Stories of Crossing Borders

In May, I traveled to Tucson, Arizona with a group of seminarians to learn firsthand about the realities of immigration and human rights along the US/Mexico border. We spent 10 days along the border, meeting with undocumented immigrants, Border Patrol agents, immigration lawyers, human rights activists, pastors, and ordinary people whose lives are tied up in the messy and complicated world of migration and survival. In August, I had the pleasure of serving my congregation, Stone Church of the Brethren, as a sabbatical coverage minister, and on August 9, I organized that morning’s worship around these issues. The two scripture lessons were taken from Ruth 1:1-19 and Matthew 2:13-23. My sermon title was “Stories of Crossing Borders,” and I wanted to share it here:

As you can tell, our theme for this worship has been focused on crossing borders, migration, and the issues of peace and justice that are tied up in these realities. Lately the headlines that we read and the rhetoric that we hear insists on the dangers of the so-called “immigration problem.” Groups of people, almost always Latinos and other dark-skinned people, are lumped together under the category of suspicious, foreign, and threatening, protestors hold up signs reading “Go back home!,” and politicians convince hard-working Americans that the Mexicans are out to take our jobs. This morning instead of buying into the fear-based political platform of anti-immigration policies, I want to skip past the generalizations and broad strokes. I want to share true stories about individuals whose lives are right in the thick of this hot button issue. We’ve already read two significant stories of migration found in the pages of our faith’s history, one from the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, our shared scriptures with the Jewish people, and another from our own scriptures, the New Testament. This morning I want to share two other true stories of immigration that will hopefully bring to light the complexities and realities along the United States’ southern border. And perhaps we’ll see some parallels between these modern stories and our biblical stories.

First, I want to tell you about a woman named Rosa Robles Loreto. Rosa lives in Tucson, Arizona and has lived there for 16 years. She is a wife and a mother of two young boys. She is active in her community and volunteers at her church, in her son’s school, and with her son’s baseball teams. In 2011 Rosa was pulled over for a minor traffic violation. When the officer discovered she did not have the proper paperwork to live and work in the United States, the Border Patrol was called and she was placed in a detention facility for 53 days. She fought her immigration case through the courts but it did nothing. You see, the thing about Rosa is that in the eyes of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she is not a high-priority deportation case. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, prioritizes undocumented persons with violent crimes, drug offenses, and criminal histories. These are the persons that ICE is told to focus their energy and resources on deporting. But Rosa has no criminal history, is the mother of two minors, and has good standing within her community, therefore the federal government has classified individuals like her as the lowest priority for deportation. But because her lawyer did not file the right paperwork at the right time, Rosa now has an order of deportation hanging over her head and is not safe to move and work freely in her own community of Tucson. In August of 2014 Rosa entered into sanctuary with the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. While in sanctuary, Rosa is safe from being deported and torn apart from her family but she is restricted to live within the walls of the church building. This past Friday, August 7, two days ago, marked the one-year anniversary of Rosa’s sanctuary. Until her deportation order is dropped, Rosa will remain in sanctuary.

Signs like this are seen across Tucson as the community rallies around Rosa and her family

Signs like this are seen across Tucson as the community rallies around Rosa and her family

Rosa’s story reminds me of Ruth and Naomi’s story. Like Naomi, Rosa traveled to a new country with her two sons and husband to find a living. Naomi loses her husband and her sons, the only true safety net for a woman of that time, and especially for a woman in a foreign land. Although Rosa has not lost her husband and sons, she has lost her safety and security when she fears that at any moment she could be forcibly removed from her family and her community. When Ruth declares her intention to remain with Naomi and return with her to Bethlehem, Naomi is blessed by this show of loyalty and commitment that ensures she is not alone in this world. By taking refuge at Southside Presbyterian Church, Rosa is blessed with a network of support, loyalty, and safety that ensures she is not separated from her family.

So in our first biblical story, the the tables are turned: years ago Naomi followed her family to the foreign land of Moab in search of survival, and now Ruth follows the only person who is left of her family to the foreign land of Judah. One border crossing was for survival, the other was for loyalty and commitment. Eventually, we learn that Ruth finds a husband in Bethlehem, and this woman, this stranger in a strange land, gives birth to a son who will become the grandfather of King David himself.

