This week, San Lucas hosted the Youth in Mission program from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. These passionate and enthusiastic young people from all over the United States have been in Eagle Pass learning about life on the border and engaging with the local community. It’s not like a traditional “mission trip” in that they aren’t cutting sheetrock or making paper-plate Bible story crafts with neighborhood kids. The mission is about listening and learning about what God is already doing in the lives of people here. It’s about a journey of leadership development and cross-cultural encuentro. The youth participants are called “youth leaders,” realizing that they indeed play a role in the life of the Church today.
As pastor, I accompanied the group on some of its experiences. I showed them the food pantry at San Lucas, and we discussed hunger issues. We went to the shores of the Rio Grande and saw the federal border fence that cuts through the local golf course. We talked about migrants in the Bible and prayed for those who cross today. We went to the prayer chapel at nearby Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church and saw the statue of Jesus that was found floating in the Rio Grande by Border Patrol agents about ten years ago.
Because of other pastoral duties, I passed on joining the group on its tour of Fort Duncan (the westernmost Confederate military base) and Crystal City (the site of a WWII-era Japanese interment camp.
We had several opportunities for the congregation of San Lucas to engage with the visiting youth. On a few evenings, San Lucas families invited the group into their homes, sharing powerful testimony of lives impacted by violence of narcotraficantes and the economic/political struggles of the border region. The youth asked many thoughtful questions and took their task of learning and engaging very seriously. Last night was a barbeque with members of the congregation and the youth. It was beautiful to see connections being made across boundaries of age, culture, and language. Amidst the pollo asado and pico de gallo was connection and community.
Personally, I found very helpful the tour of a local Border Patrol facility. Even though I live near the border, I don’t always get the chance to hear from the agents’ perspectives. We heard about the challenges and duties of working in law enforcement. We got to see a few of their airboats, watch a helicopter land, and witness a demonstration of how the dogs sniff for contraband. A poster on the wall at the Border Patrol office showed the mug shots of coyotes functioning as guides for migrants trying to avoid the checkpoints. Most of the coyotes were teens—as young as 14 or 15—the same age as many of the youth in this church program.
It might not have looked like a “mission trip” because the focus wasn’t on doing or service. However, I think that this sort of experience is actually very helpful for us in this border congregation. We’re starting to give people at San Lucas a chance to have something to share, instead of always receiving. In telling their stories, they are giving voice to who they are and who this community is. San Lucas is a teaching place for the wider Church. When youth go back to their places, they will be more aware of their own cultures and the injustices in their home communities.
There are so many groups and organizations that organize youth trips. What I like about partnering with Youth in Mission and LSTC is the focus on cultural immersion and social justice. Youth can develop an awareness of God’s reign in this world, as well as competence toward understanding culture’s different than their own. Besides pilgrimaging to the Mexican border region, Youth in Mission also offers programs in Chicago, the Cherokee Nation, and El Salvador. For more info, check out http://yim.lstc.edu.
Here in the front of the sanctuary, I have a plant. Does anybody recognize it? It was part of the sermon homework during worship in Epiphany, when the reading was from 1 Corinthians, and Paul was using plant imagery to think about ministry and leadership. He uses an agricultural metaphor to talk about Christian formation and religious leadership. He talks of seeds and plants to describe the process of teaching and developing spirituality.
In that February worship, each person was invited to plant a seed and water it at home, caring for the plant and thinking about seeds of faith in our lives. Some members have mentioned that their seeds have germinated. Anybody else have seeds from then that have grown?
Again, we have another seed and plant metaphor to think about faith. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable. Jesus uses well-known examples with common themes so that the people can understand according to their own experience. Peasant farmers know seeds; fishers know nets; shepherds, sheep. Maybe today we should use parables of football, computers, or something else, right?
But today, Jesus talks about seeds and soil. The sower sows abundantly. He puts seeds in the rocks, on the road, and on ground that they say is fertile. It doesn’t matter. He throws seeds in so many places. It doesn’t seem like a wise farmer to me. But God’s wisdom is different than our wisdom. God sows seeds of faith in places we don’t understand. God sows in places that don’t seem useful.
