helping handOver the last few months I’ve gotten to know a small group of kids whose names are Jessica, Oliver, Kati, Annabelli, Adelzar,  Zaira, and John. They range in age from 6 to 12. They are, depending on their moods (or mine), enchanting, exasperating, cheerful, stubborn, delightful to be around, pains in the butt. In other words, they are like all kids.

But this bunch is part of a small Latino community that worships on Sunday nights in the church where I’ve worked for the last few years.  A small group of us have been teaching Sunday School to the older kids (listed above) and offering childcare to the younger ones.  We teachers and care givers are all anglos; our small-fry charges are all Latinos—Guatemalans mostly, but also some Mexicanos.

Since I’ve taken a new job and will be moving soon, I won’t be spending my Sunday evenings with these friends any longer. I’m sad about this. I have come to love every one of these beautiful children.  Each in their own way has taught me more about the gospel than many a theology book I’ve read.

These kids can be carefree and innocent; they can also reveal that they know too much of the cruel world. Once, when my co-teacher Rebecca asked the kids to name a time when they were afraid (with the intention of making the point that Jesus calms our fears), Adelzar raised his hand and matter-of-factly described how seeing police cars on the street makes him afraid.  It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the widespread fear of harassment (or worse) by police officers and ICE agents is being passed on from immigrant parents to their young children. (A fear all too often realized here in North Carolina).

It’s also troubling to witness the embarrassment these children often feel about their Latino culture. Or at least their indifference to it. I want to practice my Spanish with them; they want to speak in American slang.  I want to hear them sing Mexican folk songs; they want to impersonate Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers.

That’s typical, I know: the desire to be hip, cool, with it. (My Latino friends would know the proper jargon-of-the -moment term to insert here).  But sometimes I wanted to put my hands on their tiny shoulders and look them in the eye and say, don’t you know how beautiful you are? how fortunate you are to be able to glide effortlessly between perfect Spanish and fluent English? how much you have to give to this world?

But I also know that the deck is stacked against them in many ways. In North Carolina currently, illegal immigrants cannot attend community college. (They could until recently, though they had to pay out-of-state tuition). This is the kind of fear-mongered public policy insanity that makes you want to spit, scream, swear, and hit something.  Unless the law changes, the oldest of the group, Jessica, will not be able to attend any school in the NC Community College System when she graduates from high school. But I have high hopes for Jessica. She’s already planning to be an immigration lawyer, and, thankfully, residential colleges and universities in NC can still admit illegal immigrants into their degree programs.

But the hurdles are still so high. And the prejudice and fear and ignorance so entrenched. In their new book, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate,  authors Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang dispel a host of myths that continue to shape public opinion about immigrants. And they call on people of faith to do the right thing: love the immigrants.

(Shameless plug: see my review of Welcoming the Stranger at Englewood Review of Books).

Last Thursday, President Obama told a bipartisan group of lawmakers that it was time for Congress to revisit immigration reform. It will be interesting to see if there’s much political will on either side of the aisle for anything meaningful to be accomplished. I’m not optimistic—either about the government or about the Church, which is forever more preoccupied with sex (who’s having it and with whom) than with the plight of  the poor–the immigrant poor in this case.

I’m not optimistic, but I want to be hopeful. I want to be hopeful for Jessica, Oliver, Kati, Annabelli, Adelzar,  Zaira, and John and their families and friends.