Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Will Be Heard: the voices of mass incarceration


Mass incarceration panel

Will be Heard: a performance and public conversation around mass incarceration in the United States” is the latest project of The Open Program of the Workcenterof Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards of Pontedara, Italy developed as part of this fall’s New York City residency. The performance piece emerged from extended conversations with formerly incarcerated people and a wide circle of community andadvicacy groups that relate to this issue.
Performing "Will Be Heard"

More than anything, “Will Be Heard” articulates and amplifies the voices of the people who shared their stories. The stories and commentary are interwoven, in a typical Open Center style, with work songs, spirituals and laments from the African Diaspora tradition. And in this performance piece, that is especially appropriate. What comes through beyond the pain and suffering inflicted on those in the corrections system is the reality of a “prison-industrial complex” through which prisoners lives are commodified. They are used to create commodities and become commodities themselves. In essence, the 13th Amendment allowed for the continuation of salvery by virtue of this clause which abolished slavery: "….except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…."

The performance was followed by a wide and diverse panel of community persons involved with mass  incarceration from clergy to former Black Panthers to activists  calling for the closing of Riders Island. 

Among the points to emerge from the conversation were these:

  • There is a direct connection between gentrification, police violence and mass incarceration
  • When we buy products that come from the prison labor system, we are participating in “complicit consumption
  • The system runs on a plea bargain default whereby 90% of those incarcerated never had the opportunity for a  trial (Walter Puryear, Mid Bronx Senior Citizen Council and Andrew Freedman Home)
  • Solitary confinement must be understood to be the essence of illegal “cruel and unusual punishment” (Wesley Caines, Bronx Defenders)
  • Solitary confinement has been especially used against the 65 “Political prisoners” in the US, i.e., those who have been placed in solitary because of their “dangerous ideas” (BJ , Black Panther Commemoration Committee and Incarcerated Nation)
  • There are very special effects of incarceration on young women and re-entry presents a real challenge as prison has been internalized. TabaithaRodriguez, (G.I.R.L.S. Achieving Incorprotion)
  • Actors need to remember that they are human beings first and must always honor community (Dilson Hernandez, Urban Art Beat)
  • The Stella Adler School of Acting has Rikers as one of its studios and its participants are students whose address is Rikers. We will not say “living” at Rikers.  Engaging in the experience of drama and theatre becomes transformative. (Joanne Edelman, Tom Oppenhgeim, Stella Adler School)
  • The American Friends Service Committee, which has been involved in working with incarcerated persons for over 100 years, Wesleyan  University and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music have been working together on a “Hope Lives for Lifers” project.  A performance using the experience of incarceration and Dante’s Inferno is being prepared for December
  • Most prisoners at Rikers, mainly black and brown, have never been convicted of a crime and are there primarily because of lack of bail money and/or  adequate legal representation. 
  • Pastor (Rev.Dr.)Patricia Sealy’s Mott Haven Reformed Church was a stop on the Underground Railroad helping escaped slaves to freedom.
    Myrto, Robert, Mario and Pastor Sealy
    She reports:
    • 2.7 million children with at least one parent in prison
    • 43% have seen there parent(s) treated violently by th eploice
    • 1/9 African American children have a incarcerated parent as opposed to 1/28 Hispanics and 1/59 whites
    • In Kenya, the standard greeting is “Are the children well?“ To which our answer must be “no”
    • We ‘ve now entered into intergenerational incarceration, a difficult pattern to break
More conversation and a dinner followed. 

While the Open Program has always had a commitment to justice and civic engagement, this is the most explicit engagement of an issue they have done in their New York City residencies. This exploration of the intersection of  beauty and justice and ethics and esthetics is an example of exactly what the Center at West Park has as its vision. It I stood to see new Executive and Artistic Director Zachary Tomlinson keeping that vision alive and continuing collaboration with artists like the Ope Center.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Heart of the Matter


Back to Beverly 

What a week it’s been….

