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A Different Kind of Visitation: Re-Thinking Matthew 25

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” ~Matthew 25:31-46

I have always gravitated to certain parts of this passage from Matthew 25 more than others. It has always felt easier to offer food or clothing, or at least the resources to purchase those things, than to care for the sick or visit those in prison. I figured other people are more skilled in those areas, so I would leave that work to them. But then I moved to Tucson, Arizona and was invited to visit immigrants in a detention center just up the road. So three years ago on a hot, dusty June morning, I arrived at Eloy Detention Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, privately owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America/CoreCivic.

After being buzzed through two layers of chain-link fence covered with barbed wire and passing through the metal detector and two more security doors, I entered the stark, cold visitation room. Individuals in jumpsuits were slowly being brought in and directed to different parts of the room. Visitors would sit on one side of the rows of hard mini-couches, and those being detained, on the other side. Then we would begin to talk.

My training and experience as a pastor helped me to have some clue as to how to start these conversations, but it still felt awkward. I knew very little about how folks wound up there, and how they survived the isolation they began to describe. I did not yet know that many of the people I would visit over the next few years were asylum seekers, fleeing war-torn countries, often with their babies on their backs, desperately in need of safety and security. I did not know they could get stuck in that place for months or even years while they fought their cases. There was so much I didn’t know that first day.

But I quickly learned that facts, while important, were not necessary for these encounters. An open heart and ears that really listened were, however. People began to trust me with their stories. I heard about moments and situations they had worked to overcome, and the things that kept them moving forward. I began to see beyond the barbed wire and jumpsuitsand to see these folks as friends and conversation partners, not as criminals – the labels the guards and ICE agents wanted me to latch onto. They wanted me to see them as less-than.

The women and men from around the world who have left their communities of origin and find themselves detained in Eloy Detention Center have taught me so much. They lean on one another. They encourage each other. They see themselves as connected. They listen when others cry at the thought of surviving one more day in a place where the isolation is designed to break them. Because in this place, idleness is not discouraged, but rather imposed. Programmed activities are few. Craft supplies are rationed. The optional jobs on offer pay only $1 per day. But faint hearts are strengthened through the support of others. Hope can be restored. Creativity emerges. Intricately-made swans come to life from just a few strips of paper. Strong purses are woven with colorful checkered patterns. Food items from the commissary are combined to recreate enchilada recipes that remind them of home. Praise songs float around the dusty outdoor recreation space and high into heaven. These acts of resilience remind me that the human spirit is stronger than our broken immigration system.

Matthew 25 emphasizes that when we visit someone in prison, we are visiting Jesus. And like all encounters with Jesus, we risk being transformed. I have been moved to tears by the stories I have heard, but I have also been pushed to put my compassion into action. I have been urged not to fall into the trap of deciding who is worthy of my care and attention, and who is not. Our current culture seems to suggest that if one is labeled “criminal” or “animal” or “undocumented” or anything else that begins to strip someone of their humanity, we are let off the hook, as if we no longer have to care about people who are kept behind lock and key and meters and meters of barbed wire.

But Matthew 25 tells us otherwise.

Exceptional

“Oh, but you’re one of the good ones.”  

I heard this from adults for most of high school. Usually pronounced with bittersweet bewilderment, it would be followed by a conversation about the surprise at my presence. As a teenager I was highly involved in the Church. (My call and ordination maybe shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me.) Church was both refuge and fun for me. As a young overachiever who was a bookworm and enjoyed learning, I first heard these words with hope. I wasn’t, as I sometimes feared, unpopular because I was unlikeable. If I was exceptional, perhaps I was misunderstood—and what teen doesn’t like the idea of being misunderstood.

Too quickly I realized that exceptionalism did not make me less lonely. Whether it was for not being popular or not being ordinary, I was still isolated.  

As my peers and I began to mature, and I found more friends my own age, I gained new appreciation for the slight that had been offered to my equally accomplished and committed peers. It was, I increasingly discovered, easy to surround myself with peers who share my values if not my faith. My knowledge of which did not stop the comments. I kept hearing about my “exceptionalism” for the decade I spent being the youngest. The youngest person at a meeting, the youngest priest in the room and the diocese.

