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Ed: This is the keynote address from the 2012 Faith & Immigration Statewide Summit. You can learn more about the Summit here, and download podcasts from the workshops here. This keynote was originally delivered in Spanish. Download the Spanish version here.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
~ Philippians 1:3-11
Just as Paul gave thanks for the people that shared his vision of sharing the gospel, I also give thanks this morning for each one of your lives. I thank you for the hard work that you do on behalf of the immigrant community of this region. Our work is not easy. Our work is constantly facing obstacles and challenges. Our work is tiring and very frustrating. Our work often makes us want to give up and lose hope. What is even sadder is that many of these obstacles and challenges are found within our own faith communities.
I remember one occasion in which a leader of a small church group of about two thousand people called me to ask me in what ways they could support the church that I was the pastor of at the time. At that moment I was coordinating an informative immigration workshop, we were seeking to share information with people in various forms so that they could prepare themselves in case they were deported. So I shared information about this workshop to this person and I told him that they could help by offering activities to the children while the adults receive the information. His answer was that he would contact me in the next few days. After waiting a few days and not hearing back from him, I decided to call him and ask him if they would support us, his answer was that he was very sorry, they could help in sharing the gospel of Christ, but they couldn’t be involved in anything with political overtones.
On another occasion, when the debate about immigration reform was in its peak, I received an e-mail from a pastor friend of mine. Her e-mail used various biblical references to emphasize the importance of welcoming the foreigner, the immigrant. Specifically, it was an invitation to send letters and sign onto an electronic letter expressing support for immigration reform. It also urged people to forward the e-mail to the greatest possible number of contacts. I remember I sent the e-mail to about 50 people, all pastors and leaders of the church. To my surprise, I received an answer from a pastor. “The reasons I cannot help with your petition and with an immigration reform are the following …” He gave some very valid reasons, but he also gave others not as valid and even anti Christian. For example, he said that the Bible did in fact talk about welcoming and giving hospitality to the foreigner, but it didn’t say anything about illegal foreigners. He ended his e-mail telling me to be careful with my political activism and to not be ungrateful with the nation that had opened its doors to me and my family and that was above all feeding us.
I have to confess to you, I did know how to respond in either case, instead I remained silent and I even asked forgiveness to the pastor in the last example. If I had a second opportunity of engaging in dialogue with these people, I would tell them that the example I see in Jesus Christ is that he confronted the oppressive powers, he challenged the political and religious forces of his time. Not in a violent or disorganized way. Or maybe he did use violence, but the type of violence that Archbishop Romero called the violence of love. Jesus did not confront the powers of his time just for political activism, but with the purpose of reconciling humanity with God and with itself. I would tell them that if my actions seem to have a political overtone, they are instead spurred by observing lives that suffer due to a failed system, one that separates families, that promotes racism and discrimination, and that goes against the reconciling spirit of the Good News of the Gospel of Christ.
But what can I tell you, who surely on more than one occasion have faced similar or worse situations. The good news is that in the middle of this very somber scenario, if there is something that keeps us standing and continuing this journey of advocacy and accompaniment with our immigrant neighbors, it is the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. A hope that oftentimes feels so absent and far-away, yet other times is so real and tangible. This is why, I want to use my time not to talk about the challenges of the work that you have dedicated so much time to, some of you all your life, because in reality you know better than anyone the work of serving and advocating for the immigrant community.
I would rather focus our time on celebrating the fruits of your labor. That’s right, although sometimes it may seem that your work does not give much fruit, the reality is that your small contribution makes a big difference in the lives of many people. This morning I would like to celebrate your work, I would like to celebrate that you have sought to serve our Lord Jesus faithfully through your work and service to a community that often goes unnoticed in the communities of this country.
I want to celebrate and give you thanks for the hospitality that you have given the immigrant community. And I wish to do so by once again using the words of the Apostle Paul, which I think will also serve as words of encouragement, especially when we face resistance, opposition and even persecution for the simple act of seeking justice for the immigrant:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers… Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
~ Romans 12:9-21
Thank you for your decision to conquer evil with good. You have decided to defeat opposition and resistance with diligence and perseverance. But above all, thank you for allowing love and hospitality to prevail over hate and hostility. When I arrived to this country it was precisely people like you, women and men of faith who practiced hospitably and Christian love, who left an impression and transformed my life forever. Please don’t have any doubt that God uses every gesture of Christian love and radical hospitality that you make towards an immigrant in order to transform lives.
I think it’s important to mention that I come from the city of San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, which has a common border with the city of San Luis, Arizona. I lived fifteen years of my life on that border, and even in the last five years when I was a very active Christian member of my church, I never bothered to understand the migratory problem or to help the migrants that came through my city. It wasn’t until I became an immigrant myself and started to serve an immigrant community that this became not an option, but an obligation to be involved with the immigrant community here in North Carolina. But the risk and the reality that many people live in our churches, is to consider the immigration issue something optional, foreign and distant to their lives.
