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People light candles at the site of a former synagogue in Schwerin, Germany, to mark the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. (Bernd Wuestneck/AFP/Getty Images)

Sophia's World

Responsible for each other

Redefining white guilt and white privilege

A while ago, while working on a story about the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States, I met up with Rabbi Noah Farkas at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. There in his office, Farkas told me a story that I cannot ever forget.  

A little context: I had asked Farkas about his then-recent trip to Berlin to give a presentation on anti-Semitism. I told him I had visited a concentration camp in Munich a year ago, and that I was impressed to see how seriously the German schools taught students about their ugly history. This conversation came in the midst of Farkas expressing his anger and disappointment at our own U.S. government—both the White House and Congress, both our left-wing and the right-wing leaders—for condoning anti-Semitic rhetoric. That’s a big contrast to Germany, a country so horrified by its past that it has an entire department dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. 

Then Farkas paused. There’s a catch to Germany’s hyper-sensitivity toward Jews and anti-Semitism, he said: “There’s this secondary level of anti-Semitism existing in Germany that’s riddled with guilt.” This subtle form of anti-Semitism is one where Jews have become so precious as mandated by state law that it’s ironically creating negative sentiments among Germans who feel like they’ve got to bear a national, ethnic stink forever because of Jews. Meanwhile, Jews remains a tiny minority in Germany—out of about 83 million people in Germany, only about 116,000 are Jewish, or about 0.14 percent of the population. 

“A Jew has become a unicorn,” Farkas said: “It’s a precious animal, very rarely ever seen. The narrative is that because we killed the Jews off, we have to take care of them when we see them.”

The problem with that narrative is that Jews are now perpetual victims, nor are they seen as fellow Germans. They’re some rare breed that don’t belong in Germany but must be handled gingerly and fearfully as one would treat a unicorn. Obviously, that doesn’t make anyone feel good—and signs of resentment and pushback are already brewing in Eastern Europe among people who want to tear off the guilt imposed on them since birth and freely declare themselves proud nationalists without public censure. 

Such is the limit of a government trying to wring certain social and racial attitudes out of a society through punitive laws and censorship: Sometimes, they backfire. 

During his trip to Berlin, Farkas also visited Dresden, a city that at its height in the early 1900s had 6,000 Jews but now has about 700. There, Farkas met with a group of high school students, many of whom had never met a Jew. Farkas told them that though not every German person actively participated in the Holocaust, for the Nazis to have even pulled off the magnitude of decimating 6 million Jews, there had to be millions of Germans at the time who were at least vaguely aware of what was happening but turned a blind eye. 

Later, a high school girl aged 16 went up to Farkas and told her she was working on a project researching the story of a Jewish family who had lived in the house she now lives in. That previous family, of course, had to leave that house because of the Holocaust. Some in the family survived, some didn’t. She came to him with tense shoulders and an expression wrecked with guilt. 

Farkas saw the burden she had shouldered and told her, “I don’t want you to feel guilty. I don’t want you to be born into the world feeling guilty for what your great-grandparents did. But I do want you to feel responsible for the living, breathing Jewish minority communities who are around you.” 

When the girl heard that, she visibly relaxed. Guilt, she could do nothing about except feel awful about herself and the past. But responsibility for those already around her? That seemed something she could uphold with integrity and dignity. 

That’s the difference between feeing guilty and being responsible, Farkas said. Constantly being made to feel guilty only perpetuates hate. Who wants to be born into the world guilty for the sins of our fathers? Eventually, someone will revolt and burn that guilt with the flames of hate. 

But we are born responsible, Farkas said: “That responsibility is just part of the fact that we’re created in the image of God, that we’re all created in the image of God, and so we’re all responsible for each other.” And that responsibility is greater when you know you have certain privileges and resources that others don’t have. 

I thought of this conversation often, particularly as I wrestle with issues of race. What Farkas said about guilt perpetuating hate makes sense in light of the rise of white supremacism and the legions of young, disgruntled white men arguing that they’re now the least privileged and most despised group in the country. I also heard echoes of that during my interviews with former white supremacists

I also saw how this guilt played out in another way. I’ve met white people who carry around with them “white guilt” like a chain around their neck and constantly lament their white privilege in some sort of twisted self-flagellation that really only serves to announce to the world how woke they are. That’s just annoying and patronizing. 

I even recently read a tweet by an actress that said: “I’m sorry I was born white and privileged. It disgusts me. And I feel so much shame.” Now that’s just ridiculous and purposeless. One black friend once told me, “I wish those people would just go and enjoy their lives rather than wring their hands moaning about their whiteness.”

