This is the full text of the sermon I gave at the UU Church in Medford, MA. Very well and warmly received even with a heavy topic. When I said “Presente,” I would dip my fingers into a cup of water I had to stay hydrated, and throw a drop on the floor (I didn’t want to spill water on the hardwood 😉 )
(Reading) The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
In September 2001, the church I belonged to at the time, First Church of Boston, was welcoming a new permanent minister after the end of the previous minister’s 40-year tenure at the pulpit. The installation ceremony was to be held on September 16 of that year, but this was before the World Trade Center towers fell to a terrorist attack. Rightfully the ceremony was pushed back to November 18, but unfortunately I missed the ceremony as well. Two weeks later in December 2001, I gave a short presentation to the congregation as to why I missed it. I was attending the annual vigil in front of the School of the Americas (SOA) that year with a group of other UU young adults; my main personal reasons to go there were because of the 9/11 attacks. Part of my reflection went thus:
“In operation since 1944, the SOA is a school within Ft. Benning that train police and security officers throughout Latin America in combat, counter-insurgency tactics and psychological warfare. The lessons learned are then wrought upon the civilian populations often with horrific results.
“We took part in the funeral procession—the first of two waves of people that march up to the gates of the fort. At the head of the march, Father Roy Boirgoise led black-cloaked and face-painted performers to the foot of the gates and staged a die-in. At the stage built for the protest, singers faced the crowd and sang the names of the victims-people killed or “disappeared” by graduates of the SOA. The school’s nearly 60,000 graduates range from notorious dictators like Manuel Noriega of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina, and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia, to lower-level graduates that have participated in human rights abuses including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the El Mozote Massacre of 900 civilians in El Salvador. Each person in this sea of protesters had a white wooden cross in hand, and as the names were sung we raised them and responded “presente” to invoke the spirit of that person here and bear witness. Each cross was inscribed with the name of a victim and their age; mine bore the name Versnica Pirez Oylati from Mexico, age unknown. Presente.
“The specter of September 11 permeated the march in other ways. Many of those in attendance, like myself, felt that it was even more necessary to go to Ft. Benning. On some of the crosses were added names for those killed at the World Trade Center; mine bore the name Manuel Asitimbay, age 36. Presente. Whether in Latin America or one of the 110 floors in NYC, every name represented a victim of terrorism.
“With record crowds came a true “interfaith” gathering: Catholics of various orders, Christians, Protestants, agnostics, atheists, socialists, veterans, student activists, elder radicals, artists, dancers. All here for a common purpose: to say “Nunca Mas! NO more!” To urge the government to close this school once and for all. Due to the crush of people, it took an hour before my group was able to move towards the gate. In that time more names were read. Though the names were important, I focused on the ages. 90 years old… 35 years old… 70… 42… 66… 18. And there were more children. 14 years old… 10 years old… 6 years old… 5 years old… and when you thought the ages couldn’t go any lower: 3 years old… 2 years old… 9 months… 6 months… 3 days old. Presente.”
What I do with the water here is exactly what I did at the church back then. In African tradition, you spill water to honor and remember the dead who were close to you, family, or other kind of ancestor. Memory is important, not just for spiritual matters but for, obviously, historical matters as well. In December 1963, Malcolm X was asked about President Kennedy’s assassination; his answer was that the Presidents death was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.” After backlash for that statement, Malcolm clarified that he felt “his assassination was the result of the climate of hate.” That climate of hate Malcolm X referred to was the violence that America had wrought around the world and that Kennedy had failed to stop. While most took the “failed to stop” reference as the Civil Rights struggle of the time, it could also mean the Vietnam conflict which Kennedy was looking to get out of; or it most likely meant the slavery enterprise that brought Africans here and the ways of the American capitalist system that kept minorities down. And since these portions of history are episodes that many in our government and culture want to (and are still trying) to forget, it seems that our government is fated to repeat them again and again.
