O, Arizona

O, Arizona for Urban Faith

One Latino pastor’s open letter to Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona before the passage of the state’s strict new immigration law.

The following open letter to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, by New York pastor Gabriel Salguero, appeared at Sojourner’s God’s Politics blog prior to the passage of Arizona’s controversial new immigration law. Needless to say, Gov. Brewer was not persuaded by the letter. But Rev. Salguero’s points are still helpful to consider as the debate over immigration reform intensifies in our nation. — Editor

Esteemed Governor Brewer:

My wife and I are both Evangelical pastors who have unrelenting commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our parents are ministers and from an early age we were taught that a fundamental tenet of the Gospel is to love your neighbor and be hospitable to the stranger. It is with this commitment in mind that I write to you asking you to veto SB 1070.

The bill navigates dangerously close to an enforcement policy which lends itself to the very dangerous and undemocratic practice of racial profiling. In this country we have not required or insisted on people carrying documentation to prove their citizenship. If this law passes I run the danger of being arrested or detained for DRIVING WHILE BROWN in Arizona. This is not in keeping with the highest and most noble of U.S. ideals. If this law were enacted, my 90-year-old grandfather who is a World War II veteran could be detained without cause. Worse still, clergy and all people of good will who are called to serve all people regardless of race, gender, or birth origin would be exposed to being arrested and detained for following their call as servants of God. As Christians we cannot refuse to serve and love the immigrant, legal or not. The Gospel requires more of us.

What seems to me most troubling about SB 1070 is that it threatens to divide children from their parents and underline enforcement without providing any real common-sense and workable solutions to immigration challenges. Governor, by vetoing SB 1070 you have the opportunity to show real courage and leadership in a way that history will judge with honorable distinction.

Enforcement without comprehensive immigration reform is not the way forward. Comprehensive immigration reform is the way forward in ways that Arizona and the rest of the country win. Some time ago I blogged on The Washington Post website about why comprehensive immigration reform is what is best for this country. I send you some of my thoughts from that blog here, praying that it will influence you to do the wise and humane thing and veto SB 1070. Perhaps your veto will once again spark the conscience of this country to remember that the truest test of America’s character is how it treats the stranger, widow, and orphan.

• The economic question: They are a burden on our tax and economic system; why don’t they go home? Studies show that the close to 12 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom already pay taxes and Social Security, want to continue to contribute to the system. Comprehensive immigration reform should require these immigrants to pay back taxes, learn English, and wait in line behind the people who entered legally. The system as is does not allow for this integration nor does it address unscrupulous employers who exploit cheap labor. A new system that requires these immigrants to integrate and employers and employees to pay taxes will add hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy. The status quo does not in any way address this challenge; reform does. Reform can help the economy. The U.S. can and should have the creative genius to make this a win-win for all.

• The moral question: How do we balance respect for the rule of law and compassion for all people? This is a fair question. I think we should respect the law and that’s why any reform should include requiring the following: paying back-taxes, penalties to employers who may have circumvented the system, and borders being controlled and supervised in humane ways. Nevertheless, what do we do with the 12 million men, women, and children that are already here? Deportation is not reasonable and it remains beyond our economic capacities. In short, reform must include both respect for the rule of law and a way that integrates all people in common sense ways. Enforcement only is both a drain on our local law enforcement and economy and does not in any competent way address the issue of the millions of people here. THE LAW IS BROKEN. LET’S FIX IT.

• The faith question: What does the Church or my faith have to do with it? Simply stated, as a Christian I am mandated to love my neighbor as myself without prejudice to origin, color, or creed. Jesus himself reminds Christians to “welcome the stranger” in Matthew 25. In addition, the Torah of the Hebrew scriptures reminds us continually to be kind and merciful to the stranger, widow, and orphan. In the end a nation is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable among them. My faith compels me to speak for and with the immigrants and their families. Love thy neighbor does not have a border limitation.

Immigration reform is a moral issue that requires us to live up to the highest of our values. If Christ welcomed me unconditionally, should I do any less with others?

