Fear, faith and the border children

I stand with childrenBy Alan Bean

While politicians apportion blame for the thousands of unaccompanied Central American children arriving at our border, the faith community looks for ways to help.

I over-simplify, of course.  We confront a complex tangle of rhetoric and response, and there are plenty of exceptions on both sides of the politician/people divide.

Not all politicians want to send these unaccompanied children back to the chaos and violence that brought them to our border.

Clay Jenkins

Clay Jenkins

A few weeks ago, I heard Dallas County Judge, Clay Jenkins, announce that we would be welcoming at least 2,000 “border children” to our community.  Jenkins told the crowd that 85% of these children would be released into the safe keeping of family members as soon as they were processed by immigration officials; but the remaining 15% needed a safe place where they could receive food, shelter and basic services.  Last week, I attended a religious gathering hosted by a prominent Baptist mega-church at which Jenkins repeated his message to a room dominated by evangelical Christians.

On both occasions, the audience responded with a mixture of enthusiasm, surprise and relief.  If felt so strange to hear a politician speaking from sheer conviction.  Jenkins knew his initiative would be controversial, but when his own children asked him what he was going to do about the kids being warehoused at the border, his faith forced the issue.  He knew what Jesus would do, and didn’t dare take the opposite position.

Texas State Rep. David Simpson

Texas State Rep. David Simpson

And then there’s Texas state representative David Simpson, a telegenic Tea Party conservative with a cowboy hat and a smile.  Simpson outraged his constituency last week by urging a compassionate response to the border children.  “I don’t believe in treating people who’ve crossed the border as a murderer,” Simpson told a town hall gathering dominated by anti-immigrant activists.  “I do think there should be a path, a legal path, for naturalization or citizenship. We’re a nation of immigrants.”

Like Clay Jenkins, David Simpson is taking his cue from his religion.  He quoted Proverbs 20:28, Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and Leviticus 19:33, passages that call for compassionate treatment of resident aliens, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Unfortunately, Jenkins and Simpson are bucking the political consensus.  The prevailing view is that we should send the children back to their homes without delay even if we have to rescind the 2008 William Wilberforce Act to do it.

The Wilberforce Act passed in the dying days of the George W. Bush administration, thanks to the tireless efforts of an unlikely coalition of conservative and liberal organizations.  President Bush welcomed the legislation and it enjoyed the enthusiastic support of evangelical Christians.  Immigrant children from Central America were being targeted by human traffickers and backers of the Wilberforce Act wanted the abuse to stop.

Six years later, Washington is on the verge of scrapping the bill.  No one anticipated tens of thousands of children fleeing north to escape violent drug gangs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.  Why should we care whether the children huddled in our detention centers are being forced into sexual slavery or into the drug trade.  Children are children; pain is pain.

Prominent politicians on both sides of the ideological divide are holding their hands over their ears to block the elegant logic of compassion.  These kids fled their homes because they feared for their lives and only in America can they be protected.  But Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Boehner, and both Democratic and Republican candidates for Texas governor want to toss the children back into the fire.

But the tide is turning.  You can feel it.  Last week, rallies were organized across the nation to protest the compassionate treatment of the border children.  In some localities only a handful of protesters showed up at these events, and in many cities proponents of compassionate immigration reform outnumbered anti-immigration people two or three to one.

And the surprises just keep coming.  Glenn Beck, the conservative firebrand, organized a caravan of provisions for the border children a few days ago.  Beck feared his followers wouldn’t like the idea (they didn’t), but his heart forced his hand.

George Will

George Will

And then there’s the conservative curmudgeon, George Will, telling the Sunday talk shows that America should welcome the border children with open arms.

“We ought to say to these children, ‘Welcome to America, you’re going to go to school and get a job and become Americans.  We have 3,141 counties in this country. That would be 20 [children] per county. The idea that we can’t assimilate these 8-year-old ‘criminals’ with their teddy bears is preposterous.”

