Category Archives: Domestic Peacemaking

Kim Mazyck, associate director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, discusses the transformative power of dialogue and encounter

The Transformative Power of Dialogue and Encounter

Encounter Changes Everything

Kim Mazyck
August 15, 2023

Kim Mazyck is the associate director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. She has served in key positions at Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, and the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur East-West Province. She is a graduate of Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service with a degree in international relations and has a certificate in African studies.

She spoke with Connection about her work with the Initiative and what her journey has taught her about the power of dialogue and encounter.

What do you see as the factors that keep solidarity from taking root in our politics?

Kim Mazyck: I think it’s taking root in some places but not everywhere. I think mostly what we hear in the news is that which isn’t taking root. But I do think that there are politicians and political entities that are still considering what it means to walk with people, what it means to be in solidarity with them. There are some in politics who are really thinking about the impact on the least of these, those living in poverty, those living unhoused. I think there are many people really making sure that as we think about policy largely, we don’t get distracted with things that aren’t important, and we remain focused on people who are really struggling.

That being said, there seems to be a ton of infighting and a ton of distraction with other issues that don’t quite draw us into solidarity. They don’t have us think about the people who really need us to be considering them every time we think about policy and big decisions. I think that people are, to use the phrase we often use, not keeping their eye on the ball. When people are elected to represent a congressional district, or to the Senate, or to any office, even if it’s a local municipality, that comes with the responsibility of representing those people who have put you in office. Solidarity is when we think about, what’s impacting schoolchildren, are schoolchildren eating? How do we make sure people have the things they need, like Wi-Fi in a small county in which a lot of things are generally inaccessible? How do we make sure people can meet their basic necessities? I think some people are really speaking into that. But I also think that the voices that we’re hearing mostly are the ones that don’t speak into why that’s so critically important.

What was the call that you answered to engage on a path of solidarity?

KM: Before going to Georgetown I remember sitting in mass one Sunday … being challenged to think about service. That translated into me applying to and enrolling at Georgetown, eventually in the School of Foreign Service, thinking about diplomacy and the U.S. Foreign Service specifically.

I was in school during a time when the policy of apartheid loomed large in South Africa, and there were lots of protests on campus. By the end of my freshman year, I was very focused on African studies, primarily Sub-Saharan African. That really did shape and form my time there.

I spent a year after graduating teaching in South Africa, in a post-bacc program developed by Georgetown to put people in place to address the issues of what was going on in schools at that time in South Africa. I did that sort of thing for a year, and that year of service was the thing that shifted everything. I connect everything, even where I am now, back to that year in South Africa.

Bryan Stevenson said, “If you want to be a force for justice, you need to get proximate to people who are suffering.” You have worked with Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities USA. What did you learn about becoming a force for justice through proximity?

KM: I love Bryan Stevenson! I think the important thing about both the work of CRS and the work of Catholic Charities USA is that they are working to alleviate poverty, and to really address what’s going on in communities. Primarily at CRS, before I left and went to CCUSA, I led a number of delegation trips over to different countries in Africa, and that was where we got to encounter. It goes back to what Pope Francis says is so, so critical — that you encounter people.

Within that encounter, you may see suffering, you may see the impact of poverty, you may see what happens when people have been diagnosed with something like HIV, and you may think, there’s no hope. From trips to Uganda where I met night commuters, or communities protecting children from the LRA, to people living with extreme drought in Ethiopia, or a center for child brides… I’ve seen some incredible things. And yet, I always came back with the joy that I experienced more than anything else. I can look subjectively with my American eyes and say, wow, this is a situation I can’t imagine living in. And then I sit down and talk to somebody, I sit and spend some time with someone, and what I walk away with is my cup being filled with joy and community. I remember that I can’t just see them through the lens of poverty, through the lens of oppression, through the lens of a disease. There’s a full person there. And that full person is reminding me that I see God, and that God is also telling me that there’s joy in that experience.

