "universal spirit," 81 percent believe in heaven and 82 percent believe in the healing power of prayer.

Yet most clerics feel that they are overwhelmed in their efforts to serve the disenfranchised, and that problems are getting worse, not better.

A relatively new national nonprofit organization called the Industrial Areas Foundation might help change that. While Wallis' Call to Renewal focuses on mobilizing the churches, IAF seeks to build a broad-based coalition of churches as well as social agencies and political leaders all working together to address community problems.

Ken Smith directs IAF's Monterey Bay Organizing Project. Smith, who worked as a union organizer for about 15 years in Southern California before moving north five years ago to head up this project, applies veteran organizer Saul Alinsky's tactics of getting disparate groups to work together to tackle social change. The churches, he is convinced, are the key.

"Churches are using one one-hundredth of their weapons to attack these problems," Smith says. "We're trying to get them to expand their arsenal."

A recent day-long IAF conference in Castroville drew 130 people from 20 different religious institutions and numerous public agencies. Latino ex-drug addicts sat across from middle-aged white churchgoers that day, searching for a common bond. It is through these sustained "conversations," Smith is convinced, that churches will identify their communities' problems--and solutions.

The religious right has discovered its success by providing deceptively simple--and often punitive--solutions to complex problems, according to its counterparts across the political aisle. Smith believes it is time for religious institutions to rely on some of the time-honored basic tools--reflection, introspection and prayer--tools often overlooked in today's microsecond, fix-it-now, market culture.

"Maybe the church will think out more complex questions," Smith hopes.

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From the December 24-31, 1997 issue of Metro.

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