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Marching for Human Rights

Friars and partners-in-ministry from St. Camillus Parish, St. Bonaventure University and Siena College were among those who participated in the March for Life in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Jacek Orzechowski)

Less than two weeks ago, a new president was inaugurated. Since Jan. 20, people around the country have been reacting to the actions of the new administration.

Friars and their partners-in-ministry joined the millions of people who participated in marches around the country supporting the spectrum of human rights issues. They joined groups in cities large and small to make their voices heard and their views visible – communicating their desire for justice and their dislike for the ways in which Donald Trump spoke of many groups during the presidential campaign. They utilized the Women’s March and the March for Life to support the marginalized – a key aspect of the Franciscan charism.

The Women’s March
On Jan. 21, the day after the new president was inaugurated, friars and laypeople participated in what was initially called a women’s march and what ended up including both sexes as well as all ages and nationalities. People came to support women’s rights and the rights of people in general. According to USA Today, which provided photos and statistics, more than two million people participated across the world.

The friars who took part in the Women’s March said they did so to support social justice, human rights and the teachings of the Gospel. With passion and with a memory of what is being called a historic day – because of the number of people who participated in so many locations – friars described their reasons for marching and the events’ highlights.

Christian Seno was one of the friars who participated in the Women’s March on Washington. (Photo courtesy of Christian)

Walking in Solidarity With the Vulnerable
“I marched because violence against women takes on many forms and reveals the intersectionality of the injustice and oppression that is levied on all vulnerable peoples,” said Christian Seno, OFM, who lives at Holy Name College in Silver Spring Md. He wrote about the experience on his blog Pax et Bonum. “Whether it is migration, environmental degradation, poverty, racism, economic and social inequality, or war – women bear the brunt and pay the highest price. I marched because I value life and I believe that if we truly believe in a consistent ethic of life, we should all be concerned about women’s rights. I marched and I will continue to march because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“It was inspiring to see so many people standing up for what they believe in, and it calls me to a deeper love and a greater solidarity with my sisters and brothers,” said Troy Hillman, a postulant from Western New York who lives in Silver Spring and walked in the Washington march. “I have participated in marches and rallies before, but I have never seen so many people show up, or so many sister rallies across the world. There were so many people on the metro ride there and back, and throughout the march itself, that we had no room to stretch, sit or move.”

In Boston, Gene Pistacchio, OFM, said he found it encouraging to be with people who felt the need to be together and who were equally concerned with a variety of social justice issues.

“It was hopeful and promising for me to see and feel the energy of thousands of people gathering on the Boston Common,” he said. “People were marching peacefully and were very polite and courteous to one another. These qualities were palpable and powerful.”

Gene, who is stationed at St. Anthony Shrine, said he participated in the Women’s March to support issues that he saw threatened during the presidential campaign.

“There are many vital issues that were threatened: civil and equal rights; the human dignity of every person regardless of race, nationality, religion or economic status; inclusion of immigrants, regardless of where they are from; protection of health care as a basic right; gender pay equity; and the science behind global warming,” he said. “I felt compelled to march because these are social issues I deeply care about.

“The rally and march were intended not only to make a statement, but to start a revolution for justice,” he continued. “Many people feel that, as a nation, we have come a long way regarding the many freedoms and rights we worked so hard to attain, especially since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond. The people don’t want the country to ‘go backward’ where bigotry, hatred, discrimination, racism, sexism, and segregation become the ‘new normal.’”

Gene recalled that, after asking him if he was from St. Anthony Shrine, a woman said to him, “’Thank you for being here. Pope Francis would be here also!’ Another man holding a sign, ‘Join the resistance,’ welcomed me and called me ‘brother’ when he saw the Franciscan habit.”

Also participating in the Boston march were Steven Pavignano, OFM, as well as members of the Shrine’s young adult group.

Richard McFeely and Robert Frazzetta participated in the Women’s March in New York City. (Photo courtesy of Richard)

Giving Voice to the Voiceless
In New York City, friars and their partners-in-ministry participated in the march, which began on the east side of Manhattan, near the United Nations, and concluded near Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.

Robert Frazzetta, OFM, a Provincial Councilor and guardian, who marched with two other friars from St. Anthony of Padua Friary in Butler, N.J. – Octavio Duran, OFM, and Richard McFeely, OFM – said he wanted “to support those who feel threatened by the new presidential administration.”

