A post by Rev. Yvette Schock
One day in Tucson last summer, as I wove a path through the crowds at a demonstration against SB1070, a young woman approached and held out to me a sign from the stack she had clasped under her arm. On the front was a brightly colored image of another young woman holding a sign that read in bold, block letters, “UNDOCUMENTED, UNAFRAID: NO TENEMOS MIEDO.” I stopped walking, seized by a moment of indecision—I am not an undocumented immigrant, and I do not have to fear the things an undocumented immigrant might, so, I wondered, what did it mean for me to carry this image and these words? Could it be a declaration of solidarity and support for families and students refusing to live in the shadows, and a denunciation of an economic system that requires the existence of an underclass and of a society and political leaders who accept it? Did it honor the courage of immigrant advocates, or was it just a shadow gesture made by someone who risked very little by showing up at a demonstration, in contrast to those who risked a great deal? My moment of indecision didn’t last long; I decided not to overthink it (I’m often guilty of this), held the sign high, and joined in the chanting and singing of the crowd.
But the sign came home from Tucson with me; it sits propped against the wall opposite my desk, and I have had months to reflect on the significance of its message—how it speaks within the context of these times, and what it demands of me in particular. I have begun to reads its words as the kind of defiant, hopeful, confident, David-confronting-Goliath statement of faith we hear again and again in the Psalms. In the face of all kinds of dangers and anxieties, the Psalmists often declared their trust in God and their defiance of any human who might harm them using these words, or something very like them:
In God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
It’s not just the Psalmists: very, very often in Scripture, when messengers from God arrive to bring comfort, hope and challenge to people in all kinds of precarious situations, they usually begin the same way: “Do not be afraid.” Maybe it’s because coming face-to-face all of a sudden with a messenger from God is a startling experience, or maybe it’s because God’s messengers so often appear to people with plenty of reason to be afraid, but I think it might also be because of what fear does to us. Fear causes us to shrink, to turn inward, to turn away from God and from others. When God’s messengers arrive, it’s usually not only to comfort and reassure, but also to challenge and move us to action. People who are shrinking in fear are in no state to hear God’s promises, to joyfully dive into the powerful current of God’s vision of life and abundance for our world and allow that current to redirect their lives, to answer God’s call to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
And so, when God’s messengers appear in the stories of our faith, they send up a flare for us: they prepare their listeners (and us, the readers) to hear and receive the promise and challenge that is coming next by reminding them (and us): Do not be afraid. God appears to Abram, elderly and childless, and declares: “Do not be afraid…Look up at the sky and count the stars…so shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15). When Abram’s wife, Sarai, sends her slave, Hagar and her son (by Abram) into the desert to die, God hears their cries and promises: “Hagar, do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” (Genesis 21) God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, saying to the Hebrew people in exile, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west” (Isaiah 43:5). The angel Gabriel appears to Mary to declare, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:30-32)
Fear, it seems, has no part in God’s vision of justice and wholeness for our world, nor in God’s way of working in the world. But fear has it uses for those who would wield it as their tool—human history is littered with far too many stories about political leaders stirring up fear of a particular group of people to distract from a problem the leader may not be able to address, to disguise their own shortcomings or corruption, to maintain their positions of power. Perhaps this is another reason why “Do not be afraid” is the refrain that begins each telling of God’s promises—to point out the universe of difference between God’s order and the order of empires.
Our society is no exception. It is crowded with voices that aim to stir up fear in immigrant and non-immigrant communities alike—candidates for public office, governors, state representatives, county sheriffs and Members of Congress who do not hesitate to paint immigrants in our communities as enemies, criminals, threats to our country’s security and to our families’ well-being; sponsors of state legislation that aims to make life difficult for undocumented immigrants. ICE agents waiting outside of apartment buildings or trolling in grocery store parking lots, increasing numbers of deportations that begin with a routine traffic stop, the threat of immigrant parents being separated from U.S. citizen children—all of these policies and practices are stirring up fear within immigrant communities, and for some, stirring up fear is the point. Though I don’t think the Obama administration would admit this, current immigration enforcement policy, in the absence of immigration reform, is, in effect, a program of attrition through enforcement—a strategy that banks on creating fear and suffering in immigration communities.
And yet some in those very communities are refusing to turn inward, to shrink in fear. I don’t know when the phrase “Undocumented and unafraid” first came into use in the movement for just immigration reform, but one account points to youth leaders working to pass the DREAM Act as the source, which wouldn’t surprise me. A number of DREAM students walked from Florida to Washington, DC early last year, declaring all the way that they were undocumented and unafraid. I imagine them walking through counties with 287g agreements in operation, and meeting with unsympathetic law enforcement officials or Members of Congress, living the words of the Psalmists:
In God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
They refused to give power to fear, refused to be turned inward, away from their families, their communities, or God.
Perhaps these are messengers from God in our time—they do not come to us encouraging us “Do not be afraid”, but challenge us through their example, their declaration that they are unafraid.
I haven’t answered all of my own questions about the poster from the Tucson demonstration, but I have come to see it as a kind of icon—a living image that reaches out of its frame, grabs my hand, and points me to pay attention to these messengers of our time, to follow the path of the migrant Christ: the One who walks with DREAM students on the way to Washington, D.C., who lives inside apartment buildings where ICE agents wait outside, who sits with school children as they wait for their parents to come home from work, half afraid that they might not arrive; the One who calls us to reject a life shadowed by fear and to seek justice for all people.