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).
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“What gives you hope? What gives you strength?” we asked a man who runs a shelter for migrants at the Guatemalan border. He looked down and smiled, and he paused for a few seconds. Then he paraphrased scripture.
Ya es tarde, casi la noche. Quédate con nosotros.
It’s late, almost evening. Stay with us, the two asked Jesus on the road to Emmaus. And when Jesus stayed and broke bread with them, their eyes were open, and they recognized him.
“It is a spiritual conviction,” the man said, “that gives me hope.”
As we crossed another border, into Guatemala, we have traveled more than 2,500 miles in four days, on plane, bus and foot. As we walked across the bridge between Chiapas and Guatemala, looking to the right and left, I saw migrants crossing the river by foot, raft, or even bicycle. Migrants traveling to the United States to attempt dangerous illegal crossings take weeks to travel the distance, and often hop a train called la Bestia (the Beast) that amputated the limbs of many we saw in shelters today.
Many in our group of travelers, including me, named a reason for our trip as finding “the root causes” of migration, as though migration is a problem to be solved. But it is the barriers to migration—the injustices, the evils, the walls and the wastelands—that must be solved.
What the aid workers and migrants we met today taught me is that, like Jesus and his friends on the way to Emmaus, we humans are created to be migrants. And in the faces of migrants, we find God.
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“We look at this Son and see God who cannot be seen. … So spacious is Christ that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding.”
The past day was filled with contradictions as we met people of faith who work and live on the border in Douglas and Agua Prieta (DouglaPrieta). A Border Patrol agent left his teaching job because he believes he makes a more immediate difference for children as an agent. A church pastor helped his congregation rally around a deacon facing deportation, but the church won’t become a sanctuary because migrants also do harm to property as they cross. A director of a shelter for migrants says he has faith in God, not in governments, and serving his neighbor is what gives him joy and strength.
The irony of immigration policy in the United States is that it does a better job of keeping people in than keeping people out, one U.S. church mission worker says. People already in the United States choose not to return to their homes because it is so much harder to cross a second time. The number of border agents has quadrupled and wall infrastructure has multiplied exponentially. The desert is cut to dust as agents drag roads and “cut for sign” and track footprints. The agents in Douglas more often than not are not Douglas natives and don’t live in Douglas, so there is tension between them.
In Corinthians 4:4 we read, “The God of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” And our group’s daily reflections ask us: What is our relationship as Christians with this particular community of the people of God?
I realize on this trip that I am part of the body of Christ with not only the migrants and the church workers who aid them but with the Border Patrol agents who say they do this job to help children and whose faith also informs them. I am one with church members who give food and water to migrants and then call immigration authorities to report them.
I am struggling to reconcile these contradictions and contrasts. There is room for all, but how is God calling me to respond to these differences?
I told a man staying at the shelter in Agua Prieta, contemplating an attempt to cross to the north, that our group is on our way south from Tucson to Chiapas, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
“Hacemos la migración al revés,” I said. “We are making the migration in reverse.”
“Ah! La diferencia es que a Uds. no quieren a asesinar.” “The difference is they aren’t going to try to kill you.”
(Quote from Colossians in The Message)
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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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an Advent devotion based on Psalm 126
When we had the good fortune to cross safely into this land, O God, we became dreamers. We laughed with relief, with optimism, and ironically with fear, knowing that the wrong word upon our tongues could end in deportation and undoing.
Those in other nations looked upon us with envy, believing us to be saved, but suddenly we knew in our flesh that it was not yet true. Some of us are still missing. We dream of our grandmothers, sons, nephews, sisters, husbands, grandbabies, back in the land where we were born but don’t belong.
We rejoice because we may now remit and save and feed the flesh of our torn flesh, the bone of our broken bones. We praise God for our safety. And we plead for theirs.
Restore us, O God. Make us a whole family. Be like the waters of the Rio Grande, so long absent, suddenly bursting forth, washing away the sins and the hurts and the fences, and soaking the soil and renewing life.
May we who sow their fields with our tears then reap with shouts of joy.
May all families who go out weeping, bearing the seeds of dreams, return home with shouts of joy, carrying their own babies, feeding their own families, kissing their own lovers, embracing their own flesh.