This weekend, the Southwestern Texas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is gathering in San Antonio for its annual Synod Assembly. It is a time of worship, fellowship, and decision-making for the sake of ministry. As a pastor of the synod, it has been a way for me to keep connected with colleagues and mission partners.
However, this year, I decided not to attend Synod Assembly for a variety of reasons: 1) The registration fee of $180 per person is hard to manage for a congregation in a community of poverty that already struggles for everyday ministry expenses. It basically becomes an ecclesiastical poll tax. 2) I was already planning to be gone several Sundays this spring and didn’t want to be away from worship too many times. 3) Increased fear about Border Patrol and ICE presence makes some parishioners nervous about traveling.
Perhaps I am being a colonialist gatekeeper pastor myself, but I don’t want this to be my Spanish-speaking congregation’s experience with the wider Church. When parishioners have attended Synod Assembly in the past, it has not always been a safe space or a pleasant experience. Spanish translation, if available, is not always the best quality. Micro-aggressions abound. In my eight years in this synod, I’ve long felt the unspoken rule that one must be German before being Lutheran. It has improved slightly, but it still feels to me like an ethnic insiders club. Polka music and sauerkraut are not uncommon. There is nothing wrong with honoring German heritage. The problem comes when that culture is assumed to be normative, to the exclusion of others.
I know that by not attending Synod Assembly this year, I am disenfranchising the congregation and am avoiding collegiality with other leaders, but I am also avoiding the physically-draining geographical commute of five hours round trip across desolate Texas backcountry, as well as the emotionally-draining cultural commute.
My decision to not attend was reaffirmed when I saw the bulletin for worship on Saturday morning. I think a polka service could be fun every once in a while. I think it would be a great opportunity to reflect on the mixing of cultural influences that has happened in the course of Texas history. The accordions and oom-pah rhythms that I hear on the local ranchera stations have roots in the musics of the German and Czech immigrants of a century hence.
I understand the desire to honor heritage. I realize that German was the primary language of San Antonio in 1870, but it is not anymore. There are people in our synod who speak German, but I imagine that they also speak English very well. German is not a survival language. There are people in our synod who only speak Spanish. Including Spanish is a matter of hospitality and welcome. Including German is a matter of grasping onto nostalgia.
My discomfort comes from the litany, “Thanksgiving for Our Heritage.” It’s not all our heritage. If the author were to read it himself during worship, that would be one thing. However, goading the congregation to respond, “May Jesus Christ be praised” at the end requires worshippers to affirm words that are not necessarily theirs. The litany celebrates Biblical heroes—women and men—as well as reformers and European immigrants. It seems to assume that those present share that German heritage or those other White heritages from “a more civilized North.” This is not the heritage of the Spanish-speaking Lutherans in places like Eagle Pass, Laredo, Pharr, and San Juan. This is not the heritage of the “incredulous faces” of the Coahuiltecan, Karankawa, and Comanche whose lands the synod’s territory claims. This is not the heritage of the African Americans whose ancestors picked cotton on plantations in our synod’s territory. This is not all our heritage. The #decolonizeLutheranism movement is not about denying European culture. It’s not about pretending that German immigrants didn’t exist. Rather, #decolonizeLutheranism is about recognizing other parts of the story. It is about celebrating a theological identity based on God’s grace instead of a cultural one based on our human divisions. I long for a day where there is not this disconnect, where I don’t have to exude so much energy to deal with all the layers of cross-cultural mission.
In my absence at Assembly, I know I will miss out on the opportunity to be collegial. Parishioners will miss out on the chance to meet folk from other congregations. I don’t want to spend my congregation’s precious financial recourses perpetuating the ELCA Marriot culture where decisions happen in expensive hotel ballrooms. I’m skipping Synod Assembly this year because I don’t want to culturally commute to a context where “all are welcome” doesn’t always seem to include me and the parishioners with whom I serve.
San Lucas once again was mentioned in The Lutheran, the monthly magazine for our denomination. It’s part of an article about Christmas celebrations. I talk about Las Posadas, the Mexican custom of reenacting the journey that Mary and Joseph take looking for lodging in Bethlehem.
