Angels Unawares revisited: On immigrants, refugees, and America’s original sins

Unveiling of ‘Angels Unawares’ in front of the Basilica Sunday.

The Rev. Kelly Sherman-Conroy, a member of the Ogala Sioux Nation and an ordained ELCA pastor, doesn’t like to use the term “forced migration” when referring to how European settlers forced Indigenous peoples from their lands.

“For me that kind of tidies up the word ‘genocide,'” she said.

Sherman-Conroy made her comments Sunday to a crowd in front of the Basilica of St. Mary’s in Minneapolis. She spoke as part of the opening ceremony for the sculpture Angels Unawares. The massive sculpture depicts 140 different immigrants and refugees standing on a boat, packed shoulder to shoulder. They represent people from different backgrounds, nationalities, and historic eras.

“A mentality of scarcity and scapegoating has been at the heart of fears about ‘illegal immigration,’ which Angels Unawares seeks to overturn,” the Basilica’s website said.

The sculpture is a replica of one in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square. It’s on a U.S. tour and will be in front of the Basilica until the end of the month.

Also speaking was David Lawrence Grant, the descendant of enslaved people from Congo.

The ceremony centered Black and Indigenous voices, which is important. Yet there seemed to be a disconnect, too. Stories from current immigrants and refugees (such as those currently fleeing Central American violence) were missing. Sherman-Conroy’s and Grant’s stories are categorically different. Their families suffered from America’s original sins: Native American genocide and slavery.

The different narratives call for different community responses. We should be welcoming immigrants and refugees. We should be repenting and seeking repairs with the Indigenous and African American communities.

The Sunday event gave Sherman-Conroy and Grant the opportunity to share part of their family stories.

Grant said his Congolese ancestors were Catholic. The country itself had been Catholic for 100 years at the time of their capture. “They didn’t need somebody to come and convert them,” he said.

Those running the slave ships had no idea that some of the men below decks “had been choir boys, who had been altar boys, who knew the Catechism in Latin before arriving on these shores.”

Rev. Kelly Sherman-Conroy

Sherman-Conroy’ spoke about her grandmother, who was part of the Dakota exile from Minnesota following the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862.

After the war, the Dakota women, children and elders were forced onto a boat and taken to Crow Creek, South Dakota. Many children and elders died, lacking any help or aid, Sherman-Conroy said. They had no protection. The land was barren and desolate. They arrived too late in the season to plant anything.

Her grandmother endured “unspeakable loss, after loss, after loss, after loss,” Sherman-Conroy said. She moved again, ending up at the mouth of the Niobrara River in Nebraska.

Through many struggles, the community learned resilience and hospitality — hospitality for each other when they got none from those around them, she said.

Sherman-Conroy encouraged those attending to practice hospitality with Native peoples. And that means more than reading a Land Acknowledgement statement honoring the original Indigenous inhabitants.

“Use that Land Acknowledgement and make it a form of activism and do something more to repair and unite our communities and our peoples the way God intended us to be.”

I posted a story on Angels Unaware Saturday, and regret not getting comments from the Basilica first.

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to ask Johan van Parys, the Basilica’s Director of Liturgy and Sacred Arts Liturgy, about why Native and African Americans were on the boat, as they didn’t seem like immigrants or refugees.

Migration happens for different reasons, he said. Some people migrate on their own choice seeking opportunity. Others migrate because they are fleeing a war or natural disaster. A third group migrate because they’re forced to.

“Often when one migration happens, the people who already live there are impacted … and they are forced to migrate,” van Parys said. The Cherokee man in the sculpture “represents the people who were forced to walk the Trail of Tears, and see their land taken away.”

Tail of Tears map, 1836-1839. Image: Wikimedia Commons

It still doesn’t feel right to me to call Indigenous or enslaved Africans “immigrants” or “refugees.” The Indigenous people were already here. They were dispossessed of what they had. As for enslaved Africans, they certainly didn’t come here seeking refuge. It’s a stretch to call them migrants. As Sherman-Conroy said, the term “forced migration” tidies up the word “genocide.”

Most importantly, calling them immigrants or refugees distances this nation from our accountability to address historical and ongoing wrongs.

The connective tissue in repairing our communities is the healing power of stories. Listening to immigrants and refugees tell their personal stories humanizes them and breaks down stereotypes. Likewise with storytelling by Indigenous and African American people.

Angels Unawares represents many immigrant and refugee stories, from Europeans escaping the religious wars and Jews escaping Nazi Germany to Syrians fleeing a civil war and a Mexican immigrant seeking opportunities.

As van Parys sees it “you can’t tell one story without the other. We need to bring everybody together. … We need to listen to one another’s stories.”

As an example, van Parys talked about the dueling narratives around Father Hennepin’s “visit” to this area.

Hennepin, when you read his own biography, he writes how he was abducted by the Dakota and kept prisoner. When you read the Dakota story, … they say they hosted this European. They showed hospitality and welcomed him in their community and took him on a boat back to the settlers.

So we need to sit together and listen to one another’s story and get to the truth of all of this.

Johan van Parys

While stories are a powerful tool for healing, there’s an important question about whose stories get centered. There’s been a great imbalance in our national and local storytelling. That is changing slowly and grudgingly.

Painting of Father Hennepin “discovering” the Falls at St. Anthony used to hang in the Governor’s Conference Room.. Source: Wikimedia

Consider the controversy a few years back around the painting of Father Hennepin that hung in the Governor’s Conference Room, arguably the most prominent space in the Capitol.

The painting tells the story of the pending Christian dominance of this land (a.k.a. Manifest Destiny). Father Hennepin is in charge now. He’s standing above seated Native Americans and explorers, indicating authority. He’s extending a cross and naming the falls “St. Anthony,” as if the falls didn’t already have a Dakota name. A Native woman at right is half naked and carrying a heavy load, suggesting she is uncivilized, little more than a beast of burden.

During the Capitol renovation (2013-2017) Indigenous leaders and others asked state leaders to remove the Father Hennepin painting and other paintings that negatively portrayed Indigenous peoples. That request met with strong political pushback because it was challenging traditional stories.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference was among those arguing to leave the painting in place. It suggested that the state provide better interpretation of the art, instead of removing it. In 2016, it wrote the Capitol Art Subcommitee:

… we are deeply concerned that removing the Hennepin painting would create a symbolic precedent that important aspects of our State’s Christian history may be hidden because they affront the sensibilities of some within our community today.

Minnesota Catholic Conference

It’s a small example of how storytelling can get contentious. It can affect how we see ourselves and the decisions we make.

The painting was eventually relocated to a less prominent spot in the Capitol.

There is no comprehensive list of the 140 immigrants and refugees in Angels Unawares, van Parys said.

Even with 140 figures, the sculpture couldn’t include every immigrant and refugee story. The artist added an elderly man from an historic era and a young boy from the present day as stand-ins for all the stories that weren’t depicted.

The old man with a staff (left) and the young boy (right) represent stories not otherwise represented in the sculpture.

Some refugees flee their country because their sexual orientation makes them a target for violence. “Consensual same-sex conduct remains criminalized in 69 countries, and as many as 11 countries could impose the death penalty if convicted,” according to the Williams Institute, part of the UCLA School of Law. “… we estimate that 11,400 applications for asylum were filed in the United States on the basis of LGBT status between FY2012 to 2017.”

I emailed van Parys to ask if the sculpture represented refugees seeking asylum based on their sexual orientation.

He responded: “Timothy Schmalz was commissioned by Cardinal Czerny to create a work of art for St. Peter’s Square that would draw attention to the plight of all migrants without specifying who was included or excluded.”

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