Speaking Up Against Racism and Islamophobia

Joan Haan co-facilitates the active nonviolence curriculum Creating a Culture of Peace with Mary’s Pence Executive Director Katherine Wojtan. Last July, Joan and Katherine led a group of local and international Mary’s Pence staff and other local community members through this weekend-long nonviolence workshop.

Joan offers a guide of ways we might choose to respond to the racist comments and alarmist rhetoric that seem to be increasingly filling up our newsfeeds, happy hours, family get-togethers, workplaces, and neighborhoods. With Joan’s guide, those of us who can no longer remain silent can learn to respond powerfully and peacefully in these situations.

What do you do when you hear someone make a demeaning comment about a person, whether it reflects racism, religious intolerance, or an assumption about a person’s immigrant status? Often, we want to say something, but freeze. We might fear escalating the situation or we simply don’t know how to respond in the moment.

Like many, I have relatives, acquaintances and Facebook “friends” who say things that qualify, in my mind, as Islamophobic or racist.  What I know from the active nonviolence curriculum I co-facilitate, Creating a Culture of Peace (CCP) is how important it is to practice and rehearse!

The following came from that internal conversation and soul searching, participation in a study group, White Awake, and conversations with participants and colleagues after a St. Paul Interfaith Network (SPIN) event on Islamophobia with the MN Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). May I grow in this practice . . . not perfection!

This is a brief guide to help you think about these situations in advance so you feel prepared to be an ally when the time comes, and speak up.

It is important to respond nonviolently, and to center prior to engaging.

Mahatma Gandhi described active nonviolence as “constructive work” which includes dialogue (and takes most of our time and effort) and “resistance,” interrupting and interfering. We may need to start with “resistance”.   Before responding, take time to center yourself. Take a deep breath. Say a prayer or mantra. Remind yourself that people are both wounded and sacred. Perhaps envision the offending speaker as someone you love but who you intensely disagree about an issue.*

Respond with the intent to disrupt the offensive behavior. Show solidarity with those who are offended, and respect for all.

Speak firmly. Be willing to walk away and not engage further unless hearts are softening. Some phrases that may be helpful:

  • “It’s important for me not to let that comment pass and give my tacit approval. I believe all people deserve respect.”
  • “Please stop,” or “Stop!”
  • “Peace”
  • “This remark/joke offends me.”
  • “I don’t understand what is going on here. Can we step back? This is hurtful to me.”
  • “I am standing in solidarity with [this person] who deserves respect and a sense of safety,” or “I stand with you” (Speaking and/or physically standing next to the person).

If you notice hearts softening, continue to respond with the intent to be in dialogue and deepen understanding, not argue or demean.

Be willing to be vulnerable and share yourself. Listen to your “opponent.” Without agreeing with their position, look for an opportunity to acknowledge and respect who they are. Find out what concerns them most, tell them a core value you hold, and try to connect on that level. Some phrases that may be helpful:

  • “My family came to this country as an immigrant/refugee/ for religious freedom.”
  • “My religious tradition teaches love of neighbor; welcoming the stranger.”
  • “I will not (we cannot) live in fear.”
  • “I need (we need) to get to know neighbors who are not like me (us).”

And finally, join in random comments and acts of kindness to Muslims, immigrants and people of ethnicities other than one’s own:  from a smile, “Salaam Alaikum” (peace be upon you) to “I am so glad you are part of my community!” Let friendship flow; not hatred grow!


*This idea is adapted from the CCP curriculum.

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Gaby’s Six-Month Update

Gaby Bandini is the ESPERA Business Facilitator for Mary’s Pence, hired in June 2015. Her first task has been building business capacity among pilot groups of twelve ESPERA businesses in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. Here’s what she’s been up to.

Working Toward a Community Economy

Visit one: Get to know the women. During her first visits with ESPERA businesswomen, Gaby built trusting relationships within the different ESPERA communities. She learned how the women were doing and how they chose to use the loans they received.

