Thursday, February 2, 2017

Climbing Jacob's Ladder

Do you know the story of Jacob’s ladder?  We have Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, trying to flee from his twin Esau who had vowed to kill him.  Esau was angry with Jacob for taking away his inheritance.  On his way to his relative’s house, Jacob laid down to rest, and dreamt of a ladder descending with God’s angels upon it.  Jacob saw God standing above it, repeating his promise of support that he had made to Jacob’s father and grandfather, saying “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.  For I will not leave you….” (Genesis 28:15) 

In the book of Genesis, Jacob’s ladder is the long link between earth and heaven, God’s promise of redemption and support.  This image has revisited my mind so many times in the last few weeks.  When I have read of bans and detentions.  Of outcry and protest.  Of fear. 

Let me tell you another story, of a woman who is tired and traveling with a fractious 2-year-old which has only made her more so.  She is missing her mother, too ill to travel and visit her in America, but now she is looking forward to seeing her husband and making sure he is eating.  Her neighbors will look in on him, she is sure but still.  This trip had been planned for months.  Money scraped together to make the visit.  And it was a wonderful one.  But there is a problem.  Her greencard will no longer permit her entry into the United States.  The TSA agent has detained her.  And her child sensing her fear, begins to cry.  She tries to call her husband, who is frantic with worry.  He tells her he is trying to find someone to straighten everything out.  He asks if she is well, if their daughter is all right?  As the hours pass and the tension mounts, and she is regarded with piteous suspicion she looks forward to the double doors that clear customs and wonders if she will see her husband on the other side.

Then there is another mother, who hasn’t seen or smelled or considered home in over a year.  Ever since she had to flee with her child and her brother-in-law, when she had to barter and steal to make sure her family could eat, when she worried about the anger forming in her nephew’s eyes as he struggled to understand that asylum can also mean “trapped.”  She has not bathed often and even when she has, it has been in cold water.  Her digestive system is in ruins because she eats rarely, preferring instead to give her portion away to the children.  She has been forced to undress in front of strangers and sleep on floors.  Her university education and love of poetry no longer matter.  Another woman in the temporary camp she lived in for 6 months told her that her husband’s cousin, a law professor, was now a check-out clerk.  Despite the humiliation she has endured she says she will do the same.  Anything was better than worrying if she was going to be alive by the day’s end.  She prays constantly.  And finally, the interviews are over and she is here, in the United States.  But she is barred entry.  Her accented flawless English, cultivated from years of pouring over the Romantics, is mocked.  She closes her eyes, and takes a seat.  And waits.  In a clean airport, at least, she does not have to fear being raped.  But she has not stopped asking God for deliverance.  Her eyes seek heaven.

When everything on earth is gone.  When someone is vowing to kill you for stealing a birthright, you look towards heaven with profound faith.  Your clothes, food and any other cultural marker has vanished.  Your faith is all you have left.  And that carries you all the way to a new shore. 

Jacob’s ladder.  
I will not be the one to break the rung of another's faith;
 I will help her hold on to it.

I have hurt while watching voracious and blatant attacks on social media with unverified links from both sides.  And since it seems that so many get their news from social media where anyone can post anything with an email address and a pseudonym, truth and justice is being pulled further away and fear is the sole resounding rallying cry.  A dangerous wail of frustration.

When fear moves us, the ladder stretches even higher.  The rungs increase in spacing and number.  We forget entirely about bringing the kingdom of heaven here, and we forget what that means.  We forget kindness.  We forget love.  We breed our own terror.

My son wrote in his notes about the Boston Massacre, “In 1770, a snowball was thrown at a British solider and he then fired his musket killing 5 colonists.”  Can you imagine an environment of such tension and fear that a simple snowball would result in the spark that began a war?   Because when I see the fear in the eyes of protestors, the fear is mirrored in those detainees.  And such fear will culminate in an extraordinary way, if we do nothing.

Let me explain by relaying a part of a particularly frustrating conversation I had with someone recently:

“I’ve seen the order—there is NO BAN.”

Me: “It doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?!  These people are protesting for nothing.  There isn’t a ban, it is the same document that has been instituted by administrations over the last 16 years!”

Airport Demonstration

Me: “I don’t care.”

