The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), based in Montgomery, Alabama, is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.
This work continued in 2016.
It “won relief for nearly a dozen condemned prisoners on death row facing execution.” It “won reduced sentences for more than a dozen people who were sentenced die in prison when they were children” and it “continues to represent scores of other condemned juveniles.” It has “fought against horrific prison conditions and abuse within jails and prisons” and is “challenging the extreme sentences that continue to be imposed on low-level offenders and people who are not a threat to public safety,” In 2016 it “won the release of more than a dozen people who were unfairly sentenced or convicted” and is “continuing [its] work to reform the criminal justice system.”
EJI also has education and activism projects “to challenge America’s history of racial inequality.” As discussed in an earlier post, EJI has announced plans for a national memorial for victims of lynching and a museum on racial injustice.
More details on these important accomplishments are provided in EJI’s Annual Report 2016, which I received in last week’s mail, but which apparently is not yet available on EJI’s website.
EJI’s Executive Director is Bryan Stevenson, a powerful and dedicated lawyer, author and speaker, who meets the challenge that President Obama made to Howard University graduates last May.
I urge all citizens who are interested in criminal justice reform to support EJI with your charitable donations. This is even more important now when, according to a New York Timesreport, President-Elect Donald Trump has made comments about private prisons working better than government-operated prisons and detention facilities resulting in huge increases in the stock prices of the corporations that own and operate the former.
On August 16 the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Montgomery Alabama announced plans for two projects honoring victims of U.S. racial lynchings and injustice.
One is the Memorial for Peace and Justice to honor the over 4,000 black victims of lynchings that will sit on six acres, the highest spot in Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy. The memorial will be a large, four-sided gallery of 801 six-foot columns hanging in the air as if from trees like a lynching. Each column will represent a U.S. county where a lynching took place and be etched with the name(s) of the person(s) lynched. Here is a rendering of the memorial and a map showing the locations of the lynchings.
An adjacent field will have duplicates of those columns, which will be offered as a challenge to be moved to the home counties of the lynchings; those that remain will be silent rebukes to the places that refuse to acknowledge their history of lynching.
The other project is a museum, “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” which is scheduled to open completely next April in EJI’s 11,000-square-foot headquarters in Montgomery. Tracing the country’s racial history from slavery to the era of mass incarceration, it will contain high-tech exhibits, artifacts, recordings, and films, as well as a comprehensive database and information on lynching and racial segregation. Its virtual reality stations will enable people to understand what it was like to be in the cargo hold of a slave trafficking ship, to endure angry taunts during a lunch counter sit-in and to sit in a contemporary overcrowded prison. Below are photographs of one part of the museum and of jars of dirt from sites of lynchings.
As reported by Montgomery’s newspaper, the founder and Executive Director of EJI, Bryan Stevenson, said, “Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”
Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer. (To the right is a photograph of Stevenson and the cover of his highly acclaimed book, Just Mercy.) His work fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system has won him numerous awards including the ABA Wisdom Award for Public Service, the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Award Prize, the Olaf Palme International Prize, the ACLU National Medal Of Liberty, the National Public Interest Lawyer of the Year Award, the Gruber Prize for International Justice and the Ford Foundation Visionaries Award. He is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government, has been awarded 16 honorary doctorate degrees, and is a Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.
President Obama’s commencement address at Howard University was examined in a prior post. The key points in Obama’s speech for this evaluation are the following:
“Be confident in your heritage. Be confident in your blackness.”
African Americans have a “particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle. That means we cannot sleepwalk through life. We cannot be ignorant of history. . . . We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.”
“You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. . . . [C]hange requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”
Now we evaluate a prominent contemporary African-American, Bryan Stevenson through the prism of that speech.
Although not a Howard alumnus, Stevenson, as discussed in another post, is an African-American attorney, author and activist for social justice, especially for today’s African-American men and women and for their ancestors who were enslaved and persecuted. He has successfully argued cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts for prison inmates and written and spoken for changes in our criminal justice system. In addition, he has organized and established the Equal Justice Initiative (CJI), a significant human rights/civil rights law firm in Montgomery, Alabama that is being joined by a museum honoring the victims of slavery and lynchings.
