This Land

She lay quietly, waiting, until they found her. Like a treasure, they cared for her and she, in turn, birthed the deer, elk, and buffalo, while berries ripened on her branches and birds filled the space of her breath with song. The bushes, trees and grass burst out in all vibrant shades of green and flowers danced daily in her light. She swelled with life under their care. And they multiplied and soon chubby little feet caressed her face and she laughed at their joy.

But then, the pale ones came. Some were kind, and tired, and grateful for her. They settled in and cared for her. But many others – they tricked, and killed, spread disease and reduced the ones who treasured her from a mighty number to a frail few. They spilled blood quickly to demand more and more of her. They brought in others in chains and shackles and forced them to pull from her what little life she had left so they could feast and sit in ease. Generation after generation they grew, and consumed, and hoarded until an empire emerged.

Then they built walls around her and said, “No More!” to those standing at their doors. They took what was never theirs, hoarded it and turned their eyes away from the tired, the hungry, the ones running for their lives. They shut their eyes and put their hands over their ears and would not share her. But what they did not see was when they shut their eyes and closed their ears, they shut down her life as well. The empire they made for themselves alone, the one that could have fed all the hungry and brought healing to millions, distorted into a poison that consumed them, and they dried up with her. Too late, they realized that their self-protection had become their suicide.

But still she whispers her secret to those who can hear.

I belong to no one; I am both gift and treasure. My bounty multiplies when I am loved and shared. Share me so that I can come back to life and dance again.

 

 

The Law of Kindness

It didn’t seem strange, at first, to see this young family ahead of me in line when I went to drop my son off at camp for the week. They stood huddled together, quietly waiting, but then when they reached the front of the line, they quietly requested a place to take a shower. While other children excitedly checked in and called out greetings to long lost friends, the silence of these children and their parents suddenly spoke volumes to me and in their beautiful, brown faces I read an unwritten story and it broke me a little more. What does it feel like to live life on the run, with no home, no place of safety to tuck your little ones into at night, no place to wash the dust of your journey off your weary body? How devastating it must be to have your adopted home become unsafe, unfamiliar and possibly dangerous.

By the time I got my son settled in to his cabin, the family was gone. I realized I had gone on through the line, expecting someone else to do the right thing, the kind thing, thinking up all the reasons why I couldn’t, why I didn’t just offer my home to them to freshen up in. I needed to get my son settled in. I didn’t have enough seat belts in my car. I lived a distance away and they probably wanted to stay in the area. I desperately needed some down time. As I went over my list of “reasons” on the long, quiet ride home, I only felt regret. I felt as if the Christ-child had knocked on my door and I had shut it in his face.

Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.

So I am writing to myself, as much or more than to anyone else. Something in my bones is grieving, like some ancient DNA that remembers the loss of home, of children, of family. 300 years ago it was not uncommon for Mennonite parents to have their children taken away from them, while they were put into prison for refusing to change their faith. It was next to impossible for them to own land. They were heavily taxed based upon their faith and often hunted down like animals. They were deported, branded (literally) and sometimes sold as slaves,  yet they illegally returned again and again to the places they called home. My ancestors became wandering immigrants, leaving Switzerland and living wherever it seemed safer – France, Germany and eventually finally finding passage to the United States of America.

Recent events have made me keenly aware that I am the descendant of immigrants and that awareness has helped me to step into their stories. And when you are on the inside of someone’s story, well, things just feel a whole lot different.

