“Freedom Summer: Lesson Learned from the Movement & My Scholars”

This past summer was a game-changer for me. After student teaching ended this past spring, I was left feeling burnt out, exhausted and questioning whether or not my desire to be a teacher, at least for a short period of time, was a challenge I was ready to take head on. However, all of that changed when I decided to accept the position this summer as a “Freedom servant leader intern” with the Freedom Schools program. Participating as a lead instructor for a group of six graders was far from easy, but I believe it was through the lessons my scholars (what we call students in the Freedom School program) taught me daily and the desire to see them overcome obstacles in their own lives that reminded me why I chose this profession in the first place:  to guide youth in the process of realizing their full potential.

So what was this program that reignited my passion for teaching you may ask? “Freedom School” is part of a historical legacy of summer school programs that were born out of the civil rights movement, more specifically from a project known as “Freedom Summer”. In 1964 “Freedom Summer”, more formerly known as the “Mississippi Freedom Summer Project”, was instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as it focused on engaging the African-American community, and more specifically the youth, in social action activities with a focus on empowerment through literacy. In 1992, this movement was rekindled once again by the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman. News of the impact this summer program was having on youth quickly spread. Today this program serves youth all across the nation during the summer months. The program has a holistic approach, similar to the original Freedom Schools model, that incorporates 6 key features:  high quality academic enrichment, family involvement, social action, intergenerational servant leadership development, and overall health and wellness.

While the majority of youth served in this summer program are predominately African-American, the Freedom School site I worked at this past summer was primarily with Latino/a youth from the East side and West side of St. Paul. It would be impossible to capture everything I learned over the course of the six weeks with my scholars, but I tried to summarize some of the key points  I learned this summer.

Top things learned from Freedom School…

6.     The movement is always bigger than you

Throughout the summer it was very easy for me to see the difficulties I was facing within my class and feel discouraged about it. Something that was essential to me to keep pressing forward was learning how to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. At the risk of coming across as too much of a Harry Potter fanatic, something that reminded me of this struggle was Harry’s remarks throughout the series about how bad he feels letting other people sacrifice themselves for him. At one point near the end of the series Ron stops Harry mid-sentence and says “Really, you think this is all about you? This is much bigger than you mate!”

By taking a step back, like Harry had to do, I was able to see things from a birds-eye view rather than my own limited perspective. I was able to see that the work I was doing was part of a much larger movement made up of educators and community activists across the country. All of the little “luchas” (fights/struggles) with guiding my students through recognizing the barriers stacked against them and what action they could take to overcome them was part of a much greater “lucha”, one fighting for the equality of all people in this country. It was the hard, but necessary work of planting seeds in the hopes that they would begin to grow. Archbishop Oscar Romero speaks to this well in his famous prayer “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own” saying, “This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise.” This is what being an educator is all about.

 5. Education is the key to empowerment~“Education not deportation”

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”—Paulo Freire

Throughout the summer I was constantly trying to push my scholars on the importance of getting an education. The odds were really against many of students. The majority of them came from low-income backgrounds and all of them either knew someone in their family who was undocumented or were themselves undocumented. Each week I would choose a Latino or Latina to be our “Hall of Fame” person, someone who was making a difference in the Latino community, or the broader community at large. Our last week together I chose a group of four students who walked 1,500 miles from Miami, FL to Washington D.C. in  what they called the “Trail of Dreams” in support of the passage of the DREAM Act, a bill that would allow a path to citizenship for undocumented youth furthering their education.  I had showed them quite a few websites and videos dealing with immigration reform and I was constantly trying to engage them in conversations about immigration and race. Oftentimes I felt my promptings were futile and that they really could not care less, despite my efforts. However, there were several times throughout the summer that I realized this was not the case. They really did care. Actually, they cared quite a lot. They just couldn’t always communicate it in the most appropriate ways.

This particular day when I had them browsing a website http://trail2010.org/ about the “Trail of DREAMers” some of my scholars were actually showing enthusiasm about getting involved. I walked around and saw some of them signing up to be on an email update list from the DREAMers. But, my favorite moment happened when two of the girls from the group started chanting a slogan they heard from a short video clip on the website that said “education, not deportation!”.  I couldn’t get them to stop; they really wanted to keep chanting. Even when it was time to do silent reading they were still going at it. It was probably one of the best reasons a teacher could ever hope for in trying to quiet down his/her students. After several minutes of chanting at the top of their lungs I was able to express to them how exciting it was that they wanted to chant this, but their timing was a bit off. At the end of Freedom School for our finale program they chanted this cheer for the parents, and were able to go full-force with their volume 🙂

4.     Challenging systems/beliefs that stand against empowerment is necessary to have critical discussion on race, gender, etc.

“The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom.”—Paulo Freire

One of the most important parts of the Freedom School program is the social action piece. Before the students could really take action on anything I realized that it was necessary for them to reflect on the different kinds of labels society has placed on them as Latino/a youth with varying immigration statuses. Having candid discussions about what it means/feels like when someone calls you a “border hopper” or what it means to be a “man” in our society (in control, aggressive, etc.) was something that we tried to do on a regular basis. Often times my students would say things like “why do we always have to talk about race?” At first it was something that made them very uncomfortable, but as the summer progressed I could see them engaging more and more in these discussions. Through these discussions with my scholars I realized that recognizing internalized oppression in all its forms is necessary in order to become truly empowered.  If the students don’t feel comfortable discussing the ways in which society has wrongly labeled them and suppressed their voices, then there is no hope for them being able to overcome them.

3.     Disempowered people disempower others

Author and activist Alice Walker once said “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”. I remember several times one of my scholars who was always known as the 6th grade trouble maker argued with me candidly whenever I would bring up the importance the using your voice to be an advocate “But, Miss N we are just kids..nobody cares what we have to say, nobody ever listens to us!” This scholar didn’t believe he had the power to change anything because from his life experience no one listened to him or others with a background to him. The Department of Homeland Security didn’t listen to him during the countless raids they had ICE conduct in his ‘hood. Even the president it seemed had let him and his community down, promising immigration reform by the end of the year while deporting more immigrants on record than any other president in U.S. history. So, why would he think anyone would listen to him? His lack of empowerment, due to valid life experiences, made it easier for him to pick on others and reinforce the stereotype that because he was Mexican and came from a low-income background that he wouldn’t amount to anything. I can’t tell you how many times I heard comments from my scholars like, “Miss N, we are going to be cholos”(slang for Mexican gangsters) or “Miss N we aren’t going to college so why do you keep talking like we are?” or “Nobody in my family has made it through college…Mexicans really must be the dumbest minorities out there”. As disheartening as it was to hear this, it reminded me how many negative messages were getting sent my kids’ way, and how vital it was for me to counter that through open dialogue in class.

At the same I was also reminded that just as disempowered people more easily disempower others, empowered people can influence, inspire and empower others. For example, one day I decided to show the scholars how easy it was to call Congress and tell them to support immigration reform. I had been telling them for awhile how easy it was and that day was an important call-in day for the bill. Within 2 minutes I had called my representative, said a brief statement urging my representative to support the bill, and had ended the call. A few of the students were absolutely shocked. I remember one in particular responded right away saying “No way, I didn’t know you could just call them like that!!”. I replied, “Well, they work for you so all of you have the right to tell them if you don’t like how they are doing things”. I gave them the call-in number to reach MN representatives and told them to spread the word to their friends and family too. I’ll never know for sure whether they decided to make calls on their own after that, but one things for sure. They definitely knew what number to call if they ever decided that wanted to raise their voice.

2.     By revealing your own pains and struggles you open up space for others to share their stories

“When you stand and share your story in an empowering way, your story will heal you and your story will heal somebody else”—Iyanla  Vanzant

My first week before I started Freedom School, I wondered how I would be received by the students. I was a white female from an upper-middle class background. Yes, I had spent time in the Latino community in the cities, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what it meant to grow up in fear of “la migra” (slang for ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement). What I learned right away was that guilt will not get you anywhere in furthering dialogue or creating a safe space for your students either. Don’t be afraid to own up to your own role in the system. If the students can’t see how you’ve been affected by it then they are much less likely to believe in it or question it themselves. Show how you have struggled with it and share your personal struggles and current challenges you face. Youth need to see that discussions about race, gender, class, etc. aren’t just a one-time convo, but an ongoing exploration throughout your life that needs to happen internally as well as externally. By being open about my background from day one I was able to open up the space for more authentic dialogue to take place and in doing this I was able to turn the tables on them to help them realize that not all white people are against the struggles they face, that some of us want to try to understand the struggles they face and join in solidarity with them—even though we will always have privilege with us. As Paulo Freire says “I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am”. As I exposed more of my life and struggles with my students, they felt more open sharing the struggles they faced as well.

1. Solidarity=Love

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“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together”.–Desmond Tutu

The most important lesson I learned working with my sixth graders this summer was that solidarity is love. While my attempts this summer to try to understand my students, where they come from, and the struggles they face was far from perfect, I look to the example of Christ as the perfect example of someone who was with and for the most marginalized of his day. When I reflect on the life of Christ I can really see that “conversion” is all about moving from a place of otherness to oneness with those you once saw as “the other”. My favorite moment this summer left me reflecting on the profound realization of what solidarity is and what it can look like.

