Strangers in the Land of Egypt

My heart had a visitor this week.

Knock, knock.


"Hi, I’m Anger."

"Oh, yes. I recognize you by the tightening I’m feeling. You’re here about that letter. Come on in.”

The letter was one that Yency got. Yency, for those of you who don’t know, is the Honduran young man LoraKim and I adopted when he was 17. (Yency's story: See here.) He is now 24, and last September we celebrated his swearing in as a US citizen. He proceeded to get a US passport, which he used over the Christmas break to go visit his family back in Honduras. Before he left, I went with him downtown to register to vote. We took his official certificate of US citizenship, his social security card, his passport with us. But the only thing he was asked for was his drivers licence, which they photocopied and attached to half-page form he filled out, and that was that. He didn’t need any of the other documentation after all.

I said, “I guess your drivers license number was part of what you provided in the citizenship process, so their computers will be able to match your drivers license with your citizenship status.” And I didn’t think more about it. The letter from the voter registrar came while Yency was in Honduras. I figured it was his voter registration card. I put it on his desk to be there for him when he returned and forgot about it. He shared with me this week that it wasn’t his voter registration card. It was a letter saying his drivers license didn’t go through. Wasn't verified. Would he please provide further documentation.

I know that every time you impose one extra step in the process, then a certain percentage of people won’t do that step. Imposing additional steps and requirements and inconveniences on target populations succeeds in reducing the voting representation of those populations. That’s when I felt Anger knocking.

"Come on in, Anger. What can I do for you?"

Anger said, “I appreciate the attention you’re giving me. You used to push me away, and I’d have to go around and slip in the back door. But since you’re being so attentive -- and that’s really all I ever wanted -- let me ask if I can help you.”

“I’m feeling the energy I’m getting from you,” I said.

“I offer you that energy at your disposal as my gift,” said Anger, graciously.

So I started looking up what’s going in Florida. Certain of the powers that be in this state are prepared to use any means they can get away with to disenfranchise any population that’s less likely to vote for them. For example, Florida is one of 13 states in which convicted Felons permanently and forever lose the right to vote. Most states allow felons to return to voting after they have completed their incarceration and all supervised release – and some never suspend voting rights: people can vote from prison.

For a second example, just a few years back, in 2008, Florida had a big purge of voter registration rolls that removed 12,000 voters mostly due to typos and other obvious clerical errors. And I’m in favor of cleaning up the typos, but, lookit, something other than an OCD impulse for clerical accuracy is going on here. Seventy percent of the flagged voters in Florida’s purge were African American or Latino.

For a third example, it turns out that voter registration drives accounted for 15% of all Latino registrations and twenty percent of all African American registrations, but only 6 percent of white registrations, so the state of Florida passed a law last spring to substantially restrict voter registration drives. I thought it was curious when we couldn’t get Yency registered at the local library, or, indeed, anywhere, I discovered, other than the one office downtown, which is not in a major governmental office building but tucked away in its own little storefront where it’s just a little harder to find. But find it we did.

A study released last month by the think-tank Demos found a huge gap between registration rates of native-born citizens and naturalized citizens. Complexity of registration is part of the problem. The study noted:
“There are also discriminatory policies that inhibit their ability to register to vote. These include ethnic minorities being blocked by election administrators in the voter registration process; laws requiring voters to prove their citizenship prior to registering to vote; and inaccurate database citizenship checks.”
For the Demos study: click here.
"How you feeling now, Anger?" I asked.

"Going strong," said Anger.

I guess we’ll be going down with Yency to visit the registrar on Monday, tomorrow. Yency, however, was not much bothered. He been through much, much worse bureaucratic run-around than one more visit to an office to clear up some paperwork. He’s used to, and patient about, bureaucratic hurdles, and it reminds me that my own impatience when I hit much smaller snags is a luxury of my own white privilege.

I learned a lot about that the four years LoraKim and I lived in El Paso: 700 thousand people, the Census Bureau reported. For three-fourths of them a language other than English is spoken at home. From the roof of our house, we could look out over Juarez, Mexico, a city of 1.4 million. During 2003, I was staying up in Albuquerque five days a week on a ministerial internship, and back home in El Paso for two days.

Every week, I’d be on an early morning bus for the five-hour bus ride from El Paso to Albuquerque.
And every week the bus pulled into a Border Patrol checkpoint, and an agent would board the bus and go through checking papers. Sometimes some of the passengers were taken away. I never had to show any papers – never even had to show an ID. Week after week, month after month, I got this reminder about my privilege. And each week it made me a little sadder.

It was in the 7th month of internship, when this had been going on every week for more than half a year, when, after one such episode, I got my journal out of my bag, and this is what I wrote:
80 miles north of El Paso
on I-25 headed for Albuquerque
my bus pulls into a Border Patrol checkpoint.
Weekly, I participate in this ritual.
The green clad agent steps aboard.
"If you are a US citizen, state the city and state of your birth
If you are not, show your documentation."
As far as I can see, the green agent and I
are the only Anglos on this full bus.
Border Patrol makes her way down the aisle,
frowning at papers of widely varying size, shape, color,
sometimes also asking for separate ID, sometimes not.

