After President Obama's Executive Order on Immigration and before the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson
In Fort Collins, Colorado, a few days before Thanksgiving
(Please note that there are vivid images offered here, some of which may be too graphic for those sensitive to violence or trauma)
You might remember, two winters ago, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement - ICE - blasted into Little America.
You know, Little America, right? If you’ve done any traveling through Wyoming, you can’t miss it. It’s a hotel, travel center, repair shop, and from the billboards that describe it - so, so much more.
When we’ve driven I-80, Little America is the place that keeps us entertained in that interminable trip across the plains. The signs announce it long in advance, building anticipation. Billboard after billboard of happy, white, blond, very happy white blond mom and dad with two very happy white and blond children, smiling about all the fun they are having at Little America.
Every time my partner and I have seen those signs, we’ve joked there are no people of color, and definitely no gay people in Little America.
Well, it turns out that - though it’s still possible there are only white people who stay at Little America, the people who work there are much more representative of today’s Big America.
It was January 24th, 2012, and actually, ICE didn’t blast into Little America. They blasted into the homes of the workers of Little America. Fully armed. In their SWAT gear, and in groups of about five. In one home, an 8 year old boy was alone, about to walk out the door and cross the street to his school, when ICE banged on the doors and windows until he opened the door. They stormed in, searched the whole house, and demanded to see his mother.
At another, they arrested a man in front of his children, took their mother’s cell phone, and then took the visas and I-94s of everyone in the house, including family visiting from Mexico. They told them they had 3 weeks to get out of Cheyenne.
That same day, they got in touch with a woman, a single mother. She was a victim of past domestic abuse. Her abusive husband had followed her to the US, but had since been deported for his behavior. The agents didn’t arrest her that day as she was home alone with her 11-year-old daughter. But they said to her - we’ll be back. We’ll be back.
With her trauma and her past, it was too much. Thinking of a future back in that country where her abuser lived - she just couldn’t let that happen. And so on February 3rd, 2012 she burned her trailer home, with herself and her daughter inside.
As we approach the third anniversary of the raid, the image and her desperation still haunt me. It’s like something we’d hear about happening in the middle east. Not here.
How is it possible that this is the same America that we learn about in school pageants and over dinner tables around this Thanksgiving holiday? How is it possible to recognize the themes of cooperation and abundance and goodwill across difference, the themes of hospitality and kindness we learn in the story of English pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a meal in the early 17th century - how is it possible to recognize this Big promise of America in this raid of Little America?
In his speech on immigration Thursday night, President Obama made many claims about America, calling on us as a nation of immigrants, a nation that has long welcomed the stranger among us, in the spirit of Hebrew scripture - “for you were strangers once yourselves.”
In this version of America, we have always been a reconciling nation, a nation that pulls people in, all who may come. And only now have we fallen down on this promise.
Calling on such an idea of our past is a rhetorical strategy. I mean, how could it be anything but a rhetorical strategy, coming from an African American man, fully educated in the ways that for African Americans, Native Americans, for early Irish immigrants, for Chinese and Japanese, for so many of us, this version of America has simply not been true? America never was this America to many, many who arrived or who were already here.
Just after Obama was elected in 2008, Dr. Vincent Harding, speech writer and friend to Martin Luther King, Jr., called together a diverse gathering of people in response to what he called “Brother Barack’s call for a conversation on race.”
I remember he looked around at us and said, We’re all wounded here, in his usual gentle, soft and yet singularly commanding voice. We all have our stories, and we’re all wounded here. White, or black, latino, native american, or asian, Christian, Jew, Muslim - we all have a story where we learned about race, learned to comply with the rules and expectations of our race. Learned to separate ourselves from our neighbors, our friends, from ourselves.
Person after person stood up and offered their testimony. The attempts by a white girl to be friends with her black neighbor, thwarted by her father’s beating. The repeated taunts one young Iraqi girl got at her middle school that brought her to tears in front of the large crowd. The sorting out of multi-racial identity - not black enough, not latino enough. Hours of testimony, from all ages, races, genders, religions. We are all wounded here.
