Hooray for Jackie Robinson!
Activism and Volunteering
Not being reactive is not being passive. It’s not a kind
of stupidity, holding back or being uninterested, removing
oneself from the world. Real equanimity isn’t indifference.
It’s the capacity to be present with your whole being and
not add fuel to the fire.–Jack Kornfield
I had my first taste of “activism”–terribly naïve, but well-intentioned–when I wrote letters to “Dear Chairman Mao Tse-Tung,” the first on May 23, 1956, as well as letters in support of the Civil Rights Movement which absolutely captivated the attention of a few of my grammar school teachers, nuns, who gave me books to read. It was the year of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. I was 12 years old, living far away in Norwalk, Connecticut. Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization solicited letters of support from many churches, including our Catholic church. A few nuns were very active in asking for letters of support, but only from those who really believed in the cause. I learned so much from their attitude of not imposing their activism on others. Several of us jumped at the chance in addition to write letters to China to ask for the release of innocent prisoners. The nuns knew that letters had to be respectful but very definite in listing the names of the prisoners & stating in the opening that China’s government passed the deadline promised to release the prisoners. Then the rest of the letter appears to just kiss Chairman Mao’s ass, but maybe that is just diplomacy. The nuns encouraged us to write something original and brief. We wrote the letters very carefully in pen.
When I woke up to “activism,” the most pressing social issue for me was the African -American Civil Rights Movement, in the middle 50’s.
In 2017 DNA testing showed my father’s genes to be mixed: I discovered I was about half black Haitian and half Iberian on my father’s side. I never knew how intimately connected I was to black roots, which we all have most basically. We arose from Africa, mother of our common humanity.
When, as an elementary school student, I was writing letters in support of Civil Rights, I would never feel piously righteous about other countries’ lack of human rights (such as in China), because of the obvious lack of human rights for African Americans in my own country at that time.
Human rights is both a local and a universal issue. I’m told it’s none of my business to talk about other countries. An activist aligns his or her voice with others, against what is felt as abuse of human rights, in whatever country. Writing a letter was so small, but many people, inspired by Dr. King, were throwing tiny pebbles into the lake of change.
A great hero of my youth was the gallant and dignified, yet tough, Jackie Robinson, and–with awe– I visited Ebbets Field to see him play with the Dodgers. My abiding memory of him: stealing-sliding across home plate in the 1955 World Series, with my beloved Yankee’s catcher, Yogi Berra, going crazy. The Bums–to my dismay– finally won!
Jackie’s plea was for an inclusive humanity. In 2007, it was sixty years since Jackie courageously started playing ball professionally, breaking the “color barrier,” despite vicious racist taunting and facing segregated hotels, restaurants, transportation, water fountains.
In the early 60’s, I became aware of Cesar Chavez (whom I first saw sitting serenely at the Jesuit seminary in Los Gatos, California) and later I would volunteer with the United Farm Workers Union Movement organized by Cesar and Dolores Huerta who has carried on the work for so many courageous and enthusiastic years.
“Activism” was coined around 1915 to denote the doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action (as mass protests), some active forms of opposition/call for human rights, such as marching for civil rights, picketing to organize a union. Now activism includes much more humble–but needed both by the student & the community–efforts such as a high school student helping the local library or school. Unlike the time of my high school, volunteering is an essential part of most high school students’ experience, not only as a requirement on a university application, but also growing as a person who is learning to give as well as to take, to be interested in others as well as in himself. Though I’m writing about some of the more jazzy stories, actually most of my volunteering has been as simple as collecting clothes, books, visiting a convalescent home or being on a soup kitchen line.
One of the students recently came back from a tour of Alcatraz which he found fascinating. I was teaching high school boys in San Jose, Bellarmine High School (1969-71) when a buddy, Marcus Holladay, called me and asked if I’d help the organizing effort of getting clothes, blankets, food for American Indian people who had “occupied” Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay (November 9, 1969) to make people aware of contemporary Indian people and how they feel treated in the U.S. society. They were in Alcatraz for 17 months, supported by donations.
American Indians started having some fights among themselves (“being their own worst enemies” said one of the organizing leaders). On June 11, 1971, one of the leaders was arrested for stealing copper from Alcatraz. It was over, but they had gotten some people thinking a bit more broadly about Indians whom we’ve come to see as complex, full of nobility as well as treachery as in us all.