I know people with the resources to give generously to San Lucas, but don’t want to in case the church might help somebody undocumented. It shames me that there are so few Mexican pastors in the ELCA because racist synods and bishops have not wanted to plant seeds of training and leadership in border communities with lots of poverty, because they don’t seem so useful.
To think like this is to think of scarcity instead of abundance. It’s to say, “I’m only going to plant on soil that is going to be successful.” “I’m only going to support projects that benefit me.” “I’m only going to play bingo if I’ll get a prize.” It’s like kids fighting for candy from a piñata because they don’t want to have nothing, even though there is enough for everybody. It’s scarcity instead of abundance.
But God is a God of abundance. God loves where nobody wants to love. God guides where nobody wants to travel. God teaches where nobody wants to learn. God plants seeds everywhere. God’s love moves on the Mexican border. God’s love encourages families in the midst of violence and danger. God’s love exists even when we think it doesn’t. God has planted seeds.
Sometimes we talk of both metaphorical seeds and of real seeds. What does all this mean at San Lucas? Sometimes we plant real seeds, like this plant, or like the flowers in our gardens. Last week, I met with the agricultural extension agent in our county to discuss possibilities to utilize the San Lucas lands with plants and trees. He recommended that we alternate planting pecans and peaches, and if we want animals, pigs or hens. All could be used for food ministries, or for income to support the mission of the church.
We can also use the idea of seeds as a metaphor—an image to help us think about something different. To plant seeds is to:
- Share faith.
- Show the example of prayer, love, and hospitality.
- Teach stories of God in our lives and in the Bible.
- Develop leadership skills in others.
- Listen to the needs of the community.
We don’t need to pass out pamphlets downtown in order to plant seeds of faith. We don’t need to paint houses to do mission. God’s mission grows in incredible ways. God has planted seeds: In baptismal waters. In community and friendship. In the testimony of those who suffer. In joys and celebrations. In the midst of pain.
At San Lucas, seeds have been planted, and will be planted again and again. With VBS in a few weeks. With young people from all over coming here to learn about our community. With one-on-one conversations to learn the passions and dreams of our neighbors. With baptismal water. With bread, wine, body, and blood. With hospitality and welcome. With Christian community, God sows seeds.
With the Youth in Mission group here this week, I was talking with one of the adult mentors, who knows I’m mentioning him. He works as a pastor on the border—the Canadian border—in Spanish-speaking mission with migrant workers in Vermont. There one of the main products is maple syrup, like we put on pancakes. He told me that each maple tree isn’t going to give syrup for 40 years. So, the harvest isn’t immediate. Upon sowing, you have to think about the generations ahead, in the future. It’s possible to spend most of your life taking care of a plant, watering the tree, without seeing the harvest. To plant is an act of faith. To cultivate is an act of hope.
The Church is like a maple orchard, where we don’t always see the harvest. We don’t know if the family baptizing their child will ever come to church again, but the seed is planted. We don’t know if a neighbor will accept our apology when we ask for forgiveness, but the seed is panted. We don’t know if the little girl at VBS will grow up to be a nurse, or an engineer, or a drug dealer, or a Lutheran pastor, but seeds have been planted.
And so, we trust in God. We trust God to grow seeds of faith of justice, of reconciliation, and of peace. Like this basil plant from February, there is growth in our lives, in our congregation, and in our world. We don’t know the harvest, but we trust. We trust in God the sower. Amen
Planta en frente de febrero
Aquí en frente del santuario, tengo planta. ¿Alguien la reconozca? Fue parte de la tarea del sermón durante una misa en la estación de la Epifanía, cuando la lectura fue de Corintios, y San Pablo usa la imagen de plantas para pensar en ministerio y liderazgo. Pablo usa metáfora de la agricultura para hablar de formación cristiana y de liderazgo religiosa. Pablo habla de semillas y plantas para describir el proceso de enseñar y desarrollar espiritualidad.
En aquella misa en febrero, cada persona fue invitada para sembrar una semilla y regarla en su casa, para cuidar la planta, y para pensar en las semillas de fe en nuestras vidas. Unos miembros me habían mencionado que sus semillas germinaron. ¿Alguien más tenia semillas que crecían?