For me, that reflection is what I see at the heart of CRS and the heart of CCUSA — encountering individuals. When we do that, we really know what the joy of the Gospels are all about. We know the joy that Pope Francis is reminding us about. That’s when we are in community with each other. Our brothers and sisters remind us that we’re on this journey together.

You’re at the Initiative, a convening space. Francis talks powerfully about dialogue, telling the U.S. bishops, “Dialogue is our method.” What have you learned about the power of dialogue?

KM: I’m so fortunate to sit with John [Carr], Kim [Daniels], Anna [Gordon], and Christian [Soenen]. What I’ve known about dialogue is that, again, it really fosters that sense of connection. That encounter is so critical. It brings back to me a quote from Pope Francis, that dialogue is the way of peace. Dialogue fosters listening, understanding, harmony, concord, and peace. That’s what we try to do.

When we set up these dialogues, we are trying to bring people who are maybe not on the same path or occupation. As we approach the issues, how can we bring them together to model what dialogue does? Pope Francis keeps reminding us that when we talk to each other, our opinions and approaches don’t seem as far apart as we think they are. When we focus on the heart of the matter, then we can really talk about what needs to be done. We can inspire not just those who are in that dialogue, but even other people if they experience it or watch it. I think we inspire them to have those same dialogues in their parishes, in their schools, and in their families, and hopefully on a larger scale in their communities, in the county, in the state, and in the country. That, to me, is really impactful.

Where do you see your perspective as a Black Catholic woman fitting into a convening space, in those dialogues?

KM: We want to have multiple perspectives, we want to have different ways of looking at an issue. My lived experience as a Black woman, and as a Catholic, all filters into how I see things — maybe differently from you, or John, or Kim. But by dialogue, we listen to each other. That’s when we begin to understand each other. And through that listening, we foster understanding. That’s what dialogue is about: not me coming in prepared to say, “oh, I need to make sure I hit these three points.” But listening to what the other person is saying so that I’m not just ready with my next response — I’m really processing. And that’s the only way we can talk about harmony, and the only way we can talk about really building community.

Compromise is a dirty word in so many spaces. How can lawmakers come together? In what ways can we work together, so that solidarity is not a casualty, and the most vulnerable people are not collateral damage?

KM: When we bring together our dialogues, we try to give a mix of perspectives, and I think that’s a tool. We continue to invite women religious, many of whom are on — I hate using the term “front lines” because it sounds so militaristic — but they are the ones responding in schools, in hospitals, in soup kitchens, in places where there’s the greatest need. And so we try to reflect that perspective, including with professors and lawyers, and we invite lawmakers to be a part of that so that they begin to also have a new perspective.

Again, it’s the modeling. We’ve done 151 dialogues; we’ve had almost 300,000 people listen to us. What does that change look like? How are people thinking differently? How are they conversing? We have a gathering after a dialogue, in person, so that there’s an opportunity for people to break bread, if you will — to talk, to have conversation, to not have to be on a microphone, so that they can ask a question maybe they were too embarrassed to ask in front of a large room.

We can’t be labeling each other because we disagree. When we’re invited into dialogue, we’re here together, we’re going to work on this together. That’s what Pope Francis is asking, too. The Initiative is saying that if we sit down and listen to each other, then we’re going to foster and better our understanding of each other. And even if we have completely divergent perspectives, we only get closer. It’s like anything — when you know somebody, it’s harder to demonize them, when you’ve actually sat next to them and had a conversation. Then they aren’t this person who thinks so differently than you. They are a human being with thoughts and a heart, like you. That goes back to solidarity. It’s when we see each other as both children of God, both built in the image and likeness of God.

What does healing our politics even begin to look like?

KM: The discourse of nationalism is about who is and who isn’t an American, but what I believe and know to be true is that we’re all Americans. We need to be more clear about that and have conversations about that.

This column was published in the Quarter 3 2023 issue of Connection. 

Billionaires: Buying Our Democracy to Line Their Pockets and Empty Ours

Billionaires: Buying Our Democracy to Line Their Pockets and Empty Ours

Christian Watkins
July 22, 2022

Last week, an unknown sum of dark money paid every Republican Senator and one Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to kill the trillion-dollar investment and tax plan Democrats have been working on for a year. The plan, which you might have originally known as the Build Back Better Agenda, was remodeled as the Budget Reconciliation Plan.  

