Reflections On Jim Harney by Jeanne Gallo

December 10th, 2008

Reflections by Jeanne Gallo about Jim Harney, his Life and Work, on the occasion of his receiving the Sacco & Vanzetti Social Justice Award from Community Church of Boston
December 7, 2008

As I begin, I want to thank Community Church for giving me the privilege of speaking at this wonderful event, which  honors Jim Harney, my friend and the friend of so many of  the people gathered here, by presenting to him its 2008 Sacco & Vanzetti Social Justice Award.

Especially, I want to thank Dean Stevens who answered my many questions about what would actually happen today. Dean is someone to whom I look for clarity and vision about how to make this a better world, not only with his words but especially by his music. Thank you, Dean.

And, of course, I want to thank my friend and colleague, Jim Harney, who inspires these reflections and who has been a major influence in my life and in the life of many, many others. Though Jim cannot be physically with us today, he is present. Recognizing this, join me in saying: Jim Harney and Nancy Minott, PRESENTE!

I would like to begin my reflections by quoting from some Latin Americans whom Jim has known well, both personally and through their writings. Their language has become his language.

Jon Sobrino, in the Prologue to his book, No Salvation Outside the Poor, writes:
“The underlying reflection is about our present world, a world of poverty and opulence, victims and victimizers; about the salvation and humanization that are so urgently needed; and about where that salvation and humanization might come from.”
Sobrino goes on to say that the essays in his book are all based on the words of Ignacio Ellacuría in his last speech, given in Barcelona on November 6, 1989, ten days before his assassination on November 16th.

Ellacuría was murdered, along with five other Jesuits, their coworker, and her daughter, by elite forces of the Salvadoran Army who were trained by the US at the 1
Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Georgia. For the last twenty years, around the anniversary of their deaths, there has been a nonviolent demonstration outside the gates of Fort Benning demanding that the School of the Assassins, as it has come to be known, be shut down. Many, many have gone to jail because they “crossed the line” at Ft. Benning, some spending as much as a year in prison. [Jim had gone to the SOA last year and had hoped to go this year, but that was not to be].

In his last speech, Ellacuría said:
“This civilization is gravely ill – sick unto death…to avoid an ominous, fatal outcome, the civilization must be changed.” With absolute and radical clarity Ellacuría added: “We have to turn history around, subvert it, and send it in a new direction”.

Further on, Sobrino refers to the statement of a sixteenth‐century monk in La Española who in accusing the landowners of cruelty and extermination asked:
“Are these not human beings? Do they not have rational souls? Do you not see this? Do you not feel it? How can you stay in such lethargic sleep?”

Sobrino compares then with now:
“Today…there are a few prophetic voices, but not many; the rumor of misery and the cry of death filter through the drawn shades of indifference. Voices of hope can also be heard. Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, [a bishop from Brazil] lashing out at this world of ours, also acknowledges that
…humankind is moving, it is turning toward truth and justice; utopia and commitment are still very present on this disillusioned planet.”

Thus, the important thing is that we have hope, even if it seems to be hidden in and by our world. We must believe that we can heal our world, our civilization “of capital and wealth”, as Ellacuría and Sobrino describe it. Healing it will require all kinds of intellectual, social, and political effort. Our friend, Jim, has spent his life in these kinds of efforts.
Ellacuría, in that final speech, also echoed the words of Dom Pedro Casaldáliga:
“Only utopia and hope enable us to believe and encourage us to try, with all the world’s poor and oppressed people, to turn history around.”

Now, all of us here today, know that Jim believes, and more important, embodies all that Sobrino, Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, and Ellacuría have said. Jim believes firmly that:
“We have to turn history around, subvert it, and send it in a new direction.”

This has been his work for almost 50 years. And, Jim has challenged us by his words and example – to look at the “majority people” and to ask the same questions of those who crush them – and he also asks those of us who seem to accept the reality by our continued silence:
“Are these not human beings? Do they not have rational souls? Do you not see this? Do you not feel it? How can you stay in such lethargic sleep?”

In the body of his life’s work, Jim has not only questioned and challenged the powerful but has also challenged those of us who may find it easier to go along with the reality by our continued silence.

Jim certainly embodies, believes, and has helped others to hope and work in the belief that
…humankind is moving, it is turning toward truth and justice; utopia and commitment are still very present on this disillusioned planet.

Jim was not born a radical. In a talk that he gave to a group two years ago in New Mexico, Jim describes a bit about himself. He says:
“Here you are, having to deal with a Bostonian who has a history.”