There was Halloween Day…the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and his 95 theses and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation that changed the world…(although I spent time in Argentina and Uruguay  with our Waldensian  brothers and sisters ,our official Presbyterian partners in Argentina and Uruguay, who started a reformation 343 years before Luther…hunted, persecuted, oppressed, they hid in the mountains and valleys...when they saw Luther they decided that they could join in)…

The annual Halloween/All Saints/All Souls day cycle…Some of our church friends  are celebrating All Saints today…the church recognized how powerful riutalswere this time of year and tried to baptize these holidays and make Christians out of them.I think I can safely say the fact is the pagans won…but this Halloween was different…at 4 PM while handing our candy, I saw the crawl on the bottom of the TV screen…8 dead…Stuyvestant High Schoo locked down…and soon learned of the terrorist attack… what’s really sad to me is how quickly I turned to wonderiing how it would affect the subways…from terror to inconvenience...

The Astros won the World Series, giving Houston, a city that’s  been through so much, something to feel good about…

About earthshaking things, last night was  the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution….another event that changed the world…and how the Soviet Union that scared us so much didn’t even last 100 years…

And of course, today is Marathon Sunday….

Take a breath….

Where’s Jesus today?
Talking with his disciples about the scribes and pharisees..and he says something very strange….do what they say, not what they do…what’s up with that?
  1. He is affirming that their teaching is STILL valid…their interpretations still appropriate…remember …remember…as he said in Matthew 5: 17-20

    17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

    19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
    20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

    So he’s talking with his disciples about the scribes and pharisees..and he says something very strange….do what they say, not what they do…what’s up with that?

    1. He is affirming that their teaching is STILL valid…their interpretations still appropriate…remember …remember...
    2. What they do drives him  crazy….
      1. Tying up people by judgment … many years did we do that?
      2. They love the fanciest clothes, fanciest vestments, stoles, etc…(in the cathedral at Lima, I saw the incredible wealth and beauty of the church reflected in its vestments….perhaps paid for with Inca ransom gold
      3. They want seats of honor at banquets…charity fund raisers, getting to do the invocation, sitting with the top business leaders, politicians, celebrities, etc…
      4. They like to be greeted in the marketplace…like the first  pastor I worked for ….with church paid for membership in the best  clubs, downtown and country..

    Now here’s something for us…call no one father? How do Roman Catholics? Anglicans? Feel about that?
    But we’re not off the hook either…we are officially called teaching elders? And Jesus says call no man teacher…

    Remember these words:
    5 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
    We are to heart of the matter..
    11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

    it’s like when the scribes and pharisees came and tried to trip Jesus up about divorce...(see Matthew 19:3-12/Mark 10:2-12)…here’s the thing, and he’s always consistent…he wants us to go to the heart of the matter…

    Stop all the quibbling about strict interpretations of things..go to the heart of the matter…when I was a soccer coach, and teaching kids, when it came to rules it was always like , “well what if I…” and I was no, forrget it …go to the heart of the rules, play there, not on the edge..
    Remember when Bill  Clinton said it al depends on what “is”means? Here's what Bill Clinton said to the grand jury about why he wasn't lying when he said to his top aides that with respect to Monica Lewinsky, "there's nothing going on between us." ... "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is’ is,

    All well and good and maybe important in a court of law, but not in day to day living…Christian living is not about how close you can get to the out of bounds line…the question is what is at the heart of the matter…

    And that heart is serving one another, with humility…knowing that we all fall  short….and as we accept ourselves as we are, and act accordingly,God loves us for that…those who do the most menial jobs  here are the most important…so let us not be confused…go to the heart of the matter...

Urban Church in the Global City: A visit with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo


Marching with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

On a sunny afternoon we go to march and visit  with the Mothers of the Plaza Mayo. We gather in the Plaza, with  the Casa Rosa (Pink House) or presidential Palace at one end, now with more security fence between the palace and  the people.
La Casa Rosa
At first I am surprised to.learn that 40 years later, the Mothers are still marching.

Flags and signs are being passed out.
Flags for the march
I go over to the Mothers’ tent and am initially taken aback by the level of commercialism. The vast array of books, of course. But also t-shirts, scarves, hats. Officially licensed mates. And even a madres cook book. I think of institutionalization. And the need for funds, etc.

