When a wolf becomes the wind, or the wind becomes a wolf
When I was eight and my cousin Chris was ten, we cousins, including my six-year-old sister and four-year-old cousin Vincy, had a brilliant idea to spend the night in the playhouse. My grandparents live in the countryside of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, on property with fields, ponds, hills, and streams. Wild and domesticated animals roamed their property, just as we hiked to the creek and ran in the grass. The playhouse was literally next to the house, separated from the front door by only a double garage. My grandparents are trusting folk, so doors are never locked and car keys rest on the dashboard of unlocked cars. The playhouse was a well-constructed thing with a little loft where we piled sleeping bags and pillows.
As we were trying to get to sleep, Chris shushed us and said, “Listen.” We quieted and listened. He told us he heard something and that it sounded like a wolf. We’d seen small bobcats in the far fields before, but wolves were an unknown threat.
Chris started to work us up with skill that could only be called theatrical. “It’s coming to get us!” he said. “It’s getting closer.” Then we started to hear “it” too, not remembering our grandparents had three dogs that would have been wandering about and that cows were in a field not too far away. Perhaps it was the wind that we heard too, or interpreted the creak of the loft under us as being an animal coming to attack.
I’m not sure which of us started crying and yelling first, but soon even Chris believed we were soon to be attacked.
We yelled at the top of our lungs for our grandparents and parents. We cried and screamed for what seemed like forever. Chris was as frightened as the rest of us, and no amount of reason could have quieted our fears. No calming could be possibly wrought. And by a miracle, my mom heard us and came out to the playhouse.
She opened the door and we shouted at her to get in, because “it’s going to get you!”
She tried to calm us down and allay all fears, but we were too worked up. She took us all back into the house. And we never again tried to sleep in the playhouse.
A good storyteller can turn footfalls of a dog into a wolf. An effective storyteller can transform safety into fear. A good storyteller can induce belief. With (only) imagination, something that is not a threat can be turned into one.
Thus, the power of stories to determine beliefs, norms, and identities is proven every time we call up Santa Claus to encourage good behavior, or trot out a stereotyped image to “prove” our point.
I started to write this little narrative above to think about gender and identity through novels or the Bible. We conjure certain ideas about people and believe that these ideas apply to us. For example, the small role women play in the Bible—no woman (that we can “prove”) wrote a book of the Bible, women aren’t listed in the familiar litany “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” women have many fewer “active” roles in the biblical narrative compared to men. So what does that tell us about God’s view of women today?
This is something I’m really interested in—how we view ourselves in the biblical narrative and how we then act upon our subconscious beliefs. But more discussion on this another day.
But, I want to turn to another issue but a similar focus. Immigration.
How we view illegal immigrants or undocumented/unregistered immigrants matters. Do we know any of these individuals personally? Are they friends? Co-worshippers in our churches? Work colleagues? Neighbors?
If we don’t know any individuals who are in the U.S. illegally, we can easily stereotype and “Other” them. “They don’t pay taxes, they take our jobs, they use up welfare and education funds, they want a free ride, they don’t respect the laws of the country, they don’t want to speak English,” etc. If you haven’t said any of these comments yourself, you’ve most likely heard a family member, friend, or co-worker say them.
But if you personally know someone who doesn’t have the magic papers, you can’t “Other” these individuals any more. Their plight becomes personal. What was a threat is now a friend.
I picked up the campus paper at the University of Pennsylvania a few days ago. On Wednesday, a University of Pennsylvania sophomore in the Wharton school of business, Tania Chairez, and a Bryn Mawr junior, Jessica Hyejin Lee, were arrested at a protest rally in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office. A few months ago, Tania wrote a guest column in the student newspaper entitled “Undocumented and unapologetic.” These two women and dozens more participated in a rally to protest the imprisonment of Miguel Orellana, who has been held since July 2011. According to immigrant groups, Miguel would qualify under the federal DREAM Act, which would “provide a pathway to legalization for undocumented youth brought to the United States as children” (DreamActivist PA). However, this bill has been stalled in Congress for nearly a decade. Recently, the bill passed the House of Representatives during the December 2010 lame-duck session vote but fell five votes short of passage in the Senate. But it’s still stalled. And I wish I had been more active.
I’m not going to talk too much about all of this except this point—Tania and Jessica and Miguel are now real people to many in the Philadelphia area who before didn’t know or didn’t care much about the immigration problems we and millions of individuals are facing.
