In reference to the Arizona SB1070 Supreme Court decision the court did not use the word “illegal”. This is great step forward for the I-word campaign. You can read more about it in this wonderful CNN article:
I walked out of my office the other morning, heading out for some errands, to find an angry woman screaming on the street corner. Now I don’t know what provoked this woman’s anger, but she seemed perfectly content turning it toward me. We hadn’t had any interaction – I was just walking toward her on the sidewalk. But my presence was enough, and she directed her rage at me with a slew of the most hateful language.
As I passed her, I apologized confusedly – “I’m sorry?” – not sure of the proper response to the vitriolic tirade. I continued on my way with those hateful words ringing in my ears. It only took me a moment to stop and remind myself that they were not true, that those words do not actually describe me. Nevertheless, they continued to resound in my head. Even though I knew they were just words, I couldn’t shake them, and they continued to dampen my mood for the rest of the morning.
I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience. We’ve all felt at some point the power words have to wound. Maybe it wasn’t an angry stranger broadcasting their hate on a street corner. Perhaps it was a muttered judgment you overheard in the line at the grocery store. Maybe it was long ago when the class bully taunted you on the playground. Or it could have come from someone you loved who acted out of anger or pain.
Pause for a moment. Think about that experience. As you remember hurtful words that have been uttered toward you, think of how they made you feel.
I’m willing to guess that those words did not build you up. They may have spoken to one aspect of reality, one part of who you are, or maybe none at all. Either way, I imagine they did not honor you as a child of God. They probably did not affirm your humanity and the divine reflection that is present within you.
You and I, all of us, were created in the image of God. Remember, after each act of creation, God paused and said, “It is good.” That seems like a pretty clear statement of our worth. If you aren’t convinced, check out Psalm 139; it will tell you even more strongly of how God feels about you.
So we know that we – all of us – are affirmed by God. And we know that sometimes people use words that do not remind us of that affirmation, words that do not reflect our true worth. There is one such word that has been on my mind a lot recently. The I-Word. Illegal.
Why do I care about this word? Sure, it is a perfectly valid word, especially when used to describe the action of shoplifting, or the U-turn someone just made at that intersection. It could describe more serious crimes, too, such as murder or arson. However, I’ve heard this word used a lot recently to describe people.
You know who I am talking about. The I-Word is being used to describe people who immigrated to the U.S. without proper documentation. People like my friends, Jorge and Marta.*
Jorge and Marta are beautiful people. He works to support his family while she is focused primarily on learning English and raising their daughter. They’re working on transferring their daughter into one of the best schools available in our area because they know a good education will be the foundation of her future success. They are part of a vibrant community of faith at a church down the street.
I sat down with Jorge and Marta the other evening to catch up. We talked about how things are going in our lives, but then the conversation shifted. They began to share with me stories of their time fighting for justice and struggling for peace in their home country. They spoke of the tragedy and beauty that were present during that time. They shared about losing friends and loved ones, but in the next breath expressed their gratitude for being a part of that movement, for all they learned from their experiences. Jorge talked about the way he came to understand solidarity, and Marta spoke of learning tolerance and respect. The wisdom these two people shared with me during our brief conversation was so profound that I’m still mulling it over.
I’ll keep pondering the concepts of solidarity, tolerance, and respect and how I can manifest those in my life. One thing, though, that I don’t need to ponder, is the words I will use to describe immigrants like Jorge and Marta. I will describe them as strong and caring, brave and insightful. And if I need to talk about their immigration status, I will use the phrase undocumented immigrant. You won’t hear the I-Word coming out of my mouth to describe other human beings. Because while those actions I mentioned earlier can certainly be illegal, I don’t believe a human being can. If God created something and declared it good, how can we try to say that it is illegal?
That woman I passed on the street corner the other day was a reminder to me of the power of words. She helped me to remember how important it is for me to strive to use words that honor and affirm others, words that reflect their worth as children of God. And that is why I have chosen to drop the I-Word. I hope you’ll consider dropping it too.
Alissa Tombaugh is a life-long United Methodist and current Americorp Volunteer at Mary House in Washington DC. From 2010-2011 she worked at La Puenta House in Colorado. In both locations she has worked with person who have recently immigrated to the United States. In the fall she will begin a Master of Social Work program at Cathoic University in DC.
