Rabbi Laurie Coskey
The Holy Chutzpah of Foot Washing
TEDxSanDiego 2014

I wasn’t raised to be an activist. My mother and father wouldn’t even allow me to apply to UC Berkeley in the mid-1970s. But I was raised to be a good person, to be of service to my family, others and the community. We were raised to feed the poor and clothe the needy, but not to end homelessness.

It wasn’t until I got my doctorate at USD that I understood that transformational change only can happen through systems change. It’s there that I connected to my mantra, the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, “The arch of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

We are bending it, rabbis, priests, ministers, imams, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers, Brethrens and Buddhists. We are bending it through tenacity, dogged determination, strategic thinking and through something that my grandmother would have called chutzpah.

She would have said, “That person has a lot of chutzpah.” That person has a lot of nerve. In Yiddish, it means “boldness, audacity, nerve.” It’s exactly chutzpah that it takes to bend the moral universe.

Let me share with you a case study. It was March of 2007. Federal enforcement agencies all over the country were raiding immigrant communities as part of Operation Return to Sender. In San Diego, it was terrible. Immigrant communities were terrified. People were afraid to take their children to school, afraid to go to the market, the park or to work and afraid to stay home. In March of 2007, almost 400 people were disappeared, deported or de-placed.

Let me tell you just three stories. Samuel and Francisco lived in the Mountain View neighborhood of San Diego. They were sitting outside their house, waiting for their nephew to come home who was just playing basketball at a neighborhood park. ICE detained them, along with other neighbors on the street, so when their nephew came home, he found the door to the house was locked. All the lights were on. Confused neighbors had no idea what had happened to them.

Julissa lived in Chula Vista. When she came home with her daughter, she was cornered by ICE, Immigration Customs Enforcement. Their agents demanded to know where her husband was. When he arrived at home, the whole family was detained, including two US-born children. They were taken to a detention center. They were coerced into signing deportation orders and they were deported, leaving their house and all of their possessions.

Maria Del Carmen was just driving in Mira Mesa. Her car was surrounded by Enforcement Agency cars. ICE pulled their guns out and demanded that they leave the car. They handcuffed her two children.

Maria Del Carmen and a relative were detained. It was never explained to her why she was deported.
One plus one plus one, to almost 400 people disappearing in our midst. As clergy, we could not stand by while our neighbors just disappeared. What did we do? With a little bit of chutzpah, I picked up the phone and called Immigration Customs Enforcement. I wanted to demand to beseech them to stop their raids and ask for them to meet with us local clergy. But I got no answer. So I called again and again, and I didn’t hear back.

As immigrants’ rights activists, as clergy and people of faith who decided it was time to organize, fortunately it was spring, the time when Passover and Easter overlap in Holy Week. We decided to call the press and hold a foot washing in front of the Federal Building, the spirit of Maundy Thursday, the spirit of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples before the Last Supper.

Our clergy would come with humility and hospitality, with servant leadership and compassion. We would, in front of our Federal Building, wash the feet of immigrants. And we did on that day, Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday. Our Christian clergy came. They got down on their knees. Instead of having real immigrants sitting there, it was too dangerous, we had chairs that were empty, like this one.

On it, were the names of immigrants who had been disappeared or deported, like Julissa, Maria Del Carmen, Francisco and Samuel. They were not in the chairs, but in front of our eyes, they were there. The clergy got down on their knees, picked up an imaginary heel and put it in their hand. They picked up a pitcher of water that was real and poured the water over the imaginary heel with such loving kindness.

The water fell into the basin below. All the while, rabbis, priests, ministers, activists and people of faith were standing, praying and beseeching that those agents and executives in the Federal Building, who we knew were watching us, would open their hearts to the plights of hard-working immigrants here in San Diego.

Then we took the press, with their cameras over their shoulders. We walked up to the building with horseradish, the symbol of the bitterness of the Passover story. We asked them to stop embittering the lives of the communities and people who live in them in our city.

Then we asked to meet with them. They agreed, but they said, “No press.” And we agreed. It was only a very few days later when we walked into the executive conference room at Immigration Customs Enforcement. The ICE executives were sitting way across the table from us. Seven community clergy came in and sat down. There was a chasm between us, a divide of culture, a divide of community, a divide of mission.

Their lawyer came in with a big, black book and threw it on the table and said, “In this volume, it says I can do whatever I want.” Reverend Scott Richardson reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small bible. He put it hand gently on it and said, “In this book, it says you can’t.”

They were so angry and hostile. We were pesky, troublesome clergy. We had nothing but pulpits where we could tell our story and the press, who would come over our shoulder. We saw them as enforcers, people without any compassion at all, willing to terrorize our communities.

Slowly but surely, as we began to meet with each other frequently in those days, we began to see them as people. They had families. Their families were binational. They lived in our communities. They were members of our congregations. They saw us as guardians of the common good, that we cared about our communities, that we worried about our families and the people who were disappearing.

In San Diego, the raids subsided. Everywhere else in the country, human rights and immigrants’ rights groups were escalating against federal agencies. But here, the raids subsided. It didn’t stop there. The Obama administration sent the Secretary of Immigration Customs Enforcement to meet with us and talk to us about how we worked together in order to create their own policies of community engagement. It didn’t stop there.

In July of 2014, just this past July, hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers were coming into San Diego. We knew that it would create a humanitarian crisis for our communities. This time, I picked up the phone and called Customs Border Patrol and ICE. I said to them, “Can we be of assistance?”

They said, “Can you come tomorrow?” We did. We walked into the conference room and sat around a round table. We were interspersed with one another. We created a structure and strategy by which we would support the refugees and asylum seekers who were coming here and mostly leaving to join their families in other parts of the country.

The arch of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. We are bending it through holy chutzpah and foot washing.