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Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo: The Stranger

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May 26, 2011

The Stranger

UU Church of Marblehead, MA

May 15, 2011

by Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo

Each child that enters the world is a stranger, and yet, what we hope for each is that they are welcomed with love. We hope that soon after that first breath, that first cry, they are quickly delivered into the arms of parents whether birth or adoptive and gentled into this foreign world. We tend to meet them with great joy, curiosity and a slice of wonder. Their arrival often brings with it a slice of hope. The arrival of this stranger.

And don’t we react with similar care and interest when we encounter any child? There is something universal in our eagerness to care for the child. To watch the child. To offer a smile. To delight in their play. To feed them if they are hungry. To help them if they are in need. To see them for who and what they are. A child, a part of our human family.

Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo Has Been Speaking Out Against the so-called Secure Communities Program in MA

Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo Has Been Speaking Out Against the so-called Secure Communities Program in MA

If a stranger, a child walked into this sanctuary right now, I’m willing to bet that we wouldn’t feel threatened a bit, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or ambiguity about any of those identities.  Many here would smile. Many would seek to interact with a wave, a nod or as I am oft to do, a scoot down to their level and an invitation to high five.  We would naturally wonder.  Where did this child come from? Do they need our help?  How did they come to be here?  How can we make them feel welcome?  I believe the same would be true in most houses of worship around the world at this moment.

How is it then that our reaction to the stranger is so different when it is an adult? And perhaps for some few here it is not different but I have known it to be so for others.  I know I have done it myself. I also bear witness to those on the receiving end of treatment that altered as they moved from the cute, exotic child to the feared youth and then adult of color.

What changes? I want to know.  What is it that allows us as human beings to move from that loving curiosity to reactions ranging from indifference to outright disdain or fear of people who are different?

You heard me share a story earlier with the children. Let me tell you more of what I experienced that day and in recent months.  In this story I was a stranger and among strangers. First a bit of context. I was at a meeting that our Governor had established to gather input from residents about a Federal Program called ‘Secure Communities.’ What ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) says it does, is get rid of murderers, rapists and other serious criminal offenders who are undocumented. The program ties anyone arrested into their national fingerprinting system. Anyone arrested, not convicted, is the key term there. What the immigrant community, their allies and many local law enforcement officials will tell you is that what it really does is frighten people, promote racial profiling and harm relationships within communities and importantly between communities and local law enforcement officials. By ICE’s own accounting, 54% of people deported had no criminal record and another 15% minor offenses.

Last year, Gov Patrick told the immigrant community “I want you to know that you are welcome here in this commonwealth. This is your commonwealth. This is your home.”  He is now evaluating whether or not to agree to ICE’s request that each state sign on to Secure Communities by 2013.  I and others are urging him to decline. Chelsea Chief of Police Brian Kyes, said Secure Communities has created “mistrust of local police, discouraged people from reporting crime, and made everyone more vulnerable to crime by breaking down hard earned relationships.”  Members of Congress are questioning the program. California Representative Zoe Lofgren denounced the program saying “It is unacceptable for government officials to essentially lie to local governments, Members of Congress, and the public.”  The Congressional Hispanic Caucus called for its immediate freeze in May, citing the “misrepresentation and confusion” surrounding the program, “the astonishing rate of non-criminal deportations,” evidence that it was leading to “localized abuses such as racial profiling and pre-textual arrests,” and the threats it posed to “public safety, civil rights, and community-police relations.”

Rev. von Zirpolo Traveled to Phoenix in July 2010 to Protest SB 1070

Rev. von Zirpolo Traveled to Phoenix in July 2010 to Protest SB 1070

I have attended four of the six meetings here in Massachusetts and the behavior ranged from disheartening to frightening.  As individuals tried to offer their experience of being racially profiled by law enforcement and expressed fears that Secure Communities will make such practices more prevalent, others shouted out things like ‘Show us your papers” if they were Latino/a,  “Learn English” if they required an interpreter, “you’re all criminals” if they indicated they were an immigrant or simply ‘SHUT UP.”  Some of them endured taunts, at times by people allowed to sit or stand next to them at the microphones.  The opposing testimony included assigning blame to entire populations for all horrific crime. One man suggested his buddy wouldn’t be dead from a drug overdose if we had stopped Mexicans from ever entering the country.

