Sunday, January 25, 2009

Powerful, Popular, Perfect and Peaceful

My husband came home from work with a test.

He works at the meat counter of a local grocery store owned, and in large measure staffed, by Mennonites. We often joke that between that and the fact I work at a Catholic newspaper we’re up to our jowls in religion.

It can be, um, a bit overwhelming.

Neither of us can conceive of a company gathering anymore that doesn’t start or end with – or have interludes of – prayer. Family dinners have found us exploring why the expression “Holy smokes” is unacceptable to his Mennonite coworkers and how this intersects with Catholic ritual. We’ve both heard way too many excruciatingly earnest but awful praise-and-worship songs since we started working at our respective jobs, and between us know a battalion of people of faith who spent time in New Orleans helping people rebuild from Hurricane Katrina.

I wonder about how my husband’s coworkers don’t freeze to death wearing dresses in middle of winter as they bicycle to the store from farms many miles away, and he wonders whether priests ever get a day off from wearing clerics. Our daughter just rolls her eyes at us – and makes sure the ear buds for her iPod are in tight enough.

It is easy to talk about the day-to-day of different religions at the dinner table – after all, my mother’s proscription of “never discuss politics or religion” was understood to not apply to family. (Which, it has to be said, included secular humanists, Greek Orthodox, Baptists and a number of members of other religions along with the Catholics … and also just about every value on the political spectrum.)

What proves much more difficult is to talk about religious difference as it plays out on the national stage. Witness all the back and forth about which religious leaders were included in the inaugural events (and which weren’t) and what they said, or didn’t say, or might have said, or implied in their prayers. (Go the blog for a provocative variety of entries on this topic or to for a news story about the role of religion in the inauguration.)

Despite being a person who enjoys a good discussion, I despair of the type of argumentation that seems to follow (or sometimes precede) these displays of civic religion at the national level. The attendant commentary makes God out to be as small and as blinkered as we are – as if the Divine resides only with us, standing among our own people, speaking our own language.

Which brings me back to the test.

A number of my husband’s coworkers have taken a test that asks you to identify your personality traits – all falling into four “types,” according to the authors of the test, powerful choleric, popular sanguine, perfect melancholic and peaceful phlegmatic. It is an updated form of a “four humours” typology that harks back past Renaissance and Medieval thought into classical Greek concepts of healing. In any case, Erla, Ada Mae, Lisa and Janet sent my husband home from work a number of days ago with an explanatory book and a xeroxed version of the checklist of traits, and – because he’s been procrastinating – have asked him every day since whether he’s completed it yet.

I find this touching. Not because of the test itself (although it is fun in a formulaic sort of way) but because it is an effort on their part to try to better understand someone whose life experiences – and beliefs – are radically different than their own.

Is it trivial? Sure. Will it provide a full picture of who my husband is? Not a chance. But it is, in some sense, a sentence flung out as a rope across a deep cultural and theological divide: “I want to know who you are.”

We should all be so brave.

Friday, January 16, 2009

ICHIA-SCHIP reauthorization update

From the Catholic News Service story filed today:

"The reauthorization bill passed the House by a 289-139 vote Jan. 14. [It] expands the joint federal-state program to include about 4 million more children, including some 240,000 children of legal immigrants. It would be funded by increasing the federal tax on cigarettes by 61 cents to a dollar per pack.

The Senate Finance Committee approved a similar version of the legislation late Jan. 15, and President-elect Barack Obama has said he hopes to sign the reauthorization bill as one of his first acts as president."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Women and children first

I’ve gotten this urgent call from several sources:

"This week, Congress is planning to vote on bills to expand children's health care through a new reauthorization of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). While it is necessary for Congress to reauthorize SCHIP before current funding expires in March 2009, it is imperative that Congress passes a 2009 SCHIP bill that demonstrates our nation's priorities to children's access to health.

Under current law, legal immigrant children and pregnant women must wait five years before they become eligible for federally funded Medicaid and SCHIP. Congress can address this inequity by including the Legal Immigrant Children's Health Improvement Act (ICHIA) in the 2009 SCHIP reauthorization bill. Moreover, in these difficult economic times, Congress should be finding ways to help America's working families and states with tight budgets. ICHIA would provide fiscal relief to families as well as states and would be a key component of a strong health reform foundation.

The U.S. House of Representatives will be voting on a new State Children’s Health Insurance Program bill as early as today. The Senate is working on its SCHIP bill with a vote likely later this week. As of today, the Senate Finance Committee plans to send SCHIP to the full Senate on Thursday without ICHIA. As in the past, a minority of senators threatens to use anti-immigrant tactics to block inclusion of ICHIA in what should only be a debate about how best to provide health care to children.

