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On Sacred Ground

August 10, 2010

by Judy Goldberger

“To enforce the duty of tenderness to the poor, the inspired law-giver referred the children of Israel to their own past experience; ‘Ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ He who hath been a stranger amongst unkind people, or under their government who were hard-hearted, knows how it feels: but a person who hath never felt the weight of misapplied power, comes not to this knowledge, but by an inward tenderness, in which the heart is prepared to sympathy with others.” (John Woolman, 1793, A Plea for the Poor)

Saturday, May 1st, I joined with Boston’s March, Rally and Celebration for Immigrant and Worker Rights, winding its way through the immigrant communities of Everett, Chelsea, and East Boston. Although it had been planned well before Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed S.B 1070 into law, the implications of the legislation and its repercussions across the country in Massachusetts heightened the urgency of the day for many of the marchers.

Hundreds of immigrants, most from Latin America and Brazil, turned out for the march. Teenagers came with their classmates. Mothers pushed strollers with young children. A couple of men brought their drums. Many of the signs were handmade. “No a la discriminación. Todos somos uno,” read one (No to discrimination. We are all one.). Another, laboriously written on a scrap of cardboard, affirmed “I am an alien, but my rights are human.”

I was blessed this weekend to also catch a radio interview with South African Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu.[1] Tutu recounted “discovering that the Bible could be such dynamite.” He continued, “the scriptures say it is because we are created in the image of God, that each one of us is a God-carrier. No matter what our circumstances may be, no matter how awful, no matter how deprived you could be, it doesn’t take away from you this intrinsic worth.” In apartheid South Africa, where whites commonly called blacks “Annie” or “boy” rather than by name, Tutu reminded his parishioners of a deeper reality. “When they ask who are you, you say, ‘Me? I’m a God-carrier. I’m God’s partner. I’m created in the image of God.’” In that encounter with God, his parishioners are transformed. “[Y]ou could see those dear old ladies as they walked out of church on that occasion as if they were on cloud nine. You know, they walked with their backs slightly straighter.”

On Saturday, May 1, I witnessed such an inbreaking of God’s deeper reality. In the face of rhetoric that names undocumented immigrants as animals, invaders, and thieves, these men, women, and children, had come together to assert their humanity and the nation’s obligation to treat them with respect. I was standing on sacred ground.

But God had other transformation to work in my heart. At the end of the march, while I was standing in line waiting to use the toilet, I turned around to see behind me the young woman I had seen earlier, carrying that handmade cardboard sign, “My rights are human.” She was with her daughter, a beautiful, quiet child who looked to be about three and a half years old, with deep, open eyes. As the mother tenderly helped her daughter out of the stroller, my eye fell for the first time on the handwritten cardboard sign that the girl had been carrying. “I miss my dad,” it read. “He was deported.”

John Woolman was not content to stay at home and rely on news reports. He left all that was familiar and directed himself to a place of encounter. One key trip took place in 1763, when he met with Native American peoples. As he traveled among them and came to know the reality of their lives, his understanding of his relationship with these people was transformed. “I was led to meditate on the manifold difficulties of these Indians,” he wrote in his journal, “…and a near sympathy with them was raised in me; and my heart being enlarged in the Love of Christ, I thought that the affectionate care of a good man for his only brother in affliction does not exceed what I then felt for that people.”

Like John Woolman, I have not “felt the weight of misapplied power” to the extent of others in my generation. Thus, it has been my experience that it is in face-to-face encounters such as this that God works transformation in me. This is the distinct work which was mine this May 1st on this sacred ground: to prepare my heart for God to work within and journey to the place of encounter, to know this woman as my sister, her daughter as my own. When my heart knows this, I am committed to labor with them for a release from their afflictions. My heart has been enlarged, and I can do no other.


[1] Tippett, Krista (April 29, 2010) “Desmond Tutu’s God of Surprises.” http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2010/tutu/transcript.shtml

Judy Goldberger is a member of Beacon Hill Friends Meeting (Boston, MA), New England Yearly Meeting. She is the daughter and great-granddaughter of central and eastern European immigrants. She is grateful to and humbled by the immigrant families, many from Central and South America, who have welcomed her into their lives as a doula and maternity nurse.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Diane Benton permalink
    August 17, 2010 2:38 pm

    Yes, everyone is to be treated with respect as are the laws of the country where one resides. If people decide some laws are immoral and choose to disregard them then those people should also respect the people charged with administering the prescribed punishment for the illegal activity. Claiming victimhood is disingenuous. When people who break the law as an act of civil disobedience accept their culpability they have a much better chance of being treated with respect and compassion.

