Gone Missing, Part 2
Reflections on the Ministry of Sanctuary and the Pain of Ferguson, Missouri
(Photo: Northwestern Cedar)
By Rev. David H. Rommereim
Last week, I wrote to our 285 persons on the Good Shepherd private e-list a note titled, "Gone Missing." It was a personal testimony about this time of year when we remember persons who have "gone missing" from our Thanksgiving table. It also referred to others missing from the communal hedge seeking to build a strong community of faith.
Today, I provide a second e-letter to the 'apostles of sensitiveness' called, "Gone Missing, Part two." My Rabbi always told me, "David, you contribute to the peace of the world when you acknowledge your sources." Well, the source of the term 'apostles of sensitiveness' is from the powerful preacher, theologian, teacher, and Christian mystic, Howard Thurman. His book, "Meditations for Apostles of Sensitiveness" (published in 1948), has remained on my desk for over 20 years. In his illustrative career, he was the pastor of one of the first deliberately multi-racial/multi-national congregations. He wrote weekly devotions as a way of garnering conversation and support for a very challenging mission.
Today, I write while the turkey cooks. It is a bittersweet Thanksgiving. It is a day, which provides what the Celts call "thin places." That is, the thin line which intersects the sacred and profane. It is where joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, beauty and ugly, touch each other.
Today is sweet because I am with my beloved family and thinking of wonderful friends. It is sweet because I respectfully think of the ministry at Good Shepherd. I am honored that you support an inclusive approach to the radical hospitality taught by that itinerant poet, prophet, healer, economic agitator, and storyteller, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God.
Good Shepherd is a ministry of hospitality that goes well beyond setting a good table or a nice coffee hour after worship. The power of hospitality takes place in many ways, but yesterday the ministry of hospitality was clarified once again.
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a few of us spent the morning at Immigration and Custom's Enforcement (ICE). We accompanied Joe and Mei to their immigration "check in." Each of us knew the quiet pain resting on each face of the four rows of migrants also "checking in" on the 9th Floor of the Federal Plaza just above City Hall and Wall Street. In that 33 x 25 sitting room, there is always a silent 'shout out' to the intimidating fear due to the record number of deportations over the tenure of the Obama administration. We have been going there ever since we helped found the NY New Sanctuary Coalition seven years ago.
With the latest "Executive Order" announced last week by our President, we know that many may be given temporary safety from the threat of deportation. Joe and Mei may be one of the families spared through this order. Yet, there remain a vast number of immigrants not affected by the president's Executive Order. In addition, a hostile opposition has retaliated by every means possible to 'send 'em back to where they came from,' by every means necessary.
Despite the political hostility, Good Shepherd ministry of hospitality remains committed to being vigilant until we Americans live up to the tradition of welcoming the stranger. Not a day passes without my seeing that icon of liberty in our New York harbor. She reminds me of that American value - of welcome.
At the "check in" everyone knows the administration has placed a quota for deportation. You just never know if this is your day to help fill the quota. Each person, each family, knows that "today may be your day." Because of that fear based ecology, each person sits quietly despite a loud television blaring Fox News in the upper corners.
Some pray, others just sit and wait to be called forward. There are a few immigration lawyers. Most are alone. We address the ministry of accompaniment because, as people of faith, sanctuary is the spiritual power of our tradition. We practice sanctuary every Sunday while you visit to worship in public. Hospitality, together with sanctuary, fulfills our covenant with God. "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you." Our team accompanying Joe and Mei feel very helpless. However, we remain called to be there and provide sanctuary in this hostile universe. It is a ministry of presence.
As it turns out, I was able to go with Joe and Mei to speak with the ICE officer inside a little room. Rarely do you get a chance to accompany that far. The four of us spoke. He was fully aware that there were seven persons accompanying this family. There was limited conversation. He did almost all the talking. I got a few words in to remind the officer that this family is needed among us. We went home relieved. All is well for a little longer. Joe and Mei will have a quiet Thanksgiving.