In so doing, Stevenson is demonstrating confidence in his own heritage, his own blackness, as President Obama urged the graduates. Stevenson also shows his awareness of injustice, unfairness and struggle that he combines with a strategy of change through the courts and public opinion. He meets the standards set forth by President Obama.
Now based in Montgomery, Alabama, Bryan Stevenson is conducting amazing advocacy for racial justice in many different ways: as an attorney for individuals who have been victimized by the U.S. criminal justice system; as the founder of a non-profit human rights organization (the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)) devoted to those causes; as an author and speaker; and as the creator of various ways to honor his predecessors who strove for justice and the victims of injustice. Let us review these ways in which Stevenson demonstrates his advocacy after looking at his biography.
He was born in 1959 in Milton, Delaware and grew up in a poor rural community. Attending a “colored school” for his early years, he graduated from a racially integrated public high school and then Eastern College (now Eastern University), a Philadelphia “Christian university dedicated to the preparation of . . . students for thoughtful and productive lives of Christian faith, leadership and service.” He then attended and obtained a J.D. degree from the Harvard Law School; and a Masters in Public Policy degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Stevenson is an attorney and the Founder and Executive Director of EJI, which specializes in advocacy for children in adult prisons, death-row inmates, prison and sentencing reform and combating race and poverty (. He also is a Professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law.
In 1995 he received a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which said that in his “drive to expose biases under which capital punishment is imposed, Stevenson has articulated how its use is linked to race and class discrimination and to systemic defects in criminal procedures.”
In 2000 Stevenson was awarded Sweden’s Olof Palme Prize. The award stated he is “a courageous representative of all the individuals, women and men from the entire world, who have maintained tirelessly that the right to life cannot be controverted, that the death penalty is an ultimate form of torture, and that the state does not have the right to kill its citizens.”
Stevenson, the Attorney
In 2015 EJI attorneys won the release of innocent people on death row or in prison for life. They also were successful in obtaining new trials for people illegally convicted and relief for those unfairly sentenced. They have documented and challenged abusive conditions of confinement in state jails and prisons. They have continued to fight against prosecution of children in adult courts and to obtain new sentences for individuals who have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were children.
EJI’s work does not end when a client is released from prison. It provides them with re-entry assistance, including housing, employment, training and support. Its Post-Release Education and Preparation Program has been recognized as a model for such programs by various state officials.
Stevenson The Author
Stevenson’s 2014 best-selling book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” provides interesting accounts of some of the significant cases in which he and EJI have been involved to provide context for a general discussion of particular problems in the American criminal justice system.
For example, Chapter Sixteen, “The Stonecatchers’ Song of Sorrow,” opens with brief discussions of Stevenson’s 2010 victory in the U.S. Supreme Court, when it decided that it was unconstitutional to impose life sentences without parole on children convicted of non-homicide crimes, and in 2012 when the Court held the same was the case when the crime was homicide. The chapter’s footnotes provide citations to these Supreme Court decisions and other mentioned cases.
Chapter Twelve, “Mother, Mother,” is another example. It recounts the trial and unjust conviction of a mother for murdering her stillborn child and sentenced to life without parole. Stevenson and EJI then entered her case and eventually obtained her release from prison. This case is then used as a platform to discuss the many problems created by incarcerating women with more details in footnotes.
The book also tells of instances in which Stevenson is touched, emotionally and spiritually, by clients who are in prison.
In the Introduction, for instance, Stevenson as a 23-year old law student was panicked and nervous when he visited a Georgia death-row inmate, who was immediately happy to learn that he would not have an execution date the next year and then gently led Stevenson into a three-hour general conversation. When the inmate was being returned to his cell, he started singing a black spiritual hymn: “I’m pressing on, the upward way. New heights I’m gaining, every day. Still praying as, I’m upward bound. Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” Stevenson confesses that this hymn was “a precious gift” and that the prisoner gave him “an astonishing measure of his humanity” and an altered “understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness.”
This and other experiences with death-row prisoners that summer constituted “proximity to the condemned and incarcerated [that] made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful” and led to Stevenson’s being “committed to helping the death row prisoners.”