Visit Two: Assess the resources available to each woman and community. Gaby looked into accountability, income generation, and any issues that came up during this more structured look into how the businesses are run. The women with whom Gaby works all engage in at least three economic activities, all working very hard to earn money for their families. Most of the women’s businesses are in the informal sector, including agriculture, raising chickens or pigs, and selling food.

Gaby encouraged them to construct an economy using all of their resources, including human, physical, natural, financial, and social capital. Gaby worked with the women to analyze which resources they have access to and to work on expanding the resources they have.

A resource assessment for a woman with an egg-selling business could look like this:

  • Financial capital: ESPERA loan
  • Physical capital: chickens, containing crates
  • Natural capital: land to keep chickens on
  • Human capital: schooling, knowledge of market and raising chickens
  • Social capital: family and community support, involvement in ESPERA women’s group

Visit Three: Share the data analysis from previous visits with each businesswoman and create a basic business plan. During the next few months, Gaby will engage the women in the results of her observations from her first two visits. Then she will ask them to share their own ideas for improvement before she weighs in with her suggestions.

Eleazara, Dora, Misael, Elizabeth and their daughter with Gaby in Tepalcingo, Mexico.

(L to R) Eleazara, Dora, Misael, Elizabeth and their daughter with Gaby in Tepalcingo, Mexico.

Working with the Resources Available

Gaby found that while their access to financial resources changed with the ESPERA fund, the ESPERA women she surveyed didn’t know how much revenue they were making. They hadn’t recorded income or expenses, in some cases because they were illiterate, and in others for cultural reasons. One woman told Gaby, “I don’t want to know that it’s not working.”

“We don’t have to worry about the things we don’t have,” Gaby assures the women she works with. “How can we work with the resources we have? If something’s wrong, we’ll work it out.”

ESPERA groups have great potential to become resilient economic communities. Gaby examines the needs of individuals within the groups and develops strategies for women to work together to meet their needs, including buying in bulk, fixing prices on popular products like eggs, and taking turns transporting products to the market. The next steps for these ESPERA businesses stem from this question: “How do we put these resources together to create an economy as a community?”

Running a Business Amid Violence

The surrounding violence is a major factor that affects the women’s lives and their ability to run their businesses. In El Salvador, Gaby encounters stories about the effects of guns and gangs, the remains of war, and structural violence against women and rural people. It’s dangerous to move between communities or take the bus for fear of robbery, which makes selling their wares at the market very difficult. Domestic violence impacts self-esteem, making it even harder to run a successful business. Fortunately, one of these pilot groups, Concertación, has experience with supporting women suffering from the psychological effects of violence. Gaby would like to partner with Concertación to support these women. It’s a sign of the positive trust and rapport Gaby has built up with the women in the pilot groups that they are willing to confide in her about this part of their lives. Violence is an enormous problem for businesses. How can they take advantage of their resources if they are constrained by violence in their communities?

Committing to Change

After compiling all of this information about the businesses Gaby will meet with each of the women and ask for their ideas to improve their businesses. Then she will share her own insights with them. Together, they will work to create a plan. She will start with a basic business plan that asks questions like “Who are you selling to?”, “What need are you serving in your community?”, and “If your eggs aren’t selling, why is that?”

This pilot program is a learning process for Gaby and Mary’s Pence, as well as for the ESPERA women. Gaby was surprised by how well-organized all the women are, as individuals and as groups. Some six months in, Gaby is re-evaluating how she meets with the individual women. Meeting with them for an entire day, as she had before, was too intensive for them because they lost a day of work. Now, she will meet with them for a couple hours, three days in a row. Her approach is flexible, finding the best way to meet the women where they are. Working with these ESPERA groups is a positive experience for Gaby, who will capitalize on their willingness to work together by encouraging them to discuss their experiences in the pilot program as a larger group.

These ESPERA businesswomen made a commitment to work together as a group and change the processes they use. “They believe the work is worth changing their lives [for],” Gaby says.


