The most heartbreaking story of families split by border walls and U.S. deportation policies. And yet…hope.
From a sermon preached Feb. 8, 2015, at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, Calif.
A little over two weeks ago, I was having dinner in a shelter for migrants in Agua Prieta, Mexico. A man I was talking to had been deported from the United States about four months prior and was contemplating trying to cross the formidable border again, to go back to the taco cart he pushed in Salt Lake City, and the $700 he had hidden under the battery of the car he had left at a neighbor’s house. “I got here, and crossing is much more dangerous than it was the first time,” he told me. “I’m not sure I will try it.” He asked me how long I would be in Mexico. I was traveling with a group of Presbyterians, studying Central American migration issues. “We are traveling from Tucson, Arizona, south through Mexico, through Guatemala, to El Salvador,” I told my dinner partner. “We are doing the migration in reverse.”
“Ah, the difference is,” said Miguelito, “They aren’t going to try to kill you.”
We looked at each other for a few seconds, over our chicken legs and rice.
“That’s true,” I said.
My trip had started on the U.S.-Mexico border, with a visit to the desert, to the fence, with Border Patrol agents who speak of migrants they are trying to catch as “bodies” or “arrests” or “aliens” or “bad guys”—never as people—and the trip ended at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, with a presentation about the billions of dollars the U.S. has poured into El Salvador in order to make it safe for trade of U.S. goods and multi-national corporate interests, not of people.
In Arizona we heard from Presbyterian pastors whose churches were illegally infiltrated by U.S. government operatives in the 1980s, while they harbored refugees from the Cold War military enterprises in Central America. We read about just how dangerous crossing the border in the Arizona desert is: Hundreds have died, and as the border fence grows higher and longer, arrests drop, and deaths increase. In Guatemala, we learned about the dire consequences for overstaying a visa in the United States (felony charges, deportation, permanent exclusion), compared with the consequences of a U.S. passport carrier accidentally overstaying a visa in Guatemala: a fine of about $20 and fixing the paperwork. To apply for a visa to come to the United States costs $160 for every application, every time, win or lose. I didn’t even have to buy a visa to enter Guatemala, or visit a consulate. The power of a U.S. passport.
As Christians, in a country where power and privilege is becoming more and more unbalanced, and where assistance to our neighbors is based not on humanitarian needs but economic interests, how shall we understand the apostle Paul here: “Be subject to the governing authorities. … for rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. … pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants.”
The strange thing is that Paul was writing to Christians in Rome shortly after Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews (and presumably Jewish Christians) from Rome. And Paul writes shortly before a time when Emperor Nero would pin the blame for Rome’s burning on Christians and have them killed and burned right and left.
Paul would not have been blind to this. I want to offer the possibility that Paul was writing this bit of Romans ironically.*
Watch how many times he subtly subverts the governmental authority to God’s law: authority rests on God, God appointed, it is God’s servant, does not bear the sword in vain, servant of God, be subject because of conscience, the authorities are God’s servants.
Owe no one anything except love. For love is the fulfilling of the law.
Love is the fulfilling of the law.
During this reverse migration, Miguelito was right, and no one tried to kill me, not at the embassies or government offices, not at the borders, not in the gang-run neighborhoods of San Salvador. We visited not only “the authorities” but also with church women, with shelters, with migrants themselves, with people who had been kidnapped and maimed on the route to the border, and with people who had returned from the U.S. in order to create more opportunities and relationships in their homeland. We met families who had been torn apart. We met families who vowed not to be torn apart again.
The issue of migration is extremely complex. Most of the people on our seminar trip started with the goal of finding a “root cause” of migration, as if migration is a problem to be solved rather than part of the human condition. We are concerned for the thousands of unaccompanied children, young mothers, babies, poor people crossing our borders and seeking asylum from violence and poverty in their homes.
Most of the “authorities” in the migration system, most of the power, most of the money, most of the voices, are on the side of the governments, particularly the U.S. government, which so far is doing little to facilitate a just and safe migration, but is doing everything to stop migration.
