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Spirituality and Social Justice at the Chicago Sun-Times

Our website, Rogerebert.com attracted readers from around the world, and Roger noticed that some of the film writers from other countries expressed opinions that would be enlightening to all. He offered them a chance to have their reviews and articles published here and thus was born our cadre called "Far Flung Correspondents." Some of the writers actually lived in the United States but wrote about film from the viewpoint of their birthplace. Eventually we had correspondents from Brazil, Argentina, China, Japan, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Mexico, Canada, Spain, France, Poland, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, Australia, India and other places. One of the correspondents, Omer Mozaffar, actually lived in Chicago, but since he was born in Pakistan he qualified as a Far Flunger. It is his sensitive and poetic article introducing a new series on spirituality and social justice that will appear in the Chicago Sun-Times that he speaks about today. I couldn't be more proud. The series will appear online on Fridays and in print at the Chicago Sun-Times on Sundays starting today. Chaz Ebert

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Omer Mozaffar: 

Toward the end of Aaron Sorkin’s most excellent, “Molly’s Game,” I realized something about myself in watching Idris Elba’s character. He is a lawyer advocating for Jessica Chastain’s Molly Bloom, the real-life organizer of an exclusive high-stakes poker game, indicted for a host of federal crimes. Though not an attorney, I'm a chaplain: my job is to advocate for the people nobody will advocate for. My vocation is to believe in the people that nobody will believe in. That is the work I have chosen; I don't know how to do anything else.

It is in that pursuit that I am privileged to be part of a new series at the Chicago Sun-Times, "Just Relations." The Sun-Times CEO Edwin Eisendrath assembled a team of Chicago's religious leaders to write about social justice, because they see things that nobody else sees. Seth M. Limmer is the senior rabbi at Chicago Sinai Congregation. Theresa Dear is an elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Chris Harris Sr. is senior pastor of Bright Star Church. Shannon Johnson Kershner is senior pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church. Otis Moss III is senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ. I don't claim to reach their stellar levels of service, though I hold the responsibility of being the Muslim Chaplain at Loyola University Chicago. 

When my colleague and friend Rabbi Limmer called me up to talk about this project, I felt like I was getting recruited into a crew of superheroes. I know the work that each of these passionate leaders of piety provides their peoples: these are the cream of Chicago's crop. These are the people who mend broken souls and rebuild broken relationships.

It is the responsibility of our journalists to be society's watchdogs, holding the feet of keyholders of power to the fire. It is the responsibility of religious leaders to be the social conscience of society. In this era of fake news and supremacist charlatans endorsing politicians who violate every tenant of their belief systems, the uphill climb is even more steep than usual.

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When you are a religious leader, it is your job to teach trust: to stand in front of the sea, knowing that Pharaoh's forces are arriving to slaughter your people, entrusting that the moment you hit your staff to the ground, the Divine will provide a pathway from where you were not expecting. Or, perhaps it is to give: you are willing to give your own life, to provide life to others. Or, perhaps it is your job to guide: to purify hearts so that their possessors can find their innate beauty and dignity. This is the work of unifying, of developing, "Just relations."

In the process of leading people to see light upon light, however, you see darkness upon darkness. There is nothing romantic about the work of spirituality and social justice. Students ask me why I persist in such work, learning the things I learn about people's lives, seeing betrayals disguised as liberation, seeing self-destruction disguised as healing, seeing performance disguised as prayer, seeing broken shells trying to survive as humans.

Because beneath it all, I have found nothing more precious than the tender human soul. Movies take us into people's lives. Religion takes us deeper. To quote "The Godfather, Part II," "This is the business we've chosen."

This assignment is extra special for me for very personal reasons. It was about a decade ago that I reconnected with my old teacher, Roger Ebert, through his blog. He claimed to remember me, though I doubted it. Knowing his intellectual prowess, he probably did. When he recruited a group of high-powered global film critics as "Foreign Correspondents" (now "Far Flung Correspondents"), he added me. I told him, "Unless you consider the South Side of Chicago a foreign country, I don't count." He responded, saying, "We'll say you're born in _________ and this is my blog." Pakistan. "Perfect."

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He taught me how to write. I often resisted submitting pieces because of the amount of hate he would get; a Muslim with an opinion owns a first class ticket to the land of trolls. He would still encourage me, saying, "Write what you write, and let the chips fall where they may." I wrote about each movie as though it was a work of scripture, guiding us into a universe of its own.

Over those years, I developed a relationship with him, chatting online daily about everything, especially belief. I wasn't unique in this; he was so indulgent with his time with so many people, making each of us feeling like the center of the world, not unlike a pastor. I met him 2012 in what would be a final meeting; he grasped my palms, and I told him, "There is so much love in these hands." His eyes popped open, wide, smiling in a way I had not seen before.

Our emails decreased. I asked him how he was doing. "Very badly." A week later he left us.

His passing hit me so hard that I could not write anymore. Chaplains also need chaplains. Every piece since then has been a struggle. For the past five years, I have been learning again how to watch movies, and learning again how to write.

Thus, I am honored to find myself under his former masthead, hoping to do some justice to the "Just Relations" series, and to his legacy, letting the chips fall where they may. 

Photo Credit: The Chicago Sun-Times

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