The fate of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act rests in part with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who’s feeling the heat in her home state for opposing the legislation.
Sinema styles herself as an independent in the tradition of the late Arizona Sen. and Republican presidential candidate John McCain. The maverick approach plays well in a technically new blue state where registered Republicans still outnumber Democrats. In 2019, Sinema became Arizona’s first Democratic senator in 24 years, and last year, fellow Arizonan Mark Kelly followed her campaign’s moderate Democrat playbook to win his own Senate race.
But in obstructing a key piece of Biden’s agenda that’s broadly supported in Arizona and by Democrats back in Washington, Sinema has drawn the ire of Democrats back home, like Jade Duran, who told The New York Times, “I will never vote for her again.”
Sinema isn’t up for reelection until 2024, but efforts are already underway to replace her after she failed to so far sign onto Biden’s climate and social safety net bill. A new political action committee, Primary Sinema PAC, is raising money to prepare for a future primary to unseat the first-term senator.
“Sen. Sinema has decided to use her power as a United States Senator to slow down progress and empower Mitch McConnell at President Biden’s expense,” the group says on its website. “She is listening to corporate donors and lobbyists instead of the grassroots volunteers and voters who elected her. Senator Sinema will be up for re-election in 2024, but we can’t afford to wait.”
Protesters are also getting more confrontational. On Sunday, activists from the immigration reform group Living United for Change in Arizona confronted Sinema at Arizona State University, where she lectures, filming her while following her into a bathroom. Sinema said in a statement the activists were not legitimately protesting.
“Yesterday’s behavior was not legitimate protest,” Sinema said. “It is unacceptable for activist organizations to instruct their members to jeopardize themselves by engaging in unlawful activists such as gaining entry to closed university buildings, disrupting learning environments, and filming students in a restroom.”
A poll from OH Predictive Insights last month found Sinema had a 56% approval rating among Democrats. She’s still popular, but much more vulnerable than Kelly, who was at 80% approval among Democrats.
Sinema’s office reiterated her independence when asked about her standing in Arizona.
“Kyrsten has always promised Arizonans she would be an independent voice for the state — not for either political party,” Sinema spokesman John LaBombard told the Times in a statement. “She’s delivered on that promise and has always been honest about where she stands.”
Sinema, 45, didn’t take a linear path into politics. She graduated from Brigham Young University in just two years, and earned her M.S., J.D., and Ph.D. degrees from Arizona State University. A former Green Party spokeswoman and anti-war activist, she’s since become a centrist and member of the Senate’s so-called “G-20” bipartisan group. She served in the Arizona state legislature from 2005 to 2012, and in 2013, at the age of 36, she was sworn in as the first openly bisexual member of Congress.
She’s angered her party’s progressive flank before, like in March when she voted down a $15 federal minimum wage increase with a thumbs down on the Senate floor.
Her stance on the 10-year, $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act could further upset Democrats, who almost universally support it. An August survey of likely voters by Data for Progress, a progressive nonprofit, found 95% of Democrats support the legislation, as do 65% of Arizonans. Sinema co-negotiated the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that’s stalled in Congress alongside the Biden bill.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., the other conservative Senate Democrat opposed to the Build Back Better Act, has said he would back a slimmed down $1.5 trillion version of the bill, but Sinema has not publicly indicated a number she’s willing to support. Politico cartoonist Matt Wuerker illustrated Arizona and West Virginia’s outsized role in the negotiations conveyed with a redrawn map that shows how much hinges on the two conservative Democrats.
Though Sinema’s endgame remains elusive to political observers, last week she held a fundraiser with business lobbying groups opposed to the bill, according to an invitation obtained by The New York Times. The groups listed on the invitation include the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and the National Grocers PAC, whose director of government relations, Robert Yeakel, wrote in a blog post last month that the bill was a “smorgasbord of spending priorities.”
The lack of clarity about what Sinema would support was a joke in “Saturday Night Live’s” cold open this weekend, with the senator played by Cecily Strong.
“What do I want from this bill? I’ll never tell, because I didn’t come to Congress to make friends, and so far, mission accomplished,” Strong said.
Biden told House Democrats last week he expected the bill to likely be pared down to between $1.9 trillion to $2.3 trillion, according to Politico. The Build Back Better Act includes funding for two free years of community college, child care and universal pre-K, an extension of the child tax credit through 2025, and measures to combat climate change.
Sinema co-negotiated a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that the Senate passed in August. Named the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a vote in the House was canceled last week because moderates and progressives have not yet come to an agreement on the full details of how much of Biden’s agenda they’ll pass.
Summer nights in Kabul, Afghanistan, are normally cool and dry, a welcome respite from the daytime heat. But on an August night an overcast sky made it cool and dark, ideal conditions for Sayed and his family to escape the country. If their plan didn’t work, it might never work. In just over 100 hours, the deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal would arrive, and the country’s collapse into Taliban hands would be complete.
After working eight years as an interpreter for the U.S. military, Sayed was a wanted man in Afghanistan. But he had his golden ticket out: an email from the U.S. Embassy saying that he was cleared to board a flight, destination unknown. The embassy email had this caveat: “Please be advised that a significant number of individuals have registered, and space on these flights is available on a first-come, first-serve basis.” Sayed understood the uncertainty. Twice he attempted to go to the airport the previous day, but massive crowds and Taliban checkpoints blocked his efforts to leave.
Tonight, though, he had a much more elaborate plan, delivered through a string of WhatsApp messages originating from Texas. He would go to a certain location in the city, and there board a bus with other strangers in similar predicaments — former translators or contractors — that would take them straight to the airport.
By the time Sayed, his wife, their three children and their nephew arrived, there was already a crowd forming around the bus. Only five families were scheduled to go, but dozens of other onlookers desperately tried to force their way onboard. Sayed’s family made it on the bus, but he remained stuck outside in what resembled a mosh pit. Fights broke out and a Taliban member soon arrived.
The Taliban member stepped onto the bus. “If you drive anyone to the airport,” he told the driver, “we will kill you.”
In this Aug. 22, 2021, image provided by the U.S. Air Force, a U.S. Air Force loadmaster, assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, readies a cargo bay for evacuees aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of Operation Allies Refuge at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Senior Airman Brennen Lege/U.S. Air Force via Associated Press
There is no easy way out of a country collapsing by the minute. The difficulty compounds when a job with the United States puts a target on your back. In mid-August, I spoke to three such individuals in Afghanistan — a former interpreter (Sayed), a vehicle contractor and a construction worker for the U.S. military — who were desperately trying to find a way out for themselves and their families.
In theory, they should have been eligible for special immigrant visas, a legal pathway paved by Congress in 2009 for Afghans whose service to the U.S. put them in danger. In practice, by mid-August, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was emptied, the Taliban was retaking power, and no time or resources were available for a tedious visa process.
My early conversations with each of these men were similar: They expressed fear and desperation. They were frustrated with what they viewed to be a broken promise by the U.S. government. They were in hiding and they didn’t know how long they would survive.
“The Taliban members don’t listen,” Sayed said. “They’re following just one ideology, which is to kill. That’s it.”
“We don’t know what’s going on and what’s happening next,” another said. “But the only thing we know is that we will not survive.”
“We will die,” the third, Abidullah, told me. “This is our future now. We can’t do anything.”
As news reports of allies left behind consumed U.S. media, some 3,500 troops were returned to Afghanistan to facilitate an airlift. But that was after makeshift evacuation operations of veterans and volunteers began to independently form in response. The ad hoc groups included congressional staffers gathering names and contact information for people in the visa backlog or those who should be eligible. Nonprofits and other agencies raised funds for chartered flights out of Kabul. Groups of veterans formed an Underground Railroad-style operation that pulled together the disparate work to evacuate over 1,000 refugees.
A pair of veterans in Celina, Texas, were among those orchestrating the rescue missions. Valentina Simich served in the Navy; her husband, Andy, was a reconnaissance Marine. Neither served in Afghanistan, but Valentina had been involved with refugee humanitarian projects previously in Greece and elsewhere. When she started hearing stories about the situation in Afghanistan, she and her husband felt a pressing desire to do something, though they didn’t know where to start.
Valentina Simich, left, and her husband, Andy Simich.
“Valentina can’t see something going on on the other side of the world and not feel compassion for someone who is suffering,” Andy said of his wife. “She felt a moral responsibility to not leave anyone behind in Kabul.”
The couple connected with a woman in Colorado who’d been active in refugee aid previously, and they received a list of people from congressional offices who were trying to get out and might be eligible for visas. Their task was to contact as many as they could, help them fill out applications and find a way out of the country.
They eventually tapped into a huge network of veterans and interpreters who, like the Simiches, independently took on the task to evacuate Afghan refugees.
