As we head into Memorial Day, let us consider our stories
When my ancestors immigrated to North America they were called pilgrims, settlers, pioneers. When immigrants today come to North America the most common names are refugee, asylum seeker, alien. Why did the narrative change? My ancestors are heroes, today they would be from another planet. Saulo Padilla of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) pointed this change out to me at the Theological Study Forum of the Brethren in Christ (BIC), our denomination. The stark contrast in storytelling struck me. Saulo is the MCC U.S. immigration education coordinator. I feel very educated with this insight alone.
But Saulo also told the story of walking into a morgue at the US-Mexico border filled with John and Jane Does, people who died in the desert desperate for the opportunities they might have found north of the border, whose families are still looking for them. And Rachel Diaz, Immigration Consultant at MCC, member of La Roca Firme BIC, Hialeah, FL, and member-at-large on the General Conference Board of the BIC, told stories about her work with asylum seekers in South Florida as an attorney. The wait is impossibly long and so many families are suffering from extended separations. Her faith helps her keep hope alive when so much of this seems impossible. Andrew Bodden, also of MCC, told his own family’s immigration story, starting with the slaves who were brought to the Carribean against their will, passing through Honduras, and ending with his two US born citizen children. He ended his presentation saying “There you go, 500 years of immigration history in 20 minutes.”
Not “What are we talking about?” — Better “Who are we talking about?”
“When we talk about immigration we make it an issue… but these are human beings, made in the image of God. How do we deal with this tragedy?” — Saulo Padilla
I’m very grateful to Saulo, Rachel and Andrew for sharing their personal stories and the stories of the people they work with through MCC, because stories are the way of our hearts. Stories shape culture. Stories make us who we are. If we can re-personalize the immigration story in the United States, I think we have the best chance of solving the immigration crisis.
Every president for the past forty years has gone on record saying there was a crisis at the border but none have developed the political will to change much about it. Bill Clinton said in 1994, “We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws” There’s the kicker, I think. The rule of law. When it comes down to it we, as a nation, have been more concerned with the rule of law than any individual. The abstraction is fairness. That’s the story we tell: “I’m fine with those who did it the right way.”
I suspect a hidden motive. “Fairness” is actually counterfeit dignity, which is actually a desperate need for superiority, which is most easily supplied by racism. The reasons my ancestors are “pilgrims” and not “aliens” is that my ancestors were white. The stories we tell about the pilgrims are part of the white mythology developed for our nation to cover over the genocide of all the brown skinned people who were living here when the “pilgrims” arrived. If white people like me couldn’t feel superior, that meant we were humans just like them, and then we couldn’t live with ourselves. Racism is why I am a pilgrim and they are illegal aliens.
Who are we talking about? We are talking about individuals who died in the desert because our government knew they did not need a fence where the desert itself will kill them. It’s on them. Fair is fair. They shouldn’t have tried to make it. They should have stayed back home. Both they and their families, I’m sure, wish they had. What would have to possess someone that they would be THAT desperate?
Who are we talking about? We’re talking about individuals whose ancestors came from Europe to pursue opportunities from which the US government actively excluded black people. Like the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave 160 acres of free public land to any one who had not taken up arms against the Union. But not you, black men who fought for the Union. (By the way, all the land is stolen already.) We’re talking about descendants of European immigrants who, though many of them were discriminated against, socially and politically, have now successfully become white. Which is to say, not black, brown or ethnic of any kind. We’re talking about me. That story got in me enough that I was still surprised when Saulo pointed out the different stories for our different heritages.
People over policies. Stories over strategies. Feelings over fences.
Who are we talking about? That’s a much better question. For some reason often when we try to address this disaster Christians like me tie ourselves in knots with policy discussions that end in the same stalemate as congress for 40 years. Instead of inventing a master strategy for the “immigration problem” I think we can go with what we know already, and love those who are in need in practical ways. Why are we so responsible for making the empire work? It doesn’t. Instead let us love and serve the Lord simply, with the revelation we already have. The beatitudes are plenty I’d say.
Much of MCC’s work does exactly this. They are on the ground providing tangible support along the migration journey, especially where it is dangerous, They are also working hard to provide economic opportunities in the countries from which many immigrant migrate. Plus, they study immigration law and inform their constituencies, that’s us, about how they can influence lawmakers to best mitigate this ongoing disaster. By the way, don’t forget that the US has been the most destabilizing force in the rule of law in this hemisphere for the past 100 years and more. How can you govern yourselves effectively if the world’s largest superpower (the US) is hovering over your shoulder with its big stick, and frequently intervening secretly. Our government needs our prophecy, because we are connected to these actual people. If you don’t understand it all, you don’t have to. You can even say, “I don’t understand it all, but I don’t want all these people dying, and I feel responsible to them.”
… and Memorial Day
We can apply the same posture to Memorial Day. You can say, “No, I do not understand all of the geopolitics of this, but I do not want another US soldier sent to kill in my name! I feel responsible to the people they are sent to kill and to them. War is not a necessary evil. I will never submit to that lie.” And you can ask, “Who are we talking about?” And remember the millions and millions who have died because of war and wonder about another way, and hope for other possibilities and sing songs of deliverance from death.