Some articles I've written for magazines, blogs, and the like.
Shut your eyes to nothing that seems to them the reality”—Olive Schreiner
We walked the streets of Atlanta united on a three-mile pilgrimage. We were a collage of people: black, white, brown, Mennonites, Unitarian Universalists, Baptists, conservatives, liberals—all question seekers. We were not just sweating it out on the streets. We were seeking justice.
We walked to the ICE building, where immigrants are being processed. It is here, a few feet away, our leader Anton told us, that up to 85% of people in the system do not receive representation. Herded like animals, often coerced into signing their rights away.
We sang: Were you there when they nailed him to the cross?
We walked to a detention center, the largest in the nation. It struck me as strange that the building looked similar to others on the street—it could almost pass for a large office complex. But it is here that human beings are incarcerated, usually without a trial, usually for the crime of attempting to feed their families.
We sang: Were you there when they jailed him for money?
We walked to the Board of Regents, where it was decided that children brought to the U.S. without documents could not attend the top five schools in the state and receive in-state tuition. “I want to be a social worker helping children,” a 21-year-old undocumented woman told us, “I’m not asking for a free ride…I’m just asking for a chance.”
We sang: Were you there when they crucified her dreams?
On our pilgrimage, we saw a police car driven up onto the sidewalk, cornering a man who has no home. The officer was blaring his siren at the man. We offered him what we had: water. Then we offered our voices.
We sang: Were you there when they drove him off the streets?
We walked to Grady Hospital. Our leader, Anton, knows a woman who struggles to get the dialysis she needs. Since the hospital became privatized, it no longer provides services for people without documents. This saves money.
We sang: Were you there when they stole her dignity?
“Shut your eyes to nothing that seems to them the reality,” the South African poet Olive Schreiner wrote. The reality is that the immigration system is unjust. Profit is valued over people. Fear trumps freedom. But the reality is also that there are change-makers among us. The reality is that we are all one: the immigrant, the politician, the person with no home, the seminary student. The reality is there is hope.
And so finally, we walked to the crypt of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family.
We sang: Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
Oh…sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?
When you encounter the pain of this world, shut your eyes to nothing that seems to them the reality. And I would add: Never stop singing.
This piece was originally published on August 15, 2013 when I wrote it for the Forum for Theological Education, the organization that sponsored this Atlanta pilgrimage on immigration.
This article was originally published in the July-August 2012 issue of PRISM magazine (pages 18 and 19). Click here to read it on their site.
“You’re famous!” screamed the subject line of the email from my friend. I clicked the link she’d sent and found myself quoted in a popular blog centered on anti-refugee sentiment. The blog was chock-full of fear. Fear that refugees (especially Muslim ones) will take over our culture, our jobs, our country. Fear that our nation is making a huge mistake by admitting thousands of ‘them’ each year. Fear that they are all terrorists.
Asaga, a refugee from Eritrea, learns some English from volunteer tutor Casey. Photo by Amy.
My first reaction was to resent the fear-mongers, to lump them into the convenient category of “bad guys.” But then I reminded myself that an issues-based dichotomy of good guys vs. bad guys is not what our nation needs right now, neither among politicians nor among engaged citizens.
But what, then, should my response be? What should the church’s response be? People do have real or imagined fears of welcoming the stranger, and yet as Christians we are called to welcome strangers as though they were Christ himself.
Arguing about issues and statistics, I’ve found, does little to assuage fears. But introducing skeptical or fearful people to other human beings (who happen to have refugee status) can work miracles.
A few months ago, a student group came to my office to learn about refugee resettlement. I gave my usual hour presentation outlining the horrific experiences of most refugees, the process of resettlement, the services our resettlement agency provides, etc. When I was finished, one of the women, we’ll call her Ashley, asked a couple of questions that were clearly anti-refugee. Not “I’m just wondering . . .” questions, but ones that exposed some real fear and anger. I addressed her questions and arguments as kindly as I could, but I sensed that she was already convinced in her mind.