Budget Reconciliation, a version of which passed the House in November 2021, would have started to reverse 40 years of trickle-down tax breaks for the rich and corporations. Dozens of billion-dollar corporations – like Amazon, Starbucks, and Netflix who now pay little to no federal income taxes, would have been required to pay at least a 15% minimum tax so they would pay into the U.S. economy like the rest of us. 

Taxing the ultra-wealthy would provide federal funds for policy measures that folks in the United States not only need, but want. Potential policies that would benefit the country include: more affordable health care, climate change mitigation, and reduced household energy costs. 

Dark money and corporate donors used their influence (money!) to flood Congress with messages that benefited them, but drowned out the voice of the people. 

The Constitutional declaration, We The People, should be the driving force that motivates legislators, not corporate interests. We need to get the out-sized influence of dark money and corporate dollars out of politics to heal our democracy. There are responsible Congresspersons who recognize the need for federal reform, and they have created bills that provide solutions.   

The John R Lewis Voting Rights Act (H.R.5746 S.4) and The For the People Act (S. 1) are ready for debate and a vote. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act corrects the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decisions that diluted the safeguards of Voting Rights Act and dismantles new barriers to voting and election integrity put into place by 19 state legislatures. Chief Justice Roberts said Congress needs to act or else states are sovereign on election law.  Returning election law to the state level would again allow for state legislatures to combine already in place redlining tactics with voter suppression and disenfranchise Black and Brown voters. This country is not a collection of sovereign states, so we need federal standards for elections.  

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act (H.R. 5746 S. 4) would establish guidelines for elections, like: times, appropriate locations for in-person voting, and rules for early voting boxes, etc.).  The For the People Act, is transformative legislation that ensures clean and fair elections by reducing or eliminating the influence of big money, dark money, and foreign money in politics. S.1 also calls for easier voting access.  For example, States would register new voters on election day for federal elections and establish independent (i.e., non-partisan) redistricting commissions to reduce partisan gerrymandering. 

S.1 would strengthen the ethics and financial disclosure requirements for the President, Vice President, Members of Congress, and Federal officers and employees. One way this will be done is by prohibiting congresspersons from serving on the boards of for-profit entities. 

Is it no wonder why corporate special interests have rallied to oppose these bills! They want to continue to carry on with the status quo – and use money to influence Congressional decision-making.  We can work around them! If Senators committed to the preservation of “We The People” carve out filibuster exceptions similar to the ones that they have done for Budget Reconciliation measures, Federal executive nominations approvals, and Supreme Court Nominations, then significant action can be taken to protect our democracy.  

Our faith and sacred documents give us much needed guidance about our role in the body politic.  

The Bible says, 

“There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Cor. 12:25-27).”  

And, Catholic Social Justice tradition and the Catholic Catechism dictates that democratic participation in our communities is both a right and a responsibility and each person must be equipped with the proper resources. As a United Methodist minister, I also find guidance from our founder John Wesley who said, “there is no holiness without social holiness.” Taken together with NETWORK’s Build Anew agenda, we are well-equipped for this righteous cause. I pray you’ll dig deep this year and call on your friends and families to do the same! 

We are at a critical time in our country, so contact your Senators now and demand that they work to save our democracy by suspending the filibuster and passing election reform bills. 

Hopes for a Reparations Commission Moves to the White House

Hopes for a Reparations Commission Moves to the White House

Julia Morris
June 1, 2022

For over a year the drum beat for reparations has been building. After 30 years of Congressional delays, for the first time on January 4, 2021 H.R. 40 made it out of committee and onto the House floor. House leadership knows this will not pass in the Senate, so the pressure is now on the Biden Administration to establish a committee to execute a reparations study, which will lay out the plan to make amends for the United States original sin of slavery and the systemic racial oppression that followed. Reparatory justice activists, social justice groups, and faith-based organizations are urging the Biden Administration this spring to finally follow through on a commitment made on the 2020 campaign trail. The Biden-Harris campaign promised, in ‘Lift Every Voice: The Biden Plan for Black America’, to tackle systemic racism and the continuing impacts of slavery by “supporting a study of reparations.” 

