The Power of Telling Our Stories: Part Two of My Unexpected Meeting with the President of the United States
I left the West Wing of the White House and immediately called my wife. "Amy, I found out why I was asked to meet with the President." And I told her the story of my op-ed, and the opportunity I had to tell the story of our church and immigration reform.
Before the meeting in the Oval Office I heard about the Fast for Families group camping on the Mall in view of Capitol Hill. I wanted to see their commitment to immigration reform expressed in fasting and praying until the House brings something to the floor to vote on immigration reform.
I hailed a cab, and discovered the driver emigrated from Ghana over 30 years ago. I mentioned I had just met with the president. I told him I was a pastor and I met with the president to discuss immigration reform.
Surprised, he said, “I’m a Christian. And I’m a Presbyterian.” I took his hand and prayed a short blessing for him.
Ali took me to a row of tents on the Mall in front of Capitol Hill with a banner that read, “Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship.” We entered the tent and met those who began fasting and praying for immigration reform just the day before. After introductions we sat down and Ali introduced me to the group.
“This is Pastor Mike McClenahan and he just met with the president about Immigration Reform.” Their eyes grew wider. “That was a very important meeting, but I think this meeting will be more meaningful for Mike.”
Each of them began to tell their story. Eliseo shared first. He is a Mexican American labor union activist and leader, and advocate for immigration reform. From 1973 to 1978, he was a board member of the United Farm Workers. He told how he has grown up with illegal immigration because his father worked the fields in the Central Valley of California legally, until the laws changed and he became illegal.
Two women followed with their stories. The translator began to tell their story, until I told them I spoke Spanish. They smiled and continued to tell their own stories of why they crossed the border illegally and how stricter enforcement of undocumented individuals has kept them from providing for their children.
Next was a hispanic fifteen year old from Chicago. He raised his own funds to come so he could see what it will be like for him to be a hispanic leader one day—I told him “one day” is today.
A Korean man shared his story: a woman who ran a shop in his neighborhood with her husband for years was arrested and detained for months without her husband knowing where she was. He was there for the ten percent of illegal immigrants who are asian.
Patrick shared how his parents legally emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s. Because of his decisions he has grown up with all the opportunities of an American citizen. “My mother would be here fasting with us if she were alive.”
Last in the circle of stories was an african-american woman who formerly worked with two friends of mine in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and now works with Sojourners. She felt led to fast and pray in solidarity with the others.
It was my turn to share. I told the same story I told the president: I didn’t intend to advocate for immigration reform, but relationships and scripture compelled me to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice. I told of my childhood growing up with a Spanish worship service with mostly Cuban immigrants, my Spanish studies at UCLA, and building hundreds of houses with Amor Ministries across the border from San Diego.
It was the family relationships of the church that gave me the conviction that those children living in fear of their parents deportation were not just their children, but our children. And if they were my children, what would I do? I would help change the law with biblical principles so there was respect for the rule of law, earned citizenship not amnesty, secure borders to respect the sovereignty of our country, families kept together, fairness to taxpayers, and dignity for all human beings made in the image of God.
I ended my story with “and I just came from my meeting with the president. He thinks immigration reform will pass sooner than later, so let’s pray it’s sooner. All of us meeting with the president are also committed to doing our part for immigration reform.”
They all clapped, and then Patrick said, “We give each person who visits us a cross.” He handed me two sticks bound by string and attached to a lanyard. “And we ask them to pray for us.”
So, I stood and reached out my hands to form a circle of prayer. I prayed for them, their courage, gratitude for their stories, for the president, lawmakers and immigrants, then we ended with the Lord’s Prayer.
We took a picture, and then I left the tent with Ali amazed at what had just happened in two hours. I met with the most powerful person in the Oval Office, and I met with some of the most powerless people in a tent. In both places I was able to tell our story and pray together.
A friend picked me up and drove me to the Baltimore airport, still processing what had just happened. I boarded my flight, and as I conference called my sons by iPhone, the captain informed us our plane was delayed for mechanical reasons.
Since I only had a 35 minute connection, I resigned to the fact I would not be in San Diego tonight, but would have to spend the night in Atlanta. This day cannot be ruined, I thought to myself.
I arrived in Atlanta and found the ticket counter where I would rebook for the first flight out in the morning and pick up my hotel and meal voucher. I saw a book on evangelism in front of my agent. When I asked if that was his book he replied “yes” with a beautiful Caribbean accent. He was an immigrant from Haiti. He was kind, helpful, and cracked a gentle and content smile.
“I’m a pastor,” I said.
“So am I.”
After a quiet dinner and restful sleep I boarded the shuttle at 6:25 for my early morning flight to San Diego. I met Saran on the shuttle and we walked through security together. He was working a few days in his Washington office as a computer programmer.
“What were you doing in Washington?” He asked.
“Meeting with the president to talk about immigration reform,” as if it was something I did every week. He told me his immigration story which began with a high-tech visa (one of 150,000 given in the entire US per year as opposed to 5,000 for low paying jobs), how he and his wife became citizens after a “rigorous ten year process which gave me no guarantee of citizenship.” They now have a two and six year old, both US citizens.
He bought us breakfast on his meal voucher and we talked about his life in San Diego, what they missed about India, and some of the issues of welcoming the stranger that are difficult for every culture. In India, each state has a different dialect, food and customs, so it’s easy to pick out the “foreigner” and blame them for whatever is wrong with their community.
I boarded the plane and continued to process my 24 hour trip. Virtually every conversation included a story of immigration from different parts of the world: Ghana, Mexico, Korea, Ireland, Haiti, and India.
When I left the White House I knew why I was invited to this very special meeting with the President of the United States—to tell my story and the story of our church. What I didn’t know was I would hear others’ stories to illustrate so well the complexities and the dreams of immigration.
I’ve learned again, by telling and listening, sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is tell our own story.
Since my return from DC I’ve told the story to as many as would listen in as many ways as possible: blog, local TV news, Sunday message, and virtually every personal conversation leads to “Oh, and I met with the president last week…”
But the most significant time I’ve told the story was Sunday morning in our hispanic worship service. Our hispanic pastor translated for me so I could talk as fast as possible and return to our english speaking service in time to preach.
I told our story, looking in to the faces of students who dream of their future. I saw parents grateful for Casa de Amistad and Reality Changers, for worship in their own language and for space to gather.
I continued, “And Julie said, ‘That’s why I wanted you in this meeting…’” and I choked up, just as I choked up telling the story in the earlier worship service. At the end I said, “I don’t know if you have ever heard me say, ‘Thank you for being our brothers and sisters in Christ and for making this our story together.’”
My translator didn’t translate because he was moved and tearful, as we all were, by this moment. This was their story, their journey, their hopes and dreams for themselves and their children. I was their pastor, but I was also their voice.
Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.” And the apostle Paul writes we “who once were far off have been brought near.” Scripture says each of us has been the stranger and each of us is called to welcome the stranger.
Each of us has a story to tell. And sometimes it's the most powerful thing we can do.