Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Prayers in for Haiti's Earthquake

I am in Guatelinda, one of the local Guatemalan restaurants here in Indiantown. Images of the devastation wrought by the earthquake yesterday in Haiti fill the screens. It is so horrifying and painful. From the moment I heard about the earthquake yesterday, i was transported back to Guatemala and the devastation of the 1976 earthquake. The images on the screen show that same level of despair and desctruction...

Over half of the Haitian community that has migrated to the United States live here in Florida. There are many Haitians here in Indiantown. As I spent the day at Holy Cross, I saw a number of them stopping by the church for prayer... There they joined a number of Guatemalans who come in and out of the church throughout the day and light candles, kneel before the altar, find some space for respite.

Gracious God, hear the prayers of your people.

I started the day attending morning mass at Holy Cross. Mass is offered daily in the community, four times in Spanish. Today's mass was in English. There was a small group there this morning, mostly elderly anglos, but there were also a few Hispanics. Father Andrade presided again. I had a chance to visit with him afterwards, and hear some more about his own story. In further evidence of how small the world is, we connected on the fact that for many years he served in the Kitchener-Waterloo area in Canada (outside of Toronto), where my wife and I lived for a year when I worked with the Lutheran Refugee Committee and did my internship at St. Stephen's Lutheran Church. We talked about the challenges and opportunities of the church. How the church's text and message are so important and powerful, the official statement of the church often so visionary and thoughtful--and yet how often the church falls very short of its own rethoric. How instead we reduce the message of the gospel to ideology, to empty piety, void of challenge and good news. He spoke of his own experience with liberation theology in Brazil--and the disappointment with how it has often been misunderstood and then undermined by the church's structures. The church, he said, can often be what Mark accused it of, and become the opium of the people, numbing us or distracting us from the realities we are called to challenge and shape.

Yet signs of the church's promise and possibilities are all around that place--in the people whose faith brings them daily to gather, the promise of the building of a new sanctuary, the ministry of Hope Rural--a K-8th grade school sponsored by the church, in the "small communities" of the church, etc.

I interviewed Cristobal, a young man from Guatemala who was at the church praying. We spent over an hour talking about Scripture, about his journey here. There was much that he shared, but what most stuck with me was his powerful insight that his coming here--like many other immigrants--is a fulfilment of God's command to the first humans: to work the land. He spoke of the faith of the "ancestors" in Guatemala, who with reverence asked permission to work the land, to cut a tree, to consume any of the resources of the earth. While they were not specifically Christian, he said, they certainly had a deep wisdom and a knowledge of God. He said it is that sense of reverence for the land, and the recognition that the earth is the Lord's, that guides his sense about why he has had to travel so far form his home. With a wry smile on his face he said, like my ancestors, I asked God for permission before I came. It is God who granted me passage--a visa--when I was unable to obtain one. I asked him about his very first day here in the U.S. The first thing he did, he said, was come to the church. He came to say thanks to God for a safe journey, and to commit himself to the dreams that drove him here. "Es la pobreza," poverty, that makes us come. Like many others, his hope is to be here only temporarily, only as long as it takes to get some money together to build a home and have a future. He knows he has lost much by being here, and longs for the day he will be back home.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Global Breakfast

Sunday morning I took my brother, Eduardo, to work early in the morning. I am staying with him these couple of weeks. He is a chef at a country club here in West Palm Beach. He was preparing breakfast for some of the staff in the club house, and asked me to stay and have breakfast with them. Our breakfast in the “snack bar” in the club house at this very exclusive country club was a tableau of globalization and immigration. Around the table were the golf pro—originally from Pennsylvania—and his assistant—who moved to FL a year ago from Buffalo, NY—one of the waitresses—from Connecticut—and my brother and I both from Guatemala. Elsewhere in the building was a woman who the dish washer who helps with other aspects of the kitchen and shares custodial work with another woman, both of them from Haiti. Our breakfast was a great egg sandwich with fruit. My brother jokingly pointed out that the cantaloupe was from a small town in Guatemala near where my father grew up, the pineapple from Costa Rica, and the blue berries from Argentina. We weren’t sure where the eggs, bacon, bread, olive oil, and other parts of the sandwich may have come from… all this before any of the members—most of them from “up north” showed up to play on the manicured greens kept up by a crew of workers mostly from Guatemala…

Going to Church in Indiantown

I flew to Florida on Saturday (1/9/2010) and plan to be here for about three weeks.

