Wednesday, February 18, 2015

'Space at the Table: God Calls Us to Radical Listening' by Young Adult Volunteer AmyBeth Willis

Originally Published in the December 2014 edition of Presbyterians Today in her column 'A Young Adult Volunteer's Journey.' Watch for her next column in the April edition of Presbyterians Today.

On my last day in Tucson, I exchanged tearful hugs with my undocumented day-laborer friends in the parking lot of Southside Presbyterian Church. When I explained the advocacy work I was going to do in Washington, DC, they had one request: take their stories toWashington. They wanted policy makers to know about the blisters they developed during their desert journeys; about the husband and wife able to join hands only through the rusted beams of the border wall; about the hardworking Guatemalan man fighting for legal status.

YAVs AmyBeth Willis and Jenny Hyde
Each day that I go to my Young Adult Volunteer position at the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness on Capitol Hill, I carry with me the struggles of my undocumented friends, the laughter and smiles of fourth graders at Ochoa Community Magnet School in Tucson, and the fight for survival of my friends there who live on the streets.

The Child Nutrition Act, which funds the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefit program, is up for reauthorization in 2015. Our office and ecumenical partners are gearing up to make sure this important legislation passes unchanged. The Tucson mothers and children who depend on this program’s healthy food linger in my imagination. Where are their stories in the political discussion of our country’s need to trim the fat?

Our nation’s immigration policies, moreover, criminalize migrants seeking a better life here. I think of Enrique, who stayed at our YAV house after being released from detention. Because of our country’s immigration and refugee policies, he was forced to fight his case for asylum from a jail cell. Whose voice is louder on the Hill: lobbyists for private prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America, which fill prison beds for profit, or the voice of my courageous friend?

Nationwide, a broad base of groups, including our office, is fighting for legislation that would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Those in opposition say a higher minimum wage would kill jobs. But what about Southside’s neighbors who can’t afford rent, despite working full-time jobs?

As people with immense power and privilege, we must listen to these stories. Already I am acutely aware of how easily the stories are lost in the halls of power. My undocumented friends are called illegal, and families who benefit from WIC are accused of gaming the system. In these frames, their humanity is lost. It’s easy,then, to understand why our nation’s policies exploit and endanger the most vulnerable in society.

That’s why the stories matter: they exemplify the effects of social structures that oppress and bind. As followers of Christ, we are called to undo these chains, and we have the power to shape policy that would create more kingdom-like systems. The Bible is God’s story of liberating us all from suffering and death; we are called to join with God in this work.

This month, we are reminded that the mere story of the arrival of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was a threat to Herod’s imperial power. How do we share stories with the power to transform oppressive structures, without presuming to speak for the people whose stories we tell? How do we get in the way of the very structures that lift up our voices and not theirs?

Here’s to the strength, grace, and beauty of my friends in Tucson, who are willing to share their stories. Help us all, O God, to listen.