Andy connected with some of the special forces in Kabul and got information about flights and when certain airport gates would be open. Valentina stayed in constant contact with dozens of individuals in Afghanistan and organized transportation to the airport.
For two weeks, this was the daily battle for these volunteers — trying to console and aid the evacuees, creating transportation plans, maneuvering an evacuation for dozens of people on the other side of the globe, in a country neither had ever visited. “These were complete strangers,” Valentina said. “I mean, I just reached out to them and said, ‘I‘m trying to help you out with this evacuation request.’ And they just trusted us.”
Abidullah worked as a construction worker on a U.S. military base, and he met all the requirements for a special immigration visa. Earlier this year, he passed both of the required interviews at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In June, though, the embassy closed due to COVID-19; in August, all embassy staff were evacuated from the country.
The day after the embassy evacuation, Abidullah, or Abid, told me that he didn’t see a way out. “No one cares if I live,” he said. “(The U.S.) forgot our struggles and everything we did for them.”
A friend told Abid that Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., was compiling a list of individuals who needed a way out of the country and connecting them with resources. Abid emailed her, asking for help but received no response. At the end of the month, he received a surprise message: an email from a “state.gov” address with a visa attached and instructions on how to leave the country. Get to the airport, the email instructed, and if there is room on a plane, he could board.
Abid boarded a bus in Khost, some 200 miles from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. When he reached Terah Pass, just outside of the Logar Province, the bus was stopped at a Taliban checkpoint, with 20 or 25 armed Taliban members waiting. Several boarded the bus and began questioning the passengers.
“Why are you going to Kabul?” a Taliban member asked Abid, a gun slung over his shoulder.
Just days earlier, Abid heard about a friend who was killed at one of these checkpoints. Abid told those at the checkpoint that he was a student, going to his university in Kabul. When asked, he denied he’d done any work for the U.S. armed forces. They didn’t check his documentation, and he was able to go. “If I would’ve told them I worked for the (U.S.) government, they would have killed me,” Abid told me later.
When he arrived at the airport, he saw huge crowds of people at the surrounding fence. U.S. armed forces were stationed inside the fence and at every gate to the airfield, while the outside streets were patrolled by Taliban members. He wondered how long he would have to wait in the crowd — or if he’d ever make it on a plane.
Abid stayed all day, and during the early hours of the morning, the crowd started to dissipate. He inched his way toward the gate and showed his documentation to a U.S. armed forces member, who guided him to a plane. He flew to Germany then to the U.S., where is staying at Fort Lee, an Army base in northern Virginia. During the three weeks since he arrived in America, he filled out paperwork and ran biometrics while he waits to hear where he can settle and start a new life.
“I am fully excited, and very comfortable,” he told me, expressing himself as well as he can in English. But then his tone changed. “I’m worried about one thing. My family is still left in Afghanistan.”
Abid’s spouse chose not to travel with him to the airport. The 200-mile journey to Kabul was dangerous, and they’d seen news reports of people being trampled in the crowds at the airport. They understood that his wife could come to the U.S. at a later date should Abid make it. When that will happen is unknown, as her situation is largely unchanged.
In this Aug. 22, 2021, image provided by the U.S. Air Force and made through a night vision scope, a U.S. Air Force security forces raven, assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, assists evacuees boarding a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of Operation Allies Refuge at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Senior Airman Brennen Lege, U.S. Air Force via Associated Press
Of the three individuals I spoke with from Afghanistan last month, the most hopeless and bleak circumstances were depicted in a conversation with a man in Kabul. He asked that I withhold his name because he feared retaliation from the Taliban. He hoped the anonymity would buy him some more time to escape.
“We are betrayed,” he told me. “We are trapped. We are waiting behind a closed door for someone to come and haul us outside and execute us in front of our family.”
He served for a decade as a vehicle contractor, but his U.S. military supervisor did not identify himself as a “direct supervisor” in the letter of recommendation and the application was denied. He spent seven years unsuccessfully trying to track down the supervisor. Other translators or contractors who aided the Canadian or British militaries worked a fraction of the time and they were already out of Afghanistan, he told me, while he was left behind because of a technicality.
My last communication with this man was on Aug. 26, days before the U.S. completed its evacuation. “I want you to know what is the ground reality about the evacuation,” he said in a WhatsApp message. “This evacuation seems to be a big lie and betrayal to the real allies. US communities might be happy that their efforts worked for their allies, but they are also misguided. Only 10% of SIV applicants might get the chance to fly. The rest are left desperately.”
After receiving that, none of my WhatsApp messages to him were delivered.
I first connected with this man through a volunteer at the National Immigration Forum named Christina Staats, a woman in Ohio who joined with the ad hoc groups of volunteers arranging flights out of Afghanistan. She sent me an unexpected email on Sept. 10. She’d somehow tracked down the Air Force commander who’d been this man’s supervisor years earlier, and she got another letter of recommendation. They resubmitted his special immigrant visa application and are now waiting for a new case number.
The man and his family have escaped Afghanistan and are in hiding in the region since being summoned to a Taliban court for his work aiding the U.S. military, Staats told me. Plans are underway to get them to a more secure location. His home in Kabul — stocked with months worth of food — is now being used as a safe house for others in the “underground railroad” operation.
This is the same man who, a month ago, told me that he didn’t know much, but “the one thing we know is that we will not survive.” So far, he’s beating the odds.
Valentina and Andy Simich pose for a family portrait near their home in Celina, Texas.
On that cool, dark August night, with Sayed’s family on the bus and Sayed stuck in a crush of people outside, the driver was scared off by the Taliban’s threat and the bus was abandoned. Sayed and his family returned to their home, dismayed and anxious, unsure if their only chance to leave the country was squandered. It was midnight, and they sent frantic messages to Valentina and Andy, who were orchestrating evacuation efforts from Texas.
Telling them to arrive to the airport on their own probably wouldn’t work — the crowds were overwhelming, and Sayed already tried that twice, to no avail — so they needed some mode of transportation that would get them right to the gate. After the chartered bus arrangement failed, Andy and Valentina managed to locate five vehicles and instructed Sayed to meet up with another family at 2 a.m. for another attempt to drive to an airport gate. Sayed and his family didn’t arrive at the airport until 6 a.m., and by then, the crowds were already surrounding the gate. Sayed and his family were in one of only three cars allowed in.
They are now at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, living in a tent with four other families. It’s cold at night, he says, and they aren’t given much to eat.
But “if I compare (it to Afghanistan), we are much safer,” he said. “We are no more in danger.”
In total, Valentina and Andy have helped 56 individuals get out of Afghanistan. They are still in touch with several remaining families, and they hope they can raise money, find sponsors for humanitarian parole (a legal pathway that allows individuals to enter a country without a processed visa) and at least get the families to Iran or Pakistan.
For all the U.S. lost during its Afghanistan withdrawal — dozens of lives, billions of dollars and damage to its global reputation — the recent Afghan arrivals who hope to start life anew are the products of heroes.
“We feel a weight to help, and that’s it,” Andy said. “To us, it was just a part of bettering humanity.”
(RNS) — The Rev. Myrlande DesRosiers likens what has happened to Haiti in the past few months to biblical plagues: the mounting death toll of COVID-19, the assassination of the Haitian president and a massive 7.2 magnitude earthquake in August that left thousands dead on the island nation and reduced homes to rubble.And this month, a fourth catastrophe: the mass deportation of Haitian migrants by federal agents along the U.S.-Mexico border.
It’s a belief in eventual deliverance that gives DesRosiers, founder of the Everett Haitian Community Center in Massachusetts, hope. “The day will come where God will elevate these people,” she said. “But in the meantime, we continue to do the best that we can and work with our partners to denounce the inhumane treatment.”
DesRosiers is one of several U.S. religious leaders who have lambasted the U.S. government’s treatment of Haitian migrants in recent weeks after mounted border agents were caught on video earlier this month as they swung leather straps at Haitians.
The images quickly went viral on social media, spurring a backlash from groups such as Faith in Action and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who called for an investigation into the border incidents.
RELATED: Pope Francis sends financial aid to Haiti, Bangladesh and Vietnam
Then on Monday, CBS News reported that the U.S. has deported more than 4,000 Haitians in just nine days without allowing them the chance to seek asylum. Experts believe many of the migrants haven’t lived in Haiti for some time, having left years before to look for work in primarily South American countries.
In the days since, religious leaders have refocused on ending the deportations by prevailing on the administration to abolish a pandemic-era public health order known as Title 42, which was enacted under Biden’s predecessor, President Donald Trump.
Faith-based refugee resettlement groups such as Lutheran Immigrantion and Refugee Service and HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, have assailed the policy, with HIAS officials referring to it as “disastrous.”
Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, and Sister Donna Markham, head of Catholic Charities USA, issued a statement, saying that use of Title 42 “undermine(s) the vulnerability of those against whom they are applied.”
Haitian-Americans, including Clare Raymond of Boston, left, during a demonstration at the JFK Federal Building in Boston on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. Members of Boston’s sizable Haitian community staged a protest outside the Federal building to denounce the mistreatment of Haitian migrants at the border with Mexico. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)
More than 160 Catholic groups signed a letter addressed to President Joe Biden last week similarly denouncing its use, and a separate letter released on Tuesday (Sept. 28) addressed to Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other senior officials, implored the administration to expand Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, hold border patrol agents accountable and cease utilization of Title 42.
RELATED: ‘Insular’ Orthodox Jews mobilize to save lives, from Haiti to Kabul
“We are American faith leaders from six different faith traditions, including yours,” read the letter, which was distributed with Auburn Seminary. “We see our nation continuing to spectacularly fail in welcoming the stranger, something clearly and repeatedly called for by every one of our faiths, including yours.”
One of its signers, the Rev. Jennifer Butler, head of the advocacy group Faith in Public Life, said the U.S. government should welcome migrants “with dignity, not drive them away with violence and callousness.”
“We call on the Biden administration to hold Border Patrol accountable for abuses, halt all deportations to Haiti, and end the use of Title 42,” Butler said in a statement.
In addition, efforts are being made to extend Temporary Protected Status to Haitians fleeing the country’s mounting disasters. The Rev. Dieufort J. Fleurissaint, a Boston pastor who heads a Haitian advocacy group, said he and others have been advocating for an expansion of TPS status at least since the earthquake in August.
The Biden administration did extend TPS status for about 150,000 Haitians already living in the U.S. earlier this year, but the measure generally doesn’t apply to those at the border.
Fleurissaint, who spent much of last week in Washington advocating alongside other immigrant rights activists, said he spoke with a dozen Haitian migrants on Monday who made it through the U.S. immigration system.
For many who make the trek to the border, he said, faith plays a key role. “Because of their trust in God, this is how they made the perilous trip through seven or eight different countries,” he said. “They went through jungles. They went through rivers. They walked at night. They spent many days without eating. So their faith basically took them there.”
Meanwhile, several religious organizations are working to settle Haitian migrants who have arrived in the Boston area. DesRosiers said her group is assisting with efforts to provide access to health care and overall orientation. They are one of several faith groups that have offered such aid, including some along the border that operate in partnership with the U.S. government.
But as the “plagues” persist, so does advocacy: DesRosiers said her group joined other Boston-area Haitians on Saturday for a rally to denounce the treatment of Haitian migrants.
“We still believe that we should not lose hope,” she said. “We will continue to do what we need to do in terms of advocacy here in the States. We still need to continue to do the organizing.”
It is 4:30 p.m. Dave Kelly has just finished his workday at an advertising firm in early September 2018 and pops a CD into the stereo of his aging car. He is preparing to do battle with a formidable enemy: the New Jersey Turnpike at the beginning of a holiday weekend.
When Dave finally reaches the exit for his hometown more than one hour later, he stops to perform a weekly ritual. Each Friday night, Dave checks out half a dozen books from his local library and settles in to read for at least an hour. This week he has chosen a mix of well-thumbed paperback novels, a book about the latest advances in cancer research and a thick tome on human nature by an evolutionary anthropologist.
Though he might not fit the stereotype of Donald Trump supporters, Dave voted for the former real estate magnate in 2016. Raised in a family of moderate Democrats, Dave veered toward the right in the 1980s because he was so impressed by the leadership of Ronald Reagan.
But Dave is not a card-carrying member of the Republican Party. He cast two ballots for Bill Clinton in the 1990s and takes liberal positions on most civil rights issues. “I’m perfectly happy with gay marriage,” Dave says. “I don’t understand why you would want to make an issue out of that.”
But on economic matters, Dave is more libertarian. When he learned that New York City officials were considering a new law that would require businesses with more than five employees to provide two weeks of paid vacation, Dave warned, “There’s gonna be a lot of companies that fire people to get away from that. There’s gonna be companies that just can’t do it and are gonna go out of business.”
Living outside liberal Philadelphia — and working in a profession dominated by Democrats — Dave normally hides his conservative views. “I have friends I won’t discuss this stuff with,” he says, “because I’m not going to change my mind and they’re not going to change theirs — so what’s the point?”
The few times he tried to start such conversations, he explains, things quickly became heated — and the only thing Dave hates more than New Jersey traffic is heated arguments about politics.
Because he feels like an unwelcome minority in his day-to-day life, Dave describes social media as a kind of refuge. He originally joined Facebook and Twitter to escape politics and follow updates about his favorite television shows. But he kept finding himself getting “sucked into political discussions.”
Over the past few years, Dave — who does not use his real name on social media — has spent many late nights arguing with Democrats on Twitter. Remembering one of these conflicts, Dave said, “Don’t judge me … I had a couple of beers.”
A local radio station, he explained, had reported a group of white supremacists were planning to march on the campus of a nearby university. “Turns out they’re not,” he says. “The whole thing is a hoax.” After reading more about the story, Dave learned that one of the groups that raised the alarm was the progressive Southern Poverty Law Center. “They pretty much claim anyone who’s to the right of Karl Marx is a hate group,” he says. When he dismissed the incident on Twitter, another user quickly fired back, calling him a racist. “I called her an idiot,” he says. She didn’t know what she was talking about, he decided, because she was only getting one side of the story.
But so is Dave. Though he prides himself on being informed, Dave gets his news from a conservative talk radio station, the right-leaning website Daily Caller and Twitter. Of the several hundred accounts that he follows on Twitter, only New York Times columnist Bret Stephens could be described as centrist.
Dave has consumed a steady diet of conservative views on social media for years. Each day, his feed gets filled with content from Fox News, posts by Trump and other prominent Republicans, and dozens of memes bemoaning liberal hypocrisy. Dave has even retweeted a few messages from Russian trolls masquerading as American conservatives along the way.
And that drunken Twitter argument about the white supremacist march at a local university? It turns out that Dave used more colorful language than “idiot” to describe his liberal opponent that night.
You might think you already know what’s going on here: Dave is stuck in an echo chamber.
Social media sites allow people to choose what types of information about politics they want to expose themselves to — or learn what Justin Bieber ate for dinner last night. The problem is that most people seek out information that reinforces their preexisting views. We connect with newspapers, pundits or bloggers who share our worldview.
If you’re a conservative like Dave, you might follow Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, since you appreciate what he has to say about government spending or illegal immigration. And if you’re a progressive liberal, you might follow CNN’s Don Lemon because you appreciate his frequent posts about the issues you care about — racial inequality, perhaps, or climate change.
The problem, the story goes, is that our ability to choose what we want to see traps us inside echo chambers that create a kind of myopia. The more we are exposed to information from our side, the more we think our system of beliefs is just, rational and truthful. As we get pulled deeper into networks that include only like-minded people, we begin to lose perspective.
We fail to recognize that there are two sides to every story or we begin listening to different stories altogether. Echo chambers have their most pernicious effect, common wisdom suggests, when people like Dave are unaware of them: when people think that they are doing research about an issue, but they are actually just listening to what they want to hear.
When we encounter people from the other side, their views can therefore seem irrational, self-serving or — perhaps most troubling — untrue. If we could only step outside our echo chambers, many people argue, political polarization would plummet.
The concept of the echo chamber existed long before social media did. Political scientist V. O. Key introduced the concept in the 1960s to describe how repeated exposure to a single media source shapes how people vote. The concept gained major traction, however, with the rise of 24/7 cable news stations in more recent decades. Social scientists quickly realized that such stations were allowing Democrats and Republicans to perceive starkly different versions of reality.
A popular example of the echo chamber effect is the 2002 U.S. invasion of Iraq. During this period, Fox News repeatedly claimed that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, was collaborating with al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. It was later discovered that such claims were false. But an influential study found that Fox News viewers were two times more likely to believe that such links existed than those who got their news from other sources.
If you are a Democrat, don’t pat yourself on the back too quickly. A recent study showed more Democrats are trapped inside echo chambers than Republicans.
Concerns about echo chambers gained added urgency with the rise of the internet and social media. In his influential 2001 book, “Republic.com,” legal scholar Cass Sunstein warned that partisan websites and blogs would allow people to avoid opposing views even more efficiently than cable news.
The internet activist Eli Pariser pushed this argument even further in his 2012 book “The Filter Bubble.” He argued that algorithms employed by large technology companies made the echo chamber effect even worse. Facebook, Google and other giant corporations exacerbate our built-in tendency to seek information that is aligned with our worldview via algorithms that recommend even more of such content to us. The most dangerous part of these algorithms, Pariser argued, is that social media users are not aware of them. Filter bubbles can preclude the very possibility of bipartisan interaction, Pariser warned, allowing our deeply biased views to go unchallenged.