Sure, Will is taking a lot of flak for his outspoken views, but I suspect he is buoyed by a tangible shift in the public mood.

Russell Moore

Russell Moore

Much of the credit for changing hearts and minds on this issue goes to conservative Christians. Recently, a contingent of Southern Baptist leaders and Roman Catholic bishops toured the overcrowded immigration facilities at the border.  Speaking at Parkhills Baptist Church in San Antonio, Russell Moore, the outspoken president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, pared the issue back to its theological core:

“As a follower of Jesus Christ, I recognize the answer to this question is going to be very complex politically and very complex socially.  But what is not complex is the truth and reality that every one of these children are created in the image of God, and every one are beloved by God and they matter to God. That means they matter to us.”

The tidal wave of compassion is building deep in the heart of Texas.  Cindy Noble Cole, a Dallas nurse, saw televised pictures of frightened children housed in what appeared to be dog kennels.  So she filled 50 hygiene boxes for the kids and delivered them to Catholic Charities of Fort Worth.  What began as a simple “this is what I’m doing” post on Facebook, quickly blossomed into Operation Matthew 25, a movement that has already sent 500 boxes of hygienic supplies, blankets, activity boxes and school supplies to the border.

Operation Matthew 25I first became aware of Operation Matthew 25 when scores of Facebook friends replaced the usual Glamour shot on their homepage with a little picture that reads, “I stand with refugee children: they are children.”

The folks highlighted above are all over the map politically and theologically, but they understand the elegant logic of Matthew 25: “Inasmuch as you did it unto these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.”

The growing people/politician divide on this issue is driven by a simple fact: politicians are running on fear; most people, when they’re sane and centered, are running on faith.

Compassion for the stranger and the alien is central to Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious teaching.  Jesus opened his public ministry with a quotation from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to preach good news to the poor,” and he closed out his public ministry with the parable of the sheep and the goats. In the kingdom of God, Jesus says, many who are first will be last and the last will be first.

Distracted by politics and our ubiquitous culture war, Christians frequently lose sight of this teaching.  But then we have all these children on our doorstep, and the words of Jesus come flooding back to us.  And when that happens, we do what must be done.

When something must be done and there is nothing good to do

rev-charles-moore-327x388By Alan Bean

When I reflect on the self-immolation of Charles Moore, I can’t help thinking about the Palestinians.

Neither Moore nor the leaders of Hamas have found a way to change circumstances they consider intolerable.

Rev. Moore’s response was to set himself on fire in his home town of Grand Saline, Texas.

Hamas reacts to the seeming omnipotence of the Israeli military by lobbing rockets in the direction of Jewish cities and settlements.

Both actions are deplorable; but I’m not sure I have a viable alternative to offer either Charles Moore or the Palestinians.

Like Jesus and the prophet Jeremiah, Charles Moore experienced the besetting sins of his own people in a horribly visceral way.  Most of us shrug off the racism and homophobia infecting our culture with an air of ironic resignation.  Sure, it’s disturbing that little towns like Grand Saline are still riddled with racial resentment fifty years after the Civil Rights Act passed Congress, but change is always slow and incremental.  And it is truly unfortunate that for centuries our GLBT brothers and sisters were forced into the closet and ridiculed and scorned whenever they dared step out; but we’re making progress, right?

Charles Moore wasn’t wired to think that way.  He dreamed of things that never were and asked “why not?”  And if he couldn’t understand why sin should prevail with only token opposition, it bothered him in a way that few of us can comprehend.

Perhaps you have been too troubled by the specter of self-immolation to think very deeply about Moore’s motivation.  Many have concluded that the United Methodist pastor suffered from depression,but that was clearly not the case.   Continue reading

Why are New York lawyers defending a man who was convicted in 29 minutes?

