In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori participated in the Fourth Annual Ash Wednesday Prayer Service at Liberty State Park, which focuses on immigration discrimination and detainees.
“We share a dream of peace,” the Presiding Bishop said to the interreligious group of religious leaders, families of detainees, and immigrants. “O God, vindicate us, give us peace, save us from any who would destroy, diminish, or degrade any human being. We are all brothers and sisters in your sight, O Lord. Hold up your mirror to every face, let your face shine upon us all, and bring us peace.”
The following is Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori’s text:
Ash Wednesday Pilgrimage vs. Immigration Discrimination
“No More Silence! Awake to Justice!”
13 February 2013
Liberty State Park, NJ
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
As we stand here in view of these great symbols of the open arms of this country, we must reflect on the irony they represent. Some of our ancestors were welcomed by the first peoples of this continent. One of the great myths of this nation tells of Tisquantum helping the settlers in Plymouth to grow food, teaching them to fertilize their corn by burying a fish near the seeds. The settlers soon turned on the native inhabitants, egged on by theologies that said such heathens had no right to exist here – they were simply commodities to be displaced or enslaved. More than five centuries after that doctrine of discovery was promulgated, a growing number of faith communities are rejecting it as heretical.
The other irony is that those great symbols of welcome behind us have so qualified their invitation that they might as well be a billboard that says, “keep out.” I lived in Oregon in the 1970s when the governor posted a sign like that at the California border that said, “come and visit, but don’t stay.” He was serious, even if he did smile when he said it.
We’re here today to lament and protest the borders and fences and inhospitality of so many people and practices in this land. Those are the mild words for it. There are far more violent ones, like “illegal.” We stand here today because we believe that it is ultimately unfaithful to call any person by that name. It’s time to take that word and bury it. Put it in the ground to become fertilizer – like Tisquantum’s fish – let it rot and let its venom dissolve into the soil. And out of that act we trust that new life will ultimately spring forth.
Each and every human being is precious in the eyes of God. Our lament over injustices surrounding immigration is grounded in that belief. We all dream of a world in which each and every human being has access to the basic goods of life – food, shelter, care in time of sickness, meaningful employment, education – and therefore all are able to live in peace because there is justice. People migrate to find those fundamental blessings – to live in peace, to be able to feed their children and themselves, to live in dignity, with justice. We call that dream by varied names – shalom, salaam, the reign of God, the beloved community, even salvation and rescue.
We are here to echo the psalmist’s cry to say, “Wake up! Give your people justice, O Lord! Help us to counter the injustice that seeks to define some people as less deserving of that dream than others. Cry to the Lord, saying enough! Let families live together in peace. Help everyone find meaningful work, sufficient to undergird that dream of food, shelter, healing, education, and dignity.”
The psalmist cries out against his enemies, believing all the fault lies in them. Like most human beings, we are a more mixed bag. Almost anyone who lives in this country participates in the economic system that exploits migratory labor. It’s nearly impossible to avoid. A pastor in Arizona reminded a group about that fact when he pointed out that if you eat lettuce, live in a house that’s been built in the last 20 years, or enjoy eating relatively inexpensive fruits and vegetables, then know that those “blessings” have been provided at least in part by undocumented immigrant labor. Many of the people who labor on construction sites and in the fields and orchards and chicken processing plants are exploited as to their pay and working conditions, they are treated like commodities rather than human beings made in the image of God. It costs employers less trouble and expense to provide debased housing and forbid the presence of families. When the status of immigrants is questioned, our government frequently holds them essentially incommunicado and/or moves them far away from any family and local support they might have locally. Citizens of these United States share some responsibility for those undignified and unjust practices, and our prayer today must be that hearts and minds are opened to the need for justice.
I am particularly struck by the parallels between the experience of peoples in the ancient Middle East and people here on this continent. The experience of the Hebrews or apiru in Egypt was a lot like what many immigrants here experience – both treated as commodity labor, ill-fed and ill-housed, their children at significant risk and unable to join the larger society as equals. Out of that experience, and their liberation, came the urgent reminder to “care for the sojourner in your midst, for you were once slaves in Egypt.” The psalmist’s cry for justice and vindication is just as urgent here today as it was for those slaves in Egypt, for the exiles in Babylon, and for every displaced person throughout history.
We share a dream of peace. O God, vindicate us, give us peace, save us from any who would destroy, diminish, or degrade any human being. We are all brothers and sisters in your sight, O Lord. Hold up your mirror to every face, let your face shine upon us all, and bring us peace.
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