Trump Administration Orders Tougher Screening of Visa Applicants https://nyti.ms/2mWe10Y
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Meditations on Matthew 2, adapted from a sermon preached at First United Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, July 29, 2018.
I became an immigrant this year. I have moved to Honduras, for my work, and I have applied for permanent residency in that country. Of course I did this by choice. I sought a job, was called by the Presbyterian Church, and I accepted the call.
In Matthew chapter 2, there is much migration. Magi from Persia to Judea. Joseph and Mary and Jesus from Judea to Egypt. The magi back to Persia, by some other route. Joseph and Mary and Jesus from Egypt to Galilee. There is much migration. But very little choice.
The only person who doesn’t move in this story is King Herod, a puppet king, a cacique or a maharaja, if you will, of the Roman Empire. King Herod stays still. He wields enormous power here, and holds it so tightly and so fearfully that he is willing to slaughter hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of infants. Simply because he was afraid of losing or sharing power.
Herod’s word was law, and these astrologers traveling from Baghdad or from who knows from where would have known this. The text says all of Jerusalem, or that is, all of the privileged courts paying homage to Rome, displayed their fear of this newly rumored “king of the Jews.” Even for the foreign astrologers, to disobey Herod was to disobey Caesar. To disobey Caesar was to disobey God.
So what are we to make of their decision to protect the holy child by going home on a different route? They certainly made a choice, and a risky choice. They could have been hauled in, arrested, tortured, forced to tell, forced to stay.
By grace, yes, but also by the civilly disobedient choice of the wise ones from the east, the Christ child’s life was spared. They made a radical, law-breaking decision. They could have taken the legal route—finding God where the powers of the day told them to find God: in the empire, in the law, in the king. But where did they find God?
And what does this teach us about where we should be looking for God? Certainly today we have many choices…where to seek god?
Do we think the magi had a choice?
I can tell you that in Honduras, choice or desire is rarely a factor in a person’s moving across borders, deciding where to live or whether to stay.
A springboard for my ministry in Honduras was time spent in 2014 on the border in El Paso, Texas. I volunteered with an organization that housed and helped hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrant children and mothers who were seeking asylum, mostly from Central America. This summer, the same organization started helping thousands more, mostly parents reunited with children after cruel separation.
And now I see these mothers and children from another perspective. Since moving to Honduras six months ago, I have not gone a week without meeting a family who has someone in the states, either documented or “mojado” or undocumented. I have met a couple who work as coyotes, smuggling people across borders for a fee. Every family in Honduras is touched by migration.
Remittances, or money sent back into Honduras from other countries, make up nearly 20 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the Central Bank of Honduras and the World Bank, and that number has increased faster than the country’s overall GDP in the past year. The economy has no momentum of its own. Honduras is hugely dependent on the United States, on the International Monetary Fund, on the World Bank.
What does this mean to us today, when we in reading this text in Matthew? When you read in the scripture “Galilee,” think of Honduras, the “developing” neighbor of Judea. When you read “Jerusalem,” think of Tegucigalpa, and remember its iron-clad connection to Rome, that is, Washington D.C., the seat of political and economic power. When you read “Egypt” think of the Texas-Mexico border, where the refugees flee. The dynamics of dependence and power are strikingly similar.
Of course, the gospel writer likely chose to emphasize these details in order to concretize Jesus’ claim to divinity, as outlined in the Hebrew scriptures as well as within the Roman political structure. This text is subversive in both directions. And the infant Jesus, making no choice of his own, becomes a refugee, confounding all expectations of where divinity should be found—that is, not in Jerusalem, but on the highways and byways and the in-between places.
As I said, I’m an immigrant by choice. I have the enormous privilege of a U.S. passport. Earlier this summer, I traveled twice, once with a Honduran Presbyterian woman and once with a youth group, because eight of the youth and one Presbyterian Women partner were barred by the U.S. Embassy from completing the trip. These teens and 20-somethings, even with letters of support from U.S. Presbyterians, could not provide enough “evidence” in a three-minute interview that they were not intending to stay permanently in the United States.