You may ask what would this look like? A commission will study the impact of 400+ years of racist policies, laws, and practices that have deprived Blacks fair access to participation in America’s cultural, political, social and economic life. Join NETWORK in calling for President Biden to establish a commission to study reparations via executive order, call the White House at 1-888-422-4555 or email the White House here. 

The commission would evaluate programs like the Homestead Act and the GI Bill. Both were federal programs designed to help families achieve economic footing in times of change. The Homestead Act granted land out West at the turn of the 20th Century, and the GI Bill helped forge the middle class after World War II with home buying and educational opportunities for veterans These programs paved the way for the US middle class, it was not accidental or unintentional that these programs were denied to Black families. In fact, today schools are more segregated now that they were at the time of Brown vs. Board of Education. 

Chattel slavery was abolished in 1865, but because of the legacy of discrimination that flows from slavery, the Black community continues to suffer. For too long in this country, the expectation and delivery of better housing, education, jobs – has only been a reality for white families. The legacy of being Black is discrimination and oppression. We see it in our societal frameworks, access to fair wages and quality employment, the criminal legal system 

What is not named cannot be healed. This is a historic opportunity to, using the frame of the Catholic tradition, name our original sin of slavery and move towards repair.  

NETWORK is joining with partner organizations to urge President Biden to create a federal commission to study reparations by Juneteenth (June 19, 2022). Add your voice, call the White House at 1-888-422-4555. Or email President Biden to issue an executive order to create a federal commission to study reparations today!

NETWORK Responds to Week of Violence, Bigotry, and Anguish

NETWORK Responds to Week of Violence, Bigotry, and Anguish

October 29, 2018

After a would-be assassin mailed pipe bombs to 14 prominent Democratic figures, including the families of 2 former Presidents; after a gunman tried to enter a Black Church in Kentucky intent on doing harm but was unable to gain access so walked to the nearest Kroger grocery store and killed two people instead; after all of that, there was the terrible mass shooting of Jewish worshippers at a Pennsylvania synagogue.  It was a devastating week and we are still reeling from it.

Nevertheless, we join the country in offering our most heartfelt and sincere condolences to the family and friends of those 11 people who were killed in Pennsylvania and the 2 people in Kentucky.  No words can express how profoundly we grieve with you in your time of need.  We stand together as the nation mourns your, and our, loss.

At the same time, we condemn, in the strongest possible language, these senseless murders of 13 ordinary people, worshipping at Tree of Life Synagogue and buying groceries at the local Kroger store.  They were simply going about their day until two white men, fueled by anti-Semitism and racial animus, attacked them.  These innocent people lost their lives to hate and fear in a country founded on freedom, opportunity and religious values.

But our Catholic faith tells us that we are all created in the image and likeness of God.  No exceptions.  And as a result, every human being is imbued with an essential dignity that must be honored, respected and protected.  The hate-filled actions of the gunmen belie that fundamental truth.   Whether or not you are religious or have some faith-based beliefs, there is something profoundly wrong in society when people turn to violence against others simply because they belong to a different religious tradition or have a different skin color.  We condemn every action based on hatred, bigotry and violence.

Sadly, this is not the first time we have witnessed, endured and decried the presence and menace of such evil in our midst.  But this can be the last.  This is a time when the whole country can stand up and speak out against it.  This is a time when we must demand of our leaders and each other the guarantee of civility, respect and safety for everyone.  For our sake.  For our children’s sake.  For the sake of our country’s future.  We must not let this hatred, violence and division defeat us.  The only question is:  will we do it?  Or will we once again pay a terrible price for our silence?  People are fond of saying “we are better than this.”  Now is the time to prove it.

May God grant eternal rest to those who were slain.  May God shower peace and consolation on all those who mourn.  And may God have mercy on all of us if we fail to stand up to this moment in history.

