sb4 hearingAbout a month ago I was part of a group of people assaulted by a guy who used the National Anthem as a weapon.

About a hundred of us were standing in line, waiting to offer our testimony before the Texas House of Representatives’ State Affairs’ Committee. We were part of more than a thousand people gathered that day, determined to testify on the multiple ways that Senate Bill 4, the Texas “anti-sanctuary cities” bill, was a curse, a pox, and a bad law. The law would authorize, indeed, would require local police officers to act as immigration agents.

We were chatting easily in the hallway, enjoying the remarkable hospitality of fellow traveller, when an older fellow, an American flag bandana tied around his forehead, swaggered up the hall. His name tag identified him as a member of the Fredericksburg Tea Party. The man stopped about fifteen away, scowled at the group for a long moment, and then launched into the Star-Spangled Banner.

To give him credit, he was brave to attack us with such a clumsy weapon. This is a tune with some impossible high notes—and it goes on forever and ever. It seems to me that it would be just plain hard to express passionate anger for that long a time, but this guy apparently had a lot of bile to fuel his effort.

His intent, however, was interrupted by some of the younger members of our group. They turned toward him and began singing their own songs. The songs were followed by chants, all of which filled the long hallways of the Capitol, attracting news media and others to the scene.

The Tea Party fellow finally finished—not that I could hear him. He gave a fist pump directed to whoever sits on high, looking down on all of this, and then wandered back off down the hall, the American flag, looking a little worn, still sitting on his head.

In the meantime, the testimonies against the bill continued. I was delighted with the energy and patience that my representative, Rene Oliveira from Brownsville, demonstrated as a member of the committee. Over and again he followed up on objections to the law, drawing out the salient points about just how this was bad public policy. Someone spoke about her fear that the community would not call local police as a witness—or a victim—of crime, and how that would ruin good police work. One of the committee members responded, “Well, if they are here legally, they shouldn’t be afraid.” Representative Oliveira responded, “Yes, well there are over a hundred different kinds of visas that allow a lawful presence—which patrol cop is going to have the time to learn all of that?”

Terry Canales, a representative from Edinburg, while not a member of this committee, had also been loud and clear in opposition to this particular bit of legislation. His passion with regard to this attack on our communities appealed to many of those who had come up from the Rio Grande Valley to testify.

SB4 austin 2017IMG_1372One of those liking Canales’ words was a Brownsville neighbor who confided that “I don’t really like this public speaking stuff. This is not my thing. But I just can’t be quiet on this one. It is so wrong. We are not criminals, we are not even criminal suspects…but that is how they will treat us. So I gotta speak my truth.”

Over the past two months there had been loads of speaking truth to power. In the end, however, despite the powerful testimony from other representatives, police chiefs, sheriffs, bishops, physicians, teachers and citizens, the House passed the bill. Not only did the House pass the Senate version of the bill, but they went to the trouble to make it a nastier piece of work, insisting on an amendment that would allow a police officer to ask a child about his or her citizenship.

I believe that speaking truth to power is a moral imperative, but that it also does shape history, in its own way. But the damage done in the meantime by those in power is considerable. Part of this truth that must be spoken must be directed to the nation, to our state, and to the larger community so that these fellow citizens know full and well what is taking place in their names, in our names, in the names of all of us. This said in the hope that they would understand that those who suffer from these decisions have names, too, and have friends and neighbors and allies.

It is clear that the Anti-Sanctuary Cities’ legislation was purely an effort by a majority of the representatives to manipulate their constituents’ fears. There are no sanctuary cities in Texas; the few efforts to push back against cooperation with federal immigration officials was in the name of good police work and had little to do, unfortunately, in my opinion, with a heroic defense of the integrity of those communities which are home to immigrant families.

It is fair to classify the legislators that support this bill as Bible thumpers, for they will bow to the Word of the Lord at the drop of a hat—or at least to those words that happen to suit them and their cause of the moment. If truth be told, and it must be so, especially these days, the Word of the Lord has a lot to say about sanctuary. And while there are long arguments back on forth about just what the Bible means when it speaks about our moral obligations to strangers, it is clear to me that the author of sacred scripture could not countenance the criminalization of entire peoples for the purposes of advancing political careers. To the contrary, there are bushels of blessings and promises of prosperity for those governments that love the orphan, the widow, the hungry, the sick—and the stranger.

Hallowed be Thy Name

0894f-cross02I have been searching for the noun that describes a parent whose child has been taken from him or her.

What name is given to an African woman whose little girl was swept away by a Boko Haram raid, or a Mexican father whose sixteen year was shot to death, or a Washington DC couple whose thirteen year old went missing? There seems to be no noun, at least in English, which would distinguish these parents from those who do have a child to hug in the morning, a little boy who needs a shirttail tucked in, or a little girl wanting her hair to be braided.

