Monday, March 23, 2015

Let Us Not Limit Our Vision

Laura Perez-Boston served as a Dominican Volunteer from 2006-2008. She lived with the Dominican Sisters of Houston and helped establish the newly founded Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center. She stayed on staff as Organizer and went on to serve as Executive Director from 2010 – 2015, leading the organization through a process of rebranding under the new name “Fe y Justicia Worker Center” and a chapter of unprecedented growth. Laura lives in Houston with her husband Javier Perez-Boston, stays connected with the Sisters through the Dominican Family, and enjoys practicing yoga, cooking, and escaping to the beach as often as possible. (Learn more about the Fe y Justicia Worker Center’s impact in the community from this video:

Laura Perez-Boston

Work should be a way of sharing our gifts and skills with our community, and our jobs should offer a dignified way to provide for the needs of our families. Especially for low-income families, we assume a job should be a pathway out of poverty, but too often that is not the case.

Over the course of eight years of accompanying low-wage immigrant workers in their struggles for dignity and justice on the job in a state with some of the poorest standards protections for workers, I learned a lot. I learned about wage theft, workplace fatalities, sexual harassment, racism, and about how these struggles are made invisible despite how intimately we are all connected to the labor of immigrant workers.

There is too much to say in this short blog post, of course, so I hope to share with you a snapshot of what transformation looks like at Fe y Justicia Worker Center. The organization transforms social service programs into a campaign, winning long-term institutional change, and it empowers immigrant workers, who otherwise might be written off as “victims,” into community leaders. From this, I want to focus on wage theft and Fe y Justicia’s campaign victory.

More than two-thirds of low-wage workers experience at least one form of wage theft: being paid less than the minimum wage, not receiving earned overtime pay, or being forced to work off-the-clock. Despite fear of retaliation, brave immigrant women like Olga Castillo come forward to denounce their employers—not only to recover their own unpaid wages but also to help prevent this from happening to others.

Olga came to Fe y Justicia Worker Center in 2011 after working at a restaurant that owed her more than $3,000 in unpaid wages. As a single mom with little cushion to fall back on without the pay she was promised, Olga decided to fight back. “He [the restaurant owner] didn’t only steal my wages,” she said, “he stole my plans with my family, my ability to provide for their basic needs, my being there when they needed me.” She and other worker members voted to launch a campaign to increase accountability for employers who profit from taking advantage of vulnerable workers and stealing their pay. The collective wisdom of working families affected by the issue was that Fe y Justicia’s efforts to recover wages wasn’t enough. Even when employees won their cases, the employer simply had to pay what was originally owed and walked away to continue doing business with little or no consequence.   

Olga Castillo at an Immigrants Rights Rally

So Fe y Justicia Worker Center members got organized behind their vision. They began meeting with City Council Members, leading marches and rallies, collecting petition signatures, and getting the word out with the press. In November 2013, after two years of non-stop action and many personal sacrifices, Fe y Justicia members, including Olga, won the passage of Houston’s Anti-Wage Theft Ordinance. This ordinance bars employers with a documented track record of wage theft from receiving City contracts, permits, or licenses and establishes a process for reporting wage theft within the Office of the Inspector General.

Even after winning the Wage Theft Ordinance, the Fe y Justicia Worker Center continues building community power among workers to ensure dignified and sustainable jobs for all. Olga developed her leadership skills throughout the trajectory of the campaign and now serves on Fe y Justicia’s Board of Directors. The organization continues to provide critical services such as wage recovery, safety and health trainings for construction workers, CPR, and green cleaning trainings for domestic workers. At the same time, it never looses sight of the deeper goal of building a strong resilient community that is empowered and uniquely equipped to define solutions to the challenges workers face on a daily basis. And we’re on to the next fight: for a living wage, for mandatory workers’ compensation coverage, for safety and health trainings for construction workers, and for recognition of domestic workers’ labor as ‘real’ work and an end to their historic exclusion from labor protections.

Our vision as an organization and as a movement for racial and economic justice is always beyond where our current capacity and form can carry us. Sometimes that dynamic generates exhaustion, the feeling that you constantly have to make miracles happen, fear of the unknown, or fear of change. How do we build resilience, carve out time for self-care, envision and live-out a life-long commitment to forging a better world?

This is a deeply personal question. You know how to best care for yourself. But we should keep coming back to the vision gap—the difference between where we are and what we can imagine and envision. This gap should be a sign of real freedom and hope. God forbid our vision be bound and limited to our current capacity. Instead we are invited to shift, put our creativity to work, build community and take on a new form. As Arundhati Roy put it, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way”. Oh yes, and let’s remember to thank God that it’s not all on our own wimpy shoulders.

