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Combating Prejudice with Scriptures

My husband and I moved home to Arizona after living on the East Coast for 6 years. Maybe we were really obtuse when we were growing up here, or maybe we got too used to the liberal political climate in Massachusetts, but since returning, we’ve been a little shocked at the attitude of our fellow Arizonans towards illegal immigrants, and consequently, towards Hispanics in general. I’ve heard Caucasians make disparaging remarks about Hispanics so nonchalantly that I often don’t think I’ve heard someone correctly when I first hear them.

I was at Wal-Mart a few months ago. My toddler was being really helpful, canceling the sale the cashier had just rung up. I apologized, and she said, rather cheerfully, “Oh, he’s fine, at least he’s not like those messy babies.”

I laughed, wondering who the “messy babies” are—mine wasn’t super clean to begin with; we’d had to break out the Oreos to make it through this grocery trip. Then, she went to talk about how the “messy babies” moms are always yelling at them in Spanish and making a raucous. With a sinking feeling, I realized she was actually saying, “Mexican babies,” not “messy babies,” and I had laughed along.

When I first moved here, I was invited to a Mormon mom playgroup, and a discussion launched into how unfair it was that illegal immigrants were getting access to free healthcare. The moms all agreed that those “illegals” shouldn’t get healthcare because they do not “pay into the system” since they don’t pay taxes. One proceeded to tell the story of going to the Emergency Room and having to wait while the doctors attended to “illegals” who had arrived after her (How did she know they were illegal? And, if they were more critical than she, of course, the doctors would see them first!). Again, I didn’t say anything.

On the way home from this playgroup, as is often the case, I thought of what I could have said…“Wouldn’t Jesus want us to give less fortunate people access to healthcare if they needed it?” Now, my husband says that I often use Jesus as my passive-aggressive trump card (Would Jesus complain about helping clean the house?), but here, I think it really applies. Of course Jesus wants us to help others, even if they’ve broken the law. Remember who he hung out with?

So, I find it surprising that the majority of people who exhibit this prejudice towards illegal immigrants most are Mormon or members of other Christian denominations.

As the months have passed, I’ve become increasingly worried about this pervasive attitude. Some of the comments I get most angry about come from ward members in Sunday School or Relief Society. I’m still scratching my head over a seminary lesson my husband gave a few weeks ago. In a nutshell, the theme was, “Jesus wants us to love everyone, even illegal immigrants.” About half of his class was up in arms; parents talked to him at Church about how disappointed they were with such a lesson.

Now, I’m not a girl who loves conflict, but I am feeling like I need to speak up at least in my church congregation. Ever since the “messy babies” incident, I’ve been trying to figure out how to do that.

I was convinced that there must be some scriptures to support what I was thinking. I was talking to my mom about this, and she paraphrased some scriptures in the Book of Mormon about how we must help everyone. Neither of us could remember where it was, but after some searching on lds.org, we found it in Mosiah 4:17-24. I cried the first time I read this passage; it seems to fit so perfectly with this situation. I really like having these scriptures in my head when I hear some of the more prominent anti-immigrant rhetoric that seems to be recycled every week on the local news, by my neighbors, by other Mormons.

The moms from that playgroup reasoned that these immigrants have committed a sin by crossing the border illegally and thus are not entitled to our help. But, Mosiah 4:17-19 would suggest otherwise:
17 Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
18 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
19 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?

I’ve heard comments in Sunday School about how we don’t need to help these people because they should have stayed in their own country to earn money. If they hadn’t left Mexico (or wherever), they wouldn’t be poor. Mosiah 4 continues by talking about judging others and not sharing our wealth:
21 And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.
22 And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done.
23 I say unto you, wo be unto that man, for his substance shall perish with him; and now, I say these things unto those who are rich as pertaining to the things of this world.

This passage also made me feel guilty. I wonder if by staying quiet or withholding my substance, I am one of those who judge.

Our ward is an interesting blend of retirees and college students, not many of us fall in-between. Understandably, some have talked about how hard it is for them to make ends meet. Why should it be easier for those who aren’t US citizens? Mosiah 4:24 has an answer here, too:
24 And again, I say unto the poor, ye who have not and yet have sufficient, that ye remain from day to day; I mean all you who deny the beggar, because ye have not; I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give.

So, is there a way for me to gently bring these scriptures up the next time a Gospel Doctrine lesson turns into a discussion about how great it is that a proposition passed in the last election, which prevents illegal immigrants attending college from receiving financial aid and makes them pay more tuition? Is Mormon culture turning away from the teachings of Christ in its treatment of immigrants? What can we do to reinstall Christ’s teachings into the immigrant
debate in a way to encourage productive debate?