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Income – A Solid and Growing Base of Support

Financial Report – Fiscal Year 2015

July 1, 2014 – June 30, 2015

By Katherine Wojtan, Mary’s Pence Executive Director

Mary’s Pence is doing well. We have grown our income by 216% and increased our number of supporters over the past five years. We have more than doubled our income from grants over the past four years. This growth and diversity of support ensures we have the capacity to grow our work.

Some members of an ESPERA group in Mexico

How are we growing? We believe it is a combination of programming and visibility.

Our work is, well, radical. Mary’s Pence Grants supports a rich array of projects across the Unites States and the rest of the Americas that are addressing real community needs based on the views of the local women affected by the issues. ESPERA is instinctively appealing – putting money in the hands of local women, and accompanying them as they grow their businesses and strengthen their communities.  Mary’s Pence Grants and ESPERA are a perfect match.

Visibility is key.  Together with volunteers we table at conferences, host local events, tweet regularly and have a very active Facebook page. Many individuals share Mary’s Pence with their friends and families, and with their faith communities. Let’s keep getting the word out!

Expenses – Managing Our Budget Closely

We have a track record of managing budgets closely – staying within 86% to 104% of budget over each of the last five years.

This track record of income growth and careful adherence to budget allowed us to hire an additional ESPERA staff person this past year to focus on business skills development, which will increase our impact.

Mary's Pence staff and board in discussion

Mary’s Pence staff and board in discussion

Good Stewardship

Good stewardship of funds means investing in the long term strength of the organization. In addition to direct program costs this includes:

Learning Opportunities

Last year Eva Martinez, a staff person in El Salvador, took a 6 month diploma program on Women and Salvadorian Economy.  This coming year Grace Garvey-Hall, our Development and Communications Liaison and a recent college graduate, will be taking a Fundraising Certificate at St. Thomas University. Staff regularly attend workshops and conference on nonprofit management and international development. These opportunities strengthen our work.


Our number of regular volunteers is on the rise, including a yearlong St. Joseph Worker volunteer. We’ve increased our office space and upgraded our computers.  A donation from the family foundation of Mary Lee Fitzsimons supported these changes the past year.  We frequently have five staff and volunteers in the office, and we’re grateful for a productive space in Lowertown St. Paul.

International Travel

U.S. and ESPERA staff collaborate extensively. It’s a real gift to be able to work face to face, and for U.S. staff to see first-hand the work in Central America and Mexico.

Employees and Administration

We pay a living wage, have health insurance benefits and a Simple IRA. We register to fundraise (yes, send letters) in 39 states and we have adequate insurance. Our board meets face to face twice annually and we invest in practices of good governance.

Financial Oversight

We are annually audited by a CPA firm serving nonprofits, our 990 is available on our website, and we are certified by Guidestar. Our board sets clear expectations and our finance committee reviews monthly financial reports. We welcome questions.

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A Slice of Slovenia

Dr. Roxanne Meshar is a past board chair of Mary’s Pence. Dr. Meshar taught Catholic theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota for nearly ten years. In September of this year, Mary’s Pence helped support her participation as the keynote speaker for the international educators’ conference “To Teach is To Build” in Slovenia. To read highlights from her paper, click here

Slovenia was not a country I expected to visit, but thanks to a grant from Mary’s Pence I attended the international educators’ conference “To Teach is to Build” at the Biotechnical Center in Naklo, Slovenia in October. Educators participated from Austria, Italy, Germany, Norway, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain and the United States.

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My paper, entitled “Curriculum Development: Political, Subversive, Dangerous,” explored the social justice implications of designing school curricula. It also included fast, easy classroom exercises to help students develop more compassion and empathy. After I submitted my paper, conference organizer Professor Sandra Žvagen invited me to be a plenary speaker and conduct a workshop. Meeting with other educators and attending their workshops taught me so much.

The Biotechnical Center is a holistic school that fosters curiosity and a safe space for over 600 students from various backgrounds – both rural and urban. Students can learn how to run a dairy farm in a way that is organic and cares for the environment. Other students focus on forest, wildlife and wild animal management. Many of the products students make such as cheeses, dairy products, produce, juices, local teas, floral arrangements and more, are for sale in their store and used in the school’s cafeteria.