We know the individual stories of these particular people who have desired the “American dream” like the rest of us. Apparently, Miguel, a 25-year-old with an American-born fiancée and two children (the second which was born while he has been imprisoned), came to the U.S. at the age of 9 under a temporary protected status, which was “revoked after several misdemeanor arrests for underage drinking in 2006 and possession of a small amount of marijuana in 2007 and 2009” (PhillyBurbs.com) Underage drinking=bad. Possession of marijuana=bad. Maybe we should start deporting everyone who drinks underage or has marijuana … Sorry for the sarcasm.
One of my sister’s good friends in college came to America as a little kid. She’s never known anything except the U.S. Her mother went to crazy lengths to secure a better life for this young woman. Because I know this young woman through my sister, I know a personal story of someone who didn’t start out in American “the right way.” But now, she works for our alma mater, the spouse of an American citizen, and she too is in the process (or maybe already has) of gaining citizenship.
All talk of legality aside. As Christians, what is our response to be? How do we imagine these individuals? How does Christ see them? As lawbreakers? As daughters and sons? As followers of Christ, how are we to act now that the millions of unregistered immigrants have faces, names, children, jobs, dreams and status in God’s eyes?
I think the first thing as Christians we can do is remember our own status. We are aliens and foreigners in a strange land. America is not our home. Our citizenship? Doesn’t really matter before the Lord. At the end of the ages, will God decide we are accepted into the heavenly kingdom if we’re Americans, and if not, thrown out?
Sometimes we conflate our Americanness with our Christianity. But the example of Jesus is clear. He respected the laws, but he wasn’t controlled by them. He touched lepers and women with bloody discharges and dead children. And then he carried on teaching and preaching in the synagogue and in the community. Scripture doesn’t ever mention Jesus going through the ritual cleaning protocols. He said to pay taxes, but he encouraged people to not let the Roman government control what is God’s—our bodies and our hearts.
And then, I wonder how we might treat others if we actually put ourselves in their shoes. What would you do if you had no income, if your life and the lives of your children were in constant danger, gangs and warlords ruled your town. And you knew that across a human-man border, there was a place where you could earn a living, where your children could go to school every day without the fear of the dangerous walk home, where you could have running water and a roof that didn’t leak. Charles and I recently read a book called Fragmented Ties: Salvadoran Immigrant Networks in America, by Cecelia Menjívar, that interviewed dozens of individuals and chronicled some of their crossing stories. (It’s a very non-polarizing book, as immigration status isn’t the thesis of the book>)
What would you do? Would you not do everything in your power to make a better life for yourself, and especially your children? Would you not cross hundreds and even thousands of miles so that your children’s lives could be better than your own?
I know I would. Or, rather, I hope that I would have the courage and faith to do that. So when I hear about all the women and men who have risked their lives to come to America, I am proud. I am grateful America has continued to be a place where the poor and the hurting can make a new life. I am humbled as I think of my own status as a wanderer in a strange land. Just because my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents came by boat and not by land doesn’t mean I have more of a “right” to live here than anyone else—except the Native Americans who haven’t been able to kick all of us more recent immigrants out. I would imagine that a sizable minority of “real” Americans have ancestors who didn’t register quite right at Ellis Island. My great-grandmother Louise came to the U.S. in 1906 or 1908. That’s only a hundred years ago. I’m a pretty recent immigrant too. Maybe I too should go back to England, or Switzerland, or any of the places my ancestors left because they believed in the dream of America.
And we must ask: are the laws of the United States of America the laws of God? Where they are not, I pray we are brave and courageous to stand with people who have risked everything to find the promise of American—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I pray that Christians would no longer buy into a stereotyped image of the Latino or Latina, who just wants to “steal” our jobs or take our resources. These individuals are in many, many ways paradigms of what Americans pride themselves on—being hardworking, industrious, brave, education- and home-owning aspiring.
And if you don’t know anyone who is in America under questionable methods, listen to stories through the Internet. Here’s a few resources to get you started:
http://undocumented.tv/ (This is an excellent site. Watch the short movie, read the thoughtful and biblical articles, maybe even choose some of the experiences?)
Evangelicals Endorse Immigration Reform Christianity Today article
And as Matthew Soerns, immigration advocate and Christian, wrote (about the Alabama anti-immigrant bill) in a blog titled G92 South-Choosing Action Over Silence: “Ultimately, while it is wonderful to minister to and befriend immigrants on an interpersonal level, if we are unwilling to stand and speak with them before our legislators, we’re not really loving our immigrant neighbors effectively. If we refuse to advocate with our immigrant neighbors, as Dr. Martin Luther King once wrote from a Birmingham jail, “we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”