Displaced Persons

Sermon from August 25, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

 

                As I walked with my group of colleagues through a Tijuana neighborhood that sat overlooking the city dump, walking over trash, ridden with mangy dogs, methane gas leaks, falling houses made of plywood, and children playing in the streets with coke cans and broken bottles, my friend and brother in Christ looked at me and said, “This has been your summer of displaced persons, hasn’t it?”  I thought about that for a moment and said, “Well, I suppose you’re right.” After touring Auschwitz with a Holocaust survivor and experiencing firsthand the horrors of concentration camps and what the tragic fate was for those who were sent there, there I was, not even a month later in a dump in Tijuana where people lived their everyday lives.  It was a day spent at an orphanage coloring and playing with children and trying to learn enough Spanish to understand what they were saying.  Above all, it was a week where I spent several meals with men who had been deported and had nowhere to go, who were left to pick up the broken pieces of their lives, usually with nothing, sometimes not even the clothes on their backs.

            My trip to Tijuana and the borderlands of San Diego with my colleagues of the Wabash Pastoral Leadership program this past week was not a trip about politics or particular agendas.  It was a week in which to learn about the real issues that immigration presents, the complexities of it, and to put faces and personal stories to the issue of immigration.  Many of us left with more questions than answers to this very complicated, and as we found out, heartbreaking issue with names and faces.  But the point was that we left with a sense of compassion for the people affected by the displacement and hardships because of the borders that divide our countries, and also the borders that divide each of us as human beings.

            Our travels took us to a mission in Tijuana called Casa del Migrante- a place for men to go who had been deported for a variety of reasons.  We stayed at the Casa for 4 days, ate with the migrants, stayed in the very same accommodations, and saw the everyday routine of the casa.  There were different men each day, and with them came individual stories. Some of them sad, some of them scary, some of them complicated and confusing.  We met a young man, 20 years old, from Guatemala who could not read or write- he rode on top of the train to get to Mexico to try to make a better life for himself and his family.  Another man had ridden on the top of the train, was pushed off and beaten, and lost his leg.  He was able to make it back home and received a prosthetic, only to have it stolen from him on the train once again.  He arrived at the casa without his prosthetic, was given crutches, and told some of us his story while doing chores at the home, hobbling around, wondering what to do next.  We heard men tell us that they had lived in the United States for 25 years, had a wife and children, and got pulled over for a broken tail light, and the next thing they knew, they found themselves in Mexico without a job, trying to get in touch with their families back home.  We also met men who had been deported due to criminal acts or drunk driving, who were simply happy about being given another chance, even if it wasn’t in the United States.  Some men had arrived at the casa without a pair of shoes or even clothes, having been taken from their home without even a chance to put anything on.  We talked with men who had a plan to cross back over the border through the mountains, knowing there was a chance that they would be arrested, killed by the heat and elements, or murdered by the drug cartels that ran throughout the area.  We heard it all- but each story had a face and a name.  Not many of us in Indiana can say that we can actually put a face to the complex issue of immigration, and that is what our experiences at the border gave to us.

            On the first night of the trip before we crossed the border into Mexico, our director asked us this question, “What is a border?”  We stated many answers, such as a barrier to keep people in or out, a wall, a protection or safety measure, an oppressive structure.  We also talked about the borders between people for many different reasons, and the borders that we put up to protect ourselves from the outside world, and the borders that we must overcome in order to let others affect us in new and positive ways.  When we arrived at the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, we knew we had to let our own borders down in order to fully understand and hear these men who were open and willing to share their stories with us.  In this way, we could be a caring presence in a time of uncertainty, and in turn, they gave us the gift of realizing that there is not just one migrant, not just one story of immigration or deportation, but many, many faces and stories that go along with these issues.  These migrants were not legal, illegal, or criminals necessarily- they were human beings with names and real stories.  They were displaced persons.

            This passage that I read from you today from Isaiah 43 became the text that we turned to often during our experience on the border because of its joy in God naming, shaping, claiming, bringing the human race together.  Written during the Babylonian exile of the Hebrew people, it is the divine promise that God will call God’s people together again, no matter what sacrifices must be made, no matter if it means that God will bring them through the fire or flood, or other nations will fall, that God will reclaim those who call upon God’s name, whom God formed and made.  I believe this scripture brought us hope that in the midst of complexities, chaos, the misunderstandings between peoples and cultures, and in the midst of borders of any kind, that God longs to call us, claim us, name us, and gather us together, and to basically say, “Come hell or high water, come fences, walls, or mountains, you are mine, and I love you.”