On this day in particular it was the national social action day for the Freedom Schools program. I led some workshops with the scholars on how to write letters to legislatures about immigration reform and helped them brainstorm ideas. As I was walking around one of my scholars asked “Miss N do you have any family members that are undocumented?” I replied “No, not blood-relatives but there are people that I consider part of my family now that are undocumented, so yes”. Then, a different scholar turned to me and he asked excitedly “Hey, Miss N does that mean you consider us part of your family?” I replied “Of course, I care about all of you! Somos familia (We are family). A big grin spread across his face. It was little moments like that that left a profound impact on me.

This year as a first-year teacher I hope I can remember why I do what I do. I do not teach to hear my own voice or to be in a leadership role as a means to itself. I lead to serve; I lead to lend my voice to others and to give them the platform on which they can realize their full potential.

I am reminded by the words of Mother Teresa everyday as I get up and go to work that God’s power is not in doing extravagant things, but in the small, and often mundane tasks of everyday life. Every time I reminded a student “si, se puede” (yes, you can) or every time I sat down to read with a struggling student one-on-one or had to wait in the copy room for an hour before class just to make sure everything was set, I was trying my best to do each task with love. So in the words of the Mother I will teach:Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies”

The New Frontera

In the beginning of the 20th century many immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe flooded the gates of Ellis Island by the hundreds of thousands, oftentimes with only hopes and dreams in their hands and not a dollar to their name. My grandpa came here from Italy when he was a young boy. His family left Italy in search of a work and better opportunities in the U.S.  I’ve always been fascinated by my grandpa’s stories of what life was like as a stranger in a new land. He would speak of how his family worked tirelessly, seven days a week and on holidays, to make a living in this new place. His family started a small cement garden ornament making business in NY that was called Potenz Garden Ornaments, after my great-grandma’s maiden name. What started as a humble, business on a shoestring budget eventually grew into one of the largest cement garden ornament businesses in New York State.

I think part of why I value remembering my family’s own immigration history is from hearing my grandpa talk about the struggles they had to overcome. During the worst parts of the Great Depression he vividly remembers his parents having to take pictures for families on the beach so they could make 5 cents. Even when his family had moved up to a higher socioeconomic standing his family was always working 24/7 delivering statues and flower boxes his father had made to wealthier families that had moved into the recent housing development known as Levittown.  While the struggles and the barriers my grandpa and his family had to face in coming to the U.S. were ones that many 1st or 2nd generation immigrants and their families can relate to today, my grandfather and his family did not face the same complexities of the immigration system that many immigrants face today, most of all the issues dealing with citizenship.

Today 11 million people live in this country in fear simply because they have not had the same access many European-American & Asian-American immigrants have had when coming to this country in the early 20th century. Many of us who are like myself 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation have simply forgotten our own family’s immigration history, while others of us have chosen to disregard it due to the pressure “whiteness” places on all of us to accept “cultural/historical amnesia”. However, today is the day we MUST remember where we have come from and how OUR story is THEIR story. That our families too were once in the position that so many recent immigrants find themselves in today:  vulnerable and easily exploitable.

In addition to a completely different immigration system to navigate, many of today’s immigrants face a different kind of monster in coming to the United States: the “frontera”/the border. It has been reported that 4,000 people have died while trying to cross the U.S. Mexico border. In the beginning of the 20th century many European immigrants died, not while trying to cross a physical barrier, but due to barriers of they faced of unsanitary, and oftentimes unlivable, conditions aboard the ships they took to reach Ellis Island. Just as Lady Liberty was a sign of hope for many European immigrants in hopes of reaching the shores of the U.S. for the first time, the Virgen of Guadalupe is a symbol of faith and hope for many Mexican-American immigrants crossing the “frontera”. I can only imagine that as my grandfather’s mother held her sick son (my grandfather) the sight of Lady of Liberty was not only a sign of hope for her own future, but for her son’s as well.

The words of Emma Lazarus that are engraved on the statue of Liberty are quoted again and again saying “”Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, but who was she? While it would make sense if she had been one of the masses of European immigrants who arrived before her words were forever branded into the Statue of Liberty, much to my surprise I found she was not a recent immigrant. She wasn’t a 1st generation immigrant or even a 2nd generation immigrant.

According to Esther Shore, a professor at Princeton who wrote a biography about Emma Lazarus’ life, she was a 4th or 5th generation Jewish American immigrant who grew up in an affluent home. While she grew up in a life of wealth, she lived a life that was anything but ordinary.  She began writing at the young age of 16. At the age of 18, she wrote a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the greatest American poets of his day, that contained her work. In her later years she began to question her family’s financial success and gains realizing that she had benefited from the horrors of slavery  from her family’s wealthy inheritance.

Her bold spirit at a young age, and relationships developed with the marginalized would eventually lead her to become an advocate at the end of her life for those who were some of the most vulnerable during her day, recent Eastern and Southern European immigrants.  In her last years her poem “The New Colossus” that has part of the words engraved on the statue of Liberty was published. The poem was brushed aside and three years later, after she had already passed on, part of it was engraved onto the statue of Liberty—with no mention of her work.

The life of Emma Lazarus should be an example for all of us, especially for those of us who are 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th generation immigrants.  I wrote a spoken word piece not only to honor the work of  Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus”, but also with the hopes of stirring up action among those who have forgotten or cast aside their own immigrant history.  Let us not forget our own deliverance, so that we may never forget that we cannot stand divided. Deliverance is often seen as being set free from something (which it is), but it must be seen as the active work of remembering as well.

So let us remember and not forget. In the words of Emma Lazarus, “we are none of us free if we are not all free”.  Let it be so!

*Take action to call your representatives to let them know we need comprehensive immigration reform that leads to citizenship for those who are unable to access it currently. Call 1-888-979-7506 to speak with your representative*

A New Frontera

Not like the formidable frontera that seems to travel in an endless expanse

Marked only by its trails of decay, misery and death

There stands a new, yet strangely familiar figure

Her hands are weathered from holding the torch that beckoned so many to her safe harbors

Yet her feet are firm; she has stood the test of time

Deliverance has made its home at her gates, welcoming strangers with her warm gaze and arms stretched out as if in a warm embrace

Huddled masses relentlessly pounding upon her breast, seeking a place of comfort and rest

But, through the night of standing watch

She was disarmed

With alarming fright

By people supposed to protect her

Land-dwellers. People from the left and the right,

One did not need to look far to the shore to see the abundance of florescent light,

Blindly pressing onward with their backs to the past

Like the Israelites of old forgetting stories of deliverance from the hand of an oppressor

The flame upon her torch slowly became a flicker, and then an ember until it was no more

Her gift of guidance had been cast aside in pursuit of a greater treasure, those who once cried mercy only called out for the “American Dream”, letting their new life be built upon the sweat, blood, and strife of those seeking deliverance of their own

This stolen light was a beacon of hope in a stormy night to the huddled masses that arrived at her feet pleading for freedom, for safety, for rest at the feet of the Virgen, more than just a statue, but a Mother Divine

This Mother of Exiles pleaded for a match, anything, with which to light the charred embers that served to remind the huddled masses what had been before the night… and why she must not give up the fight

From the land cries filled the night sky,

“We do not have enough to share with all of you, so go back to where you came from!”

Perplexed and distraught but never dismayed,

The huddled masses gathered the hand-carved crosses, religious figurines and old story cloths they kept as faint reminders of where they once came as a humble offering to reignite the untamed fires of freedom

Some of those on the shore already jumped away, into the vast abyss between the Lady and the land to return, as if on a pilgrimage to where their forefathers and mothers began

A sacred moment; A holy communion, some might say of meek and powerful reclaiming the stories of old, of the sweat, blood and pain that it took them to reach

A holy communion marked by the strength and sacrifice of a Mother who wouldn’t turn away those who came with hopes and dreams in their scarred hands

The fire is ablaze. The flame has been rekindled.

This light cannot be contained.

Its light spreads to even the farthest corners where traveling familias pray to the Virgen as they cross the Rio Grande, where children sit waiting for a sign of blue sky as visions of life beyond the bars of the refugee camp flash before their eyes, where parents weep asking why they left it all behind to find they were still at the bottom of the heap, where undocumented youth are told they must “get to the back of the line” where no line remains when they committed no crime but must daily endure the shame of being called “illegal”, without a name

Erupting into the night sky, the Mother Divine cries once more like she did at her birth with silent lips, “These tired, weary masses have come to breathe free, leaving their life behind to be crucified with only a vision of what might be. Woe to you who have shown little mercy, little hospitality, and little hope to your own. Your hearts they grew bitter and fear did replace that child-like wonder when you first saw my face. Now you have lived here two, three or four generations long, but I beseech you, I plead you, I beg you, do not forget where you have come from

Remember that those weary hands were once your grandfather’s who struggled to provide a humble home laying bricks that would become the foundation for towers so high no one could imagine they could reach up to the sky

Remember that those tired feet were once your mother’s as she stood all night and day enduring the terrifying shrieks of the monstrous machines in a room suppressing her own hopes and dreams, just so her children could finally learn how to breathe, becoming the CEOs of a company she once worked, locked in a tower on the 30th floor sweating away.

