Being Neighbor in the Crisis of the Prevailing Paradigm: Accompanying Immigrants

Parque de Amistad, Tijuana, MX – photo by the author.

It has been a difficult week in my ministry, but an excruciating week for those I love who are vulnerable and targeted because they are alternately documented in this age of Trump. I live and work alongside of many of these people.  They are my neighbors.  This week they were subjected to unverified reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids at Chicago Transit Authority stops. Well intentioned people shared similar stories about experiences in collar communities and the same was true throughout the country, and business was down significantly in Little Village along 26th Street, Illinois’ second most profitable commercial district after the Magnificent Mile. Yes, many people stayed home in protest on Thursday’s Day Without Immigrants, and that strategy impacted businesses nationwide.

We cannot forget, however, that this week was marked by a terrorizing, existential fear for many. Someone I know well prayed through tears, “I am so afraid that my cell phone is going to ring and it’s going to be Daisy telling me that Mom or Dad didn’t come home.”[i]

To be fair, many immigrant advocacy communities across the country were decrying President Obama’s tactics and tallies, too, which I consider to be one of the most colossal failures of his tenure.[ii] It does not take sophisticated math to be able to see that the Executive Branch has been ratcheting up removals since 1996, the year of the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.  Jim McDermott, SJ had an important piece in America this week contextualizing the impact of that law on those who occupy the pews in the U.S. Catholic Church. I raise this for two reasons.

First, the experiences surrounding presidential authority and how we treat our neighbors can never be thought of in one way.  Through an Executive Order, President Obama established Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and gave many alternately documented persons brought to the United States by their parents a legal means of working and relaxed the fear of removal. This happened over and against his regressive removal policies.  Both affected the national dialogue and everyday experience of immigrants in this country.

The Trump Administration’s translation of campaign rhetoric that criminalizes immigrants into concrete policy action through EOs, while horrific, is also not new. It has historic antecedents that are important to understand if we are to engage what Pope Francis called the “crisis of the prevailing paradigm.”[iii] The Naturalization Act of 1790 confessed the original sin of racism limiting applicants to “free white persons.”  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the exploitation of labor under the Bracero Program are just a few moments in the fraught history at the intersection of immigration, culture, capital, and labor. The current administration did not invent xenophobia. It uses it to communicate falsely to every U.S. Catholic that the human being sitting down the pew from them is a threat to their personal safety and economic wellbeing.  These politics, Francis writes, lock in a “a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.”

Second, being committed to the common good requires us to get to know our neighbor, but we often do not have opportunities to do that. We have to acknowledge that an immigration system in this country built on xenophobia and fed by fear contributes to our inability to share stories with immigrants and even, perhaps, to come to know our own national immigrant history. While I am in daily contact with persons who live at the heart of the immigration bullseye, I am also aware that many well meaning and passionate Christians in the United States are not. We need to find better ways to allow these individuals to share their story especially at a time when there is increasing danger of speaking out.  I think that faith-based journalism like McDermott’s is an example.

I have to note that I feel a certain sense of apprehension about this. I know that the proximity to those experiencing this crisis can change minds and hearts, but right now their safety and security is the priority. We all need to think critically before we share news or stories or as we tell those stories because we run the risk of amplifying the fear in vulnerable communities or, even more egregiously,  “stealing [the] stuff” of immigrant sisters and brothers by appropriating their narratives.

We are called to be both responsible citizens and responsible Christians by caring about our neighbors, and we are called to do it responsibly. As Francis wrote to a group of community organizers this week, “Jesus teaches us a different path. Do not classify others in order to see who is a neighbor and who is not. You can become neighbor to whomever you meet in need, and you will do so if you have compassion in your heart. That is to say, if you have that capacity to suffer with someone else.”

