Huddled Masses

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Legend of the Seas (2015)

As I stood on the forward upper deck of the ship looking toward New York Harbor, I felt a great sense of relief.  The crossing had been incredibly difficult, and both the ship and the crew were significantly worse for the wear…but we were almost there.

The year was 1995 and I was part of the cruise staff on a brand-new cruise ship, the Legend of the Seas.  What should have been a joy ride had mostly been a nightmare to that point.  Technical problems, language barriers for the crew, labor disputes over housing and transportation at the port and to top it off, the ship was not finished.  The areas where I had expected to be happily planning games and activities for guests were little more than empty rooms with no fixtures. Mercifully, there were no paying guests on board.

About 8 days earlier, we had snuck out of our berth at Chantier de L’Atlantique, Saint-Nazaire (the same storied place where the SS France and SS Normandie had been built) in the middle of the night after missing the tide for our big send off in front of the French national press. Our delay was due to having to unload nearly a year of building refuse and debris from the ship as well as needing to bringing on board over 1000 French workmen to continue literally building the ship as we sailed. We were a floating construction site.

In addition to the odd circumstances of our departure and the incomplete condition of the ship, during the crossing, we had been challenged by the always unpredictable North Atlantic in April.  I learned what “batten down the hatches” meant when we encountered a storm in which we were broadsided by a rogue wave that shattered windows as high as deck 5.  Most everyone on board had been ill at some point during the trip (including many of the workmen) and we were short on food.  Getting to New York was a necessity.

But now, all of this was literally in the wake behind us.  Ahead lay New York City.  At least we hoped it was there.  In the early morning fog our first glimpse was limited to the tops of the two towers of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge rising above the haze.

As we got closer, more of the crew came out on deck.  Crew members from as many as 60 different countries around the world wanted to have this first magical glimpse of New York.  For many of us, it would be a first and only time to have this sense of traveling so far by ship.  As we came closer to the bridge, we could hear the sound of traffic.  It was all a little unnerving. Being on the upper deck, one’s perspective is skewed and it feels as if you are on a direct collision course.

The French workmen had come up on deck as well. Although we had all been friendly through our journey, many of the crew had kept their distance from the largely French-only speaking workmen.  I was lucky to have studied the language in college and I had picked up some of their stories.  These were highly skilled men from families that had been part of creating some of the great vessels of the golden days of trans-Atlantic travel.  They were part of generations of shipbuilders.  At the same time, they had never traveled themselves.  Now on deck, they were awestruck at the sight of the gigantic bridge as we glided silently toward it.

The Verrazano finally emerged from the fog just as we came directly up to the roadway and it was terrifying to see it appear so suddenly and so close.  The massive throng of people now crowding the deck, seemed to gasp as one as we skimmed underneath the roar of traffic.  And then as it receded and as if some great dam burst, we all erupted into great uncontrollable cheers and shouts.  We had made it.  We were (mostly) in one piece.  We would soon be docked.  This little ship, limping across the sea had brought us safely to harbor.

But then in front of us the fog parted, like Moses and the Red Sea, and we saw it.  Still and small from this distance, but clear and beckoning and beautiful.

The Statue of Liberty.

Just as quickly as the crowd had started cheering, we all fell silent.  We looked at the great distant figure, now ablaze in the rising sun.  We looked at each other.  We saw ourselves.  We thought about our journey. We knew in our hearts that this was something greater than the distant vision before us.  Cruise staff, officer, waiter, cook, workman, French, Filipino, Barbadian, South African…we all wept.  Standing there with tears streaming down my face, I thought about this unlikely bunch of travelers from so many different places like countless travelers before us.  I thought about the Frenchmen who were standing beside me.  Their ancestors had given this statue to the United States but few of them had ever been able to see it as we were seeing it now.  I thought about having had the astounding privilege to grow up in the shadow of this great promise of freedom.  I thought about having never truly seen this promise until now.  In that moment, I lived the power of the promise of America.

