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General Assembly 2012 Event 302
Celebrate our faith’s commitment to social justice and hear Rev. Barbara Prose, winner of the 2012 Social Witness Sermon Award of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association and the Commission on Social Witness, speak on our Congregational Study/Action Issue “Immigration as a Moral Issue.” Her sermon title is “Define American.”
BARBARA PROSE: Good morning.
AUDIENCE: Good morning.
BARBARA PROSE: Buenos dias.
AUDIENCE: Buenos dias.
BARBARA PROSE: So I have to tell you something before we light our morning chalice, our chalice this morning. And that is that this is my very first GA.
BARBARA PROSE: Thank you. So it is an especially great honor to worship with you this morning. So thank you all for coming out early at maybe a low point in the week. We're approaching midweek, so I know many of us are tired. So thank you for joining in worship with me this morning.
As we light our chalice this morning, I would like to use the covenant spoken in the Free Unitarian Church of Mexico. It was written in 1933 by Universalist minister L. Griswold Williams. I will say it first in Spanish and then invite Reverend Marti Keller, my mentor during this past year, to say it in English.
MARTI KELLER: And in English. Love is the doctrine of this church. The quest of truth is it's sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine, thus do we covenant with each other and with God.
DAVID BREDEEN: Good morning.
DAVID BREDEEN: I'm David Bredeen, a commissioner on the Commission for Social Witness. Welcome to this morning's worship service. At this General Assembly, we have studied and learned. We have discussed and debated. And we have worked and wept.
By this morning, we may be a little tired of wrestling with the complexities of immigration law and the call of our consciences. So may our worship this morning fill us with the strength and the courage we need as individuals, and as a community, to continue this tough work of justice. May our worship this morning imprint "si, se puede" in our minds and in our hearts.
DAVID GLASGOW: I invite you now to rise in body and spirit and join us in singing the words to two different songs set to the same tune, a tune known as "Finlandia." We will alternate the verses to "We Would Be One," and "This Is My Song," which together call us to remember the beauty of all lands and of all people.
BILL HAMILTON HOLWAY: Good morning. I'm Bill Hamilton Holway, president of the Unitarian Universalist Minister's Association. The UUMA is proud to co-sponsor, with the Commission on Social Witness, the Social Witness Sermon Award. Each year ministers and lay preachers are invited to submit sermons they have preached in the last year on an aspect of one of the congregational study action issues adopted by delegates to previous General Assemblies.
We support this contest as an incentive to Unitarian Universalists to reflect on and speak about social justice issues that shape the fabric of our culture. Whether our focus is on bringing peace to a world at war or addressing the equal access to people to water, food, shelter, health care, the call at the heart of our Unitarian Universalist identity is to notice, to name, to inspire, to organize, to act. We call it putting our faith into action. And we encourage one another to hone our skills and rouse our courage that we can make a difference.
This year, preachers were invited to focus on the study action issue of immigration as a moral issue adopted for 2010-2014. I am pleased to present this year's Social Witness sermon award to Barbara Prose for her sermon entitled, "Define American."
Barbara has just completed her first year in preliminary fellowship and serves as assistant minister at All Souls in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Prior to being a minister, she was a midwife, or partera. She is also a facilitator in our new, "Who Are Our Neighbors?" program. Congratulations, Barbara, and thank you for sharing your sermon with us this morning.
JACQUELINE DUHART: If you want to show your love for America, love Americans. Smile when you see one flower like his turban, rose pink. Rejoice at the eagle feather in grandfather's braid. If a sister's bus driver's hair is especially nappy, a miracle in itself, praise it. How can there be homeless in a land so crammed with houses and young children sold as sex snacks, causing our thoughts to flinch and snag?
Love your country by loving Americans. Love Americans. Salute the soul and the body of who we spectacularly and sometimes pitifully are. Love us. We are the flag.
DAVID GLASGOW: That piece was entitled, "Patriot," by Alice Walker.