Remember that those enduring spirits were once your parents as they labored each day hoping neither for fortune nor fame, but for a chance to give you a vision they never could have seen for themselves. One track laid upon the other through their unrelenting spirit paved the way for a railroad that would be used across the nation, stretching as far as if it were the Golden Gate bridge leading you home

Remember these longing souls were once your fore fathers and mothers willing to lay down their own lives so they could see the day when you would be free, not to further oppress or divide but to join the huddled masses to cry out for something better, for a hopeful future to all who might make their home in a place of better tomorrows than today.

Remember, remember…”

Her last words ring out as a voice of a prophet calling her people back  from the wilderness, to a place of unity instead of divide, to a place of courage instead of fear and to a place of hope instead of despair

Shining brighter than ever, her torch still guides those who seek comfort, safety and rest

Like a queen leading a magnificent parade

This procession becomes a triumphant song of divine welcome

For all who may be yearning to breathe free.

To My ESL (Exceedingly Stellar Learners) Class…

The night before my last day with my ESL (English as a Second Language) students, or as I like to call them Exceedingly Stellar Learners, a flood of emotions overwhelmed me and out came this piece. I wanted to write a piece that portrayed the struggles and barriers my students have had to overcome, and through that show what they are truly capable of achieving once they discover the power of their voice by standing up.
NOTE: Please excuse me if the Arabic, Thai or Chinese is not translated correctly. I only speak Spanish as a second language, but I wanted to show the various cultural backgrounds of my students in the class

To my ESL class: Our time has come to an end. It is our last day. Eyes brimming with tears filled with dreams, memories and hopes for the future. What can I say? What words of wisdom can I leave you with? This is what overwhelmed me as I sat and asked for peace and surrender.When you think of me and our time together I don’t want you to think of the way I laughed at your spontaneity or goofy ways, or the way I promised treats on the last day, or even the difference between plants, animals and MCAs. I want you to think of yourself. This is what I want for you, something you have denied far too often. This was our first, and is now, our last lesson.

I want you to think. Piensa en todas las barreras que se enfrenta cada dia.

Think off your father trying to follow the path, crooked and narrow, along the highway known to few but death. Crossing la frontera hoping the Rio Grande would baptize him to new life, only to find it stole his last breath.

Of your dad أب caught in the cross-fire of a man-hunt and a search for weapons of mass destruction. Who knew that day he drove so far to seek a better future for you, one free of violence and shame, he would be labeled a “terrorist”, and forced to carry the blame that no man, Arab, Muslim, Jew, or Christian should have to face.

Of your mother working around the clock, through all hours of the night, fighting so you can live and will not have to see the pain The price she bore when she carried you across the desert is engraved upon your forehead, a sacred touch of sacrifice that cuts through her like a knife as you wander without direction crying yourself to sleep at night

De tu mama y papa, of your grandmother ยาย and grandfather ปู่ , of your Uncle 叔叔 Leo and your single-parent mom

This is where you come from and who you are. I have seen, heard and felt only a glimpse of what these broken shards of glass must feel like as they tear away a piece of you with no regard for who you might become.

I want you to think. Think of all the lies, all the deceptions all the labels society has put on you.

Think of the laws that kept your mom from going to the store that day when you were so sick in bed and crying. Your mom shed tears too, but these were ones of shame. Without a driver’s license or a social security number, her existence remained hidden and out of sight. Who knew that living in the shadows could bring you and your existence into utter doubt and silence. How could a mother deal with that kind of shame, anytime you asked for water or medicina your mother didn’t have the heart to tell you the truth that in El Norte freedom looks the other way, especially for “un ilegal”

Think of the time you could not eat at the restaurant because the waiter did not serve “Arabs” muttering “terrorists” under his breath. You thought to yourself “why does my little brother, at the age of five, have to endure this?” He wouldn’t stop crying. You were so humiliated as you had to tell your mother who sat looking defeated as you told her the reason why you were being ignored, cast looks at, with placed orders of greasy fries waiting for a much more “peaceful”—and much less Arab–family

Think of the time you slept on the streets. You never knew mothers could be treated like that, especially ones with seven children. You had to learn fast that rent, and grace, don’t come free in the land of opportunity. You were left to move, never in one place too long, learning how to guard yourself from the pain of waking up those early mornings to find everything gone.

I want you to think of all the lies from racism, and classism and sexism. All of the labels put on you that left you cold-hearted and blind, told from a racist society that nursed you into accepting your own decay, to accept a dehumanized identity from the first time you opened your eyes

Now, I want you to think of all the potential, all of the dreams that were never truly crushed—although that’s the way it seemed—that were buried deep within bursting to breathe free. Think of your power, your grace and your pride.

Of the time when you were the subject of conversation in the staff lunchroom, the “lazy, good-for-nothing, never-will-amount-to-anything Mexican”, now swelling with pride as you began to believe in yourself, you rose to be the leader you always knew was inside.

Of the times when you wrote, read and asked so many questions that left me in awe. Forgive me for not seeing your brilliance, your intelligence, and your spunk. Who knew just a year before you could not share these flood of questions. They were just yearning to flow freely from within, waiting to burst forth from inside!

Of the time when you opened my eyes the very first day, with your excited question, and then warm invitation of friendship as you said, “Do you know any Spanish people?! Well, now you do!” Who knew on that field trip you would reach for my hand and show me the kindness that had not often been received by those weary, yet strong little hands

Finally, I want you to think of your attendance. I want you to think of the importance of roll call every day. Not just weakly replying “here” in the midst of giggles from your peers. But, to stand firm and tall full of of power, grace and pride. To stand up and to claim your voice in attendance, in roll call.

Stand up
To show pride in your name
When people ask you “are you for real?”

Stand up
To show you too have hopes and dreams that will not be crushed
despite las barreras que se enfrenta

Stand Up
To prove your families’ suffering was not in vain
That your father’s death along the highway brings new life
That the death of your dad can lead forth to redemption
That your mother’s ceaseless work day can provide the pay for a better and brighter day

Stand Up
To leyes racistas that keep you and your gente from living the life you always dreamed of
That tell you that you cannot belong, that you cannot be strong, that you cannot live on
In the face of adversity, you stand as living proof to prove them wrong

Stand Up
To tell your familia’s story of suffering, perservance and pain
so that when they tell you to shut up and sit down,
or that “it is not important how it is pronounced”
that you will show them the scars on your hands
So, no one can deny that this did not come from an oppressors’ hands

Stand up
And during roll-call I hope that you say it all boldly
I hope you stand up and deliver your name in front of all those who laugh and mock,
And in saying it I hope you realize that it was not me who gave you this voice,
But it was you
Who stood up
You who believed
You who kept dreaming
You who led me to join with you in la lucha
And You, who stood up
During roll call to say
“Presente”
I am here
Yes, You.
ESL class, my Exceedingly Stellar Learners, had it within you all along

Love always. May you forever continue to dream. You will always be in my heart!

Miss N

A Place to Call Home…Or, Make That “Many”

“Wait, you live where?!” Blank stares. Confused looks. Awkward moments. I get asked this question once every so often, but rarely have I stopped to really reflect on my response to this question and what it means. For those of you who do not know, I’ve been living in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul (the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in St. Paul and also the area with highest rate of poverty and unemployment) for the past two years through a program called Urban Neighbors. When I explain where I live most often than not I encounter several of the gestures described above, along with an occasional pause and a “oh wait, you are serious?!”. A white, female college student from the ‘burbs is typically not the person people imagine to be living in a place of St. Paul referred to as the “hood”.

Lately, since I’ve been at my parent’s house with my family over the holidays I’ve been reflecting on what it means to call a place one’s “home”. My first home, in Waconia, has left me with wonderful childhood memories of lazy days swimming in the lake in our backyard, ridiculous neighborhood plays such as our own rendition of “Star Wars”, and incredible friendships that have lasted since my years in preschool. Even after I left Waconia and had lived on-campus for a year after my freshmen year of college I still felt my parent’s house was the one place I could call “home”. Up until my sophomore year of college, I always thought the definition of what “home” was and what it meant in my everyday life was clear. “Home” was where I grew up and it was always a place I could return to when I was in need of some rest, some family time…or simply needed to do some laundry 🙂

Now, I’m not so sure anymore what or where to call “home”. A semester in Guatemala, and now nearly two years living in Frogtown, has left me questioning what to tell people when they ask me where I am from. I often feel conflicted when people ask where I am from, where I live now, or where I have been because I feel like they are missing a piece that helps make sense of the larger picture that is my life.

According to a definition from an online dictionary the definition of home when it is used as a verb is: “to return by instinct to its territory after leaving it”. While this definition is supposed to be used for geese or other animals as they are migrating or “homing”, I feel this deep longing and pull that can only be described in a similar instinctive manner towards each of these three places (Waconia, Guatemala and Frogtown) that have deeply shaped who I am and where I am going. Just as those who were native to each of my “homes” have been left deeply scarred by the wounds my ancestors have created in the name of “manifest destiny”, “ousting communism” and “economic progress”, I too have struggled with reconciling my white, upper middle-class background to the places in which I call “home” today.