Where is God in this extremely complex system? Is the U.S. government, the fence, the border patrol, the embassy, the economic aid, the detention centers, the immigration courts: Are they subject to God’s authority? Where was God on this 2,300 mile journey? Where is God for the migrants who are still on the 2,300 mile journey?
God’s authority is love. I saw love on this journey. Sometimes it was more visible than others. I saw it in the face of a mother who is raising the baby who is the product of rape by kidnappers. I saw it in the face of Miguelito, a hardscrabble taco-vendor deportee who talked with me candidly about the dangers he knows he’s facing. I saw God in the faces of amputees who had been maimed by the “Beast” train that carries migrants through Mexico. I saw love in the face of a young man who founded a café, and an education center, and an art gallery for youth, so he could reconnect with the Guatemalan identity that the Mayan God of light and hope birthed him into. I saw love in the face of a pastor who was willing to become a felon in order to do the right thing and protect a Central American family.
I saw love too in the face of the Border Patrol agent who quit his job as a teacher because he thought he could save more children faster in law enforcement. I saw love in the face of the Salvadoran government agent who is trying her very best to make sure the 50,000 migrants who will be deported back to her streets know that El Salvador hasn’t forgotten them, and cares enough to help them get on their feet. I saw love in the face of the U.S. AID worker who believes in making Central America safer and more prosperous.
The systems and processes that we have built are extremely complex. Too complex even to find God in them. We had to look really hard to find the authority of love. But we found it. And that is where Paul points us to when he tells us to obey the authorities. In order to do that, we must look really hard. We must find where the love is. That is where God is.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authority. The governing authority that is love.
* Carter, Timothy L. 2004. “The irony of Romans 13.” Novum Testamentum 46, no. 3: 209-228. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 9, 2015).
Reflecting on Genesis 1:26-27, today the image of God is motherhood. We have heard from a white U.S. pastor and mother who wept as she thought of the fear a Mexican mother felt when she was stopped by police, leading to a deportation order. We have heard from a woman who, at age 6, thought her mother might be dead, killed by a Guatemalan death squad, until her grandmother received a letter sending for her. We have heard a mother housed in the sanctuary of a church, pleading against deportation, describe her treatment by North Americans as amor de Dios, the love of God. She is fighting a lucha bella, a beautiful struggle.
How do mothers behave when their children and families are threatened? That is how God acts, and that is how Christ calls Christians to act toward her children.
My exploration of Central American-U.S. immigration started today. Over the next 10 days I will be spending nights in Douglas, Ariz.; Agua Prieta and Tapachula, Mexico; Quetzaltenango, Xela and other sites in Guatemala; El Limon and San Salvador in El Salvador.
I am traveling with 14 other people as part of a Presbyterian Church-USA seminar called Voices from the Border and Beyond. We are mostly white, mostly from the west coast and southwest U.S. and mostly Presbyterian. We are hearing stories of privilege and power, fear and fighting, social movements and public policy.
Today we prayed to a God “scandalously earthed, poor, unrecognized.” Please pray with us.
(Prayer by Kate Compston in Bread of Tomorrow by Janet Morley)
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I have just completed 10 months of church service in El Paso, Texas. During my last two weeks there, much of my time was spent at an immigrant drop-off site, run by the non-profit agency Annunciation House, to accept and help process Central Americans who have been detained by ICE or Border Patrol on the Mexico-Texas border. El Paso has opened its arms and shown incredible hospitality to thousands of immigrants who are passing through. Churches are accepting donated clothing and toiletries, setting up cots, and cooking meals; volunteers are working all hours of the day and night. El Paso has done what the disciples in Luke 10 hoped for: They have come here like lambs among wolves, and they say “peace on this house,” and El Paso has told them, “peace be with you,” in return.
Four nights before I left El Paso, I was waking up two young mothers and their toddlers at 3:30 a.m. to take their first airplane ride at 6 a.m. They got themselves ready, and as I explained airport security, and who would be helping them through, their eyes got wider and wider and wider. Their eyes filled with tears as they left, and we hugged each other and told each other, God be with you. And their faces told me, “The kingdom of God has come near.” The kingdom of God has come to us. We are looking at the face of Christ in the women and children who are entering our cities with nothing but hope for a life free of violence. And by our actions, we demonstrate Christ’s love to them.
