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Listening: King's message spans Americas, Panama's bishop declares
Presiding Bishop shares in observance at L.A. Cathedral Center

By Pat McCaughan

Penny Jennings
The Rt. Rev. Julio Murray, Bishop of Panama.   (Penny Jennings)

[Episcopal News Service]  The struggle for justice and freedom continues to link those deprived of "the opportunity to dream" across the Americas today, Panama's Bishop Julio Murray told the congregation gathered at L.A.'s Cathedral Center for its annual King Day observance.

The "triple evils of poverty, racism and war," against which the Rev. Martin Luther King fought, "still plague all of us today," Murray told the congregation, hosted by Bishop Suffragan Chester Talton.

"My friends, the work is not over," Murray said. U.S. economic policies continue to exert social, political and economic pressures on Panama and Latin America, "especially the poor and excluded. The rich keep getting richer. In Panama, we don't talk about the middle class anymore. The poor class lives in poverty and we try to stand in solidarity with them."

The underclass dreams "of building houses and living in them, in their country. They dream of the opportunity for education for their children, in their country. They dream of the dignity of getting a job and sustaining a family, in their country. They dream of raising their children in a serene life-sustaining environment, in their country," he said.

King's ethic of love and nonviolence ignited a spark among the poor and excluded which spread across Africa, Asia, Central and South America and the Caribbean in a common struggle for justice and freedom, he said.

"Many of us turned, looked to King. We had no voice, no face of our own. The struggle of the movement in the United States by King gave people out of the U.S. in the Americas the opportunity to reclaim our voice again."

The annual King Day observance also featured musical selections from the Episcopal Chorale, led by Canon Charles Cheatham, and readings from the Rev. Canon Malcolm Boyd, well-known author of Are You Running With Me, Jesus?.

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold joined Los Angeles bishops Talton, Robert Anderson and Sergio Carranza in a panel discussion moderated by the Rev. Eric Law.

"King's death released an energy that is still coursing through nations of the world today, helping us to see Christ in one another," Griswold told the gathering. He praised those assembled at the celebration: "Our presence here underscores that fact that we are one."

Murray recalled touring the house where King was born and the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change while attending the Triennial Black Clergy Conference in Atlanta last November.

That tour "became a journey for me" after which he decided to strengthen connections and links to the church in the United States, Murray said.

"I wish to share with you from the eyes of Central America, the central region of God's vineyard, how it is to face racism and discrimination, and the reflection of Jesus Christ who is the light for those who still live in darkness and oppression and poverty," he said.

"We are forgetful people. We need to hear it, again and again. Some are still in need of a real interpreter. I am someone with a face and a name to connect with to hear from the other side of the sea how it really is," he said.

"Many people don't know the impact of the U.S. economic policies on people of other countries. They take away from people material benefits. The liberation movement from the third world is not separate from that of the U.S., their struggle for liberation and ours is one and the same," he said.

But, the people have faith," he added. "We hope the grace of God hasn't abandoned them, is guiding them to be creative in the midst of the crisis."

He cited the church's role in brokering a new social security law for the Panamanian government in June, 2005, as a sign of hope for the role of the church in bringing about social justice. "The President of the republic called upon the church to guarantee the dialogue would be done in a respectful way. The people were looking for ways to live in peace. They believed the church could be present and guarantee things were done with transparency. It says something about the church, about the people of God. It can happen, if people get involved," he said.

"It was the first time in the country that such a decision was made with the use of all sectors of society. It was the first time the church was involved in such a way. The people of Panama placed a lot of trust in the church," he said.

When asked about the attitude of people in Latin America toward the U.S. and involvement in the war in Iraq and the reputation of the Episcopal Church in the United States, he said:

"Why are you so worried about what other people think about you?" he replied. He recalled the Dec. 19, 1989 U.S.-led invasion of Panama to oust then-dictator Manuel Noriega. "With all the technology of this government, things could have been done differently. Yet the decision was made to invade. To take one man, more than 5,000 people were killed. There were casualties on both ends. The guys killed first were Black and Latino.

"We saw that it wasn't because of who we are, but because a clear message was being sent to Nicaragua to get their act together. We were surprised, we felt we had solidarity with the U.S., because of our help with the construction of the Canal. We don't have a problem with what was done, but the way in which it was done. We don't have a problem with North America but we question the administration and impact of national policies on our country."

About the controversy over human sexuality he said: "This church has been in dialogue about human sexuality for more than 30 years. We can stand on the other side and tell you that, when you have nothing else to think about, the rest of the people around the world have a lot of other threatening issues we really need to be wrestling with. We respect and honor the decision (of General Convention 2003 to affirm the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson) but maybe we question the timing.

"We pray and hope over and over again because when you sneeze in the U.S., we in Panama have pneumonia."

"We emphasize the fact there is North America and Central and South America. Thank God we can listen to one another, dialogue, to share stories. In sharing we are more in solidarity with each other. It's very important for church leadership to get to know the country and constitution well. It's also important to get to know other countries and their people well. We're in this together. It's time for us to start getting to know one another as neighbors. What's important is that we love one another as brothers and sisters.

"Your struggle is my struggle and my struggle should be yours, too. Be ready to be part of what God is doing. And be ready to be part of what God is blessing."

The Rev. Butch Gamarra, who is Panamanian-born and serves at St. Philip's, Los Angeles, said it was important to hear the connections Murray made between theology, the issues of justice, oppression and faithfulness.

"We need to realize that the Episcopal Church affects the polity and life of other provinces in Latin American countries, Central and South America and the Caribbean in a very powerful way," he said. "We need to be more in conversation and dialogue with other provinces of our church before we make decisions.

"And," he added, "he was clear that if we do the right thing, we shouldn't worry about what others think. In affirming the consecration of Gene Robinson, we did the right thing," Gamarra said. "People get upset when you do the right thing. We're on the right track as a church. We are including everyone, not excluding anyone. A large segment of the church preaches the Gospel and yet excludes people."