While each of these three places which I call “home” have suffered or committed great injustices, I feel a deep sense of belonging in each of them. In Waconia, I felt understood by my closest friends despite my somewhat awkward, yet hilarious, adolescent years; in Guatemala, I felt accepted as familia by my Guatemalan host family, language teachers and ministry partners; and in Frogtown, I have felt loved by my roommates and my Burmese refugee neighbors who always remind me “yah eh nah” (“I love you” in Karen). I think German poet Christian Morgenstern hits it right on the mark when he says, “Home is not where you live, but where they understand you”.

While I don’t live in Guatemala anymore and I’m not sure if I will be living in Frogtown in a year from now, I know that these places will always be a place where I felt understood, accepted and loved, and for that they will always be my “home”.

Yet, I can’t deny that at times I do still feel conflicted. If the old saying “home is where the heart is” rings true, does that mean that my heart will forever be torn; always with the comfortable lake home where I spent all of my summers as a young girl, yet simultaneously feeling the tug of my heart on a busy street corner amidst Frogtown’s sweet aroma of Southeast Asian, East African and soul food cookin’?

As I continue to ask myself this question among many others, I am reminded of what Christ had to say about what a “home” is and where he belonged. In Luke chapter 9 Jesus is heading for Jerusalem when he walks through a Samaritan village and is left unwelcomed. In response to this, James and John ask Jesus “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heave to destroy them?” (v. 54). Instead of telling his disciples James and John to condemn the village who did not welcome him, he rebukes James and John for not responding in a loving way, and instead returning the same hostility and judgment as some of the people in the Samaritan village. Not long after this incident, a man approaches Jesus along the road and says that he will follow him wherever Jesus goes. To this Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (v.58).

I believe the actions and response Jesus gave in these situations can serve well as I navigate the difficulties, and often awkward moments, of explaining to people where I live. When I explain to people where I live currently, I am sometimes met with what could be described as sentiments of subtle hostility and anger for not living where people, mostly from privilege, believe I am by all social norms “supposed to be living”. At times, I want to respond to snide remarks about Frogtown directed towards me out of the same of fear and anger; my sinful self wants to make some snide remark back about their ignorance, privilege, etc.

But as I look back on my own history and my own journey (that will be a continuous journey for the rest of my life!) from ignorance to continued awareness of the role power and privilege play in the places we call “home”, I recognize how eagerly I have called out to Jesus from the side of the road just like that man, telling him I would follow him anywhere, yet not fully realizing the difficulties that would come with living in the tension of calling many different places “home”. Only by the grace of Christ will I continue to be transformed to a lifestyle where I can have no one place to call home or to “to lay my head”, but finding peace in calling many places “home”; places where I can communicate, belong and be understood. I’m unsure where God may lead me next in life, but I can find peace and rest in a Messiah that was a sojourner, a wanderer and a hitch-hiker. I can’t help to think that if Jesus was here in the flesh he would be “couch-surfing” his way across the world, from one continent to the next! 🙂

And so, I go. Unsure where my next place I will call “home” may be, but certain that in the tension of being asked where I call “home” Christ is right beside me, pushing me more and more out of my comfort zone to experience a greater glimpse of the Divine.

Where Do you Find your Hope this Christmas Season? Liberating our idea of “the baby Jesus”

Wait, what? You mean Santa isn’t real?” It seems every kid remembers that moment when they realized for the first time that Santa Claus wasn’t real. For some, they may have known this from the time they were 3 years old, while for others they may have believed in him until they were 9 years old, continuously put their hope in him despite the odds. I was among the “late bloomers”, knowing in my heart that it logically didn’t make sense that one man with an oversized belly could fit through chimneys of various sizes, deliver every present specifically wished for by each child, and make it back to the North Pole all within a single night. I remember that other kids at school would laugh at me while I vigorously defended my position that Santa did in fact exist. After my parents told me when I was 9 years old, that after all of my wishful thinking he really did not exist, I was disappointed to say the least. At first, I was out right furious. Why would my parents continue to feed my hopes and dreams for 9 years of my life, only to let me down in the end? In addition to my parents, I was frustrated with all of the Christmas shows and movies that continuously misled children everywhere to believe in the false hope of Santa. I began to wonder, if Santa did not exist were there such things as miracles or were they just a bunch of fables as well made to make people enjoy a false sense of hope?

Years later, I continue to see how even as adults we still long for that feeling of excitement that came with knowing there was someone out there who truly could bring hope and joy when we were surrounded by a world of darkness and despair. Even though I had lost hope in Santa, I continued to see this sense of hope shining forth like a light in the darkness around me. Although I couldn’t put a name to it at first, I eventually came to realize what, or rather who, this source of hope truly came from: Jesus. When we hear the name Jesus most of us automatically think of the little white baby Jesus in the manager in our childhood Christmas pageant shows. We see this as a cute story for kids, but many of us are unwilling to accept this story as truth. Maybe this is a good thing (don’t jump to conclusions yet, just keep reading).

The actual story of Jesus’ birth probably would have looked quite differently than it is portrayed in the typical Christmas pageant today. First of all, Jesus was not white. For some this may seem like a “well, duh” moment, but I think it is a necessary reminder when reflecting on who Jesus truly was. This means that he was NOT a European-American; he grew up in the culture of the first-century Galilean Jews and ethnically looked like others around him that descended from Afro-Asiatic Hebrews. In the December 2002 issue of Popular Mechanics an image of Jesus was re-created by forensic anthropologist Richard Neave entitled “The Real Face of Jesus”. Using scientific evidence based on the archaeological discoveries of Galilean skeletons from the 1st century A.D., this image of Jesus (seen above) is considered one of the most accurate to what he may have actually looked like when he was 30 years of age.

Charles D. Hackett, director of Episcopal studies at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta says of the scientific reconstruction that “it is a reminder of our tendency to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values.” This idea that the way in which we view Jesus and our own Christian faith is due in large part to the culture around us, describes the term known as “cultural captivity”. “Cultural captivity” is affected in large part due to colonization. When I use the phrase “decolonization” I refer to the process of critically reflecting on how our society has been affected, and still is affected in covert ways, by the history of colonialism in the United States and around the world. Decolonizing our perception of our faith means to remove ourselves from the western imperialistic ways in which we have been socialized to view Christianity, and begin to examine what it means to follow Christ as one who seeks to liberate rather than oppress. In order to fully decolonize our perception of Jesus, and our own faith, it is necessary to reexamine what has been engrained into our thinking because of our culture (for example, beginning to see Jesus as he truly was, an Afro-Asiatic Jew rather than a European American). Once we begin to redefine our view of Jesus, we can begin the process of decolonizing Christianity. By understanding how greatly colonization has affected the Christian faith, even to the point of making the image of Christ conformed to the image of an oppressor, we can begin to understand the importance of releasing ourselves from the grip that colonization still plays into our faith today. Through reexamining the story of the birth of Christ through the cultural lens of that time period, we are able to more fully understand some of the misconceptions of the Christmas pageant story, and as described above, leads us to decolonization of our view of Christ.

The shepherds were the first group of people to hear about Jesus’ birth. This group of people, who during that time period were among the lowest group of people by socioeconomic standards, were the first ones chosen by God to hear about the birth of our Savior. Shepherds were a group of migrants who moved with their flocks according to the season. Imagine what this group of people might look like in society today. The underpaid migrant farm worker that picks all of your produce that you buy at the grocery store would have been among the first to hear the good news of Christ (if the birth of Christ had occurred in the U.S. today). Also, during the typical Christmas pageant we have grown accustomed to the idea of the “Magi” as powerful kings or men among the elite. On the contrary, they were foreigners from Persia, Babylon or Arabia coming to Jerusalem who were by no means among the elite. Humble foreigners foretold the coming of the birth of Christ and migrants were the first to receive this good news.

After Jesus was 2 years of age, an angel appeared to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him (Matthew 2:13). Jesus and his family became political refugees in Egypt. The image of Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus fleeing persecution is one rarely displayed in the typical Christmas pageant. Rev. Joan M. Maruskin, National Administrator of the Church World Service Religious Services Program, wrote about in her article “The Bible as the Ultimate Immigration Handbook” an analogy of what might have happened if the Holy Family had been seeking political asylum in the U.S. today. According to Rev. Maruskin, Jesus would probably be sent to a children’s detention center, Mary would be sent to a women’s detention center and Joseph to a men’s detention center. They each would be required to secure their own legal help and plead their case for asylum. Sadly, asylum seekers do not receive legal help from the government, and despite the fact that there are family shelters, the majority of families are separated upon arrival at the border.

Jesus and his family eventually returned to Nazareth, in Galilee, but Jesus always regarded himself as an outsider, with no true home. In Luke 9: 58 Jesus says, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he lived in poverty having “nowhere to lay his head.” The miracle of the gospel isn’t that Jesus became human, but that he chose to become human in order to be in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, the foreigner and the outcast. Even when Jesus was crucified he had to be nailed to the cross “outside the city gate” because he was a foreigner to the land (Hebrews 13:12).

