Courageous Conversations

Daniel Simons

While Pope Francis visited New York City, I left for the country, travelling with Trinity Wall Street to one of our partners in the Indaba process (a diocesan program to facilitate deeper conversation among the parishes). We travelled this time to our partners Rural & Migrant Ministries, located in Sullivan County, two hours north of the city.

Sullivan County is surreal: it has that quintessential New York State beauty that the city’s uber-wealthy retreat to for the weekend. But just beneath the tranquil surface lies a disparate reality. Home to thehuge boom-bust resorts of the mid-20th-century, large numbers of service staff and their families were left behind when they closed. The soil of the county is rich, and so the farming attracts migrant workers. Processing plants have moved out of the city into rural areas where there is less scrutiny on labor practices, and where there is a ready pool of desperate, cheap labor. All this creates a hidden wasteland of human suffering with few resources to address it.

During the weekend we listened to teenagers, some brought to the United States when they were very young, tell their vulnerable stories of graduating in the top 10% of their class, then unable to continue their education because of their undocumented status. Of living in fear of anyone in uniform every day of their lives. Of knowing no other culture than this one yet having to remain invisible within it, leaving no trace, feeling the Trump label “rapist and murderer” whizzing above their heads like a heat-seeking missile.

The striking thing about these students was that they were not complaining; their stories were set in the context of an extraordinary resilience and resolve to take responsibility for their lives, contribute to the society around them, and work for the empowerment of others less fortunate than themselves. They have applied the acronym from the thus-far failed D.R.E.A.M. legislation to themselves and are calling themselves DREAMers among us. These are the citizens any country would want to have!

I come away from this weekend thinking, “Wow, Daniel, you really need to get out more!” My perspective, and that of the rest of our group, has been profoundly altered by only a few conversations, with brief contact with people I will not likely meet again, in a way that feels pivotal and long overdue. I return with the admission that I am not as cognizant of the issues as I thought I was (and I believe this is true for many progressive liberals). We hold all the politically correct opinions on the topic, but remain relatively inert in practice, voting in the primary and general elections, and doing little else.

I’m learning through these encounters that in a world so connected, at the collective level my innocent ignorance about an issue can be deadly for so many others. And that to truly understand the issues of the day, I need to know the people behind them. The weekend reinforced again for me that Conversation and Conversion, linked in etymology, are also essentially linked in practice.

As with the Civil Rights pilgrimage I made last month to Alabama, exposure to the people behind the issues has been my conversion point. “Undocumented immigrant” is a much less remote category now that I’ve met these teenagers struggling to find their way in the world. Those in our circle who were undocumented were no less a part of that circle; we were all an essential US.

Pope Francis staked his claim and threw down a challenge on the White House lawn when he said ‘I am the son of immigrants.’ He reinforced his approach in nearly every speech he made: that “rights” are grounded in something deeper than international law but rather in our common humanity or created-ness. It’s not a political discussion but a spiritual and a relational one.

This for me is a hopeful combination: the one voice that courageously uses its privilege to speak truth to the millions, and the million voices — often hidden, discounted, discarded, or suppressed — who gather the courage to tell their story in one-on-one encounter. We, the comfortable, have our own courage to gather: to travel a bit, and listen a lot, to these first-hand stories that we until now have barely heard.

First published on Daniels Blog – In the Momment