Friday, October 9, 2009

Back to Decorah, Iowa

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pastor Ruth Drews from New Heaven, Connecticut stayed with us last night. She drove two students from her town (one from her congregation, one that she met through her work as a college advocate in the local schools) here to Luther. One of them is coming back for her junior year already; the other is a first-year student. Each of these two students has an incredible story to share: migration, living in a refugee camp, major financial struggles, bright students, commitment to family, great hopes for the future… Ruth and I talked for a couple of hours last night and then again for about an hour this morning. She’s an incredible pastor, activist, person.

In the last year or so Ruth has moved to working part time in the parish and part time as a college advocate in the schools. Her work in schools has stirred a number of reflections for her, particularly about vocation. She said, “I have been working for years trying to convince people of the value of what the church has to offer and have often felt people do not see or pursue that need. To be working now, offering something that people clearly need and are lining up – like people coming off airplanes in O’Hare – to receive.” Her words articulated some of my own struggle over the last year and a half since the Postville situation, where the need is so clear and the purpose so urgent. I hear echoes of Jesus’ own disappointment – I imagine – as he moved from offering people actual food (which about 5,000 needed and wanted) and then the “hard teaching” that he wanted to give them – the food that brings abundant life, his body and blood.

I haven’t had a chance to write in a number of days on the last part of our trip back, so I will just summarize some things I thought about over the last couple of days:

•    LIRS contacted me as we were driving back to ask if I would provide a short statement to be included in a press release following a meeting Secretary Napolitano had called to discuss immigration reform with advocates and others. I found myself reflecting on the fact that much of our trip had followed the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was central to an earlier migration West. In our own trip west, we saw echoes of that earlier migration in today’s immigrants, who – like those of earlier generations – are building the infrastructure of the West: setting up businesses, working the land, providing services…

•    As we drove into Sioux Falls, South Dakota, we looked up restaurants on the phone and found Lalibela Restaurant, which we immediately knew was Ethiopian (because that’s the name of an important town in Ethiopia). We went there for a great dinner. We were kind of surprised when we pulled into the little shopping center where the restaurant was to see a huge sign on the window inviting people to an “African Celebration” being held there; the interesting part is that the sign was in Spanish! A similar sign advertised the event in English and Amharic. Inside we also found a sign that advertised, also in Spanish, a weekly Latin dance held in the restaurant. That’s immigration for you!

•    Pastor Drews told me about the prom for the student she brought here for her first year. The student is originally from Guinea but lived part of her life elsewhere before coming to the U.S. about two years ago. She went to prom with a guy who is originally from Rwanda but lived in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the U.S. The kid bought a white tux to take her to the prom. Someone pitched in for them to be able to ride in a limo. What a great image…

•    The international student orientation started yesterday at Luther. Along with the internationals, students in sports teams, residence hall staff, new staff and professors are also “migrating” into town. This is just the harbinger of our main annual migration, as 2,500 students come to Decorah. With them comes new life, energy, struggles, resources, histories and incredible gifts. It takes quite a bit of planning and intentional work to transform this group into a community. Oh that we would have those kinds of resources to integrate into our communities those who come from other countries bringing so much with them.

•    I spoke with Pastor Drews this morning also about the image of undocumented workers as people engaged in civil disobedience. I have wondered more and more about how it is that people – who are (for the most part) very pious, law abiding and would never break a law or a cultural norm – make a decision that translates into breaking the law by migrating here without documents. This single action places them in such a difficult situation and often becomes the reason that many other faithful, religious people struggle to support them. Is it too much to think of them as breaking the law as an act of civil disobedience? It is not a clear parallel that they are not, of course, intentionally breaking the law? They do not set out consciously to make a statement, but rather follow that basic need to provide for their families, pursue a better future or escape an impossible situation in their countries of origin. The “civil disobedience” part happens in the process…

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