The case of Lilian Calderon — and a call to action

David Helfer

Last year, at our first Poverty in the Pulpits Sunday – and to be clear this is a day when multiple faith communities across South County are all asking the question, what is our role in ending homeless and poverty – this time last year we handed out packages that the Religious Education program had compiled. Things that we thought a homeless person might need.

And the need is there, though many remain unaware of the challenges of poverty in South County. 1 in 10 people in Washington County is living on incomes below the federal poverty level. One in 10…

My request to you was to take a packet – if you were willing – and share it directly with an individual who is or was homeless. I hoped that that interaction would be both educational and connective for you.

And perhaps for some that was true. But mostly I the feedback that I heard was that perhaps there weren’t as many homeless as one thought, or that we were hesitant to interact with people who felt foreign to us. Some even threw away these carefully prepared packets.

One could see that as a failed attempt at addressing homelessness in Rhode Island. That’s not what happened.

It was the directions that we’re flawed, my directions.

I asked you to find a homeless person to share the packet with. Emphasis on “homeless” rather than “person.” You did as I asked. But in doing so the connection with the person was lost.

My friend, Vijay, the one who played the violin so beautifully during my installation here in March, his personal focus is a program called Street Symphony. Street Symphony brings music to those least able to access it in Los Angeles. Most notably, they regularly bring classical music to Los Angeles’ skid row, one of the largest homeless encampments in the country and also to the immense Los Angeles prison systems.

The sheer beauty of Vijay’s work, of Street Symphony, is that it embodies, it exemplifies, our first principle. It sees the worth of all as equal, regardless of physical circumstances. It offers love from the heart, not as a charity but as a witnessing, of an understanding that one’s life circumstances are not defining factors.

There’s a phrase often asked, in trying to discern whether an act is one of charity or compassion. The phrase is “is this a “do for” or a “do with.” If I do for another, I tend to see myself as different, better, than them. If I do with another, if I recognize where I contribute to a system of inequality and work to shift that system, I am working with others.

That was highlighted in bright relief for many here this past Wednesday evening. For the 100 or so, both inside and outside of this faith community, who showed up to resist ICE’s inhumane detainment of Lilian Cordero-Gordillo, it was all to easy to recognize a flawed and failed immigration system, one that could not separate the person from the situation. And in that failure, a very real human crisis emerged. One which has yet to be resolved.

For those of you not familiar with this plight, or our response, allow me to share part of a letter with you…

Dear Governor Raimondo, Senator Reed, Senator Whitehouse, Representative Langevin, and Representative Cicilline,

We ask that you call for the immediate humanitarian release of Lilian Calderon, who is currently being detained by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), during the pendency of her legal proceedings .

Lillian, her United States Citizen husband Luis, and their two young United States Citizen children are upstanding and beloved members of their community. Lillian has lived in Rhode Island with her family since she was 3 years old, and now her life, and that of her family, is being ripped apart by our inhumane and broken immigration system.

As a matter of humanity and conscience, and up until now, routine procedure in such matters, Lilian must be reunited with her two children at home here in Rhode Island, while her case unfolds.

As Luis is valiantly trying to distract the couple’s young children when they ask why their ‘mami’ is gone and consoling them when they wake up crying asking for her, his extended family and loving community are all chipping in and helping with the day-to-day reality of being a single father while his wife is in ICE detention. But Luis needs his wife. Natalie and Noah need their mother. This family must be reunified.

We want to hear you defend Luis and Lilian, ask for their reunification, and stand clear on our values as Rhode Islanders. We want Luis and Lilian to know that there are champions fighting for them in the community, the courthouse, and the halls of government. We are families, just like Luis and Lilian’s, and we stand together.

In solidarity,

The Immigrant Coalition, a state-wide network of 30 community-based, advocacy, and service provider organizations dedicated to supporting all Rhode Islanders.

When I found my voice that night, amidst the anger and frustration, I was able to remember why we gather. Our interconnectedness. We belong to each other, ALL OF US. It is when we fail to recognize that, to truly act from a place of relationship, that horrors such as Lillian’s begin to occur.

And such was both my invocation and closing prayer with those that gathered, and again on Tuesday morning at the vigil held to make public, as widely as possible, our responsibility to this family, here in our state of Rhode Island.

From near and far, people from many groups gathered with a clear single purpose – to free Lillian, to recognize her humanity, and to reunite her with her family.

This is part of the answer, my friends. At this time, when things can feel overwhelming and impossible to repair, part of the answer is always to be in relationship with each other.

