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The Ban on Refugees Is Personal For Us

IMG_1555 2On Wednesday, my community got together to celebrate.

Our congregation has been preparing since June to host a refugee family.  We heard last week that we have finally been matched with a family from Afghanistan with two parents and four children.  We planned a meeting for this past Wednesday to celebrate and to hear reports from every team that has been working on the project.

The Housing Team went first.  After touring a number of affordable rental communities in the area, an off-hand comment led us to a local church that owns a town home nearby.  We negotiated an agreement to rent this home for our family.

The Furnishings Team has been at work for a couple of months now, cleaning, repairing and fully furnishing the home.  Dozens of people donated beautiful furniture as well as every other possible supply a house might need:  sheets and pillows and towels and cleaning supplies and paper goods and toothbrushes and children's books and more.  When we found out that one of the children is 14 months old, the Furnishings Team went into overdrive finding a crib, a high chair, car seats and various supplies to child-proof the house.  The team reached out to friends from the local mosque and invited them to tour the house and make suggestions.  With their help, our team added a Koran and prayer rugs to the furnishings.

The Food and Clothing Team kicked into action once we knew the country of origin of the family and the ages of the kids.  They shopped for pajamas and winter coats.  Anxious to stock the pantry with food our family will recognize and enjoy, the team visited some Afghan restaurants and spoke to the cooks and staff.  They made notes on the brands of rice to buy and the stores where they could take the family to shop.

The Transportation Team has gone way beyond collecting a list of people who would be willing to drive our family to appointments.  They've met with staff from our Regional Transportation office and learned about every local bus line.  They have made contact with someone who set them up with scheduling software and have run trainings for their volunteers on how to use it.

The Employment Team got to work way before we knew what skills our family might have when they arrive.  They learned about local employers who might hire someone with limited skills in English.  They reached out to restaurant owners and others who employ recent immigrants from the Middle East.  They networked and strategized.

The Welcome Team (include the remarkable Rebecca Dietz, pictured above) has been meeting regularly for months to learn about Middle Eastern culture and Islam.  They reached out to our local mosque and made deep connections there with a group who is also working to aid refugees.  They sponsored a worship exchange between our congregation and the mosque and hosted two evenings of conversation with our Muslim neighbors about Muslim beliefs and practices.  Once we learned that our family speaks Dari, the Welcome Team went on a quest to find Dari speakers in the community.  They talked to people at Afghan restaurants and reached out to friends of friends.  When someone at the local kabab place shared that her mother speaks Dari, the team reached out and made a personal visit.  They set up an evening for everyone involved with the project to learn more about Afghan culture.

And so on.  There are 14 people on the steering committee for this project but there have been over 50 people actively involved with these six teams.  While our congregation said "YES" to God's call to do this and signed the contract with the resettlement agency, at least five other congregations have donated funds, supplies and time to the project.  We raised over $22,000 towards rent, utilities and other expenses.  

But more than time, more than money, people have given their hearts to this project.  We depend on volunteers to do a lot of things at our church, and a little bit of pleading and cajoling goes with the territory.  Not in this case.  People have offered things before we asked for them.  People have shown up without being invited and have thanked us for giving them an opportunity to respond to the world-wide refugee crisis in some positive way.

On Wednesday, we got together to celebrate all of this.  But that day, a draft of an executive order was leaked to the press which would halt all refugee resettlement in the U.S. for 120 days and significantly reshape it after that.  So along with our prayers of thanksgiving, we held hands and prayed that somehow God would make a way for our family to arrive.  We prayed that executive order would be modified or delayed until after February 8th.  We held hands--Christians, Jews and Muslims together--and cried for our family, for the parents and each of their four children.

President Trump's executive order became official Friday afternoon.  We will not be welcoming our family in February.  No one can tell us if they will ever arrive.  The crib and the car seat.  The bunk beds and prayer rugs.  The special rice and the rocking chairs.  Each one of these things has been prepared for this family.  Each one is a gift from someone in this community whose heart is overflowing with concern and care for the most vulnerable people in the world.  

On Wednesday, I cried, but today I'm organizing.  This work, after all, wasn't just a good deed, a project that I was hoping to accomplish.  This is God's call--to me, to my congregation, and clearly to many other people in this community.  Our work over the past six months has been an expression of our faith that directs each of us and all of us to welcome strangers and to care for those who are without homes.  