But this is not the end of our obligation. The rest of the nation is watching. When I read the rest of Luke 10, I can’t help but wonder whether many many cities across this country, with its broken immigration system, will be judged. Woe to you cities who have turned away planeloads and busloads of migrants. Woe to you cities who have passed laws inhibiting children from going to school. Woe to you cities who reject the poor and lost.
Christ sends the 70 in this Gospel lesson, into a nation divided by loyalties to the ancient ways of worship and loyalties to the new potential prosperity of close ties with Rome. When Jesus says “the kingdom of God has come near to you” it is not a politically benign statement. He is claiming kingship among priests, elders and governors who will recognize this statement as treasonous, and threatening to the status quo power. Similarly, the prophet Amos, who also announces woe to cities, speaks to the ancient kingdom of Israel during a time of relative prosperity, and during a time of increasing disparity between rich and poor, and a time, he says, of false piety. What good is your pious worship, he says, if there is injustice in your land? God doesn’t care if you didn’t cause the injustice; God cares that the injustice exists. God cares if we have done nothing to point to the injustice or to change it. We are not to view our prosperity as blessing from God in return for our piety; we are to view our prosperity as a tool to bring justice to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner.
Many congregations and volunteers have shown extraordinary compassion and recognized the face of Christ in the face of the emissaries of God who have arrived on our nation’s doorstep. We have shown them the compassion that Christ calls us to. But our job is not over. Our job is to take the role of prophet, to witness to the nation.
“Faith calls us to love, not to fear. Crossing a border to protect and love your family is not a crime. Undocumented immigrants should not be treated as criminals.” ~ The Rev. Susan Frederick, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Phoenix
We must recognize that while compassion is good, injustice still reigns in our nation. It is our job to point out those who reject the migrant. It is our job as witnesses to lobby for swift and just immigration reform and fair trade and labor practices. It is our job as witnesses tell our elected officials, our neighboring cities, our friends, our nation what is happening on our border.
We are offering compassion, kindness, Christian love. Our compassion will be counted as false piety if we do not marry it with a sincere effort to reform our country’s system.
I heard an interview recently with John Fife, former pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. Fife was indicted by the federal government in the 1980s for publicly offering sanctuary to Salvadoran and Guatemalan migrants fleeing civil wars in their countries. Because the United States was participating in the wars in those countries, it wasn’t willing to declare those seeking asylum refugees. The first time breaking the law was a hard decision for him, Fife said. “Am I willing to go to jail for a year or two, in order to save this family from deportation to death?” Fife compared the current situation in Honduras and Guatemala to the situation in the 1980s and 90s. The source of the violence may have shifted to drug cartels and gangs rather than superpower proxy wars but the result is the same: desperation and fear for life. Eventually, in the 1990s, the United States changed its stance on refugees from the Central American conflicts. But only after a decade of advocacy, counter-lawsuits, and civil disobedience by churches and Christians.
John Fife’s story serves to show me that churches and faith communities can make real change if they stand up and speak out for justice and righteousness in our nation. We Christians can make real change happen by acting and speaking out of our faith and not out of our fear.
We must start to view the arrival of a migrant on our doorstep not as a threat to our prosperity, but as a Christ-like addition to our community. Deportations have hit record rates, 32,886 per month, and immigration reform is stalled in Congress. If nothing changes in the next few months, very many of the people aided in this effort of compassion will be deported in a few years, after a court hearing to determine their credibility for asylum. And that determination, frankly, might not be based on the immigrants’ credible fear of returning to their country. It could be based on the arbitrariness of the political climate at the time of their hearing. Is that justice? No.
If all those women and children are deported, what good will our compassion and charity of this summer have been? Christ has blessed us, richly, with friendship and peace. May Christ bless us also with justice, and the will to strive for it.