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Opening Tombs and Resurrecting Lives

Easter is about opening tombs and resurrecting lives.  Today’s tombs include the Trump administration’s walls and bans and lies that confine people, threaten their safety, and block their aspirations and fulfillment.  Thus, in this life, Easter is celebrated whenever people, fleeing such oppression, are offered the safety of sanctuary.  Here, people of faith not only worship a god of justice in their holy place; they do the work of justice in that very holy place itself.

In the 1980s, The Community Church of Boston (CCB), where I was minister, was one of over 500 churches in the U.S. that provided sanctuary for Guatemalan, Salvadoran and other refugees fleeing political persecution.  For two years, from November of 1983 to December of 1985, CCB housed a Guatemalan refugee who was on the Guatemalan Army’s death list.  He lived in the Church building’s third floor — with my wife, Eva, our five-year-old daughter, Amy, and I living on the fourth floor.  In his late 20s, “Manuel Hernandez,” as he called himself, was one of a reported 250 thousand Guatemalans fleeing their government’s — U.S. supported — oppression.  (See “A Century of U.S. Intervention Created the Immigration Crisis,” by Mark Tseng-Putterman, Medium.com, June 20, 2018)  In 1985, CCB helped him to gain political asylum in Canada.  Recalling the political context is important here.

During the 1980s, Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees fled their governments’ persecution and thus qualified for political asylum in the United States.  As reported, “The Reagan administration supported military governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, viewing them as bulwarks against pro-Communist insurgencies.  And so it played down widespread human rights outrages by those regimes and affiliated death squads.”  Thus, “When Salvadorans and Guatemalans tried to enter the United States, claiming a fear of persecution in their homelands, they were typically labeled ‘economic immigrants,’ not political refugees.” (“Trump and the Battle Over Sanctuary in America,” By Clyde Haberman, The New York Times, March 5, 2017)  To recognize their political persecution would have required the U.S. government to admit its complicity in that persecution.

Writer Cole Kazdin also provides an informative context.  He states, “In 1964, the CIA helped to organize a military coup to overthrow” the ten-year democratic rule of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, whose agrarian reforms “attempted to end exploitative labor practices and give land to Mayan Indians in the highlands.”  The reform “threatened U.S. interests, like the United Fruit Company, which controlled a good portion of land in Guatemala.”  Kazdin writes that politicians “in the U.S. cried ‘communism,’ saying the labor reforms were a threat to democracy.”  (“The Violence Central American Migrants Are Fleeing Was Stoked the US,” www.vice.com, June 28, 2018)  Obviously the labor reforms were a threat to U.S. capitalism’s exploitative policies.  Imperial domination parading as “democracy.”

Mr. Kazdin quotes the assessment of University of Arizona Latin American studies professor, Elizabeth Oglesby, who states, “The war in Guatemala was really a genocide. . . . People were fleeing violence and massacres and political persecution that the United States was either funding directly or at the very minimum, covering up and excusing.” Oglesby adds “that an estimated 200,000 were killed in the subsequent 36-year-long civil war, which stretched from 1960 to 1996.” Kazdin also writes, “In Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras, there are similar stories.” (Ibid)

Most members of the non-sectarian, Unitarian Universalist-affiliated, Community Church of Boston  identified themselves politically, rather than theologically or denominationally.  They included communists, socialists, anarchists and capitalists – among who were Jews, atheists, theists, humanists, Unitarians, Christians and those of no faith persuasion.  Thus keeping religion out of politics, a common sentiment of numerous Christians, was an anathema to most CCB members.

Some members were involved in labor struggles, and knew what it meant to be called “communists.”  In certain circles, Community Church itself was seen as a “communist front” because its weekly speakers’ platform included prominent critics of U.S. foreign and domestic policies.  Members understood that politics greatly determine who shall be rich and who shall be poor, who shall be free and who shall be oppressed.  Thus they readily embraced the prophet Micah’s teaching about “the Lord” requiring people “to act justly and love mercy”  (Micah 6:8), and Jesus’ mission of “proclaim[ing] good news to the poor and sett[ing] the oppressed free.” (Luke 4: 16-18)

What brought such a diverse group of people together?  They shared a universal ethic that transcends religion, race, political ideology and sexual orientation and reveres all people as members of one human family.  Thus Community Church identifies itself as an ethic, not an edifice. Historically at CCB, holiness is not determined by the shape of a building, but by involvements that shape liberation and justice.

With such a history, at a called congregational meeting in 1983, all but one couple present voted to support CCB as a Sanctuary church.  The couple, who abstained from voting, did so fearing what the US government might do to the Church. But when those present clapped after the vote was taken, the couple immediately wrote a generous check for CCB’s sanctuary program.  CCB was the first faith congregation in the Boston area to provide sanctuary.

