Sunday, October 23, 2011

Strangers in a Strange Land

Preparation for the Sermon (by Pam Phillips):
I grew up in southern Oregon, in a valley known for its pear orchards. Migrant workers picked the pears. That was my first encounter with immigrants from Mexico. I remember going to the roller skating rink on a Saturday night and seeing the darker skinned boys with cigarette packs rolled up in their white t-shirt sleeves. I don’t know if they were "legal" or "illegal." I did know they were different from me; they were scary.

Immigration as a political issue has been in my awareness for several years. Presidential candidates have been talking about fixing the system for as long as I’ve been voting. I didn’t become aware of it as a moral issue until the Unitarian Universalist Association was faced with the dilemma of holding our annual general assembly in Phoenix, Arizona. How could we support a state that has laws which discriminate against latino/latina people? Among the law’s requirements is the necessity for producing proof of legal residence if stopped by the police, for any reason.

I can hear my father and brother-in-law’s arguments when I told them about our dilemma: “What’s the problem? They don’t have to worry about anything unless they are illegal.” That made sense to me for a moment, but then I realized who “they” are. Anyone who doesn’t look like me. Anyone whose skin is dark enough or accent strong enough has to prove they are citizens. Anyone who looks or talks like me doesn’t have to prove anything. And if you don’t happen to have a passport or green card on you—then what happens?

On that same visit home, my niece made an illegal immigrant joke about the cartoon character “Dora the Explorer.” I asked this southern Californian teenager if she would think that joke was so funny if Dora looked like her. My niece is Asian-American. I’m afraid she didn’t get the point of my question. I guess she hasn’t felt the sting of racism yet. Maybe she looks like the right kind of different.

I’ve wanted to learn more about immigration, so I read The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands by Margaret Regan. The stories of immigrants suffering and dying in the desert southwest are chilling, but I also came to understand more about why so many risk the journey into the U.S. So much of it is economics. I was surprised to learn that because of NAFTA, Mexico went from being a corn-exporting to a corn-importing country. That translates into Mexican corn farmers losing their livelihoods. So many of the stories in the book were about people who wanted desperately to stay home, but they could not support their families without coming north to find jobs.

I was encouraged to learn that I could do something to help at least some people stay in their home countries. I can buy coffee—but not just any coffee. By spending just a little bit more on my caffeine habit, I can support the people who grow coffee in Mexico and Central America and help them stay home. Big coffee companies drive the price of coffee beans down, forcing the growers to sell their beans at depressed prices. Fair-trade coffee is purchased directly from the growers (rather than from buyers who take much of the profit). It takes so little—being mindful of which coffee I buy and being willing to spend a little more.

I will never know the coffee growers whose beans I buy, but I do know young immigrants from Mexico and Central America who go to the school where I teach. I don’t know if they are here legally or not. I hope Virginia never passes the racist anti- immigrant laws that seem to be sweeping the nation that will require me to know. Yes, I said racist. While the laws may be intended to deal with immigrants who are not here legally, I know that they will affect anyone who does not look like me.

I want to know more, though, about immigration issues and about what I am called to do as a Unitarian Universalist. I know it’s about more than buying the right kind of coffee. I think it may take me back to the Rollareena in Medford, Oregon where I saw those boys from Mexico as different, as scary.


What kind of world do you want to live in?

What kind of country do you want this to be for your children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren?

I’ll confess . . . I was having trouble with this sermon.  I just couldn’t get it down on paper.  The ideas – too many ideas – were swirling around in my brain and I just couldn’t find a focus.  (And I’m talking about during my drive to church this morning!)

But then my youngest son, Lester, called me.  He’d been asleep when I’d left and so he wanted to say goodbye.  And when I heard his voice on the phone – interrupting what I’d thought was finally the angle I was looking for – I heard this other voice as well:

What kind of world do you want to live in?

It’s certainly some kind of synchronicity that this sermon is being given on what is often called “UN Sunday,” the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.  That organization was born from a vision of a world community of peace and justice in which, as we’d say, “the inherent worth and dignity of each individual” in every corner of the globe was affirmed, protected, and nurtured.

I’d wager that this is the kind of world you want.  A world in which people are free to care for their families and their fellows, a world without oppression, a world of peace.

This topic of immigration is often cast as a purely legal one.  And a simple one at that.  They – and there’s always a “they” isn’t there? – are here illegally.  They are breaking the law.  They should have gotten “in line” and followed the rules – they wouldn’t be having (or causing) these problems if they had.

But few things in this world are as simple as some would like them to be.  For one thing, there really is no line.  It’s more like a maze, a tangle of red tape and bureaucratic hoops.  Due to application processing backlogs, the wait for a permanent residency visa for those who fall into the “Family Preference” category (and that’s the front of this supposed line) ranges from two or three years to over twenty, depending on an applicant’s sub-sub-category and country of origin. 

And then there’s the question of why.  Words are important.  If we hear, “we’re being overrun by hordes of illegals,” as some have been saying, then there’s the likelihood that we’ll have one kind of response – fear, defensiveness.  If, on the other hand, we hear that there’s been an increase in undocumented workers crossing the border illegally, we’re likely to have a different reaction – a desire to find out why.

For the vast majority of the people crossing our border from the south the answer is pretty simple.  We live in a global economy, and the movements of that economy are beyond the influence of the average individual.  We may bemoan here, in the United States, the outsourcing of our manufacturing jobs, or our information service jobs, but outsourcing is not just happening here.  Because of the global economy many of the subsistence farmers in Mexico and South America have found their jobs being outsourced to multinational agribusinesses here in the US and elsewhere.  They just can’t make a living doing what they’ve been doing, and there aren’t any alternatives to move into.  And so, as we’ve seen within our own country, when jobs dry up in one place people move to where the jobs are.

