Thanks to the Austin American-Statesman for running a condensed version of this blog post in the Saturday, April 1 edition. No foolin’ . . .
Some of you know that I’m working on a new writing project, and no longer serving as a full-time parish pastor. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have opportunity to preach on Sundays – I was honored to preach recently at Palm Valley Lutheran in Round Rock, Texas. Solo es que prediqué en Español. I preached in Spanish for the congregation’s Hispanic Ministry effort. Thanks to colleague pastor Joaquín Figueroa for the invitation. Most of the gathered faithful were immigrants, born outside of the United States. They reminded me about el ánimo (explained below) – part of the immigrant spirit, a principal foundation of this society.
I used Isaiah 58:1-9 for my message. This post-exilic text – leaders returning to a destroyed Jerusalem to reconstruct the city and its temple around 500 B.C.E. – entreats people to remember that the best religious practice balances worship piety and social concerns. Plain and simple: gathering for worship to sing, pray, and uplift Scripture goes hand-in-hand with the good acts of feeding the hungry, welcoming refugees, and practicing justice in the market place.
On the surface, our current societal context in the United States is much different from Israel’s in the 5th century before Christ. The Israelites lacked material resources as they returned to their homeland with hopes and dreams. Here in the United States, material resources abound for many to pursue their hopes and dreams. What the two disparate contexts have in common is anxiety – personal and societal. Israel was anxious about the momentous task of rebuilding their city while having to protect themselves. In the United States, we have levels of personal and societal anxiety that are off the charts.
And what do individuals and societies do when they experience high levels of anxiety? They turn inward. Adopting survival-mode is a logical response – and some will argue, a biological one – to anxiety. It’s natural to turn inward and to close ranks; individuals put me first, and societies adopt us and them language and put tribe, ethnic group, or nation first.
Be careful, however. Turning inward is a legitimate response for emergency situations; as a long-term strategy, however, turning inward doesn’t make for a better me, you, us, or nation. This was the prophet’s message from two and a half millennia past. Reaching out to the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and treating others fairly in the market place were vital components to the right practice of religion. They still are.
After the worship service, we gathered for Estudio Bíblico – Bible study. Pastor Figueroa invited me to present a few themes from my work on faith and inequality from my book Just a Little Bit More, now available in summary form in Spanish as Solo un Poco Más. We had a lively discussion, using Ecclesiastes 5:10 as a guide. We talked about work, money, faith, responsibility, and el ánimo – best translated in English as drive, enthusiasm, effort. The stories shared spoke of sacrifice, perseverance, and dogged hope – and good ol’ hard work. All of the men who were present work in construction; the women work as house and office cleaners, and in healthcare. Almost all send money to relatives in their native countries. These are great American traits and practices – busting one’s tail for extended family, paying taxes, teaching children the value of hard work, and uplifting common good by attitude and lifestyle. This is the immigrant spirit that so many have brought to these shore through the generations and still today. This is the positive spirit of just a little bit more.
The negative spirit of just a little bit more has shaped American society as well. Slavery and the near-extermination of indigenous inhabitants were carried out, whether the perpetrators knew it or not, in the spirit of social Darwinist conquest. In that day for many, the end result justified the means used. Today, greedy Wall Street firms and pharmaceutical companies blatantly ripping off customers are only two examples of the pervasive negative spirit of getting what’s mine at the expense of someone else. Today we know that neither the means nor the ends are justified when someone takes advantage of another socially or economically.
Drive, enthusiasm, and effort – el ánimo – are great traits when used for the betterment of family, community, and society. Life is complicated; efforts at betterment, small or large, must be examined continually to make sure that others are not taken advantage of in the process.
