A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of helping run a few G92 workshops at Urbana. After one session, a sophomore who attends school in California but was born in Mexico came up to me and asked me why I cared so deeply about immigrants. At first, I did not understand the full weight of her question. However, I soon realized that what she was particularly wanted to know was why I as an African American had any type of interest in helping a demographic to which I did not belong. Over the past few weeks, her question has continued to haunt me; while (as I explained in an earlier post) I have always viewed it as natural to care about other people’s needs, I realize that in general it is much more natural for people to care primarily, and often exclusively, about communities of which they are members. As we celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, I am moved to share a bit about my involvement with this issue of immigration from my distinct perspective as an African American. Specifically, I want to share how his message explicitly compels me to care and advocate for immigrants even though I am not one.
In his masterful “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King blasts the notion that a particular ethnicity should limit itself to pursuing its own constituency’s concerns to the exclusion of those of people who did not look like them. King asserts that justice is justice – right is right, and wrong is wrong regardless of whether we are personally feeling the weight of oppression or not. Dr. King furthermore correctly points out that even if we are not directly victims of injustice ourselves, we are not free unless all of our brothers and sisters are fully free; what happens to any group of people affects the rest. The beautiful phrase he uses to describe our interconnectedness is “an inescapable network of mutuality.” Therefore, even if someone does not look like me (although I should point out that nearly one in ten blacks are now immigrants, and I grew up in a neighborhood that was made up exclusively of black West Indian immigrants), if he/she suffers, I suffer. While I believe this idea applies to all humans, this principle is especially true for the Christian church (to whom this letter was specifically written). As James writes in the Bible, one cannot profess to be a devout and genuine follower of God while ignoring the tangible needs of his/her fellow believer.
I also realize that when people are viewed primarily as “immigrants,” they are often being subconsciously yet specifically labeled in a way that ensures they are thought of as a different kind of person than native-born citizens. Such distinctions make it impossible to achieve King’s dream of creating a society where people are judged not for any physical attribute, “but by the content of their character.” As Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons noted in his excellent piece a few weeks ago, Christians in particular need to shift our thinking so that we view immigrants as “us” rather than “them” – especially since increasing numbers of immigrants are our fellow Christians in the first place! Only when we look at groups of people primarily through the lens of equality (we should certainly appreciate diversity and difference, just not in a way that causes us to see people as being fundamentally separate from ourselves) can we truly love our neighbor as ourselves.
Thus, as I explained to the student at Urbana a few weeks ago, when I see undocumented workers exploited and robbed of their wages, mothers of 15-year-old citizens pulled over and threatened with deportation in their own driveway, and families otherwise ripped apart with no warning, I do not see these issues as “immigrant” problems that I cannot care about because I am too busy caring about the African-American community. Rather, I view these situations as ones that personally break my heart and that have a very real impact on me; while I would never claim to fully understand the hardship that someone else is going through, the point is that the plight of any brother or sister, immigrant or US-born, affects my life due to King’s “network of mutuality.”
Ultimately, when I read Dr. King’s words and hear his message, I almost feel that as an African American, if I personally want to truly adhere to his vision then I have no choice but to be actively involved in today’s civil rights issue of immigration. The issues that plagued African-American communities during Dr. King’s time have not been fully resolved; I have experienced too many of them first-hand to even pretend otherwise. However, adhering to Dr. King’s message of human equality and freedom requires that I realize that my concern for my fellow African-American brothers and sisters does not in any way impinge upon my ability to also have a deep caring for those who are foreigners in our land and to take concrete action toward the goal of improving their well-being. By realizing that immigrants are my brothers and my sisters – all are made in the image of God, and many are fellow believers – I can rightfully engage with this issue as a way to honor God while helping our society move ever closer to achieving Dr. King’s dream.
Daniel Watts graduated from Wheaton College in August 2012 and is the G92 Coordinator.
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