A Confession, Lament, and Hope in Showing Up | Reflections From My Public Protest

#CaravanToClint

On Tuesday, June 25, 2019, in response to the news of the migrant crisis at the US border, a friend and I got on a plane and headed to Clint, TX to join the #CaravanToClint protest group organized by Julie Lythcott-Haims. Below, I would like to share my thoughts, reflections, lamentations, and encouragements in light of my experience.

Protesters gathered outside the Customs and Border Protection station where a tent city is located in El Paso on Tuesday. Credit Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times.

A Disquieting Confession

I confess (somewhat ashamedly) that I am not the protesting type. My temperament and emotional chemistry revolts against standing on a street corner, making signs, and yelling chants. I don’t think I ever feel more outside of my skin than when participating in activities like this. And parties. I feel the same way at social gatherings.

When Ivan Pierre Aguirre (the same NYTimes photographer that took the well-known Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez picture here) interviewed Darren and I for a Twitter live video (below), I was deeply uncomfortable. In part because I really didn’t know what I was doing, am not well-versed in talking to/through the media, and I was fearful for misrepresenting the cause in a way that could hinder the efforts. Reading the comments under the video (which you should perhaps never do), only confirmed my feelings.

[Side note: It still fascinates me that common tropes like “fake news” and the rhetorical “whataboutism” strategy is so readily leveraged as a psychological crutch for people who spend time on social media. Engaging with that kind of pomposity truly is useless.]

Anyway, with all of that said, the topping on this unnerving cake of a dilemma I have baked is the ultimate question, Am I making any difference at all? Did I really move the needle any? Did it really matter? All of this insecure pontificating in my mind combined with my penchant for all things introverted results in one simple calculation. Just go home.

And I did. The next day. (Which was planned).

Which I could do. I could go home.

How nice.

My confession here is a disquieting reality filled with levels of privilege that I feel compelled to publicly admit. In short, how dare I complain about being “uncomfortable” in the midst of human rights violations. What disdain must I have towards my fellow humans who are literally locked in cages to even air such grievances as my uncertainty in “talking to the media?!” What kind of moral derangement must be operating under the hood of my psyche as to simply want to return to my comfortable home when quite literally just a few hundred feet away from me are brothers and sisters suffering inhumane conditions, on my tax dollars? What luxury must I have to opt in, or out?

A brief moment of shade, and a stunning sight hovering over the CBP facility below.

The Needle Moves

And so I have come to accept that my righteous demurral to, “Am I really making a difference?” is really just a façade to mask my privilege. The confirmation bias engine is strong at work in me, rationalizing and reasoning my way out of being uncomfortable, hiding the deeper reality, that I was taking full advantage of being on the winning end of the distribution of justice in this world. And, I was willing to do so even while protesting the suffering of others.

To my shame.

But therein lies the rub.

The great paradoxical reality is that showing up did matter. Showing up did make a difference, just not in a way I was expecting, nor anticipated. Prior to this experience of protest, I don’t think I had ever come to terms with “privilege” in the way that I now understand it and can now articulate. The paragraph above is evidence of a shift…in meI changed. I was awakened. I had come to terms with the hindrances that keep me from pursuing justice in real and tangible ways. The needle was moved in me. And the rude awakening I am currently still in continues to jostle my understanding of my place in and responsibility to the world, and for that, I am astonished and grateful.

In sociology there is a theory called praxis. The general idea is that we don’t believe then do. We do, first, then we believe. In other words, our convictions follow our behavior. So, every experience I have like showing up in Clint, TX, does a little more damage to the psychological excuses I make and shapes more forcefully the convictions I hold, and the reasons I hold them. My travels to Clint, standing on the street corner, talking to the media, and being in community with others who were articulate, courageous, and bold in their condemnations of injustice was not something I signed up for because I believed in doing those things. I just “showed up”. And then something happened. I began to see more clearly my privilege, others’ courage, and the value in activism. I believe I became a better human being for having been there.