Key for any religious group providing sanctuary is the members knowing what the refugees they are providing sanctuary for are fleeing from, and what the members themselves are getting into.  Regarding The Community Church of Boston, many members were politically aware of Guatemala and the machinations of US foreign policy in Central America.  And when “Manuel” arrived, he greatly increased our understanding of US policy in Guatemala.  He also became an invaluable source of knowledge for the larger community – with his presentations and poetry and paintings.

Early on, an immigration official called CCB, requesting that “Manuel” come to the immigration office for an interview.  We asked “Manuel” if he want to be interviewed, and he said no.  We ignored the immigration official’s request, aware that such interviews have led to undocumented immigrants being arrested and deported.  After that, we were not contacted by any immigration official.

Important here regarding sanctuary: in addition to finding a safe place, “Manuel,” escorted by CCB members and other supporters, spoke about his people’s struggles and U.S. complicity and his experience in sanctuary to over 300 groups in New England and New York during his two years at CCB.

Sanctuary was, and is, about embracing the oppressed and confronting their oppressors.  It is not only about providing a safe place for refugees, but also calling attention to their oppression and what is required to alleviate it.  Of course, the very act of providing sanctuary itself is a commentary on the political conditions that create the need for people to find a refuge.

A critical element of sanctuary at The Community Church of Boston was the ecumenical and secular support “Manuel” and CCB received from the larger community. Rev. Victor Carpenter, minister, and Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church, two blocks down the street, provided immeasurable assistance.  Dr. Loretta Williams, Director of Social Responsibility of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), arranged a press conference at CCB, at which UUA president Rev. Eugene Pickett endorsed the Sanctuary Movement. Catholic nuns initiated speaking engagements and shepherded “Manuel,” who was Catholic, to these events at churches and colleges.  Jewish and other people of faith became involved, contributing time and financial support – as did people not affiliated with a faith group.  Manuel’s presence and safety and missional speaking engagements created increased solidarity among us at CCB and in our relationship with other faith groups — and between us and a significant segment of the larger community.

That was then.  Outraged people of faith opened tombs and resurrected lives by mobilizing the sanctuary movement in response to President Ronald Reagan’s support of Guatemala and El Salvador’s military regimes’ repression of The Other – peasants and Mayan Indians seeking freedom from the political violence caused by the chokehold of American capitalism.

And the chokehold of capitalism has continued.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Canada and Mexico has tightened the economic chokehold on Mexico.  Laura Carlsen, American Program Director at the Center for International Policy, wrote that “Under Nafta, Mexico Suffered, and the United States Felt Its Pain.”  She concluded that “Nafta has cut a path of destruction through Mexico,” saying, “as heavily subsidized U.S. corn and other staples poured into Mexico, producer prices dropped and small farmers found themselves unable to make a living.” Thus, “some two million have been forced to leave their farms since Nafta.  At the same time food prices rose.”  The result: “jobless Mexicans migrated to the United States at an unprecedented rate of half a million a year after Nafta.” (The New York Times, Nov. 24, 2013)

Michelle Chen, writing in The Nation, makes the same connection with her assessment of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).  She states, “But with the CAFTA-DR, the deepest pain is inevitably borne by our ‘neighbors’ to the south – the ones we ignore first as the free market shackles their democracy, and ignore again when their children show up at our doorstep.” (“How US ‘Free Trade’ Policies Created the Central American Migration Crisis,”Feb. 6, 2015)

Today, a new Sanctuary Movement is committed to opening tombs and resurrecting lives in response to the oppression of countless poverty- and violence fleeing Central American migrants.  Their condition is made even worse by another U.S. president, Donald Trump, who was quick to use them as his version of The Other in his march to the White House. He began his presidential campaign with, “When Mexico sends its people, they are not sending their best.  . . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems . . . They’re bringing drugs,” he said.   “They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists.  . . .” (“Donald Trump’s Presiidential Announcement Speech,” By TIME Staff, June 16, 2015)

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump threatened to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, along with the “young people who came to the country as children and have received protections through executive actions by Mr. Obama.” In a Meet the Pressinterview, Trump said, “We have to keep the families together, but they have to go.”  Trump was expressing and appealing to the sentiment of a reported “sizeable minority of Republican voters nationwide.” (“Donald Trump Paints Republicans Into Corner With Hispanics,” By Trip Gabriel and Julia Preston, The New York Times, Aug. 18, 2015)  He was also lying about “keep[ing] the families together.”