Rev. Gabriel Salguero

Henrietta Everlasting


Henrietta Everlasting for Urban Faith

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks uncovers the heartbreaking story of the woman behind one of the most important discoveries in modern medicine. But it’s also a book about the intersection of race, science, and a family’s faith.

On a basic human level, most people desire to leave a legacy. I’ve found myself wondering what kind of impact my life will make on generations to follow. In our families and in our work, we spend a large portion of our lives trying to leave some sort of legacy, often in the form of monetary or material inheritance. But that seems so limiting, like life has been reduced down to money and things. Most of us would agree that we want to leave something far more meaningful than just stuff. But what if your legacy spurred some of the greatest medical discoveries? Most of us would be pleased with this. But what if this legacy had been left completely without your knowledge? How would your descendants approach such a gift? This is the scenario found in the bestselling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Skloot, a science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Discover, gives the reader an intimate look into the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman born in 1920 who, without knowing it, helped transform medical history. In February 1951, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. During a medical visit, her doctor took a biopsy of the tumor growing on the outside of her cervix without informing her. Henrietta died later that year, but by that time scientists had discovered that her cells had a very important trait: they didn’t die. The HeLa cells (pronounced hee-lah) reproduced at an astounding rate and had already started yielding scientific data before Henrietta’s death. Her life had ended, but the tissue she left behind soon earned designation as the first strand of immortal cells.

Skloot’s fascinating book is not only the story of Henrietta’s life, but the life of her immortal cells and their journey through the medical community. And an incredible journey it was.

HeLa cells are directly responsible for the development of multiple medical breakthroughs, from the Polio vaccination to in-vitro fertilization. Despite all that her cells have done, many people, including the medical and scientific community, had no idea who she was. Skloot does an impressive job of relaying complex medical truths in a way that doesn’t stall the reading. Told in an alternating-chapter format that shifts between the story of the HeLa cells and the lives of Henrietta Lacks and her family, the book is as gripping as it is informative.

I found myself heartbroken over the struggles of Henrietta’s husband and her children, who paint a stark picture of a dysfunctional family. They endure a string of health and financial challenges after Henrietta’s death. None of her children developed cancer, but they were riddled with a number of other health problems. Unfortunately, they lived most of their adult lives without the benefit of health care. Their mother’s contribution impacted millions but never fully trickled down to her own family.

Though Skloot’s primary goal was to tell the story of Henrietta and her cells, she also accomplishes another feat. She offers a glimpse into how medicine has been practiced throughout history. Like me, readers of this book will gain a greater appreciation of the blessings of modern medicine. Skloot not only exposes what we would consider barbaric medical practices, she also reveals how African Americans perceived doctors and medical treatment over the years. In the past, most went to doctors but did not question the diagnosis or opinions that medical professionals gave them, in part because of the legacy of slavery that spawned a passive and compliant demeanor toward authority figures. Several times in the book it becomes clear that Henrietta’s children never outgrew this mindset, as they repeatedly stated that they simply accepted whatever the doctor said because they felt they couldn’t ask questions.

There are some who might hear Henrietta’s story and cry injustice. Most of the procurement of Henrietta’s specimens happened without her or her family’s permission. Skloot takes a neutral stance on the issue of medical consent, but she does raise some thought-provoking issues. As of right now, it is completely legal for doctors to use anyone’s biological material for whatever research they desire. Scientists and even former President Bill Clinton have pushed for some kind of consent form that notifies patients that doctors will be using their specimens, but the idea hasn’t taken hold.

As I read this book, I found myself torn regarding the issue of consent. On the one hand, it is disturbing to think that the biological materials we leave behind at a hospital could be harvested and exploited by a biotech company that goes on to make untold millions off of our cells, as was the scenario in the Henrietta Lacks case. On the other hand, if our specimens can contribute to advancements in medical research that will benefit the greater society, then shouldn’t we embrace that — as long as no one unfairly profits from it financially?

As of this date, Henrietta’s children have received no financial benefits from anything her cells did. How much money biotech companies have made from her cells over the years is still a mystery.