On April 6, 1930, Mohandas Gandhi (born October 2, 1869) manufactured salt from sea water, publicly breaking British law (“civil disobedience”) in a movement to bring political freedom to the Indian people. Indians were only supposed to buy British salt.
Salt water from tidal marshes was collected in pots. The sun then evaporated the water, leaving salt behind which was put on sale. “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” India became independent seventeen years later.
It’s October 2, 2000. In India, thousands gather at a sweetly incensed park on the Jumna River at Delhi where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. Today hymns are sung, verses from the Gita, the Koran and the Bible are recited. Stories, poems, prayers, people blend into each other; pleas for peace in the Middle East. Cotton thread is spun on small spinning wheels (as our ever-changing stream of life) to recall Gandhi’s virtue of simplicity.
At the end of April, 2007, two hundred and eighty of their neighbors’ Chongquing, China properties have been leveled, but Yang Wu (a martial artist) and his wife, Wu Ping, stand alone on a shaky dirt hill in their brick family home (since 1944 and completely re-built from the ground up in 1994). They’ve refused to give up to developers who want a mall and luxurious apartments. They’re surrounded by a huge, bull-dozed pit. Wu Ping says: “People must live with dignity… if you are right, you must stand up for yourself and not allow your rights to be trampled.” A local court has ruled that the house must be vacated. Yang is hanging a protest banner while Wu Ping sadly says: “I am losing hope.”
In May of 2007, peasants from counties in Guangxi province, protested against China’s one-child policy. They protest forced sterilizations and mandatory abortions. Fortunately such coercive government action is much less common than in the late 70’s and 80’s.
The Internet reported (June ’07) the cry for help from 400 fathers looking for their sons who were made slaves at brick kilns in Henan province. Some of the dads even went “undercover” to see for themselves the terrible working conditions at some kilns where the grueling day might start at 5 a.m. and end at midnight. Outraged Chinese citizens sparked the government to raid about 11,000 kilns. More than 500, including some children, were gratefully released from the pernicious grip of forced labor. President Hu Jintao ordered a thorough investigation.
I’m in Rowland Heights, California listening to Chinese Falun Gong members–Bin Li, Jie Li, Hongwei Lu, Lingyun Zhao, Fengling Ge– who are talking about being in Chinese labor camps and prisons for practicing their beliefs. They are speaking out to put pressure on the Chinese government and Communist Party to stop persecuting Falun Gong members in China.
They are asking for support. Bin Li with tears in her eyes recounts: “All of us were brainwashed. We were beaten, insulted so gradually you think, why are you here? At some point I thought I shouldn’t exist in this universe.” She says she’s grateful to have come to the U.S. in 2004, with a visa as a visiting scholar. An AIDS activist who was previously banned from leaving China was recently allowed to receive an award in the United States. Activists continue to ask for reform of the extensive use of detaining civil rights activists without trial. They advocate for the end of censoring the Internet.
Former student and friend, Dong Fong Liu, just came back from China. He is interested in highlighting the need of the Chinese government to protect coal miners, to keep improving work safety in the coal mining industry which provides 70% of China’s energy needs. Also there is a movement to provide a minimum wage. Government officials need to enforce new government policy; 60% of 5.5 million coal miners are rural immigrants who are more vulnerable to exploitation. In 2006, 4,746 miner lives were lost in accidents, gratefully down 20% from the previous year. June 5, 2012, marks the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. I saw a picture of thousands and thousands of people in Victoria Park (Hong Kong) holding candles to remember the pro-democracy student movement in an earlier memorial. Activists continue to ask for deeper political reform in China.
I’m in Watts today (2003) and meet Anna Carter, a lovely lady who wears flowers in her Afro. Only about 40% of the high schoolers finish here; Watts is the location of Verbum Dei High School where the Jesuits recently started a program. Students at Verbum Dei work one day a week for businesses, both for learning and to make a reasonable tuition possible.
Anna is called the Seed Lady, as she started the Watts Family Garden Club last year. It is full of youngsters playing and helping plant tomatoes, pansies, chamomile in the yard.
She recently came back from Cuba where she learned farming techniques in urban environments. She was part of a delegation with the organizations, Food First and Institute for Food and Development Policy. They were studying using raised compost container beds in cities.
Anna was born in Oakland, California. In the middle 90’s, she was electrically shocked; some Native American friends suggested she touch the roots of trees and work with soil to heal the electricity in her body. After three years of convalescing, she took a master gardening program through the University of California system. She found teaching others took her mind off her pain and self-pity.
