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Keeping the Faith

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Archbishop Oscar Romero's image in the courtyard of a church near San Salvador. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

Two years ago, I visited a charismatic woman known as Mama Grace in Soweto. She ran a South African community organization that serves meals to children in her cinder-block garage-turned cafeteria. She led us in a prayer before lunch and everyone bowed their heads—except me. I was watching Mama Grace pray. After we all said “Amen,” Mama Grace pointed at me and said “That one was looking at me and not praying!”

Busted. 

I was looking at Mama Grace because I am fascinated by the strength people find to carry out their mission. I have a lot of respect for those whose faith guides them to work in poor communities. I always wonder:  What drives them?

I think about this a lot when I travel in Latin America, especially in El Salvador, where Catholic clergy have paid an especially heavy price.  Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980 while saying mass, is still a constant presence in the country. His public criticism of war-time violence and repression cost him his life. In 1989, six Jesuits who had criticized the government were murdered by the military in the middle of the night at the University of Central America in San Salvador. Just working in poor communities was sometimes enough to get killed: Three nuns and a missionary from the US “disappeared” in 1980. Their bodies were later found buried in shallow graves.  But the faithful persist. Last year, I met a Salvadoran nun who runs a shelter for domestic violence survivors in San Salvador, a violent city for women. When I asked her what motivated her, she told me that she simply wanted women to know “that they have rights, that they can find happiness, and that they are human beings who deserve respect.” She said God led her to this work. She was only 23.

Father Marco Arana. Photo by Jessica Erickson

Just this past November, I spent a day riding around in the back of a pickup truck with Catholic priest Marco Arana, zigzagging around the mountains and dodging rain showers in Cajamarca, Peru. He is one of the founders of the environmental watch dog organization known as GRUFIDES. GRUFIDES is critical of a large gold mine in Cajamarca, and this has proven dangerous. Father Arana and others have been under surveillance and received anonymous death threats.  In the front of the truck was Arana’s armed body guard, provided by the Peruvian government as ordered by the United Nations. So of course I asked Arana why he continues to do this dangerous work.

“It would be shameful to live a peaceful life while allowing other people’s lives, the mountains, the valleys, and the rivers to be destroyed,” he said.

Myself, I am not a religious person, but I do believe in people. And I think that the courageous ones working to end injustice must need as much faith in themselves as they do in any higher power.

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  1.  avatarJoseph R. Dell'Aquila, PhD

    Many people of faith indeed do much outstanding work. However, a logical and cogent argument can be made that this faith is the cause of more strife in the world than any other factor. Some Israeli’s unwilling to give up any of the holy land and some Arabs declaring holy wars. A single example of a multitude of conflicts; how many conflicts around the globe have an issue of faith at their core? Reason and logic should always be used first to ensure justice and equality. There is no need to abandon faith but please don’t use it to make decisions.

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  2.  avatarJacqueline Lapidus

    “Believe” has a common root with “be-love.” To believe is to give one’s heart to something. Believing in a higher power, however that power is expressed in symbol, image or words, is precisely what enables many people to believe in themselves and their ability to face hardship, injustice and challenge with courage. Many call “God” the model of their highest values and/or a life that embodies those values. Even those who understand divine intervention as a principle sometimes give it a name, a persona so that they can speak to it. And in times of danger or difficulty, it helps them to feel that they are not alone in their endeavors.

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  3. Chris Hufstader

    Thank you Joseph and Jacqueline, for these thoughtful comments. Jacqueline expresses my key message in a much more elegant way…and Joseph makes exactly the point I had hopes someone would point out: that religious faith can also drive war. This is one of the reasons I am not a religions person, but also why I am inspired by those who leverage their faith for peace.