I write this reflection in hopes that others too, will do the hard thing, the uncomfortable thing, and “show up” for others, for the suffering, and the victims of injustice. Especially if you are making excuses, complaining about the difficulty, or skeptically “politisplaining” the news away. I surmise that what I’ve described above is common, and I hope that what I have written may aid in spurring others to do first, and by doing, begin to then know what one should believe. I hope more will be transformed into this kind of participatory cycle of justice.

When We Do Show Up

A humble candlelight vigil outside of the CBP facility in Clint, TX.

While I recognize the above is ego-centric, there is fortunately an additional kind of good news we can say. My wife, Danielle, who is phenomenally competent and courageous in this kind of activism (and the goad in my life to “show up”), has written a really thoughtful explanation that is worth disseminating. I have lightly edited her thoughts here:

When we show up…

We stand as witnesses for those suffering

We refuse to allow their tears, their pain, and their blood to fall to the ground without crying out. If we ever were to meet someone who had been detained, we would want them to know that we shed tears, stood on the street corners, wrote letters, made calls, demanded justice, and sacrificially gave for their dignity, freedom, and liberty.

We teach and demonstrate to our children, the next generation, what is right

We are models for the future of humanity. We are being watched, evaluated, and emulated by our children. And, we are being judged. When our children ask us someday, “Where were you when __ happened?” we will have an answer for them.

We push the needle

Our vigils gain attention. Politicians respond. Attorneys and aid workers are encouraged. Pastors and fellow Christians who may be thinking that it’s “too political” or a “debatable” issue see us crying out and are prayerfully convicted. All who are wondering what Christianity teaches about the stranger, the poor, the orphan–they see the love of Jesus in action. We move the needle for everyone watching–beginning with ourselves.

We find like minded people along the way

We not only find some hope when we find others who share our anger, our passion, and our compassion, but we also learn from others who are further along in this journey. We discover people who have been “on the front lines” in their faithful service for years, and are inspired by their dedication.

We get louder and stronger together

Strength in numbers means that our cries for justice, for humanitarian aid, for policy changes, gain influence in the debate.

I can attest to all of these being true, and I am inspired by her words of wisdom, and encouragement, that this journey that I am on is good.

With one exception.

Theological Atheism

During our time in Clint, TX, Danielle organized a rally in Palo Alto, which got coverage by our local news:

At that rally, one of the attendees asked a simple but painfully direct question, “Where are the Christians? Where are the Pastors?”

There is a kind of atheism that is philosophical, a statement about the ontological non-existence of God. In the absence of Christian leadership and the presence of Christian complicity with injustice, there is a different kind of atheism that I am personally wrestling with, one that stems directly from theology, not from philosophy. It goes something like this:

Faith, specifically Christian faith, contends that the power of the Holy Spirit transforms people into “new creations” where the “old has gone, and the new has come.” This “new creation” is supposed to be a reflection of the “image and likeness” of a good God. While our brokenness and fallibility (i.e., “sin”) spoils this image, Christianity is supposed to redeem us. Christianity is supposed to convict our selfishness, hatred, and fear, transforming the inner darkness into compassion, love, and light. The claim of Christianity is that the dividing walls of division that humanity creates and leverages for power, greed, and self-aggrandizement is demolished in the family/body of Christ, so that none of those segregations exist to people who are faithful followers of Jesus. Christian faith is supposed to be about being a humble servant, loving the “least of these,” and forsaking pious religiosity for a life lived for the good of all people.

So, …

When I encounter a Christianity that is driven by fear, bolstered by power, greedy for gain, and discriminatory, racist, misogynistic, and idolatrous in practice, I am hit with a faith crisis, one that wonders whether Christianity can really be true. Again, not the dilemma of whether or not God exists, or Jesus was a real person, but whether the theological claim that a life can be transformed is really true. It appears, from my vantage point that for many believers their tribal and political identity is far more core than their spiritual or faith identity. As a result, religious language is therefore co-opted into giving justification for deeply held political convictions. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? This dilemma goes far beyond inquiring about the merits of miracles, or the inspiration of the Bible. This dilemma is more damaging; a doubt about the effectiveness of the truth of Christianity.