BARBARA PROSE: If we drive a car, and most of us do, we've probably had the experience of being pulled over for something like speeding, having a headlight out, forgetting a turn signal, maybe rolling through a stop sign. When a University of California professor was stopped by police on his way home, he realized gradually it was more than a casual pull over. There was no talk of speeding. His headlights were both working. He had used his turn signals, and they were both working.
But he started getting really nervous when the two officers asked, what race are you? He looked them straight in the eye and said, the human race, sirs, the human race. There's a lot of talk out there right now and in here too, this week, about immigration, about Obama's recent executive action, and about the impact of immigration on the future of our nation. Are the undocumented a threat or the very salvation of our nation?
Since 2010 there's been divisive debate about whether SB 1070 has been a failure or a success. Some say that fewer people are crossing the border because law enforcement tactics have worked. Others would say—well, you are those others. You've been saying in your words and actions this week and for the past few years that SB 1070 is the cause of repeated civil rights violations, profound human suffering, and persistent economic damage to the state of Arizona.
We've learn together about the workers' exodus from Alabama and about crops rotting in the fields in Georgia and Arkansas. In Oklahoma, I've told the story of Isabella, a daughter of a friend in Tulsa, who came home on her ninth birthday to discover her dad had been deported that very day. I've talked about my neighbors who don't dare call the police for fear they'll be deported, thus putting their own and their children's lives at risk.
But you know about the statistics and the sadness, the fear and the broken families, the racism and the painful realities. So I'm going to tell you this morning why immigration matters to me, because it's one thing for other people, even when they're leaders of your religious community and of your congregation, to tell you something matters and another thing entirely to find within yourself the place you stand on an issue and why.
I'm a first generation American on my mother's side and barely a third generation American on my father's. Because the arrival of both sides of my family is so recent, I never forget that I came here from somewhere else. At the turn of the 20th century, my paternal great-grandparents were leaving the pogroms of Eastern Europe behind. In 1957, my mother was leaving the trauma, the long-lasting trauma of World War II behind.
Then I studied and trained to be a midwife or a partera in El Paso, Texas, primarily serving women and families from Mexico. There is one transport I will never forget. A woman was bleeding heavily in labor, a dangerous sign, probably trouble with the placenta.
Because it was faster to drive than to call an ambulance, we helped her into the backseat of my car. I drove from our freestanding birth center, Maternidad La Luz, to a large El Paso city hospital. I showed the docs on duty her chart, answered questions, urgently explained the emergency, and answered some more questions. And then they turned us away. They denied us care.
So gripping the steering wheel, before cellphones or Google Maps, I made my way across the border into Juarez to find a clinic just in time for a life-saving Cesarean section. I've learned since then that the actions of that hospital were illegal. And I will never, ever forget watching helicopters on the El Paso side of the border herd people from the sky, chase them in circles, and force them into metal cages like animals.
I didn't know much about immigration law when I lived on the border back in the '80s. But even without studying the intricacies of quotas, amnesty, and refugee status regulations, the history of race laws, the impact of NAFTA on the American economy and on the Mexican economy, or the impact of 9/11 on the American psyche, it was clear to me then as it is as clear to me now that immigrants, with or without documents, are people, people first, with inherent human rights and dignity, and then citizens.
So here's the story of one person, one man, one immigrant. His name is Jose Antonio Vargas and some of you know about him. Born in the Philippines, his mom sent him to the United States when he was 12 years old so he could have that better life. He lived with his grandparents in California, learned English by watching "Frasier," and won the spelling bee in eighth grade by spelling the word indefatigable.
He fell in love with journalism in high school, worked for the local paper, and then got a job with The Washington Post after graduation. During the 2008 presidential elections, he interviewed Al Gore, rode in Hillary Clinton's plane, and went pheasant hunting with Mike Huckabee. He's won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Virginia Tech massacres.
Years before the Pulitzer though, during high school, when he was 16, he went to the DMV to get his driver's license. The woman at the counter took his green card, turned it over, gave it back to him, and said, this is a fake. Don't ever come back here again.
