A trio of thefts

Susan C. Broadbent

December 21, 1990|By Susan C. Broadbent

THREE incidents, seemingly unrelated:

During the night of Dec. 6, thieves burglarized St. Cecilia's church in Southwest Baltimore. Ignoring the season's message of giving, they ripped four poor boxes from the wall and made off with $300 meant to buy Christmas baskets for the parish poor. Also stolen were 150 pounds of butter, 200 pounds of chicken and 20 dozen eggs, all government surplus intended to buy meals for the hungry and homeless. As a parting gesture, the culprits jerked the priest's celebratory vestments from closet hangers and threw the holy garments on the sacristy floor.

Around the same time, I received my monthly mailing from a charity to which I donate. In the letter was this quotation: Fix your thoughts on what is true and pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine good things in others. This was the favorite scripture of Mulugeta Seraw, the letter said. Seraw was a young Ethiopian immigrant working as a grammar-school janitor in Oregon. In pursuit of the American dream, he intended to become a college student. He slept in the school's boiler room to save money for his family. The first-graders voted him the best person in the school. Then a racist group, which had nothing against Seraw except that he was black, beat him to death with a softball bat.

Last week came the news that Bernice Sandler had been forced to resign as director of a women's project at one of the higher education groups in Washington. Sandler's early work had been crucial to the passage of Title IX, the federal legislation requiring schools to provide equal support for women's and men's athletics. Her later work dealt with overt and subtle sexual harassment on college campuses. She coined the phrase "chilly climate" to describe the inhospitable environment for women students, faculty and staff that damages our academic institutions; and her research brought to light widespread "date rape" and other atrocities against women (and men). A first-rate scholar and a courageous and impelling voice, Sandler and her work stand in testimony to the American tenets of equal access and opportunity.

Sadly, these three actions -- St. Cecilia's burglary, Seraw's murder and Sandler's firing -- disparate in kind and location, have much in common. First, each was an organized effort. No one could steal St. Cecilia's 400 pounds of goods without considerable foresight and planning. Seraw's murder, although executed in Oregon, was planned with California help; the racist group was carefully organized. A board of directors discussed and voted Sandler's dismissal.

Second, each organized effort resulted in a theft. St. Cecilia's was robbed of its goods, money and ability to accomplish its vows of charity. Poor families in the parish were robbed of dinners and a decent Christmas. Seraw was robbed of his life and his American dream. Sandler was robbed of her chosen place of work and the professional pleasure derived from the continued leadership of her long-term project.

Third, each theft involved intimidation. At St. Cecilia's, the sacristy, a sacred room housing sacred vessels, was trashed in the symbolic desecration of God, the holy and the good. Seraw's life was similarly trashed, snuffed out by murder, the ultimate intimidating act. And the attempt has been made to silence Sandler, to stifle her views -- unpopular, evidently, among some leaders in higher education.

Reasonable people may argue that the actions against the victims represent the sad acts of sad people, that the most financially needy family in St. Cecilia's parish is richer in substantive human ways than robbers, racists and unfeeling boards of directors. Philosophically, I might agree. Nonetheless, a church and its poor, a hopeful immigrant and a respected scholar have been victimized and senselessly made to suffer. These are blows to the human spirit and justice. The erosion of justice in this country continues. The violence, the greed, the losses to our freedom and our choices mount daily. We are brutalized by increasing crime and violence to people, property and ideas. But we remain curiously silent.

St. Cecilia's, Mulugeta Seraw and Bernice Sandler symbolize what is good and strong in our democracy. Successful democracy, however, requires the full participation of all its members in full acknowledgment of shared responsibility.

Perhaps it is time that each of us exercised ownership of our shared responsibility. Our strongest weapon in the arsenal against violence and intimidation is speaking out against them, lest we ourselves fall prey. If we are to fulfill our promise as the kinder, gentler nation, if we are to align ourselves squarely on the side of democracy and freedom, must we not be heard? Isn't it time that we all stand and be counted for the rights of all?

Susan C. Broadbent writes from Baltimore. -

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.