Imagine if you were denied that visa. Imagine that your family is permanently separated, that your husband or one of your children is in the United States, and that you have no resources to continue applying for tourist visas. Imagine that you have a job that pays you $15 a day. Imagine that you live with many other family members in a barrio of Tegucigalpa that is governed by a violent gang that is recruiting your younger children. Imagine that the police refuse to enter your neighborhood for fear of their own lives, or else they collude with the gang to keep residents in and non-residents in fear of entering.
What would you do? Would you flee? Would you try to reunite your family? And perhaps a more profound question: Where would you be finding God, among all these dire choices? Where would you be looking for God? In the empire, in the law?
Now imagine that Joseph and Mary had been denied permission to travel to Egypt. Or to return to Galilee. Imagine that the Crucifixion had not happened when Jesus was 33 years old but 3 years old. Where would we be expecting Joseph and Mary to find God, or to look for God?
I can tell you where I have found God. I have found God in the faces of immigrant children eating a peanut butter sandwich, their first meal in days. I have found God in the faces of the youth of Puerto Grande, Honduras, who long to make their hometown a place they don’t have to leave to survive. I have found God in the efforts of the Presbyterians of El Horno, struggling against government efforts to remove them from farmland because they don’t have ownership papers, even though they have lived there for generations—struggling to remain in the home they know and love.
I have found God in the face of the Presbyterian elder of Buenos Aires, who is doing seminary-level work even though he never attended school a day in his life and can barely read and write. He wants to better himself, to better his church, to better his community and make it a place that young people can choose to stay and make a home in.
Where do we look for God, and where do we truly find God? This story of the slaughter of innocents tells us: Not where you think you should find God, among the rulers, among the powerful, among those where conventional wisdom tells us we should find God. We find God in the innocent, the lowly, the vulnerable, the endangered. We find God among the movers and migrants. We find God among those who resist and defy. We find God among the law-breakers.
Life in the church Honduras has helped me to both simplify and complicate my understanding of prayer, liturgy and worship, and what it means to be Presbyterian. “For God chose us in Christ,” the letter to the Ephesians reads, “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love God predestined us to be adopted as God’s children through Jesus Christ.” This chosen-ness is both eternal and immediate, having taken place before the beginning of the world, and taking place again and again with every immersion of baptism, with every anointing, with every choice we make to follow the rocky road, up a creek bed, in search of Jesus Christ.
We prayed for the transformation of this building into a new purpose, blessing all the people who will experience the presence of God here in the months and years to come. We met in the middle, grasped hands, and knelt in the center of the room.
A reflection on Acts 2:1-21.
On a recent Saturday, I spent time with women of the Presbyterian church of Honduras, as they fasted, prayed, and consecrated a retreat center that they are newly managing as a ministry of the church.
In pairs we walked through the property, blessing the major buildings and grounds: the dormitories, the chapels, the trees and grass, the entrance, the kitchen. We touched doorposts and tree trunks with hands carrying olive oil, and we prayed prayers of blessing. I was chosen with my partner to bless a large partially outdoor structure that previously had been a parking shed. New concrete floors have been laid, and a wall has been newly painted. Since the retreat center has been under new ownership, it has housed several large gatherings, including my installation as mission co-worker in Honduras.
My partner María Elena and I moved from one end of the room to the other, on opposite walls, placing our hands on the walls, and the bits of furniture, and the floor, and we prayed individually for the transformation of this building into a new purpose, blessing all the people who will experience the presence of God here in the months and years to come. We met in the middle, grasped hands, and knelt in the center of the room. María Elena prayed her prayer in Spanish, as did I, and then I sang a song in English, and then she sang in Spanish.
“Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me,” I sang. “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”
I haven’t sung this song in years; the last time I remember singing it was in my childhood church in New Mexico. I don’t know what made it pop into my head, except for the movement of the Holy Spirit, during this intimate Pentecost moment. María Elena said later that she felt “transported,” and I felt the same. The parking lot had been transformed into a sanctuary, and a bilingual one at that, she said.
Whenever we invoke the Holy Spirit, speaking the language too deep for words, knowing that transformation and renewal is taking place, we are experiencing Pentecost.
