Be our guest, be our guest, be our guest worker.

I am reading the November newsletter of Trinity Presbyterian Church of Stockton, our home church in Stockton. For those of you who don't know Trinity, it was founded in the 1940s by Filipino immigrants and children of Filipino immigrants. Today, it is truly a multi-ethnic church with several ethnic groups represented, but remaining majority Filipino. This church family baptized Sarah as a child, and adopted me as an adult when we were both on our separate journeys back after being separated from a church family for many years.

In the newsletter there is a small mention of thanks to me, along with mention of many others who helped clean around the church in preparation for the church's 60th birthday party. After a list of Trinity faithful, the article says "... and guest worker - Joel Gibbs." The use of the term "guest worker" caught my attention because it is a term often used euphemistically to refer to people of other nations working in this country for short periods of time, with very few rights and a presumption that they will be forced to return to their country of origin sooner than later. It was used in 2007 in the the debate surrounding President Bush's so-called "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007" which was defeated. (Here's more information on immigration policy and legislation.) Previously, the presumption of repatriation was explicit, as was the case in the Bracero program which brought over 4 million Mexican workers to the U.S. in the 1940s to 1960s. But in Mr. Bush's proposal it was hidden behind seemingly sympathetic but false political rhetoric about allowing foreign citizens, primarily Mexicans, to more easily come to the U.S. to do seasonal work. The reality hiding within the language of this legislation was that few "guest workers" would ever have any real chance of obtaining permanent residency permits, and a new system of "points" would shift the emphasis of immigration, from re-uniting families in the U.S. to supplying U.S. corporations with technologically trained workers willing to work for less than their U.S. counterparts. (President-elect Barack Obama's 2007 speech to the U.S. Senate provides a more eloquent analysis.)

Now, if you've read this far you haven't automatically assumed that I am some idiot racist. I am not comparing my unmeritoriously privileged White male position in society with the plight of some people of color from foreign nations who come here striving to give their children something better than the grinding poverty from which they came. But if you are still not convinced, read my disclaimer below.

What I am trying to say is that sometimes a few words, taken out of context, can poke at your mind (or maybe just my mind) in a way that causes you to look at things a little differently. In this case it started me thinking, in a kind of stream-of-consciousness kind of way, about what it would be like if I were working in a place totally foreign to me, and I was told: "You're our guest here, but you have to do this difficult work that we don't want to do. And we're going to pay you a wage that we would never accept. We're not going to let you join a labor union and won't give you the workplace rights we take for granted. Of course you will have to pay the same taxes we do, but you won't get many of the benefits we do as citizens. And, oh yes, you can't stay here. But thank you for coming anyway, and be our guest."

This reminds me of the character Lumiere in the Disney cartoon Beauty and the Beast singing "Be Our Guest," except that Belle gets great service, doesn't have to work, initially is kept captive in the castle by a big brown beast but is eventually released when the beast turns out to be a prince. In our country "guest workers" get terrible service, we make them do menial work, we think we're acting like "princes" when we initially allow them to stay, but eventually we kick them out and it turns out that we act like beasts. (You all were probably wondering how I was going to connect this discussion with a Disney song. And yes, Beauty and the Beast is sexist, but that is a different narrative.)

Why am I thinking about immigration policy at this time, with the economy tanking, two wars grinding on and on, the health care system in melt-down and a hundred other problems that affect us directly? We can't afford to loose any more jobs to illegal immigrants and we certainly don't need more things to distract us from the joy of Christmas, right? Except for that thing Jesus said about serving the less fortunate: "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40).

So when I read the words "guest worker" describing me personally, I began free-associating and ended up with this mental picture: I'm being held captive in a scary castle, surrounded by a crowd of hostile household items, including an angry animated candelabra, a cartoon clock that sounds like Angela Lansbury's evil twin, and a cadre of cutlery leading a troop of tableware in assault on my head. After being refused service at the table, I am forced to perform menial labor by a crazed mop and then told by the clock that I've stayed too long. Then I'm booted out of the castle by a big hairy beast.

It seems when you hear "be my guest" it doesn't always mean you're going to be treated like a guest. But then years of living in a Filipino family have taught me that different cultures have different understandings of hospitality. Perhaps Norteamericanos could stand to learn from their brothers and sisters to the south.

Disclaimer: There is no connection between the gracious expression of gratitude in Trinity's newsletter and my silly story, except several levels of free-association that probably exist only in my tortuous mind. I'm sure the newsletter writer did NOT mean to say I was a guest worker in the same sense as is used in immigration policy debates. I do NOT mean to suggest that I know what it is like to be a person of color doing difficult work in a foreign place and culture for low wages and little or no thanks. Nor do I mean to suggest that my work at Trinity was difficult or that I felt out of place. The work was little trouble. I always feel welcomed and appreciated by my Trinity family. And the food and hospitality I received the next day was far more remuneration that I earned from my work at Trinity.


Miss Merissa said…
Hi Uncle,
I'm soo thrilled that you're blogging.
Loved seeing you, your family, and your cinnamon rolls at Thanksgiving.

What you say is very true. A few words or even one word can be totally taken out of context and viewed negatively and offensively. I've had a lot of experience in that department. :)
And I would just like add, even though you already covered this, that even though you were called a "guest worker", you are much, much more than that to me and the church and you will always & forever be much, much more than that.

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