CurtisFlowers (1)

This afternoon at 1:30 pm (Central time), Sheri Lynn Johnson, the Assistant Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, will be making oral arguments on behalf of Mr. Flowers, and you can watch the proceedings live.  If you have ever wondered if a prosecutor could conjure up a case simply by manipulating weak and vulnerable witnesses, you will want to check out Professor Johnson’s presentation of the facts.

Tied up at 1:30 and can’t tune in live?  Read the text version of the appeal here.  As legal documents go, it’s a page-turner.

Tunnel vision on trial: an innocent Mississippi man gets his day in court

Sheri Lynn Johnson

Since 1997, the state of Mississippi has put Curtis Flowers on trial six times for the same crime.  But they have never been able to lay this case to rest.  Either the jury deadlocks along racial lines, or the state overturns the conviction on the basis of flagrant racial bias.  On Monday, July 21 at 1:30 pm, Sheri Lynn Johnson, the Assistant Director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, will be making oral arguments on behalf of Mr. Flowers and you can watch the proceedings live.

You can find the hearing by clicking here.  The feed will likely go “live” about 5 minutes before the 1:30 scheduled start at the Mississippi Supreme Court.

If you can’t watch live, you can find the text version of Professor Johnson’s beautifully crafted appeal here.

The text of Flower’s appeal quickly zeroes in on the salient issue: “Flowers’ sixth trial bore the essential hallmarks of the three proceedings whose outcomes were previously reversed by this Court: weak and unreliable evidence of guilt, and prosecutorial misconduct undertaken to overcome that weakness.”

We are dealing with a case of prosecutorial tunnel vision bathed in racial bias. Shortly after 9 am on July 16th, 1996, four people were found brutally murdered, each with a bullet to the back of the head, in a furniture store in Winona. Three hours later, investigators had ruled out the man tied to the alleged murder weapon and, without a shred of evidence, credible or otherwise, made Curtis Flowers their sole suspect. Continue reading

Want to help the unaccompanied immigrant children? Here’s how.

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Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Crisis

Thank you for attending Tuesday’s Information Meeting. Below are some highlights from that meeting as well as new next steps for the faith community in Greater Dallas.

The Situation

  • 94,000 unaccompanied children are expected to enter Texas by the end of the year, most coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to escape extreme violence, trafficking, and exploitation.
  • The majority will eventually return to their home countries, but first a safe environment will have to be created there.
  • Up to 2,000 children are expected to begin arriving at 3 Dallas-area shelters later this month where each child will only stay for around a month while their case is being reviewed.
  • It appears that Dallas will be a new model of faith-based collaboration with the government as President Obama wrote that into the contract.
How You Can Help Now
  • Family and Immigration Attorneys and Interpreters. All of these children’s cases need to be reviewed to determine the best course of action creating huge demand for family and immigration attorneys and interpreters. Orientation meetings are currently being planned.including one coordinated by Children at Risk on 7/29. Click HERE to volunteer in this capacity.
  • Foster Families. Roughly 15,000 children are expected to be placed with American foster families through the existing Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program which includes an expedited screening process. For more information or to apply, visit the Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Services or theUS Conference of Catholic Biships pages. Within the next 2 weeks we expect there to be information meetings for interested families.
  • Food and Laundry. Email marla.bearden@texasbaptists.org to be added to a volunteer waiting list. It is not known at this time exactly what volunteers will be needed for other than food and laundry services. We expect to also have information meetings set up within 2 weeks for volunteers interested in serving the children while they’re in the shelters.
  • Monetary Donations. Designated monetary donations are being collected byTexas Baptist Disaster Relief and Catholic Charities,
Expected Next Steps
A government contractor to provide care will be named in the next few days at which time we’ll find out additional ways we may be able to help. Likely possibilities include clothing and toy collection, social interaction, medical aid, and trauma support. We will let you know as soon as details are released.
Thank you so much for everything you’re already doing in the community. If you were previously on the Unite mailing list, you received a very similar message already. We’re in the process of figuring out how to best honor your inbox and still get everyone the information they need. In the meantime, if you’d like to receive updates about upcoming events and resources that will help churches transform ongoing issues in Greater Dallas beyond the Immigrant Children Crisis, click HERE.