New relationships, new life at retreat center
This year the tapestry of partnerships between U.S. and Honduran Presbyterians became more intricate. The women’s ministry of the Honduran Presbyterian Church received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Presbyterian Women organization — about two-thirds of what is needed to purchase and refurbish a retreat center called Villa Gracia. The center will become a place where all 26 congregations in Honduras may gather for spiritual formation, conferences, camps and education. In two months, the women’s ministry has hosted a day-long retreat titled “The Power of the Wise Woman,” a three-day pastoral education encounter, a lunch-time presentation of scholarships to 95 youth, and a church plenary meeting. The chair of the women’s committee, Selenia Ordóñez, says that the job was so big, she worried it couldn’t be done. “I was stressed out and anxious,” she said, as the women cleaned and repaired rooms, sewed bedclothes and curtains, and planned menus. “But after a successful first event, I started to think it might be possible.” The women say that they trust in God’s help that they will make Villa Gracia into a life-giving and sustainable retreat and conference center.
More help is needed. The Honduras Mission Network of the (PC)USA is making efforts to raise the remaining $70,000. As I write this, about one-third of the needed funds have been raised. For more about the Presbyterian Women grant, go to https://www.presbyterianwomen.org/what_we_do/support-mission/birthday-offering/
See more on the development of the retreat center, called Villa Gracia, or Village of Grace, at http://villagracia.org/
Written as a reflection for a mission connections letter.
I’ve commanded you to be brave and strong, haven’t I? Don’t be alarmed or terrified, because THE LORD your God is with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9, Common English Bible
This verse was read before I knelt and prayed before the Presbyterian congregations of Honduras, their pastors’ hands laid on me, and I was installed as the mission co-worker assigned to work with them for the next four-year term.
The commandment to be “brave and strong,” to not be afraid, was particularly meaningful to me because I arrived in Honduras immediately after a time of political turmoil and violence. At the time of my installation, I had spent the previous month heeding my Honduran colleagues’ advice on where to go and not go, whether to drive alone, whether to visit strange neighborhoods for the first time. I had chosen a rental home and a car with safety and security as my primary goals. I had watched news of political protesters killed by military forces, police officers killed by gang members, bus drivers extorted for “taxes” to thugs, a corporate executive arrested for masterminding the assassination of an environmental activist. There is plenty to fear in Honduras.
I am used to being independent and bold — as a journalist and as a chaplain, I went into places where others feared to tread. I am not used to heeding the fears and worries of others: I travel alone, I live alone, I have driven cross-country alone, I have accompanied the dying alone in their hospital rooms.
“Be brave and strong.” “Don’t be terrified.” I mulled over those words as I knelt on Pastor Edin Samayoa’s sweater — he had taken it off and put it on the floor to cushion my knees. Pastor Edin leads a church in a neighborhood where I am not allowed to go alone, or at night, and where newcomers have to announce their presence, roll down the car windows, and get permission from gang members to enter.
Your God goes with you wherever you go. Those words were made flesh to me as I was helped to my feet, and dozens of people, everyone in the congregation, came forward to embrace me and hug me tight, and whisper in my ear their blessings and prayers. “I’m with you, you’re not alone.” “I pray God’s blessing on you.” “You are already a blessing to us, and we are so happy you’re here.” “Whatever you need, we will be there for you.” “We love you.” I felt their hands on my shoulders, their lips on my cheek, their tears of joy and welcome on my shoulder.
They are with me, and I am with them, and God is among us, wherever we are. In my short time in Honduras, I have seen the flowering of new projects and ideas, sparks of the Holy Spirit’s movement — among lay pastors studying to improve their care of their congregations, among women working to take over and renovate a spiritual retreat center for the benefit of all 26 Presbyterian churches here. I am learning also to reach out towards the warm spirit of caring that has been offered to me here. Nothing I do here will be alone. The Holy Spirit will be with me, embodied in the care and concern of hundreds of church members, the hospitality of strangers who have become family. I am learning to leave “alone” behind.
“El Horno, Comayagua, Honduras. A small community of indigenous Lenca descendants. Located in the mountains in the area of Comayagua. A place that is difficult to get to, so no church was willing to go there. A pastor said one day ‘I have come to the end of the earth.'”