“Si, se puede! Si, se puede!” The voices of Spanish speakers mingled with the struggling accents of the primarily English speakers who stood in solidarity with them in front of the White House on Monday morning. The prayerful supporters called out the words as they faced, across police barricades and yellow tape, the religious and migrant leaders who knelt on the concrete, engaging in a pray-in just feet from the White House lawn and calmly awaited arrest.
The words flowed back and forth, supporters straining to hear what those awaiting arrest sang in order to join their voices in support. “…this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine…” flowed into “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound…” flowed into “…Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land…” Intermingled with the singing were chants, not only “Si, se puede” but “Obama, Escucha! Estamos en la luche” and the rallying cry of the event “Not one more: Deportation.”
They took all the women away first – fastening their hands tightly behind their backs and leading them into waiting vans. Sol Cotto, a devoted teacher, wife, and mother was one of the first to go; the last time I had seen her, she had been smiling her amazing grin as we celebrated the Commissioning of our friend Lydia over Italian food in Philadelphia. Now her face was solemn and determined as she was led away to detention.
They continued to arrest the women, finally bringing Hermina Gallegos to her feet and fastening her arms behind her back. That morning she had shared with us about her daughter, Rosy, who had been in detention for more than a month and was becoming ill. Hermina was there, without documentation, risking everything to plead for mercy, justice and a halt to detention and deportations that were dividing loving families like her own. When she had first begun to tell us about her daughter over coffee that morning, I had been shocked. Looking at her youthful face, I realized that her daughter must be young; and she is – Rosy is only twenty years old.
Next to Hermina in the front row was Bishop Minerva Carcaño, who knelt in solidarity with her, prayed in solidarity with her, and finally was arrested in solidarity with her. They would maintain that solidarity until the very end; remaining in detention together throughout the day and evening and finally emerging together at the end of the trickle of releases – Carcaño only willing to come out when they could both come out.
As the arrests slowly continued, we could see the physical exertion of those who waited and waited with their knees planted on the hard concrete. For several minutes after the rest of the women had been taken away, Harriett Olson, the General Secretary of the United Methodist Women, continued to kneel with a determined posture as the last woman among the men. Then, the officers came, finally; they pulled her to her feet, they fastened her hands behind her back and they led her away.
At the very end, after more than an hour of kneeling, only Bishop Julius C. Trimble and a couple other men remained. It was then that the tapestry of songs and chants found its way home again to its most frequent refrain, as Bishop Trimble, whose voice itself embodied protest, its strength refusing to be diminished by the physical strain, sang out: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
That was what this was all about. Demanding that the nation, that the President, that the world see what we are doing to families like Hermina’s. People who are neither criminals nor moochers nor sluggards, but hard working people with loving families that just want a chance to be together and make a contribution to the world.
That is the kind of family I come from too; and when my great-grandparents brought my grandparents to this country, they experienced struggle and prejudice, and they worked hard in menial jobs. They found people like Adair, from whom my name has trickled down, to help them and support them when they struggled in a new country.
But there are differences that made the road smoother for my family. One is that my skin is pale, undercooked as Elias Chacour says, and my eyes are blue, and our culture has always had a prejudice that somehow this land belongs to people who look like that more than it belongs to people of a different complexion. This lie is so powerful that it somehow enables us to feel comfortable saying that this is “our country” and “we were here first” as we tell people to “go back where you came from,” even though neither of those statements is true. This land belongs to God; and the native peoples, who truly were the ones who originally inhabited it, were much better at remembering and honoring that than its current stewards have ever been.
It is true that our immigration issues today are not exclusively issues of racism, our economic prejudice leads us to treat many Caucasian immigrants just as poorly. However, while our immigration issues may flirt with other people, it often feels like they are going steady with our racism issues. While parents of children who look like me can feel fairly safe sending their kids out the door, there are far too many families in our nation that have to worry about whether their kids will come home – whether they come up against Stand Your Ground in Florida or detention of young DREAMers like Rosy in Arizona. While saying “all men are created equal”, we behave as if all children are not created equal.
What happened to the nation that claimed to proclaim proudly from Lady Liberty’s base, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Was it ever true?
As I waited and prayed for release with other drivers outside of the detention center in Anacostia where our protesters were held, I could not help but keep thinking of three words. “Si, se puede.”
At the end of the pray-in, when Bishop Trimble had finally been taken away, the lingering echo of Amazing Grace had faded, and all that remained was bare concrete, my friend Leticia turned to me and asked, “Was it what you expected?” I responded, “I do not know what I expected.”
That could be as true for the past several years of my life as well as it was for the past few hours. The reason was those words, “Si, se puede.” When I had heard them chanted that day it was as if a wave of memories and emotions smacked me in the face.
The last time I had heard them chanted that way was in 2008, when the majority of my life was devoted to urban teen leaders in Durham. In this group of amazing youth, we had many leaders that were the children of immigrants. And as Barack Obama was running for his first term, the chant “Si, se puede” was common in the part of the city where we lived.
When he won, they were given the chance to go to the Inauguration. We traveled north and stood out in front of the Capitol at 4:00 am to get our spot, as they looked at me despairingly in the bitter cold and I assured them they would be glad someday that they had been there.
Throughout the day they were interviewed by news cameras and the New York Times, but I had a question of my own. I asked them what their personal reasons were for being excited to have this man as their President. I will never forget what they said.
One of them looked at me and said that Barack’s daddy was an immigrant just like their daddy, and they believed he would help him.
When Leticia asked me what I expected, I did not know, but I knew what those young leaders expected. One twelve year old believed that his cousin, who was serving his new country in the armed forces, would be brought home from war. The five year old who came to church crying every single morning because she missed her deported daddy expected that she would see him again. They expected things would be different, could be different, will be different.
And they will. But it takes more than one man whose daddy was an immigrant. It takes all of us realizing not only that we are the children of immigrants; realizing not only that other people love their children just as much as we love ours and deserve to be with them; but also, for those of us who are Christians, it takes us realizing that we follow a migrant God who wandered from the time he was born into danger and taken into Egypt.
It takes more than one man whose daddy was an immigrant to change things. He can do a lot to help, and we need him to listen; but it will take all of us.
“Si, se puede” does not mean “Yes, we can” as many of us Spanish novices assumed. That would be “Si, podemos.”
“Si, se puede” means “Yes, it is possible.” That means something slightly different. It is a challenge, not a chant, a challenge for all of us. We know it is possible to treat one another with love and compassion. We know it is possible to create the beloved community. We know it is possible to do justice while loving mercy. The question is – do we have the will to do it? Because it costs something. You cannot insist on having everything, if you want there to be something left for others.
On Monday, many brave leaders knelt on the cold concrete sidewalk in front of the White House because they were making a statement. Not only do we as United Methodists believe compassionate justice is possible, but we also have the will to take action and make sacrifices to see that day come. They were willing to spend one day in jail away from their families, because millions will spend a lifetime separated from the people they love.
It is possible. But it will not happen if we are silent. God gave us voices that they might be used to speak truth. God gave us hands that they might be used to do justice. God gave us minds that we might imagine a better way.
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Lev. 19:33-34
Wish you had been there Monday? Well there is something you can do today.
Call President Obama today at 1-888-907-2053
Mr. President, as your administration approaches 2 million deportations, people of faith have a simple message for you: Stop the deportations. The United Methodist Church calls for a ban to all arrests, detainments, and deportations of undocumented immigrants. We need you to show principled leadership to end all deportations. Thank you.