I didn’t quite finish “Kind of Kin” by Rilla Askew in time for this month’s Daughters of Abraham book group. The truth is, I put off starting it because it was a Christian selection (the group is composed of Christian, Jewish and Muslim women, and each group takes a turn selecting a book that in some way represents their religion). I have developed an aversion to “Christian fiction” after reading a few too many books in Jan Karon’s Mitford series and seeing movies like “Facing the Giants” in which Christianity is a magical forces that makes everything better for those who believe.
I shouldn’t have worried. People do good things and they do bad things and their motives for their actions are always complex and rarely pure. The testimony of scripture is helpful and challenging but it doesn’t solve everything. The book makes a good case for how the Christian faith can make a positive difference in a community, but it doesn’t do so in a simple, magical way.
In fact, in this book Christianity mostly makes people’s lives more challenging. It leads them to challenge the assumptions of their community and to stand up for strangers in trouble. But behind all of their Strong Moral Positions is the question of how to care for the people we love. Good material for my work on a “Spirituality of Us.”
The book describes how a number of different people—a Christian pastor, a politician, an overwhelmed mom, a born-again grandfather, a Sherriff, an oil worker and a 10-year-old boy—respond to a new law in Oklahoma that makes it a felony to harbor an illegal alien. The book doesn’t attempt to represent both sides of the illegal immigration debate in this county—it makes a strong case against deporting undocumented workers and portrays anti-immigration forces in a fairly laughable way. But it represents those who come to the aid of immigrants as having very complex motives.
One young woman has fallen in love with a Mexican man who is in the country illegally. They have gotten married and had a child, but he hasn’t obtained legal status and is deported. The woman’s grandfather has made connections in the Mexican community by occasionally attending a Mexican Pentecostal church. Through his friendship with the pastor of that church, he eventually agrees to hide a group of workers who are at risk of deportation in his barn. Another family member is fearful that immigrant Mexicans will take his job, and so he turns the grandfather in. That man’s wife is personally overwhelmed and not particularly interested in the troubles of the Mexicans in her community, but she finds she has to take a stand when her family members ask her for support.
After days of soul-searching, scripture study and prayer, the local pastor decides that it is his duty as a Christian to give refuge to the young man who had returned to his family after his deportation to Mexico. When the local sheriff, Arvin Halloway, arrives at the church, the result is a showdown that lasts most of a day and attracts media attention. Church members and neighbors find themselves called to either stand by their pastor in support of his convictions or to stand with the Sherriff in support of the law.
I so appreciated Askew’s description of the reasons why so many church members decided to side with their pastor:
“Later some of them would say that they did what they did purely because Arvin Halloway told them they couldn’t. Others claimed that they hadn’t really known anything about that law; if they had, they might have acted different. Some said they’d just surmised that if the pastor of the First Baptist Church aimed to stand against the law (and here by the law they didn’t mean statute but officers), then, by gosh, that was good enough for them. In the long run, there turned out to be a whole host of reasons—conscience, ignorance, rumor, the makings of a good show….”
The pastor takes a stand because he becomes convinced, through his reading of scripture, that God commands him and his congregation to do so. But he only starts looking for Biblical guidance on the issue when he is asked directly by one of the members of his congregation to help an illegal immigrant. And she only asks for help because that person is married to her niece and her niece showed up at her door, desperate and without any alternative.
These characters, even the ones who see themselves as responding to divine guidance, do not have pure motives. But they do represent the way that people makes decisions, change their mind and are spurred to action. Personal conviction plays a role. Identifying as a member of a faith community can play a role. But in the end, our love for particular people is what gets us moving.
That’s an important insight to bring to the immigration debate. The conversation changes when it stops being abstract, about “illegal immigrants” in general, and becomes personal. Askew writes about the young man being harbored in the church basement saying,
“There were rumors that the man belonged to that really good roofing crew out of Panola, and some even got it correct straight off—that he was Bob Brown’s granddaughter’s husband who had been, according to news reports, deported last fall. The main unity to the rumors was how they all had the Mexican man qualifying as a stranger according to the preacher’s texts, but one with a local connection. He was an alien all right, but he was somehow their own alien.”