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Moving On, Moving Up

By Mary Domb Mikkelson

Remember those early Ancestry.com commercials?  The one, perhaps, in which Robert exits his suburban home for an early morning run, pushing himself to “see what I’m made of.”  Those who came before run with him – a soldier seen marching and doing pushups, a college runner breaking new ground for a Black athlete, a freedom marcher carrying  a “We Shall Overcome” sign.   As he finishes with a final burst of speed, Robert concludes that, “I guess it doesn’t matter how fast you go, as long as you’re moving in the right direction.”  His family tree appears; on it his great-grandfather, the soldier; his grandfather, the track star, his father, the marcher and, finally, Robert.

Another features Gladys, whose feistiness and lifelong love of adventure and gardening (“my connection to the earth”) are traced to her forebears – among them boxing great Jack Dempsey, a pioneering female pilot and Lady Birdsong, an American Indian.

The pull of genealogy, of discovering our roots, is undeniable.  Who we are and where we came from are, for most, fascinating, compelling evidence of our personal journeys, of the roads we’ve travelled – or which have been travelled for us.  Breaking ground, moving on and up – the stuff of the American Dream.

It was the dream of those who homesteaded the west, panned for gold in Alaska, settled into suburbia upon returning from the battlefields of WWII and took a seat in the front of the bus.  Today it lives on in those who build casinos on tribal land, do stoop labor in the broiling sun and participate in Gay Pride parades.

That dream has, on occasion, taken a beating, grown frayed around the edges.  Although it survived the Great Depression, becoming in that “deepening gloom” a “reaffirmation of traditional American hopes,[1]” it finds itself today at a nadir, all too often mistranslated as “I’ve got mine…too bad about you.”    All hope abandon, ye who enter here…especially if you slipped across the border in search of a living wage (well, to those you left behind, at least).

But what of us?

Us who?

We immigrants, that’s who.

Immigrants?  Us?


For starters we belong to a church of immigrants…a significant, perhaps even staggering percentage of us migrated to the United Church of Christ (UCC) from here, there and yonder, in search of a more fulfilling faith.  As such, we take seriously the instructions to “do unto the least of these” and to “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2, KJV).  It has something to do with the UCC Statement of Mission, I suspect, the part where “We want ‘to join oppressed and troubled people in the struggle for liberation…and to work for justice, healing, and wholeness of life.”  At UCCLM (The Table:  United Church of Christ of La Mesa), we say it this way, that we will “demonstrate our faith through active involvement in our community and the world in all its diversity.”

It’s hard to see where Berlin Wall South fits into the picture.

Bill Moyers’ Journal carried a story told by Barbara Ehrenreich, who was an author and political activist who lived, worked and fought alongside low-wage workers.   “There was,” she reports, “one woman who said something to me that was so poignant.  Speaking of her hopes for the future, she said, ‘My big wish would be to have a job which if I missed work one day, like for a child home sick or something, I would still be able to buy groceries for the next day.’  And I thought, yeah, that’s quite a hope.”

Too much to hope for?   Something to guard against?  To fence out?

Then there’s the matter of ancestry.

Lady Birdsong’s people migrated from Asia some 20,000+ years ago, becoming Indians when Columbus thought he reached India, American Indians sometime after April 25, 1507 when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller named that big landmass to the west after Amerigo Vespucci.

As for runner Robert, his ancestors were, most likely, transported to our shores in the hole of a slaver’s boat.

It is doubtful either had their papers in order.

Nor did those who carved out territories for England, France and Spain…whether they arrived on the Mayflower or the Tyger (Roanoke Colony).  Granted, they had royal charters giving them the land of others, but…

Another colony, chartered by King George II, was founded by General James Oglethorpe.  Concerned for the poverty and unemployment in England, Oglethorpe transported inmates from its debtors’ prisons to what is now Georgia aboard the 200-ton frigate, the Anne.

This last is my heritage, one side of it, at least.  The other side – my father’s – is an equally familiar story.  His family escaped the ghettos and poverty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, arriving at Ellis Island in steerage aboard an early Holland-America Line ship (the line I favor when cruising the world, as did he in his later years!).  The Lady with the Lamp greeted them.  With no English, no money, no education and new names imposed by non-Yiddish speaking processors, they set out to live the American Dream.

That’s my story, my ancestry.  What’s yours?

I remember Pastor Félix Villanueva’s in-your-face sermon – “The Art of Hospitality” – on this topic.  One quote:  “Frankly, we cannot afford to waste the time and energy, not to mention the opportunity to practice sacred hospitality.  Our faith urges us to receive, yes, even the illegal stranger in our midst and the immense gifts – economic, political, spiritual gifts – they represent, lest they shake off the dust that clings to their feet as a witness against our modern-day “Sodomy,” our prideful inhospitality.”

The references to Jesus’ instructions to those he sent “into the field” and to the sin of Sodom (according to Ezekiel the people there had “pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy”) are clear – too clear for comfort.

What to do?  Where to begin?   The church seems a good starting point.  As were Robert and his ancestors, we’re moving in the right direction. (A recent example is  the “Immigrant Welcoming Church: resolution just passed at UCC’s 31st Annual Synod – Summary:  “This resolution calls on the United Church of Christ and its congregations to become Immigrant Welcoming as it recognizes the ongoing struggles of refugees and migrants who come to the United States seeking safety, security, freedom and opportunity but instead experience suffering as they fear raids, deportation, and witness their families being torn apart.  It further encourages the development of policies to facilitate this.”)


[1] Anthony Brandt

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