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Within Our Power

Marlena Graves


Two weeks ago, I answered the phone. It’s close to 10 pm.

He is calling me up to talk politics again. ‘He’ being a family member. In our conversation where I can barely get a word in edgewise, I hear that I am a communist and a socialist and that an “illegal alien murdered Mollie Tibbetts.” I respond by telling him that her own family members didn’t want her death politicized. “Moreover, her father thanked the Latino community for their “support,” I say. I then quickly get another word in, “Not all undocumented immigrants are murderers or rapists – just like not all white males are mass shooters.”

A pause ensues. Then I hear, “The Democrats had a chance to pass an immigration reform bill during the Obama Administration but didn’t.” “I know,” I said. “That’s why I went to Washington during the Obama Administration to ask Republicans and Democrats to pass the Dream Act and a comprehensive immigration reform bill. We thought it might happen but it didn’t. I wasn’t happy with Obama’s immigration policies either. He was the ‘Deporter-in-Chief.’”

He gets one last word in, “You just don’t like Trump; you won’t give him credit for doing anything right.” I take a deep breath. “No, I don’t like Trump. He is dirty, corrupt, bragged about assaulting women, made fun of disabled folks, and is continually implementing policies that harm black and brown folk, the sick, disabled, and poor.” He suddenly drops the political arguments that are going nowhere and tells me he loves me.  I know he loves me. I tell him that I love him, too. All is well until the next time he calls to rake me over about my views—which will probably be next week.

I dare not demonize him; I see his goodness and kindness. But neither can I drink the Fox News Kool-Aid that he does when it comes to immigration and other issues. I’ve met way too many documented and undocumented immigrants who have been exploited and who fled their countries of origin because of violence and poverty. They are hard workers. They pay taxes. And the undocumented workers don’t receive the benefits of the taxes they pay. We do.

That’s why back in May, when I heard the Trump Administration via U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, was promoting and implementing the “Zero Tolerance” policy—separating children from parents at the southern border—and detaining them in cages while surely committing other human rights abuses, I knew I had to do something. Even then I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, from past testimonies I heard, that human rights abuses were occurring. It wasn’t too long before news reports confirmed sickening incidences of abuse in the ICE Detention Centers.

But what was that ‘something’ I could do? I am so little and the problem is so big. Amid my upset over the separation of children and families, I happened to have my regularly scheduled meeting with my spiritual director, Sister Diane.

“What can I do Sister Diane?” I lamented. “I don’t have any money or power. I feel so helpless.” In her kind and knowing way, my spiritual director, a Roman Catholic nun, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Marlena we all have some measure of power. God asks us only to do what is in our power.” I left our time together wondering, “Okay, what is within my power then?” After wrestling with her words throughout the entire day, that evening I figured out that I could lobby friends who are female Christian writers, Christian mothers, and other women. Through social media I could ask them to join me in getting our collective voices heard.

It worked.

Together, we ended up spearheading the #NotWithoutMyChild Campaign. We got close to three-thousand Christian women to sign a letter demanding that Jeff Sessions and Kirstjen Nielsen immediately stop the separation of children from their families. We also collected letters to deliver to those in ICE detention centers. Not long after, Faith in Public Life flew me to Washington D.C. to speak at a press conference condemning the “Zero-Tolerance” policy. I was there along with other Christian women and also women from a variety of faiths. The press conference in front of the Customs and Border Patrol building had lots of media coverage. And last time I checked, the press conference garnered close to a million views online.

The Trump Administration heard our outcry and that of those reverberating throughout the country. The next day, June 20, 2018, President Trump signed an Executive Order halting the separation of children from their families. It turns out I could do what was within my power. With God’s help, and the help of those all over the nation, our cries snowballed thus forcing the President to act in order to end the separation of children from their families. Of course, this isn’t over. President Trump’s Executive Order is just a start. There is still much prayerful work that needs to be done. Many children have not been reunited with their families. Moreover, many parents who have been reunited with their children are finding the children deeply scarred from their experiences in the detention centers.

So, I’ll continue to do what’s within my power to help even if friends and family members malign me. My hope is that you will do the same; do whatever is within your power to help others even if you are faulted for it. It’s all we can do. We can’t do everything, but we can do something.

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Marlena (M.Div, Northeastern Seminary) is the author of A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness. Hearts & Minds Books awarded it the Best Book on Spiritual Formation by First-time Writer (2014). Marlena was one of the original bylined writers for Christianity Today’s popular Her.meneutics Blog (which transitioned to CT Women). She is co-editor of a forthcoming anthology with IVP: Exploring the Gospel of Peace. Her work has appeared in a variety of other venues. Recently, she was listed as one of 18 People of Color to follow in 2018

Marlena teaches classes at Winebrenner Seminary, is a board member of the Redbud Writers Guild, and has another book coming out with InterVarsity Press tentatively titled (The Downward Descent Up, Fall 2020). She is a bi-racial Puerto Rican who finds herself on the borderlands and margins of Evangelicalism. She is married to her favorite person, Shawn. Together they have three daughters. Her day job? Communications on behalf of and alongside farmworkers--one of the hardest working, kindest, and yet most exploited (and invisible) peoples in the Americas.