Today’s readings provide us with an important clue about compassion, which Francis reminds us, originates from the Latin roots ‘to suffer with.’ Jesus begins by giving the conventional relational and political wisdom of his day (and ours it seems), “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Then he flips the script. He provides a series of images that when read outside of the cultural context of the community in which Jesus lived seem like blind acquiescence. Walter Wink’s classic, The Powers That Be, provides us with some depth that transforms the reading and makes it altogether different. Wink unpacks Greek word antistenai captured by the NAB in the turn of phrase “offer no resistance.” Stenai is used in Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures for moments on the battlefield in which one army is literally standing against another refusing retreat. In Wink’s estimation, Jesus’ examples point to a resistance that does not involve violence, what Wink calls the third way. I quote Wink’s work at length here because the entire analysis is too important to abridge:

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt. 5:39b). You are probably imagining a blow with the right fist. But such a blow would fall on the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks; at Qumran, a Jewish religious community of Jesus’ day, to gesture with the left hand meant exclusion from the meeting and penance for ten days. To grasp this you must physically try it: how would you hit the other’s right cheek with your right hand? If you have tried it, you will know: the only feasible blow is a backhand.

The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place. Notice Jesus’ audience: “If anyone strikes you.” These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, “Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” (Now you really need to physically enact this to see the problem.) By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way. And anyway, it’s like telling a joke twice; if it didn’t work the first time, it simply won’t work. The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. He can have the slave beaten, but he can no longer cow him. By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”

Such defiance is no way to avoid trouble. Meek acquiescence is what the master wants. Such “cheeky” behavior may call down a flogging, or worse. But the point has been made. The Powers That Be have lost their power to make people submit. And when large numbers begin behaving thus (and Jesus was addressing a crowd), you have a social revolution on your hands. In that world of honor and shaming, the “superior” has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other.[iv]

There is perhaps no more opportune time for the Christian faithful in the United States to have eyes to see and ears to hear this particular Gospel passage and Wink’s deep and important reading of it. Because I am someone who walks with alternately documented people, I can only speak from my place of accompaniment. I think it important for those of us not targeted at this time to reconsider our commitments by imagining what it might mean to stand, resist, and offer the other cheek.

So far, we have not imagined the circumstances that prompted the slap from the powers that be. Can you imagine what acts you might consider to stand with your neighbors who are alternately documented at this time? I have been thinking about creative ways to prompt this beating.

  1. Listen: Immigrant advocacy groups (or good ones) are led by people from the alternatively documented community or have their ear very close to the experience of targeted peoples. They have vitally important things to say, and what we want should be what they want. So we have to be able to listen and follow their direction, especially in regard to action. We cannot steal shoes or step in front without permission and reason, which is why relationships are so important.
  2. Connect with a community of value and action: There is perhaps no greater truth than the resonance of real conviction and affirmation in the truth of the Gospel. If we believe that immigrants are human beings and not criminals, we need to find others who believe the same and who act from the same roots in faith.
  3. Speak and share with wisdom: Let us work to be discerning in what we share about the current enforcement activities (always seek verification from the communities that this affects directly) and, as my colleague said to me recently, seek to empower through our information sharing. The sure sign of truth and love is when our actions and words give away power in order to build it.
  4. Learn and change the long arc of history: We need more historically grounded people of faith in the struggle. We cannot see and bring about God’s future if we respond to new times with old formulas and broken ideas.

“The grave danger is to disown our neighbors,” Francis tells us this week. “When we do so, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realizing it; we deny ourselves, and we deny the most important Commandments of Jesus. Herein lies the danger, the dehumanization. But here we also find an opportunity: that the light of the love of neighbor may illuminate the Earth with its stunning brightness like a lightning bolt in the dark; that it may wake us up and let true humanity burst through with authentic resistance, resilience and persistence.”

Jesus’ active resistance, the third way, requires that we lose in order to live into compassion. Suffering with people means taking the beating, and it feels like there are plenty of opportunities to do that. If we are not willing to put our bodies and our resources on the line, then we’re really not regarding our neighbors as ourselves.

John DeCostanza, Jr. is the Director of University Ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, IL.  He is an ecumenical D.Min. candidate and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union where his study concentration is Hispanic Theology and Ministry.




[i] Names and identities have been changed to protect the identities of those targeted.

[ii] President Obama deported 2.7 million human beings by the end of 2015 according to the Department of Homeland Security (See and for a full discussion of the history behind these numbers please see ). The tactic of the ICE raid, which inspired so much fear since the election of Donald Trump, was met with steep criticism during Obama’s tenure as well (See

[iii] “Pope sends message to popular movements meeting in California.” Pope sends message to popular movements meeting in California. Accessed February 18, 2017.,_california/1293143.

[iv] Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Doubleday, 1999. 101-103.