Rev. Brock Meyer, Pastor of Stem-Bullock’s United Methodist Church
Delivered at a gathering of Caminantes, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina
June 6, 2013 – Matthew 22:36-40
Editor’s Note: “An Uncomfortable Ministry” is not a conventional sermon, though it was preached among a small group of United Methodist ministers who are involved with Hispanic Ministries, called Caminantes. It’s a heartfelt first-person reflection that describes what happens when we learn to love our neighbors as ourselves. Rev. Meyer was kind enough to give us permission to publish it on our website, and we saw right away that it belongs here in the Sermon Library.
I was both excited and nervous as I unpacked my boxes in the parsonage to begin my first year as a pastor. It had been a busy day with people coming in and out of the house, but after a while I was sitting alone and I looked around my new home trying to decide how I was going to arrange my furniture. As I moved and pushed my furniture about, I felt prompted to look out through the front door to observe the community in which I would be living. I peered out of the window and there was a house diagonally across the street that caught my attention. It was a small white house with an overgrown yard and a large yellow old school bus parked in the gravel driveway. I grew up in a semi-rural area of North Carolina for most of my life, and I was pretty sure that I knew what the yellow bus was all about. However, I did not know that this discovery was going to lead to something that would forever change my life, not only as a pastor, but also as a Christian.
I became curious about the bus across the street, and so I began to observe it. During most days, the bus was gone and would come back to the house around 9:30 or 10:00 at night, and I awoke early to discover that the bus would leave around 5:30 in the morning. Each day, a fairly large group of Hispanic men would get on this bus in the morning, and then return late at night. I knew from my short observance that these men were working very long periods of time, and in the evenings they looked very tired as they got off the bus and slumped into their house for the evening As I watched this, there was something inside me that troubled me. It was a deep feeling that stirred within the bottom of my soul that convicted me from the core of my bones. Jesus said in the gospels that the greatest commandment is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And the second is like it: to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40).”
It so happened that I found myself in a situation where I did not get to choose who my neighbors were, and so I knew that the stirring within my heart and soul was God calling me to go over to that house and speak with these men. This calling that I felt in my heart terrified me, not because I was worried that these men would hurt me, but I was terrified because I had no idea what to say and even if I did, I would not know how to say it because I do not speak any Spanish.
The calling that stirred in my heart persisted, making me uncomfortable and troubling my heart to the point that I could no longer resist. So I called some friends of mine, one who was another pastor and fellow student in seminary from Mexico, Ernesto, and another who was a good friend from my first year of seminary, Cindy. Both of them agreed enthusiastically to come and so I prepared a dinner and my two friends came. We ate our meal and then sat in my living room waiting for the Hispanics to return for the evening. At about 9:30, I watched as the bus pulled into the driveway and the Hispanic men started spilling out of the bus and they quickly went into the house to settle in for the night.
Ernesto, Cindy, and I walked across the street. In some ways it seems that the house of my neighbors was so near, and in other ways it was so far away because I doubt that anyone from my side of the street had ever ventured over to welcome our migrant neighbors. My nerves fluttered like butterflies in my stomach as I knocked on the door. There were two men who answered the door. They looked confused, and anxious about our presence. I said, “Hello, I live across the street from you and I just wanted to meet you and say hello. “ Ernesto translated for me and they nodded their heads and smiled a little, but it was clear by their expressions that they were still anxious about our being there. I pressed a little further, “Another reason why I wanted to come by is because I know that you work very hard, and I wanted to tell you that I really appreciate the work that you do. Thank you for what you do.” Ernesto translated again and then they began to loosen up. In fact, they started having a conversation with Ernesto and they started laughing a little. I have no idea what they were talking about, but while they were talking I felt God laying it on my heart to go beyond just greeting them at their doorstep. So I interrupted the conversation and said, “I was wondering if I could serve you lunch one day?” Ernesto paused and then translated for me. They stared at me for a few seconds as if in some sort of disbelief, and then they nodded their heads. Ernesto gathered some information for me, he told me that there were fourteen migrant workers living in this house, that they were all from different parts of Mexico, and that they come home earlier on Sundays. I asked if I could serve them lunch the following Sunday, which was only a few days away, and they nodded their heads and told me that they would be home by three o’clock.
After agreeing to be there at 3:00 on Sunday afternoon, I felt the panic sink in because I had just promised to serve lunch to fourteen people, and I did not want to bring Stouffer’s or sandwiches over. The microwave and spreading peanut butter is about the limitations of my cooking, but I knew that I needed to give them something good, something that they would remember. Ernesto gave me a few Hispanic recipes and we went to the grocery store and bought the ingredients. I recognized my need for help so in the following days I made phone calls to different people in the churches I serve, and on that Sunday I preached on mission challenging the congregations by inviting them to be in mission with our Hispanic neighbors. I was blessed to meet very little resistance, and five people showed up at the parsonage after church to help me prepare lunch for the Hispanics. The ladies from the church took over the kitchen and kindly asked me to get out of their way, while I wrote a prayer ending with the Lord’s Prayer. One of the church volunteers happened to be a Spanish teacher and she graciously translated my prayer into Spanish, along with a few greetings. I literally wrote an entire script for my visit, and the first words were “Hello, I am really sorry but this is the best that I can do with speaking Spanish.”
