Read here the AW Book Forum Presentation on The Land Is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery by Sarah Augustine

Response to Sarah Augustine by Tina Stoltzfus Schlabach

I write this response to Sarah Augustine’s powerful book not as a scholar.  I write as a pastor and as an accompanier of people – especially people who have been forced to migrate from their homes across the Tucson Border Sector, where too many of them with bewilderment soon find themselves locked up in immigration prisons.  I also write as a 62 years old white woman with a lot of different kinds of privileges, and as a mother, partner, daughter, and sister in this world.  What I offer in this response are personal connections to Sarah’s work as shared through her transformative book.  

I had the privilege of hosting Sarah in our home in early 2018 when she came to our community of faith, Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson, Arizona, to preach on the church’s call to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery.  I remember Sarah wanting to take a walk outdoors, and I remember the soul conversation between us.  I now understand that during that weekend with Sarah I experienced a second big “aha” in my spiritual life.  

The first “aha” was during a formative time I spent with the Jubilee Partners Christian community in Comer, Georgia, when I was 25 years old.  Spending that summer learning in that deeply committed alternative community among asylum-seekers from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, I remember coming to clarity that all injustice is interconnected.  No matter what piece of oppression we are called to face and work at undoing, following that thread of oppression will lead us to others that are intertwined.  

Talking with Sarah on that walk – some 30 years later – I remember trying to express to her my “aha” that the Doctrine of Discovery seems to be the root of all injustice, all oppressions – the core sin of it all, if we keep unwinding the ball of oppressions.  (Cheri Hostetler writes similarly about this same “aha” in her preface).  We need help to see the heresy of the Doctrine of Discovery and the grievous role it has played for centuries in the tendrils of oppression because it has been made so invisible.  The Land is Not Empty shines the light on this hidden evil.   

I am constantly confronted with the invisibility of the role of the Doctrine of Discovery in the current migration/‘securing the border’ “issue.”  I live a scant hour’s drive from the U.S. border with Mexico in an area where thousands of migrants cross the border in many different ways.  Our nation is in a divisive, ugly, politicized fight over our national narrative, unwilling to take responsibility for the harms of the past in a fearful urgency to secure power.  Migrants from Central America (and other impoverished countries) are coming here now, because of the cruel ways European ancestors took control of their lands centuries ago, forcing and carrying out oppressive power dynamics that continue to this day.  Instead of welcoming them, we go to extremes to keep them out.  

Historian and Latin-American scholar Aviva Chomsky writes “The English-speaking world developed a historical narrative known as the “Black Legend,” which portrayed the Spanish as cruel and backward ‘conquistadores’ who murdered and plundered their way through the Caribbean and Latin America.  The British, in contrast, (according to their own account), were hard-working, forward-looking colonists (rather than colonizers) who industriously set up self-sufficient farming villages on empty lands.  This narrative conveniently explains contemporary inequalities between the United States and Latin America by implying a “historical” narrative in which English speakers in particular, and northern Europeans in general, through their moral and developmental superiority, deserve their exalted place in the world.”  

A truthful narrative such as Sarah’s is the strong, healthful medicine for the time we are living, along with bringing to our consciousness the racist lies (i.e. the Black Legend, and many others) that are part of our own mainstream education, politics, and even churches.  One piece of this work that I claim is what I choose to share with border delegations, when I am asked to speak about our church’s justice responses to migration.  I’m now committed to beginning with a history lesson about how colonization has impacted the American Southwest, along with the historical roles of colonization, extraction, and indigenous genocide in Central American countries from which so many families continue to leave, now, in desperation.  Viewed in historical context, with the heretical religious justification of the Doctrine of Discovery underlying it all, our hospitable receiving of migrant women, men, and children is part of repair and reparations work – not charity or a means of white saviorism.  Working to change and stop immigration policy from using oppressive structures such as for-profit immigration prisons, sending migrants back to “remain in Mexico,” and separating families is part of following Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger and care for the neighbor.  

Our eyes have also been opened to the ways that resource extraction has caused suffering in people who are part of our church community.  In 2016 Raymond Malelo and his wife, Georgette, and their children, were re-settled as Congolese refugees in Tucson.  They had been baptized into the Mennonite Church in the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp, Tanzania, and were seeking their faith family in this new city where they had landed.  They have become members since then, and have invited additional Congolese families into our faith community.  These Congolese siblings have propelled us to learn about the pain of the Democratic Republic of Congo – the incredibly cruel colonization of Belgium causing great suffering and long impact, and in our own times the mining, and extraction of resources and minerals such as diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, tin, tantalum and lithium by China and the United States.  

Arizona is a copper-mining state, and the mining push on lands sacred to indigenous peoples continues.  Our church, led by my co-pastor colleague, Carol Rose, and the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition, stands with the San Carlos Apache Tribe in saying NO to the Canadian Company Resolution Copper which will environmentally devastate this sacred land which the tribe is not allowed to “own.”  Apache elder Wendsler Noise wrote a letter in 2021 asking Pope Francis to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, which undergirds the ability of the U.S. to do this.   We, as part of Shalom Mennonite, led by Carol, are now taking the trip to Oak Flat, stopping along the way to thank the land as advised to do by Elder Wendsler, listening to Apache people explain in their own words what this land means to them, and getting involved in this struggle for justice.  

The connections I feel to Sarah’s call to join the spiritual work and the life-changing work of dismantling the Doctrine of Discover are many and ever-growing.  As a pastor, I know so many people who have experienced oppression by the church  – and have left.  Sarah has not left.  Sarah is right here – reimagining theology that is life-giving, and educating us from her own life experiences of saying “yes” to Dina’s call “Are you going to fight with me?” (p. 34).   I say “yes,” too – but not lightly, because Sarah tells us clearly what that fight actually means.  Sarah – I treasure our friendship, and I am deeply thankful for your presence in this world.


Tina Stoltzfus Schlabach is Co-Pastor of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, Tucson, Arizona, on Tohono O’odham land and in the Santa Cruz Watershed, sustained by water also diverted from the beautiful Colorado River, the hardest working river in the West.  She has a spiritual direction practice, offering in-person sessions under a tree outdoors, and also by zoom.  She is a founding member of the Casa Mariposa Detention Visitation Program, working to accompany displaced persons incarcerated in these prisons and to end for-profit prisons, part of the U.S.’s system of mass incarceration that makes a profit from traumatizing migrant families.  She loves hiking with her life partner, Jay, and their dog, Luna, as well as the joy of morning coffee, and enjoying meals with friends and family.  


AW Book Forum Presentation on The Land Is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery by Sarah Augustine


Response to Sarah Augustine by Wes Howard-Brook

Response to Sarah Augustine by T.J. Smith

Response to Sarah Augustine by Randy S. Woodley (May 23, 2022)

Concluding response by Sarah Augustine (May 30, 2022)