It was John Berger who wrote in the lovely book, Hold Everything Dear (Pantheon Books, 2007), "The world has changed. Information is being communicated differently. Misinformation is developing its techniques. On a world scale emigration has become the principle means of survival." Today's Thanksgiving celebration bumps into the Celtic "thin places" sharing the bitter with the sweet. It brushes the principle means of survival to gather where you are needed and where you may be able to provide help. Migrants do that consistently throughout our land and history as a nation.
The experience at Federal Plaza leaves a bitter taste because we watch our political hired help (all elected officials) make justice seem less value driven, less constitutionally inspired, and more like a number and a name on their accountants' financial ledger books. We have become a country where our democratic values of justice and fairness appear to have "gone missing."
That political stalemate is also vivid today as the painful and historic events in Ferguson, Missouri blare across our land. You can see the sad and bitter taste in the outrage and cold anger of those who have directly experienced justice deferred. I can see it even in the fear of the photographed eyes of those who are hired to "preserve the domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense and the promotion of the general welfare" (as each of us memorized in 6th Grade civics class). Despite their military armament, the police seem to act out of fear, rather than the professionalism and respect we trained them to provide. The mass of desperate people are armed with anger, disappointment, and deep pain located in the living memory of the one who has gone missing since August, Michael Brown.
It was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who preached these words on March 14, 1968: "As long as justice is postponed we always stand on the verge of these darker nights of social disruption." He spoke those words three weeks before he was assassinated. Those prayerful words have come alive again this week after the historic decision in Ferguson, Missouri. Their Robert MacCulloch, Saint Louis County prosecuting attorney, announced that no criminal charges would be filed against Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael.
Today, we are invited to remember justice gone missing. It has been deferred for a vital part of our American heritage; often those less fortunate, or on the other side of opportunity.
I cannot face this day of wonderful joy without touching the fearful pain and praying over the vital memory that has kept me alive these 63 years. As a white man, I have a significant opportunity. I grew up with easier access to opportunity than the African American, the Latino, the people of color, and women. I am one of those who has benefited by our racialized system that supported me. Justice is not deferred, for people like me. Yet, because of Ferguson and places like Staten Island or other parts of Brooklyn, we see the suffering from wanton injustice spewed from the guns of those we hire to insure the "domestic tranquility."
I have always understood justice and its kindred spirit, fairness, to be available to me. I have lived a privileged life. Yet, now, the news from Ferguson, Mo, and other cities from around this country, we see a justice deferred that has injured the very soul of our country.
The captions in many articles I have listened to remind me that when justice is deferred violence erupts. Moreover, violence is not in the will of the people. Violence rises in that thin space between anger and silence. Violence enters the scene when people are unheard. I look at the photos and see young persons of color, together with a few white folks, trying to undo the harm and to practice fairness. Nevertheless, the faces of these youth leave me with a sigh too deep for words.
As a person of faith and a citizen I know that one of the diseases we witness is the virus called amnesia. When amnesia goes viral in the church, we forget who we are and why we gather for the ministry of "faith, hope, and love" (1 Corinthians 13). When amnesia goes viral in citizens, we forget who we are. We forget our founding principles that state, "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." We forget that we are designed, as a country, to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.
These values and the covenant between people of faith and the Trinitarian God of justice, God of mercy, and God of fairness, are the rock of our living. In our fragile politicized, polarized, and compartmentalized culture it is essential... no, it is vital (the Élan vital - life giving), that we cling to this granite which houses the permanence of our values for ourselves, our posterity, and all residents on this divine planet.
For now, however, please enjoy the gift of Thanksgiving and allow the photo at the beginning of this Thanksgiving muse provide a moment of profound memory that will accompany you in thin places; like this tree clinging to granite.
It is amazing that something as strong as this northwestern Cedar could stand so tall and so confident only because she clings to that rock which has given her life.
Rev. David H. Rommereim