Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Bronx Nativity: Siena House at Christmastime

Tina Cisarik has shared ministry at Siena House this year.  Read on for her thoughts on Nativity!

The term “nativity”, which comes from the Latin word natal (to be born), is not unique to the birth of Jesus. In fact, it can be said that we each have been part of our own nativity scene, whether in a tight manager, a well-stocked hospital unit or a tempered pool of water on the living room floor. For the past four months, I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a constantly transitioning nativity scene nestled in the Highbridge neighborhood of the South Bronx.

Home to twenty-seven pregnant women and women with young children, Siena House, a transitional shelter for homeless women and infants, has embraced hundreds of mothers and babies since opening her arms in 1990. Fueled with the passion of empowering marginalized women, Siena provides resources and support for job readiness, permanent housing and parenting skills, along with assuring a safe residential environment for both mother and child. While the shelter has seen great change in the past twenty-four years, a special event has withstood nearly two and a half decades: The Annual Siena House Christmas Celebration.
Tina poses with a former resident of Siena House.
Each year, staff and community members work together to create a harmonious, memorable Christmas season for our residents, including a visit from Santa Claus, baked goodies and a trimmed tree with gifts underneath. As a self-proclaimed holiday elf, I’ve been navigating through the heaps of paperwork, handmade ornaments and countdown chains with great joy, resting assured that this season will bring much magic to those who partake. However, the pile of clothing and toys that is beginning to accumulate in my office has been the main focus of my attention. Made possible by the contributions of neighboring parishes, Girl Scout troops and college students at Fordham University, I’ve been sorting onesies and Tonka Trunks by the bunch. Aside from stirring up my own nostalgia, I have found the sight of such generosity to be inexplicable. There is something remarkable about individuals traveling from near and far to bring forth gifts to children who may otherwise go without.

Throughout this process, I’ve often paused to ask myself where such generosity comes from. What ignites people to maintain the idea that Christmas is the “season of giving”? What causes the heart to want to lend of itself in the spirit of the holidays? Perhaps such generosity stems from recognizing that the humble nativity scenes depicted in the Gospel stories are not far off from our own. Perhaps it comes from understanding that, had Mary been wandering around New York City looking for vacancy, Siena would have given her a place to rest. Perhaps it comes from the fact that, like the children of Siena House, Christ, too, came with an infant face. 

It’s true: the Messiah was not birthed from a swirl of wind and flakes of silver. There was no grand entrance, no royal purple linens upon which to lie. This was not for the lack of God’s ability. This was the same God who parted a traitorous sea, who dried the land after a flooding and painted the sky with a rainbow of fellowship. But, God chose to become human in the womb of a young mother without a place to rest. God chose to reveal the Sacred Presence in the body of an infant swaddled in hay. God chose humility and poverty over regality and gleam. And yet this child, wrapped in dusty cloth against his mother’s chest, immediately became a figure of persistent compassion. Behold, the Child of God, Root of Jesse, Prince of Peace. The titles are much more prestigious than the birthing scene depicted.

I’m continuously reminded of this as I stare at the stack of stuffed animals waiting to be cuddled and pajamas waiting to be worn. There was no telltale sign that the infant Jesus, helpless in nature, would be the one to repurpose the Covenant of Love. And yet, people of faith  - guided only by a star - traveled through the depths of evening and into unfamiliar territory to lay gifts upon the baby’s feet. They invested in this new child with both affection and tokens of appreciation, knowing all the while he’d be the one to give back. While these offerings of frankincense, gold and myrrh were quite different from the Little Tyke’s toys I’ve begun to wrap, the messages they provided remain the same: We accept you, we honor you, we love you. You are our child, too.

A community member stitched together over 90 small teddy bears to be given to the babies during the Christmas celebration

With Christmas around the corner, I ask of each of you to embody the questions that Siena has so loving caused me to ponder: How can you recall the origin of the holiday in every child you pass and delight in those who retain a child-like spirit? How can you bring to life the humility and generosity ever-present this season with both your words and your actions? And mostly, how can you remember the oneness that you share with the Messiah who, like all of us, started off quite small?

