Over the past year or so, I’ve lamented with friends about the state of our southern border. Some have rallied politically to try to change the system to make it easier for people to enter our country and to stop the processes separating family members. Not usually being politically inclined, I have been listening for a different way to help.
A few weeks ago, I found my answer when one of my pastors introduced her at church.
“One thing I know about Jean,” he offered, holding us in suspense for a moment, “is that she gets it done.”
The congregation clapped as Jean Sicurella, mother of five and long-standing church member, introduced us to her new 501c3 non-profit organization Mision de Caridad.
Moved into action by distressing pictures of women and children sleeping outside while awaiting legal entry to the United States, she partnered with her friend, Pastor Francisco Ortega, who was equally concerned about the increasing number of people in limbo within his town of San Luis Rio Colorado, in Sonora Mexico.
Recognizing Mexico as an entry-point to the US, immigrants from Central America and Africa, in addition to Mexicans, have gathered at the border in hopes of being granted asylum. As the Mision de Caridad’s recent newsletter describes, this process can take months and even years longer than the people are prepared to wait. They run out of money and resources and are unable to integrate into Mexican society in the meantime.
Mision de Caridad seeks to fill the gap by providing temporary housing, job training, education and a safe environment for women and children in two locations -- San Luis Rio Colorado and Mexicali, Mexico.
There are many ways to support those who wait. My husband and I decided to support this organization for its specific focus of meeting the needs of women and children in these locations. Jean and her organization has made it possible to have real impact on this small part of the world.
As Jean stated during her presentation at church, “It’s about the people, not the politics.”
Read more on their website. Consider helping in this very practical way.
I’m definitely stepping out of my comfort zone in writing something political. Perhaps it’s not only a good writing exercise, but a good life exercise?
How do you decide who to vote for anyway?
I’m sure all of the candidates running for School Committee in Cambridge have determined, loving hearts and want the best for the students. They all want the chance to get the work done.
Should I vote for the person with the most experience? Should I vote for the person who has the same personal agenda I have?
Recently, I invited friends and neighbors to Manikka Bowman’s campaign launch. Manikka currently sits on the School Committee, and, while she probably doesn’t want to sit there forever, she would like to serve for one more term. For starters, I want to vote for her because she is a neighbor and because she asked me. As a city, we’ve been talking about the need for more people of color in our schools and in places of leadership. So yes, I am also voting for her because she is African-American.
But how does that affect her actions as a School Committee member? What does she bring to the table?
At her campaign launch recently, I was inspired to tears as I watched parents stand up and rally the audience with their reasons for voting for Manikka. They wanted someone like her -- who currently has a child in the school system, who can speak for working mothers, and who can be strong enough to stand alone on an issue. They spoke of how on more than one occasion during her civic service, Manikka was able to slow the conversation in order to prevent glossing over minority voices who are all too often silenced by the majority.
Manikka herself delivered a stump speech that knocked me right in the gut and would light a fire under any American wishing to upend deep seated norms of racism and sexism. She shared her dream as a teenager to follow in the footsteps of her beloved pastor and civic leader, and the heartache she felt when that father-figure told her that because she was a woman, he couldn’t support her endeavors. Rather than turn her back on the church or on society, Manikka pursued ministry and later, civic service, sticking to her passions, now with righteous anger fueling her patient, determined heart.
Manikka stood before her audience and celebrated the city’s abundant resources that provide our students with state of the art facilities like the new King Open School and a monetary investment per child near the rates of most private schools.
“But,” she said, “I’m not going to allow a shiny new building to distract me,” from the work that still needs to be done to close the achievement gap between performance markers of white and Asian students versus those of black and Latino students.
I am sure all of the School Committee members, whoever is elected, will work hard to provide our students with the best environment.
But I strongly believe that Manikka is the one to come to the table with ideas and questions and concerns that might otherwise go overlooked. She is the one to check our system and attempt to right it from its grossly lop-sided state.
