When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress them. You shall treat them as a citizen among you; you shall love them as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
“Let America be America Again” by Langston Hughes https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/let-america-be-america-again
There are moments of moral clarity that arrive at times like a ringing bell that resonates deep within us. I had one this past week as I was reading through news reports online about the latest development in the travesty of US immigration agents separating undocumented immigrant parents from children as they are captured crossing our border – more than 2,000 families, according to the latest count.
This week, though, a federal judge ordered that the families be reunited. Amid all the statistics and quotes from officials was a video of one family’s story.
The reporter followed a Guatemalan woman whose 9-year-old daughter and 17-year son were taken. She told how a uniformed officer at the border entered a room where she, already separated from her son, sat with her daughter and other women.
She said that as the officer approaching her he demanded, “Let go of her, Let go of her” and pulled the girl from her arms. She said she felt sure that she would never see her again. The children were later taken to a shelter in Michigan, but thankfully their father was already in the US. He had come two years before and applied for asylum, and they were released to his custody. The mother said she had come to the US seeking asylum after criminal groups in Guatemala threatened her son.
For 40 days she lived in immigration limbo, but, working with an advocate, she was able to find
her husband and children and be reunited with them. The reporter filmed the reunion at an airport, the family running into each other’s arms, the mother clasping her children:
“My love,” she said, “I missed you. I couldn’t do anything. I felt so cowardly, Forgive me.”
I am grateful that never in my life have I faced something as terrifying as this, but I don’t have to work hard to imagine how I might feel, how devastated I would feel. And I wish I could say to that mother, to all the mothers and fathers whose children were taken:
“You have no cause to seek anyone’s forgiveness. To the contrary: forgive me, forgive us, forgive this country that we have so lost our way, become so deluded and confused that we permit officers empowered by our laws to rip apart families in the name of something so paltry as a line drawn on a map.”
But, of course, we remember that all of this Is about a lot more than a line on a map, and there lies the rub for us all.
To put it bluntly, it is about a culture of dominance that has prevailed in this country
from the day of its founding, a culture constructed to privilege and protect a select group of people: people whose skin is white and whose assets are ample.
Langston Hughes, writing at the height of the Great Depression, captured the sense of it.
We Americans, he said, grow up with the dream of a country that is, in his words, “a great strong land of love” where no one “is crushed by one above,” where “opportunity is real, and life is free.”
But that America, he said, “never was America to me.” Not he, the African-American man, nor, in his words, “the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, the red man driven from the land, the immigrant clutching hope.” All of them, he wrote, “finding only the same old stupid plan of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
Those words had a particular resonance in the 30s, but they still sting today. In this nation of immense wealth and influence, people are still marginalized, stigmatized and oppressed, the same people who Langston Hughes named, people whose color, whose language, whose ethnicity varies from the predominant white culture.
And, of course, when it comes to immigration we find the same pattern repeated again. For with all the talk of ours being a nation of immigrants the welcome America offers has always been limited. It begins, of course, with slavery, which brought millions of Africans here against their will, but it continued with exclusion and oppression of Asians, mostly Chinese and Japanese, and with our treatment of our neighbors in Mexico, who were sought out for work in mines and fields but never welcome as permanent citizens.
Immigration reform in 1965 changed things dramatically. Old quotas were eliminated and immigration was expanded but one important group was targeted fornew, severe restrictions: Mexicans.
Before the law changed, the US allowed 450,000 Mexican men into the US each year on guestworker visas. After the law changed, the guestworker program ended, but only 20,000 Mexicans a year could receive resident visas. Those who came without visas were deemed, for the first time, illegal immigrants.
This set up a dynamic that persists today: hundreds of thousands of people with work histories and family connections here that go back decades are nonetheless deemed “illegals.”
In time, racism and xenophobia have done their work, painting them as dangerous, or in our president’s words “animals.” driving public policy to “get tough,” with harsh penalties and even imprisonment not just for those who violate the law but now also for those who merely lack citizenship papers.
All of this offers a frightening parallel to a trend that Michelle Alexander described a decade ago as “The New Jim Crow.” Despite the gains of the rise of the Civil Rights movement, she said, staggering numbers of African-American men were targeted in the war on drugs, many of them apprehended and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, after which their criminal records made them largely ineligible to participate in civil society. Alexander argued that these trends had led to the emergence of a caste system that still devastates the lives of African-Americans and communities around the country.
