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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NYTimes: How the Migrant Caravan Became a Trump Election Strategy

How the Migrant Caravan Became a Trump Election Strategy https://nyti.ms/2JeqRER

Far from Honduras, the White House was busy grappling with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist whose death inside a Saudi consulate had tarnished Saudi Arabia, a vital ally of the Trump administration. And with the midterm elections in the United States only weeks away, President Trump was eager to change the script.

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).

Six flags over Samaria

Meditation on John 4:1-22

I’ve been in El Paso now six months, serving two eastside churches, one of which is about six blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border. I live downtown, about eight blocks from the border, in a building where every apartment includes people who are bilingual, people who regularly cross the border to visit family, to work, to worship, to play. I drive down Delta Drive past so many reminders of the border. Patrol agents sitting in Jeeps, a steel mesh fence along the riverbed. Chamizal National Memorial, which commemorates the supposedly peaceful settlement of a border dispute caused by the movement of the Rio Grande riverbed between Mexico and the United States.

Imagine Jesus crossing the border into El Paso, sitting near the Rio Grande at Chamizal, a man with different skin, different clothes, a different accent. He’s a close approximation, but not quite at home here. He meets a woman going about her daily work, perhaps on her way to preach at a nearby church. Jesus has lived in the area a long time, he’s a Chihuahua desert native. He knows this place. But he knows that he is in a country that does not claim him. A nation of people that conveniently forgets how many times this very spot of earth has changed names, changed ownership, been surrounded by different fences and barriers. The man knows that his ancestors, too, walked this land, claimed this water.

The woman knows immediately that the man has crossed the border. She is wary. Does he have legitimate business here? Can she cross the street to avoid contact with him? How far away is that border patrol car? Is he going to speak to her? Doesn’t he know that this is her home? She is supposed to feel safe here. The confidence of a person who knows she belongs inside these borders, shaken by the presence of a person who clearly doesn’t belong.

We know when we have crossed borders. How then should we be transformed by them?

Since moving here, I have encountered many many unexpected mixes of cultures and faith traditions. My whitebread upbringing is not enough to understand all I’m seeing: Protestants with Virgin of Guadalupe candles in their home shrines. Catholics who speak in tongues during prayers. None of this is technically Presbyterian. And my initial reaction was one of discomfort. If I’m a pastor of a Presbyterian church, what am I supposed to know or believe about the Virgin of Guadalupe?

I have found that many U.S.-siders don’t know Guadalupe’s story. It varies, but generally follows this line: In the 1530s, around the time the Protestant reformation was starting in Europe, a peasant, an Indian, an indigenous person in what is now Mexico City, saw a vision of a young woman, a virgin with brown skin, who told him that the church should build a cathedral on the hill above the city. Juan Diego went to the local Catholic bishop and told him of the vision. The bishop asked him for proof. So Juan Diego returned to the site, and the virgin reappeared, transforming Juan Diego’s plain poncho into a brightly colored mantle, and giving him an armful of flowers, roses, out of season, to return to the bishop. One hundred years later, in the 1600s, this was recognized as a miracle, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, a cognate of the Virgin Mary, eventually became the most beloved saint in Mexico, venerated among Catholics and non-Catholics.

What I find most beautiful about this story, and most relevant the story of John 4, is that the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe probably didn’t originate in the Catholic church. Many scholars equate her with Tonantzin, or a goddess of the mountain on which the Catholic cathedral in Mexico City was built. She was a goddess of the land, the earth, fertility, of providence. Tonantzin was and still is venerated among indigenous people there. She was transformed by the borders that were colonized and reformed around her.

Even our gods know when we have crossed borders. How then are our gods transformed?

Our woman meeting the man near Chamizal; the Samaritan woman meeting Jesus: No one knows the meaning and transforming power of crossing borders more than they. The Samaritan woman has held tightly to her beliefs, her indigenous identity, despite centuries of occupation and religious co-opting by foreign powers, her “husbands,” Assyrian and Roman resettlements. Shrines to Yahweh had been forcibly replaced by shrines to Greek gods, and then later to a Roman Christian church.

The woman meeting the migrant at Chamizal has forgotten this history. She thinks she owns this land, that the U.S. passport card she carries gives her right of occupation, gives her right of truth, right to pass freely. In a way, she is right. But the man she meets at Chamizal will remind her: You are not the rightful owner. You don’t belong here in the way you think you do. This alliance, this marriage, this spouse of yours, this homeland, it is not truly your husband.

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)

To be on the side of the empire, the northern side of the border, affords me a particular blindness, blindness to truth, to love, to justice. I don’t have to worry about immigration reform because it doesn’t have to affect me. I often forget that I am lucky to be able to cross the border freely. I can claim a Christian sisterhood with Christians across the border, who in all possibility once were “Americans” or “Texans,” or “Spaniards,” or indigenous pre-national peoples. But I have the luxury of being able to forget that many of them may not legally cross into my home; I cannot or do not welcome them here, although I am welcomed there with all hospitality.

If my Samaritan woman had been traveling to Jerusalem, would she have been afforded the same courtesy that our migrant Jewish rabbi was afforded? Would she have been given a drink, or would she have been shunned?

Our migrant Jesus, sitting near Chamizal, with the northern woman, what hospitality will he be afforded?

We Christians know the power or borders. We El Pasoans know even better. Will we open our eyes and hearts to be transformed by their crossing?

P.S. These musings originated as a sermon I gave at First Presbyterian Church of El Paso