Outsiders

News reports about the New York Police Department’s intensive surveillance of Muslims after 9/11 shock me, but particularly reports that just attending a Mosque made someone a target for observation. License plate numbers were taken from cars in the lot. They wanted an informant in every mosque.

As a clergy-person, that bothers me. Houses of worship are no place for that sort of government behavior. If someone was taking down all the plate numbers in your church parking lot, how would you feel? I’d feel like making a little visit to the local police station, wearing my clerical collar.

When I was a seminary student, studying at the denominational seminary of the little, historically Dutch-American denomination I was raised in and started ministry in, we learned something in a church history class that honestly floored me. (This was about a year before 9/11, I think.)

During World War I, understandably, many English-speaking Americans couldn’t tell the difference between Dutch and German. Of course, the fact that the Germans refer to themselves as “Deutsch.” Besides, they looked pretty similar, these big pale people, so, better safe than sorry, Dutch-speaking people were under suspicion of being sympathetic at best to the Germans. (Full disclosure: there was some fierce debate among some Dutch in America at the time about who to support in the war.)

The state of Iowa actually passed legislation that made it illegal for a worship service to be held in any language other than English. And while some places didn’t enforce this, others did. There were places where law enforcement officers attended church to make sure there was nothing but English spoken.

Meanwhile, “Dutch” churches that refused to put an American flag at the front of their sanctuary, made their children memorize the Heidelberg Catechism in Dutch, and worshipped in Dutch, were suspect.

During the course of that war, many congregations did begin to use English more and more. Partly because, a couple of generations into immigration (this group was not the early New Amsterdam Dutch of the Colonial era, but a later migratory group), their children and grandchildren were speaking English. But it was also because these churches realized that they needed to do things like string up an American flag and learn some hymns in English so that their neighbors would accept them.

While this was no where near the scale of surveillance and discrimination we’ve seen against Muslims in this country in the pst decade, when I hear about Muslim places of worship being suspect, I immediately am reminded that something small but similar happened to my religious great great grandparents. I’m guessing it wasn’t so great for actual German congregations in Iowa, either!

We have historically, as a nation, been capable before of discrimination against a religious group. How quickly we assimilate, and, sadly, join in casting suspicion on people who are different from us.

The thing is, except for a very few truly Native Americans, we were all immigrants once.

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