“What do we need for Wednesday?” I text Jimena.
Wednesday is the day we meet to discuss the needs of the local immigrant community, when men and women come to pick up food cards and when I usually give her cash to help specific families with rent, utilities, medical bills, burial costs, and other needs. Maybe this coming Wednesday we’ll talk about a list of Christmas gifts for the children, as we did last year. We used to meet on a street corner, but now visit together with other men and women in her front porch. It will be dark now so she’ll bring in some light, and when it gets very cold, heat. I’ll know to dress warm.
“Just food cards,” she texted back this morning without specifying cash. I don’t mind, I try to keep a cash balance in the account. I’ll hear a lot more about cash needs as the winter progresses and the farms shut down. Meantime, local churches donate turkeys and Thanksgiving meals for the upcoming holiday. I’m happy to let them do their thing, knowing what’s ahead for the winter.
I walked the dogs on our road slowly this morning and noticed the sign that we’ve had by our driveway for four years. That’s when ICE began making raids on illegal immigrants here. Telephones would ring, word would spread fast, and people stayed home, afraid to go to work, take their children to school, or shop for food. Stories proliferated of men and women going to the store for something, getting caught in the dragnet and not coming home. Some still not home, even now.
That’s when signs like these proliferated in our area; I can’t recall how we got this one, I assume I bought it. Not much different from Black Lives Matter signs that also dot our streets.
Now other signs have come up. Three houses away a sign was erected honoring Jesus Christ as our savior. Some signs say America the Beautiful, which I, living where I am, have no issue with only I’m told they stand for a message I may not agree with.
Am I participating in a partisan battle here, I wondered, contemplating the sign? Four years ago, I saw it as one way of countering Donald Trump’s harangues of hate and bias. And now?
A friend and strong participant in a politically active local group told me that the group wished to persuade the local town council to adopt a declaration indicating that the town sits on land stolen by European settlers from a native tribe many years ago. “But we withdrew our proposal,” he said.
“We asked local people who identify as Native Americans what they thought about it, and they didn’t want it.”
This was news to me. I can’t get onto a Zoom workshop or class lately without participants identifying where they live by the name of the tribe that once owned that land.
“What did they want?” I asked.
“Relationship,” he said.
After the murder of George Floyd, practically every group I knew made sure to insert a paragraph in their website, preferably on the home page, testifying to how they don’t discriminate against anyone. If words mattered that much, this country would be free of racism by the weekend. Relationship? That’s another thing entirely.
I stared at my sign for a long time. I hadn’t actually done anything till early April of 2020, when the pandemic pushed me to help families who had no money for food on the table. I started learning Spanish, wanted to talk with them. That was three years after putting up the sign.
Words have an effect, but they’re so easy to say, so easy to buy a sign, plant it in the yard, and feel good about yourself. Did even one immigrant family care whether or not I put up that sign? Did it help in any real way, or was it just a declaration of my feelings on the subject, which, as we all know, is crucial to the universe’s existence? And when others counteract with their signs, their bumper stickers and flags, what has this display of one-upmanship done other than reinforce our concerns of deep partisan divide, of us vs. them?
I need to reflect about this.
At the same time, I have some strong feelings about religious signs. I wish they’d go away. I can’t help the trepidation; it may come from my Jewish upbringing, and specifically the acknowledged fact of how much Church-sponsored antisemitism contributed to the Holocaust. I feel better when people keep God to themselves.
When daylight ends early and the long nights begin, a neighbor down the road has lit up a large crucifix in red lights by his barn. It’s visible from far away, just as one enters my town from the south. I never feel welcomed by it. Instead, its size and red bulbs are for me an assertion rather than an invitation, a statement about the right path, the right religion, the right God.
I’m a great admirer of Christ, but I can’t help wondering what he’d think of all these signs that say that nothing is possible without him. A friend who many years ago founded perhaps the first American interfaith organization garnering religious support for the environment told me this story:
He’d worked for years to enroll leaders of the Christian evangelical movement in efforts to redefine our relationship to the earth and its creatures. Finally, he succeeded in getting the heads of that movement to the table. He made his presentation, there was a break, and in the break one of those well-known leaders took him aside and said: “Paul, that’s all very impressive, but I have one question for you: Do you take Christ as your savior?”
Our relationship with the absolute, or God, goes deep and wide; it’s so easy to fall into idolatry and self-aggrandizement. Again and again, the words that come up for me here are: Be quiet and listen.
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