On Thursday night (June 13) I went to the Oval to walk around. What I saw shocked me. Tragarete Road became the battleground for protesting Trinidadians and the Venezuelans, police and Trini supporters. The scene reminded me of Maximus Dan’s “Order, order; don’t cross the border” (2005). The border was the white line in the road.
On one side there was hate, vitriol, frenzied mob. They were angry! They were not that many but it was frightening, frightening because this is Trinidad and Tobago.
A mob is a terrifying thing—like gasoline and matches. You do not know where the destruction will go. This mob was intent. Thank God there was a border held by the police—the white line. There was no crossing.
On the other side of the line there were other Trinidadians; people who left their houses to stand in solidarity and bear witness against the darker side of our nation.
One young woman was there with her five-year-old child. She is the one who asked me: “Is this really happening in Trinidad and Tobago?”
She said: “I am so ashamed of Trinidad right now; I cannot believe this could happen in our country. These people left their homes and everything they have because they had to. They come to nothing. No status, no house, no job, no way of educating their children and now no love.”
I asked her why she had her child out this late in this scene. She said: “Fada, I want to make sure she sees this. In my life, this is one of the darkest days in Trinidad. I want to make sure she saw it and never accepts anything like this. This is wrong and she needs to know right from wrong. She needs to see how bad we can be.”
So, there were two sides of the road: two opinions, two kinds of rhetoric, two contrasting ways of interpreting the event. Which one do we believe should define the future of Trinidad and Tobago?
Xenophobia is a form of racism. It bubbles up and needs to be named for what it is. It masquerades as nationalism and self-interest. It is not. It is racism which has the capacity to destroy.
People have asked why we are only interested in the Venezuelans. Is it because they are white?
Since the late 1980s, Living Water Community has been helping refugees, most of whom have come from Africa and Asia. What has changed is that our neighbour is in trouble.
The Venezuelan migrants do not have food, medication and basic necessities. Over four million have left their country to date. A national crisis exists in Venezuela. Race has no place when a neighbour is in trouble.
While the Government has tried to control our national borders, we have never dealt with anything on this scale. That is why we need to choose now on which side of the white line we will stand. What type of Trinidad and Tobago do we want to become?
Being a good neighbour is at the very core of the Christian mystery. Pressed to articulate the greatest commandment, Jesus challenged his hearers to two commandments: love God with your all, and love your neighbour as yourself. When asked, “who is my neighbour”, Jesus answered with the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37).
The subtlety in the parable is that a priest and a Levite both passed the man who had been robbed on “the other side of the road”—the wrong side of Tragarete Road.
Here, the man who was robbed was the other—the neighbour in distress, one in need of a neighbour. The priest and Levite passed by because contact with the robbed man would have made them ritually impure.
For us, contact with the migrant makes us what? So many insults have been hurled on those who have spoken up for the migrant. The defenders have been reduced to the same non-person status as the migrant.
The Samaritan, in the religious imagination of the Jew was the non-person—the other. Samaritans were viewed as of mixed race, mixed in religious belief, idol worshippers and outcasts. They were looked down on by polite Jewish society, just as the Venezuelan is looked down upon by some Trinidadians today.
There is an interconnected web between xenophobia, racism, tribalism and hatred for migrants and refugees. I fear we, citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, are witnessing this ungodly web of destruction. The challenge of the gospel is that our migrant is the Samaritan, the rejected and despised other. The despised one becomes the minister, the paradigm of discipleship, the hero of the story.
The reaction to the migrant is an extreme form of the growing hostility and intolerance to the other in Trinidad and Tobago.
The great philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says: “Faith is not a question of the existence or non-existence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable.”
When we stare into the face of the other there is an ethical imperative that confronts us: “Thou shall not kill”! And, a spiritual imperative: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” In our actions and reactions, we are violating both the ethical and spiritual imperative. We are better than that!
I beg you; I urge you—do not pass by on the other side. You may realise that the migrant we fear today may become our neighbour tomorrow.
The Most Rev Charles J Gordon
is Archbishop of Port of Spain