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Rhonda Mawhood Lee: The privileges of citizenship

Standing on the concrete island in act of civil disobedience, an Episcopal priest felt strangely at home. On this Fourth of July, she reflects on why she became a U.S. citizen: to use the benefits of earthly citizenship in the service of God's kingdom.

Photo by Photosmash / iStock

July 2, 2013

The wind whipped across the narrow concrete median that divides U.S. Highway 15-501’s six lanes of traffic between Durham and Chapel Hill, N.C.

As cars sped by, I strolled back and forth, tightening my fluorescent orange safety vest, adjusting my clerical collar and clutching a cardboard sign that asked, in black handwritten letters, “Spare some change?”

It was Monday in Holy Week 2013, and I had added a new activity to the week’s intense schedule of prayer and liturgy: panhandling in direct violation of a city ordinance.

At every corner of the intersection, Christian clergy and laypeople -- my partners in civil disobedience -- stood with their own signs:

“Will work for change.”

“I was hungry and you fined me -- Matthew 25?”

And simply, “Please help.”

At the side of the highway, a couple of dozen supporters held a banner declaring, “Repeal Ordinance 14375,” the Durham law banning public begging at virtually all roadsides.

As I stood on that concrete island, I felt strangely at home. This was why I had become a U.S. citizen: to use the benefits that earthly citizenship confers in the service of my citizenship in God’s kingdom.

For me, a Canadian, becoming a naturalized citizen in 2009 brought many advantages. I could vote. I had access to all public services. I no longer had to inform the government every time I changed addresses. I didn’t even have to renounce my Canadian citizenship.

But the most important benefit I gained was one I’ve never seen mentioned in a government brochure: the freedom to engage in civil disobedience.

I had lived in the United States for years before I applied for citizenship. A spate of legislation directed at undocumented immigrants in Arizona and elsewhere had finally given me the push I needed to fill out the paperwork, pay the fee and take the oath of allegiance.

As I’d listened to news reports about a bill in Arizona that would make it a crime to assist “illegal aliens” in any way, I had wondered, “What would I do if North Carolina ever passed such a law? How would I respond?”

Jesus Christ calls his disciples to do corporal works of mercy like feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty and sheltering the homeless. He never mentioned asking for papers first. But as a noncitizen, I could have been deported if I broke the law.

Delaying citizenship any longer seemed a luxury that, as a Christian, I could not afford. I was convicted by what Howard Thurman wrote in “Jesus and the Disinherited,” his 1949 classic that provided some of the theological foundation for the civil rights movement.

Thurman argued that as far as the Roman Empire was concerned, the basic difference between Jesus and the apostle Paul was that Jesus was just another poor Jew in occupied Palestine, while Paul enjoyed the benefits of citizenship.

“It is to the credit of the amazing power of Jesus Christ over the life of Paul that there is only one recorded instance in which he used his privilege,” Thurman noted.

The undocumented immigrants in Arizona and elsewhere were -- and still are -- some of the most vulnerable people on American soil. And although I enjoyed the advantages that came with permanent resident status, I felt a deep solidarity with them.

I too was an immigrant, and Thurman’s insights haunted me. I resolved to gain U.S. citizenship so that when and if necessary, I could use its protections to become vulnerable on behalf of my neighbors. Ironically, my desire to witness to God’s reign led me to declare my allegiance to the United States.

I take seriously the duty of citizens to respect the law, and I haven’t sought opportunities to break it. In fact, the roadside begging last March has been my only act of civil disobedience in four years as a citizen.

Obviously, a busy highway in Durham in Holy Week 2013 is not the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965. But even that small act of disobedience taught me some valuable lessons and confirmed what I had already learned from Thurman and others.

Willfully disobeying a law in the hopes of accomplishing some kind of desired change is not a spontaneous and isolated act but the product of intense and thoughtful deliberation.

For me, the law against panhandling struck close to home. Some of my friends -- people who are homeless or who could lose their housing at any time -- depend on gifts from strangers for part of their livelihood. As a parish priest, I too depend on alms for my living. I hoped that breaking the city ordinance would be a visible sign of our shared dependence on God’s love.

I knew that if I was going to do that, I had to follow Jesus’ example of nonviolence. That meant being grounded in prayer.

It’s not hard for me to refrain from physical violence. As a Christian, I reject it, and as a middle-aged, middle-class woman, I’ve been conditioned against it. But avoiding violent speech and thought is a daily discipline for me, one that only prayer makes possible.

It’s easy to demonize those with whom I disagree, and to assume the evil intentions of people who hurt me or my loved ones. But that’s not the way of Jesus. My companions in the protest knew that as well as I did. Some had protested peacefully in such places as Hebron in the occupied West Bank and Central Prison in Raleigh, where North Carolina’s death row is located.

So before breaking the law, our group prayed -- a lot. Prayer is the foundation for the dialogue and negotiations that must precede civil disobedience.

We wrote and called our City Council members. We held a public meeting to listen to people affected by the new ordinance, who generously shared their stories. We met with city officials, seeking common ground, listening to their concerns about the safety of panhandlers on busy roads and expressing our own desire that poverty not be criminalized.

As an Episcopal priest, I consulted my bishop. And when the time came to break the law, we notified the council, the police and the media of our plans.

My time on the median yielded many gifts, although not the ticket I had hoped for. Generous people offered me a few dollars or some coins, or accepted the informational flier I held out.

Others acknowledged my presence with a nod or a wave. Some sat staring straight ahead, not meeting my gaze. I understood: I have days when I just want to be left alone, when engaging with a needy stranger seems overwhelming.

Knowing that about myself made me more grateful for the forbearance of Billy, the man who usually walks that median in the evenings. He agreed to share it with our group for an hour, and gracefully accepted the gifts we collected.

Unlike Billy, however, we protestors received only a warning from the police instead of the citations and heavy fines that he and other panhandling neighbors were receiving daily. We were denied the opportunity we had sought to renounce our privileges, even for a short time, and stand with them in court as fellow defendants.

But the persistence of Durham citizens like Billy, and our support, did pay off. The Durham City Council and a team of community advisers are rewriting the law so that panhandling will no longer be a crime.

This Fourth of July, I will celebrate that change -- and I will ponder anew the privileges and advantages of citizenship.

As an American, I’ll enjoy a day off, grill with friends and admire the fireworks that will light up the sky.

As a Christian, I’ll try to remember that the benefits of my earthly citizenship are tools to be used -- and, when necessary, privileges to be renounced -- in service to God’s present and future kingdom.