The lack of this term occurred to me this past Sunday afternoon while I was out for a walk. Passing through a local park, I watched a young woman playing catch with her just-past-toddling-aged little girl. Their peels of laughter rolled out through the golden afternoon sun, an affirmation of life.

This was Palm Sunday evening, the beginning of the celebration of Holy Week, and the solemn remembering of Passover, that time when the angel bringing death to the Egyptians “passed over” the Hebrew families, protecting them, and then, subsequently, giving the Jews the final impetus to flee their slavery under Pharaoh, to pass over into a new existence as a free people.

Someone once told me that Passover, means “being protected while being made new.” I liked that, and I remembered it as the little girl’s complete, total happiness in the presence of her mother sang out “I am protected.” I allowed myself to imagine that, just a short time ago, when she had born this daughter, this little girl’s mother was being made new. Altogether, while a completely, happily normal event, nonetheless, a holy one—something of God.

This experience was in complete contrast to those of previous weeks, when so much that, in my mind, can only be called “unholiness,” was set to come into play. There were the threats to parents of Central American refugees by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. The United States, he said, would consider separating Central American children from their parents should they dare to trust the United States with an asylum plea. While the menace of this action was whitewashed with a questionable invocation of national security, and while Kelly has since backed off of this intent to do harm, it seems evil to me that a man with that much power would entertain kidnapping as a viable method of law enforcement.

Others in the national security business, however, seemed unbothered by ethical considerations, and continued to search for ways to exploit the Central Americans. The GEO group, a private prison company that seems hell-bent on making money on immigrants in detention, went before the Texas House State Affairs Committee last week, arguing for the passage of a bill that would allow them to be a licensed “baby jail” (as the CARA pro-bono project calls them). GEO needs the licensing so that they can hold the children long past the maximum time allowed, as the company earns more profit each day longer the families are jailed.

The testimony from those against this idea was dismayingly on target; GEO’s testimony was disturbing in its deceit. The prison’s warden presented herself as the “program director,” and spoke of the lovely “salad bar with two entrees” that the jail offered the inmates. Another lobbyist spoke of the 200 jobs that would be lost if the baby jail was forced to comply with the minimum standards for holding children. The contrast between the concern for the well-being of the families, and the welfare of GEO’s shareholders went by unremarked.

The testimony went on for hours; from all that I watched, I don’t remember a single question or expressed concern from committee members about the condition of the families or the children in these places. The questions were about how much money the facility made, how many facilities were operating, and what were we (Texas? The USA? The Community of Believers?) supposed to “do with these people” if we couldn’t lock them up?

If it were the GEO group’s children, or the legislators’ families who were being locked up, or separated, this would have been an entirely different process, an inconceivable one. The failure of our social imagination or the collective shrinking of our hearts makes such a suggestion (that “those” children could be “our” children) difficult, if not impossible.

Holy Week, for Christians, ends with the celebration of Easter, a liturgical celebration of the impossible, of God’s decision to gift God’s criminal alien son with eternal life. The resurrection, considered an historical fact by an enormous community of persons, should be socially transformative, a God-given guarantee, as it is, of the inherent divinity of each and every human being. The world, especially the world’s poor and bereft, continue to await this transformation of hearts and minds and politics. There have always been signs that such a process is taking root in our world, but there always seem to be other undertakings that want to deny that hope. There are Holy Weeks, and there remain far more unholy weeks.

Those of us who live alongside the border are gifted with encounters unknown in the rest of the country. We get to meet people of great courage who have packed up their belongings and fled ancestral homes in order to save the lives of their children. We may get to pray with people who live with the horrific anguish of being away from their children. We may meet, in this special place, someone whose circumstance has no name—a parent whose child has been taken from her, perhaps by a drug cartel, perhaps by the violence in their home country, perhaps by the vagaries of flight through Mexico, perhaps by ICE agents or the Border Patrol. The angel of the Lord did not protect those families from that particular, tragic sadness.

As this Holy Week turns toward the celebrations of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, I believe it appropriate to recognize the holiness of those who have suffered the damning theft of a child by the state. In their own, specific way, they are God-like, having suffered what God knew on Good Friday—the theft of one’s own flesh, the kidnapping of the most-loved one, the loss of a reason to live.

Some of us hope for that day when there is no need for a term for parents who have lost their children. We wait for the day when such an unthinkable moment no longer occurs, when this impossible idea begging for wings to take flight, to pass over and protect so many who yet remain at risk for this tragedy in need of a name.