High levels of personal and societal anxiety explain why a lot of Americans voted for nominee Trump. His promise “to put America first” struck a chord. What “America first” means precisely and whether he can carry it out in the globalized twenty-first century remains to be seen. While he doesn’t disdain immigrants or migration generally – First Lady Melania is an immigrant – his specific disdain of people of Mexican heritage, Mexican migrants (whether legal or undocumented), and his attempted ban of Syrian immigration sends a clear message: some immigrants are not to be trusted. No one has or ever will accuse the president of being a historian; his strategy of turning inward goes against the best moments of our history and joins some of the worst (the Trail of Tears in the 1830s; FDR interning Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor; the flourishing of the Klan in the 1950s; and, the era of McCarthyism).
When the president models reactionary behavior concerning immigration, it follows that some ugly bits of our history will be repeated. Take a stand – either from religious conviction or human solidarity – and welcome the stranger in your midst. We have more in common than that which differentiates us. The following story exemplifies the best of the immigrant spirit.
I travelled to Detroit with eight of my high school youth two summers ago for a five-day national youth gathering – 30,000 Lutherans descended upon the Motor City. The Detroit Chamber of Commerce slipped up a bit; apparently word didn’t get around that the Lutherans – 30,000 hungry people with money to spend – would be arriving mid-week. Late that Wednesday afternoon of our arrival we walked downtown Detroit with the goals of taking in a few sights and getting some eats. I had checked the Web previously and picked out a place called Gateway Deli (I’m a big sandwich guy, and my youth gave me first dibs on choosing a place to eat). We found the place – 333 W. Fort Street – but it was closed!! The restaurant’s hours were 7am – 4pm. We were so disappointed – and hungry. I looked inside past the “CLOSED” sign to see if someone was inside. A guy came to the door and opened up. He said, sorry, we’re closed. He had an eastern European accent. I explained our dilemma. He said that he heard a big group was coming this weekend, but he had no idea people were arriving today. He said he’d been there that morning since 4:30am. I said your menu looks great – I had perused it online. Then he said the magic words: “Come on in. I’ll take care of you.” He had already put in twelve hours that day.
And he did take care of us. One of his wait staff was still there. Between the two of them they served us – a group of ten – with smiles, hospitality, and great food. And, yes, we gave our server, a middle-aged white woman who had to moved to Detroit from Arkansas, a hefty tip. As the youth finished their meals, I went over and talked to the kind man who let us in after they had closed. He said call him “Q.” He was the proprietor. Yes, he was an immigrant from eastern Europe; I didn’t ask which country. He had previously lived and worked in New York City, and then moved to Detroit in 2013. He heard that rents were cheaper in Detroit, and that the city was making a comeback from the turmoil of the 2008-09 economic crash. And he was right – Detroit is coming back, thanks to immigrants like Q and other hard-working Detroiters. Three days later we came back and had a great breakfast. That weekend he stayed open later for dinner and had staff to cover. Our second meal at Gateway Deli was just as good as our first, and all of our youth got a kick out of thanking our new immigrant friend who went by the cool name of Q.
The immigrant spirit. There’s no America without it. The immigrant spirit reminds us where we’ve come from; it reminds us that this land originally did not belong to us; it helps keep us honest and focused. Spend some time and talk to the next person you encounter who speaks English with an accent. Listen to their story. Their immigrant story just might surprise you – for the better.
This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.
If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.
Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.
The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!
¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!
2 thoughts on “The Immigrant Spirit”
The best and most quotable reflection on immigration I’ve read. May you continue to flourish in your sabbatical.
As I am sure you know, Trump is not the first isolationist/non-intervention President. Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, and even FDR before he was dragged into WW II by the Japanese, were all for shunning “entanglements” with foreign countries. Many times in our relatively short history have there been restrictions and bans on immigration, some for good reasons. I think Trump’s immigration actions and Executive orders are appalling, unfair and unnecessary. As you know, I have written my Senator twice to protest these policies. However, we have to find a balance between being the welcoming, equal opportunity country that, as you point out, has made us historically strong with the security of our country and safety of our population. Unfortunately, this may require temporary measures that are more restrictive. If you have any thoughts on that, I am all ears.