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Becoming a Sanctuary Church

“Immigrants and Refugees Welcome.” In resistance to the Executive Order banning refugees from seven majority Muslim countries and discriminating against Muslims, those have been the words on our sermon boards on both sides of our church. Until the Executive ban is fully rescinded, until ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is no longer directed to raid immigrant homes in our community, and until DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals) candidates no longer live in fear of unfair deportation, that sign will continue to hang prominently in front of the church I serve: The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC. As Christians seeking after God’s justice and because of our physical positioning — just four blocks east of the White House — we feel a deep calling to stand up as a Sanctuary Church.

Last spring Kathy Doan, a ruling elder at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and a longtime advocate for the immigrant community, and Maricelly Malave, Co-Founder of Sanctuary DMV (District Maryland Virginia), met with me to share an evolving need for churches and communities to join the New Sanctuary Movement. They shared the history of this ancient practice for temples, churches, and even whole cities to declare themselves as a place of refuge for people accused of crimes in which they feared unfair retribution. They shared that churches in the U.S. first provided sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad, helping slaves pass to freedom during the Civil War. In the 1970s, when refugees from the civil wars in Central America came to the United States seeking shelter, the U.S. government did not recognize them as political refugees seeking asylum. Many were deported and faced death squads on their return. In response to this dire situation, the Sanctuary Movement was formed. At its peak, there were over 500 member congregations. In 1986, the Sanctuary Movement won the inclusion of Central America as part of our immigration laws.

Starting the summer of 2014, we started seeing the return of the humanitarian crisis with thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence and forced gang participation in Central America seeking safely in the United States. Moreover, eleven million undocumented persons are living in the United States, many of whom have lived here for more than ten years. These members of our community — these friends, family members and neighbors — are all at risk of deportation. Read more

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¡Bienvenidos! Welcome!

Bienvenidos matSunday morning after worship, I sat with Lidia*, trying desperately to hold back my tears as she occasionally wiped hers away, hiding them from her children. Lidia and her family are an integral part of our community of faith. They became members after Lidia and the previous pastor met in classes while they were both pregnant. As they got to know each other, the family started worshiping with our community of faith. In turn, our community of faith started including more Spanish in our worship service.

Lidia and her family are among the many migrant and immigrant residents of our rural Midwestern town who have come from Mexico to work on the local farms. Last year, our community of faith had been excited and energized by the relationships we’d been developing with the farmworkers and their families. The banner outside our church building, made for our annual picnic welcoming our friends back from their homes in Mexico, reads, “¡Bienvenidos! Welcome!” Each year, an extended family spends five to six months in our town, working for a local organic farm during their main growing season. And each year for the last few years, we have welcomed them with a picnic filled with food, games, and maps that allow all of us to point to the places we each come from.

We also pushed our School District Community Education Program to offer free English as a Second Language classes in the community. At the end of the harvest, we send the family back to Mexico with cookies, well-wishes, and cries of “¡Hasta la primavera! ¡Nos vemos en junio!”

Our members take seriously the love of God they encounter in communion—a love that means each person has a place at the table and each person should be fed and nourished. I wish the story could end there, with us all sharing in joyful welcome of each other at God’s Table, but when we form meaningful relationships with people, we also get to know the problems they face in a new way. This is especially true for problems that are rooted in systemic sins. Read more

Go Back To Your Country

just-race-dec-2016It was on the way to pick up the kids from school.

I slowed to a stop at the crosswalk that connects a paved walking trail with a rails-to-trails path on a fairly busy street in Bloomington. I had seen the bicyclist slow down to wait to cross, but even though I was in a hurry, I waved him on anyway. My eyes flicked up to my rearview mirror, and I noticed the car behind me abruptly stop, like the driver hadn’t been paying attention. Maybe he didn’t expect me to stop for the lone person waiting to cross the street. Maybe he was on his phone. Maybe he was in a hurry to pick up his kids.

When I drove further down the road, the lanes opened up, and I got in the left-turn lane. That’s when I noticed the same car behind me come up and zip around even before the lanes split off. As I turned to watch him drive by, he slowed down a little with his driver’s window down and screamed out:

Bitch, learn how to drive or go back to your country.

Then he sped through the intersection. I missed my chance to turn left as I watched him drive away, my knuckles turning white from gripping the steering wheel. I couldn’t help but immediately default to thinking: Was I not supposed to stop for the bicyclist? Did I do something wrong? Am I a bad driver? Read more

The Granting of Passage

Photo provided by the author

Photo provided by the author

I travelled abroad for the first time when I was six. Along with my parents and my then two-year-old brother we went with some family friends to stay in a large house in Brittany, France. From what I remember, the house had a big yard that was perfect for playing in (especially water fights!), we spent a lot of time on the beach at the end of the road where I learned to swim, and we walked up to the local boulangerie each morning for fresh bread – trois baguettes s’il vous plait – being the key phrase to remember.

