When video of George Floyd’s horrific death under police restraint surfaced, I recalled another shattering image from about five years ago: that of two-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee whose tiny drowned body washed up on a Turkish beach after his family’s failed attempt to flee their country’s brutal civil war.
At the time, I thought such a devastating a picture would finally stun us into addressing an immigration crisis so severe that the Mediterranean was becoming, as Pope Francis described it, a “vast graveyard” for desperate migrants.
But months slipped by, and so did the lives of more human beings whose basic rights were inconvenient for a world with a short attention span.
And then last summer, a young Salvadoran father named Oscar Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria were found face down on the bank of the Rio Grande, which they and the little girl’s mother had tried to cross, hoping to escape poverty and violence for a better life in the United States. The child had died wrapped inside her father’s shirt, with her arm around his neck.
There was sorrow, there was outrage — and then there was silence. Most of us simply went about our business.
Floyd’s death has rightly stirred an outpouring of action we haven’t seen in years — sustained protests that have launched actual efforts to change damaging laws, practices and attitudes. We’re now starting to realize that we have a very long way to go in living out the ideals upon which this nation was founded, and which affirm human dignity itself.
But there’s always the very real danger that the momentum will be lost, because we’re easily lulled back into our routines of work, family and daily life. As long as we and our loved ones aren’t suffering, we tend to think that all’s right with the world.
And besides, when it comes to global problems such as racism, crisis-driven immigration, environmental destruction, sexual violence, addiction — there’s not much one person can do, right?
Personally, I wouldn’t want to stand before Christ and answer “yes” to that question, because I don’t think he’d be quick to agree.
Nor would St. Teresa of Kolkata, who once advised a visiting U.S. senator appalled at that city’s unimaginable poverty, “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.”
With those words in mind, I’ve drafted the following list of ways I can begin to cooperate with God in bringing his kingdom to this little corner of the earth:
- Pray. Given all those clasped-hand emojis dotting our Facebook pages, prayer may seem like a way of dismissing major issues with a half-hearted Hail Mary. But real prayer is no less than a heart-to-heart with the Lord himself, a conversation that he initiates: “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Rom 8:26). Prayer is the response to the call of a gentle but relentless Lover who longs to shower us with every grace we need to live with ourselves and with each other.
- Go to confession. Standing in line for the confessional can leave both body and spirit squirming. And yet there’s no surer means of receiving forgiveness and healing for our sins. We sicken, spiritually and often physically, when we choose to remain uncleansed. A private mental chat with God isn’t sufficient for recovering from our falls, as thousands of “confessional” books, talk show episodes and social media posts attest. We need to tell Someone — and deep down, we know that.
- Receive the Eucharist. Why do we, as the body of Christ on earth, so often starve ourselves of the bread of life? “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). How much clearer could the Lord be?
- Read the Scriptures. We’ll pore over news, sports, stock market watches, Facebook, celebrity gossip, bestsellers — but too often our Bibles (if we even have them) are gathering dust. If we’re not willing to read the map, how can we expect to find our way?
- Zoom in and zoom out. We usually experience big, systemic issues through individual interactions: we don’t know all the people wounded by racism or unfair immigration laws, but we do know at least one or two people who are impacted. We can help them while also doing the often dull tasks of addressing root causes of injustice — for example, contacting elected officials, attending community meetings and researching problems in depth.
- Watch your mouth (and your mind). “Death and life are in the power of the tongue; those who choose one shall eat its fruit” (Prov 18:21). The menu is pretty straightforward; let’s ask the Spirit for the wisdom and power to make the right selection, whether our lips or our hearts are speaking.
- Know your place. We’re created beings in a world where everything, including our next breath, is a gift. Each of us will leave this earth, and each of us will account to God — and to those who come after us — for our time here. May we use it well.
My list is far from complete, and even as I write it, I know that I will falter. Pray for me, and please share your own list with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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