Mark jumped out of his vehicle and began snapping photos of the pilgrims as we walked down Grayson Highway in metro Atlanta’s Gwinnett County. I was at the back of the processional so it took me a while before I could understand what he was shouting. “How’s it feel to be marching with felons?”
Perplexed, I wondered how he could tell if there were felons in our midst. I approached Mark and gently corrected his erroneous assumption. If he was referring to unauthorized immigrants as felons, the laws regulating immigration are civil laws and not even misdemeanors, much less felonies.
The ensuing conversation was a wonderful exercise in nonviolent communication. As Mark continued to tell me all of his fears of immigrants, about how granting “amnesty” would unravel democracy, change our language, flood our jails and hospitals, I felt compassion for this man and really wanted to find a reconciling common ground.
Gwinnett County has changed a great deal over the past thirty years. I know, because my family relocated to this north-metro-Atlanta county in 1980 and I recall being in a very small minority of persons who weren’t white. Now, immigrants from all corners of the world—Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere—are lining up the streets with new businesses that seem strange, and even threatening, to the homegrown Gwinettians like Mark.
Change brings fear and I sensed Mark was afraid.
After some conversation, I kept reminding myself that only perfect love casts out fear. I responded to Mark’s apprehensive and, at times, irrational statements with reason, theological reflection, and empathy.
MARK: 30 percent of California’s prison population are illegals.
ANTON: While I would love to see that number verified, I wonder what percentage of folks living in California is undocumented. Could it possibly also be 30 percent? I know that, for example, the New York Times estimates that 90 percent of California’s farm labor is unauthorized immigrants. What if 30 percent was a proportionate number? Now, we do have a crisis in our jails that runs along color lines… African Americans disproportionately fill our jails for complex reasons that have more to do with disparity and nothing to do with their citizenship. How would you explain that and what would you propose we do about this sad reality? Can we, at least, agree that the problems are more complex than sound-bites and extremist propaganda on the right or left?
MARK: Well, I do not appreciate you co-opting Holy Week with your political ploy to convert illegals into voters for the Democratic Party.
ANTON: I am simply seeking to follow Jesus Christ who calls us to welcome the stranger, love the poor, seek justice for the oppressed, and show hospitality to the marginalized. Holy Week is a time to remember that Jesus suffered unjustly and, today, he suffers in the least of these.
MARK: Have you ever heard of the term “social justice”?
ANTON: You must be a fan of Glenn Beck. Can we find some common ground? [Pointing at the two churches across from where we were talking, a Church of God next to a Catholic parish]. While their theological differences abound, I bet they can find common ground. Can we? Let me ask you a few questions in search of where we might find agreement?
First, would you agree that most unauthorized immigrants have a deep faith?
ANTON: Would you agree that most unauthorized immigrants are hard workers?
ANTON: Would you agree that most unauthorized immigrants share many of the same conservative values that you espouse? Heck, I bet 99 percent of the pilgrims would stand right beside you and Glenn Beck at a “right to life” rally.
Mark’s statements of fear and dehumanization continued, but his anger subsided. He told me he was a seminary graduate; I encouraged him to attend an immigrant church and to worship God alongside those he feared, believing that the perfect love of Jesus and the Spirit of God within each immigrant worshiper he would encounter would help Mark cross the walls constructed in his heart.
At the end we exchanged e-mail addresses and he even offered me a ride to rejoin the pilgrimage—the one he initially arrived to protest.
Imagine for a moment: the pilgrimage that he protested because of our social justice political agenda was now the one he was offering to return me to!
Jesus Christ calls us to welcome the stranger, love the poor, seek justice for the oppressed, and show hospitality to the marginalized. Love must compel us to shout joyfully the truth of Christ and his love for all, especially the oppressed and exploited unauthorized immigrants who hide in the shadows of our capitalist economy.
Love is the impulse that allowed Jesus to migrate from his place of celestial power to take on the form of a third-class servant who rode an ass and withstood the insults of those who feared him. We must follow in His steps.
Silence is complicity and fear is its accomplice. May we replace silence with joyful proclamations of a blessed King who comes in the name of the Lord to infuse us with a fearless love that makes all of us cross borders of fear.
Anton Flores-Maisonet is the co-founder of Alterna, a missional community based in LaGrange, Georgia focused on welcoming the stranger and extending hospitality to immigrants, regardless of legal status. Alterna works in partnership with Mission Year to help teams of Christ-followers to serve people and develop community. He previously taught social work at LaGrange College.
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