My father drove us from our home in south London via the Portsmouth to Cherbourg ferry to the village of St Marguerite. It felt like it took forever. But it was straightforward. We drove to Portsmouth, sat (or in my case, played) on a ferry for a few hours, and then drove to our final destination. My parents had applied for and been granted one of those family passports that enabled us to all travel on one document. The passport was blue and the clerk who issued it had filled out the salient details by hand.

A passport is exactly what it says on the cover – a pass port – a document that enables the holder to travel internationally, ‘without let or hindrance.’ Or at least that’s what it says on the inside of my British passport anyway. A passport enables the holder to travel with the stated protection of their government asking that the government of the territory to be crossed allow safe passage. Interestingly, the earliest mention of a passport occurs in the Bible, in the book of Nehemiah,

Then I said to the king, If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah Nehemiah 2.7 NRSV.

When I recently travelled to Greece to meet refugees and visit agencies supporting refugees, I became very aware very quickly of the privilege it is to hold a passport that enables me to travel freely. A British passport allows the holder visa-free travel to 156 countries. According to the United Nations there are currently 206 sovereign states in the world so a UK passport holder can travel freely to just shy of 3/4 of the countries in the world; that same person can likely obtain a visa to visit most of the others without too much difficulty. Provided, of course, that one has the cash to pay for a ticket to travel and to cover the cost of the trip.

While in Greece most of the refugees that I met came from the following nations: Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is perhaps no coincidence that according to the passport index these are the five weakest passports in the world (weakest meaning that holding one allows for free travel to the least number of states); an Afghan passport holder can travel freely to a mere 24 nations, Pakistan 27, Iraq 30, and Syria and Somalia 32 a piece. These were people who, even on a good day, do not enjoy the same privilege of being able to travel that I have.

Which country any of us end up being a national of is mostly down to luck. I did not choose to be British anymore than Ameera*, a refugee I met, chose to be Syrian. That was decided for each of us according to who our parents were, and the country in which we each happened to be born. The fairness of that reality is currently a much-contested political issue as the European Union debates the current migrant crisis, and the people of the United Kingdom go to the polls to decide whether or not Great Britain will remain a member state in the aforementioned European Union. Personally I would not like to see my British passport become ‘weaker’ but I think I would like Ameera’s to be ‘stronger.’ One of the difficulties of course is that Ameera’s government is in no position to protect Ameera from harm when she’s asleep in her own bed never mind when she’s living in a refugee camp in Greece. The UK government, for all its faults, doesn’t for the most part do too badly at ensuring the security of the people within its jurisdiction.

So with my passport and credit card in hand I can book a ticket, board a plane, and travel pretty much anywhere in the world “without let or hindrance” and expect at least a reasonable welcome when I arrive. Billions of people in the world do not have that advantage – and that’s what I mean by privilege here – an advantage. Hundreds of thousands of people in the world are currently living in refugee camps, and they have the least advantage to travel at all. Not all refugee camps are ‘locked’ – in fact the government camps in Greece only ‘restrict the liberty’ of the refugees that they host for the first 25 days after they arrive in the country. Refugees are people fleeing war, drought, famine or other threat of life and limb; whatever else they are, they are not criminals (or at least they are not criminals by virtue of being a refugee). They deserve to have their story heard, their case heard fairly and justly, and if a reasonable legal process agrees that they are wherever they are as a result of fleeing war, famine, pestilence or persecution, they deserve to have the opportunity to build a new life for themselves and their loved ones. And what is wrong with that.

I will never take my passport for granted again. A question that I have now been asked several times is how joining the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland trip to Greece has changed me. This is one way. I love to travel, I find it energising and life-giving. But I now know a tiny bit of the privilege of being able to travel freely, and of the advantage of being able to travel because I choose to do so, and not because the only choice I have is between death and taking my chances somewhere new.

*Not her real name

Remembering Our Long Legacy

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May is celebrated as the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month and the first celebration took place in 1977. During this month, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remember our long legacy and contributions to the building of America. The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has a blog focused on accomplishments and challenges. The theme for the month is “I Am Beyond”: Evoking the American Spirit. One post featured Julie Chu, four-time Olympic Medalist of the U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey Team, Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, and Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama & Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls sharing their “I Am Beyond” Stories.

