Essential and Excluded

I have a recurring dream. A boy presses his cheek against the earth, his eyes closed, and with one ear he listens closely to the pulse of the world. With the other, he listens to the many voices and sounds carried by the wind. Upon waking, I see him reflected in the faces of my community. Similar to the dreamlike image of this boy, my community is determined, resilient, and refuses to be victimized. My community hears the pulse of the earth, and the strength of the wind guides the struggles and challenges brought by this pandemic.

COVID-19 is not the first or the only crisis that has hit our communities of color, our working class, and our migrant communities, unexpectedly. It is simply the most recent, and one which has had dizzying effects. Many questions have emerged in the face of this historic event: How can we, as a community, articulate a response to a crisis full of uncertainty? How can we collectively imagine—amid social distancing and the fear of others—a response that is at once collaborative, equitable, and horizontal? How can we humanize our struggles despite the fact that, as migrants of color, we have been criminalized by a racist system? How can we bring the act of hearing and listening to bear on the practice of social justice in our day-to-day lives?

At the beginning of March, a path full of hope began to illuminate our shared journey as a community. At the Church of the Good Shepherd in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, where I have served as pastor for the last two years, congregants and extended community members formed a mutual aid network within a week of the announcement of a compulsory quarantine aimed at stopping the spread of the virus in New York City. 

On March 13, only a few days into the quarantine, the first two families came to The Good Shepherd to receive food. It was then that, in an act of solidarity, we began to share all that we had to offer, reminding ourselves that as people of faith, we should extend holy nourishment to our brothers and sisters. The seeds of this communal solidarity sprouted into a generous, honest, and tireless response to a pandemic that has left, once more, the majority of our families—those who are undocumented and with few resources—excluded from any federal or even moral support. 

Today, through a vast collective effort, our congregation is part of an extensive network of mutual aid groups throughout the city. COVID-19, the disease caused by the Coronavirus, has only rendered visible the inequalities that our working class and migrant communities of color have suffered for decades, even centuries. The police state and government have, through their institutions, historically wielded violence against the most socioeconomically vulnerable among us. 

The 6-feet social distancing rules are felt and lived in the “ghettos” to which our communities have been displaced, where they are forced to live with the discrimination and racism of food deserts, and where inequalities, injustice, and lack of opportunities—employment, education, and medical care—only multiply. 

Needless to say, we are the cheap labor that has always been at the forefront of all crises, pandemics, and natural disasters. This essential work should be dignified and honored with something greater than applause.

It is ironic that during this pandemic and humanitarian health crisis, workers who have been excluded from all forms of institutional support are categorized as essential, despite being ignored. This pandemic has directly impacted delivery workers, farmworkers, domestic workers, childcare workers, line cooks, and others, particularly those who are undocumented. This has happened despite the resounding 7pm applause every evening during the initial effervescence of the pandemic, and despite the noise of war planes honoring essential workers who did not have the privilege to stay home.

From our small sanctuary, we have been practicing the socialization of hope. Out of this crisis, more sustainable, more humanitarian, and increasingly self-sufficient projects, ideas, and initiatives have emerged in the space of this congregation, such as community kitchens, cooperatives, music therapy, and son jarocho workshops, as well as a garden and roof terrace. The food inequality experienced by working class communities led members of our parish—some of whom come from indigenous and farmworker communities—to address questions of food justice and access to quality food. From there, we began to reactivate a community garden, exchanging seeds and sharing ancestral knowledge that we have received from our grandmothers, our grandfathers, and from our homelands. We started by planting chile peppers, tomatoes, vegetables, and medicinal plants. Then, out of a desire for space and healing, musicians from our community came together, bringing the sound of the jarana and the harmonized thump of feet to accompany our collective journey—planting, harvesting, weaving, sewing, and creating a world where many other worlds fit. Now, with the sound of cascabel y la morena, our community comes together every week, respecting a healthy distance and singing songs with the protection of face masks.

Unemployment and economic instability have created a need for new horizons. With the failure of all of our official institutions, the following question arises: What sustainable practices can we adopt and integrate under this “new normal” which can allow us to live more dignified lives?

These initiatives have been brewing thanks to the spirit of this “new normal” during a crisis which, at the same time, has led us to question and confront the crumbling structures of a colonial—and imperial—system, and the ways in which savage capitalism operates. 

How can we heal the scars and the collective and historical trauma that, as migrant communities, we have borne for generations as a consequence of irregularities in our immigration status, and as a result of the racial discrimination that we face because of our skin color and class position?

We are essential but at the same time, excluded. We are the cheap labor used to harvest the food that we put on our tables. Needless to say, we are the cheap labor that has always been at the forefront of all crises, pandemics, and natural disasters. This essential work should be dignified and honored with something greater than applause. 

This crisis has claimed many of our lives. As a pastor, I’ve accompanied families as they give last goodbyes to their dearly departed. It has been a farewell without precedence where we have cried at a distance, alone, and in fear. Yet the ashes of those who have passed give us strength to continue rebuilding this “new normal”—a world of hope that is more just and more equitable. During this state of emergency, the police state continues to wield its violence on our African American brothers and sisters. We are no strangers to this pain; we share the same fight in creating a better world. #Blacklivesmatter has reminded migrant communities that this is also our fight. The search for a road paved by justice is a shared struggle. 

—New York City, August 3, 2020

Translated by Amanda Sommer Lotspike

Juan Carlos Ruiz is Pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He co-founded the Migrant Ministry for Diocese of Paterson, the floating parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, establishing two clinics for the uninsured and undocumented. In 2007, he co-founded the National New Sanctuary Movement. Ruiz worked as an organizer for the New Sanctuary Coalition to expand the Legal Orientation Clinics, the Accompaniment Sanctuary Program, and Sanctuary Hood. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Ruiz opened the doors of St. Jacobi Lutheran Church to friends of the Occupy Wall Street movement to articulate a response to affected communities—what came to be known as Occupy Sandy.

Amanda Sommer Lotspike is Project Manager for the Ecologies of Migrant Care initiative at the Hemispheric Institute and Managing Editor of HemiPress.