Because You Were Once an Alien (Immigration and Faith)

Last Saturday, I had the great honor of participating in the second MegaMarch here in Dallas, Texas.
Twenty or so Northaveners(1a), and a few friends from the North Texas Conference, joined our voices with the 56,000-plus folks who gathered in downtown.(1)

(Myself and old friend, Rev. Gerald Britt, just before the march began) 

 (People in line, ready to march)

 (Northaveners David and Rei Coley)

Also marching with us were members of Christ’s Foundry United Methodist, our partner church in the Bachman Lake area of town. Their church is made up of mostly immigrant members, and their pastor and my friend is Rev. Owen Ross; who gave the benediction at the end of the march. (Please see footnote (1a) for some YouTubes of some of our group)

These thoughts first appeared as my sermon on Sunday, and you can hear that here. But several have asked for a transcript. So, in what follows, I will take my best shot at a “comprehensive” statement on how I see the issues of immigration reform from the perspective of a person of faith.

I believe immigration is a key social issue for us because:
— Immigration is clearly a passionate issue for large numbers of our citizens
— Our faith calls us, the Bible calls us, over and over, to speak to this issue.
— Immigration, and issues of race, also directly affect Latino/Latina citizens and brothers and sisters in Christ.

Let me speak to each of these…

Immigration is a passionate issue for large numbers of our citizens.
However you feel about immigration, there is no question it’s an important topic to many in our society. Saturday’s march embodies this point better than anything I know. The march featured upwards of 50,000 people(1). The MegaMarch of four years ago featured close to ten times this: 500,000 people. These two marches together, separated by four short years, are the largest two gatherings on any social issue in any historical time in the history of Dallas, Texas.

(this image from the Dallas Morning News)

Let me say it this way:

If you took the total number of people who have marched on any social issue in the history of Dallas County…
Marches for Peace…
Marches for the Environment…
Marches for Civil Rights and School busing…
Tea Party Rallies (And I mean any Tea Party rally in the entire county)…
Marches on any issue on any side of the political spectrum…

(this image from the Dallas Morning News)

If you added all up ALL THESE, they would not even equal HALF the total number of people involved in these two marches.

Think about that. More folks marching in support of immigration reform, than any other social issue in Dallas’ history, COMBINED.(2) And lest we be misled, the vast majority of those who marched in both of these marches are American citizens.

That is why, in my statement to the press on Thursday, I strongly urged them to provide this context in their coverage of other social movements in our world today. Small, tiny rallies often get copious press. Tea Party rallies of several hundred are covered along with the statement that “the movement is growing.” It may well be growing; I’m not trying to suggest it isn’t. But I *do* believe it’s the media’s job to provide context for public gatherings. (3)

It is clear that, in terms of sheer numbers of “feet in the street,” immigration is the most important issue right now. So, if we are Wesleyan enough to believe in our founders call that “The world is our parish,” we must look out our windows and hear what the world is saying to us today. (4)

Our faith calls us, the Bible calls us, over and over, to speak to this issue.
At Thursday’s press conference, I put forth some of the theological and spiritual reason why I believe it’s important to advocate for immigration reform. You can read that statement here.

 (Dallas area Catholic Bishop Kevin Farrell turns toward the crowd and prays an opening prayer)

Because of time, I only mentioned a small sliver of the large swath of Biblical passages that are relevant to the issue of immigration. Here in this blog, I’m happy to expand on this…

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) remind us time and time again, to treat the foreigner, the “alien,” the outsider as if they were one of their own.

Exodus 12:49 “…there shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.”

Leviticus 24:12 “You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen; for I am the Lord your God.”

Numbers 15:15-16 “…there shall be for you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual state throughout all generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord. You and the alien who resides among you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.”

Deuteronomy 28:19 “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.”

