Loving the foreigner, welcoming the stranger at the border


The chasm that often exists between theory and practice was on my mind as our session considered the request. The open disposition of a community is tested when boundaries are challenged.

Rev. Rob Woodruff

Second Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, N.M., welcomes transgender migrants seeking asylum in the United States. The congregation’s boundaries were challenged, and according to their pastor, they are learning how to be hospitable amid discomfort uncertainty. I was touched by the honesty and unfinished-ness expressed in this article by Pastor Rob Woodruff in Presbyterian Outlook magazine.

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On the caravan and those left behind

In last half of the month of October, I passed not a day without hearing conversations about “la caravana” that is making its way from Honduras towards the United States. Sometimes I was part of the conversation; friends and acquaintances would ask me, the only U.S. citizen in the room, what I thought about the caravan, whether I voted for Donald Trump in 2016, how I would change migration laws in the United States if I could. Many in Honduras are divided about the caravan. Mothers express heartbreak and judgment about parents who are carrying toddlers and babies on the dangerous journey, or the same about parents who left their toddlers and babies behind. Young people debate whether they would have gone, given the chance, or express either relief or regret that they didn’t take the chance.

What most everyone agrees is that back here in Honduras, there is very little opportunity for jobs, education, improvement. Two-thirds of people are underemployed. Two-thirds of people live under the poverty line.

The most heartbreaking part of this “caravan” of migrants for me is to see the level to which politicians, governments, media and the powerful are using the “plight” of migrants to amplify their own interests and messaging. The timing of the caravan is no accident, but it is not the first, nor is it a sudden trend or surge. Migration between Central America and the U.S. has been a steady trend since the 1980s, and actually in recent years has decreased, for various reasons.

The media in Honduras, all of which is quite politically biased, is playing the caravan of migrants to either right- or left-wing advantage. The left-wing media is following the caravan daily and blaming the current government for the economic hardship and violence that the migrants are “fleeing.” The right-wing media, in support of the current government, is playing up the difficulty of the journey and the U.S. government’s opposition and threats to cut off U.S. AID and military funding, on which Honduras is dependent. They’re attempting to guilt and shame migrants by saying their choice is harming Honduras. They have arrested at least one caravan organizer, accusing him of being a “coyote” and making false promises to migrants.

Meanwhile, the congresses in both countries are using the caravan as a red herring to divert attention from their activities. In Honduras’s congress last month, a motion was passed to protect the identities of arrested suspects, supposedly in order to protect the suspects’ human rights, but which journalists believe will allow officials to avoid reporting the identities of the targets of corruption investigations. In the United States, several states have passed voter suppression laws while those in office rail against the threats of illegal immigrants attempting to vote.

Immigrants are easy targets. They are exercising their human rights to move in order to improve their opportunities and safety. They are making a gigantic sacrifice—leaving citizenship behind—in the hopes of a brighter future for their families.

What makes me the saddest is the characterization of Honduras as a bleak, hopeless place, the vulnerability of communities and families who lose parents and leaders to the ambition of arriving in the north, and the indifference of church communities who don’t use their prophetic voice to speak truth to power despite the danger of sounding “too political.” There are many problems and difficulties in Honduras, but it is also a beautiful, hospitable, resourceful place to live. Many communities, some of which include Presbyterian churches, are harmed by the exodus of migrants. In Puerto Grande on the southern coast, for example, there is really not a single household that doesn’t have someone “in the north,” usually a parent or both parents, leaving children to be raised by grandparents. The person might send back $200 or $300 a month to support their family, an amount that can buy a lot in Puerto Grande, but it also creates a sense of dependence and idleness. Young people who stay behind have few job prospects, little incentive for education, and lots of opportunity to become involved in delinquent activity.

The trends of violence and economic dependence are exports from the United States. Before mass deportations of imprisoned gang members in the 1980s and 1990s, gangs existed in Honduras, but not nearly to the organized and terrifying level that they exist today. Agricultural subsidies, free trade agreements, and neo-colonial economic policies of the United States have made entrepreneurship and development driven by Hondurans virtually impossible. Unbridled corruption in the government of Honduras rewards connections to the U.S. and compliance with U.S. policies over justice and self-development of the people. It’s said, “When Heidi Fulton says ‘frog,’ Honduran officials say ‘jump.’” (Fulton is the U.S. charge d’affaires at the embassy in Tegucigalpa.)

As for the caravan itself, what few people in the U.S. understand is that there is no “line” for migrants to get into. It is next-to-impossible for Central Americans to get an immigrant visa, and the wait is upwards of 15 years long. Tourist visas are denied more often than not, and they cost $160 per application, whether they are denied or not. In order to apply for asylum, a person legally has to be physically in the country they are asking for asylum, and to apply for refugee status, they must not be physically in their home country.

The “irregular” migration road to the United States is extremely dangerous. I have met people who have been sexually assaulted, kidnapped, robbed, beaten, wounded, and maimed on the road. I have met the families of those who died. The caravan is partly timed as a political demonstration aimed at politicians in both Honduras and in the U.S., and we think that most Hondurans who joined the caravan did it not as a political statement but as an attempt at more visibility and therefore more security—safety in numbers and in media interest.

I am glad that the Presbyterian Church-USA has spoken about the question of irregular migration and the inhumane policies and rhetoric of the United States government. I am glad that Presbyterians in the United States are responding to the current caravan. I hope and pray that in the election Tuesday, the values of hospitality, compassion, and global citizenship are reflected.

Movers, shakers, law-breakers

“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.

The authority of love

From a sermon preached Feb. 8, 2015, at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, Calif.

Romans 13:1-10

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).

Border and Beyond: A Seminary Journey

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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Let immigration reform roll down like rain

Adapted sermon on Luke 10:1-11 and Amos 5:21-24

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.