“Though it was labeled a women’s march, the demonstrators and signs represented every issue under attack by Mr. Trump and his narrow-visioned administration,” said Robert. “We spoke with many people throughout the day who are horrified that a presidential campaign that belittled, threatened, and ridiculed so many, has now become the highest level of authority in our land. We marched because we want this new administration to know that the voiceless have a voice and it is becoming a roar.”

Before deciding to participate in the march, he and Octavio and Richard evaluated the issues that would be addressed by the event.

“We discussed the fact that it would probably include pro-choice advocates,” Robert said. “We agreed that the issues raised in light of the new presidential administration are far greater and wider than a single issue, and that we must join our Franciscan voice with the hundreds of thousands of other Americans who fear what could happen in this new and unsteady climate. We met and spoke with others who felt the same way about immigration, earth protection, education and the Affordable Care Act. These are all pro-life issues.”

Abel Garcia, Jay Woods, Juan Turcios and John Aherne participated in the Women’s March in Chicago (Photo courtesy of John)

In the Midwest, several friars participated in the demonstration in Chicago. Among them was John Aherne, OFM, who said, “Like many people, I was deeply disturbed by a lot of the rhetoric used by the current administration during the election season: much of the language was harmful to women, immigrants, the disabled, and the LGBTQ community, just to name a few. And since when one member of the body of Christ suffers, we all suffer, I felt I had to march in solidarity with my fellow members of the body of Christ.”

“I did have to discern whether or not to take part,” said John, who lives at Blessed Giles Friary in the Hyde Park neighborhood. “There was a definite pro-choice slant to the march, which made it challenging to join as a habited Franciscan friar. But I’ve always been deeply moved by the photographs of religious women marching in Selma in 1965. Their response to the Gospel call and their willingness to be a visible symbol of Christ in the messiness of the world inspired me to put my reservations about some aspects of the march aside and do my little part. I realized that if I waited for the perfect opportunity to take part in something like this, I’d be waiting a long time.”

John added, “Dozens of people – many of them Catholic – came up to thank us for taking part. Several religious sisters came up to express their support. I had a great conversation with a rabbi about why we were marching. Many women were pleasantly surprised that we were there. Although some on social media questioned the appropriateness of friars participating in such a march, those comments paled in comparison to the overwhelming support we received both on the day of the march and following.”

Jay Woods, OFM, who lives at the interprovincial post-novitiate friary in Chicago, said he participated for the women in his life.

“I chose to march in solidarity with my sisters to show support and in gratitude for all of the women in my life,” he said. “I did it for my grandmothers, my mother, my sister, my aunt and cousins, my best friend Kim and all the other women in my life who have shown me support and encouragement throughout my life. I am angered that in the year 2017 our sisters are not paid a fair and equal wage to men. I am disgusted by the ways in which this president perpetuates the crude and archaic stereotypes of women and demoralizes their divine dignity.”

He continued, “I participated publicly as a friar because I am tired of the male voice of the Catholic Church remaining silent and not standing in solidarity with our sisters. If we truly celebrate Mary as our mother, than we must celebrate the equal dignity of all women. I was also there, as one more person, to remind the current administration that ‘women’s rights are human rights’ and those rights will not be taken away. I was there as a physical reminder that Franciscans have always and will continue to accompany all peoples seen as ‘other’ by those in power and to add our voice to the cause.”

Jay found the event to be “an incredible” experience that filled him with hope. “It was encouraging to see, in Chicago alone, 250,000 men, women, and children come out from behind the safety of their Facebook accounts and phones and take a stand against hatred and oppression.”

Jay also commented on the “positive” and “heart-warming” responses that the friars received at the march.

“Many people knew who we were and thanked us for being there,” he said. “A lot of women said that it was awesome that we were there and that it meant a lot to them. There were also a lot of women who were surprised to see us there but were happy we were there. We ran into a Benedictine sister who was excited to see us and told us about the rest of her community that was there as well. Overall the encounters were peaceful, joyful and empowering.”

He continued, “The negative responses that I have heard since the march have been from those who are completely misguided and misinformed as to the march’s purpose. There are those who state that religious brothers and sisters should not have been there because there were those in the crowd who were pro-choice. By being there as a physical sign of support to all women, I pray that those I marched with saw members of the Catholic Church journeying with them in life as instruments of peace and not judging them from afar. I pray that they saw Franciscan brothers who laughed, joked and were open to listening to their stories, who were there marching for peace, equality, and the dignity of all peoples regardless of gender, race, sexual identity, creed, religion, or lack of religion.”

Also participating in the Chicago demonstration were Abel Garcia, OFM, and Juan Turcios, OFM.