            These thoughts were running through my mind especially as we walked alongside the huge border fence in Tijuana that went as far as to stretch out into the ocean.  Along this path were paintings and writings on the fence that voiced oppression and concern over its mere existence.  As we later walked down to the beach, the fence continued to stretch into the waves as families played on the beach and pretended it wasn’t even there.  We could look up the hill and see the United States Border Patrol staring down at us, even a helicopter flew overhead.  At one point, a few men who were jogging on the US side came right up to it and said hello to us through the fence, and turned around and jogged back the other direction.  In the midst of the fence, life was still going on, there was still laughter, but also division.  The words of Isaiah echoed in my mind: “I will gather you…I have called you by name.  You are mine.”  Along with these words found on the border fence: “Same God on both sides,” and the words of Jesus, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

On Saturday when we crossed back into the United States, our first stop was to the other side of the border fence.  It was surreal to walk up to it and see through to the other side exactly where we had just been the day before, staring back at the United States.  On Sundays, some priests hold Holy Communion at the fence, and we heard stories of families receiving together on both sides, separated by the fence- the priest having to find a way to get the elements through the holes- eventually, we were told, they resorted to having different elements on both sides of the fence.  Families talked with one another through the fence- mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, separated by the border.  We also talked with a border patrol guard there for quite awhile.  He was patient with us as we asked him a lot of questions about his role and how he felt about the border and those who attempted to cross it.  His main concern was for the safety of the border and preventing the drug cartels and violent persons from entering the country.  He wouldn’t respond to much else that we asked him, but he agreed that this was indeed a very complicated matter.  As we stared at the beautiful ocean from the United States side, we couldn’t help but think that some of the men we had spoken to at the casa would give just about anything to be standing in that very spot.

So what did I gain from my experience of traveling to the border of United States and Mexico and sharing meals with migrants without a place to call home?  I certainly don’t have all the answers or solutions on how to fix anything.  When I learned that we would go on this journey, I honestly did not have much of an opinion of immigration, nor did I have a lot of knowledge about it.  And today, I have more knowledge, but honestly still not much of an opinion.  What I do have is the experience of putting names and faces to the complexities of immigration, deportation, and undocumented workers.  I have the experience of hearing their stories and walking alongside them for a short time while they discerned what path to take to get a job and build a life in Mexico, to go back to the United States to be with family, to take on the life changing task of learning to read and write, or to simply get back on their feet and find the support systems that they need.  I have the understanding that immigration reform is needed- that borders must be in place for the protection of our country from violence, drug and human trafficking, and criminal activity coming from Mexico, BUT that we have laws in place that are separating families, discriminating against people that look different, and are doing harm to our Mexican brothers and sisters.  I learned that the system needs to change in some way so that the immigration system will become more humane rather than stripping people of human dignity.  I learned how important it is that we should never call someone who is undocumented “illegal” because no human being is “illegal.”  I learned the importance of welcoming the stranger as Jesus tells us to, for when we welcome the stranger, we do so in his name and in turn, welcome him.

I also realized in the midst of my second experience this summer of displaced persons, that we still live in a broken world, perhaps now more than ever.  I look back at my time at Auschwitz and still have a hurt in my heart for the history of that place.  I look at the experiences I had with my fellow clergy colleagues at the border and see oppressive walls that separate, broken homes, broken hearts, and broken lives.  I see tears, misunderstandings, the innocent along with the guilty, and wonder how and when the broken pieces will all be put back together again.  I recall the words from another part of Isaiah that says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing- it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” and the words echoing from our text today that God longs to gather us in as not legal or illegal, Mexican or American, brown or white, English speaking or Spanish speaking, but as members of the human race, undivided, united by God, called by name.

And even in the midst of a neighborhood in Tijuana built on top of the dump, scattered with trash and methane gas, that there were children playing, families building their lives, and ministry taking place in small and big ways.  We met a young woman who was pregnant at the age of 13, and while picking up things to sell out of the dump, met a nun, Sister Teresa, who offered her a chance to learn a trade and do something with her life.  So she became a hair and nail stylist, and now offers these services to the people of the neighborhood, along with child care and most recently, a medical clinic.  There is hope, even in the story of a 13 year old pregnant girl from an impoverished neighborhood- does this sound familiar?

Above all, there is hope that we are constantly working in our communities to make people human again in the name of Jesus.  It could be as simple as listening to someone’s story, attempting to learn a few words of a new language, offering a cool drink of water, a meal, a place to stay, a fresh set of clothes or linens on the bed.  It could be as simple as a haircut or coloring with an orphaned child.  It is as simple as looking at “the other” as a child of God before we form any other assumption.  As Father Pat, the director of the casa told us when we first got there, “we must look at these persons as our brothers and sisters first- if not, then God is not our Father.”  In a sense, we are all displaced persons in one way or another.  But we all find our identity in the Lord, who gathers us together, who loves us, who redeems us. 

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

 

Amen.

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One Response to Displaced Persons

  1. Pingback: Not Lost in Translation | Preach Like a Girl!

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