My Call Stories

Here are my call stories in response to Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s  sermon,“What Is Your Call Story?,” which was the subject of a prior post.  

The sermon drew from the Bible’s account of Isaiah receiving a direct call from God and Zacchae’us having one from Jesus. I never had such a direct call and doubt that I ever will. Instead, as will be discussed, I have responded to various requests by friends and colleagues to do something that upon reflection were calls to service. Such requests often can lead to personal reflection and conversations with pastors and friends to discern whether there has been a call and what your response should be.

The title of the sermon suggests that each of us only has one call story. Yet I have had multiple calls to service and believe that is or should be a common experience. After all the sermon mentions the pastor’s father, Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen, who had a strong calling to Presbyterian ministry, but upon his retirement from that ministry was perplexed for a while before he discovered a calling to retire and be a friend and counselor to other retired people.

In other words, vocation “implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, . . . vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time and what was a vocation for one period of life may not be appropriate for other period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous.” [1]

Before I joined Westminster in 1981 I had no religious calls to service.

My Calls to Service

Church Leadership [2]

Shortly after I joined the church, I was asked to be an elder of the church. At the time I was surprised that the church wanted someone to serve in that capacity with such limited experience in the church, but I said “Yes” and now regard that as a call to service. This led to service on various church committees—Spiritual Growth, Evangelism and Global Partnerships, the last of which I chaired for ten years. In the process I learned a lot about these different programs and helped shape their missions.

This call was expanded by an invitation I accepted to join the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, an ecumenical Protestant institution, which I served, 1988-1998.

The Sanctuary Movement Lawsuit [3]

While serving as a church leader, I struggled with how I could integrate my new religious faith with an active legal practice as a corporate litigator.

The answer to that struggle emerged in 1985, when the senior partner at my law firm asked me to provide legal advice to a firm client and his church, the American Lutheran  Church (ALC), which was headquartered in Minneapolis and since merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The problem was to help ALC decide what it should do in response to the U.S. Government’s disclosure in a criminal case in Arizona that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS and now the (Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE)) had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible study meetings in ALC and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that were involved in the Sanctuary Movement.

The result was the ALC joined my denomination—Presbyterian Church U.S.A.—in suing the U.S. Government in federal court in Arizona over what we called “spies in the churches.” In preparation for that case, I had a trip to Phoenix to meet religious leaders involved in the Movement, including Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, who in 1986 was convicted of harboring and transporting illegal aliens and served five years probation before being elected Moderator (the national leader) of my denomination. 

The courtroom work in this case was handed by two excellent lawyers—Peter Baird and Janet Napolitano of the Phoenix firm of Lewis and Roca (n/k/a Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie)—and after a Ninth Circuit reversal of a judgment for the Government, the court in Arizona granted a declaratory judgment that the U.S. Constitution’s “freedom of religion” Claus of the First Amendment protected churches from unreasonable investigations. (Napolitano, of course, later became U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, the state’s Attorney General and Governor and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and now is the President of the University of California.)

Thus, I came to understand that my senior partner’s asking me to provide legal services to the ALC was a call to religious service.

Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer [4]

Moreover, at the start of the Sanctuary Movement case, I knew very little about the Sanctuary Movement or refugee and asylum law or what had been going on in Central America. This led to my leaning about this area of the law through a refugee and asylum training program from Minnesota Advocates for Human rights (n/k/a Advocates for Human Rights) and then volunteering to be a pro bono (no fee) attorney for an asylum applicant from El Salvador. Simultaneously I engaged in research about the Sanctuary Movement and about what had been happening in that country. I then tried the case with an experienced immigration attorney in the Immigration Court in Minneapolis. As was typical at the time, we lost the case, but immediately filed an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington, D.C., which enabled our client to remain in the U.S. with a work permit.

My Pilgrimage to El Salvador [5]

In 1988 I volunteered to handle another Salvadoran asylum case, which was more complicated. As a result, I decided to go to that country in April 1989 with a group from the Washington, D.C. Synod of the ALC through the auspices of the Center for Global Education of Augsburg University of Minneapolis. My purpose was to conduct investigations for this new case and learn more about the country and those objectives were accomplished.

The day we arrived, the Salvadoran Attorney General was assassinated with a car bomb. This produced an intensely tense and dangerous time in the country with her security forces with their automatic rifles stationed throughout the capitol.

Unexpectedly this trip turned out to be the most intense religious experience of my life and a major call to faith and service.