I wanted to believe that I was reading a page from the distant past when I picked up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Unfortunately, as the book progressed, I realized the subject is still very relevant to us today. Race and consent are ongoing issues in the medical community when it comes to scientific research. But perhaps with Skloot’s book these issues will come to the forefront of our discussions in the African American community. Then maybe Henrietta Lacks’ story will do as much for the cause of justice as her cells have done for science.

‘I Read the Bible for the First Time’

How Henrietta Lacks’ story changed Rebecca Skloot.

Author Rebecca Skloot (right) recently talked to the Atlanta weekly Creative Loafing about the making of her bestselling book. In the interview, she explained how the religious beliefs of Henrietta Lacks’ family affected her personally.

SKLOOT: [Writing the book] was an 11-year process and it has changed me and affected me in ways I’ll be trying to figure out for years. I came from a non-religious background, a completely different culture than [Henrietta’s daughter] Deborah. The religion was so surprising to me. It was such an important part of their story and their lives and their understanding of the self. I just knew nothing about it and in the process of learning I read the Bible for the first time. I went to the church with [the Lacks family] and I saw faith healings; things I had never been exposed to. I spent a lot of time learning about what their religion and spirituality meant for them and how that interacted with the science.

I think I learned a lot about religion just in general and about lots of different ones and the roles they play in people’s lives and the ways they can be incredibly positive and helpful. With the family that’s a lot of how they came to terms with what happened with the cells: They believe she was chosen and came back as an angel in these cells to cure diseases. In terms of the family, it’s still happening. They are still responding to the book and there are now generations of Lackses that have read the book. Several of them have read it many times. The grandchildren have been reading the book out loud to their parents cause they don’t read so much so that’s been a great thing for them. Now they’re able to see the full story — what are these cells and how are they used. To see how people are responding to the story serves as some kind of validation to what they’ve been through that they’ve never gotten before.

Source: CreativeLoafing.com; photo by Manda Townsend.

Giving Back

To thank the Lacks family for their trust and help in the writing of her book, and as a way to thank Henrietta Lacks for the cells that have done so much to further science, author Rebecca Skloot has set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide financial assistance in the form of scholarships to the descendants of Lacks. Skloot is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to the foundation. You can read more about it or donate at henriettalacksfoundation.org.

In My Opinion: I Am Because We Are

Flag-map of Senegal

Image via Wikipedia

I am an American by birth and by culture. Having spent all my life in “the land of the free” where everyone fights to grab his or her own slice of the American pie, I was only concerned with what I thought and wanted. In my opinion, the individual mattered most. That is, until I traveled abroad. In Senegal, the community is more important than the individual, and their culture benefits in many ways from this idea. In the “individual vs. community” debate, almost everyone wins when the community wins. How did I come to this conclusion? Well, it was a relatively short journey.

The year after I graduated from college I decided to teach in Dakar, Senegal. My choice was influenced by personal interests in travel, the opportunity to learn a new language, and the availability of the program. In preparation for my year abroad, I had underestimated the subtlety of the cultural differences. Community, while it exists in America, has a stronger resonance in Senegalese culture, and the lesson we can derive from it as Christians is the importance of accountability.

On my first day, I did not even get past the informal introductions without being confronted with how cultures varied. “Good morning, my name is Bamba Sy,” one student in the classroom would begin. “Bambasy?” I would repeat as rapidly as the student had said it. “My name is Oumar Cheikh,” said a student in the hallway, and I’d echo, “Oumarcheikh?” with my American accent. After a few days, I realized that when teachers asked me my name in school, I’d commonly give a first-name-only response. But in Senegal that was not the custom. My students had been saying their first and last names so closely together that, as someone unfamiliar with the traditional importance of community, I could not hear the distinction. The first name is nothing without the last name in Senegal because the last name ties you to a larger family history. The community expects every individual to give reverence to the family ties that surround them. Thus, the students feel accountable to their family, and their behavior often reflects a desire not to shame their community.

For example, the most anxious I ever saw my seventh grade English class was on what seemed like an ordinary Monday. The group of usually reserved students might have been disturbed by a big test or the upcoming talent show, but that was not the case that day. As it happened, a teacher contacted their parents because they had performed poorly on a test, and that notice sent my students into a spiral. Palms sweating, fidgeting in their seats, they waited to be called out of the room one by one as their parents arrived. My seventh graders were not alone in this reaction. Typically students who were sent to the administration would return from the office with a down-turned, remorseful expression after only the threat of family involvement. Both students and teachers benefited from a calmer learning environment than one sees in many American schools. Iit was all because of the children’s sense of accountability to their community.