We boxed the food up and when my neighbors arrived on their bus, two people (one of them was a very enthusiastic and willing youth) helped me carry the food over to the house. We brought it inside, the men gestured us to their kitchen and I sat the food down on their table. I pulled out my script and started reading to them. Some of them laughed a little. But when I invited them to pray with me, all of them bowed their heads and removed their hats. I prayed my prayer asking God to bless them and their families, to protect them, and to sustain them through the days that they toil in the fields. And then when I began praying the Lord’s Prayer I experienced one of the most powerful things that I have ever witnessed because each and every one of these men began to pray with me. In that moment and in that place, we were not Mexicans or Americans, white or Hispanic, privileged or underprivileged, legal or illegal… we were Christians united together in one voice praying the same prayer that our Lord Jesus taught us. We were experiencing a glimpse of the kingdom of God in which “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female,” we were all “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
It wasn’t long after that when my neighbors left to return to Mexico. The harvesting season was over, and after the harvest they return home. I wasn’t sure when they would come back, or even if they would come back at all. I prayed for them over the next year, and then summer came. I watched everyday for several weeks waiting anxiously to see if the yellow bus would return. I had also gained an interest in learning more about the lives of my neighbors, so I went on a trip to Mexico to learn about the border and immigration. I walked on migrant trails, met people who had been deported, prayed with people who had been separated from their families, saw the fence, and had lunch with legal and illegal immigrants in the United States. I was moved by my trip and what I had learned. By that point I was worried that my neighbors were not going to return at all. I was praying about this on the flight home, and God placed it on my heart to bring water to my neighbors on a regular basis because Christ said, “whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst again (John 4:14).”
And so I returned from the airport, pulled into my driveway and as soon as I stepped out of my car, I noticed that the yellow bus was back. Chills ran down my spine. It was as if God was saying, “Here they are, now what are you going to do about it?” So, I got back in my car and went to the grocery store to buy them bottled water. I walked over and brought the water to them and I was very nervous, as I had been before. This time I did not have the luxury of a translator so all I could say was, “Hola! Como Estas? Agua!” which literally translates as “Hello! How are you? Water!” I felt like an idiot, but my neighbors seemed to appreciate it.
My own idiocy, inadequacy, and helplessness remained a terror for me, but somehow God worked through the struggles of my own shortcomings to bring about a powerful ministry. I consistently brought water to my neighbors, and over time my neighbors became friends. We began spending time together, and our time together developed into a relationship of discipleship building. Our times together gradually progressed into times of Bible study, Holy Communion, and worship. We broke bread together and prayed for one another, we talked, laughed, and we cried. The power of God was moving through us, both when translators and experts were present (by the grace of God), and also when it was me alone having no idea what was going on or being said. The fact is that God was somehow present, even when it seemed that my friends and I had so little in common that we really had little to offer one another, and little common ground to stand upon. Because of God’s moving Spirit and grace, we became very close friends. I will never forget when one of them said with teary eyes, “People here think that we are bad. But you have shown us that we can have friends and because of that, you have shared the Gospel with us. Thank you!”
I never really thought that I had anything to teach them, and this was never my approach. But I always felt that I had something to learn from these men who had travelled long distances with the hope of helping their families, wives and children, to survive in a place rotting with poverty and starvation. Their scars and pain was much deeper than my own, and I found within those scars and pain an image of Jesus like I have never seen before. Perhaps they were the ones sharing the power of the Gospel with me and I was being transformed alongside my friends who I (with the help of others) shared about the scriptures and the story of God’s love for all of humanity. Their faces and willingness to receive is the story of God’s love and it is people and experiences like this that make the words of scripture come alive in a world that is in need of God’s healing. We can have opinions about immigration and politics, right and wrong, legal and illegal; but let us never forget that as a people of faith we are called to live into kingdom that is intended to be shared with all.
The time came for my friends to leave because the season of the harvest was over once again. The night before they left, I heard a knock on my front door. It was Salvador, one of my new friends. I let him in and he handed me a book. It was tattered and beaten, and by the title I could tell that it was a book for learning English written in Spanish. Salvador handed me the book and said in broken English, “A gift for you. I wanted to come and say goodbye. You are our best friend. You are my family, and when you come to Mexico you can stay with me and my family. Thank you friend.”
I did not expect this kind of ministry when I started my appointment as a local pastor of a rural two-point charge in the United Methodist Church. When we are willing and humble enough to listen to and follow the movement of God’s Spirit, God will always lead us to surprising places that bring us to the heart of the Gospel. Jesus said before ascending into heaven, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…I am with you always, even to the very end of the age (Mathew 28:19-20)!” It may seem overly idealistic to carry out a ministry based upon the belief that the kingdom of God belongs to all people, but as a people of faith in Jesus Christ it is an ideal that we place our hope in. Maybe the ideal of Christ’s kingdom belonging to all people is an ideal worth standing for and furthermore, worth staking our lives upon.