(RNS) — For about two years, Rosa Gutierrez Lopez avoided deportation by taking sanctuary in Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, residing in the Bethesda, Maryland, church just nine miles from the White House.Now, Gutierrez Lopez — who is living independently with her children after she was granted a stay of removal — is urging lawmakers to enact policies that offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants like herself.
Lately, she’s been back in church — but this time, at Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington, D.C., where she has joined clergy and others in a three-week fast to pressure Congress to include a pathway to citizenship for essential workers and undocumented immigrants as part of the infrastructure bill and budget reconciliation process.
For Gutierrez Lopez, an immigrant from El Salvador, this push is necessary as she seeks to reach legal status to remain with and care for her children. The youngest has Down syndrome.
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This matter is also necessary in order to “liberate the children who are in detention centers,” Gutierrez Lopez told Religion News Service.
Dubbed #WeAreEssential Faith Fast for Freedom, the nationwide fasting effort began June 9 and was led by the congregation-based organizing network Faith in Action in partnership with groups including CASA, the Congregation Action Network, FIRM Action and the Service Employees International Union.
Fasters rotated each week until Wednesday (June 30), when activists and clergy broke the fast with a gathering and interfaith blessing inside the sanctuary at Lutheran Church of the Reformation. More than 65 people fasted in D.C., and more than 100 fasted in solidarity across the country.
Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas attended the gathering Wednesday and said “essential workers deserve citizenship,” adding that the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate need to pass legislation to make it so.
Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, left, speaks to activists in the sanctuary of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington, D.C. Video screen grab
Castro spoke of farmworkers toiling in 100-degree weather in the Pacific Northwest, in the wake of news that one farmworker died Saturday at an Oregon work site during the heat wave.
“People literally sacrificing their bodies to make sure Americans have food to eat,” Castro said. ”It’s been that way during the pandemic, but you know it’s been that way for long before that. This is a long time coming and it’s long overdue.”
Castro said many members of Congress are aware of the fasters’ efforts. “We’re going to do everything that we can to pass this bill or get it done through reconciliation. Immigration reform should be in the reconciliation package.”
Maria Chavalan Sut, who fasted for this campaign, was among the speakers on Wednesday. Chavalan Sut, an Indigenous Mayan woman, previously lived in sanctuary for nearly three years at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I came to this country seeking refuge. … We’ve all been immigrants at one point of our existence,” she said at the gathering.
With fists up in the air, the Rev. Alvin Herring, executive director of Faith in Action, led attendees in a chant: “What do we want? Citizenship! When do we want it? Now!”
Herring thanked the fasters and said their effort is “what faith looks like.”
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During the three-week campaign, fasters met with several Democratic lawmakers at the church, including Judy Chu, Mark Takano and Alex Padilla of California; Chuy Garcia of Chicago; Gerry Connolly of Virginia; Joe Neguse of Colorado; and Pramila Jayapal of Washington state.
Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville of the Archdiocese of Washington also met with fasters at the church on Monday, while Julian Castro, former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, joined his brother Joaquin at the church last week.
Religious leaders from across the country and of different faiths fasted or otherwise showed support for the effort.
Hyattsville Mennonite Church pastor Cynthia Lapp fasted for five days in support of the campaign. Muslim and Christian leaders, including San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy, gathered in San Diego on Monday to pray and demand a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. A rabbinic delegation visited the Lutheran church on June 23 to hear testimonies from immigrants.
For Julio Hernandez, with Congregation Action Network, advocating for immigrant rights is part of the gospel.
“This is central to our faith, to be with the poor, to be with those fleeing danger, those who are hungry,” Hernandez, director of family ministries at Christ Crossman United Methodist Church in Virginia, told RNS.
Hernandez, who is a U.S. citizen, has fasted twice for about three days as part of the effort. He said his mother, who is from El Salvador, was undocumented until a church helped her secure legal status.
Others around him haven’t been as lucky. Hernandez recalled a young woman who wanted to kill herself after her parents told her she was undocumented. He’s also aware of immigrant youth who don’t qualify for protected status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
“I want families like mine to have the same opportunities I had,” said Hernandez.