The march begins with appropriate chants.
The march begins ("The power of finance is terrrorism")
But when the speeches begin, there’s a distinct partisan tone. I see another march begin. And then I learn, as is so often the case, the mothers have had a split over political/ideological perspectives. 

The two groups, the Mothers Association and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo- Founding Line broke over the leadership of Hebe de Bonafini. The Founding Line faction prides itself on its horizontal leadership. They see the other group as to top down and having become basically an political arm of Cristina Kirchner and her brand of Peronism, somewhere between Eva Peron and Hillary Clinton with all that implies. The Founding Line are pledged to non-partisanship. They will not align wth any party or leader and will hold all equally accountable until the military files are opened and the truth revealed.

We go to the offices of the Founding Line to meet wth a long time stalwart founder Nora Morales de Cortinas.
She has been marching since 1977 when her person disappeared. The others courageously came to the Plaza wearing white scarves embroidered with the names of disappeared ones. Those scarves became the visible symbol of their movement.
white scarf monument
Some 30-40000 were disappeared or killed.
With Nora in front of the wall of the disappeared ones
Only 3-400 were released. Mass graves continue to be discovered. Some 500 children were born to detainees and given to military families without children, like something our of Handmaid’s Tale. (Maragret Atwood once said, “Nothing I wrote never happened."). 
The return of democracy has reunited some children to the families. But one can only imagine the psychic and spritiual pain such a reunion would cause.

And the military still won’t open its files. As an American from North America, it is painful to learn that the perpetrators of the “dirty war”  were trained by the (US)  School of the  Americas in Georgia. 

The significance  of the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado
Donde están Santiago Maldonado?
becomes more important  because it can be seen as the begging of a return to a time o disappearances and terror.  A case from four years ago has not been forgotten.

Th Roman Catholic hierarchy urges the Mothers to forgive and move on, but the mothers know from the experience of people in  places like South Africa, where there has been no truth there can be no reconciliation  and there can be no true peace.. It continues as an open wound.

There is little love lost for the institutional Catholic Church which was perceived to have looked the other way  out of fear for its own survival. Which includes our current Pope. “ A good man, but…”Nora says, lifting up her hands to finish her sentence.

(The only non-Argentine—and one of two clergy— chosen for the Commission to investigate the disappearances  (Conadep) was courageous witness for human rights  Rabbi Marshall Meyer.) 
Nora wondered what the Gendarme really felt

At the end of the  day, there are “founders” in both groups. And despite the differences, all have lost children. 
Every Thursday afternoon at 3 PM, the march continues. 


Also on the edge of the Plaza we find an encampment of Malvinas War veterans. They want equal recognition for those who served in the homeland. They even have a story of a British helicopter attack that touched the main land.  
Malvinas Veterans

On the plaza the unhealed wounds of Argentina’s  past decades continue. As does anxiety of an uncertain future under Macri. 

This is part of the context within which ministry is done. The Waldensians are there with solidarity. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Revisiting the Trojan Women


“LOVE will come to rule the world….that is, WOMEN will rule the world…”

Rachel Dart brings her new interpretation of Euripdes’ “The Trojan Women” to the Balcony Theater at West Park with a new version by Brendan Kennelly. The issue at hand is how will the women of Troy survive following the defeat of Troy by the Greeks. The text in powerful and passionate language describes the fate of women in wartime. It is profoundly disturbing to hear how contemporary the descriptions sound. Equally disturbing is the fact that though these words relate to a war time situation, the idea of women as “prizes” and their experience of men could equally relate to what we are learning about the experiences of women at the hands of Harvey Weinstein …and others…in the Hollywood establishment. (Which we know is not limited to Hollywood…it’s a cultural problem from the President on…).

The one complex…and perhaps confusing…aspect of a profoundly feminist production is how we are to understand the conflict between Hecuba and Helen who and what Helen is in the story. Another victim? A manipulative agent who brings destruction to others? Some combination  or neither or just ambiguous? It’s a credit to the production…and the actors…that we are drawn into the story and left to reflect on these characters.

