This weekend we mark the half-year point in our journey of sanctuary with our beloved guest, La Mariposa. With temperatures turning downward and the leaves changing color, we remember another hinge in the year last April when she arrived one evening frightened and disoriented, abandoning her home and livelihood of many years leaving the embrace of her family for a single room in the company of strangers.
Not a one of us knew what to expect. Would federal agents appear on our doorstep? Would protesters or news media gather round? Would this complex and chancy structure of volunteers that we had cobbled together to protect and support her hold up? That it has held up, and not only held up but, with the exception of a bump or two, flourished beautifully is evidence of something that was not immediately clear at the time, that sanctuary is more than the work of justice, it is work of the heart.
We could hardly be blamed for missing that when we began last spring, living as we are at a time when our national conversation around immigrants and immigration is more divisive than at any time since the turn of the 20th century. And we should note that this state of affairs has little to do with immigrants themselves, but instead is a result of the divisive state of our politics.
Despite the fact that the pace of immigrants entering this country has actually slowed in recent years, that the vast majority of immigrants – documented or not – are working, abide by our laws and pay our taxes, certain noted politicians have declared that their presence here is a crisis. And so, they ratchet up the penalties for them being here, criminalizing their very presence, unceremoniously grabbing them when they enter stores or government buildings, and warehousing those they seize in private prisons. The result has been to terrorize and disrupt immigrant communities.
When we consider who in the U.S. doesn’t have official status, we’re talking about around 11 million people, a number that has remained steady for the past 10 years, and about 350,000 in North Carolina, where they make up 5% of our labor force. And that share is significant, especially in key industries like agriculture, construction, and hospitality. In particular, North Carolina farmers, construction firms and restaurants have warned they would suffer without the undocumented workers they employ.
And for all the noise surrounding “illegal” immigrants, polls in North Carolina show that roughly three-quarters of respondents are fine with them being here and have no interest in local police assisting the federal government in arresting them, as long as they have committed no crimes.
Clearly, immigration is a problem. Our laws are a rat’s nest of confusion, and those seeking to navigate them, who already are struggling with the language, find little guidance to make their way through. But the immigrants are not the problem. They are people much like the forebears of every person in this room who sought peace, freedom and a better life in this country. Most of those people were blessed to find a country, a community that would make room for them. How is it that we have become so frightened, so divided, so deluded that we have turned away from the impulse to hospitality that is our true nature, that call from our hearts to know and be known?
We shouldn’t belittle the extraordinary leap of hope and faith that immigrating to another country involves, no less traveling to a place where your language, skin color, or ethnicity makes you a minority. And yet, how amazing it is how many people thrive, and how rich they make life for the rest of us. This is a learning that the so-called “immigration debate” loses sight of, but that we in the harbor of sanctuary have been blessed to relearn. By taking the risk to open our doors and open our hearts we have reminded ourselves of what true hospitality calls for from us.
Last July I told you that if anyone should ask you why our congregation is inserting itself into the immigration controversy with our decision to offer sanctuary, you can tell them that this is about far more than quibbling over 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 to 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.
That is to say, it is work of the heart. The question before us is where that work takes us now. We and the 17 other congregations who are our partners will continue to support our guest as her case wends through the court system, hoping that those authorities will see the justice of her bid for citizenship.
But meanwhile, the immigrant community here suffers. Federal immigration agents continue their sweep of the area, indiscriminately snatching up people and holding them at a private prison in rural Georgia, where around 1,700 men are now housed.
Federal officials acknowledge that they can’t hope to arrest and imprison all undocumented immigrants. Instead, they have instituted a policy to encourage what they call “self-deportation,” that intends to make undocumented people so frightened that they will choose to return to the countries of their origin. From all signs, few people are “self-deporting” – there are, after all, powerful reasons that brought them here in the first place – but many have changed how they live. They avoid going out for shopping, even doctor appointments, and they steer clear of any contact with government, whether it be vaccinations for their children or choosing not to report incidents of domestic violence or abuse. How might we be neighbors to these people? How might our commitment to sanctuary lead us into deeper engagement with this community in our midst?
The Mexican-American poet Luis Alberto Urrea paints a picture of the immigrant’s journey in his poem “Codex Luna.” Here is an excerpt:
“My moon pulled a different darkness across the sky.
My unknown sisters tucked in the barbed embrace of the border fence saw a different face in the moon.
Theirs was a Luna Tochtli, a Rabbit moon – moon of running, fear, hiding.
My moon was origami floating in a water cup. Their moon was a panicked eye.
Headlights froze them, twin moonbeams ran them down, tufts of their dreams tangled in thickets of border tumbleweeds.
My sisters brought undocumented scents to sweeten the valleys. Their perfume settled on roadsides, misted over bloodstain, rattlesnake, boot print, guard dog, flashlight: illegal exhalations. Behind them, hunger. Before them, night.
I did not need to run. I had a paper moon. Stamped and certified. Gave us the all clear to walk, work, die on the ground our ancestors had forgotten. My moon rose over tidy houses.
She ran all her life. She ran to stay ahead of charging darkness, galloping hunger. She worked the light of the moon in her small hands the color of earth, she molded moonglow into trinkets traded for coins the color of sun.
Somehow, she came to rest in my house. She slept, her hair black across my pillow, spilling toward the earth, her fingers curled, her breath making small melodies of breezes and tides.
Then they woke her. They tucked her in the back seat of a car, smuggled her under blankets through trucks up freeways.
I sank my face into the imprint she left.
I smelled her mother in a kitchen of clay pots, and cilantro on her hands.
It was all there: hibiscus tea, a river. First grade, the chalk dust sneezes. Village church, incense. Laundry day. Tamale day, and the aunts with their crow voice laughter.
The meat, the masa, the raisins, the cinnamon.
Just an illegal drudge in crepuscular rain. If you see her, protect her, revere her, my unknown sister, light candles in her honor, you travelers. She is the mother of my race. “
The work of the heart is not always easy or clear, yet it calls for us to be honest and brave, to be compassionate and clear thinking. And it carries us beyond the slogans, the memes, the talking points. It invites to see the holy in each other, the possibility we each hold in this fragile time and space together.