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Compassion, Peace and Justice Training Day opens in Washington

Panel discussion takes up racism, class and power

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Compassion, Peace and Justice Training Day officially kicked off this morning in Washington, with its theme “Lift Every Voice: Racism, Class and Power.” The day-long gathering of over 200 Presbyterians began with a panel discussion of diverse voices on collective power. The panelists, from various professions and parts of the country or world, shared their work and personal stories of oppression and neglect at the hands of corporations, institutions and classes of people. While the stories and backgrounds were different, the message was the same.

Blaine Snipstal co-manages Black Dirt Farm, a small-scale ecological vegetable, seed keeping and livestock farm. He helps facilitate agro-ecological, political and cultural trainings not only at the farm but also throughout the Chesapeake Bay region.

“I will tell you that land is power. Land is the root of the power system that we are currently facing,” he said. “Land is so critical for so many things and in terms of power, it’s about who owns it and who has access to it.”

Snipstal told the crowd that the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, has created a “push-pull dynamic” that has destabilized internal social supports of countries, allowing the free flow of capital.

“Our struggle is international. What happens here is happening in other countries,” he said. “We have to confront this model of capitalism and how we relate to people on this planet.”

Panelist Doreen Hicks works with United Workers (UW), a human rights organization based in Baltimore committed to ending poverty. The organization has receive grants from Presbyterian Self-Development of People in the past. Hicks reflected on her childhood, moving from home to home with her mother, never fully realizing how she was classified.

“I didn’t realize I lived in poverty until I started working with the UW,” she said. “When you’re young you don’t know what your status is, you just live.”

Hicks said people often walk with blinders on struggling and never knowing what to do to improve their quality of life.

“There is a lack of love and respect in the world, no matter whether you make a little or a lot of money,” she said. “If we just opened our eyes, we would see that it’s not about making large amounts of money, it’s about helping people survive.”

Danny Cendejas works for Detention Watch Network and focuses on the rights of immigrants held in detention centers along the U.S./Mexican border. The son of immigrants, Cendejas says the mass incarceration of immigrants fleeing their troubled countries has been a “complete failure.”

“The system is oppressing people, abusing and violating human rights every day,” he said. “We’ve seen this and talked about this for far too long, and the same players have allowed this failed system to continue.”

Cendejas reflected on the rise of incarcerated immigrants from 5,000 in 1994 to more than 34,000 in 2014.

“There are plenty of problems within the detention centers. I’ve talked with detainees who’ve requested to see doctors and are being ignored. Some say seeing a doctor is like trying to see Jesus,” he said. “People are getting sick in detention and refused proper medical care that they need. We’ve got to start holding people accountable and stop being afraid to speak up. Until we say what it needs to be, the same system will keep working.”

Conrado Oliviera is director of Joining Hands Peru. His work centers around improving the lives of the most economically disadvantaged and vulnerable sectors of society. Oliviera shared the history of how the culture of Peru and neighboring countries was impacted by the arrival of foreign investment and the eventual corruption of government leaders.

“Our country had rich natural resources along with significant investment from international mining companies. We have seen that these corporations wield more power than our own government to regulate and manage,” he said. “Our natural resources are seen as something to be exploited and commercialized. Development used to take place in harmony, but now it’s about taking all of the profit that is possible.”

While each panelist approached racism, class and power from differing views, all agreed the challenges are similar and, in many cases, overlapping.

The Rev. Dr. Mark A. Lomax, founding pastor of the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church of Lithonia, Georgia concluded the discussion with scripture and a few words of his own about the role of the church moving forward.

“We have become co-opted, corrupted and complacent. It is difficult to get people of faith together to organize and look at what’s being done around each of the issues described here today,” he said. “We’ve grown comfortable collaborating with systems and structures. We need to change our current course. Worship should be married to our work so much that you cannot tell the difference.

CPJ Day continues at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church the rest of the day leading into Ecumenical Advocacy Days Weekend. The conference of numerous denominational and ecumenical groups concludes on Monday.

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