This is the sermon I gave yesterday morning. Afterward, some dude came up to me and told me that I have "horrible diction." Exact words. I'm glad my message was so inspiring :)
I was raised Catholic. Very Catholic. But, as I grew older, I began seeing glimpses of the Catholic church outside the liberal, progressive bubble in which I'd grown up. I was raised by nuns who told me that women could be anything, but I began meeting Catholics who insisted that women had no place on the altar. Growing up, I'd never heard a whole lot of condemnation of homosexuality, but I began to hear from Catholics who were openly hateful toward gays - to the point of treating them as sub-human. I was raised to be pro life, but among the people I loved, that meant having a deep and abiding respect and love for all human life, and helping people who were pregnant. I started seeing a pro-life movement that was about hate and condemnation - a community that wanted to protect fetuses but did not respect the humanity of people once they were out of the womb.
And that made me angry. I was mad that the church that had loved me into being was home to so many awful people who used the faith that I loved as an excuse for behaving inexcusably. I felt betrayed; I was disillusioned, and I left. Still, I stayed mad for a long time, and for years I wanted nothing to do with Catholicism.
I mellowed out with time, and looking back at my upbringing, couldn't ignore all the good that the church I knew did. I looked to Catholics like the ones I'm going to talk about today, and I knew that there must be something of value there. Becoming a UU has helped with that. As UUs, we believe in the value of every spiritual path - and over the years I have been coming here, I've become more and more comfortable with and respectful of the traditions in which I was raised. For a lot of reasons, I know that that spiritual path is not for me, but I want to talk today about the amazing things I've learned from the people who have walked that path.
The title of my message is “The Lives of the Saints.” That's a tiny bit of an exaggeration - I wanted to talk about some 20th century Catholics whom I really admire, but as I wrote and researched, it became clear that the message I wanted to give today centers around one woman who hasn't actually been canonized by the Catholic church, Sr. Dorothy Kazel.
Very briefly, Sister Dorothy Kazel was an Ursuline nun who, in 1980, was one of the “four churchwomen” killed by the military in El Salvador for the crime of giving aid to innocent victims of that country's civil war. Even though she died when I was a baby, she played a significant role in my life, largely because our paths would likely have crossed had she lived. Kazel grew up a few blocks over from where I did, and she was just a couple of years older than my mom and dad. She attended a Catholic school near my neighborhood. When she was a young woman, she became an Ursuline nun, like many of my teachers and relatives. She taught and was a guidance counselor at Beaumont, my high school. My geography teacher had been her best friend. Chances are good that if she hadn't been murdered, she might have taught at Beaumont while I was there.
Kazel attended Ursuline, the same college that I attended, and the author of the biography that I read in preparation for this sermon, Sr. Cynthia Glavac, was one of my writing professors.
Yet I did see her face every day in high school - smiling serenely from the wall at the top of the stairs, a reminder to us all of faith in action. And her face has stayed with me - I see it every day in my mind's eye, and it guides the choices that I make; and I've got a number of classmates who would say the same.
Sister Dorothy Kazel was an ordinary, bubbly young woman, born to some privilege. She was passionate for roller skating, won beauty contests, and went on dates to places like Nelson's Ledges. But she felt a calling to a religious life, and in her early 20s, she became an Ursuline nun. She worked at various teaching jobs at Sacred Heart Academy and Beaumont School, but she was particularly drawn to working with girls in trouble. Still, she found that teaching wasn't quite what she wanted to do, and became interested in doing missionary work. In 1974, she went to El Salvador.
So what, exactly, did Sister Dorothy Kazel do; what was her life's work, and how did it come to end with her brutal murder? To tell you that, I've got to tell you a little bit about El Salvador, the smallest of the countries of Central America. El Salvador is a country of great poverty in part because of the system of land ownership there. Virtually all of the country's land is owned by fourteen very wealthy families. The people who live on and work the land are not allowed to own it, they must lease the land, and are paid only what the wealthy are willing to part with, which is rarely much. At times, the people have responded by attempting to rise against the system; trying to unionize, organize, and to campaign for rights. The ruling families have always responded to these attempts swiftly and brutally.
During the great depression, the Salvadoran Communist Party lead an uprising that resulted in the slaughter of 30,000 native people by the army, and a military government has ruled El Salvador ever since.
