Henry James named one of his novels Washington Square, after a formerly fashionable area in Lower Manhattan known for its handsome row of mid-19th century houses on the square’s north side. Most of the houses are now owned by New York University, but one belongs to the Sisters of Charity. It is here that the Intercommunity Center for Justice and Peace has its modest quarters. I had been aware of the center since my days studying theology in the 1970’s. But wanting to know more of its present-day activities, one afternoon I took the subway down from America House for a visit last May.
Arlene Flaherty, O.P., the executive director, led me up a narrow flight of stairs to the center’s bare-bones office, run by a small staff on a tight budget. (At one point, she noted, “Everyone here has to know how to fix a Xerox machine and a computer.”) The center represents a coalition of over 40 congregations of women and men religious in the tri-state area—New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. “Each of the congregations has a specific charism,” she said, going on to emphasize that taken together, these charisms embody a transformative power that can be used to alter the present-day world into one characterized by justice values, as exemplified in Catholic social teaching. The latter, she said, “is what we live by, rooted as it is in the presence and praxis of Jesus Christ.”
Sister Flaherty’s background prepared her well for her present responsibilities. As a missionary for over a decade in Jamaica, she worked with poor residents and saw at first hand the way in which many of them were being exploited by offshore companies in the free zone. There, with no right to unionize and paid low wages, the factory workers epitomized for her what she referred to as the dark side of globalization.
The center’s staff takes aim at some of the world’s injustices through several points of focus. These include children’s rights, the rights of immigrants and criminal justice. In regard to the latter, a former Jesuit Volunteer, Nicole Crifo, who is heading for law school, works at the advocacy level on issues like the death penalty and the so-called Rockefeller drug laws, now emulated in other states and the cause of sentences of draconian length. But she also deals directly with a number of the women at the Bedford Hills prison north of New York City, seeking clemency for several of them. In two cases involving drug-law offenders, her efforts resulted in the women’s release. In addition, she works with students in Catholic high schools, raising their awareness of the inequities in our criminal justice system.
Another staff member, Jessica Kochis—a former Good Shepherd volunteer—also spends time in high schools. Her focus, however, is children’s rights, with a current emphasis on child labor and children in warfare, like those dying in Iraq because of the embargo that has caused shortages of food and medical supplies. She has helped develop curricula for teachers to use in dealing with these issues, along with a project she worked on with Nicole called “Peace-ing It Together,” that assists students in understanding and responding to the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath.
A third of the center’s focus points is immigration, with a Salvadoran, Yanira Chacon-Lopez, as the Latino outreach coordinator. After fleeing her country in 1982 to seek asylum, she experienced at first hand what it means to be detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Yanira conducts workshops for Latina women struggling to find a foothold in the United States—now made more difficult in the face of growing anti-immigrant sentiment. At the time of my visit, she was in Washington, D.C., lobbying on behalf of Salvadorans whose temporary protective status was in danger of expiration. (It has since been extended for a year.)
Justice and peace are indeed what the center is about, as evidenced in its works and in its quarterly newsletter, Universe Updated. Detailed information on the center can be found at www.icjp.org.