The Reverend William Barber, of the United Church of Christ, and a social justice leader, recently launched the Poor Peoples Campaign, nationwide. This harkens back to Dr King’s 1968 campaign of the same name, to “gain economic justice for poor people in the United States.” The campaign recognizes that the problems are both structural and relational, so the answers must be as well. In that understanding, we can understand, for example, that the Fight for 15, the fight for a living wage, is every bit as important – and truly more so – than our traditional notions of charity. Fifty years ago, the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Junior declared “All of us can feel the presence of a king of social insanity which could lead us to national ruin.”

Fast-forward half a century, and there we are again. Faced with what King called the “ “triple evils” of racism, poverty, and militarism, – with the addition of ecological devastation, (and) a global crisis that disproportionately affects people living in poverty.” Or, in the simplest possible terms, dramatic – and intentional – inequality. A desire to keep the rich rich and the poor poor.

This is against everything we stand for, as Unitarian Universalists, as Rhode Islanders, and as people.

If you would, look at the 7 principles listed on the back of your Order of Service. We print those principles each and every week, not as a dogma or creed, but as a constant reminder of what who and how we strive to be.

And let me be clear, my friends, we are no better, we are no different, than the individuals like Lilian who are being ripped away from their families, their homes, their lives. We are not more worthy of citizenship or safety or the surety that ICE won’t detain us without cause or warning.

There’s a phrase that has emerged around the fight for Lilian’s release. The words are Todos Somos Humanos. We are all humans. We are all humans.

All of these interlocking needs – for housing, for a living wage, for safety and surety in the country one finds themselves in – these needs are basic human needs. Human rights.

If we turn away from this, if we avert our eyes and live in safety, if we believe ourselves different or better or even separate from Lilian and so many others, then the purpose of our faith will be lost. W E Du Bois reminds us, “Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow.”

When we planned this Poverty in the Pulpit Sunday, the question among the Interfaith Coalition on Poverty, a group of south county faith communities, there was widespread agreement that we must respond to a world which is becoming ever more unequal. How do we not only serve only those privileged who have the means to walk in our doors on a Saturday or Sunday morning, but indeed all those who walk this earth, all we encounter?

Some, within this congregation, are beginning to ask once again if we might be a sanctuary, a physical sanctuary for those needing refuge. There’s a clear desire to help, but in ways that don’t ask us to give up our own safety and privilege.

You know that I’m going to ask us to move further out toward the ledge here, scary as that is…

I don’t know if you know the notion of a jubilee year. At the 50th year mark from a major event, according to scripture, a jubilee, a massive reconsideration of “land, property, and personal rights” occurs. That notion is at the core of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. It is time, long past time, to shift land, property, and rights in the direction of equity and justice. It’s an opportunity to reallocate resources by fairness.

This couldn’t be further from the decrees coming out of Washington, I know. Or the activities of the stock market.

A jubilee year is utopian in intent. It creates the world we dream of rather than the one in which we find ourselves.

But as I said before, circumstances do not define a people. Whether those circumstances are poverty or homelessness or immigration status or a fascist administration.

Todos Somos Humanos. We are all human. We are all human.

Take your perfect and beautiful humanity out into the world. We do have some packets for individuals who find themselves with food or housing insecurity. This time, we asked what was needed, and the packets we have respond directly to those requests. If you take a packet, and there are only 15, do so from a place of intentionality. You’re not handing a bag of goods to someone, but meeting another human, like you, in need of love, connection, sustenance,

As for Lillian, we’re continuing to fight for her. At the same time, we know she’s not the last Rhode Island resident that ICE will detain and possibly deport. Many of you signed up on Wednesday to be part of an immigration action network. If more of you want to offer help in the ways asked for – translation, transportation, court support – let me know.

When I speak of a jubilee year, I do so to acknowledge that nothing less than an upheaval of the current political and immigration systems will suffice. To end an immigration web so arcane and complex, one which favors those with means, one which depersonalizes an individual down to a notions such as aliens, a deeply broken approach to national borders which forces individuals to make unimaginable decisions about their survival. Underneath all of the language about legality are structural injustices, put in place to keep out, as the President fatefully acknowledged, residents from the “shitty” countries. One need look no further than the proposed border wall with our siblings to the south, and the open flow with our siblings to the north to see that this is about money, power, and control, not safety or legality or, most importantly, the real and present role that immigration plays in this and every country.

Make the world you dream of. Stand in the way of ICE. Say “no more” and force an unjust system to shift. Call your representatives and remind them how you vote, on DACA and everything else. Put your heart and your body on the line. Commit to Reverend Barber’s Poor Peoples’ campaign and work toward the actual redistribution of wealth. This, this, is what will shift the arc of justice, and reorient us toward the deep and enduring bonds of humanity.

May it be so.


AMOR has a petition in support of Lilian Calderon.

And here’s a fundraiser for her legal defense costs:

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About David Helfer 1 Article
The Reverend David L. Helfer is the Settled Minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County.

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