Singing “Amazing Grace” in English

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on April 23, 2007.

I used to speak Spanish.

In high school I was an exchange student in the Dominican Republic, where I learned to dance merengue, drink rum, and talk baseball with an Antillean accent. In college I worked with Salvadoran refugees in San Francisco’s Mission District and I read un-translated Latin American poetry for fun. As a clergyman, I helped to draft the bilingual rules of cooperation between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico.

But today the language of Sammy Sosa and Sor Juana Ynez de la Cruz doesn’t come as easily to me as once it did. I could still fend for myself on the streets of Tegucigalpa, but I’ve lost some of the eloquence and much of the vocabulary that I used to possess.

What’s weird about the atrophy of my Spanish fluency is that I live in East San Jose, across the street from Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. Cesar Chavez grew up around the corner from my house. Most of the nearby businesses cater to Spanish language speakers. The neighborhood tacos are proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

My neighbors are mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America. They speak Spanish at home, and often at work, but usually they speak English to me because they really want to learn English. Even back in the day when I was new to the barrio and my Spanish was better, people spoke to me in my mother tongue. I’m a native English speaker, and they wanted to practice the language of their new home. So now my Spanish sits mostly unused in the back of by brain, slowly slipping into a fog of forgetfulness. I may end up having to visit Paraguay if I want to re-learn Spanish.

Americans are talking a lot about immigration these days, and the discussions often turn with alarm to concerns about people coming north from Latin America and refusing to learn English. The fear is that an influx of non-English speakers will create in American a national house divided against itself, unable to stand.

This is an issue with very real consequences. Our fears around immigration are causing Americans to behave irrationally. For example, we’re spending a lot of good money to build a system of walls and fences out in the deserts along our southern border despite the fact that a brief tour of the history of walls—from China’s Great Wall to Berlin’s now demolished one—will demonstrate that walls don’t do much good. Any wall that can be built can be breached.

Some foes of immigration have suggested that the children of undocumented immigrants be denied access to government funded health care and to public education (in the nineties, voters in California actually approved such restrictions, in a referendum whose results were thrown out by the courts), as if making room for the children of undocumented immigrants in schools and clinics is less attractive than living alongside large populations of unattended, uneducated, and unhealthy children.

If, as a nation, the United States is going to enact sound and reasonable immigration policies, American citizens need to conquer our fears around what may happen to our society as the immigrant population swells, and we need to face what is true.  The truth is that immigrants are learning English. Anyone who is afraid that the English language might become a relic of the past, like some curiosity on display at the Smithsonian, should come to East San Jose, to eat a few tacos and to meet the locals. Such a visitor will certainly find some folks who lack the motivation necessary to learn English—there are freeloaders and chronic loafers in every neighborhood—but most of my friends and neighbors, when they’re not working their fingers to the bone trying to provide for their families and to build a life that integrates into American society, are doing their level best to learn English.

Just last week, I was part of a small, ecumenical group of clergy who gathered for a short liturgy of prayer for healing at the site of a gang-related murder a few blocks from my home. While we were praying together an elderly and slightly eccentric woman, bent, disheveled, and several teeth short of a full smile, walked up to our group. In Spanish, she asked what was going on, and when we told her, she asked for a copy of the liturgy. Not caring that the liturgy was in English, she followed the prayers, and when it came time to close the service by singing “Amazing Grace,” she joined us, struggling to pronounce words like “wretch” and “’twas,” but managing to join us in that most American of hymns.

It was a beautiful reflection of an hospitable America, and a reminder of just how extensive is the desire of immigrants to learn English.

This is reason for hope.

17 thoughts on “Singing “Amazing Grace” in English

  1. Thanks, Ben, for another beautiful reflection on your experiences working with the hispanic community. “Amazing Grace” does seem to be a true American hymn, as you said.
    It’s an easy tune that can be hummed along and have an emotional impact even without sing the words.

    Have you seen the movie, “Amazing Grace,” about the man in England who introduced Legislation to discontinue slavery?
    We haven’t yet, but I want to, so will probably have to wait for it to come out in DVD.

