Reflection on the danger of claiming: “We are all immigrants” July 2019

5th Sunday after Pentecost • Proper 10 C track 2, 7/14/2019

Good Morning St. Mary’s! 

It seems we couldn’t pick a more fitting scripture for this Sunday, a Sunday when raids are threatening to round up immigrants in our city and other cities – our impulse is to define this scripture as the obvious call to reach out, to tend, to support and defend those who are under attack. And that is true and right and good. I hope you will make use of the resources available for how to stand up and be a witness, an advocate against the horrific persecution of people who have come to this country seeking life, just life.

However, the parable is pointing out something else. The parable points to the likelihood that the person who is maligned and denigrated as the one who will stand up to do what is right, the Samaritan. It is the one who is defined as a threat who is actually a help, and those typically seen as “helpers” or “good people” who are shown to be un-neighborly, preoccupied with themselves. It is a challenge to all of us who are religious people who strive to do what is good or right, not to get caught up in ourselves or in extraordinary efforts, but simply to look at our ordinary lives. Deuteronomy spells it out: God is very near, the works of God as close as our own hearts. In our current times, this might mean that we might never witness ICE agents harassing or arresting someone, we might not have the opportunity to use our cell phone to video acts of aggression (though we might)… and, each of us has the capacity to witness to the unfairness of assumptions about people who appear to be immigrants, each of us can talk about the injustice, the flagrant violation of human rights that is going on both in New York City and at our southern border. 

Why would anyone doubt the injustices happening now? For starters, Fox News is suggesting that everyone is fine, that children in cages sleeping on concrete floors are well cared for. Some of us get righteous even imagining that there might be people who do not think the camps of children or adults is a serious matter. I think it is complicated, and it has to do with understanding how much we are all connected to one another.

When I was at the Lights for Liberty rally and protest on Friday evening, I was troubled by some of the speakers. Speakers who were passionate about the rights of immigrants, and to promote their cause said things like “we are all immigrants.” We are not. Early European immigrants in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries came to this land seeking a better life, and they slaughtered Native people and stole the land. We must be cautious not to equate those immigrants with those coming to the United States today; in a sense the racist fear-mongering that goes on today is more relevant to that history than it is to the present. 

People of African descent who were kidnapped, transported to and held captive on this land were not “immigrants.” They were brought here against their will and kept here against their will. The fact that enslaved Africans survived and were eventually freed hundreds of years later, and have made a life in this country despite years of racial terrorism and gross inequality does not make them immigrants, simply extraordinary survivors.

When we say, “we are all immigrants,” we discount, ignore or cover over these appalling acts of violence that have yet to be addressed seriously in our national life. To say, “we are all immigrants” is to set up a tension among people who have been mistreated and violated by those with the most power, it suggests “we are all the same” somehow, and we are not. 

At the same time, we must be cautious not to fall into this manufactured tension, a manipulated suspicion between and among those of us who are treated as “less than” by the dominant powers of the United States. Regardless of who is saying, “we are all immigrants,” we remember that the tensions created among Black peoples, between Black and Brown people, and among all people who truly seek justice for every human being, the tensions and conflicts among us serve the status quo, arguing about who has it worse only maintains the unequal access to safety and security that should be provided to all people. 

In this, I return to the parable: remember it is the person you have been taught to fear, that you have been told is your enemy, who acts as a neighbor. For whom did it serve that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was so dangerous? How did it happen that Samaritans and Judeans and Galileans, all under Roman rule, were so suspicious of one another, would disrespect one another, and did not collectively resist the military occupation? Why do we- as people descended from Native and African survivors, and immigrants over the centuries- why do we not resist the homogenization of our history, why do we not take the time to hear the particularity of one another and resist any power that would legitimate or discount the suffering of any of us?

I am a descendent of immigrants. The Foulke side of my family came to this land in the 1600’s from Wales, possibly seeking religious freedom, they were not particularly poor, but they struggled in making a new life here. I don’t know how they participated in the stealing of Native land, though I know they claimed land in Pennsylvania and then the midwest at some point. I don’t know if they claimed to own human beings, but someone must have as I have met Black people with the same last name. Despite their many advantages, they did not flourish financially until my father’s generation when he became solidly middle class.

