By Tommy Airey
“…because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”—Matthew 11:25b
“This pedagogy makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation.”–Paolo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972)
Many episodes from the biblical script star the widow, the orphan and the immigrant as a sacred Trinity of sorts. The God known as Steadfast Love consistently compels those who bear the Name to never shame nor blame these three. In fact, in these three, Steadfast Love covenants Herself to Justice, promising to be a swift witness against anyone who oppresses or swears falsely against them. If one’s theology still makes room for hell, this litmus test ought to be included.
In the original language, the Greek xenos is the third member of this Trinitarian image of God. The stranger or foreigner or immigrant. In fact, xenos was a key learning objective of Jesus’ curriculum. But he didn’t cry “Stranger Danger.” Jesus alerts would-be disciples that, in the precious lives of the these, he would rise up and incarnate himself. It came with a promise: whenever disciples welcomed xenos, they would be summoning the power of the risen christos into their world. One ancient text even makes the bold claim that when followers of christos love and serve xenos they entertain angels in the process. Heaven binge-watches radical hospitality.
And yet, the Anti-Christ is alive and well in imperial America. Xenophobia is one rather large branch on the still-growing tree of white supremacy. Despite promises of hope and change, detentions and deportations of xenos swelled during the Obama years. But those number pale in comparison to the present administration’s tsunamic efforts to Make America Great Again by scapegoating the xenos into rapists and criminals. Nationwide, deportations of non-criminal immigrants have increased 126% in the past year.
However, here in Detroit, Steadfast Love is bearing swift witness through a few teachers who have come together to flip the script back to the sacred text. On a Thursday afternoon last month–while a caravan of hundreds of Central American refugees traveled north through Mexico–students, teachers and members of the community gathered for an after-school special: a teach-in led by the xenos themselves. ICE and Border Patrol were not invited.
After an anticipatory set of twenty-second previews from a half-dozen students, a twelfth grader gave a lesson on the history of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). However, this tutorial found its pedagogical power in autobiography. These xenos, many of them undocumented, courageously shared stories about journeying north and, once here, enduring painful deportations of family members. They confessed fears and ongoing struggles to pay attention in class and follow through with homework assignments. One ninth grader told of his battle with depression.
These heavenly educators offered the mic to teachers who relayed their own stories of growing up in immigrant families in Detroit. One young social science teacher, about to complete her second year in the classroom, explained that she is a DACA recipient herself, defying the odds by graduating from college and getting a teaching job at an area high school. An elementary school teacher shared the story of one of his second-graders whose father was detained and deported the week prior. The special needs student, who does not speak Spanish fluently, will be moving to Mexico with his mother and siblings on Tuesday.
An eleventh grader named Oscar testified that he was born in Guatemala and, when he was four years old, his mother left home and traveled north into the United States to find work. He and his brother lived with his grandparents and eventually moved north to the U.S. because “Guatemala is not a safe place to live.” In 2015, Oscar’s family hired a coyote and he was caught with two other teens crossing the border. He was allowed to stay in the U.S., but is required to consistently report to the court. He works to help his family financially and fears that when he goes to court next month, they will deny his status and deport him.
I confess: as I listened, my mind drifted to a former student of mine. His name was also Oscar. He was in my suburban Southern California classroom a half dozen years ago. Oscar attended class every day and actively participated in discussions with a litany of curious questions. He earned an “A” both semesters. He often joined me and a few other students in the weight room during lunch. We were a motley crew of flexing, sweating, half-clothed fools. Oscar’s only “problem” (as far as I could tell) was that he was born in the “wrong country” (Peru) and then came to the US illegally with his mother a decade previously. Today, his Facebook wall displays photos of his wife and four-year-old daughter.
Back then, the politician who was supposed to be representing Oscar and I was the wealthiest member of Congress, reportedly worth $460 million. Before he was elected in 2000, he started a business called Directed Electronics Incorporated, the eventual maker of the Viper car alarm which has a recording of the Congressman’s voice declaring, “Warning: you are too close, this vehicle is protected by Viper.” Stranger Danger. His immigration policies, painfully detailed under the “Fighting Terrorism” link on his website, tragically mirror his famous product—strong-armed, fear-based and expensive arrangements that portray anyone who comes near as the enemy. Instead of christos and angelos, these xenos are categorized with al Qaeda. Blasphemy.
Back in Detroit, to conclude the teach-in, an undocumented and unafraid student mic-dropped a reading of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise:”
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
When Jesus posterized his Gospel, he placed a small child front and center: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. It was a call to take on a more humble status and posture. It was also a timeless reminder of just how precious, vulnerable and sacred our young people are.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear…Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear…I rise…I rise…I rise.
In the face of ICE raids and Congressional cowardice, educators in Detroit have incarnated a pedagogy of the oppressed, stepping down from their daily perch and becoming students themselves. Something invisible and indestructible was simmering around us that afternoon, as the voiceless were given a platform to become a voice for themselves and their families and their neighbors. Our hearts burned because, deep down, we knew we weren’t alone. All the while, an audience of heavenly beings, from floor to rafters, were whooping and hollering, pumping fists and dancing in subversive jubilee.