Linda Jaramillo: Good evening to everyone. I wish you could see you like I see you. Look around and see you. It’s wonderful to have you all here in this safe and sacred space.
It is certainly my privilege and honor to welcome you to this evening’s 2017 Earl and Boswell Lecture. We are delighted this evening, you’ll hear more, to share this with Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies of PSR who sponsors the Boswell Lectures. And as you know and I know, this topic area cannot be more appropriate for our time.
My name is Linda Jaramillo, and I am a proud alum of PSR 2005. I also was privileged to serve on the Board of Trustees and throughout this year, have had the honor of serving as the chair of PSR’s 150th Anniversary Committee. I wish that I can name everyone single person who’s been involved in all of that, but when you do that, you risk leaving somebody out, so give a hand to all who have been involved all year in all of our activities.
I know that some of you have been able to attend the events of today and some may be coming tomorrow, but I think for either today or tomorrow’s events, I know you’ll agree that’s been phenomenal. The workshops, the discussions, they’ve provided us not only with relationship building, storytelling, but discussion that help us make a difference in our communities and all of our religious organizations concerning issues of immigration, race, religious liberty, sexual identity, sexual orientation–all of those intersections that make our lives whole. Those intersections that make our lives whole and bring wholeness to our being and what better place than Pacific School of Religion, that is a multi-denominational seminary and center for social justice that prepares spiritually rooted leaders to work for the well being of all. It is good to be here this evening.
I am also pleased to let you know that tomorrow we will be honoring some distinguished alumni of PSR. I am really impressed by this year’s distinguished persons and recipients and am proud to have been journeying with them along the way. And I encourage all of us as alumni of PSR to take advantage of all the opportunities that are available to us, to have those reunions we’ve been yearning for, to have those conversations about what have you been doing and what are you going to do next? To engage and recharge the work that we’re about, and the work that we’re called to do. Because I believe, and I know that you’ll agree with me, that we need to be about making a better world because I believe that another world is indeed possible. Yes? Now it is my distinct privilege to introduce the president of PSR, Rev. Dr. David Vásquez-Levy.
David Vásquez-Levy: Thank you, Linda, and a word of welcome and, I add my word of welcome, thanks to all of you for gathering here tonight for this important conversation. We have indeed had already an incredible day and look forward to our continued conversation both tonight and into tomorrow. It is a privilege to welcome you, especially into this space, on behalf of Zaytuna College that has opened their doors once again for us to gather and celebrate here. Zaytuna College is a partner with us here on Holy Hill, a gathering in this corner of Berkeley of 8 seminaries and 11 centers that represent the breadth of religious traditions across the world. And this is the largest theological consortium in the world, nestled here in the middle of Berkeley. And an important place for the kinds of conversations that we are engaging about how we might identify ourselves, build a strong sense of identity, without relying on the need to exclude others in the process.
We gather here in this place called Holy Hill because of its history of thinking and engagement, about the awareness that there are things that are holy, not necessarily “holy” as in, completely pure and unadulterated, that, if you get to know the place you know that is not the case, but holy rather in the sense of sacred, important, human, fully human. We gather in this place with the awareness that we live at a time in which the holiness in each of us is not always recognized. And it is because of that that we must figure out ways in which our understanding of who we are, the stories that frame our understanding, the way we define ourselves, can be expounded and broadened.
It is our conviction at PSR that this broadening of our understanding of self can grow out of the history and traditions we inherit within our sacred texts. Those texts must be engaged with a critical eye to the ways they have been used not to broaden our perspectives but to narrow them. And yet, in spite of that awareness, or with that awareness, rather, engage the texts for the wisdom they bring to us, in a time in which we need more than 140 characters to define who we are and what we are about.
It is because of that that we are privileged to have Jose Antonio Vargas whose career and path has been precisely in this telling of stories and an invitation to redefine how we understand ourselves as people as Americans, and as a part of an emerging United States. I am grateful also for the partnership with the National Council of Elders that have been a significant part of our planning for this conference and we’ll be hosting tomorrow a panel with the National Council of Elders and that will begin tomorrow at 8:45 and so we do invite you to return for that. I like to express our appreciation for you being with us and look forward to our conversation tonight.
Linda: Thank you, David. What I didn’t tell you was that I’m from the UCC and we really love acronyms and as many of you know and I’m going to say it aloud. Thank you, David, I would like to now call upon Justin Tanis, the Managing Director for the Center for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual Genderqueer and Questioning Studies in PSR.
Justin Tanis: Good evening. On behalf of staff on the Center for LGBTQ and Questioning Studies in Religion, let me welcome you to tonight’s lecture. Our mission at CLGS is to advance the well-being of lesbian gay bisexual queer and transgender people and to transform faith communities and the wider society. When we say that we are LGBTQ, we recognize that “we” includes immigrants, “we” includes people of color, we are young, we are old, and we are of every faith. Therefore our work must include standing with immigrants, fighting against racism, protecting the vulnerable, and ensuring that religion blesses us, not harms us. Advancing the well-being of LGBTQ people means standing with ALL of us.
Each year, CLGS holds a lecture in the spring in honor of pioneering gay scholar John E Boswell. We join forces this year with PSR’s Earl Lectures to bring you this conference so that we might more effectively address together this vital issue for our time. At the Boswell lectures, we highlight the work of groundbreaking scholars and advocates, and we’re delighted to join with the Earl lectures to welcome Jose Antonio Vargas to be a part of those rich traditions. And now to tell you more about our speaker, I’d like to invite PSR student Ms. Coke Tani.
