The Common Good

Immigration Reform Leaders of Today Must Follow Past Examples

In 1910 my great-grandmother, Gelsamine Ferrigno, arrived at Ellis Island — a teen bride with her husband and two children desperate to make a better life. The story that has been passed down, confirmed by relatives both here and in Italy, is that the family decided that Gelsamine and Albert were the most likely to succeed so they pooled their resources, put them on a boat to America, said their goodbyes and told them to get work, make money, and send it back to their needy family in Solerno, Italy.

I often think about the elements of what I know of my story: immigrants from Italy, teenagers bearing a family burden, pressure to learn language and culture, permanent goodbyes to everything they ever knew, loneliness, fear.

There are two main reasons I often reminisce on this story in my family history.  First, I am eagerly working to support reform to our immigration laws for the immigrants of today.

Our immigration laws are broken and are in dire need of some attention. Families are being separated, a permanent underclass is being kept in the shadows, and our country continues to thrive on the adage “we want your work, we just don’t want you.” It is not just. It is not biblical, and there is no reason for politicians to willfully put politics before the needs of vulnerable people in our communities. 

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Moses Rising

In one of the screen-saved memories cataloged from my childhood, I sit in the living room, cross-legged, chin supported by two fists, staring up at moving pictures flashing across a small screen. On network television — because we didn’t have cable back then — Moses (aka Charlton Heston) led thousands of his people out of captivity. They just walked out of Egypt — streams of them. And then they reached the Red Sea.

The Egyptian army was at their back, pressing in. In that moment, though they had left captivity, freedom was not a done deal. They still had to cross over. They were still at war. They still had to outrun an army trained to kill or enslave them again.

Heston — I mean Moses — stood straight-backed on the bank of the Red Sea. He lifted his staff and put it down at the edge of the water, and a miracle took place in living rooms across America. The sea parted. I’ll never forget that moment. This moment was crafted before the digital era — before Disney’s Prince of Egypt, even before Star Wars, and yet it was still awe-inspiring. My eyes focused like lasers watching whole families cross a sea on foot.

Moses led. He was not a king. He was a foster child. He was not from the dominant culture. He was from an enslaved people. He was not a great orator. He stuttered, but he led anyway. He said “Yes” to God’s call and leaned into it. And because he did, the people were set free.

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Does Jesus Love African-American Males?

Does Jesus love African-American males? Then why aren’t we telling them so?!

I recently held a Town Hall Meeting at my church in my hometown of Madison, Wis., regarding the blaring racial disparity between whites and African Americans. This gathering attracted about 650 people who wanted to hear my thoughts after reading my "Justified Anger ” cover essay in a local newspaper. It appears that when one considers the economic, academic, arrest and incarceration disparities between African Americans and whites in Madison (and surrounding Dane County), there is no bleaker place for African Americans to be in the entire country than Madison. Although Madison — with its great university, beautiful lakes, bike paths, and educated residents — typically receives high marks as being among the best mid-sized American cities in which to live, it is now developing a different reputation about life here. Sadly, our community has been nationally deemed as ground zero for the disintegration of African-American males!

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We Are In a Crisis — a Moral Crisis

I believe that deep within our being is a longing for a moral compass. For those of us who are moved by the cries of our sisters and brothers, we know that, like justice, the acts of caring for the vulnerable, embracing the stranger, healing the sick, protecting workers, welcoming and being fair to all members of the human family, and educating all children should never be relegated to the margins of our social consciousness. These are not just policy issues; these are not issues for some left vs. right debate; these are the centerpieces of our deepest traditions of our faiths, of our values, of our sense of morality and righteousness.

We must remind those who make decisions regarding public policy what the prophet Isaiah said "Woe unto those who legislate evil ... Rob the poor of their rights ... make children and women their prey." Isaiah 10: 1-2

Martin Luther King, Jr. said 46 years ago in one of his last sermons that if you ignore the poor, one day the whole system will collapse and implode. The costs are too high if we don’t address systemic racism and poverty. It costs us our soul as a nation. Every time we fail to educate a child on the front side of life, it costs us on the back side — financially and morally.

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An Easter Sermon: Immigration’s Winter and Spring

“That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain the resurrection of the dead.” Philippians 3:10-11

Harsh winters make us more deeply appreciative of spring. Last week, after a particularly intense winter, it finally reached 60 degrees in New York. I, for one, celebrated heartily. Spring is a reminder that winter is not interminable and flowers will bloom again. Almost exactly one year ago, the Senate released a bipartisan bill on immigration reform. Many Christian leaders celebrated the possibility that finally the nearly 11 million men, women, and children would be afforded the opportunity to integrate into this great country. In addition, in January the GOP released a set of principles that set the tone for the genuine possibility for immigration reform. There was a growing consensus that this is the year for immigration reform. Then the news started to change and many prognosticators said, “Immigration reform is dead.”