I started to learn more about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while saying mass on March 24, 1980, because of his outspoken criticism of his government’s human rights violations. My group visited the beautiful, modern chapel on the grounds of a cancer hospital where he was killed. Across the street was his small apartment. No fancy archbishop’s palace for him. Another stop was at the capitol city’s Cathedral, which was still unfinished due to Romero’s refusal to spend money on the building while so many Salvadorans were being killed and persecuted. His tomb then in one of the transepts was very plain and covered with photographs of people and their written prayers. There were scraps of linoleum on the floor and plain wooden benches for worshippers. On the outdoor steps to the Cathedral women from COMADRES (Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared and Assassinated) with bullhorns were screaming protests against the latest round of repression by the government. Tears filled my eyes as the words of the Holy Communion or Eucharist echoed in my mind: “My body broken for you.” As a result, Romero became a self-appointed saint for this Protestant believer and I was overjoyed in October 2018 when the Roman Catholic Church canonized Romero as Saint Romero. [6]

Of the many other searing events of my week in El Salvador, another stands out. At the small Lutheran Church of El Salvador, we met an attorney, Salvador Ibarra, who was the one-person human rights office of the church. He spoke of his joy in his work even though such service put his own life at risk and thereby was calling me to continued work as a pro bono asylum lawyer.

Additional Pro Bono Asylum Work [7]

I accepted that call upon my return to the security and comforts of my office in a large law firm in downtown Minneapolis. I helped my second Salvadoran client to obtain asylum.

Thereafter until my retirement from the law firm in 2001, I was such an attorney for other Salvadorans, a young man from Afghanistan, two Somali men, a Burmese man, a young woman from Colombia and a Colombian family, all of whom obtained asylum and at least some of whom are now U.S. citizens.

Teaching International Human Rights Law [8]

In the Fall of 2001, after retiring from the practice of law, I audited the international human rights law course at the University of Minnesota Law School, which was taught by friends, Professors David Weissbrodt and Barbara Frey and by Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who became another friend. Thereafter David extended a surprise invitation to me to help them teach the course in the future. I accepted that invitation or call, and from 2002 through 2010 I was an Adjunct Professor at the UM where I taught the chapters on refugee and asylum law and U.S. federal court litigation over foreign human rights violations. Along the way I also learned a lot more about other aspects of this large area of law. I am grateful for this call.

Blogging About Law, Politics, Religion and History [9]

One of the reasons I had another retirement (this from teaching) was to research and write about law, politics, religion and history and stumbled onto blogging as a way to do just that. As a result, in April 2011 I started this blog.

My writing about religion has concentrated on the life and witness of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. I have been enriched by reading the Biblical texts and sermons and then thinking and writing about them. I have come to see this as my way of doing evangelism by demonstrating how an intelligent person can have a religious, spiritual life, something I did not believe possible during my 24 years of religious and spiritual nothingness before I joined Westminster in 1981.

Another major subject of my blog is promoting U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, which grew out of my work on Westminster’s partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed congregation in the City of Matanzas, Cuba, making three mission trips to the island and welcoming Cuban visitors to my church and city.

Thus, I have come to see blogging as another call that I have accepted.

Conclusion

I concur with Rev. Hart-Andersen when he said in his sermon, “ Christian vocation is less about a particular job and more about how we approach that job, less with what career we choose and more about the underlying purpose we sense in our lives and how that purpose manifests itself in whatever we do. . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

Or as noted Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner said, a calling is “work I need most to do and what the world needs most to have done. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” [10]

I am eternally grateful to have received, and accepted, these calls to service. My life has been enriched!

==========================

[1] My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014). 

[2] Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011); My Vocations, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2014), 

[3] The Sanctuary Movement Case, dwkcommentaries.com (May 22, 2011) 

[4] Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer, dwkcommentareis.com (May 24, 2011).

[5] My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989, dwkcommentariess.com  (May 25, 2011); Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 14, 2014); posts listed in the “Archbishop Oscar Romero “ section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—-Topical: RELIGION.

[6] The Canonization of Oscar Romero, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2018). 

[7] See n. 4.

[8] Auditing the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentaries.com (June 30, 2011); Teaching the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentareis.com (July 1, 2011). 

[9] The Joy of Blogging, dwkcommentaries.com; List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: RELIGION

[10] My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014). 

Annual Commemorations of Oscar Romero’s Life

Memory is important in all aspects of human life, especially when we consider religious and moral leaders and exemplars. Oscar Romero was such a man, and as we have seen, Oscar Romero is remembered in music, film, art and books.[1]

Perhaps the most important way he is remembered and honored, however, is the series of annual commemorations of his life on March 24th, the day he was assassinated in 1980. They happen in many places around the world.