Illustration by David Plunkert
Meanwhile, social scientists began to uncover substantial evidence of social media echo chambers as well. A 2015 study by data scientists at Facebook estimated only one-quarter of the content that Republicans post on Facebook is ever seen by Democrats, and vice versa. A study of Twitter reached similar conclusions. More than three-quarters of the people who retweet — or share — a message, the study concluded, belong to the same party as the message’s author.
These findings were particularly concerning since social media was rapidly becoming one of the most popular ways for Americans to get their news. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of people who got their news from social media surpassed those who learned about current events from print newspapers. By 2018, social media had become the most popular news source for people ages 18 to 29.
It should come as no surprise, then, that a growing chorus of technology leaders, pundits and policymakers now warn of a grim future in which any discussion of politics on social media will quickly devolve into tribalism. We hear calls for social media platforms to break our echo chambers — or at least revise the algorithms that reinforce their walls. And if social media companies won’t relent, then social media users should begin stepping outside of their echo chambers themselves. Only then, many people believe, can we begin the difficult conversations needed to beat back polarization on our platforms.
It’s a compelling story — especially when the people who tell it are those who helped build social media platforms and now regret their actions. But I believe the common wisdom about social media, echo chambers and political polarization may not only be wrong, but also counterproductive.
Common wisdom often becomes unassailable because it is very difficult to verify. Social scientists have wondered whether echo chambers shape our political beliefs for decades, but studying this process is very challenging. We can analyze people like Dave Kelly — the Trump voter described above — but are his experiences typical? Echo chambers result from the coordinated behavior of millions of people across sprawling social networks that evolve in complex patterns over time.
Even if we had the time and resources to identify thousands of Dave Kellys — and see that people like him develop increasingly partisan views over time — how could we be sure that people’s echo chambers shape their political beliefs, and not the other way around?
If our political beliefs guide how we try to understand the world, would we really give them up so easily? Would Dave Kelly begin to moderate his views if we suddenly began exposing him to social media posts from progressive groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center?
Regardless of what you think about echo chambers, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have produced exciting new opportunities to study them. The social sciences were once considered data poor compared to other fields of study. But some platforms now allow us to collect information about millions of people in seconds. Even more importantly, we can now conduct an epidemiology of ideas, tracing how beliefs about the world spread across large social networks over time.
The age of computational social science — the study of human behavior using large digital data sets — also provides new opportunities for experimentation. By embedding randomized controlled trials within social media platforms, computational social scientists have been able to increase voter turnout, organ donation and a host of other positive human behaviors. These types of experiments also hold enormous power to provide insights into social media echo chambers.
But there is also a dark side to computational social science. In 2013, the psychologist Michal Kosinski launched a study to determine whether patterns in social media data — such as information about the things we like or the accounts we follow — could be used to predict our ethnicity, sexual orientation or even our intelligence. Kosinski and his team produced an app that allowed Facebook users to perform a personality test on themselves via the data generated within their accounts. But the now-infamous political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica allegedly created a similar app to collect data for a nonacademic purpose: creating microtargeting campaigns to sway political elections. Though many social scientists question whether such ads were effective, the story highlights a dangerous precedent: The tools of computational social science can be repurposed to violate privacy and potentially manipulate the behavior of people who did not consent to be studied.
Computational social science has another problem too: The digital footprints we leave behind on social media platforms provide a very incomplete record of human behavior.
As a thought experiment, let’s put Dave Kelly’s data into the type of app created by Cambridge Analytica. We could easily conclude that Dave is a Republican by analyzing the news organizations and pundits he likes or follows. A political campaign might even be able to identify which television shows Dave watches and buy commercials to reach people like him.
But we would also misunderstand some of the most important things about Dave. Though his Twitter feed makes him seem like an angry “Make America Great Again” warrior, the app would not reveal that Dave is actually worried about climate change and disappointed by his party’s treatment of gay people. You’d never know that Dave thinks Trump is a bully or worries about racial discrimination in policing. You would not learn that Dave was skeptical about whether white supremacists were really marching at a nearby university during the incident I described earlier because he believes media organizations are stoking ethnic tensions for financial gain. Most important, you would not learn that this issue is particularly important to Dave because he is part Puerto Rican and suffered terrible discrimination as a child.
I mention these details not only to show how many things are left out of the digital record of our lives. On the contrary, I believe the rapidly growing gap between social media and real life is one of the most powerful sources of political polarization in our era.
How did I come to this conclusion? I am a computational social scientist who has spent my entire career studying how social media shapes political polarization. Several years ago, I became so concerned about political tribalism that I founded the Polarization Lab — a team of social scientists, statisticians and computer scientists at Duke University, where I am a professor. Our team diagnoses the problems with our platforms using scientific research and builds new technology to reverse the course. Together, my colleagues and I have collected hundreds of millions of data points that describe the behavior of thousands of social media users over multiple years. We’ve run new kinds of experiments with automated social media accounts, conducted some of the first studies of how foreign misinformation campaigns influence people and ventured deep inside social media companies to help them fight polarization. We’ve even created our own social media platform for academic research — allowing us to turn on and off different features of platforms to identify better ways of connecting people.
This work has led me to question the conventional wisdom about social media echo chambers, but it has also inspired me to ask much deeper questions. Why does everyone seem so extreme on social media? Why do people like Dave Kelly spend hours arguing with strangers, even when they don’t think it will change anyone’s mind? Is using social media a temporary addiction that we can shake — like smoking — or is it fundamentally reshaping who we are and what we think of each other? No amount of data science wizardry can answer these questions.
Instead, I wanted to see social media through the eyes of the people who use it each day. This is why our lab spent hundreds of hours interviewing people like Dave Kelly and carefully reconstructing their daily lives on- and offline.
These stories not only help paint a more complete picture of how political polarization unfolds on social media; they also inspired me and my colleagues to run new types of large-scale experiments in turn.
Studying social media from the perspective of the people who use it is also important because they are conspicuously absent from public debates about social media and political tribalism. Instead, our current conversation is dominated by a handful of tech entrepreneurs and software engineers who helped build our platforms. These Silicon Valley apostates now claim the technology they created wields unprecedented influence over human psychology — technology that not only traps us within echo chambers, but also influences what we buy, think or even feel. Facebook, Twitter and other platforms were either asleep at the wheel when malicious foreign actors launched campaigns to influence social media users — these apostates claim — or willfully ignored them because they increased user engagement (and therefore their bottom line).
This narrative is very seductive for anyone searching for a scapegoat for our current situation, but is it really true? Though social media companies are by no means blameless for our current situation, the evidence that people are simple dupes of political microtargeting, foreign influence campaigns or content recommendation algorithms is surprisingly thin.
Our focus upon Silicon Valley obscures a much more unsettling truth: The root source of political tribalism on social media lies deep inside ourselves. We think of platforms like Facebook and Twitter as places where we can seek information or entertain ourselves for a few minutes. But in an era of growing social isolation, social media platforms have become one of the most important tools we use to understand ourselves — and one another.
We are addicted to social media not because it provides us with flashy eye candy or endless distractions, but because it helps us do something we humans are hardwired to do: Present different versions of ourselves, observe what other people think of them and revise our identities accordingly.
But instead of a giant mirror that we can use to see our entire society, social media is more like a prism that refracts our identities — leaving us with a distorted understanding of one another, and ourselves. The social media prism fuels status-seeking extremists, mutes moderates who think there is little to be gained by discussing politics on social media and leaves most of us with profound misgivings about those on the other side, and even the scope of polarization itself.
If social media platforms are so deleterious to democracy, why not delete our accounts? After all, I might enjoy using carrier pigeons to communicate my latest musings on Justin Bieber. But deleting our accounts is just not realistic. Social media has become so woven into the fabric of our lives — and particularly those of young people — that it is here to say.
The good news is this: If we social media users are the main source of political polarization, this means we also have the power to push back against it.
Excerpted from “Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing,” by Chris Bail, Princeton University Press.
This story appears in the October issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.
It had all the makings of a puzzling dream. It was 1 a.m. in Manhattan, but the big-bearded, blue-eyed rabbi on the bike ahead of me was very much real. “You’ve got to come see this park before you go,” he insisted. So I found myself trying to keep up as we peddled along the Hudson River.
When we reached a lamp-lit park overlooking the Upper Bay, the rabbi returned to his favorite topic of conversation during my visit. “You know, you Mormons really seem to have it figured out,” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach told me — noting The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ emphasis on family, its largely lay ministry and its zealous proselytizing efforts. Had it not been at least his 20th reference to my faith during our visit, the comment would’ve seemed more whimsical. But Rabbi Shmuley, who Newsweek once dubbed “the most famous rabbi in America,” unabashedly loves Latter-day Saints.
