Silence is Not an Option

Aug 1, 2019 by

Silence is Not an Option

“Somebody’s hurting our people and it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t be silent anymore…”

Songs of protest such as this permeated the two days in El Paso this week when faith leaders and people of conscience, including several rabbinic colleagues and cantors, came together in support of Moral Mondays at the Borderlands. Hundreds from across the country answered the call from Reverend William Barber II, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Imam Omar Suleiman and other leading clergy to come witness and peacefully protest the inhumane, immoral, and unjust detention and caging of individuals seeking asylum and refuge in our country, adults and children, countless of whom are still separated from parents (the practice tragically persists according to news outlets on 7/31).

A spirited assembly Sunday evening illustrated the incredible diversity of the group who made the journey; participants reflected every religious tradition, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, and gender orientation. The powerful evening was marked by song, impassioned charges from leading clergy and organizers, the testimonies of former refugees now working with the Border Network for Human Rights to support individuals presently detained, among other memorable moments.

When we came together again Monday morning, Reverend Barber delivered a stirring message in which he tenderly described the love and care with which he attends to the needs of his German Shepherd puppies – providing them special food and treats, bathing them, giving them constant affection and attention. Then with a dramatic shift in tone, Barber thundered the painful and tragic reality that in our country at present, we treat our dogs better than we do fellow human beings, individuals seeking refuge in the hopes of a new home and life.  Minutes after departing the church, we reassembled in a large lot in view of the El Paso DHS detention center.  Protest signs in hand, we marched alongside the street en route to the center, the repeated honking of passersby indicating their support, until we reached the closed gates of the detention center.  There, Rick Jacobs and others prayerfully requested that clergy be allowed to enter the grounds to offer spiritual and pastoral support to the detainees. Unsurprisingly, the pleas went unheard by the Border Patrol agents, but with numerous media outlets covering and recording our presence, we still departed the grounds feeling confident about the impact of our collective voices and presence.  We departed the formal protest appreciating fully that for justice to be realized, our ongoing efforts to bring national attention to the crisis of inhumanity at our border must continue.

Since returning home to Atlanta, a few questions and observations about the time in El Paso have persisted. Among them is one glaring recognition – likely evident in video footage and photos of the gathering – that some of our justice efforts will result in a dais shared with individuals and/or organizations whose virulent views about Israel, for example, are antithetical to everything we believe and hold dear. Though not a new challenge or realization, the situation at the border reminds us yet again that there are times when our abiding need to confront serious and unconscionable injustice necessitates the capacity to set aside deep-seated conflicts regarding one matter in order to marshal energy and efforts for the sake of another cause.

For several participants, the trip to El Paso also raised questions about how to measure the efficacy of such actions. Acknowledging the not-insignificant investment of time and financial resources needed to participate, it begs the question as to whether there might be better or more impactful uses of both. For example, would directing the same dollars to the campaign of a candidate who could potentially help to legislate change be a better use of limited resources? No doubt this question invites debate, but I think it is honestly a bit of a conundrum, with an answers that will likely vary, even for the same individual.  Each of us must determine whether investing financial resources in potential, systemic change or utilizing those same dollars to enable one’s physical and emotional presence in a place of brokenness and pain holds sway. Obviously both can make a profound and lasting difference in people’s lives, bringing into sharp focus yet again why the efforts of the RAC and other agencies that facilitate both expressions of support simultaneously are so critical.

The desperate plight of fellow human beings, adults and children currently held in deplorable detention centers in the name of our country, is urgently calling us to action. The ICE raids evoking terror in cities throughout the south, adding to the trauma of separating parents from children, calls us to action. The current policy mandating that all who are seeking asylum remain in Mexico, in violent communities where their lives are endangered, calls us to action. And the fact that we are part of a faith tradition and sacred spiritual heritage which commands us – more often than any other mitzvah — to care for the stranger…the migrant, the refugee, the asylum seeker, and the immigrant in our midst, calls us to action.  The need for action and justice is undeniable, because “Somebody’s hurting our people and it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t – we simply can’t – be silent anymore!”


Rabbi Ron Segal serves Temple Sinai in Atlanta, Georgia. He is also the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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