It is into this public eulogy of immigration reform that the Christian message of Lent and Easter can breathe new life.

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Immigration Reform: No More Excuses

As an immigrant who made the long journey from Zacatecas, Mexico, to the farmlands of California many times as a child, the Lenten story of Jesus’s wandering for 40 days in the desert has always resonated with me very deeply. And the Easter celebration that follows sustains my hope and resolve that the faith community’s long movement to reform our broken immigration system will succeed.

Late last year, I, along with several other immigration advocates and inspiring faith leaders, camped out in a tent on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to call attention to the moral crisis and human suffering caused by our broken immigration system. We asked ourselves: What are our faith, our words, and our history worth if not translated into action, sacrifice, and redemption?

So, for 30 days we fasted and prayed that leadership in the House of Representatives would follow the Senate’s lead and pass a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform bill. The power of prayer surrounded us as we were led in reflection on a daily basis by pastors who serve undocumented families, by immigrants who suffer under our unjust system, and by public officials who came to see our commitment as days without food turned into weeks.

Even though the House refused to act in 2013, we believe that our fast, and the support of thousands of solidarity fasters around the world, helped change the discussion about reform from one of dollars and cents to one about people and families. Our sacrifice and the suffering of our immigrant brothers and sisters will end in victory and redemption.

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That They May Be One: Immigration and Christian Unity

As we approach Holy Week, I’ve been re-reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Last Supper, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. In John 17, as Jesus prays for his disciples and their successors in the hours before he is arrested, he prays for our unity as his church:

…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you… May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:21, 23)

Central to our mission as Christ’s followers is to share with the world this good news: that the Father sent the Son because he so loved the world — but the best observable evidence of that Gospel reality, a unified Church, seems a distant, utopian dream. Just within the United States — this small sliver of the global church — we are divided by denomination, by race, by political ideology, and by the competitive human instinct that leads even those congregations who resemble one another doctrinally, ethnically, and politically to jockey over the same individuals in order to fill their sanctuaries (or auditoriums) and offering plates. Perhaps the situation is not quite so stark: I know that many — probably most — believers share the desire for unity. It just seems at times that we have so far to go, and might be drifting in the wrong direction.

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Immigration and Resurrection

I was traveling to Culpeper, Va., on the #Fast4Families bus tour to speak to a group of workers assembled at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. As we looked out the window we were struck that every 50 feet there stood a plaque marking the place where another significant battle took place in the Civil War.

As we sat down in the church, I didn’t know what I was going to say to all-immigrant group. My message up to that point had focused on mobilizing non-immigrants to join the movement. What could I say to this immigrant gathering?

I prayed. I asked God, “What do you want to speak to this group through me?’ And the dots started to connect.

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That Our Creation Care Would Also Fight Racism and Poverty

What more perfect a passage to enliven our Earth Day celebrations than Romans 8:20-25?

Paul's letter to the Romans was certainly not an exhortation to deepen creation care by weighting it with environmental justice. It wasn't an exhortation for the middle-class church to listen to the groaning of people under the bondage of environmental racism. It wasn't intended to paint a picture of the intersection of climate change, poverty, and racism.

But we — two evangelical activists — are just foolish enough to give all that a try in this short space!

Our dear Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans paints a picture of the new age inaugurated by Jesus' death and resurrection. Jesus has taken sin – that which infiltrated the world (5:12), enslaved the world (6:6, 17-18), and brought death and destruction (7:8-14) — and had victory over it. By our death in baptism and resurrection with Christ, we participate in his victory over sin (6:4). This is a new age, we put on our new selves, we live with the (re)new(ed) creation ahead of us.

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Listen for the Groaning; Then Worship!

And as I worshiped I realized creation wasn’t singing with me. I had entered into creation’s ongoing worship of God!

But Scripture speaks of another utterance of nature — a groaning. (Romans 8:19-22) Even as creation worships, it bears the weight of our sin. Our addiction to consumption, our oil drills and oil spills, and our depleted uranium bullets whizzing through theaters of war in countries ravaged, torn apart — both the people and the land. Creation is groaning, even as the trees lift their branches heavenward in worship.

The Genesis 2 story of creation offers a profound picture of humanity’s relationship with the rest of creation in the beginning. In Genesis 2:15 God called humanity to till and keep the Garden of Eden. The Hebrew word for “till” (‘abad) is also translated “to serve” (as a bond servant). The Hebrew word for “keep” (shamar) is most accurately translated “to protect.” Thus, we were called to serve and protect the rest of creation. In the very beginning of our existence, we related to the land as its servants — its protectors. That relationship was full of care, nurture, security, and selfless service.

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