In January 2017, I was in deep in wedding planning mode. We were trying to save money on a DJ and trying to make decisions on some truly mundane choices. Should “Don’t Stop Believing” be at the beginning to get people on the dance floor or at the end as a final send off? Who can I trust to operate an iPhone to play “Concerning Hobbits” as my fiancée walks down the aisle, who will know how to fade out the volume at the correct time?
While I faced these choices, Hossein Vayeghan, a middle-aged Iranian-American man, was waiting at LAX for his brother Ali, a green card holder. Hossein was waiting for a few hours, told that sometimes it takes a while to clear customs. Trump’s Muslim Ban had gone into effect overnight, and Ali never made it through the gates. He was deported back to Iran after being held overnight without food or water and was threatened that if he did not sign his green card away, he would be banned from the US forever. Hossein continued to wait.
While trying to figure how many minutes I should cut off the end of Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” I saw a video of Hossein in tears, asking why was this happening in America when the reason he fled Iran to avoid being treated in such a cruel way by the government. I was trying to figure out who would be mad if I cut off the guest list at first cousins, while this man had no idea if he was going to see his brother again. I’m not sure what happened but something broke inside of me then, and that breakdown destroyed any motivation to wrestle with song choices or arrange seating charts.
Hossein’s situation wasn’t unique and across the country there were husbands waiting for wives, wives waiting for husbands, and children waiting for their parents. I was deep in despair, but I was also inspired by the spontaneous gatherings at airports, along with the lawyers holding up large “Free Legal Help” signs for anyone else separated from their loved ones. Feeling like I had to be a part of that, my fiancée and I joined the protest at LAX that weekend, and were amazed that the hundreds of protesters the day before had grown to thousands. I think many people expect to see anger at protests, because that’s why you’d think people go to a protest, right? But that’s not what I saw at LAX or at any of the other airports. What I saw was an outpouring of love. I saw that love in the protesters cheering when someone was released and in the tired faces of the lawyers, many of whom had been there for days. The images brought me to tears.
My motivation to continue wedding planning never really returned, even though all the addresses had been gathered and the invitations were sitting in a box in the closet. About a week passed before I nervously broached an idea with my amazing fiancée (spoiler: now wife). With her approval, our 100-person wedding was changed completely to a courthouse ceremony and the remainder of our budget was allocated to the ACLU, which was representing the Ali and other families, and other organizations that were serving those most marginalized.
It’s been two years, but I think I understand now what caused my breakdown. At LAX, there was someone holding a sign that said “I am not a terrorist,” and I was reminded of the iconic “I AM AN AMERICAN” banner that a Japanese-American grocery store owner hung in front of his office after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in WWII. That didn’t protect him and he was sent to an internment camp, nor did it protect my family from being sent to camps in the desert of Arizona.
I was finally able to make that connection and when I watched the video of Hossein Vayeghan waiting, I saw myself in his face. I saw myself in the face of his brother when they tearfully reunited because of the nationwide protests and the court’s forcing a temporary stop to the Muslim ban. To me, it wasn’t foreign nationals they were trying to keep out, it was my great grandfather, who arrived in 1906, that they were trying to keep out. It wasn’t just racist fear mongering against Muslims, but rather against my very own family, like what happened during WWII.
I came to Christianity later in my life, but I don’t think I ever truly understood the second great commandment of Jesus, to love your neighbor as yourself. I think I understood it in theory, but not what it really meant. I only got a glimpse of it from Hossein and his family, and even that was only possible because the xenophobia and fear that led to the Muslim ban were the same emotions that sent my family to internment camps.
It shouldn’t have taken my own family history to provoke such a deep reaction. My faith should have been enough, but it wasn’t. It fills me with a deep sense of shame that my actual love for others barely extended to my immediate friends and family. I am only starting to realize that my faith is rooted in a love that requires far more from me. Sometimes that means feeling pain and despair on behalf of people I don’t know. Sometimes it means showing up for a protest or knocking on doors for an issue or candidate. But that’s okay, a faith that demands that kind of love and connection is one that I’m willing to follow. I’ve only just started on this path, but it finally feels like the right one.