On not going to Arizona

By Lauren R. Stanley

For the past several weeks, I’ve been watching the debate and the reactions over the new immigration law in Arizona that basically makes it illegal to be a stranger in a strange land.

I know well what it is like for immigrants in that state, and I know the fears they face, because for nigh on five years, I have been a stranger in strange lands. I know what it is like to not fully belong, to stand out, to be easily tagged as “other.”

I know what is it like to be viewed with suspicion.

I know the fear of having police stop me and demand my papers, and the terrors that descended upon me when those same police told me that my papers were no good, despite the fact that they were.

I know what it means to be somewhere illegally, even though it was the right thing to do.

The Arizona laws touch me personally because I was supposed to go to there in September for a clergy conference. I wanted to go to Arizona, I really did, but then the immigration law was signed, and I thought to myself, “I just can’t go there.”

How could I – how can I – go to an eight-day clergy conference for my own respite, focusing on myself and my needs, my desires, when so many of my sisters and brothers are living in the same fear that I experienced for so long as a stranger in a strange land?

Once I made the decision, I notified the conference sponsor and was gratified to find out that I could move my conference to another time, another place, no questions asked. That made me feel better, but then I began to wonder: Had I done the right thing? The House of Bishops has decided to go ahead with its meeting in September in Arizona, in part to be a witness to what is happening there. Perhaps going to Arizona would have been the better thing to do, I thought.

And then I heard a preacher who opened the Scriptures for me in a new way, and I knew I had made the right decision. This preacher explained the significance of Jesus’ statement to his disciples, “A new commandment I give you, that you love on another as I have loved you.” This new commandment further refined the Double Commandment, the preacher said. The latter, to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” is hard to obey, she said, because we don’t always love ourselves. But this new commandment – to love one another as Jesus loved (and loves) us – well, that’s a whole new ballgame.

Listening to this preacher, I was struck to the core. I can’t go to Arizona, I thought. If I do, I’m not loving one another as Jesus loves me. Jesus’ command calls us to work toward bringing God’s kingdom – a kingdom of love – into being in this world, at this time.

I will not participate in a law that forces some of God’s beloved children to live in fear, that punishes people because of how God created them.

Basically, what it comes down to for me is this: There are no “us’s” and “thems” is God’s very good creation. Going to Arizona while this immigration law is in effect would make me an accomplice to the idea that indeed we can divide out the people, and declare some to be lesser human beings.

And I simply cannot do that.

My protest is very small, I know, and in the greater scheme of things will not affect a single thing in Arizona, except to deny the state some money. I know that Arizona is not going to change its draconian law based on what I do or not do.

But that’s not the important thing.

What is important is that I listen – very hard – and work – even harder – to love my neighbors as Jesus loves me. Not going to Arizona is the best way I know to live out that love.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary serving in the Diocese of Haiti.


Why is it so sad?

By W. Nicholas Knisely

A few years ago, because of some local political controversy, we offered a safe place to worship to a group of Latinos who no longer felt safe traveling to another part of Phoenix. That small group of ten or so souls has now grown to over 300 people with nearly 100 or so regularly gathering on Sunday mornings. I've learned a great deal from this experience. One of the most important things I've learned is that when Americanos and Latinos work to make common cause, it's less important to be bilingual than it is to be bicultural. (Full credit given to Canon Carmen Guerro for leading me into this understanding.)

Why bicultural? Because sometimes we Americanos do something with the best intentions and find out that we've misstepped. Consider this year's Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) observance at Trinity Cathedral here in Phoenix. We've tried to do something to mark this important folk celebration of All Soul's Day in Mexico and other Latin American countries given that there is a very large number of Latinos living in the neighborhoods around the Cathedral. Generally though we (Americanos) constructed a beautiful altar in the Art Gallery part of the Cathedral, collected important artistic works and thought we were doing bicultural ministry. The displays were very lovely and lots of folks from the Anglo congregation brought their friends by to see the exhibit.

But now that we have a vital Latino congregation it was important to me that we move away from an observance of the day and toward an authentic worship experience. So we decided together that the proper place to put this year's altar of the dead was not in the gallery but in the Columbium (which is where many of the beloved of the Cathedral congregation are interred). One of the priests on our staff, who has a real gift for design, was asked to put the altar together on Friday and Saturday in preparation.

He did a superb job. It was striking, sensitive and theologically rich. It sent a message of our Christian hope, founded in baptism, that in Christ our lives do not end, but that death brings our transformation. He created a three part altar, covered with beautiful black cloth, a display of marigolds, focused on a cross and pascal candle; all of which were dramatically lit. It was elegant, understated and just what I had hoped it would be. We were very pleased with ourselves.

Then on Saturday morning we had a group of parishioners and other friends come in to create decorated lamps that we were going to use in procession on Sunday night. Some of the women from the 12:30 (Spanish language) congregation wandered in to see the altar. It was not what they expected. I was upstairs in a Commission on Ministry meeting. I was sent a note that told me I needed to come downstairs as soon as possible. "It's very important."