In addition, the book concludes with the “Author’s Note,” in which Stevenson seeks to recruit others to the cause of racial justice, He says, “there are endless opportunities for you to do something about criminal justice policy or help the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.” An invitation then is extended for the reader to contact EJI for more information.
A prior post mentioned Stevenson’s then forthcoming presentation at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum. I attended this event even though I had never heard of him and thought his presentation would be a legal analysis of the changes needed in the American criminal justice system. Instead it was an emotional, passionate call for such reform and more of a sermon than a legal discussion. At the halfway point, the moderator, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, said that in his many years as the moderator of the Forum he had never heard such a moving presentation.
Nine months later I watched his televised conversation with Charlie Rose. “An Hour with Bryan Stevenson,” Charlie Rose Show (Aug. 19, 2015), when he was just as impressive. Here are some of his pithy, insightful comments:
“Everyone is more than the worst thing he or she has ever done.”
“No matter what you’ve done, your life matters or has value.”
Over the last four years EJI has published major reports about the domestic slave trade, Slavery in America; and racial lynchings, Lynching in America; its third report was released in late 2015:The Anti-Civil Rights Movement. Excerpts from all of these reports are provided in EJI’s educational 2016 Calendar. For example, the month of October focuses on “Racial Terror Lynchings” with a large photograph of a crowd watching an 1893 Texas lynching and with this comment on October 5th: “1920: A mob lynches four black men in Macclenny, Florida, seizing three from the county jail and shooting the fourth dead in the woods.” EJI also has produced a film, From Slavery to Mass Incarceration.
In addition, EJI has erected historic markers about the domestic slave trade in its home base in Montgomery, Alabama and is working on a national memorial in the city about American racial inequality and lynchings. Its first historical marker about Lynching in America recently was erected in Brighton, Alabama pursuant to a plan to place such markers at every lynching site in the country.
EJI’s office building in Montgomery is the site of a former slave prison and close to the city’s slave market. In late 2016 it plans to convert part of its building to a museum about the history of racial inequality in America and the connections between slavery and mass incarceration. EJI also uses its building to host programs and presentations about its work and the need for reforming the criminal justice system while similar presentations are made by its staff at colleges, universities, churches, community groups, high schools and conferences.
An insight to such programs has been provided by Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourners, a Christian social justice organization, who along with 50 other faith leaders attended a two-day program at EJI in December 2015. Stevenson emphasized to this group these preconditions for reforming the American criminal justice system: (1) proximity to those most impacted by the system; (2) changing the narrative; (3) replacing hopelessness with hope; and (4) committing ourselves to uncomfortable things.
These messages were made flesh by the Wallis group’s making pilgrimages to two sites where black men had been lynched, digging up dirt from those sites and placing the dirt in glass jars marked with the individuals’ names, birth and death years and the names of the lynching sites (part of EJI’s Soil Collection Project) and then holding prayer services in memory of the individuals. Another moving experience for the Sojourners group was spending time with Mr. Anthony Ray Hinton, who had spent 30 years in solitary confinement on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Stevenson’s concluding message for the group: “I have always had to believe in things I haven’t seen.”
What an amazing human being! What amazing efforts for social justice! I give thanks to God for this amazing servant!
 EJI, Annual Report 2015.
 Wallis, It’s Never Too Late to Do Justice, Sojourners (Dec. 17, 2015) EGI, EGI Hosts Sojourners Faith Table Retreat (Dec. 16, 2015). Willis was a speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum in 2010 and will be returning on February 4, 2016 to discuss “America’s Original Sin: Racism and White Privilege,” the title of his book being published today. In a Foreward to the book, Stevenson says , “the mainstream church has been largely silent or worse“ to “our nation’s historical failure to address the legacy of racial inequality, the presumption of guilt and the racial narrative that created it.” Moreover, the church has been complicit in the refusal “to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation” and the emergence of “new forms of racial subordination.” Indeed, according to Stevenson, “Christianity is directly implicated when we Christians fail to speak more honestly about the legacy of racial inequality.”