Coke Tani: Good evening, everyone. Oh, what a blessing and challenge and treat we are in for tonight. My name is Coke Tani, and as Justin said, I’m a Master’s of Divinity student at PSR. Tonight I am super honored to introduce our keynote speaker to you. And I want to say that thanks to API, or Asian Pacific Islander Roundtable, of PSR’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, some of us here were able, we were profoundly blessed, to share lunchtime with Jose Antonio. He’s a prophet of our times whose sacred wisdom comes from a place that has been and is deeply embodied, sacrificed, investigated, and lived. He’s a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, filmmaker, and media entrepreneur whose work centers on a changing American identity. He is the founder and CEO of Define American, a nonprofit media and cultural organization that seeks to elevate the conversation around immigration and citizenship in America, and he’s the founder of Emerging US, or #EmergingUS, a media start-up that lives at the intersection of race, immigration, and identity in a multicultural America. In 2011, the New York Times Magazine published a groundbreaking essay he wrote in which he revealed and chronicled his life in America as an undocumented immigrant. A year later, he appeared on the cover of TIME magazine worldwide with fellow undocumented immigrants as part of a follow-up cover story he wrote. He then produced and directed Documented, a documentary feature film on his undocumented experience. It world premiered at the AFI Docs film festival in Washington, D.C. in 2013, was released theatrically and broadcast on CNN in 2014, and received a 2015 NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Documentary. Documented is now available on various digital formats. In July 2015, MTV aired, as part of its “Look Different” campaign, White People, an Emmy-nominated television special Jose Antonio produced and directed on what it means to be young and white in contemporary America. As a journalist, he has covered a variety of topics including tech and video game culture, HIV/AIDS in the nation’s capital, the 2008 presidential campaign for the Washington Post, and he was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the Virginia Tech massacre. He has appeared on an array of television programs, including: Good Morning America, The O’Reilly Factor, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Colbert Report, Univision’s Aqui y Ahora, The Filipino Channel’s Balitang America, and more. Jose Antonio, or what I want to say is we at the API Roundtable are fully behind, beneath, and with you tonight, our beloved brother.
Please join me in welcoming our 2017 Earl and Boswell keynote, Jose Antonio Vargas.
Jose Antonio Vargas: Please sit. You just made me more nervous. It’s really a privilege to be here tonight. It’s really a homecoming of sorts for me.
Before I continue, I’d really like to recognize and extend my gratitude to a few people. Reverent Ryan Eller, my friend Ryan, Ryan can you please just wave for a second, there he is in the back. Ryan is the executive director of Define American, which is an organization I founded with some friends six years ago and Ryan Reverend Eller, has been for me a real spiritual guide in the past four years of doing this work.
I have another friend who I’m totally going to embarrass, she doesn’t know I’m doing this, Elise Haas, Elise can you please stand up? I’m so sorry, Elise. Elise sits on the governing board of Define American, and I remember one of the first Facebook messages you ever sent me, “Please let me know if I can be helpful in any way, and know how many people are standing behind and with you.” You have given more than enough meaning to that so thank you for being here.
And the Rev. Dr. David Vásquez-Levy, the president of PSR, thank you.
Last fall, I received this letter, attached in an email, the letter from Rev. Vásquez-Levy. The letter begun thus, it said, “Shortly after ending his second term as President of the U.S., Theodore Roosevelt delivered the 1911 lecture, Earl Lectures, at PSR, in Berkeley. Under the title of ‘Realizable Ideals’, Roosevelt powerfully stated that ‘All our extraordinary material developments, our wonderful industrial growth, will go for nothing unless with that growth goes hand in hand the moral, the spiritual growth that will enable us to use aright the other as an instrument.’ Those words remain true today,” this letter said, “particularly as the unprecedented level of mobility and connection across the world demands visionary leadership. I am writing to invite you to deliver,” I still don’t know how to pronounce this word, “the sesquicentennial Earl Lectures at PSR.” This was the letter.
And then I had learned the lecture had been given by the likes of Dr. Maya Angelou and Elie Wiesel, who gave the lecture in 1981, the year I was born. Actually, Elie Wiesel is very personal to us because when you go to DefineAmerican.com, which I know you will, there’s a campaign called Words Matter, and the prophetic essential words of this man, that no human being is illegal, anchors one of our signature campaigns. This lecture has been given by President Roosevelt. The same President Roosevelt who assumed the presidency in 1901, the same year that these lectures were founded, and 1901 being the middle of the Philippine-American War when the Filipinos fought for their freedom from the Americans.
You know, I have to tell you, and any immigrant in this room, and unless you are Native American or African American who was brought here through slavery, right, you can relate, that arguably the most loaded, confusing dangerous, necessary question you can ever ask an immigrant is, Where are you from? Where are you from from? You know, in shorthand, when I get asked these questions, and I get asked these questions in all places, in front of Republicans, Tea Party members, progressives, liberals, everyone, in shorthand, I am here, millions of Filipinos like me are here, legally or illegally, undocumented and documented, because of the Philippine-American War. The beginning of the centuries-long relationship between the Philippines and the United States.
Now in February 1899, two years before this lectures was founded, the British writer, Rudyard Kipling, wrote a poem entitled, “The White Man’s Burden”. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this poem. In this poem, Kipling argues, Kipling urges the United States to take up the burden of empire, as had Britain and other European nations. This poem was published in February 1899 in an issue of McClure’s magazine, and it coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War, and the U.S. Senate’s ratification of the treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control. At that time, Theodore Roosevelt wanted to become vice president, then president, copied the poem and sent it to his friend, Henry Cabot Lodge, commenting in the poem, that this was rather poor poetry but good sense from the expansion point of view. Apparently, Theodore Roosevelt wanted a window to the Orient and the Philippines was the window.
Now I had known about the White Man’s Burden but I did not know however that in the reading of this, that the subtitle of this poem is “The United States and the Philippine Islands.” I did not know that when the poem says “Take up the White man’s burden–ye dare not stoop to less–nor call too loud on Freedom to cloak your weariness; By all ye cry or whisper, by all ye leave or do, The silent, sullen peoples shall weigh your Gods and you.”
