Several weeks back, on the news, you may remember, we were reading and hearing about the government’s deportation threat of undocumented people from south of the border. It’s still in the news actually, but more so then, than now. Now, I don’t have to tell you, the hot news topic is the repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act.
So, again, several weeks back, I had decided to attend a free, half-day seminar titled, “Preaching during the Season of Lent,” a riveting topic—still don’t know why the Presbytery didn’t sell tickets—the Presbytery could have made a lot of money! Anyway, preaching is my thing. For that reason, I eagerly made the hour and a half drive from Charlottesville to Richmond. In the car ALL I listened to was news reports about our government’s threat of deporting thousands of undocumented people living in the US.
At the seminar, the participants, of which I was one of about 20, and the presenters sat at tables arranged in a circle. After the requisite meet and greet, our study began in earnest. The seminar leaders took us through the different Lenten lectionary passages, week by week. Very soon, our focus turned to the scripture passage for today, about Abram and Sarai. Maybe because of my saturation with the news on my drive to Richmond, I quickly made the connection: Abram and Sarai equals immigrants.
However, the little conversation we had on this particular scripture passage, did not go in the direction of immigration. We were about to move on to consider another text--so, I blurted out, “Well, doesn’t this passage have everything to say about the current immigrant situation in our country?” In other words, “Don’t you see that elephant doing handstands in the middle of our circle?”
One of the presenters was sitting next to me. He turned to me and responded, “And where do you intend to apply for your next church, Gay Lee?” Everyone laughed, and with that, the conversation pivoted.
We turned to a study of the night visit of Nicodemus. Remember that story? Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night, so his fellow Pharisees won’t see him. Nicodemus doesn’t want his fellow Pharisees to know that he is captivated by Jesus and his teachings. Nicodemus and Jesus have a conversation but Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying—and he leaves, “in the dark” just as he had come, “in the dark.” To some peoples’ thinking, darkness in this story is a metaphor for Nicodemus’s state of mind. Our group talked about how some people live in a perpetual state of darkness. Someone mentioned deep sea diving, and the darkness at the ocean’s depths. Deep sea diving—now there’s a topic for you—sure to be relevant to the people sitting in our Presbyterian pews!
All to say, at that seminar we missed an opportunity to talk about something that IS relevant, like the social justice issue of, again, immigration.
Here I should say, that pastors and the churches they serve are very good at the day-to-day caring for the poor; say, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked—in other words, doing charity work, but we are not so good about engaging in social justice issues. And, as was made obvious at that seminar, pastors avoid even talking about social justice issues like immigration—That’s because talk on social justice issues can be divisive in clergy seminars, just as they can be divisive in congregations. But grapple with immigration we must. It’s biblical.
Beginning with Abraham, and our story for today, the Bible is just chock full of stories about people who have left one homeland for another at God’s command. There’s even a couple of entire books dedicated to immigration. It’s true. One is Exodus. The other is Ruth. In the first, Jews who had been serving as slaves, leave Egypt for a new land, promised them by God. In the second, Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, for financial reasons, leave Moab and travel to Bethlehem. Ruth, an immigrant, becomes the great- grandmother of King David; and Jesus was in King David’s lineage.
Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy contain God’s commands regarding the treatment of the stranger. “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”(Lev.19:33).
In the New Testament, according to Matthew, Jesus and his parents moved from Judah to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murder of baby boys. In our New Testament scripture passage for today, Jesus tells us that when we care for the stranger, it is as if we are caring for Jesus himself: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”
Immigration then, is sometimes part of God’s plan for God’s people. And, God calls for us to care for the stranger. At least that’s my take on it—although it is certainly not ALL pastors’ take on it. You know Franklin Graham? Franklin Graham is the son of Billy Graham, He famously declared, or maybe infamously declared, depending on your point of view, “Immigration is not a Bible issue.” Come again?
Immigration IS a biblical issue, but like so many of God’s commandments, figuring out how to do what God calls us to do can be complicated. That’s probably another reason that pastors are reluctant to talk about immigration. We want to have everything sewed up nice and tidy when we deliver a sermon. But we just don’t know enough on the issue. In this regard, I may know more than most pastors. I’ve been to the Border, I’ve visited several migrant communities here in this country. So I thought I would share some of those experiences with you—as a starting place, maybe for more discussion, at another time.