September 24 marked the third day of Pope Francis’ mission to the American people. The highlight was his morning appearance before the U.S. Congress, which was much anticipated by all members of Congress, 31% of whom are Roman Catholic along with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who serves as president of the Senate. Immediately afterwards the Pope greeted the American people from the west front of the U.S. Capitol followed by a visit to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in D.C. and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington before his flight to New York City. There he participated in an evening prayer service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
With the Chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives packed with Senators and Representatives and with invited guests in its Gallery, Pope Francis made the following lengthy remarks.
“I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.’ I would like to think that the reason for this is that I too am a son of this great continent, from which we have all received so much and toward which we share a common responsibility.
“Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”
“Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, as the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel he symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
“Today I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States. Here, together with their representatives, I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and – one step at a time – to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society. They generate solidarity by their actions, and they create organizations that offer a helping hand to those most in need.”
“I would also like to enter into dialogue with the many elderly persons who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience and who seek in many ways, especially through volunteer work, to share their stories and their insights. I know that many of them are retired, but still active; they keep working to build up this land. I also want to dialogue with all those young people who are working to realize their great and noble aspirations, who are not led astray by facile proposals and who face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults. I wish to dialogue with all of you, and I would like to do so through the historical memory of your people.”
“My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self- sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future. They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.”
I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
“This year marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that ‘this nation, under God, [might] have a new birth of freedom.’ Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.”
“All of us are quite aware of, and deeply worried by, the disturbing social and political situation of the world today. Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.”
“Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice. We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.”
“The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”
“In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society. Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.
[Editor’s Note: The following section, which was in the prepared remarks, was not included in the speech.] [“Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.]
“Here too I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery fifty years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams.’ Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
“In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.”
“Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our ‘neighbors’ and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this.”
“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Mt 7:12).”
“This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
“This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
“In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”
“How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.”
“It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. ‘Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good’ (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to ‘enter into dialogue with all people about our common home’ (ibid., 3). ‘We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all’ (ibid., 14).”
“In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to ‘redirect our steps’ (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a ‘culture of care’ (ibid., 231) and ‘an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature’ (ibid., 139). ‘We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology’ (ibid., 112); ‘to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power’ (ibid., 78); and to put technology ‘at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral’ (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.”
“A century ago, at the beginning of the Great War, which Pope Benedict XV termed a ‘pointless slaughter,’ another notable American was born: the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton. He remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. In his autobiography he wrote: ‘I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.’ Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
“From this perspective of dialogue, I would like to recognize the efforts made in recent months to help overcome historic differences linked to painful episodes of the past. It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same. When countries that have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility. A good political leader is one who, with the interests of all in mind, seizes the moment in a spirit of openness and pragmatism. A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 222-223).”
“Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world. Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”
“Three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams: Lincoln, liberty; Martin Luther King, liberty in plurality and non-exclusion; Dorothy Day, social justice and the rights of persons; and Thomas Merton, the capacity for dialogue and openness to God.
“I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.”
“In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.”
“A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”
“In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.”
Immediately after the speech to the Congress, Pope Francis was escorted to the West Front of the Capitol, where he could see the thousands of people who wanted at least a glimpse of the Pope. “Buenos días,” he said. “I am so grateful for your presence here, most importantly the children. I have asked God to bless them. Father of all, bless each of them, bless the families. I ask you all, please, to pray for me. And if there are any who do not believe or who cannot pray, I ask you to send good wishes my way.”
At the church, the Pope first sent greetings to his Muslim brothers and sisters as they celebrate the feast of sacrifice and a prayer of closeness as they faced the tragedy of suffering at Mecca. He then delivered the following homily.
“Here I think of a person whom I love, someone who is, and has been, very important throughout my life. He has been a support and an inspiration. He is the one I go to whenever I am ‘in a fix.’ You make me think of Saint Joseph. Your faces remind me of his.”
“Joseph had to face some difficult situations in his life. One of them was the time when Mary was about to give birth, to have Jesus. The Bible tells us that, ‘while they were [in Bethlehem], the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn’ (Lk 2:6-7).”
