On Not Knowing the Language: Interfaith Work on Immigration Justice

Love is the only reality and it is not a mere sentiment.  It is the ultimate truth that lies at the heart of creation.  Rabindranth Tagore

A few months ago, I sat in a room with 35 other people.  Men, women.  Older people, middle-aged adults, young adults, a smattering of children.  We sat together so that we made two rectangles around a conference table, one inside the other.  After a prayer, the meeting started with each person introducing him or herself.   It was an interfaith meeting about immigration justice, so it made sense that when each person said their name, they also spoke of their faith identity.

What was notable for me – one of two Anglos in the room and the only one whose Spanish is wholly inadequate — was that as each person said their name and what church or faith was theirs, they also said not only where they lived, but where they were from: Guatemala, the DR, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Salvador.  I wondered when it was my turn what I would say. When it was my turn, I kept it short and sweet, “Me llamo Karen de Northampton.  Soy Unitarian Universalist.


The Spanish I know I learned primarily from a bevy of 2 ½ year old Puerto Rican (mostly) children and their kind parents who, over the years, would let me through the threshold of their home as a home visitor.  Of the Latino families I served during those years, most were Puerto Rican.  Though these families faced many challenges – poverty, discrimination, ignorance (I would hear Anglo co-workers ask of these families, “When did you come to this country?”) – concerns about documentation were not among them.  Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States – sometimes treated as second class – but can move relatively freely between the mainland and the island.

I have also worked with Latino families who were from elsewhere, often Central America, often facing challenges related to their documentation status.  There was the young mother, originally from Guatemala, her family brought here by Quakers as part of the Sanctuary movement when she was a child.  She had married the father of her daughter, an American citizen.  He was abusive; her dependence on their marital status for her citizenship influenced her decision-making and jeopardized her safety.

There was the Salvadoran family.  After concerns that the mother left her toddler without sufficient supervision, the police were called.  As a supervisor in the family support program, I was also called in.   Instead of focusing on the well-being of the child, the police officer quickly honed in on clues that the mother, as well as the other adults in the apartment, were in this country without proper documentation.  He questioned the legitimacy of his tax dollars supporting program services to “illegals.”  It was a tense situation, one in which I stood up for the family’s right to services, but waivered about whether to remind him that his job as a city cop was not to enforce federal immigration laws.  I did not want to make it harder for this woman and her child.   After he left, we talked with the mother not only about choices regarding safe supervision of her toddler – this is an important part of culturally competent work, informing families of differences between their home country and this country — and what to expect from the police or child welfare authorities.


The interfaith immigration justice meeting took place in Spanish. If there had been anyone else there whose Spanish was as *good* as mine, the organizers would have had interpretation accessible to all.  Instead, the organizers were kind enough to assign me my own personal interpreter, an intern from one of the local universities.  I appreciated this not for the individualized service, but because it drew less attention to me.  I come from a background privileged in many ways: I am white-skinned; I am college-educated; I am married to a man; I speak the predominant language of this country for public communication.  It’s about time I sit in a room where I don’t understand everything that is being said, where I am not in charge, where I am out of my element.  If I am going to engage in immigration justice work, in interfaith engagement work, in cross-cultural relationship building, it’s probably one of the better places to start.

When I focused on the words, though I could catch individual words spoken, I mostly lost the overall message of what was being said by each speaker.  When I focused on the other 80% of communication (that non-verbal stuff), I found that I could – more or less — discern much of what my friendly interpreter summarized for me.

  • When the pony-tailed woman, a citizen of this country, spoke of how her husband, not a citizen, was taken away by the police during a traffic stop because he had no “papers,” her trembling voice, her hesitance, her intent gaze at each person who responded with advice: that told her story of helplessness and her appreciation for this mutual aid.
  •  The older woman, square-shouldered and good-humored, who made a statement that brought near-consensus murmurs from the others in the room: that told a story of leadership and earned respect.
  • The boyish-faced pastor in suit coat spoke with fervor and sharpness – I was not sure what he was saying, but I was pretty sure I didn’t like it.  When the interpreter summarized for me that the pastor questioned President Obama’s placing his hand on the Bible at the inauguration, given the values (read = gay rights) he professed, I knew I had understood correctly, even without comprehending the words.

This is the hard part of interfaith relationships.  The places that rub, that scrape, that bruise.  The choices to defer attention away from offensive statements or painful insinuations in order to accentuate common ground or progress towards a just goal.  It is hard when the relationships aren’t in place: when individuals are jockeying for position, are posturing for power, are unskilled in communicating across belief differences, are making assumptions about shared values that aren’t really there.  It is hard when there is no affection (yet) to soften the rough edge’s of any heart.  It is hard to do interfaith work without love.  It is hard to do interfaith work without relationships.

It can be hard when those relationships are there.  I attend an interfaith seminary.  I am not talking ecumenical with 32 flavors of Christianity.  I am talking a student body that is 30% Muslim.   During the course of my studies, I have become friends with an imam from another country.   We have carpooled together.  His family has been to my house where we broke bread together and they prayed in my living room.  We have used our hands, feet, facial expressions, and his smart-phone translator app to communicate with each other. His kids call me auntie.  I have attended Friday Jumaa prayers at his mosque; he has seen me preach.  Last Ramadan, he invited me to an interfaith iftar (breaking of the fast) and allowed me – a woman and a non-Muslim– to be the only guest to say a prayer to a room with Muslims, Catholic priests, Pentecostals, a Buddhist (my husband) and one UU (me).  It is a fruitful friendship that keeps renewing itself, both professionally and personally.

I know part of why I have been able to develop this relationship is because of the heterosexual privilege that my current marriage affords me.  This pains me spiritually because I find homophobia, even if (especially?) religiously endorsed, to be unacceptable; and it pains me personally, because I am bisexual and know that were I still together with my ex-partner, I would experience barriers to building interfaith relationships.

Over and over, I dare myself to use this heterosexual privilege wisely – not just to build interfaith ties, but in doing so, to build capacity and embody an explicit and loving of all humanity across the gender and sexuality continuums.  I know that my lesbian sisters, my gay brothers, my trans siblings would likely be able to do this more skillfully than I.  I know that they are often not even given the chance, the door never opened.  I understand that part of my responsibility is to be a bridge in the midst of this unjust context.

It is my hope and my intention at some point to tell my imam friend the larger story of my life.  At that time, our friendship will likely be tested.  I cannot predict the outcome.  I have Muslim seminarian friends who know and are cool with my whole life story; I have Muslim colleagues who, once they heard me come out in class, have become more aloof.  This is not a Muslim thing per se, for that very same dynamic has happened with conservative Christians at my seminary, too.  It is, however, often an interfaith thing, when we UUs (and religious liberals of all stripes) cross the gaping chasms that exist between our values and the values of others with a more conservative religious belief system.

My faith calls me to love and love again.  Perhaps your faith calls you to this as well, even if the word, “faith” isn’t something that sits well with you, even if that faith lets itself be known as secular longing or moral skepticism.   Each of us is called to love, even if it is not returned (yet), even if we’re not sure we know the language.

It is, I think, for all of us, a bold step into something unprovable but still utterly true: love is the ultimate reality and our only way through this messy world no matter where we come from or where we end up.  Over and over, life teaches me this lesson.

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