The First Step Act Doesn’t Go Far Enough

The First Step Act Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Joan Neal
May 25, 2018

The House just passed the First Step Act, a bill purporting to be a significant step forward in prison reform.  Despite the claims of the bill’s supporters that it will make the prison system fairer and more effective, this bill will not alleviate the overcrowded, discriminatory nature of our federal prison system.  In fact, while it contains some modest reforms such as prohibiting shackles on pregnant women during child birth; adding some educational, job training and personal development programs; and providing limited opportunities to earn ‘time credits’ toward early release, the bill fails to include provisions to overhaul and fundamentally transform the nation’s justice system.  Research shows that we need both sentencing and prison reform to achieve meaningful change in our criminal justice system.  The First Step Act, focusing only on the back end – more geared towards limiting prison time after someone is incarcerated — is inadequate to achieve that goal.

Backed by the White House (Jared Kushner and President Trump), the bill has the support of various individuals and factions of conservatives, including the Koch Brothers, Grover Norquist, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, most House Republicans (especially members of the House Freedom Caucus), Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who previously co-sponsored the bi-partisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, and some moderate Democrats.  Even with all of that support, the First Step Act fails to address some of the big problems in the current criminal justice system: racial disparities, chronic prison overcrowding, a focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation, and the exorbitant costs of incarceration, borne by the government, tax payers, prisoners and their families.

Moreover, some of its provisions could actually have the opposite effect of its intent by putting in place policies that are more discriminatory toward inmates of color and women.  For instance, it calls for the development of a “risk assessment system,” to be implemented and overseen by the current Attorney General, who has a history of opposing sentencing reform, supporting punitive rather than rehabilitative policies and practices, and targeting immigrants and immigration related offenses.  This bill may well do more harm than good.

Supporters of the bill argue that we must make a choice:  either we pass prison reform or sentencing reform.  There is no possibility to do both.  It’s false to say there is only one choice.  For several years, a comprehensive, bi-partisan bill – the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act – has been gathering support in both houses.  Clearly, passing comprehensive criminal justice reform is possible.  We do not have to choose one or the other.

Meaningful criminal justice reform requires both front and back end changes.  Congress should, therefore, abandon the First Step Act and take up the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act instead.

Jeff Sessions is Wrong On Crime – Again!

Jeff Sessions is Wrong On Crime – Again!

Joan Neal
May 26, 2017

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to seek the harshest penalties possible under the law for all drug crimes, he signaled he wants to send us back in time.  We tried that strategy and research has shown that it didn’t work.  Under the ‘tough on crime’ approach, during the War on Drugs in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the U.S. prison population soared and the costs of incarceration increased dramatically.  Why, then, would we want to go back to a system that failed to lower crime levels or to make us safer?  Such a policy is clearly wrong on crime.

This order is a direct attempt to undo all of the progress the Obama Administration was attempting to make by focusing on rehabilitation of drug offenders, especially low level, non-violent offenders, and reducing the federal prison population, resulting in millions of dollars of savings in the federal budget.  In contrast, this ‘law and order’ policy will have exactly the opposite effect.  It will not stop – nor even slow down – the drug trade because it is not targeted and it will cost taxpayers more money.  ‘One-size fits all’ sentencing does not deter crime, save money, or make us safer.

But Jeff Sessions has been ‘wrong on crime’ for a long time.  As a Senator, he constantly opposed the growing congressional bi-partisan consensus on sentencing and prison reform, eventually, successfully blocking passage of any reform measure in the Senate.  Now, as Attorney General, he is seeking to institutionalize his outdated, ill-conceived policies that will only prolong the injustices already inherent in the criminal justice system.

History shows that mass incarceration, overcriminalization and prison warehousing have a disproportionately negative impact on communities of color and other marginalized groups.  Having a criminal record is a one-way ticket to intergenerational poverty.  It is an obstacle to employment, housing, education, healthcare and more.  It devastates families and is a drag on the American economy.  Jeff Sessions’ orders will insure that these conditions continue.

