[Preached in Ascension Chapel at Augustana College on January 27, 2014].
13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
It’s been 10 years since I last attended a Tuesday reflection at Augustana College. It’s good to be back in familiar, but chilly, territory. I grew up in the Quad Cities, and now serve as a Lutheran pastor in Texas, on both sides of the US-Mexico border.
The sophisticated, grammatically nuanced Castilian Spanish that I honed down the hill in the foreign language department has been replaced by the more colloquial Tex-Mex border Spanglish I’m learning from my parishioners.
When I was an Augustana student commuting from Davenport, it still cost a $.50 toll to cross the Centennial Bridge. Now, for me, it costs 26 pesos (about $2) for my international toll-bridge commute across the Rio Grande.
As pastor in a border context, I try to play DADT in terms of people’s migration status. No human being is illegal. “Papers? We don’t need no stinkin’ papers?” We have baptismal certificates! That’s paper enough in the kingdom of God.
I am neither an immigration attorney nor a border patrol agent, but I’ve been getting a crash course in migration policy just in the course of being pastor among people for whom border issues are not abstract ideas, but a daily reality.
I’ve given Dream Act students in the congregation a ride to the immigration office in San Antonio because their undocumented parents can’t pass the checkpoint outside Eagle Pass to get their kids fingerprinted and registered for deferred action.
With hands across the glass, I’ve prayed at the for-profit private detention center where immigrants in orange jumpsuits are deposited for months on end as they await their deportation hearings. Immigration is about more than policies, resolutions, and legislation. It’s about families, stories, struggles.
My congregation, San Lucas, has a long history of hosting visiting church groups. In the past, it’s been lots of service projects: painting, construction. I am, however, growing increasingly uncomfortable with that model. I’ve been on “mission trips” before, even through Augustana College. I’ve enjoyed being helpful and thinking I’ve made a difference. Now that I’ve been on the receiving end, I’m gaining a different perspective. Too often, good intentions can come across as “the rich white people help the poor brown people.” There’s a misbalance of power.
At San Lucas, we’re trying to move toward something more mutual, more even. Be the church together. Share stories, share meals. Everyone has something to learn, and to teach. Everybody has something to give, and to receive.
I like to think of visits to San Lucas as border pilgrimages—going to a sacred space, standing on holy ground, being transformed.
For me, one of those powerful spots is the border itself—the shores of the Rio Bravo (as its called in Mexico) and the federal border wall that goes right through a city park in downtown EP. It’s powerful to see the efforts that we human beings take to make divisions between each other. They open it up during the daytime so people can get to the golf course and ball diamonds. Built with $11 million taxpayer dollars to prevent illegal immigration, I don’t know how helpful it actually is. Fences are expensive; ladders are cheap.
In many ways, the Rio Grande looks and sounds and smells like other rivers, but then again, it doesn’t. The natural ecological space becomes a sign of division, of divide between countries, between families. The BP parks its boat trailers by the shore. Infrared cameras hover as sentinels on towering poles. A giant Mexican flag—banderita tricolor—towers in the plaza in Piedras Negras. On the wet sand, you can see the discarded wet clothes and plastic bags that people have left behind as they seek a new life. You can usually hear a soccer game in the riverfront stadium in Piedras or see goats grazing on the other side. So close, but so far away.
As I reflect of the border wall, I think of my families’ immigrant journey—Norwegian farmers in Minnesota. I think of the Swedish immigrants who founded Augustana. I think of Mexican immigrants at San Lucas. I think of migrants in the Bible: Abraham and Sarah; Joseph and his brother; Naomi and Ruth; Israelites in the Wilderness; the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt.
To read the Bible is to encounter immigration. To read the Bible is to encounter the God who journeys with people—in scarcity and abundance; from death to new life. To read the Bible is to encounter the God who crosses borders. Jesus enters our human world, loving us, walking with us. When we recognize the God whose love crosses borders, we recognize the dignity of every human being. My prayer is that we don’t think of the people on the border as objects or victims, but fellow citizens in the Reign of God.
One of the dignity-removing slurs that gets thrown around in South Texas is the ugly word wetback, often used by people who think that immigrants have no right to be in the country. It implies that they’ve entered undeservingly.
Yet that is how it is with all of us as human beings in the reign of God. We are a broken people. By our own merits, we have no rights to enter, and we don’t deserve full participation. Yet God welcomes us. God invites us, giving us full amnesty and for. Baptism is a sort of divine deferred action. It is a fresh start and a new beginning. In marking with the cross of Christ and sealing with the Holy Spirit, we are not residents of aliens, but rather citizens with the saints. In the waters of baptism, we are all wet. Todos somos mojados. Gracias a Dios. Thanks be to God. Amen.