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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  1. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    I don’t think this is something happing to LDS culture. I think this is more common in areas with large populations of illegal immigrants. I’ve never heard anything like it in my home ward in Maryland and certainly not up here in Toronto. So in theory, it’s localized.

    As for how to bring it up– how brave are you? Reading the things you’ve heard lit such a fire under me I’d be going to the Bishop and volunteering to do a talk. And the next time someone in Relief Society started in, my hand would be up in the air in a flash. I’d probably talk over someone too but it really steams me when people make such idiots of themselves.

  2. bigbrownhouse says:

    I’m uneasy with the way you seem to be blurring racial prejudice with a desire for a lawful society. I am appalled by the way we turn a blind eye to the enforcement of law in this area, primarily because the result is so damaging to immigrants themselves. What is Christlike or even “nice” about allowing a huge number of our fellowmen to be allowed into a situation that is dehumanizing and unsustainable? I’d love to see legal immigration made much much easier, AND I’d love to see an immediate end to anything that reinforces or rewards illegal behavior, because all it does is perpetuate the existence of an exploitable underclass. Giving food to a hungry person may be Christ-like, but it feels like the US is turning it on its head, feeding the hungry just enough (metaphorically speaking) that they’ll stick around and do dirty work for cheap. Where’s Christ in that equation?

    We are commanded to love everyone. My love for my fellow brothers and sisters takes the form of desiring for them a society in which all members may participate and are allowed protection under the law. If achieving that end means supporting action that you think isn’t Christlike or “kind” so be it. Please though, don’t confuse it with racial prejudice.

  3. Kelton says:

    One big problem in this whole discussion is conflating government programs with all charitable acts.

    I’m completely sympathetic to the plight of immigrants and I find myself almost completely in agreement with this post. But I find it disturbing that people so readily equate what government ought to do with what you and me ought to do.

  4. Caroline says:

    Emily, this is such a great topic. I live in So Cal, and I hear a lot of anti-illegal immigrant stuff. Thank goodness I haven’t heard much of it at church, but then again, I’ve been ditching sunday school for the past year.

    I dislike conflict too, but I think it’s imperative that someone like you give this other perspective. Maybe raise your hand and say that you’ve thought about this a lot, can understand where others are coming from, but this is the conclusion you’ve come to, and here’s why. I bet there’d be quite a few others in the room who would breathe a sigh of relief if you did that.

    Another thing you can do is form a bookgroup and invite some of these women over. I’m leading a discussion on “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver this month for my bookgroup. This actually takes place in Tucson AZ and deals with the illegal immigrant issue in a very sympathetic way. I think a book like that would help them reframe their thinking.

  5. bigbrownhouse says:

    Do you really think that the support of reduced tuition for illegal immigrants is just a matter of being un-Christlike?

    My sister in law (a US college student and legal immigrant from Mexico) would argue that it’s a little more complicated than that.

  6. Mary Ellen says:

    I moved from Los Angeles to McAllen, Texas, a whopping 8 miles from the border. And I’ve never been more appalled at the off-handed, vocal racism I’ve encountered among church folk here.

    I did get a heads up from a former Brownsville missionary, but that makes it NO LESS VILE. And I can’t help but think a little less of the folks who spout such hate and purport to be followers of Christ.

    Quoting scriptures about our gospel responsibilities–even the very pointed, poignant ones you shared–could come across as scoldy or overly aggressive.

    When I speak up, I usually frame my comments by saying there’s a lot we don’t/can’t know about other people’s circumstances, choices, or lack of choices. Despite this, we can still afford to be compassionate to others. (Especially when our immigration policies and practices are very, very broken and unlikely to be helped by an expensive dumbass fence).

    That approach may not effect any mighty changes of heart, but it’s hard to argue against compassion.

  7. liz says:

    oh! we will eventually move back to AZ, too, after we being east 7+ yrs. I worry about what it will be like to live there again after life afar.

    I think people think a LOT differently there and are just simply not exposed to other lifestyles easily (i.e. cultural and religious differences). I am sure I was a lot more closed minded when I lived there, feeling grateful for my changes and hoping I can adjust and understand it’s not all that different there than when I left. Even if I am.

    Interesting to read your transition, looking forward to see how mine will be one day.