The one episode I wanted to focus on is currently being played out today in Texas. Since 2012, border patrols have seen a steady uptick in the amount of unaccompanied minors crossing the Mexican-American border. While the bulk of these children originally came from Mexico, over the last year or so the majority of the children originated in Central America—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador most recently. These are not immigrants in the traditional sense: those trying to sneak into America to find work and start over in a new land whatever the personal cost. These children were fleeing increasing crime and violence in their home countries where they risked their lives if they stayed. The children have not been trying to evade capture, but have been walking up to border patrol agents and surrendering to them begging for help. Technically they are seeking asylum, but in some cases at seven or eight years old, they wouldn’t know the correct term asylum. Meanwhile the crisis was mounting as there were too many children still in the system, nowhere to put them until they were processed into the system, and not enough judges, lawyers, translators, or even court equipment to process anyone within the system, and still more children coming across Mexico from Central America to get to America. This led to the photos of children sleeping in cages, protesters stopping busloads of children from being processed, militia groups heading down to the Texas border, and the crisis continuing. We hear the continuing debate over whether to accept these children as refugees or deport them as illegal immigrants. Before we consider passing judgment en mase, we should take a look at some of the ways this crisis was created.
For this we have to go back a ways. Back to 1945 in fact. This was the year the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank were formed. The World Bank’s purpose is to help developing countries with their economies through creating productive projects, and encourage the growth of productive private sector enterprises. The idea is to create economies to help the countries thrive, usually through loans. To have participate in World Bank projects and have access to that capital, each country must be a member of the IMF. The IMF is a United Nations affiliated agency that is responsible for stabilizing international exchange rates and payments. The main way they can do this—and their core business model—is to provide loans to member states when they have difficulties with the balance of payments other member states. As part of the conditions of the loans, the countries receiving the loans need to substantially restructure their economic systems in order to get them. Both Guatemala and Honduras joined the IMF in 1945, and El Salvador joined in 1946. The restructuring of economic systems between member states usually favor the larger Western capitalist members of the World Bank and IMF (e.g, United States and England) often giving the developed countries control over those underdeveloped countries. As pointed out in Mark Hertsgaard’s book The Eagle’s Shadow “America’s overwhelming influence within the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank helped ensure that [the] free market vision carried the day, especially in weaker economies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Just as globalization has been largely Americanization, so Reagan’s version of free market capitalism has become the global norm.”
Some of these restructuring includes trade liberalization and deregulation. NAFTA is a perfect example of this. Over the last three decades, those old enough to remember have experienced first hand the consequences of deregulation and privatization: recessions, greater opportunities for corruption, consolidation of businesses and industries, the concentration of wealth towards the upper classes and elites, the contraction of jobs among the middle class, and—to make up for all of that—the increased slashing of funds to the underclasses and poor and the social safety nets. As a developed first world nation, we are not immune to these issues and have suffered, but many muddle through. For those in underdeveloped nations that are already struggling economically, these new economic pressures are enormous and nearly insurmountable. Yet they still owe money on loans to the IMF and World Bank. It is a vicious cycle that many countries cannot get out of.
Still there are many people who are under the feet of these agencies that either try to speak out, push for legislation or union organization, and do what they can to deal with the economic disparities that are inherent in this system. This is where the SOA comes in. While the training the foreign soldiers receive are intended to provide, as stated in their recent mission statements, “leadership development, counter-drug operations, peace support, and disaster relief,” they are trained in, according to the group SOA Watch, “counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics.” These graduates work as an arm of enforcement to pursue the gains of increasing economic development or to keep what gains made by the government. Union leaders have been killed and/or tortured, potential government officials have been threatened and voters intimidated to ensure a status quo, and civilian populations have been disappeared to make way for certain projects. And it is not that far in the past. In June 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a military coup ordered by the Honduran Supreme Court. The policies implemented by the resulting regime—which were also infiltrated by drug cartels members—led to illegal land grabs, persecution of indigenous peoples and other human rights violations. To say the least this only exacerbated internal problems within the country.
In addition to this, the US led War on Drugs has only militarized the region further. $800 million was sent to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for “security aid” specifically to combat cartels and drug gangs. The security was less for the people and more for the businesses within these countries that deal with the US and other European countries abroad. And while the money never trickles down to the lower classes, the violence does. There is a gang problem in these countries, but it’s not like a gang problem we know in the US. Many are of various drug cartels and operate freely in this environment, preying on the population. If you look like you have money, you are targeted for extortion schemes or outright forced into paying protection. Others are forced recruited into the gangs as mules or other low level grunt work. Rape, family violence and murder are common techniques of the gangs to enforce their rule or obtain new territory.
