Hard Plans Changing a Hard Heart: Empathy for immigrants fearing deportation

When I worked as a lobbyist, I dealt with no issue more wrapped up in emotion and anxiety than immigration. It was the only one I ever had people call and scream at me about, it was the only one that tested my personal relationships, it was the only one that made me feel attacked and betrayed.

But it was also the only issue to really change something in my heart.

Having come from a conservative background, there was something in me that was wary of the immigration question – not opposed, exactly, to immigrants or immigration, but cautious, skeptical, reluctant. Soon after diving into the issue, however, my heart was changed. It was changed by the warmth of the immigrants I encountered and by their anxiety too; it was changed by their stories, their hopes, and their fears.

It was also changed by their plans.

There is nothing from that immigrant-advocacy period of my life that has stuck with me more than the memory of undocumented immigrants making contingency plans for their own arrest, imprisonment, and deportation. . .

(Read the rest at the Catholic Review.)

The Space Between - Hard Plans Changing a Hard Heart

~~~

Interested in coming along with me as I share stories about my family and chew on the topics of motherhood, politics, and society? Like These Walls on Facebook or follow the blog via email. (Click the link on the sidebar to the right.) You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram and you can find me at my politics blog at the Catholic Review, called The Space Between.

Opening That Window To The World

One day this summer, my boys rediscovered the sprinkler in their grandma’s garden. I walked into the backyard to find them sopping wet, grinning from ear to ear. Even over their whooping and hollering, I could hear water sloshing in their rain boots.

It was a beautiful afternoon, unseasonably cool for the end of July, so I sat down on a nearby lawn chair and plopped the baby onto my lap. Together we watched his older brothers race back and forth through the spray.

20140731_161030

20140731_161038

The whole scene was just about a cliché of summer: the grass and trees were a beautiful, lush green; the children played happily under the warm late-day sun; the water droplets glowed gold as they fell through the air. At one point I laid the baby down so I could pull boots and soaking-wet socks off his brothers’ feet. The baby lay there in the grass and stared up at the leaves and the sky. It was positively idyllic.

20140731_163142

An hour later we were back inside the house with the television turned to the evening news. The program opened with a report on the fighting in Gaza: footage of destroyed buildings, mostly. My four-year-old, who normally begs me to change the channel on the rare occasions that I turn on televised news, was captivated. He wanted to understand what was going on.

I tried to explain, as gently as possible, about fighting in another part of the world, which breaks buildings and hurts people. But soon enough footage of crying, injured children popped onto the screen and I scrambled to the remote to change the channel as quickly as I could. I didn’t want those images stuck in my boys’ minds.

My boys are still small – just four and almost-three – so they understand little of how the world is organized, let alone its potential for conflict. We’ve taught them their town and they know the name of our state, even if they don’t understand what a state is. They recognize the American flag, but probably wouldn’t be able to tell you what country we live in. In fact, they’d probably say something like, “Merican Fwag!”

They know we’re Catholic, though that probably doesn’t mean much more to them than that we attend church on Sundays, where we have to be really quiet because we’re there to pray to God and thank him for the good things in our lives. They have no inkling that many worship God in other ways, that others don’t worship Him at all, and that some people use God as an excuse to hurt one another.

We’ve talked about death. Indeed, the concept has so intrigued my four-year-old that he routinely asks, “If I do diss, could I die?” (Doing “diss” can apply to any number of daring/stupid things, such as jumping off the third-floor landing.) If you mention Jesus to him, the first (and probably only) thing he’ll say about Him is, “Jesus died on da sign of da cwoss!”

I think it’s important for all people to be aware of major events happening in other parts of the world. I think it’s important to be empathetic towards those who suffer and to be engaged in trying to alleviate suffering. I think it’s important to make your voice heard on issues of consequence.

I want to raise my children to do all of these things.

I want my children to pay attention to the news, to think critically about the information they’re given, to care about those who hurt, to pray and act towards just resolutions.

But right now they’re little, and at least one of them is very sensitive to all things scary. (Seriously, he has on more than one occasion been brought to tears because “Dat bad man!” stole Elmo’s blankie in a silly little Sesame Street movie.) Right now their nightmares center on monsters and shadows and “sary wobots.” I’d like to keep it that way as long as possible.

So how do I begin to break it to them that so many people around the world don’t enjoy the comfort and security we do? How do I make others’ experiences seem relevant to our lives? How do I inform them without scaring them?

I don’t really know. So far, they listen to NPR with me, though I’m sure they don’t pay attention to or understand most of what they hear. When they ask questions, I answer them. And on the rare occasions that I notice relevant, teachable moments in the daily experiences of preschoolers, I try to take advantage of them. Maybe I’ll try to watch televised news with them more often, but only if I’m prepared to make that scramble for the remote.

More experienced parents (and more thoughtful people, parents and non-parents alike), I’d love to hear from you: How much of the world’s suffering do you let into your children’s lives? At what age do you start? How do you inform your children about conflict, war, terrorism, and other scary things without making them feel unsafe? Does there come an age when “feeling safe” is no longer your goal?

I would love to hear from you! Please share your experience/insight/expertise/best guess in the comments. I could use them! Many thanks in advance.

Full Disclosure

As I plan to write about some political and religious issues on this blog, I thought it would be useful to provide a little background on the evolution of my outlook in these areas. (I have all these country songs running through my head as I write this: “Where I Come From,” “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you,” etc.)