    Tomorrow I go in for knee replacement, so I won’t have access to the Left Coast Lion’s Den for a while, but I’ll catch up when I get home in about 10 days.

    Keep up the great work you are doing!

  2. Thanks for recognizing that so many Latin American immigrants do speak English (many of whom learned English in public schools, which, I might add, are still free and available to non-citizens).

    ¡Necesitamos platicar juntos para practicar el español!

    AMM

  3. A good and thoughtful commentary, Ben. Amazing Grace always reminds me to be humble and brings a tear to my eye. The great strength of America is that we are the “Melting Pot,” assimilating the valuable contributions of our new citizens as they are assimilated into our national culture.

    Randy

  4. Several years ago I was the CVO of a large not-for-profit that provided family and youth activities. In our effort to reach out to the spanish speaking community we set goals for minority hiring and employment. I sought to hire a bilingual executive for our east San Jose facility. Many qualified people with latino or hispanic surnames applied…but none spoke spanish.
    These were second and third generation individuals that opined that to speak english in the USA was necessary…but not spanish.
    Your commentary is right on!

  5. Judy, you are in my prayers today. I hope the surgery goes well.

    Anna, maybe when we meet for lunch we could translate Octavio Paz or something, and keep up the good work at school (by the way, I boasted about you on this website, but by the time my post was up, the link to the video staring you was down. Oh well) Everyone else: Anna is my sister who teaches in a succesful inner city school. Give her a hand.

    Randy, thanks. Amazing Grace is an interesting hymn because while it is THE American hymn, it is an import from England, (though the tune we use is American in origin). Probably says something about what it means to be American.

    H.N., I love your post. That is a perfect addition to my column!

    So yesterday, a woman in the housing complex where I live and am the president of the Homeowners’ Association, came needing my help. Her key was stuck in the front gate’s lock. She is a stay at home mom, raising three kids while her husband works swing shift. She hardly speaks a word of English and she knows I speak a bit of Spanish, but when she came for help she only wanted to speak in English. It was hard: words like “door knob” and “key hole” and “twist” and “stuck” are not ones that are taught in basic language proficiency courses. We ended up doing our business in Spanish, but only after she gave it her best shot in English.

    Ben

  6. Bill,

    Thanks for the post. I’m glad to have a conservative voice in the Lion’s Den. There is a lot about which you and I disagree when it comes to immigration, I’m interested to note that you don’t take issue with my main point, that being that immigrants–legal and otherwise–are, in fact, learning English.

    I’m not enough of an activist on this issue to know for sure, but there may actually be a diference between an “illegal” and an “uncocumented” alien/migrant, that being that while all undocumented migrants are illegal, not all illegal residents are undocumented. A huge number of illegal immigrants enter the country legally but overstay their visas. They are, therefore both documented and illegal. Many immigrants from Mexico and Central Ameria have no visa and often no passport. In that situation “undocumented” is probably a helpful distinction that is more than mere political correctness.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  7. Ben,

    No question, the parsing of terms can reach to incredible slivers of exactitude. My sense is, legally, you are the citizen of a country, or you are not — in which case you are an alien, under law, in most lands on this planet. You may be a legal resident alien (with “documents”) or an illegal alien — but you are an alien, nevertheless.

    Now, as to documentation: documented aliens are those who are here legally for extended periods on H1B visas, student visas, whatever. If you have overstayed your legallay allowable time — say, you had a student visa and just never went bakc home — then you in effect have no “documents” under law, but are in fact an illegal alien.

    And politically correct terms such as “undocumented immigrant” may make some more comfortable, but it also hides an unpleasant fact. I find it much better to deal with facts as they are than to obfuscate them under some dissimulating guise.

    As to your main point: I certainly agree that immigrants are learning English, or at least showing up in class. But I question whether they are doing so in the high percentages of decades past, when they did not have the crutch of a few hours’ drive to Mexico, a few hours’ flight to Asia/the Indian subcontinent, or literally hundreds of cable or satellite TV channels that include broadcasts in their native languages.

