This winter’s snows and rains in the heartland of our continent have brought the Mississippi River back almost to its normal navigational channel depth from the dramatically low drought levels of last summer. Low water had all but stopped commercial river traffic.
From my upper deck Megabus seat on the morning St. Louis to Chicago schedule this past Wednesday, I could see a towboat and its barges working their way downstream in the muddy current. Where we crossed over from Missouri into Illinois just south of the Gateway Arch the broad river is twice as wide as the Yukon River at Dawson City.
The river valley of the Mississippi here has witnessed much over the last millennia or so. The grandeur of an elaborate earthen mound complex at Cahokia only a few minutes further drive east provided a ceremonial heart for the peoples of the Mississippian culture. Their villages lined its banks 500 years before European contact.
Conjectured violent resistance to Cahokian hegemony, environmental stresses or a combination of factors may have led to their fall at least a century before the first French missionaries and traders from Quebec canoed south along the river in the 1600s. French settlers followed and held sway until President Thomas Jefferson secured the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803. Flags went up and down but the river continued to flow to the sea.
The 1820 Missouri Compromise brought Missouri and Maine into the federal union as states. One would be slave, one free. For 40 years two separate realities existed divided by the river. In Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, the shackles were loosed. In Missouri laws confirmed inferiority and bondage.
Rivers, no matter how broad, cannot stop ideas from crossing them. Revolutionary ideas like “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” heard in France in 1789 or the calls for the abolition of slavery in England at the same time coupled with evolving notions of basic human rights slowly wore down the institutions of oppression. Visionaries like Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass planted the seeds of resistance to unjust laws. Eventually, however, the blood and destruction of the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865 swept over the land like the Mississippi’s spring floods. As the nutrient-rich silts left by the rampaging waters renewed the land so too did the abolition of slavery renew a people.
The struggle towards true equality, though, has taken more generations, more resistance to “Jim Crow” laws and ghettoization, and more leaders like Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who were willing lay their lives on the line. Arguably each succeeding era demands new ideas and new leaders to resist injustice wherever it is found. Now our challenges have become truly global.
This coming Tuesday, March 19th in CYO Hall at 7:30 p.m. Francisco Coz Xep, a Mayan elder and leader with the Campesino Committee of Highlands from Guatemala will speak of his community’s resistance to oppression at the last session in the Lenten Ecumenical Social Justice series. In our increasingly globalized world their struggles to renew their land informs our own challenges. Solidarity with the less fortunate should become a natural response as our interdependence deepens.
Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina will become the Roman Catholic Pope Francis next week. Last week the National Catholic Reporter quoted him as saying, “We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church.” Maybe he presents a real possibility of a leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics able to resist the power of curial politics and heal the wounds caused by sexual abuse and institutional malaise.
Can he take in hand the process of renewing a church’s commitment to the fundamental needs of people on our afflicted and divided planet?
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.