My main interest in coming here for these couple of weeks—in addition to visiting my brothers who live here!—is to connect to the community at Indiantown. This is a small agricultural town that had a large influx of Guatemalan immigrants starting, I think, in the early 80s. I am not sure what the numbers look like by now, but it is in the several thousands (the 2000 census lists a town population of 5,600, with half being Hispanic/Latino, and that‘s grown significantly since).. My interest is of course in this community that is rural, whose future—because of agriculture—is tied to immigration like many other places around the country. But also because the Guatemalan community has been here for quite some time, so I wonder what things look like twenty, thirty years down the road.

The compare and contrast effect between Postville and Indiantown ended up being much more striking than I ever imagined...

I drove to Indiantown on Sunday morning after googling churches in town and more or less determining when some of the services were held. In addition to the Catholic church holding mass in Spanish, I found references here and there to a couple of other Pentecostal and non-denominational churches, but they were difficult to contact—the phone number listed no longer worked, and in one case, I got the information from the English speaking person who answered the phone at the church that hosts the Spanish service. In a simple way this highlights the difficulty of measuring the impact of immigrants on the faith communities of particular town, as was the case in Postville where the impact of the raid on the emerging protestant churches cannot be accounted for.

Both a Baptist church and the Catholic church had services listed at 11 a.m. I drove to both of the hoping to try to determine which I would go to. I was thinking I really should go to a less “established” church, so thought I would go for the Baptist one, but in the end decided for the Catholic one. When I drove by the Baptist church the parking lot was almost totally empty, and there was no indication of any activity. I really did not want to be too “noticed” if I attended a service with only a handful of people. By contrast, as I approached the Catholic church I saw lots of people walking and driving towards it. Even the numbers outside—it was a cold day and people were scurrying quickly—did not reflect how crowded the church was on the inside. It was still a few minutes before 11, when the service was to start, and the place was already packed. The first thing that I noticed was that the architecture of the church was very similar to that of St. Bridget’s in Postville. It was almost eerie. The sat in one of the only spaces left in the packed pews, where people were sitting shoulder to shoulder. It was all people from Guatemala and Mexico, several of the Guatemalan women were wearing their “corte” (traditional dress). There were lots of children, but in spite of the fact that the church was so full—and that people came coming until all the folding chairs available had been set up and filled, and people just stood in the aisles—it was rather quiet and reflective. I felt a sense of urgency in the place. A sense that people were glad to be there and expectant, a sense that what people had gathered to do mattered.

Before mass began a guy got up to do announcements. I thought he may be the priest, but wondered because he didn’t have a collar on. He was jovial and engaged. It turned out to be Juan Carlos, who is the director for educational ministries. His announcements began with an impassioned—and somewhat extensive—invitation and encouragement for people to attend a city council meeting scheduled for Wednesday night. The intent of the meeting was for the community—specifically the Hispanic community—to address the council on their specific needs as a community. He emphasized particularly the need, as an example, for parks and other entertainment options for the growing population of kids in the community. He talked about the numbers of kids in first communion—about 125—and confirmation—close to 80, and said that is only out of this one congregation. Yet the city only has one basketball court. Kids used to gathered to play futbol on the church grounds, but they have just started construction on a new church building, so that space is no longer available.

I was impacted by various things at once: (1) the fact that the church saw itself as a place of community organizing, where the reality of immigration was addressed, where the fact that the new immigrants had little access to political power—and that often because of their own lack of sense of permanence—did not use the power that they do have. (2) the fact that this church, architecturally similar to St. Bridget’s, is breaking ground on a new building, rather than wondering about their future. If this town is a reflection of where a place like Postville could have been 20 years down the road, the devastating impact of the raid is made painfully clear in disrupting that community’s future. (3) the sense of ownership and belonging—of claiming space—within the fall walls of that little church. This is perhaps an aspect that is reflective of the experience of Postville, where the church is the alternative vision to the experience of people outside of its walls. That the church is a place where they belong, where they are not “tresspassers” or “illegals”…

The announcements also included a note about a group of high school students, who are in the country undocumented, who on January 1, 2010, started a march across the country to call attention to the need for comprehensive immigration reform, particularly for legislation like the Dream Act, that would allow undocumented students better access to higher education and the possibility of a path to legalization. The group had evidently been through the community just over the week, and are making their way north with the hope of reaching Washington, DC by May 1 of this year. Along the way they are collecting petitions, stories, etc, about immigrants in the communities that they are visiting. Their journey and hopes are being tracked on a website called I will have to figure out a way to see if I could connect with this group of kids while I am here.

A number of other announcements were related to educational opportunities in the Parish, which ran the gamut from First Communion and confirmation to Diocesan training and preparation of communion servers.