As president, Donald Trump created a “zero tolerance” policy that involved separating families, not keeping them together.  According to a federal government report, “nearly 3,000 children were forcibly separated from their parents under last year’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy, under which nearly all adults entering the country were prosecuted, and any children accompanying them were put into shelters or foster care.” As of December 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services “had identified 2,737 children who were separated from their parents under the policy . . . But that number does not represent the full scope of family separations,” as “thousands of children may have been separated during an influx that began in 2017, before the accounting required by the court, the report said.” (“Family Separation May Have Hit Thousands More Migrant Children Than Reported,” By Miriam Jordan, The New York Times,Jan, 17. 2019)

Not only did President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policies separate families.  The lack of carful record keeping makes reuniting families a years-long process, if at all.  This fact reveals just how bereft of human caring the Trump administration’s immigration policies are.

President Trump declared war on poor, vulnerable immigrants fleeing poverty and violence in their countries and seeking asylum in the United States.  When a caravan of destitute Central Americans formed and headed for the Mexican border, Trump called the struggling migrants an “invasion,” and ordered 5200 U.S. troops to the border to “stop very bad people and gang members,” including “‘Middle Eastern’People,” who “are part of a dangerous mob of migrants threatening to surge into communities here.”  (“Trump Sending 5,200 Troops to the Border in an Election Season Response to Immigrants,” By Michael D. Shear and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, The New York Times, Oct. 29, 2018)

Unlike the 1980s, today the American government itself, and not US-supported Central American military regimes, is directly oppressing Central Americans.  Immigrant children have been separated from their parents and locked up in cage-like detention centers.  U.S. troops at the border have strung barbed wire fence and have stood guard, ready to turn back an “invasion” of ”very bad people.”  American border agents have fired tear gas at immigrants, including woman and children, scattering them.  Immigrants are blocked from their lawful right to apply for asylum at official ports of entry.   And there is a lack of staff available to process immigrants’ applications for asylum.  President Trump created a humanitarian crisis at the border by turning desperate migrant human beings into The Other to whip up his base for the 2018 elections.

And President Trump continues to disparage endangered migrants as The Other. He “again declared that the United Sates was ‘full . . . You can’t come in.  Our country is full.  What can we do?  We can’t handle any more.  Our country is full.  You can’t come in.”  And, “‘The asylum program is a ‘scam,’ he said, describing people ‘who look like they should be fighting for the U.F.C.,’ with large muscles and face tattoos.  ‘Some of the roughest people you’ve ever seen.’”  His, “You can’t come, our country is full” was reported to have been “met with raucous applause and cheers at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting . . . that included descendants of Holocaust survivors.” {“Pushing for Tighter Borders, Trump Asks Jews for Support,” By Emily Cochrane, The New York Times, April 6, 2019)

Ironically, “You can’t come in” is what the U.S. government said to countless Jews, who then became holocaust victims in Nazi Germany.  Before World War II, a reported “83% of Americans were opposed to the admission of refugees.”   And a number of Americans believed the Jews’ appeal for sanctuary was a “scam.”  As reported, “While economic concerns certainly played a role in Americans’ attitudes toward immigration, so too did feelings of fear, mistrust, and even hatred of those who were different.” There were “fears of communist infiltrators and Nazi spies.”  And “antisemitism also played an important role in public opinion.”  Despite the obstacles, “some 200,000 Jews did manage to reach the United States between 1933 and 1945; still, this number is a small fraction of those who attempted to come.” (“American and the Holocaust, Facing History and Ourselves,”www.facinghistory.org)

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke should have been there to inform the Republican Jewish Coalition audience that Trump’s rhetoric of “calling human beings an infestation is something that we might expect to hear in Nazi Germany.”   When “pressed on whether he was lowering the tone by invoking the Nazis, O’Rourke called it necessary,” saying, “ ‘If we don’t call out racism . . . in this position of trust the president enjoys, then we’re going to continue to get its consequences.’”  He said “hate in this country up every single one of the last three years.”  He then cited “the mosque in Victoria, Texas, burned to the ground the very day that he signed the executive order attempting to ban Muslim travel to the United States,” and “kids in cages at the US-Mexican border at their most desperate, vulnerable movement . . .”  O’Rourke conclued, “These are the consequences of our silence,”
adding, “Silence is complicity in what this administration is doing.” (“Trump’s Rhetoric Echoes Nazis, Beto  O’Rourke Says Rightly,” By Robert Mackey, The Intercept, April 5, 2019)

“You can’t come in.  Our country is full.”  According to a New York Timesanalysis, the very opposite is the case.  “Demographers and economists . . . see ample evidence of a country that is not remotely ‘full’ – but one where an aging population and declining birth rates among the native-born population are creating under-populated cities and towns, vacant housing and troubled public finances.”  The analysis adds, “Local officials in many of these places view a shrinking population and work force an existential problem with few obvious solutions.”  (“Trump Says the U.S. Is ‘Full.’  Much of the Nation Has the Opposite Problem,”  By Neil Irwin and Emily Badger, April 9, 2019)  Trump – appealing to his base — is guided by a different reality: the fear of a shrinking white population and dominance.

