There is Power in Mercy: Natalia Valenzuela Swanson & Scott Neely in Conversation

July 1, 2020
There is Power in Mercy: Natalia Valenzuela Swanson & Scott Neely in Conversation

In partnership with Alianza Spartanburg (previously the Hispanic Alliance Spartanburg) and the PASOs site in Spartanburg, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spartanburg has established a fund to provide direct assistance to individuals and families who will not receive federal assistance through the CARES Act because of their immigration status—even though they pay taxes. Even if only one family member is out of status, no one in the family will receive funds—even children who are US citizens. You may give to this fund here:

What is happening?

Scott: We were invited to interview one another for this series, because of a collaboration we are a part of to support the Latinx immigrant community in Spartanburg County during the pandemic. I am grateful for the collaboration and for what has happened through it, and for the chance to reflect on that.

To start, would you just detail some of what is happening in the Latinx community because of the pandemic? You know and see so much.

Natalia: Latinx immigrants are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Many Latinx immigrants are essential workers in construction, on farms, at restaurants and meat-packing facilities. We often hear the words, “when the pandemic hit.” I see the COVID-19 crisis hitting the Latinx immigrant community from all sides. 

When schools, businesses, and organizations first shut down in Spartanburg, when many of us remained in our homes, sheltering from the virus, others in our immigrant community remained on the job, and therefore, were exposed to the virus in disproportionate ways. We now see this in data from DHEC. The Latinx population in the state is 6%, but three weeks ago, 12% of total COVID-19 cases were Latinx individuals. And, in Greenville, where the Latinx population is 10%, 30% of all cases in the month of May were from the Latinx community. In Greenville County and Spartanburg County, the Latinx community has the highest percentage of residents without health insurance. What does this lack of insurance mean for those who are contracting the virus? Where do they access healthcare and is healthcare available in their language? Do they access healthcare at all? Greater exposure to the virus and limitations to accessing healthcare are just two ways the Latinx community is being disproportionately hit by the pandemic.

Scott: I remember when you first brought this to my attention, and some of the stories you shared.

Natalia: Yes, there are many stories of individuals and families being impacted. And all the data represents these stories. Another impact seems counterintuitive, but is borne out in the data. Although many Latinx immigrants are essential workers, they have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to job loss. Across the US, 49% of Latinos say they have had to take a pay cut or lost a job—or both—because of COVID-19. That compares to 33% of all US adults, according to the Pew Research Center. When they are hit with unemployment, what support is available? 

Scott: When we first started to talk about what was happening, one of the leaders of Alianza Spartanburg (previously the Hispanic Alliance Spartanburg) informed me of the lack of federal financial support planned for people working in the US without citizenship status, despite their essential role to our economy—always, and especially during the pandemic. These are taxpayers and we depend on their labor, but we were not going to provide them with any national support. The neglect of what these individuals and families would face during a severe economic downturn seemed unwise and deliberate to me.

Natalia: It does seem deliberate when, in SC, immigrant households paid $2.1 billion in local, state and federal taxes in 2018. That same year, undocumented households paid $160.2 million in taxes in the state. Nevertheless, many of these households have been left out of the federal COVID-19 financial packages. If any adult member of a household does not have a Social Security number, then no one in that home is eligible for a stimulus check under the federal CARES Act—even if the other members of the household are US citizens. 

Scott: Including children who are US citizens, but who have one parent in the home who is not—no one in the home will receive assistance under the CARES Act.

Natalia: Not only is the Latinx immigrant community being impacted disproportionately in terms of infection rates and job loss, but immigrants are also being left out of the federal aid package.


What can we do?

Scott: Why treat people we depend on that way? Why treat anyone that way? Is that how we would want to be treated ourselves? 

Natalia: Exactly. So, I can share what some of us did in response, hoping that it will inspire others to respond as well. 

Scott: When I first heard about what was happening, I was infuriated. I was grateful when your team suggested a way to engage, to help.

Natalia: And we were grateful that you were open to listening! I remember, early into the pandemic, meeting virtually with two of my Alianza Spartanburg collaborators, Laura and Araceli. We talked about the idea of mobilizing faith communities that have been supportive of immigrants in the past to see if they might be interested in being a resource for immigrants in our communities—to help provide support for immigrants who had been excluded from the CARES Act relief bill. I remember reaching out to you, the minister of one faith community that has been supportive of immigrants in the past, just to see what you thought of the idea. The result is incredible. 

Scott: There are people who care, people who want to make the world a better place. They are incredible.

Natalia: Yes. One of the benefits of email is that, when we want to, we can trace back conversations. The email I sent you with the idea is dated March 28. In just a few days, your congregation decided to dedicate the Share the Plate offering for the month of April to support our undocumented neighbors. I remember you telling me that, normally, Share the Plate raises anywhere between $700 and $1,200 per month. But the response was amazing, and your church decided to extend the Share the Plate for the month of May as well. At the end of May, the total amount raised to date was over $21,000. That’s remarkable!

Scott: That is more in two months than what our small congregation would typically raise in an entire year for social justice causes.