As we sat at the park, he recounted his many interactions with the faith. There was the time Shmuley — a firm believer that what happens in private ritual should remain private — ran to the defense of Latter-day Saints after church members violated a policy prohibiting posthumous baptisms of Holocaust victims. “Jewish officialdom is up in arms,” Shmuley wrote for the Deseret News at the time, “the Mormon Church is on the defensive, and frankly I don’t give a damn.” Then, when 2012 presidential candidates Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney — both Latter-day Saints — became the subjects of public attention for their faith, Shmuley penned an op-ed in HuffPost titled, “Are Mormons Any Weirder Than The Rest Of Us?”
Just earlier this year, while taking a road trip to Yellowstone, Shmuley stopped in the Utah mountains to record a video message for his own 869,000 Facebook followers: “The Mormon Church and the Jewish community are brothers,” he declared, before musing about the Latter-day Saint health code (the Word of Wisdom) and the faith’s practice of family home evening.
And then there was the occasion when Shmuley met with then-church president Gordon B. Hinckley and encouraged him to reopen Brigham Young University’s campus in Jerusalem amid Palestine’s second intifada. “Reopening would be an act of solidarity for the Jewish people,” the rabbi told the prophet at Temple Square. Students were welcomed back to the campus months later, though Shmuley doesn’t flatter himself with any credit.
Two decades later, Shmuley’s memories of President Hinckley and the 2002 Winter Games are as fresh as ever — perhaps because visiting Utah’s outdoors is still a frequent ritual for him and his family. Even so, the last two decades have placed him on a unique trajectory. He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, winning the Republican Party nomination but losing the general election. He hosted a TLC-aired reality TV show, “Shalom in the Home,” where he parked an RV in the driveway of troubled families and offered counseling, serving as something of a Jewish Dr. Phil. In 2009, he published “The Michael Jackson Tapes,” some 30 hours of transcribed conversation between the two from Shmuley’s tenure as Jackson’s unofficial spiritual adviser.
But between his political involvement, his media ventures and his 30-plus books, Shmuley refuses to retreat from public life. In fact, he’s on the verge of releasing yet another book next month: “Kosher Hate,” the latest in a long line of “Kosher” titles, this one challenging our common conceptions of forgiveness and evil. And as religiosity declines in some pockets of America, my conversations with the rabbi about his new book and his role in American life reveal a man unapologetic about bringing his full religious self to the public square.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach poses for a portrait inside his home in Englewood, N.J., on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.
Desiree Rios, for the Deseret News
Shmuley — who I call by his first name, per his request, as no one calls him “Rabbi Boteach” — received his first rabbinic designation at 22. The ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect sent the wunderkind to Oxford University, tasked with starting a Jewish society for students on campus.
The product was the L’Chaim Society (named after a Hebrew toast meaning “to life”). Specializing in extravagant parties and Torah readings and weekly Friday-night Shabbat dinners, it became a social hub on campus, and a home to some of the world’s future leaders: U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, Australian parliamentarian Joshua Frydenberg, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman, to name a few.
Friends eventually brought friends, and some friends brought Gentiles — including Booker, a Baptist, and my own father, a Latter-day Saint, who was also a student there. Shmuley, like any good campus minister, welcomed all with open arms, Jew or Gentile. When my father introduced him to Latter-day Saint missionaries, Shmuley told them, “When people disrespect you, know that you will always be respected here.” The elders returned regularly — Oxford was a tough place for missionaries, Shmuley notes.
One missionary, in particular, bonded with the rabbi. The young man’s father served as commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe during his son’s mission years. When Shmuley discovered this missionary’s heritage, he was baffled. “You mean all along, when these people spit on you and kicked you and abused you, you could have ordered an airstrike?”
No airstrikes were ordered. But when Shmuley’s higher-ups ordered him to remove all non-Jews from the L’Chaim Society, the young rabbi refused.
After a decade at Oxford — and after ruffling more than a few feathers — Shmuley returned to the U.S. with a souvenir: The Times in London’s “Preacher of the Year” award. Back home, he leaned more fully into a new identity as “America’s Rabbi,” carving out a public ministry: Instead of leading congregations, he wrote bestselling books and appeared on radio shows. He was hired as a spokesperson for a Jewish dating website and appeared on TV as a guest for Oprah, Dr. Phil and Larry King. Once, Jay Leno gave a copy of Shmuley’s book “Kosher Sex,” a guide to relationships and intimacy, to Dennis Rodman.
Today, Shmuley doesn’t shy from his “celebrity rabbi” role. His aim isn’t to change orthodox Judaism or its tenets, he tells me, but to make it more widely accessible. “He was the first Orthodox rabbi to be a full participant in celebrity culture — with a reality TV show, celebrity friendships, and an unwinnable political campaign,” Noah Feldman, the Harvard law professor who knew Shmuley at Oxford, once told Tablet.
But not all in the orthodox Jewish community or those adjacent to it are fans. One story in Vice dubbed him “The World’s Most Controversial Jew.” Some prominent American rabbis called his book “Kosher Jesus” heretical and forbade Jews from buying it. When “Kosher Lust” was released — a sequel to ”Kosher Sex” — a column in Israeli newspaper Haaretz begged to “get this guy out of our beds.”
In an interview with Vice, Shmuley mused about the discomfort his work has sometimes caused. “Religion has its way of doing things,” he said, “and when you veer from that, you rattle the cage and people feel uncomfortable.”
If Judaism really is for everyone, as one of Shmuley’s bestselling books postulates, the back patio of Shmuley’s seven-story condo on Manhattan’s Upper West Side makes that claim literal. Instead of an intimate family Shabbat dinner, I could have been attending a block party. Between the singing and laughter and conversation pullulating from below, the upstairs neighbors aren’t always fond of these Friday-night gatherings. “People throw eggs down at us sometimes,” Shmuley jokes.
But like Shmuley’s forays into the public square, approval and privacy are of no concern. This Shabbat celebration — the Jewish “family night,” as the rabbi described it to this Latter-day Saint journalist — boasted an eclectic roster of guests: there was Shmuley, his wife Debbie, two sons, four daughters, two sons-in-law and three grandchildren, all practicing Jews. Shmuley and Debbie have nine children in total. Across the table, two chairs down from me, sat a family friend, the daughter of a woman who Shmuley helped to escape from Afghanistan several years ago. She now studies at a local university. Throughout the dinner, a handful of other guests, friends and family shuffle in and out.
When the rabbi offers kiddush, the blessing over wine to sanctify the Sabbath, he generously offers to drink extra wine for the Latter-day Saints. Others at the table ask, dumbstruck: You can’t drink wine? The rabbi answers for me, offering the gathering an impromptu lesson on the Latter-day Saint health code — no alcohol, no tobacco, no coffee or tea. He then launches into a comparative analysis, drawing parallels between our two faiths: the shared focus on community, family, the Sabbath and religious dietary restrictions, among other things. He concludes with a smile: “Yeah, being a Jew sucks worse.”
Everyone at the table laughs.
This rabbinic ecumenicism and humor was once a daily fixture in many Utah homes; in 2005, Shmuley debuted his own talk radio show on KUTR in Salt Lake City, then owned by Bonneville International (a subsidiary of Deseret Management Corporation, which is this publication’s parent company). Every weekday, he spent three hours as host — from his home in Englewood, New Jersey — taking calls from dozens of Latter-day Saint women in Utah about relationships and families and marriage. “He’s like a cheerleader for the American housewife,” one listener from Orem told the Daily Herald.
But the show lasted only five months before Shmuley was dismissed. Shmuley says he was fired because he unexpectedly turned a KUTR-organized speaking event in Salt Lake City into a meet-and-greet for Hurricane Katrina evacuees, welcoming them to Utah and connecting them with local resources; Rod Arquette, however, then vice president of Salt Lake Radio Group, told me that Shmuley “just didn’t seem to fit” the station’s overall programing plans.
From left, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, participate in a dialogue on keeping Iran from having nuclear weapons, hosted by a group fighting discrimination against Jews, Monday, March 2, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
Things worked out nicely for the rabbi, though. Shmuley got another stab at radio when Oprah offered him his own show on her XM station, “Oprah and Friends,” in 2008. But Shmuley’s relationship with Utah hasn’t soured; just months after his radio show’s cancellation, Shmuley brought writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel to lecture at Snow College.
When I asked about his KUTR stint, Shmuley was careful. “I’m not here to unearth old scabs,” he said.