Tina handmade special ornaments for each of the Siena women and their children to be hung on their community Christmas tree.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.

Isaiah 11:6, NIV

Monday, December 2, 2013

Food for Thought

The following was written by current volunteer Bailey Agattas

Embarking on a year of beginning a job in which I have no prior knowledge or experience may seem a crazy thing to do. Sticking to my comfort zone in the wonderful state of Michigan would have been much easier, but I was ready for a change and a challenge. I wanted to raise the sails of my dreams and let the wind of opportunity carry me wherever it felt like blowing. And so, as an idealistic, naïve, 23 year old girl with a degree in Mathematics in my back pocket, I set out to Long Island, New York in August to get my hands dirty in the soil of Homecoming Farm, a certified organic CSA farm on the property of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville.  

My experience after just three short months has been both parallel and disparate my expectations, but one of the most notable changes in my perspective has revolved around food. I view food a little differently than I did before I had such a close encounter with it. As a society, we seem to be very disconnected from the people and the process that provide our sustenance, and I am not exempt from this disconnection. Before working on the farm, I did not know how most fruits and vegetables grow, what they looked like in their most natural, raw state, or even that there are hundreds of thousands of different varieties of these plants. I have quickly learned the difference between Winterbor and Siberian Kale, a Green Zebra and a Sungold Tomato (my favorite kind!), and a Hakurei and a Scarlett Queen Turnip (although, both taste equally unpleasing to my taste buds… I still have a long way to go in developing a more exquisite palate!). Looking though seed catalogs, I continue to be fascinated by varieties of vegetables I have never seen before.


My newfound knowledge and curiosity travels with me to the local and chain grocery stores, where I spend a few extra minutes browsing the produce section. Every time I see a variety of vegetable grown on our farm, a little flurry of exhilaration runs through me, perhaps connoting a sense of connection with whomever grew this particular crop, or maybe a sense of relief and contentment that comes with familiarity. Likewise, when I see a foreign vegetable unknown to me, I feel a surge of wonder, and I note the delectable fruit in my mind with a reminder to ask “Farmer Don” about it. Even something as simple as a grocery run has been transformed into a reminder that there is so much beauty and perfection in God’s magnificent creation.

This creation is still such a beautiful mystery to me. Even after seeing the entire life-cycle, it still boggles my mind how such a tiny seed can become such a fruitful plant, without much attention from man, the caretaker of the earth. While I have had a hand in the planting, nourishing, and harvesting of the bountiful yield this season has brought, it has taught me much about the idea of control. As much as we believe that we can change the outcome of a certain situation or event, it is often times out of our hands. As much as we can dictate where the seeds will be planted, how much we will water them, and what type of fertilizer and compost we will use, we cannot guarantee that the seeds will grow into a plant and produce fruit. And if they do produce fruit, we cannot take much credit for the bounty. The lesson I have just begun to discover is that clinging to the illusion of control does nothing to change the outcome. I have learned how challenging it can be to trust that God will provide, but it is something I continue to believe. The hundreds of pounds of tomatoes, green beans, and cabbage that I have been able to harvest are proof enough to me that God always provides.

Then Jesus said to his disciples: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? "Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! Luke 12:22-28

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Being All There Wherever There Happens to Be

This post was originally published on Cold Oatmeal, the personal blog from of Mary Paige "MP" Bausch.  As we come into the week of thankfulness, as well as the ending the liturgical year, we wanted to re-post her thoughts.
Hey y'all, sorry it's been a while since I've updated Cold Oatmeal. The last few months have been a bit of a struggle-- certainly some ups and lots of downs. Despite some of these intense challenges so far in my personal life, ministry, and community, I can feel that I've grown since the beginning in August. I've met some great people, explored the city more, and I'm finally getting to know some of the students. 