I am no rabid flag waving patriot, But I believe in this promise.  My experience as the child of a Jamaican immigrant and the descendant of slaves from the Carolinas; my time spent out of this country and my time coming home; my efforts to shed light in a hurting world and my openness to receive enlightenment…so much of me has been nurtured in the fertile soil of the deeply flawed and imperfect yet totally unconditional promise that all are welcome through this “golden door.”

Only a damned fool would intentionally break this promise or try to steal this dream.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” – Emma Lazarus (emphasis: mine)


photo of statue of liberty
Photo by TheUknownPhotographer on



When I lived in San Diego between 2014 and 2015, I also had the opportunity to directly experience some of the lives, lifestyles and challenges at the border between Mexico and the United States.  I got to see first-hand, the bustling cities of San Ysidro and Tijuana, I met incredibly dedicated people giving their time and energy to supporting vulnerable people and had direct contact with Border Patrol Agents.  Several things stood out to me:

  • Both San Ysidro (US side) and Tijuana (Mexico side) are vibrant places with rich bi-lingual cultures.
  • Where San Ysidro’s urban center gives way to genuinely suburban and fairly typical “American” middle class neighborhoods as you move north, Tijuana has a larger, more-dense urban feel for a wider area and then gives way as you head south and east to what would be considered by “American” standards rural settings with many dirt roads and more basic infrastructure.
  • Incredible numbers of people pass both ways through the port of entry at San Ysidro/Tijuana. The number looks to be equal in both directions, but most of the congestion is on the Mexico side due to the restrictive nature of how people are processed entering the US.
  • The vast number of people crossing the border, in both directions, at this port of entry are US citizens seeking goods and services or recreation.
  • There is thriving business for Mexican vendors on the Mexican side and US retail outlets on the US side of the border.
  • The people on both sides, were friendly, welcoming, diverse, funny and completely human.  There was nothing “alien” about any of them.

Probably the most striking aspect of my education about the southern border came in realizing that nearly all of the need for goods, services and people is driven by US demand.  This is true for textiles and mechanics (see the film Maquilapolis) but this is particularly true where human trafficking and drug smuggling are concerned.  My trip was part of a seminary immersion experience and as a minister in formation, I was exposed to people who had been trafficked and people who had been impacted by the drug trade as well as people who were thriving and not touched by either but were simply trying to live and get by in that environment.  And at the same time, living in San Diego, it was very telling to travel just 18 miles north and encounter the rich, young (largely white) people who were partying hardy and looking for easily accessible drugs oblivious to the connection they had to the life I had been exposed to at the border.  In San Diego, I also encountered more than one non-Mexican person who had been to Tijuana for quick and easy sex.

2015-01-14 10.34.42The “crisis” that Donald Trump attempted to present in his 9-minute address from the Oval Office is one that will always exist as long as American citizens continue to financially drive the billion-dollar illicit drug and human trafficking trades.  The people migrating north are not the crisis; the market for the exploitation of vulnerable people is the crisis…and it is a crisis that is as old as our government.  The people “flooding” the border are not the criminals that need to be dealt with.  In large part, most of them are seeking safety from violence in countries whose governments were imploded by US intervention.  The true criminals are in Washington, D.C.; the criminals are in the financial centers and corporation board rooms, and they are the ones inflating and manipulating currencies and values, paying off pharmaceutical companies and establishing a playing field of commerce that is ripe for exploitation of the poor and vulnerable people who have little or no choice on the bottom of the equation.  The true criminals are in every neighborhood and community of the United States and they are in all socio-economic brackets.  The criminals are you and I and our willingness to benefit from a system that has always thrived on oppression.

The true crisis is that our economy and wealth continues to be driven by the concept of trianglular trade as established with African slavery*.  According to Trump, a wall would be built to keep out the people who are supposedly the problem.  But the problem isn’t the slave…the problem is still slavery.


*From the musical 1776