“I enjoyed the spirit of the day,” said Juan, a native of El Salvador. “There was a lot of unity and peace among the people gathered to protest. It was important for us not only to support the issues, but also to be there with the people and support them. The ministry of presence was beautiful. Many complimented us for being there, greeted us individually and as a group, and took pictures with us. It was an extremely powerful example of ministry of support in a much wider community.”

In Albany, N.Y., friars along with laypeople – students as well as faculty members from Siena College in nearby Loudonville – participated in the march in the state’s capital. “Roughly 7,000 people were there,” said Sean O’Brien, OFM, who participated with three other friars – Brian Belanger, OFM, Dennis Bennett, OFM, and George Camacho, OFM.

“The event served as a great opportunity for catechesis,” said Sean, who is assistant director of Siena’s Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy. “It was important for Franciscans to be there to emphasize that to look at life solely from the perspective of the embryo doesn’t makes sense. For example, if a person comes into the world and doesn’t have proper healthcare, he or she doesn’t have the proper life.”

Jacek Orzechowski, at right, Erick Lopez and members of the Franciscan Action Network participated in the March for Life in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Jacek)

Advocating for a Consistent Ethic of Life
The following Friday, Franciscans attended the 43rd annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., carrying signs for a consistent ethic of life. Others participated in similar events in their communities.

A group from St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Md., along with students from St. Bonaventure University in Western New York joined the Pax Christi Metro DC – Baltimore group.

An article on Buzzfeed.com titled “Does ‘Pro Life’ Mean ‘Pro Refugee?’” described the group of Franciscans “in their long brown robes” and the message they were conveying.

“The political expediency of certain goals cannot trump the integrity of the Gospel,” said Jacek Orzechowski, OFM. “We have to be consistent, and that includes our posture towards refugees, social injustice, all of these things,” he said, gesturing to the banner that he held that read “Support a Consistent Ethic of Life,” a red X crossing out the words “Abortion, destruction of Earth’s ecosystems, injustice, nuclear weapons, pandering to fear, racism, social inequity, and torture.” “Yesterday I was meeting with two DREAMers who were so scared of what’s to come. Tearing families apart is not pro-life. What kind of pro-life is sending a father away from his family? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees, too — and they, too, were fleeing violence.”

With Jacek were not only friars stationed in Silver Spring, where he lives, but Lawrence Anderson, OFM, from Siena and Peter Schneible, OFM, from St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y.

In Macon, Ga., Frank Critch, OFM, spoke to a crowd of people who gathered to participate in the city’s March for Life.

“‘Right to life’ or ‘pro-life’… these phrases, which have been distorted by politics and media, are typically only understood to be about abortion,” he said. “While they rightfuly embody the issue of abortion, what the Church precisely teaches is, in fact, a more comprehensive and complete teaching, more widely understood as the ‘consistent ethic of life.’

He continued, “This understanding conveys an all-encompassing morality and universal truth that boldly affirms that every human being has a right to a full human life – from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. And under this broad ­– but wonderfully complete – respect life umbrella, the Church addresses many issues: the quality of human life, families, as it relates to legislation, reproductive technology, the death penalty, war, violence, bioethics, misuse of guns, euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, human trafficking, and much more.”

Frank added that “These issues are complex, nuanced, and far from simple. I’m well aware, for example, that issues of terrorism and other evils require difficult choices and solutions. That issues, say, that relate to helping the poor, go far beyond the soup kitchen; that economic and social issues are complex, and needs and answers to problems are multilayered. We must all come together to get educated, to address and promote all issues related to life. And we start by claiming our identity as the people of God first, and not by political associations.”

“We need to listen more. We need to dialogue more,” he said. “We need to work together – again, I say, together. We need to stand up for the rights and life of all and not just for the few. Our God calls us to unity, to peace, to love, and most of all, to hope. But such pursuits have been cheapened. We must reclaim them. This is what we have inherited from our Creator to do. To bring out unity, peace, love, hope, conversion – life! ­– not in some superficial fashion, but courageously, strategically, step by step.”

People unable to attend the Jan. 27 event were encouraged by the HNP Office for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation to spread the word about the March for Life by showing the photo of the Consistent Ethic of Life message through social media.

Whether named a women’s march or a pro-life march, all were marching in the hope of social justice and human dignity. Photos of these events and other justice and peace initiatives can be found in the Holy Name Province JPIC Facebook group.

Jocelyn Thomas is director of communication for Holy Name Province.

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