YDS students experiment with giving up borders for Lent and other acts of “holy imagination”

By Betsy Shirley ’15 M.Div.

Pointing to a crucified Christ who identifies with those oppressed by systemic injustice, a group of YDS students joined nearly a hundred immigration activists and people of faith on the New Haven green for a unique Holy Week service: “Deportation Crucifies: A Good Friday Liturgy and Rally.”

Photos of crossesThe service marked the conclusion of Lent Without Borders, a 40-day campaign of rallies, sing-ins, vigils, acts of civil disobedience, and demonstrations encouraging activists and people of faith to engage the season of Lent by “imagining a world without borders.” 

“Lent is often positioned in the church as a time for us to push our faith commitments further, maybe experiment with new types of prayer or giving up meat,” explained Greg Williams ’15 M.Div., one of the YDS students who helped organize the campaign, “We saw and continue to see Lent as an opportunity for the church to engage in holy imagination.”

And in the context of the immigrant communities of New Haven and Connecticut, engaging in “holy imagination” means daring to envision a society where all people are treated equally regardless of immigration status, undocumented immigrants are granted legalization, and the violence of deportations and the U.S.-Mexico border ends.

This 40-day campaign was the result of collaboration between Seminarians for a Democratic Society, a collective action group of YDS students, and Unidad Latina en Acción, a grassroots immigrant organization in New Haven. It succeeded in engaging nine local churches in acts of public solidarity with immigrants and injecting renewed energy into the public conversation on immigration in Connecticut.

Williams, who is a member of SDS, emphasizes that the idea for Lent Without Borders “emerged from round-table dialogues between SDS members and ULA members who are largely low-income and undocumented.” As YDS students standing in solidarity with local communities, SDS believes it is important to avoid imposing their own ideas or leadership on these communities and instead works towards a model of responsible “ally-ship.” “We’ve done a lot of cross-language, cross-cultural theological work,” says Williams.

And it’s a model that clearly resonates with SDS’s allies. “Working with Seminarians for a Democratic Society has brought something new to the movement because we haven’t done faith-based events before,” said Megan Fountain, a volunteer with ULA, “This has lent our members a way to connect what they’re suffering in the workplace or suffering in jail with a tradition that they know that comes from their country as well.” 

On Good Friday, this 40-day experiment in boundary crossing culminated with a public liturgy. Following a pattern used in many traditions, the service centered on the “Last Seven Words of Christ,” a set of teachings based on the final words of Jesus as he was being put to death. For each of the seven teachings, a passage of Scripture was read in English and in Spanish and a pastor from a local church offered a reflection. Immigrants from the New Haven community also shared their own stories of suffering and migration.

Eli Echevarria, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Unida al Cavario in New Haven emphasized the inclusivity of Jesus’ promise of paradise. “We are identifying ourselves with the suffering to remember those who are oppressed—that’s true faith,” said Echevarria, speaking through a translator, “Paradise is for all—let’s practice it here on earth.”

Jerry Streets ’75 M.Div., pastor of Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church in New Haven, adjunct professor of pastoral care at YDS, and former Yale University Chaplain, focused on the power Jesus claimed when he committed his spirit into God’s hands. “When we surrender to the love of God, the principle of justice, and the spirit of mercy, we too receive power,” said Streets.

Other pastors who offered reflections included Scott Marks of the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, John Gage of United Church on the Green, Eddie de Leon of St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church, Thomas Gye Ho Kim of First and Summerfield United Methodist Church, and Manuel Romero of Second Star of Jacob Assemblies of God.

The service ended by planting 179 crosses on the green in front of the New Haven federal building. The crosses were marked with the names of those who have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border from 2011-2012. “The Cross of Christ calls us to publically bear witness to the suffering and death of all those who experience imperial violence,” explained the service’s organizers. 

Students photoThough the Lent Without Borders campaign was focused particularly on the immigrant community, SDS has dedicated itself more broadly “to a process of conversation and action to challenge and transform the structural injustices that mediate Yale’s relationship with New Haven by building solidarity with low-income communities and communities of color organized for their own liberation.”

Beginning in September 2012, the members of SDS partnered with local pub workers owed outstanding wages, protested the deportation of Josemaria Islas, promoted dialogue on the role of migrant labor in New Haven, and supported the work of New Elm City Dream, a group of predominantly African-American New Haven youth working on issues of gun violence, racism, economic exploitation, and poverty.

For the members of SDS, it’s been a meaningful experience.

Kevin Dean ’15 M.Div. recounts the day SDS and ULA testified in support of the Trust Act before the Connecticut general assembly. As Dean composed his testimony he found himself thinking about what he had learned in a course on political theology he’s taking this semester, about how “interrupting the normal flow of what’s supposed to happen” is the best way to make your voice heard in politics. “So I had a moment of silence in the middle of my testimony to think about what it would mean to follow the radical principle that everyone is actually created equal,” said Dean, “And it actually shut up the room for a little while.” 

SDS member Jordan Scruggs ’15 M.Div., describes a demonstration in which members of SDS and ULA blocked the entrance to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro’s office. “There was a man getting really agitated because he couldn’t get into his office,” says Scruggs, “and there was a man named Ramon whose family was deported. Ramon got really close to the man who was trying to get into his office and said ‘Feel my discomfort. Feel my pain. Feel my agony. My family has been deported.’ And on the face of the man who Ramon was speaking to, there was a flicker of recognition.” Scruggs paused. “That’s why we wanted to give immigrants the opportunity to advocate for themselves,” she said, “to hopefully elicit those flickers of recognition.”

And as members of the YDS community, the members of SDS are proud to be a part of a community that places such a strong value on “conversation across lines of difference.”

“I think this community has a heart for social justice issues,” said Dean, describing the spirit at YDS, “we think about them a lot, we sing and pray and talk about them in Marquand fairly frequently and we make some steps towards trying to engage in them.” For Dean and the other members of SDS, “the hope would be that we can look to the leadership that exists already in the community [of New Haven]” as YDS continues to live out its own mission.

For Williams, the meaning of SDS’s work was best summarized in a remark one of the ULA activists offered after a Lent Without Borders event.

“When the Christians do a protest, they sing songs, and tell stories, and feed you afterwards so that you leave feeling optimistic,” one ULA activist told Williams, “I have no interest in joining any religious denomination,” the activist continued, “but I am hooked on hymns and sermons and prayers in our political actions.”

For Williams and the other members of SDS, moments like these are powerful. “If that is how a person is describing ‘the Christians,’” said Williams, “then clearly we’re doing something right.”

Date Posted: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 - 7:32pm