The Immigrant Spirit

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.

Q and T. Carlos – Gateway Deli, Detroit – July 2015


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.

isbn 9780991532827

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!





Whole Foods Market – Detroit


It might seem as if all the news coming out of Detroit lately has been bad . . . blighted and abandoned neighborhoods, the first major American city to declare bankruptcy, crippling unemployment. In 1950,
Detroit was the fourth most populous city in the United States with 1.8 million residents. Its population has been in decline ever since. The 2008-09 economic crash caused Detroit’s unemployment rate to peak at 28 percent, and Detroit’s population plummeted to under 725,000 with two hundred thousand residents leaving the Motor City during the crisis.

You might have heard that Detroit is a “food desert,” meaning that there are no grocery stores selling fresh produce within the city limits. That’s not true. There are a number of loyal grocers within the city limits – the Honey Bee Market, established in 1956, caters to a mostly Latino clientele in southwest Detroit, and University Foods, established in 1979, serves the upper Midtown area. The Eastern Market, located about a mile from Ford Field stadium, is the largest public historic market district in the United States. Especially on Saturdays, thousands of Detroit area residents flock to buy the fresh produce it offers. It also serves as a tailgate destination before Detroit Lions home games in the fall. There are other local grocers and discounters like Save-A-Lot (the precursor to Dollar General as a grocer); but when the Farmer Jack grocery chain closed its single remaining store in 2007, that meant major grocery chains no longer had operations in Detroit. No Albertsons, Kroger, or Safeway stores within Motown’s city limits – not even Walmart, the largest grocer in the United States.

Austin-based Whole Foods, surprisingly, decided to enter Detroit’s city limits, setting up shop on Mack Avenue in lower Midtown in June 2013. Whole Foods sells high quality, organic, and sustainable foods to customers nationwide via employees who are treated well – starting wages are usually around $11/hour, with benefits offered after four to six months on the job. Whole Foods strives to practice environmental stewardship through its relationships with suppliers, and touts commitment to “greater good” as a core value in its aggregate operations. Whole Foods is also one of the most expensive grocery stores in the country.

St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran youth with store manager Larry Austin

The ELCA Youth Gathering brought 30,000 Lutheran high schoolers to Detroit in July 2015. I came to the gathering with eight youth and a wonderful adult leader, Chelsi West, representing St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin. The gathering youth and their leaders performed service projects throughout the city, and filled the Ford Field stadium four nights for music, fellowship, and inspiration from superb speakers. It was a fantastic event, and many Detroiters expressed gratitude for our presence that brought service muscle and economic support to the city and surrounding area.

While in Detroit for the event, our group went for a visit to the Whole Foods store in Detroit’s Midtown. Being from Austin, I wanted to see what “greater good” connections the seemingly incongruous placement of a Whole Foods store in the Motor City were producing. We hoofed up from Ford Field about one mile to lower Midtown on a hot Saturday afternoon. New apartment buildings contrasted with burnt-out and abandoned mansions from days gone by. My Austinite youth, accustomed to a busy downtown corridor, were surprised by the tranquility. We saw few passersby and only a modest amount of cars on the roads.

When we got to Mack Avenue in lower Midtown, we noticed more activity. The Whole Foods Market stood on the corner. At 20,000 square feet, it’s one-fourth the size of Austin’s flagship store. Yet, it’s one of the biggest grocery stores within the Detroit city limits.

Some of the grocery stores in Detroit (such as Save-A-Lot) move big quantities of cheap food with meager selection – highly processed filler and junk food like chips, crackers, and sugary treats. It’s only been in the last few decades that a major shift has occurred in world history – generally speaking, the poor are now obese and the rich are thin. For all of history, it’s been the other way around. Cheap filler food – seemingly the best option for people living in poverty – is a main contributing factor. Detroit has one of the highest obesity rates for American cities (33 percent). Whole Foods has sent one of its staff nutritionists, Dr. Akua Woolbright, to live and work in Detroit; she offers free classes on healthier eating and lifestyle change.

Store manager Larry Austin (pictured above) met with our group and talked to us of the store’s two years of operations in Detroit. Larry exudes an exemplary enthusiasm for his work and for the mission of Whole Foods in Detroit. He’s been with Whole Foods for sixteen years. The five high schoolers who joined me in conversation with Larry caught a small glimpse of Whole Foods co-CEOs John Mackey and Walter Robb’s 21st century business model. Larry told us, with a confident smile, that sales for these first two years have exceeded expectations significantly.

The Detroit store employs 180 people, half of whom actually live within city limits; the majority of these are full-time employees receiving health care benefits.

My book Just a Little Bit More proposes a newer concept – economic democracy – that uplifts the values of limits, balance, and cooperation within the competitive business environment. JaLBM promotes purposeful common good creation; it’s our responsibility to make sure the economic market lives up to that goal. Mackey and Robb concur and it’s a major reason why they put the first chain grocer back into Detroit since 2007. Granted, Whole Foods took advantage of city-offered subsidies that minimized the store rental rate ($6/square foot), but Kroger, Albertsons and Walmart haven’t done so and don’t have plans to set up shop anytime soon within Detroit’s city limits.

As for the prices in the Detroit store – overall, they seemed expensive. I expected to see more difference in terms of prices between Whole Foods in Austin and Detroit (the hot food and salad bar is available at $6.99/lb. instead of the usual $8.99/lb.). But as Mackey, Robb, and store manager Larry Austin will tell you, the store offers a significantly healthier quality of food not available anywhere else in Detroit. And also, if you’re making your own food – and not buying prepared food – you’re saving money. According to Slate writer Tracie McMillan, (her linked article is excellent), Whole Foods Detroit has a mountain of work to do if they expect Detroit’s poorer residents to shop there. McMillan says 38 percent of Detroit residents receive SNAP benefits – food stamps – but only 5-10 percent of sales at Whole Foods Detroit as of now are from residents using SNAP benefits. (Nationally, Whole Foods’ rate of SNAP benefit users is 1-2 percent of overall sales.)

Detroit has over 400 liquor stores, grossly outnumbering the city’s grocery stores. Whole Foods in Detroit is not a perfect match, but I give the corporation major props for choosing the city of Detroit for a much needed shot of fresh produce, healthier food options, and jobs.

The news from Detroit is getting better – unemployment is currently down to 10. 2 percent and further economic recovery seems to be just around the corner. Most importantly, all the Detroiters with whom we interacted – from Larry Austin to folks on the street – were upbeat about their city.

Thanks to the many Detroiters who helped make the ELCA Youth Gathering memorable and uplifting!



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. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!