My mother’s family came from Italy in the 1930’s. My grandparents fled the rising fascism in Italy, having supported the resistance, their lives were in danger and their home had been raided at least once by the Nazis. They came seeking freedom, but they came with resources. My grandfather had a graduate school fellowship, and my grandmother came through Ellis Island with money sewn into her coat. Even with her privileges, my grandmother was required to check in regularly with the local police station, and could not travel freely because she was considered an “enemy alien” through the end of World War II. 

The immigration experiences of both sides of my family are vastly different from other European stories, and very different from the stories of people of color. The United States has welcomed some immigrants and barred others, it has promoted some and limited others. The Government has been fickle: welcoming as long as people serve the economic interests of the powerful, but excluding and threatening as soon as people are not needed. 

We need to listen to one another’s stories, we need to be aware of the differences, and we need to stand up for dignity and human rights for everyone. The struggle to treat new immigrants and asylum seekers humanely is the same struggle as the one to prevent police murdering Black people. Every human being is the image of God, deserving of dignity in their/our full humanity and story, deserving of protection and care not terrorism, deserving of justice and healing not marginalization.  I’ve been told, often, that I want too much, that I should focus on one issue at a time, but that is not how we live our lives! We are whole people, and we are many, each with our own story, and with God’s story. God’s commandments are as close as our mouth and our heart, we have only to choose what is right, not to be distracted by fear or duty or the false stories of who is more deserving. We have only to be ready for the miracle that our healing is bound up in another who might have been the least likely to help, and yet who responded as neighbor to us. It is not too much, rather it is the balm that heals, it is the connections that make us whole. Amen.

Sermon: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

by The Rev. Dr. Mary L. Foulke

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Good Morning St. Mary’s!

There is one of those sayings that has been going around for a long time, even before social media people had little posters of it: “if you want to make God laugh, make plans.” It’s a guess, but I think most of us know the truth of these words. The apostle Paul certainly knew this, from his conversion experience for sure, and visions like we heard in today’s passage from Acts. Paul and Silas had been planning to go to Asia, which in Biblical times meant what is now Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Iraq. Because of a vision, Paul goes the opposite direction, to Macedonia, what many translate as Europe, but which is actually Greece, “the cradle of Western culture.” If geography makes your head hurt, think of it this way: Christianity was born in Judaism’s religious center (what we now call the Middle East) and spread to Greece’s intellectual center, and finally to Rome’s political center. Or as one scholar puts it, the apostles’ journey to bring the good news of God’s love and freedom was the opposite of that of Alexander the Great, who left Macedonia to bring Greek language and culture and war to the Middle East three centuries earlier (1). In short, early Christianity – in so many ways – was a challenge, a reversal of the pattern of empire. (Of course once it became the religion of the empire, this was lost, though there is still the potential for us to reclaim our roots.)

There’s the geography of the ancient world, and then there’s the geography of the city of Philippi. It is likely that there was no synagogue in Philippi, and that Paul and Silas looked for faithful Jews where they gathered to worship: by the river, outside the gate, on the margins of society, people without authority or voice, women, and in particular Lydia. There are a couple lessons here: first that the followers of Jesus were not yet distinct from ordinary Jews, there was great coherence between the message of the Hebrew Bible and the stories of Jesus, just beginning to be written down. Second, Lydia, who was “a worshiper of God,” as the text says, was most likely a Gentile who was studying Judaism; tradition says she is the second Gentile to convert to the way of Jesus (the first being Cornelius the centurion).

All these details form an account of the spread of early Christianity, an account that documents something of a reversal of the path of empire (again – at least at the beginning), a seeking out of people on the margins, ordinary people, Jews, non-Jewish believers, and in this story, women. We see this also in the Gospel today, Jesus goes to the healing pool, around which are those on the margins, those named as “invalids” – for which the Greek word also means the sick, the weak, the impotent. We remember the ancient world, and still today, we blame people for their physical or social condition, as if all of us were not subject to the chances of disease or accident, nor the oppressive forces that cause poverty. Jesus went to Jerusalem for the festival, and he chose to spend it with those left out of the festivities.

