What have you done today to make the world safe for democracy? This was a question my father frequently asked us as we prepared for bed when we were children. Thirty-five years ago, as an 8-year-old, I loved that he asked and listened for my response. But then, the idea that democracy could be at risk or needed tending was inconceivable to me. That was probably true for many Americans.
Last week, to make the world safe for democracy, I travelled to Tornillo, Texas.
I stood with labor leaders, educators, people whose parents were deported and faith leaders.
We saw a young boy, 4 years old, part of a family that fled violence in their community in Mexico to come here to build a new life. The father was just deported. The mother of this small boy was prepared to share her story with us as part of the rally. This small boy, with his mother in sight, wailed at the prospect of being physically separated from her by five feet. He was traumatized by what he’d experienced, and he was inconsolable. At that moment we had the power to help; we decided that children are more important than press conferences, so his mother comforted him and did not speak to the crowd.
Then we drove and drove and drove to a remote and poor area. Tornillo has no streetlights, no sewage and high rates of arsenic in the water. The people who live there are poor. They are outraged that they are ignored by their government and yet the government is spending millions of dollars to pay a private firm to erect tents there that will warehouse children in their backyard.
We, a group of faith leaders — rabbis, ministers and a Muslim leader — gathered outside Tornillo and prayed. We prayed for strength and partnership to weave together a response. We prayed for safety for the children being kept in the heat, out of sight of any observers. We prayed for their parents who brought them to the United States out of desperation. We prayed for those tasked with watching them to feel the weight of their responsibility and act with compassion and restraint. We prayed to stop the madness and remember the soul of this country, a country that aspires to welcome those who are down on their luck or persecuted in their homeland. Some of the African-American ministers rightly raised up the stories of their own people, knowing the trauma that ensues from children being separated from their parents and people. America has certainly not always gotten it right, but we are all certain that right now we are getting it wrong. All of us will pay for generations to come for the trauma we are inflicting right now, each and every second.
I went to Tornillo even though I suspected the government would not let us see the children, because I believe we must keep raising up this issue. We cannot forget about these children whom our government has bussed to a remote, hot and dusty area where it’s impossible for them to be seen. And one way to keep their story alive is by continuing to show up, even if it means flying across the country.
At our prayer vigil I said the following:
“To you God I will call and plead. Hear me Lord, be gracious, be my help” (Psalm 30)
We are here as witnesses, as partners, as citizens of our beloved America, as people of faith and as human beings. We are here to express outrage and sorrow: a reminder that the eyes of the world are on us. Our own eyes are on us.
God, we call out to you today with a request to help us remain steadfast and compassionate. To remind ourselves and our elected leaders that we will not rest while children remain separated from their parents. We will not rest while we slowly erode our democracy.
With grace and grit, we will call on and partner with God to reconnect families.
As we sing on Shabbat in the hymn “Leha Dodi,” “Rise up from your destruction and tears. God will restore you with mercy and compassion.”
Now is the moment for us to rise up together, in partnership with God, and to compassionately pursue justice and love and peace.
I am grateful to the folks with whom I travelled and implore each of us to gird ourselves to keep showing up until every single child is reunited with their parents.
As Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “In an age when we can track UPS packages down to the moment they’ll be delivered and locate them along their journey, the only way we can’t reunite these children with their parents is if we lack the will to do so.”
We must rise up and we must keep rising up.
We are on a long journey together, but we are on the holy mission of making the world safe for democracy. You may make grand gestures like getting on a plane or taking to the streets, but each of can also hold the moral center. Each of us can accustom ourselves to asking ourselves and each other, “What have you done today to make the world safe for democracy?” My father would be sorry we have to do it, but proud that we are rising to the challenge.
Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay is the associate dean of The Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary and has been pursuing social-justice issues as a religious leader throughout her career.