This work has been an expression as well of who we are as Americans.  Many of us (my family included) have ancestors who came to this country as refugees.  We love the Statue of Liberty as much as we love the American flag.  This executive order is not just an attack on refugees across the world--it is an affront to the thousands and thousands of people like me and families like mine and churches like mine across this country who have given their heart to welcoming refugees into their community, mentoring and loving them and encouraging them to become a part of what makes this country great.

We are not going away.  We have 120 days to tell our story and make our case for restoring our country's commitment to refugee resettlement.  We welcome you to help us do that.

You Don't Know Me

Imgres-1Last night was rough.  Testimony before the Howard County Council about CB-9 which would designate this community a "Sanctuary County" got underway around 8:00 pm and didn't wrap up until 2:00 am (I only lasted until 10:30 pm).  There were a lot of angry people in the room, most of whom were wearing red shirts or buttons indicating their opposition to the measure.  Because of an earlier commitment, I didn't arrive until a little before 8:00 pm and found a seat among a group of red-clad people who made insulting comments about every person who spoke in favor of the bill as well as the Council members who proposed it.  There were lots of gestures to go along with the comments as well as signs.  I tried to close my eyes and just listen to the testimony, but it was hard.

Testimony had been going on for about an hour when Karina, the young woman who spoke to our congregation this past Sunday, got up to testify.  "My name is Karina," she said into the microphone with a strong voice, "and I am undocumented.  I came to this country illegally from Mexico 11 years ago when I was a child."  The woman my left actually gasped when she said this.  I had a feeling she had never heard someone say such a thing before.

Karina went on to talk about her chance to gain legal status through the DACA program and her desire to give back to the country.  She then addressed Councilman Jon Weinstein directly.  "I ran cross country in high school with your sons.  Please ask them if they ever felt threatened by me."  She talked about how "de-humanizing" it is to be called "an illegal".  She reiterated that she has no interest in committing crimes.  She wants the same thing the rest of us want--a chance to learn, to make a living, to support her family and to feel safe.

The next person who spoke was against CB-9 but had obviously been listening to Karina.  "People like her, who come here as children, well, something should be done about that," he said.  But the testimony quickly went down hill from there.  Throughout the night, many people called undocumented immigrants criminals.  There were lots of references to gangs like MS-13.  "Violent felons" was a term used multiple times.

As I fell asleep last night, all those angry words were swirling through my head.  But when I woke up this morning, I was thinking about Karina.  I was thinking about how much courage it takes for her to tell her story, last night and every day.  She told us on Sunday that the more she speaks out, the more confident she feels.

We talk a lot about "call" at the Kittamaqundi Community.  We do our best to discern God's call on our lives and to shape our lives in response to that call.  When I first came to KC I sometimes wondered if all the talk about call wasn't just a fancy way of saying, "I do what I feel like doing and nothing else."  But I soon lost my cynicism.  It was clear to me that when people really do make a commitment to discern and follow God's call, their lives look different.  They aren't just joining up with the cause-of-the-month.  Their work in the world comes from a much deeper place.  Their actions are connected to who they are, as people.

I think that's why Karina's story has such power.  It doesn't come out of her anger or fear.  It doesn't reflect her political ideology or her desire to for approval.  It comes from a deeper place.  I think she has a call.

Last night's hearing was an education for me.  Call me naive, but I expected to hear a debate focused on whether CB-9 would do anything positive or whether it was unnecessary.  I thought there would be discussion about whether the county would be risking Federal funding if we adopt the resolution.  I didn't realize that people in this county think we should alter the current policy of the county police so that they would become extensions of ICE, the Federal immigration enforcement like they attempted to do in Arizona.  The proposed legislation is a codification of current practice--but that is clearly not enough for a (very vocal) segment of the community.

The people who want to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country are proposing one response to a huge variety of situations.  I am sure that there are people who have come into this country illegally with the intent to do harm.  Other people come with the intent to earn money to send to families back home--they never intend to live her permanently or become citizens.  Other people are fleeing violence in their home countries.  Others a pursuing opportunities.  Others are brought here as children and have no say in the matter.

