Last night I went to a human rights march and demonstration in Memphis, Tennessee, titled “Memphis We Belong Here”, organized by a Latino-American group known as Comunidades Unidas en Una Voz, or “United Communities in One Voice”. The event featured speakers and prayers from Islamic, Jewish, and Christian centers/houses of worship, a multilingual speaking program in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew, and an even more diverse attending crowd. (according to this Commercial Appeal article, the crowd numbered around 2,000 people) The march started at the renovated Clayborn Temple building, and ended at the National Civil Rights Museum, the same site as the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968; this was a sobering backdrop as community leaders and activists congregated to shine a light on human rights in the modern age.
I won’t lie, as someone who has never been to a political demonstration, protest, or rally, I felt a little weird jumping in a march and hearing chants that I would usually only hear through my computer or TV speakers echo in the streets around me. Even though I knew I was welcomed and belonged there, I felt like an impostor, and questioned if this was really worth my time. But as the speakers presented their background stories, detailed their visions of a unified community, and yelled their rallying cries for an inclusive society, I knew I made the right choice. I knew because it forced me to recall some memories from my past that reminded me of the plight of the downtrodden, the immigrant, and the refugee.
I have been very blessed to have been able to travel fairly extensively in my 24 years on this Earth, and in those travels have had many fantastic and eye-opening experiences.
My first journey outside of the US was to Mexico, specifically the Oaxaca state, as I joined my mother, next youngest brother, and a group of other church members on a mission trip to an orphanage. We befriended the children, helped around the facilities, and even got to join the children in a game of soccer or two. I was glad my mom agreed to take me, as this trip opened up my eyes to the reality of a broken world around me, but also allowed me to experience the joy that even the most vulnerable kids have in the face of adversity. One of the tasks for our group on the trip was to dig a trench to build a wall that would protect the facility from seasonal water runoff from the nearby mountain. This is the only wall that I hope to build with Mexico: a wall that rings around and protects human beings, and provides a peace of mind; not a wall built on exclusion, not a wall that says “you are not welcome here”.
My more recent journey abroad took me to Greece, a country I am ethnically related to, as my great grandfather was born on the Peloponnese peninsula and emigrated to the United States. I was there on a study abroad program at Harding University, which featured trips to all corners of the country, even though most of our time was spent in a small town outside Athens called Porto Rafti. While the time living among the Greeks and learning about their culture was interesting and enjoyable, it was not devoid of experiences that challenged me and further opened my eyes to the world around me. One of these experiences was an opportunity a number of my group had to serve at a soup kitchen in Athens; this kitchen was specifically geared toward serving groups of Muslim refugees from the Middle East. Our group was told to be attentive to the needs of the crew working the soup kitchen, but we were also encouraged to interact with the refugees; I will never forget the gratitude that many of these people shared with me and my group, nor will I forget the smiles that pierced the harsh reality of being effectively homeless.
Later that summer our study abroad group went on a 10-day trip to Egypt, where we visited cultural and historical centers and sites. Egypt is a majority Muslim country, and although the situation was still not 100% stable after the 2011 revolution, and despite the religious differences, I never once felt in danger. In fact, like the refugees I interacted with back in Athens, the Egyptians I met were overwhelmingly friendly, open, and welcoming. What troubles me today is that so many Americans- many of whom have never met a Muslim, let alone walked in Muslim lands and learned about their religion and culture- have sentenced members of that faith to live in fear for their lives, whether they are abroad as our nation denies refugees a home on our shores, or they are here in America, getting intimidated by hate speech and unfounded accusations of extremism.
When I was making my way back to my car after the demonstration, despite the overwhelming dread that the news headlines carried for many, everyone was seemingly happy, stopping to take pictures with their friends, shaking hands with other attendees, and being in a state of joy with their fellow Memphians. This reminded me of my time in Mexico, Greece, and Egypt, and reignited my own faith in the kindheartedness of the average American, no matter they’re race, religion, or creed.
It stirred in me a conviction to stand up and fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, to advocate for the refugee made homeless by war, and to welcome the immigrant as a brother and sister into this nation that accepted my own ancestors from other lands. It is the duty of the privileged to lift up the disenfranchised, and it is up to the patriot to defend our sacred unity against the tyrannical forces of divisiveness, prejudice, and hate. As a Christian, I believe we are called upon by the Lord to be Good Samaritans, providers of care for the needy, and merciful. I pray that Americans of all backgrounds will pursue these values that each of their respective passages detail, especially in these tumultuous times.
In closing, I leave you with the final stanzas of the poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, which was referenced several times at the demonstration and is engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, a national symbol of freedom and openness:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!