Ms. Dart’s cast is uniformly strong though Marcie Henderson as Hecuba and Ashley Burroughs  as Helen are especially strong. Givereny Petitmermet is deeply moving in the wrenchingly tragic role of Andromache and Erika Grob as Cassandra and  Joie Bauer as Poseidon and Sam Leichter’s Talthybius are all worthy of mention. 

Maggie McCrann’s costumes and Dan Morrison’s set, Valerie Insardi’s lights and Robert A.K. Gonyo’s haunting sound design all contribute to this accessible and engaging production.

As part of their mission as a  company, The  New Collectives has scheduled conversations following Thursday performances with a wide variety of social and political groups  that clearly fit with the Center at West Park’s mission to be a place to explore the intersection between beauty and justice, ethics and esthetics. 

Like last year’s Noche Flamenca production of Antigona, this production of classic Greek drama once again shows the continuing relevance of these plays to our unerstanding of the human condition. Euripedes’ The Trojan Women is worth a new look…thanks to Rachel Dart and New Collectives…and West Park…for giving us that look.

Through November 18th  (

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A visit to El Barrio: East Harlem


a visit to East Harlem

The Micah Institute Faith Table spent a day exploring El Barrio: East Harlem. The day began at the Church of The Living Hope
Church of the Living Hope
where after organizer Diane Steinman
Diane sets the agenda
set the agenda for the day, Pastor Ray Rivera introduced us to the neighborhood he grew up in.
Ray Rivera introduces us to el Barrio

(It should noted that Ray has been a ground breaking pastor in engaging the Pentecostal community in the struggle for social justice and for bridging the gap between Pentecostals and the historic ecumenical community.)

Ray described the waves of immigrants: the early German and Jewish populations, the tide of Italian immigrants with leaders like former mayor La Guardia, activist Vito Marcantonio and the presence of the Genovese family.

While Black power grew west of 5th, a new Latino community grew to the east, first Puerto Ricans then Cubans and Dominicans and today Mexicans. (And now, with increased gentrification in Chinatown, the fastest growing population group in East Harlem is Chinese.).While integration was a political issue citywide, Ray points out that East Harlem has been integrated since 1949.

He speaks pf the impact of Pentecostalism and the East Harlem Protestant Parish on the neighborhood..and his…life. For him the three words that most describe the neighborhood reality are:
  • Creative tension
  • Transcendence
  • Grace

Martha Eddy
Martha Eddy 
is a daughter of the East Harlem Protestant Parish. Her father, Norm, along with Don Benedict, George Huggins and George  (Bill) Weber were the idealistic Union Seminary graduates who came to East Harlem with a vision. (Joined by one of my mentors, Presbyterian George Todd.) It began in 1947 and lasted until 1975. Norm's vision was to create “Plymouth Colony” in East Harlem. They created a model that is vitally relevant today as the historic church seeks to find its way in a rapidly changing world.

The clergy families committed to a community of mutual support pledging to share with each other  emotionally,spiritually and economically. And congregation members committed to disciplines of:
  • Worship, study and prayer
  • Stewardship
  • Political action

Martha remembers political leaders like Mayor Lindsay and Abe Beame  coming to their table for conversation. EHPP's legacy in terms of housing, economics and drug and prison reform continues to this day.

Coming from England, Pastor Chris Lawrence
Chris Lawrence shares his vision
considers his congregation a latter day expression  of the EHPP. He seeks to explore and give theological and spiritual meaning to what he calls the “art of neighboring.”  The “La Mesa” project, or dinner church, is both a literal and metaphoric expression of that commitment. Chris also practices “hyper localism,” that is  he focuses his ministry in an area of four square blocks and wants to know those four blocks in every way possible. To know the people and their lives, so that the church might be the place where their losses are mourned and their victories and joys celebrated. 