Romero celebration @ Chapel, March 2000
El Salvador de Mundo

In San Salvador, the commemorations are especially poignant. The central event is a gathering of people from all over the world at the chapel where he was killed and where a special memorial service is held. Then the people march through the city, passing a traffic circle appropriately called “El Salvador de Mundo” (the Savior of the World), before going on to the Cathedral where Romero is buried. There a worship service with music is held in the plaza in front of the Cathedral.

I went to the 20th anniversary commemoration in 2000 with a group from Minneapolis’ Center for Global Education (CGE) of Augsburg College.[2] In 2010 for the 30th anniversary I went with a group organized by a Salvadoran NGO, Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS).[3]

Both institutions participated in the previously mentioned central event. They also visited the chapel where Romero was murdered, his apartment across the street and the Cathedral where he is buried. On both occasions we went to Universidad de Centro America (UCA) to see the Romero Chapel and the Monsenor Romero Pastoral Center with its museum of the civil war.

Romero banner, March 2000
Romero banner, March 2010
CIS Romero banner, March 2010
German Romero banner, March 2010
Mass @ El Salvador de Mundo, March 2000

They both also organize other activities, including meetings with local economists and political scientists to learn about the history and current conditions of El Salvador.  Other common activities are concerts and trips outside the capitol to learn more about the country.

In 2000 we met with UCA’s Rector, Dean Brakeley, a U.S. citizen who came to El Salvador in January 1990 to take over the leadership of UCA two months after the murders of the previous Rector, Ignacio Ellacuria, and his five brother Jesuits. Brackley’s “deepening analysis of the plight of the poor would connect the dots between Medellin and the complex inequities built into trade agreements, global capitalism, immigration policy and the war on terror.” All of this analysis always was within the theological understanding that “God is with the poor, making them ambassadors to the rest of us, evangelists who invite us to save ourselves by responding to their plight.” Brackley taught theology at UCA, but he identified a special role for himself in educating U.S. and European visitors to El Salvador about the realities of poverty and oppression in that part of the world and the roles played by the U.S. in helping to maintain that situation. Brackley died of pancreatic cancer in El Salvador on October 16, 2011.[4]

In the 2000 trip we learned about the work of Equipo Maiz, the Salvadoran NGO. We saw a special art exhibit about Romero in Parque Cuscatlan.

Our 20th anniversary group traveled to Oscar Romero’s home town of Ciudad Barrios in the northeastern part of the country. There we saw the house where he was born, the town’s church and the Radio Romero studio. We even had one day of relaxation on a beach on the Pacific Ocean.

In 2010 we again visited the chapel where Romero was murdered, his apartment across the street and the Cathedral where he is buried. We went to the Presidential Theater to see a new documentary film, “Romero by Romero.” I was touched to see the portion of the film showing Romero walking around a poor area and warmly greeting and touching the people he met without a lot of ceremony.

We met in 2010 with the UCA Rector, Father Jose Maria Tojeira, S.J. He was an amazingly light-hearted man. He told us he was new to UCA in November 1989 and lived nearby, but not on the campus. During the night of November 18th he heard gunfire and thought there must have been a skirmish between the Salvadoran security forces and the guerrillas. The next morning he went to the campus, and was one of the first people to see the dead bodies of his six fellow Jesuits and their cook and her daughter. He nonchalantly said, “That morning I thought I was the next one to be killed.” Later that day he went to his office and found faxed messages of support and solidarity from people all over the world. Then in the same nonchalant manner, he said he thought, “Well, maybe I am not the next to be killed.”

Romero mural & bomb shell, Cinquera
Helicopter, Cinquera

In 2010 we visited towns (San Isidro and Victoria) in the Department of Cabanas, where we learned about current controversies over gold mining and murders and death threats of people opposed to the mining. Another village (Cinquera) in the Department of Chalatenango on our itinerary was heavily damaged in the civil war, and a damaged helicopter sits on a pedestal in the town square.[5]

We were fortunate in 2010 to have in our group Dr. Marian Mollin, An Associate Professor of History at Virginia Tech University. She is working on a historical biography of Sister Ita Ford, who was one of the four American church women murdered in El Salvador in December 1980.[6] Professor Mollin shared her insights into Sister Ford and the other sisters on our visits to where the women were murdered and where they are buried; I will discuss these visits in a future post about the four church women.