Does she have my issues at heart?
How privileged am I that currently, I feel my kids’ needs are being met by the public school system. What matters is this: she raises concerns that I didn’t even know were there.
She speaks for those who need a voice.
Vote. November 5, 2019.
Girl in Black and White: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams and the Abolition Movement by Jessie Morgan-Owens
Then, Morgan-Owens piqued my curiosity when she noted that the most popular literary genre of the mid-1850s was the sentimental anti-slavery novel, and that most of those books were written by white women authors. I am an aspiring white woman author. Was there something empowering in wondering how I too could have assisted with such a great turn in our country’s history?
The writer most notably remembered today is Harriet Beecher Stowe. I confess I haven’t read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but I understand its historical significance. What I didn’t know, however, before reading Morgan-Owens’ book, is that the fugitive slaves depicted in Stowe’s story passed for white, and it was their appearance, their relatability, that evoked sympathy of their harborers.
Following Stowe’s literary success, writer Mary Hayden Green Pike soared to success with her tale of Ida May: A Story of Things Actual and Possible. Ida May is a fictional story about a five-year-old white girl who was kidnapped from the north, painted a light brown color and sold into slavery. White readers at the time were scandalized into action. Could this happen to them? Had this happened?
In 1855, when Senator Charles Sumner crossed paths with a little slave girl named Mary Mildred Wiliams who appeared white, he pronounced her a real-life “Ida May” and used her as a political vehicle to gain sympathy for the abolition movement. And it worked -- to a point.
Sumner never wavered in his passion for the movement, but his ideals failed to align with those of African-American slaves. As Morgan-Owens eloquently describes,
“Sumner’s strategy generated sympathy, but at a high cost. By confirming racial difference -- white slave equals white sympathy -- he did not call for sympathy and, more crucially, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for persons of color.” (171)
Addressing a full audience in Boston’s Tremont Temple as the long-awaited last speaker in a lecture series on anti-slavery discourse, Senator Charles Sumner said, among other things, that,
“While discountenancing all prejudice of color and every establishment of caste, the Anti-Slavery Enterprise at least so far as I may speak for it -- does not undertake to change human nature, or to force any individual into relations of life which he is not morally, intellectually and socially adapted.” (213)
Morgan-Owens decodes his meaning further when she explains that “the phrase “relations of life” disassociated the antislavery enterprise from advocating for a wide range of other social rights for African Americans, such as rights to interracial marriage, to vote, and to own property...A pernicious thought poisoned the well. Sumner attacked slavery, but he tolerated segregation.” (213)
Abolitionist Frederick Douglas heard the speech and delineated his disappointment in a letter to his “comrade” Charles Sumner:
“I may be a little sensitive on the subject of our social position. I think I have become more so of late, because I have detected, in some of my old comrades, something like a falling away from their first love, touching the recognition of the entire manhood and social equality of the colored people. I do not mean by this, that every colored man, without regard to his character or attainments, shall be recognized as socially equal to white people who are in these respects superior to him; but I do mean to say that the simple fact of color should not be the criterion by which to ascertain or to fix the social station of any. Let every man, without regard to color, go wherever his character and abilities naturally carry him. And further, let there be no public opinion ready to repel any who are in these respects fit for high social position.” (214, letter from Frederick Douglas to Charles Sumner, April 24, 1855)
Reading Douglas’ words makes me wonder if Sumner fought against the lesser of two evils in order to ensure a victory. He had an argument against the institution of slavery. But he could not gain support for the elevation of his fellow man.
