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For one year I worked as a volunteer at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis, MN. I was doing graduate work in the field of Pastoral Care so I volunteered as a chaplain. The Cristo Rey network of high schools focuses on helping young people from economically poor neighborhoods get to college. I remember my first day, walking into the school and seeing the students for the first time. Here I was, this white Scandinavian male surrounded by Latino, Latina, African, and African American young people. I was anxious; I was afraid. “Why should they care what I think or say?” I thought to myself. At first, they were indifferent to me. Slowly, over time, I began striking up conversation. We started talking about music and sports; I helped some of them with their homework. One day I saw a group of them looking out the window. They were looking at a new billboard telling everyone the world was about to end. They asked me what it meant, so I tried my best to explain some crazy version of Christianity to students, the majority of whom were Muslims. When I finished, they rolled their eyes and walked away.
The most impactful experience of my time at Cristo Rey was my time spent with Muhammed. Muhammed is a tall, skinny, Somali kid who told me he wanted to play in the NBA. The problem?—Muhammed was failing his classes. For a good portion of the year Muhammed and I would meet to work on everything from geography, to biology, to religion, and history. I usually brought M & M’s because that’s what he liked. Most of the time we got off on other topics—family, sports and religion. Muhammed liked to talk about Islam. He attended mosque regularly, and would tell me about everything he was learning. He would ask me about my Christian beliefs, which would usually leave him shaking his head in wonder. I helped Muhammed pass his classes, and at the end of the school year my internship was over. Saying goodbye to Muhammed and the other students at Cristo Rey was hard. I snapped some pictures with them, said my goodbyes, and left truly changed. Sure, I may have helped some kids pass a class or learn a concept, but they helped open me up to different cultures and a different religion. I was the stranger, and they welcomed me with open arms.
My time at Cristo Rey showed me that young people are more than just an abstract concept. Their lives cannot be reduced to labels like “immigrant” or “illegal”. They have hopes and dreams and families who would do anything for them to have a good life. They want to go to college, raise families, and run businesses. Some of them may even want to play in the NBA. Moving back to Northwest Iowa, I live in the heart of a community that has become much more diverse. People have come to Sioux Center from Mexico and Central America to find work in the agricultural sector of our economy. They are my neighbors (literally) and an important part of our town’s life. The politics of immigration, DACA, and “building a wall” are also part of my community. It’s a politics based upon fear—a fear of change and a fear of those who are different. It comes from a political discourse that reduces real people to thin concepts and labels. It’s important to recognize, however, that this issue goes beyond partisan politics. This isn’t a republican or democrat issue because, as a Christian, I believe it’s a kingdom of God issue. These are real people with hopes and dreams, and as such they should not be treated as pawns in a political game.
Most of the people who live in my community are good people. Deep down they know the people they encounter are much more than political or cultural labels. Not that long ago our families were immigrants coming to this part of the world to get a fresh start. Which is why, despite all the political rancor, I’m hopeful that a solution will be reached on DACA. I’m hopefully that whatever our political affiliation we can come together on this issue. I’m hopefully that the ugly fear mongering will be drowned out by those who quietly (and not so quietly) choose to love their neighbor, embrace difference, and welcome the stranger into their midst.
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25: 40
(This blog first appeared in the The N’West Iowa REVIEW.)