Dallas preacher says Jesus would seal the border

JeffressBy Alan Bean

The Rev. Robert Jeffress thinks Jesus would build a fence at the U.S. border so desperate children from violence-ridden countries would be discouraged from heading north.

“Yes, Jesus loved children,” Jeffress admits, “but he also respected law. He said, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars.”

In other words, Christians shouldn’t trouble themselves with immigration policy; that’s Caesar’s concern.

Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, once suggested that Barack Obama is preparing the world for the coming of Antichrist, so his “Caesar” reference probably doesn’t mean that we should leave immigration policy in the hands of the presiding president.  He means instead that everything Jesus said about welcoming children, and all the warnings he pronounced against those who harden their hearts against the pain of young ones, is irrelevant to American immigration policy.

Sure, Christians must be kind to the children they encounter within the suburban bubble, but the boys and girls of Honduras simply are on their own.

Since nothing can be done for the unaccompanied migrant children on our doorstep, the most compassionate course is to build a border wall so thick and so tall that the poor little blighters will have no choice but to return to the violence and squalor that drove them into the arms of America.

That young girl of seven or eight, carrying her two-year old sister on her back has spawned a crisis of conscience among American Christians.

On the whole, we have responded admirably.  “This is an unfortunate, even awful, situation for everyone,” said David Hardage,  Executive Director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “So much of what has happened and is happening is out of our control. What we can control is our response to human need. We will try to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need.”

Hardage sees Jesus standing on the side of desperate children, an assumption shared by most Texas Baptists.

Terry Henderson, state disaster relief director for Texas Baptist Men, compressed the issue to a simple question: “If Jesus was standing here with us, what would he tell us to do? That sounds kind of basic, but that’s the deal.”

That’s supposed to be a rhetorical question, but Robert Jeffress doesn’t provide the expected answer.  He thinks Jesus would slam the door.  Call it tough love. Continue reading

Haughty eyes in Murrieta

more murrieta

By Alan Bean

Proverbs 6:16-19 (NRSV)

16 There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
18 a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
19 a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family.

Everybody can define “hottie” these days; but the old-school word “haughty” doesn’t come up much in casual conversation.  If you’re not familiar with the term, the Merriam-Webster dictionary provides a simple definition:

Having or showing the insulting attitude of people who think that they are better, smarter, or more important than other people.

CALIFORNIA-FAMILIAS INMIGRANTESIf you would like to see haughty eyes, look no further than the faces of the men and women protesting the arrival of migrants from Central America.  The woman who screamed, “we don’t want you; nobody wants you!” may have believed she was speaking for the entire nation.

She wasn’t.

She was speaking for the slice of America that believes white Anglophones are “real Americans”.  A tea party web page in Texas reprinted a virulent screed from a California protest group that summarized the attitude perfectly:

“Americans are not breeding while ‘the bronze master race is.’ … We will die out and they will win.”

arrogant-bossHaughty people don’t always look down their noses at the rabble; more often they are fearful, angry and paranoid.   Continue reading

A Muslim journalist reflects on the varieties of American bigotry

Heba Said

Heba Said

Heba Said attended the Texas Republican convention dressed in a hijab.  She was shocked by the harsh reception she received.  But it wasn’t just tea party conservatives who reacted negatively.  Liberals, associating the hijab with “patriarchy”, have accused Ms. Said of setting back the cause of feminism.  In this piece, written for the Washington Post, Heba reflects on her close encounter with American extremism.  AGB

A Muslim American journalist explains how she became the story at a Texas GOP event

June 30

The frustration kept me awake the first time I read the comment. It is difficult to understand how, in a land that each year honors a man who marched for everyone’s equality, people could not want the same for me, a fellow American.