Jose went home that day, told his grandfather, and found out at 16 that he was what some people would still like to call an illegal. When he told his choir director he wouldn't be able to go on the choir trip to Japan because his family couldn't afford it, the director said they'd make it work somehow, which is when Jose decided to tell the truth.
It's not about the money, he said. I don't have the right passport. I'm not supposed to be here. So the choir went to Hawaii instead.
"Jose's enthusiastic. He comes to class and he works hard. My job is to help make better citizens of the world, not to know what papers kids have or don't," Miss Denny said. Jose calls Miss Denny and his high school principal and the school superintendent the beginning of his own personal underground railroad.
He came out to the world last year—and that's what he calls it, coming out—and has started an online conversation about what it means to be an American. Jose's definition of an American is anyone who works hard, who is proud of his country and wants to contribute, who's not a burden on anyone. I'm an American, he says. And you can learn more about the Define American project by visiting Jose's website, www.defineamerican.com.
Is he or isn't he an American? And who gets to decide? It helps me at this point to remember the definition of who is an American has never been fixed. Who is allowed to be a citizen has never been fixed. What is required to become a citizen has always been and continues to be fluid.
For example, in 1790, naturalization was reserved for free white persons of good moral character and citizenship was inherited slowly through the father. In 1857, in the Dred Scott decision, legislators decided no people of African descent could ever be citizens, whether slave or free. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese people from becoming citizens and that law was passed. And it wasn't until 1924, that the Indian Citizenship Act granted birthright citizenship to indigenous peoples born here.
So Mr. Vargas is in a long line of people who've lived here, worked here, raised their families here, and have even been born here and were denied citizenship. Would most of those people have said, I'm an American? Absolutely.
Each of you has a story about where you come from, where you've gone, and where you feel like you belong. Each of you has a story about what it means to live on this land, and to live in this country. And it's important that we share these stories, our own personal stories, as we become activists for comprehensive national immigration reform and defenders of immigrants' rights.
You've heard pieces of my story. Here's a little more. I am bi-national and bilingual, not in Spanish. I have two passports, as does each of my daughters. We are citizens of France and of America.
My mother is French. But she came to this country on the Ethiopian quota. To this day, my mother speaks with a very strong accent. I watched my mother study for and pass her citizenship test when I was in high school.
Her father was tortured during the Second World War and escaped from prison the day before he was to be executed. He was Catholic. My other grandfather is Jewish. His grandmother died on Ellis Island. And I am an American. When I consider the—
When I consider the history of citizenship in this country, I'm struck by how often I take my own citizenship and the rights granted to me completely for granted. It wasn't until 1952 that our laws were changed to clearly state that citizenship shall not be denied or abridged because of race or sex.
Citizenship is not something to be taken for granted. Our democracy is an experiment, an experiment in government for and by the people. And the gift of citizenship that I've been given demands that I educate myself about the issues, that I engage with my friends and neighbors in conversation and debate, that I vote, that I encourage others to vote, that I volunteer and register other people to vote, especially now. Especially now when the president is feeling the pressure of young people like the ones gathered here, feeling the pressure of young activists and dreamers here and around the country who refuse to be afraid, who tell the truth, and who demand that immigration be legalized, not criminalized.
One great irony is that many of the most actively engaged participants in our democratic process are new citizens and the undocumented. The ones I know are not demoralized, disenchanted, or disillusioned with our system. To the contrary, they're so grateful to be here and they are determined to make a difference, which makes me think of Isabel Castillo, brought to this country from Mexico when she was six years old.
When all the scholarship books in the college counselor's office said, "requirement, US citizen or legal resident," she got a job as a waitress instead. But Isabel was determined to continue her education and eventually found a Mennonite university that accepted undocumented students. She graduated in 3 and 1/2 years with a degree in social work and found herself stuck again.
She says, I wanted to give back to my community. I wanted to start life and my career in the real world. But I was not able to work legally. I had two options. One was to wait for laws to change. The other, as cliched as it might sound, was to be the change I wanted to see.