The ladies had gone to Canon Guerro very concerned about the altar. "It's so sad!" What I had seen as elegant and understated, they saw as effectively communicating a message of restrained grief; not the exuberant celebration of joyful transformed lives that Dia de los Muertos proclaims.

So, with my "permission" the ladies set to making it a proper altar. They went out and bought candied skulls, crepe paper and lots of colored votive candle holders. And they spent a couple of hours making paper flowers, bunting and streamers. You can see part of the result in the picture on my personal blog, linked to in the comments below. (I'll post more there as soon as I have time to create a proper album.)

Where did we misstep biculturally? Well first, in my own sense that the beautiful altar was finished... Our staff priest actually designed the area to serve as liturgical "scaffolding" with the idea that it was going to be remade by the 12:30 congregation. But most of us, myself and the ladies of the 12:30 congregation included, didn't see that. It was so elegant that we didn't imagine that possibility. Where else did we misstep? It was in the idea that the ladies needed to get the permission of el Dean to make the altar their own. My understanding was that it was to be theirs from the beginning. But they could not imagine changing it without asking "The Man". Clearly we have some work to do to make them feel that they are full and vital members of the congregation, not people whom the rich Americanos tolerate out of some sort of noblesse oblige.

So, we have some work to do. But it's good work. I'm rather looking forward to it. Because, by pointing out my own misunderstanding of the basic nature of celebration rather than somber mourning surrounding Dia de los Muertos, I found myself rethinking my own relationship to my family members who have died. Particularly that to our youngest daughter.

The idea that she is attending an eternal fiesta in the presence of God held in the arms of her grandmothers and her namesake grandfather is a totally different way for me to envision her today, the 12th anniversary of her death. I like the idea of Fiesta much better. And so I'm grateful to the ladies of the 12:30 service for giving me a new set of lenses to see the world around me. I think our family just found a new folk custom that we shall keep all the days of our lives.

The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz. He served as Chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication, is active in ecumenical works and was originally trained as an astronomer before he was ordained. His blog is Entangled States.

Crafting a liturgy of remembrance on Día de los Muertos

By Sarabeth Goodwin

St. Stephen and the Incarnation’s Misa Alegría congregation was just six months old when I suggested we might celebrate Día de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead – as a way to invite our English-speaking brothers and sisters to join us around the table. After all, most North Americans have some inkling of this strange and colorful holiday that is the Mexican commemoration of All Souls’ Day. My excitement waned when the proposal was greeted by silence from my mostly Central American congregation. Finally one person ventured, “Madre, this is not our custom.” I replied, “You know, it’s not really mine either, but let’s give it a try. Perhaps it will become our custom.”

With some hesitancy we moved forward… together. At our first celebration in the parish hall, our Mexican members built the communal altar while others watched. We decorated the Ofrenda with colored lights and bright-colored tissue paper cut with smiling skulls. There were flowers and fruit, and a large bone-shaped bread dusted with sugar and hand carried from Oaxaca where the mother of one of our members is the village baker. Photos of deceased loved ones nestled beside handmade paper skeletons. A tiny papier-mâché dog skeleton with a green hat held a loaf of bread in its mouth while little plates of food and even a bottle of Corona stood waiting. In the middle was a cross with a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe in its center.

All Souls’ Day is celebrated in many countries, most often by visits to the graves of loved ones, which are swept, cleaned and often ornately decorated with seasonal flowers. Families spread blankets and share picnics with others who have come to honor and remember their loved ones. These customs have roots in the European Middle Ages. In Mexico, the celebration brought by Spanish missionaries has incorporated elements from pre-Christian native cultures. As with many things Mexican, this fiesta has taken on color and energy with the richness of multi-layered symbolism. Perhaps it is the hint of these indigenous roots that surprise us and attract us too.

At St. Stephen’s, our custom of Día de los Muertos is an evolving one. What began as an experiment in folk religion has become a liturgy of remembrance. Our celebration of All Saints and All Souls are now seamlessly joined by a procession from the nave to the adjoining chapel where the Ofrenda in all its gaudy glory is censed and blessed. Alfredo sounds the conch shell used by generations of his family to summon workers to supper. The deep, mournful tone fills the soaring spaces of St. Stephen’s and fills our hearts as well. We call out the names of those we love but no longer see. We light tapers and set them in the sand in a large cooking pot. Brightly colored sticky notes bear the names of loved ones on the wall of remembrance. And in an extension of our Eucharistic feast, we share our favorite foods in a pot-luck of joy and remembrance.

We can now claim we have worked together to make this custom ours. We have been enriched beyond measure by our common worship. New life has been born out of a splendid celebration of diversity and tradition. The Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, a feast day too often forgotten, helps us see the saints we have known, loved and still love side-by-side with the glorious saints that inhabit Butler’s Lives of the Saints sporting the halos in religious iconography. All are part of the Great Cloud of Witnesses that surrounds us. In a bright and shining moment, we recognize the truth of the words the English speakers sing at the Offertory, “for the saints of God are just folk like me...God help me to be one too.”