As part of the class assignment, Ashley and the other students were required to shadow the teachers of our English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. I hesitated to allow Ashley to interact with our refugee and immigrant students. Will she say something overtly hurtful? Will she storm out of the class? I whispered a quick prayer that she would have eyes to see.
I led Ashley’s class to the ESL classrooms. There were a few minutes to spare, and I noticed that Ashley became engrossed in conversation with one of the ESL teachers, who is an immigrant herself. The vibes from their conversation were surprisingly good.
Two hours later, I checked back with the students. All had had a positive experience, including Ashley.
“These are such kind, diligent students. Thank you for the good work you’re doing here,” Ashley said to me, with a hint of apology in her voice.
Not everyone’s heart might soften as quickly as Ashley’s did, but when I introduce someone to a refugee friend of mine, the arguments somehow do seem to lose footing.
The complaint “You’re taking my job” fades away when you learn that your new refugee acquaintance works the night shift at the local meat packing plant. If anyone born in the US who speaks English wants that job instead, it’s theirs.
“We’re just letting everyone in” becomes clearly untrue as your refugee friend describes the vast, overpopulated refugee camp she just moved from, where she lived the last 20 years. Most refugees suffer in camps for years (or their entire lives!) and are never offered resettlement, even after desperately seeking it.
“Why didn’t you just stay in your home country?” becomes harder to ask after learning that a wife was raped, a village burned down, or a child shot. By definition, refugees cannot stay in their home country. They ran for their lives.
The questions I have, whenever I hear anti-refugee or anti-Muslim sentiment, are these: Have you ever met one of the people you’re talking about? Have you ever been to her house and received her hospitality? Have you allowed this person to cook you dinner, laugh with you about language differences, tell her harrowing story of persecution or her hopes for a new life here? Have you ever seen the face of Christ, who himself was a refugee, in the face of this stranger?
It’s amazing how much I learn from refugee friends, how they cleanse me of fear and greed as I, in exchange, help them learn some English. I’m pretty sure I'm getting the better end of the deal.
So the next time I meet someone with an anti-refugee stance, I hope I can be gracious enough to simply introduce him or her to my refugee friends. Because it is real flesh-and-blood human beings, not arguments or side-taking on issues, that introduce us to the truth in the end.
At the time this article was published, Amy S. Zimbelman worked in a resettlement agency in South Dakota, where she connected refugees and immigrants from around the world with their new neighbors.
Film review of the documentary Welcome to Shelbyville, directed by Kim A. Snyder, 2011. Originally published in PRISM magazine July-August 2012 issue (page 21).
Welcome to Shelbyville is a film about change--a changing economy, a new president, and the shifting demographics of a small Southern town as white, African Americans, Hispanics, and Somali refugees wrestle with what it means to be American. Articulated by a resident of Shelbyville, the film's central question is this: "Now are we gonna work together or are we gonna stay divided?"
The documentary is uncomfortable enough to purge the audience; people have walked out of screenings I've organized--some because they believed it to be pro-immigrant "propaganda" and others because the anti-immigrant hateful remarks were too painful to bear.
And that is Shelbyville's greatest strength--it reflects reality.
"These fears, of losing jobs and losing our identity to refugees, these are our fears," a lady from small-town South Dakota confessed after a screening.
But as people get to know refugees and listen to their stories, I have seen positive change, both on screen and in audiences.
In the film, one resident of Shelbyville worries that "[The Muslims] are gonna start blowing up in Shelbyville." But after getting to know her Somali neighbors, she admits, "I could have been her, but God chose for me to be over here . . . no, I could have been one of them."
At another screening, an older woman remarked, "I never thought about the fact that my ancestors fled persecution in Europe, so I'm a descendant of refugees. And unless we're Native American, all of us came from abroad."
To see ourselves in the stranger, to realize their tragedy could have been ours, and to use that realization to propel us toward greater compassion and closer community, those are the changes Shelbyville promotes and the changes we must seek for ourselves and our nation.