Today's paper has a good piece from reporters Hiran Ratnayake and Ginger Gibson — "Immigrants on fringes in debate's foreground" — on the desperate situation faced by illegal immigrants in need of health care here in America.
The article starts with one story:
When Miriam was 15, her parents trespassed into the United States from Mexico.
Now in her mid 20s, the Wilmington resident still doesn't have citizenship but has become familiar with the health care system.
In the spring, she and her husband — who both work as custodians — were admitted to St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington for two days with pneumonia.
When they were released, they faced bills amounting to more than $4,000 and were put on a payment plan that eats up about one-fourth of their combined paychecks.
"I'd rarely go to a hospital because I can't afford to pay for it again," said Miriam, who is not being identified due to her immigration status, through an interpreter. "If I get sick again, I won't go to the hospital unless it's really serious."
What I want to draw your attention to here is the legally accurate verb in that first sentence: "trespassed."
That's not Lou Dobbs' preferred word for illegal immigration, since we don't tend to think of trespassing as a particularly menacing form of crime and people like Dobbs — the CNN anchor fearfully obsessed with illegal immigration from Mexico — want to portray these aliens as more of a threat than the word "trespasser" seems to convey.
But there's another reason you won't hear that word from Dobbs or from his role models on Fox News or the other members of the frantically xenophobic anti-immigrant mob, like the birthers, deathers and tea-baggers or the demagogues who stoke their cowardly anger, like drop-out Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or South Carolina's Rep. Addison Graves Hansen Huntington Wegener Ricketts Parkinson "Joe" Wilson* — the congressman who said he was overwhelmed by his emotions when he heard the president excluding illegal immigrants with what he regarded as insufficient viciousness. ("You lie!" Wilson shouted, after Obama said illegal immigrants would not receive federally funded health insurance under his health care reform plan. Obama's statement was true, but Wilson fears such immigrants might not also be aggressively prohibited from purchasing private health insurance, and the idea of them doing so keeps him tossing and turning all night.)
The main reason that none of these Very Angry, Very Scared people wants to use the word "trespass" is that it reminds them of church.
There's this prayer we Christians say in church, at every service, whenever we get together. We recite it in unison, usually, and we've all got it memorized. We call it "The Lord's Prayer," because Jesus himself taught it to us and told us to pray it. Sometimes we call it the "Our Father," since that's how it starts.
Most of this prayer is comforting and reassuring, like the 23rd Psalm. "Give us this day our daily bread," we pray. "And deliver us from evil." Daily bread and deliverance, that's nice.
But then there's this other phrase which, when we listen to ourselves saying it, is the scariest part of any given Sunday. "Forgive us our trespasses," we pray, "as we forgive those who trespass against us."**
That's disturbingly conditional. It's almost contractual. The conditions laid out there are crystal clear and explicit, but we tend to recoil from them. We pray this one prayer more than any other, but every other prayer omits this quid pro quo. "Forgive us according to thy infinite mercy," we pray, or "according to your boundless grace," or "for Jesus' sake," or "in Jesus' name." Straight-up, unconditional, one-way forgiveness is what we ask for in every other prayer. Apart from our recitation of that one prayer, you'll rarely ever hear us ask that this be conditional — "Forgive us as we forgive others."Rep. Wilson attends the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., and every time he goes there with his family he has to recite those words: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." How can he possibly reconcile that with his rabid anti-immigrant views? Having those views, how does he even manage to speak the very first word of this prayer?
Think of Wilson and the rest of the "take back America" crowd praying this prayer in tens of thousands of nominally Christian churches across the country. Think of them praying this prayer on behalf of "their" country: "Forgive America its trespasses as America forgives those who trespass against it."
If those are the conditions — and they are — then we're screwed. Our own words, our own prayers, condemn us.
Wilson and the tea-baggers have to realize this. They have to hear this every week, to listen to themselves saying it, listen to their own voices inviting and invoking their own damnation. Praying this prayer must be for them like those monks in Monty Python's Holy Grail who carry wooden planks and smack themselves in the face after every phrase of every chanted prayer.
Maybe that explains why these people are so miserably unhappy, why they're so disproportionately angry, so wrong-headedly certain that they deserve to be jealous of those luck-ducky illegal immigrants like Miriam in the story above. Those desperately poor immigrants may have no access to care they can hope to afford, but at least they can hope to be forgiven. Wilson and the tea-baggers know that they, due to their own prayers, never can be.
The heroes in all of this, to me, are those health care providers like the ones in the story above who insist on being exactly that — providers of care, regardless of a patient's ability to pay or to produce identification papers for the ICE or the polizei:
If law enforcement is alerted by a health care worker that a patient is undocumented, more patients with the same status would shy away from seeking care when they need it, added Rosa Rivera, executive director of Henrietta Johnson Medical Center.
"All you're doing then is a disservice to the community," she said. "Our goal is to treat as many people who come here that need our services and take care of them and make them well. It's not to determine who is a citizen and who isn't."
That obligation to care for those in need, without regard for their trespasses, clearly applies to anyone with the temerity to pray the Lord's Prayer. But I don't think it's an exclusively sectarian obligation.
In a country like America, where the democratic conversation is often dominated by the voices of demagogues and the shrieking of Very Angry Cowards like Dobbs, Wilson, Palin and the tea-baggers, it's tempting to focus on the politically expedient — tempting to agree even in the long-term to exclude those whom this vehement faction lives to exclude. But lead us not into temptation.
And deliver us from evil.
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* Julia noted in comments to the previous post that Rep. Addison Graves Wilson "is named after three diseases." And that's just too good to leave it at that. This deserves to be a runner, much like the endlessly fun "Nicky Appalachians" game.
** There's a bit of awkwardness when ad hoc groups of Christians find themselves praying this prayer outside of their usual congregations — do we say "trespasses" or do we say
"forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors"? On th
is contentious question, I tend to prefer the debtor side, for economic reasons. Jesus' disciples, like most Christians throughout the history of the church, were more likely to be wage-earning debtors than to be propertied creditors. And while I personally am in the process of converting debt into property, its a 30-year mortgage and at this point I'm still almost entirely on the "debtor" side. Either way, though, please note that neither trespasses nor debts is quite the same as sins.