The “silent sullen peoples” who, by the way, in the poem are later called “half devil and half child” were us, the Filipinos. I did not know that. Now, I don’t know if you know Filipinos, but we’re not sullen people. And the reality is, what gets lost in all the incendiary, often insipid, sometimes insolent rhetoric around immigration is the reality that we are here because you were there. Beyond a simplistic notion of the American Dream, the opportunities that are indeed here, we are here, the immigrants that come to the U.S., because the United States, had done something economically and politically to our countries.
And now, 106 years after President Roosevelt gave his Earl Lecture, I am proud that an undocumented gay Filipino who looks Asian, has a Hispanic name, majored in Political Science and African American Studies, is giving the 2017 Earl Lecture during a conference called Borders and Identity. I sincerely hope wherever President Roosevelt is, up in heaven, that he is smiling.
The truth is, my identities transcend conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat binaries, in the same way that my existence, our existences, are beyond, not limited by borders or laws. The reality is, as I stand here tonight, I cannot help but address the borders within my identities, the places where I am welcomed and the places where I am excluded, because I look like this, or because I don’t have papers or because I used fraudulent papers and therefore deemed as a criminal, or because my sexuality is somehow a threat to other people’s sexuality, as if all I am is how I have sex and whom I choose to love.
You know religion, I have to say in this room, is a painful pained torturous topic for me. Belonging to a church which means to me belonging to a community of people has always been a constant perpetual struggle. I came to this country at the age of 12, my mother sent me here to live with her parents, my grandparents, both of whom were naturalized citizens. Now getting me here legally was not possible according to immigration laws, my grandparents could not petition me because the relationship is not close enough. So my grandfather found a way to get me here and he smuggled me. But as a twelve year old, I did not know what smuggling meant. All I knew later on was that my grandfather worked made $6.50 an hour as a security guard saved up $4500 to get me here.
Now I didn’t know that the papers he bought with those $4500 were fake until I went to the DMV to get a driver’s license. Now around that same time that I found out I was here illegally, I also realized because of AOL chatroom–does everyone know AOL chatrooms?–that’s when I realized I was gay. You know it was hard, it was hard to be in the closet about both of these things. And I remember one late night in my room and being on the phone with somebody I met online. I could hear that my grandmother had picked up the other side of the phone. I could hear her breathing, and I said, “Lola–that’s grandmother in Tagalog–put the phone down.” I put the phone down and we lived in a very small house, she still lives in that house, and outside the room, next to the heater, before the bathroom, my Lola, my grandmother looks at me and said, “You’re gonna go to hell.”
For us as Filipinos, being Catholic is a birthright, that’s what we do. Religion for me was something that i had just inherited, like my name, Jose Antonio Vargas, from the Spanish. Being baptized, being confirmed, going to church on Christmas, on Easter, that’s what we’re supposed to do. I didn’t really examine it any further nor did I feel welcomed by my grandparents who somehow saw my existence as something to be ashamed of. Because you know, gay.
I have to say that around this time, I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t discovered this thing called journalism. And I fell for it for the pure simple reason that when you write a news story, you get a thing called a byline. By Jose Antonio Vargas. So I thought, this is my first front page story for the Mountain View Voice there was a fire down the street. And I remembering seeing my name on the paper and all I could think was, “Wait a second, if I can’t be here because I don’t have the right papers, what if my name was on the paper? Doesn’t that mean I exist? I’m writing in English, I’m interviewing Americans, doesn’t that mean I’m here?”
Now my grandmother saw this front page article and screamed out loud “What are you doing? You’re supposed to hide.” I said “No.” Journalism from the very beginning was a form of rebellion. From the beginning journalism for me was a form of existence, was a way to contribute, was a way to resist and rebel on whatever circumstances I was dealing with. And I did this because I thought in my head, if I get hired by the New York Times, the Washington Post, if I write for the New Yorker, because people think the New Yorker is a good thing, if I cover a presidential campaign, if I win a Pulitzer, or something, maybe I’ll do enough so I can be enough. So I can you know earn my citizenship which is what everyone always tells people like me: Earn it, right? So I thought I would do all of this and I did all of it and nothing happened.
So by the time I was about to turn 30, about six years ago this year, I had to make up my mind about what to do. I spoke to 27 lawyers because I’m a good reporter. All of them said, well what do you mean you want to come out as undocumented? You can’t do that. And the more they said no, well, isn’t that the most horrible photo you’ve ever seen.
On the cover of the New York Times Sunday magazine in a 4,000-word essay against the advice of all the lawyers, I admitted to being in this country illegally, committing all the frauds I had to commit to be here and to work. I had outed not just myself but with their permission, I outed my high school principal, Pat Hylin, who took care of me, I outed the guy at the Washington Post who hid my secret, and I exposed, as a good journalist is supposed to do, just how broken, inane, and outdated this immigration system is.
Now for me, part of the reason I came out was not only to tell the truth but to put a name, a face, and to complicate the narrative to who “the illegal” is. Part of this as well, especially among my colleagues in the news industry, is to present, you know, facts.
At Define American we have a Facts Matter campaign that we have now issued a challenge to the entire news industry. When you walk out of here tonight I hope you pick this up. About two weeks ago, we published a one page fact sheet, a sheet of six irrefutable facts that are independently sourced, that every journalist who reports on the issue of immigration must use and know before they talk about the issue any further. Now these facts don’t simply fit in your tweets. It’s not simply something you can post on Facebook, although you can go to our website and you can download the whole thing and you can give it to your friends, colleagues and coworkers.
