Written by Joining Voices with the Voiceless
HELP ME PASS FIRST GRADE AND HELP ME FROM GETTING KILLED
What does it mean to be a voice for the voiceless? It sounds poetic, it sounds romantic, it sounds like something we all would love to be able to do, but where do we start? I guess first we have to identify the voiceless. Who are the ones who cannot speak in our communities, our countries, and our world? The voiceless are the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, and the elderly; those who have not been given a place to speak and be heard. Anyone with privilege of any kind can use that privilege to speak in their name; to be in solidarity with those who are not heard and become their voice.
One story of a voiceless child of God stays with me everyday, and constantly reminds me of my own privilege and my obligation as a Christian and member of the human family to use my voice for others. Seven years ago I was working at a transitional home for homeless mothers and their children in Jersey City, NJ. I was the activities coordinator for the school-aged children in the building. The year I worked there provided me with a window into the obstacles, dangers, struggles, and triumphs of folks trying to climb out of the uncertainty of homelessness.
There, I met Jasmine. At eight years old, Jasmine could light up a room with her smile and could ask questions about anything and everything until late in the evening. One day, Jasmine had finished her homework, so I asked her to complete a writing prompt to practice her writing. The assignment was to write to the president asking for anything she would like to change in her city. Jasmine’s response is what rings in my head and my heart and her first draft piece of notebook paper remains close to me at all times. It reads: “Dear Mr. President, Please help me pass the first grade and help me from getting killed.” Short, simple, to the point.
This one sentence taught me more than I could have ever learned from a conference or class on poverty in America. It points out how different my life was from Jasmine’s at age eight and it inspires me to help prevent other eight year olds to grow up with such fears. The very fact that this eight year old girl feared losing her “inalienable right” to life, her God-given gift of life, in her everyday, urges me to be her voice. I hear her voice, quietly saying, “I’m scared, I don’t want to be shot,” and it moves me to speak louder for her.
It moves me to want to change the situation of our inner-cities from areas of uncertainty and violence to places of community and trust, to neighborhoods of safety and kindness. I don’t know where Jasmine is today; we have lost touch. Her influence on my life has led me to continue to work toward justice, peace, and equality in our country and our world. We never got a response from the president, but hopefully, if he read her letter, it rings in his head and heart as well.
Although Jasmine has a voice of her own, she, along with over half the world’s population who live in poverty, have difficulty being heard. The power structures that be do not allow for the voice of the poor and the oppressed to reach those who make decisions. Those we call the voiceless have not chosen poverty, they have not chosen oppression. They are victims of a society of greed and violence and together, we must act as their voice and contribute to their voice.
Being a voice for the voiceless does not just require using your ability to act, or your privilege in society to speak for those who are not heard. It requires one to first listen to the voices that have been quieted. Those we call the voiceless know what they want for themselves and their children. As a voice for others, it is not our role to decide what is best for an individual, a family, or a society. I think too often we wish to speak out for others without really listening to their needs.
Differences in values, culture, and belief systems make listening to the oppressed the first and most important step in being a voice. Through proper listening, we become advocates for healthy and informed changed, not just voices for what we may think should happen. Listening allows the voices of the poor and oppressed to rise up. We become a part of the struggle through listening to stories and proposed solutions to the oppression and poverty.
Listening to the voice of those who otherwise are not heard gives them the influence and dignity they deserve. The struggle toward change when battling greed and misguided leadership is slow, but in being voices for one another, the journey can lead to a place where every one is respected and everyone is heard.
As Marianists, we look to the example of Mary, who acted as not only a voice, but as a body, mind, and spirit for our God, who became flesh to be a voice in the world. Her listening to the call of God and answering yes, allowed for the voice of God to break into the world in a new way. Mary risked ridicule and desertion in bearing Jesus in her womb and, through doing so, she became a voice so powerful that she was a vessel for the salvation of all people.
Being a voice is not easy, and the results are not always apparent. Archbishop Oscar Romero is remembered and looked to as an example of being a voice for the poor and oppressed in El Salvador. He referred to those looking to bring about change as “prophets of a future not our own.” Every time we listen to an unheard voice and act upon it, we contribute to sparking a change in the patterns of injustice. Just as Mary’s voice and body ushered Jesus into the world, we can continue to be that voice of God in the world. Romero also encouraged people to be “God’s microphone.” In community, we can be amplified and clear as we attempt to live out the Gospel in our actions and words, loudly.
My journey of being a voice for the voiceless was profoundly inspired by my listening to the voice of an eight year old girl in New Jersey. Through prayer, listening, community, and action, we can all act as voices for those who are not heard and together work toward God’s kingdom here on earth.