Honoring Sr. Dorothy Strang

28 September 08 | Posted in Events, Global Catholic, Social Justice, Stewardship

Call to Action’s 2008 Leadership Award will be given posthumously to Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Dorothy “Dot” Strang, shot to death February 12, 2005 in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Strang spent 40 years in Brazil defending the rights of peasant farmers and protecting the environment. dorothystrang.jpg

Honoring Sr. Dorothy is uniquely appropriate at this year’s CTA conference, which places “Our Earth” at the center of our efforts to “Embrace the Beloved Community.” The conference is scheduled for November 7-9, 2008 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Affectionately known as the “Angel of the Amazon,” Strang worked tirelessly to empower the peasant settlers of the Amazon. She educated them about land tenures and the importance of protecting their homes in the rainforest. Together with the Brazilian government, Sr. Dorothy and the peasants created and eventually succeeded in implementing the first viable sustainable development project – a new model for the future.

A citizen of Brazil and the United States, Sr. Dorothy worked with the Pastoral Land Commission, an organization of the Catholic Church that fights for the rights of rural workers and peasants, and defends land reforms in Brazil.

Her death came less than a week after meeting with the country’s human rights officials about threats to the local farmers from loggers and large landowners who coveted the resources on their lands.

It has been estimated that 15,000 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest are lost every year to clear cutting and cattle pasturing. This is an area about the size of the state of Massachusetts. Another 7,000-15,000 is also lost to timber harvesting. Environmental degradation of the water, soil and animal habitats accompanies the logging.

Strang was shot six times at point blank range and left to die on a muddy road. The killers were paid $40 for her murder.

Commenting on the threats shortly before her death, Strang said “I don’t want to flee, nor do I want to abandon the battle of these farmers to live without any protection in the forest.  They have the sacrosanct right to aspire to a better life on land where they can live and work with dignity while respecting the environment.”

Her brother, David Strang, and the superior of her community, Sr. Joan Krimm, are planning to attend the CTA conference to accept the award in Dorothy’s honor. Also hoping his schedule will allow him to attend is actor and Catholic peace-justice activist, Martin Sheen. Sheen is the narrator in a new documentary film, They Killed Sister Dorothy.

Equal Exchange Fair Trade Coffee

6 July 08 | Posted in Food, Social Justice, U.S. Catholic

As a member of the Social Justice Committee of St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Brooklyn, NY I helped to start the “Coffee Project.” We sold Equal Exchange coffee after Masses once a month; and took special orders the rest of the time. Our parish secretary, a lovely lady, helped out to take care of people who were ill, out-of-town or couldn’t make it to Mass for some reason but still wanted their coffee. She would hold the bags in the office for people to come by and pick up.  Sales did quite well–our Social Justice Committee funded other projects and initiatives out of our $1 a bag coffee profits.

We sold Equal Exchange coffee, tea, chocolate and hot chocolate.  Everyone enjoyed the coffee, but the chocolate bars were the biggest hit. ee_coffee.jpg 

Our motto was: “Supporting fair wages and fair trade–one cup of coffee at a time.” Buying a bag of coffee after Mass made it easy and convenient to help support Catholic social justice initiatives several ways: small farmers were paid a fair price for their coffee beans and had access to credit; and the crops were planted and harvested in ecologically sound ways. Equal Exchange products are mostly organic and shade-grown, which further protects songbirds and wildlife.

Equal Exchange was great organization to work with, and I highly recommend them.  We found them through Catholic Relief Services, who maintain a list of fair trade coffee partners on their website.

Catholics Lauded in Sierra Club Book

Catholics are prominently featured in a new Sierra Club book, Faith in Action: Communities of Faith Bring Hope for the Planet. The book highlights faith-led environmental action in each of the 50 states plus Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. sierra-club.jpg

Don Conklin and Ellen Buelow, members of Holy Rosary Parish in Albuquerque, NM, helped engineer a light-bulb swap–incandescent bulbs for energy-saving compact flurorescent bulbs. Before the program was over, 3,000 bulbs changed hands.

“We did this as a Lenten project,” said Conklin, a pastoral associate at the 2,700-household parish. “And it didn’t cost us a thing. It was sponsored by the Sierra Club and PNM,” the electric company serving the Albuquerque area.

The bulbs were distributed during an annual parish awareness weekend. “We’re planning our next awareness weekend and we’re coming up with the theme of helping families,” Buelow told Catholic News Service. “We’d like to get the concept of simple living in there. Economize and save the environment.”

The Faith in Action book also included these Catholic-led initiatives:

– In Colorado, Bishops Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs and Arthur N. Tafoya of Pueblo called for a unified response after sewerage spills threatened Fountain Creek, which runs through their communities. The bishops’ statement had a “significant impact” said Ross Vincent, vice chair of the Sangre de Cristo group of Sierra’s Rocky Mountain chapter. “People who wanted to believe things were OK with Fountain Creek began to pay attention and realize something needed to be done. The bishops’ statement came at a critical time and it was deeply appreciated.”

– In New Orleans, members of Mary, Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church and their pastor, Father Vien The Nguyen, were able to halt post-Hurricane Katrina operations at a landfill that was not only close to their neighborhood, but was adajacent to a protected wildlife sanctuary. More than 200,000 cubic yards of waste from Katrina had been dumped in the landfill, which still leaks toxins into a canal used by the Vietnamese community for irrigation and fishing.