To be fair, Christians have done phenomenal life-saving work in the name of Jesus throughout history (cf. The Triumph of Christianity). Today, there are millions of Christians who show up, and show up everyday, doing the hard work of “being the hands and feet of Jesus.” People of faith organize, petition, work for justice, and are in positions of influence making a real difference for real lives. My dilemma is not in the absence of Christians doing good work, but in the inconsistency of Christian expression. If this whole Christianity thing were true, and there is one faith, one Lord, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, why are there thousands of fragmented deviations that defy the central claims, spurn the central ethics, desecrate the central message, and dishonor the central figure?

The Prophet Lives

I will not solve this puzzle here. But I wish to follow up this lament by saying that one of the main reasons I am still an adherent to The Way of Jesus is because the Jewish and Christian story is deeply woven with this outcry, and has codified it in their sacred texts:

 שמעו שמים והאזיני ארץ
כי יהוה דבר
בנים גדלתי ורוממתי
פשעו בי

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for YHWH has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.

(Isaiah 1:2)

Religious hypocrisy and delinquency is not a surprise to the writers of the Bible. Religious hypocrisy and delinquency is assumed by the writers of the Bible. This is quite astounding, that a sacred text would sacralize dereliction. The “great people” of this faith’s tradition were not model citizens, but rather reprobates without a clue.

And here is where I collapse. How does that song go again? “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

And so I find myself back where I started, with a disquieting confession. I am a privileged coward, an ego-centric “reprobate without a clue,” an advantaged human being whose empathy tank is emptied with every gain of wealth. The great spiritual “circle of life” is found in this one microcosm of an act of protest, and I can only pray I have given honor to the divine, the transcendent, and the incarnate, in my words and in my actions.

Immediately outside the gate of the CBP in El Paso was a mylar blanket and cup o’ noodles.

The Children

The last word needs to go to the children, the most vulnerable amongst us who are the victims of our negligence and depravity.

You are not forgotten. You are seen. You are heard. You have dignity and worth. And we absolutely unequivocally denounce and deplore the treatment you have received. We are not just sorry that you have gone through this inhumanity; we are fighting to get you out, to liberate you, to restore you to your life and your families. You are not a curse, an illegal, a migrant, or a refugee. You are a precious child of God, an equal human being, a sister, a brother, and a gift to this world. 


The Local Work

If you have already been active, may your tribe increase. If you have not, may what I’ve written persuade you to get involved. In all of it, we must first recognize the long-term local efforts that we can join, support, encourage, and never replace. Here are just a few of the organizations collated by the Texas Tribune for your consideration:

  • American Gateways provides legal services and representation to detained parents. It’s seeking volunteers to represent low-income individuals and families.
  • Angry Tias & Abuelas delivers financial support to local shelters; transportation to and from bus stations, airports and shelters; and emergency food, water, clothing and toiletries to individuals and families seeking asylum. They are accepting donations.
  • Annunciation House shelters families detained and separated by ICE on the El Paso/Juarez border.
  • Baker Ripley’s team of immigration attorneys is providing free or low-cost legal services throughout the Houston immigrant community.
  • The Humanitarian Respite Center for Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley provides a place for men, women and children to rest, have a warm meal, shower, change into clean clothes, as well as receive medicine and other supplies.
  • Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services says it’s the only full-service immigration legal aid clinic serving low-income immigrants and refugees in the southwestern U.S.
  • Good Neighbor Settlement House has a respite center in Brownsville operating 24/7. The center is accepting donations like water bottles, juice boxes, animal crackers and peanut butter crackers to hand out to people awaiting their asylum hearings.
  • Human Rights First is one of the nation’s largest providers of pro bono legal representation for asylum-seekers, including families and people in detention in Texas, California, New York and Washington D.C.
  • Immigrant Families Together works to bond out asylum seekers and reunite them with their children. It also provides food to families and government and foster-agency-approved housing to expedite reunifications. The group is accepting donations.
  • Immigrant Justice Now is working to provide supplies, like bus tickets, Pedialyte, shoes, prepaid cellphones and underwear, to immigrant families and children.
  • Interfaith Welcome Coalition assists refugees, asylum seekers and at-risk immigrants. They have an overnight shelter at Travis Park Methodist Church and help migrants get transportation — buses or planes — as they travel to other places through San Antonio.
  • Justice for Our Neighbors provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrant individuals and families in Texas.
  • Kids In Need of Defense partners with major law firms, corporations and bar associations to create a nationwide pro bono network to represent unaccompanied children through their immigration proceedings. Volunteers don’t need to have immigration law experience.
  • La Posada Providencia in San Benito runs a shelter for people in the legal process of seeking asylum, residency or some other legal alternatives.
  • La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) provides low-cost legal services and deportation legal defense to immigrant children, families and refugees in Texas. They also organize to reunite families that have been separated at the border.
  • Through their Project Corazon, Lawyers for Good Government has sent nearly 40 volunteer attorneys to the border over the past year. Their team has also provided remote assistance to individuals needing help with credible fear interviews, brief-writing and remote bond proceedings. They are accepting donations.
  • Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services has a Welcome & Respite program that takes in migrants recently released by ICE at bus stations to offer them hot meals, a place to sleep, assistance organizing their  journey and shoelaces. They also provide both short-term and long-term foster services for unaccompanied migrant children.
  • The El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Centerprovides legal representation to asylum seekers. It’s accepting donations.
  • RAICES is a nonprofit that provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrant children, families and refugees in Texas. It’s accepting donations and volunteers at its website.
  • South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project is looking for volunteers and attorneys (even ones not experienced in immigration law) to provide legal services to asylum seekers detained in South Texas.
  • Texas Civil Rights Project is looking for bilingual attorneys who can help represent detained and separated parents during their immigration proceedings.
  • Texas Impact’s “Courts & Ports” program takes small groups to Brownsville every week for court observation, ministers to asylum-seekers awaiting entry into the U.S., and volunteers at direct-service sites.
  • Texas RioGrande Legal Aid provides provides free legal services to low-income people seeking immigration assistance.
  • Team Brownsville is a nonprofit at the border that delivers food to asylum-seekers at the international bridges who have been blocked from seeking asylum in the U.S.
  • The Children’s Immigration Law Academy has pro bono attorneys representing children in immigration-related proceedings. It’s also providing specialized training to legal service providers and volunteers who are serving unaccompanied immigrant children.
  • The Human Rights Initiative of North Texas provides free legal services to immigrants who are seeking asylum in the U.S. and immigrants who are victims of violence.
  • The Migrant Center for Human Rights is providing free and low-cost legal services for detained asylum seekers in Texas.
  • The Thanks-Giving Foundation is taking volunteers and donations to help with the Oak Lawn Methodist Church Respite Center. The center is where some of the overflow asylum seekers are being sent from El Paso while en route to their families and sponsors in the U.S.
  • The Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition supports refugees by providing them with access to phones, restrooms, showers, laundry and warm meals.
  • YMCA International Services has teams of lawyers visiting detention centers, adjudicates many migrant release and asylum cases, and provides resettlement services like cash assistance and case management for those receiving asylum. They are located in the Houston area.
  • The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is accepting donations that will go toward providing more child advocates for immigrant kids inside the detention centers weekly and accompany them to immigration proceedings.
  • Together Rising is collecting money that’ll go toward defenders, prosecutors and advocates who are working to reunify immigrant children with their families.

About VIA

www.kevinneuner.com

4 comments

  1. HAT

    Thank you for this thoughtful, thought-provoking, challenged and challenging reflection. In particular, thank you for saying “our negligence and depravity.”

    The situation in the detention facilities, and our complicated and still-inadequate personal and collective responses to it, seem to confront us with the answer to that longstanding question “How could ordinary decent people allow that?” that “we” have been asking since the 1940s, as if that question concerned people other than us.

    Clearly, it does not.

  2. Julie Lythcott-Haims

    Beautiful Kevin. Thank you for your continued efforts to move us all forward and leave no one behind.

    • VIA

      Thank YOU, Julie, for your leadership and inspiration, and your continued work and voice in elevating these values in our body politic.

  3. Pingback: To Be A Witness | Reflections on Witness At Tornillo and Targeting El Paso | vialogue

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