To describe everything we saw would take much too long. So I’ll include just a few notes and focus on the faith community…


Murals are part of the life of el Barrio, much like the Mission in San Francisco or East LA. The ‘Los Dos Alas” mural
Los Dos Alas mural
portrays the revolutionary friendship between the Puerto Rican and Cuban peoples. Ray tells us that the first Cuban refugees  to come to el Barrio were referred to by others as gusanos, that is worms, for having abandoned the revolution. MICAH’s Peter Heltzel shares his experience of Albizu Campos, Puerto Rican freedom fighter.
Peter tells us about Albizu Campos

We see also the dramatic murals of James de la Vega whose work is seen throughout the city. 
a De La Vega mural

We also stop by the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center named for the poet, feminist and Puerto Rican nationalist who died unknown in the streets of el barrio and was buried in the city’s potter’s field, Hart’s Island. (Later her body was recovered and taken to Puerto Rico for a hero’s burial ). 

While there is great pride in the fact that current New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Vivirito is a daughter of the  neighborhood, there was sadness and anger over her seeking to end the lease for the Burgos Center.   

( For Leonard Bernstein’s tribute to Julia de Burgos, go to Https://

Ray also points out the Buen Vecino (Presbyterian) Church,
El Buen Vecino
which now houses Community Voices Heard ( and the leadership of its pastor Domingo Rosado.

What the Panthers were for the Black community, the Young Lords
Young Lords street
were to the Latinx community. Perhaps with greater lasting impact. From breakfast and tutoring programs to activism, they left their mark.


A central Roman Catholic Church of the neighborhood is St. Cecelia’s.
St. Cecelia's
We meet with its pastor, Father Mushi
Diane, Fathee Mushi and Martha
and hear of its history from its origins as a German and Irish parish to the coming of Puerto Ricans and then Dominicans and now Mexicans. And most recently, an influx of Puerto Ricans fleeing the  devastation of the island. They are confronted by the expected issues: AIDS, drugs and affordable housing. The parish has been an important member of the community organizing network,Manhattan Together, which has been working on affordable housing.


On our way to the Islamic Center, we pass by La Marqueta, the open air market under the elevated train tracks along Park Avenue. Both Ray and Martha have childhood memories of La Marqueta.

The Islamic Culturall Center of New York City
The Islamic Center
anchors the southern end of the neighborhood on 96th street. It is, of course, the major Islamic center in New York City. Imam Sa’ad Jallo
Introducing Imam Jallo
has a multinational and multiethnic congregation that includes United Nations officials, diplomats, international business men and many, many cab drivers. He explains why and how cab driving is one of the most accessible entry level jobs for Muslim immigrants. His neighborhood members come mainly from French speaking Africa, Imam Jello himself come from Sierra Leone. He describes his pastoral work as well as the tradition of giving new arrivals sis months of housing and support while they find their place. in the city There is also a traditional Muslim practice of providing loan assistance and the Center actively participates in a “midnight run”food program for the homeless population of the city.


We end our day at Church of the Resurrection.
Pastor Kim Wright
Emerging  from the EHPP, the Church was given new life by a creative partnership with a developer which resulted in affordable housing and a multiple floor flexible facility for the church . ( Luckily they were able to achieve this without interference by preservation purists.) Pastor Kim Wright is another child of the  neighborhood. Their history includes work with the Latino Pastors Action Council,the creation of Mitchell Lama  houses and following on the pioneer work of Norm Eddy, drug treatment/detox facilities. It is clearly an active center for worship and witness, learning and celebration.

The day ends with conversations with representatives from a vast array of social action and service agencies.