I, Marjorie Hurder, am a US-2 Young Adult Missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church at Crossroads Urban Center, a National Mission Institution in Salt Lake City. Part of my job is working in the food pantry and meeting all sorts of people from all sorts of places and providing them with the basics of food, some hygiene items, bus passes and the like. We help everyone from senior citizens on fixed incomes to homeless people on no income to families of ten struggling to get by from paycheck to paycheck. We also work on issues of social justice, such as immigration.
This past December, we joined with churches in the downtown Salt Lake City area to celebrate Las Posadas, the commemoration of the Holy Family’s search for room at the inn. In the brisk weather, we processed around downtown Salt Lake City reenacting Mary and Joseph’s search for room at the inn, cantankerous donkey included. While on our brief journey, we recalled Mary and Joseph’s being turned away from shelter, and in so doing, remembered those in our community, such as undocumented immigrants or the homeless population, who search for shelter but who are turned away.
We used this event to kick-start the “Drop the I Word” campaign here in Utah. We brought this discussion to Utah as a response to divisive and derogatory discourse by political candidates who went as far as to call children of immigrants born in the United States “anchor babies” as if having children was some sort of covert strategy to avoid being deported.
We continued our push towards the elimination of such dehumanizing language by encouraging boards and church councils in the area to consider the pledge to Drop the I Word. So far, the boards at Crossroads Urban Center and First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City have signed on.
This prompted the Salt Lake Tribune to start a discussion of their policies of how to refer to undocumented immigrants, starting with an article about First United Methodist in Salt Lake City’s pledge to Drop the I-word. They also interviewed those who believe that illegal immigrant or illegal alien are the legally correct terms for someone who is undocumented (even if said person has not been proven to be here through unauthorized means). A group of advocates from Crossroads Urban Center, the ACLU, and the Catholic Diocese met with the editorial board to discuss their newsroom policy. They said that they follow the Associated Press style guide and wanted to be accurate in who they deemed “illegal” versus “undocumented”.
I think we need to have more of these sorts of conversations about language and how the words we use affect other people. We might not like the responses that we get. For instance, in the comments section of the article in the Tribune about First United Methodist’s stance, there were some vitriolic comments about immigration and the language I saw was appalling. But there were also those who applauded First United Methodist Salt Lake and were glad to see that people were taking a stand.
The Drop the I Word message got a more enthusiastic response this past Saturday at the Utah Sub-District Meeting of the United Methodist Churches in the area. There was also a presentation about starting a Justice for our Neighbors clinic here in Salt Lake City to work with our neighbors who need help navigating the profusion of immigration law. This is, of course, only the beginning of creating a more welcoming Salt Lake City for all of our neighbors, but it is a beginning nonetheless. Hopefully this conversation will continue to evolve into positive action. I pray that some day, the difficult conversations we need to have about immigration can happen without either side throwing stones at each other.
Learn more about Marjorie and the US-2 program here.
Rev. Dr. Richard L. Stryker III
Superintendent, Southeast District of
the United Methodist Church, North Alabama Conference
On the morning of May 1, 2012, more than 300 persons gathered at the State House in Montgomery, Alabama to declare that we are “One Family, One Alabama: The Circle Will Not Be Broken.” Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, Faith Leaders for a Welcoming Alabama and opponents of Alabama’s anti-immigrant law (HB56) hosted a community circle, procession and ecumenical service of celebration and thanksgiving.
In addition to the full circle around the building, constituents from various counties presented copies of a letter signed by 200 or so clergypersons in opposition to HB56. By taking this stand, I believe that faith leaders are doing the right thing in working for a welcoming Alabama. I believe that history will judge that when the powerful came, we stood with the powerless; when the strong came, we stood with the weak; when the in-group came, we stood with the marginalized.
These leaders are squarely in the prophetic tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. who stood with the sanitation workers in Memphis and Bishop Desmond Tutu who said “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
United Methodists have to be suspicious about using words like illegal to refer to their brothers and sisters. We know that historically, people in power have taken unjust behaviors and call it legal while declaring illegal, behaviors that lead to freedom and justice for oppressed people. Laws that are made by one group of people exclusively for another ethnic, social or cultural group tend to be punitive and harsh. Alabama’s immigration HB56 is such a law.