But these facts strike against the fact, the “alternative fact” reality that President Trump and his supporters have presented when it comes to this issue. The fact that immigrants commit less crime than the native born population, the fact that immigrants pay an estimated 11 billion dollars in local and state taxes every year. The fact that we have collectively, over the past decade, paid 100 billion dollars into the social security fund, undocumented workers. The fact that a border wall would be an ineffective immigration restriction, considering the fact that 40% of the people here illegally overstayed their visas and did not cross a border. The fact that the fastest growing undocumented population in America are Asian immigrants, not Latinos, and certainly not Mexicans. The fact that you cannot talk about the country’s undocumented population without talking about undocumented black, undocumented white and Asian immigrants in this country. Today we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at a time when there are 50,000 undocumented Irish people in this country. Now these are facts.
But in addition to presenting the facts, at Define American we insist on telling stories, especially the coming out process of an other undocumented immigrants. I don’t know if you remember this photo, this magazine cover, the first magazine I ever bought was Ellen Degeneres on the cover of TIME magazine. I bought it at Walgreens on San Antonio in Mountain View and I remember buying the magazine and hiding it in the closet because I didn’t want my grandparents to see it. All I think of Ellen, when Define American managed to put 32 undocumented immigrants on the cover of TIME magazine almost five years ago, and this cover represents the diversity and complexity of the issue that the mainstream media fail to recognize.
The reality is we cannot change the politics of an issue until we change the culture in which people talk about the issue. That was the case with LGBT rights and that will be the case with immigrant rights. The truth is while immigration reform is a moral crisis for the 11 million undocumented immigrants and the millions more who make up our families and friends, immigration reform is largely viewed as as a political partisan issue by the media and the news media and the entertainment media and the public that consumes that media.
In this country politics is culture. You cannot change change the politics of an issue until you change the culture in which people talk about that issue. As a proud gay man, I am proud to live in a country where being anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-lesbian…hopefully is getting better and better. It’s unacceptable to be openly homophobic these days, thankfully. All the work that has gone into making that happen. But in this country, we live in a country in which being anti-immigrant is not only acceptable, it leads you to the White House.
How do we change the culture around that? For us at Define American, storytelling is a correction, an intervention, and a liberation. For us, telling the stories and coming out as undocumented has been a central part in resisting not only what is happening now but what has happened during the Obama administration when President Obama deported more than 3 million immigrants, more than any other president in the history of this country, and especially now, as we live through this regime. I’m about to show you a video I’m incredibly proud of at Define American. We produced it two years ago, we filmed it on the steps of City Hall in San Francisco, and the voice that you hear is Harvey Milk’s.
Video: I’m coming out to show we are your neighbors, your coworkers, your classmates, and your friends. I’m coming out because I refuse to stand on the sidelines while others accomplish change. I am coming out for my son so that we can be safe and together. I’m coming out now because the person that is me cannot be defined by a piece of paper.
We must destroy the myths once and for all. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends, you must tell your neighbors you must the people you work with, you must tell the stores you shop in, we must continue to speak out and most importantly, we must come out.
Coming out takes many forms but it always takes courage. It’s time. It’s time for all of us, employers, employees, teachers, students, families, neighbors, Americans, allies, to overcome shame, to overcome fear, to document and define ourselves. WE are coming out to be seen for who we are, not only as undocumented immigrants but as Americans. Come out. Join us. At defineamerican.com.
Jose: Now that was two years ago before President, then-candidate, Trump declared his candidacy, and coming out now has real consequences for more of us. I’m sure you heard about a young woman in Mississippi who participated in a press conference to talk about her undocumented status and then was arrested right afterwards by ICE. I’m sure you heard about a woman who was in a hospital with a brain tumor when ICE showed up to lock her up. I’m sure you heard about the grandmother of five who was detained and arrested in front of her grandchildren.
Now as an undocumented person, life under Trump, in the Trump era, is very, very different. After the election, I have a lot of lawyers which is a privilege, and God bless lawyers, a lot of my advisors told me to not fly anymore. At Define American, we are really proud to have done more than 800 events in 48 states, in 378 college campuses, in the past six years. My lawyers said no more flying, not even within California, just drive everywhere. You would move out of your apartment because people shouldn’t have an address they can look up so they can pick you up. One of my lawyers, possibly the most radical, in the best way, suggested, hey, Jose, how about Canada? She thought that my moving to Canada would be a statement of strength as a proactive response saying, if you don’t want us here, we’re going to Canada. And she thought we should maybe try to contact the Prime Minister of Canada and try to figure out what he can do and his government can do to make immigrants feel welcome in America.
I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t consider all of these things, especially now that I’ve publicly said them in a lecture, and then on top of all of this, I got an email from Nancy Pelosi’s Chief of Staff, inviting me to be one of Democratic Leader Pelosi’s guests for the State of the Union, or the joint address of President Trump. Then I got really serious about, wait a second, so you want me to show up in public, inside the House chamber, at the capital, while President Trump is speaking?
Congresswoman Pelosi knew what she was asking, and she and I had already met before, I’m proud to have lived in her district while I was a student at San Francisco State, I knew what she was asking, she knew what she was asking. My lawyers said don’t do it. A lot of my team members at Define American said I don’t know if this is worth the risk, and then I thought and I thought and I remembered meeting John Lewis for the first time, Congressman John Lewis whom I met at an even four years ago and I introduced myself and he said, oh I know who you are, it looks like you got yourself in some good necessary trouble. And the words of congressman Lewis kept ringing in my ear as I tried to make this decision.
And I decided in the spirit of every American in this country who has felt challenged and rejected by America, to show up. And not only was I going to show up, I would publish an essay in the Washington Post that night saying that I would be showing up, with the headline “Trump Could Deport Me. That’s Why I’m At His Speech in Congress.”
Now I wrote this essay and underneath this headline is a better headline of the reality that undocumented immigrants show up everyday all around this country. I’m going to to read to you a passage from this essay.
