Solidarity, Because Love Demands It

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Felicia Johnson O'Brien, Assistant Director, Summer Service Learning Program, Center for Social Concerns, October 31, 2018.

I have a love-hate relationship with the word solidarity. It’s a beautiful, inspiring principle. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement on solidarity boldly declares, “Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.” In reality, though, this charge to an authentic, universal love in a wounded world is incredibly daunting, and I find myself falling very short of the mark.

Years ago, I got a phone call late at night. I was just about to turn off the lights and wanted to ignore the ringing, but I recognized the country code—Honduras. I picked up the phone hesitantly, worried bad news might await on the other end of the line. It was Claudia, my dear friend and comadre, a term that literally means co-mother and describes the relationship between a mother and the godmother of her children. My spirit was lifted when I heard her familiar voice. I lay there in my cozy bed listening to her life updates—a new fiancé she met at church, a baby on the way, and a new house in town awaiting her right after the wedding. Her life had been hard. Her first husband left her years ago, and she raised her two kids, my godchildren, with the help of her mom. They lived in the tropical hills of rural Honduras in a mud house with dirt floors, working two jobs to make ends meet. To me she was a rockstar. She and her mom had such gentle, open hearts and an unbreakable faith. Her good news was well deserved. I couldn’t be happier for her. “I can’t wait to meet him next year when I visit,” I told her. Snuggled up in bed, I marveled at our different worlds. Me in freezing Indiana in my big, warm house, connected by a cell phone to Claudia in her tiny one room mud house without electricity. The same vast sky above us. As I fell asleep, I imagined the brilliance of the stars above her tiny village and gave thanks to God for her good news.

The following year I visited and became aware of a different reality. She had moved to town into a new cinder block house with her newborn and two children. Her husband wasn’t there though when I visited. He traveled far to an industrial city for work during the week and came home on the weekends with his paycheck. Unfortunately, he brought other things home, too, like STDs and physical and sexual abuse to her and her older children. Her life was left in tatters. The painful expression on her face, the sad acceptance, seemed to say that this was simply her fate. In fact, she didn’t even really seem surprised, just worried, for her own health and her children’s well-being. How could she safely leave this man? What would he do to her? How would she pay for the medicines she now needed? What if her church community wouldn’t believe her? Who would she able to trust? How could she protect her children? So many questions. “I will pray for you. I’m here for you.” What more could I say? What more could I do? At that moment, I felt so close to Claudia and yet so far from her and her struggles, so helpless. As I flew away from Honduras after our brief visit, tears streamed down my face. I cried for Claudia and prayed that in some way my life might honor the pain and struggles she was facing. I longed to help share the burden of her pain.

Twenty years ago, Claudia and I became friends through a Bible study when I lived in her small village for two years. I drank the water, owned only a few things, occasionally had electricity, suffered the same parasites, and battled lice. It felt pretty close to what I thought solidarity might look like, but in the end I still had that plane ticket in hand. I came back to visit once in awhile, which was a joyful reunion with old friends, but still. . . that plane ticket. Nothing would ever wipe away the stark differences between Claudia and me and the other catrachos (a common nickname for Hondurans) I grew to love. The love though really does stay. I can’t quantify or prove it, but it’s real. I gradually came to understand that love is at the core of solidarity.

As the years go by, solidarity looks different. I’m not able to visit Honduras often now due to the demands of my own family and work. I miss my conversations with Claudia and pray often for her, receiving the occasional update. I spend hours each week volunteering as a board member with the same non-profit that brought Claudia and me together. I believe this organization benefits her and her children and grandchildren in the community. I hope and pray that I can be an advocate for women and that I can raise my own children to create and defend a world that honors a place at the table for Claudia. I let the principle of subsidiarity guide me and commit myself to local involvement here in South Bend. And yet, it still never feels like enough. Many days I feel like a failure, but the love remains. “Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.” Yes, I will keep working at it. Why? Because in spite of my humble efforts, love demands it.


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