She says she wants people in the community to see that they are themselves agents (seeds) of change, that they can empower themselves, feel good about themselves, feel self-respect, even in a rough environment. She offers classes in vegetarian cooking and gardening: “Wok with Me”; “The Value of a Seed”; “The Organic Greenhouse”
The whole establishment was of majestic appearance,
with richly adorned towers and fairy-like turrets, the four-
storied courts, their dragon-like projections and colored
eaves, carved and ornamented pearl-red pillars, richly adorned
balustrades, and roofs covered with tiles, reflecting light
in a thousand shades. –Huien-Tsiang, writing about Nalanda
I’m at a peaceful protest against the Taliban’s obliteration of ancient Buddhist carvings and remarkable statues in Afghanistan. I think about the early 12th century Turaskas, fanatical, murderous Muslims from Afghanistan, who entered India and destroyed all the Buddhist communities in their path of destruction. I remember the sad story of the over-running of the great Buddhist monastic university, Nalanda; and the beheading or burying alive of thousands of Buddhist monks. Nalanda was a center of learning and contemplation from the fifth century to c. 1200. You can still view the ruins of Nalanda in India. Once a walled city of teachers and students, its prestige of open inquiry, discussion, debates and scholarship attracted gifts from kings from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Java, Bengal, China, Sumatra, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, Turkestan. At Nalanda, students and teachers explored and plumbed the meanings of the Hindu Vedas and Upanishads (pre-Buddhist scriptures) and the Buddhist philosophies of Hinayana, Mahayana, Madhyamika and Yogachara. The Buddhist saint, Naropa, was once the abbot of the university. Nalanda’s extensive library–torched by the invaders– was said to have burned for months, devoured by fire and hatred.
It’s Christmas vacation, ’03, and I’m accompanying an Evangelical Christian church to Baja California, Mexico. This church goes twice a year to San Tecla which is home to a large ranch, which attracts indigenous Oaxacans to travel north for a better salary of about $8.00 a day which is twice what they can get in Oaxaca, if work is even available.
Some Oaxacans settle in Baja California, and others travel seasonally. The church members and I arrive at the ranch early in the chilly morning to organize presents for children, food/clothes baskets for families; we’ve driven 2 ½ hours from the seaport of Ensenada, located on Bahia de Todos Santos, 65 miles south of Tijuana. There’s a rousing Christian service, with 120 children sitting in front of the church’s stage which features musicians, singers and lady preachers; electrically-guitared, percussion beats and melodies. We’re weaving and swaying, swooning with Jesus, alleluia-ing.
Dios es Amor is painted in large white letters on a brown cross. The sun is shining its bright yellow into the rocking church. Children go to some small classes, while the adults receive bags of beans, rice, sugar, clothes, soap, and shampoo. It’s very cold outside; some of the shivering children still don’t have shoes, so the church members make sure they are given sneakers. I watch a youngster receiving a gift, a sudden and quick beaming response, warming; the so-called “generous” volunteers realize they are receiving one of those small, fleeting satisfactions that feed our souls. Seven guys take a quick dirt road truck ride to view the ocean, speeding past the tomato plants, which the Oaxacan Indians are covering with plastic to protect from the bitter cold sea winds. We stay on the hilly shore for 30 minutes, slipping on wet rocks, mosty grays, some ivory-colored blotched with rust, white and brown corrugated clam shells, delicate detached crab legs; waves spray salty water on me. I take a handful of ocean water to splash on my face.
I recall visiting Oaxaca (Oaxaca gave us Mexican president, Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian) with its fertile, vast plateaus, pretty valleys, the gorgeous Sierrra Madre del Sur Mountain Range. Chiapas and Oaxaca have the largest Indian population in Mexico, within which lie generous bounties of culture, handicrafts, folklore, and spirituality.
The Indians here in San Tecla, doing farm work, are descendants of the Mixtec or Zapotec; they’ve left their villages reluctantly to improve the quality of their living.
Going home, we stop on the Tijuana border, on las playas of Tijuana. There are tall black spotted, rusted steel pilings which form the frontera. We see some people put their heads through openings, perhaps longing for the “other side.” As we cross the border, my friend, Margot Alvarado (from El Salvador) shows us where, in ’78, she went, with her three children, through a large drain into the U.S. She was lucky, she says, to have been led by a “good” coyote.
