Loving The Stranger In Strange Times
The monster of my childhood nightmares thundered up I-65 toward Birmingham, aiming straight for us. The mile-wide tornado, with its 90 mile-an-hour winds, destroyed anything that stood in its way, never leaving the ground for 80 miles. Car doors, tin roofs, lumber, and trees swirled in the darkened sky like hordes of insects. Sixty-two tornadoes smashed through Alabama that night in late April, 2011, killing sixty-four people and destroying more property than any other tornado to date.
Alabama is #1, not only in college football, but also in tornadoes. We stay on alert. We wait, smelling the air, eyes to the sky, when we feel that hot, suffocating stillness that comes before the storms. When the wind begins to whip up threatening funnel clouds, and God willing the tornado sirens go off, we know what to do. Get as low and deep in your house as you can. Gather your family members in the tub, wearing shoes and helmets, and shelter them with a mattress over their heads. If you’re in a car, get out, hide in a ditch and cover your heads. That makes about as much sense as my parents’ generation hiding from an atom bomb under their school desks. Still, we do what we know to do.
We also know what to expect afterward. Downed trees, power outages, flash floods, blue tarps covering gaping roofs. We tell and retell stories of tragedy and survival. Neighbors and strangers come together in a rare unity that reminds us, if only for a short time, of who we say we are: people who look after one another.
Families that have decent insurance rebuild with reinforced foundations and state-of-the art storm shelters. Underinsured neighborhoods will be a freeze-frame of empty lots, faded and tattered tarps flapping over roofs smashed by trees, kudzu climbing the walls of ruins that landlords refuse or homeowners are too poor to rebuild.
Disaster is part of the rhythm of this place. We know it’s coming. We just don’t know when, or how bad it will be.
Three weeks after the tornadoes, a different kind of disaster struck Alabama—the kind you can’t prepare for. The Alabama Legislature passed HB 56, the most malign anti-immigrant law in the country. House Majority Leader Mickey Hammon said that the law’s intent was to make every aspect of their lives so miserable that they self-deport. Sen. Scott Beason warned, If you allow illegal immigration to continue in your area, you will destroy yourself eventually … empty the clip, and do what has to be done. U.S. Congressman Mo Brooks said, As your Congressman, on the House floor, I will do anything short of shooting them.
Politicians in Alabama invariably list Christianity as one of their main qualifications for elected office, yet instead of using their power to help “the least of these,” they went after vulnerable immigrant families with a vengeance. This, despite Jesus’ teaching that his followers would be judged by how they treated the least of these. In one of the most highly-churched states in the country, the commandment to love the stranger was brushed aside.
When HB 56 passed, I recognized it as a new civil rights struggle, and this time, I wouldn’t miss it. Like many white people who weren’t old enough to take part in the civil rights movement, I often wondered, What would I have done if I had been born a few years earlier? Would I have stood up against white students and parents who taunted and threatened black students integrating the schools? Would I have marched in demonstrations? Would I have gone to clandestine meetings in basements of black churches, where it was illegal and dangerous for blacks and whites to meet together? Would I have taken a stand regardless of the cost to my standing in my family and community?
When HB 56 passed, I jumped in with everything I had, working alongside immigrants and other allies, to repeal the law.
In the aftermath of the tornadoes, neighbor helped neighbor, stranger helped stranger. After HB 56, neighbor turned against neighbor. Anyone with brown skin became suspect. School librarians, grocery store cashiers, PTA volunteers, store clerks, hospital employees, and court reporters suddenly felt authorized to police anyone who “looked illegal.”
Countless families fled to other states. Churches and school classrooms emptied overnight. Farmworkers vanished, leaving crops to rot in the merciless Alabama heat. Building and construction trades floundered without enough workers.
I sat with immigrant parents as they confronted realities that no parent should have to face. Should they take their children back to the poverty and violence they fled in their countries of origin decades ago? Should the whole family stay in Alabama and risk deportation, so that their children could be safe and educated here? Should they split up, undocumented family members leaving and those who were citizens remaining?
