It may have been hashtagged as #DiaSinLatinosEnWisconsin (#daywithoutLatinos) but for Grace, it was a day when we were overflowing with Latinos. And once again, I was caught off-guard. I pay relatively little attention to local media outlets and the past couple of days had been so busy for me that I neglected my twitter feed and facebook as well. In face, it was only thanks to a facebook post from a local candidate that I realized there was actually a contested election in the primary that was held on Tuesday. So I had vaguely heard about the rally that was scheduled for today, but preparing a response was not on my to-do list for this morning (Executive Committee meeting at 8:15, followed by a session with our new treasurer). I hoped to be able to get some work done on my sermon, deal with some emails, typical sort of day in ministry.
I came out of my meeting with the treasurer to receive the news from a staff member that they had to lock our doors. I don’t know what sort of expression came over my face—perhaps anger, more likely befuddlement. I had no idea what they were talking about. The story quickly came out. A steady stream of people was coming to Grace in search of restrooms. Our staff and volunteer receptionist had made the tiny bathroom off our reception area available. But now it was nearing 12 noon, and that area needed to be prepared for our afternoon food pantry. I looked at the line of people and I began to ponder what we might do.
Ironically, my earlier meeting had been interrupted by Findorff’s site superintendent. We’ve been undergoing renovations since last summer and today was the Super’s last day. We’re working on the punch list but the project is essentially complete. We have new flooring, new lighting, fresh paint, and most importantly, newly-renovated restrooms. I thought about all of those boots and shoes on our new floors, the mess that would be created, the work involved in clean-up. The last thing I wanted was to have to have our new carpeting cleaned professionally. I was also worried about the stress on staff and volunteers. I wanted to keep our doors locked.
But I also thought about what we had done in 2011 in similar circumstances. We had opened our doors, invited protestors in to warm up, rest, and use our restrooms. And I remembered what I had told skeptical parishioners then. Whatever we do makes a political statement. If we open our doors, if we keep them closed. Either way, we send a powerful message. , I also thought about the decision I made then, and wondered whether my openness then was because those protestors were overwhelmingly white, and middle-class, and now we were confronted by persons of color, most of them working class. Reluctantly, with visions of having to replace our new carpeting, scrub the walls, etc., in my mind, I made the decision to open our doors. And so, for the next two hours, we welcomed hundreds, perhaps thousands, inside Grace Church. At about 1:00 pm, one young woman told me she had been waiting an hour to get in. Young and old, families, Anglo high-school students came through our doors, rested for a few minutes, and went on their way.
Thanks to the help of Terry Gibson, our Senior Warden, who helped with crowd control, and staff members, we offered respite today. At one point, as our Sexton passed through to get more toilet paper, I told the waiting crowd that he would have to clean everything up afterwards. He laughed and went on his way. He’ll come back in tomorrow, on his day off, to clean everything in preparation for events on Saturday and of course, Sunday. I think he was honored to be able to help, for he remembered participating in the protests in 2011. And the fact of the matter is, that although there was mud on the floors and messy restrooms, our guests were very respectful and careful. And above all, they were incredibly grateful.
Here’s what it looked like around noon:
The line went around the block.
While I stood and wandered among those waiting, I had some wonderful conversations. I met a young woman who is studying to become a Nursing Assistant. She asked me what I thought about the protests and the proposed legislation they were challenging. I confessed that I didn’t know the specifics of the bills in question, but I expressed my desire that we be a nation that welcomes everyone embraces diversity and invites, encourages, and supports the flourishing of everyone who lives among us. I also talked with a middle-aged man who had immigrated decades ago from El Salvador. He told me some of his story, his struggles, his hopes for the future and for our nation.
The lasting memory I will take away from today is of one of the last families that left. There were three or four children, beautiful, sweet. They were delightful, engaging, happy. As they left, the children, even the youngest, who might have been three or four, waved, said good bye, and wished me a good day. My prayer for them is that they are always treated with the same joy and happiness they showed me, that the nation in which they live and come to maturity will greet them with open hearts and arms, and that they will be able to thrive and flourish, find happiness and become great citizens of our great nation.