Living with his eyes wide open — celebrating Michael McConnell

Michael McConnell speaking at an American Friends Service Committee event. (AFSC)

Michael McConnell speaking at an American Friends Service Committee event. (AFSC)

Michael McConnell’s method was simple. Taking his cue from a line in an essay by poet Rainer Maria Rilke — “live the question, and someday you will live into the answer” — McConnell found himself repeatedly exercising the curiosity, creativity and risky gumption that the big questions of our time demand, but which many of us end up side-stepping. McConnell was not a side-stepper, and because of this he made a difference in our world — and showed the rest of us how we can do the same.

McConnell died from cancer last week in Chicago. The Midwest regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, he is being remembered for many contributions to the struggle for justice and peace, especially the AFSC project he initiated and co-directed beginning in 2004, originally entitled, “Eyes Wide Open: The Human Costs of the War in Iraq.”  This solemn public display featured a pair of empty boots honoring each U.S. soldier or marine killed in Iraq (and later in Afghanistan and, later still, featuring shoes representing Iraqi and Afghan civilians). The exhibit traveled throughout the United States and was seen by millions of people.

When it was staged in Chicago’s Grant Park over the Memorial Day weekend in 2007, a jarring, visceral reaction washed through me while moving quietly among the more than 3,455 pairs of boots. (This was the last time the national exhibit was displayed in its entirety. After this, AFSC split it into individual state exhibits.) The names of the dead were attached to the boots. Family and friends had also affixed photos, letters, flowers and small American flags. This stark tableau rendered our age’s euphemism for military intervention (“boots on the ground”) with a mute and chilling immediacy. Symbolically and concretely, the display simultaneously evoked both the absence and presence of the dead. Though the footwear was carefully placed in rows, it also conjured up the aftermath of combat — the battlefield or desert expanse strewn with what remains haphazardly after a firefight or the detonation of an improvised explosive device.

The power of successful social movements flows from countless initiatives that alert, educate, win and mobilize the populace. “Eyes Wide Open” joined with innumerable efforts across the nation and around the world to end the U.S. war in Iraq by helping to rivet public awareness on the consequences of the war. Let us open our eyes, the project said. Let us see — and, seeing, let us act.

This practice — of seeing and acting — was not new for McConnell. It was how he made one leap after another in a personal voyage of social transformation. This journey began in earnest in college. The Vietnam War was raging and he thought that the answer to ending the war was bombing North Vietnam — until he met a few professors and activists who invited him to live with the questions this conflict provoked. Their questions and reflections ultimately proved to be life-changing. The more he lived his way into the question of the war — and, eventually, of any war — the more he found himself embarking on a new way of seeing and acting. This led him to shed his support for the war and, instead, to get deeply involved in antiwar activism.

After college, McConnell brought this practice to the field of education. He questioned the confining, rote form of schooling to which many children are subjected. Soon he had signed on to teach at the Chrysalis Learning Community School in Chicago, which, as part of the alternative education movement in the 1970s, sought to nourish the whole person through creativity and participatory democracy. At Michael’s wake, one of his Chrysalis students detailed how faculty and students spent the first two weeks of every new school year getting to know one another, and how any topic that was on their minds came in for intense discussion in the open forums held every Wednesday.

McConnell studied for the ministry — which included an internship with a community organizing group challenging gentrification and endemic political corruption — and joined the community and staff of the progressive Wellington United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago. But it was his stint as an English as a Second Language teacher in the early 1980s that irrevocably set the direction of his path of nonviolent change. Through this work he got to know Salvadorans who had fled the U.S.-backed war in their country and were now being threatened with deportation.

These relationships — and the profound questions that they raised — led McConnell to work with, and to eventually direct, the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, which came to play a key coordinating role in the then-emerging Sanctuary movement. Founded in 1982 in Tucson, Ariz., this movement openly offered refuge to Salvadorans without papers who had, in the parlance of U.S. immigration law, “a well-founded fear of persecution.” Church workers in hundreds of congregations across the country were defying the law to support friends and strangers alike who faced going back into a society roiling under the trauma of a death squad government. This action was not without risk. As McConnell later said, “Providing sanctuary to refugees was an act of civil disobedience punishable by prison or fines. It was not something to enter into lightly.”

In a video interview McConnell related how his church in that first year provided sanctuary for a family of five, which garnered widespread media attention. At one point, McConnell approached a local public school about getting the children in. Everything was fine until he was asked for their birth certificates or other forms of identification. He explained that they had neither. After a moment of silence, the school official asked, “Are these children being given refuge by the local church I’ve heard about in the news?” Rather than lie or mislead, he simply said, “Yes.” After another pause, the official looked at McConnell and said, “Just have the church issue a baptism certificate. That’ll be enough for us.”

A few years later, McConnell took the job as AFSC regional director where he organized many projects. He even found time to co-write three books with Renny Golden: Sanctuary: The New Underground Railroad (1985), Dangerous Memories: Invasion and Resistance Since 1492 (1992), and Lost Voices (1992), a multicultural people’s history of the United States.

All of this was rooted in a fundamental willingness to see.

In his book Totality and Infinity, the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas speaks of the “flow of infinity between the eyes.” The face-to-face encounter, through which this flow takes place, is critical to bridging the “Us versus Them” way of thinking on which so much oppression and violence is built. For this to happen, though, one must first open one’s eyes.

Michael McConnell knew the power of not looking away. It brought a torrent of piercing questions but also a way of living into their urgency and potential solutions. It was a practice that he sharpened over a lifetime and that he now hands on to us in a world that needs new movements and stubbornly compassionate change: Let us, like Michael, see and act with eyes wide open.

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