Stories of immigration

Church moderator relates to immigrants

She holds a doctorate in ministry, and a master’s degree in religion, but those weren’t the parts of her education that Dr. Elizabeth Soto Albrecht shared Feb. 4 at Bluffton University.

Instead, the moderator of Mennonite Church USA went back to elementary school in Chicago—where her family had moved from Puerto Rico—and what she called a “stolen” educational foundation.

“All I learned in kindergarten was to write my name,” she recalled, and the years were “a blur” through fifth grade. She reached that point without knowing how to read and write, Albrecht told a Bluffton forum audience, blaming “social promotion” but also a system that put her and Latino classmates in the back of the room.

The United States has left many immigrant children behind, she said, pointing out that, as a result, “you are always struggling” to catch up. Given its long history with immigrants, the country should know better, she maintained, but it “still doesn’t know what to do with us.”

Albrecht, also director of field education at Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary, urged the teachers-in-training among her listeners to “pledge to your calling that you will try to educate every student”—because, she added, they can learn.

She spoke from experience with an elementary teacher who apparently didn’t think she could. Asked to spell “camel” during a dictation exercise, she happened to see the word on a box under the teacher’s desk and used association, she said, to write it. When it was the only word she spelled correctly, though, the teacher wouldn’t believe that she hadn’t copied off someone and put a black mark on her face with a pencil.

“I was able to spell for the first time, because my brain was intelligent enough,” Albrecht remembered. But the treatment she received at a young age “takes a foundation you never had, and you have to build it.”

She developed skills—resistance among them—to cope with pressures to assimilate and with racism that she said set even people of color against each other in 1960s Chicago. She learned that while the U.S. is a “land of opportunities,” having an “incorrect accent” could mean not being able to rent housing or being charged double in a store, Albrecht added.

Teachers who suggested that her father take her to the library or otherwise help her more with academics didn’t realize he worked from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., she noted. The daughter of a working mother as well, she also reminded the future teachers she addressed to keep in mind the social and economic realities that some of their students may be facing.

Responding to a question about how she will bring her perceptions to the role of church moderator—which she has held since last July—Albrecht replied, in part, that her experiences will enable her to speak from the perspective of those on the margins of society. 

“We are in this together,” she added, expressing hope that “things have changed for the better” when it comes to racism but lamenting the difficulty of erasing it from individual hearts and minds. It’s founded in fear and abuse of power, she said, calling for advocates for immigrants and immigration reform in the U.S. “Choose to use your power, but do not abuse it.”

She also suggested study of several languages if possible, saying “two is just the starting point.” Americans can no longer afford to be monolingual, Albrecht asserted—“The world has arrived here, and what are you going to do to engage that world?” she asked.