Isabel went to Washington, DC, for a Dream Act conference and came back to Harrisonburg to start organizing. A first campaign was to pass a local resolution in favor of the Dream Act. She and others worked very hard and eventually over 30 businesses and hundreds of individual signed. At the final town council meeting, the vote was a unanimous yes in support of the Dream Act.
At that council meeting, Isabel kept her face away from the cameras. She didn't want to put her family at risk. But since then, she's decided that the more public she is about her status, the safer she is, and actually the safer her family is.
"I remember a point when I was depressed. Our parents risked so much for us, and you wonder if you can give back. You think, I can't work. I can't go to school. I can't help my family.
It's not a mistake what my parents did, they risked everything, left everything behind, their culture, home, and family. They did this for the sake of a better life for us. My parents are my heroes."
She continues, "I told the governor of Virginia my story. At first, he acted impressed. He said, wow. A 4.0 in college, adding that more students like me were needed. Then I said, but I'm undocumented. The room got quiet.
So I asked, would you support legislation like the Dream Act, so that students like myself can have a future in this country? And he said no. No. That's like turning a blind eye to people who have broken the law. People applauded when he said we have to round up every illegal immigrant and send them back to their home country.
Finally, I just said, I am an American. Virginia is my home."
Many people get stuck just where the governor of Virginia is stuck. But isn't that true, you might ask. Isn't that like turning a blind eye to people who've broken the law?
I'm a law-abiding person. Shouldn't everyone be? The safety and security of our nation depends on respect for the rule of law.
Yes. And at times, laws themselves are unjust. And we must have the moral clarity, courage, and resolve to change them.
Morality and the law are not the same thing. Let us not confuse them. So then how do we know, beyond fact-finding, beyond issue analysis and paralysis, when fundamental human rights are being denied rather than protected?
This is where it matters most to me that I'm also a religious human being, where I turn not just to secular but to sacred history, and to my community of faith to be my guide, where I turn to the words and deeds of prophets past and present to help me find my own inner moral compass. And you know this. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are full of explicit teachings on how to treat the foreigner, the stranger, the exile, and the alien, which only makes sense, since Exodus is a story about how the people of one nation seek and find freedom in a new land.
First, the Hebrew people migrate to Egypt to escape famine. They start as refugees and become guest workers for several generations, until their presence creates a growing dilemma. As guest workers, they provide cheap labor. But as their population steadily increases, they're perceived as a threat to the ruling class, and so are enslaved by the pharaoh. Sound familiar?
But it's not just the Book of Exodus. You could read the whole story from Genesis to Revelation as one continuous story of immigration, emigration, and just plain migration. You could read the whole story as a history of refugees seeking political asylum, exiles seeking refuge, migrant laborers seeking work, and one tribe of people marrying with another, mixing and changing ethnicity, race, and identity.
There's Moses, whose mother puts him in a basket and sets him afloat to cross the river to be rescued by a woman in another land who raises him as her own son, Moses, who spends the end of his life traveling with a band of migrant laborers, and dies before he can cross over that river again into the land of promise. And there's Joseph. Remember Joseph? Sold into slavery in Egypt, who by his own wits becomes so successful he's made personal adviser and counselor to the pharaoh Joseph, who spends many years in detention, under arrest, then not only gains legal status but is able to bring the rest of his family with him to his new homeland.
And if you really want to talk about someone who's a political refugee with a mixed cultural heritage, let's talk about Jesus, who was granted asylum in Egypt when Herod wanted to have him killed and whose family tree includes Ruth the Moabite, Bathsheba the Hittite, and Tamar and Rahab the Canaanites, foreigners all. "Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless," thus says the prophet Isaiah.
Sometimes I wonder how Isaiah could see so clearly into the future. Many books with one story and one moral, you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you. Such a person is granted the same rights and accepts the same responsibilities as the citizen. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, documented or undocumented, he might have said, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Inherent in the governor of Virginia's position is the assumption that our immigration laws and policies are just, fair, and worth following. But the Indian Removal Act of 1830 resulted in the Trail of Tears. Under that law, 70,000 Native Americans were uprooted from their homes and their land at gunpoint. And about 4,000 Cherokees died on the forced march westward.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a crime to help a slave. It was a law. Both acts were legal. Morality and the law are not the same thing. Let us not confuse them.