A duplicitous President Trump is now saying that the influx of desperate asylum seeking migrants can come in – and he will transport them to the many Democratic-controlled  sanctuary cities across the country that refuse to report undocumented immigrants to immigration officials.  Trump threatens to unload migrants on these cities, as if they are bad people, to punish those cities that refuse to cooperate with his nativist immigration policies.  Here human beings with inalienable rights would be used as pawns to mobilize Trump’s mostly white nationalist base for the 2020 presidential election.  Here, also is the further intensification of a racist and partisan divide, which continues to undermine American democracy. (See “Trump Says He Is Considering Release Migrants in ‘Sanctuary Cities,’” By Eileen Sullivan, The New York Times, April 12, 2019)

George Gascon, San Francisco District Attorney, says the “data damns” as “a politically motivated stunt” President Trump’s threat to transport “illegal immigrants” to Sanctuary Cities.  The data: “Immigrants [are] less likely to commit crimes than the U.S. born population, and sanctuary jurisdictions [are] safer and more productive than non-sanctuary jurisdictions.  Gascon’s bottom line: the proposal to transport immigrants to Sanctuary Cities “is the clearest sign yet that the president fully intends to chart a path to re-election on the back of racist rhetoric and policies intended to divide us.” (“Bay Area Leaders Fire Back At Pres. Trump’s Tweet About Releasing ‘Illegal Immigrants’ into Sanctuary Cities.” By NBC Bay Area and Associated Press, www.nbcbayarea.com, Apr. 12, 2019)

In the face of President Trump’s threat to play politics with migrants’ lives, the words of numerous U.S. Sanctuary City mayors are echoed by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo: “We welcome any families willing to endure such extraordinary hardship and to take such tremendous risks to be part of our great country.” (Ibid)

A white nationalist-promoting President Trump is maintaining chaos at the Mexican border to serve his 2020 re-election campaign.  He is reported to have “clashed with top officials . . . over border security, urging them at different points to reinstate a stricter family separation policy, deny asylum seekers entry and shut down the port of entry in El Paso.“ He pushed “[recently terminated Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen] Nielsen to separate families, even those that entered through legal ports of entry and were legal asylum seekers, because he ‘thinks the separations work to deter migrants from coming.’“  When he threatened to shut down El Paso’s port of entry, he was warned that such action “would inflict negative consequences on legal trade and travel.” He “told officials, ‘I don’t care.’ “ (“CNN: Trump told Nielsen to reinstate family separations, deny asylum seekers entry,” By Khorri Atkinson, www.axios.com, April 8, 2019)

President Trump’s brutal immigration policies have provided great impetus for a renewed Sanctuary Movement to open tombs and resurrect lives.  A report by Sanctuary leaders called, ‘SANCTUARY IN THE AGE OF TRUMP’ documents the rapid growth of the movement in response to Trump’s election.  His threat to deport millions of undocumented immigrants if elected president, led Sanctuary congregations to “double to 800” in the “short weeks” between his election and inauguration.  With his “anti-immigrant agenda . . . people of faith from many traditions recognize the increased need for Sanctuary, as the harsh anti-immigration, anti-refugee, anti-black and anti-Muslim policies come to life under the Trump administration,”  The report states that “as of January 2018, there are more than 1,110 congregations in the Sanctuary movement.”

The Sanctuary leaders recommend that “the administration, Congress, and all communities should strive toward creating long term policy solutions through legislation that lift up the core values of every faith tradition – to love one’s neighbor and to protect the inherent dignity and rights of every human being, including migrants, immigrants, and refugees.”  Their final words: “As we continue into the second year of the Trump administration, we remain committed in our call to live out our faith through prophetic action.  We will continue to provide Sanctuary, organize alongside immigrants, following their lead and direction, and advocate for lasting solutions.” (Ibid)

In his poem on ‘POLITICS,’ “Manuel Hernandez” expresses the richness of our individuality and common humanity:

Death without Life

Spirit without Soul

Head without Body

White without Black

Yellow without Red

Negative without Positive

Capitalism without Communism.

Is it possible that only the two paths exist?

To choose only one means the extermination of the child’s society.

Today, sanctuary for many, is the path to Easter’s promise of liberation and fulfillment.

More articles by:

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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