    Bill

  8. I know this is a bit beside the point…. but Amazing Grace was written by an Englishman 🙂

  9. Oh, and as far as the movie “Amazing Grace” is concerned (I saw it was mentioned above); it is not precisely about immigration, but it is a lovely, somewhat fictionalized account of the life of William Wilberforce, the real-life crusader against the injust and inhumane slave trade in Britain. My father, my boyfriend, and I went to watch it together on one rainy, sleety, mucky, horrible no good very bad day this march, and it was truly moving. Interestingly, William struggles between two careers: his dream of parish ministry and the more public ministry of politics. Ultimately, he heeds the advice of his good anglican priestly friend (who incidentally is the reformed-slave-ship-trader turned priest that penned Amazing Grace itself) and changes the world with his crusade to legally put a stop to British slave ships.

    I find it interesting that he is torn between making a difference as a pastor and as a politician…. it is hard to see the similarities between the two, especially considering all that goes into getting elected and staying in office these days, but I like to imagine that perhaps there are some good ministers out there in the political world. I would hope too, that as ministers we might also participate in the common good that William dreams of and ultimately succeeds in doing.

  10. Sarah,

    Good to hear from you. I should see the movie. Sounds like a familiar struggle! Actually, I have the book from which the movie was made, but it has yet to be opened.

    The words to Amazing Grace are, indeed, imported. This is true for a lot of great American icons. But the music is American, frist publshed in Virginia Harmony in 1831.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  11. My friend and fellow exchange student to the Dominican Republic, Tom Luschei, sent me an email with the following thoughts:

    This reminds me of Lalo [Lalo is the son of the abovementioned stay at home mom who needed my help with her key] telling us he didn’t speak Spanish. And then when we asked if he spoke English, he said “Hiiiijole!” Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, it drives me crazy when opponents of bilingual ed say the kids will never learn English. The kids ALWAYS learn the language. The older folks have a lot harder time, but they try. Witness my mother-in-law: she’s been here since the early 70s and is still taking English classes at the local high school.

    And Tom knows from bilingual education. For many years he taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District, his wife, Yasmin, is a briliant bilingual ed teacher, and now, having earned a PhD in comparative international education policy from Stanford Tom is a professor of comparative international education policy at Florida State.  When we talk about immigration and education, we need to listen to people like Tom.

  12. In a post I was unable to rescue form the spam bin on my web program, Bill wrote:

    Ben,

    No question, the parsing of terms can reach to incredible slivers of exactitude. My sense is, legally, you are the citizen of a country, or you are not — in which case you are an alien, under law, in most lands on this planet. You may be a legal resident alien (with “documents”) or an illegal alien — but you are an alien, nevertheless.

    Now, as to documentation: documented aliens are those who are here legally for extended periods on H1B visas, student visas, whatever. If you have overstayed your legallay allowable time — say, you had a student visa and just never went bakc home — then you in effect have no “documents” under law, but are in fact an illegal alien.

    And politically correct terms such as “undocumented immigrant” may make some more comfortable, but it also hides an unpleasant fact. I find it much better to deal with facts as they are than to obfuscate them under some dissimulating guise.

    As to your main point: I certainly agree that immigrants are learning English, or at least showing up in class. But I question whether they are doing so in the high percentages of decades past, when they did not have the crutch of a few hours’ drive to Mexico, a few hours’ flight to Asia/the Indian subcontinent, or literally hundreds of cable or satellite TV channels that include broadcasts in their native languages.

    Bill

  13. Bill,

    Let me tell you why I like “undocumented immigrant” better than “illegal alien.”

    “Undocumented” because it’s precise about the kind of law which is being broken by said migrants, and “immigrant” because “alien” is a word with more meanings and is therefore less precise than is “immigrant.” Besides, the people aren’t illegal, it is their presence in the country that is illegal. Calling someone an illegal alien makes it sound like it is their foreigness that is illegal, which isn’t the case.

