By Joyce Anderson, for the Chippewa Valley Post
This past Sunday night (Aug. 13), my family and I took part in the candlelight vigil at Phoenix Park in Eau Claire.
As we lit our candles and watched the river roll by, beyond tall summer grass and clusters of Black-eyed Susans, we joined the others present in remembering Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville, VA.
Eight days earlier, we were involved with the fifth visit to Eau Claire by the Mobile Mexican Consulate from St. Paul, MN. Although Eau Claire won the distinction in 2009 of being among the “safest cities” in the nation, I didn’t feel it was safe to announce that visit publicly ahead of time.
I want to believe that our community remains safe and free from fear, hate and anti-immigrant sentiments and myths. The reality is that in today’s climate, I feared that the guests for whom we planned hospitality could be greeted with anti-immigrant protests.
Charlottesville, after all, was given the distinction just three years ago of being the “happiest city” in the nation. It was named “Joy Town.”
Preparations Behind the Scenes
Eight years after Eau Claire received the distinction of being among the nation’s safest cities, there was no public announcement of the impending visit by the Mexican Consulate. Instead, JONAH’s immigration task force went quietly about the business of preparing for that visit.
You know the drill. Use social media to inform friends and organizations like El Centro to spread the word that the Consulate would be at Immanuel Lutheran Church (pictured on the home page) on Golf Road again this year, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Aug. 5.. If residents needed ID cards, passports, and visas from their country of birth, they could receive assistance locally rather than having to drive into the Twin Cities.
JONAH (Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope) volunteers distributed posters throughout the Chippewa Valley to more than 50 businesses that employ or are owned by people who were born in Mexico.
Rev. Jamie Brieske, the pastor at Immanuel Lutheran, was unable to attend but wrote that she knew this event was important to her congregation.
“Our faith calls us to welcome the stranger, the outcast, and those in need,” she wrote, “At some point, we are all in need . . . this mutuality is at the heart of our faith. We are all children of God.
“Our immigrant neighbors contribute to our society and economy in positive ways,” she continued. “When they are helped by this event, the entire Eau Claire community benefits as well! This is what it means to grow a diverse and connected community. This is what it means to be a good neighbor.”
Visit Went Without a Hitch
The visit from the Mexican Consulate went off without a hitch. The process flowed smoothly.
The Mexican Consulate crew had set up their computers, tables, and screens for photos on Friday night. By 9 a.m. Saturday, the kitchen crew was hard at work. The coffee was on, and trays and trays of cookies, provided by Immanuel bakers, were ready to be served.
Spanish-speaking volunteers were quickly writing and putting up signs that read, “Baños” and “Gratis comida y bebidas” (“Bathrooms” and “Free food and drinks”).
The parking lot began to fill as people arrived for their appointments. For the first time in the five-year history of the event, small groups of clients were provided with “Know your rights” information while they waited. They were also told that immigration attorneys had been added to the mix and they could provide specific immigration information and counsel.
Children were invited to play in a supervised child care area. Parents were encouraged to visit and take food items home from a Feed My People table laden with fresh vegetables, beans, rice and other foods. A literacy organization set up and staffed a table, as did Wells Fargo Bank. Information was also available about Chippewa Valley’s Free Clinic.
Reunions and Moments of Joy
In the midst of all the work, happy reunions among the community volunteers erupted periodically, and Consulate staff and JONAH members smiled and greeted one another as old friends.
Throughout the day, there were many joyful moments. A 5th grade student whom I had tutored at our neighborhood school was there with her family. This girl, who had known little English when we first met, could now help interpret the Spanish being spoken all around me.
Together we helped her mom meet women from a local literacy volunteer program and, together, we encouraged her in English and Spanish to “go back to school.” My young interpreter was delighted with the possibility that when she and her sister start middle school next month, their mom could also start English language classes.
In the afternoon, lemonade replaced coffee. I introduced my friend of many years, the “lemonade lady,” to friends I have gotten to know only in the past year. . . new friends who are my neighbors, who shared with my family and me their culture of celebration as we worked together on immigration issues in JONAH.
I wandered over to the table where Iris Ramos sat. I learned that she is an immigration lawyer in private practice in Minneapolis, who also travels with the Mobile Mexican Consulate. Ramos grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to the Twin Cities as a child with her family when her mom got a job transfer to the VA. (Her dad currently works in public relations with the Minnesota Twins.)
Her message to all of us, and in particular Mexican citizens was this: “The president of this country wants to unilaterally withdraw the rule of law and constitutional rights. But he cannot. That is the beauty of our government’s checks and balances.”
In the Aftermath
By 3 p.m., the Mexican Consulate had packed its equipment, volunteers had cleaned up, the nursery was tidied, the worship space re-configured and an abundance of snacks was packaged for Sunday post-worship consumption.
During this very successful fifth visit from the Mexican Consulate, 120 neighbors who are Mexican citizens had received service from their government agency. The Immanuel congregation, founded by Swedish immigrants, had joined with people from the community as well as with people born outside of our national borders.
With JONAH, they helped accomplish the goal of providing hospitality and a safe place for guests. They had lived out their shared belief that we are to welcome the stranger and honor our neighbor.
Relationships had been renewed. Future collaborative opportunities had been explored. Community was built and expanded. It was, as Brieske wrote to her congregation, a good day for growing “a diverse and connected community.”
And an overarching message had been made clear. Every resident in the United States has constitutional rights regardless of whether they have come here legally or not.
Pastor David K. Anderson, Immanuel’s former pastor who is now retired, was present for this consulate visit as he was for the first two.
“Immanuel continues to live their mission statement, ‘church without walls’,” he said. “This is what the kingdom of God looks like . . . neighbors working together, caring for one another without fear and without regard to borders or walls.”
The Charlottesville Factor
A week after we experienced this day of harmony in Eau Claire, the Charlottesville nightmare unfolded in Virginia. And I wondered, “Could an event like ‘Charlottesville’ happen in Eau Claire?”
A front page article in last Tuesday’s Eau Claire Leader Telegram (Aug. 17) reminded us that the “white nationalists” saw Charlottesville as a landmark and are determined to expand their ideology across the nation.
That leaves many of us wondering collectively about tomorrow in our nation and even in our own Eau Claire community.
The continuing question is how can we come together against the painful backdrop of our past? How do we, as Anderson said, work together and care “for one another without fear and without regard to borders or walls”?
Welcoming the stranger is a beginning.
Joyce Anderson is a retired Eau Claire Area School District special educator. She and her husband, the Rev. Dr. David K. Anderson, have lived in Eau Claire for 30 years. They are currently co-chairs of JONAH’s immigration task force. Joyce Anderson has also served as a CVPost board member.
Most of the photos accompanying this article were provided by Joyce Anderson.
NOTE: JONAH (Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope) is a grassroots Chippewa Valley organization is made up primarily of diverse faith communities. Its overall focus is on social justice issues. Its Immigration Task Force operates on the principle of “welcoming the stranger,” and advocates for just laws and fair treatment of neighbors who are also immigrants.