Andreja Ahčin, principal of the Biotechnical Center with twenty years of education experience at the school, explained that she and her staff worked to design a curriculum that fosters a holistic integration of the student. This means integrating students’ values with their education and life work while understanding its impact on the environment and the community. This is the same reason I teach theology – to help students explore these fundamental questions; Who am I? What is my purpose? How will I make the world a better place?

My experience also included meeting with instructors and with students in the classroom. English class students were designing their own crossword puzzles, art students were using refurbished typewriters to create amazing pictures with meaningful words and other students were baking cakes and breads to use at school events.LG500 417

Demonstrating their well-deserved reputation for hospitality, school faculty drove us to the Lake Bled area in northern Slovenia near the Alps. We toured a green hotel, Garden Village, where all the landscaping was beautiful, edible and used in the hotel! Teachers Sandra Žvagen and Simona Zabukovec took me hiking in scenic southern Slovenia by the Adriatic Sea. Tina Križnar, who oversees adult education at the school, gave me a tour of the capital city of Ljubljana, existing since Roman times. Prior to working at the Biotechnical Center Tina was a tour guide for Russian and English speaking tourists so she knew well the city and its history.

The conference was an unexpected and amazing experience of another people, country and culture. Thank you, “hvala” in Slovenian, to the Biotechnical Center, conference participants and to Mary’s Pence for making it possible.

-Dr. Roxanne Meshar

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Educators Can Change the Story

Dr. Roxanne Meshar is a past board chair of Mary’s Pence. Dr. Meshar taught Catholic theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota for nearly ten years. In September of this year, Mary’s Pence helped support her participation as the keynote speaker for the international educators’ conference “To Teach is To Build” in Slovenia. These are some selections from her paper, “Curriculum Development: Political, Subversive, Dangerous.” Read about her experience here.

Dr. Roxanne Meshar in Slovenia

Dr. Roxanne Meshar in Slovenia

“The most dangerous question to ask, ‘Who benefits?’”

Asking, “Who benefits?” when constructing or participating in a curriculum is crucial for uncovering bias, recognizing underlying systems, and combating systemic social and economic poverty. Every curriculum comes from a certain point of view, and if this view goes unquestioned, bias becomes part of the lesson being taught.

“Those of over privilege (if we speak of ‘under privilege’ then we must also speak of over privilege’) created an educational system that robs too many children of their cultural heritage while preferencing Euro-centric and androcentric history instead.”

Dr. Meshar explains ways that educators can counter bias by teaching students to identify poverty-creating systems in our society and increase awareness and empathy.  Identifying our own social locations—she gives the example of white, middle class, American, Catholic, female, educated, etc.—is a key way to become aware of bias. We are all limited by our own experiences, so it’s important that everyone brings their perspectives to the table.

Dr. Meshar also asks: Whose stories do we tell and how do we tell them? Her examples focus on the ways we teach the history of the early Native Americans and the history of slavery in the United States. Early American history is taught with such a Eurocentric perspective that most students only learn how European explorers “discovered” America, and completely miss the thousands of years of Native American history that predates European settlers.

“The U.S. is thus founded on massive wealth for a relatively few European immigrants. This wealth was stolen from the unpaid labor of human trafficking and slavery, the looting of natural resources, and the horrific genocide of First Nations natives and millions of slaves trafficked from Africa and Asia… Students are not usually made aware of this.”

Identifying how wealth is systemically transferred from one group to another is a skill that can be taught and learned. Students can be taught to not only admire great universities, mansions, castles and cathedrals – but also to ask, “Where did the money come from in order to build them?”

“As educators we have an opportunity to change this story. We can teach in a way that builds awareness, empathy and positive change.”

“What negative outcomes do we measure as positively contributing to economic growth? In the U.S. many things we measure positively are really destroying our quality of life… Our economy is our moral and ethical report card. It reflects our social values. Rather than trying to destroy those who are different, our economy can embrace and value our diversity.”