In Lawrence I asked that the Governor and his representatives listen with their heads, to the facts about this program, but with their souls, to the stories from the people.   I added that whenever we have seen genocide in our world it has been preceded by ‘othering’ and that this program existed in a larger context of hate legislation directed at the Latino/a community. I said “We’ve been there before. Selma, Auschwitz, Darfur, Rwanda.” A man who testified later on just feet away from me was permitted to yell and finger point at me. “How dare you speak of the holocaust and this together?” he screamed.  A group behind me, mostly of color asked security that he be stopped and the line opened up for them to respond, to no avail. Following the meeting I was approached by two people, themselves descendants of Holocaust survivors, both telling me, it was for that reason they oppose Secure Communities and stand in support of the immigrant community.

At the Chelsea meeting, I was told that I didn’t understand history, that all immigrants were criminals and that I should just shut up by one of the local leaders of the Tea Party. And now the story I spoke of earlier. The final meeting in Brockton. My testimony was less than 60 seconds. I noted ICE’s own statistics – 54% deported with no criminal record at all. I told how our tax dollars are used to fund lateral repatriation – that’s when we deport a family, placing one parent over the border in one town, the other in another town and their child or children in yet other towns. I said “it is untrue to say this program and that process are not connected. Unthinkable to condone it. Unconscionable to participate.”

I then took my sign and stood over on the side where others stood with signs. Some supporting Secure Communities. Some opposing Secure Communities. Taunts were hurled followed by boos and hisses. Several, many of whom identified as Tea Party members, went on to use their time at the microphone to point over at me and say how wrong I was.  How misguided. How offensive I was, in particular because of my sign. I debated sitting down, uncomfortable from the attacks but more so because it seemed a distraction to the very real testimony offered by others impacted by Secure Communities.  A black man came and stood by me saying “you look like you need support.” A black religious leader followed, saying “thank you sister.” Two Latino and Latina people with signs took two steps closer to me on the other side. A young Latina girl,  perhaps 8 or 10 years old, having just listened to testimony that would have you thinking all Latinas in the Massachusetts school system kick, spit and disrespect their teachers, looked at me, simply smiled, and held up her sign higher. Two people walked over and offered their business cards, one from a law firm specializing in protecting immigrants and another an interfaith alliance promoting multiculturalism. I remained.

The sign that drew such anger…………………..LOVE

I return to my question.   How is it we as a people move from a place of welcoming the stranger to fear and disrespect of the stranger and then hatred and disdain for people who do welcome the stranger, who by the way, is welcoming us?

After the meeting ended, one woman came to me in tears.  Another white woman.  I don’t know whether or not she supported Secure Communities. Her words as she visibly shook were “‘I want you to know how offended I was at how you were treated.”  Perhaps she said this because I was clergy. Perhaps because I was a woman. Perhaps because I held a sign that said love. I cannot know.  But I think I do know that she didn’t offer the same to the many others who were treated far worse. I imagine that to her, they felt like strangers and I did not – or was less so.

Where does it go – that ease of reaching out the caring hand, the bandaid, the lullaby to the stranger infant and child but not the youth or adult?

Outside I was accosted by a young man who said we have laws and that’s what we have to follow. I asked him to consider this story.  The young couple who were two months away from having a baby. One day while she was at work and he at home, a  call came from her boss saying she had gone into premature labor.  She was sent to the hospital via ambulance. He raced out, forgetting his wallet. He was stopped for speeding and within minutes sent back where he belonged.  Mexico. It takes him hours to prove his citizenship. A friend is reached and travels down to the border to provide his documentation. Now proven a citizen,  he is free to get home himself.  He returns home to bury his dead child and comfort and morn with his mate. “Tell me again about our laws and practices. This would not have been done to you,” I say.  His response is  ”well, I wouldn’t have sped.”


As other men joined and pressed in, I decided it best to leave.  I left.  I wept. I was hurt but also so sad and I am sad today. How is it, these individuals regardless of political stance on immigration reform could behave so horribly?  It was in looking at this question I came to realize that somehow I could understand it when it was directed toward those they perceived to be immigrants. As offended as I was by their comments about those speaking with accents or requiring translation, I was not surprised. Somehow, it was part of the stereotype I had assigned them. It was ‘the stranger’ they were rude to. And I, who looked like them, well did I become the target of their anger because I was one of them? Because I looked like them and was wearing the clerical collar of some of their faiths, could it be that I was a traitor?  And what does that mean?  I almost wish I hadn’t started down this trail of questions. I have few answers and those I have are difficult to stomach.