In spite of multiple examples in scripture of Jesus or the apostles reaching out to those on the margins with a message of love and freedom, healing and empowering those on the margin, growing the community starting with those on the margins, this strategy doesn’t seem to make it into most church growth manuels. We often think of reaching out to the margins as a ministry strategy rather than a growth strategy, where we go to “help” people whom we perceive to be powerless.

I don’t think this is what was happening in today’s lessons. Paul and Silas went to a marginal community and found welcome and support from Lydia, the outsider, whom would host the original house church in Phillipi. Jesus went to a marginal group at the pool, but he did not assume that people there were powerless: he honored their dignity, their right to bodily integrity/to make decisions about their own bodies, first asking – “do you want to be made well?” The sick man’s first answer was one that he had learned as a marginalized and oppressed person, “I have no one to help me…” – “I am helpless,” and Jesus’ response challenges that assumption, I imagine him saying something like, “you have the power, God is with you, stand up and make your way!”

Those of you who have been around for awhile have heard me preach a message of togetherness, of how we are not alone, and -in fact – we cannot make our way alone in this world. This is particularly for those of us who have internalized the mythology of self-reliance, and especially for those of us who think we have made our way on our own in whatever way. The message today seems to contradict this message, and is equally true: we have the power to claim love and freedom for ourselves no matter what our society, our churches, our families have said to us. Nothing can separate us from God’s power to heal and to love, we have only to choose wholeness, and accept the challenge to stand up and walk. I say, “only” and I know that defying the death dealing forces of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, economic exploitation and all the other evil powers of this world, is no small task. One of the biggest challenges is that first question: do you want to be made whole? Because, to say “yes,” you have to believe somewhere in your spirit that it is possible! That life can come out of death. That healing can come for the nations, than nothing is or will be accursed in the holy city of God. That a vision of peace, of belonging, of justice, can interrupt the most evil plans.

Maybe you heard that the Senate finally passed an aid package for disaster recovery, finally provided $900,000 for Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria 2 years ago. Now we need the House of Representatives to support it. I have a call to action from Jubilee USA, to call our representatives. It seems a miracle that it finally passed the Senate, now with your help, we might get it through the House.

On this Memorial Day weekend, I want to close by invoking the names of a few military personnel who claimed love and freedom in the face of direct orders, who had a vision of belonging for the vulnerable even in the most difficult circumstances.  

Captain Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer who each personally refused to fire, and ordered those under their command to stand down at Sand Creek in 1864, when their commanding officer ordered the massacre of 300 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women and children. Their refusal and subsequent testimony brought condemnation (though no legal action) upon the commanding officer, and resulted in the end of the career of the Colorado territorial governor. One historian consulting with the Cheyenne nation has said without Soule and Cramer’s actions, the descendents of those who died probably would not be around today (2). Soule was assassinated two years later, in the line of duty.

Many people know the story of US Army Major Hugh Thompson, who with Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn helped stop the My Lai Massacre in Viet Nam in 1968. There is another more recent story that I want to share: unnamed military personnel who have been trying to confront the abuse of power by Navy Seal Edward Gallagher. Gallagher was known to shoot unarmed Iraqi civilians; the courage of people under his command both to report him (for which he retaliated) and to take warning shots if they saw civilians because they knew Gallagher would shoot to kill. Gallagher also has been accused of stabbing to death an injured Iraqi fighter. I am troubled first that the brave people who have reported Gallagher are not named, though perhaps for their sake it is best. I am also troubled that the President is now considering pardoning Gallagher who is scheduled to go to trial for as many as 12 alleged crimes.  These military stories about courageous acts of humanity are important on this weekend when we honor those who give their lives for this nation; it is important perhaps especially for those of us who mostly oppose war because they challenge some of our assumptions and remind us of the human beings that make up the armed forces.