As I reflect on who the true Savior was in this time of materialistic frenzy and colonized perceptions of “the baby Jesus”, I begin to liberate myself from the chains of oppression that colonization has created in my own mentality as a follower of Christ. In order to become a follower of the great Liberator, rather than a follower of an oppressor, it is necessary that I continue seeking for answers as to who this Afro-Asiatic homeless refugee from Nazareth truly was and how that impacts the way I live out my faith today. Although I am still in the process of seeking out who the true Jesus is, and will be in the process of doing until I die, I have more hope now than ever before because I have set my eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ. During this Christmas season, it is my hope and prayer that you too will seek ways in which you can decolonize your perception of Jesus, while realizing that we do have hope. A hope that is much greater than any jolly, overweight man in a red suit could ever provide. This hope transcends all racial, economic and social barriers; this hope is not a fictitious fable; this hope is greater and more powerful than anything that is and yet to come. This hope is Jesus!! Our savior, provider, healer, counselor, redeemer and liberator who lives and reigns throughout the ends of the Earth even today amidst all the pain and suffering. He is the one who brings good news to the poor, sets the captives free, brings recovery of sight to the blind, releases the oppressed and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4: 18-19). His kingdom will have no end! My prayer for you during this Christmas season is that your eyes would be opened to the work of Jesus around you everywhere you go. May His spirit guide you as you search for the true, Afro-Asiatic homeless refugee from Nazareth that was and is the Christ Jesus.

“And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.”~Psalm 9:1

Alterna/El Refugio Visit: Divine Meetings, Homes of Hospitality & Voices of Hope

As some of you may know already, this past weekend I traveled to Georgia to spend time with an incredible organization striving to live out the incarnational, prophetic life of Jesus Christ through immigration advocacy, hospitality and accompaniment. Alterna, the organization I visited, strives to be a prophetic voice for justice at the country’s largest detention center located in Lumpkin, GA. They do this through having a hospitality house, El Refugio, having a visitation program for those being detained, and speaking out against the injustices that happen within the confines of this detention center through yearly solidarity marches and reporting of human rights violations to local human rights orgs.

It truly was God’s work in bringing me down to Georgia this past weekend. I first heard about this organization from a former Spanish professor (shout out to Alicia Juarez:) ) whose passion for immigrants’ rights was a constant reminder of the work we are all called to as children of God. I remember telling one of my roommates at the beginning of this summer, “How cool would it be if I actually was able to visit this organization?!”  I honestly still can’t believe it happened, but whenever I prayed about it I just got this sense of peace that somehow God would lead me down to Georgia to visit this summer one way or another. Wow, God is so faithful!

Side Notes:  To give you some quick background info, the Immigration detention-complex is currently the fastest-growing incarceration system in the U.S., detaining over 400,000 immigrants per year and spending $2 billion dollars annually, taken from tax payers’ money. More recently immigrants are being given “criminal” charges for a “civil” violation of crossing the border without the necessary legal papers. According to a report done by the American Immigration Council, 47% of all criminal immigration prosecutions were due to “illegal reentry”. While only a decade ago, there were only 3,300 immigrants sent to private prisons on criminal charges(in several states driving without a driver’s license is now considered a felony) currently the Federal Bureau of Prisons is giving $5.1 billion annually to private prison companies to keep more than 23,000 immigrants in detention centers on criminal charges. However, if you do the math, the majority of immigrants being held in detention centers have not committed a criminal offense, and often times those deemed as criminal offenses have committed a misdemeanor as small as a parking violation, or driving without a license.

The immigration detention center system is so complex and filled one case of abuse after another. The detention I visited, Stewart Detention Center, happens to be the country’s largest detention center, holding 2,000 men, and is located in the poorest town in the poorest county in Georgia. Coincidence? I think not.  The specific private prison corporation that owns Stewart Detention Center is called CCA, standing for Corrections Corporation of America. They are one of the largest, most influential private prison corporations in the country along with the GEO Corp. According to an article by USA Today about the political power of private prison companies, at the federal level, these companies (private prison corp.) have spent more than $32 million on lobbying and on campaign contributions since 2000. Surprisingly, or may not so surprising, CCA was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2000. Today they are one of the leading private prison corporations, with a net income of $162 million dollars. As you can see, there is corruption within this system on so many different levels.

 There’s so many more facts I could share with you, and I am just beginning to uncover more of the facts as well, so I urge you to do your own research after reading my own personal reflection. Now, back to my story!

The first day I arrived in Georgia I spent time with Anton Flores, director of Alterna, learning more about the community of LaGrange where Alterna is based out of. He told me how basic utilities, such as water, were being denied to immigrant families in their community if they could not provide the “correct” form of identification. Alterna seeks to create community that can advocate alongside recent immigrant families for challenges in unjust policies and practices like these on a local as well as national level.

 The first night I spent in LaGrange was one of anticipation, excitement and a little bit of fear. I knew the next morning we would be driving 1.5 hours down to the Stewart Detention Center.  I would not only be entering the country’s largest detention center, but I would also be speaking with a few men who were currently being detained. What would the detention center be like? Would I make it past the scrutinizing security who are known to turn away visitors—even family members—for not wearing the appropriate outfit? What injustices would I see in this place and how would I see God planting seeds of hope in the midst of corruption, abuse and violence?

 I had read a few articles specifically on Stewart Detention Center, so I had some idea of the abuses that occur behind the walls, but nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced during my visit. I arrived to see this:

 an expansive wall of barbed wire fence. I was told before arriving that it would not be advised to take a picture with my own camera. The guards are known to be not quite so nice when they see visitors taking photos—even outside the detention center—and are known as being quite aggressive, even towards people standing in the parking lot for a longer amount of time than deemed appropriate by CCA, the private prison corporation that owns Stewart Detention.

As I approached the gates I was a bit overwhelmed to say the least. We had to pass through two high-security gates before we were able to enter into the waiting room where families and friends stay until they can go backed and visit with their loved ones.

Once we made it past the sea of barbed wire protected fences I began to observe my surroundings in the waiting room. Everything about this space gave off an eerie vibe. Honestly, I felt like I could see the realities of the poverty simulation I had participated earlier in this summer (see previous post about poverty simulation for more detail) being lived out. The guards standing in a non-chalant manner, using harsh language towards those who did not follow the rules posted on the walls by CCA, imposing a rule of dominance–while me along with the rest of the people waiting to visit were left feeling helpless and intimidated.

The posters on the walls were sprinkled with friendly euphemisms such as “correctional solutions” for the services they provide. I’m not sure how “mass incarceration” of people who have mostly broken civil laws and have no criminal background can be deemed in need of “correcting” . The only ones in need of “correcting” in my opinion are the private prison companies themselves. There are posters on the wall that claim CCA is “protecting public safety” and another one that says they are “giving back to communities”, specifically low-income and communities of color. It was hard to not gag at the outrageous hypocrisy I faced even while waiting to visit.

 Even the vending machine was intimidating. There was a vending machine with a sign on it saying clearing “CCA is not responsible for any refunds”.  Above this vending machine there was a sign that was the most prominent of all the signs, by the size of it and by where it was placed in the waiting room. It read, “Be CAREful. Carelessness can hurt you and others”.  I thought about this for a while and I just found an article speaking out against the exact carelessness CCA claims to reject in an article pointing out the unjust medical treatment of immigrants in privately-owned detention centers. The title of this article reads “Careless Detention”.

Even though there are 2,000 men being detained at this detention center, there are only 5 seats for immigrants to visit with their loved ones, meaning only 5 families can visit at one time. So, we ended up waiting for an hour before we were able to visit. Because the room where we were waiting in was so small it was nearly impossible not to hear other families’ conversations.

There was a woman sitting by me with 5 children who was waiting to visit her husband who had been detained. She was pretty vocal about how upset she was at Stewart Detention Center/CCA. She was joking how even the vending machine was overpriced so they could make more profit.  This probably wouldn’t have stood out in mind so much if she had been a recent immigrant herself, but she was a white, woman with a thick southern drawl. By the look of her clothing and her complaint about the costs, it appeared she was from a low-income background. This woman struck me as an odd reminder of how detention centers deeply affect everyone, not just recent immigrants themselves. You just don’t expect to find poor, white Southerners, who are typically labeled as extremely conservative “rednecks”, to be rattling off their complaints against a private corporation with conservative lobbying interests. The irony of the situation speaks for itself. Those who CCA claim make a “sales pitch” for, white conservatives, cannot even accept such radical, for-profit corporations such as this when they are so evidently in opposition to creating real economic vitality—much less benefiting anyone but themselves.

After waiting for an hour in the waiting room outside of the detention center, we were finally able to pass through the security checkpoint—which was much stricter than any airport security I’ve ever gone through. As they watched me put all of my belongings, my watch, cell phone, water, etc. in to a small locker, I kept asking myself, “Really, what do they think I’m going to do?”“Who exactly are private prison corporations trying to protect?” These questions, among many others, were racing through my mind as I stood in a line among immigrant families against a wall waiting to visit.  

The guard then led us through a door. There were bathrooms on one side, which then to my dismay they informed us were “temporarily” out of order. They said the water system was being worked on so there would be no water, no showers, and no bathrooms for the next 6 hours. “Hmm, that’s strange,” I thought. We were also told that we would have one hour to visit with the person being detained and we could not leave the room until the guards came back to take us. One more rule and no joke, my brain was going to explode.

