Ministry, Marriage, and Immigration

A Love Story

I was raised in Eatonville, Florida—the oldest all-black, incorporated town in the country. Eatonville sits between Daytona Beach and Orlando. We are smack dab in the middle of central Florida (thus the name of our university, the University of Central Florida). Eatonville was not a hot bed for immigration issues. It was a small all black town with dirt roads and septic tanks. We enjoyed eating fresh picked oranges from the trees in our backyards and playing with friends who looked like me, spoke my language, and enjoyed the homogeneity of our little town. In that way, at least, we were probably like most of America.

While growing up in Eatonville I attended St. Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal Church, where I surely never heard a sermon on immigration. As a child I don’t remember a conversation about immigration ever coming up. I was raised with no awareness to issues around immigration. It wasn’t a part of my orbit or the theological discussion in my church or community. Now, the irony of the absence of such conversation is a bit puzzling seeing that I was raised in Florida—a state with a significant recent immigrant population. It would seem reasonable to expect that somewhere along the way the issue of immigration would have been present. But it wasn’t. Immigrants then, as they often are now—including in our churches—were invisible.

This lapse is maybe especially odd given that my mother, Earlene Watkins, was a Black Panther, city council person, community organizer, and candidate for mayor of our town. She knew everyone, was plugged into pretty much everything going on anywhere in town. Yet while my mother was the epitome of what it meant to be an activist, the issue of immigration was not on her radar. When I was growing up we were in the tailspin of the Civil Rights Movement battling for our sliver of rights as we pushed for equality, supporting affirmative action, trying to get our seat at the table. In the midst of this struggle, we just didn’t consider our brothers and sisters who were immigrants to our state and country.

I was raised in Florida—a state with a significant recent immigrant population. It would seem reasonable to expect that somewhere along the way the issue of immigration would have been present. But it wasn’t. Immigrants then, as they often are now—including in our churches—were invisible.

So it was that I went through elementary school and middle school not talking about immigration. Not giving it a thought. Then came high school, or more specifically, my senior year in high school. That year, on the first day of school, I met the love of my life. Well, to be honest I didn’t meet her, I saw her. When I tried to speak to her she ignored me. She didn’t even look at me. I was surprised because I was the captain of the football team, the vice president of student council, and an arrogant senior. Did this young lady not understand English?

I thought I was a Big Man on Campus at Edgewater High School in Orlando, Florida. Yet, this little sophomore who I fell in love with at first sight didn’t know who I was. I gave her the benefit of the doubt the first time she ignored me. But not the next time. It was at lunch. She wasn’t eating, but rather she was reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. I was doubly impressed with her now. She was reading my favorite author and my favorite book.

I spoke to her once again, and once again she ignored me. I wasn’t going to take it this time. I said sarcastically, my pride and curiosity piqued, “Do you speak English?” She replied in Spanish. I didn’t know what she said, but I knew it was in Spanish. I was taking my first year of Spanish but it was only the first week of school. I was really wowed then. She loved Baldwin; she was bilingual; and she wasn’t the least bit impressed with Big Man me.

Not at first. But, eventually, that awkward talk led to many lunch periods reading and talking about our favorite authors. We would talk about James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou and so many others. It was our love for books that really brought us together. I was welcomed into her world via the English language only to find out she was from a home that spoke Spanish, a family from what may as well have been in another galaxy.

Now, this was surprising to me. She looked just like me, like the kids I grew up with. She had no noticeable accent. But when our reading affair turned into a love affair, I had to go and meet her family. Her family was led by a brilliant, powerful, articulate and beautiful matriarch. There was no father in the home but Ms. Beverly Chandler. Mamma Beverly, as she was known, played the role of father and mother. When I met Mamma Beverly, a Spanish accent was clearly present. She was a Spanish speaker and she spoke to me primarily in Spanish. Later I realized that she was having fun with me that first night. She spoke to me in Spanish, and very loudly—the way English-speaking Americans often do with immigrants, outsiders—as if the louder she spoke the better I would understand. I tried to impress her by letting her know I was taking Spanish in school. She wasn’t impressed. She let me know that if I wanted to be a part of this family, I would have to learn how to speak Spanish—real Spanish, not the canned dialogues from my high school Spanish classroom.