Towards the end of last year God placed in my heart the need to return to my city in order to learn more about the migratory issue. I contacted a pastor that I knew and I expressed to him my desire to learn about what the church is doing along the border for the migrant community, and he consented to be my guide. That feeling in my heart made me travel to the border three times this year. In each trip the route was the same. We arrived at San Diego. We crossed over to Tijuana. In Tijuana we visited a place called “El Bordo”, it is estimated that an average of 300 migrants wander in that place, without including those that are no longer migrants and have become destitute.
They got tired of trying to cross to the other side. They got tired of trying to make a life in Tijuana, they lost hope and they found refuge in alcohol or drugs and they stayed there. And now, the only thing that motivates many of them, the only hope they have is to earn money for one more bottle, one more dose, even when the only way to have an income is to sell their own body. In this same place, while traveling with a group of pastors, we found two youth, one of them approached us talking in English with a southern accent, and we couldn’t believe it. His story was that he was taken to the US at a very young age, and had been deported a few months ago, he didn’t know anyone in Mexico, and couldn’t return to the US because he risked being arrested for trying to cross the border several times.
We also visited the “Friendship Park.” This park was at one time a meeting place where families from both sides of the border could reunite, share meals, and even participate in Communion with people of different denominations. Now it is just that, a memory but also a permanent symbol of a place that rather than creating more bridges of unity, instead only keeps on multiplying walls. In fact, on my first visit, when I was observing the exact spot where families used to meet, we could hear a deafening noise that was truly bothersome, which came from the machines that were working on an extension of the wall into the ocean. And that’s the way it should be, we should be bothered by the noise of the machinery of the powers that keep on building walls instead of knocking them down to build bridges.
We also visited different shelters. These shelters receive on average 130 deported people every day. It pained our hearts to see the dejection and deception of these people, many deported, some trying to cross for the first time, and still others about to try once again. It was in one of these shelters that we asked if they had suggestions to help the immigrant community in North Carolina, and they told us to “share our stories and tell them that we are not criminals.” We also had the opportunity to walk in the desert with the Samaritan aid group.
Something that personally impacted my life was that in the two occasions that we went to the desert, the people that guided us said they did not consider themselves religious people, and I would venture to say that they would not identify themselves as Christians. However, one them said that he would not mind dying in the desert or going to jail if he could help an immigrant. One of them said something like this, for me a moral law is greater than any human law, for me the preservation of life comes before human law. Both people were part of the Samaritan aid group, and they truly live the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The most significant thing we found in common in each one of our journeys was to listen and reflect on the shared stories by each woman and man that we encountered. It was also very striking to hear over and over again, “share our stories and let people know that we are not the criminals they think we are, we only seek a better life.” Each story that we heard had an impact on us, made us reflect about our humanity and Christianity and forced us to ask ourselves questions like: Am I doing enough for the immigrant community that lives close to me? Have I been sufficiently intentional in confronting ignorant and malicious commentaries made about the immigrant community? Have I informed and involved myself in passing bills that correct the current immigration laws? And the list goes on.
But, this morning I thank God because you can easily answer yes to every one of these questions. I thank God for your Christian love and your gestures of hospitality, which I assure you, have changed the stories for many of these people. These stories in general are sad, with suffering, poverty, sickness and death. Is this not a reason to give thanks to God? We share the Gospel through our love and acts of hospitality, which change for good the life story of another person.
Thank you too for your assertiveness and courage in confronting without fear the powers that be, because even though our struggle is not against flesh and blood, “but rather against powers, against authorities that dominate this world of shadows, against evil spiritual forces in the celestial regions.” The reality is that these powers, these authorities, these evil spiritual forces become real themselves in the systems that oppress this world. In other words, you are also directly confronting evil when you are assertive and courageously confront the powers that oppress immigrants.
I wish to finish with the following story. In the first visit to the border, I had the opportunity to share a meal with an undocumented woman. She shared the incredible story of her husband, who was arrested and subsequently deported in a raid carried out by Joe Arpaio’s people. She was telling us that the night that her husband was deported she was crying in her living room, and she was demanding answers to God for what happened. The next day her church informed her that they would begin a prayer chain for her husband and that they wouldn’t stop until there was a miracle.
After a few months, ICE agents knocked on her door and she opened expecting the worst. The agents explained to her that they were looking for her husband, and she told them he had been deported. The agents asked her to get in touch with him and tell him that he had to return to be a witness in a case against the office of Joe Arpaio. With a lot of effort, she convinced her husband to return to the border, and when he got there the agents found him and once again escorted him inside the United States. When she finished telling her story, she had tears in her eyes, and told us to tell the people over there in North Carolina that miracles still exist.
Miracles still exist. Your struggle is not in vain. Your service is not in vain. Keep on confronting the powers and evil forces that oppress this world and therefore changing the stories of many other lives. Keep on moving forward, let us go forward, because when we least expect it, the miracle that we prayed for so much, the one we fought for so much, will become a reality.