Asians have been migrating to all parts of the world, especially Europe, North America, South Africa, and Chile, since the early 19th century. Many migrated to the United States and Canada where Asians provided cheap labor. Asians first arrived in Hawaii and over three hundred thousand Asians entered the islands between 1850 and 1920. Asians labor became a commodity and the Chinese were among the first in that labor pool as they worked in the sugar industry in Hawaii.

The annexation of California in 1846 by the United States opened a door for Asian laborers. Since Asians were viewed as a commodity, Chinese laborers were essentially imported for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Other Asians also arrived in response to the need for laborers to build America: the Japanese (1880s), Filipinos (1900), Koreans (1903), and East Indians (1907).

Asian women sometimes made the decision to immigrate motivated by a desire for freedom. Other times men arranged the migration of Asian women for profit and exploitation . Many women were used for harsh labor to feed, wash and clean for the men. Many were not ready for the hardships of the immigrant life. Korean women worked long hours. Others who worked in the fields for wages spent a full day under the sun, perhaps with babies strapped to their backs, before returning home to fix dinner for their husbands or other male worker. Asian American women suffered in silence within a culture where their roles were defined by the men.

In addition to this difficult physical life, Asian American women experienced psychological and legal suffering in the form of prejudice and discrimination. A series of restrictive laws against Asians were enacted which discriminated against them and limited their life within the United States. In 1870, Congress passed a law that made Asian immigrants the only racial group barred from naturalization into United States citizenship. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Actsuspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years, but this was later extended indefinitely, eventually being lifted only in 1943. The 1917 Immigration Act further limited Asian immigration, banning immigration from all countries in the Asia-Pacific Triangle except for the Philippines, a U.S. territory at the time, and Japan. Japanese immigration, however, was subsequently limited by the1924 Exclusionary Immigration Act, which stopped new immigration from Asia. In addition to these laws, Asians were segregated in public facilities including schools and subject to heavy taxation, prohibition of land ownership, and prohibition of intermarriage with whites. World War II brought the unnecessary internment of Japanese Americans. It was not until the passage of sweepingCivil Rights legislation in 1965 that state supported discrimination ended.

These hardships experienced by Asian Americans are not well known within our society today. Their hardships, difficulties and experiences are often overshadowed by other racial minority group’s experiences of racism. These difficulties continue today. Third, fourth and fifth generations of Asian Americans living in the United States believe that they will never find ‘home’ in this land where they are viewed as the perpetual foreigner.

Racism against Asian Americans is disguised under different expressions like“model minority” or “honorific whites” within our society. This is evident in the recent scandalous life of Donald Sterling who favored Korean tenants over other minority tenants. Some use Sterling’s preference to show that he welcomes people of color and do not recognize the racist behavior in such preference of one group over another. We also see model minority affects in the killing of Vincent Chen. Society failed to recognize that Chen was targeted because he was an Asian American. Although such targeting fits the definition of a hate crime, the perpetrators were not charged with such a crime.

Asian Americans made significant contributions to the growth of this country. Asian Americans continue to play important roles in our life together. We have contributed culturally (tai chi, martial arts, tae kwon do, graphic arts), we have contributed to the palette of America by sushi restaurants, Asian food groceries and Asian fruits and vegetables. We have contributed to the religious diversity through our Confucian, Buddhist, Taoist, Shinto, and Hindu religious heritage. We have also contributed in the area of sports, academia, and technology.

As we embrace the joy and accomplishments, we also need to remember the suffering and pain that so many Asian Americans endured to come to where we are today. And we need to recognize the need to do more. We need to promote more Asian Americans to the heads of companies and elect more Asian Americans to public office, even to the level of the president of the United States.

The effort to eradicate racism from our society needs to involve more solidarity, replacing charity and commiseration. We cannot continue to believe that racism does not exist except when someone makes a racist remark. Racism is a disease like alcoholism. Lots of alcoholics don’t drink, but that does not mean they are cured. It can flare up at a moment’s notice, erasing years of living in tolerance with other cultures. White privilege prevents many from recognizing that they perpetuate and contribute to racism. And this complicit perpetuation of systems of race happens just as much in the church. Therefore we must open ourselves and recognize that we all need to work together to fight for social justice and liberation. Silence on the sidelines is not an option in this matter. The way to begin is to provide platforms and share the true, and authentic stories of those legacies – of pain and suffering, of joys and victories – of those who’ve gone before us, so that we can leave the right legacy for those after us.

For futher reading and discussion, please read Gary Y. Okihiro, Margins and Mainstreams: Asian in American History and Culture, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014) & Seung Ai Yang, “Asian Americans,” in Handbook of U.S. Theologies of Liberation, p. 173-184, edited by Miguel A. De La Torre (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004).

[read also: God, Woman and Our Bodies, & Jesus and the Cross]