The story of the Jewish people is the story of being a stranger in a strange land. From the moment we were cast out of Eden, the life work of our ancestors was making sense of new ground. Abraham and Sarah left their ancestral home to journey to a land they had never seen. Escaping famine in the land of Canaan, Jacob and his sons built a new life in the land of Egypt. And generations later, Ruth journeyed from Moab to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi, and met her destiny as the ancestress of King David. Our story is the story of being a stranger in a strange land. Our story is also a story of learning to take up the cause of the weak and the vulnerable.
Reflection of the Month
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Most Episcopalians are aware of, and probably invested in, the current public debates about immigration in the United States. The 15 other nations represented in the Episcopal Church also are engaged in similar debates and struggles over the same issues of national security, economic and political refugees and the relative priorities of citizens and immigrants. Our biblical tradition speaks loudly and prophetically about God's intent for a healed society in which distinctions based on nationality or ethnicity are transcended. The Hebrew Bible speaks more often (38 times) and more vociferously about welcome for the alien and the sojourner (the non-Jew who resides in or travels through Israel) than any other topic of identity: "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt … do not oppress the aliens in your midst" (Deuteronomy 24:18-22).
We are immigrants, so the Leviticus text reminds us, for we were aliens in the land of Egypt. Hear the text as theological affirmation rather than historical reflection. Aliens in Egypt… or in America… or in our own home or office or school… or within our very own skin… “aliens” – the affirmation of faith is that we have been rescued from that alienation as recipients of a love and a welcome that bespeaks a grace we cannot deserve. It is a grace that should lead us to responsive living. That is, life as response to that which has been given us. If we are not living in response, in some way repaying all that we have received, we simply do not remember.
How do we, as people of God, respond to the complex issues surrounding immigration? I am reminded of those wonderful passages in the Hebrew Bible, those verses where God reminds God’s people to be hospitable to foreigners.God puts it simply: “You all have been there and done that. You all know how hard it is to be away from home. You know the challenges of being a foreigner in a strange land. So you ought to know better. Be good and help out the foreign people in your midst.” But for the sake of keeping it real, instead of those nice scriptures, I want to look at this one, Mark 7:24-30...
I often hear within my denomination and among other church bodies that the church in America is dying. But behind this kind of statement is the assumption that the only church that really counts is the white American church, and the immigrant churches and churches of color—which are growing at rapid rates—don’t qualify as the “real” church.We can’t entirely blame the church for thinking in such ethnocentric, supremacist ways. The white American church is simply and uncritically mirroring the greater American sentiment that people of color, immigrants, and migrants are at best footnotes to the great American essay, and at worst, typos that need to be deleted. However, it is the role of the church to be a prophetic voice, and to resist following the social norms of cultural hegemony. This is why we need a united church where migrants, immigrants, people of color, and white people can work together to free the church from its captivity to white American hegemony and work for comprehensive immigration reform.
With the future of health care reform still uncertain, faith-based groups are hoping to jump-start a movement for the "other" reform package facing Congress -- an immigration overhaul that has stalled despite President Obama's promise to push it forward this year.In a conference call with reporters this week, representatives of a range of religious groups were joined by two members of Congress to unveil a month-long campaign that will begin by delivering thousands of postcards to Capitol Hill offices, continue with some 100 events across the country during the President's Day recess and into early March, and culminate with a large immigration reform rally in Washington on Sunday, March 21.
A few years ago I was working in Mexico at a border outreach center that offered material and pastoral support to those on the move. Some were traveling northwards in search of better lives, and others had tried to enter the U.S. but failed and were deported back to Mexico. One day a group of forty immigrants arrived in the center, sojourners who had hoped to reach the U.S. It had been a long night for them – and an even longer week. For three days they had crossed through the Arizona desert in temperatures that reach 120 degrees in the shade. Amid the challenges of the desert terrain – their personal vulnerability to everything from heat stroke to poisonous snakes – they had braved a perilous journey and tried to make their way to the U.S., often under the cover of darkness. They walked remote and diffuse trails that have taken the lives of thousands of immigrants – an estimated 300-500 annually since 1994.Why were they willing to take such risks and leave their home country? When I asked them, some said they had relatives back home who needed medication they could not afford. Others said the $3-$5 a day they earned for a twelve-hour work day in Mexico was not enough to put much more than beans and tortillas on the table. Still others said potato chips had become a luxury they could no longer afford, and they could not stand to look their children in the eyes when they complained of hunger.
My assignment is to do a Bible study relevant to the intense conversation underway in our nation over the question of immigration. Others will offer social analysis and practical strategies. But I should mention three presumptions I bring.First, I believe we have a powerful witness to bear from our Scriptures, one that is surprisingly relevant. It’s not more information that we need. We don’t so much need to be convinced as to be convicted. Second, while I believe we have some unique sources of conviction, that doesn’t mean we have privileged insight or expertise when it comes to shaping specific policies. For that we need to come to the table with other people of faith and conscience to forge workable policy options that take into consideration what has happened in the past and what is happening now as leverage for what could happen in the future. Third, our analysis must be informed by an intelligent reading of the economic realities shaping immigration policies and patterns. I firmly believe there is a kind of economic magnetism at work: a negative force, characterized by desperation (particularly in Latin America), shoving migrants across the border. And a positive force drawing them here: A lot of people make a lot of money employing migrants. In fact, people like you and I need to count the cost: Our standard of living depends on cheap labor. We, too, are implicated in this system.
In a world groaning in the pain of brokenness, exploitation, and fragmentation of the wounded and outcast humanity, God demonstrates the divine love by accompanying humanity in this time and place. Integral to creation, God created human beings, all different with equal rights and responsibilities in the household of God. Human beings being interdependent manifest the divine presence. The African understanding of Ubuntu calls us to be fully human in direct connection with the other. The other person is not a stranger. He or she is not apart from us. I am because you are. We cannot be without the other. We belong together. What a marvelous African way to describe our oneness and commonality in Christian baptism.
A year ago, 45 people in Sioux City, Iowa, gathered at a hastily organized prayer service. We gathered to be in solidarity with 389 people, mostly Guatemalans, who had been rounded up by U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) at Postville, Iowa, on May 12. Postville is about 300 miles from Sioux City, but the shock wave from the raid reached our community pretty quickly.Our decision was to make the most effective demonstration that could be made against human injustice and prejudice: to worship the God of justice and righteousness and to remember those who were now in danger of being forgotten. Our little worship service didn’t make very good print news, and only one of four local television stations came. But that service provided one powerful religious moment for the ecumenical community gathered there out of love and concern for the lives of 400 persons we had never met before, and now most likely never would.