I am no longer the youngest priest in the diocese—though I’m often still the youngest person in the room. But I still hear how “exceptional” I am. Now that it is not rooted in my age, it catches me off guard more often. It sneaks up in conversations as they turn to refugees and immigration. It doesn’t start with the bewildered sadness in these conversations. Far more often its confused anger. “Those people” who come here and are a drain on our system, by stealing jobs or tying up resources. I am an immigrant. Read more

Loving Across Difference, Living Without Fear

Not long ago, in conversation with a clergywoman I’d recently met, I mentioned that my husband is Muslim. “Cool,” she said, adding shyly, “Is that hard?” I laughed. “It sure is; but only because marriage is always hard. We’re not special.”

When Haamid and I started dating, it rarely occurred to me that being an interreligious couple might be an issue for other Christians. I grew up in a progressive Episcopal Church and a liberal town. My stepfather and stepsiblings are all Jewish, so I’d seen in my own family that love could not only transcend religious difference but be enriched by it. My brother married an African-American Buddhist; my sister, a Roman Catholic of Mexican heritage; and my oldest brother and his wife, a French national, are both atheists. (We joke that family holidays are like gatherings of the United Nations.) The San Francisco parish that sponsored my ordination, an overwhelmingly LGBTQ congregation deeply committed to social justice, had an expansive understanding of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Also, did I mention that Haamid is kind of a great guy? No one in my Diocese or family hesitated to give us their blessing.

This is not to say that we had our heads in the sand. Haamid emigrated from Pakistan in the mid-90s. When he first landed in a Midwestern college town, he encountered both racial and religious discrimination. Unfamiliar with common bathrooms, he was frequently pranked when trying to shower alone or clean himself after using the toilet. It pains me to hear stories about that time. He sought refuge and greater opportunity in large cities, first on the East Coast and then the West. But as he built his home here, eventually becoming a citizen, he became keenly aware of white, Christian privilege.

I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a city with a long history of combating systemic racism, but I had not encountered much religious diversity as a child. I was a senior in High School when the twin towers fell. Though that probably wasn’t the first day I’d heard the word “Islam,” it was the first time I remember. (On the other side of the country, Haamid was among countless Muslims legally living and working in the United States who suddenly had to be fingerprinted every year.) I went on to study Islam and Arabic in college, discovering a rich history and a beautiful faith, just as my country was declaring war on Iraq. This education sensitized me to the Islamophobia rampant in our media and wider culture. Read more

book of common prayer

One Book, Many Cultures

book of common prayerHidden away on our bookshelves is a little black book dating from the 1930s. When I hold it, my hand feels the imprints of my grandfather’s fingers on the cover. My thumb rests effortlessly at the end of the title: “Common Prayer – Hymns A & M.” Eight years ago, I brought this book with me from England to America to remind me of my grandparents. It never occurred to me that it would be a way of connecting with a congregation here, but that is exactly what has happened at my new parish.

Anglicans around the world would understand the shorthand in that title. “Common Prayer” refers to the 1662 revision of The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, while “A & M” means “Ancient and Modern.” The Book of Common Prayer was an attempt by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to bring unity to the English church following the Reformation by mandating one form of worship for everyone. Hymns Ancient and Modern was an attempt to consolidate the most popular Anglican hymns of the late 1800s into a single volume. It was this little black book that British missionaries took with them as they went out around the world to spread the good news – and to reinforce the power structures of the British Empire.

I am keenly aware that what joins me as a white priest to my mainly black congregation is the colonial past, which includes the shared heritage of The Book of Common Prayer and the hymnal that went with it. My parish is around forty percent West African and thirty percent Caribbean, while the remaining thirty percent is made up of North Americans (both white and African-American) with a splattering of Europeans. There is also an emerging Central American congregation that worships separately in Spanish, led by another priest.

Ministering into this tension that is the shared heritage of the Anglican Communion means being aware of the privileges that I have as the priest and as a white person, and at the same time acknowledging the shared experience of being an immigrant. Almost everyone in the English-speaking congregation comes from a country that is a former British colony or still belongs to the British Commonwealth. A number of the Caribbean parishioners have told me that they remember being sent “the latest young priest from England” when they were growing up, and so there is something familiar about having a young, white English person pastoring their congregation. Although they have shared this a positive memory, I cannot ignore that our present reality together comes with a colonial power dynamic based in both culture and race.

Almost all of the members were also raised as Anglicans. Like me, they came to the Episcopal Church because it is part of the Anglican Communion. Read more

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

Bienvenidos mat

¡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. Read more

Remembering Our Long Legacy

grace jsk

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]