Thankfully, proponents of criminal justice reform across the board are still fighting for common sense reforms.  Both houses of Congress have bills pending.  Just this week, Senators Patrick Leahy and Rand Paul re-introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act which is aimed at restoring judicial discretion by giving federal judges the authority to impose sentences below the mandatory minimums when appropriate.  Reforms such as this will begin to restore fairness and equity.

The U.S. has the highest prison population of any country in the world.  This is not a distinction worthy of our values and identity as a proponent of freedom and liberty.  Our union is not yet perfect but we should always be working toward that goal.  Indiscriminately locking up people for long periods of time, no matter the severity of the crime, is unjust and immoral.  Our faith teaches us that there is always the possibility of rehabilitation.  The Attorney General’s approach to fighting crime denies the right of every person to be treated with dignity and respect.  It is inefficient, ineffective and un-American and we should do everything possible to turn it around.

Blog: Sentencing Reform – We’re Almost There!

Sentencing Reform – We’re Almost There!

By Joan Neal
May 26, 2016

Momentum is building in Congress toward comprehensive criminal justice reform.  There are several bills working their way through each chamber but the Senate seems poised to take action.  Since The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S.2123) passed out of the Judiciary committee last October, the bill has garnered additional support across the board.  Not only does it have 37 bi-partisan Senate co-sponsors but also, more than 400 organizations, including law enforcement and federal, state, and local prosecutor groups, have publicly called for its passage.  Although the pace of progress has been slower than supporters desired, the fact that there is forward movement is something to be celebrated!

Since the bill was introduced, a few changes have had to be made to garner additional support from mostly conservative Republican senators.  While the bill still lowers mandatory minimum sentences for most low-level drug offenses, the new language specifically eliminates anyone previously convicted of a violent felony and allows prosecutors the right to ask for a higher minimum sentence for drug crimes involving an opiate drug called Fentanyl.  Despite these changes, the bill is still worthy of support.

In fact, the Congressional Budget Office recently determined that The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 will save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 5 years, starting in 2017!  Very few bills that have come out of this Congress save taxpayers this much money!

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 is not a perfect bill.  It does not go as far as many would like.  But it is a place to start in the effort to put more proportionality and fairness in the criminal justice system.  It will affect the lives of nearly 2,000 men and women currently serving time in federal prisons.  It will help families reunite and allow returning citizens a second chance to live stable, productive lives.  And, at the end of the day, it will make our communities safer by helping those who have paid their debt to be better prepared to return to society.

There is only one thing standing in the way of making sentencing reform a reality.  Despite all of the bi-partisan support in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to schedule it for a floor vote.  With over a third of the Senate officially co-sponsoring the bill and many more informally indicating they would it, there is no excuse for McConnell’s obstructionism.

The faith community has been instrumental in pushing this bill toward passage and we must keep up the pressure.  Your voice counts more than ever right now.  Contact your senators and tell them you want Leader McConnell to bring The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 to the Senate floor for a vote.  Criminal justice reform can pass this year.  Let’s make it happen!

Blog: During Women’s History Month Don’t Forget Women Behind Bars

During Women’s History Month Don’t Forget Women Behind Bars

Joan Neal
March 29, 2016

March is Women’s History month and this year’s theme is “Working to Form a More Perfect Union.” This is certainly a noble goal and one we should aspire to attain. But as we celebrate and honor women this month, let’s not forget that women still suffer, often unjustly, in the United States. Take the criminal justice system for instance. Not only are women treated unequally in this system, they are more often than men, victimized by it. To form a more perfect union we must address this issue.

The number of women in prison has exploded over the last couple of decades. Between 1997 and 2007, the female prison population grew at nearly twice the rate of men. Today, over 100,000 women are imprisoned in federal and state institutions – a 646% increase over the last 30 years! Nearly 58% of these women were jailed for drug offenses because women are more likely than men to be imprisoned for drug and property offenses. (Bureau of Prisons) We can’t form a more perfect union while this inequity exists.

