Fairfield Now - Winter 2009
Strangers As Neighbors
By Carolyn Arnold
The Center for Faith and Public Life presented its work to other groups interested in the immigration issue at the Carnegie Corporation in New York in June. Angela Ferguson of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City and Jenny Hwang from World Refuge have time to reflect.
According to the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God told Abraham to leave his homeland and go and seek a land of plenty that had been promised to him and his descendents. In effect, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, left their native soil for a new life in a strange land - an experience they share with millions of people today who migrate from their homelands in search of a better life.
The subject of immigration and the way that we talk about migrant populations that enter the United States has occupied many people across the nation in recent years and has been a fractious subject on the national political scene.
How the thorny issues surrounding immigration are resolved will depend very much on how the issue is framed, and what kinds of metaphors and cultural myths come to dominate the discussion. Depending on social, geographic, and political factors, immigrants may be welcomed as neighbors, ignored as irrelevant, or instead, viewed as a threat to the status quo that needs to be resisted.
As a way to begin reframing the language of the immigration issue, Fairfield University through its Center for Faith and Public Life, has launched an initiative entitled, "Strangers as Neighbors: Religious Language and the Response to Immigrants in the U.S."
Ultimately the project intends to illustrate how religious language - language that is shared to some degree by all major religious traditions - can shape the national discourse and contribute to the transformation of the highly polarized immigration debate.
Co-director of the project, the Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., professor of sociology and director of the Center for Faith and Public Life, said that the need for this conversation to take place was vitally important.
"The national debate has become so polarized and coarse that if it continues in that direction, it's going to create even more tension within the United States," he said.
University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., addresses the participants.
Fr. Ryscavage is a nationally known expert on migration and refugees and is the former national director of the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.
The Rev. Rick Ryscavage, S.J., speaks
at the conference.
Co-directing the project is Dr. Jocelyn Boryczka, assistant professor of politics and director of Peace and Justice Studies. "This project goes beyond the politics of the day to consider how faith communities and their engagement with immigration deeply shape American political discourse. This can offer a powerful means for determining how to move forward as a nation in the future."
The key to "Strangers as Neighbors" is for the faith communities to agree on common language for speaking about migration, drawing upon some of the shared sensibilities of religious language - words like "neighbor," "brother," "sister," "pilgrim," and similar concepts that have a more nuanced and welcoming connotation than "migrant" or "newcomer" - then to disseminate that common language across different faith communities.
The hope is that by creating a shared language that is more welcoming these faith communities can work as a dynamic alliance, with the goal of ending the stalemate on immigration law and policy.
Fairfield University received a planning grant of $49,200 from Carnegie Corporation of New York to develop the project.
In November 2008, the kick-off meeting which was held in Washington, D.C., and attended by scholars, advocates, religious leaders, and journalists from around the United States, asked the thought-provoking question: "How can faith groups, acting in concert, reframe the language of the national debate on immigration?"
Participants in the dialogues included Jewish, Islamic, and Christian leaders, as well as scholars and public policy leaders.
The project is a timely one, as the immigration issue is likely to be addressed by U.S. President Barack Obama soon.
Fr. Ryscavage said, "We don't know what the new administration will do. But President Obama said he would propose reform legislation, probably in the New Year. When that happens, I anticipate there will be a huge negative reaction."
From left to right: The Rev. Stephen John Thurston, president, National Baptist Convention of America, Inc; Fr. Ryscavage; Rabbi Morris Allen, project director, Beth Jacob Congregation; the Rev. Dr. David Benke President Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Atlantic District; the Rev. Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins, executive director, TARGET Area DevCorp; Most Reverend Thomas Wenski, Bishop, Catholic Diocese of Orlando; Fr. von Arx, S.J.; Dr. Jocelyn Boryczka of Fairfield; Rami Nashashibi, executive director, Inner-city Muslim Action Network; and the Rev. Gabriel A. Salguero, director, The Hispanic Leadership Program, Princeton Theological Seminary.
Following the kick-off meeting in Washington the project leaders brought together over 100 participants from various academic disciplines and faith communities around the United States to discuss immigration. In all, five seminars were held in Washington D.C., New York, and Connecticut.
"It was really excellent because it was a good intellectual exchange among people from very different faith traditions," Fr. Ryscavage said of the seminars. "It also pointed out to me the commonalities with the different religious traditions."
Several themes become apparent from the seminars, such as how religious language has changed national issues in the past (for example, the Civil Rights movement). Participants discussed and studied those movements and why there were so effective.
Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration reform group America's Voice, delivers a passionate speech.
The use of religious symbols as they relate to immigration also appeared as a common theme during the seminars. Stories and scripture about the Good Samaritan, the shared understanding of the tradition of religious pilgrimage, a shared tradition of the importance of taking care of the stranger and, of course, the story of Abraham, surfaced as themes related to immigration. Recognizing these symbols at the root of each of the Abrahamic traditions will, accordingly, "help create more empathy for the person who is migrating," Fr. Ryscavage suggested.
Is it possible to change the national discourse on immigration? According to the project, if approached through the language of faith, even for those who disagree on immigration policy, a more compassionate approach will be possible.
"Even those who are harshly anti-immigrant would have to temper that in light of their religious beliefs," Fr. Ryscavage reasoned.
The long-term plan for the "Strangers as Neighbors'" project includes high-profile televised town hall meetings. Both national and regional forums are being considered, because of strong regional differences in how people approach immigration. Discussions about future funding are in process to realize these goals.
Currently, Fr. Ryscavage and Dr. Boryczka are compiling the findings of the seminars, which will be published and distributed to those who participated in the leadership conferences as well as others interested in the debate. Both have been invited to present the project at the International Conference on Migration in Mexico City that will take place in November 2009. This fall, Dr. Boryczka presented the work of the project at the American Political Science Association in Canada.