Our second contemporary story this morning is perhaps the most difficult to hear. Just a warning that it does involve violence and the threat of violence. When I traveled to Tucson, Arizona with a cohort of seminary students in June, we took an afternoon to cross the border into Mexico, into a town called Nogales, in the state of Sonora. Just yards from the Port of Entry you can find an organization called the Kino Border Initiative which operates a soup kitchen, or comedor, for migrants. In addition to providing 2 meals a day, this initiative run by Jesuit nuns also provides medical care, clothing, and advice for those travelers. Of the men and women that drop by KBI for food or other needs, about 90% of them have already crossed the border into the US illegally, been caught, detained, and deported back into Nogales, but most of them plan to attempt the journey again.

Kino Border Initiative

Kino Border Initiative

The comedor was literally steps from la frontera (the border)

The comedor was literally steps from la frontera (the border)

That day after helping to scoop second helpings of rice onto plastic plates for the hungry men to eat, I sat down next to some of my classmates who were in deep conversation with a few of the migrants. One of the men was young, hardly a man really. He was an 18 year old boy who shared his story with us. After he was caught illegally smuggling marijuana across the Sonoran desert, he had been arrested by US Border Patrol and deported to Nogales. But this 18 year old was not a drug lord making money from this operation. He had been picked up by mafia in one of the Mexican border towns and threatened into carrying a 40lb bale of weed, held up by straps that rested on his shoulders, into the United States. If he refused, or if he got caught, or if he dropped off the drugs and didn’t get the money back to the drug lords… they would cut off his head. Sadly, his story is not uncommon. Many unsuspecting young men and boys are sought out by drug lords, kidnapped, and coerced into smuggling illegal drugs against their will. Some are told that their hands will be chopped off, or that their families will be killed if they refuse. When asked if he was going to try to do it again, the 18 year old in the comedor in Nogales told us, with his shoulders bleeding from the straps he had carried and with a hint of fear in his voice, “I have no other choice.”

I do not know his name, but I will never forget this young man’s story. Was he doing something illegal? Yes. His actions, illegally smuggling drugs across the US/Mexico border, are exactly the kinds of things that our politicians and pundits roar and rage about… the dangers of illegal immigrants, criminals infiltrating our borders, and infecting our society with drugs and other dangerous substances. But when I sat next to this young man and heard his story, understood his situation, and imagined if I were in his shoes… I didn’t see a threat to our country, I saw a person who was taken advantage of, who lived in fear, and who felt trapped by his circumstances. Perhaps he would cross the border again… and perhaps he would not get caught by the Border Patrol but instead find a way to survive and thrive in a country where his life was not at risk. I hope so.

In this boy’s story, I see Jesus’ story. Before this comparison makes you feel uncomfortable, remember what Jesus said in Matthew 25: we are to see the face of Jesus in the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, and the imprisoned. It is not a stretch to see Jesus in the life of this 18 year old.

In our second biblical story, the holy family migrates not to find better living conditions, food, and water, like Noami’s family, but rather to escape real oppression and danger. The members of the holy family are political refugees, fleeing persecution from their government and fearing for their lives. This is so significant yet we often forget that the child Jesus, the one we worship and commit to following, crossed national borders to find freedom and liberation from oppression.

Like the infant Jesus with his family, this young man’s life was threatened by those with power and he was in real danger. Both the holy family and this man crossed borders hoping that the journey would provide safety and ultimately a way out.

However the comparisons do end there…Jesus and his family were eventually able to return home without fear of harm, whereas our 18 year old has no such relief. He must make the dangerous journey again, crossing the border between two worlds where he remains fearful of the Border Patrol on one side, and fearful for his life on the other.

There is so much more that we could say this morning on this theme of immigration and crossing borders. It was challenging enough for me to only share the stories that I did… because during our time in the Arizonan cities of Tucson and Douglass, and the Mexican cities of Nogales and Agua Prieta, we heard so many more stories from undocumented immigrants, church leaders, immigration lawyers, Border Patrol agents, and volunteers that highlighted the complexities and nuances of the realities along our country’s border with Mexico.

Tour of Border Patrol station in Douglas, AZ

Tour of Border Patrol station in Douglas, AZ

But one thing is clear: our faith’s history as recounted in the pages of the Old and New Testament is filled with accounts of migration. Beyond the stories we read today, we remember Abraham and Sarah leaving the land of Ur to resettle and start their family in the land of Canaan, the Israelites liberation from slavery in Egypt by following God through the wilderness for 40 years, the nation of Judah forced into exile in Babylon and rediscovering and reinventing their faith far from their homeland, the nomadic ministry of Jesus as he traveled throughout Palestine healing and teaching, the early apostles moving throughout the Mediterranean and Near East spreading the Good News of new life and the restoration of all creation…. migration and crossing borders is not a new phenomenon, especially not to those who study the Bible.

