I have never been to Nacogdoches, Texas.
But a good friend of mine told me about living there in 1970, when he was in the 7th grade. When the public schools were ordered to integrate.
He told me about the gymnasium that all of the public-school children in town came to attend. It had a sign inside the front door dedicating the building to the “white children of Nacogdoches.”
A memory that is a powerful foundation to the story of Sheila.
Nacogdoches is the oldest town in the Lone Star state, home to the state’s largest azalea garden, and it is where Sheila grew up. In a community, as she put it, “conservative, mostly white.”
Since I can’t travel these days, and my dog’s expertise is limited to tracking squirrel migration, I asked our team for introductions to courageous new leaders. Which is how I met Sheila.
She told me immigration didn’t come up in her life till the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. By which time she had moved to the Ft. Worth region — where, “you’re not supposed to question,” the politics of the moment.
The Syrian refugee crisis felt far away. Until the 2016 election kicked into high gear and politicians demagogued the issue. “At that time, it sounded kind of off to me,” so Sheila turned to the Christian-based resettlement organization, World Relief. “After doing all this reading,” she realized, “These are really vulnerable people who are being lied about. I felt a need to do something about this other than just being mad about it.”
She started volunteering at the local World Relief office.
But, as she looked at her social network, she would ask, “Am I crazy? Why are so many people not seeing that this is a humanitarian issue?”
Soon, Women of Welcome, a, “community of Christian women who desire to learn and engage tangibly in Biblical hospitality towards the sojourner,” appeared on her Facebook feed.
For Sheila, Women of Welcome was, “So relatable to me … Kind of a relief.”
Now she had access to timely immigration information conveyed by Welcome’s director, Bri Stensrud. Or, opportunities to take action from Tess Clarke and We Welcome Refugees. She was part of a community that had the same values, the same questions.
(Side note: We Welcome Refugees, has added over 3,500 Instagram followers in the past few weeks alone.)
Along the way, something far more important happened to Sheila.
But, first, a brief step back.
Professional advocates — for issues, candidates, or otherwise — are not normal people. They are comfortable putting their name and opinions into the public sphere. Because that is what their social network does. And, for the most part, they are part of networks that share their opinions. Because, let’s be honest, very few of them are really trying to change someone’s mind. Most are trying to mobilize a base that already existed.
Which is very different from what Sheila finds herself doing.
Now, Sheila, with the help of Tess, Bri and many others, is trying to change minds. Trying to create a new base of support for immigrants and refugees.
Sheila, as she told me, remains a “non-confrontational person.” But, as she is, “Getting more information and a sense of camaraderie from the group,” Sheila has been more vocal on social media, posting content, blogging.
“How does this make you feel?,” I asked. “Are you worried about blowback from your friends?”
Sheila feels her increased activity is, “Starting to bear some fruit. There have been 2–3 people where I have noticed a shift. And, even if one person appreciates it, there might be more.”
In order to protect DACA recipients from a renewed effort by the Trump administration to rescind the program, she has already partnered with some in the Women of Welcome group to submit comments to the White House and is ready to push Senators for a legislative solution.
Which is indicative of a larger trend.
Last week’s Fox News poll found that Trump is underperforming white evangelical Christians and rural voters, by 23 and 18 points from his 2016 levels, respectively. And, according to Politico, Trump allies are worried about Biden’s rising evangelical support.
In 2016, Sheila, a member of this community, voted third party, “Mainly because of the abortion issue.”
But, now, she feels, “A little freer from that mentality that voting for a Democrat is irreconcilable with being a Christian. I feel a little more able to embrace the nuance that neither party is going to fully affirm my beliefs.”
Sheila and her family are amazing people. They have adopted internationally. And, “Working with refugees has become part of our normal routine.”
These are individual acts of grace. That stop just short of advocating for systemic change.
Yet, when Sheila ‘likes’ a post that challenges the norms of her social network, when she shares content that asks her friends to think differently, it is no longer an individual act of grace.
Rooted in her faith and culture, Sheila’s advocacy is a challenge to friends, family, peers. A call for systemic change that goes beyond individual acts of grace.
“I finally reached that point, for me, that it is a matter of faith. This work glorifies God. I have to worry about what offends Him. So, I should be more worried about that, than blowback.”
I have a feeling Nacogdoches would be proud.