Sembrador de evangelio
Otra vez, tenemos otra metáfora de semillas y plantas para pensar en la fe. En el Evangelio de hoy, Jesús dice una parábola. Jesús usaba ejemplos conocidos con temas comunes para que la gente pueda entender según su propia experiencia. Los campesinos saben semillas; los pescadores redes, los pastores, ovejas. Tal vez hoy, debemos usar parábolas de fútbol, o computadoras, o algo de nosotros, ¿verdad?
Pero hoy, Jesús habla de semillas y tierra. El sembrado echa semillas abundantemente. Pone semillas en las piedras, en el camino, y en tierra que se dice es fértil. No importa. Echa semillas en tantos lugares. No parece como granjero sabio. Pero la sabiduría de Dios es diferente que la sabiduría de nosotros. Dios siembra semillas de fe en lugares que nosotros no entendemos. Dios siembra aun en lugares que no parecen útiles.
Conozco gente con recursos para dar generosamente a San Lucas, pero no quiere en caso de la iglesia ayude a gente sin papeles. Me da vergüenza que hay pocos pastores mexicanos en la ELCA porque sínodos y obispos racistas no han querido sembrar semillas de liderazgo y entrenamiento en comunidades fronterizas con tanta pobreza, porque no perecen tan útiles.
Para pensar así es para en escasez en vez de abundancia. Es decir, “Solamente voy a sembrar en la tierra que va a dar éxito.” “Solamente va a apoyar proyectos que me dan feria.” “Solamente va a jugar lotería si haya premio para mi.” Es como niños peleando por las dulces de la piñata porque no quieren tener nada, aun cuando hay tantas por todos. Escasez en ves de abundancia.
Pero Dios es Dios de abundancia. Dios ama donde nadie quiere ama. Dios guía donde nadie quiere viajar. Dios enseña donde nadie quiere aprender. Dios siembra semillas en todas partes. El amor de Dios mueva en la frontera mexicana. El amor de Dios empuja familias en medio de violencia y peligro. El amor de Dios existe aun cuando pesamos que no hay. Dios ha sembrado semillas.
A veces hablamos de semillas en metáfora, o como semillas verdaderas. ¿Qué significa todo esto aquí en San Lucas? A veces sembramos semillas verdaderas, como esta planta, o las flores en sus jardines. La semana pasada, junté con el agente de agricultura en el condado para platicar sobre posibilidades de aprovechar los terrenos de San Lucas con plantas y árboles. El nos recomendó que plantamos nogales y duraznos, y si queremos animales, puerquitos o gallinas. Todo pueda ser usado por ministerios de comida, o por ingreso para apoyar la misión de la iglesia.
También podemos usar la idea de semillas como metáfora—una imagen para ayudarnos pensar en algo diferente. Para sembrar semillas es similar de:
- Compartir la fe.
- Mostrar el ejemplo de oración, de amor, de hospitalidad.
- Enseñar historias de Dios en nuestras vidas y de la Biblia.
- Es para desarrollar liderazgo en otra persona.
- Es para escuchar a las necedades de la comunidad.
No necesitamos pasar folletos en la pulgar para sembrar semillas de fe. No necesitamos pintar casas para hacer misión. La misión de Dios crece en maneras increíbles. Dios ha sembrado semillas. En aguas bautismales. En comunidad y amistad. En testimonio de gente que sufre. En gozos y alegrías. En medio de dolor.
En San Lucas, las semillas han sido sembradas, y serán sembradas otra vez. Con escuelita de verano en unas semanas. Con jóvenes de todos partes que vienen aquí para aprender de nuestra comunidad. Con entrevistas cara a cara cuando aprendemos las pasiones y sueños de nuestros vecinos en la comunidad. Con agua bautismal. Con pan, vino, cuerpo, sangre. Con hospitalidad y bienvenida. Con comunidad cristiana, Dios siembra semillas.
Árbol de Maple
Con el grupo de Jóvenes en Misión que esta aquí, yo estaba platicando con uno de sus adultos, que sabe que voy a mencionarlo. Trabaja como pastor en la frontera—la frontera canadiense, con en misión hispanohablante con trabajadores emigrantes en Vermont. Allá, uno de los productos principales es miel de maple, como se pone en los pancakes. El me dio que cada árbol de maple no va a dar miel hasta que tenga 40 años. Entonces, no es cosecha inmediata. Al sembrar, hay que pensar en las generaciones que viene. Hay que pensar en el futuro. Es posible gastar mucha de su vida cuidando la planta, regando el árbol, y nunca va a ver la cosecha. Para sembrar es obra de fe. Para cuidar es obra de esperanza.