This last Saturday, I had a wonderful time on my own exploring a beautiful San Francisco landmark-- the Golden Gate Bridge. Prior to getting there, I was in a funky bad and sad mood. Though, when the bus dropped me off that bad/sad mood somehow lifted. This huge monument that I've seen on TV (especially every episode of Full House) was right before my eyes. I was standing on it, walking on it, touching it. I could see all of San Francisco. This was so cool.. and it was a perfectly sunny afternoon. I walked across the 1.7 mile bridge to Marin County where I hiked up to a beautiful look-out spot. The view put a smile on my face. The tourists around me must have thought I was nuts-- "Who's this girl that's just sitting there smiling?" 

A few years ago, in the midst of a crazy semester of school, a mentor asked me, "MP, where do you find God in all of this?" I thought about it for a moment and replied, "God is there." I was taken back from the depth of my own answer; whoa, things just got deep. As I reflected more, I explained that I did not feel as though I was intentionally putting God at the front and center of all that I did. I was involved with this and that-- music, Res Life, college ministries, school, volunteering, and roughly 20 other things. Sure, I prayed regularly and went to mass, but didn't consciously give up everything to God-- as many of my peers testified. However, I did feel God's presence in me and in my life: God is there. Since then, it has been my mantra for my spirituality. 

With the Dominican Volunteer experience-- full-time ministry and living in intentional community with vowed religious women-- there is a lot of 'God time' in Godly places-- praying in my classes, in the chapel at evening prayer/mass with the sisters, at the young adults small group, weekly mass... I'm really racking up those prayer points! 

All of this 'God time,' though, it's made me contemplate my unfulfilled spirituality-- Why am I not feeling fulfilled? Is all of this 'God time' a true reflection of my spirituality? What am I doing wrong? For example, the faith community that I live in has a distinct way of 'doing prayer'-- liturgy of the hours, Dominican style. It's great, beautifully written and sacred, but I don't really get a whole lot of spiritual fulfillment from it. Same with the other forms of God time-- it's great, but I'm not getting a lot. Now, I know prayer shouldn't always be selfish-- what am I getting from it? I, I, I; me, me, me; take, take, take. When you pray with a community, there's the aspect of bringing something of yourself to share with others. With that, I do participate and will continue to do so. On the other hand, shouldn't I get a little something? Why does everyone else seem to be getting something, and I'm not?

Going back to my Saturday afternoon at Golden Gate Bridge... It wasn't just a good ol' touristy time for me... it felt spiritual. Sitting at the way top of that look-out, taking in the breathtaking nature-y view of the pre-sunset... I felt connected to something bigger than myself. This something that I was feeling-- that was making me feel so good, physically putting a smile on my face-- it wasn't something that could be replicated in a church or a chapel or a classroom. For the first time in a while, I really felt like I was whole-heartedly living out my spirituality. That feeling where time stops, you feel real joy, and want to share it with everyone. 

Finding God in the ordinary parts of life, mainly nature, is where I feel most connected. I love singing in the church choir at mass. Prayer with the sisters is a good wrap-up to the end of a busy day. It's wonderful to see everyone in my prayer group. I'll definitely continue to do those things, but it feels so good to have identified an environment that fosters my spiritual needs. Luckily, all I have to do is go outside.

Carla Mae Streeter, OP, writes so eloquently on spirituality. I just love her vision of spirituality-- being real and being present. That's exactly what I was feeling on Saturday.
Spirituality is real presence. It is being real, or fully human, and being really present - to myself, others, nature, the cosmos, the Divine. Said rather tritely, it is being all there wherever there happens to be. 
Carla Mae Streeter, OP

Friday, November 15, 2013

A New Branch on My Family Tree

Tory Nogle currently serves as a 6th grade teacher with Holy Family School in the St. Francis Center.

It is officially the season of being thankful. All around me, I see examples of people saying their gratitude for certain things or people. We are all challenged to think, "what am I really thankful for?"

In sixth grade, the religion curriculum is the Old Testament. This can be really tough to teach to sixth graders because the Old Testament is filled with stories of death and God getting angry. I am faced with a lot of tough questions about God's love after reading stories like Noah's Ark, where as a child it seemed so innocent.  When we read the real text we realize God was mad and he wanted to get rid of those who turned away from His love. Even though these stories can be hard to understand, we are able to pull out lessons that we can apply to our own lives. We learn about God's merciful love and the blessings He bestowed onto those who truly loved him.