We were finally let into the room where the men who were being detained were waiting to talk with family members. The only thing I was told about the person I was going to meet with was that he was from Guatemala. A regular volunteer at El Refugio and the visitation program at the detention center who happens to be a social worker receive a list of names of different men that would like visitors. Often times the expenses and distance of travel (which for most families is at least 3 hours because the detention center is in rural Georgia) along with the restrictive visitation hours, makes it nearly impossible for family members to visit. So, I was given the name of a man who had said he would like a visitor.

The majority of the people visiting sat down right away once they spotted their loved one through the glass. I stood back, not sure what this person would look like and waited until I had a good guess that it was the right one. (Here’s a pic I found online that isn’t necessarily from an immigration detention center, but will give you an idea of what talking through the window is like).

I didn’t know what to say at first, but right away I could sense the weight of all of the pain this man was carrying by the look on his face. Sometimes these men haven’t had contact with someone “on the outside” in several weeks, even a month or two.

I introduced myself and explained that I was visiting with El Refugio. I then asked how he was doing. That was a loaded question to say the least. He told me he was very sad, and then began to tell me his story. He had been in this particular detention center since this past April and originally had wanted to fight his deportation. He had contacted a lawyer several times, but they never showed up. Since immigration courts do not guarantee a person who is without the right legal papers a lawyer, this man’s story was not uncommon. Approximately  84% of detainees do not have attorneys. He told me that ICE had recently sent him a letter telling him that if he did not accept his deportation, he would be sent to a federal prison. And they say the people being detained are the real “criminals”? Huh.

He told me he doesn’t want to be sent back though because he grew up an orphan, on the streets for most of his life. He was taken in by a family as a teenager and came here on a visa, but it expired. He had a life here. His eyes filled with tears as he told me that his fiancé was expecting a baby. How would his son or daughter understand why he had to leave? He told me he couldn’t stand the thought of abandoning his child, the same way he had been abandoned at a young age.

As our “phone call” through the glass window came to a close, his eyes filled with tears as he expressed his gratitude for my visit and all the others who have come to visit him so far through El Refugio/Alterna. He was crying as he was saying how bad it was being in there, yet how grateful he was that we cared enough to visit. The question he asked me that will forever stand out in my memory is when he questioned me with a shocked look on his face as I told him I lived in Minnesota, “You came all the way down here to visit, me?” I explained, yes, more or less I did. He just couldn’t grasp his mind around why I would want to visit. I explained that I felt called to work for justice so no one would ever have to go through the hell he was experiencing. I told him coming alongside those who were suffering was something I couldn’t not do when I had learned of the unjust detention system.

We talked awhile about our faith and he told me how God had totally healed him from different illnesses. I reminded him that God is just and would make sure that justice was served for the hell he was enduring each day. I asked him if I could pray for him before I left. Just as I started to pray, I heard a guard’s voice. At first I didn’t realize who she was yelling at. Then I realized it was me. “Time to go! Come on, let’s move it!”, she yelled. I quickly ended my conversation.

As I stood in a line along with the others who had just said good-bye to their loved ones I could sense the weight of the pain they were carrying. Their faces spoke more than any prayer ever could. These were people who had continued to be beat down again and again by society  and seeing their loved ones behind glass, so close, but still just out of reach, on top of the systemic oppression they had felt from the time they had entered the detention center, was just too much to bear.

Right after the first visit I felt emotionally beat-up. I wanted to scream and cry and kick something all at once. It just was not fair. As I was crying out to God, I heard Yahweh speak to me and say “I have never once left my beloved people and I never will. I will be with my people, those among you who are marginalized and oppressed, even to the end of the age”. I was left comforted by this as I embarked on another visit.

The next day, Sunday, we came back to visit some more people. This time around I didn’t feel nearly as anxious as the previous day. The visit I had on Sunday was much less emotionally draining than the first one, but just as upsetting. The man I visited with on Sunday was from Mexico originally. He had no family in the U.S. and had been in the detention center for a little over a year. Needless to say, he was ready to go back to his home and be with his family.

Within five minutes of our conversation, he was already telling me about the horrible conditions of the detention center. First of all, he told me “nada es gratis”, meaning nothing is free. Yes, water was free, but he said no one ever drinks it because it is too dirty.  Clean water, toothbrushes, warmer clothes, any toiletries, you name it all cost those being detained money. Nothing was free. Nada.  

So, you may ask how do they get money to pay for everything then? Well, they have this thing called a compensary where family members of those being detained can send money to them, but if they don’t have family members that can send them money they are basically forced to work for CCA. And here’s the worst part of it. Guess how much they pay them per day:  $1-$3 PER DAY . And 90% of the jobs at CCA are done by those being detained. Yes, that’s right we still live in a country where SLAVE LABOR exists.  While CCA claimed they would “boost the local economy”  they have done little to provide jobs for those living in the poorest town, in the poorest county in Georgia. Also, I must question if that was their real intent to give local people jobs, then why wouldn’t they hire people from the community to the work in the detention center? One simple answer:  profit. They know they can use cheap labor and exploit those who are already being degraded, humiliated and dehumanized through detention.

Anyways, this man I was talking to who was in detention was telling me how they only sell them toothbrushes once every two weeks. Once he said he bought extra and they took them from him and threw them in the trash. He said this is common routine. They regularly take people’s things, esp. if they think they have “too much”, and throw it away. Of course, then those being detained are forced to buy more from them.

He also told me a bit about the eating and health conditions. He said the food was not sufficient. He said his stomach always hurts because they never give them enough food and they only get meat once every two weeks. He told me that the center is divided into units containing 66 men in each pod. In each pod or unit there is one nurse. He said the nurse is not around on the weekend and there are many people with medical issues that are not being met. The nurses are known to give those being detained Tylenol to people who have severe medical conditions. A man originally from Mexico, named Roberto Martinez Medina, died in this detention center. Throughout the country there have been countless deaths, many that could have been prevented had CCA given them the proper medical attention.  Between 2003 to 2009, 90 deaths had been reported at different detention centers throughout the country.

While he was given a specific date they would deport him, often times immigrants have to wait for months after their designated “removal” date. He said often times they will deport people on a Monday when they don’t have access to their compensary. This way CCA gets to keep the money, if they had any, from their compensary. He claims this is just another method of intimidation.

The whole time I was talking to him I knew that this was a man who knew his rights. He kept saying “no es correcto” and “no es justo”, meaning “it’s not right” and “it’s not just” what they were doing. He told me that he has been drawing while in detention to pass the time and that he likes to thank all of those who visit him by sending them a picture. The hour I spent talking with this man was full of moments of laughter and moments of righteous anger. Much like my conversation the day before, it was very difficult to say good-bye. He thanked me for visiting and I told him I would be praying for his departure soon.

After the visits on Sunday, we headed back to LaGrange (where Alterna is located) and I was blessed with some much needed time of emotional, physical and spiritual rest. I stayed with the director of the organization and his family and I could not have asked for a more welcoming and loving home to be a part of for the few days I was there. The saying “mi casa es tu casa” definitely was true of this family! I also got to meet a few of the neighbors that they live in intentional community with on the same street in LaGrange. It was beautiful getting to see a glimpse of another intentional community striving to live out the teachings of Christ. It was so clear to me in the few days I spent with this family that hospitality was not something done out of courtesy, but out of love–a love that was motivated from a deep sense of knowing the heart of God for those who are strangers, wanderers and sojourners. I couldn’t have asked for a better last two days of my journey.

As I headed home on the plane bound for the Twin Cities, I reflected more on both of my visits. I could not help but feel as if the hour I had spent with both men were divine meetings. Even though I had only talked with these men for an hour each, I had spent time laughing and crying with both of them. The glass that separated us from one another seemed like a stark reminder of the way society viewed each of us. We are not “supposed” to come alongside those who are viewed as nothing more than a “profit” to the powerful corporations of this world; we are not “supposed” to weep with those who have been stripped of all dignity; but most of all we are not “supposed” to join with those who are the most marginalized, isolated and oppressed in our society in their struggle for justice because that would really disrupt the social order.  

 (pilgrimage outside of immigration detention center in Atlanta…the name of the man of died in Stewart is carried on the cross)

But isn’t that what followers of Christ have always been called to do? By the world’s standards we are not “supposed” to do any of those things. But by the standards of Christ, we are not only “supposed” to, but we “must” in order to find true life with the Messiah of the oppressed. We must, like the women who mourned and wailed for Jesus as he carried the cross, weep with those who are being “crucified” by the powers of this world. We must, like Mary Magdalene watching as Christ was crucified, be a present witness to the injustices that leave the oppressed of this world hanging on a crucifix to die. We must, like the early followers of Christ when they saw Christ resurrected from the grip of death, cling to the hope of the triumph of good over evil; justice over injustice; love over hate. We must, like Zaccheus’s radical conversion through Christ to a life of solidarity with those he had formerly terrorized, live lives with and among those most terrorized, most humiliated, most dehumanized in our society today. It is then, after we have completed a holy exchange from a place of power and insulation from the pain of the world around us to a place of downward mobility, living, seeing and being with those most marginalized that we will not be able to take back our comfortable, yet destructive lives—for it is then my brothers and sisters that we will have been fully crucified and made one with Christ.