Please immediately contact the following Finance Committee members. Tell these Senate Finance Committee Members that

Senate Finance Committee Members:

Member has been supportive in the past but has not confirmed support this year:
Max Baucus (D-MT), Chair
Kent Conrad (D-ND)
Ron Wyden (D-OR)
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)

Member's current position on ICHIA is unknown:
Charles Grassley (R-IA), Ranking Member
Ken Salazar (D-CO)
Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Pat Roberts (R-KS)
Jon Kyl (R-AZ)
Jim Bunning (R-KY)
Mike Crapo (R-ID)
John Ensign (R-NV)

The following members are supportive and have indicated they will vote "Yes" to ICHIA:
John Rockefeller (D-WV)
Jeff Bingaman (D-NM)
John Kerry (D-MA)
Blanche Lincoln (D-AR)
Charles Schumer (D-NY)
Maria Cantwell (D-WA
Olympia Snowe (R-ME)
If you have time, please thank them for their support.

For contact information for Senate Finance Members, please go to the website link below, scroll down, click on the member, call their office, and ask to speak to the HEALTH staff.

Other members of the Congress:
If you have additional time, please call your own two Senators and your Representative and let them know that their support for inclusion of ICHIA in SCHIP this week will be critical to the future of all children, not just immigrant children."

So why are you still reading? Go. Call.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Oh, Philadelphia!

Yesterday was close day – an adrenaline-spiking rush to edit, lay out, proof, finish and upload pages before press time.

Sometime around 4 p.m., Barb, one of the CS&T designers (and a person whose forthright and informed commentary on life keeps me on my toes and highly amused) flung a question my way.

“Did you watch the Mummer’s parade this year?” she asked.

Pure non-sequitur, by the way – none of us had been discussing this curious Philadelphia tradition, in which every New Year’s Day thousands of rank-and-file Philadelphians strut through the streets of the city in a parade that seems half Mardi-Gras, half Rose Bowl.

“No,” I answered cautiously. “Why?”

“When I saw one of the groups performing I thought about you,” she answered.

“Yeah?” I said, while mentally reviewing whether I had recently worn anything extravagant enough to merit this mnemonic. I am rather fond of intensely colored clothing and big jewelry – but, no, I don’t think I had ever turned up at work with feathers or a headdress.

Pete – another designer – nodded. ”I wondered if you were watching,” he added.

Okay, scary.

“There was float and people dressed like illegal immigrants. With border patrol and a fence and everything,” Barb informed me.

I think I probably sputtered a lot as they described it to me. Within seconds, Joanna (the sports editor) who actually sits a whole room away (so my imprecations had to have been loud) sent me a link to an article about the B. Love Strutters Brigade’s “Aliens of an illegal kind” performance on New Year’s Day.

As soon as I got home, I searched YouTube for a video of the full performance (

Sigh. Beyond the clueless inanities muttered by the TV announcers (“It looks like a celebration of diversity”) there was Philadelphia’s cheesesteak maven – Joey Vento, riding on the float behind a version of his notorious “When ordering, speak English” sign. Sort of like those “No Irish need apply” or "whites only" signs we learned about in history class. Vento has made a name for himself with that sign, and the fight to keep it posted at his eatery.

But before you dismiss his presence in the parade as just another harmless clown from the Mummer’s comic division, or his sign’s advocacy as a simple assertion of the primacy of English, check this out: That’s Vento spewing anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant venom at a Voices of the People rally in Harrisburg in September of 2007.

Is this who we want to represent us – in middle of our city’s most iconic public gathering? Is this really our voice? Does he represent?

I hope not.

The Philadelphia Foundation recently commissioned a study titled “Recent Immigration to Philadelphia: Regional Change and Response” which was presented to the public Nov. 13, 2008. Here is some of what the study found:

  • The mix of immigrants and refugees in Philadelphia is diverse, with 39 percent coming from Asia, 28 percent from Latin America and the Caribbean, 23 percent from Europe and 8 percent from Africa.

  • The country providing the largest number of immigrants to Philadelphia is India.

  • A significant number of immigrants to the city have higher education degrees and professional and small business development skills.

According to Michael Katz, co-writer of the study, “The future labor force growth of Philadelphia depends on immigration. Metropolitan Philadelphia needs to attract immigrants, and it has to be an immigrant-friendly region.”


Eat crow, Joey Vento. Wid 'wiz, even.

Friday, January 2, 2009

We’ll leave the light on for you

Sanctuaries are amazing. At the heart of consecrated buildings, sanctuaries – no matter how grand or how small and unadorned – emanate a peculiar resonance.

On a thoroughly mundane level, acoustic theory acknowledges that sounds persist within structures long after the source of the sound is gone. The reverberation of thousands of prayers swirl through sanctuaries: pleas for intercession, songs of trust and gratitude, words wherein exile is overcome. Even our imperfect human hearing detects something special in these spaces.

On another level, sanctuaries hold the light of belief. Of God eternally present. Of Christ, quite literally, in residence.

Talk about resonance.

It is impossible to think about sanctuaries without thinking about the 1980s, when churches in the United States became not only spiritual but physical sanctuaries for people fleeing the undeclared wars in Central America.