Despite the challenging material and vocabulary that comes with the Old Testament, the students really love Religion class. I could chalk it up to I am the best teacher ever, but I would like to give some credit to my students as well because they are able to really think about the lessons and how we can apply them into our modern lives.

Once a week, we take our class time to have a prayer service. I am very honest with them about how difficult the Old Testament can be and how we need to take a break and experience our faith without the textbook in front of us. I have the kids sit in a circle, turn down the lights, and normally open with a reading from Psalms. I ask the students to think about something, someone, or an experience, really anything at all, that they are thankful for and then to also think about a prayer or intention they have. 

The first few times we did this in class, when we went around the room and said what or who we are thankful for, everyone's answer was the same. 

"I am thankful for my family and my friends." 

I was getting so frustrated, at first, because I thought the kids weren't really thinking deeply about this. It was an easy answer, of course, we are all thankful for our family and friends.

Then I realized this is what we all have, even when we have nothing, we have our family and our friends. When we have everything we could ask for, we still need a support system, people with laugh with, cry with, celebrate with, and even mourn with.

At the heart of life, is relationship. 

Starting new, across the country, has had its challenges. I am no exception for being thankful for my friends and family. And now, for the most part, that support system is back in the Midwest and there are times when that fact is painfully obvious.

For example, my birthday was last month. Back home, celebrating my birthday is always so much fun. My older sister's birthday is the day after mine so we always have a big family dinner and then we go shopping together. I was getting really excited for my birthday and my students were even counting down the days. The morning of my birthday came and I woke up to a phone full of texts and facebook notifications. I was overwhelmed how many people were already wishing me the happiest of birthdays. It was a little hard though to realize that I wouldn't get to give my mom or dad a big hug and my sister and I wouldn't be going on our annual birthday shopping trip.

My sadness turned to joy shortly after I got to school and the kids started arriving. One of my white boards was full of birthday messages from the students and I had received flowers, teddy bears, and even purple cupcakes from the kids!

Then, during one of my planning periods, I was sitting the conference room and there was a mom of one of my students and her math tutor working. The mom was acting so weird, very fidgety, constantly taking phone calls, and she kept saying, "This is such a wonderful day!" I was honored she thought it was awesome that it was my birthday, but she stared me down every time I got up to do something. Finally, she got up and closed the door and peaked back in and said, "you stay put!"
When I was retrieved, I walked into the kitchen to find a huge feast and a Minnie Mouse cake! I was almost in tears. The moms did this all for me and they have only known me for 2.5 months! Everyone at the center was conspiring all week just to make my birthday special.

Ever since I arrived in Redwood City, I have felt a sense of family with those I have met. When I am at home with my community, we are like a family. When I go to school, those kids and their parents have welcomed me into the St. Francis Center family. The parents ask me how I am doing and if I miss home. They tell me what is happening in their lives and they give me suggestions of things to do while I am in California.

At the center, I have become part of another family. All of the students and their parents have taken me in like they have known me for years.

I am extremely thankful for my family and friends here in Redwood City. My students really know what they are talking about. 
Ms. Nogle and her class on Halloween

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Saint for All Times

The following post has been written by Michael Fabrizio, who is currently serving at Indiana University.

“Let me be useful and unnoticed, like a broom behind a door.” –St. Martin de Porres
November 1st is a feast in the Catholic Church known as All Saints Day. Fr. Simon-Felix Michalski, O.P., the superior of the Dominican community at St. Paul’s Catholic Center and the Director of Campus Ministry for the Newman Center at Indiana University has been known to say, “If you want to know more about God, read theology. If you want to know how to practically get there, read the lives of the saints.” The saints, in turn, all strived to imitate the life of Christ. Thomas à Kempis says in his spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, “What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God.” (The Imitation of Christ I,1).