I could go on, and on. Literally. By my own brief count, there are more than twenty clear passages, exhorting God’s Holy People to treat the “alien” or “stranger” or “foreigner” by the same laws and privileges that apply to the native born. (5)

But there’s more. A few of these passages not only exhort the people to treat the “alien/stranger” well, but they also give a specific spiritual/theological reason for this. (I am indebted to my Old Testament professor, Dr. John Holbert, for pointing out this next insight to me several years ago)

Note the special reasoning that these next three passages give for why we should treat foreigners and immigrants well:

Deuteronomy 10:19 “You shall love the stranger, for your were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:33 “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 22:9 “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for your were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

God calls God’s Holy people to reach out and love the stranger, because YOU were strangers and aliens once too.

Gee, does that remind you of any immigrant nation you might happen to currently live in?!

Immigration is important in the New Testament too.
Jesus’ story begins with a story of migration. Have you ever stopped to consider that? The Christmas story –the story of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, a story we lovingly retell each December– is a migration story. And it doesn’t just end with Jesus’ birth. Soon after, Joseph follows the advice of an angel and takes the family to Egypt. In other words: before Jesus is even one year old, he is a political and religious refugee in a foreign land.

When Jesus preaches his first sermon ever, (Luke 4) in his hometown of Nazareth, he tells them he’s come to preach Good News to the poor, release of captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. The hometown crowd is thrilled!

But! Then he goes on to remind them that God often sends prophets to foreigners and those outside the faith. And suddenly, their joy evaporates. In what must have seemed like a shocking turn of events, they seek to rise up and kill him. Even in Jesus’ day, advocating for the foreigner and the outsider could raise the anger of the hometown crowd.

In Matthew 25, Jesus calls us to “welcome the stranger.” And when we do, Jesus says, we are not just welcoming a person, we are welcoming God.

The Bible Does Not Distinguish Between “Legal” and “Illegal”
Friends, despite these many passages, many people draw a dividing line of the issue of “legal” verses “illegal” immigrants. Many people say, “I am all for welcoming and loving the stranger, just so long as they are here legally.” I have heard this a lot from a lot of very well meaning people. And I really do understand and respect that view.

But the Bible does not make a distinction between legal and illegal. That is our modern issue.

Nowhere does it say “When you welcome the legally-present stranger, then you welcome me.”

Nowhere does it say “treat the legally-present alien as if they are one of your own.”

And if this seems strange, or even off-base, please see Footnote 6 below for a more detailed treatment of this issue.

For those of us who are Methodists, the World IS our parish. I happen to believe that God’s call to us is to love our neighbors the way God loves us; without condition and prejudgment. God’s command is to look outside our windows, look at those in our community and to LOVE them. Period.

To advocate for immigration reform is not to advocate for more illegal immigration. Far from it! Instead, it is to say that our calling should be to advocate for fair, just, and reasonable levels of immigration from our neighboring countries, and perhaps for guest worker programs such as work in other nations. I also believe our calling is to advocate for families to remain unified.

What the United Methodist Church has said.
That is why the 2008 General Conference of the United Methodist Church passed a very clear resolution, calling for comprehensive immigration reform. The statement was a part of a  larger resolution titled “Welcoming the Migrant to the US,” and can be read in full here.

Among other things, the United Methodist Church affirms the United States as a nation of immigrants, cites many of these same scriptural references, and says:

“….the United Methodist Church understands that at the center of Christian faithfulness to Scripture is the call we have been given to love and welcome the sojourner. We call upon all United Methodist churches to welcome newly arriving migrants in their communities, t love them as we do ourselves, to treat them as one of our native-born, to see in them the presence of the incarnated Jesus, and to show hospitality to the migrants in our midst, believing that through their presence we are receiving the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

There are several more pages to this statement, which lay out specific ways a United Methodist congregation might be engaged in the ministry of supporting immigrants. And, at the end of the statement, are some specifics for why the United Methodist Church calls on the government to pass comprehensive immigration reform (and there are some examples of what the church believes that would look like). Again, feel free to read the entire statement here.

That is why our friends at Christ’s Foundry United Methodist Church made these signs for us to march with on Saturday. Members of both churches marched with these signs, witnessing to the truth of our United Methodist Church’s resolution on immigration reform.