She concludes with the notion that diversity is essential for the health of our society, creating cultural richness, improving empathy, and increasing social resilience. Dr. Meshar sums up the importance of this work with this: “Building awareness and empathy are the first steps in changing what we value in our economic systems so that all are cared for.” But, she warns, this work is by its nature subversive, political, and even dangerous, because it disrupts the status quo.

 “Our diversity is our hope and our future… Diversity creates cultural richness. It increases our curiosity about others, improving our empathy and therefore our social resilience. Building our empathy will allow us to embrace our diversity and the valuable diversity of other species as well. Building empathy is a critical survival skill.”

Dr. Meshar’s work is highly relevant in the U.S. and beyond. The recent controversy over a Texas textbook referring to slaves as “workers”, implying that slaves were paid and not brought to the U.S. against their will, is one recent example of the dangers of an unquestioned curriculum.

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Youth Voices: Creating a Space for Altruism – Youth Rise Texas

Youth Rise Texas is a start-up grassroots organization in Austin, Texas, that provides leadership development for youth whose parents have been deported or incarcerated. The majority of Youth Rise participants are young women of color. A first-time Mary’s Pence grant recipient, Youth Rise completed their first Summer Youth Organizing Institute in August. Mary’s Pence recently spoke with Kandace Vallejo, founder and director of Youth Rise Texas, about the success of the program in its first few months.

“Young people are excited to speak out and to have their voices heard.”

–Kandace Vallejo, founder and director of Youth Rise Texas

This summer, six teenagers came together to share stories of their experiences. They were the first participants of Youth Rise Texas’s 8-week leadership workshop, the  summer Youth Organizing Institute, and they had one thing in common: Each of them had experienced having a parent deported or incarcerated, completely removed from their lives with very little warning or explanation. Youth Rise creates a space for youth to open up about the stories of themselves and their families. Participants then craft and perform monologues from these stories, bringing their experiences to the wider community.

Youth Rise Presents: "My Life Without You" Youth Impacted by Incarceration & Deportation at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center on August 15, 2015

Youth Rise Presents: “My Life Without You” Youth Impacted by Incarceration & Deportation at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center on August 15, 2015

Storytelling Bridges Differences

Storytelling brings participants from different backgrounds and interests closer together. Sharing and listening to one another’s experiences shows them that they have more in common than they would have known outside of Youth Rise.

Participants rely on many different media and modes of expression, including daily journal prompts, drawings, and interviewing each other and family members. To select the stories to be highlighted, they participate in a “dot democracy,” where they display their drawings around the room and then go around placing sticker dots on the drawings they find most interesting. Everyone has input over which stories the group chooses for further exploration and eventual performance, and the focus remains centered on the voice, needs, and experiences of each participant.

Through storytelling, participants become more interested in speaking out, telling their stories, and getting more involved in their community. The program “enables and creates a space for their altruism,” says Kandace Vallejo, founder and director of Youth Rise. They begin advocating for themselves in the community, and this sparks an interest in broader community involvement.

Internships in Advocacy and Mentoring Foster Leadership

A Mary’s Pence grant helped fund a paid internship position for two young women from the summer Youth Organizing Institute. The internships support ongoing leadership development through mentoring and social justice work. The two young women work five to ten hours per week, each exploring a civic issue that relates to her interests, such as immigrant detentions and hearings. One of the young women, Destiny, is currently working on criminal justice reform in her community.

Destiny Fair Chance EOC Speech

Destiny giving her Fair Chance speech

They also mentor a large group of their peers once a month during the school year. This experience allows the two of them to assume leadership and ownership for both their community initiatives and the larger group of young women they lead and mentor.

Youth Rise trains young people to use their own unique interests and abilities to implement social justice work in their communities. This long-term leadership development program allows self-expression to lead to self-empowerment.

“Young people are excited to speak out and to have their voices heard,” says Vallejo. “They’re being heard when they do this work.”

