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Religious men combat violence, crime

NCR Staff

Few today would deny that we face an "unrelenting epidemic of violence in America," said Franciscan Fr. Michael H. Crosby.

"And yet we are stymied in our efforts to find systemic ways to begin healing our nation's sickness," said Crosby, a contributor to the Conference of Major Superiors of Men's Shalom Strategy: A Manual to Promote Reconciliation, Nonviolence and Peacemaking. The 210-page manual provides study papers on the spirituality of nonviolence; the causes of violence by young people; women, violence and the response of male religious; and the global face of violence.

Since 1994, conference members have focused grassroots ministries on curbing the epidemic of violence in U.S. society. The project draws together 270 religious congregational leaders and 23,000 brothers and priests at thousands of sites of ministry. It invites participants to see their work from the perspective of nonviolence and peacemaking.

A Shalom Strategy survey undertaken in 1995-96 examined what members and institutions were doing to deal with violence in its various forms.

It was clear from the survey that those who do pastoral counseling in CMSM member parishes, student counseling in schools and social services in urban areas are in constant contact with the fallout of urban violence. Priests and brothers ministering in those situations know the effects of violence and the consequences of living in families, neighborhoods and communities riddled with street violence, gang activity and spouse and child abuse, said Marianist Fr. Ted Keating, CMSM Peace and Justice Office director.

"At times, there is a tendency to take the violence for granted," Keating said. He said the Shalom Strategy involves members in coming to grips with their responsibility to name violence for what it is. By that, he means members must respond not only to the millions of human needs calling out for help, but must "spell out a convincing social analysis of how economics, politics, racism, media, consumerism and other systemic realities have created the conditions for local problems."

Violence has so infiltrated our society that "it has frightening capacity to deaden our consciousness. Members must speak out against the crimes that infiltrate our culture," Keating said. Statistics from the FBI Crime Index reveal 13 million violent crimes annually including murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, plus property crimes of burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson. More specifically:

  • One criminal offense occurs every two seconds;
  • One violent crime every 18 seconds;
  • One murder every 24 minutes;
  • One forcible rape every 5 minutes;
  • One robbery every 54 seconds;
  • One aggravated assault every 29 seconds;
  • One burglary every 12 seconds;
  • One larceny-theft every 4 seconds;
  • One motor vehicle theft every 21 seconds.

Keating said that responses to the Shalom Strategy survey "indicate it is almost impossible to work in inner city neighborhoods or poor and marginalized rural communities without being confronted daily with excessive amounts of pain and suffering caused by the systems of injustice."

The survey covered inner-city parishes in California from Los Angeles to San Francisco as well as those in San Antonio, Houston and Austin, Texas; New Orleans; Atlanta; Baltimore; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; New York; Boston; Detroit; and Chicago.

Edmundite Fr. Michael P. Jacques, pastor of St. Peter Claver, one of the oldest African-American parishes in New Orleans, joined with other religious leaders to initiate a citywide ecumenical community of churches called ACT -- All Churches Together -- to work on key social issues including drugs, abandoned houses and police enforcement. Their successes include a school that provides a place of safety and teaches alternative ways of dealing with problems. A key component is teaching children self-esteem and pride in their African-American heritage.

Jacques said ACT has helped previously ignored local communities become powerful players as they collectively challenge local government to eradicate racism and provide equal opportunities for employment, housing and health care.

The challenge for Marist Br. Steve Schliteis when he arrived as principal of Our Lady Queen of the Angels School in Newark, N.J., was the heightened level of violence -- fist fights, yelling and screaming and questionable disciplinary methods.

Schliteis began programs for teaching nonviolence and started conflict resolution workshops for faculty. He involved parents in making violence reduction a priority. As a result, he said, the climate changed quickly.

Claretian Fr. Bruce Wellems is parochial vicar at Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary parish on Chicago's South Side, a community that has experienced waves of Mexican immigration. A small park close by is the central gathering place for the youth of the area. Drugs are epidemic and, along with guns, are the source of much of the neighborhood violence.

Wellems said he uses models of base communities to organize the neighborhood. Programs like "neighborhood watch" flounder because people do not have telephones. Young people, he said, invest their whole lives in the gangs and slights between members of different gangs erupt in street warfare.

Wellems describes his ministry as a process of constantly having his prejudices and stereotypes broken by simply listening to people and seeking to work with them where they are rather than where he imagines they should be.

"Anyone who thinks that the religious life is in decline," said Keating, "should talk with these profoundly contemplative, intensely hopeful men" who are using peacemaking techniques in difficult situations. It is, said Keating, non-headline-making, day-to-day work. It is also a reflection of the commitment and vibrancy alive among men religious facing today's violent society.

CMSM Shalom Strategy may be contacted at 8808 Cameron St., Silver Spring MD 20910. Phone: (301) 588-4030

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 1997