I decided to show up tonight because that’s what immigrants, undocumented and documented, do: We show up. Despite the obvious risks and palpable fear, we show up to work, to school, to church, to our communities, in big cities and rural towns. We show up and we participate. This joint session of Congress is a quintessential American moment at a critical juncture in our history. I am honored to attend and remind our elected leaders and everyone watching that immigration, at its core, is about families and love — the sacrifices of our families, and the love that we feel for a country we consider our home although it labels us “aliens.”
We show up even though we’re unwanted, even when most Americans don’t understand the pull-push factors of migration and why we come here in the first place. We show up even though many Americans, especially white Americans with their own immigrant backgrounds, can’t seem to see the common threads between why we show up and why they showed up, at a time when showing up did not require visas and the Border Patrol didn’t exist yet.”
Now my presence that night inside that capital building in front of President Trump was among the everyday acts of resistance that we are witnessing across this country. There are the undocumented workers showing up in industries that depend on our labor, including the more than 100 workers nationwide who lost their jobs while participating in the Day Without Immigrants protests. The undocumented immigrants showing up in high school classrooms and college campuses, in places that made it clear that illegals are not welcome there.
Now I’m sure you heard of this undocumented woman, Jeanette Viscara, a mother of four who has found sanctuary inside the First Unitarian Church of Denver. In an interview she said, “Supposedly I am a criminal because I drove without a license, because I had expired stickers on my car, because I had false documents to work and put food on the table for my children.”
Now Jeanette actually came to the US in 1997. That was about 4 years after I got to this country. She worked as a janitor and a union organizer, and she later owned a moving and cleaning business. Yes, undocumented immigrants like me actually own businesses and employ people.
In 2009, she was caught with a fake identification that her lawyer said she had acquired to work, the same fake documents that people like me and I myself had to get in order to work. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, setting off a chain of events that led to the deportation order. And instead of going to ICE, she decided to go to the basement of this church.
Yesterday, because of the event tonight, Ryan and I actually went to visit her in Denver. And I have to tell you, it was rather an intense experience, visiting her. That’s her grandson Santiago, who was born in this country. I don’t know if you know this, but right now in this country there are at least 4.5 million children who have at least one parent who is undocumented. We live in an American where 5,000 American children live in foster care because both parents have been deported.
So we met her at this church in the basement, wanted to say hi, wanted to ask what it was like to live inside this church, and I told her I was about to speak here in front of all of you at this prestigious school tonight. And I asked her to deliver her message–what should I tell all of you from her?
She said that what I will tell them is that as faith leaders, they have a moral responsibility to protect their communities and their congregations. She said they can’t just be talking about helping your neighbor when in actuality, they don’t. She said that yes, we are all Americans, we live in the American continent. We are not French, we’re not Europeans, we are Americans. In my case, I am Mexican. This was a part of my country. I am in my land. I am where I need to be.
You know, I have to tell you, sitting in that church basement listening to her, as Santiago her grandson roamed around, I had to really question my own relationship with the church, and the churches all across this country that have been housing immigrants, documented and undocumented.
I remember meeting a young undocumented woman in Dalton, Georgia, an hour away from Atlanta, and she said, “I got to this country five or six years ago from Central American and I thought white people hated us. And then when I got to Dalton, I got to church, all these white people started hugging me. I didn’t know white people liked us.” She said it was the first time she hugged a white person was inside a church.
I met this young man, who is an American citizen but his mother is undocumented, in Providence, Rhode Island, right after the election. He spoke up in front of all his classmates and said, “I am more scared than my mom, and I don’t understand it. I mean, I have my papers and my mom doesn’t have papers and she tells me not to worry.” And when the son would ask the mom, “why aren’t you so worried mom?” His mother told him “Son, God has been hiding me for 20 years. God will continue to hide me.”
What can churches and places of worship do? How will clergy all across this country lead? How will congregations provide sanctuary in all possible ways?
This morning Ryan had a workshop during this conference, issuing what congregations can do. And he shared that number one, share stories, of faith of congregants who immigrated recently and many many years ago. The second thing is, figure out how can you be a sanctuary? How does that work? What are the loopholes, what are the logistical issues involved? And the third thing he said, which I will share with you tonight, is expanding our understanding that immigration is a global issue. What does it mean to be a citizen of the kingdom of God when national citizenship is not possible? Where do the 244 million migrants from around the world–we don’t know how many of them are undocumented or unauthorized, we don’t know. I am one of those 244 million people. What are our rights? Where can we go? Where can we find “sanctuary”?
As Jeanette was talking, I couldn’t help thinking of Ellis Island. And of course I couldn’t help, as an undocumented journalist, and as someone who has been perpetually in love and confused by this country, to ask this important question, which rarely gets unpacked, which is, Why do people move?
What does U.S. foreign policy and trade agreements have to do with migration patterns? In other words, what role does the U.S. play, economically, politically, in this chain of migration? And why is it that when white people move, it’s Manifest Destiny, it’s courageous, it’s white man’s burden? Why is it that when people of color move, it’s a question of legality? Is it legal? Is it a crime?
And while I believe a country ought to define and defend its borders–I believe that–I think we ought to examine, why is it that goods and commodities travel more easily than people? Why is it that while my mother waits in a 16-year waiting list to come from the Philippines to see her son, me, we haven’t seen each other for 24 years this August, why is it that while my mother waits to come here legally and while I can’t leave, because if I leave they won’t let me back, why is it that this iPhone can be manufactured in China, delivered in Cupertino, and end up in New York where I bought it? How is it that corporations and commodities and things can travel more easily than people?
Since we are talking about legality, I think we must be mindful of the fact that legality has always been a construct of power. Lynching, segregation, violently taking indigenous lands, and many more atrocities, were “legal.” Barring women from voting was the law of the land. Jim Crow was the law of the land. There was a law called the Chinese Exclusion Act, that barred all Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, from immigrating to the US for 10 years. You mean the same Chinese who built the railroads with the Irish?