Shmuley is, despite his many hats, first and foremost a deeply devoted rabbi. He holds his religious beliefs and practices central to his identity. “You have to remember, I’m paid to be a Jew,” he told me with deadpan humor. “So unless you Mormons can make me a better offer …”
But rather than seeing faith as a barrier to the outside world, for Shmuley it’s a passport to engage it. Had Shmuley won his 2012 bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, he would’ve become the first Jewish rabbi in Congress. His campaign to represent New Jersey’s 9th District was built on the same things he preached as a spiritual leader: an emphasis on stronger families, economic self-reliance, and, as he puts it, “traditional values.” The son of divorced parents, Shmuley saw the country’s divorce rate as “an American tragedy that no one talks about.” One of his campaign promises was tax-deductible marriage counseling for all Americans until the U.S. divorce rate was cut in half.
“It’s time for the Shmul-ification of the 9th District!” Shmuley proclaimed at the end of one debate. But his purpose for running, he says, was not egotistic or self-aggrandizing. Instead, he wanted to “translate values to policy,” and his approach to politics wasn’t all too different from his religious mantra. “Rabbis have to push communities also to think differently.” He continued, “America needs new ideas. Religions need new ideas without compromising core principles.”
To Shmuley, a religious leader dabbling in the political realm was simply an extension of his calling to fight for values, an opportunity to complete the trifecta in influencing three of America’s principal institutions of religion, media and politics. Others questioned his chances. “Might he finally be selling out?” one Washington Post article posited. A prominent pollster called his electoral hopes “extremely unlikely.” The Wall Street Journal labeled his social views “provocative.”
But perhaps the most comical criticism, now with nine years of hindsight, was the concern that Shmuley wasn’t really a conservative, and perhaps he didn’t really fit on a GOP ballot. After all, some of his closest friends in 2012 were Democrats — Cory Booker, Joe Lieberman, Jon Corzine — and although he declined the offer, he was invited to be co-chair of Rabbis for Obama in 2008. And, on some social issues (like same-sex unions), he seemed to be far too progressive for the Romney-era GOP — after all, the rabbi himself said the 2012 GOP’s “obsession with social and sexual values” was “ruining this country.”
But now, anyone confusing the rabbi as a liberal has had one too many sips of Manischewitz. He was Trump’s de-facto liaison within the Orthodox Jewish community in 2020, and he counts former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo among his friends. In his kitchen, he has a bottle of limited-edition Psagot “Pompeo” wine, signed by the namesake himself, a leftover from an invite-only event; plastered around the rest of his Manhattan apartment are framed prints from The Washington Post and The New York Times criticizing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Barack Obama, Susan Rice and Nancy Pelosi of being anti-Israel. Today’s White House gets no higher marks — “Biden will be a one-term president,” he told me multiple times.
Therein lies one of his rare quibbles with Latter-day Saints — not their doctrine, but rather the politics of some adherents. “What problem do Mormons have with Trump?” he asks me, in a tone that suggests there is no justifiable reason not to love the former president. Trump admittedly performed better in Utah in 2020 than in 2016, when he won with just 46% of the vote, the lowest of any red state.
I explained two general concerns that some Latter-day Saints seem to harbor — Trump’s personal morals and his approach to immigration — but I didn’t mention a report that Trump had mocked Latter-day Saint undergarments, nor did I detail Trump’s attempts at outreach, such as visiting the Church’s welfare operations in Salt Lake City. On immigration, the rabbi agreed — he was repulsed by the Muslim bans — but on the man’s morals, he was still confused. “He’s a politician, not a prophet,” he quipped. “You shouldn’t be looking to Washington for moral guidance.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right, listens as World Values Network founder Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, left, addresses a gathering at the Chabad House at Rutgers University Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, in New Brunswick, N.J.
Mel Evans, Associated Press
To Shmuley, policy trumps all — and, most importantly, policy toward Israel. To him it’s a divine responsibility, a command. He often quotes Psalm 137:5 — “If I forget thee, O Israel, may I cut off my right hand” — and that’s largely where Shmuley’s admiration for Trump began, and where his respect for Obama faltered.
Trump was “the greatest friend of Israel ever to occupy the Oval Office,” he says; Obama was “weak.”
Israel, too, was the proverbial site of Shmuley’s fallout with his longtime friend, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. The two bonded at Oxford, over Friday-night Shabbat dinners and Simchat Torah celebrations. When Booker began running for public office, Shmuley studied Torah with the politico and helped him memorize Hebrew lines. They traveled the country together and gave speeches in synagogues. In the 2014 election cycle, Booker received more pro-Israel donations than any other Democrat. To Shmuley, it was a dream team — a Black Christian and a Jewish rabbi, an unorthodox combination with Orthodox ambition.
“I helped open the doors of the Jewish community (to Booker),” Shmuley said. “The Jewish community fell in love with Cory.”
But Booker’s support for the Iran nuclear deal opened the floodgates. Booker viewed it as a flawed political compromise, but the best option available; Shmuley saw it as support for those who would perpetrate genocide, putting Israel in grave danger. To Shmuley, Booker’s vote was then more than a political move; it was a massive betrayal.
“The Iran Nuclear Agreement was one of the great policy abominations in modern American history,” the rabbi claims, one so abominable that it could sink even the strongest of relationships.
When I asked if anything had changed in his relationship with Booker since 2019, when The Washington Post reported it “crashed in a fireball,” the rabbi didn’t bear good news. They still exchange pleasantries, at times. But as a leader who’s spent his life preaching fear for God and forgiveness, he hinted that reconciliation could come — whenever Booker formally repudiates his decision.
By the time we returned from our moonlight bike ride, it was approaching 2 a.m. in The City That Never Sleeps, and it seems Rabbi Shmuley doesn’t either. I accompanied him to a local corner market to pick up a handful of items for his wife, Debbie. She’s a saintly woman, and far more reserved of the two; Shmuley once wrote that before the publication of one of his more provocative books, Debbie told him, “If you publish that book, I will be so embarrassed, I’ll run away and become a Sherpa!” (“She’s still running,” Shmuley told me.)
He perused the meats on display, then grunted. “You really should get some Kosher meat here,” he said, and the man behind the counter offered a half-asleep nod.
This neighborhood is full of Jewish families, Shmuley told me as we left the store, and the least a local grocer could do is recognize that reality. But Kosher meat or not, the Jewish sense of community is strong here, he says. In the face of an uptick in anti-Semitic acts in the United States, Shmuley believes his work is fundamentally about building community, even amid a pandemic.
That means sometimes live-streaming in spandex biking shorts, sparring publicly with famous singers over Israel and debating the world’s leading atheists over the existence of God. None of that makes life easy, and there are constant reminders that supporting Israel — supporting his people and community, Shmuley says — is not always politically popular. Even among Jews, which make up just 2 percent of the American populace, Shmuley is in the minority — a pro-Israel conservative while most American Jews are Democrats.
As we turned the corner toward his apartment, the Israeli and American flags — which hung side-by-side from the front facade — glowed in the light of an idling police car. “We get pretty frequent death threats,” Shmuley muttered to me as we approached, as casually as a comment about the weather. “They come to check on us.” Shmuley marched up to the window and waved at the officers in front. “Thanks for keeping us safe,” he said.
Shmuley had one last thing on the agenda. “Let’s take a picture,” he said, and we posed next to the bikes. We smiled as the camera flashed. “Let’s take another,” he said, “but this time, let’s do the Mormon smile.” What’s that? I ask, and the rabbi proceeds to do a cheesy, all-teeth-showing grin. “You Mormons are always happy,” he says. “Us Jews are still suffering.”
Come morning, the police car was gone, and Shmuley was undeterred — still flying his Israeli flag out front, prepping for his book launch, riding around the world’s cultural capital in his kippah.
VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis will embark on a jam-packed trip to the central European countries of Hungary and Slovakia Sept. 12-15. Despite his recent recovery from surgery, the pope will likely tackle hot-button issues, from immigration to Communion and ecumenism.This will be a “spiritual” visit, said Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni in a briefing to Vatican reporters on Thursday (Sept. 9). “The focus will be first and foremost the adoration of the Eucharist and the pilgrimage to the Madonna who watched over the suffering of these persecuted communities.”
Hungary and Slovakia both suffered under the Soviet Union’s communist regime and still face economic and social challenges today, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the Vatican and local religious authorities wish to keep politics out of the papal visit, Pope Francis’ visit to the heart of Europe makes it “difficult not to talk about the circumstances that involve all of Europe,” Bruni said.
This is Pope Francis’ 34th international trip, bringing the tally of countries visited by the pontiff up to 54. His predecessor, Saint Pope John Paul II, visited Hungary twice, in 1991 and 1996, and came to Slovakia three times, in 1990, 1995 and 2003.
Francis’ first stop will be to the Hungarian capital of Budapest, where he will attend and say the closing Mass for the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress. The congress is a meeting of lay and religious Catholics who gather to reflect, discuss and pray over Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.