You need to be a print subscriber to read the whole article online, but here is my good soundbite:
Las Posadas teaches children valuable lessons about showing hospitality to those whom God gives us the opportunity to greet. “It reminds us of our own journeys in life and how we seek and receive a welcome from others,” Bailie said.
This year at San Lucas, we will celebrate Las Posadas on Thursday, December 20.
Whenever I have visitors to Eagle Pass, I love to take them downtown to the shores of the Rio Grande, past the border fence, and near the bridge. You can see the church steeples and the river walk across in Piedras Negras. A giant Mexican flag towers above. Sometimes you can hear soccer games or see cows. Standing by the fence, I often read from Ephesians, thinking of Christ who breaks down our walls.
Last week, a group from our Synod’s Peace not Walls team visited San Lucas and Cristo Rey. Two women on the group have served as ecumenical accompaniers in Israel and Palestine. Officially the ELCA’s Peace not Walls efforts focus on life in the Middle East, but in Southwestern Texas, we find many similarities with the wall we have here.
One of these recent visitors, Pastor Sharon, shared about her experience on her own blog:
The August issue of Texas Monthly features an eye-opening article about teens smuggling drugs across the Mexican border from Piedras Negras. In the last eighteen months, 104 teens have been arrested in Eagle Pass with more than fifty pounds of marijuana each.
In my conversations with folks in the wider church, especially with those from mission partner congregations and potential mission partners thinking of visiting us at San Lucas, the most common question I hear is, “Is it safe?”
I personally feel relatively safe. Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras have not had nearly the major volume of violence that has terrorized other border communities, especially Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, and Reynosa. However, whenever I pick up a copy of the local Eagle Pass News Gram, it seems the headline is almost always about another drug arrest on the bridge.
From San Lucas, we continue to cross the border every week to worship at Cristo Rey. I generally follow a few guidelines to help insure safety:
• Travel with at least one other person, preferably a native Spanish speaker.
• Go directly to church.
• Be back in the United States before dark.
• Use the church van instead of personal cars.
There is no denying that there is risk in ministry here. But isn’t there risk everywhere? Upon reading in Texas Monthly about so many young people taking major risks, I start to wonder. I wonder how many kids from our Vacation Bible School have families impacted by narcotraffic.
This week I heard the chief of the Eagle Pass Police Department speak to the Rotary Club, and he said that children as young as third grade have been caught with drugs at the elementary schools. I don’t really have easy answers to all of this. In Eagle Pass, there are drugs, but there’s also lots of poverty, unemployment, and under employment.
At San Lucas, we have a strong food bank that helps people with immediate hunger issues. I’m in the process of building a collection of business cards for agencies to which we can refer people for different forms of assistance. I’d love to eventually explore some congregational-based community organizing to address some of the root causes of the poverty here.
We can organize; we can advocate; we can give out food and start programs. This is all good stuff, but really what we need to do is be present. Prayer is advocacy. It might be a lot easier to be pastor in a different place. It might be more financially responsible for synods and congregations to put their money and prayers elsewhere. Where there’s violence, that’s where the Church should be. When there is poverty and despair, the Church should be present.
I hope that’s what we’re doing at San Lucas and Cristo Rey. On August 21, just before school starts, we’re going to have a special Blessing of the Students at San Lucas. We’ll also pass out school supplies collected by one of our mission partner congregations and surround the young people of our congregation and community with prayers for safety and wisdom as they begin a new school year.
Prayer in the midst of uncertainty is part of our usual practice. Week after week, we usually include in our prayers a petition not unlike this:
O Dios, oremos por los victimas de drogas, violencia, y guerras. Oremos por paz en este mundo. Favor de darnos un espíritu de justicia y hospitalidad para que podamos ser instrumentos de su paz. Señor, en tu bondad, escucha nuestra oración. Amen.
O God, we pray for victims of drugs, violence, and war. We pray for peace in this world. Please give to us a spirit of justice and hospitality so that we may be instruments of your peace. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.
I’ve been told that in the summer months, worship attendance will go down here at San Lucas. More than a few families from Eagle Pass travel al norte in order to work. People who live in Texas will go to places like Minnesota or Wisconsin to do tough agricultural work like picking sugar beets or working in canning factories. Most leave some time in June, and come back in the Fall. This is one reason, along with scalding heat, that we have Vacation Bible School right away the first week in June. I don’t know numbers for sure, but I’ve heard that a quarter to a third of Eagle Pass residents leave in the summer for work.