Now did you know that it wasn’t until the Naturalization act of the 1790s, that we establish our first citizenship law? According to this Act, applicants had to be a free white person of good moral character to apply.
Did you know that it wasn’t until 1924, when the Citizenship Indian Act was passed, that Native Americans can actually become US citizens? Let me repeat, Native Americans could not become legal U.S. citizens until 1924. Alicia Garza, one of the cofounders of the Black Lives Matter, once told me that Black Lives Matter is a conversation about citizenship. Not citizenship papers, not citizenship laws, because haven’t we passed the 1964 Civil Rights Acts? Aren’t there laws protecting black people and all the other things that are supposed to protect all of us? When really the Black Lives Matter conversation is a citizenship conversation about dignity. Right?
Now, my existence was not, and is not, defined by legality. My existence was made possible, is made possible, by people who didn’t need papers or pieces of laws to treat me like a human being. And all these conversations about church preparing this lecture, I’ve been thinking about what religion really means to me, and who constitutes and what constitutes the church?
And then I started thinking about people like Mrs. Denny. She was the choir teacher, the first adult I ever told I was here illegally. She wanted to choir to prepare for our spring tour to go to Japan and I told her I couldn’t. And she said, “No no, you’re gonna go.” And I said, “Mrs. Denny, I don’t have the right passport.” And she said, “We’ll get you the right passport.” “No, Mrs. Denny, I don’t have the right passport.” She finally got it.
Then the next day, she actually told the whole class we were going to go to Hawaii instead because she didn’t want to leave any of her students behind. Mind you, my classmates didn’t know that the only reason they weren’t going to Japan was because of me. There’s actually someone in this room who used to work very closely with Mrs. Denny. I’m about to embarrass him. His name is Mr. Whipple–Mr. Whipple can you please stand up? I’m sorry to embarrass you. So a part of my church is Mr. Whipple and Mrs. Whipple. I can’t call them by their first name, it seems really disrespectful. I did not find out then, but I found out later, that the people who always paid for my choir trips because my grandparents couldn’t afford it were the Whipples. Because that’s what they did, right? But guess what? That’s how our schools function, all across this country. Of people like the Whipples stepping up and realizing we have to fill in where the gaps are. I am here because you’re a part of that church, Mr. Whipple.
I think of this man, Peter Perl, who really put his job on the line when I got hired at the Washington Post right after college. I was mortified and I figured, I gotta go tell somebody, so I decided, because Peter Perl would always buy me free Starbucks, that I would tell him. So over an overpriced caramel macchiato, I sat him down in a park and I told him everything. I told him about the fake driver’s license, the fake green card, the fake papers, all the lies, I told him all of it. I expected him to go, “Ok, we have to go see the HR people now,” instead, Peter Perl said two things, one, “You make so much more sense now,” because I guess I was always walking around like a ball of worry, and second thing he said, “Don’t tell anybody else. Just keep going.”
So when I was assigned to Sarah Palin’s story to cover her, when I had to fill in for a reporter who was covering Hillary Clinton, and had to get on a plane with Hillary Clinton, when I ended up winning a part of this Pulitzer Prize, and I’m thinking, wait a second, aren’t they gonna know that my Social Security number is fake? When I keep getting promoted and the Washington Post asked, hey do you want to be a White House correspondent? Peter Perl was always the person I went to and he always said, don’t worry, just keep going.
When I came out, I told him that I don’t need to name him at all. I said I can just say there was this person who helped me out. He said, no no, I’m proud of what I did. And I would do it again. And you know I wonder how many Peter Perls are there all across this country?
And there’s this woman Marcia Davis. I don’t know how this happened but in my career in journalism, I was trained very early on by Black female journalists. I don’t know how it happened, I just kept attracting them. And this woman Marcia has just been my heart. When I told her, hey Marcia, I think I’m gonna go to Canada, she was like, “what are you talking about?” “I think I’m gonna go to Canada.” She said, “But you’re home.”
When I told Marcia, you know, I don’t think this showing up at the Capitol building in front of President Trump at the joint address is a good idea, Marcia says, “Jose, what do you mean? Shouldn’t you be happy and proud to be sitting there representing not only yourself but any other person who’s been called a criminal in this country?” So I went.
As far as I’m concerned Peter Perl, Marcia Davis, Mrs. Denny, Mr. Whipple–these people are all a part of my church. A community of people who show up everyday for people like me.
Now the question before us, then, is how are you showing up for us? What does allyship and intersectionality really mean and look like? Since we are in this church, this glorious church, the question now is, how do you church? Who is included at church? Who makes up a church?
People. People who make up laws and people who define and delineate borders. Who make up church all across this country are everyday people grappling with their identities, always. And in this church, they find a community. And in this church, they find resistance. And in this church, they find welcome. All across this country.
When I was in high school, grappling with being an “illegal faggot” because I would hear people all the time calling people like me “illegal” and people like me a “faggot,” a lighting guide became a man named James Baldwin, who I read when I was a freshman in high school, Notes of a Native Son, was the first book I ever read by Baldwin. And in that book he actually wrote that you have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not an idea of you.
After reading that book, I ended up reading another book called The Fire Next Time and the epigraph of the book I was reminded was this quote from Kipling. Yes, the very first time I heard about the white man’s burden was while reading a James Baldwin book.
Since we are speaking about burden, I am here as one immigrant telling all of you that we are not your burden. I am not your burden. You don’t need to free me. Because whether or not you like it, this is a marriage, you and I. I am you. I am you. And if you don’t realize that, then those very words Baldwin wrote in that glorious prophetic book, everything now we must assume Baldwin wrote is in our hands.
We don’t have any reason to assume otherwise, and now we, the relatively conscious Blacks, and Whites, and Latinos, and Asians, if we do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end this racial nightmare and change the history of the world.
