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On Sacred Ground: Encountering God's transforming power at an immigrant rights march
Note: This post, a reflection on the immigrant rights march in Boston in 2010, was originally published in 2011 in The Crier, the newsletter of the NEYM Racial, Social, and Economic Justice Committee.
On May 1st AFSC is working with immigrant communities around the United States in organizing May Day rallies this year for immigrant rights and comprehensive immigration reform. You can find the march nearest you here. - Lucy
“To enforce the duty of tenderness to the poor, the inspired law-giver referred the children of Israel to their own past experience; ‘Ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ He who hath been a stranger amongst unkind people, or under their government who were hard-hearted, knows how it feels: but a person who hath never felt the weight of misapplied power, comes not to this knowledge, but by an inward tenderness, in which the heart is prepared to sympathy with others.” - John Woolman, 1793, A Plea for the Poor
Saturday, May 1st, I joined with Boston’s March, Rally and Celebration for Immigrant and Worker Rights, winding its way through the immigrant communities of Everett, Chelsea, and East Boston. It had been planned well before Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed S.B 1070 into law. But the implications of the legislation and its repercussions across the country in Massachusetts heightened the urgency of the day for many of the marchers.
Hundreds of immigrants, most from Latin America and Brazil, turned out for the march. Teenagers came with their classmates. Mothers pushed strollers with young children. A couple of men brought their drums. Many of the signs were handmade. “No a la discriminación. Todos somos uno,” read one (No to discrimination. We are all one). Another, laboriously written on a scrap of cardboard, affirmed “I am an alien, but my rights are human.”
I was blessed this weekend to also catch a radio interview with South African Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu. Tutu recounted “discovering that the Bible could be such dynamite.” He continued, “the scriptures say it is because we are created in the image of God, that each one of us is a God-carrier. No matter what our circumstances may be, no matter how awful, no matter how deprived you could be, it doesn’t take away from you this intrinsic worth.”
In apartheid South Africa, where whites commonly called blacks “Annie” or “boy” rather than by name, Tutu reminded his parishioners of a deeper reality. “When they ask who are you, you say, ‘Me? I’m a God-carrier. I’m God’s partner. I’m created in the image of God.’” In that encounter with God, his parishioners are transformed.
“[Y]ou could see those dear old ladies as they walked out of church on that occasion as if they were on cloud nine. You know, they walked with their backs slightly straighter.”
On Saturday, May 1st, I witnessed such an inbreaking of God’s deeper reality. In the face of rhetoric that names undocumented immigrants as animals, invaders, and thieves, these men, women, and children, had come together to assert their humanity and the nation’s obligation to treat them with respect. I was standing on sacred ground.
But God had other transformation to work in my heart. At the end of the march, while I was standing in line waiting to use the toilet, I turned around to see behind me the young woman I had seen earlier, carrying that handmade cardboard sign, “My rights are human.”
She was with her daughter, a beautiful, quiet child who looked to be about three and a half years old, with deep, open eyes. As the mother tenderly helped her daughter out of the stroller, my eye fell for the first time on the handwritten cardboard sign that the girl had been carrying. “I miss my dad,” it read. “He was deported.”
John Woolman was not content to stay at home and rely on news reports. He left all that was familiar and directed himself to a place of encounter.
One key trip took place in 1763, when he met with Native American peoples. As he traveled among them and came to know the reality of their lives, his understanding of his relationship with these people was transformed.
“I was led to meditate on the manifold difficulties of these Indians,” he wrote in his journal, “…and a near sympathy with them was raised in me; and my heart being enlarged in the Love of Christ, I thought that the affectionate care of a good man for his only brother in affliction does not exceed what I then felt for that people.”
Like John Woolman, I have not “felt the weight of misapplied power” to the extent of others in my generation.
Thus, it has been my experience that it is in face-to-face encounters such as this that God works transformation in me. This is the distinct work which was mine this May 1st on this sacred ground: to prepare my heart for God to work within and journey to the place of encounter, to know this woman as my sister, her daughter as my own.
When my heart knows this, I am committed to labor with them for a release from their afflictions. My heart has been enlarged, and I can do no other.