Broader Social Change Emerges Out of Personal Stories

The concept for Youth Rise is rooted in founder Kandace Vallejo’s own experience. When she was a teenager, her mom was deported to her home country of Mexico. Vallejo quickly discovered that social justice work and community organizing empowered her and helped her to heal from the trauma of separation. Today, Youth Rise uses community organizing and social justice work to create a space of empowerment for youth in similar situations.

Now, only a few months into Youth Rise’s Youth Organizing Institute, Vallejo is already seeing the transformative effects of community organizing and social justice work on the participants. She has watched the first six Youth Rise participants “move from places of disempowerment to a new space where they can continue to act as agents empowered to make change.”

Youth Rise goes beyond individual change to instill a sense of community engagement in participants, says Vallejo, “a spirit of social justice that carries through the community, beyond just the issues that affect them, and creates broader change.”

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“Radical Grace” Shares the Radical Spirit of Mary’s Pence

At our October board meeting, Mary’s Pence board and staff watched Radical Grace, a film about three nuns working for social justice. It’s hard to say what was more inspiring, the women on the screen or the women in the room watching the film. One of our board members, Sister of St. Francis Robbie Pentecost, had just returned from touring three states with the Nuns on the Bus. Every single woman in the room was a social justice activist, overlapping passions for peace, equality, economic justice, immigration reform, among other justice issues.


Photo credit to www.radicalgracefilm.com

Radical Grace follows the stories of Dominican Sister Jean Hughes, who worked with formerly incarcerated felons on Chicago’s West Side, Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, who led a cross-country Nuns on the Bus tour focusing on economic inequality, and Sister of St. Joseph Christine Schenk, an activist for women’s full equality in the Catholic Church.

The work of the three nuns is so inclusive, so engaging, and so determined to build community and create social change that the film appeals to a wide audience. Its message is for everyone, not just for Catholics. The story of Sister Jean Hughes in particular is a reflection on compassion in action. “My goal is to try to love people as unconditionally as I can,” she said, “So that they have that experience at least once in their life.”
Caring for those most in need and striving for equality are values and actions that people all over the world value, so it’s no surprise that so many people are inspired by the compassion and the activism of the nuns.

Filming for Radical Grace began around the same time that the Vatican opened its investigation of American Catholic women religious and accused them of promoting “radical feminism.” When Sister Simone Campbell saw that censure from the Vatican placed American nuns in the spotlight, her reaction was, “This is a moment of opportunity. How do we use it for mission?” This speaks volumes to the spirit of the nuns. No matter what happens, good or bad, they find a way to use it to support their mission of creating a more just world.

Sister Christine Schenk’s response to the Vatican censure was to look right at the camera and say, “If the radical notion that women are equal is a sin, then I’m guilty as charged.”

Who among us can’t say the same?

Radical Grace certainly resounds with the radical spirits of Mary’s Pence board, staff, and supporters. There’s a special energy in a room when the women on and off screen are passionate about social justice, about equality and about caring deeply for their neighbors, across all borders and boundaries.

Radical Grace resonates strongly with Mary’s Pence because we were founded by a group of religious and lay women, and have been funding social justice initiatives across the Americas ever since.

That’s why we’re partnering with the Justice Commission of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and Consociates, St. Catherine University Campus Ministry, and several other local organizations to host the premiere of Radical Grace in the Twin Cities. If you live near the Twin Cities, we invite you to attend our free screening of the film on Wednesday, November 18, 7-9 pm at St. Catherine University, Jeanne d’Arc Auditorium. If you live elsewhere, you can visit Radical Grace Film to look for a screening in your area.

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A Pilgrimage of Hope: Nuns on the Bus 2015

Mary’s Pence Treasurer and Sister of St. Francis Robbie Pentecost traveled with the Nuns on the Bus to Greet Pope Francis in Washington D.C. Along the way she connected with many people who shared their stories of despair and hope, struggle and triumph. Here she reflects on the ways the Jesus worked through the Nuns on the Bus to bridge divides and how the journey became for her a pilgrimage.

Making a pilgrimage to a sacred or holy place is a common ritual encouraged by many religious traditions. In some religions it is a required journey, for others it is a spiritual journey. Climbing up the steps of the bus for the journey with the Nuns on the Bus to Washington, D.C. and to greet Pope Francis as he arrived in the United States became for me a Pilgrimage.

