In behalf of the human family

by Joan Chittister

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I was just settling in at the Carter Center in Atlanta for the first session of the "Human Rights Defenders Forum" when it happened. In so august an environment, with participants streaming in from countries I had yet to see, a beautiful young American woman, Melinda, spied a group at the other end of the center's theater-style conference room. "Oh," she cried, her arms open wide and her face alight, "my family." And by that time, they were here. I could hear the languages but not understand them. I could see the smiles but did not know what could have inspired them. But one thing was clear: Family? Obviously so but obviously not. Friends, clearly -- but how could that be? I mean, so intense -- so immediate -- and from that far away?

It was, after all, an international gathering meant to stoke a movement for peace and human rights and, most of all, to recognize the particular difficulties of women everywhere who lack them to the full.

By the end of the day, however, I began to realize what I was seeing. These were people from around the globe who had invested their very lives in the welfare of people they did not know, in the care of other people's children, in the protection of exhausted, traumatized, wounded refugees. Where their lives touched one another's -- however far-flung, however slight -- the bonds went deep. I saw with my own eyes how it is that people so unlike, so distant from one another, might care that much for one another. In fact, I understood even more: If the scourge of war and violence, terrorism and random acts of violence are ever going to end, we may each need someone like that in our lives.

There are 60 of us at the conference. From every end of the globe. Struggling through instantaneous translation together, we are hearing about the same issues we're dealing with in our own local situations but in other accents and expressed in other ways. A native of India, for instance, talked about the Indian government's attempts to extend the benefits of education to girls. "Girls did not go to school," he explained, "because the schools had no toilets." So the government began to install them. And then the problem got even more complex, he said. "The problem was that they needed people to clean the toilets. And among the girls who now went to school there were Untouchables, India's lowest class, who are meant to clean toilets. So they began to use the girls from the Untouchable caste to clean the school toilets. And, as a result, they still weren't getting an education."

The very thought of problems like that took a person's breath away.

The lesson is a clear one. As Pope Francis argues in Laudato Si', our problems can be resolved only if all the people involved -- women, men, government officials and religious figures who are still teaching the local caste system from a religious point of view -- sit down together to discover a solution. Laudato Si' is clear about dialogue: We must, Pope Francis says simply.

Which made me think about what the Carter Center was really doing for all of us. It is helping one group at a time to listen to people unlike ourselves so that, as Francis says, we can find a way to come to a new space together.

Each of us left the forum broader, wiser, more thoughtful about the great issues of life, of course. We learned certainly that current issues have very particular solutions, very local expression. We learned, too, that we are not alone in either our concerns or the frustrations that come with trying to deal with questions about the radicalization of youth, the domination of women, the swamp of poverty, the extremism of religion, the scourge of racism, the inhumanity of war. Burundi is dealing with them, the Republic of the Congo is dealing with them, Egypt is dealing with them, Colombia is dealing with them. Everyone is trying to deal with them.

But the process itself, then, raises even broader issues than the issues themselves. How far can we really get by sitting and talking to people who already know what we know, if even together we can't do anything about it? If representatives of the civic community are never taken seriously enough for representatives of the government to admit them to the decision-making process, what does all the talking do? Except maybe raise our frustration and increase our burnout.

Of what use is it to sit and talk about reality if we are not talking to people who think differently than we do or can influence the centers that distribute the moneys and chart the development the world needs?

From where I stand, I think at least one meeting a year should be made up of two classes of people: the advocates and care-givers who set out to lighten the anguish of the world, of course. But that is what we do now, and it obviously is not enough. What is missing are the representatives of all the official departments, committees and commissions in the city, state and country that determine exactly how governments go about financing, prioritizing and responding to such publicly contrived and constructed grief.

Most of all, I think that churches and church groups themselves should model these mixed dialogues on every level -- diocesan, parochial and institutional. Until we all join the same discussions together and become part of commonly defined solutions, human rights will never come, peace will never come, racism will never end, and women will never be anything but second-class human beings.

Then, perhaps, we will all begin to feel what the young American activist, Melinda, felt at the sight of a group of people from the other side of the world. Then, we would all know people totally unlike us, on one level, and totally related to us on the other. Like Melinda, maybe we could all come to the point she has and embrace the suffering others in the world with full-throated warmth and care, saying, "Oh, my family."

[Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister is a frequent NCR contributor.]

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