Reflection: America, the Beautiful and its Ugly Shadow Side

Jacek Orzechowski, OFM Features

A Franciscan friar who is an immigrant to the United States, Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, is at times viewed as being “excessively patriotic.” He loves the diversity of culture and faith traditions that he finds in America, but is disturbed by the division and discord we are witnessing today. Recently, he shared with the Franciscan Action Network a homily he gave July 1, 2018 at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Va., based on these scripture readings.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

I first set foot on American soil in 1988. Twenty years ago, I became a citizen of the United States. I have fallen in love with her majestic Rocky Mountains, enchanted red canyons of the Southwest, the rugged coast of Maine, her spectacular Redwood giants. There is so much beauty around us. I feel so blessed by it. That beauty is the sacred book that speaks to me of God.

Over the years, I have also come to relish in the American people – that exquisite tapestry of different cultures, faith traditions, races, and backgrounds. Countless Americans have touched me and changed my life for better through their decency, openness, civic engagement, inclusivity, and creativity. I have been inspired by their ability and inner drive to come together and overcome obstacles, to have faith in a better future.

[In late June], I visited the local Catholic Charities humanitarian respite center in McAllen, Texas. It is run by Sr. Norma Pimentel, MJ. Her great love and service to those who are desperately poor remind me of Mother Teresa. Every day, she and her small staff serve as many as 200 people, mostly from Central America. Many of them are children fleeing extreme violence, trying to save their lives and seek an asylum. They are exhausted, scared, traumatized.

I was there in McAllen as part of a large delegation. We came from different parts of our country, different races and ethnic backgrounds. We were white and Latino, African-American and folks of the Middle Eastern origins. Many of us – like myself – were naturalized US citizens. There were three Muslim American women from Houston and one Jewish American. It was a beautiful piece of America – compassionate and caring, humane, noble and just, people of big hearts, sharp minds eager to roll up their sleeves to defend the basic human rights and act with solidarity. This is America the beautiful that I delight in.

Together, we listened to Sr. Norma. She spoke to us about the desperation of the people fleeing violence who seek asylum in our country, about their harrowing journey up north and what they are facing now on this side of the border. Later on, as a group of about 40 women, men and children walked from the federal detention center to the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center, we stood outside and clapped, applauding them as a sign of welcome. We then prayed with them and listened to their stories.

I heard a father of a 9-year-old daughter. Both of them fled Honduras. The mother was brutally killed by a criminal gang when she refused to be a victim of extortion. The gang threatened to kill the father and rape his little girl. What would you do in his place? He had no options left but to travel more than 1,400 miles on the perilous journey up north. When they arrived at the border, they had to wait many days under a scorching sun to be taken in and present their claims for an asylum. Many of those who faced similar, hellish circumstances in their countries of origins were not as lucky, said the father. What is going to happen to so many other parents who are so desperate to save the life of their children that they are willing to face any dangers and pay any price? What are we going to do with the traumatized, terrorized people who are exercising their God-given right to life? Even if our country’s leaders declare that we will no longer tear children from the arms of their parents and put them in cages, is it a moral alternative to put them up in family internment camps for months or years?

God Desires Life and Wholeness for All
Today’s first reading is from the book of Wisdom. In it we hear that God desires that all God’s peoples may have life and be able to grow towards integrity and develop their full God-given potential. Anything that stands in the way of that authentic human development, is not of God. Anything that renders human beings more frightened and desperate, less free, less open and creative, less knowledgeable, generous, imaginative – all that is evil and needs to be fought against. Even when it’s crowned in a civil law.

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus manifests God’s desire for life and wholeness. Jairus – a desperate father is trying to save the life of his little daughter. He has exhausted all other options. Recognizing how dire the situation is, he runs up to Jesus. He appeals to his mercy and compassion. He believes Jesus has the power to help him. And Jesus heals the child, restoring her into the arms of her desperate father and mother.

Yet, the Gospel story does not end there. It continues on in our own day and age. In the Gospel of John 14:12, Jesus says to his disciples – and that includes you and me – “Amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.”

You and I are members of the Body of Christ. And the story of Christ the Healer must continue on here and now. Different characters and circumstances; yet the same human desperation appealing for mercy, the same divine Spirit of compassion that calls us to heal and restore in a divine-human partnership.

In our world today, every Christian is summoned to participate in Christ’s mission of healing. We’re called to heal individuals, families and entire communities of nations, restoring them to wholeness.