    To me it seems linguistically correct to use the term “undocumented immigrant.” I don’t know if it is Politically Correct or not. I suspect it once was, but these days I’m beginning feel like political incorrectness is the new political correctness.

    You may be right about communication and transporation being a hinderance to language learning, but the same forces that provide my neighbors with Univision and directs flights from San Jose to Guadalajara also give them exposure to MTV and allow them to drive down to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for the day. A hundred years ago the immigrant communities were much more insulated. Or so it seems to me.

    Ben

  14. Ben, What a vibrant and interesting neighborhood you live in! I loved hearing you talk about it and agree, good tacos are sent right from God.

    And I was so interested to hear your experiences with Spanish and English speaking. My three sons have all gone to bilingual schools –the youngest is in a Spanish immersion program and is fluent in Spanish. The two older ones went to French school until middle school. What I love about bilingual education is that it teaches children how easy it is to pick up another language, and to be brave about trying it out. Spanish and French are just the beginning in my view. I do think that when you speak someone’s language, you tell them you have more that unites you than separates you. And that’s such a good thing and one of the reasons it’s terribly important to point out how quickly people who come to the United States acquire English.

    The interesting thing about bilingual schools in the United States is that although the language of instruction is Spanish and French, the language of the playground has always been English — except when the children play soccer and then, in all the excitement, you hear a lot of yelling that’s in Spanish, possibly because the language of soccer just is Spanish, and always will be!

  15. BlogLily!

    Thank you for dropping by bendaniel.org. It’s good to hear from you.

    I love your comment about soccer. I agree. It’s a sport that works better in romance languages. I played goalie in highschool, but I always felt better as el portero.

    We almost put our eldest daughter in a dual-immersion school, and sometimes I wish we had. I think its a great idea, because the power of English is quite strong. I was hoping that our kids would learn Spanish by playing with the neighbors, but you’re right: they just speak English. Even the kids who speak Spanish at home speak English to one another out in the yard.

    Making reference to a discussion on your blog, I suspect your son’s ability to speak Spanish helps him as a writer of English pros, suarewords and all.

    ¡Viva los tacos de dios!

    Ben

  16. I am a perpetual Spanish student, because my mother neglected her native tongue when she came to the USA from Spain. She was one of 11 siblings of a large Hispanic family that settled in San Jose, Morgan Hill and finally Hollister. They all worked the fields of San Benito and Monterey counties. My mom could read and write and add and subtract enough to fool me about her lack of education. She only had two years of formal study at the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Hollister. When asked about her schooling, she would say it was the second and third grade. Spanish was the only language spoken in her family and in the fields, but she learned early that the prevailing culture looked down on Spanish speakers. She determined to only speak English. By the time I came along, she had left her Spanish in the closet.

    When I started high-school, I signed up for Spanish I. Soon I was trying to impress her with my study of her native language. But she seemed disappointed with my efforts. She told me I wasn’t speaking Spanish; she identified my efforts as “Mexican.” After four years of Spanish at Castlemont High School in East Oakland, I was not able to coherently order a taco. Later in life when I was the Missions pastor at a Presbyterian Church at the Mexican border, I found it necessary to head back to Adult School and the local Community College. to try again with the illusive Spanish. At this time I needed it to speak with the Mexican Children at the Casa de la Esperanza, the Presbyterian Orphanage in nearby Tijuana, Mexico. I spent the next ten years doing various short-term immersion courses in Mexico, Central America and Spain. I now can order a taco.

    My life would have been a lot easier if my mother had been encouraged to speak Spanish in our homes. But, oh no, the gringos had their way. She was convinced that she would never truly be an American, if she spoke her native tongue. And sadly, she was convinced that her son would never get ahead if he was viewed as being, an alien.

  17. Ronn,

    Thanks for the post. You tell a compelling story about why people should learn English without giving up on their mother tongues. Everyone should speak at least two languages whenever possible. This is why bi-lingual and dual-emersion language programs are so good for children. It’s also why I hope my kids pick up on some Spanish from our neighbors. But, of course, none of the kids will speak Spanish to them. Too bad.

    Best,

    Ben

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