May you find yourself in divine meetings, welcomed in to homes of hospitality and hear voices of hope that drown out even the loudest screams of death and defeat.

Peace,

Sarah

Resurrected: A Freed Woman

This poem came in large part from some serious self-reflection I have had in the past few weeks about the chains that have continued to bind me throughout my life as a woman living in a partriarchial, sexist society. I liked to deny that I had ever faced real, sexist oppression. Yes, I believed I had encountered sexism in my life, but it was hard for me to see this as a deep form of oppression. It was hard for me to see this because I was not aware of how immersed in this male-dominated society I was, to the point that I was blind to the oppression seeping around me.

 Maybe some of you can relate to this. But, there was something gnawing at my soul, telling me that the pain I felt was not “made-up” or ridiculous, but was real and rational; it comes from the scars of living in a broken world where evil exists.

When I first starting really reflecting on the oppression I have faced as a woman, I remembered a childhood memory that has forever stuck out in my mind. At the time I was five years old and my family and I were having a conversation about my parents’ education. They are both extremely talented, intelligent and capable individuals with degrees in chemical engineering. However, that night I distinctly remember turning to my mom and saying “well, of course daddy is smarter than mommy”. 

While this past year I recognized this memory was clear evidence of how much socialization of gender roles affects young adolescents’ minds—even by the age of five—I never seemed to ask myself the much deeper question:  what lies was I already believing about myself when I made that statement about my mother? Certainly I had identified myself with my mother, a female, as I was as well. I came to the conclusion that at that young age I was already beginning to internalize sexist oppression. I was beginning to accept my inferior status as a female in society. I began reflecting on my own personal past friendships, relationships, and interactions with men and then I began looking at that from a broader perspective.

Through this self-reflection I was able to realize some truths, much larger than my own personal experiences. I was able to see that all women—not just women who are trapped in sex trafficking, otherwise known as “prostitution”—have had to “sell their bodies” and have been robbed of their own humanity in the process. The “prostitutes” we continue to see on street corners today are the most transparent manifestation of the kind of oppression that all women face. While there are at least hundreds of thousands of women physically bound in chains due to sex trafficking every year in the U.S. alone, all women are held in chains—whether that be psychological or physical due to male dominance. Sex trafficking will not be put to an end until the sexist mentality that is fueling it dies; sexist thinking is at the root of all forms of oppression women face based on their gender identification.  And it robs all women of their God-given gifts, talents and leadership capabilities.

It deeply disturbs me because God has given women so much potential, but they are constantly being put into a box, tied down, shut up and dismissed as “irrational”, “weak” and “overly emotional”. These are just a few of the lies we are told on a daily basis by the media and culture. But, the good news is that we can do something about it. We can actively engage in anti-sexist movements. And it takes both women AND men to overcome this and truly break the chains.

As I was writing this poem, God reminded me of the scripture verse in Galatians 5:1 where it says “it is for freedom that Christ has set you free”. Well, that night when I was writing this poem, God told me “Sarah, it is for freedom that I have set women free. Stand firm then, and do not let your sisters be burdened again by a yoke of slavery”.

Yes, it is Christ who can ultimately break all these chains of oppression and injustice. And it is my prayer that as you read this poem God would continue to break down the lies you have believed—about yourself and about this world; and by doing so God would restore healing and give you a spirit of hope to continue the struggle for justice.

Resurrected:  A Freed Woman  

 A slow death—it began

At the age of five—the first time

I was initiated into the world of women’s lies

 

That first time

I started believing in this hypocrisy

I remember turning to my mother

And as I said

You cannot be as intellectual,

as rational

as logical

as a man

I began to dehumanize

My own heart and soul

 

{Death}

Death spreads like a disease

And this death—the death of female pride

Devours and diminishes countless trapped souls and minds

 

By the hypocrisy that fuels our mentality

We are told certain “truths”

 from the day we take our first step to the day we draw our last breath

 

In elementary school we are trained to believe that lying to a teacher is a great felony,

So why do we tell men trickery and deceit are the prized goals? –to be anything else is seen as defeat.

By our parents we are trained to believe good manners are polite,

So, why do we tell men in order to be gentlemen they must silence us?—we must be seen, but not heard for our opinions are never “right”

In high school health class we are trained to believe that any form of abUSE is wrong,

So why do we tell men they must USE a woman to be made strong?

In college we are trained to believe that fascism is a great evil,

So why do we allow it, when men manipulate and control half of their own people?

In our social justice circles we are trained to believe that patronizing someone is oppressive,

So why do we tell men they need to “save us” from our own repression?

 

{Lies}

 

That first lie brought me on to the ringmaster’s stage

Where I would continue to be told I could not win the game

Unless I accepted the role

Of the slut, the whore, the prostitute

 

I was told again and again

This is what you do to win the fight

You beat yourself down

You wear the disguises

And do the rounds

You let your body become a commodity

So that when people walk by they know your worth

They know they can take you and abuse you and use you

They know they can manipulate, control you and hold you

Just enough so that you’ll always come back

Just enough so you think you have a voice

 

When really you sit in a chair, blindfolded, naked, distorted

 

Is this what they call a winner of the game?

 

See to them your vulnerability means their profitability

The more you lose part of your soul, the more they gain

The more they can tell you it is your role

To provide services

To look good

To die inside

They thrive—while you just beat your head against the wall, so dead

 

 {Deceit}

 

Now you know why I just shake my head and roll my eyes

when they tell me it is my fault

I chose this, yes they say, I am to blame

But how can someone say that to a person enslaved?

 

Yes, I wore the revealing outfit the pimps would demand

But it was because I had been stripped bare,

Only left with clothing from a master’s hand

Yes, I put on the mask and played the role to fit the game

But my mouth had been taped shut—I had no voice to claim

Yes, I walked down that same street night after night

Too afraid and ashamed

Not because I didn’t know the game

But because I knew I was the “main act”

I was the women on the trapeze

Always smiling, always laughing, always selling to please

But dying on the inside

 

Without me they would lose their fame

See, I was a part of the game, I played it well—but I was not to blame

For I was caught in a demonic ring master’s stage

 

{Revealed}

 

 Even though I have never been on the street

With only my body to sell and my strut to compete

I was that woman locked inside

Trapped in the industry of slavery

Within the mind

I was that woman

Oppressed, voiceless, dehumanized

Told to win the game I had to believe the lies

I had to believe that I could never be good enough

unless I let men take advantage of me

 

I could not speak, I could not see, I could not object, I could not breathe

I was a weak, helpless, human-less being

 

Today, I seek to release the chains

So that all my sisters may be freed, not slaves

But this mentality runs deep and wide

And it is easy to believe that it is men who are the enemy

But see my sisters, it is not men—but the lies that they believe

 

The lies that they need to enslave in order to gratify

In order to satisfy

In order to live or die

 

The REAL enemy prowls for a way to divide

And this slavemaster hunts to enslave his famed prize

 

{Truth}

 

But I cling to the promise the great Liberator provides

That I am beautiful—without the consent of a master

That I am intellectual—with gifts of reason sublime

That I am strong—with my own two feet I stand upon and say goodbye to defeat

That I am free—a freedom that releases all women and men from their chains,

A Divine freedom that stands through the fire and the rain

 

{New Life}

 

But the battle continues onward

 

So, I toil both day and night

To fight to stay alive

To fight to be human

To fight to be woman

A woman that no ringmaster can dehumanize

That no chain can hold down

That no cage can lock up

That no mask can disguise

Yes, I am woman, yes I am

And, I am Alive.

Leaving on a jet plane…for Georgia?!

Yep, the rumors are true. Tomorrow I’m leaving on a jet plane for Georgia…but I do know when I’m coming back :). This past year Alterna , a missional community focused on immigrant advocacy, kept finding its way back into my mind.

As some of you may know these past few years I have been more and more reaffirmed of God’s calling on my life to live in solidarity with my immigrant brothers and sisters, specifically those who don’t have access to the legal documents that my grandparents did when they came to the U.S. from Italy, and to join with them in their struggle for justice. Building relationships with immigrants who are here  “undocumented”  and seeing the harsh realities that many Latin American families face on the other side of the border has left a deep impression on my heart, soul and mind. Sometimes I myself feel confused why I feel such a stirring in my soul when I discuss immigration advocacy related topics with others.  The best way I can describe it is the calling of the Holy Spirit. In the words of Parker Palmer, when we find our calling, or our vocation, we often recognize that “this is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling”. This is exactly how I feel about my own calling and more specifically the trip I will be leaving on tomorrow to visit Alterna.

The first day of my trip I’ll spend with the families of the community that makes  up Alterna. Anton, the director, is going to give us a “tour” more or less. Alterna is comprised of several families that are both recent Latin American immigrants as well as white, Caucasian families that have felt God’s calling to live together. Even though I haven’t been there yet, the first thing when I think of how to describe this community is the verse discussing marks of the early church from Acts 4:32, that reads “All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had” (NLT).

On Saturday, I’ll be spending the day at “El Refugio”, the hospitality houses that Alterna opens up to immigrant families visiting loved ones at the Stewart Detention center. They told me we will be spending time with the families who may come; basically sitting at the feet of people who have been “crucified” by the horrible injustices of this world.

