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Emilie M. Townes Reply

Dean and E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt Divinity School

I begin with a hearty thank you to my respondents who listened closely and critically. They have given me a rich playing field to continue the conversation and themes of the conference as we continue to read out and experience an ongoing crisis of disinterest and neglect about immigration in our country and beyond.

Indeed, Dr. Carroll begins by complicating the challenges of immigration by placing the focus of my paper and the conference itself in a more global context. The U.S. is not alone in struggling with its (in)humanity toward the strangers at its gates and the internal challenges of countries like his native Guatemala that has become a transit zone for those heading north from Honduras, El Salvador, the Caribbean, and other countries. This is a point well taken and one that I do believe we must grapple with.

It is amazing to me how Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus,” that is at the base of the Statue of Liberty has become a site of contention in immigration. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” is the well-known closing to the sonnet. Although the vision and the words did not pertain to my family history directly, when I first saw the statue and read these words as a child, it was a powerful image of liberation for a little Black girl growing up in the South. In some strange way, this spoke to me through the roiling of the late 1950s and into the 1960s as I juggled the possibilities and realities of what we say we are in our country in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution and our actions both as individuals and through our governmental policies and denominational decision-making.

To be a place, a country, with that giant torch-bearing lady in New York Harbor saying to me and the world that this country welcomes folk in. But now the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, has added a constricting caveat: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge,” saying that the poem refers to “people coming from Europe.”1 Now anyone who has toured the museum on Ellis Island, you know that this is not true. You find a mixture of folks coming from southern Europe and the Caribbean. Yes, immigration has been more than our southern border, but I do not want to move us too quickly into the global context without our doing a serious reckoning with the ways it plays out along racial, ethnic, and class lines as well within our own borders and the social policies we develop. Unfortunately, the same inabilities we have to see one another as siblings in Christ within our own borders gets exported into a global arena where violence, callousness, and disregard comes in many international colors.

Dr. Holton invites us to think about those terrors within us that can drive us more deeply and persistently than our faith and beliefs. Deepening my notion of the fantastic hegemonic imagination, she probes the ways in which our acts of injustice toward immigrants take place within a matrix of uncertainty with profound psychological effects. As a Christian social ethicist, reading Holton’s response reminded me of the importance of seeing that economic chaos, employment instability, healing and health care, and myriad issues that I typically think about as social and theological issues are also psychological ones as well. Holton makes the important link between the terror of uncertainty and the forms of containment of people of color in postmodern concentration camps as a form of control. We don’t like uncertainty and ambiguity and the forms of control that we have developed in our current immigration policies are more of a response to the terrors within us than the compassion we espouse as people of faith.

Often, we seek certainty and absolute answers in a world filled with grey areas and several pathways that we can take. This is quite a dilemma when one also approaches this with a religious worldview that may tend toward comforting us more than encouraging us to ask questions, take risks, and fall into our faith rather than control it—or at least we believe we are setting the boundaries of it. Trauma and fear are natural dance partners in a conundrum such as this and my call for lament, though biblically grounded, is also forged out of nearly 500 years of various forms of chattel slavery in the U.S.—forced labor, domestic servitude, forced child labor, sex trafficking at all age levels, debt bondage, forced marriage, prisons. When we have a history of learned inhumanity such as this, those lesson are both consciously and unconsciously brought to bear in the kind of inhumane treatment folks arriving from our southern borders receive.

Lament is telling the truth about what we see, what we do, what we tolerate, what we remain unaware of, what we refuse to see. It is a hard process but when done in community we can find our way back to basic human decency and, perhaps, compassion and the prospect of truly living together while being guided by not only a faith that is robust and holy, but a civil religion that begins with “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

As we focus on borders, it is apt that Reverend Adams’ voice be heard among my respondents. His are words from the daily, everyday experiences of what it means to live at, near, around part of our southern border are tangible. In his response, he tells us stories about Guillermina, Joel, Yoribeth, and Alison who he has met in his ministry at the border and those who have come through the doors of the Migrant Resource Center as they echo the stories of so many more at our southern border. I respond with one of my own.

As a little kid, I was fascinated with state lines. I would pour over the map of the United States in class as my teachers would teach us about each state, when it became a state, and where it was located on the map. I was fascinated with the shapes and sizes of the states and the neat lines that marked the borders for each one of them. I thought that the lines must be pretty from outer space and I looked forward to seeing the different lines as my parents readied our family to take our first car trip north to Binghamton, NY to visit my aunt and her family. I became excited as we neared the first state line—from North Carolina to Virginia. As we passed into Virginia, my mom called out we just entered Virginia! I sat dumbfounded and confused. Where was the line? All I saw was a welcome sign on the side of the road as our car moved northward. My mother sensed my mood change and asked what was wrong. In near tears, I told her that I had somehow missed the line, I must have blinked. She realized immediately what my 7-year-old mind had conjured and explained that the borders between states were not actual lines like those on the maps I had studied so carefully.”2

We had much discussion, protest, outrage, frustration, and prayers about borders—southern borders—over the course of the conference and they will continue in our attempts to do justice in the months following it. And there will be more to come as we continue to look deeply into our hearts and minds to ask who will we be and how will we be as nation and its peoples. We are encouraged to welcome folk past the borders we create—be they our landscapes or our heartscapes. As we engage the conversations about borders and immigration, we must use our best discipling selves to engage those conversations and dig deep into the faith that holds each of us—morning by morning and day by day. And even more, beyond our talking we must work with holy fury to dismantle the concentration camps that we so euphemistically call detention centers and the mindless heartless call “summer camp.”3

I was disappointed that December morning so long ago that there was not a real line between the states. But what I have found over the years that I look forward to seeing the welcome signs.

1 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/us/cuccinelli-statue-liberty-poem.html

2 Excerpted from the Dean’s Letter, The Spire, February 2017. https://divinity.vanderbilt.edu/publications/2017-February-Spire.html

3 https://www.washingtonpost.com/immigration/the-head-of-ice-called-family-detention-summer-camp-heres-what-it-looks-like-inside/2019/08/25/8f32609e-c679-11e9-b5e4-54aa56d5b7ce_story.html