Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, December 05, 2003
ILL-SERVED? British Catholic historian Eamon Duffy reviews a new book on John Paul II entitled John Paul the Great: Maker of the Post-Conciliar Church. Duffy, who is willing to describe John Paul as "a giant among popes," skewers what he sees as the excessive hagiography of this new volume. Most troubling to Duffy, as a historian, is the idea that any single pope could be seen as providing the definitive interpretation of a major council so soon--in a historical sense--after its conclusion:

In all this, Papa Wojtyla emerges as the providential and indeed only “authentic interpreter” of the council, and among his achievements is its “full implementation”. There is a self-fulfilling character to claims about the role of popes as “authentic interpreters” of recent councils. How would we know if they weren’t? Since he appoints all the bishops and sets the tone for the Church’s public utterances, since every speech of every cardinal and every document from every dicastery cites his writings as their principal authority, with the best will in the world, such “authenticity” may appear to come out of the barrel of a gun.

Reflecting on this, I was reminded of Yves Congar’s illuminating account of the role of the fiercer Counter-Reformation popes in creating the system of “Tridentinism” out of the more complicated legacy of the Council of Trent. In fact, the discernment of the “authentic” interpretation of any council takes generations, and is a collaborative work of the whole Church. It is far too soon to close the book on the “authentic” meaning of Vatican II. In that labour Karol Wojtyla, as participant and as pope, of course carries greater weight than most, but his is just one of the necessary voices in the process of discernment.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:47 PM
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HOMELESS REDUX: Captain Inertia, who works in social services in NYC, blogs about the challenges of trying to help people when they don't particularly want to help themselves. These are tough calls, because as I'm sure the Captain knows, one of the reasons that the participants in these various programs ended up with so many legal protections is because their rights were sometimes grossly violated in the past. At the same time, if you can't sanction bad behavior, everything goes to you-know-where in a handbasket real quick.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:03 PM
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DIGNIFIED: CNS covers a new statement from Pope John Paul II on liturgical music that, at this point, is available only in Italian. I must say that the excerpts in the article make it sound like you could find support for virtually any conceivable approach to liturgical music. Any musicians out there want to comment?

posted by Peter Nixon 8:11 AM
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THE DIALOGUE CONTINUES: John Allen takes the British (and American) press to task about the way it reported on the "collapse" of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion:

The reality is that one Catholic-Anglican forum, the relatively new International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, has been put on hold. Its meeting had been scheduled for February in Seattle. The commission’s aim was to publish a common statement of faith, and current events have put in question just how much faith the two sides share.

Subcommittees of this commission, however, will continue to meet. Williams has offered, and the Vatican has accepted, the formation of an ad-hoc subcommittee to consider the ecclesiological implications of the Anglican crisis. In effect, Roman Catholics have been offered a voice in Anglican reflections about identity and structures. It is, therefore, precisely the opposite of “collapsed talks.”

Moreover, the IARCCUM commission was never the primary instrument for Anglican-Catholic dialogue; that body is the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, founded in 1970, which is working towards a document on Mary. Sources say that after its current mandate expires in 2004, ARCIC will be renewed and will find other topics to investigate.
As usual, there is a lot of other good stuff in Allen's column this week. NCR seems to be stuffing the space with more pleas for donations and subscriptions, a tacit recognition, I think, that Allen is one of the publication's key product lines. Every now and then I wonder what Allen would do if he were given the editorial reins of NCR...

posted by Peter Nixon 8:07 AM
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Thursday, December 04, 2003
PRAY FOR ME: At 8:30am PST Friday morning I will begin taking the Graduate Record Exam. So I am asking my readers to please remember me briefly in your prayers at that time. You might want to pray particularly that the good Lord sees fit to help me remember the considerable amount of algebra and geometry I have forgotten in the two decades since I was in high school! Many thanks!

posted by Peter Nixon 9:51 PM
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SHAME OF THE CITY: The San Francisco Chronicle is running a good series on homelessness in San Francisco, widely considered to have one of the worst homeless problems in the United States. While in most cities, the "hard core" homeless make up about 10 percent of the total homeless population, in San Francisco the number is about 40 percent.