On Sunday, we will be visiting the Stewart Detention Center. This detention center is the largest privately owned in the nation and has been a place of isolation, abuse and torment for countless immigrants who are detained inside. From my understanding we will be visiting some of those who are being detained. I have no idea to what extent we will be able to talk with them, but I anticipate that it will be quite an overwhelming, eye-opening experience.

On Monday, I’m planning on spending time with the people in the Alterna community until I head back to the airport, back on a jet plane, homeward bound.

I still have so much to learn, as we all do. So here are some resources I have found interesting/helpful in learning more about this issue.

Films:

“The Visitor”

“A Better Life”

Frontline PBS special “Lost in Detention”

Articles/websites:

http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-08-02/immigration-prison/56689394/1

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42197813/ns/business-us_business/t/boom-behind-bars/#.UB3wjU1lQf4

http://undocumented.tv/

http://detentionwatchnetwork.org/

 I look forward to sharing more when I get back!!

Peace,

Sarah

 

 

Poverty Simulation Reflection

I helped out with a poverty simulation last week and my mind is still reeling from it. There was–and to be honest, still is–so much to process from it. I’m attempting to reflect on some of what I have learned, but I’m sure this is only the tip of the iceberg.

 This particular poverty simulation was designed by a Bethel professor, Dr. Karen McKinney, as part of her dissertation for her doctorate she wrote about using simulations to educate people about current social realities.

So, you are probably thinking right now, “Okay, Sarah I already have done a poverty simulation before. You know where one group of people gets a whole feast prepared for them, while the majority of the people have to sit on the floor and eat a few grains of rice. That’s so elementary.”

 Yes, similar concept, but imagine that simulation on steroids. Or better yet, imagine it 10 times more complex, and then you will have understood THIS particular poverty simulation.

I’ll attempt to explain it, but due to the complexity it’s difficult to explain—especially if you haven’t seen it firsthand. Well, let’s have at it.

 The simulation begins with the group of people participating being divided up into 3 different groups (upper class, middle class and lower class). This is determined by their ear lobes (i.e. attached or unattached).  There’s one person regulating who’s put into each group and making sure that there is the right proportion of people in each of those groups. They use stickers to signify what people are in which group so they remain unaware of the reason for the grouping.

Before the simulation officially begins Dr. McKinney who designed it tells the participants three things:  1. You want to trade as many chips as possible   2. You can trade with anyone   3. This is not a game.

As the participants enter into the room where the simulation is to take place they are guided to different places within the room depending on which group they are in. The group of people who are placed in the “upper class” group are given comfortable chairs and couches to sit on and right away asked if they would like food, beverage, or even a back massage. The middle class group is given fold-up chairs to sit on and I believe they can choose from different beverages as well. The lower class group is not given any chairs and they are forced to stay within a small “box”, marked off by tape on the floor.

Since the goal of the game is to trade as many chips as possible, each person in the different groups start off with a certain number of chips (off course these are rigged) and so everyone thinks they are starting off on the same page. The only times when the lower, middle and upper class groups can intermingle is during these “trade-off” times, when they can trade chips with other participants from various groups.

In addition to the “trade-offs” happening throughout the simulation, each group (lower, middle and upper class) has “servants”, or in the lower class “police officers”, who have completely different roles depending on what group they are with. For the upper class, the “servants” are constantly supposed to be catering to the needs of their group.  For example, if someone from the upper class says they want the “servant” to perform a song for them or give them a back rub, they must do it. Their job is to distract the upper class from knowing what is happening to the lower class group. The “servant” for the middle class is supposed to constantly be guiding conversations in order to support everything the upper class says or does. The “police officers”—which I was a part of this past week in the simulation—are supposed to do everything they can to keep the lower class “in their place”.

In the beginning of the simulation, the “police officers” are supposed to manage “crowd control” within the taped-off box area, but as the simulation continues the repression is supposed to increase more and more.  During “trade-offs” we are supposed to go up to upper class people who are making a trade with a lower class person and ask them if the lower class person is harassing them. If they say “yes” then we take them to a place designated as the jail. As the game continues the taped-off box are where the lower class are supposed to stay when “trade-offs” are not occurring gets smaller and smaller. We dump trash in the lower class area and then throw insulting comments at them about it. We also have water spray guns that we use to spray the lower class with as well if they are “acting up”.

Towards the end of the simulation the upper class group is always asked by Dr. McKinney if they would like the lower class group to be sent away in exchange for money that would go towards their group. Most often they agree to this and we, the police officers, take all of the lower class to a room outside designated as the “reservation”.

The simulation typically ends after the upper class has sent away the lower class to the “reservation” and a time for debriefing among the participants and the helpers takes place.

I have been a participant in this simulation once before (I was in the lower class), but this time I helped with the simulation I was one of the “police officers”. There were three other people besides myself who volunteered for this position. Because I had participated in this simulation before I knew what to expect and how the “police officers” were expected to treat those in the lower class. Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to be able to keep a straight face, much less throw insults at people without apologizing or squirt them with water.

When the simulation first began I felt very awkward and uncomfortable spelling peoples’ names wrong and making snide remarks at them. However, as the simulation went on I was surprised—and terrified—at how easily it came to me to act in a repressive way.

Although the simulation only lasted about 40 minutes, when it ended I remember thinking that I didn’t want it to stop.  40 minutes was all it took for me to feel comfortable getting up in people’s faces and calling them “stupid” or screaming at them to “shut up”. Right when Dr. McKinney told us the simulation was over I honestly didn’t know what to do.  I just stood there. My first thought wasn’t how bad I felt or how much I wanted to apologize to those I was insulting. I felt powerful and strong. If anything apologizing was the last thing I was about to do.

After a few minutes, I felt like I had just woken up from a bad dream. What had I been doing? I felt ashamed and awkward, trying to apologize to some of the participants I had just terrorized.  One of the things that hit me the most was the comments the participants said to me after the simulation had ended. One woman said “good job, you really got into your role”. I laughed it off, but on the inside I was really disturbed. Really? All it took was 40 minutes for me to take on the role of the oppressor? For any of you who know me, screaming insults at people at the top of my lungs is far from my typical behavior to say the least. I can’t remember the last time I screamed at someone, I mean really screamed, like in a fight. 

My world had just flipped upside-down.

So, you may be wondering what did I learn from all of this? Well, many things, some of which I’m still trying to process. So, I’ll share a few. 

  1. First of all, I learned socialization is a crazy, scary and very real process that all people go through. Sure, before participating and helping with this simulation I believed socialization was a huge factor in shaping peoples’ lives, but reading about it in a school textbook and experiencing it firsthand are two completely different things.
  2. Everyone is capable of taking on the role of the oppressor as well as the oppressed. Since socialization is a learned process contributed by many different factors we interact with on a daily basis, if a person who has typically been in the role of the oppressed in society is placed in a context of power and privilege they are just as capable as any other human of then taking on the role of the oppressor (and vice versa).
  3. Both those who are oppressors as well as those who are oppressed need to be liberated. Poverty, sexism, racism, and homophobia do not only hold those who are being oppressed by these societal structures in bondage, they also hold those who are oppressing, those who hold the power and privilege, in chains as well. In the wise words of Nelson Mandela, “ I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.”

On a more personal level, I have some theories about why I in particular was able to take on the role of the oppressor so easily. The first one is that as a white, upper-middle class person I have grown up in the role of the oppressor. While screaming insults at people was not something I was socialized to do, I was socialized to dehumanize those from a lower socioeconomic status than myself and people of color in much more subtle ways. Remaining silent when racist jokes are said, being able to define certain names as “normal” and others as “abnormal” and participating in perpetuating historically oppressive stereotypes—whether knowingly or not—are all a part of the privilege I have had as growing up white and upper-middle class in the U.S.

Another theory, which I think played an equally important role in understanding the way in which I took on the role of the oppressor so quickly, is due to the oppression I have felt being a woman in a male-dominated society.  Sometimes when those who are or who have been oppressed are given a bit of power, they in turn act out in a similar way in which they themselves have been oppressed. Thus, they essentially take on the role of the oppressor.

While I have a significantly greater amount of privilege than the majority of women who live around the world, especially those living in third-world conditions, I too, have internalized sexist oppression as a result of living in a hyper-masculine, male-dominated society. I was socialized by many different institutions in some subtle, and others not so subtle, ways to believe that my ideas were inferior to a male’s and that I must constantly alter my physical appearance to please men. I’ve more recently been doing some reflecting on just how much male patriarchy has deeply affected the way I view my world, and the way I even view myself. I have struggled so often to make sure that my voice is heard and I think for the last part of the simulation I actually enjoyed oppressing because I was able to release some of my rage at being silenced much too often in my life.

If anyone is curious in getting more materials on the poverty simulation, I would gladly introduce you to Dr. Karen McKinney. She has done extensive research on the use of simulations in bringing to light societal “truths” and she could provide much more detailed info specifically about the simulation.

As always, I hope you learned something from this post and that you will feel encouraged and challenged to do some of your own self-reflection. It is my prayer that we can truly see the chains that keep us apart from one another, and together work to break those chains in order to fully be the incredibly, beautiful diverse people that God made us to be.

Peace & Blessings,

Sarah

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