Until We Are All Free


Nicole T Walters -Until We Are All Free3

There’s been this growing sentiment in the world of social media and online writing over the past couple years. There is a feeling that we lose whether we speak up or remain silent. If we are vocal about an issue outside of our social context we risk being called out for a “white savior complex” or jumping on the social justice bandwagon. If we don’t speak up about a growing injustice in our country, then we are called careless and complicit in our silence.

Solidarity is a hard line to walk in today’s world. Do words on social media really mean we are standing with another anyway? They are just words, so easy to toss up on a screen without much effect to our lives. On the other hand, there are those who call us to speak up for them with the influence we have. There is a feeling we have to tread lightly, afraid to bring down ridicule, scared into silence. I think of a friend who has been the loving hands of Jesus to a local refugee community and who recently felt afraid to let her all-white community know of her passion.

Issues of justice weigh heavily on my heart and I’ve struggled to know how to use my words and my life to answer God’s call to be a peacemaker. Slavery, oppression of whole people groups, the needs of refugees—these things are more than token issues to me. I have lived in places where my neighbors live these realities, put myself in the way of these issues so that they had a face.

I have wrapped my arms around a beautiful South Asian child whose face beamed with joy despite his disability and homelessness. When I asked about him later, I couldn’t even name the grief that washed over me when my friends told me he was missing, likely sold into slavery, bringing a good price as a deaf beggar.

My heart has ached when I saw the anxiety in my new friend’s eyes as I tried to teach her to make chocolate chip cookies. Everything in an American kitchen was foreign to her. She finally had to leave the room. Between the language barrier and not understanding anything in her new country, she was just too overwhelmed.

Yet I, too, have been afraid to speak out sometimes.

More and more I am convicted about the way solidarity is more than words; we need to act on the needs we see. We can’t say we love if we hoard the cup of water we have access to while our neighbor goes thirsty. But we also can’t say we love if we don’t use our voices to speak truth into the dark places where justice is denied. Standing with someone means using our hands and our voices to support them. Solidarity means both speaking and acting.

One of my favorite quotes when I speak to groups about the slavery I have seen in South Asia and the ways we can stand in solidarity with those who are denied their basic human rights is, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” An American poet named Emma Lazarus wrote these words. You’ve probably never heard her name though I guarantee almost all Americans, and many around the world know these words of her most famous sonnet, The New Colossus:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

I hadn’t heard of her until I looked up who said it for a presentation I was making. When I started reading about Emma Lazarus, I couldn’t stop. I found out she was a wealthy fourth-generation American who was a teenager in New York during the Civil War. Her life changed when 2000 Jewish refugees started pouring into her city during the 1880’s from Russia. Her eyes were opened to the plight of her fellow Jews around the world and she became the first American writer to publicly speak out about anti-Semitism. She used her voice to speak out against the injustice she saw and was often criticized for it. Ahead of her time, her solidarity often cost her credibility.

But she didn’t just sit behind her desk speaking out against what she saw. She became grieved that she was an accomplice to slavery, understanding her family fortune was made on the backs of slaves. She used her own fortune and raised money for the poor refugees she encountered. She actually wrote The New Colossus in order to help raise funds for the pedestal on which the new symbol of America, the Statue of Liberty, would stand.

She died in her thirties, not extremely well known for her poetry or her advocacy until her family installed a plaque inside the statue pedestal with her words on it. In the 1920’s her words became the rally cry of pro-immigrationists. Poet and Professor Esther Schor says, “Many have been inspired by Emma Lazarus, though only some have known it … Her passion for justice lives on whenever we Americans dedicate ourselves to welcoming immigrants, training and educating the poor, and celebrating diversity.”

Lazarus’ words didn’t make her famous but they outlived her and inspired many to move towards justice. Her work with refugees may not be known around the world but it surely mattered to the families whose lives she touched. And today her story is inspiring me to add to my actions the words that are needed, her words calling to me across the generations.

She is calling out to me like the statue that stands upon her words, the Lady Liberty who lights the way for those who search for freedom. That famous golden torch is a symbol of welcome but Lazarus once said, “Light remains imprisoned as long as human beings are not free.” Today Lady Liberty and Lazarus call out to us together to work for freedom, to use our words and use our deeds to stand with those who are still in bondage. Until they are free, none of us truly are.