ZARZIS, Tunisia (AP) — Most of the headstones have dates but no names. Row after row of palest white, practically gleaming in the Mediterranean sun. The cemetery in Zarzis is nearly exactly as Rachid Koraïchi pictured it when he sketched his vision of the “Garden of Africa” that would be the final resting place for hundreds of anonymous men, women and children whose bodies have washed up on the shores of this coastal Tunisian city in recent years.
For him, it was a duty “to make a burial ground, one with presence and intelligence, so that one day the families, the fathers, the mothers, the tribes and the countries know that their children are in a heavenly place, the first step to heaven,” Koraïchi told The Associated Press.
Zarzis is a port city where migrants bound for Europe frequently wind up after their boats go astray in the Mediterranean’s uncertain currents. One of its cemeteries is already filled with those who died trying to make the crossing. Zarzis residents refused to bury migrants in the local Muslim cemeteries.
So Koraïchi decided that the newly dead needed their own burial ground and he bought a plot of land in honor of his brother, who himself drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to migrate to Europe. “They died in the same waters, they died in the same sea and were taken by the same salt,” he said.
His cemetery officially opened June 9 with a plan for 600 graves, but he had already been accepting bodies since 2019, soon after he bought the land. It is already one-third full. Koraïchi pays for the burials out of his own pocket.
He planted a small garden in the midst of an olive orchard, dotted with pomegranate trees and fragrant jasmine and interspersed with glazed tiles and winding walkways.
In all, around 600 sets of remains are interred in the two cemeteries for migrants. Only three have names.
“For too long, humanity has shown its powerlessness, even indifference, when men and women drown and there are too many who look away,” Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director general, said on a visit to the region June 9 to donate a statue to the cemetery.
As for the belongings that wash up in Zarzis after the shipwrecks, many of them are collected in a nearby museum. Clothes, toys, scraps of identity documents — in all more than 125,000 shards of lives lost trying to reach Europe over more than two decades.
Mohsen Lihidheb, the museum’s founder, is particularly troubled by the shoes, worn over months and years of walking.
“These are the shoes used during the crossing of the Libyan desert which was not easy,” he said. “They did not manage to get new shoes in the rich countries, but died in the sea wearing these shoes.”
Since the beginning of this year, 677 people have died on the stretch of central Mediterranean coastline from Libya into Tunisia trying to reach Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. That figure has risen considerably since last year’s slowdown in migration due to the pandemic, despite Europe’s efforts to block departures.
Hinnant reported from Paris. Bouazza ben Bouazza contributed from Tunis.
Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration
(RNS) — As India suffers through a devastating surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths, the Indian diaspora is experiencing a swirl of conflicting emotions. Our relief in North America, where widespread vaccinations have likely put the worst of the pandemic behind us, is shadowed by the fear we hear from our loved ones on video calls and WhatsApp. We also hear the rage many feel toward India’s political leaders for their deadly decisions.Faced with a pandemic that coincided with state elections, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others allowed political rallies to continue despite the impossibility of social distancing. They encouraged dangerous behavior by speaking and interacting with others while not masked. Modi’s government and local allies in Uttarakhand also failed to cancel the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival in Haridwar, allowing it to become a superspreader event; attendees carried the virus back to hundreds of towns and villages.
Human-made tragedies that occur as a result of allowing such events as the Kumbh Mela to continue are especially hard for diasporic Hindus like me to watch, because Hinduism is so much a part of how we understand our relationship to India. Modi’s rise to power, and his increasingly authoritarian governance (like the wannabe dictator we Americans just kicked out of the White House), means we must critically examine how ethnic pride results in soft-pedaling our criticisms of the Indian government.
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Immigration is a theologizing experience. Amid the turmoil and challenge of moving across the world, many immigrants find in religion not just spiritual comfort but the space and time to connect with those who share the experience. Hindu temples and cultural organizations are places where immigrants and their children can be their authentic selves and experience their heritage through its languages, cultural traditions and religious rituals.