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  4.  avatarVítor Gomes

    I’m an “Ateu” person. I don’t belive in God! I think each man or woman are they onner god or devil. Each one of us can be good persons or bad persons. That is my spiritual way of thinking about life. I don’t belive in other life after this life. This is the reason why I fight too, with all the people wants to live in Peace however they are, because I also want to live in Peace. We have only one life, and this life is so important, so rich, that I dificult can understand way we make wars for?
    But, I belive in your work! It’s a very important work for life, for hope and for a better World in Peace, this is another reason, over religion, I’m solidarite with all the people, like you, put your life in risk everyday, helping people over the World, as Archbishop Romero. I remember is strong voice against poverty, fear and repression
    when S. Salvador had a facist governement. I remember so many, as Luther King, fighting for freedom, as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tuto in South Africa against the aphartaid.
    I reconize your “job” as a bless of all human persons who have no voice, no power, no land and no life, and you, and others, comes to speak by their death mouths.
    Thank you.
    Vítor.
    Portugal.

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  5.  avatarKaren Freeman

    Probably the biggest reason that I give through Oxfam is that it is not religiously affiliated. I must admit, my reaction to the email directing me to your article, Chris, was “Oh, no, NOW who am I going to give though!” I agree with you, the faith of others is often a source of wonderment, but I am quite relieved that Oxfam continues to do it’s excellent work because it is the right thing to do and not as an expression of faith.

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  6.  avatarDarlene

    What an interesting question, Chris. “What drives them?” What if it is really not about their “faith” which is equated with their religious beliefs, church, etc. What if there is really a deeper conscience which resides in every sentient being that “drives” us to follow what we see we must do? What if it’s a matter of following a mysterious inner prompting, a deeper sense of the truth and right, not one dictated by any “faith” or religion per se? I also have been living with this question for many years and have come to this understanding. I feel more and more “faith” in the human spirit watching these amazing people in action, motivated by this deeper force, not necessarily by their “beliefs”. And please let’s not punish religion or praise religion. Let’s honor this deeper conscience and find a way to see where it takes us. What is OUR contribution in this life? Oxfam is awesome…as Karen said, doing its work because it is the right thing to do. What’s the problem in the world with YOUR name on it? That’s the real question. “Keep the faith,” Chris.

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  7.  avatarWilson

    You said: “I think that the courageous ones working to end injustice must need as much faith in themselves as they do in any higher power.”
    Why? Doesn’t the terminology “higher power” strikes you as oppressive on itself? Do you mean that people who believe in a higher power do good because of their believes? That doesn’t sound too generous. Do you man if this people didn’t believe they wouldn’t do good? Wouldn’t that imply that they are doing it more for themselves than heartfully to help the needy?
    I worked with many progressive Catholics in South America. We were together in the fight for democracy in Brazil. But once the political dictatorship ended, Leonardo Boff, a progressive catholic theologian, was silenced by the church for continue to write and fight against oppression. I believe he end up being expelled from Catholicism, the same way Spinoza was expelled from Judaism when he join the Anabaptists in Holland in their fight for democracy. Do you believe that being under a pope that insult jews (just the other day) and muslims (a little while ago) would help to bring peace to the world? What planet do you live? You probably agree that the humanitarian help provided by people like Cesar Romero and Mother Theresa and other anonymous christian helpers is a drop in the ocean, compared with the devastation produced by religious wars in the Middle East and Africa. Yes, they are explicitly religious wars, they are not fighting for territory anymore. And this is just the damage caused by believers in a “higher power” in the last few years; not counting what they’ve done throughout human history, and not counting the individual psychological damage it produces and makes people feel that they are less than what they are. All believers in a “higher power” are potentially violent , divisive and prone to hate another fellow human. I try not to give a penny to them, let their leaders donate their wealth, also they already got a lot of money from governments. There’s no personal faith; faith is faith in something that necessarily carry a bloody history with it.

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  8.  avatarWilson

    It is arguable that the biggest monotheistic religions have proven, for more than two millenniums, that they are much better promoting hate than love; they are much better at killing people than saving them. The reasons monotheistic religions (e.g. Judaism, Islamism and Christianity), are constantly associated with war and terrorism, is because it’s part of their nature. They are fear based behaviors of a species that is capable of foreseeing its own extinction, but unable to come to terms with this ultimate reality.