To make matters worse, a quarter of women in state prisons and one third of females in federal prisons are pregnant when they are locked up. This has resulted in a 131% increase in the number of children with a mother in prison compared to a 77% increase in those with a father in prison! (The Sentencing Project) The pipeline of women into the prison system because of mandatory minimum sentencing has left thousands of children without stable homes and deprived them of the experience of a relationship with their birth mother.

While it is certainly clear that some women are guilty of non-violent drug offenses and should be held accountable for their crimes, it is also true that many women are victims of overly long mandatory minimum sentences. We can’t form a more perfect union until judges are able to give sentences that afford women greater opportunity to be treated fairly by the criminal justice system and to be held accountable in a manner that is proportionate to their offense.

Congress can honor women and make history during this National Women’s History Month by passing much needed sentencing reform. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S.2123) is a vital reform that will reduce some mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of non-violent drug offenses and help right past wrongs by retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 to approximately 6,000 women and men currently in prison. Although much more reform is needed, these changes are an important first step toward addressing some of the causes of the unsustainable increase in the number of women in the federal prison system.

Now is the time to pass sentencing reform. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed S.2123 over 4 months ago and it is time for the bill to come to the Senate floor for an up or down vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should put justice before partisan interests and bring S.2123 to the floor for a vote right away. Passage of this reform will go a long way toward honoring National Women’s History Month while at the same time helping the country ‘Form a More Perfect Union.’

Blog: The Crucifixion Keeps Happening, Over and Over Again

The Crucifixion Keeps Happening, Over and Over Again

Simone Campbell, SSS
March 14, 2016

The story of Jesus’ passion and death has stirred my imagination since I was a child. In an act of profound mystery, Jesus walks towards the conflict swirling around him. Jesus accepts his arrest and does not raise his voice. His willingness to embrace the consequences of truth-telling leaves him silent in the face of his accusers. His judges repeatedly say they can find no fault in this man, but the people want more. They want someone to blame.

It makes me think of the fear and anger roiling in our nation and capitalized on by some of our presidential candidates. Whom can we blame? Whom can I direct my anger toward? Many holler to deport those who are different. Many demand that the stranger at a rally be expelled. Many people with white skin fear those who have a darker pigment. And those with a darker pigment fear what will happen to them when white fear runs rampant. Fear and hate cause people to demand that those who are different be crucified so that those who are yelling will feel less uncomfortable in our complex society.

But this is the deeper truth: Hate and fear have no place in the Gospel. Jesus welcomes everyone, including Pilate, Herod, Simon of Cyrene, and the women of Jerusalem. He stands in the midst of conflict with reflection and respect. Facing groundless charges, he doesn’t retaliate. He either answers simply or stays silent and lets the scenes play out trusting in the presence of a deeper truth. We are challenged, as a nation, to journey into this deeper truth. This deeper truth is the embodiment of love beyond understanding.

In September 2015, while on our Nuns on the Bus tour in advance of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, I met women whom I think of as Jesus in the story of the passion. They are in the grip of suffering for their children, yet they do not cry out or retaliate. I met Amy, an African-American mom in St. Louis who worries every day about the safety of her two sons, one in tenth grade and the other in eighth grade. She quizzes them regularly about what to do when stopped by the police. She tells them that they need to keep their hands out of their pockets and their arms away from their body. They need to say “yes sir,” “no sir,” and don’t demonstrate any teenage attitude. She showers her boys with worry and advice so that they might be safe.

Her eighth grader asked her, “Mommy, how long is this going to go on?”

Amy, in her love, told him the current truth. She said, “The rest of your life.”

This is the worry of moms in a society where young African-American teens can be seen too quickly as a threat. It is her worry which is quite like the worry of the women of Jerusalem. On his way to Calvary, Jesus says to them, “Do not weep for me. Weep for yourselves and your children.”

“The question for me is: Was I there when they crucified my Lord?” —@sr_simone

Jesus in his love knows that it is not about him, but the struggles of our families and our destructive tendencies. It is the toxicity of racism that is crucifying our young men in the streets of our cities. We need to weep so that we may act differently.