I’ve talked in at least one other sermon, about my trip to Nogales, Mexico. Nogales used to be, anyway, maybe still is, a popular crossing place for illegal immigrants into the US. Yes, there is a wall, an ugly corrugated metal wall, separating Mexico from the US in Nogales—but in the desert, just outside of Nogales, there were and maybe still are crossing places—dangerous, but doable, if you are physically fit, you pack light, and you hire yourself, at great expense, an experienced and honest Coyote—or crossing guide.
When I was in Nogales, I stayed in a home in a squatter community. The owner had built it herself with discards. Stacked car tires for front steps, patched together metal and wood roof, scrap-wood walls. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling in the main gathering space--the family’s living room, dining room, and den, all in one. Dirt floors, no running water. No public transportation. No health care. The homeowner worked as a maid. No wonder brave people with dreams try to make the crossing.
That’s the Mexican side of the immigration problem, as I have experienced it.
When I served Cove Presbyterian Church, I learned a little bit about immigration on THIS side of the border. There was a migrant camp, a short five-minute drive from the church. Church members thought the camp might offer us a mission opportunity, so a group of us visited that camp.
The migrants’ job is to pick peaches and then apples at the nearby orchards. They arrive in May. They pick fruit into the late fall. Then they move on to Florida to pick citrus fruit.
When we visited, the living conditions at the camp weren’t much better than those in the squatter community. Actually, in some ways conditions were worse. There WAS running water and even a bathroom, though. The men slept on bunk beds, twelve, sixteen men to a room. They slept on old smelly mattresses with no sheets. So in that way, living conditions were worse than in Mexico. In the squatter community we had sheets. The men at the migrant camp didn’t have towels either—so running water, but no towels. Guess after a shower, they dripped dry.
If living conditions were so awful at that camp, why did those young men bother to come to the US? They were here to 1) send money back to their loved ones, who they hoped to eventually join back in Mexico, or 2) bring their loved ones here. From what I am reading, now most of the movement is going the other way-back to Mexico.
Our group reported back to the church. Compassion ran high. We held a sheet-and-towel drive every year after that first visit. Our annual collections were much appreciated.
It occurred to me at some point in my time at the church, though, that in making those sheet-and-towel donations to the camp, we were actually contributing to a financial system that exploits the stranger, exploits, immigrants. I mean, shouldn’t the camp’s owner (who also owned the orchards) shouldn’t HE have been providing sheets and towels? Wasn’t the church helping the orchard owner maintain a lifestyle to which he had become accustomed? This was a social justice issue. Maybe we should contact the orchard owner and demand that HE provide the sheets and towels for his workers, And then I really got on my high horse! Maybe we should petition the orchard owner to raise wages. Yeah! That could have had the added benefit of attracting non-immigrant workers. In 2008 and immediately after—that is, during the recession--there were lots of unemployed US citizens living in the vicinity of our church.
But you’ve probably thought this through as I have thought this through. If the orchard owner spent too much on improving living conditions at the camp, and particularly if he raised wages, he probably would have to also raise the price of his fruit. We consumers would feel the effects of that—and raising the price of fruit, of course, might even put that orchard owner out of business. As I say, complicated.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the mess we find ourselves in—the Mexican government for allowing such abysmal poverty and few or no safety nets; the Mexicans themselves for not putting pressure on their government to support the weak and vulnerable; the US government for turning a blind eye to the exploitation of immigrants; US employers who exploit undocumented workers, and us, the consumers, who are beneficiaries of immigrant exploitation. What’s a good Christian to do?
I want to end this sermon by returning to our other scripture passage for today from Matthew. It’s about the last judgment. Jesus says that at the last judgment we won’t be judged for our beliefs—whether we embrace Jesus as the Son of God. We will be judged for what we do or fail to do. It’s not good, people. For those of us who do not care for the stranger, God’s response is eternal punishment. Certainly that is enough to catalyze us to do SOMETHING. But what? Maybe we should hope that Franklin Graham is right, after all. Amen