Singing in Exile: An Arizona Church Responds to Immigration Enforcement Action
Let me first say that neither I, nor Neighborhood Ministries, nor probably Sojourners (though I don't speak for them), would admit to being anti-enforcement when it comes to immigration law. Yet, because our laws are very broken and have been broken for decades; and because in the meantime families have put down deep roots, worked hard to the vast benefit of the community and the country, and become interwoven into the fabrics of our neighborhoods and churches -- because of these things, enforcement, in isolation, at the scale, effort, and with the drama of yesterday, can be very dangerous and frightening.
So, I would say that we are, in fact, pro-enforcement when it happens in conjunction or consideration of these other pressing moral issues. Yesterday, it did not. We can do better.
Yesterday, I went to the office to prepare for our youth outreach night. It went well; youth went to Bible study and art class. We have a workshop that teaches metal, wood, and bicycle skills and we just received a new grant that is helping get our urban youth college ready. (Read more about our Christian Community Development work here: www.nmaz.org)
After our youth program, I received a call from my friend who said that 800 ICE agents were coming to Arizona the next day for a large operation and that we might want to get the word out to any families that might be affected. Ours is more of a gospel business than an 'immigration enforcement' one, but we knew people who might start hearing rumors, and fear can quickly lead to panic. So we decided to open our church for the entire day to people who might need some place to go. Anyone who was afraid or who wanted to pray for our neighborhood and city was invited to pray and worship with us. Our church would be a safe place where all were welcome to come and petition the One who truly governs Arizona.
I was awoken early the next morning by a series of phone calls. Some folks in D.C. heard we were opening our church to people and wanted to know if we could talk to the media. Some of my high school students called to say they saw ICE trucks on their way to school. I went to church to see dozens of families already assembled. They were ditching work and school, and even getting out of their homes to come to church -- their last refuge! People were afraid but in good spirits. I was reminded of the psalmist's sincere question in the face of exile: "How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?" Living with folks on the margins continues to show me what a genuine faith in an incarnate God looks like: hope, lament, laughter, and pain rolled together like a theological burrito.
I began to organize a little team to set stuff up but noticed three helicopters circling overhead. I got in my truck and followed them to a little neighborhood about a mile away from our church. Dozens of law enforcement officers were surrounding what looked like a residence. An older lady and a fairly young woman were two of a number of people standing on the lawn with zip ties around their wrists. The local police department was blocking the street at both entrances. Officers with ICE on their shirts were coming in and out of the house. As I turned around, I saw a group of unmarked trucks transporting a group of armed men (also without insignia), move quickly down the residential street. The men were sitting in the beds of the trucks looking very intimidating; I don't know who they were working for, but they looked serious. I was afraid.
I came back to church to start our prayer service. The wife of our pastor gave a word of encouragement. She led us to kneel and confess any personal sin and to ask for the personal forgiveness we all desperately need. Then we prayed for others, that our hearts might soften, that our system might encompass fairness, legality, mercy, compassion, and justice. Then we made chorizo and potato burritos. The media periodically stopped in and interviewed us. People informed us that our church address was heard over radio scanners, but God kept us safe.
One of the mothers in the community was with us all day. She has older kids in my youth group but was surprised earlier this year with an unexpected pregnancy. She has to work outside everyday. Tragically, coupled with her age and the stress of the day, that led her to miscarry at the church with us. In the midst of today's chaos, it was hard at the moment to enter into the grief I am beginning to feel for this family that was looking forward to this new unexpected life. Pain upon pain ...
After lunch we began to worship. I didn't really want to. How can we even think about singing the Lord's song on a day like today, in this strange land? In the face of these tormentors, besieging us from every side? But our community began to sing. Poderoso, en majestad y reino, Poderoso ...Si tuvieras fe, como un grano de mostaza ...la montaña se movera ...
By the time we finished singing, forty-something people had been arrested from around Arizona. Seems like a lot of fear and chaos for forty people ...
The anger I felt at the passage of SB1070 is now replaced with a sense of exhaustion or confusion. How much can our community withstand? Does this really feel like solutions to anyone? Is this how we imagine law enforcement and legality in contemporary America? Again with few options, I look for hope from a God who sees. As I think through the day, this hope becomes clearer. It is actually in the language and experience of exile that we find our necessarily Christian hymn. As 'Resident Aliens' with a different citizenship in a supreme Kingdom we constantly ask: "How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?" How can we even muster the strength to whisper of our Christian witness while terror reigns, let alone sing of it? Today, my community at least attempted a song. It was not so loud; I forgot a few words; somebody was off key. But still, we sang.
And, I think, chorizo burritos seemed to help