U.S. policy of the day held that those were “friendly governments” therefore people seeking to escape into the United States could not be classed as refugees. The churches that opened their doors to those unofficial refugees did so outside the law.

Policies are temporal. The ways we classify other human beings at any given moment in history are temporal. Laws and walls and borders – all temporal. Intervening years have proven that those refugees were escaping unbelievably dangerous and repressive governments. That they should have qualified for refugee status. That the command to succor the stranger in our midst and treating him as brother is a law higher than those of the land.

Today there is also a sanctuary movement – one challenging us to look at immigration issues with an eye to this higher law. The interfaith initiative ( has as its goals to protect immigrant workers and families (especially those facing deportation); to change the public debate about immigration; and to make visible immigrant workers and families as children of God.

In Philadelphia, Peter Pedemonti is part of the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM). The 30-year-old works full-time providing hospitality at the House of Grace Catholic Worker house on Lehigh Avenue, but first heard about NSM when he was the director of education and outreach at an environmental organization in New York State.

“At that time the Sensenbrenner bill [H.R. 4437] was being debated. It made it a crime to help immigrants,” he said. “I remember being really outraged at what was happening in my country.”

Like so many of us, Pedemonti is the child of an immigrant. His father came to the United States when he was 13, after World War II, when dire economic conditions in Italy made starvation a real possibility.

Pedemonti sees a parallel with recent immigrants, many of whom emigrate because the economic conditions in their rural communities are calamitous.

“The impact of our economic policy is the part of the equation that is always left out of [the immigration debate],” he said. “A critical piece is NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement, implemented in 1994] which we pushed through. It has benefited our economy at the expense of the Mexican people. Today, 78 percent of the corn in Mexico is from the U.S.”

Still, it wasn’t economics, but faith, that drew Pedemonti to NSM.

“This is a faith-based movement,” he said. “We are here because of our beliefs. We can’t forget the basic call of the faith to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbor. It is a very clear call. It is not only how we must think, but how we must act…”

The NSM coalesced in 2007, with several economic justice alliances serving as its coordinating organizations. But local NSM efforts build through word of mouth, and through the work of the faith-centered individuals of many religious communities.

The group is heavily Catholic, according to Pedemonti and much of their educational outreach work – “Know your rights” workshops, forums discussing immigration with a religious or faith and morals perspective, and “Immigration 101” workshops – take place at parish centers and churches. They will, however, present the workshops for whoever is interested: community centers, schools, etc. (E-mail for more information.)

A “Know your rights” workshop is slated to take place at 7 p.m. on Jan. 14 at St. Vincent de Paul Church, on the corner of Price and Lena Streets in Philadelphia.

But much of the work Pedemonti and the NSM group does is hands-on, “walking with” the immigrants and their families.

They have worked with immigrants arrested in the 7/08 workplace raid in King of Prussia, providing food, clothing, money.

Pedemonti himself has been working with a Pakistani family with immigration troubles. F., the 40-year-old father of two was in detention in York, Pa., where most of the undocumented from Philadelphia are sent. F’s wife called Pedemonti soon after the arrest. Since then, Pedemonti has accompanied them to deportation hearings and court, or wherever he might be able to help.

When I first spoke to Pedemonti in early Dec., F. had just had a deportation hearing. The result was the withholding of his deportation/removal – a favorable outcome that will allow him to remain in the United States and to get working papers. F. will never be able to depart the country, nor will he be able to apply to become a lawful permanent resident. In some cases, a withholding of deportation/removal bars deportation to a specific country, but not deportation to countries unspecified in the order.

Several weeks later, via e-mail, Pedemonti said F. had just been released from detention. “It has been such a blessing to work with him and his family,” Pedemonti wrote, “and a real joy to speak with him knowing he is home with his family for Christmas. He had some incredible reflections to share about his time in detention, faith, and the trial.”

Nobody in the Philadelphia NSM has had to provide physical sanctuary yet, but one member knows exactly what it might mean: he was in sanctuary during the 1980s. Because seeking physical sanctuary is a public act for the undocumented immigrant and his or her family, it is not a step taken easily. But for some, it may be the only hope for keeping a family together.

It also requires that the whole congregation be in agreement about providing sanctuary. In Chicago and Los Angeles, the churches and religious centers that have done so have been the targets of picketing and some heated rhetoric.

Still, the full congregation of a synagogue in Manayunk has committed to providing physical sanctuary for an undocumented immigrant (or family) in the Philadelphia area if it ever becomes necessary to do so.

Which doesn’t mean that the synagogue, or any of the churches involved in the sanctuary movement, support illegal immigration. What they uphold is the dignity of our fellow human beings – the God-given right to keep a family together and to seek relief from inhumane conditions (be they economically or politically driven).

Some entertain angels. Others see the face of Christ in the least of their brothers. All of them know that a house doesn’t become a home - much less a sanctuary - until we leave a light on.