Yet with the legal process of emigration to the United States taking from two to twenty years . . . well . . . how long would you wait to take care of your family?

This is not how it should be in the world I want to live in.  And so I fully support those who are working to reform our immigration policies and practices.  We are, after all, a nation of immigrants.  There’s an image that’s been making the rounds for a while – it has a picture of the Apache leader Geronimo (who in his own language was known as Goyathlay), kneeling down and holding his rifle across his body.  To this picture has been added the caption, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re all illegal aliens.”

And this needs to be taken into consideration, I think, when we explore this topic.  The title of this sermon is taken both from the Robert Heinlein novel and from the Biblical passage to which Heinlein alluded.  In the Book of Exodus we’re told that after he ran away from Egypt to Midian, Moses married Zipporah and had a son.  This son he named “Gershom,” explaining the name by saying, “For I have been a stranger in a strange land.”  (The name means “sojourner there.”)

This recognition that the Hebrew people were once foreigners in a foreign land comes up over and over again.  Repeatedly, I’m tempted to say “constantly,” God has to remind the Israelites to treat well the foreigner, the stranger, the alien in their midst because they, too, were once aliens.  And we should remember this, too.  We all have ancestors who came to these shores as foreigners, and most faced prejudice and oppression in one form or another – or in many forms at the same time.

Yet while it is imperative that we deal with the subject of immigration law reform, that’s not the only issue for us to deal with.  What are we to do with those who are crossing our borders at this very moment?  There is suffering, exploitation, fear, dehumanization, pain, death.  182 people died crossing the border from Mexico into Arizona this past year.  Countless more suffered in ways that would be incomprehensible to most of us.  Rev. Dell McCormick, a UCC minister and the executive director of BorderLinks has written this evocative explanation of her involvement in this work:

When I first encountered the tiny handprint of a small child in the middle of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert – that vast stretch of land bordering Arizona and Sonora, Mexico – I knew I was called to work here. I had come from eight years of ministry in Central and Southern Mexico, and had been sent home to “be a missionary to my own people.” When I saw and touched that tiny print, I knew I had stumbled upon my next calling
Since then, I have been to the desert many times and witnessed evidence of many lives left behind. The once pristine paths through the desert are now littered with the precious “stuff” of people’s lives
I recall one desert visit with some professors from Chicago, when we came upon what is known as a lay-up site, where migrants who have crossed the desert must leave behind anything that identifies them as a “walker.” We sat and wept as we were confronted with tons of “trash” – baby bottles and diapers, women’s make-up, toothbrushes, bibles, bikes, high heels, clothes, and love letters
Even the most tender and private possessions lay open to our stranger’s gaze. “Trophy trees,” draped with pretty panties and bras commemorate the place where women’s bodies and souls are raped. Sanitary products, bras and panties, birth control pills, even breast cancer medicine were strewn about as though some tornado had picked their people up and carried them off from their things
One day, while on a Samaritan Patrol in which volunteers search for migrants hurt or left behind and provide food, water and medical supplies, I found a Dora backpack with a soiled pair of child’s panties inside. What had she gone through, out there in the middle of nowhere? In the smaller pocket, I found her Mom’s make-up and perfume. I wondered if they even made it to the “Promised Land.”
Another day a Samaritan volunteer found a worn walking stick with chord attached and two little nooses at each end, perfect to fit the tiny wrists of a child. The desert is a dangerous place and the pace that migrants must keep in the dark of the night is brutal. This was one woman’s way to keep her children safe in the least safe circumstances.
Temperatures in the desert can vary over 100 degrees between morning and night. Perilous terrain, snakes, wild animals, sharp thorns, shallow underground tunnels all make night travel a nightmare. Women carry a shawl or plastic bag to shield them from the elements, but far too many have died there, unable to keep up, lost, dehydrated and hot. Their bones are all that are left after a few days.
Yet they keep coming because, like the women at Jesus’ tomb, they know that life must go on. Women who migrate are incredibly creative, resourceful, and tenacious.
How far would you walk to feed your child?

How far would you walk to feed your child?  What kind of world do you want to live in?  What kind of country do you want this to be for your children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren?

These questions are not merely political – they are also deeply spiritual.  I do not come with answers this morning; I do encourage the questioning.  What can we do to make this world the one we dream of?  What can we do to alleviate the pain, and suffering, and fear, and oppression that surround us?  Each of us will find our own answers, of course, yet I do have a guide.

Earlier we sang “Standing on the Side of Love,” a wonderful song that’s become the theme song of some of the most exciting work being done by UUs in the realm of social witness today.  The song was written by Jason Shelton, as a gift to the Standing on the Side of Love campaign.  The tag line of SSL is “harnessing love’s power to stop oppression.”

And so, I think, we can ask ourselves, “where would love be standing in our world today?”  And wherever the answer takes us, we should find a way to make ourselves present.  We can’t, of course, individually all do all that is needed, but we can, as a community –this community here, our wider Association, and the even wider community of good-hearted, life-affirming, love-affirming people – see to it that love never has to stand alone.

And yes, this is a sermon on Atonement.  If last week we asked ourselves how we can atone for the actions of our ancestors, this week we’re looking at how to make sure our descendants won’t need to atone for ours.

What kind of world do you want to live in?

Where does love stand?

For Further Exploration:

UUA Immigration Justice pages --

Some background on the UUA’s immigration work --

Standing on the Side of Love -- Print this post

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