A Bostonian whoʹs lived sixty‐six years on this planet and [who is] trying to move step by step along with you into a space where we look at one another from a perspective of grandeur and celebration rather than from weakness.
A Bostonian who grew up in a Catholic ghetto, cut off from the world at large. A Bostonian who would later break out and spend a chunk of his time with the violated of the planet, perhaps because violation played a key part in his story, as it does in all our stories.

Yes, Jim did grow up in a Catholic ghetto. Almost all Catholics during the 50s and 60s grew up in that environment – yes, even those of us who came to be known as the “Catholic left.” It was the way of the world at that time.

Jim felt the call to priesthood and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in the early sixties. But, the sixties would turn out to be a watershed time for Jim, as it was for many of us.

I want to mention what I think were two significant events at that time in Jim’s life: the Second Vatican Council and the Vietnam War.

The Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII in 1963 to “open the windows” of the Roman Catholic Church to the modern world, freed Jim to break out of the Catholic ghetto – and Jim, never looked back.

In the summer of 1968, when the Vietnam War was raging, Jim and thirteen others broke into nine draft boards that had offices side by side in a Milwaukee office building. They put the main files into burlap bags, then burned the papers with homemade napalm in a small park in front of the office building while reading aloud from the Gospel. They awaited arrest, were jailed for a month, freed on bail, then tried the following year, after which they went to prison for more than a year.

They became known as the Milwaukee 14.

As Jim tells the story, he spent most of his 18 months in prison in solitary confinement where he spent his time reading and reflecting on the only book he was allowed to have – the Bible. The gospel would become the major force in Jim’s life. He took it seriously. He did not give lip service to it as so many of us Christians do. Jim lived it.

It led him, as he says it, to spend a chunk of his time with the violated of the planet. In his writings, Jim calls it “hanging out” with “the humiliated of the planet in Latin America, the folks growing poorer by the minute”.
Specifically, Jim has been “hanging out” in countries such as: the Dominican Republic (1973), Colombia (1973) El Salvador (1980s), Guatemala (1990s), Chiapas, 4
Mexico (1998), Colombia (2001), Iraq (January 2003), Argentina (2003), Haiti and the Dominican Republic (2004), Venezuela (2005), and along the U.S. Mexican border.

Over these many years, Jim has been looking at the world through his many experiences with the folks on the bottom. His perspective – or the way in which he looks at the world – has been determined by his social location, which has been with the “majority people.”

Jim has put much effort into honing his intellectual, social, and political skills. He does believe in utopia and he believes that we – all of us together can heal our world, our civilization “of capital and wealth”, as Ellacuría and Sobrino describe it. Healing it will require all kinds of intellectual, social, and political effort. Jim has put the effort in. His challenge to us is that we do the same.

On the Posibilidad home page, Jim is described as follows:
Jim Harney, works as an Artist in Residence for Posibilidad, a Bangor based nonprofit that prioritizes engaging people in conversation around the excluded of society. His photography, engaging storytelling, and group facilitation‐skills allow discussions that provoke people to speak from the heart, in ways that often surprises them. The power of his stories revolves around people engaged in redefining power in their own lives. His photos complement the stories in a visceral way.

This description captures some of Jim’s talents and gifts. Jim loves to engage people in conversation – he loves to talk but about serious things. He is a photographer – just look around this room. He is a storyteller. He moves people to speak from their souls. If you want to enter a little of Jim’s world, go to the website
But Jim is more than this. During these last weeks, I have been remembering my time both “hanging out” and working with Jim. I have been reading and reflecting on his writings, as well as on some of his (and my) favorite writers.
What I have gleaned from these last weeks is that:
Jim is a writer. In 1975, he founded Overview Latin America, and then wrote most of its articles, which were edited by his dear friend, Irma Wagner. Many of his recent essays and reflections can be found at

Jim is a printer/producer. In the 70s, Jim learned how to run a printing press, with the help of his good friend, David Weinstein, so that he could produce the materials needed to do educational work. Today, instead of a printing press, Jim produces his materials and slide presentations using computer technology.

Jim is an educator. He has given talks, classes, conferences, etc. to thousands of people across the country. He sees everyone in the group as both teacher and learner, himself included. Because of his pedagogical method, he makes difficult ideas easy to grasp by both adults and the very young.

Jim is a theologian. He breathes and lives a theology of liberation that comes out of the reality of Latin America where he has spent so much time.

Jim is a philosopher. He thinks deeply on the meaning of life, on what it means to be a human being, on what it means to be non‐human in today’s world and why it is so.
In his essay, Reflections During a Night in Jail, Jim writes about his experience of community:
“My peers were tutoring me. My community taking the time to craft hard and difficult questions for me, never mind Senator Snow. I appreciated the painstaking work presenters did to illustrate the signs of the times: war, growing military budget, breath‐taking deficit, national rumblings about institutionalized lies and ground‐swelling demands to end the war, bring the troops home. Presenters shared data, emotions, and spirituality in a way that fed me, allowed me to stand a bit taller and say to myself, this is one of the finest demonstrations that I’ve ever attended: an experience I’ll never forget, now etched into who I am.”

