Recently, there has been some chatter in UU Ministerial and Lay-Leadership circles around the upcoming plans for the Unitarian Universalist Association “Justice GA” in Phoenix Arizona, focusing on how it is planned for those who attend to do far more learning and bearing witness on the issue of immigration, than doing direct action or service project kinds of events. As far as I have been able to discern, the essence of the angst is that many people have envisioned Justice GA as being a series of things we come to Arizona and “do”, rather than bearing witness to this civil rights crisis in our country, and being transformed by that witness. I will own that as my perception of what is being said.
Now, I’m not going to go into whether those who have planned “Justice GA” have come up with a good plan or not, other than to say I find myself almost entirely in agreement with the perspective of Rev. Sean Dennison who was in the room when the plan (or grid) for Justice GA was being developed. Yet, where Sean was very cautious not to be critical of the concerns that have been raised about that plan, I am far less so.
I can think of little more paternalistic and oppressive than for our religious denomination to come into Arizona, wander around the state for a week involved in all kinds of short term protests, actions, or confrontations, and then head back to our safe, documented, middle-class lives self-satisfied that we “had done something”. This was my fear when I was on the floor at the Minneapolis General Assembly, and heard the plans for the compromise of still going to Phoenix and having a “Justice GA”. Though I voted for the compromise, I did so with great trepidation and feelings of manipulation.
The essence of my trepidation, (which I also voiced in a question to Gini Courter at the Heartland District Assembly last year) is simply this… Will this Justice GA be a moment of transformation for our association of congregations around realizing our own privilege and isolation? Or will it be another event of majority Caucasian middle-class and wealthy people (not all of us UU’s, but certainly our majority) coming into a situation we know little about, doing “actions” from our privileged perspective, and then returning home smug with how “progressive” we are?
If it is to be about learning and transforming around the issues and experience of immigration, then I want to be in Phoenix for Justice GA… if it is to be another exercise in privileged smugness, then I would just as soon stay in Ventura County and work with people who are homeless (something I’ve been, if for a short time) and veterans with combat stress injuries (something I will be my whole life).
I’ve never been an undocumented migrant. I’ve never had to face the reality that a speeding ticket could lead to my family being separated and thrown in jail. I’ve never felt I had to accept wages far below the minimum wage because I have no legal standing to complain. I’ve never fallen asleep at night with the fear that “la migra” would come in the night and take me away. I’ve never been stopped on the street and asked to show my identification (although I would love it, because then I could see their face when I pulled out my military ID card and proved myself a Federal Officer.)
I have lived in Hispanic communities for a good portion of my adult life, as my wife and I currently do in Southern California. Sandy and I chose to move into the apartment complex we did because here, neighbors know each other. Families watch each other’s children. The young boys play soccer in front of my door. Vendors come by in the evening with everything from ice cream to shaving cream. Fathers carry babies around the apartments at night, because the movement helps them sleep. Yes, there are drugs, and yes there are gangs… but no more than I’ve seen in lower-income communities no matter what the ethnic or cultural background. Actually, I perceive far less of both here than I did in poor white areas of East Tennessee… where I’m from.
Yes, my neighbors know I’m a minister… it was necessary that they know I am not an ICE Agent or a cop, and the military uniform could have been a problem if my neighbors did not know about it before they saw me in it. Speaking Spanish helps as well… but not as much as you might think. Most of my neighbors speak English… especially the children. English is the “code language” the children use so their parents don’t know what they are saying…
But even with the fact that I lived in Latin America for many years in the 90’s, and even with that I have spent almost 5 of the last 10 years living in Hispanic neighborhoods because I like the community, and even though I worked in a business for four years where a lot of my co-workers were undocumented, I do not know what it means to be an undocumented Hispanic migrant in America. I am in a place to see more than most of our denomination, to have more conversations than many of my colleagues… but that does not mean I “know” what it means to live life undocumented.
And so, I must be guided in the cause of issues of social justice in immigration and migrant rights by those who have lived that experience. I must focus first and foremost on my own transformation, and the transformation of the groups I am actively a part of, in light of bearing witness to another person’s experience of life. To do that, I must see and learn from that other person’s experience, and allow that seeing and learning to spiritually transform who I am. I must allow myself to change, and then share that change in me with others when I return to the places I came from.
Perhaps it should have been called “Bearing Witness GA”… but is not Bearing Witness the most fundamental aspect of Justice?
Yours in Faith,