“The Bible is very clear about this: there was no room for them. I can imagine Joseph, with his wife about to have a child, with no shelter, no home, no place to stay. The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head. We can imagine what Joseph must have been thinking. How is it that the Son of God has no home? Why are we homeless, why don’t we have housing? These are questions which many of you may ask daily. Like Saint Joseph, you may ask: Why are we homeless, without a place to live? These are questions which all of us might well ask. Why do these, our brothers and sisters, have no place to live? Why are these brothers and sisters of ours homeless?”
“Joseph’s questions are timely even today; they accompany all those who throughout history have been, and are, homeless.”
“Joseph was someone who asked questions. But first and foremost, he was a man of faith. Faith gave Joseph the power to find light just at the moment when everything seemed dark. Faith sustained him amid the troubles of life. Thanks to faith, Joseph was able to press forward when everything seemed to be holding him back.”
“In the face of unjust and painful situations, faith brings us the light which scatters the darkness. As it did for Joseph, faith makes us open to the quiet presence of God at every moment of our lives, in every person and in every situation. God is present in every one of you, in each one of us.”
“We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing. There are many unjust situations, but we know that God is suffering with us, experiencing them at our side. He does not abandon us.”
“We know that Jesus wanted to show solidarity with every person. He wanted everyone to experience his companionship, his help, his love. He identified with all those who suffer, who weep, who suffer any kind of injustice. He tells us this clearly: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Mt 25:35).”
“Faith makes us know that God is at our side, that God is in our midst and his presence spurs us to charity. Charity is born of the call of a God who continues to knock on our door, the door of all people, to invite us to love, to compassion, to service of one another.”
“Jesus keeps knocking on our doors, the doors of our lives. He doesn’t do this by magic, with special effects, with flashing lights and fireworks. Jesus keeps knocking on our door in the faces of our brothers and sisters, in the faces of our neighbors, in the faces of those at our side.”
“Dear friends, one of the most effective ways we have to help is that of prayer. Prayer unites us; it makes us brothers and sisters. It opens our hearts and reminds us of a beautiful truth which we sometimes forget. In prayer, we all learn to say ‘Father.’ ‘Dad.’ We learn to see one another as brothers and sisters. In prayer, there are no rich and poor people, there are sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. In prayer, there is no first or second class, there is brotherhood.”
“It is in prayer that our hearts find the strength not to be cold and insensitive in the face of injustice. In prayer, God keeps calling us, opening our hearts to charity.”
“How good it is for us to pray together. How good it is to encounter one another in this place where we see one another as brothers and sisters, where we realize that we need one another. Today I want to be one with you. I need your support, your closeness. I would like to invite you to pray together, for one another, with one another. That way we can keep helping one another to experience the joy of knowing that Jesus is in our midst. Are you ready?”
“’Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day and our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. An do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. Amen.’” (NRSV)
“Before leaving you, I would like to give you God’s blessing: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace’ (Num 6:24-26). And, please, don’t forget to pray for me.”
Immediately afterwards the Pope went to a luncheon for the homeless outside the church, blessed the meal and greeted the people, as shown in photograph to the right.. This luncheon was sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.
The Pope arrived around 5:00 p.m. (EST) at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and then traveled by helicopter to lower Manhattan. The popemobile then took him by waving crowds on Fifth Avenue to 50th and 51st Street’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There he was greeted by New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York’s U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer.
At the Cathedral the Pope participated in a vespers prayer service for nearly 2,500 worshipers, including clergy members, brothers and nuns, and delivered the following homily.
“’There is a cause for rejoicing here”, although ‘you may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials’ (1 Pet 1:6). These words of the Apostle remind us of something essential. Our vocation is to be lived in joy.”
“This beautiful Cathedral of Saint Patrick, built up over many years through the sacrifices of many men and women, can serve as a symbol of the work of generations of American priests and religious, and lay faithful who helped build up the Church in the United States. In the field of education alone, how many priests and religious in this country played a central role, assisting parents in handing on to their children the food that nourishes them for life! Many did so at the cost of extraordinary sacrifice and with heroic charity. I think for example of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, who founded the first free Catholic school for girls in America, or Saint John Neumann, the founder of the first system of Catholic education in the United States.”