A few minutes of restles silence followed the announcements, and then, rather suddenly, people stood up and the music group took off with a processional “Bautizame Señor con tu Espiritu” (Baptize me Lord with your Spirit) to a great salsa rhythm. I had shivers go down my back, both because of the power of the beginning of the rite that was marked clearly as the procession of eight kids (4 girls and 4 boys) in acolyte robes entered followed by the priest and by the fact that as I was driving around town trying to decide which church to go to, I found myself humming the very song that was being used for the processional!

The priest, I found out later, was Father Sebastian Andrade, originally form Brazil, who has served parishes in Europe and primarily in Canada. He is now retired in Port St. Lucy and assists with masses from time to time here in the Parish. He has been helping especially this week while Father Nestor, the regular priest, is out sick.

The music group was good, and they were right on cue moving the service right along. Two lay people—one male, one female—did the readings, and then Father Andrade gave his homily. It was short, but actually quite thoughtful. I can’t say he made any specific references to immigration—I kept seeing lots of options in the readings, which for the Baptism of Our Lord included Peter’s visit to Cornelius in Acts, a reference to the salvation of all nations in Isaiah, and the moving/thundering voice of God in the Psalms, plus of course, the baptism of Jesus by John. Still, the sermon was connected to the reality of people’s lives. He basically addressed the idea that baptism highlights our common humanity—our self definition as children of God. And that the task of the church is ultimately to preach the good news that there is—as Peter says in Acts, although the priest didn’t directly tie it to the text—that God makes no distinction. That we all have worth, regardless of our position and our resources. He countered a sense that the church is there to make us feel bad about ourselves, inadequate about who we are. Rather, the church’s role is to bring about this “new society” that God envisions, where all have a place and all are treated truly as children of God.

The liturgy itself—from the music, offering, holding of hands for the Lord’s prayer, and the specific references to immigration and health reform in the prayers, that felt very “earthy,” very connected. Again, that sense that this gathering really mattered, that this sacred time was indeed a foretaste of the feast to come.

Mass at Holy Cross/Santa Cruz was very redemptive for me. The piece I have been missing in my experiences has been the direct and meaningful connection of worship life and conversation about immigration. This was a place where I just walked into—not one where I “brought” the conversation. This is their reality, and they are engaging it. I know there are many other communities that are doing that as well, that are seeking to integrate faith and reality, rather than try to preach about the separation of the “spiritual” and the “physical” or whatever world. That was the predominant message I heard repeatedly in the radio as I drove out to Indiantown and tuned to a couple of “Christian” radio stations. So it was a true gift. Is there anything I can offer here? There is much I certainly can learn. I look forward to hearing more about this community, and particularly about what they call the “pequeñas comunidades,” which are kid of small group ministries. From what I understand from the announcement—as well as from a brief conversation with Juan Carlos, the Director of Religious Education, they are important support groups, many of which are built around the language groups from Guatemala. I am hoping to be able to connect with some of them in my two weeks here.

Indiantown, Florida

The focus of my sabbatical interest is in exploring Biblical migration narratives and connecting them with individual and communities' own story of migration. I have chosen to focus primarily on rural areas that have large immigrant populations. The majority of rural communities that are bucking the trend towards consolidation of all of their business and services (due to aging and/or shrinking population) are doing so because of immigration. In fact, the number of immigrants moving to rural areas has in the last ten years began to rival the number of those moving to more "traditional" urban settings (for an extensive treatment of this see New Faces in New Places: The Changing Geography of American Immigration). Meanwhile, however, most of our immigration policy decision are dictated by the needs/challenges of large urban areas.

In the summer, at the beginning of my sabbatical, I traveled to the Yakima Valley region in Western Washington, where the labor needs of a huge and growing agricultural industry have resulted in large migrations to the area (the make up of some of the communities along the valley run from 20-90% Hispanic).

My work has also focused on the impact of the May 2008 immigration raid in the town of Postville, Iowa, where I have both served as part of the response team immediately following the raid, and sought to understand individual stories and the larger implications of both immigration in general and the raid in particular.

This month, January 2010, I will be focusing on the small community of Indiantown, Florida. When I first came to the United States in 1986, I came to the neighboring community of Jupiter, Florida. Quickly, I became aware of the very large community of people from Guatemala that had come and settled in Indiantown. Many of them came during the height of the civil war conflict in Guatemala, escaping violence and historical exploitation because of their indigenous background. The community has since grown and established in this town. I will try to post regularly my experiences and reflections on my time here.

Teh story of the town and its history are explored in detail in the book Maya in Exile by Allan Burns.