On May 10, I had the good fortune to join a large Brooklyn living room filled with people in one of several celebrations around the country for the 35th anniversary of an organization that I, along with a group of women from different social and political movements and backgrounds, founded in 1983. I directed the organization, MADRE, for its first five years. In response to the women of Nicaragua’s plea — Please tell your president [Ronald W. Reagan] to stop killing our children — we created the group in partnership with women across borders, in countries adversely affected by U.S. policy, in support of their self-determination and as an exchange of skills and understanding.
In 1994 my husband, young daughters, and I moved back to the East End of Long Island, where my husband and I had both lived as children and where my mother still lived and lives. Today MADRE works in partnership with grassroots women’s groups in support of women facing war and disaster in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle East to meet urgent needs and create lasting change.
The MADRE celebration on May 10 reminded me that it is possible to make a social organism that can sustain, stay relevant, and offer meaningful contributions over time through agility and perseverance, serious critique and reflection, and some good fortune, among other elements. It reminded me that amid the daily horrors inflicted by the current U.S. administration and all the old horrors that are structural, ongoing, and showing up drastically now, each day groups of people of all ages, colors, sizes, gender identifications, geographies, languages, and skills resist brutalities, denial of rights, denial of histories, and denial of meaning, while building different ways of being, toward wholeness, cherishing beauty. It reminded me to trust what I know about love, about welcoming, mutuality, the imagination, and about the risk of starting something.
The biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber writes in his book “Matter & Desire”: “My conviction is that being alive in an empathetic way is always a practice of love. And only by relearning to understand our existence as a practice of love will we grasp anew the overwhelming ecological and human dilemma that we face in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century and find the means to deal with them differently than we have thus far.”
I celebrated MADRE this year with my younger daughter, who is a teacher, one of my graduate students who has directed cultural institutions in her South American country, and a number of people who were just joining the group. Those new to MADRE expressed relief and gratitude at finding a way to connect with a community working for something that matters urgently to them. They talked to me about the loneliness of not being part of an engaged community in such a scary time. I was reminded that often people want to be part of making change but, at the same time, between jobs, home, and getting by, may not know where to turn or how to participate.
As I think about our lives today and talk with people at home on the East End regarding the vicious policies of rounding up new residents and separating families, I recall the powerful sanctuary movement led by people of faith, with which we allied ourselves in those early MADRE days.
I remind my students at N.Y.U. in the department of art and public policy that sanctuary is not a new concept, but a living legacy, that it is not rigid or literal, but a commitment, a tool — practical, physical, and also spiritual and emotional, resonating back to slavery. To declare sanctuary means standing with, standing up for, welcoming, caring for. It means recognition of the rights of any human being to live with relative safety and to be protected from cruelty, injustice, and great danger by a symbolic support, and when possible by physical shield.
I keep wondering how anyone today can look at the Statue of Liberty, that woman in the water, and think it’s actually okay to haul off people who pose no danger, from their jobs and their homes, to tear apart families, interrupt lives, to forever traumatize small children. What is this activity reminiscent of? What images jump into the mind?
I think of my great-grandparents arriving, Jews from Eastern Europe, fleeing a pogrom, not knowing where they would land, or how. And building lives.
I think of the auction block. The Trail of Tears. Internment camps. Checkpoints. The unspeakable.
Must be spoken.
There are different ways to address the further decimation in this country of what’s been named democracy or freedom. Some of us have long asked: Freedom for whom? Off the backs of whom? (I certainly have long enjoyed my unearned privilege of freedom.) Some will work for sanctuary, some will march, take part in a vigil, sit in, some will accompany neighbors to court, some will litigate, some will build homes, some will create policy, some will share music and poetry, some will petition, some will share food, some will translate words and testimonies, some will invent new ways of intervening . . . all. . . .
On the East End, the group OLA (Organizacion Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island) valiantly leads the work in support of the rights of those most vulnerable while celebrating Latino culture. A group called Herstory Writers Workshop beautifully leads sessions for those most immediately affected by current dangers to write their stories. I believe it is essential for those of us who are not Latino or not identified with a group immediately at risk due to our national or ethnic origin to stand with our neighbors in a long tradition of solidarity and community. No business as usual. We are witnessing the disappearing of humans. We are witnessing the wrenching of children from their parents’ arms, thrown into cages or wrapped in Mylar. We are witnessing the most horrific denial of basic human rights and decency.
When a society blatantly attacks children, it cannot be considered a civil society. Never could.
I am writing these words while in Florence, Italy, participating in an international poetry festival. On the way to one of our readings, my friend and I stopped for a brief moment to stand with those gathered at the start of a protest in support of opening borders, against the stark rejection of people in boats, in water, fleeing brutality. This was one of numerous demonstrations throughout Italy on this day.
All over the world great numbers of people are and have been insisting on welcome and mutuality.
I believe we must weave ourselves together in a human chain around the world to stand in the way of the ejection and rejection of those needing sanctuary, needing home. To insist on the opening of borders. It is imperative that we recognize and act on our connectedness, our responsibility to one another as human beings in a time of historic worldwide turmoil and uprooting. These great waves of turning away cannot continue. If we don’t interrupt this course we will become a species of turnaways, void of our very substance, void of relationships, loveless, having rejected who we are by rejecting with whom we are connected, including nonhuman animals and plants, all life — the rejected and rejecters bound together in negation.
A local group has come together, initially convened by the Rev. Kimberly Johnson of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, Minerva Perez, the director of OLA, and Ella Engel-Snow, a housing advocate and poet, and joined by a fast-growing list of individuals and groups including Christ Episcopal Church, Racial Justice East End, Progressive East End Reformers, Canio’s Cultural Cafe, Temple Adas Israel, the Children’s Museum of the East End, Solidarity Sundays, the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons, the Hamptons Lutheran Parish, and others. The Walk for Interdependence: Keep Families Together / Caminata por la Interdependencia: Mantengan Nuestras Familias Juntas will gather this July Fourth at 11 a.m. at the windmill in Sag Harbor to show who we are as community members, to stand for interdependence and welcome.
Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, wrote this:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
Let us join, speak out, and stand up for one another, so there is always someone to speak for any of us.
For more information on the Day of Interdependence, Ella Engel Snow can be emailed at [email protected]. Please join your neighbors on this July Fourth on the East End to stand on the just side of history.
Kathy Engel lives in Sagaponack.