Crosses with the names of migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran desert. We participated in a vigil to remember them.

Crosses with the names of just some migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran desert. We participated in a vigil to remember them.

Even more importantly, the theme of hospitality and kindness to strangers accompanies these stories throughout our scriptures. The Hebrew scriptures have many books devoted to complicated laws about every part of life, and as Christians we often skim over books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but throughout these pages one of the most consistent commandments that God gives the people is this: Love the stranger in your midst. Care for the foreigner. Treat the alien like one of your own. And what is God’s reason? Because you were once the foreigner too. We were once the stranger too. In Canaan, in Egypt, in Babylon. In Jerusalem, in Rome. In the United States. Perhaps in Huntingdon, or in Stone Church. Somewhere, sometime, we and our families and our faith communities were strangers, crossing a border into a place, a situation that was unknown.

The current United States policies surrounding immigration are enough to make your head spin. We don’t have the time this morning to go into detail about the trade agreements of the 90s that led to such dire economic conditions in counties like Guatemala and Mexico, how the wait time for proper documentation in the United States can sometimes take decades, how many federal environmental laws were waived in order to build the wall along our southwest border (over 30, by the way), and what daily life is like for those individuals and families who live and work in our country without papers but not without a desire for them.

This morning was just a small piece of this large, complex puzzle. But I believe that retelling biblical stories about migration and crossing borders and hearing other modern-day stories for the first time can be the first step towards compassion and kindness. The next step is to ask questions, to do some research, to pay attention to the topic of immigration when it arises, especially on the national scale. Our shared history and connections with our Jewish neighbors, and our commitment to following Jesus, the Christ who both reached across borders and crossed them, requires us to push back against nationalistic rhetoric that is exclusive, hateful, and xenophobic. As Christians we are called to love the foreigner as ourselves, because we were once strangers, because we are called to see the face of Jesus in the face of the immigrant and the alien, and because the love of God, our Creator, Christ our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Sustainer, knows no borders.

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Myanmar Reflections, Part 1 of 3: The Church in Myanmar

Mingalaba! (Hello!) It has been a little over a week since we returned from Myanmar and I am so excited to share my experiences. Our two weeks in Southeast Asia were intense, filled with beauty, hospitality, and intentionality. There is no way that I can adequately describe the fullness of our trip in a few blog posts, and I am positive that some experiences can never be completely recounted, even though I will try my best. For the purposes of this blog, I have decided to write three separate posts around different themes that I found to be important and recurring. These posts are in no way comprehensive. I have so many more stories and I have learned so much beyond what I can share here. If you’d love to hear more, I would love to talk to you personally! Let’s find a time to talk on the phone or in person.

Before I begin, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank each person who prayed for our group while we were traveling. Your prayers were felt! And I especially want to thank each person who made a donation to my fundraiser to afford the cost of this course. I am so deeply grateful and humbled by your generosity, and I quite honestly wouldn’t have had this unique opportunity without you. Thank you!

So…we begin.

Part 1: The Myanmar Church

A mere twelve hours after arriving in Myanmar, our group of 13 Andover Newton students, faculty, and friends began our educational journey with a first hand look at what the Church looks like in Myanmar.

We first checked into our hotel around midnight on Saturday, and after a grateful night’s sleep we were warmly welcomed into Sunday morning worship at Ywama Baptist Church in Yangon. As we hopped out of the vans that transported us from the hotel to the church, we were ushered into a small room filled with medicine cabinets, chairs, and a desk. “This is the Charity Healthcare Clinic of the Ywama Baptist Church,” one of the church elders explained, who introduced herself as Dr. Mary. This congregation has been running a free health clinic for their community since 2003. There are several doctors and nurses in the congregation, and there is not adequate health care available in Myanmar, so anyone who walks through the doors of the clinic receives treatment, regardless of religion or ethnic group. According to a brochure about the clinic, about 9,000 patients are treated every year, and the congregation provides this outreach out of a deep conviction about the importance of Jesus’ healing ministry. If Jesus was a healer, why shouldn’t his church be in the healing business as well?