U.S. Embassy, San Salvador

We also had a meeting 2010 at the new and very large U.S. Embassy with U.S. officials. There we learned the current U.S. perspective on El Salvador. We asked them tough questions on the U.S. position about gold mining in the country and the current violence directed at anti-mining activists.

My 2000 trip with CGE was my second trip with them. I went to El Salvador for the first time in 1989 with CGE. My 2010 trip with CIS was also my second trip with them. My other trip was in 2003 to be an election observer.

I was not aware of Oscar Romero during his life. I give thanks to God for helping me to discover him starting in 1989. He was and is a truly inspiring, brave, wonderful human being, servant of God and Christian.


[1] Post: Remembering Oscar Romero in Music (Oct.14, 2011); Post: Remembering Oscar Romero in Film (Oct. 15, 2011); Post: Remembering Oscar Romero in Art (Oct. 16, 2001); Post, Remembering Oscar Romero in Books (Oct. 17, 2011).

[2] Center for Global Education, http://www.augsburg.edu/global. CGE also usually organizes November trips for the commemoration of the six Jesuits and December trips for honoring the four American church women.

[3]  Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad, http://www.cis-elsalvador.org. CIS also usually organizes November trips for the commemoration of the six Jesuits and December trips for honoring the four American church women. In addition, CIS has regular election observation missions, Spanish and English language courses and grassroots organizing activities.

[4] Dean Brackley on the 20th Anniversary of the Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHywPAqj4Eo (Nov. 1, 2009); Mike, Dean Brackley returns to El Salvador, http://centralamericanpolitics.blogspot.com ( Sept. 24, 2011); Jesuit who replaced slain Salvadoran priests dies, Nat’l Catholic Reporter (Oct. 17, 2011).

[5]  There is a new documentary film about the war in Cinquera that I have not yet seen. (Echeverria, A beautiful documentary about the war in El Salvador surprises in Biarritz [France], http://www.diariocolatino.com (Sept. 30, 2011)(Google English translation).)

[6] Virginia Tech Univ., Marian Mollin, Ph.D., http://www.history.vt.edu/Mollin.

My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989

For my second Salvadoran asylum case, I decided that I needed to go to El Salvador to do investigations for the case and to learn more about the country. In April 1989 I made my first of six trips to the country. I went with a group led by Minneapolis’ Center for Global Education at Augsburg College.[1]

The Salvadoran Civil War was still going on, and on the day we arrived her Attorney General was assassinated with a car bomb. In response, the Salvadoran military forces were in the streets with their automatic rifles at the ready, stopping everyone to provide identification. People in the “popular organizations” were being arrested. It was a very dangerous and tense 10 days in the country.

These days turned out to be the most intense religious and spiritual experience of my life. It was and still is a major reason why I now say that El Salvador liberated this American lawyer in many ways and helped him integrate his religious faith with his professional life.

We went to a service of solidarity for a Catholic priest who that week had received death threats. The service was in a screened recreational building next to a very dusty soccer field. As we entered, we were handed mimeographed sheets with words for hymns of the people about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had been murdered nine years earlier. Thus began my learning about Romero.[2]

Our group visited the office of COMADRES in a small house in the city. (It is the committee of the mothers of the disappeared and assassinated). A young woman talked about her jailing and torture earlier that week. Right behind her I saw a bust of Robert Kennedy representing the very first Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. It was granted to COMADRES for its struggle for amnesty for political prisoners, information regarding the “disappeared” and punishment for those responsible for human rights violations.[3] (During the Reagan Administration, the U.S. would not grant a U.S. visa to a COMADRES representative to come to the U.S. to receive the award.)

At the COMADRES’ office I also saw a framed copy en espanol of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[4] which I had never regarded as important and about which I knew nothing. Even though I could not read the Spanish text, I could see that it was an inspirational document for these people. This experience came rushing back to me when later I learned about the Universal Declaration.

Our group met with Phil Anderson, a Lutheran pastor from Minnesota who was working in El Salvador for Lutheran World Federation. Earlier that week he had sent faxes to the Federation’s headquarters in Switzerland with information about the arrests of many people from the popular organizations so that the next day the headquarters could send faxes of complaints to the Government of El Salvador. I gained a new appreciation for the work of international organizations around the world and about the sinister messages that are sent when they are kicked out of a country.