Natalia: Not only that, but the fund created at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Spartanburg (UUCS) led to further conversations, not only in our county, but also in Greenville County and in our state. There was a desire to learn about how we created this resource to provide much needed support to these essential members of our communities. 

The work in Spartanburg has been in partnership with PASOs ( Nora and her team at PASOs serve as the bridge, connecting immigrant individuals and families to the financial resources. Since the beginning of April, through the funds at UUCS and the United Way of the Piedmont, PASOs Spartanburg has been able to provide over $27,000 in financial support to individuals and families. The funds provide basic needs support, such as rent, mortgage and utilities, as well as resources for grocery gift cards. 

Scott: The way goodness expands, the way it moves out and grows, is of great interest to me. Watching it happen energizes me more than almost anything else. The multiplication of these gifts is a strong example of how this takes place. People stepped forward to intervene in an overt act of injustice and lack of care, to learn and offer direct support to neighbors on whom we all depend. And those acts multiplied, they spread. By my rough math, to date the gifts given through the church have been matched and surpassed threefold by regional and statewide agencies, all providing support for the Latinx immigrant community in the Upstate and now throughout SC.

The experience has been so positive that the church has established this as an on-going part of our social justice work as a congregation, in partnership with PASOs and Alianza Spartanburg ( Gifts have come from folks in the wider community and even states away who learned of what we were all doing together. And they continue to come. Contributions to the fund can be made here—all gifts go to direct support for members of the Latinx immigrant community in Spartanburg County:

And the multiplication continues. Now philanthropies from the Midlands and Lowcountry have asked us if this collaboration could be replicated on a statewide level. In response, partners here and around the state have come together to form a coalition of agencies serving the Latinx immigrant population throughout SC. We have combined forces to design a way to effectively distribute direct support in communities throughout the state, especially in regions that are underfunded and have few private resources. And we have just received our first grant, from the One SC Fund. This is an unforeseen and invigorating expansion of what we originally set out to do. The spirit of the group is clear: to work together to directly care for our siblings in the Latinx immigrant community. 


What kind of world do you hope to co-create through your work?

Natalia: Two of the three values that I strive to live by are justice and beauty. My hope is that through my work, through our work, we would create a world that is just and beautiful. In my mind, it is just that individuals who pay into our government through taxes should be eligible to receive the $1,200 CARES Act stimulus check that the government is providing. It is also just that individuals who have been pushed out of their countries due, in part, to the history of US foreign intervention and policy which has left local economies in disaster—that’s a longer conversation—and are seeking a better life in this country should be provided a different response than the current one that separates families and puts children in cages. Those are two examples of the injustice in how people are received. To me, beauty is reflected in all of us. We each have so many gifts that, together, make our world more beautiful. I firmly believe that immigration makes us stronger because of the gifts that immigrants bring. I desire to co-create a world where immigrants can have an opportunity to fully live out their gifts, that we would attain even deeper beauty. 

Scott: Amen.


What, for you, are justice and compassion? 

Natalia: Is there a particular experience in your life that influenced why you see them as important?

Scott: I think the basic wisdom of human life is to care for each other. In every tradition, we are taught to treat one another the way we would want to be treated. I think that is our work.

There are two experiences that have most shaped me in this view. One is experiencing fairness and mercy myself, especially when I didn’t deserve it. My parents, my teachers, my spouse and children, my friends—many people have been kind to me when they did not have to be, and I feel it inside of me still today. That is who I want to be, too.

The second is reckoning with why there is so much suffering in the world. Of course there are many causes, some unknowable to us. But there is much suffering created by people, and much of it comes from our greed. We have told ourselves that it is ok and even necessary to take advantage of others in order for us to make it in the world. And so we cause great harm, and believe ourselves justified in our actions.

I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think enduring wisdom, found in human cultures around the world and throughout time, is just an ideal for which we will always strive but never achieve. I think caring for one another is a far better and more effective way to live. To share, to have mutual regard, to care—these acts build us up as individuals and as a society. They make us, paradoxically, both interconnected and free. They are the better choice.

I try to choose them, and the fairness and mercy I have received when I have fallen short of my better self—that has shaped me. And I give thanks.

Natalia: Yes, there’s power in the experience of receiving and extending mercy, and of caring for one another. 


What does it mean, for you, to be an immigrant?

Scott: You have a unique position in all of this, that affords you unique knowledge and insight. You have chosen to be here, of all the places in the world you could live. You have lived all over the world since your childhood, and you are an immigrant to this country, yourself. And you have become a devoted community leader, here, in this place. What does it mean, for you, to be an immigrant?

Natalia: There’s so much I could say here. As an immigrant, I have felt different, left out many times, and misunderstood—like I didn’t quite fit in. In fact, there are still instances where I don’t feel like I fit in. I’m often the only Latinx individual in many of the spaces where I find myself. At times, I feel invisible. 

There was a time when I wanted to be invisible, to blend in with the culture of this place that has become my home. In a sense, it seemed like I could do that pretty easily, in part, because I had lived in other places as a child, I had learned English as a child, and had been in schools with other students from the US. But that changed for me over time, and, in part, when I began to see injustice towards immigrants. I began identifying more and more with immigrants and wanting to use my voice to speak up against injustices. Even though I always remained in legal status, and I recognize the huge privileges that came from that, as well as education and language, I realize that I could have easily been born into a different situation. 