Over 100,000 people are expected to attend the papal Mass closing the event, said Fr. Kornél Fábry, the general secretary of the congress, speaking to journalists. “This will be the height of the week,” he said. “We are honored to welcome the Holy Father because since 2000, popes haven’t come for the International Eucharistic Congresses.”
The congress includes events and workshops aimed at deepening the faithfuls’ understanding of the Eucharist as well as eucharistic adorations, where people may pray and meditate over the sacrament of Communion. While the workshops touch on a vast array of topics including its intersection with ecumenism and the care for creation, some current disputes over Communion are conspicuously absent from the agenda.
In the United States, debates on whether abortion-rights Catholic politicians, such as President Joe Biden, should be banned from receiving the Eucharist have split bishops and faithful. While the topic of Communion bans will not be addressed at the congress, the issue will likely loom over the papal visit.
RELATED: Pope Francis names new bishop in Wuhan
Another underlying question surrounding the apostolic visit is the brevity of the papal stay, only nine hours, which some Vatican observers have speculated reflects tensions between Pope Francis and Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, particularly on issues related to immigration.
“Many have asked, why does the pope only come for a few hours? Why doesn’t he stay longer?” Fábry said. “We had to explain that if I am invited to a dinner, I can’t sleepover!”
People crowd St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican as Pope Francis recites the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio, Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
The president of the republic invited the pope to the congress and not for a visit to the country, the priest explained. “Of course, at the beginning, many were angered, but I think that people understand now,” he said, adding that he hopes the pope might come for a longer stay in the future.
Orban is a powerful conservative force in Europe, emphasizing traditional family values and the defense of Europe’s Christian identity. “What (Orban) says, and the majority of Hungarians agree, is that we mustn’t bring trouble to Europe but help where trouble is,” Fábry said, pointing to the sizable output of financial and humanitarian aid the Hungarian government issued to countries in the Middle East and Africa.
While Pope Francis has also advocated for Western countries to send aid to help individuals in their own countries, his advocacy for welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees clashes with Orban’s vision of an ethnocentric nation state.
Francis, 84, is also recovering from a surgery that removed part of his colon in July and kept him in the hospital for 11 days. Given the pope’s age and health concerns, Fábry said the main objective of the congress organizers is to make his stay, albeit short, as easy and enjoyable as possible.
Francis will land in Budapest at 8 a.m. local time, where he will have a brief meeting with Orban, Hungarian President Janos Arder and representatives of the local church. He will give a speech to the Ecumenical Council of Churches and the Jewish community in the country.
“This International Eucharistic Congress will also be an encounter between the East and the West. Since we are in the center of Europe, this is the optimal place for the Holy Father to meet with the Orthodox and Catholics,” Fábry said.
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I, will likely be present at the papal Mass. Orban, who is married to a Catholic, may also be in attendance.
At 2:40 p.m. local time, Pope Francis will leave Bratislava to visit Slovakia, where he will have a brief meeting with local authorities followed by an ecumenical meeting and then a gathering with the local Jesuit community.
On Monday, the pope will hold several meetings with political representatives in Slovakia, including a private encounter with President Zuzana Čaputová. Francis will meet with members of the local Jewish community and hear the testimony of a man who lived under the Nazi regime in the country.
Pope Francis recently drew criticism from Jewish scholars for his comments pointing to the Torah being “obsolete” during his public audience Aug. 11. The papal visit to Hungary and Slovakia might be an opportunity for the pope, who has a keen interest in promoting Jewish-Catholic relations, to remedy the incident.
Francis’ first afternoon in Slovakia will be focused on the poor and the marginalized, two main themes of his pontificate. He is expected to meet with the missionaries of charity at the Bethlehem Center, which caters to the poor and especially to the sick living in society’s peripheries. Homeless people who live in the Bethlehem Center will have an opportunity to meet the pope and receive his blessing.
The second day in Slovakia will start in Košice, the second-largest city in the country. After a short stop at the seminary, Pope Francis will visit Lunik IX, the most highly populated neighborhood for Roma people. This will be a chance for the pope to listen to the experiences of this often persecuted group. At the large soccer stadium of Lokomotiva in Košice, Francis will speak to the young people in the country.
The pope’s last day in Slovakia will be spent at the National Sanctuary of Sastin, a holy pilgrimage site for many Catholics. He will pray with the local bishops and say Mass in Latin before a large crowd, just as his predecessor John Paul II did before him.
After the Mass, Pope Francis will return to Rome aboard the papal flight where he will give his usual press conference to Vatican reporters and land in Rome at 3:30 p.m.
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(RNS) — For generations, members of the Christian tradition have told stories of wayward travelers, refugees fleeing persecution and migrant peoples traversing country borders in pursuit of a better life. Mary and Joseph themselves fled to Egypt with the infant Jesus to protect him from King Herod, according to the Gospel of Matthew. Presumably they were not impeded by an 18-foot border wall on their trip from Bethlehem. How we should act toward these travelers is laid out in passages such as Leviticus 19:34, Zechariah 7:9 and Jeremiah 22:3: It is our religious duty to treat immigrants with kindness. In his Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul tells us that we should ignore national boundaries: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female,” he writes, “for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
While we can’t expect the government to do the work our faith calls us to do, U.S. immigration policy is, to Christians, a religious issue. Our faith demands generous compassion for those in need — that we care for our neighbors as we care for ourselves. With a 250 million-strong Christian base, it’s a wonder that our country does not employ radical open-border policies.
One group of Christians in particular consistently misses the mark in viewing immigration policy through a Christian lens. A 2018 PRRI poll of more than 2,500 American adults concluded that 75% of white evangelical Protestant Republicans, the highest percentage of any Republican group, believe immigrants are invading American society.
And a PEW research poll also found that 68% of white evangelicals believe the United States does not have a responsibility to house refugees — a significantly higher percentage than the national average.
This is especially startling when contrasted with polling from March 2013, which found 56% of white evangelical Protestants supported a path to citizenship. This begs the question, are evangelical voters nationwide having a crisis of faith, or are they simply allowing the politicization of immigration policy to cloud their Christian duty?
My colleagues and I at Vote Common Good recently traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border in search of the truth. It was in looking past the countless articles, data points and Democratic and Republican narratives that we found families — our neighbors — waiting for deliverance. A single trip to the border has humanized my entire outlook on our nation’s immigration policy.
A group of migrants mainly from Honduras and Nicaragua wait along a road after turning themselves in upon crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, in La Joya, Texas, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
At a shelter near New Galas, Mexico, I spoke with five women from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. They shared their individual stories of poverty, danger and civic unrest that led them to the border. Each noted that God had sent them on a mission to protect their children. They looked to us, a group of pastors and other people of faith, for assistance. I was heartbroken to be unable to provide immediate relief.
I ask evangelicals to reflect on the following: How can we fight for religious freedom while upholding regulations that stop people from fulfilling God’s calling? Any one of us, if called upon by God to protect our family and seek immediate asylum, would obey.
Our group was not alone at the border. Countless faith leaders have traveled to immigrant shelters to offer their support. Most claim that they’ve been called to this work by God and by their Christian duty. Our moral obligation to help our neighbors is being too easily overshadowed by Republican demands for “law and order” and xenophobic fear mongering.
Most Americans favor a common good approach to immigration policy, one that welcomes immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers through a clear, fair, accessible path to migrate to the United States. This was apparent just last week, when thousands called on the Biden administration to resettle the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program applicants fleeing newly Taliban-occupied Kabul.
The common good means recognizing that this country does not belong to a select number of Americans. Our Constitution’s preamble begins with “We the People”: We, the people, are a nation of diversity with the largest immigrant population in the world. This remains our greatest strength. Just 2% of our population identifies as Native American or Alaska Native; the other 98%, it might be argued, have no greater claim to this land than the immigrants seeking to cross our borders today.
Religious leaders have immense influence in their communities. While I do not expect an immediate change in tone from Republican evangelical leaders on issues of immigration, I call on them to join us in traveling to the border and bearing witness to those being detained.
Vote Common Good’s 3,200 mile bike ride along the border from San Diego, California, to St. Augustine, Florida, departs Sept. 10, and all are welcome to join.
During our travels, we will center the stories of those most impacted by U.S. immigration policy and share their experiences and treatment widely. We will look to those living on the border for answers, opportunities and changes to immigration policy, while connecting and learning from immigrants to deepen our nation’s understanding and ability to call for just action at our border.
Doug Pagitt. Courtesy photo
It is our Christian duty to fight for fair immigration policy. In traveling to the border, we hope to remind the public that immigration is a human story and encourage our nation’s 90 million evangelical voters to view it in this Christian light.
