Last week we had the privilege of hearing the legendary folk singer and human rights campaigner Joan Baez at the Royal Albert Hall. At 77 she has said this will be a farewell tour. Please let it not be so, but if it is then she left us with much to ponder. Always seeking a campaign she dedicated The Times they are a-Changing to the students in Florida who are leading the campaign for gun control. She had written a new song recalling Barack Obama singing Amazing Grace at the memorial for those killed in a Charleston church shooting – ‘because no other words could be found’.
The song that lingers longest is an old one, Deportee. Written 70 years ago by Woody Guthrie, it tells the story of the Los Gatos plane crash which killed 28 fruit pickers as they headed home to Mexico. Some of the pickers were alleged illegal workers. In the news reports these victims were simply referred to as ‘Deportees’ whereas the 4 American staff on the plan were all named.
The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, ‘They are just deportees’
It is shocking how easily we dehumanise people not just 70 years ago but now.
The story of Deportee has a recent twist. The writer Tim Z Hernandez set out to find out who the 28 victims were and to tell each of their stories in his book ‘All They Will Call You’. His work has restored a measure of public dignity to the deceased.
In today’s Confirmation Service Bishop Adrian will address the candidates individually and remind them that ‘God calls you by name’. To God we are not anonymous struggling believers. We are named with all our individual flaws and needs and doubts understood and taken in hand. If he can do that for the whole human race, surely we can do better and properly acknowledge the relatively tiny number of people we encounter.