  2. August 17, 2010 4:06 pm

    Thank you for this beautifully written post! I have to disagree (respectfully) with Diane Benton in terms of laws deserving respect, though. It is others, who first and formost deserve respect. Laws are a reflection of humans and can be good or deeply flawed.

    It has been “respect” to laws that helped the holocast, slavery, apartheid, genocide… the list could go on. Laws should (or should not) be respected by the merit of the law and its effect on people, not because it is a “Law.”

    I think we walk a fine line when we claim some people are victims and some are not. Some “deserve what they got” and some are “victims.” When we make the distinction between valid consequences for a person’s actions and invalid persecution or treatment, what is our foundation to do so? It think this needs to be deeply considered before we accuse a person of “claiming victimhood.”

    • Diane Benton permalink
      August 18, 2010 12:32 am

      I see a difference between “deserving respect” and being “treated with respect”. Neither people nor laws are to be respected based on their merits. Just as I was “respectfully” disagreed with, laws can be respectfully disagreed with. Fear not respect is what usually causes people to go along with laws or policies they believe are wrong.

      I also see a difference between accusing ‘a person of “claiming victimhood”’ and saying “claiming victimhood is disingenuous” when one is being punished for breaking a law. I surely know it’s not for me to determine who deserves what. Judges dismiss me as a juror because I don’t accept that it’s my place to say whether or not someone is guilty.

  3. August 19, 2010 8:11 pm

    I find myself pondering more and more what justification there can be for immigration laws at all.

    I do not mean that it is wrong to keep people out of a country if they have plans for the violent overthrow of its government.

    But I look at our immigration laws, and those of most of the world, and I see laws that seem to be primarily intended to keep poor people out of rich countries. And more and more, I do not understand by what right we take the resources from poor nations and yet refuse entry to the people from those countries.

    I have not yet had this situation explained to me in a way that removes my growing sense that what is really behind the entire edifice of immigration law is an unwillingness to share equitably the earth’s wealth with all the earth’s people. It seems to me that what we are most interested in protecting is our unearned economic privilege.

    If I am wrong in this, I hope someone can explain to me how.

  4. Jeremy Mott permalink
    August 24, 2010 7:23 am

    Cat, I think you are correct in your thnking. The main
    purpose of all immigration laws that I know of is to keep
    the poor out of richer countries. I cannot see how
    such laws deserve much respect—any more than fugitive
    slave laws deserved respect.
    A few years ago, one of our fellow Quakers, whose name
    I have unfortunately forgotten, created the sanctuary
    movement. The members of this movement were united in
    disobeying U.S. immigration laws so that they could
    help both economic and political refugess from Central
    America, where civil wars were raging.
    And how could anyone tell if an immigrant intended to
    overthrow the government? That sounds to me like
    dangerous mind control Yet our immigration laws do
    attempt to accomplish this feat, by outlawing the entry
    of anarchists, communists, and the like.
    And despite everything that I have just said, we must
    remember that the United States has more legal immigration
    than any other country in the world. Only Canada comes
    close to us. Since World War II, our immigration laws
    have been so often and so much liberalized that about
    four or five times as many legal immigrants are admitted
    each year. We have re-opened the golden door, and left
    it ajar. One of the major jobs of many AFSC offices is
    helping people in the U.S.A. illegally to gain legal status.
    In doing this, they are carring on a long Quaker tradition.
    Jeremy Mott

  5. Jeremy Mott permalink
    August 24, 2010 10:04 pm

    Now I remember tne name of the Friend who founded the Sanctuary
    Movement. He was Jim Corbett, I believe. The movement grew to
    included a large number of Christian churches of different denominations, and Jewish and other groups as well. It seems to
    me that Corbett was the author of one or two Pendle Hill pamphlets
    on this subject.
    I have no idea whether or not some Central American evangelical
    Friends used the Sanctuary Movement underground, though I wouldn’t
    be surprised if some did. There are about 30 Hispanic Friends
    churches in the U.S.A. now, and I have read that many or most
    of the pastors, and many of the members, are Guatemalan.
    It’s amazing, and doesn’t speak well for Friends, that our “history”
    of only 25 years or so ago is now almost forgotten.
    Jeremy Mott

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