Dear Readers: Letter From an Anonymous Liberal Pastor in Trump Country

Small church upstate New York. Image credit: Evan Derkacz

Dear RD Readers:

The last time I wrote to you, a little over a year ago, I was serving a small congregation trying to resettle a Syrian refugee family in the face of opposition from governors like Mike Pence. I’ve since moved to another small congregation, about thirty-five miles from the old one. You know what they say, though: same stuff, different location. We’re having problems with the government and…immigration.

More properly, some of our community is having trouble with visas. (I write anonymously not to protect my own reputation, but to give them privacy.)

A member of the congregation, born in the neighborhood and raised on her parents’ farm, married an Iranian man almost forty years ago. She was there for the tail end of the revolution and its aftermath, and says she was never treated poorly in Tehran, even in the days of mass street protests against the Great Satan. She and her husband have stayed married all this time, through all the ups and downs of Iranian-American relationships, splitting their time between Tehran and the small city near our church. Eventually, he applied for and received a green card, and they began to make plans to retire to the U.S.

You probably know where this is going. They were back in Iran for their yearly visit when the Trump administration’s Muslim ban was handed down. Suddenly, they had no idea if or when the husband would be able to return.

This is not a theoretical concern. He has a job in the U.S., which can only be held for him so long. They set money aside to pay for the bills while they were gone, but no job, no more income. She could have returned without him, but she doesn’t work, and splitting up would have put his immigration status in jeopardy. Worse yet, the Iranian government threatened to take retaliatory measures limiting the stay of American visitors. After all this time, having their marriage broken up by governments became a real possibility.

By Monday, the administration had backed off a bit, lifting the outright ban on green card holders from the affected nations. This still would have required the husband to undergo the “extreme vetting.” Since there is no American embassy in Iran, that would in turn mean setting up an appointment in another nation, then shelling out for airfare, food and housing, all the while hoping that he could be processed in whatever time he had available.

In the meantime, I got in touch with some of our elected officials. One of our senators’ staff took an interest in the situation, and graciously agreed to do what they could for the family. The office of our US Representative declined to intervene until the family tries to return to the country, but at least took our information and agreed to help if needed. The other senator? Never called back.

I told the congregation about the situation last Sunday. I’d intended to talk about it during the prayers, but ended up using it to introduce the sermon. It was all about God’s foolishness confounding the wisdom of the wise, Jesus’ blessings on the poor and humble, and how we need to find hope and meaning not in our own successes, but in serving those same people Jesus blessed.

You could have heard a pin drop. On carpet.

Issues like this have to be approached carefully in a setting like this. Small churches dislike anything that seems even remotely divisive, which typically means checking your politics at the door. Small rural churches don’t appreciate being lectured to about social justice or speaking truth to power. They tend to the conservative. I don’t exactly do surveys, but the congregation is probably about two-thirds Trump voters, in line with the surrounding county. They’re not necessarily fire-breathing radical right-wingers—in fact, very few of them are—but they are reliable Republican voters. The Sunday before Election Day, a member expressed a concern during the prayers: “For the first time ever,” he said, “we don’t have an ethical candidate for president.” My heart sank. They weren’t going to break against Trump.

The right play with a situation like this isn’t to come in with guns blazing about the injustice of it all. A better call is to appeal to people’s natural instinct to help those in trouble and hope for an opportunity to suggest along the way that things didn’t have to be this way. Our couple’s story makes a natural peg for that kind of approach, so I took it. With any luck, I’ll get my chance to help my people see how many others were harmed by this cruel and absurd policy, and that there is something they can do about it.

But the main thing they pay pastors to do is to watch out for the members of the flock. So I asked, politely and hesitantly, if anyone would agree to come with me to see our member of Congress. He’s a bit behind on the subject of immigration, shall we say. He might need some convincing.

One or two people volunteered, which is about what you’d expect from an open invitation. I resolved to ask a few people individually. So it goes.

But then, during the last hymn, the same guy who had denounced both candidates on the eve of the election came up front and motioned to speak to me. He wanted to say something before we all departed.

He spoke about his mother, who died last week, and her relationship with the mother of our woman in Tehran. “Catholics ask their departed relatives to help them,” he said with a catch in his throat. “And we Protestants put that down. But if there was ever a time to ask my mother for some help, this is it.” He paused, as if to return to his pew. But then he looked back at me and said, “I will go with you to see the congressman.”

Like many liberals since the election, I have been swinging between absolute terror and despair and bits of hopefulness among the flames. I was thrilled to hear the ban on green card holders had been lifted, and terrified to hear of the ill-treatment many were still receiving. I was lifted up when Sally Yates refused to defend the executive order in court, and crushed again almost immediately when she was fired.

I’ve never doubted the hearts of my congregation, never regretted coming to a conservative setting. I do wonder sometimes if people like them will be able to stand up to the authoritarian drift of this administration. Or will they buy into the same politics of white resentment that got them hoodwinked into voting for Trump the first time? I don’t know. I just know that like that time with the Syrians, the extremists running the show these days make it hard to live my faith sometimes. They make it hard to stand up for the right thing. Pretty ironic, considering all their rhetoric on religious freedom.

But it always seems like when I’m in a truly black mood about the future of the American project, a bit grace drops in like a sunbeam to restore my confidence. Today it was a few dozen people gathered on the main corner of our little city to protest the executive order, waving signs saying MUSLIMS WELCOME and JESUS WAS A REFUGEE. The darkness can only last so long before the light comes again. We’re going to be okay, I think.

But I’m still going to call the ACLU and give them my congregants’ exact flight information. Just in case.