So today I’m asking all those other descendants of immigrants, especially  those who came here because home was no longer safe, I’m asking you to please stop looking into this story as if you were an outsider, because you are not. Anabaptists, this story especially  belongs to you. You would not be alive today if your ancestors had not broken laws and run away with your great-great-great-great-great-great grandma in their arms. They broke laws so that you could be here today, so how can we be so hard on those who are breaking laws so that their children have a chance of growing up in safety? I’m not talking about criminals who are trying to come in, but the thousands of ordinary, hard-working folks who are running from unsafe situations in their home countries. We have become experts at justifying our existence while denying others theirs. When does it become right for the descendants of immigrants to decide no other immigrants can come here and experience what we have? When did it become right to uphold man-made laws that break the ancient and holy laws of kindness? Our ancestors broke all kinds of laws so that we can be here today but let me tell you what law they did not break – the law of kindness. They fed their enemies. Literally. And remember the iconic story of the guy escaping who heard his oppressor fall into the icy water? He went back, helped him out and saved his life, even though he was caught and put to death anyway. This is our heritage, to love God first with every bit of our being, and then to love our neighbors so much that we are willing to take risks for them.

Remember our heritage, search out our roots. What would our life be like today if unjust laws had never been broken on our behalf?

 

 

 

Ten Things You Should Know About Undocumented Immigrants

  1. An estimated 50% of undocumented workers pay income tax. In 2015, this was in the amount of 23.6 billion dollars. While some are paid under the table, many find a way to pay taxes because they believe it will help them to become a citizen someday.
  2. Even though they pay taxes, they are unable to take advantage of any government programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, Earned Income Credit, Food Stamps, SSI and Pell Grants/Student Loans.
  3. 67% are between the ages of 25 and 54. They are not content to sit around taking benefits, they work. They tend to take on low-paying jobs, mostly in agriculture, construction, production (manufacturing, food processing and textiles), service and transportation.
  4. They help create jobs. 13% are self-employed and have found legal ways to open up businesses. In 2014, these entrepreneurs generated 17.2 billion dollars of income.
  5. Studies have shown that where immigrants increase, crime tends to decrease. In one study, the ten areas with the largest growth of immigrants had lower levels of crime in 2016 than in 1980. Another study showed that while the population of undocumented immigrants tripled from 1990-2013, crime in those areas fell by 48%.
  6. Current immigration laws make it nearly impossible for anyone to immigrate lawfully. Immigration 101 breaks it down into three ways – if you have an employer in the US who is willing to sponsor you, if you have a spouse who is a US resident (or after 5 years if you are single and your parents are US residents, and after 10 years if you have a sibling who is a US resident) and, lastly, if you are seeking asylum. An undocumented immigrant who has a child that is a US citizen aged 21 or older, can apply as a family member but the wait can be 20 years long. To understand how immigration laws have changed since our ancestors arrived, read this article.
  7. Not everyone who is undocumented came here illegally. They may have had a tourist or student visa and overstayed. They may have been brought here by parents when they were quite young. Even for these children, it is almost impossible to become a US citizen.
  8. Asylum seekers cannot apply for entrance until they reach a US border. Refugees are people who are seeking asylum and receive permission for entrance before they enter, a process which takes years. Asylum seekers are held in detention centers until they can have a Credible Fear Interview to establish that their lives would be in danger if they were forced to return home. For more on the process, read this article. Families were kept together during this time until the recent Zero Tolerance Policy began. Now all undocumented adults entering the US, including asylum seekers who are going through the “legal” way to do things, are criminally prosecuted, which gives authorities the “right” to take their children away from them. Now, instead of being held in detention centers, they are jailed. This separation of families violates international law, according to Amnesty International.
  9. It costs an average of $10,854 to deport one person. Mass deportation could cost the US Government $400 billion. The labor force would shrink 6.4%, resulting in a $1.6 Trillion reduction of US GDP and the US economy would shrink 5.7% according to New American Economy.
  10. Undocumented workers already give more than they take. Imagine if they were given a clear path to citizenship. Not only would most of them be paying taxes, it would open up doors for education and better jobs. All of this would result in an estimated $68 billion in local and state tax revenues within a decade. Federal Tax revenues would increase by $116 Billion and the estimated GDP growth would be $1.4 Trillion.