Some closing thoughts:
  • Many thanks to Diane Steinman and her committee. This was truly an in depth experience of a unique New York neighborhood
  • There is clearly a deep love for the neighborhood among those who grew up there and a continued strong sense of “neighborhood”….sometime like a Puerto Rican village in the middle of the city.
  • East Harlem Protestant Parish clearly created a model of Christian discipleship that has lasting value. There are also questions worth reflection: 
    • The leadership of EHPP was for the most part white. How do we understand that historically? What is the appropriate role of pastors like Chris Lawrence in communities of color? How can our work contribute to the deconstruction of white privilege?
    • Much (not all) of the early history of urban ministry in the “mainline” churches was that of heroic white pastors in neighborhoods of people of color. How has that role changed over the years? (Obviously these congregations were not historically white) Are their other stories we haven’theard? Need to hear?
  • There is a cornucopia of service and activist organizations in East Harlem, perhaps predictably so. The sheer numbers  are overwhelming. But perhaps this raises as many questions as it answers. After the presence of all these organizations  over all these years, how has the neighborhood improved? Is there an inherent contradiction between institutional survival  and real change taking place in a neighborhood? To what extent are our lives as activists/commuuty workers, etc. connected to an ongoing non-empowerment of people? It would be helpful to hear the reflections of neighborhood pastors on how the different organizations and agencies  are perceived in the neighborhood.
  • What do we learn about current realities in the Roman Catholic Church when one of the principle churches in el barrio is staffed by francophone pastors from Africa? (Of course acknowledging their deep devotion to their parish and Spanish language facility…)
  • Given this vast complex of church and community organizations, how does MICAH live out its faith rooted organizing work in relationship to East Harlem? What kind of working relationships develop? Who do we work with and how? Do we do intentional outreach or ….?
  • One more time, big thanks to Diane and committee!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Urban Church, Global City: The Flores Neighborhood, Buenos Aires


With the Flores community

Flores is a Buenos Aires neighborhood perhaps now best known as the home parish of Pope Francis. The Roman Catholic basilica
The Basilica in Flores
is first place I’ve seen statues of modern saints like Pope John Paul II
John Paul II
and Mother Theresa
Mother Theresa
as well as paintings of Francis.
Pope Francis

But there are other churches on the Plaza as well. The Flores Valdensians share in the diaconal ministry of the Methodist Church
La Iglesia Metodista de Flores
that so openly shares its life in every way with the community around it. When more homeless people came to the plaza, the Methodist church resisted the fencing of the plaza. But even after the fence, it has kept it's doors open. The pastor
a visit with the pastor
warmly greets those who have come for food and and joins in the casual conversation, at ease among friends. The open space beside the church is shared by children and sports activities.
An open space to play
Here is a classic example of an urban church whose walls are porous, where there is no boundary between church and community. And the pastor knows well that often ministry is defined buy how you respond to the knocks on your door.  And when the doors are open….so much more so.  

This is truly ministry in context, with a social worker, outreach to children and single mothers, and a market for artisans. The church is navigating creatively the reality of living in a middle class neighborhood which is not comfortable withth people who gather on its plaza. 

A symbol of that ministry is the annual  Christmas Eve service held outdoors in the plaza with. persebre viviente (live manger scene) with members of the  plaza community as the holy family and visitors…Christmas Eve ends with some and then breaking of bread together..


Perhaps its a sign of the dedication of the Flores community of la Iglesia Valdense
a dinner conversation
that we meet on a night when Argentina is playing for its survival against Peru in a World Cup qualifying match. We gather in their space at CAREF  for a dinner and conversation. 

Even though small in number, the Flores community is young and diverse with a richness of skills and talents and a passion for ministry. It is highly educated with a large number of  current and recent students. There are, for example:

  • A young man who has lived in voluntary simplicity and is committed to solidarity with the poor
  • A young  woman who describes herself as “an atheist and a theologian”
  • A church journalist and communications expert
  • Musicians, singers
    a song before dinner
  • Young professionals
  • People who ask serious questions about faith and society

The community has also recently opened  its arms and embraced a woman who has a very complex, challenging and emotionally trying  set of circumstances related to immigration and status.  As she seeks to get her feet on the ground and find an effective strategy, she feels welcomed and accepted as a member of la familia.

This small but vibrant group is attracting young adults from outside the Waldensian tradition, including former Catholics. Not burdened by having to maintain building, there is more energy for an engaged living out of the gospel. There would seem to be a bright and open future for this Flores community. 


Oh...and the Argentina team is still alive!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Urban Church, Global City: Migration and Refugees


Meeting with CAREF

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
Leviticus 19:34, quoted by CAREF

When reflecting on the role of the urban church in the global city, it’s important that the church understand the impact of the trends and themes that are shaping the cities we live in. One of the most important of three themes is the presence and reality of migrants and refugees in our midst. We are living in a time when the largest number of people in history are in the process of moving from one  country to another. Its an important part of our work to learn about the current unique dynamics of this reality in Argentina.