Speaking of Christ’s Foundry, all these issues come close to home when I listen to my friend and colleague, Rev. Own Ross, pastor of the that church. For the past month, Owen Ross has been telling me the story of one of his members, a young man named “Cristian.” I had the great good fortune to march alongside Cristian on Saturday.

Cristian is enrolled in junior college here in Farmers Branch. But a routine traffic stop there has landed him squarely in the middle of the hodgepodge of current immigration law, because his papers were not in order, even though everybody else in his family *does* have their documentation. I Facebooked with Owen the day of Cristian’s recent hearing, and I could feel Owen’s deep sadness upon learning of the judge’s initial ruling.

Owen considers Cristian to be one of the most trustworthy young men in his congregation. He’s even given Cristian a key to his house, so that Cristian can watch things when Owen is out of town.

Unless the decision is reversed on appeal, or unless the Dream Act is passed immediately, Cristian is likely to be sent away to a country he has never known. Which is why, as we marched with signs that said “Pass the Dream Act,” it was not a theoretical plea. It was about real people, and real United Methodists.

 (Owen carries his sign, with Cristian to his left)

Immigration, and issues of race, also directly affect Latino/Latina citizens and brothers and sisters in Christ.
As I said near the beginning, issues of immigration, whether we like it or not, also open up the touchy and tender subject of race. And we must speak about this, and speak about it plainly.

What has got so many of our brothers and sisters upset about the new law in Arizona is that there seems to be no good way to enforce such a law without engaging in some kind of racial profiling. I am aware that those who wrote the law deny this

OK, then, so how CAN it be enforced? As one young man’s sign put it(7)

How do you tell who is illegal, and who is not?

As somebody who for 20 years now has had Latinos and Latinas in my own family, I can assure you: you can’t.

Laws like Arizona’s run the risk of violating the liberty of our own citizens, precisely because racial profiling and stereotyping still goes on in our society. Sometimes, it’s innocent. Sometimes, it’s not. But it happens.

The sensitive truth is, we ALL do it. we all make assumptions about other people, and about their race and status. Blacks do it to whites, and even to other blacks. (Remember Spike Lee’s “School Daze?”) Latinos do it to each other, and to other groups. Whites do it to each and to other groups too.

There is a much of this that is racism-neutral…ie, is not about racism, but is simply about the assumptions we make about people.

But in the specific case of Latinos and Latinas, it happens far more often that you might imagine. Perhaps you read the story in the Dallas Morning News, from Mercedes Olivera over the weekend. She relays a story from my old and dear friend, State Representative Rafael Anchia. Raf tells a story of growing up in Central Florida, and of being denied service in a restaurant because he and his family –more light skinned Latinos– were speaking Spanish. This man, now a state representative, knows and remembers what being profiled is like.

And so it is that many Latinos don’t teach their children Spanish. That was the case in Dennise’s home.(8) As she grew up in Irving, her father, Richard Garcia, remembered his own experience of being punished for speaking Spanish in a West Dallas elementary school –a teacher locked him in a closet. So, he vowed to *not* teach his own children Spanish.

(just as the march is about to start)

Flash forward to a time when Dennise was a little girl. Her father Richard had had a heart attack and had to stop work as a spot welder. He eventually started mowing lawns to make ends meet. They mowed lawns all over near North Dallas. (Every now and then, we’ll be driving around, and Dennise will point one out. The closest is about four blocks from Northaven…) On weekends, she and her siblings would go to help.

One Saturday, while Dennise was out helping, her father was around the corner and out of sight, when she was approached by INS agents. They came up to her and began speaking to her in Spanish.

Which, as you might imagine, terrified her because a) they were big scary-looking government guys, and b) as I just mentioned she didn’t speak Spanish!

Lord knows how “guilty” she must have looked to them, as she stood there mute, unable to respond to their spanish inquiries.

Her father soon appeared from around the corner and waved them off. (Maybe he had to show ID?)