I was in El Salvador to remember the 5th anniversary of the violent passing (11-16-89) of six Jesuit priests from Spain (Ignacio Ellacuria, Amando Lopez, Joaquin Lopez, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramon Moreno and their housekeeper and her daughter, Elba and Celina Ramos. Joan Didion, writing in 1982: “Terror is the given of the place. Bodies turn up in the brush of vacant lots, in the garbage, thrown in ravines in the richest districts, in public restrooms, in bus stations. Some are dropped in Lake Ilopango.” I went to El Salvador to touch and be touched by the land and its people, to cry for brothers and sisters who have suffered, to laugh and have fun, to try to understand and learn with reverence. And cry for myself, for my own tolerance for violence. I asked many how could politics-power-government, conceived to serve the people, to “en-right” and enrich all, become such a destructive repression and death?
El Salvador is a wonder: display of hills, vegetation, city marketplaces, refreshing ocean, and sure, great people, a wounded, but resilient people. I say a prayer at the memorial of the murdered Jesuit padres and for Elba and Celina Ramos who died with them. In the early morning, at the UCA University, around 2:30 a.m., six Spanish priests were jerked from their beds and executed. Their housekeeper, Elba, and her daughter Celina were also assassinated. There were about 300 officers and enlisted men at the UCA campus on the night of the murders. The UCA had been bombed in April and July of ’89.The death squad wrote “FMLN” over the walls to escape blame. In January of 1990, eight men were arrested for the murders, six from the Atlcatl Battalian and two officers of the military academy. Two men were convicted, Col. Benavides of seven murders, Lieutenant Mendoza of the murder of Celina Ramos. They were sentenced for thirty years. The provincial of the Jesuits in El Salvador, Fr. Tojeira, officially asked for pardon the two convicted men, because he stated those who ordered the attack were not brought to trial. Both men were set free. The Jesuits had openly favored a peace accord among the political factions in the country. Some of the military wanted to continue hateful polarities, especially propagating that the Jesuits were only supporting the guerrillas. The Jesuits, in fact, were imploring for the integration of the varied political and economic elements in Salvadoran society. Father Ellacuria and President Christiani, with all their ideological differences, were both talking about how they could unite energies to give to the peace accord. Many human rights groups say this is why far right elements killed Fr. Ellacuria and his friends.
The Jesuits favored agrarian reform and the end of political repression that stifled a sharing of power. Jesuits such as Rutilio Grande were speaking out for the poor, as well as for all elements in the society, political and economic. They were teaching principles of how to use and share, no matter what one’s wealth or political belief might be. They spoke openly for social justice, human rights and against political terror. In 1980, Oscar Arnulfo Romero (after three years as archbishop of El Salvador) was gunned down while saying Mass (March 24, 1980). Now I see pictures of bloody, mashed bodies of the six Jesuits and two women. I anguishly want to feel the supremacy of the soul and inviolable spirit; but before me are pictures of bloody corpses.
I later spend a few days visiting the UCA University in the summer of ’94. The peace accord was signed in 1992. I feel a relaxed environment here at the university. Politically, first steps of the peace process are being taken. Pockets of healing and joy in piano, drums, guitars, voices of students, visitors, faculty, workers, buildings going up, dance, serious study, a full library. I hear talks that encourage more political enlightenment and calls for the end of repression and the opening of a milti-faceted society, imbued with a knowledge and cherishing of human rights.
I meet Ken Hauser, a volunteer from Virginia who has been making several trips to El Salvador, bringing needed materials to the poor from the generosity of U.S. businesses. I run into an ecologist from Ireland who’s working with farmers, organizing solutions to pollution and “natural resource exploitation” problems. I visit Padre Vito Guarato who is providing a home for 300 abandoned handicapped children, at Casa de Piedra.
I’m welcomed in the home of a former student whose father– a “casualty” of the civil war– is now in prison. She says many of her friends no longer will speak to her. Yet she speaks so lovingly of her “disgraced” father… how, when a little girl, she and her father would dig for clams, lying buried, like gray fruit in the moist sand. I am very inspired by many activist groups and individuals. I find the spirit of activism and volunteering, alive in young people and people of all ages. I don’t consider activism or volunteering as special; it’s very natural and rewarding to ourselves, as well as offering needed help; engaging activities to make others more independent and alive, to speak out for what we may strongly believe in, to offer financial help to a carefully considered cause. Activism’s engine is revved by this confidence in human beings’ resourcefulness (when really wanting some change).