My head bows under the world's weight upon this spot.
This posture cues me to a whispered prayer.
"May there be an end to invidious distinctions
including those based on whether our mothers,
when we first peaked out from them into the world,
were north or south
of a line
a few politicians and generals drew
more than 150 years ago.
May I find ways to help bring
justice from my unjust privilege.
And blessed be all of us on this bus, including the Border Patrol agent,
as we all struggle in our diverse ways
to realize the fullness of our humanity."

She gets finally to me on the backmost seat.
This week no one has been hauled off.
I look up from clasped hands in lap
For a flicker our eyes meet.
My voice says, "Richmond, Virginia."
This only is asked of me, no papers, no ID.
Pale skin and the right sort of accent clinch it,
if I will but utter the name of an approved holy city
as the weekly sacrament of transition
from El Paso husband to Albuquerque minister intern.

I only have to say out loud my condemnation.
Richmond is a city much farther away than Mexico,
and memory recalls only a few passings-through,
none recent.
Of Richmond, I vaguely know a view of a skyline from the interstate, nothing more.
Not that it matters.
What I'm saying with those two words is:
I am on your side, Agent Green Jump Suit.
I deny Yahweh's call for a preferential option for the poor.
I deny Buddha's call to live compassion rather than fear.
I deny my faith profession:
        the unitarian commitment to the unity of us all
        the universalist commitment to universal community
From my lips, this two-word Peter's denial: "Richmond, Virginia."

Peter, having spoken, saw in a dizzy flash, as I do:
We who long to be merely good,
Are revealed as rotten with complicity with the empire.
And what could show more clearly than that
That the world’s brokenness and mine are one?
That’s what I wrote. Looking back, I see that as an important lesson in "The Education of Meredith." The weekly bus ride experience on the way to my internship was one of the important lessons of that internship. It showed me my unfair privilege over and over until I began to see it. Since then, things have grown worse out west – and all over. Arizona passed that bill SB 1070 to target Hispanic immigrants.

UUA President Peter Morales in
yellow, and Rev. Susan
Frederick-Gray, center, in white
In July 2010, a number of Unitarian Universalists went to Phoenix to protest and engage in civil disobedience. I’m sorry I wasn’t with them. My colleague, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix was among those who went to jail. As she related in a subsequent sermon:
“Anyone who was in that jail with me on those days can not deny the racism that underpins this rhetoric of fear around illegal immigration. I was surprised how openly the Sheriff and his deputies tried to draw lines between the protesters along race. I am told the Sheriff went into one of the cells with some of the protesters and asked the white protesters what they were doing and why they cared about these Hispanics. Didn’t they see that they had more in common with him? Audrey Williams, an African American woman who needed a wheelchair while in jail, was put in solitary confinement for almost 20 hours. When she made repeated requests to be put with the other protesters, her friends, they told her “those white people don’t care anything about you.” They tried to bait us and divide us with race and they spoke of their own work along racial lines. No matter what our politicians say, unequal treatment along lines of race was in effect during our time in the jail.”
There is a fear and a hatred in the land. As people of faith we are called to stand against it, to stand on the side of love, to know and to renounce our unjust privilege in the name of the much greater rewards of connection and solidarity and siblinghood. We have a long and deep theological grounding for this stand. It’s a grounding that goes back to roots of Judaism, from which Christianity sprung, from which Unitarian Universalism sprung.

Exodus 22:21:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
It's a point the Hebrew Scriptures repeated for emphasis. Exodus 23:9:
“You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
And repeated again. Leviticus 19:33:
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Many rabbis consider these texts among the most central in Judaism. The theological grounding for the importance of this commandment is that the Jews are given to understand that the land isn’t theirs. The land is God’s – as God tells them in Leviticus 25:23:
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”
This was their way of making the point that there is no true ownership of land – the land and the trees and the water under it and flowing over it – belong to the earth, belong to all life, not to me and you.

LoraKim and I have deed and title to our house and a plot of land. The law says we own it – but I know this is a legal fiction. The squirrels, woodpeckers, owls, armadillos, gopher tortoises and the occasional fox who pass through the yard know it, too. The spiritual truth is that all of the Earth belongs to all of life.

If the spiritual is whatever lifts us out of “I, me, mine,” lifts us out of protective fear into a spacious perception of abundance -- lifts us out of any “we, us, ours” that doesn’t include all sentient beings, then recognizing that all of the Earth belongs to all of life is a spiritual act. I believe that’s what the Hebrew people were really saying, in their own way. The moral and emotional truth of “the land is mine, saith the Lord, with me you are but aliens and tenants,” is that the Earth is not truly ours.

