Ten years ago I went to Baton Rouge and other Katrina-affected areas in a response to calls to assist people who had made it out of New Orleans alive. I went to help; I could not help but see and listen and be changed by the experience.
A few years ago I went to Arizona to help, to bear witness to the conditions faced by people who cross into the U.S. through the desert hills. I went and saw for myself what people go through trying to get here without “papers”, how they are treated in the courts, how they are discarded/repatriated to their native countries, how they escape.
A few weeks ago I joined in the one-year anniversary Commemoration of the Ferguson Uprising in St Louis County, Missouri. I hoped, as I believe so many others did, to move the change process forward, to effect change in the culture that tolerates, even promotes police violence, especially against young Black and Brown men.
I do these things selfishly, in all cases, for my own transformation, to be changed. I don’t know how else to begin to absorb into my bones circumstances that, in my places of privilege, I have not had to experience.
In all three scenarios there are threads in common, often threads denied that we must not continue to deny. The most destructive is white supremacy—whether for material benefit, ego and personal power, or stoked to prop up institutions of authority. It’s a most powerful enemy of the just, the merciful, the sacred.
In those moments of presence and bearing witness it is impossible to turn away from what is real. The rest of the time, in day-to-day living, it’s too easy to join in the simplification of these matters, to indulge in the reduction of intertwined and knotty life-and-death issues to capture in a sentence or a slogan what cannot, in its complexity, be contained.
There are good people in all these places, working in all these situations. And if you are inclined to listen to the sound bites you might think solutions would be easy if only… But none of these scenarios offer ease to their resolution. There are unintended consequences from all sides at any step along the way. Sometimes, for example, people crossing the border without prospects (that’s what we should be concerned about, not papers) are at enormous risk. How much are we helping and how much more is needed to truly help?
For many who arrive, no options for gainful employment where people’s humanity is respected exist. If you don’t think racism is a major part of how these tragedies unfold as they do, I encourage you to step up and step into these communities and find out for yourself. The picture is complex. As much as we can say “just say no” to drugs was an over-simplification of the issues at the heart of drug addiction, we can say “just setting out water” for people crossing the desert isn’t enough. We need a complete overhaul of the immigration system built on a foundation of love and respect for all.
The injustice system--from Ferguson to Nogales, from Riker's Island to the flotillas that land in Florida, from the school rooms to the prisons of our souls, all are connected by attitudes and behaviors that are integral to white supremacy—proclaimed or unnamed.
Whether at our national borders or in our cities and towns, all lives should matter, but clearly they don’t. If you look at the primary targets of corrupt financial practices, our failed immigration policies, our injustice system, people of color don’t matter. Citizens or migrants, people of color don’t matter beyond what an industry might need in its labor force in a particular time and place, and this includes the labor provided by hundreds of thousands held in the shackles of our prison industrial complex.
If you come back at me and say “it’s not ONLY people of color who are victimized by the injustice system” I will tell you, you are right, not only. But mostly. And in the end, if you give a system authority to punish it will always seek out those to punish, so if we don’t do away with the system entirely we may just be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
As Unitarian Universalists, we seem to constantly be climbing mountains, or feeling we are supposed to. Don’t let that dissuade you from the next step. We climb a while and find a nook or perch upon which to rest a while. Then we climb some more. We rest and reflect again, and climb some more, some of us more slowly than others but we go on, I believe, until we each and all take our last breath.
Rev. JD Benson
Rev Jade "JD" Benson is Assistant Minister at UUSF and a minister at the Faithful Fools Street Ministry, both in San Francisco.