“You have to care.  This is crazy.  People are just willing to protest anything.”

Me: “They’re afraid—

“Afraid? Of what!”

“It no longer matters what the language says.  All that matters is the fear that it inspires.   That should we start turning away those in need of help—

“It’s temporary.”

“Tell that to the detainee.  Tell her it’s only temporary after she traveled a lifetime to get there.  Tell him that his business, his family, the life he created after leaving another behind is no longer his to claim.  Tell him he must wait even though he’s paid taxes, met with his daughter’s teachers, volunteered in his community, gone to public meetings.  Tell him.”

“Come on.”

“No.  No come on.  I saw on Facebook, a woman I know posted, ‘I guess we’re all immigration experts now,’ complete with an eyeroll.  But she doesn’t understand, that this is just now too much.  That the democracy de Tocqueville critiqued is becoming realized while the ideals the Founders stood for seems to be radically misunderstood.”

“No, wait a minute.”

“No.  These people?  They are afraid.  And maybe for too long we’ve all just passively accepted that those elected officials embody the ideals they are sworn to uphold.  We haven’t kept an eye on them.  Now their grandstanding seems divided on party lines, exacerbated by the tension in the air.”

“That’s not the law.  That is not what it says.  We have a responsibility to the citizens of this country.  And we have a court system and Congress that were created to check and balance one another.  You know that.”

“It doesn’t matter.  It’s the state of the union.  And unless this President addresses this fear.  A very real fear to the people he represents, something will happen that will be bigger than a snowball fight.”

“A snowball fight?”

“Never mind.  It’s just that they’re afraid.  And while fear can be irrational, it needs to be taken seriously.  I would never send my child back to bed to face the monsters he believes are there.  I will go.  I will turn on the lights.  I will recheck the closet and under the bed.  I will stay and hold his hand until he feels safe.   I will do it so he feels he doesn’t see monsters everywhere when he is older and when it is the bright light of day.  For some people the monsters never go away and the shadow they cast becomes real, because no one took the time to explain that they are NOT real.” 

"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam."
The remarks of President George W. Bush at the
Islamic Center of Washington, DC on 9.17.2001

My cousin is Muslim.  Another came into this country seeking asylum.  I am a first-generation immigrant.  I took the oath of citizenship just shy of my 18th birthday, the original oath promising to defend America and bear arms against any enemies foreign or domestic.  I am proud to have grown up here, for the intense sacrifices and scrutiny my parents have borne to raise me here.  My father said that there is nowhere else on earth where dreams can be realized.  Where if someone worked hard enough success would come despite family name or the circumstances of birth.  This, for me, is deeply personal.

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There has not been a single year in my memory when I haven’t been witness to a parent (or I myself)  being told to “get out of the country and never come back.”  Through the years of both party administrations, the racism and sexism has kept coming:

  • My mother was given threatening letters at work during the Iran hostage crisis and told to “watch [her] back, that [someone] would be coming for [her].”  When my mother showed her supervisor, she looked the other way and shrugged.
  • I was jovially, loudly  (and repeatedly) warned by Mr. Adams, my high school Biology teacher, not to be found riding the elephant in the rotunda at the Natural History Museum before getting off the bus for our field trip.
  • I was asked for my contact information because the little boy in my grocery cart looked so well cared for, was I available then to nanny for [her] family?  “He’s my son,” I said quietly and placed the packages woodenly on the belt.  “He’s my son and I teach in the English Department at ----- College.” 
  • My father had full cans of soda thrown at him during his lunch walks in Georgetown and screamed at and called everything but a child of God.
  • At the park when Joe was a toddler, I went to grab something from the stroller, and saw Joe reaching over to say hi to another little boy.  They spun wheels on the playground together.  When I walked over to see him, his mother, a lovely blonde just like her little boy, abruptly picked him and said in a carrying whisper, We don't play with those people.
  • My father was punched and his cheekbone crushed by a drunken African American orderly when my father told him he couldn’t touch one of his patients in that condition.
  • We have had bricks thrown through our window.
  • Years ago, I was told I was taking away good American jobs, I remember looking up from the vegetable bins at the market and said, “I wasn’t aware you were looking for an Assistant Professorship in Literature?” 