With each decade I learn that our answers lie closer to home. And I find myself returning to old sacred texts as I seek to make meaning and find those answers.

Matthew 25:35   For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in

Job 31:32 But no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler

Isaiah 58:7   Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Romans 12:13   Practice hospitality.

Hebrews 13:2   Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it Returning to sacred texts and the hard-earned lesson that the only behavior we can alter is our own.

And so what are we to do?  We can and should write letters to Gov Patrick urging him to opt out of Secure Communities. Copies of a letter will be shared electronically later this week and I urge you to respond, adding your name to the plea to Gov. Patrick to say ‘no.’  But there is more we can do and we needn’t wait or depend on compelling another. We have the power.  If like me, your reaction to the child wandering in on a Sunday morning is one of delight, wonder and welcome, but perhaps not as quick or natural when it’s a youth or adult, we can begin right there.  We can practice our welcome to the stranger here and take it to the streets. We can become a hospitality committee of the whole, joining others across ethnic boundaries, age, abilities, all identities. We can be brave, offering the smile the child received so readily, to every person, especially those who are most different. Every person whether we share spoken language or not. We can be kind, offering the caring eyes the babe knows without a word, to every person, every day, everywhere. We can be ambassadors of peace, love and care when we see others who dare not or know not how. We can welcome the stranger and allow the stranger to welcome us. For it is not ours to own, this world. Each of us strangers. Each of us connected. Each of us the babe entering a new world – the tomorrow of our making.

May it be so ~

5 Responses to “Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo: The Stranger”

  1. John says:

    Thank you. I was at the Brockton hearing and was really shocked at just how full of hate the Tea Party people were. They were mad that anyone dared to call them out on it. They get so upset if it is implied that they do not want any immigrants at all in this country. They first say “it’s just the illegals…we’re a nation of laws…you have to follow the procedures like my grandparents did and today’s legal immigrants do.” But at the same time they make the generalizations and connections that indicate their complete fear of a world that does not look exactly like them. They’re petrified of the changes that are happening in the country just as those of generations past were petrified of the hordes of Europeans invading this country 150 years ago.

    It’s just so frustrating that people can get so dominated by fear and then be so manipulated by those who would use that fear for short-sighted ends.

    Thank you for speaking out.

  2. Sara Nichols says:

    Keep holding up your sign, there are many who believe in the rights of humanity and it is really all about LOVE. Thank you for your strength and faith.

  3. L. Findlater says:

    I think it’s not exactly hate, that the angry people are experiencing, it is extreme FEAR. Fear of change, fear of their own mortality, cultural change, fear of world events, natural events, and they are just transferring all that fear, towards the target they feel they can possibly control… immigration, in this case.

    I wonder how many of them are full blood Native Americans… not many…

  4. Meg Riley says:

    Thank you, Wendy, for a beautiful sermon and for your even more beautiful witness on behalf of our religious values.

  5. Helen Rivas says:

    Thank you for your brave and persistent action and for expressing so eloquently our failings in how we may see those who are “Other.” And here’s to growing that hospitality committee to cover every place.

    One more question about the disturbing behavior: why do elected officials allow such behavior to happen? Responsibility dictates setting a tone of respect at the beginning of these meetings. Speakers should alternate between/among positions on the issue so as not to foster anger.

    I witnessed similar behavior at a hearing two years ago in N. Alabama held by the state’s most rabid anti-immigrant senator, Scott Beason. The hateful rhetoric continued for over an hour before a retired U.S. military officer, who also happens to be a Black Latina pastor, came to the podium to speak.

    She began, “I would like to speak about why immigrants come here,” but was drowned out by boos and catcalls. The senator did not react until police officers moved toward the audience. Abandoning any pretense that this was a respectful public forum, he said, “Y’all, let her speak; she’ll only hurt her cause.”

    I was only a witness, but felt the palpable hatred in the room and a gained bit of insight to what it must have felt like for Ruby Bridges, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Riders, voter registrants, the Scottsboro Boys and so many others. I’m not sure that many “decent” citizens, especially those of European-American descent, have really come to grips with the reality faced by so many every day. How do we bring them to greater understanding of that reality and how do we engage the angry and fearful in ways that may lead to opening their hearts?

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