The term “white privilege” triggers a lot of controversy, but I don’t think it should: It’s not meant to invoke guilt, but to remind someone that they may have certain advantages that others don’t have. Some of those advantages fall in racial lines, but we’re all born with certain undeserved privileges, or blessings—be it being born into a healthy two-parent family, or being raised in a good neighborhood with good schools, or being able to drive or shop without inciting suspicion, or enjoying citizenship in a free, prosperous country.

Being “responsible” means being aware of the resources and means we have, and using them for the good and empowering of others. That’s not just some social concept—that’s wholly Biblical: Freely we have received; so freely do we give. 

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Josh Bachman/Las Cruces Sun-News via AP

Bobbie Hutson, a volunteer at El Calvario United Methodist Church, sets up cots for asylum-seekers in Las Cruces, N.M. (Josh Bachman/Las Cruces Sun-News via AP)

Sophia's World

Jesus at the border

The Savior’s love for a widow in the Bible reminded me of the Christian compassion I saw in El Paso

Two weeks before the shooting happened in El Paso, Texas, I was in that city reporting on what local churches in border communities are doing to help one of the most politicized groups in our country today.

El Paso has attracted a lot of media attention lately, not just because its high number of apprehensions of asylum-seekers at the border, but because of reports of inhumane conditions at its Border Patrol stations. The pictures of hundreds of migrants cramped in cages, the reports of underfed, neglected children in filthy, overcrowded cells—all these stories have horrified most Americans, though I’ve also heard some people comment that if conditions in the United States are so bad, these people should just “go back to their countries.” 

So when I flew to Texas in July, I was ready to see something more hopeful. I wanted to see local churches doing something different regarding this controversial, emotionally charged issue.

What I saw were members of the community giving so much that they filled storage rooms and lobbies with mountains of boxes stuffed with diapers, snacks, underwear, socks, and more. One volunteer told me a church filled his truck with so many donations that things were falling out as he drove off. That says a lot, because I know that most people in this community are not financially well off.

I saw a tiny, Spanish-speaking church of only 12 members open its doors to 40 asylum-seekers twice a week. The congregants use every inch of space for the effort, even turning the pastor’s office into a processing room. They’re now planning to do this ministry full time as one of the church’s core missions. Staff members from the nonprofit Save the Children came to visit the church, and one told me, “This church is unbelievably generous. I’ve been to a lot of places of charity, and this place has been the most incredible—and that’s coming from us, a secular organization.” 

I met many individuals who had been working tirelessly for years before this issue became national daily news: There’s Sami Dipasquale of Abara, who after 15 years of serving youths and families in downtown El Paso, saw the pressing challenges at the border. For years, he’s been helping connect churches on both sides of the border and guiding interested parties to the border to learn the realities on the ground. 

There’s 21-year-old Gustavo de los Rios, who drives back and forth between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez about three times a week, carrying loads of donations to church shelters in Juárez that don’t have enough resources to help all the migrants in their neighborhood. The day I met him, he was off to Juárez again to help deliver air conditioners to church shelters that have been suffering in the unbearable summer heat. 

There’s Joseph Gainor, the refugee ministry coordinator of an Anglican church in downtown El Paso, who says through his volunteer work he learned “first of all, that God is good, and God always provides.” 

It’s not just material goods or money that He provides, but servant-hearted people—individuals who feel moved to help by cooking, filling out paperwork, playing with the kids, picking up the migrants and sending them off at the bus station or airport. Women in their 80s would show up to pick up all the dirty laundry and bring in fresh sheets the next day. When medical supplies ran out, volunteers dashed to the nearest pharmacy and purchased things out of their own pockets. 

As a Christian journalist, I try to look for Scripture passages that provide a framework to my reporting. Going into the El Paso trip, I thought I already had the guiding Bible verses down—there’s Deuteronomy 10:19, Leviticus 19:34, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Ezekiel 47:22—solid words commanding us to welcome the immigrant. 

But I’ll be honest: Although these verses stirred a sense of moral imperative in me, they didn’t quite strike deep into my heart. I received these Scriptures with an intellectual understanding, a fear of God, and frankly, a sense of pressure: I shall love the alien as myself; I’ll be cursed if I withhold justice from the foreigner; I must not oppress the alien. ... They are a lot of commanding, authoritative, imperative verbs. 

Then last Sunday, a day after the El Paso shooting, my church studied Luke 7:11-17. 

