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Ron Schiller, Truth-Telling and the Problem of Fear


This piece first appeared on the Thoughtful Christian's Gathering Voices blog.

By now you may know that Ron Schiller, a fundraising executive for National Public Radio, said a few things that got him into trouble. He suggested that the right flank of the Republican party, particularly that which is affiliated with the Tea Party, is affected with a serious case of Islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia.

Since the video went public, Schiller, who was unaware that his comments were being videotaped in a sting operation meant to discredit NPR, quit his job early, NPR apologized, and NPR's CEO resigned.

The whole affair has caused introspection on my part, because as far as I can tell, Schiller said what is merely obvious, what I've said more times than I can count in my work as a preacher, writer, and activist. Do I also deserve an angry response? Should I resign from my job?

Maybe, but I cannot deny what I've seen. As someone who has written a book about immigration (Neighbor: Christian Encounters with "Illegal" Immigration), and who speaks and blogs about immigration, I've had ample opportunity to interact with the people Ron Schiller referenced in his now infamous remarks, and my conclusion, born of direct experience, is that there is a lot of racism and xenophobia in the United States, and it seems naïve to suggest otherwise.

At the same time, we must be responsible and note that American xenophobia and racism usually are not inspired by simple nastiness. Rather, they are born of fear; and there is a lot to be afraid of these days. The economy is on the rocks, jobs are scarce, schools are failing, healthcare is expensive, crime is on the rise. Fear is an understandable response, but it's inappropriate to direct our fear at immigrants. Immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America, have caused exactly none of these problems.

Besides, I live in a neighborhood that embodies the future America's racist xenophobic fear. Most of my neighbors are immigrants. Many are undocumented. Almost no one in my neighborhood is white, and a significant number of my neighbors are still learning English. The feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe is the biggest holiday of the year. The tacos are heavenly.

Here's the truth that must be spoken: mine is a great neighborhood. Most of my neighbors are good people who work hard and pay their way. A lot of my neighbors are people of deep faith; many have strong families. The neighborhood has its problems, but so does every American neighborhood.

Our country has always been and will continue to be shaped by immigration and this is not something we have to fear. We can celebrate the gift of racial and religious and cultural diversity that migrants bring to America. We can live in hope, embracing a bright future side by side with our neighbors who are immigrants. We can be a better people and we can create a better world, one without racism, xenophobia, or fear.