“The quickest way to mess with your faith or your politics is to meet someone on the other side and discover you like them.” -Dr. Maxie Burch
I didn’t know that a line from my mentor in a college history class would one day give language to a crisis in my life.
During college, I volunteered in my church’s student ministry. One of the high-school students I met was Adrian, a curious, insightful student who was shy in larger groups. A couple years after I joined the church staff, Adrian graduated and became one of my students again as I was the college minister.
Adrian asked for a ride home from an event one night. It became a regular occurrence for me to give Adrian a ride to and from events since we lived not far from one another. Over time, I began wondering why Adrian didn’t have his driver’s license nor did he use one of his parents’ cars.
Finally one night, I mustered the courage to ask Adrian why he didn’t have his license or ever use his parents’ cars. He told me, “I thought you knew. I’m illegal.” I was speechless.
Today is the second of a four-part series entitled A Different Point of View. You can read part one here. Each week, I will be sharing a different point of view on a common experience or popular subject. Some of these perspectives will challenge you, while some will affirm what you’ve learned that others still need to understand. A key part of my purpose as a writer is empowering you with a new perspective, in order for you to live with more courage and hope.
From An Issue to a Friend
Illegal immigration was an issue dominating my state, Arizona, at that time and it still dominates today. We made national news for the actions of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and bills signed by our then-governor like SB 1070, which was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. Many believed the bill led to racially profiling all Hispanics in the pursuit of illegals.
But I had bigger problems than late-night comedians using my state as a verbal punching bag. My thoughts about “what needed to be done about illegal immigration” had violently collided with the realization that one of my favorite students was illegal! This was no longer “an issue”; it was a friend. As Dr. Burch said, my faith and my politics were being messed with because of someone I loved.
I drove home a mental mess. In the weeks to come, I learned more of Adrian’s story. His parents came here when he was a young boy via a tourist visa and they stayed after the visa expired. Adrian at first didn’t understand their situation but as he became older, he realized the quandary. Adrian told me, “you have no idea what it’s like. I have no memories of living in Mexico but what’s my life like here? I cannot have any of the experiences which were part of your life growing up. Getting my first job? No. Getting a drivers license? No.”
What Would He Do Next?
As heartbroken as I was for the challenge facing Adrian, I was equally fascinated by his academic progress. He had graduated high school at the top of his class. He graduated two years later from a community college with high honors, receiving a scholarship to go to a local four-year university. At university, he was getting A’s in organic chemistry and other insanely tough science and math courses, as he finished his science major with a pre-med focus.
As graduation loomed, Adrian had a decision to make. He wanted to be a doctor, but he had no future if he stayed in America. Adrian could never go to medical school or practice here; he could only work shady jobs which paid cash and kept no records.
His family and friends pressured him to stay, but he said he didn’t want to live a life of fear, suspicion, or boredom. Adrian’s only hope was the Dream Act President Obama had included in his campaign platform, which proposed amnesty for young people who had achieved a high GPA in school and avoided any criminal activities. However, when the Dream Act failed to materialize, Adrian knew he was out of options.
Adrian Makes a Courageous Choice
He wanted to be a doctor and make a difference. Defying nearly everyone in his community, he elected to move back to Mexico. In the year after he graduated from college (again with high honors), Adrian taught himself all of his undergraduate material again – this time, in Spanish, not English. He applied for medical school in Mexico and was accepted. He returned to Mexico and began his preparation to be a doctor. I was incredibly proud of Adrian and the courage this step demanded.
Adrian is currently amidst a waiting period between his return to Mexico and the time when he can apply for a work visa to enter the USA again. I’m unsure what his future plans are – to remain in Mexico or return here. I don’t know what has happened to his family here, nor where they’re currently living.
4 Way Friendship Changes Our Perspective
My friendship over six years with Adrian taught me four things. (And none of them have to do with a political position on the issue of illegal immigration.)
1. We speak differently when we remember we’re dealing with people, not just issues.
When the coldness of an issue is replaced by the warmth of a relationship, we speak differently. We show more compassion and express more nuance. Friendships lead us to speak about people as if they are in the room, not as if they aren’t. We have those we love in our minds as we dialogue and debate, resulting in a very different kind of conversation.
2. Everyone has a story if you’re willing to ask and listen.
Facts and data often shock and surprise us, but stories move us. The emotion of someone’s experience motivates us towards change. When we stop long enough to ask someone to share and genuinely listen, we gain much more context regarding an issue.
3. The choices in front of people are rarely as simple and clean-cut as they appear from a distance.
Before hearing Adrian’s story, I approached illegal immigration as something very cut and dry. Now I see it in a more nuanced and complex manner. When I look at the decisions he and his parents made, it wasn’t as simple as talking heads or my uninformed past perspectives had made it. Friendships help us understand issues and questions from the point-of-view of those directly impacted by that issue.
4. Sympathy doesn’t change or help others; empathy changes everything.
Adrian didn’t need me to feel bad for him. He needed me to walk with him as he wrestled with the biggest decision of his life. Instead of trying to solve his problems, Adrian needed me to listen and encourage him as he figured out what was best for his future. He didn’t need my sermons; he needed mentoring and guidance.
I love how Brene Brown and RSA Design illustrates the difference between sympathy and empathy in this video. The solidarity expressed here was the kind that changed both Adrian and me. (If the video won’t appear below in your browser, click here to watch it).
Our future as citizens and leaders in our world will include difficult questions, challenging transitions, and seasons of adversity. We need friendships with people like Adrian to help us grow and become the kind of people who can solve the problems we don’t even know about, much less understand.
Friendships complicate our faith and politics, but they also make us more like Jesus.