After taking my seat in a comfortably worn wingback chair, I immediately noticed a copy of Junot Diaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. My eyes lit up. Having just picked it up the week prior, I suddenly felt an imagined literary kinship with him. Appropriately, Diaz’s novel leaned up against a worn collection of liberation theology.
“How do you like Diaz’s writing?” I asked, hoping a moment of shared appreciation for words and stories would calm my nerves a bit.
Rev. Julio Ramirez-Eve answered quickly with a relaxed grin. “Yes, I like it.” At arms reach from his copy of Oscar Wao, he sat across from me, with no table or desk between us.
It was the first question of many I had prepared to ask Rev. Ramirez-Eve, hoping to discuss his pastoral work in the midst of a raging immigration debate in North Carolina. We stayed on the novel for about five minutes, both grateful for the story Diaz had given us. In Oscar Wao, one sees Diaz attempting to describe the way in which unseen narrators keep us captive to dominant myths about immigrant communities in America. And these destructive myths are still with us (for example, see Chris Liu-Beers’ insightful post on the fear-based tactics of NRA executive Wayne La Pierre).
While Rev. Ramirez-Eve and I talked briefly about Diaz’s prophetic voice, I began making silent connections between the novelist and the pastor. Both Rev. Ramirez-Eve and Diaz immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, and both approach the struggle for racial justice through the power of words. Diaz writes stories. Rev. Ramirez-Eve proclaims the Word, from a pulpit, praying that the words of his mouth and the meditations of his heart will be pleasing to God. Both Diaz’s stories and Rev. Ramirez-Eve’s sermons call us to imagine new modes of being human in the world, deconstructing the antagonistic separations of rich and poor, white and black, non-immigrant and immigrant, opening up space for new identities to be formed that challenge the status quo.
I was there to discuss immigration with Rev. Ramirez-Eve, hoping the witness of local congregations might bring into view good work often hidden from a debate that remains at the state and national level. I wanted to ask: What vision is being presented within local congregations that could reach beyond the local? Can prophetic witness echo once again in the halls of government offices?
For eight years, Rev. Ramirez-Eve has pastored a thriving Hispanic congregation in Durham, often partnering closely with predominantly white congregations. When the Presbyterian Church began looking for people to do ministry with the immigrant community in North Carolina, he responded eagerly. “I saw a big challenge for me to develop something new.”
It was an illuminating discussion. While the anti-immigration spirit still holds more legislative power in North Carolina, Rev. Ramirez-Eve has been too close to the immigrant community in Durham to lose hope in positive change. State politics may continue to shape immigrant families into what Rev. Ramirez-Eve calls “communities of fear,” but its oppressive effect on daily life is not total. Rev. Ramirez-Eve coordinates daily meetings with community organizers, shared worship and meals with local congregations, and makes space for immigrant testimonies to be publicly spoken and heard. Stories work to deconstruct old paradigms and reconstruct new ways of relating to the immigrant community, hoping their witness can be carried by the Spirit, trusting it to blow wherever it wills.
Indeed, it was an inspiring conversation. Yet it was also sobering. The struggle for immigrant rights still lives under the imminent threat of deportations, unjust working conditions, separated families, and demoralized women and men who have difficulty imagining an America not dominated by anti-immigrant sentiments. It seemed miraculous to me that Rev. Ramirez-Eve could enter the pulpit every Sunday and preach with conviction, knowing the undercurrent of national inhospitality that structures the daily life of his parishioners. The proclaimed Word seemed to be for Rev. Ramirez-Eve what Marilynne Robinson calls an “exercise in imaginative love,” a way of working with a story that lays claim to our lives—the gospel—and measures our common life differently than restrictionist agendas that foster antagonistic relationships. In prayers, conversations, sermons, and shared meals, Rev. Ramirez-Eve offers us a narrative that unbinds us from fear-based state and national rhetoric, and whispers to us of one gifted reality, calling us to hear the good news: we are God’s creatures.
But connections like that—hope that our identities as God’s creatures will open up new ways of being faithful together—remain risky moves. Perhaps especially for white male Chrsitians like myself. They tempt the progressive sensibilities in me to instrumentalize immigrant narratives in order to create the world I want, a socially ‘just’ one that allows me to rest easy knowing the here and now is not only good to me, but to brown and black people, too.
Since our conversation, I have been reflecting on that persistent disturbance I felt. I didn’t particularly like that I was the inquiring body, placing Rev. Ramirez-Eve in the posture of responding to my questioning: a posture that I suspect felt all too familiar to him. Or perhaps I didn’t like how natural that positioning felt to me. I immediately attempted to create a good atmosphere when I entered the room, and then I wondered if my attempt to create an environment was problematic. For whether it is my empathy for the “immigrant community,” or my distaste for the environment created by the anti-immigration rhetoric, both sides can presume to be creators, protectors, actors and speakers, shaping the world “we” think the so-called margins deserve.
I was glad, nevertheless, to have been welcomed into that space, where Rev. Ramirez-Eve continues to struggle with his beloved church, and where novels lean on collections of liberation theology. In that space where words lean toward freedom, I experienced new stories, and a pastoral vocation that peels away dominant narratives that shape and form communities of fear, making space for the spirit to blow where it wills. I was deeply grateful for time spent with Rev. Julio Ramirez-Eve, for the opportunity to hear stories that might teach me to exercise love more imaginatively, and for people who tell us the truth in the midst of fear-based anti-immigration campaigns. I, for one, hope to be in earshot of more prayers and sermons from pastors like Rev. Ramirez-Eve, and will join him and his congregation in the hope that their witness might echo beyond their walls.
Scott Schomburg is a Duke Divinity School Intern. Via North Carolina Council of Churches.