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Conference focuses on diversity, justice


The themes of spirituality, pluralism, justice and church renewal highlighted the annual Call to Action conference held in Milwaukee Nov. 1-3. The event drew more than 3,000 people. Speaker after speaker touched on one or more of the topics, often under the umbrella of the conference theme: “Who is my Neighbor? The Gifts and Challenges of Diversity.”

Sister of Mercy Theresa Kane, recently recovered from an illness and exhibiting in her remarks a spirit of playfulness and compassion sometimes seen in other spiritual giants, including the Dalai Lama, called upon Christians to address world poverty. “Yet most of the world is preparing for war, using resources that could otherwise be used for seeing to people’s needs,” she lamented.

“How large is your community?” she asked. Then gave her response: “Our community is 6.2 billion people -- the population of the planet earth.”

She called for three qualities in women in leadership: a spirit of confidence, a spirit of courage and a spirit of compassion. “Leaders must have confidence in God and see God as companion, friend and advocate. They need a sense of confidence in self and to trust their own instincts.”

Women leaders, she went on, must be willing to be courageous in public, not just within the private and domestic realm. “We must not be hostile and vengeful, but we must be assertive.

“We must be able to defend what we say and why we make the choices we make. We need a just anger if we are to create something new.”

Finally, she said, women leaders must be compassionate. “To be compassionate is to be a deeply feeling person,” Kane said. “We must be very aware of people who are downtrodden. We must be physically present with the poor. We must be social activists. Spirituality and social activism must go together.”

She and other conference participants spoke of the need to cultivate hope. “Where do I find hope?” Kane asked. “By contemplating my own spirituality and relationship with God and by finding new ways of being in touch with our loving creator.” It is important, she said, to speak to each other of the way we see, understand and relate to God.

Sister of St. Joseph of Peace Kathleen Pruit encouraged the several hundred attending a workshop on clergy sex abuse “to live in outrageous hope. … Otherwise we wind up in a cycle of anger. We must grieve the experience of those abused, but we must also hold on to the vision of the reign of God and the fullness of shalom.”

The church will be whole, she said, when all are at the table, women and men, clergy and laity.

Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, one of the first priests to speak out publicly in the mid-’80s against the rising tide of clergy sex abuse and who has since become an advocate for sex abuse victims, said his hope for the future of the church rests with groups such as Call to Action and other lay organizations pushing for reform.

“There is no end in sight,” Doyle said, when asked whether the scandal that has rocked the church is nearing an end. “The majority of the anger is now with the hierarchy. It will be decades before the hierarchy can recover its credibility. But to do that, we need to have bishops who are true pastors.”

At one point, some 300 conference participants left the warmth of the conference center to join an antiwar rally in the street outside the Midwest Express Center in downtown Milwaukee. Bob Heineman of Call to Action called out the name of a proponent of peace, “In the name of [the late Sen.] Paul Wellstone … in the name of Dorothy Day … in the name of Jesus Christ,” and the crowd responded, “Stop the war!”

Erie, Pa., Benedictine Community leader Christine Vladimiroff received the annual Call to Action commendation award on behalf of the Erie Benedictines for their continued work for peace and justice.

Speaking truth takes courage, and cynicism is not a virtue, Vladimiroff said in brief remarks. Bitterness erodes the heart and blocks the possibility of reconciliation, she said.

Catholic author James Carroll delivered one of the conference’s most stirring addresses (see below), calling for the introduction of the values and processes of democracy within the church.

James Cone, professor of systematic theology at the Union Theological Seminary, in another plenary address, spoke about the problems of racism in America. Most Christians, he said, do not believe that white supremacy is a serious problem. Yet, he continued, “we have more segregation than ever through self-segregation. Society is technically integrated, but people choose to stay with their own. Blacks and others cannot escape white supremacy.”

The churches, he said, have been slow to address the race issue because it is an explosive issue. We need to create multiracial communities, Cone said. But to begin, there must be sincere repentance -- on the part of both blacks and whites. Repentance, he said, is an attitude of self-criticism. Yet, it is only through repentance that conversion can take place.

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002