    These religions were created by humans; not as tools to understand life or to investigate the world we live in, but to annihilate questioning through faith and promote obedience. Questioning is a fundamental human trait that aids in the process of examining life, understanding life, and overcoming what religious people call evil, but we know as simply ignorance.

    The gods humans created are filled with character traits we struggle to overcome: possessiveness and jealousy, having preferences, and being prone to revenge and violence.

    The sacred books are full of these examples. They do emphasize more hate and separation among humans (and between human beings and the rest of the planet), than love and unity between all beings touched by this energy we call life.

    You don’t have to be familiar with the sacred books to realize this; just read history or listen to the news. It shows more people hating and killing each other in the name of god, than any other ideology.

    You might say: “that’s just politics, greed, love of money and power”. Funny thing though, is that the people who are alienated from politics, that don’t have money and can’t get to power, are the most religious communities; and the most crime infested ones.

    Therefore it’s arguable that believing in a god that says he is the only one is intrinsically violent; no matter what mythology you choose. When you try to eliminate diversity, you necessarily produce violence and war.

    If you want to promote peace and live a non-violent lifestyle here is an advice: don’t believe in anything exclusively. Examine your life and the world around you, don’t exclude anything; question, experiment and practice. If then you find something beneficial, share it. Outside of that, you are in a blood filled fantasy land

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  9.  avatarJerusalem BreinsAmnesty

    You cannot love while hating, progress while oppressing, come together in disunity, build while tearing down, join while separating, understand while not listening, give while witholding, create while destroying, overcome while in fear. It is simply impossible! Many people of faith must make a choice; Either we accept what we believe others are doing to us, or reject it and do something else. If we love each other as a foundation for our own progress, we do not have to worry about others hating us or our hating them back. If we work with everyone for human good, giving what we can to create what we want, we will not be disturbed by what anyone attempts to keep from us. If we stand on the faith of our ability to survive, it does not matter who is out to destroy us. If we celebrate, support and nurture ourselves, we will not need anyone else to do it for us.

    I am a spiritual but non- religious person, I believe in people from all walks of life for all of mankind. I feel that if the courageous learn patience,faith,trust, humility or what a truly strong and powerful person they are, they will have treasures they will never lose. The ones that are working to end injustice need all four of these attributes as they do in any omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe.

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  10.  avatarAnn

    This topic intrigues me immensely. I wish I had faith b/c it seems like having it would be easier. I recognize the good that comes from many people of faith, and contribute to organizations like Bread for the World and Catholic Relief Service, and with some trepidation to smaller religious groups professing to do good like Missionaries for Africa and Asian Relief. Yet I am persistently nagged by doubt about those contributions and whether I’m doing good or bad. I am in awe of those Christians (the faith I was raised in & am most familiar with) who truly follow Jesus’ lifestyle, live in poverty and help their fellow humans. I despise the right wing fundamentalists who can somehow rationalize the “W” Bush approach to policy and life. Being on the outside, without faith, it’s a total conundrum to me how people who declare themselves religious organize their thoughts, feelings & faith and how they choose to put those into practice in their lives.

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  11.  avatarkassie

    wilson, i absolutely agree that the big world religions have been better at promoting hate than love and that is a sad, sad thing and not at all the way it should be. i disagree though that the sacred books or belief in one truth are what create that hate and destruction. read the words of jesus: love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you. he hung out with the isolated, detested people (tax collectors, diseased people, prostitutes) and brought healing, hope and love. the christians that use religion to kill and destroy are not following the life and words of jesus, but have distorted their beliefs to justify their own selfish self-righteous plans. this is what happens when people get focused on legalistic religion; this is why jesus calls people to relationship with God instead of to follow a set of rules.

    my faith as a christian is the most important thing in my life. what drives me is the assurance that my God loves every person on this earth the same and wants each one to live in ultimate and holistic health. my God is a God of restoration, reconciliation, hope, love, peace and justice. i believe that standing up for those with no voice and “doing the right thing” serves God and contributes to bringing his kingdom to earth. to me, humanitarian action has eternal as well as immediate significance. but whatever drives us, we can all stand together and fight for justice together. true faith should break down barriers instead of building them up.

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