The first few articles might tempt you to despair, but today's article focuses on solutions and it is clear that there really are some. The cities that have been most successful in dealing with homelessness have been willing to both "get tough" and provide more services, particularly supportive housing. Other cities have done a much better job than San Francisco in leveraging available resources and coming up with solutions.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:30 AM
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HOPE? Joshua Micah Marshall has some interesting thoughts on the "Geneva Accord", an unofficial Israel-Palestine peace plan authored by Yossi Beilin (a prime architect of the Oslo accords) and Yasser Abed Rabbo (a Palestinian moderate and former PA cabinet minister). Marshall says he was inclined to dismiss the plan as irrelevant, but some recent events are changing his mind.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:14 AM
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HABEMUS UN PATRIARCH! The world's one million Chaldean Catholics--many of whom live in Iraq--have a new spiritual leader, after a synod of bishops voted in favor of Bishop Emmanuel-Karim Delly, who took the name Karim III.

One of the reasons it is an interesting story is because of the process used. One of the ongoing themes in both ecumenical dialogue and discussions about the next conclave is the issue of centralization of ecclesiastical structures. Archbishop Rembert Weakland wrote an article in Commonweal a few months back that suggested that the Church chould explore the creation of regional patriarchates. It's an interesting idea. It also suggests an ultimate way to bring the separated Christian churches into a common communion while preserving the distinctiveness of their various traditions.

posted by Peter Nixon 7:21 AM
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Wednesday, December 03, 2003
HUNGER: Today’s Gospel reading is the familiar Matthean account of the feeding of the multitude. One of the things that struck me today is when Jesus refers to the hunger of the crowd: “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, for fear they may collapse on the way.”

The theme of hunger resonates through many of the readings this week. The readings from Isaiah speak of a hunger for the last days, for the coming of a messiah, for an end to war, for justice for the poor, for an end to death, for an end to tyranny. To be hungry for these things is not merely to hope for them. It is to feel their lack deeply and physically, the way that hunger gnaws at the pit of your stomach.

Advent is about learning to live with that hunger. Because hunger can drive you mad. You get desperate. You start gnawing on belt leather or eating soil. You know these things are not what you need. But you are at a point where you will do something, anything to fill your stomach.

When I look at how we often prepare for Christmas, I see the madness of hunger at work. All our running around, our insistence on stuffing one more event into an overcrowded schedule is often just gnawing on belt leather. I remember my mother once resorting to individually wrapping batteries because she really wanted there to be a lot of packages under the tree.

Can we learn to live with hunger? Can we learn to live with what Karl Rahner called “the torment of the insufficiency of everything obtainable?” Can we learn to live with the unbearable tension of a time when the Kingdom is present, and yet still to come? Welcome to Advent…

You can find additional Advent reflections over at The New Gasparian, offered by members of the Precious Blood Communities.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:00 AM
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VANISHING POINT: The New York Times is running a poignant series on rural depopulation in the Great Plains. The interactive feature on the right is particularly tough. For some reason, it was the story about the high school football team that had to drop from 11-men to 6-men football that really caught in my throat.

posted by Peter Nixon 7:12 AM
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Tuesday, December 02, 2003
ANNULMENTS: The Chicago Tribune has an interesting piece on annulments. Tens of thousands of American Catholics obtain decrees of nullity every year, essentially a finding that no sacramental marriage had occured in the first place. Some critics believe that annulments have become too easy to get, while others hold that a finding that a sacramental marriage never existed flies in the face of the lived experience of too many Catholic couples who have divorced.

I think it is the variation in experience from diocese to diocese that is also a factor in the frustration. I know one woman who was very positive about her own annulment because it forced her to confront some things about herself and her first marriage that she had been avoiding. But she was bitter about her fiancee's annulment, which ocurred in a different diocese and which she believed had been held up because of directives from Rome to to 'tighten up' the process. Obviously, I can't speak to whether her assessment of the situation was accurate.

I've often wondered whether there are ways to change the process in ways that make it a little more intellectually honest. When a marriage dissolves after 15 or 20 years and a few kids, a finding that suggests there never was a marriage hits hard. I wonder whether, rather than the existing annulment process, someone seeking an annulment would enter some kind of "order of penitents", perhaps modeled on the RCIA program. The person's spiritual director would work with the person to come to a decision about when to exit the program. I'm just brainstorming here; it's hardly a well worked-out idea.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:39 PM
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REBELS? The Times of London sent an undercover reporter to 14 random priests in the U.K. pretending to be a Catholic parent of five who wanted to limit the size of his family. Eight of the 14 were willing to suggest that it would not be wrong for a person in such a situation to use artificial contraception.

It's clearly a "gotcha" type of story. Here are some questions to ponder: is the Times suggesting that you have to have five children and be in economic distress for the use of artificial contraception to become morally licit? Are the majority of Catholic couples in the U.K. using artificial contraception facing such circumstances? Is it legitimate for the U.K. largest newspaper to inject itself in such a direct way into a debate that is internal to the Catholic community?