But, if we do not dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy in the songs recreated in the Bible by former slaves is upon us, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, fire next time.” I would argue that preventing that fire, stopping that fire, must begin here, at church. It is an honor to be with you tonight.
Oh, hold on. Say hi. There’s a mike. We have questions. And as you walk out here tonight, there’s a one page fact sheet that would make for a really good ice breaker at work and with your relatives and friends. Please pick it up. Questions please.
David: Thank you, as you make your way up to the microphone please remember what a question sounds like. And I encourage you to make those as you prepare to come forward, and I would like to give a thanks to Jose for an incredible and powerful inspirational conversation, and for a challenge and invitation to us.
It was Jose who was called a criminal who finally helped a pharaoh to understand that his Egyptian dream depended on the life of that dreamer that lingered in his jail. It was also a mother who gave her child into the waters letting him go, unsure if she would ever see him again that Jochebed allowed Moses to be, what a friend called, the first mujado, the first wetback, to cross a river against the law that divided its poverty and oppression on one side of the river from the wealth on the other side. It was Shiphrah and Puah, who like the gentleman recognized tonight, did what was right in spite of what the law might have said. And saved those babies.
And so it is the fact that every Sunday, we read these stories of immigrants, that we have inspired to us to return to them and read them anew. To read them with you in mind, and with those who shape and show up everyday in our nation. So thank you for an inspirational word.
So I didn’t mean to scare you. We would like to have questions so please come on up to the microphone.
Jose: I’m in Berkeley, aren’t I? Please, or else you’re going to make me nervous.
Questioner 1: Well if no one else will go, I’ll ask a question. My question is about the conflicting importances of truth telling and the responsibility for the personal protection of the people whose truths are being told. I’m thinking in particular of an organization I lead that works LGBT refugees in region where it is not safe to be known as LGBT and we must tell their stories to Americans to inspire support for them. And of course that’s complicated. So is an anonymized story as powerful or how else can we navigate that without forcing our beneficiaries to out themselves?
Jose: As somebody who’s had to come out of two closets, and I’m totally done, I have nothing more to share with you, I am a firm believer in not forcing anyone to come out until they’re ready to come out.
Now mind you, I spent all of my twenties, from 16 to 30 years old, the only people who knew I was here illegally were 8 people. I don’t know, it’s not like I’m shy, how I managed to not tell anyone else for fourteen years. A lot of it had to do with all the lies I had to tell myself about they’re not gonna come after me. I’m the good immigrant. I’d internalized this idea of “good immigrant.” So we don’t do that. At Define American, we’re very clear, if you go to our website, you can see we have the largest of immigrant stories, documented and undocumented, online. We are very vigilant that no one feels forced, that if people only feel comfortable sharing a first name or a last name, that they do that. I’m proud that one of the things we’ve done now is that we’ve become a source for journalists who are looking for people.
But you as the person directly impacted have the human right to define your own narrative and tell your own story .Who gets to tell whose story is as important as the story itself, in my opinion.
Questioner #2: It’s an honor to be here tonight and to hear you talk. A lot of my friends couldn’t be here tonight so I’m here on their behalf.
I have a broad general question. In terms of American identity, immediately when I think about it, I think of white supremacy, cultural genocide. I’m writing a paper right now about dismantling of bilingual education and what we have now with immersion, gentrification, things are such a mess, I personally don’t embrace it, being white is so central to who I am, it’s inescapable. Why do you choose to embrace and resignify American? Is there some alternative you considered or why do you do that and it’s very bold and courageous so…
Jose: That’s a loaded question. By the way, what kind of white are you? Do you know?
Questioner #2: That’s a really interesting question. You got me there. Honestly, I went out with a girl, right? She’s Latina and she kept asking me what kind of white I am and honestly, I’m white and I think it’s a trip to actually even try and attempt to say I’m something because I think it obscures the reality that I’m white and…
Jose: But wait a second, white is not a country. Are you Irish? Italian? Russian?
Questioner #2: My first ancestors, as far as I know, were 1663 in New Netherland French on the Hackensack. I had a French last name but that’s the other side of the family.
Jose: I remember Baldwin, I was watching this–if you go on YouTube, the film is still out. And I remember Baldwin, how confused I was by this statement, Baldwin looked at the camera and said, “I am only black if you think you’re white.” And I was, “What does that mean?! What?”
I would argue that in this country, so much of what defines America is that black and white binary, though the reality is white people are not white and black people are not purely black given the history of this country. We don’t have to talk about Thomas Jefferson, what they did. We have always been a mixture in that way.
I have to say that I think American identity to me, the very complexity that that conjures, the fact that people were other things before they became white–given that today is St. Patrick’s Day, there’s a book called How the Irish Became White which I think is such an essential read.
Unpacking that to me is so important, and frankly for us, right now, I get disillusioned with my conservative friends–and I do have conservative friends. And I get disillusioned by my white progressive friends who want nothing to do with conservative conservative white people. I get disillusioned by it because I think, wait a second, so as a person of color who has to figure out and survive a system I did not create, now not only do I have to take care of this, I have to take care of you too.
So can all those progressive white people who hate conservative white people just all go talk to each other? Because I actually think that responsibility is of utmost importance right now. Even unpacking and embracing in all of its ugly messiness what white even means is necessary.
To me right now, especially at a time like this, whenever I say I made a documentary called White People–I mean you can just imagine the hate mail after that, “How dare you illegal alien faggot make a film and call it White People?” I didn’t realize until I traveled all over this country that for many white people, just calling them white people is already a trigger. People of color are so used to being racialized but white people just get to be American. So complicating that to me is so important, especially now. So by the way, are you a student here?
Questioner #2: Um, yes…
Jose: I hope by the way that maybe you want to go out with a conservative white girl. Hey , why not? I hope that you talk to people that don’t agree with you. I hope more than ever that we challenge ourselves to get out of our bubbles.