Semillas de fe
También, la iglesia es como árbol de maple. Muchas veces con semillas de fe, no entendemos la cosecha. No sabemos si la familia de bebe bautizado vaya a regresar a la misa después de su bautismo. Pero la semilla fue sembrada. No sabemos si un vecino vaya a aceptar nuestra apología cuando pedimos perdón. Pero la semilla fue sembrada. No sabemos si una niña en nuestra VBS vaya a crecer para ser enfermera, o ingeniera, o narcotraficante, o pastora luterana. Pero la semilla fue sembrada.
Entonces, confiamos en Dios. Confiamos en Dios para crecer las semillas de fe, de justicia, de reconciliación, de paz. Como esta planta de alberca, hay crecimiento de fe en nuestras vidas, en nuestra iglesia, en nuestro mundo. No sabemos la cosecha, pero confiamos. Confiamos en Dios el sembrador. Amen.
(Preached mostly in Spanish on July 13, 2014 at San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas).
I am often asked what other congregations can do to help congregations along the border. I don’t speak for every congregation along the border; each faith community has its own context and situation. I speak from my perspective as pastor of San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas.
1) First, pray. Prayer is advocacy. Pray for the ministry of these congregations, for families who wait with hopeful longing for an end to fear, for a spirit of hospitality and welcome. Lament senseless deaths and blatant injustice. Celebrate the God who walks with those who know all too well struggle and despair. Pray for peace.
2) Give. Many border congregations struggle financially. Encouraging generous stewardship practices is often a challenge when poverty and unemployment are very present. At San Lucas, we have been receiving $15,000 annually from Congregational and Synodical Mission, but this ELCA money does not cover everything. Undesignated financial offerings to congregations often give the flexibility to cover expenses as needed.
Unsolicited in-kind gifts are often not helpful. For example, instead of sending food, it is a much better stewardship of resources for us to buy food commodity directly from the South Texas Food Bank. Financial donations put more of the responsibility for allocating funds in the hands of local people. With items, we end up with the unexpected cost of having to store and sort clothes and food donations. In the hot desert climate, used winter mittens and coats don’t find much use. We have been trying very hard to not perpetuate the colonialist idea that faraway congregations are like Santa Claus, bearing all sorts of fun gifts. We are continually discovering that you can be brothers and sisters in Christ without the co-dependency of one group always giving and the other receiving. We aim toward mutuality.
3) Learn Spanish. Even if you never meet someone from the border, learning Spanish is a step toward understanding the cultures and connecting with the people. Partnerships between congregations are easier when there are more people with language skills to help build the friendships.
4) Confront and racism when you see it in your contexts, especially in the Church. Develop attitudes of dignity and welcome. Realize that people are people, not “illegals”. When parishioners are traveling in the Midwest for agricultural work, I often hesitate referring them to the closest ELCA congregation because I’m not always sure how they might be received. I often go to synod assembly alone because other folks from the congregation have felt marginalized and excluded when they’ve previously attended. Stopping racist attitudes, even hundreds of miles away, has a very positive impact on the lives of people here.
5) Listen. Learn stories. Find out what is happening in the lives of these congregations. Again, I only speak for my own experience. Here is the most recent update letter from the congregation I serve. https://borderpastor.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/san-lucas-update/
Dear Friends and Mission Partners:
Greetings from San Lucas, a congregation of the ELCA located near the US-Mexican border in Eagle Pass, Texas. Even in the summer heat, faith-filled ministry continues as we aim to be a community of justice, grace, and welcome on the border. CrossTrails, our synod’s outdoor ministry, will be here for Day Camp during the week of August 4-8. We’re taking a sabbatical from our regular weekly Wednesday Bible studies before kicking off again in September with refreshed vigor and a reformatted intergerational learning time. Our food pantry is reducing its schedule from twice to once a week: Tuesdays from 9-11. Part of the reason is financial. The primary reason, however, is to free up time and resources so we can focus more on addressing some of the root causes of poverty from a community development and advocacy perspective. We want to listen to our community to find ways to work together. As pastor here, it is a tremendous joy and a great challenge to journey with people of faith along the border.