The United Methodist Church said in 2008 in the Book of Resolution:
“As Christians and United Methodists we are called to love the stranger in our midst and
to treat that stranger as we would our own family. We must be a church that welcomes the foreigners into our cities, our towns, our neighborhoods, our churches, our homes… If we are to truly live out our mandate of having open hearts, open minds, open doors, we must work to ensure the just treatment of the foreigners living among us.”
Even though the church’s official teaching on immigration and treatment of the stranger is clear, some churches actions of shutting doors may be so loud that the words of open doors are not heard.
I challenge our churches to leave the I-word out of our discourse. Transformation of the world begins with transformation of the church. If we are to evangelize new immigrants to America, we will have to change our language and practice love towards “out of status” immigrants and their families. Our behavior here affects our work abroad. If we think immigrants are not facebooking and twittering their families back home on which denominations or religion to trust, we must be confusing the 21st century with a different era.
The peace and love of Christ be with you.
- Rev. Angie Wright of Alabama Coalition for
Immigrant Justice. Calling the community to a time of prayer.
- Rev. Richard L. Stryker signing the petition in
opposition to HB56
As an Anglo female I am sensitive to masculine language. All-male pronouns offend me. If all-male pronouns offend me how much more harmful is the I-word, a word that is meant to be offensive, a word that is meant to say you are different-than and less-than?
I am a US-2 young adult missionary through the General Board of Global Ministries assigned to the Immigration Task Force of the California-Pacific Conference. I work closely with the Wesley Foundation Campus ministry at UCLA as they have created a safe space for AB 540 DREAM-eligible students. These students are amazing. They have taught me so much about immigration and the many affects it has on people.
Words are powerful. The language we use sends signals. Through conversations I’ve had with students at the campus ministry and relationships I’m building, students have opened up to me and shared some of their stories. Some of the students have shared their stories about how painful language can be. One student was told by a guidance
counselor that she was “illegal” and therefore could not be helped. Another was
told that because of her status she had no voice. These young people have been
through so much, many have been separated from loved ones and been hurt by
their communities in so many ways. It is through these conversations that I can
see the crucifying of Christ. I see the wounds of Christ in the pain of these
students as they continue to be hurt by teachers, communities, guidance
counselors, the media and sometimes the church.
These words and statements have had such damaging effects on these students. As my relationships have grown with recent and not-as-recent immigrants around me it’s interesting to reflect on how these relationships have shaped me. As these relationships have developed while the I-word bothered me before, now it angers me.
When I read news stories that still use the I-word I find myself not wanting to continue reading. When I hear people use the I-word I visibly cringe. I cringe as I type it, aware of just some of the damaging effects it can have. How can a person be illegal? How can a
child of God be illegal? I am aware that as an Anglo female I have not felt oppression and discrimination like many of my friends. I have never had anyone call me the I word, because of my skin color it is never assumed I’m not a US citizen. While I have not experienced the pain of the students I am in relationship with I can emphasize and pledge to change the world with them. I can pledge to not use harmful language and not tolerate this language from others.
This word has done much damage in our communities. It has made people feel less-than and that is not something we as the church should be doing. The word creates an “othering”, it dehumanizes and desensitizes us to the fact that we are talking about other humans, children of God. We are called by God to love all. Part of loving each other is being sensitive to the language we use. When we make a commitment to use more sensitive language we are saying we love all of God’s children and affirm every person as a child of God.
As we are an Easter people, by taking the pledge to drop the I word may we take steps to end the crucifying of Christ through harmful words. May we say we will not continue this “othering” and discrimination in our language. May we see the day when the world is resurrected and God’s beloved community is restored.
Stephanie Kimec is a missionary through the US-2 young adult program of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church. Commissioned in August 2011, she has a dual assignment to the Immigration Task Force of the California-Pacific Annual Conference and the Echo Park Shalom Ministry in Los Angeles.
A native of Virginia, Stephanie is a member of Saint Mark’s United Methodist Church in Midlothian. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk and a Master of Divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC. She can communicate in English and Spanish. While in seminary, Stephanie was a ministry intern in Mount Olivet United Methodist Church, Arlington, Virginia, and took part in mission trips to Guatemala.