But that’s not all. Let me tell you the most amazing story I have ever heard about racial assumptions. And let me carefully set the scene…

Just a few years ago now, Dennise had just finished a hearing and had returned to her chambers.  She was standing in her judicial chambers, which clearly say “Judge Dennise Garcia” on the door. She was standing behind her desk, that has a nameplate  that reads “Judge Dennise Garcia.” She is standing *behind* that desk with her robe on. (Standard black, judicial robe)

With her in the office, are two of her office staff; both blonde, white women wearing pant suits. These two are standing in the middle of the room. (Remember: She is standing behind her desk, that has a nameplate on it that says “Judge Dennise Garcia,” and is wearing here black judicial robe…)

A young man come in the room. He’s a “runner” with documents for the court.  He comes into the room, takes a brief look at Dennise, and then turns to wait to talk to Dennise’s two office staff members.

Dennise, done with the hearing and willing to help out, says to him, “May I help you?”

He looks at right at her and says, “No, I am waiting to talk to the Judge.”

Taken aback, she pauses for a moment. Then, she says again, “OK…May I help you?”

And at this, the young man looks back again, and for the first time, seems to really see who she is. Filled with embarrassment and apology, he approaches her desk.

I suppose this misidentification could have been about being a woman, except that everybody in the room was a woman. We’re left with almost no other choice than to assume that this was the kind of thing that Latinos and Latinas will tell you happens all the time: incorrect assumptions and stereotypes about who they are.

This example was SO ridiculous that Dennise was never angry at this guy. In fact, this example is so incredibly ridiculous as to make you laugh, really.

These are just a few of the stories I have heard during my life. There are more, please believe me. More from Dennise’s life. More from the lives of friends I’ve made along the way. Stories of clear race-based incidents, many of which are innocuous. But that’s not the point. The point is: they happen. And they happen in ways that they never happen to me.

As a Hispanic Facebook friend –who is quite well known throughout Dallas– noted the other day “It’s happened to all of us…”

And the point of telling these kinds of stories, especially this last one in Dennise’s chambers, is to drive home the underlying point:

That if it is THAT easy to make assumptions about a clearly identified Latina, how, dear friends, can we believe that a law like the one in Arizona will be impartially enforced?

The obvious answer is: we can’t.

And this is not to impugn the good law enforcement officers of Arizona, or anywhere else. But it is to note that it is our human nature that makes assumptions. And in the case of race and the power of the state, it would be far too easy for law enforcement to infringe the rights of our own law abiding citizens.

All this is why many of our Latino/Latina brothers and sisters are rightly concerned about the Arizona law. Far too many of them have their own stories of being profiled, and know how easy it would be for such a law to be abused.

Love of the neighbor
Time after time, Jesus reminds us to love the neighbor. Time after time, Jesus reminds us that our “neighbor” is often one we we consider to be a foreigner and an outsider. In the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, the good neighbor is an “other,” an “outsider” a Samaritan.

And Jesus tells us: Go out, and be like *that* guy.”

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus says, is the greatest and most fundamental commandment of all. All the rest hang on this one.

That is why Saturday, in my view, was a beautiful day…

 (At City Hall plaza)
(A Dallas Morning News shot of City Hall Plaza, after the march)

Tens of thousands of people wearing white shirts and waving thousands of American flags. Immigrants and citizens standing together, with a common and positive message advocating for the inclusion of all people. Tens of thousands of people marched; and just like last time, not ONE arrest! Marchers even brought their own trashbags to pick up after themselves..and the city, last time, commended the marches for how neat and clean they left the parade route.

Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy, all marching —as were at least six of our United Methodist clergy– in support of immigration reform. All witnessing to the truth that: we CAN welcome the stranger….we CAN embrace the outsider…we CAN LOVE the stranger as ourself.

Not only can we, but believing that God calls us to this work.

(thanks to Billy MacLeod for this one)

“When you did it to the least of these…”
Near the middle of the march, something happened that almost brought me to tears, and almost brought me to tears when I saw it on the news later. Midway through the march, we passed the Sheraton Hotel(9). It’s the scene of the annual “Black Tie Dinner,” which many of us here at Northaven enjoy each Fall.

