In case you hadn’t heard, I recently began serving as youth ministry coordinator at Reedwood Friends Church in Southeast Portland. While I miss my people in Newberg, a lot of perks come with living in Portland, one of my favorites being the diverse lectures and events I can attend. If I didn’t have to work, I would be going to lectures and gatherings and learning and reading all the time. This past Friday, I had the privilege of hearing Harsha Walia, a Canadian woman from Bahrain, who is one of the founders of No One Is Illegal and the recent author of the book Undoing Border Imperialism.
One of the most compelling aspects of Walia’s work is that she seeks to understand issues of justice and immigration from the perspective of First Nations’ people. To First Nations people, the idea of “illegal immigration” takes on a whole new meaning. To First Nations people, the first “illegal” immigrants were the European settlers who took Turtle Island. Though none of us today are guilty of the crime of taking that land, we certainly still benefit from it, as much as First Nations people struggle because of it. In this sense, our nation is a lot more like South Africa than we’d probably like to admit.
Think about it this way: In the 1950s many of the British and French finally departed from Africa as many African nations claimed their independence—but in the United States, European settlers never left, and indigenous people here have never reclaimed their land and sovereignty. That’s why I say we’re more like South Africa than we’d like to admit; yes, it’s not a perfect parallel and we’re different. But just as the British stayed on South African land and enforced their political and cultural and religious systems, so European settlers have remained on this land and have held Turtle Island under our rules.
This feels like quite a hard pill to swallow, and it is—we have a painful history in the United States. Just ask the people living on reservations. But I don’t think it needs to be a place of despair, and it’s especially not a time to wallow in guilt. What can we do? I don’t have any easy or neat solution, and I certainly don’t have in mind any particular political system. What I am proposing is that we build the kingdom of God by listening to and learning from oppressed people.
At youth group this past weekend at Reedwood, a student noted that one of the reasons we often remain divided is not because we don’t like the other people, but because we naturally go to our traditional group of friends. We fellowship with those we know the best, not because we don’t like other people, but because we just like our group a whole lot. Going alongside that, Harsha Walia noted that most borders in the world are not natural, but imaginary. If you look at maps, borders change over time and will continue to do so. The impermanence of these borders proves how arbitrary they are, and how silly our grasping of them is.
In my best understanding of the Scripture (I have been wrong a lot before), an important part of Jesus’ mission was collapsing imaginary borders and including everyone is his kingdom. Perhaps the most obvious example of this was collapsing the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. I tend to think that borders and property lines are more of a Western idea than a Christian idea, especially when I look at how the early church shared everything they had.
When I think about the walls that remain between European-Americans and First Nations people, I know they are very real. But I also think they are imaginary in the way one of my students noted: “We don’t hang out with Native folks or undocumented immigrants because we think they are evil; a lot of it is that we are often so engaged in our own groups, we forget about other folks.” Historically, the United States has made it so First Nations and other immigrants of color are shoved out of sight, called evil. I don’t think many people, especially among Friends, would claim that anymore, but I know most of us are disconnected from Native folks and other people of color because of it. Despite our awareness, oppressed people are still alive, well, and speaking. I once heard Shawn, a Kalapuya woman, say, “When I was at U of O, a professor tried to say the Kalapuya people are gone. But I am Kalapuya, and I am still alive.”
Perhaps it seems overwhelming to consider what you might do to change a world that has so neglected and oppressed people of color. But I do believe what Jesus said—that even the faith of a mustard seed can move mountains. It’s not about us fixing the problem or enacting a particular political system—it’s about relationship. For me, this has meant being a part of the sweat lodge at Eloheh Farm, a First Nations ministry right here in Newberg, and learning from people of color. Some are among my best friends. As my Najavo friend recently said—“It’s about getting to know your community and just showing up.” As I read Scripture, I am pretty sure Jesus is powerful enough to take care of changing the world. God can collapse walls. We just need to show up where walls harass love and unity.