I thought this little ‘disclosure of my biases,’ as I think of it, would be useful for a few reasons: (1) Political and religious subjects can be pretty touchy. (No surprise there.) (2) Our opinions on them usually have a strong basis in our own life experiences. (3) I aim to be as fair, open, and even-handed on this blog as I can be. And (4) I personally prefer news and commentary sources that either (a) represent both sides of an issue equally well or (b) openly disclose their opinions and make no pretense of impartiality. So I kind of thought I’d cover all my bases.

But before I go any further, let me say that this post makes me nervous and I had a hard time writing it. (Which is part of the reason I wrote so few posts this past week. I was trying to take this one in a different direction and it stumped me.) The words below represent my past and my thought processes and my faith, family, and friends, and it’s all very personal. It’s also probably a big ol’ case of TMI. But I felt like I needed to get all this out there before I proceed with a bunch of other posts I have lined up in my head.

So…

I was raised Catholic in that I regularly attended mass with my mother and I was provided with a religious education through our parish. But my father is not Catholic and there was little mention of faith in our (very happy) home. These days when I read blogs that mention a devotion to this saint, or a fondness for that novena, or a special attachment to such-and-such prayer, or a thousand little ways to live out the liturgical seasons, I feel kind of lost. Like I don’t fully fit into a community that should be my own. Yes, I’m Catholic. Yes, I love Christ, I am devoted to His Church, and faithful to its teachings. But no, I’m not familiar with all the trappings of my Faith.

While there wasn’t much discussion of religion in my family, there was a lot about politics. My grandfather was a local elected official, so I was exposed to campaigns and political chatter from a young age. Various family members worked on Granddad’s campaigns and we all helped on Election Day (which was just about my favorite day of the year when I was a child). My family was (and remains) very Republican in a very Democratic state, so I was instilled with a strong attachment to conservative ideals, but no illusion that these ideals were universal. (Rather, I understood that they were uncommon and needed to be defended.)

In my (public) high school I had a great group of smart, articulate, and religiously/politically diverse friends. And we liked a good debate. As the sole practicing Catholic and one of the only conservatives, I became the defender of all things Catholic and some things conservative. Just as my family’s experience as members of a minority party had prodded my attachment to conservatism, so my lunch-table debate experience bonded me to my Faith. Not that I understood it very well: eight years of Sunday school and one year of confirmation class do not a well-informed Catholic make. But my own little role as Defender of the Faith prompted me to research, ask questions, contemplate, and pray.

This all set the stage nicely for my next step: a political science major at a Catholic college. More lunch table discussions, this time with classmates and seminarians who had been raised in devoutly Catholic families, gave me glimpses of the depth and beauty awaiting me in the Church. Philosophy and theology classes helped me to better understand it. And my political science courses, not to mention informal discussions with friends and professors, gave me an appreciation for the broader context in which we live out our religious ideals. I had always been interested in the convergence of differing ideas; in college I became particularly interested in the convergence of politics and religion.

I wrote my senior thesis on “The American Catholic and the Two Political Parties,” which explored the poor fit between the Church’s teachings on matters of public policy and the ideological break-out of today’s American political parties. I also completed an internship with a Catholic organization that advocated on behalf of the Church’s public policy interests. Several years later, after a stint with the federal government, I returned to the organization to work as a lobbyist for the Church.

There, I was tasked with representing the Church’s positions on social justice matters, which included a wide range of issues related to poverty, housing, health care, and immigration. (Along with a few others.) Most of the positions were what Americans would call “liberal.” Which was a real challenge for me. Coming from a conservative background, I was comfortable with the Church’s teachings on abortion and marriage. I was comfortable promoting school choice. But the Church’s social justice teachings made me uncomfortable. I didn’t necessarily think they were wrong; it’s just that they challenged the political ideals under which I was raised and so they caused discomfort.

Oh, what a learning and growing experience it was for me. I read and I talked to people and I prayed.  I began to gain something of an understanding of people who faced challenges that I never had – people who struggled to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads, people who came to this country seeking a better life, people whose poor health or poor treatment by others or whose own poor decisions had stymied their chances of making it on their own – and even people who struggled to be able to function in society at all. I was changed and I was humbled.

I was grateful for the opportunity to give voice to these people’s concerns – and also for what I felt was an opportunity to bring people closer to Christ through this work of His Church. I feel like a cheesy ball of mush writing this, but I had so many moving experiences doing this work: I huddled in a group of elderly immigrant women and tried to convey to them (through our language barrier) that their Church was there for them. I spoke to crowds at parishes and pleaded with them to connect their own preferred cause for the “least of these” with another that was more challenging for them. I testified before lawmakers and told them, time and again, that all human life has value, regardless of its age or station.

Perhaps I have digressed. What I’m trying to explain is that, yes, I come from a particular place on the political spectrum. I get the conservative thing. But I have also been emerged in an unfamiliar (liberal) political territory, and I got to know it too. I feel richer for the experience.

When I was a lobbyist, I found that I could lobby more effectively when I put myself in the shoes of my opponents – imagining and even empathizing with their motivations. I think the same holds true when you’re discussing a difficult subject. All too often these days, people seem to regard consideration of and empathy with “the other side” as a sign of weakness, even foolishness. But it is such an asset. Sure, it helps you to build a solid case for your own cause. But more importantly, it helps you to explore your own opinions and motivations and be sure that you’re on the right course.

When you get together a group of people who all bring this kind of consideration to their conversation – well, that kind of discussion moves everyone forward in understanding. That is what I feel my background has prepared me for and that is what I hope to encourage with this blog.