Longtime readers know that, like many Catholics, I struggle with the teaching on artificial contraception and do not find the theological arguments for the teaching entirely convincing (click here to read a debate Greg Popack and I had on the subject last year). But reading articles like this almost compel me to rise to its defense. For good or for ill, the teaching is tightly woven into a broader Catholic narrative about the nature and purpose of human sexuality. There are many devoted Catholics who believe that this particular thread can be removed from this tapestry in a way that leaves the latter intact. But it seems clear that there are some outside the Church who wish to shred the entire tapestry, and are merely seizing on what they feel is its weakest point.

I also feel its a cheap shot to blame the priests and calling them "rebels" is simply unfair. There are centuries-old traditions about how priests are to counsel parishioners in situations like this and, without knowing the context that surrounds the quotations published by the Times, we really can't conclude that those norms were not followed. Most priests are doing the best they can in a very difficult situation. To simply demand that priests robotically reassert the teaching in all situations regardless of context is a recipe for pastoral futility.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:17 AM
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WORKING FOR THE RIGHT THINGS: The Catholic New World, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, interviews a young woman named Diana, an 18 year old freshman at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who led a fight to allow the children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state universities. The bill was signed into law by Governor Rod Blagojevich last May.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:07 AM
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GET THAT FLU SHOT! If you won't take me seriously, perhaps you'll listen to NBC Science Correspondent Robert Bazell, who lays out all the reasons why you should get that flu shot this year.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:00 AM
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PREJEAN: PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly has an interview with Sister Helen Prejean.

posted by Peter Nixon 7:56 AM
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Monday, December 01, 2003
THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN: Today’s readings--particularly the line from Isaiah about beating swords into pruning hooks—remind me of a sign that allegedly hangs on the office door of theologian Stanley Hauerwas: "A modest proposal for peace: Christians stop killing other Christians." Hauerwas stole the line from John Howard Yoder, of course.

But I think we miss something if we read Isaiah merely as a prayer for peace as we understand it. The peace comes because all nations come to acknowledge the supremacy of the God of Jacob.

In today's Gospel, Jesus identifies himself with this eschatological moment: "Many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven." What Isaiah has foretold is coming to pass. From our vantage point, we can see clearly that it is through Jesus that the nations have come to know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is Jesus who has been established as the "highest mountain" and "raised above the hills."

As Christians, our allegiance to Jesus as Lord relativizes any earthly claims to allegiance, including allegiance to the nation-state. A sobering thought.

This was initially posted as a comment on the Advent Reflections offered by the Precious Blood Community, which are available at The New Gasparian.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:16 PM
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WORLD AIDS DAY: Evangelist Tony Campolo has some harsh words for his fellow Christians on World Aids Day:

The Christian response to the AIDS epidemic has been abominable. There has been a tendency to write off those who are suffering from AIDS on the grounds that this disease is somekind of punishment that God has meted out to those who have been sexually promiscuous. The logic behind such a conclusion is beyond my comprehension. Consider the fact that a huge number of those who are HIV positive are women who have been infected bypromiscuous husbands. Are they to be condemned and ignored because of what their husbands have done? And what about the children who are born with the disease? Children constitute as ignificant proportion of those who are facing the possibility of AIDS-related death through no fault of their own.

We should recognize that the AIDS epidemic very much parallels the disease of leprosy that we read about in the NewTestament. In biblical times, those who had leprosy were deemed spiritually unclean, and others would not get near them or touchthem for fear of contamination that would be both physically harmful and spiritually defiling. Leprosy was seen as having aspiritual dimension to it, and lepers were looked upon as beinge specially cursed by God.

It is important for us to note that Jesus had a special spot in his heart to lepers. He embraced them. He touched them and certainly did not view the disease as some kind of special punishment that had been rained down on them by the Heavenly Father. Jesus reached out to them in love, which was contrary to the legalistic pietism of religious leaders in His day. He touched them as He healed them, in spite of the fact that touching them would render Him ceremoniously unclean to the custodians of the temple religion.