As in the civil rights movement, just as in the civil rights movement, sometimes our own moral compass demands that we disobey the law and create new ones. My family survived in part, and I am alive today, because my grandmother disobeyed the law of the land. She listened carefully to Hitler's rhetoric. She knew when to hide her identity.
She knew when to move her family out of a small city in the middle of the night into the anonymity of a larger one. If I'm alive today, it's because my grandfather, my grandmother and my grandfather dared to disobey the law of the land. And my grandmother did not line up in the streets when the order was proclaimed that all Jews in Paris must wear a yellow star on their clothes.
For years, because of my mixed cultural and religious heritage, I was confused about my own identity. Am I American enough? Even though I'm white enough not to provoke questions about my status as an American—it's not likely that a police officer would stop me and ask for my papers—when asked identity questions, questions of belonging, for a long, long time, well into adulthood, I would answer, I don't know.
I'm first generation French Catholic on my mother's side and barely third generation Lithuanian Jew on my father's side. Does that make me an American? When I said that to my friend Kate Braestrup a few years ago, she paused and then asked me if I believed in the words of the Declaration of Independence. Sure, I said.
Say them then, she came right back at me. And I did, as she joined with me. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Now, the founders of this nation may never have imagined how hard we would fight to define and redefine those two words, "all men," so those unalienable rights would be extended to all people. But we are fighting. We do insist that "all men" means all people regardless of who they love, what color their skin is, what language they speak, what God they worship or don't.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident." Would you join with me in saying these words that Kate and I said together on that day?
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." If you believe those words, then you're an American, she told me, as my eyes filled with tears. Today I know I'm an American not because of my passport, not because of my Social Security card, and not because I was born in Boston. I know I'm an American because of what I believe and because of what I give back.
What you believe about immigration matters. That's why you're here. That's why you'll vote in November. That's why you'll register other people to vote. That's why bringing back what you learn here will make a difference in your church, in your community, in your state, and in our country.
We have a moral obligation to act. We have a religious obligation to act. What will you do when a church choir member can't go on the choir trip because he doesn't have a passport? What will you do when a graduating senior in your youth group doesn't qualify for in-state tuition because she isn't a citizen?
As we think about our undocumented neighbors, colleagues, lovers, spouses, employees, activists, and friends, may we remember where we came from and what great sacrifices were made on our behalf. As we remember where we came from, may we be bold enough to welcome those who are still on their way, opening our doors to the stranger in our midst, extending a hand to those who have been marginalized. As we open our doors and our hearts to those of us who still need to hide some part, any part of our identity in order to survive, may we remember that each time one of us dares to tell the truth about who we are, it makes it possible for another person to step out of the shadows and into the light. As Americans, it's our responsibility to recognize, honor, and celebrate the complex nature of what it means to be an American, and to make sure that no one who believes in freedom and is willing to work hard for justice is denied their full civil and human rights.
Ours is a faith founded upon the principles of courage, connection, and compassion for all. We the people must create more just societies which are sustained and motivated by the principles of liberty and justice for all. We the people decide together what it means to be an American. We the people decide together how to take the I out of illegal. We the people decide together now is the time to treat all members of the human race with dignity and respect. May it be so. Amen.
DAVID GLASGOW: Katherine Lee Bates wrote the words to "America the Beautiful" in 1893, after being inspired by the natural beauty of the land she saw on a train trip to Colorado Springs. May this song today remind us of the vision that this land must belong to all who live here. I invite you to join me, rise in body and spirit, as we sing together.
[MUSIC—"AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL"]
BARBARA PROSE: Meet the day with courage. You can stay standing. Find the strength you need. Know that all are worthy, love exists, and truth is real.
Show your love for America by loving Americans. Do justice. Walk humbly. Love mercy. Salute the soul and the body of who we spectacularly and sometimes pitifully are.
Love each other. We are the flag. Go and be blessed and be a blessing. Amen.
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Last updated on Thursday, April 11, 2013.
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