Well, I never learned how to speak fluent Spanish. I can greet you in Spanish and talk for about five minutes, then back to English I go. Nonetheless, my wife, Vanessa, and I were married two weeks after she graduated from high school at the tender ages of 17 and 20. Her mother blessed the marriage, and she let me know why she sacrificed and brought her two daughters from Panama to the United States. She brought them to the States to have a chance at a better life.  She made it clear to me that I had to promise her that, if she allowed her daughter to marry me, I had to support her daughter through college. She wanted her daughters to have a college education and to do well. She had sacrificed for her daughters to have a better life than she had in Panama. Mamma Beverly could give up on my Spanish fluency, but she would never give up on her dreams for her daughters and all she had endured to try to realize them.

Mamma Beverly was not alone in this immigrant experience, following a path hewn by English Puritans and Anglicans, Dutch Reformed merchants, German Pietist and Lutheran farmers, Scandinavian Lutheran fishers and dairy farmers, Italian Catholic craftworkers, Irish Catholic service people and factory workers, and, particular to my American Dream story, Central and South Americans of diverse faiths and races.

My mother-in-law came to the United States in 1965 by herself. She left my wife, Vanessa, and her sister, Adrianna, in Panama with family. She came to prepare to bring them to the States. For two years she worked and saved up her money, and then in 1967 she returned to Panama to get her girls. She raised them in low-income housing, working two jobs, and coming home to do homework with her girls.

Inspired by Mamma Beverly’s work and educational ethic, Vanessa and Adrianna lived a life of books, hard work, big dreams, and a conservative Christian faith. They were active in their church and leaders in school. They were dressed well, trained well, and taught the value of study. Both my wife and her sister would receive their doctorate degrees and do well in life. All of this was due to a mother’s love and sacrifice. A mother who had a dream. A mother was a model immigrant, who worked hard, dreamt for her children, and pushed them to success.

And of course Mamma Beverly was not alone in this immigrant experience, following a path hewn by English Puritans and Anglicans, Dutch Reformed merchants, German Pietist and Lutheran farmers, Scandinavian Lutheran fishers and dairy farmers, Italian Catholic craftworkers, Irish Catholic service people and factory workers, and, particular to my American Dream story, Central and South Americans of diverse faiths and races. On and on, across oceans, through deserts, over fences and walls, all of them have come. They’ve come into our communities, into our schools, into our families, into our hearts.

It was from my wife’s immigrant family that I learned of green cards, citizenship, dual citizenship, and all of the anxieties and struggles immigrants face trying to become citizens of the United States of America. I saw people recoil when my mother-in-law would speak perfect Spanish. I saw the discrimination she felt every day in our community as a “foreigner,” and “alien,” an outside to our homogeneous culture. It was no wonder that the Vanessa I met in high school had developed a flawless, unaccented English.

And, as I would go to church with them, I finally was able to hear the silence of the church on issues of the rights of immigrants. The silence was deafening, and it compelled me to speak. It was here, in this new reality of being a member of an immigrant family, that I learned at last that the Bible speaks truth when it says when you entertain strangers you just might be entertaining an angel. My angel was a stranger, from a foreign land, who saved my life. She made my life everything it is today.

Despite the limits of my bilingualism, my Spanish-speaking family is me and I am them. We are one in body and spirit; their struggle is my struggle. I cannot help but think of my wife, her sister, and my mother-in-law every time I turn on the television and hear some new outrage about the border wars. Thus, as a pastor, I am committed that no child will grow up under my ministry never having heard about immigration. Not only will those in my ministry hear about immigration issues, they will know that is our responsibility as Christians to fight for people like the first lady of their church, Dr. Vanessa Watkins, to be in this land because the earth is not owned by Americans or the current president and his xenophobic followers. It is the Lord’s place, the home created for all of us to share.

citizenship, Eatonville, green card, immigration, James Baldwin, Ralph Basui Watkins

Ralph Basui Watkins

Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins is the Peachtree Associate Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. His research centers around building 21st-century churches. His writing and research is done with congregations as they partner to be faithful to the call of being the Body of Christ. He is presently working on ways the Church can use multi-media approaches and web 2.0 strategies to be effective at evangelism and discipleship. Find him on Twitter @ralphbasui.

Featured Image: Git Stephen, “Woman Hugging a Man in Gray Suit Jacket” (December 6, 2018). Via Pexels. CC2.0 license.

Photo #1: Godisable Jacob, “Woman in Blue Crop-top and Distressed Blue Denim Jeans” (August 20, 2018). Via Pexels. CC2.0 license.

Photo #2: “Dr. Vanessa Watkins,” image provided by the author. (Cropped.)