The Nuns on the Bus crew. Bridge the Divide 2015

The Nuns on the Bus crew. Bridge the Divide 2015. Sister Robbie is in the front row, second from the right.

I’m not sure where along the way I began to recognize that this was a sacred journey, bringing hope and dignity to those we met, but I suspect it was at the first stop as we were greeted by the 6th grade class at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Indianapolis. These 6th graders and their parents hosted us for dinner and then participated by sharing their concerns and solutions with an audience of over 400 people. They had developed prayers concerning how people are treated in the workplace, honoring the dignity of each person regardless the things that often divide us: race, gender, religion to name just a few. These prayers decorated our tables with more personal messages on the back, thanking us for giving them hope and being courageous.

The sixth graders at St. Thomas Aquinas and their parents welcomed the Nuns on the Bus!

The sixth graders at St. Thomas Aquinas and their parents welcomed the Nuns on the Bus!

It was again reinforced through an email from a woman I had encouraged to share her story with our videographer – she was embarrassed to be seen as she was without teeth as a result of cancer treatment, but wanted people to know how the Affordable Health Care Act helped her get the treatment she needed. Without this help she would not be here today. I began to realize it was not anything I had done, but rather Jesus working through us in the simple act of listening is hope planted.
On this journey, which started in St. Louis and traveled through seven states before embarking on Washington, D.C., we heard stories of hardship, pain, concerns, injustice but also innovative solutions to pressing problems, communities coming together and intergenerational gatherings that respected different voices. Nuns on the Bus 2015 was about Bridging the Divide: Transforming Politics, but it was also about lifting up the words of Pope Francis who calls us to conversion and community.
Stories of efforts in St. Louis to bring healing after all of the racial turmoil resulted in a group of black mothers inviting white mothers to join them in conversation. Part of that conversation was the opportunity for the black mothers to share what they must teach their sons that white mothers don’t have a need to. One woman, a college professor, shared that often she quizzes her two sons as to what to do if stopped by police. Recently, the 8th grader asked his mother, “Mom, when will this end?” To which his mother replied, “Never.”
In Kansas City they heard from a 15 year old young girl whose parents were deported as they went to pay a traffic fine. She and her 5 siblings are now being raised by their grandmother who the young woman applauded for all that she is doing. But it’s hard for someone on a fixed income to raise 6 children. Her 12-year old sister thought it would be easier for the rest if she was gone and so she attempted suicide. Perhaps the best message, at least for this family, was that Pope Francis also the son of immigrants.
In the midst of deeply troubling moral issues the Mid-Ohio Food Bank is a sign of hope in this nation that so often blames the victims of poverty. Over 60% of the food they distribute is fresh fruits and vegetables. The have a Leeds Gold status facility (an indicator of a highly energy efficient building) that was the result of renovating a vacant warehouse. They are certainly an example of corporate and community efforts coming together to serve the common good. The Chair of the Board shared the story that one day a family came to pick up food and the staff offered them fresh peaches. The woman looked at the staff person, thanking her but said, “It’s not my day to eat.” The reality that members of families take days not eating is a moral issue in a nation of plenty.

The Nuns on the Bus traveled to Washington DC to greet the pope.

The Nuns on the Bus traveled to Washington DC to greet the pope.

Again and again along this 7 state journey (although I was only in 3 of the states) we heard how Nuns on the Bus brings hope. In Yellow Springs, Ohio a community choir sang, “You are the Nuns we’ve been waiting for.” But in reality it is the message that Jesus brings of Peace, Hope and Love that people are waiting to hear. The significance of this journey hit a deep chord for those of us on the bus as we entered Washington, D.C. amidst tears, laughter, song and silence as the silhouette of the city was enlarged. Gratefully much of this journey was captured on video to be shared with Pope Francis.
While the opportunity to see and hear Pope Francis both at the welcoming ceremony at the White House and again after his address to Congress was indescribable, without the 5 day journey to Washington D.C. and all the voices that we were lifting up, it would have only been an individual spiritual journey. Instead, this was a pilgrimage with others carrying the stories and experiences of thousands of folks along our way. Truly sacred ground!