The Jesus of scripture calls upon us to see His presence in people with AIDS. Mother Theresa once said, "Whenever I look into the eyes of someone dying of AIDS, I have an eerie awareness that Jesus is staring back at me." Indeed, that is thec ase! No one can say that he or she loves Jesus without embracing the Jesus who waits to be embraced in those who havethis torturous disease.
I can't link to the whole thing because it came in a Sojourners e-mail and there is no URL. Campolo is urging people to ask President Bush and Congressional leaders to increase funding for fighting the global AIDS pandemic. Click
here if you are interested.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:33 PM
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JOAN'S GOD: Fr. Andrew Greeley writes about Joan of Arcadia. Ever the optimist, Greeley invites us to see past the apparent superficiality of the show:

The people involved in the show say that it is not really a religious program. They mean it does not push any particular denominational agenda and is not a prisoner of any ecclesiastical bureaucracy. There is a young priest in it, of the kind we need more of, and also a middle-age rabbi of great wisdom. The program combines family and police procedural and comedy genres, yet religion in the proper sense of the word is at the heart of the program because it is finally about God.

Joan's God is a God who reveals himself through the people we encounter in our lives who are God's sacraments; a God who like the Spirit in the Bible blows whither he will; a God who respects our freedom but still is ingenious in drawing us to Him (Her); a God who does not make all the darkness go away but still shines in the darkness; a God who never gives up on us, no matter what; a God I'd like to know better.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:12 AM
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FAITH IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA: Fr. Ron Rolheiser looks at how the philosopher Martin Heidegger once characterized our contemporary agnosticism. He said that we were "too late for the Gods and too early for Being."

For Heidegger, we've lost many of our old fears and superstitions, but aren't necessarily more mature and understanding because of it. We've moved beyond the old sense of helplessness, vulnerability and mortality, without recognizing the new helplessness, vulnerability and mortal danger within which we live. Like a child, sauntering along a dangerous ledge but blissfully unaware that he or she is one slip away from serious injury or death, so too are we in our new-found sense of confidence and fearlessness: We think ourselves invulnerable, but are only one doctor's visit, chest pain or terrorist attack away from a fearful reminder of our own vulnerability. We aren't immortal after all.

But this is not our real helplessness. Fearing for our physical health and safety is not the kind of vulnerability that today opens up a place for God in our lives. The scary ledge we walk along and are in constant danger of falling off has to do with the heart and its illnesses and deaths. More than our bodies, our souls are menaced today: We're all one slip away from a broken heart, a broken family, a broken marriage, a broken life, the loss of a loved one, a betrayal in love, the bitterness of an old friend, the jealousy of a colleague, a coldness of heart within, an anger which won't let go, a wound too deep for forgiveness, and a family, community, church and world that cannot reconcile. Self-sufficiency is always an illusion, most especially today.

We need God as much as did our ancestors. We just don't know it as clearly. Nothing has changed. We still stand in radical insecurity before energies and powers beyond us, storms of the heart, no less frightening than the storms of nature. We're no less helpless, vulnerable, mortal or fearful than the people of old and need God as much as they did, only for different reasons.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:06 AM
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Sunday, November 30, 2003
RAHNER AND BALTHASAR: To be honest, I didn't even think to check John Allen last Friday because I assumed he would take a Thanksgiving break. Spare me the criticism of being "Americanocentric" or somesuch and go read Allen's interesting discussion of the contrasting legacies of Karl Rahner and Hans Urs Von Balthasar. As usual, Allen also covers a number of other topics...

posted by Peter Nixon 11:33 PM
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Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Sunday Homily
First Sunday of Advent

Jer 33:14-16
Ps 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14
1 Thes 3:12--4:2
Lk 21:25-28, 34-36

I have good news for you. I am not going to preach at length about how Christmas has become too commercial. You know that it is too commercial; I know that it is too commercial. I’ll simply say this – the Kingdom of God is greater than any gift we can ever receive from anyone other than God. The Kingdom of God is more festive than any earthly Christmas feast. Finally, your favorite team’s performance in either a bowl game or the playoffs does not calculate in how you rate in the eyes of God. That’s it for that message.

Now for the Scriptures….

If you follow the list of readings throughout the week, then you know that there are places within our Lectionary where there are either omitted verses within readings or sudden stops at the end of a phrase that might mark the halfway part of a verse. On most occasions, verses and phrases have been omitted for the sake of avoiding repetition. They are not omitted so to avoid presenting a situation that could compromise what we believe as Catholics. There are times when Lectionary readings cross into different chapters. This does not happen very often, and when it happens, I, out of curiosity, check the following verses to see what has been taught.

Our second reading today crosses into a new chapter. Now, I am going to read to you the six verses that come after the point where our second reading ends.