– The Michigan Catholic Rural Life Coalition used the National Catholic Rural Life Conference’s “Eating Is A Moral Act” program to demonstrate the many ethical implications of consumers’ food purchases. The coalition also educates the public about the need to promote stewardship of the land and promotes a sustainable food system that nourishes people, local communities and the earth.

– In response to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ call for action on global warming, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis co-sponsored, “Global Warming: A Catholic Perspective.” One thousand people from 95 parishes attended the event to address the effects of global warming on the environment and the world’s poor communities.

Several parishes have now established their own “global warming action teams.” One of them, St. Joan of Arc in Minneapolis, launched a Green Power Campaign to encourage parishioners to purchase wind-generated energy.

-In Caguas, Puerto Rico, Father Pedro Ortiz and the Catholic parish of Nuesta Senora de la Providencia formed the Alianza Comunitaria y Ambiental en Accion Solidaria (Community and Environmental Alliance in Solidarity) in April 2007. The parish sets aside portions of its liturgical calendar for reflection on relevant social issues. Now, 100 community organizations, nonprofits, churches and universities from across the island with common concern for the environment have joined the alliance.

Planet of Slums

29 June 08 | Posted in Arts and Letters, Social Justice

Mark Davis, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, is a self-described Marxist environmentalist. His work has stirred both controversy and acclaim. mike-davis.jpg

His 2006 book, Planet of Slums, examines the current state of global cities, using a recent U.N. habitat report, The Challenge of Slums, as its starting point. planetoftheslums_.jpg

“By the report’s conservative accounting,” Davis explains, “a billion people currently live in slums and more than a billion people are informal workers, struggling for survival…the entire future growth of humanity will occur in cities, overwhelmingly poor cities, and the majority of it in slums.”

According to Davis, progressive urban planners advocate “hazard zoning” to exclude development and population from dangerous floodplains, swamps, unstable hillsides, fire-prone brush lands, and liquefaction zones.

“Capitalist urbanization in the Third World  works exactly by the opposite principle: concentrating huge densities of poor, vulnerable people in the most unstable and hazardous sites.”

Nevertheless, he sees cities as the solution to the global environmental crisis: “Urban density can translate into great efficiencies in land, energy and resource use, whlie democratic public spaces and cultural institutions likewise provide qualitatively higher standards of enjoyment than individualized consumption and commodified leisure.”

David has often criticized well-to-do environmentalists for ignoring the problems of working people. To that end, he argues that activists should link every environmental demand to a specific proposal that improves quality of life in working class areas, whether this be higher employment or more park space.

The Oil Price Conundrum

23 June 08 | Posted in Social Justice, Stewardship, U.S. Catholic

Oil prices have gone up dramatically, impacting the cost of everything: filling up the gas tank, the cost of food, heating your home, airline travel.

It has impacted food in another way–farmers, especially agribusiness, are opting to plant crops for fuel rather than food production. Those choices are felt hard now in countries like Haiti. Some protests ended in food riots.

Why have oil prices gone up so much in the last year? Part of it is speculation. Oil and energy traders have driven up the price, betting that oil prices will continue to rise. Because regulatory measures are ineffective, government can’t intervene to stop the cycle. gas-prices.jpg

There is also supply and demand. China, India and other developing countries have developed a thirst for oil to rival that of the U.S. Demand for cheap Asian goods has fueled explosive growth in factories and a new consumer class. Now that transportation costs have risen, that growth may slow down a hair.

More oil and refined products are needed, but the supply isn’t easily or cheaply available. Iraq produces one million barrels a day less in 2008 than it did in 1990. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Range and off the coasts of California and Florida will supply millions of barrels, but it will be costly given legal challenges by homeowners, municipalities, environmental groups and others. Anyway, coastal and wilderness drilling is not a long-term solution as much as a short-term political fix.

Food, energy, land use, allocation and consumption of resources–are global as well as U.S. social justice issues.  The oil price conundrum is far more complex than a simple statement on the evils of abortion.

What about the evils of no food, no heat and not enough money to pay for them; oil slick birds, dirty shoreline, filthy water–weighed against Exxon Mobil setting an annual profit record by earning $40.61 billion last year.  Is it time for the bishops to speak up?

Catholicism in the U.S. especially the hierarchy, seems stuck on abortion and same-sex marriage. Should abortion continue to be the #1 issue on the bishops’ political agenda, or should it be natural resources management? Which impacts the “dignity of the human person” more? Which kills more innocent children–abortion; or starvation, malnutrition, and lack of clean water?

As a start, I suggest we support our bishops if they call on all Catholics to do the following:

– Conserve energy by driving less, and walking or taking public transportation more. This includes bishops, their staff, and diocesan managers.

– Pressure legislators to reduce unnecessary tax advantages and credits for oil companies; and initiate oversight into unregulated energy markets. Publicize these efforts in Diocesan papers and parish bulletins.

-Study and develop teaching on the interconnecting issues of food and fuel and how they impact the most vulnerable–children, poor people, the elderly, people on public assistance or disability payments, immigrants–through price increases and increased pollution.

Expand this working group beyond bishops to include laity, including energy traders, oil company executives, small scale farmers, social workers, and environmentalists. Many perspectives “from the ground” are needed to develop a realistic and positive solution.