  8. Hilary says:

    Although I agree with you on most things. I think that Jesus would want us to be fair. It’s a hard call — if you’re from CA you have to pay more tuition in UT schools because you’re not a resident.
    HOWEVER, being that I am a nurse in the bay area, I’d have to say the MAIN problem is that illegal immigrants come with NO insurance and no plans to pay. Hence, you and I are stuck with the bill through higher insurance costs.
    And THAT is the problem. Although, I think they are automatically enrolled on Medicaid if they’re pregnant and can show hardship, no questions asked about their citizenship.
    I also think that people who mis-use the medical system should be sent RIGHT to the end of a VERY long line….
    But, I digress. Good entry, good thoughts to mull over.

  9. Seraphine says:

    Do you really think that the support of reduced tuition for illegal immigrants is just a matter of being un-Christlike?

    I do think that when it comes to lawmaking, things get complicated. But it seemed to me that Emily was critiquing attitudes more than she was critiquing laws (she can correct me if I’m wrong). While perhaps it was implied in her post that we should be doing more for illegal immigrants on a societal/governmental level, I think she was most disturbed by the attitudes in her ward. The main problem here seems to be people making judgments and saying racist, mean things about other children of God, rather than thinking about ways to help those less fortunate than themselves.

  10. Julie M. Smith says:

    Austin has a lot of illegal immigrants, but I can’t say that I’ve ever heard anything negative–in or out of church. Not sure why that is. I wonder what would happen if you met nasty remarks with something positive about the immigrants. Here are a few I could honestly say:

    “I have to tell you–whenever I encounter Mexican workers, they are always so polite–I really feel like we could learn a thing or two from them.”

    “I have to admit that I admire anyone who would put themselves at risk to better their situation.”

    “I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up in a country with such poor schools and so few choices–I really admire people who strive to make their lives better.”

    “I wonder what Americans would do if the minimum wage in Canada was $70 an hour.”

    “You know, when my great-grandparents came to this country a century ago, people treated them poorly, too. . . Do you have immigrants in your family background?”

  11. Anonymous says:

    But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

  12. Tona says:

    Oh, Emily, this is so important and I felt the pain in your post. You are engaging the “reality of your locality”… I would suggest that if you feel you’re being prompted to feel/say some things to call (your own) people back to their beliefs, then you probably ARE being prompted and you will find a way to do it. Like proud daughter of eve: myself, I would give a talk in Sac Mtg… that’s sometimes a good way to give a scripturally-backed-up, heartfelt, personalized message on something deep or controversial in a forum where people have to sit and think about what you’re saying, & can’t make an immediate or hasty knee-jerk reply, but must let it sink in and then they can come to terms with how they feel about what you said & whether they agree. I am appalled that people responded to your H’s seminary lesson that way. Like many others who commented, I just wanted to echo with a note of support for you & your impulses, which seem to me to be coming from the right place.

  13. EmilyCC says:

    POD, Caroline, Mary Ellen, Julie and Tona, thanks for your suggestions. I really feel like I need to speak up more, and your input helps me figure out what ways I can do that.

    Big Brown House, I think we both agree that immigration reform is necessary to protect immigrants, but reform is so complicated that I wouldn’t dare address it in a 2-3 page blog post (although my political biases do come through here, which is what I think kelton is referring to–please correct me if I’m wrong, though, kelton).

    Seraphine was correct; I framed my post in the context of laws and events in order to give a background to the disturbing attitudes that are emerging here in Phoenix. I have no doubt that many people work on immigration because they want to see a lawful society, and I see no evidence of prejudice in some of my ward members who think this way. However, I often see the desire for immigration reform used as a front to perpetuate and disseminate racial prejudice, not to protect those most harmed by it.

    Mary Ellen, I agree that reading scriptures to others probably isn’t the best route. I can’t think of a “call to repentance” tactic that has made me more upset than when that one was used on me.

    Anonymous, thanks for your scripture reference (Lev 19:34). I love getting another scripture to cross-reference the Mosiah passage.

    Liz, I remember moving to Boston thinking I’d finally be among like-minded folks. There I learned that close-minded people exist across the spectrum (including myself on several issues), since as you said, there are a LOT of different lifestyles out there.

    Hilary, this is a tough issue; when to be fair and when to be compassionate. Either extreme is problematic, but how to find balance?

  14. a spectator says:

    Although I live far from that border, we have a fair number of migrant workers around and I have heard attitudes like these in the community and at Church. I will admit to being pretty far left on most issues, especially when compared to most LDS, and I am sure that will come though in my comment.

    I do not understand how attitudes like these (whether directed at a race, class, or other group of people) coincide with those taught in scripture. To me, it is so obvious that we as individuals and a people (Mormon and American) must do better by others. That said, I can’t imagine sharing these scriptures in almost any form will work.

    1–people KNOW these scriptures and just must have their own interpretations
    2–if they get that you are caling them to repentance, they will not take it well
    3–they probably won’t get that you think they should change, as I said, they probably have their own ideas about how these particular verses do not apply to this situation.