With the criminalizing of so much of the immigration system, we stand at the brink of a new emerging caste system that could equally devastate immigrant communities. And, once again, it is not all immigrants, but non-white immigrants who feel the brunt of this. We fool ourselves if we fail to discern the blatant racial dimension to this state of affairs.
So, if anyone should ask you why congregations like ours are inserting ourselves into the immigration debate with our decision to offer sanctuary, you can tell them that this is about far more than debating the fine points of government policy. It is about our unerring commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It is about our determination to offer compassion and be advocates and allies to people suffering oppression. It is about our commitment to uproot and dismantle the structures of white supremacy and build the foundations of a beloved community centered in justice and love.
The passage you heard earlier from Leviticus is one of the most powerful injunctions in the Bible on how people new to a community are to be treated. It comes from a section in the Hebrew scriptures known as the holiness code, which gives many instructions on living a righteous life, on what it is to be just and humane.
“When a foreigner resides with you in your land,
You shall not oppress them.
You shall treat them as a citizen among you;
You shall love them as yourself.”
The right path, it suggests, is not something we walk alone. We encounter others, not just family but people strange to us. And when we meet them, the holy center within us, the way to wholeness and integrity, urges us to attend to them, to treat them as part of our tribe, our circle, and even more, to love them, to love them even as we love ourselves.
To love them.
This is no small task. For in loving another we are always stepping outside of our comfort zones. We make ourselves vulnerable to them. We open our hearts, our dearest, tenderest selves, and prepare to be changed.
Why do such a thing? We do it, not because it is a nice thing to do. We do it because it is what we need to do, all of us, because people of all communities belong together, involved in each other’s lives because this is the only way to wholeness, the only way to live our ethical duty, to be fully present, awake, and alive.
We’ve had a chance to rehearse this in the last several months as we’ve welcomed our guest, La Mariposa, into this community. It’s been hard, I know. While her case grinds through the system, we’ve had to be careful about what we share and who she interacts with.
Sanctuary is a challenging commitment, and it follows no clear path. It’s been immensely rewarding, though, in ways I never anticipated. We have come to learn about the struggles she faces and the quandaries of this byzantine system. But all of us involved have also come to experience the joy of getting to know and, dare I say, love her.
We’re learning the amazing truth that when you create space to hold the integrity of another person, it opens both of you. It is space that is hard to find in these conflicted times, but it can be made.
And so it’s been intriguing as I’ve been following the sanctuary movement to learn of a new concept that’s emerging within it called “sanctuary everywhere.” How would it be if we applied the principles of sanctuary – collaborating to create safe space for people and communities that are threatened – more widely?
There are other places where this is happening. Wherever we come to know others and make common cause to accompany them in their journey to liberation we are creating sanctuary.
Friends, I invite you to make this our work. to make it central to the ministry of this congregation. Let us be agents of this sanctuary, sanctuary for our immigrant siblings seeking dignity and a place in this country, sanctuary for our African-American siblings seeking justice and peace in a culture centered in whiteness, sanctuary for so many people marginalized for their identities in so many ways.
And in doing this let us remember that sanctuary is not always making physical space. It is also about making space in our hearts, our minds, our consciousness.
At our last General Assembly, I was introduced to a way of framing this work that crystalized it for me. They are words attributed to Lilla Watson, an aboriginal activist from Australia, “If you have come here to help me,” she said, “you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
I affirm that my liberation, my own awakening is not something I can achieve on my own. It is bound up with that of all people, my siblings of all colors, all ethnicities, all identities. From this perspective, we see that all that divides us now is just froth and foolishness, fabricated fear and delusion.
This year I will be inviting you to join me as we center our work, our thoughts, our love in how to make ourselves agents of this new way. It will challenge us to reframe our thinking, to open ourselves to new learning, to listen with humility and compassion, to act when we are called to act and to organize ourselves in a way that will put our gifts in the service of transformation.
In coming weeks, you will hear more about how our congregation is engaged in this work and how you can participate. But don’t let this inhibit your imagination. What are we missing? What vision, what inspiration can you bring to this that will open all of us?
We Unitarian Universalists have long been good helpers to the work of the liberation of others. Let us now take the next step that helps us see that it is our liberation that is at stake as well.
How might we be agents for the beloved community writ large, for an America that never was, that yet will be?