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Mission group shaken up over new world disorder.

PITTSBURGH -- Judging from its 10th annual conference at the Airport Marriott here last month, the Washington-based U.S. Catholic Mission Association is a tough, no-nonsense outfit with courage and vision. For nearly three days, the roughly 200 participants grappled to near exhaustion with some of the hardest hopes and realities spinning today's tumultuous globe.

If any of the USCMA's priests, laypeople and religious (some wearing habits) thought they had come to a fancy hotel for a weekend lark, keynoter Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer set them straight. Nelson-Pallmeyer, Lutheran pastor and author of Brave New World Order (Orbis, 1992), said that the world order emerging in the wake of the Cold War was not new in terms of justice for the poor.

Enormous transfers of wealth in the 1980s -- from the poorest to the richest nations (primarily in interest payments and unfavorable trade conditions), from the poor to the rich in the United States, from the United States to Japan and Europe -- left the Third World under the thumb of global economic cops such as the International Monetary Fund and left the United States in what is functionally more "a national security state than a democracy."

We must make the transition to sustainable economies or well destroy the planet, Nelson-Pallmeyer said. And that means finding an alternative to the consumer society and ending militarism. The churches must break away from the dominance of this society and its gods, he said, even if it means risking their own (institutional) destruction.

Under questioning, only a few days after the presidential election, Nelson-Pallmeyer said that Bill Clinton would not seriously challenge the military-industrial complex and that there would be little change in U.S. foreign policy but that "a small space for change has been opened."

Asked to explain in a later interview, he said that even something like national health care could generate change because it would allow people more freedom of choice in jobs and life-styles. Also, he said, taking environmental imperatives seriously would help decentralize government and decision-making.

The country and the church are in a state of denial, he said. There is no hope without honesty, without facing reality. We need to name the demons so we can take their power away," Nelson-Pallmeyer said.

One participant, who asked not to be named, said Nelson-Pallmeyer's talk was simplistic and not well-framed. We should not be making demons of the military and we should look more to the reality of the economic process, he said.

Some participants were angered, others overwhelmed. One asked why the conference should open with such an iconoclastic shelling. But by then the answer was clear. Nelson-Pallmeyer's Friday afternoon talk sparked a fire that crackled clear to Sunday.

Saturday morning, the conference heard from Mary Mabweijano, an Ugandan political scientist who served as a missioner in Chicago with the Volunteer Missionary Movement. Pursuing the conference's theme, "The Emerging World Order: A New Context for Mission," Mabweijano pretty much agreed with Nelson-Pallmeyer's analysis of the economic oppression of the Third World. The emerging world order will not affect many people in the Third World, she said. It is far from their reality of continuing economic decline.

AIDS is another part of that deadly reality. In Uganda, the disease has wiped out entire villages, Mabweijano said, leaving only children under the age of 14 alive. Uganda does not have the social structures to support AIDS-devastated families, she said. The epidemic is taking society's most productive members and stretching the traditional African community to its limit, Mabweijano said.

The time for making judgments is past, she said. The church must face the AIDS reality.

That afternoon, in one of three focus groups, AIDS was again on the agenda. Scott Harris, a Maryknoll priest and medical doctor, went deeper into that terrible reality, mapping the deadly swath the disease has cut across Africa and into Asia. Even if a cure is found tomorrow, millions more will die. Some of the missioners emerging from the workshop looked as if they had been clubbed.

"Semen, blood and the womb are now instruments of death rather than signs of life in many countries," Scott later told the conference. But AIDS has been over-medicalized, he said. It is primarily a pastoral problem and it is not going to go away in our lifetime.

Sam Stanton, a former lay missioner in Chile now working with the Maryknoll lay missioner program, said AIDS was creating some formidable choices when it came to sending missioners, especially medical people, into situations so lethal.

There was also a focus group on refugees and one on the environment, lead by Mary Evelyn Tucker, who teaches world religions at Bucknell. Tucker said she was much heartened by the enthusiasm of her students at a secular university to the ecological vision of Passionist Father Thomas Berry. Both Tucker and her husband studied with Berry in the early 1970s and work closely with him still.

"My students are really getting into Berry," she told NCR. "They see the limits of what's out there and that political and economic solutions are not enough."

Sunday morning the conference heard Jesuit Father Dean Brackley analyze the possibility that a culture of liberation could still emerge from the clash between the traditional cultures of the South and the "liberal" culture of the North.

Brackley now teaches at Central American University in San Salvador, one of the team of Jesuits who replaced colleagues who were slaughtered by government troops in November 1989. El Salvador is still groping toward alternative solutions, he said. Hope has become its greatest export, surpassing coffee.

The USCMA gave its annual mission award to the Tekakwitha Conference of Native American Catholics. It also sent a letter and copies of Nelson-Pallmeyer's book to Clinton and Al Gore and a letter to Clinton and George Bush concerning the situation in Liberia and the American missioners and novices who were murdered there.

USCMA executive director, Sister of Notre Dame Margaret Loftus, said there was a chance that next year's conference would focus on lay missioners (see accompanying story).

In the gleaming lobby of the Airport Marriott, so out of character with the conference participants, there is a baby grand piano run by a computer. Every evening it pumps out cocktail music like lotion from a bottle. Keys bob and hammers hammer, but the piano bench is empty. The effect is ghostly, absurdly technological and dehumanizing, but by the time the conference ended Sunday noon it was clear that the missioners in the USCMA dance to a far different tune.
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Title Annotation:U.S. Catholic Mission Association conference
Author:McCarthy, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 4, 1992
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