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Rome Notes: Interdependence Day, in Rome; Linda's Story

The Man Behind a Project for World Solidarity Appreciates Church's Role

By Catherine Smibert

ROME, SEPT. 17, 2004 (Zenit) - This past weekend, through commemorative events and burial services, the world seemed to bind together in the wake of shocking events in Russia and the memory of horrors from the 9/11 attacks and beyond.

Yet this time, John Paul II's appeals of peace and solidarity for the children of the Beslan attacks and the world were not the only petitions coming from Rome to hit the hearts of the global community.

The voice of Olara Otunno, the U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, resounded throughout a Rome conference where I made up just one of many participants attending the 2nd annual Interdependence Day.

"May we work to make all our children safe," Otunno said. "And may we work to ensure that where our children predominate, in schools, in hospitals, homes and nurseries -- that these be conflict-free zones."

With representatives from a variety of faiths, institutions and citizenships, the Sept. 11-12 meeting sought answers to world violence, as the mastermind behind Interdependence Day told me: "We need to deal with the challenges of interdependence and we need a new international architecture" for it.

Benjamin Barber says that the objective behind the concept is "to construct a world where violence and terrorism are defeated and where there are no barriers between anyone ... citizens and justice without frontiers, rather than weapons and organized crime without frontiers."

A professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Barber conducted the inaugural Interdependence Day last year in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Just as the American Revolution changed the world, Barber is hoping that his revolution will do the same.

"We chose this place [Philadelphia]," he said, "because back in 1776 it was there that the first Declaration of Independence was promulgated and signed and we wanted to go there 225 years or so later and say that times have changed."

"For more than 200 years, independence has been the formula -- national sovereignty," Barber explained. "But the true lesson that the globe learnt after World War II is that there's no safety in independence: no liberty, no justice."

"We need the world's civic institutions," he said. "We need the world's religious leaders, we need to work together ... we believe in liberty and national security but believe they will only be obtained if obtained for all ... that is the meaning of interdependence."

Barber, with the assistance of Mayor Walter Veltroni of Rome, managed to gather some impressive guests for the occasion, and, in honor of the day, more than 100 smaller gatherings were taking place across the planet as well.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a message reminding the conferees in Rome to look around them, consider the Pax Romana and understand that no nation can "protect itself from threats by turning itself into an impregnable fortress."

Barber was keen to express just how much the Catholic Church has been a model in recent decades of trying to recognize the interdependence of peoples.

"Of course, all religions have the vantage of looking at souls, not at national citizens," he said. "Souls know no boundaries, and the Catholic Church has worked across the world to, I think, try to create a community of good will."

Many Catholic leaders believe that Barber's message is one they have been preaching for a long time. One of these of whom he says "represents interdependence in her very soul" is Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare Movement.

Lubich, who at age 84 looks more like 60, defined interdependence as implying "a relationship of mutual exchange between two realities that condition each other reciprocally."

According to her, "this relationship cannot be lived out perfectly between individuals or among nations if it is not characterized by mutual respect and understanding; by the capacity to embrace the issues that face each other and by welcoming the others' unique gifts."

Another member of a Catholic movement present was Mario Giro. He noted the interreligious focus shared by his Community of Sant'Egidio, and the groups at the convention, and saw them as being significant steppingstones to "interconnectedness."

Where dialogue is, so is the Vatican, and this occasion was no exception. Standing with other representatives from the major monotheistic religions was the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Paul Poupard. He encouraged religious leaders to unite their efforts and proposed that the "globalization of terrorism can be fought with the globalization of committed action."

Benjamin Barber was happy with the Church's presence. "I think," he said, "the current Catholic Church and current Pope have worked very hard to make Catholicism a force for human unity and not a force for terrorist division."

* * *

An Australian Angel of Hope

When Linda Watson met John Paul II last week, it reminded her of the Gospel story about the woman of ill repute meeting Christ. She asked for his prayers for her work and for herself -- a former prostitute who has come to know the Lord.

"I couldn't believe that I was actually standing in front of him," Watson told me the day after her encounter with the Pope at an audience.

"It was pretty awesome," she said. "I started off by saying in my second language of Polish, 'Oh my Holy Father!' The experience was just humbling, exciting and everything wrapped up in one!"

Watson came off the streets after more than 20 years in the sex trade, only to convert and then, with the help of her archbishop, to set up safe houses for prostituted women wanting to get out of the horrifying lifestyle.

The leading campaigner against the legalization of prostitution in her country, Australia, she was voted by the nation as being the "most inspirational woman of the year" in 2003.

But how did a woman who is now doing so much good, get involved in so much bad?

"Well, I was a struggling single mum with three children, who were each sleeping on the floor," Watson explained. "So when this wealthy-looking lady tapped me on the shoulder in the tearoom of my humble office and told me that I could make $2,000 a week just doing massages, it was very tempting."

The woman, a madam, lured Watson in by insisting that she could just try it for two months. "Nobody would know and then you could get out," she told Watson.

Watson became quickly disillusioned, but by then it seemed too late.

"As soon as you start, you've lost your dignity. You're sold," she recalled. "My first client was a high-profile media executive and straight away it was like I was sold off like a bit of meat to all of his millionaires."

Watson described how "out of control" things could become. She said the money and manipulation "was a sort of safety net that you'd put around yourself and if you tried to get out, or tried to put your foot out into a new life, where did you go to get respect back and rebuild your life?"

Getting out of the sex trade seemed impossible until she "invited God into [her] heart out of utter desperation." It was the day the Princess Diana died.

"For the first time I truly realized that wealth and power weren't the answers to everything," Watson said. "They certainly didn't save her life."

Linda decided to get a day job, but no one would take her. She then felt that God had given her a mission to save others who stuck in prostitution. Again, no one would assist her.

"I don't know how many of literally hundreds of churches turned me away until I finally came to the door of the Catholic archbishop's office," she recalled. "He saw my vision."

For the Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth, that day was an answer to prayers. He told me that before he met Linda Watson, he was at odds as to know how to make a difference in the sex-trade industry.

"I knew that just sending in the average social worker to the field did next to nothing," the prelate said. "I needed someone who knew the trade inside out. She was my angel of hope."

So began this team's ministry: rescue houses accordingly called Linda's Houses of Hope. They provide shelter, counseling, protection and more. Archbishop Hickey told me that Watson often has to work with victims from level zero.

"Some of these girls come to my door with no underwear, no teeth even," Watson said. "Some guys knock their teeth out, so we have to get all that taken care of."

With violence and drug use rampant and girls "doing eight to 15 clients a day," Watson is furious to hear politicians trying to propose bills to legalize prostitution.

"Prostitution destroys you," she says. "You have no worth and feel like nobody could ever love you." She says that she asks politicians, "Would you like this to happen to your daughters or sisters?"

"I am forever shocked, and I didn't think anything could shock me," Watson says of the victims. "They are so broken that they're as good as dead. They're walking zombies. If people saw this, they'd never want it legalized."

In her work, Watson draws inspiration from Mother Teresa, whose beatification she attended, and from John Paul II. "I know we all have very different backgrounds," she says, laughing. "But I also know that we all love to love."

The life she now leads is not without its danger. Her success in overturning legalization bills and in exposing the abuse of women has won her many enemies. Yet, what some might call a modern-day martyrdom, Watson sees as the little cross that she offers up along the way.

"I'm almost used to being firebombed, shot at, and to receive death threats now," she says. "I go with God and make sure that I just dodge the bullets."

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