My experience in Senegal taught me the value of seeing myself as more than an individual. My actions reflect my family and the values that they have instilled in me. I take that to heart as a Christian because when the world sees me, it should be more than just Melanie. They should see God in me.

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Dorothy Height

Image by now_photos via Flickr

Dorothy Height, a leading female voice of the 1960s civil rights movement and a participant in historic marches with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, died on April 20th at age 98. She led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years and continued to speak out on civil rights issues into her 90s.

According to the Associated Press, President Obama called her “the godmother of the civil rights movement” and a hero to many Americans. Obama said in a statement that Height was the only woman at the highest level of the civil rights movement and witnessed “every march and milestone along the way.”

Have you heard of Dorothy Height? If not, be sure to research about her life. We have lost a giant. Let us cherish her memory and keep her legacy alive.

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Knowledge from Ghana, West Africa

Photo of the Independence Arch in Accra, Ghana...

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I believe that when a person is born, he or she is dealt a set of cards. Some people have a good hand; others are dealt a bad hand. Regardless of what type of hand people are dealt, a game is won or lost based on how well a hand is played. Someone with the good hand, for instance, can play a bad game. In the same way, someone with a bad hand can play a good game.

I recently traveled to Ghana, West Africa. Upon observing some of the differences between the cultures of Ghana and America, I have concluded that in America, for the most part, people are dealt a good hand, but play a bad game.

There is no doubt that America is the land of opportunity. You can see this by the number of people coming over here from less-privileged countries seeking a better life for themselves and their families. They recognize that Americans have better hands. But they are also coming to a land with many problems that result from playing a bad game.

Not everything in America is great. Historically, Americans have misused and abused people. The explorers who first settled in America took the land of others and called it their own. They took Black people from their homeland, brought them to America, and treated them as less than human during the era of slavery. Presently, living in America in Chicago, Illinois, I have seen how Americans continue to play bad games with good hands. I have witnessed how adults misuse their power of educating. I have friends who have had someone they know and love die from gun violence. I know many women who cannot walk down the street on a beautiful day without being inappropriately approached. I have seen sisters and brothers mistreat their younger siblings. And I am embarrassed to say that I have seen women in music videos with too few clothes on as men rap about sex, money, and drugs. Youth in America who soak in worldly values are more likely to play a bad hand as well. This can change if we read our Bible and go to church.

In Ghana,West Africa, I saw a lot of differences between their culture and American culture. The most significant difference I noticed is the seemingly bad hand they’ve been dealt. At first, I felt blessed to live in America, but as I became aware of how they played a good game, I started to appreciate their different way of living.

Ghana, West Africa, is a country of dignity despite the hardships they face currently and those they faced in the past. The women in Ghana are fully clothed. Men respect the women and children. The boys are studying and helping their families. Girls hold their sisters on their backs and food on her head as they walk. I did not see a lot of guys coming up to girls and talking to them or touching them inappropriately. Females were acknowledged as beautiful, not sexy.

Although Ghana is a poor country, the thing that I admired about Ghana is that the youth are still praying. Some remote parts of Ghana still have no electricity. Technology is not as available as it is in America. Opportunities are not as abundant. Yes, many Ghanaians were dealt a bad hand resulting from the slave trade and colonization; however, they are playing a good game. Ghana is a country of pride and dignity. They are pressing to triumph over their hardships. Even though the government currently owns the schools, the students are still praying and trying to find ways to make their villages and their country a beautiful home and society. Their youth are not picking up guns and tearing down the communities. They are trying to prosper in bad schools and fewer resources. This is not only impressive; it is admirable. I think many youth living in America can learn from our brothers and sisters across the ocean in Africa. In Ghana, I learned to play a good game at life no matter what kind of hand I was dealt. I will be successful not only for my family, my community, and myself, but for the world.

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