I remember a significant period in my life. I was nearing graduation from high school. I was in Ecuador at that time and found myself in a situation where I ended up having little control of what my future would be. At a time when pretty much all of my peers were making plans to start college, I had to put my plans and dreams on hold. It was a frustrating, discouraging and disheartening time. Years later, when I found myself in this country and saw the unfolding situation of DACA recipients who are also in a place of little control of what their future will be, I was able to connect my experience with theirs. Not that it’s the same experience at all, but I remember how disheartening it was to be a high schooler with big dreams of what I wanted to do with my future and not being able to act on it because of something completely out of my control. As we were advocating for DACA students, I saw so many dreams shattered. Why? Because they were born into a different situation. And yet they bring so many gifts. The fight for justice became personal for me. On June 18, 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of continuing the DACA program, for the moment. Even so, in SC, DACA recipients are not eligible to obtain professional licenses, including in nursing, which is a critical profession and even more so in this time of a pandemic. We still have advocacy work to do. 

And, when COVID-19 hit, and I heard what the federal government had done, excluding many immigrants from the relief package, that was personal for me too, and I was in a position where I could do something about it. 


Why do we do this?

Scott: It is powerful how your own story of frustrated dreams and a future on hold offers you insight into the experience of DACA students, and summons you to advocate in solidarity with them. This is difficult work in the face of great uncertainty, wrestling with forces that seem largely beyond our control. Why do you do this work?

Natalia: I think I've already touched on some of the reasons why I do this: recognizing that it could be me, recognizing the humanity of all people, and not just the humanity but also the gifts that all of us have, recognizing that I have benefitted from the generosity of many, and recognizing that I have been placed in a position of privilege. I see the responsibility that comes with that position, and I want to steward it well, and steward it for good and to create a world of justice and beauty. 

Scott: Yes—we know the world that is possible. And we sense the gifts—the power to bring it into being—within us. To use our power to create the world that can be, that is pure energy. And it works.


What keeps you going?

Natalia: In short, three things. First, it’s the team that keeps me going. I get so much energy when collaborating with members of the Alianza Spartanburg team. There’s a similar passion that we all share that fuels my energy to keep going. And, there’s the team at the Mary Black Foundation and the team at Speaking Down Barriers. Each of these teams energize me to keep doing the work. I’m so incredibly grateful to you, Scott, that you have welcomed me to be part of your team, as well. I think that the work we have done together these last couple of months may be one of the most rewarding things over the course of the pandemic. You have become a friend. I know you have my back, and that also keeps me going. I am so grateful. 

Second, what keeps me going are the small wins, the glimmers of light that things can change and do change. I love the way john a. powell describes change: “. . . fissures are beginning to appear in the system. And when cracks start to show, we have to keep on hammering.” When I see these small wins, the cracks, it gives me hope to keep hammering. 

Lastly, it’s my faith that gives me hope. I mentioned earlier two of three values that I hope my life reflects. The third is faith. My faith is both my anchor and my goal. Specifically, I believe in Jesus Christ, God who came to live here on earth. I know that there are many who have been deeply hurt by the Christian church and religion. That hurts me deeply because I think that many times, religious leaders have misappropriated or misinterpreted Christianity, not reflecting the God that I know. When I read the Biblical Scriptures and see the person of Jesus, who He is, how He lived, how He loves, it moves me deeply and pierces my soul. This is a person who loved those who were not loved, who spoke up for women in a patriarchal culture, who challenged hypocritical religious authorities, who challenged ethnic superiority, who served tirelessly, who had deep compassion for the pain and hurt that He saw. He is a God of justice, mercy, and love. It’s my goal that I would love and live just a tiny bit the way He did. And, faith is my anchor. The work is hard and I often get discouraged, but I trust that God still sees the pain and hurt of this world, and He still cares and has deep compassion, and He is still in control. I don’t understand it, but I trust Him, that He will make all things new and bring about total restoration. That is what gives me hope. 

Scott: That is a prophetic, rather than a conformist, vision of the divine. And we see its effect in how you live. I appreciate what you have shared here very much.

Natalia: What about you? What gives you hope?

Scott: Seeing the good in us come to life. Not so different from what you said. You described it as “total restoration.” I would say: “transformation”—becoming who we really are, each of us and all of us together. And who we are is, under it all, really good.


Natalia Valenzuela Swanson is an immigrant who has come to call Spartanburg her home. She moved to the United States from her country of birth, Ecuador, but she spent a significant part of her childhood in Kenya, and a short while in Mexico. Natalia joined the Mary Black Foundation in March 2015, where she serves as Program Director for Healthy Eating | Active Living. Natalia also proudly serves as a member of the Steering Group of the Alianza Spartanburg network and as a board member of Speaking Down Barriers. 

Scott Neely serves as minister with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spartanburg ( He is a facilitator and strategist with Speaking Down Barriers (, an organization that uses facilitated dialogue to build our life together across the differences that divide us.

Photo by Rafe H. Andrews.

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