Today we celebrate the visions, the reversals that spiritual life calls us to; we celebrate the water of life, the gatherings by the river or the pool, where we might find courage and inspiration and community to seek healing and wholeness for ourselves and our world. Amen.




A bible lays open at a table and the word "SERMONS" is across the picture in big, bold letters.

“Be Yourself, Change the World”

Second Sunday of Advent (2C)
December 9, 2018 – “Be Yourself, Change the World”
c.the Rev. Dr.  Mary Foulke

Good morning St. Mary’s! Today I want to explore our Gospel with some imagination and connection to our current time:

In the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, while Andrew Cuomo was governor of the state of New York, and Bill DiBlasio the mayor of New York City, and while Andrew Dietsche was the Bishop of the Diocese of New York, the word of God came to those gathered at St. Mary’s in Harlem, and to those beyond the walls walking down the block or sitting in their apartment or sleeping on the street. The word of God came not to the powers that be, but to the ones in the wilderness. Then they went into all the region from the Hudson to the Harlem River, proclaiming the love of God for each person just for who they are, calling them to turn away from trying to be like anyone else, to give up trying to hide any part of themselves, for the love of God is for our unique dignity as human beings, and should not be hidden nor distorted….

as it is written in the words of the prophet Isaiah:

The voice of one, crying out in the wilderness of poverty, of bigotry and oppression, the voice crying out: 

Prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s way clear.

Every valley shall be filled, every loss comforted, every violation repaired. And every mountain and hill shall be made low, every imagined superiority and every alleged inferiority shall be restored to equality and justice. Everywhere that belonging is severed, there shall be connection, and every place where there is hostility, peace… the rough ways shall be made smooth. And, all flesh: all flesh, young and old, diseased and healthy, of every hue, scarred by the traumas and the joys of life, fit and flabby, aching and energetic, cacophonous and quiet, all flesh shall see the salvation of God, our one God, imaged in each multifaceted human, the whole creation shall see the power and joy and harmony of the divine.

This is the imagination of Isaiah, of Luke, of John the Baptist, and then …me. Repentance is that call to imagine a better world, not to become resigned to things as they are. Preparing the way for salvation is the way, the place, the community where everyone can be themselves. When I worked at a school we would always have a John the Baptist chapel service where we talked about how weird John was, how people maybe talked about him, and how he wasn’t afraid to live into that weirdness, to be all of who he was, all of who God made him to be. One year, each child (who wanted it) got a locust stamped on the back of their hand to remind them of how it can help change the whole world when they can be themselves, even (or especially) if someone else thinks their weird. When we are ourselves, we make it more possible for the next person, and we free God’s image again and again. You are not better than. You are not less than. And when you find yourself in whatever wilderness, that is when God comes to you, that is when you begin to understand your purpose, your mission to proclaim that extraordinary love for your whole body/mind/spirit, to other body/mind/spirits.

On Friday, Janet and I went to a memorial service for Kagendo Murungi. Kagendo was the Director of St. Mary’s Food Programs for a little over a year, she was devoted to the program, and at the memorial we learned about so much more. She was a human rights activist, for example – organizing LGBTQ people in the shanty towns of South Africa and bringing them to a mostly white, male LGBT conference. She was an artist, a writer and filmmaker whose courageous self-expression put her own life in danger. She was a fierce friend, a Kenyan pan-africanist, a radical lesbian feminist who was full of joy and life, even – as her brothers told us – even in the last days of her life though she also looked tired and ill. She brought all of herself to her work and her relationships, her art and her fun; and she encouraged and worked so that others could and would do the same. She is an example to each of us, of how the Spirit can inhabit our minds and bodies, making us brave and creative and loving, inspiring us to make the world different.

In this, the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, while Andrew Cuomo was govenor of the state of New York, and Bill DiBlasio the mayor of New York City, and while Andrew Dietsche was the Bishop of the Diocese of New York, the word of God is coming to us, in whatever wilderness, God is coming to us to rouse our imagination for a better world (to preach repentance), to inspire our courage to be ourselves (to prepare the way for our salvation). Be ready, this is the Advent message. Be ready for the whole creation to experience the power and joy and harmony of the divine. Amen.