You may ask me: what do you mean about us healing entire families and communities? Allow me to explain. Consider hatred, indifference to the plight of the poor and callousness towards the weak and vulnerable, lack of respect for human life, racism, incivility, ignorance, blatant disregard for truth, arrogance, fundamentalism, hubris, violence – these are just a few examples of a lethal form of cancer that slowly devours the body of our beloved community.

As Christians, we are to play a role akin to an immune system that protects and safeguards against the malignant tumor. The situation requires even a more decisive action when certain key organs are infected with cancer. Wisdom and intelligence of the body is needed to detect a threat and adequately respond to it. Detecting a deadly tumor, anticipating its consequences and taking a course of action that would lead to healing and wholeness are often difficult and challenging but there is no way around it if we want to be God’s instruments safeguarding and nourishing life.

Catholic social teachings provide us with the critical tools to be able to detect various forms of cancers on the collective body of our society and nation, analyze them and prescribe a healing course of action. To be able to heal and hold on to life, we must be willing to search for the truth and then accept it, even when it’s troublesome. A denial is a sure path to perdition.

As Christians in America, we have a lot of things to celebrate and feel proud of. One is our willingness and ability to learn from the daring, historic experiment of the American democracy – the delicate art of finding unity in diversity. Unlike people living under the totalitarian regimes that rely on propaganda for control and cohesion, we Americans, at our best, have had courage to question, examine various claims and use our ingenuity to come up with creative solutions.

Children gather with immigrant rights activists on April 5, 2014 at the Federal Building in lower Manhattan to protest the two millionth deportation of an undocumented immigrant. (Photo courtesy of Michael Fleshman/Flickr)

We Are Called to Heal
To be able to heal and restore life, we are called to recognize various contemporary forms of cancer feeding on the body of our nation. We see the ugliness of fear mongering and scapegoating of immigrants, refugees, Muslims and other vulnerable groups. We see the ugliness of glib responses to those who express profound moral concerns about the suffering of the unborn babies with beating hearts and feeling pain when they are violently pulled out of the womb of their mothers. Then, there is the ugliness of actions that empower the greed of the few super-rich elites while trampling upon the fellow, poor Americans – white, black, Latino – who have been left behind and who desperately struggle to make ends meet. How about the ugly cancer of those who are bent on pursuing policies of dividing those groups and manipulating their fears so that the new oligarchy could enjoy their privileges and build its hegemony over the deadly corpse of American democracy?

Will we honor the sacrifice of millions of American soldiers who have laid down their lives to protect this beautiful land and its people? At the time when the public institutions and the laws protecting our environment are being dismantled, when our President and many of our elected officials turn deaf ears to the voices of scientists, religious and business leaders urging them to take action on climate change rather than pushing our country and the rest of the world over the cliff of the irreversible, climate catastrophe – are we willing to look at what is going on, question the distortion of truth, use our moral compass, and act with courage to pursue justice, peace and the common good of all the Americans – including those of future generations?

We live in a unique time in the history of our nation. We face serious threats – internal and external. Will we continue the American experiment in democracy – an audacious belief in the power of the people to shape their destiny or will we devolve into an oligarchy or some other form of authoritarianism that betrays the American people and their highest ideals? Even our faith in democracy and whether or not our public democratic institutions will be able to survive appear to be at stake. At the same time, there so many wonderful challenges and opportunities for us to heal and restore: our families, our communities, and our country.

How well am I – how well are we – able to distinguish and choose between America the beautiful and its ugly shadow side? Our answer to that question will be our response to Christ’s call to mercy and justice – a true call to greatness.

A mature and healthy love for one’s country has nothing to do with xenophobia or jingoism. It has to do with honoring our country’s ideals and the sacrifices made by its heroes. The love of one’s country is about acting in beautiful, noble ways with truth and integrity. I love my country when I am vigilant in protecting her true liberty, when I am doing my part to help our nation to attune America’s goals and objectives to the tune of the divine healer, the Creator God who “fashioned all things that they might have being and the creatures of the world are wholesome.” (Wisdom 1:13-14)

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

— Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, a resident of Silver Spring, Md., is leading Catholic Charities’ efforts for immigration advocacy in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic – a holiday, current event, holy day or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at communications@hnp.org. Additional reflections by friars can be found on the Spiritual Resources page of HNP.org.

Related Links