The comment that suggested I was responsible for reversing the work of feminists in this country because I made a decision to wear a hijab, was neither completely negative nor positive. But despite the hundreds of responses that were outright racist or those that suggested that it is okay to hate Muslims, that one kept me wondering for days how someone could say that to me. Continue reading

Jesus and the children on our doorstep

Brownsville4jpg

By Alan Bean

Last week I was in the Mississippi Delta with my wife, Nancy, participating in a couple of civil rights tours. We heard Margaret Block, a retired school teacher from Cleveland, Mississippi who worked with the amazing Fannie Lou Hamer in the early 1960s, address a group of high school students from Albany, New York.  Margaret remembered participating in a voter drive in Meridian, Mississippi, less than a year before three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in nearby Neshoba County.

“There was a bunch of Klansman standing around watching us,” Ms. Block remembers, “and they were singing a little song, over and over, ‘Jesus loves me ’cause I’m white; I kill a nigger every night.’  The worst part of it was that none of them could sing a lick.”

We are appropriately horrified by these despicable sentiments and the language in which they were expressed. But don’t we believe, deep in our hearts, that being born in the United States of America gives us a seat in the lifeboat-of-the-elect and gives us the right to knock the undeserving “illegals” back into the shark-infested waters with the precious oar of citizenship?

And don’t we believe that Jesus signs off on our special status?

What do we do with the unaccompanied children, some say as many as 100,000, who have surrendered to American border officials in the last few months? Continue reading

Mississippi Republican wins by courting black voters

thad

Thad Cochran

By Alan Bean

Thad Cochran wasn’t supposed to win this one.  Had he played by the normal rules of Mississippi politics he would be working on his golf game.  But the senior Senator from the Magnolia State broke the rules.

The calculus leading up to this unlikely electoral victory is complicated.  Moderate Republicans, desperate to deprive Tea Party insurgents of a big symbolic win, poured millions of dollars into this primary contest.  Chamber of Commerce people backed Cochran to the hilt because, unlike the volatile Chris McDaniel, he was a known quantity.

But there is one simple explanation for a traditional conservative walking away with a narrow victory–he got out the black vote.

Mississippi has open primary elections.  That means that if you didn’t vote for a Democrat in the initial primary contest, you can vote in the Republican runoff election. And that’s precisely what tens of thousands of black Mississippians did.  According to a Washington Post analyst Philip Bump,

Runoff turnout in the 24 counties with a black population of 50 percent or more was up almost 40 percent from the primary. In all other counties, turnout was up just 16 percent.

 

“That is an absolutely stunning stat,” The Post’s Chris Cillizza says, “and tells much of the story of the runoff.  Cochran’s ability to convince a strongly Democratic constituency to be for him — despite the fact that every Democratic consultant believed McDaniel gave the party a better chance to win the seat in the fall — is simply remarkable.”

Without these crossover voters, Cochran would have gone down to the kind of stunning defeat that most people (myself included) were predicting.  Black voters were betting that, although McDaniel would have been more vulnerable to a Democratic challenger in the fall, it was highly unlikely that Mississippi was going to elect a blue senator under any circumstances.  In that case, it was best to go with the devil you know.

It is highly significant that Thad Cochran went out of his way to court black Democrats, adopting a distinctly moderate tone in the final weeks of the election.  That has McDaniel and his supporters hopping mad.  It has been a long time since a white Republican candidate courted the black electorate in the great state of Mississippi.  From their perspective (though they can’t say it out loud) Cochran is a race traitor.

The fact that the election results coincided with the American Experience program on Freedom Summer underscored the irony of this development.

Are we witnessing the emergence of a new political coalition comprised of pragmatic black Democrats and moderate Republicans?  Probably not.  But whenever a traditional conservative faces off against a Tea Party politician like McDaniel, strange political bed fellows will crawl under the sheets once again.