To be a migrant is to seek a better life
In the Flores neighborhood of Buenos Aires are the offices of the Comision Argentina para los Refugiados y Migrantes (CAREF).Four churches came together to found CAREF: Iglesia Evangeica del Rio de la Plata (Lutheran/Evangelical), Iglesia Methodist Argentina (Methodist), Evangelical Discipulos de Cristo (Disciples of Christ) and Iglesia Valdense del Rio de la Plata (Wadensians).

CAREF was founded in 1973, as a non-profit civil association whose main objective, in addition to providing direct services and advocacy, is to promote the rights of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers through the construction of social policies and practices that consolidate their integration in conditions of justice and equity.

Its founding was in response to a flood of refugees from Chile resulting from the takeover by the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Migration in Argentina (and South America as a whole) has differed from the situation in Europe in that most refugees and migrants have been internal South Americans shifting and changing as various political waves have washed over countries. For example, the junta years in Argentina, the long running Columbian civil war,
Add caption
and now the rapidly deteriorating social situation in Venezuela.
Migration and Rights poster

CAREF has also been involved in the global crisis. Last June, CAREF, related to the  the commemoration of the International Refugee Day, issued a document in which it reviewed the history of the problem, launched a strong criticism of Europe and the United States, for being responsible for the crises that generate poverty and expulsion and referred to the role of Argentina and the region, as well as some guidelines on state action against the problem. 

Through a document signed by its General Coordinator Gabriela Liguori, CAREF strongly criticized states that do not take refugees seriously: "Europe receives thousands of refugees and expels them. It establishes agreements of international cooperation with countries of its periphery so that they contain the refugees there. A new genocide takes place, and Europe is not immune ... they insist on separating the economic migrant from the refugee as if fleeing from hunger was not also fleeing from death, as if being a migrant deprived you of the status of a person with rights.

 CAREF also pointed out that it is the European countries themselves, together with the United States, that generate the crises that end up driving people out of their places of origin. However, it is then they who demand the countries, to receive the victims: "it seems that there is no interest in addressing fundamental issues such as peace and the fair distribution of wealth at the global level, but to see how to slow down the impact of their somewhat uncomfortable manifestations of pain in the countries of Europe, "they said. In this they echo the sentiments of a sign I saw last April in Hamburg:  “If you don’t like refugees, stop creating them!”
Hamburg banner

Argentina recently committed accepting to 3000 Syrian refugees for humanitarian purposes. CAREF is clear, however, that simply accepting them is not enough. They note that it is essential that there be a clear local integration policy that guarantees the exercise of the rights of this population: access to language training, clear procedures for the revalidation of qualifications, training for work, decent and permanent housing, inclusion of labor, the exercise of their religion and manifestation of their culture, access to education at all levels and health from an intercultural perspective, favoring ties with the rest of Argentine society.

CAREF reports that Argentina currently has a population of refugees and petitioners, of approximately 5000 people. "Among them are Colombians, Syrians, Ghanaians, Ukrainians, Haitians, Ivorians, Nigerians and Peruvians." As hard as CAREF works to assist refugees in gaining legal status, there s great frustration with both the bureaucratic red tape and lack of budgeted funds for the serious essential work of integration. 

 In our conversation with CAREF, we learned about the abuse of migrants in sweat shops (so too in the United States) and that most agricutural work in Argentina is done by Bolivians. Sex trafficking and narco politics also affect the movement of people.(CAREF has allied itself with those fighting against domestic violence and femicide.) CAREF has also recently produced a major report on the phenomenon of migration to Argentina of people from the Dominican Republic in this century. Especially disturbing is disproportionate presence in the sex industry.

CAREF is a real example of the ecumenical work that La Iglesia Valdense has committed to, both in responding to direct human needs and engaging on the all important policy work needed to support just migration.  The Flores Valdense church meets at CAREF and both staff and lay members participate as volunteers in a special relationship. In the future, it is clear that one important area of work for local congregations will be in the integration process for migrants. And again, the Bible is clear:
You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.


For a broadly informative …and profoundly moving… overview of the reality of migrants and refugees around the globe, see AI Wei-Wei’s “Human Flow