Jim is an economist. He is an avid daily reader of the Financial Times of London. Words such as derivatives and hedge funds are not alien to him. Two years ago, he predicted the present collapse of capitalism that we are now experiencing. And, Jim knows more about trade agreements than anyone I know: NAFTA, CAFTA, FTAA, etc.

In his essay on Derivatives and Impoverishment, Jim writes:
“Derivatives exist in a world absent of relationship, production, [or] a hands‐on take about the daily lives of most people on the planet. It doesn’t produce a tortilla, no peanut butter, and little job creation behind them. It’s one of the explanations as to why poverty creation continues to grow in the wealthiest country in the world where 35 million people, mostly children, live at the bottom of the world.”

But instead of anything real [being] produced, our prison system grows; alienation abounds; little money pours into public sectors to support generations to come…
I come to the issue of derivatives out of “an option for the poor” frame of reference that drove many in Latin America to place themselves in situations where they lost their lives because they spoke publicly about “structural violence.” Faith‐based communities used “structural sin” as a way of describing the challenge that brought them to do things that captured the attention of the world. They organized. They asked hard questions as to why so many fell into impoverishment; they dug deep to find the spiritual, political and economic reasons for the poisoning of society that made a few rich and many poor.

Jim is an environmentalist. He, like many who have made an “option for the poor,” as Jim certainly has, has also made an “option for the earth” which is also exploited and being destroyed. He addresses the life and death of all of creation, living and nonliving.

Jim is a socialist. He sets his sights on a more just world where the basic needs of all of its people are met because the wealth of society is shared by all.

However, Jim is not naïve. He knows what the reality is. He writes often about the maldistribution of wealth, especially here in the U.S.

Between now and the year 2050 the super‐rich will transfer money to sons and daughters, roughly an “estimated $41,000 billion to $136,000 billion dollars.” There is plenty of money out there, yet inequality in the world grows. The US of all industrial countries has become the most unequal in the distribution of capital.

If Jim were here, I am sure he would ask:
What does it mean that 500 human beings could fill this room and possess more wealth than three billion human beings on the planet?

Jim is a poet. Many of his writings, even though written in prose, read like poetry. He creates language, uses language that moves deeper, that pushes one’s emotions, that makes one feel what he is feeling.

For example, in his essay, Reflections During a Night in Jail, he writes:
“The press conference was a wake up cry. The info crawled into my flesh, pushing, heaving: a moral Kristina demanding response. I thought of Tony Morrison and what she taught me in her “Beloved”: listen to the spirits. And throughout the day they challenged me: Jesus, Mother Jones, Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Romero, Santo de las Americas.”

Jim is a prophet. In 1968, Gordan Zahn invited Jim to write the preface for his biography, “In Solitary Witness,” about the refusal of Austrian peasant Franz Jagerstatter to fight in Hitler’s army, a refusal that resulted in Jagerstatter’s being executed by the Nazis.

In that preface, Jim wrote:
“As we move into the future the family of man desperately seeks those who have within them the capacity to discern and act upon human needs — the capacity to cry out in collective witness against the atrocities that are taking place in the world, to take the leap into history and to live with suffering humanity. History cries out for our witness.”

I’d like to end with an excerpt from Jim’s essay, Letter to Charter School 37. I think it encapsulates what I have been saying about Jim during my reflections. It is also a call to all of us to have a utopian vision. Jim says:
“It comes [down] to how we make connections with the violation of others; with a world in the throws of tremendous trauma due to political and economic forces that come down hard on the traumatized who live in war zones, who live in countries under heavy assault from those living outside the country who have enormous power.
They dictate to countries what the value of their money will be. [This] comes down hard on those on the bottom of an economic pyramid based on structures of violence that Catholic Bishops in Latin America decades ago called “structures of sin”.
The more we touch and expose those structures the more powerful do our stories become and when we utter them they take us into language creation, political and spiritual expansion that may well take us by surprise.
But don’t let the surprise frighten you. Go with its energy and never let anyone tell you that you have no right to it, it’s your energy, your creativity, your coming into the classroom of the world empowered, accompanied by others who support you and you them.

That’s what CS37 means. You’ll feel it in your bones, your flesh, the way you speak, the intensity of your listening power, your voice growing as you articulate your place in the world of the 21st Century.

One final word: I would also say that Jim is a saint. Again, join me in saying:
JIM HARNEY, PRESENTE! Thank you all very much.

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