Sermon originally delivered by Executive Director Jennifer Copeland on Sunday, October 21 at Community United Church of Christ in Raleigh.
Right now there are thousands of people walking from Honduras to the United States. They are joined periodically by others who walk with them in solidarity or who fall in line with them on the journey toward us. Those in the caravan are fleeing lives filled with hunger, sickness, and crime. They believe this country offers them positive possibility.
My ancestors did the same thing nearly 250 years ago, leaving behind hunger, sickness, and crime in Northern Ireland. That’s where the Scots were forced to settle by the English, who had a long-running conflict with the Irish. My Scots-Irish ancestors got tired of being pawns and put their son John Copeland on a boat with them to come in search of a place with positive possibility. That’s what people do when the place they are in becomes a place they must leave. They find a new place. The descendants of my ancestors and people who look like them are mostly in charge of this place now, at least in so far as white privilege sets the norms and makes most of the rules.
But my ancestors came to a place where others had arrived before them. I don’t mean the English settlers or the Spanish conquistadors. I mean the ones we call Native Americans, the first humans who put their feet on this soil, the ones who came 20,000 years ago, some say. The ones who feasted on mastodon steaks; imagine that. No 8-ounce ribeye cut from a domesticated Angus steer fed in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation for those immigrants. Imagine keeping a mastodon in a CAFO. Those mastodon diners were here before my people; my people, who, incidentally, became cattle farmers, beef cattle on one side of my family and dairy cattle on the other. We must have some of those mastodon diners in our DNA.
I’ve come here today, not to tell you things you probably already know about immigration or even food production. I’ve come here today to encourage you to be brave. To remind you that we have already been given the resources we need to do what God expects us to do—to welcome the sojourner, welcome the caravan.
And yet, the people with power, the people who look like me—light skin, western European ancestry. Clearly, I’d have more power if I were a man, but I’m pretty close to the top of the power broker totem pole. The people who look like me are saying “No” to the poor, hungry people headed our way. “No” to the sojourner we are told to welcome.
This is a crisis of faith. Fear is a real thing, but why are we afraid of a few thousand poor, hungry families moving from Honduras toward the United States? In a country of over 325 million I think we have room for them. What makes those of us who have lived here for 250 years, or less in some cases, so afraid of these folks who come here looking for the same thing everyone else before us and since us has come here seeking?
The Psalm for today tells us: “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent” (v. 9). Perhaps if we’re afraid, we haven’t really made the Lord our refuge, the Most High our dwelling place. If that’s the case, we should be about doing that; but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we have made the Lord our refuge.
Having done so, we’re told, “no evil shall befall you.” What are we so afraid of?
Is it fear of losing our wealth, our possessions? We’ll lose all those anyway when we die. Jesus reminded his followers of that truth. Remember the story he told about a farmer who built large barns for all his crops, and then died that night? “These things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20) Jesus asked. There’s no reason to be afraid of losing our wealth if poor, hungry people come to live among us. It’s not really ours anyway. We are merely stewards for awhile.
Perhaps it is fear of physical harm. I won’t pretend that the fear of bodily harm is a small thing. It is a huge thing and our bodies have even been conditioned to help us survive that threat. Our heart rate increases in order to pump more blood to our muscles and brains. Our lungs take in air faster to supply our bodies with more oxygen. Our pupils get wider so we can see more clearly. Even our digestive system pauses so our bodies can fully function for the task of immediate survival. But physical safety is not the issue and, if it were, we are told that God will command angels to “bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” We won’t even stub our toes. What child running barefoot up the street doesn’t want to hear that good news?
No, this crisis of faith is not about possessions or personal safety. This crisis is about power. That’s what we’re afraid to give up. Power. And since we replaced the people who were here when we arrived, it’s only fair to assume we could be replaced as well. The people in power are afraid of these poor, hungry families because they don’t want to be replaced.
But the people in power are the only ones who can change things for these poor, hungry families.
That’s the way change happens. The people in power change it. Yes, there is marching in the streets, striking at the factory, walkouts in the schools. Those things help illuminate where change needs to occur, but the change itself is made by people with power. The march to Selma did not insure the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act insured the right to vote. The powerful people of the U.S. Congress passed that act and the powerful President of the United States signed it into law.
Powerful people change things. Right now in this country, that’s people who look like me. And you. We are the powerful people right now. The question for us is, what will we do with our power?
Isn’t that the question posed throughout all scripture? As people of God, we’re reminded constantly that we have power—not because of something we did to earn it, but because God has gifted us with God’s presence. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (I Peter 2:10). The story of salvation history is a story of living into that belonging. Sometimes we do it better than other times and the stories in scripture give us a saga of what society looks like when we do it well and what it looks like when we do it badly.
Right now, we’re doing it badly.
20,000 years ago, the first people came and they’ve been coming ever since. 250 years ago my people came and others have been coming ever since. Now there are more people who want to come and live among us. They want enough food to feed their families, an honest day’s work, and “a decent place to live,” as our Habitat for Humanity colleagues have taught us to say about homes.
We have those possibilities for them. There are some places in this country where a seed falls to the ground and in a few weeks it will produce food. My front yard is one of those places. With minimal effort, usually only water on a particularly hot day, I grow much of the food I eat all summer. For free.
The people from Honduras, working their way toward us, are seeking a place where hunger does not consume their existence and ravage the bodies of their children. With some soil and seeds and the assurance they would be safe while waiting for tomatoes to turn red and that they could stay in one place long enough for a cucumber to grow, they might find here a place where hunger does not consume their existence and ravage the bodies of their children.
The people from Honduras, working their way toward us, are seeking an honest day’s work. We have work for people. In fact, we need more people to work. Unemployment is about as low as it can go because many of the people who are unemployed really cannot work because of either physical or mental or social restrictions. I had to wait 3 months for a new roof for my house. My roofer has 2 crews, but he tells me he has enough work for 5 crews and that was before the hurricanes. He wants to have 5 crews if he could only find more people to hire who know something or can learn something about roofing. And he pays $25/hr. Maybe some of these folks from Honduras can work on a roof. No one else is lining up to be on his roofing crew.
Food enough to feed a family; honest work; a place to live. We can do this. We can be brave enough to share our power. We can do the thing that God expects us to do. We can welcome the caravan from Honduras.
Thanks be to God. Amen.