The American poet Emma Lazarus was Jewish and would have known well that teaching, do not oppress the stranger for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt. In 1883 she wrote a sonnet called "The New Colossus" which was later inscribed on a bronze plaque at the base of the statue of liberty.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Certainly no person is refuse. I understand Lady Liberty, as written by Emma Lazarus, to be saying: "Even if you have been treated as refuse, I welcome you. Even if your ethnos or class has been regarded as refuse by the prevailing prejudices of the powerful for centuries, I will take you in. Even if you have come to think of yourself as nothing but wretched refuse, I show my light for you, shine the way to the door of freedom for you, and thereby announce to the world, and to you, that you are nothing of the kind."

We do have in our hearts a yearning to be a hospitable and welcoming people – it’s at the foundation of our most cherished emblem, the Statue of Liberty. Yet our national heart is closing against itself.

As the good Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray said:
“We must see that it is unconscionable to fail to create legal avenues for people to come to this country to work, yet provide abundant jobs and opportunity that draw them here. It is unconscionable to allow companies to take vans to Mexico to recruit workers, and now claim that those workers came her illegally and attempt to criminalize them. It is unconscionable to criminalize and put in jail young people who were brought here as children, who had no criminal intent—to criminalize them for the decisions of their parents. It is unjust to have a situation where people have been working here for decades, owning homes, building lives, raising families and all of a sudden try to deport them from their lives. It is unjust and sinful to have law enforcement going into predominantly Latino neighborhoods in the middle of the night knocking on doors, pulling people over for minor traffic violations like illegal lane changes and asking them for papers. Yet this is what is happening, to neighborhoods, to citizens, to families, to children. And it is a fundamental violation of their human dignity and their civil rights.”
I would add that the devices we use to limit voting are unconscionable.

Let us be hospitable. Let us be welcoming of the stranger, for the Earth belongs to all life, and we, too, are but tenants. You’ve known what it was like to be in a situation that didn’t feel welcoming – you have been, in a manner of speaking, strangers in a metaphorical land of Egypt. You know the heart of the stranger.

Our neighborhoods are visited from people from afar. May you welcome them. And until our country becomes the place that lives up to its own principles, may you also welcome into your heart another visitor: righteous anger.

* * * * * * *

Monday 2012 January 23

I went down with Yency to the voter registrar. They were very nice. Again, we had with us all of Yency's citizenship documentation. "No, we don't need to see that," the man sad. He just took Yency's driver's license (the same Florida license he has had since 2006, since long before becoming a citizen, and which was in no way replaced, updated, or changed when he became a citizen) and typed the license number into his computers.

"It'll take three or four minutes, for the computers in Tallahassee to get back to me."

When the Spanish style of doing surnames encounters the Anglo style of identification paperwork, there is no uniform way of handling the translation.

Suppose your mother was Pamela Jones Wilson and your father was Jacob Smith Johnson, and your name is Brian Smith Jones. You have a two-part surname, with one part ("Smith") taken from one parent, and the other part ("Jones") taken from the other parent. That's the Spanish system. When this system encounters the Anglo way of paperwork and record-keeping -- where we like to list people alphabetically by last name -- we need to know whether to list you as "Jones, Brian Smith" or as "Smith Jones, Brian." Do you get filed under "J" or under "S"? For many Hispanics coming to this country, this is not a question they have thought about, and they are not equipped to understand how important it is to the Anglo mind whether you are to be filed under "J" or under "S." So they tend to shrug and do it one way sometimes and the other way other times.

Yency's full official name when he arrived from Honduras in 2004 was: "Yencis Elijardi Canaca Contreras." He got the "Canaca" from one parent and the "Contreras" from the other. Back in Honduras, his surname is regarded as "Canaca Contreras." He's been dropping the "Canaca" ever since he got to the US. Still, the "Canaca" was on his driver's license, and he didn't write it on the voter registration form he filled out.

"That's probably why the Tallahassee computers kicked it back," said the man.

In three or four minutes, Yency was confirmed, and a voter registration card was printed out for him on the spot. Not that he needed the card. We walked across the street to an early voting location, and Yency was able to cast a vote -- but they didn't need to see his voter registration card. They just asked for his drivers license. They typed his license info into the computers they had there -- which were connected to the database that the man across the street had just updated -- and he was confirmed to vote.

Yency Contreras, immediately after
casting his first ballot, Jan 23
Yency had wanted to register as an independent. We explained to him that, in Florida, that would mean you wouldn't get to vote in either the Democratic primary (when there is one) or in the Republican primary. We also reassured him that registering in one party doesn't prevent voting for the other party in a general election. So he registered as a Democrat, and did not cast a vote in the Republican primary. There was only one election on his ballot: a seat on the Gainesville City Commission for an at-large commissioner.

Wednesday 2012 Feb 1

The election results are in. The candidate for which Yency voted lost. Welcome to democracy, Yency Contreras!

* * * * *
A revised version of this sermon was delivered in Orlando on 2012 March 11. For the audio of that, click here. The audio includes Yency telling the Children's Story.

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