Many young adults today lack a personal relationship with Christ. The issue is often that we don’t even know where to begin. St. Augustine once said, “Christ as God is the native land towards which we travel. Christ as man is the way by which we journey.” (Sermon 123,3). Sometimes it is hard even to turn to Christ, even as a human, and follow Him in our journey towards God. That is why we need the lives of the saints to guide us and serve as our compass, pointing us towards heaven.

November 3rd is the feast of St. Martin de Porres, an extraordinary Dominican Saint who devoted his entire being both to Christ and to the poor. Mystical and mysterious, compassionate and caring. Saint Martin de Porres is known for many things, the greatest of which is being a friend to God’s poor at all times. Saint Martin de Porres knew how to truly be exalted, by taking the most humble places at the table and letting the host of the heavenly banquet elevate him. (see Luke 14:10). Saint Martin was indeed a humble man, of humble beginnings. Born Juan Martin in the city of Lima, Peru, on December 9, 1579, he was the illegitimate son of a freed slave of Panama, and a Spanish nobleman. His father abandoned his family shortly after the birth of his sister.

In this period of abandonment, where Martin and his family were barely able to get by, Martin developed an unconditional love for the poor, and for God. In his book Martin: The Legend and Miracles of St. Martin de Porres, author Ernest Haywood writes, “Sometimes Martin was given a few coins and an empty basket to go and do the shopping for the food for the family. Often he would return without any money and the basket still empty. He would be stopped by someone poorer than he and begging for money to buy food. Martin could not help but give what he had to a beggar who had not eaten for days. As he would give away coins for food, he would say, ‘May God bless you.’ Then he would run away so that he would not hear any outpouring of thanks to him.” (Haywood 39-40). As a teenager, he took on an apprenticeship as a barber-surgeon. It was at this time that he would spend much of the night in prayer, a spiritual practice that would only gain momentum as he grew older. It was there also he learned many aspects of medicine. It was not long before Martin applied to the Dominicans, however not as a professed friar, but as a tertiary, or third order. In this sense, Martin was simply a lay helper, not feeling himself worthy to be a religious brother. Eventually, his humility did not go unnoticed. Though it took nine years, his example of his prayer and penance, charity and humility led the community to request him to make full religious profession. (American Catholic Saint of the Day: St. Martin de Porres (

After Martin became professed, he continued to devote his life to helping the sick and serving the poor. A powerful testament to his character was that he treated all of God’s people, paying no attention to color, race, or status. He established an orphanage and a children’s hospital, yet still managed to keep a vigilant prayer life. At one point his priory was in debt. He offered to the prior that he be sold as a slave rather than sell the paintings in the monastery (Haywood 72-73). He is known as well for his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. In one account, “…he was praying in front of it one night when the step of the altar he was kneeling on caught fire. Throughout all the confusion and chaos that followed, he remained where he was, unaware of what was happening around him.”(Wikipedia: St. Martin de Porres).

Another particularly extraordinary characteristic of Saint Martin was that he was known to be blessed with “levitation, bilocation, miraculous knowledge, instantaneous cures, and an ability to communicate with animals.”(Wikipedia: St. Martin de Porres). One incredible story about his bilocation was an occasion when St. Martin was out ministering to the poor and his prior wanted him to return home. He sent out four friars in four different directions to look for St. Martin. They all found him helping the poor! He was also known as an excellent fundraiser, and worked hard to raise money both for his religious community and for the poor he devoted his life to serving. Yet, his humility remained with him, referring to himself as a poor slave, until his death on November 3, 1649.

We can learn from the life of Saint Martin that a life dedicated to prayer and vigilance is very important, but it is to be complimented with a life of service to others, done in the most humble of ways. As our Lord says, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) Saint Martin de Porres was one who humbled himself greatly, and therefore was exalted greatly.