“This evening, my brothers and sisters, I have come to join you in prayer that our vocations will continue to build up the great edifice of God’s Kingdom in this country. I know that, as a presbyterate in the midst of God’s people, you suffered greatly in the not distant past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the Church in the most vulnerable of her members… In the words of the Book of Revelation, I know well that you ‘have come forth from the great tribulation’ (Rev 7:14). I accompany you at this time of pain and difficulty, and I thank God for your faithful service to his people. In the hope of helping you to persevere on the path of fidelity to Jesus Christ, I would like to offer two brief reflections.”
“The first concerns the spirit of gratitude. The joy of men and women who love God attracts others to them; priests and religious are called to find and radiate lasting satisfaction in their vocation. Joy springs from a grateful heart. Truly, we have received much, so many graces, so many blessings, and we rejoice in this. It will do us good to think back on our lives with the grace of remembrance. Remembrance of when we were first called, remembrance of the road travelled, remembrance of graces received… and, above all, remembrance of our encounter with Jesus Christ so often along the way. Remembrance of the amazement which our encounter with Jesus Christ awakens in our hearts. To seek the grace of remembrance so as to grow in the spirit of gratitude. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves: are we good at counting our blessings?”
“A second area is the spirit of hard work. A grateful heart is spontaneously impelled to serve the Lord and to find expression in a life of commitment to our work. Once we come to realize how much God has given us, a life of self-sacrifice, of working for him and for others, becomes a privileged way of responding to his great love.”
“Yet, if we are honest, we know how easily this spirit of generous self-sacrifice can be dampened. There are a couple of ways that this can happen; both are examples of that ‘spiritual worldliness’ which weakens our commitment to serve and diminishes the wonder of our first encounter with Christ.”
“We can get caught up measuring the value of our apostolic works by the standards of efficiency, good management and outward success which govern the business world. Not that these things are unimportant! We have been entrusted with a great responsibility, and God’s people rightly expect accountability from us. But the true worth of our apostolate is measured by the value it has in God’s eyes. To see and evaluate things from God’s perspective calls for constant conversion in the first days and years of our vocation and, need I say, great humility. The cross shows us a different way of measuring success. Ours is to plant the seeds: God sees to the fruits of our labors. And if at times our efforts and works seem to fail and produce no fruit, we need to remember that we are followers of Jesus… and his life, humanly speaking, ended in failure, the failure of the cross.”
“Another danger comes when we become jealous of our free time, when we think that surrounding ourselves with worldly comforts will help us serve better. The problem with this reasoning is that it can blunt the power of God’s daily call to conversion, to encounter with him. Slowly but surely, it diminishes our spirit of sacrifice, renunciation and hard work. It also alienates people who suffer material poverty and are forced to make greater sacrifices than ourselves. Rest is needed, as are moments of leisure and self-enrichment, but we need to learn how to rest in a way that deepens our desire to serve with generosity. Closeness to the poor, the refugee, the immigrant, the sick, the exploited, the elderly living alone, prisoners and all God’s other poor, will teach us a different way of resting, one which is more Christian and generous.”
“Gratitude and hard work: these are two pillars of the spiritual life which I have wanted to share with you this evening. I thank you for prayers and work, and the daily sacrifices you make in the various areas of your apostolate. Many of these are known only to God, but they bear rich fruit for the life of the Church. In a special way I would like to express my esteem and gratitude to the religious women of the United States. What would the Church be without you? Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say “thank you”, a big thank you… and to tell you that I love you very much.” (Emphasis added to these words that drew applause from the people in the pews.)
“I know that many of you are in the front lines in meeting the challenges of adapting to an evolving pastoral landscape. Whatever difficulties and trials you face, I ask you, like Saint Peter, to be at peace and to respond to them as Christ did: he thanked the Father, took up his cross and looked forward!”
“Dear brothers and sisters, in a few moments we will sing the Magnificat. Let us commend to Our Lady the work we have been entrusted to do; let us join her in thanking God for the great things he has done, and for the great things he will continue to do in us and in those whom we have the privilege to serve.”