The Speech I Didn't Get to Make

Last week at Annual Conference we debated a piece of legislation supported by the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race which originated from ColorLines.com and the Applied Research Center concerning language about immigrants. Called Drop the I-Word, the legislation asked that United Methodists stop calling people "illegals", "illegal workers" and "illegal immigrants." GCORR suggests that we use the term "undocumented" instead.

This seems rather straightforward to me. The debate began, and I sort of tuned out, but then one person after another came to the microphone to make horrible speeches about "those" people. I turned to the woman next to me and said, "Someone should say something different than this." Then I thought, "I could do that."

I've been going to these Annual Conferences for twenty years. I've held a wide variety of leadership positions, but I've never stood up to speak about a piece of legislation. But I went to microphone 5 and stood there, quite nervous. I preach without notes, but I wasn't quite sure how I was going to do this. Then a woman from La Puerta Abierta UMC stood up and spoke very movingly about the place of immigrants in our community. My District Superintendent, Rev. Liz Lopez, stood next to her and took her arm, and several others stood behind her. It was a moving speech, just what we needed to hear. Then debate was tabled until the next day because we had run out of time.

So that night I wrote out a speech, but then the next morning the committee that brought the legislation asked to table it indefinitely. They said the point was to talk about language and the ensuing language of the debate was awful (my word, not theirs.) Then they asked if all those who supported the point of the legislation would stand. Most of the room stood.

So here is what I meant to say:

I speak in favor of this motion.

My eldest son played Abraham Lincoln in the school program this week, dressed up in full costume, hat and all, and his line was Lincoln saying that the thing he was most certain of in his life was signing the emancipation proclamation.The interesting thing is that Zane is originally from Colombia, and a citizen of this country through adoption. The most important things in our possession are his citizenship papers. He is privileged to be an American Citizen because his father and I come from people who immigrated here over a century ago and we chose to adopt him.

I am reminded of my privilege as an American citizen when I look at him.

And I tell him, and his younger brother, pretty regularly, that the words we use to talk about people matter. And that is what we are talking about -- language, and the perceptions that come because of the words we use to describe people. We are people of privilege, called to speak with care about our neighbors. Using the word "undocumented" instead of "illegal" or "illegals" is pretty simple, and pretty powerful.

So I'm going to sign the petition at GCORR's site. And then think about how we can talk about this in my congregation. And I'm going to change my language.