Sister Robbie Pentecost

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She Who Walks With the Lions – Genesis, Oakland, CA

Shelley Coppock is a Mary’s Pence board member who lives in Oakland, California. She recently met with Mary Lim-Lampe, Genesis Lead Organizer. Genesis is a two time Mary’s Pence Grant recipient that develops community leaders who collaborate to solve community problems.

Genesis is an interfaith coalition of congregations and other institutions located in California’s Alameda County, Oakland East Bay area. Created in 2007, the values-based organization unites a broad base of people to work on issues of social justice and racial/economic equity. Affiliated with the international Gamaliel Foundation and following in the Saul Alinsky school of issue-oriented community organizing, the group emphasizes training and leadership development in low-income communities to help create the “Beloved Community.” Its active participants include youth interns, and “leaders” (not just volunteers) from its various constituent organizations. They encourage members to reflect on what is keeping them from taking leadership. As an organization, Genesis always thinks about and inserts an understanding of institutional racism into its work and consciously “talks to the middle” instead of speaking only to groups and individuals who already agree with them.

Octavia speaks at the September Youth Action Protest of the Freedom Riders regarding the free youth bus passes.

Octavia speaks at the September Youth Action Protest of the Freedom Riders regarding the free youth bus passes.

Genesis received its first Mary’s Pence grant in 2013, enabling a group of young women to participate in Gamaliel’s national community organizing training program for women, called Ntosake, an African word that means “she who walks with the lions and carries her own things.” The orientation of the training by Gamaliel and Genesis is agitational: to help politicize young women through seeing and experiencing themselves as powerful people.

The young women also participated in Genesis’ two-year issue campaign to obtain free youth bus passes in Alameda County, speaking out at large public meetings and to the media. Octavia Moore, a Genesis youth intern from Oakland’s First Congregational Church, told her story of the challenges and costs of relying on the public bus to go to school and back home to a local environmental group. Afterwards, one of the leaders of the group told her that, as a result of Octavia’s personal sharing, she had changed her mind and decided to support the group endorsing the measure. In 2014, Alameda County voters passed a measure allocating $15 million towards a county Youth Bus Pass Program.
Genesis received its second Mary’s Pence grant in February of this year to support further leadership training for young women as well as Genesis’ Freedom Riders program that seeks to influence the implementation of the Youth Bus Pass Program. According to Genesis’ full-time lead organizer, Mary Lim-Lampe, in many ways, this is an even harder fight than getting the measure passed by voters because it involves going to seemingly-endless and boring task force meetings that are held at times when it is difficult for youth to attend. In early September, Octavia Moore and other Genesis youth activists led a direct action on the office of the County’s Deputy Director to obtain a commitment to implement the free youth bus passes that young people need.

Octavia listens to Mary Lim-Lampe, Genesis Lead Organizer, speak at the May Genesis Issues Task Force meeting.

Octavia listens to Mary Lim-Lampe, Genesis Lead Organizer, speak at the May Genesis Issues Task Force meeting

At the same time that Genesis is working on implementing and monitoring the youth bus pass program, the group is in the process of selecting a new issue around which to organize. Part of its organizing strategy is that to build power, we need to ask for things. Through an inclusive decisional process, its issues task force does the “issue cut” by discussing a variety of issues that are winnable, concrete, involve a short timeline, have a specific target, and are in the hearts and minds of people. The next step is to do a series of meetings to obtain more information, using what they call the “radical tool” of listening.

Many of the member congregations of Genesis have been very affected by the Black Lives Matter movement and have had challenging discussions about how to respond to it. In addition to the issue of police accountability and community violence, Genesis is considering organizing around issues of the school to prison pipeline, health, and human trafficking. Through this ongoing process Genesis continues to strengthen the voices and confidence of young women community leaders to create healthier communities and plant the seeds of sustainable systemic change.

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