A relationship with the Saints is important for any Catholic for many reasons. For me, St. Martin is a perfect person to have as a patron saint. He understood what it meant to surrender completely to God, to abandon his own self and let God take over. It was only through doing the ordinary, with a great humility and a reverence to God in all things that God eventually took over. It took nine long years for his community to ask him to make his first profession. While we all may want to be recognized as holy people deserving of praise and glory, St. Martin and all of the saints realized that we had nothing to be proud of-save our Lord. Obedience to God is a path to freedom. It is through this that we can become like the Blessed Virgin Mary, and let our prayer be hers: “Let it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). St. Martin’s prayer was the same, and he was known to say, “Let me be useful and unnoticed, like a broom behind a door.” Sometimes I wonder if the good I do, even the little things, is noticed. But sometimes it’s better not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, and let your good be done in secret, for our Father who sees us in secret will repay us in secret. Before he left home to join the Dominicans, Martin, in explaining to his mother why he was becoming a lay brother and not a student priest said, “Mother, the Lord has big tasks to be done, and He has small tasks to be done. I just don’t think He intends for me to do the big tasks; therefore I have chosen to do the small tasks. In that way I will be showing Our Savior all the more how much I love Him.” (Haywood, 55).

So what does St. Martin de Porres have to do with me, Michael Fabrizio? Why do I have a devotion to him? Well, I first learned about him on his feast day last year, November 3rd, 2012. A sister asked me if I could do some research on him for her as a favor, and I ended up writing a short report on him that served as the basis for the biographical part of this article. However, no biographical report can describe my devotion to him. St Martin is someone whose intercession I seek because he is someone that I hope to imitate. In my ministry at St. Paul’s, there are many times when I can relate to St. Martin. In Martin’s early years of ministry, he was not a professed religious. He was not under vows and didn’t wear the habit. He simply did his duty and continued to do this his entire life.

I am not a priest. I am not a brother. I am a lay person without extensive theological or spiritual training. If I look at this as constraining, it will be constraining. If I look it as freeing, it will be freeing. Since I don’t wear a habit I am unable to go to campus and just sit in Starbucks and be a visual magnet for students to approach and chat with. I can’t celebrate the Mass. I can’t hear confessions. I am unable to preach at the ambo to the crowd of parishioners. But this is not my mission. The mission of the Dominicans is to preach the Gospel for the salvation of souls. I am not a Dominican. I do eat with, pray with, and work for Dominicans. And more importantly, I am of service to the Dominicans here. I am like the simple broom Martin described when I plan out a retreat, and then pray for its success. I am the same way when I slip out of a prayer service early to warm up food to be served afterwards. I am a servant when I listen to a student’s troubles and pray with them, and then let my lips remain sealed, holding everything they have told me in my heart and in my prayers. If all I desire to be is who I am, and who God wants me to be, then I can allow my Lord to work through me. My mission is the salvation of souls. I may not be the one preaching to them, but I can pray for those who are and support them in all they do. And I can recognize that as God forms me into a finer instrument, able to do His work in a more precise way, I cannot claim any of the good that I may do to be my own doing. Rather I am a poor slave of Jesus, and it is only in true servitude that true freedom exists.

O Lord, let me be like St. Martin de Porres, and realize that the only good I do, I do through you. O Christ, let me recognize like St. Martin that there is only you. O Holy Spirit, if it be your will, fill me and allow me to be like my dear Martin and work as your tool, doing all you command of me. O Blessed and Sacred Trinity, All glory is yours for all eternity. Amen

Prayer to Saint Martin De Porres
Most glorious Martin de Porres, whose burning charity embraced not only thy needy brethren, but also the very animals of the field, splendid example of charity, we hail thee and invoke thee! From that high throne which thou dost occupy, deign to listen to the supplications of thy needy brethren that, by imitating thy virtues, we may live contented in that state in which God has placed us and carrying with strength and courage our cross, we may follow the footsteps of Our Blessed Redeemer and His mist afflicted Mother, that at last we may reach the Kingdom of Heaven through the merits of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Justice Arising

Current Volunteer Luke Sullivan returns for a second year ministering with ARISE Chicago.

A worker came recently to Arise Chicago because she was being paid sub-minimum wages and not being paid overtime. When she confronted her boss, who was a rich businessman, about this, he told her that he understood that he was paying her under what she was legally owed, he just didn't think she deserved anything more.