My fellow travelers on this trip were from the Washington, D.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (the successor of the Lutheran Church in America, my client in the Sanctuary Movement case). Through their connections I was introduced to the significant work in El Salvador of its small Lutheran Church and its Bishop Medardo Gomez, who is frequently regarded as the spiritual heir to Archbishop Romero.[5]

We also met Salvador Ibarra, a lawyer for the human rights office of the Lutheran Church of El Salvador. He told us that in late 1980 a judge had appointed him to represent one of the Salvadoran national guardsmen accused of raping and murdering the four American church women.[6] Someone from the U.S. Embassy then asked Ibarra to call a press conference and announce that he had investigated and had found no involvement of higher officials in this horrible crime. This, however, was not true, and he refused to hold a press conference. In response he received death threats that prompted him and his family to flee the country. His wife told him that he was stupid to put her and their children’s lives at risk, and she took the children and divorced him. Yet Ibarra subsequently returned to his country to be a human rights lawyer and thereby continued to put his life on the line. He spoke about the joy he had in his work as a lawyer for people whose human rights were at greater risk.

In my subsequent work as a pro bono asylum lawyer and human rights advocate, I continued to be inspired by Salvador Ibarra. How easy it was for me as a large law-firm lawyer in Minneapolis to do this work. I did not have to risk my life as he did.

Our group visited the “22nd of April” community in San Salvador. This community was a three-block area of land on a steep hill between railroad tracks above and a road below. It had been used as a garbage dump, but on April 22nd in the early 1980’s displaced Salvadorans (“desplazados”) started to occupy it. In April of 1989 there were at least 10,000 people living there. They were mainly women and small children because teenage and adult males were fighting in the civil war or had been killed or disappeared. The people lived in “houses”– some of concrete blocks and tin roof; others of cheap tin or aluminum sheets or scrap lumber; yet others made with cardboard.

We walked around “22nd of April” with its pastor–Father Jim Barnett, a Dominican priest from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He talked about his ministry of accompaniment and solidarity. He was inspired by the example of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had entered the total experience of the poor–physical, spiritual, social, economic and political–and who had spoken about the church’s need to be incarnated in the life of the people and the institutional injustice and violence in El Salvador.

Another stop on our trip was UCA, the Universidad de Centro America, a Jesuit institution with a beautiful, serene campus on a hill in the capital city.[7] We spent an hour with Father Jon Sobrino, a noted liberation theologian.[8]  Only seven months later six of his fellow Jesuit priests were brutally murdered at that very place by the Salvadoran Armed Forces. (Sobrino escaped this fate because he was in Thailand giving lectures.)[9]

We went to the small, modern, beautiful, serene Chapel of Divine Providence on the quiet grounds of a cancer hospital. This is where Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating mass on March 24, 1980. (Across the street was the three-room apartment where Romero lived. No luxurious Archbishop’s palace for him.) Along the way to the chapel I saw graffiti messages: “Romero vive!” (“Romero lives!”)

The Cathedral of San Salvador, on the other hand, is in el centro with all the noise and hurly-burly of buses and other traffic. In April 1989 the building was not finished. (Romero had halted all construction because he did not think it was right for the church to be spending money on its building when the people were suffering from poverty and human rights abuses.) On the steps were women from COMADRES with their bullhorns protesting against the latest wave of repression. Inside, scraps of linoleum were on the floor along with scattered plain wooden benches. In the right transept was Romero’s tomb–plain concrete and covered with flowers and prayers of the people. As I stood there, the words “My body broken for you” from the Christian sacrament of communion echoed in my mind.


[1]  Center for Global Education, http://www.augsburg.edu/global/.

[2]  Later posts will discuss the life and witness of Archbishop Romero and why he is my personal saint.

[3]  Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, http://www.rfkcenter.org/ourwork/humanrightsaward.

[4]  Universal Declaration of Human Rights, http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/b1udhr.htm.

[5]  Medardo Gomez, Fire Against Fire (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress 1990); Medardo Gomez, And the Word Became History (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress 1992).

[6]  E.g., Ford v. Garcia, 289 F.3d 1283 (11th Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1147 (2003); Gonzalez, 2 Salvadoran Generals Cleared by U.S. Jury in Nuns’ Deaths, N.Y. Times, Nov. 4, 2000, at A3.

[7]  Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas,” http://www.uca.edu.sv/.

[8]  Wikipedia, Jon Sobrino, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Sobrino.

[9]  Sobrino, et al., Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1990); Center for Justice & Accountability, Jesuits Massacre Case, http://www.cja.org/article.php?list=type&type=84.