Here’s the passage:

Soon afterward [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.

This familiar story doesn’t directly reference immigrants and refugees, but it still struck me afresh in light of all that had occurred in the past two weeks—seeing Christians serve the stranger with sacrificial generosity, and then hearing the news on the horrible mass murder in El Paso, a deliberate, violent statement against immigration and brown people. 

This story isn’t just about the miracle of Jesus raising the dead. It’s about that woman—a widow who, after all the public wailing and mourning of the funeral, will mostly likely be forgotten because she probably isn’t the only widow in town. She is a nobody—she has no advocate, no power, no voice, no valuable contribution to society in the eyes of her neighbors. Jesus didn’t just perform that miracle to show everyone that He is God. He did it to display to everyone His amazing love. Those who only marveled at the dead rising would be missing the deep implications of what actually happened. 

You see, Jesus saw that widow among the crowd. Out of all the people gathered around Him and thronging the streets of the town of Nain, he noticed her. He saw the suffering of someone who’d lost her status and protection and security. He saw her loneliness, her fears, the reality of her circumstances—and He had compassion on her. Then He did a strange thing: He told the widow not to weep, even though He knew she had every reason to do so. But He knew something she didn’t: There will be a time when her tears are wiped away and there is no more death or mourning or pain, because He has come to dwell among men.

Throughout my reporting at the border, volunteers told me the same thing over and over: They said they’re simply being “the hands and feet of Jesus.” That phrase is so familiar to me that I had lost grip of its meaning—until I wondered what He would do at the border if He saw everything that’s happening to the asylum-seekers. 

Today, we are the body of Christ, and we’re receiving a group of people who, like the widow of Nain, have lost their status and protection and security. They have no power or voice and are considered too poor and too uneducated to bring any real value to our society. They are, for political, economic, and social reasons, often despised and mischaracterized. As secular as our nation has become, Americans still look to churches for examples of hope and compassion. And they should, because we worship the only Lord and Savior who walked the earth and offered compassion to the despised, the poor, and the oppressed, from wealthy tax collectors to banished lepers.

That’s why what I saw churches doing at the border was nothing short of a miracle: They weren’t serving just because the Bible commanded it—they did it because they were first touched by the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. It’s not an act of obligation, but an act inspired, motivated, and sustained by an undeserved, God-given love.

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A migrant mother and her son take shelter in a church in Las Cruces, New Mexico. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Sophia's World

Encouragement for a journalist

A visit with a New Mexico church sheltering asylum-seekers put a spring in my step

Early this summer, I joined a group of World Journalism Institute students via Skype to talk about my experiences as a Christian journalist. World Journalism Institute is an intensive course that teaches participants how to do Biblical journalism, and I myself am a WJI alumna. 

After my brief talk, several students raised their hands to ask questions. One student asked if I ever feel tempted to join a nonprofit while reporting on it. Don’t I sometimes get so excited by the concrete, compassionate work a group is doing that I want to be part of it rather than merely writing about it? I said no, because I feel pretty clear about my calling as a journalist. I said I know I’m doing exactly what God called me to do, so I don’t envy other vocations. 

That said, journalism can sometimes be discouraging work. After all, I’m not effecting much change—I’m usually following the wake of tragedies and crises, observing and writing about the tears and anger and hurt instead of stopping them from happening or making the suffering go away. It can also be discouraging when I feel like I’m not changing any opinions about certain critical issues, such as immigration or race.

It was with this somewhat discouraged heart that I visited the El Paso Border Patrol Sector last week to report on the ongoing border crisis. Just six months or so ago, to call what’s happening at the southern border a “crisis” would have provoked bellows of outrage from liberals. Now, almost nobody denies that the situation has hit “crisis” level. 

The El Paso Sector, which encompasses the entire state of New Mexico plus two counties in far-west Texas, has seen the largest increase in unauthorized border crossings this year compared with other sectors. This fiscal year in this one sector alone, Border Patrol officers apprehended 14,953 unaccompanied minors, 117,612 family units, and 23,595 single adults. Most came from impoverished, violence-riddled parts of Central America. 

For four days, I visited El Paso, Texas; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. There, dozens of local churches have been sheltering and ministering to the hundreds of asylum-seekers that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol are releasing each day. On my second day of reporting, I spent an entire day at Las Cruces, a desert city of about 100,000 residents. The last church I visited in Las Cruces was a nondenominational church of about 120 members called Sierra Vista Community Church. 

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