The Rev. Sarabeth Goodwin is Latino Missioner at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, D.C.

Unknown Child

By Richard Helmer

While gathering paperwork to get our son registered for kindergarten a few weeks ago, I came across the hospital record of his birth in San Francisco. Beneath his gender designation, length, and weight at birth was his racial designation in big-block capitals:

UNKNOWN.

It stopped me dead in my tracks. Our son, born in 2003, holds immediate claims to two heritages: American and Japanese. Had his mother been, say, French or Swedish, he would have easily been classified as White or Caucasian. Had his mother been African American, chances are he would have been classified as Black. But because his mother is Japanese, and I am of European – mostly English – ancestry, Daniel is a mystery, an unknown quantity in the slippery pseudo-science of race and identity.

Part of me rejoices that he defies standard classification. Part of me worries that his heritage falls into that nebulous, but ever-growing population of children born of marriages that transcend the boundaries of nation and race; children who get a second glance on the street as a rude question bounces around the conventional mind. It’s a question best summed up in the title of a work by author Pearl Fuyo Gaskins: What are you?

“UNKNOWN,” its big, black-on-white, block capitals seemed to also carry with it a mild insult. Marrying across racial boundaries and then having children continues to trip up the legal system in its categorizations, even in an avowedly liberal city like San Francisco. As I prepared Daniel’s kindergarten registration, I was reminded that we are still less than half a century beyond the day when anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. And still only decades from an era when I might have been shipped off to an internment camp with my wife for simply living and loving in the wrong place at the wrong time, for being wed on the wrong side of the war.

In its infinite wisdom, the government now offers a new racial category to the list of choices, and I don’t mean that bland Other ____________. (Please fill in the blank.) It’s "Mixed," which brings to mind the ways Daniel can at times look white and at other times, Asian. Which stereo-typed feature shall we pick? The brown eyes and dark hair or the fair skin? The long fingers or the round face? Will he “pass” as a white person when he needs to, or is he Asian enough to go unnoticed in Japan? Or perhaps he simply fits into the relatively new classification of happa, a term that denotes someone born of one Asian and one non-Asian parent. But even happa says very little. Once considered derogatory, the word is derived from the Hawaiian hapa-haole, which simply means, “half white.” But no Solomon could ever determine which half of Daniel is which.

Mixed belies the deeper truth about our common heritage. Daniel might be mixed but he works: he’s healthy, happy, and behaves like most four-year-old boys do, taking over space in all the lives he meets with his boundless energy. Mixed at one time in the Judeo-Christian tradition implied something or someone impure, less than fully functional, whole, or worthy. The truth is, we are all Mixed if you dig back in our genetic history very far. Our wholeness is deeply rooted in our unity as people made in God’s image, and a shared genetic history that is only several tens of thousands of years old. Our racial categories are very late to arrive on the scene. We have in each of us the biological essence of what it is to be European, African, Asian, Latino, Aborigine, Indian, Native American. . .and the capacity to see the face of Christ in one another and the Body of Christ revealed in one another’s cultural heritage.

It’s also in this way that we are all Unknown.

Unknown like the first-born child of young woman and her carpenter husband two millennia ago. Unknown to the world, born in a stable in a backwater town far from the seats of power and empire. Unknown, yet Mixed, says our tradition – of divine and human origin, but not happa; rather 100% each in the theological math that never seems to add up. Instead, it plunges us into the mystery of a God who touches every piece of us, giving new meaning to that line from the Creed that reminds us that ours is the God of the “seen and unseen,” or in that line from the confession, the Redeemer of the “known and unknown.”

Unknown like every child is born – children who must be named and must receive a social identity from those who care for them. Unknown even then, as they must ultimately find themselves and grow into the gifts they have received. Gifts that came from the only One who truly knows each of us when the stardust comes together in a new way, the genes play mix and match, cells divide, and a new heart begins to beat.

So perhaps Unknown is a good category for a child who is a mystery as much as any of us. Our two-dimensional racial categories pretend to know a person, saddle us with an identity that may or may not fit, pigeon-hole us without regard to our unique natures as children of God. The racial categories, while they might remain useful to track our slow institutional progress in honoring the dignity of all, ultimately reveal the hand of human hubris at work in God’s Creation.

Maybe one day, Daniel will recognize Unknown not as a slap for those who fall in the arbitrary fault-lines of race and culture, but a true freedom to become who God made him to be.

All I can do is keep vigil, pray, and wonder, and reflect on my son’s Unknown-ness – that which has yet to be revealed.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. He has served in interfaith, ecumenical, diocesan, and national church organizations, including Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries. His sermons have been published at Sermons that Work, and he blogs regularly about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, and church politics at Caught by the Light.

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