Parents had to make guardianship plans for their children in case they were detained, something they feared every time they drove to work, church, the grocery store or their kids’ schools. Children feared coming home from school to find their parents vanished. Victims of crime were hesitant to call law enforcement for fear of being detained. Some families went without water for over a month after their service was cut-off under a drastic misinterpretation of the law. Immigrant families devastated by the tornadoes shied away from disaster assistance, concerned that their applications might lead to detentions.
Fearful of the law, children flooded the Governor’s office with hand-written letters like these:
Dear Gov, don’t take my parents. My parents are good people. I do not want to separate from my friends. I’m a good little girl. From a girl who is sad about not moving and does not want to separate from her family.
Dear Gov, We don’t want the new law. All my friends have left and my mom, she can’t take us to the doctor appointments because of the law. My mom cries all the time because of the law. I don’t want my parents took away. I had a happy life in Albertville. All my teachers cry because we are all leaving. I don’t want to leave.
I’m so scared about the law, because I was an A/B honor girl but not anymore because I’m making bad grades, because I can’t stop thinking about my mom. My mom always comes home late but I think the cops took her away from me. Please stop this law because I’m worried! PS. Sometimes I don’t concentrate in school.
Before the law passed, many children of immigrants saw themselves as Alabamians just like their friends—no one had ever told them otherwise. Afterward, they faced a brutal truth that no matter how rooted they were in Alabama, they didn’t really belong—and never would.
Never was that more clear than when our coalition held an all-day meeting at a church in Northport. At the end of a long day, eighty of us stood in a circle outside with our arms crossed, hands clasped, calling out what we wanted for Alabama. Latino, black, and white, men in work shirts, university professors, college students, civil rights icons, union reps, mothers and grandmothers, teenagers and children called out their dreams. Dignity. Courage. Peace. Life without fear. Strength. No more tearing families apart. Repeal of HB 56.
In a moment of quiet, a little girl, the daughter of an immigrant couple, called out, Roll Tide! The war cry for Alabama football. Only an Alabama girl would have shouted that out.
There was a silver lining. In passing HB 56, legislators created their own worst nightmare. Everything they did to undermine immigrant communities only strengthened them. Immigrant leaders emerged all over the state to stand up for their families and their people. Their motto was Sin Papeles, Sin Miedo – No Papers, No Fear.
When the Legislature went into session in February of 2012, busloads of immigrants were barred from entering the State House. New security measures had gone into place that very day, we were told. By the time the Legislature closed in May, hundreds of immigrants and allies were emboldened to fill the halls for hours, chanting, “The State House is Our House.”
The legislators who stood in the State House door are relics of a sad and sordid legacy, in the tradition of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door. They’ll end up where he did—with the door of history shut tight behind them.
The law was never repealed but it was gutted by the courts. In the process of resistance, relationships between white, black and brown became among our most cherished possessions. As we chanted in our marches, Una Familia, Una Alabama. One Family, One Alabama.
Alabamians had a chance to be the people we say we are: people who don’t know a stranger, who would give you the shirt off their back, who always have an extra place at the table and room at the inn. We missed our chance.
The worst of Alabama often finds its way into the news and into the national conversation. Disturbingly, we export our most malign ideas to the halls of Congress. We call it the Alabamafication of America. Sometimes it seems unavoidable but we too have a choice. We can choose to recognize and embrace the stranger, the foreigner, the migrant as our own kin.
Angela Wright is a pastor and advocate for social justice writing a memoir about faith, family and power in the South. She was the editor and lead contributor to Love Has No Borders, a book about the struggle for immigrant rights in Alabama. Her essays are published in various newspapers, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Beyond Words Literary Magazine, Santa Fe Writers’ Project Quarterly, tiny journal and Wraparound South. She was a finalist for the 2020 Curt Johnson Prose Award in Nonfiction.
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