As stories poured out, I heard in my mind the longing whispers of African American poet, Langston Hughes: Let America be America again. Let America be the dream they dreamed, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath-- America will be!
We have this nostalgia - even those of us who have remained outside its promise - for this idealized version of the America we tell in the Thanksgiving story. We long for its truth, and its hope, its abundant vision. We want to be a place where the stranger is welcomed, where in our welcome, we are all enriched, and redeemed, and saved. We want to believe that such a place has existed, that it was real - even if we have lost it for a moment, because that means we can bring it back, like returning home.
This vision of America is the promise our spiritual ancestors the Puritans came here to create. They thought of themselves like the Isrealites in the story of Exodus. Severely persecuted in England, they identified with the enslaved Hebrew people seeking liberation. Like the Isrealites, they imagined themselves, God’s chosen people, promised a new land of freedom and abundance, a new land they felt they had found on the shores of what they called New England.
This identity as God’s chosen people promised this great land of abundance with all of its many resources passed generation to generation, until it became synomonous with America itself, fueling the manifest destiny of the great western expansion, fueling our sense of American Exceptionalism, justifying American imperialism, propping up our climate change denial, even seeping its way into an African American president’s narrative of America as a country where - as he said on Thursday - those who break the law must “get right” with the law....despite the deep and rich history of those who broke the law in order to bring escaped slaves to freedom. I mean, wow.
After the triumph, and the liberation, after the “mission accomplished” banner was hung with pride, the scriptural story of Exodus continues. In the full telling of Hebrew history, it turns out, the promised land - was already occupied! Rather than being “delivered” into a land that was all their own, the Israelites discover that things were slightly more complicated. Dedicated as they were to their narrative, however, they decide to take matters into their own hands, and remove the people who live there, claiming the land as their own.
They destroy the native Canaanites, and occupy their lands. These formerly oppressed slaves arriving seeking freedom, become the oppressors and the persecutors, immediately repeating the very pattern of abuse that they came seeking to escape.
Which it turns out is pretty common. Because when you read the fuller history of the United states - the story beyond land owners, and men, beyond the anglo land owning dominant narrative, when you read a multi-cultural history, a people’s history, a fuller story than the usual Thanksgiving myth emerges - one that matches that biblical narrative almost exactly. It goes something like this - a group arrives, finds a way to claim a piece of the American dream, claim themselves as part of the “chosen people,” and then in turn, they find the next vulnerable group, the next outsiders seeking belonging, and they treat them the same way they had been treated. They push, and persecute, and exclude.
Or, in the case of Native Americans, some never become “chosen,” because they are Canaanites, surprised to learn that their land had been divinely promised to others. Surprised, and then slaughtered. Remember what I said last week about being careful about what story you are living out of.
Perhaps today, rather than imagining as liberated Israelites, still trying nostalgically to reclaim a country we never had, we might instead imagine we are still attempting to create that place where Israelites and Canaanites can sit down together, a place where there is enough, more than enough, for everyone. Rather than telling ourselves a story of America that came true in the past, but was lost; we might instead imagine a story that is yet to be fulfilled, a story we can make true by asking ourselves - which stranger remains yet unattended or unwelcomed? who is seeking a place now that we are turning away from? whose story remains untold? and then reaching out and gathering all of these up, bringing them all in, moving from a little, partial vision, to that still unfulfilled dream of a great big America, the beautiful.
The President’s action on Thursday increased our capacity to hold a greater number in our promise, but it is nothing without our engagement and response, nothing without our willingness to hold both the suffering it soothes and the pain it leaves unaddressed, the stories that still live in us like that woman in Cheyenne who chose death over returning to Mexico nearly 3 years ago, the women and men and children who still linger on the edge of despair, struggling still as strangers in a strange land, no matter where they go. We can do so much more.
As my children keep singing to me, love grows when you give it away - and it is only in our giving and receiving, in our abundant sharing - that we all may live.