    I think the best suggestions are sharing some literature that would lead to a discussion, or making some of Julie’s wise-cracks. A local university for me is showing several films in April about migrant life, and I intend to make it an enrichment outing. Truely, the new enrichment program is so flexible, you could do a little group that studies immigrant issues, bring in some formerly illegal workers, border patrol, local health workers, immigration lawyers, etc. to have a panel discussion, exposing people to many perspectives [did you know it takes our state department more than 7 years to LOOK at an immigration application for a Mexican with no petitioning relative? No wonder they don’t wait around!]. You could even organize a group to go to Mexico and DO something.

    I have a hard time understanding comments like Kelton’s. It is standard for Republicans to pull the “not the role of government” card. But the government does what I [we] want it to do, right? I would much rather my government increase social work than get involved in messing up other people’s countries. I am pretty sure Iraqis can also pull the “not the role of foreign governments” card when they look at their country being destroyed. Government can be as good as we want it to be–why not enlist it to do Christ’s work on a scale we individuals cannot?

    And I really REALLY don’t see how we are still arguing about health care; isn’t universal coverage clearly our Christian responsibility?

  15. Anonymous says:

    I went on a mission to Venezuela and have a great love for Hispanics. But living in Las Vegas, I also have great difficulty in being supportive of illegal immigration. Yes, our country was built upon immigration, but it was legal immigration and is a far cry from what we are seeing today.
    Our schools here are increasingly overcrowded due to immigration, making it difficult for the children of citizens to have a good environment for education. Our hospitals are overcrowded, some on the verge of bankruptcy due to uninsured immigrants. Welfare and social services are overextended. And Americans are paying for all of this while receiving less services themselves.
    I believe very strongly of helping those in need, but there needs to be done in an orderly and responsible manner.
    If you lived in a neighborhood of people who were struggling financially and they wandered in and out of your house uninvited, helping themselves to food or whatever else they wanted, would you maintain an open door policy?
    We can’t save the whole world -there are people in Sudan and Peru and India in desparate situations also. I am all for assisting countries and providing an orderly means of legal immigration, but just allowing millions of illegals to pour across our borders seems to me to be a eventually a very self-destructive way to handle things.

  16. Kelton says:

    a spectator said:
    I have a hard time understanding comments like Kelton’s. It is standard for Republicans to pull the “not the role of government” card. But the government does what I [we] want it to do, right? I would much rather my government increase social work than get involved in messing up other people’s countries. I am pretty sure Iraqis can also pull the “not the role of foreign governments” card when they look at their country being destroyed. Government can be as good as we want it to be–why not enlist it to do Christ’s work on a scale we individuals cannot?

    Dear a spectator,
    For starters, I am most definitely NOT Republican and never have been.

    I wish to advance productive debate on this topic by pointing-out that combating prejudice is not predicated upon making others politically accept government welfare programs and socialized medicine and so forth.

    All too often, the political debate about government welfare programs become accusations of racism and prejudice against critics of such programs. Such rhetoric does no service to actual racism and real prejudice and furthermore ignores the fact that people like myself have genuine concerns and rational political arguments against government involvement in such activities.

    I for one, (because of my own political philosophy) believe that NOT EVEN “honest, hard-working, genuine, patriotic, blah, blah… American Citizens” should have government welfare. So I urge caution, please do not inject the political bias that socialism is compassion if someone has a concern over illegal immigrants partaking of this country’s current socialized bounty. Many such concerns are not motivated by prejudice and racism.

    Please, be liberal and open-hearted by learning to filter and separate the debate over immigration reform and the debate over government welfare.

    For what it’s worth, I’ll also dispel some prejudice and stereotyping against me by adding that I carry the burden of seeing the world through libertarian eyes. It’s my philosophy, my world-view, and my cause and it is answered by my Mormon beliefs and deepest thoughts and feelings. I am not against government welfare because I wish to greedily preserve my wealth from taxes or because I harbor hatred of poor; no, in fact, I have qualified for all sorts of welfare benefits, including food stamps, for about 4 out of the last 8 years, but I choose to refuse them, such are my convictions.

  17. older singer says:

    Scriptures are good weapons, of course, but I find that a long, disapproving look at someone who has just made an insensitive remark does wonders.

  18. Starfoxy says:

    It is very hard not to confuse racism with desire for a lawful society- partially because the laws themselves can be racist, and the laws can be enforced in a racist way.