San Lucas’ ministry has a long history of crossing borders. We’re now crossing some ecumenical borders as we explore ways to work together across denominational lines at Cristo Rey, a preaching point just 13 miles across the border in the rural outskirts of Piedras Negras.Rev. Miguel Angel Cristerna from Iglesia Anglicana Buen Pastor was the guest preacher at Cristo Rey on June 22. His Anglican congregation has had a ministry of presence in the nearby colonia for several years. Many Cristo Rey worshippers already also participate in that ministry. Cristo Rey will house a site of Buen Pastor’s VBS at the end of July. In August, Rev. Cristerna will begin being a part of the preaching rotation at Cristo Rey more regularly.
National news reports are full of stories about the thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America crossing into the United States. According to a local Border Patrol official here in Eagle Pass, this area has seen an increase in people crossing, but not to the overwhelming extent as in other places along the Texas border. When I asked what churches can do to help, she said that children in federal custody are physically cared-for, and that federal agencies cannot accept any material donations. Those items, she added, could be used to help people locally. I have been a part of several conference calls with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, who concurs that “stuff” is not what’s needed at this time. There will be a long-term need for pro bono legal representation and for bilingual and Spanish-speaking foster families. For more information, check out: http://lirs.org/actoflove/.
God’s creatures welcome!
Earlier this month, a donkey showed up at San Lucas. We don’t know how he got here or from whence he came. He is a few months late for the Palm Sunday procession and very early for La Posada that we reenact every Christmas. He had no identification; he’s undocumented. Nevertheless, he has made himself welcome and comfortable at San Lucas. What a perfect image for thinking about Christian hospitality!
At San Lucas, we’re rethinking our how we frame relationships with mission partners, moving away from a mission-trip service model and moving toward an accompaniment-based pilgrimage model. Visiting the Mexican border is touching holy ground. We recognize God’s presence in the lives of the people here, even in the midst of poverty, violence, and injustice. The emphasis is on being together with the people of San Lucas through meals, conversation, and worship, and less on completing projects. In recent months, we’ve had visits from St. Mark’s (Marion, Iowa), Lutheran Campus Ministry UT Austin, Wartburg Theological Seminary students studying at the Lutheran Seminary Program of the Southwest (pictured near the Rio Grande), First English (Austin, TX), and this month the Youth in Mission program of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Youth from First English responded about how they saw God in the lives of people on the border:
- In the families coming to America and their courage for wanting a better life.
- In the water of the river separating us because it knows no boundaries.
- In the hope the migrants hold onto. God is the shelter that they find in the U.S. and the jobs they work at to better their lives.
- In the people that support the migrants when they make it across.
Thank you for your prayers and partnership!
It is humbling to realize that the ministry of San Lucas is sustained by the generosity of so many. Teaching healthy financial stewardship in a context of poverty is a unique challenge. We have been receiving $15,000 each year from the ELCA, but that does not cover all of our costs. In recent months, we’ve had some tenuous cash-flow situations as we wait for offering checks to clear. Ministry isn’t about money, but money helps us do ministry. In order to provide quality hospitality during the summer heat, we are in the process of replacing air conditioning units in the fellowship hall building. Undesignated offerings to the general fund give the most flexibility for funding ministry here. Some in-kind donations that would be helpful at this time include:
- Brother TN-360 cartridges fit our copier. As we print worship and education materials, we use a cartridge every several weeks. They aren’t sold locally in Eagle Pass, so it’s nice to have an extra on hand.
- A utility trailer would help us downsize to just one vehicle. Currently we have two vans—one mostly for people and another primarily for picking up food bank donations. A trailer would eliminate the need for a second vehicle—and second set of costs.
- Water storage tanks attached to gutters and downspouts would help us utilize what rainfall we do receive as we move toward using our land more productively, including possibilities of fruit trees, community gardens, and livestock.
Above all, please keep us in prayer. Celebrate God’s liberating presence in the lives of those folks who call the border area home. Remember those who struggle with injustice, poverty, and challenge. Praise the God whose love crosses borders.
Con amor cristiano,
Pastor Paul Bailie