Let Suffering Speak: Reflections on Systemic Crisis

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by Steve Pavey

The following has been excerpted from a talk by Steve Pavey, a guest speaker at Cornell University on April 10. The event was called “Welcoming the Stranger,” sponsored by CUSLAR and Cornell United Religious Work. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

I’d like to share some questions I’m grappling with, at this intersection of faith and migration, and being a citizen, and being a human being. It’s an honor to be here. I didn’t realize Dan Berrigan was a part of this place. I met his daughter in Washington, DC for a week in work to try to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison, which is not off of the topic of immigration. 

I want to focus on questions that lead us away from the immigration crisis as an isolated problem. I might even ask if that’s really the real crisis. We are, after 17 years, still locking away male Muslims because we’re afraid of them. Guantanamo Bay prison was supposed to be shut down under Obama, who promised to do that, but he never did. Now it looks like it might continue to grow under Trump. These things are all connected.

I want us to struggle with the idea that what we call “emergency” is less an emergency but actually the way things work all the time, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin. These people [in the event poster] are all people who were either in sanctuaries, or fighting deportations or detentions during the Obama era. That repressive machine has grown under both the Democrats and Republicans. 

So the title for me could be “Welcoming Ourselves.” What would it mean to welcome ourselves? When I talked yesterday at Ithaca College, my friend Marco Saavedra, an undocumented activist, reminded me that maybe the immigrant and specially the refugee is a vanguard for the future. There are things we can learn from those who already are ahead of us and asking the right questions about how to be more human in this world. 

As Immanuel Wallerstein said, there are three main myths that modernity has produced for us. First is the so-called “free market.” The second is the equality of rights and the ability of the nation-state to protect all citizens. And the third is the value-neutral scholar or scientist. I want you all to know that I am not neutral. I have a commitment and preferential option for the poor, guided by Gustavo Gutierrez and the tradition of liberation theology. 

 The work I do is to bear witness to the world as it is, and the lies we live under, but also as it could be — largely through struggle and being present to people who are resisting and struggling for human dignity. That’s the real work that we need to be about. 

I’ll return to the question that maybe we don’t have an immigration crisis. As Thomas Merton said in his “Letters to a White Liberal”: “We don’t have a Negro problem or an immigration problem or a poverty problem. We have a white supremacist settler state empire problem.” 

When we redefine the problem, we will approach immigration or other issues differently, I think. It will drive us to do more than just trying to bring aid to the world, which is deeply needed — but there is more we can do than most white liberals end up doing. 

I chose this quote in particular from the Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, because it connects to me in why left the academy: “The oppressor is in solidarity with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor—when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love.”  

The core of what I want to share with you is to let suffering speak. As scholars and academics, we often listen to those who are suffering while collecting our data and include them in the data process, but we need to include the suffering in helping us to define the problem as part of the analysis. 

I want to end by reading a poem by Marco Saavedra. He wrote this poem while in the Broward Detention Center in Florida. He was one of a group that infiltrated the site in 2012 to gather cases of abuse and wrongful imprisonment of fellow undocumented immigrants. The events are now the subject of a new film called “The Infiltrators.”

Marco wrote: 



We need an immigration solution?

Does that mean that we have an immigration

problem or that immigration, meaning immigrants,

are The Problem?


Well i never thought of myself as problematic.

I like to play, fool, & feel as well

as anyone else.

What if upon me is a reflection of you?

What if what you fear is who you are?


Yes, I know myself.


Have had to –

otherwise i’d have to deal w/

the pathetic definitions you had for me

and there’s not enough poverty for that.

Now, is there?

Is there?


Maybe the problem is ours.

We’re the problem.

Now this sounds like a play.

With equal parts?


What if the problem is you?

What if the illegal is you?

Your institutions, your economy

your system of reality

your gods

are now being weighed by those sullen

people you’ve denied so long . . .


Are the scales fair?

Is fortune rigged?

Whose world will become anew?


Image: Marco Saavedra, by Hope In Focus / Steve Pavey.

One response to “Let Suffering Speak: Reflections on Systemic Crisis

  1. Pingback: Exodus and Central America | Committee on U.S./Latin American Relations·

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