We march past the backdoors –the loading docks– of that hotel. And as we looked over, we saw the mostly Latino and Latina faces of hotel workers who had come out to greet us.

They were dressed in the uniforms of maids and dishwashers; busboys and bellhops; short-order cooks and waiters. It struck me that some of them might have served me (and maybe some of you) at the Black Tie Dinner.

They were lined up against the wall, on the outside sidewalk as we passed by. Wide-eyed, they were smiling and they were cheering. I don’t know if all of them are legal or not.

But I thought of all those who are like them. I thought of all the thousands of people who were working that day and could not get off work to come to such a march. I thought of all those everywhere who work and serve, cook and clean, and generally keep our city running, quietly and behind the scenes.

And, in that moment, what I knew that Saturday’s march was for THEM.

They are why we marched.

They are why, in God’s name, we advocate for immigration reform, and a more just world for all God’s children.
(1a) This one shows Kaye Gooch, Bryan Coley, Rachel ‘Rei’ Coley and David Coley at the 24 sec mark. Kim Batchelor at the 40 sec mark, and Ron Wilhelm and Linda Harris at the 44 sec mark. This one shows Kenny Wickline at 9:12 mark. Bob Radford and Mike Kelly at 8:47. And this final one show me at 5 min and 38 sec.
These clips also give you a sense of just huge this march was.

(1)Initial estimates placed the crowd size at 25,000. Later police statements indicated that this number refers to the total number that gathered at City Hall plaza after the march, and that the total number of marchers was likely between 50 and 60,000. My sermon refers to the initial estimate, which was all that was known at the time.

(2) I have spoken with many friends who have been “activists” on various causes in Dallas’ history. All have agreed with the basic premise of my statement. For example, a “peace rally” just before the Iraq War began drew 5,000 people to downtown. Nothing to sneeze at, for sure. But a tiny sliver of the 550,000 who marched on immigration. Think of it another way: have there been even 10 rallies of 50,000 people? (No). Have their been 20 of 25,000 people? (No). I am fairly certain the basic premise here is solid, and would love for some journalist to confirm it.

(3) If there had been recent Peace marches –if any other social movement was getting lots of press right now– I would likely mention them too. I’m not trying to make any political point here.

(4) The national rally in support of immigration reform, which took place the weekend health reform was passed and got almost *no* national press,  drew the largest one-day crowd to the National Mall in Washington in the Obama Administration’s tenure…larger than any other gathering on any social issue there, and serving to make this same point I am making here, on a national scale.

(5) Here is a brief list beyond those I’ve already mentioned:
Exodus 2:22
Lev 19:10
Lev 23: 22
Lev 25:22
Duet 24:17
Duet 24:19
For a very comprehensive list of these and many other Old Testament and New Testament passages, click here.

(6) I have checked this with several prominent Biblical scholars whom I know personally, and each agree with this assessment. To suggest that there was some sort of distinction made in these Biblical texts between “legal and illegal” makes no logical sense, and would undercut the main theological justification of the passages (“remember that you were once an alien”). You will recall that Israel’s status in Egypt was as a group of slave people. Not only were they not citizens of Egypt, they weren’t even a status of foreigner afforded legal rights of any kind!

I note this because some Biblical scholars claim the words “sojourner” or “alien” or “stranger” refer to some kind of legally sanctioned status within ancient Israel. The implication being: therefore these passages do not apply to “illegal immigrants” of today.

However, as I’ve just noted, this interpretation makes no logical sense in the original context of the passages themselves, when the original metaphor given was to remember being a nation of slaves; without any legal rights whatsoever.

The call to God’s holy people is to not be like the Egyptians –who denied rights to their forebearers– but to look past legal status and welcome all who are “aliens,” “strangers,” or “foreigners.”That is precisely what will distinguish them as God’s Holy people, and not simply another average nation in a world of average nations.

(7) I learned later that this is young man is Sol Weiner, son of our friend David Weiner.

(8) I thank Dennise for the permission to share these stories, which are really her’s.

(9) I incorrectly identify this in the sermon as the “Adams’ Mark,” which was its name a few years back. I need to keep up.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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