(Doug Pagitt is an American evangelical pastor, social activist, author and executive director of Vote Common Good, a group that works to inspire, energize and mobilize people of faith to make the common good their voting criterion. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
(RNS) — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has added a new section to its official handbook for lay leaders, calling on members to support refugees in their local communities. In doing so, the faith’s governing body has enshrined the issue in one of its most influential texts, where it is likely to remain for years to come.In addition, authors of the General Handbook have added new language admonishing members not to let politics drive a wedge between them.
The insertion on refugees is brief. “Church members offer their time, talents, and friendship to welcome refugees as members of their communities,” it reads in part. Supporting the call to action are two scriptures: one from the Book of Mormon and the other the Book of Matthew, both centered on the need to care for the poor.
Announced Aug. 4, the addition marks the latest in a series of attempts by Mormon leaders to elevate the issue among its global membership. The faith’s First Presidency, the highest-ranking body in the church, called on members to seek local opportunities to assist in refugee resettlement in a 2015 statement. The following year, church leaders launched the “I Was a Stranger” campaign, an ongoing effort directed at connecting Latter-day Saints with local organizations serving refugees.
“The focus has really been on refugees since then,” said Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a professor of history and religion at Washington University in St. Louis, adding that female leaders in particular have taken up the cause in earnest.
“It’s been an effort, both at the grassroots and in the leadership from the Relief Society, to get women and families in particular involved in care of refugees,” she said, referring to the church’s women’s organization.
Denise Swanson was 13 when her family fled Chile’s military dictatorship for Canada. The seven of them landed in Quebec, where they had no friends or family. As Latter-day Saints, they did have the church, however. Local members rushed to their aid, registering the children for school, providing hot meals and furnishing their new apartment.
“I don’t think we could have done it without their help,” she said.
Not every Mormon she’s encountered on her journey has been equally welcoming. In 2002, she married a Utah native and moved to the United States. Once here, she quickly observed a “disconnect” between the help some Mormons were happy to offer to individual refugees and immigrants in their own congregations, and their views toward refugees and immigrants as a group.
“I hear people complain about immigration or immigration reform, but at the same time be willing to help immigrants in the ward,” she said. Some of the more conservative members she encounters aren’t even open to doing that much.
Members of a U.S.-bound migrant caravan stand on a road after federal police briefly blocked their way outside the town of Arriaga, Mexico, on Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Swanson said it has warmed her heart to see the church become more active and outspoken in support of caring for refugees in recent years, even if she’s skeptical it will be enough to convince more resistant Latter-day Saints to come around on the issue.
“I feel like in some areas the members aren’t really taking that message to heart,” she said.
There’s evidence to support her pessimism. In March, the church added a section to the handbook encouraging members to “safeguard themselves, their children, and their communities through vaccination.” Five months later, the vaccination rate for Utah County, home to one of the highest percentages of Latter-day Saints anywhere in the country, is just 37% .
Meanwhile, a study by PRRI and Interfaith Youth Core found that only half of Mormons in the United States say they have been vaccinated or definitely plan to be.
Tucked amid these clear statements on highly politicized topics are other revisions aimed directly at defusing political tension among members. The latest version of the handbook discourages members from judging one another for their political beliefs or using church meetings as a setting for political advocacy. “All should feel welcome in church settings,” it states.
According to Maffly-Kipp, statements like this one represent church leaders’ hope to “try and create some kind of middle ground” in an increasingly polarized society, particularly in the United States. “The question is whether both the right and the left will let them.”
Rob Taber is ready to oblige. Besides teaching history and government at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, Taber is the national director at Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris. He called the new language “most welcome,” noting that in the past, he’s watched in alarm as some have used church buildings, lessons and resources such as membership lists for “electioneering purposes.”
“Moving forward, I hope that we can focus on our shared testimony of Jesus Christ and the Restoration and what these truths mean for us, our family and our communities,” he said.
Tamarra Kemsley. Courtesy photo
Others are less thrilled. The way commenters on the far-right LDS Freedom Forum see it, statements like these are slowly stripping the church of its power and purpose. What’s left, said a user known as Chip, is “a zero-energy nothing-burger event.”
(Tamarra Kemsley writes on the intersection of faith and politics. Follow her on Twitter @tamarranicole. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
(The Conversation) — The extent to which the number of white evangelicals have declined in the United States has been laid bare in a new report by the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2020 Census on American Religion.The institute’s study found that only 14% of Americans identify as white evangelical today. This is a drastic decline since 2006, when America’s religious landscape was composed of 23% white evangelicals, as the report notes.
Along with a decline in white evangelicalism, the data indicates a stabilized increase in the number of those who no longer identify as religious at all. Scholars of religion refer to this group as “nones,” and they make up about a quarter of the American population. These statistics are even more drastic when considering age. In short, older Americans are much more religious than younger Americans, while millennials are likely to not practice or identify with religion.
This data is significant. Even though white evangelicals tend to be politically vocal and influential, several are known to be leaving the faith.
Increasingly, scholarship is tracking the emergence of those defecting from religion. Religious studies scholar Elizabeth Drescher’s 2016 book, “Choosing Our Religion,” examines numerous cases in which people transition away from their faith. She notes that people leaving evangelicalism “tended to express anger and frustration with both the teachings and practices of their childhood church.”
Although the statistics are sure to capture the attention of various readers, the data can give only limited insights into the more nuanced perspectives specific to critiquing white evangelicalism.
Over the past six years, I have been part of a team of scholars from various disciplines and universities examining the hesitancy and rejection of younger individuals either leaving or attempting to reform evangelicalism in America. Some younger evangelicals are disenchanted with their faith traditions’ staunch and divisive political positions and how theology has been used to prop up these positions.
Younger evangelicals’ experiences
Between 2010 and 2018, I conducted over 75 interviews with those dissatisfied with their evangelical faith and observed multiple white evangelical megachurches.
My interviewees, all white, were typically in their late 20s to early 40s and highly critical of the Christian faith of their youth. These interviewees respond differently to their dissatisfaction. Some completely leave their faith while others try to reform their faith from within. For the majority, church was a major part of their social life, and they described rigid expectations to defend their theology, politics and spiritual communities to outsiders.
Several of those interviewed during my research mentioned how politics had influenced the theology of white evangelicalism in the United States. Rob, who resides in Florida and spent the majority of his early adult life as a musician in a white evangelical megachurch, told me that his church preached “God, country and the Republican Party.” He was even taught as a teenager that “Jesus was definitely a Republican,” and he characterized God as “quite angry, a cosmic referee” seeking to regulate the lives of the faithful. Today, Rob identifies as a progressive Christian and holds a much more generous view of his god.
My research shows some younger evangelicals are fatigued with white evangelicalism’s allegiance to the Republican Party and to specific stances on racism and sexuality. White evangelicals categorize these issues as a “culture war” for the soul of America – an internal struggle for who will define and decide the future of America.
By framing these issues as a cultural battle, white evangelicals maintain an embattled posture targeting a list of such enemies as liberals, secularists and atheists. As sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry note in their study of Christian nationalism, white evangelicals maintain a “collective desire to protect their cultural-political turf.”
Furthermore, in a racially and ethnically diversifying and increasingly pluralistic country, some evangelicals’ experiences transform their positions on political issues. Take for instance, the issue of immigration policies in the United States. White evangelicals as a group highly favor restrictive immigration policies.
Some evangelicals have taken a position against restrictive immigration policies.AP Photo/Sarah Betancourt
However, Jerry, one of my interviewees who lives in North Carolina and grew up Methodist, cited the white evangelical position against restrictive immigration policies as a reason to question his faith. Today, Jerry identifies as spiritual but not religious; while still an evangelical, Jerry explained, “When it came to issues of immigration, we wanted our kids to know what it means to be an outsider. We want our kids to have a global experience.” His theological interpretation of the Bible at that time taught Jerry to welcome outsiders, and he applied this to national borders.
Political changes can shift religious beliefs. Jerry’s growing cultural awareness eventually replaced his evangelical interpretation of Scripture. He notes, “As opposed to looking to the Bible or church for answers, let’s have a multicultural world perspective to answer those questions.”
Likewise, Sarah grew up in Kentucky, spending much of her childhood in church services, Bible studies and Christian camps within a Baptist denomination. “Part of me likes the idea of church,” she says, “but I think I like the idea of just helping people more. That’s my idea of what a Christian is, someone who helps others.” She admits this while maintaining that for her personally, religious identity is unimportant.
Sarah’s involvement in poverty alleviation in Kentucky influenced her attitudes on how she sees white evangelical worship today: “The way that the church operates in Kentucky is so backwards. It’s all about the self. About pleasing yourself. It’s all white, middle- to upper-class people watching a big screen with a full band. I think that’s probably the opposite of what Jesus wanted.”
(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.