One of the things I have learned from writing on controversial subjects for public audiences is how easy it is to be misunderstood.
Writing to be understood is difficult.
I consider myself a pretty good writer, and others have confirmed that to be true. Yet, I struggle much with the fact that, no matter how hard I try to make my thoughts clear, if the subject is controversial, I will be misunderstood by some.
Here is a case study in this problem.
Recently, my local newspaper reported on a local controversy surrounding an application to use a vacated building for a transitional housing facility for undocumented immigrant boys ages 8 to 18. A for-profit company asked the city to grant a license to use the building for that purpose.
A bit of background is necessary to explain my response to the controversy that ensued and surrounded the application.
This building has been empty for years. Three times now organizations have applied to the city for permission to use it as a shelter for homeless people or people in transition or need of special care.
Recently, a nonprofit organization wanted to use it as a shelter for homeless boys. Each time, the neighbors have opposed such uses of the building.
This time was no exception – except that the reasons for opposing this potential use of the building were mixed.
Some who spoke out against it – to the city government – were simply against housing undocumented (“illegal”) immigrants in their neighborhood. They were probably the same people who opposed the building’s other proposed uses. Of course, it’s not possible to know that for sure; it’s an educated and reasonable guess.
Other people, however, spoke out against it – to the city government – because they oppose 1) separating immigrant children from their parents, 2) housing immigrant children in institutions operated by private companies and 3) the proliferation of “detention centers” for undocumented immigrants, especially for children who ought to be given care in foster families instead.
I read the articles about the proposed use (or misuse) of the building and wrote a response composed of 10 questions aimed at people who think they are Christians but who do not want immigrant children even temporarily housed in their neighborhood or city.
I was aiming my admittedly harsh questions at those who oppose the facility out of xenophobia – or, more narrowly and specifically, negative attitudes toward undocumented immigrant persons (and perhaps especially boys).
I assumed people opposing the facility for other reasons would realize my questions did not apply to them.
But, no, many of them became very angry with me and let me know it in no uncertain terms; some of them even accused me of supporting separation of undocumented immigrant children from parents by the government.
I was shocked because I assumed anyone who knows me at all (and I have written a lot on related topics here and in the newspaper’s opinion pages) knows I very strongly oppose the practice of separating families crossing the border into the U.S.
My only motive in writing the opinion column, which was published, was to ask Christians who oppose the facility’s proposed use to examine their motives.
I assumed any whose motives were pure would know my questions did not apply to them. But, no, many of them assumed I was accusing everyone who opposed the proposed facility.
Actually, I wasn’t exactly accusing anyone; I was asking questions for self-examination.
But I learned from this experience that no amount of words can ever avoid all potential misunderstanding and that I cannot expect people will read what I write with an understanding of who I am and what I stand for.
Some who have been most critical of my column know me very well, and I struggle with the fact they did not give me the benefit of the doubt but assumed the worst.
So, let me be absolutely clear (if that’s possible): I very strongly oppose separating children from parents when the only issue is that the families crossed the border into the U.S. without permission.
I have said that before many times and in many ways. It is a travesty because it is cruel and unnecessary.
However, we all know some children are crossing the border into the U.S. without accompanying parents. If possible, they should be placed in foster care.
Any institutionalization should be temporary, and such children should have the best of care with social workers, nurses and doctors, and even ministers or priests working with them.
But this situation requires transitional facilities – at least until the children can be placed in foster care with caring, loving families.
I know some people in the state where I live oppose even undocumented immigrant children being placed among them, in their neighborhoods, because they dislike them and are afraid of them.
My column was only addressed to those people who claim to be Christians and who opposed the proposed facility for that reason (xenophobia about immigrants from south of the U.S. border).
My question to my friends and acquaintances and former students and others who were or are angry with me because of my column is this: Knowing me, why did you not assume that?
Please give me the benefit of the doubt, based on knowing me, and do not spread negative interpretations and thoughts about my column on social media without first asking me what I meant.
And please now use social media to explain that, of course, I am against the government’s policy of separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents and I am against institutionalizing any children in facilities where they are not receiving the best care possible.
And I am against any long-term institutionalization of children; all children deserve to be cared for in family settings whenever possible.
Any institutionalization of children should be temporary with every effort made to place them with families.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”