Questioner #2: So my bubble would be going to see white conservative people.
Jose: I’m just saying, what the conversations are around that. Look, I’m not a fan of Milo. I’m sorry I’m about to bring him up. I think Milo is like Ann Coulter, they play really good roles and I want to give them awards. But I’m intrigued and want us to push ourselves to talk to the people who go to those talks. To try to understand where that’s coming from. Maybe that’s the journalist in me. I’ve always had to inquire about why people think what they think. I’ve always been very curious about that. And I think white identity as it stands and and how white people, progressive and conservative liberal, deal with that, is such an important conversation that we don’t have enough of in this country.
Questioner #2: I saw White People, and I really appreciated it. It’s an honor to be here. Thank you for answering my question.
Questioner #3: Hi, this is a personal question but what do you draw upon for your incredible courage? What is your source of courage and what renews you?
Jose: I really don’t see it as courage. I think citizenship for me, since I can’t have it. My lawyers told me that the fact that I lied about being a U.S. citizen, committed fraud lying to be a U.S. citizen, may be the very reason I will never become a U.S. citizen. You can’t lie about it. It’s apparently the largest offense you can make under immigration law. And I lied.
So for me, citizenship means, how can I exist outside of myself? How do I justify the space I occupy and the voice that I have, to know that the world does not revolve around me? How do I know, insist upon on the reality that our equalities are tied to one another.
What I’m doing is only an extension of what I’ve always done except now it’s public. And with that, it’s kind of lonely, because people make assumptions about things. You’re not progressive enough, you’re not radical enough, you don’t use the right terms, all of that. Progressive people are really hard on other progressive people. We all need a hug or something. This oppression Olympics–calling each other out, where people are out-radicalizing each other. I don’t know why this happens.
Courage to me means you have a choice. Maya Angelou used to say that of all the virtues courage is the most important, because it’s the only one that allows you to practice all the other virtues. But for me it’s not courage because it’s the only thing to do. It’s either do this or I self deport, and I’m not about to do that. But thank you.
Questioner #4: I’m a pastor of a local Methodist church and supposedly having some impact on the spiritual formation of people. And I’m sitting here and thinking…
Jose: Wait a second, spiritual formation? What is that? Can you define that for me? What does that mean?
Questioner #4: Take a mirror, look in it, and you’re looking like spiritual formation to me. It’s the inward character that changes the outward world. And you have had a tremendous impact by being truly who you are with full integrity and authenticity. What my question is to you is, what were the formative experiences you had that contributed to who you are today?
Jose: Well, Mr. Whipple, he’s over there. I am a product of the generosity of people. All those people who paid, literally and figuratively, when I think about how I got to be this way, I think about all the books I read, all the movies I watched, that define American for me, and I think of the small acts of kindness that made me feel not just seen and felt but made me feel validated. I think this idea of treating others like you treat yourself, I guess I’ve always lived by that. Because I’ve always experienced that.
And I believe that when you find gratitude, you find purpose. I am very grateful. I am who I am because of this country. For the way it challenged me, because of the it continues to challenge me, the ways that it limits me, and for the ways it tells me what I can’t do. In many ways I think this country is a challenge to all of us. And that has become clearer and clearer to me.
I don’t want to drag Baldwin into this one more time but I remember one time I was listening–please by the way, call your Congresspeople and tell them that they cannot cut PBS–I was watching an interview of Bill Moyers and Toni Morrison, and Toni Morrison was asked by Bill Moyers, “What is the metaphor for your work?” And Toni Morrison says, “Love.” And she quoted Baldwin, I didn’t realize they were friends, and Toni Morrison says, “You’ve already been bought and paid for. Your ancestors, your great grandparents, your parents, they already gave it up for you. It’s already done. Now you can love yourself. It’s possible.”
So I think all of that has been paid. And all my gratitude for all that has been paid. If that is what you call spiritual formation, awesome. I just hope that Mrs. Fermen from 7th grade, Mrs. Gable from Mountain View public library who had to explain to me that Mike Nichols and Sydney Lomet were two different directors, that Ms. Marcia Davis and Peter Perl and Art Whipple including my grandmother, I hope that they know how thankful I am for all that sacrifice. So thank you for having me here.
David: If you would permit me a few more minutes, a seminary is the word for a bed of seeds, a place where things are planted in the hope they will be transplanted elsewhere and bloom. It is that work which you have experienced tonight, our hope, the seeds we are planting in our conversations today will be taken into the communities that you represent. That you encourage your faith communities, your social clubs, your families, to engage in this important and critical conversation. We are grateful that you are here with us.
I want to say a couple words about our date tomorrow to come and join us again. Tomorrow morning we will join with the National Council of Elders and Queena Kim will engage them in a conversation about the first 100 days of the Trump administration. To take the long view about how we sustain the work of change from their perspective and to invite us think creatively about how we respond in our moment.
We will have a couple more workshops, gathering of our alumni/ae for lunch tomorrow, but then we will gather at 3pm when Jose Antonio will be back to join us for an action in Berkeley at MLK park, calling for sanctuary for all communities. We will stand in solidarity with the city of Berkeley and for all cities that have declared sanctuary.
I also invite us to be in conversation about with a variety of speakers to think about the way we call on our elected officials to ensure sanctuary can be created for all, regardless of their country of origin, their race, their religious tradition, and their gender identity. We will conclude our conference tomorrow with that action.
Tonight, we invite you to join us for a reception we will have across the street at PSR in the Badè Museum. If we all make it over there, we can just grab some food and there’s a beautiful courtyard we can all hang out in and have an opportunity to continue. And for our students and alum, there will be a cocoa bar in D’Autremont so please join us for that as well. Again, thank you for your attention tonight and for your engagement, and have a great evening.