If you remove the humanitarian motivations, the religious dictates, a heart of compassion, and look at it purely from an economic viewpoint, studies overwhelmingly demonstrate that it costs us greatly to dismiss those often referred to as “illegals”. But these undocumented immigrants give back to us in so many other ways as well.

May their bravery give us courage to speak up against unjust laws. May their willingness to leave everything behind give us the willingness to leave behind our prejudice and the fear of cultures different from our own. May their hard work and payment into a system that they will never benefit from give us at least a little courage to work harder to be open to new ideas and to give them a chance, whether we ever benefit from it or not. Instead of viewing these fellow humans as lawbreakers or animals, may we learn to see them as risk takers and trauma survivors who are also our brothers and our sisters.

Grieving…

GrievingThere is a grief going on. A deep, visceral grief that hangs heavy on my shoulders as I stumble through my days. It hauntingly echos in my soul while I rest in the night. Like a child shrouded in her father’s winter coat, I cannot shake it off if I try. This heaviness surrounds and runs deep within my being. A groaning has found me and I try to give it words so those around me can hear it too but when I groan I meet with arguments as if this were something that we could even begin to solve on paper or in dialog on the internet.

I groan because all around me, world wide, I see fear. Some, running with nothing but the clothes on their backs as their city burns behind them, fear pounding in their legs and screaming in their lungs. Others afraid to run through the pouring rain because an officer who sees his dark skin may in fear draw his weapon and assume he is running from the scene of a crime instead of home from the train station. Women and girls with shaking knees, taking abuse one more night, guttural screams held silent by a stronger fear of exposing the truth. Or fear that causes a father to buy a weapon to keep his family safe but that safety is fleeting, a cruel trick accidentally taking the life of his child who knew no fear but now knows no life. Fear like a monster patrolling our borders and slamming our doors in the faces of those who only come because the fear of staying behind is greater than the fear of a strange country with unwelcoming faces.

Eight generations back, my people came to this land because they wanted to live their faith in a land that was free and safe and kind. My people, who were once considered the left or third wing of the Protestant Reformation, who advocated freedom of conscience and insisted that no government had the right to decide the religion of its people, were weary of being hunted down like animals. Thousands chose death rather than change their faith or violently resist. Heavily taxed because of their faith and discriminated against, they found that owning land was next to impossible. The seller could legally change his mind at any time and take the land back if the buyer were a Mennonite in an early form of institutionalized prejudice. The early 1700s found a thousand of these emigrants a week fleeing Germany for London, where they hoped to find passage to America. Many were so destitute that they arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs, much less money for sea passage. By the fall of 1709, there were 13,000 refugees in London. The British government was overwhelmed and disgusted and began to turn them back. The  persecution of my people is described as bloody and severe.

300 years later I find similar scenes being reenacted. Unfortunately many of my people have forgotten. Once it was our ancestors, helplessly standing as refugees in the streets of London, surrounded by a staring, jeering crowd. All my people wanted was to start over in a new land. When they finally did get that chance, they dug in and worked hard. They were honest. Quiet. Sincere. They changed the face of this land for the better. They taught their children to work, to pray, to be kind and, most of all, to love their enemies and live a life of peace.

How did we get to this crippling state of fear, where descendants of these brave immigrants are voicing their approval of turning back other immigrants, running for their lives? An entire group of people, judged because of the faith or the nation they belong to. Fear takes the actions of a few and shouts vehemently that they are indeed the actions of the many, without giving the many a chance.

My people came here from Switzerland and Germany because they believed that no government should decide the religion of its people. Faith, they believed, is a personal choice.  If the choices of a few within a group make everyone from that group a terrorist, we would all be terrorists. History is ripe with examples of “Christians” who have committed acts of terror and yet we refuse to be labeled as terrorists – so why do we in turn do it with those of other faiths or races?

I would rather risk opening my door to a “possible” terrorist and die in an effort to live a life of love than live in fear behind a closed door while thousands suffer alone.