This is the environment, the everyday experience that these children are escaping from to travel through Mexico to get to our borders to surrender in hopes to get asylum here. These are refugees fleeing from conflict much like anyone in the Middle East. It is a conflict we have created with decades of economic policy, drug policy, military policy, and overall foreign policy. And yet we frame the debate over these children in terms of immigration and legality or residency. We stick to our story that people flock to America because we have a way of life that everyone in the world is jealous of and wants a part of, ignorant of the fact that for many we are the cause of the way of life they are trying to escape. We argue that we have limited resources for the people in this country much less to share with people who are trying to enter the country illegally, but we ignore that if not for suppressing the economic viability of their countries they would have no need to flee in the first place. In the elite’s need for control and consumption, we are creating an untenable situation for us and the countries we exploit to further our own wants.
This situation is not only a crisis of humanitarian need but also one of moral responsibility. Rightfully those on the humane side of the debate frame this crisis in the religious ideal of how we treat the stranger. Within all the Abrahamic traditions they talk about treating the stranger as we would on of our own—to some extent at our own peril. Exodus 22:20-23 says “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” If that’s not a reason to accept the stranger, I don’t know what is. However in this case, the stranger really is one of our own. These are children we have created out of economic need or greed. These are our chickens coming home to roost, or at the very least asking to roost here. What responsibility do we have to our own children?
The biblical parable of the Prodigal Son gives us some guidance. As told by Jesus, a father gives the younger of his two sons his inheritance before he dies. The younger son, after traveling far away and wasting his fortune goes hungry during a famine. He repents and returns home with the intention of begging to be employed and renouncing his kinship to his father. Regardless, the father immediately welcomes him back as his son and holds a feast to celebrate his return. The older son refuses to participate, stating that in all the time the son has worked for the father, he did not even celebrate with his friends. His father reminds the older son that everything the father has is the older son’s, but that they should still celebrate the return of the younger son because he has come back to them. As said in Luke 15:32 “‘But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
These children are here escaping a living situation that was our fault. These are our children. For that alone we have a moral obligation to do something for them. We also have a moral obligation to live up to our own true values as a country. We call ourselves a nation of immigrants to gloss over the fact that we are a nation of conquerors. We took this land and nearly eradicated one population, enslaved another population (or two or three) to help build up this land to be what it is for those who could afford it. But the spirit with we tell this cover story can outweigh some of the damage caused by the truth and can lead us in the direction towards our true nation’s character. We can live up to Emma Lazarus’ words if we respond to the moral obligation we have to those chickens coming home to roost.
There is hope because some people believe this as well. I am glad to live in a state where the Governor realizes this and was willing to offer some sort of placement for a certain number of children. But still there are deportations and legal processes ongoing; some of you may have heard about the protest of deportations earlier this week in Boston. A week ago a number of people, including several Unitarian ministers, protested and were arrested at the White House protesting deportations. In El Paso Texas, the militia convoy that was on the way to the border was met with a larger counterprotest that essentially drove them out of El Paso.
Still this is a problem decades in the making and one that will continue. In Malcolm X’s speech in December 1963, he said “White America refuses to study, reflect, and learn a lesson from history; ancient Egypt didn’t have to be destroyed. It was her corrupt government, the crooked politicians, who caused her destruction.” We need an education in what our own government is doing in our own name. We need to call our government out when it is doing something wrong and stand by that criticism. And there are things we can still do now. First of all, while there is still no comprehensive immigration policy in place for the US, we need to add our voices to the shaping of it. We need to ensure that we are looking at people as people and not an “other.” The children that are still here are waiting for their chance to be heard in front of a judge, which is their right to due process. We must honor that, for that is the law of our land. We need to tell President Obama to use the powers he can to make sure the children have translators, a lawyer provided for each child to present their case in court, and the time made to process all the children whatever designation they may be. But we must also call on him to recognize the past situation and realize that these are refugees and to treat them as such. We need to correct the economic policies that are causing the disparities in countries world-wide. There is no need to flee your home country if things are stable. We need to ensure that all countries can exist and thrive on the same level playing field, not try to rig the game towards one ideology. What I intend to do is go back to Ft. Benning, GA this November 21-23 to protest at the gates of the SOA. It, like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, is a stain on our national conscience and it needs to be closed permanently and I will continue to speak out against it until it is.
Progress has to be made, and it will not be made without effort. Malcolm X said “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made. They haven’t even begun to pull the knife out much less try to heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.” As the SOA activists say, another world is possible but it will take work. The first step has to come from seeing the damage done, and working to heal it.