It is ridiculous to call all of these people criminals, even if they all lack legal status.  I am guessing that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants never commit a crime while they are here.  But this is part of the problem with our broken immigration system.  If it were easier for people to immigrate into this country legally, if the young people who qualify for DACA could get permanent legal status, etc., then it really would make sense to allow the police to enforce immigration law.  If it was much easier for people to immigrate legally, then the people who are here illegally should be regarded with suspicion.  But that simply isn't the case.  There are just way, way too many undocumented people in this country to be able to say anything about all of them as a group.  In order to deny the complexity of the problem (and thus advocate for a one-size-fits-all solution) we would have to deny that people like Karina exist.

But she will not let us do that.  She insists that you look at her and acknowledge that she is not a threat to you.  She insists that you recognize that she is a human being, just like you.  I, for one, find her impossible to ignore.

Sanctuary: Seek First To Understand


Each year, as Martin Luther King's birthday approaches, I think about the major civil rights issues confronting our country today.  It seems to me that is the best way to honor King and his legacy--not only to remember what he did, but to consider what he would be doing were he alive today.  This year, the King holiday occurred in the middle of a raging debate about whether Howard County should become a "sanctuary county".  Earlier this month, two members of the Howard County Council proposed Council Bill 9 that would prohibit county officials from inquiring about immigration status while conducting their business.  It seemed clear to me and to the team planning worship this month that we should focus on this issue during our worship service on January 15th. Undocumented immigrants are a group of people that live in our country who do not have the same legal protection of their civil rights as the majority of the population.  If King were alive today, we decided, he would certainly be involved in this issue.  

Here's how we decided to engage with the issue:  we invited three young women who are students or graduates of Howard Community College to come and speak about their lives during our service last Sunday. One of the women was sick and couldn't come, but the other two shared their immigration stories with us.  Both came to the United States as children to reunited with parents who were already living and working here.  One came into the country legally (but overstayed her visa) and one crossed the border illegally.  Both currently have status through the DACA program, granted by executive order from President Obama in 2012.  

While I have certainly known undocumented immigrants throughout my life, I had never before had an in-depth conversation about that experience.  The two women who spoke to our congregation this past Sunday were thoughtful and resolute and disarmingly honest.  I was impressed by how committed these young women are to their education and to building careers that will support their families (including their mothers) and allow them to serve others.  They both articulated a desire to work with people in this country and internationally who are in some way "marginalized" as they have been.  

After the service, a person in the congregation said to me, "These women are exactly the kind of people this country should be welcoming--we would be crazy to kick them out."  I had to agree.  The conversation helped me to understand that our policies towards immigration should promote the values we want to see in our community:  commitment to education, to service, and to self-sufficiency.  DACA does that, clearly, and should be preserved and expanded.

I also learned from Sunday's conversation that local sanctuary legislation has value for the immigrant community even though it doesn't really give sanctuary to anyone who has violated Federal immigration law.  Language matters, one of the students explained.  The declaration of the intent to offer sanctuary, even if it falls short in reality, feels like an affirmation of our immigrant residents' value and worth.  That struck me like something King--and for that matter, Jesus--would want to offer.

I didn't begin 2017 with a fixed viewpoint about sanctuary legislation.  I do identify as a Democrat and the bill has been proposed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans.  But immigration has always struck me as an issue that doesn't necessarily parse along party lines.  Barak Obama has deported more people than any other president before him.  George W. Bush advocated strenuously for immigration reform legislation.  And the problems with the current broken system seem so obvious that I thought there would be more common ground between groups that advocate different solutions.

Undocumented immigrants pose a big challenge to any community, including Howard County where there are relatively few due to the extreme affluence of the area.  It seems obvious to me that people who do not have legal status in a community are much less likely to report crimes, testify in court, have drivers licenses or insurance, live in homes that have been legally inspected, or work in jobs are that "on the books".  It also seems obvious to me that when people are living in a country illegally, with no hope of ever becoming legal citizens, they have a different attitude towards the country.  They don't have the same "skin in the game" as those who are citizens--they don't pay the same taxes, they can't be drafted, they can't vote or run for office or serve on a jury.  Those things matter to me.  I value citizenship and I think that every community works better when the vast majority of people in it are citizens.

But I'm also realist, and I don't think deporting 11 million people is a realistic proposition.  It is one of those proposals that sounds simple but would actually be ridiculously expensive and time consuming not to mention inhumane when so many undocumented parents have children who are legal U.S. citizens.

