The missing narrative in ‘Angels Unawares’

Native Americans and enslaved Africans included in the sculpture were neither immigrants nor refugees

Angels Unaware, with sculptor Timothy Schmalz. Photo: Screen shot of the Angels Unawares website.

On Friday, the sculpture “Angels Unawares” arrived in front of the Minneapolis Basilica of St. Mary, an effort to call attention to both the suffering and sacredness of immigrants and refugees and the importance of welcoming them with an open heart.

The statue is a replica of one commissioned by Pope Francis, installed in St. Peter’s Square in Rome in 2019. It was the first new sculpture in the Square in 400 years. A replica statue is on a U.S. tour; previous stops included Boston and Miami.

The sculpture includes 140 immigrants and refugees crowded on a boat, representing different cultures from different historical times. Its 140 figures echo the 140 statues of saints on St. Peter’s Square.

I’ve been updating this blog since I posted it. I want to acknowledge up front the good intentions behind this project. During a time of anti-immigrant sentiment, the sculpture brings an important message of tolerance and compassion. It encourages empathy instead of hostility towards more recent immigrants and refugees, such as Somali, Hmong, Mexican and Central American people. Kudos for that.

At the same time, the sculpture includes a Native American and enslaved Africans on a boat full of immigrants and refugees, suggesting some commonality. There is little if any commonality.

I worry this is too preachy, but I also want to be direct: At a time when faith communities are wrestling with racial justice and truth telling, this sculpture miscasts the Native American and enslaved African experiences. By including them as just two narratives in a boatload of immigration stories, it ignores their unique experiences and arguments for reparations that are now gaining steam.

The sculpture was under a tarp Saturday afternoon. The public unveiling is Sunday

The Basilica will host the public unveiling of the sculpture at an opening ceremony Sunday at 10:30 a.m., followed by an opening celebration at 3 p.m. and a webinar panel discussion Tuesday, Aug. 17, at 7 p.m.

The sculpture’s U.S. tour is supposed to be “a clarion call to view migration from a Christian perspective,” the Vatican News said.

I searched but didn’t find a comprehensive list of all the people represented on the boat. I reviewed at least a half dozen articles. Those on the boat include “a Jew fleeing Nazi Germany, a Syrian … [fleeing] the Syrian civil war, and a Pole escaping the communist regime,” Wikipedia said.

They include Chinese laborers, Europeans escaping the religious wars, and Vietnamese boat people, NPR reported.

They include a boy fleeing the Irish Famine as well as Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, a Reuters story said.

(Absent were references to figures that represent Latin American or Central American refugees who have been arriving at the U.S. border. I’m going to the unveiling tomorrow. I will ask and update the blog.)

A quick peak under the tarp at the Basilica.

Figures on the boat also include an African family forced into slavery and a member of the Cherokee Nation on the Trail of Tears.

This seems problematic. I wouldn’t include Native Americans or enslaved Africans in the same boat as immigrants and refugees who came to America. Immigrants and refugees either chose to leave their homes in the hopes of a better life, or they fled fearing for their lives.

Enslaved Africans did not choose to leave their homes for better opportunities. They were most likely relatively content in their homeland, then captured like animals, forced to the coast, forced onto boats, brutalized in transit, and brutalized as slaves. When they arrived on boats, they were not surrounded by a mix of other immigrants from different backgrounds, they were packed in tight with other enslaved black bodies.

It doesn’t make sense to call Native Americans immigrants or refugees, either. They didn’t get on a boat to come here for better opportunities because they were already here. They were persecuted in their own land with nowhere to go. Their lands were stolen. Many efforts were made to enslave, convert, assimilate, and/or kill them. Here in Minnesota in the 1860s we put bounties on Dakota scalps.

Another of the project’s goals is to spark conversations around family history and stories of migration to make immigration personal. It’s clear from the project’s conversation prompts that Native Americans and descendants of enslaved African Americans don’t fit into the immigrant and refugee narrative.

Sign outside the Basilica.

How is a Native American supposed to answer the question: Why did you and your ancestors migrate? (Note: They did not migrate.)

How is an African descended from slaves supposed to answer the question: What stories do you know about your family’s migration to the U.S.? (For starters, they wouldn’t call it migration.)

We shouldn’t conflate the experiences of Native American and descendants of African slaves with those of immigrants and refugees.

As a side note, the Native American figure in the boat was an afterthought. It wasn’t in the original design and Schmalz added after someone asked about the missing Native presence. “He changed one of his five Jewish figures into a Cherokee,” he said.

The sculpture’s title “Angeles Unawares” is taken from the Bible:

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Hebrews 13:2

The sculpture’s title is ironic. Many of the early refugees and immigrants that came to the 13 Colonies and later the United States were initially “unawares” of the incredible harm they would be doing to Indigenous peoples. Some came from Europe responding to ads promising free land without knowing how the land was acquired.

We don’t have the excuse of ignorance today. We know the harms and have known them for a long time.

The Christian Churches have played a major role in the Native American genocide, including boarding schools. A number of Christian churches supported slavery at some point in their history.

Now is the time for repair.

4 thoughts on “The missing narrative in ‘Angels Unawares’

  1. Migration is different than immigration, American Indians have migrated. Ojibwe story of migrating from the East to the Great Lakes is one example. American Indians were forced into migration many times, Trail of Tears is one example and forced migration on to reservations is another we need to know the history, we need greater understanding of the trauma and aid in healing, hopefully to develop counter-colonial acts in the future. Many experienced forced migration to the Western Hemisphere especially through slavery, bond-servitude, and violence. Forced migration happened among American Indian tribal groups, and our southern American Indians; Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, have been forced to migrate here some for a better life, but more to flee persecution because of oppression of the indigenous population.


    • While that is true, as they pointed out, the Basicalla’s questions show that wasn’t the focus. As such:

      “By including them as just two narratives in a boatload of immigration stories, it ignores their unique experiences and arguments for reparations that are now gaining steam.”


  2. Your critique is spot on. I’m wondering when the Vatican will denounce the Doctrine of Discovery or repent its role in the slave trade.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s