This story stays with me because I see it as a symbol of just how screwed up our world has become. He didn't believe that she deserved a below poverty-level wage, and through his actions, he stole from her the inherent dignity within all of us. In the race for profits, we have lost a fundamental reality; that all of us are connected, that all of our fates are tied together. Mother Theresa said it so well when she said, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." We must never forget that we belong to each other.

Arise Chicago is an interfaith worker center that builds partnerships between faith communities and workers to fight workplace injustice through education, organizing and advocating for public policy changes. For the past two years I have been the religious organizer, so my ministry specifically is to connect religious congregations, and bring in their support, with our campaigns. It has been an incredibly enlightening experience for me to learn about the realities that are happening in Chicago, in Illinois, and around the world. We all remember the horrific fire in the Bangladesh factory, which killed more than 1,000 people, but the abuse of the rights of all workers is rampant throughout our world, and within our own society.

In a recent study done by the University of Illinois at Chicago, in Cook County alone, which encompasses the vast majority of Chicago, more than one million dollars is stolen from low-wage workers EVERY day. In the car-wash industry in Chicago, the average wage of a worker is $6.59/hour; well below the minimum wage, and more than 63% of carwash workers do not have access to free drinking water. We at Arise are attempting to organize car-wash workers in Chicago to change the culture into one where everyone is paid a fair, living wage with safe working conditions. Arise partners with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to bring justice to domestic workers. Because though domestic workers are professionals who do real work, they are excluded from many of the basic protections guaranteed by the Fair Labor Standards Act – things like minimum wage, overtime, sick and vacation days. We are also proud supporters of the Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart, to stop the worker abuse and low-wages that have become a part of the Walmart model. They and many other corporations use temp-labor agencies to cripple workers attempts at organizing, which have helped create sweatshop-like conditions for workers within our own communities. To aid in the protection of workers rights in Chicago, we worked with local Aldermen to pass an anti-wage theft ordinance, where businesses can have their licenses revoked if they are caught committing wage theft.
Luke standing for justice in a recent protest against Walmart

Recently, Arise has supported and marched with workers who are part of a nationwide campaign for fast-food and retail workers to be paid $15/hour with the right to join a union without retaliation. This may sound absurd, but the average age of a fast-food worker in the country is 28 years old. And to see how unbelievably low the federal minimum wage is: in 1963, the minimum wage was $1.25/hour, which would equate to approximately $9.25 in 2013 dollars. The original idea of the minimum wage was to make sure that if someone worked full time, they would not live in poverty. However, there are currently over 10 million "working poor" in this country, and approximately half of all jobs pay under $27,000. No working person should be forced to live in poverty, but that is what is currently happening.

Though  what we do at Arise and what we stand for might be considered controversial, there are values that must guide every decision we make. Our rights do not end when we enter the workplace, nor should they end for anyone. Money is not inherently evil by any means, but we must always ask ourselves how we are making this money. Perhaps we need to think of, “How much would I want to receive if I did that job?” For though people may work for a business, we all belong to God. A basic tenant of Catholic Social Teaching is that, “The economy must serve people, not the other way around. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected.” (these and other tenants of Catholic Social Teaching can be found on the Website for USCCB) We must together break down the barriers of injustice that still exist in our society. As the Pope John Paul II states in his encyclical Laborem Exercens, “Yet the workers' rights cannot be doomed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at maximum profits. The thing that must shape the whole economy is respect for the workers’ rights. These must be our guiding principles.” In every decision we make, we must remember that no life matters less than any other, because we are one.

Our role in this world is to create a community where all people are able to become the person they were born to be. I believe that is what Arise Chicago is all about, and why I have fallen in love with the mission. God did not create humanity so that we could subjugate each other, but so that we could live with each other, as one human family. Our society has created an "us" vs. "them" mentality, but that is not Jesus' message. Instead of worrying about the bottom line, we must first concern ourselves, and stand with those, who line the bottom. We must stand firm in our resolve that we all belong to each other. Our work must continue to be directed toward others, because that is the only way we can bring about peace. And though we know that the wheels of justice turn slowly, we also know they do indeed turn. True justice can only be fully realized when we commit our lives to create a world that looks wholly different than it currently does: a world that would be fully recognizable to God: a world where the love of God reigns. We know that peace and righteousness will prevail over hatred and greed; we do not know when, but we know that they will. And when this happens, as St. Catherine of Sienna said, "We will set the world on fire."