I'm sure that smart people could work together to come up with a solution to our county's immigration problems.  But in the meantime, what should local governments do?  It seems to me that we should focus on maintaining the safety of our community and its residents.  I've long been in favor of issuing drivers licenses to people who don't have social security numbers.  In fact, I've never understood why anyone who spends time in a car would oppose such a thing.  When you strip away the rhetoric of the "whereas" statements, CB-9 simply assures the undocumented community that they can safely report crimes or interact with the police in some other way without fear of deportation.  I know that many police officers are in favor of these resolutions because it allows them to focus on public safety and not take on a second job enforcing federal immigration law.

But the debate over the past couple of weeks over CB-9 has not focused on commonsense solutions to local needs and priorities.  It went straight to a partisan fight complete with name calling and hyperbole.  I had hoped that I might actually learn something about the issue this month, but I've learned very little other than the deep dislike that many Republicans and Democrats have for each other at this point.  It wasn't until this past Sunday, when the two undocumented women spoke at KC, that I felt like I began to get past the partisan talking points.

I'm going to the hearing at the County Council tonight, but truth be told, I'm dreading it.  Since our (Republican) County Executive Allan Kittleman has already pledged to veto the bill, the whole evening promises to feature a lot of accusations and very little thoughtful listening.  My husband reminded me this morning that this is deliberate--the more unpleasant public hearings are, the fewer people want to participate in them, and the less connected people feel to their government.  So I will go, for the same reason I am in favor of federal immigration reform:  I believe in citizenship.

New Kirk


My dad, Bob Kirk, and my daughter, upon completion of a 5K in Saint Paul, Minnesota, New Year's Day 2012

When I was growing up, on a fairly regular basis my father (whose name is Bob Kirk) would announce it was time for a "New Kirk".  This usually just meant he was going to stop eating ice cream after dinner but his enthusiastic declarations were inspiring none the less.  It became part of our family's culture.  Instead of complaining about our bad habits, we would randomly declare that not only were we going to turn over a new leaf, but we were going to become new people, New Kirks.

What good does it do to make declarations like that?  Does it help to say out loud who we are--or who we intend to be?  Does saying it do anything to make it so?  

This past year, I heard a number of respond to an offensive comment or action by saying, "This isn't who we are," or "This isn't us."  For example, when Donald Trump said that we should ban all Muslim immigrants from entering the United States, Paul Ryan didn't just argue with the policy.  He said that it wasn't "reflective of our principles, not just as a party but as a country".  That response became a refrain throughout the year.  When a number of racist comments were posted online by high school students after the election in November, our County Executive gathered the community together and talked about how great Howard County is.  He then mentioned the racists comments and posts and declared, "This isn't us."  

These kinds of statements are supposed to end arguments.  You can argue about how best to solve a problem but you can't argue about who we are.  We're all just supposed to know that, on a deep, cellular basis.  

The problem for me is that every time I hear the statement "This isn't who are are," I want to argue.  I mean, if someone in our community does or says racists things than part of who we are as a county is racist.  Even if someone said, "This isn't who we want to be," or "This isn't who we aspire to be", I'd want to say, "Really?"  I'm not sure how helpful it is to talk about what we wish people were like.

All good organizing is based on reality, on the facts on the ground. Elections are helpful for this--even when we don't like the results, we can benefit from knowing what millions of people in our country agree to or want.  That's the basis for our next steps--not our beliefs about what people should want or believe.  In general, the time we spend expressing shock that someone dared to say something or do something is wasted time.  They've said it.  They've done it.  That's the world we live in.

But I am my father's daughter.  On any given day I am likely to declare myself a "New Kirk".  This time of year, in particular, I want to declare my independence from who I've been in the past. I want to take advantage of the clean slate of a new year even if it is just a fiction of the calendar.  So I wonder, instead of declaring "we are better than this", what if we proclaimed that we WILL be better than this, starting now? What if someone in this county filled with "Choose Civility" bumper stickers said, "Okay people, let's start over.  We clearly haven't chosen civility in this county.  But we can--starting now.  Let's figure out how actually to choose to treat one another with civility this year."

Then let's really have the conversation about all the things we've been avoiding talking about throughout the ten years of the Choose Civility campaign: racism, fear, social segregation, economic segregation, etc. etc.