Also on the bus trip, in Missouri we met the two mothers who started Just Moms STL. They live near the superfund clean-up site known as West Lake Landfill. This buried toxic heap was created by the waste from the creation of the atomic bomb in World War II. This nuclear waste was buried, but has been emitting radiation for over 70 years. Now these mothers have come together because their children have been diagnosed with brain cancer. They discovered that there is a 300 percent increase in the level of childhood brain cancer for those living near this site. Not only that, but we were told that the waste itself has caught fire underground and is gradually smoldering its way towards the Missouri River. And yet, no one is cleaning up the mess. Rather, the corporations are arguing about who should pay for it. They are doing this while children suffer and our land cries out to be rid of the toxicity of human making.

This is the road to Calvary. How do we become Simons of Cyrene to help with these crosses? Are we willing to let our hearts be broken open by the anguish and struggle of our time so that we might find some form of conversion and change?

Jesus walked step by step toward those who condemned him. He revealed the truth either in accepting the title he was given (King of the Jews), or his concern for the women of Jerusalem. In the midst of his anguish, he felt another’s pain. This is the gift of love that is not preoccupied with itself, but rather sees the needs of others. Dare we love enough to move beyond our nation’s endemic racism and embrace Amy and her sons so that their story might have a different ending? Do we love enough to move toward helping the moms trying to save their children from the toxicity that is consuming our planet?

Some presidential candidates breed fear and hate, becoming like the mob in Jesus’ time demanding someone’s life. They nourish the toxicity rife in our society. We as Christians are challenged by Jesus to live differently. We are challenged to stand up for Amy and her sons and the mothers at the West Lake Landfill. Do I act to change the future of our nation or do I too call for blood? The question for me is: Was I there when they crucified my Lord?

This article originally appeared at On Scripture.

Blog: Good News for Juvenile Justice Reform

Good News for Juvenile Justice Reform

By Joan Neal
January 27, 2016

Monday, January 25, 2016 was a double-header for kids in the U.S. criminal justice system, with compassion and justice winning the day. First, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana,held that its 2012 ruling banning life without parole for children must be applied retroactively.This time, Chief Justice Roberts reversed his earlier position against the ban and voted with the majority. Now the U.S. will no longer be the only country in the world that jails kids and throws away the key.

Thousands of prisoners sentenced as juveniles prior to the Court’s original decision, will be able to request a review of their sentences and have a chance for parole. Pope Francis has called for an end to all life sentences, calling life imprisonment a “hidden death penalty.” Additionally, numerous studies have shown children lack the maturity and judgment of adults, and both their capacity to act responsibly and their ability to reform increases with age. With this decision, the Court aligns the law with existing scientific evidence, real life experience, and basic respect for human dignity.This is a major step in ensuring fairness and compassion in the juvenile justice system.

Second, on the same day, President Obama issued executive orders banning the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. Responding to a Department of Justice study regarding the use of solitary confinement by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, President Obama observed, “The practice of solitary confinement in the federal prison system is overused and has the potential for devastating psychological consequences.” The president’s orders also provide relief to prisoners who are typically subjected to solitary confinement for committing “low-level infractions” and expand access to treatment for mentally ill prisoners.

Traditionally, as a nation, we have not been concerned with how prisoners were treated once they were incarcerated. Clearly, we should care. Many studies show a link between isolating prisoners and an increase in rates of recidivism. The stories of prisoners held in solitary confinement who have developed mental illness or have taken their own or other’s lives once released from prison should serve as cautionary tales.  As the president said, “It [solitary confinement] doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”

All justice-seekers should applaud and support the momentous juvenile justice reforms announced this week. It is admirable that the judicial branch and the executive branch have made these changes. But where is Congress? It’s time for Congress to enact comprehensive criminal justice reform.  Call or email your Senator or Congressional Representative and demand that they pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123) and the Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713) in the House.  When that happens, compassion and justice will have truly won!

Society should hold offenders accountable for their misdeeds. But surely our hearts are big enough to do that with compassion and mercy. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”