You can see more of Luke and the Fight for Fifteen protests here.
To continue your study you can read more snippets what the Catholic Church says about work and continue conversation among your community members! 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Raising the Minimum Wage

By Luke Sullivan
Within my first few weeks at Arise Chicago, I remember distinctly speaking with a worker who came in to our worker center who made minimum wage. Our conversation eventually turned to how stressful her life had become. She worked full time and just could not afford clothes, food, schooling and many other necessities for her children. Because of this, she was forced to begin the process of moving to another city to live with her brother. Her children had only known living in Chicago and she was so saddened and downtrodden that she would have to move her children away from the only life they had ever known.
This conversation has remained with me and I think is a powerful example of why the current minimum wage is unfair and unjust. How can someone working full time not be able to afford life’s basic necessities? This is one of many reasons why I was so excited when I was first introduced to the Raise Illinois coalition, a campaign to raise the minimum wage in Illinois. This group hopes to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. One of the many statistics that is used to support this raise is if the minimum wage had risen with the cost of living over the past 40 years, it would be $10.39 per hour today. The coalition wishes to raise it to $10.65 per hour over a four year span and tie it to inflation thereafter. It is not about a handout so all workers can live in great luxury, but about fairness and justice. Plus it makes economic sense: the more money workers have, the more money they are able to spend; if these wages were to increase, the economy will be strengthened.
The Raise Illinois campaign aims to give all families the fundamental necessities to sustain a fulfilling life and to raise a family. It is unjust for members of our community and our state to work full-time and still live in poverty. This is why I was so excited to travel to Springfield, Illinois on December 5th with five Worker Center members, on behalf of Raise Illinois, to educate lawmakers on the need to increase the state minimum wage.
The five workers made the trip in order to share their stories about how, even when working full-time, the minimum wage is so low that it is keeping working families like theirs in poverty. One of the workers, Maria Winnie Gonzalez, while speaking to one state representative who was undecided on the issue, pleaded that being a minimum wage worker did not allow her to “buy clothes, food, and so many other things that my children and entire family need.”
IMG_0773The workers wanted all lawmakers, even those unavailable that day, to hear their voice, so they also left a note in Sen. John Mulroe’s office, which was signed by all the workers, asking him to do God’s Justice and raise the minimum wage to a living wage. It is true that their families and the families of so many of their friends and co-workers need this raise.
As a Dominican Volunteer, my faith is very important to me. Jesus says it succinctly when he is speaking to God, saying, “That they may be one, just as we are one.” I think Jesus is telling us to stand in kinship and solidarity, as one, with all people. In this case, we must stand as one so all workers may be treated fairly and not be left behind. For though we may come from different backgrounds and experiences, we are all children of God; and in that, we share a common humanity.
Throughout these past few months at Arise, there have been several campaigns that also work to demand dignity and respect for all workers. I have seen this through working with the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Committee, the Arise Chicago Car Wash campaign, the Fight For Fifteen coalition, and so many other movements throughout the city. It has never been about gaining great luxuries and wealth, but instead about making sure everyone in society can earn a decent living. For me, these campaigns are all really asking the same question: “Instead of worrying about the bottom line, shouldn’t we be more concerned about the people who line the bottom?”luke (4)
In January 2011, Senate Bill 1565 was first introduced into the legislature to progressively increase the minimum wage to $10.65 per hour and tie it to the cost of living thereafter. Currently, we are hoping the bill will be passed in the lame duck session of Congress in early January 2013. The coalition is asking for your time and your prayers to see to it that God’s Justice is done, and that this bill is signed into law.
Luke Sullivan is the Religious Organizer for Arise Chicago.  This blog post originally appeared on the Arise Chicago blog, Dignity At Work.