I wonder–how can our congregation minister to these people, especially when they are far away? Every Sunday, we’ve been praying for los trabajadores. When I know it is a family’s last Sunday in worship, I have done a special blessing of farewell and godspeed. It’s too late to get something planned for this year, but I’ve been thinking about some sort of special worship service of blessing to send people out with the prayers and support of the community. Maybe this could even be done ecumenically with other local churches.
I’ve thought about sending care packages, but people don’t often know what their address will be until they find a place to live. It would also be ideal to try to connect with other congregations to help our families in diaspora. It’s not like there’s no shortage of Lutherans in the Upper Midwest.
One problem is that people are scattered. It is not the case that people from Eagle Pass all go to the same town; we have people near Moorhead, Rochester, Madison, Green Bay. I’ve asked some of my members who travel if they have been able to connect with Lutheran churches where they go. The common response is that they usually have to work very long hours, even on Sundays, so they don’t get to church easily. Additionally, it is hard to find Spanish-speaking Lutherans, especially in rural areas. One woman told me she went to a Lutheran church in Minnesota that was puro norteamericano. However, one man said that a Lutheran pastor in Wisconsin would bless the cars of the workers before they travel.
When I hear these stories of people traveling for work, I can’t help but think of Biblical narratives, and all the folks that travel in the Bible. Abram and Sarai get up and go to a new place. Joseph’s brothers go to Egypt during a time of famine. In a foreign land, Ruth gleans in the fields of Boaz. Israelites remember Zion by the waters of Babylon. Escaping the tyranny of Herod, the Holy Family finds rest on the way to Egypt. My prayer is that in all of our journeys, Christ might travel with us.
When driving to San Antonio for a meeting with our bishop and for a hospital visit, I had to stop at the permanent border checkpoint just outside Eagle Pass. The agent had me roll down my backseat window and asked the usual questions: “Where are you coming from? Where are you going? What is your occupation?” When I said, “Lutheran pastor,” he looked at me rather incredulously and said, “Lutheran? Shouldn’t you be in Minnesota or something?” “No, we’re here, too,” I replied. He just shook his head and had me drive on through.
I know the stereotypes about Lutherans: we eat jello and sing boring hymns. We never like to change and we say cutesy things like “ya sure ya betcha.” Here at San Lucas, I love discovering differences to these stereotypes. Here Lutherans cook up enchiladas instead of hotdish. Our music has all sorts of beautiful Latin rhythms.
Being Lutheran is not about what you eat or what kind of music you sing. It’s about God’s grace. As a community of faith, we gather around scripture and share God’s meal together. That’s what makes us Lutheran. Actually, that’s what makes us Christian.
This past week, we’ve had a group of visitors from two of our mission partner congregations in Iowa. Because the property at San Lucas had been an orphanage many years ago, one of our buildings is perfect for dormitory space. Several congregations have long histories of partnering with San Lucas, both with financial commitments and with sending groups for mission and service learning trips. I see this as an opportunity for San Lucas to be a teaching congregation for the wider church. It’s a wonderful place to learn about Christian community in this border context.
It was a good group for my first time having guests. More than half of the group had been to San Lucas before; a few multiple times. We all worshipped together on Sunday, both at San Lucas and across the border at Cristo Rey, a mission community in Piedras Negras. I’m getting my practice driving a fifteen-passanger van on the bumpy dirt roads on the way to Cristo Rey. I crossed over with the group to Piedras Negras on Monday and Tuesday. They did both health and construction projects. At the heath fair, they checked blood pressures and sugars and distributed health kits. The other half of the group partnered with Hands and Feet to help build a house for a family from a neighboring congregation whose home was recently destroyed in a fire. Later, our Iowa friends spent Wednesday and Thursday at San Lucas, doing a wide variety of helpful property projects and putting on a health fair during the hours our food bank was open.
As wonderful as it is to see some completed tasks, for me it is a joy to see the relationships built. When members of the congregation bring food and share a meal with the group in the evenings, my prayer has been something like: “Dios todopoderoso: Gracias por este día, esta comida, y esta oportunidad de ser la iglesia juntos…” “Almighty God, thank you for this day, this food, and this opportunity to be Church together…”