By Bill Mefford
Whenever the people of God were facing impossible obstacles in the pages of Scripture, which it seemed was a lot of the time; God would always remind them of who they were, where they came from, and how God had delivered them in the past. This was God’s basic motivational speech. Likewise, as I look at 2017, which is finally upon us, and the incoming trump administration, which is planning enormous damage on especially the most vulnerable people among us, I find that in order to move forward I have to look back to remember who we are and what we can do.
I find myself thinking back to the early fall of 2007 when I was in Iowa as more than 35 people were running for president and where the rhetoric around the issue of immigration had become toxic. I remember talking with an amazing woman, Doris Knight, a grandmother, a member of an amazing church called Trinity/Las Americas United Methodist Church, and the site director for the Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), an incredible ministry offering free legal help to low-income immigrants. Doris was upset about the rancor of the campaigns and wanted to do something about it. We talked about how faith people should be more coordinated in making their voices heard and so we decided to do a petition signed by Iowa people of faith that recognized the basic dignity of immigrants as well as their contributions that they made to Iowa and the entire country.
After several calls with Iowa faith leaders (though it should be said that “faith leaders” was not reserved for people with titles – a leader is someone who get things done and can mobilize people!), an agreement on petition language, and thanks to the leadership of the Iowa Interfaith Alliance for housing the petition, we started collecting signatures in November of 2007. I spent a week in Iowa, but there is no question that the over 3,000 signatures we ended up with was the result of the hard work and tenacity of the local faith communities who believed immigrants are our sisters and brothers and should not be demonized by people running for the highest office in the country.
You know? The petition worked! During the delivery of the petition to all of the candidate offices a group of folks were able to meet with then-Senator Obama and with his campaign staff. The staff agreed to change the wording in his speeches and his literature in referring to immigrants from “illegal” to “undocumented.” As far as I know, Obama has never used “illegal” since that time. For a brief time at least, the story when it came to immigration was not about the candidates promising tougher borders and increased deportations, it was about the people of faith in Iowa who valued the presence and contributions of immigrants and wanted a more welcoming state and nation.
I also remember in January of 2015 Senator Grassley (R-IA), who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, standing on the Senate floor and declaring he would not support any legislation that would lessen the sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Even in the face of a bloated, racist, and ever-expansive incarceration rate, Grassley pledged not to yield. Well, people of faith in Iowa didn’t agree with Grassley and they decided to let him know (man, I LOVE Iowa!). Nearly 130 Iowa clergy wrote a letter to Senator Grassley urging him to allow sentencing reform legislation to pass through his committee. That was followed by an op-ed in the Des Moines Register signed by three Iowa Bishops, urging the same thing, which was then followed by an editorial also in the Des Moines Register urging Senator Grassley to follow the advice of the clergy in his state.
There was even more activity, including opportunities for all Iowans to call and use social media to urge Senator Grassley to allow the legislation to proceed and a conference call between Senator Grassley himself and some of the Iowa clergy leaders so that Grassley could hear directly from them as they articulated why sentencing reform would be good for Iowans and the entire country.
You know what? It worked! Though Senator Grassley began 2015 dead-set against sentencing reform legislation, by May he gathered together six other Senate offices to work together on a bipartisan sentencing reform bill. By October of that same year, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, spearheaded by Senator Grassley, had passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In less than a year, Iowa faith leaders had flipped the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Amazing.
But not everything cool happened only in Iowa! I remember in 2014 the faith community in Washington State rallying together with allies to fend off an enormous influx of money from the NRA to pass, by voter referendum, universal background checks on every single gun purchase. Nothing like this had ever happened before in a state referendum.
I remember literally hundreds of people of faith flocking to Washington DC in 2014, on their own dime, to participate in civil disobedience in front of the White House to stop President Obama from continuing to deport undocumented immigrants. Shortly after this he implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals!
Honestly, there are so many things to remind myself of, to be inspired by, to be motivated to never give up. Yeah, the Electoral College just put into the presidency the most uninformed, racist, misogynist, serial lying, narcissist we have ever seen. Yeah, the new groper-in-chief has put into place perhaps one of the worst cabinets in history who are more committed to stopping their departments than in guiding or leading them. And yeah, he is working with a Republican Congress who just yesterday decided they didn’t want to be bothered with a thing called “ethics.” I guess they are just following the moral and ethical example of their new boss. Yep, things look bleak.
But then I remember the power of us working together, me and you and so many others who share our passions and priorities. And the resolve rises up within me. I think of the people who are going to be directly impacted, people like DREAMers who are refusing to back down to trump’s nativism and who are planning marches against trump all across the country on January 14. And I am resolved to march with them. I think of the faith communities who have declared sanctuary and the many more who are pledging to provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants no matter what ICE or other law enforcement may do. And I am resolved to offer my home in sanctuary as well. I think of the Black Lives Matter movement who have powerfully responded to all of the incidents of police brutality with creativity and with poise and I am resolved to continue to confront racism, no matter how subtle, no matter how insidious it may be. I think of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock who have an initial victory in stopping the building the pipeline on sacred land, but who have vowed to remain even through the harsh winter so that the land and water can stay safe and sacred, and I am resolved to not to forget nor to allow the media to forget that their movement is real.
We will have a difficult year this year. We will lose some battles. But we will fight strong and hard as long as we fight together. It is the actions of our sisters and brothers who are passionate about justice that maintains our resolve. We feed off of one another’s passion. So, let’s do that this year. Let’s encourage one another, let’s communicate, let’s find joy and humor when and where we can, but let’s fight like hell for justice.
As we begin 2017, because of who I stand with and who has walked this road before me, like never before in my life, I am resolved to RESIST.