Jessie Morgan-Owens uses the story of Mary Mildred Williams to paint a more sickening story than the offenses of any one particular slave-owner or slave-catcher (as in The Underground Railroad or Sing, Unburied, Sing or Twelve Years a Slave). She gives you the entire twisted society on a platter, where Northerners and Southerners dine at the same table, and where, in the middle of it all, the Yellow House slave jail, “this place of terror and woe...was within plain sight of the U.S. Capitol”. (47)
This story reminded me of the sway Captain James Riley had over Abraham Lincoln as a young boy when he wrote about his experiences as a white slave on the Sahara after being shipwrecked there (as I wrote about in Your sacrifices are not in vain). We want our morality to be in the “right place”, but perhaps, like skin color, it isn’t always as black and white as it seems.
What then, can we learn from this? Is it wrong to have sympathy for those who look like you? What did those white women writers and white abolitionists really accomplish? And would they have engaged as many in the war against slavery had they embraced the notion of fighting for the civil rights of all people?
Perhaps I can take the lead from the author here, who, in her acknowledgements, explains:
“Mary was a child of a mixed race, whose family ought to have a place in American history, and whose childhood was marked by race in ways that I, as a woman raised white, cannot fully, viscerally understand. For this, I was particularly thankful for opportunities to share research with scholars of color, who gave open-handed feedback on this project. It is crucial to recognize where your knowledge simply cannot extend, and where the only remedy will be found in other people.” (283)
What might have happened if Charles Sumner had internalized Frederick Douglas’s requests and modified his speeches to reflect them?
And what can we learn from listening to marginalized voices speaking close to us?
As Morgan-Owens notes, the life of Mary Mildred Williams was mainly silent and was only unearthed by Morgan-Owens in an incredible feat of tedious historical research, making her point clear: we must prepare to be patient and persistent in our own search for truth and justice.
But Morgan-Owens does one thing further -- she explains that “in reparation for [her] ancestors’ part in Louisiana’s history of exploitation, known and unknown, [she] plan[s] to donate 25 percent of the proceeds of this book, and any future earnings from the telling of Mary’s story, to organizations that serve communities of color, and those that work toward liberation in our present moment.” (284)
And you, what will you do?
Before that though, ahead of the kickoff night, my friend and I gathered with other small group leaders in order to get some basic training for our new roles. Fortunately, my friend is a veteran to this kind of thing, and I know I’ll learn a lot just from working with her. But I also tried to soak up the other collective wisdom in the room from the pastors overseeing the curriculum and from the other volunteers.
At one point someone asked how much was expected about keeping in touch with your group members throughout the week, for example through text and email. I pointed out that as a small group member in the moms’ ministry for many years, I always appreciated someone reaching out when there was a particular reason to -- like, getting an email “hug” from the group on the day we put our dog down.
But I heard her subtext -- how deep into relationships do you go?
In the case of a group that is meeting for 8 weeks, with possibility to extend to a second session in the spring, our pastor explained that we are asked to reach out, to provide a space where people can be vulnerable and yes, to pray for them, daily if we can, all of which could provide opportunities for intimate connection.
Then, he said, at the heart of all of these things, we needed to remember foremost that we are meeting our group members at a point in their spiritual journey. Our job is to try to broaden conversations from the day to day struggles to a place where people can consider what God is doing in their lives, where they can pause to listen to what God has to say through a success, hardship, struggle, or grief.
And I as I listened to him, I was acutely aware that I wasn’t talking about how I had a close family member in the hospital. I wasn’t sharing my worries for my family member’s uncertain prognosis. I didn’t want to burden anyone with one more problem they could do nothing about. I chose instead to celebrate with the woman next to me who was still riding the high of her son’s wedding from the weekend prior.
Then I chose to send up my own prayer, asking God to reveal what he was saying to me during this time, knowing that, even though I hadn’t told anyone that day what was going on with me, my pastor had provided the very words I needed to hear...and the very question I needed to ask:
God, what are you saying to me in this?
And now, as I anticipate getting to know the members of our new small group this fall, I pray that God prepares their hearts and that he prepares mine to receive them, wherever they are in life and wherever they are in their spiritual journeys. I look forward to our paths intersecting for awhile and to sharing the walk with new friends.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.