For that remembering, I am drawn to the Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer, “A Step Along the Way as well as an excerpt from the Sacred Jewish text the Talmud that strikes a chord in me as I seek to carry out a lifelong commitment to social and economic justice rooted in my faith:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

On that note, check out a few ways you can get involved in promoting dignity for low-wage and immigrant workers below.

May God Creator bless you, 
May God Redeemer heal you, and 
May God the Holy Spirit fill you with light.

The Workers' Assembly after Winning the Wage Theft Ordinance

Suggestions for getting involved:

Step up as a responsible employer and responsible consumer:

Learn about and discuss the issues

Contact a local organization like Fe y Justicia Worker Center to learn about their local campaigns and get involved. Find an organization near you affiliated with these highly respected national associations:

And do listen to, challenge and take care of yourself. A good read to delve a little deeper into your self-awareness around how your ministry might be affecting you is Trauma Stewardship: A Guide to Caring for Self by Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. (Can be found on Amazon.)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Aren't There Annunciations of One Sort or Another in Most Lives?

(Tanner, The Annunciation)


by Denise Levertov

‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’ 
From the Agathistos Hymn, Greece, VIc 

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished, 
almost always a lectern, a book; always the tall lily. 

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings, 
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering, 
whom she acknowledges, a guest. 
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions 

The engendering Spirit did not enter her without consent. 

God waited. 

She was free 
to accept or to refuse, choice 
integral to humanness. 


Aren’t there annunciations 
of one sort or another 
in most lives? 

Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, 
enact them in sullen pride, 

More often those moments 
when roads of light and storm 
open from darkness in a man or woman, 
are turned away from 
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair 
and with relief. 
Ordinary lives continue. 

God does not smite them. 
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes. 


She had been a child who played, ate, slept 
like any other child–but unlike others, 
wept only for pity, laughed 
in joy not triumph. 
Compassion and intelligence 
fused in her, indivisible. 

Called to a destiny more momentous 
than any in all of Time, 
she did not quail, 
only asked a simple, ‘How can this be?’ 
and gravely, courteously, 
took to heart the angel’s reply, 
the astounding ministry she was offered: 

to bear in her womb 
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry 
in hidden, finite inwardness, 
nine months of Eternity; to contain 
in slender vase of being, 
the sum of power– 
in narrow flesh, 
the sum of light. 

Then bring to birth, 
push out into air, a Man-child 
needing, like any other, 
milk and love– 

but who was God. 

This was the moment no one speaks of, 
when she could still refuse. 

A breath unbreathed, 


She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’ 
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’ 
She did not submit with gritted teeth, 

Bravest of all humans, 
consent illumined her. 
The room filled with its light, 
the lily glowed in it, 
          and the iridescent wings. 

          courage unparalleled, 
opened her utterly. 

Learn more about Deinse Levertov:

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Peace and Security: When Will the World Know Both?

Kelly Litt currently serves with the Dominican Leadership Conference at the United Nations in New York City. She sits on five NGO committees including the Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security.

The United Nations Headquarters in New York City

In the world today, upheaval and turmoil challenge countries. Violence, bloodshed, and tears fill the daily headlines. Citizens flee their home countries because of conflict, others mourn the loss of loved ones who became victims of “collateral damage” in the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, and still others in the U.S. struggle as tensions rise while race and cultural differences seem to divide Americans. In such a world, security is needed more than ever before. However, security is often hard to define and even harder to achieve when different ideologies and policies approach the issue. The Hawks and the Doves have different views of what will make for peace. This divide is even apparent at the United Nations.

On the grounds of the United Nations Headquarters is a sculpture titled “Good Defeats Evil.” This sculpture was presented to the UN by the Soviet Union in 1990, and it depicts St. George slaying a dragon that is composed of U.S. and USSR missile fragments that were destroyed under a treaty in 1987. This sculpture is a sign and symbol of the dangers of weapons and of the UN’s commitment to disarmament.

"Good Defeats Evil" Sculpture on the United Nations Headquarters' Grounds

Yet there is not much sign of disarmament in a world that is continually plagued with news and images of conflict and violence. Around the world in places such as Syria, Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya there are seemingly endless accounts of war and tragedy. However, violence is not just something that we read about in the papers occurring across oceans; violence occurs on a daily basis here in the United States. Disagreements and arguments escalate and often turn into violent confrontations. Shootings of unarmed young black males and religious minorities have occurred in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Cleveland, Ohio; Ferguson, Missouri and Brooklyn, New York. In such a world, peace is needed, peace is essential.