In the early 1970s, left wing opposition groups comprised of farmers, workers, union members, and backed by the Catholic church began to advocate once again for workers' rights and economic reforms. Th military government responded with repression, and radical elements on the left resorted to terrorism. The government and ruling families responded with the all-out slaughter of anyone who even seemed to be sympathetic to the left - people like farmers, union members, teachers, and Catholic clergy. “Death squads” were formed and roamed the countryside openly slaughtering innocent people without reason and without consequence. People who spoke out against the death squads were targeted, tortured, and disfigured before being murdered.
According to one source:
In all, at least 75,000 - 80,000 Salvadorans would be slaughtered;
300,000 would disappear and never be seen again; a million would flee their
homeland; and an additional million would become homeless fugitives, constantly
fleeing the military and police. All of this occurred in a nation of only 5.5 million
The Catholic church in El Salvador, under the leadership of Archbishop Oscar Romero, refused to turn a blind eye to the violence and oppression. While clergy openly advocated for an end to the violence and repression, priests, nuns, missionaries, and other faithful worked hard to provide aid and protection to victims. For that, Catholics were labeled communists and increasingly became the target of the death squads.
“The Church must cry out by command of God: ‘God has meant the earth
and all it contains for the use of the whole human race. Created wealth
should reach all in just form, under the aegis of justice and accompanied
by charity…’ It saddens and concerns us to see the selfishness with which
means and dispositions are found to nullify the just wage of the
harvesters. How we would wish that the joy of this rain of rubies and all
the harvests of the earth would not be darkened by the tragic sentence
of the Bible: ‘Behold, the day wage of laborers that cut your fields
defrauded by you is crying out, and the cries of the reapers have reached
the ears of the Lord’ [James 5:4]”
March 23, 1980, as Archbishop Romero held up the Eucharistic chalice while celebrating mass, he was shot by a paid assassin. Days later, at Romero's funeral, bombs were thrown and shots fired into the crowd; dozens of people were killed in the panic that ensued. Sister Dorothy Kazel was among the crowd.
Kazel was doubtless terrified, but her reactions following the events in March were of grief and anger. She continued to do her work as before, telling her parents in one letter that there are just things you have to do, "so you do them." For the next several months, she and her fellow sisters continued to do what they had been doing before; aid refugees, speak out against the persecution, and ignore ever increasing death threats. As clergy members close to her were slaughtered for their unblinking refusal to give up the cause of protection and advocacy, she continued; afraid, but committed.
On December 2nd, 1980, Sr. Dorothy Kazel and three other women, Jean Donovan, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford disappeared, having last been seen at the airport. Their bodies were found the next morning - they'd been beaten and raped before they were murdered. Members of the military were later found guilty of the murder.
Weeks before her death, Kazel sent the following message to the Diocese of Cleveland:
All of this goes on as normally and as ordinarily as possible. And yet if we look at this little country of El Salvador as a whole, we find that it is all going on in a country that is writing in pain - a country that daily faces the loss of so many of its people - and yet a country that is waiting, hoping, and yearning for peace. The steadfast faith and courage our leaders have to continue preaching the Word of the Lord even though it may mean "laying down your life" for your fellow man in a very real sense...What is the takeaway here, though? As inspired as I am by Dorothy and her courage, I'm not going to El Salvador. I am not a missionary; I am most assuredly not a nun. Reflecting on that, I think that what inspires me most about Kazel is that she was a woman born to a certain amount of privilege, privilege that she chose to set aside in order to do good work. So I did this, and I want you to do the same, because you know how I like to give homework. I made a list of my privileges. Stuff that I benefit from that I don't even think about. Like the fact that I live in a country in which my government doesn't murder people for seeking justice. The fact that I spend most of my life in the racial majority. I'm middle class, and don't ever have to worry about how I'll keep from starving, or even missing a meal.
What are your privileges?
Next, I want each of us to decide on a way to set aside one of those privileges - even for a few days or hours. If you're middle class, consider living on a budget below the poverty line for a week, for instance. Don't do this as a social experiment or so that you can feel guilty for what you have; do it and see what it calls you to do. What does the experience teach you about your life and what you're supposed to do with it?
Let me know what you decide to do, and I'll let you know. We'll get back together and compare notes, and hopefully take what we've learned and use it to make the world a little better together.