This is the will of God, your holiness: that you refrain from immorality,
that each of you know how to acquire a wife for himself in holiness and honor,
not in lustful passion as do the Gentiles who do not know God;
not to take advantage of or exploit a brother in this matter, for the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you before and solemnly affirmed.
For God did not call us to impurity but to holiness.
Therefore, whoever disregards this, disregards not a human being but God, who (also) gives his holy Spirit to you.

Yes, I am going to preach about sex and drinking. Jesus did. He preached about sex and drinking within today’s Gospel reading, as in when he spoke about carousing and drunkenness. Jesus said what He said because He knew both what occupied the minds of many believers. Jesus preached constantly that evil forces will always make someone else look happier than the people who struggle to live as God wants us to live. Jesus preached that the way to eternal life is blocked by a narrow gate, but He also said that He always helps us to walk through that gate – no matter how difficult it may seem to get through it.

Do you know where Thessalonica is? It is on the Aegean Sea. It is a port city. Anyone who has either lived in or visited a port city knows what type of extra-curricular activities can be easily found in a port city. I was born in New Orleans and lived there for the first eleven years of my life. I received a tremendous education about human behavior, even at an early age, as a result of living in New Orleans. I learned that it is very easy to be tempted. I learned that it is very easy to stray away from what is good and what is right because it rarely seems as exciting to live life according to the freedom of God as it is to live life as a libertine. I am thankful for all the people, especially my family, who helped me to stay on a good path and remind me than I am not missing out on anything by not allowing my heart to become drowsy from carousing. Also, I thank them for teaching me that it is never easy to stay on the right path. My family and my community has never consisted of strong uptight Catholic goody-goodies, but of weak people who have trusted in the offer made by Jesus that He would strengthen us and give us His mercy.

Paul wrote what he wrote to the Thessalonians because he knew that they wanted to live holy lives. Also, he knew that they would become anxious as a result of being tempted after professing faith in Jesus as Lord. Paul reminded them that they had received the Holy Spirit so that they could seek true joy rather than the joy that seemed to come from acts that ran contrary to God’s plan. We hear from Paul today because although we might not live in a port city, we have the opportunity to be tempted on a constant basis. Therefore, we must recognize when we are tempted that we should call on the Lord so that we can do what is right. In the case of sexuality, we should thank God for the gift of sexuality and we should always ask for His help so that we use this gift only in ways that are right, just, and beautiful in the eyes of God. In the case of alcohol, we should treat it with dignity and respect. In the case of carousing, we should thank God for the opportunities to gather, to laugh, and to celebrate, but we should not use these occasions as an excuse to act foolishly.

To those of you who thought that with faith in Christ comes freedom from evil, I have a reality check for you: we are going to be tempted to go against God until the moment we die. Also, many baptized Christians earn in a place in Hell by the way they live. At the same time, many Christians are tempted to believe that Hell is more festive than Heaven. Yet even as I say that, I am not going to simply point the finger at other people. I could very well be writing my own ticket there. But I know that God wants me to be with Him. He wants all of us to come to Heaven. He wants all of us to help everyone get to Heaven. This type of work might not seem as exciting as a New Orleans party, but the party that we are called to join will be much more joyous. We need to use the season of Advent to prepare ourselves for this party to which all of us have been invited.

--Fr. Shawn O'Neal is the pastoral administrator of Saint Joseph's parish in Bryson City, NC.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:37 AM
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TOUGH TIMES: Striking grocery workers in Southern California are facing a bleak holiday, according to this Los Angeles Times story.

Trying to figure out what this one's about? Here's a clip from a recent Business Week (not generally known as a labor rag) article about the strike:

Right now, workers at all three grocery companies are covered by a single joint program that requires the employers to maintain a certain level of health benefits, even if medical costs soar. But the supermarket industry wants to convert this plan into a fixed-contribution system, which functions more like a 401(k). That would mean the burden of future runaway costs wouldn't be split by employers and workers. Instead, employees would be forced to cope, either by accepting reduced health benefits or paying higher premiums. "They propose to shift massive costs to current workers until the existing health-care plan collapses," charges UFCW President Doug Dority.

The stores have even more aggressive plans for new hires, who wouldn't be covered by the current program at all. Instead, they would go into a category in which employees may have to pay as much as 75% of the cost of health care -- something most probably couldn't afford on an average supermarket worker's salary, which the UFCW pegs at about $20,000 a year. Says Safeway spokesman Brian Dowling: "There has got to be a way to contain costs over the lifetime of this contract without directly impacting our current workforce."
For those of you interested in supporting the strikers, you can make an on-line donation to the strike fund by clicking here.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:23 AM
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