So none of this language, as bad as it has gotten, is surprising for me.  In fact, as a minority woman, in an interracial marriage, I can tell you I’ve experienced much worse. 

If any good can come out of this intense unrest and pain—such excruciating pain—we are witnessing, it is this: that people are understanding the process of Democracy.  They are looking to understand how government works.  They are learning the names of their representatives and calling them.  Accountability is becoming important, passivity can no longer be the order of the day, no matter who is in charge. 

--Jamal Joseph

“There is no expiration date on dreams and there is no start date on activism.”  But there has to be a purpose and a common one, of a better and kinder and more decent world.  To be even more personal, I’ll share with you an insight a therapist once told my husband and myself, “You know I think you both needed this.  Your marriage needed this.  You needed to hit a bottom in order to rebuild and begin again to talk to one another.  To learn to talk to one another.”  A hard reset.  Maybe this is a truth for us all now as well.  We need a call-back to the gravity and courage of the founding of this country that sought liberty from any kind of oppression. 

I hold those truths very dearly indeed and have explained to my children that despite our personal disagreements we have to look at the manner in which the country works, and allow that process to continue.  And yet, this order?  The rationale is not sound and the agents involved to carry it out, do not seem to be equipped to undertake it. 

With one brief exception, I have not found any TSA agent to be especially kind or helpful.  I have found them to be uniformly brusque, rude and having serious misconception of their authority.  One team in Tampa took aside my then 4-year-old son, and removed him from my presence as he looked at me in panic.  They tested his small palms for gunpowder residue: twice.  And yelled at him when he, so scared and shocked, as I could see through the partition, was too nervous to place his hands palm up.  He had tears in his eyes as he was delivered back to me.  Through clenched teeth, I said, “you are not allowed to take a minor away from his parents to search him.”  The man grinned, winked and said, “have a nice day Paki.”

So these are the people who have to enforce these restrictions.  These men and women are in full charge of people who have been traumatized once, twice, many many times over?

“We have to let this play out in the court system.”

“No we cannot.  We cannot.  How much longer does a permanent resident have to wait before moving beyond those double doors?  The court system?  And if one such detainee can by some miracle find a lawyer just beyond the door to file an injunction, what form needs to be used?  No.  There is no more time.”

“There were a total of 109 detainees.  That’s all.”

That’s 109 too many

Japanese American Internment WWII

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are alone in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).    Step-by-step, rung by rung we have to climb this ladder.  We cannot do it alone.  And we must help each other reach further.   Fear cannot divide us.  We have to confront it; we have to ask the hard questions of why we are scared.  We have to recall Japanese-American internment, Chinese labor camps, and the lingering shock and acrid residue of war; we must face our fear. 

Your humanity and decency calls upon you to act in kind to another.  To believe in both of those ideals despite any evidence to the contrary and to see them in another.  We must try.

Remember that woman, that mother trying to calm the racing of her heart and seeking with eyes to find recognition of her humanity in another's?  That woman could have easily been my mother in 1973.  That child—me.   That man seeking asylum and rest?  Jesus.  There can be no greater evidence of God than our love for one another in the face of our differences. 

I have to thank you for reading this, when you are most likely tired and weary of reading so much on the same.  When you have seen and witnessed and borne pain yourself, watching friendships end and relationships crumble.  The first person I know I must reach is the person whose views are in absolute contradiction to my own.  So I foresee many formidable arguments in my future.  But it’s worth it.  Change cannot come without discomfort, and challenge will sharpen our own ideas.  Combined is a path toward cooperation and a willing hand to continue the climb.  In its undertaking, I wish you peace, strength, and above all else, courage.


Cathy said...

Again, another beautifully written and very thoughtful piece. I was shaking my head reading this angry that this is happening today in my country. I was nodding my head reading this, we had become complacent and underestimated the anger and fear within our country to have allowed this BAN to happen. The UN estimates 20,000 human beings are impacted by this BAN. It is a ban, by the very admittance of the POTUS and his advisors, no matter how they try to spin it now. Thank you for writing this.

smhallisey said...

Thank you Cathy. I haven't slept in days; there is a point when we must say "enough," and for that we need everyone on both sides to see straight. We cannot be cowered by fear, it's an insult to everyone who fought to have this nation stand. I'm with you. We'll get through this, we have to.

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