These violent events are multifaceted and stem from numerous factors such as fear, racial tensions, prejudice, poverty, lack of educational and professional opportunities, and a justice system that works for some but not for all. Yet perhaps another factor that contributes to this unending cycle of violence is that countries and governments are not practicing what they preach. Violence at home is condemned, but wars wage on, often considered “necessary evils.” We march against police brutality, but don’t recognize that our government tortures prisoners of war in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Tragic events and shootings at home gain widespread media attention and inspire social media storms; yet drone strikes in places such as Yemen and Pakistan are not given much thought, even though they disproportionately kill civilians, including women and children.

Can we have peace at home while developed countries such as the United States are committing these atrocities abroad? Can we expect our lives here in the United States to be peaceful and inclusive while our brothers and sisters around the world are being denied their rights, treated unjustly, and even slaughtered? Can we expect cultural inclusion and respect within states when our government treats migrants and immigrants as second class citizens, often separating mothers from their children and holding them in detention centers as if they were criminals? Our world has become desensitized to war and killing, and our society has become highly militarized. It is a sad rarity that diplomatic or nonviolent mechanisms are used before force in response to conflict.

One of the oldest goals of the United Nations is disarmament, yet countries seem to be hoarding weapons rather than disarming. In 2013 countries around the world contributed to a global military spending of $1.739 trillion USD. Jeopardizing global security is the idea that “might makes right” and safety is found through armaments. Beyond the threat to security, weapons are harming and hindering development, gender equality, and sustainability. For peace to prevail, we must work toward inclusive and just people-centered societies.

Display at the United Nations: Quote from Secretary-General BAN Ki-moon 
and a daily worldwide military expenditure tracker

Rather than spending trillions of dollars on weapons, perpetuating this society of violence and conflict, money could be invested in education, healthcare, clean water, or sustainable agriculture.
The World Bank forecasted in 2002 that an annual investment of just $40–60 billion USD, roughly half the amount currently spent on nuclear weapons, would have been enough to meet the internationally agreed upon Millennium Development Goals on poverty alleviation by the target date of 2015. Unfortunately, the world has fallen short of meeting these goals and is turning now to the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.  

There are approximately 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty today, 70% of whom are women. Despite these staggering numbers, governments continue to spend exorbitant amounts on military expenditures. According to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), “excessive global military spending feeds into a vicious cycle of societal instability, creating an unsuitable environment to pursue gender equality… an overtly strong military presence creates insecurity. Thus demilitarization and disarmament are essential components for achieving gender equality.” It is difficult for women to achieve equality and become empowered stakeholders when there is constant violence and an overt military presence.

Dominican Sisters and Dominican Volunteers at the Climate March 
in New York City in September 2014. (Left to Right: Sr. Pat Daly, Sr. Anne Marie Bucher, 
Kelly Litt, Jimmy Hannigan, Sr. Pat Jelly, Sr. Mary Headley, Rebecca Morgenstern)

As citizens, it is important to keep abreast of current events happening around the country. It is also imperative to not only read the newspapers and understand what is going on, but to stand in solidarity with brothers and sisters in other parts of the country who are struggling, being targeted, or facing discrimination. We must take action and be a voice for the voiceless. However, it is just as important to understand that in addition to being an American citizen (or an Italian citizen, or a Nigerian citizen, or a Pakistani citizen), we are also global citizens.

The world today is more connected than any other time in history. Information is easily relayed through the internet and other forms of fast-acting technology. We must strive to understand the interconnectedness of the world and of issues such as poverty, human trafficking, migration, climate change, and war and conflict. We cannot remain in the silos of our individual countries, but must work together on a global front to both understand the struggles of our brothers and sisters and to likewise raise awareness and take action on their behalf. Just because violence is occurring 8,000 miles away does not mean we should turn a blind eye. Just as Americans rose up against police brutality in the wake of the tragedies in Ferguson, so too should we stand up against the violence of ISIS or against the war crimes and kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram.

Living in a global community is not solely about individualism and personal conversion. Rather it is about working toward the conversion of oppressive structures in all societies throughout the globe. Citizens must take responsibility for the policies of their governments to ensure they follow international laws and treaties. Policies must align both domestically and internationally for peace to prevail. We as global citizens must urge our governmental representatives to act with integrity and respect regarding both domestic and international issues. Shifting funds from national security and weapons to human security can lead to a sustainable future. The use of weapons should no longer be the currency of foreign policy around the globe. As the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (2:4). We must all work to beat any swords in our lives into plowshares and to work for change and peace in our world.

Morality and ethics in foreign policy, international relations, and even domestic rule is hard to define, but it can begin in a place where our countries and governments lead by example. We must recognize the value and dignity of every human life, both inside our country’s borders and across the globe.

For more information regarding military expenditures, peace, and security check out these links: