Luke Hill

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

By this author

"What I've Learned Here Is What I've Always Known": A Letter Home from the Andes

(With the author's permission, here's a letter received at our parish this Gaudete Sunday.  I like to think it's not solely because of parental pride that I'm passing it along...but I can't be sure. 

A couple of notes by way of orientation:  1) "God is good...all them time....And all the time...God is good" is almost as familiar a call-and-response prayer of greeting in the Black church across the US as "The Lord be with you...and with your spirit" is for Catholics. 2) "Sr. Mary" ran the afterschool program and summer camp at our parish for 33 years and mentored a generation of young people in and around Roxbury. 3) Newly arrived in Boston and walking home from Mass one Sunday in the fall of 1988 my wife said, "This feels like a parish that could be a good place to settle in and raise a family."  As is so often true, she was right.)

Dear Parish Family,

God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. When we see each other, we rejoice.

God is good here in the mountain town of Andahuaylillas, Peru.

God is good at Fe y Alegría 44, the Jesuit-run school I teach religion at. I see His goodness reflected in the faces of my 400 elementary school students as they sing songs like “Padre Abraham” (shout out to Summer Camp for giving me a fun song to translate and teach), as they draw their image of heaven, as they pray for their classmates' ill family members. I feel God being good when the teachers help me with the difficult students, and when the student who I had pegged as the worst behaved student at the school proved Sr. Mary right that there are no bad children, and by the end of the year was the most helpful student in his classroom.

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

It's four years now since our parish (and the rest of the English-speaking Church) started using the new translations at Sunday Mass. For the most part—whether people greeted the new language with enthusiasm or dismay—we've settled in. Even the parishioners who show up only on Christmas and Easter are used to it by now.

Happily, we're still exploring the vast treasure house of riches that is the new Lead Me Guide Me hymnal (which came out at the same time). Nearly twice the size of the 1987 edition, Lead Me Guide Me is, as a former pastor liked to say, "unashamedly Black, unapologetically Christian, and specifically Catholic."

We're especially benefiting from the work of contemporary African-American composers like Kenneth Louis. Take, for example, his Advent hymn, "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord." It adds a depth and richness to the congregation's meditation on the meaning of Advent and the Lord's coming that's not found in some other settings of Isaiah 40.

Fr. Cyprian Davis, RIP

This is, by now, old news, but I don't think we've had a chance to discuss it yet here at dotCommonweal. Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB, a monk of St. Meinrad archabbey in Indiana, died on May 18 at the age of 84. His 1990 book, The History of Black Catholics in the United States is one of a handful (no matter how small your handful may be) of essential historical works about the American Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church was African before it was European.  What became the US Catholic Church was Black and Spanish-speaking for nearly a century before the first English-speaking Catholics arrived.  Black Catholics were (and are), of necessity, a largely lay-lead community, often appealing (successfully) to Rome for support when they were confronted by racist behavior from local bishops, priests and seminary rectors.  Recovering and retelling all that history---and more---was at the heart of Fr. Davis' work.

In his preface to The History of Black Catholics in the United States, Fr. Davis wrote, "(T)oo often the presence of black Catholics through the centuries has been a muted one, a silent witness, an unspoken testimony.  It is the historian's task to make the past speak, to highlight what has been hidden, and to retrieve a mislaid memory."

Ed Chambers, RIP

Since word emerged from the west of Ireland about Ed Chambers' death on April 26, the small, generally taciturn, online world of professional community organizers has been buzzing with reminiscences, tributes, and most of all, stories about the bluff, hard-edged and (though he often kept it well-hidden) big-hearted man who was one of the unsung heroes of public life in the United States over the past 50 years.

As Samuel Freedman, who came to know Chambers and the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) intimately when working on his terrific 1994 book, Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, wrote earlier this week, "If Alinsky was the Jesus of community organizing, the galvanizing standard-bearer, Chambers was its St. Paul, transforming radical theology into organized religion. He did not invent community organizing as we know it in America—that was Alinsky’s achievement—but he made it professional and permanent, a purposeful career rather than a sacrificial calling."

Saul Alinsky's role in community organizing can get overstated and it's easy to see why.  Alinsky was a colorful character with a keen intellect and a great way with words.  Perhaps most importantly he wrote books---Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971)---in which he defined his work as "community organizing".  But as scholars like Theda Skopcol have documented, "community organizing" has been part of the American cultural and political DNA since before the birth of the republic.  Alinsky's genius was to take what he'd learned from CIO organizers around Chicago in the 1930s, apply it to the daily lives and experience of working-class city dwellers in mid-20th century urban America, and create a common vocabulary for the work.

But Alinsky had no interest in or talent for building long-lasting community organizations.  He also had little interest in nurturing and developing the next generation of professional organizers. 

