As I mentioned in my own message for July 13, 2008 (“There Is A Choice”), I often get the chance to listen to the Catholic Mass broadcast on WFUV, the Fordham University campus radio station. It is an opportunity for me to continue the worship that began that morning. I heard this one after I completed the worship service at Lake Mahopac United Methodist Church (“What Exactly Is Freedom?”); the priest who gave this homily, Father Charles Beirne S. J., has given me permission to post it. It is a very powerful message on what one person can do to bring justice to this world.
A friend of mine, a Wall St. lawyer, and a graduate of Brooklyn Prep and Fordham, lived the life of any committed Christian, loving his wife and his six children, and going to work on the Jersey commuter train every day. And then the Salvadoran armed forces murdered his sister, two other nuns and a lay missionary on December 2, 1980. This tragedy transformed his life and that of his whole family from that day forward.
Unable to attend his sister’s funeral in Chalatenango, El Salvador, Bill saw his sister’s grave for the first time in slides projected on to the wall of my office at Regis High School in Manhattan. Over the past 20 years he made several trips to El Salvador, often taking some of his children with him, and he badgered officials of the U.S. State Department who did not want to investigate too closely the murder of the American churchwomen, lest the results embarrass some of their Salvadoran allies. He spoke at many events honoring his sister and the others, and he gave a moving commencement address and received an honorary degree from Fordham University in 1990.
A few years after the killing, five foot soldiers, who did the actual killing, were arrested, convicted and served over 15 years in jail, but the colonel who gave the execution order still lives in freedom with impunity. Bill and his colleagues persisted, and they eventually got a conviction in a civil case at a Florida federal court of two generals who presided over massive violation of human rights in El Salvador. One of the generals was a first cousin of the colonel who ordered the killing of the American churchwomen. Since it was a civil case the generals did not go to jail, and the victims will never see the money awarded by the court. But, after so many years, at least some justice was at last rendered in the case.
Bill Ford died last month after an almost two-year struggle against cancer, working in his office up to the end and helping so many of us in justice causes. At the funeral mass Bill’s son, who is now the Principal of the Cristo Rey High School in Harlem, praised and thanked his father for his love, his integrity, and his relentless pursuit of justice. Bill’s wife and their six children continue to work for justice in so many different ways, the greatest tribute they could render to Bill.
When I reviewed the readings for today’s liturgy my thoughts turned naturally to Bill.
The Prophet Zechariah presents to us a king, riding on a colt, a just savior, who will banish the chariots and the horses of war. He shall proclaim peace to the nations, says the reading. Bill Ford, in his quiet, professional way, turned the law on the villains, and insisted on justice which is the foundation for true peace. He reminded civil officials in Washington and in the American embassy in San Salvador about their moral obligations to find out the truth about countless violations of human rights and to achieve justice for the thousands of victims, especially the poor, but his message often fell on deaf ears.
The second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans calls our attention to the Spirit of God in our lives, the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. The reading tells us that “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.” God’s Spirit enlivened Bill Ford and has now given him new life.
We also find consolation in the words of the Gospel: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest, for I am meek and humble of heart…For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” When one is motivated by faith and trust and love of God, as Bill Ford was, then all burdens become light. He never tired in his pursuit of justice and we should never let up in our own struggles for justice. For God’s Spirit is in us, when we are our best selves, and open to God’s abundant grace.