This often results in a conflation of religion, culture and national identity. Hinduism is by far India’s majority religion, and it defines culture and identity as Christianity does in the U.S. We can see this in the way Hinduism’s traditional funeral pyres have come to symbolize India’s COVID-19 crisis. These scenes of suffering simultaneously render invisible India’s many religious minorities, including Muslims, Christians and Zoroastrians (Parsis) who do not cremate their dead.
Having written a book on white Christian privilege in the U.S., I see how Hindus in India are affected by the power of being the majority, even as they do not see that power, common for a dominant group. India used to be better at squaring its diversity with its principles.
This is not to hold up India, in any time, as an ideal. Bollywood imagines Sikhs as buffoons, and the history of partition and wars with Pakistan cause Muslim Indians to be viewed as suspect. No decade or election has been completely free of sectarian violence.
Still, when I started my academic career more than 20 years ago, I thought India might emerge as a model for religious pluralism in a secular democracy. Unlike the United States, where national holidays of religious origin are Christian, many faiths’ holidays are recognized in India. Despite Hindus comprising about 80% of India’s population, religious minorities have held top government positions, including Muslim presidents and a Sikh prime minister.
By contrast, among U.S. presidents, being Catholic counts as religious diversity. The constitution that identifies India as “secular” protects the rights of all to freely practice their religion.
Modi has been changing the nation’s trajectory, politicizing religion by embracing and governing from Hindutva, an ideology that emphasizes Hinduism as essential to India’s identity and superior to the nation’s other faiths. From a proposed ban on the sale and slaughter of beef cattle, to a new citizenship law that Human Rights Watch calls “inherently discriminatory” against Muslims, Modi and his allies aim to make one religion the law of the land.
In this March 7, 2021, file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally ahead of West Bengal state elections in Kolkata, India. (AP Photo/Bikas Das, File)
Modi’s governance is part of an emerging illiberalism around the globe, amid appeals to exclusionary national identity. Because of India’s history of sectarian conflict and political violence, not least the Hindu-Muslim violence associated with Modi’s political beginnings in Gujarat 20 years ago, Modi’s Hindutva flexing doesn’t just go against secular traditions; it fans the flames of violence. Indian American Hindus need to raise our voices in opposition.
Diasporic Hindu opposition to Modi is made harder, however, because in both academic and progressive political circles there is a bias against religion and a discomfort with talking about faith. Some have left organized religion because of its role in the oppression of marginalized communities; others regard it, to quote Marx, as “the opiate of the masses.” In academic and activist spaces, particularly among South Asian Americans, to identify as Hindu is to be equated with Hindutva and, by extension, the pro-Modi BJP.
When I was a graduate student, soon to be looking for a faculty position, I was attending a conference with my ethnic studies colleagues. It happened to fall on Shivratri, a holiday that I observe by fasting. Knowing that the bias against religion in the field of ethnic studies often extends to a bias against people who are religious, I went out of my way to fast in secret. I kept quiet about the holiday and found somewhere else to be at mealtimes, because I worried my faith practice would be held against me based on the presumed political stance it represented.
Since then, I have struggled — not to reconcile my faith with my political progressivism, since I regard them as complementary, not contradictory. Rather I have struggled to find ways to voice my love for India in the same way I express my love for the United States: by taking pride in its culture, ideals and vision, while working hard to correct what’s wrong.
More of us need to understand loving India not as uncritically defending it, but as making sure India can flourish as a religiously pluralistic democracy.
In the diaspora, we need to divorce the idea of supporting India, or being Hindu, from supporting the Modi government or Hindutva. For those of us who are Hindu and are angry about the oppression of religious minorities in India, that means expressing our support for India by raising our voices against that oppression.
Wanting justice, supporting the greater good for everyone in India, means getting out of our comfort zones. India is our beloved nation of origin and the growing global power that makes us proud. Today it is also a troubled nation sliding toward autocracy and greater peril for religious minorities.
The Indian diaspora has a tremendous amount of influence here and in India, and it’s time we used it. For Hindus, that means asking the hard question: Are we for justice, or just us?
This column is produced by Religion News Service with support from the Guru Krupa Foundation.