Boston Strong

Do yourself a favor and read the brief, humble, forthright, heartfelt and eloquent statement  from Bill and Denise Richard on the front page of today's Boston Globe  asking the Justice Department not to seek the death penalty for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev:

The "Good News" From Peru

As the first Jesuit missionaries spread out across the globe, Ignatius of Loyola and his brother Jesuits were confronted with the problem of how to keep the order together—how to find out what was happening with the brothers in Japan and China, New Spain and New France, Goa and Germany.  The solution (or at least, a key part of it) was letters.

Has the National Review Lost Touch with the Christian Tradition?

For my 18th birthday I got a subscription to National Review from my grandfather. When I thanked him he replied brusquely, "You've spent your whole life in that house getting one side of the story. I thought it was time you heard the other side."

America's First Slavery Museum

With all due respect to the venerable American art museum in Manhattan, its reopening in May will only be the second most significant Whitney museum opening in the United States in recent months.

First place honors go to the Whitney Plantation, the first US museum "dedicated to telling the story of slavery", and powerfully profiled in this terrific New York Times Magazine article by novelist and journalist David Amsden.

Read the article for more on how New Orleans native John Cummings came to buy the 262-year old plantation, the quirk of industrial history that led to Cummings knowing "more about my plantation than anyone else around here — maybe more than any plantation in America outside of Monticello", the planned memorial to the 1811 German Coast Uprising (America's largest slave revolt), the critical role played by Senegalese historian Ibrahima Seck in creating the museum, and what happened when black and white branches of the Haydel family reunited at their old family homestead.  I want to slip off to the side with some thoughts about what this means for white folks today.

Undoing Racism...Or Not: The Case of Steve Scalise & David Duke

As the new year gets underway, it appears US Rep. Steve Scalise's role as Majority Whip for House Republicans remains secure despite the revelation that he addressed a convention of white supremacists in 2002.  Here's some of what we know:

  • During his second term as a Louisiana state representative, Scalise spoke to the European-American Unity & Rights Organization (EURO) at the Landmark Best Western hotel in Metairie, LA on the weekend of May 17-18, 2002.
  • Founded by former KKK Grand Wizard (and Louisiana state representative, and losing candidate for governor in 1991) David Duke, EURO is a racist and anti-Semitic hate group that currently exists primarily as a vehicle for Duke's self-promotion.
  • According to Duke (who was not at the EURO conference), Scalise was invited by Howie Farrell and Kenny Knight, two of Duke's longtime aides.
  • Longtime Louisiana political columnist James Gill observes in his New Year's Day column, "To accept an invitation from Howie Farrell and Kenny Knight, then act surprised they were fronting for David Duke, is like turning up at a rally with Goebbels and Goering and wondering how come there are swastikas all over the place."
  • In an interview this week with the New Orleans Times-Picayune Rep. Scalise said he detests "any kind of hate group" and said of EURO, "When you look at the kind of things they stand for, I detest these kinds of views. As a Catholic, I think some of the things they profess target people like me. At lot of their views run contradictory to the way I run my life."
  • On the other hand, as conservative activist/commentator (and Louisiana native) Erick Erickson noted: "By 2002, everybody knew Duke was still the man he had claimed not to be. EVERYBODY.  How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance? Trent Lott was driven from the field in 2001 for something less than this."
  • Despite all this, after Scalise on Tuesday acknowledged his speech at the EURO conference as "a mistake I regret", his House Republican colleagues quickly issued strong statements of support, in part (it seems) because Scalise is good at his job.

On the Importance of Discipline in Mass Protest

Among the thought-provoking comments in the lively discussion thread prompted by Kaitlin Campbell's superb post, "Thoughts on New York Protests and the NYPD", is one from Jim McCrea (12/27, 6:33 pm) raising questions about the responsibilities of nonviolent protestors (and especially, protest organizers and leaders) when confronted by violence initiated by "self-styled anarchists" marching with them.

This has been a serious and recurring problem at Oakland protests in recent weeks, according to McCrea, and I suspect it was an issue elsewhere too, even before the killings of Officers Liu and Ramos in New York and the shooting of Shaneka Thompson in Maryland by Ismaaiyl Brinsley.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere URI historian Erik Loomis has a brief, powerful reflection on "Violence and Nonviolence" in which he concludes, "It’s just hard to see what violence is going to accomplish within the American context. Even if violent resistance can be morally defended, tactically it can’t be defended."

Loomis is answering a theoretical/ideological question, but doesn't answer the practical question Jim McCrea raised: what are leaders, organizers and participants in public protest to do when others begin destroying property or attacking people?

One effective answer is clear instructions from leaders/organizers to participants (and the general public, the police and the media) about how to act when confronted by violence from within the march or protest.

For example, a couple of years ago Mexican students in the "Yo Soy 132" movement put out a list of clear, disciplined guidelines for isolating and eliminating violence from a march they were organizing: