Cleveland tales 1: The Social Justice Teach in”

I have come to Cleveland for the weekend to visit my dear friends, Maria Smith and Charlie Hurst. I first met them in Antigua Guatemala in 1987, when we were in language school. We lived with the same host family. After I came home, I lost touch with them. When I was in federal prison in 2007 for crossing the Fort Benning fence, I received a letter from Maria, asking me if I remembered her. I wrote back, and, in 2008, we had a reunion. It was great to reconnect. 

Today, Maria and I went to the Social Justice Teach-in at Case Western Reserve University. The teach-in is co-sponsored by the Center for Civic Engagement and Learning and by the Inter-religious Task Force on Central America. We went to two workshops sessions, where we were exposed to different perspectives on social justice.
The first workshop session that we attended was called “The witness of Conscience.” It was about conscientious objection to war, and it was facilitated by Maria Satelli from the Center on Conscience and War, in Washington, D.C. This organization runs the GI rights hotline.

Maria shared the history of conscientious objection, starting with World War I. A law was passed, called the Selective Service Act of 1917. It established a draft. This, Maria said was the first national conscription. There was a provision for conscientious objection but it was very difficult to obtain that status. Men who applied had to be a member of a “well-recognized” pacifist religious denomination. Members of other religious denominations, as well as those who did not belong to a religious denomination, were not eligible for the conscientious objector status.

People who resisted the war in other ways were dealt with harshly. There were seventeen death sentences handed out, although no one was actually executed. More than 17 persons, however, died in prison as a result of torture and abuse. Approximately 150 people were sentenced to life terms for resisting the war. Generally, they were sent to Leavenworth or to Alcatraz, where they were chained to the bars or grates of their cells for eight hours a day. 

After World War I, official response to conscientious objectors became significantly less draconian. People could be exempted from military service if they opposed war by “reasons of religious training or belief.” Many of those still served in the military, but in a noncombat role, such as medic. Others served on the home front. They fought fires, worked on conservation projects in rural areas, and worked in mental hospitals. It was the conscientious objectors who got the word out about the deplorable conditions in mental hospitals, where patients were kept in straitjackets for days, beaten, and forced to live in their own feces. The publicity that was generated by these revelations resulted in a reform movement being set up to clean up the abuses in the mental hospitals. 

After World War II, things started changing for conscientious objectors. Since the end of the Vietnam War, there has been no draft. People who are serving in the military can apply for conscientious objector status, even if their objection to war is not based on religious training or belief, but, instead, on moral and ethical objections, which are not necessarily religious.

Some people object to some wars but not to others. The courts do not recognize “selective conscientious objectors.”

Maria Satelli said that the Center on Conscience and War is currently working with 80 conscientious objectors, who are serving in the military. The center helps members of the military navigate the complex, administrative process that is necessary to get conscientious objector status or discharge from the military.

The second workshop that Maria Smith and I attended was about the Bible. The presenters were Mike Fiala and Brenna Davis. We learned that the Bible has been used as both a painful source of oppression and a source of liberation. It has been used to justify environmental devastation, as well as to encourage preservation of our environment. We learned that our earth is paradise of water but that there are places on earth that water is very scarce, such as in the middle east.

“Water is life,” Mike said. “This is powerfully true in the middle east. Why would we want to destroy our water paradise?”

When we read the Bible, we can remember our own stories, Mike said. Stories are important. They help us to fight illness and death.  They keep our cultures alive. “Without story, we are defenseless,” Mike said.

We focused on the story of Jesus feeding the crowds after the beheading of John the Baptist. Jesus had chosen to go to the wilderness alone to fast and pray but he was followed by his disciples and by a large crowd of people. The people wanted to be healed. After a while, the disciples wanted to send the crowds away so that they could go and buy food for themselves. Jesus told the disciples to feed the crowd. The disciples said that they didn’t have enough food. But, when Jesus insisted that the disciples feed the people, enough food was found for all, with leftovers. After that, the crowds dispersed, and Jesus was able to pray and fast alone in the wilderness.

We acted out the story, and, when we were asked to make sure that everyone in the crowd had food, people took food out of their bags. People shared what they had brought, and everyone ate something.

Comments after the experience:

“God created the earth to give us an abundance.”
“We waste 40 percent of our food. Don’t waste food.”
“Farmers gave out food during the Great Depression.”
“Sharing food is a sacred act.”
“Are we going to be a community that shares its resources?”
“Asking people how they can participate gives them a sense of ownership, not a feeling that they are the objects of charity.”

Charlie and Maria at Case Western Reserve University

The program closed with a performance by the Peace Poets of New York. That is a group that was started in 2005. They are a group of artists who use hip hop, poetry, and music to advocate for life.  They are based in the Bronx. Today, they sang, rapped, and encouraged audience participation.  Members of the Peace Poets are: Luke Nephew (poet journalist, emcee, and organizer), Frank Antonio Lopez (performing artist, educator, and filmmaker), Abraham Velazquez (performer, recording artist, and beat boxer), Emmanuel Candelario (writer, educator, and artist), and Frantz Jerome (emcee, educator, and fiction writer).
For more information about the Peace Poets, check out their website: link to the Peace Poets website.

2 thoughts on “Cleveland tales 1: The Social Justice Teach in””

  1. I love your comments on the Bible workshop. The Bible is like any other piece of literature, open to interpretation. I've written so many stories and had the people in my workshops completely bungle what I was trying to say. It's always an eye opener when I hear that!

  2. Hello from Idaho and stop in from Ramblin…There is sure plenty of room to reform our prison. But there came along way.
    When I was at the bay area and went over to "Alcatraz" and I wonder how many left there twice as angry when they left.
    Coffee is on

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