I understand if you are not at that place. I wasn’t always at this place myself. The thing that changed me was getting to know Muslims that so many are still afraid of. I’ve written much about these experiences and you can read my reflections on 9/11, experienced while living in a Muslim country here.

Today I grieve but I also remember. I honor those who eight generations back, crossed the ocean so I could have a voice in a land of freedom. I honor those who welcomed me when I was a stranger, who called me family even though I represented what they feared most. I honor those who risked becoming my friend even though their extremists say I am the enemy. I honor those who, like me, feel a stirring in their souls, a remembrance that they too were once a radical wing of a reformation. I grieve, but this grief is not the the last word.

 

 

A Nation of Immigrants

Group-Pixie

 

Her beautiful brown-skinned arm reached out from the surging crowd to grab mine. Startled, my eyes looked up into her deep brown ones as she began to stroke my arm. “Clean” she said, referring to my color of skin. Then she held up her arm and declared it dirty and began to rub it as if there was actually dirt that could be wiped away. I nearly choked in indignation and astonishment, trying my best in broken Bangla to convince her otherwise. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders, shake her and say, “I am the same as you! It’s just color pigments and you happen to have more than me and you are so gorgeous!” But in that moment there was nothing I could say or do to convince her otherwise.

Nearly two decades later, I’m still overwhelmed by the issue. Some days I want to grab the whole world by the shoulders and say, “We are the same. It’s just pigmentation!”

The gut-wrenching truth of the matter is that it is not just about pigmentation anymore. We have made it into something much, much more. I look at our beautiful world of color, the shades and depths of humanity around the world, and my heart wants to stop beating for all its beauty, and yet we have turned this beautiful medley into something ugly and hierarchical. Those of you who come from families of color or from other nations know exactly what I am talking about. I don’t need to explain it to you. You’ve felt it. You live with it. And for this I am so, so sorry.

These words are really for the rest of you who, like me, have lighter skin. We think we live in a nation of equality, with liberty and justice for all. Yet we have no idea how hard it is to be in this nation as a person of color or as an immigrant.

The Emancipation Proclamation failed to change the underlying heart attitude of our nation. Some of us still see ourselves as a white nation. Some of us still think that this is our land. That our way of doing things is the normal way. And anything “other” makes us afraid.

We are not a white nation. This is not our land. We stole this land from those who were here before us, brutally driving them into tiny little pieces of this wide beautiful land while we control the rest of it.

I remember one 4th of July, sitting with family in a park that was full of all shades of beautiful color, where white was the minority. Watching the fireworks dance under a clear Texas sky, I realized that this is who we are, a nation of immigrants. At what point do we have the moral right to say, “This is mine. No more of you can come here now.”

What nation has collapsed because it was generous? Show me a nation that has fallen apart because it has sheltered the poor and the broken.

Instead, we have chosen to narrow our gates and send our soldiers running to the “aid” of other countries to stop the terror in them, while we perpetuate a quiet terror in our own country every day.

We are not the savior. People of my color (or lack of color), for centuries have tried to dictate to the rest of the world how to live. Not only that, we currently use the rest of the world to slave away for us so that we can enjoy more stuff, for less money. But what is the true cost?

There is a growing awareness of modern day slavery, racial issues and much more, but unless we level the playing field of our hearts, not much will change. Like that arm of a different color reaching out for mine – all because decades before white people had come into her land and taken over, and those with light skin enjoyed privileges the rest did not – it’s time for us to reach out our arms to peoples of different colors. It’s time to ask them what it has been like. The time for pretending to be the world’s hero is over. We need to be quiet and listen to people’s stories. Whether they have been here for decades because our forefathers enslaved their forefathers, or they are newly arrived to escape horrors beyond our imagination, it is time for us to open our doors and our hearts. To be the ones who serve. To be the ones who listen. To be the ones who weep.