    Though I have seen and met members who have racist attitudes, especially towards Mexican immigrants, I can say that these attitudes are not pervasive even in areas where there is a large immigrant population. 3 of the 8 wards in my stake are Spanish speaking wards. The stake leadership is drawn from all the wards equally. I’ve never heard a member of our stake speak poorly of immigrants. It isn’t at all uncommon for talks to be delivered in Spanish then translated into English. Our stake simply couldn’t function if racism was tolerated.

  19. annegb says:

    It kind of is happening to LDS culture because we have a huge influx of Mexican immigrants, some legal, but many not. It’s a mixed bag, because some of the legal immigrants are bringing in meth trade and production and many of the illegals are simply working for a better life.

    It’s really confusing and frustrating to live with a huge Mexican population. Cedar has changed a great deal in the last ten years, there are areas that are being rapidly overrun by immigrants.

    Again, some are good citizens, some are not. But it’s nerve-wracking to go to the grocery store and have a new car pull up, music booming, and have a bunch of Mexican guys pile out. If it’s an old farm truck, you know they’re workers. But a new car loaded with Mexicans, makes you nervous.

    I’ve spoken out in favor of the immmigrants, illegal or otherwise. It’s not fair to focus on one aspect of their lives and judge them. On the other hand, there’s a problem.

    Addressing the problem without seeming racist is a problem. Hmmm…redundant? oh well.

  20. annegb says:

    ps, it’s different with the black people who live here. Most of the racism, prejudice, is directed toward the Indian community and the Mexicans.

    My sisters lived a long time and in Vegas and they started making racist comments. I objected and they said it’s different if you live among a lot of black people.

    I’m not agreeing or disagreeing, I’m repeating. Perhaps it is different. Although Vegas is an armpit, anyway.

  21. MistaBen says:

    EmilyCC,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Sometimes I feel myself being torn apart by this issue. That is, as with most other “hot-button” issues, the extremists on both sides are the ones getting the attention, whereas I suspect the opinions of those Americans not toeing a party line fall mostly in in the middle somewhere.

    Anyway, my own thoughts:

    On one hand, the current process cannot continue indefinitely. It’s not sustainable. Our trade deficit continues to grow every year, yet we let in those at the bottom of the economic ladder while making it ridiculously difficult for those with training and education (but no family fortune) to come work here legally. It’s an economic disaster waiting to happen, it’s demeaning to so many people (students stuck outside US, migrant workers working for peanuts, US citizens facing healthcare and insurance costs that would be rising anyway without this burden, etc), and if you agree with Mark Steyn (I’m not sure whether I do or not) it’ll be the eventual death of American culture.

    On the other hand, regardless of how they got here, these are indeed children of God, and so many of them are simply delightful! One tiny woman in our ward in the Northwest is raising her children alone, having fled her native country and her husband. She is a gem. This past Fast Sunday was the first time she bore her testimony in English.

    My parents live in the east valley of metro Phoenix, and for two years my dad was the President of the Spanish-speaking branch in their stake. Most of the members are in the US illegally. Dad was always the one to go the bank, simply because neither of his councilors had social security numbers. One young man received his mission call there, but had to go back to Argentina to be set apart and leave for his mission, because of his illegal status. I do find the Church’s apparent disinterest in this issue very interesting.

    One other thing: those LDS who consider their Hispanic brothers and sisters “inferior” in some way should attend a branch meeting sometime. A more Christlike love cannot be found. The also know how to cook! Now my mother’s brother is the Branch President, and he’s the one that gets heaps of tamales, etc. around Christmas. Man, those were good tamales.

    In sum, this is not a black-and-white issue.

  22. fMhLisa says:

    I’ve come across these sorts of attitudes (although less frequently) here in Idaho. Especially in areas that employ large numbers of migrant farm workers. I’ve also felt ashamed when I’ve remained silent after such comments, I’m going to try some of these ideas. Because I really think the silence that I’m guilty of is almost as bad as agreeing.

  23. aws says:

    I get equally angry when people complain about immigrants sucking from the system. If we gave them a social security number and a living wage then they would be paying taxes just like the rest of us. In that way they would not be bleeding the welfare system, they’s be paying into it like the rest of us. I don’t believe it’s complicated. If people move in there will always be jobs.

  24. Wanda says:

    I don’t understand why hate seems to generate from us as a human raise, most times for no Quote-Unquote “reason”. I leave in the deep south and not only do we now face prejudice towards African Americans but more so towards the hispanic community moving into our area. It is very difficult to teach children that they should love everyone no matter what when they here from there friends such comments as: You should not play with them they are dirty or different. or Why do you play with them they can’t even speak English. I pray that one day we will all ignore the differences that divide us and that only the love of our Savior through our lives will radiate through.

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