Dr. Mary telling us about the Health Clinic

Dr. Mary telling us about the Health Clinic

After a short tour of the clinic, we began to hear organ music, and I realized I was hearing old familiar hymns, such as How Great Thou Art. I immediately felt a connection to this community that I was visiting for the first time. Isn’t it amazing what music has the power to do? We were guided into a few rows toward the front of the sanctuary and I snuck a look behind me. The church was packed! There were hundreds of people filling the rows, and that was just the center room. To the left and the right of the main worship area I saw side porches with pews that were also filled to the edges. At the front of the church sat the choir, a pianist, an organist, and a small band comprised of a few teenagers playing flutes and violins. The service was conducted mainly in Burmese. One of the pastors of this church, Rev. Dr. Maung Maung Yin, is dear friend of one of the ANTS professors on the trip, Dr. Brita Gill-Austern. He introduced his guests from Andover Newton Theological School, adding in a few English sentences here and there so that we guests knew what was going on. We sang hymns such as Spirit of the Living God and All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, the congregation singing in Burmese and us singing along in English. And boy, can that congregation sing! I kept thinking of churches in the United States where you can hardly hear any folks in the pews. Not here! The joyful bellows from this congregation made my heart swell.

Ywama Baptist Church

Ywama Baptist Church

Our two ANTS professors, Dr. Brita and Dr. Mark Heim, gave words of greeting from Andover Newton and from the American Baptist Churches. During the sermon, a few church elders sitting next to us passed us notes (in English) describing the main points of the message so we wouldn’t feel too lost. Finally, to conclude the service, Holy Communion was served, Baptist-style (also, I would add, Brethren style!). It was a beautiful moment to partake in the bread and the cup, the symbols of Christ’s love and passion, across languages and across cultures, while still sitting at the same table of fellowship and faith.

Mark, Maung Maung, and Brita

Mark, Maung Maung, and Brita

Following worship a few members of the church led us to another building where we could hear the echoes of children chattering before we even reached the door. In addition to their free health clinic, another outreach of the Ywama Baptist Church is the Sharing Love Program, which serves children from the lowest and poorest neighborhoods in the area. We stepped inside the building to see a group of 60-70 children sitting on the floor listening to a story that a teacher was reading to them. Chatting with one of the younger female teachers beside me, I learned that the children of the Sharing Love program hear Bible stories, are taught lessons about health, hygiene, and moral values, learn songs and play games, and receive a meal. That morning, we had brought a suitcase full of children’s books that we had collected from the States, and when the teachers announced in Burmese that each of them could select a book to take home, they murmured excitedly and snuck us curious glances and shy smiles. Suddenly the teachers began singing a song, and the children all stood up and began to sing loudly, adding hand gestures and movements to the music. One of the songs they sang was one that we Americans immediately recognized: the Hokey Pokey! We began to join in, singing along in English and putting our left foot in, putting our left foot out, until they started to giggle at their silly guests! We couldn’t speak the same language but we could still shake their tiny hands and give each other great big smiles.

Children of the Sharing Love Program listening to a story

Children of the Sharing Love Program listening to a story

Ywama Baptist Church is just one example of the incredible witness of the church in Myanmar. Throughout that first week we also spent time at two different seminaries in Yangon: Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT for short) and Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary. In Myanmar, Buddhism is not just the majority religion; it is also the state religion. Furthermore Christians in Myanmar are not only religious minorities, but they are also usually ethnic minorities as well. One of the most important identity markers in Myanmar is your ethnic group: Chen, Kachin, Karen, Lisu, etc. The Burmese comprise about 45% of the population and are the largest ethnic group in the country. Most Burmese people also identify as Buddhist. Therefore, if you are a Christian in Myanmar, you are likely to be a member of both a minority religion and a minority ethnic group.

These ethnic and religious factors pose unique challenges and opportunities for the mission and work of the Church in this country. I admit that prior to meeting and getting to know the Christians of the Ywama Baptist Church, as well as the students and administration at MIT and at Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary, I expected to meet very conservative Christians with negative attitudes towards their Buddhist neighbors. After all, it was the work and mission of individuals like Andover Newton graduate and Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson that brought the gospel to the “heathen” peoples of South Asia in the early 19th century, so I anticipated finding a similar mindset among the 21st century descendants of those first Christian converts.

Yet it was quite the opposite. The Christians of these churches and theological schools were thoughtful, open-minded, justice-oriented, and committed to engaging critically with their neighbors and their society. When we talked with church elders and seminary students about mission and evangelism, we didn’t hear talk of conversion, sacrificial atonement, and the need to save their Buddhist neighbors from eternal damnation. (Now I’m sure there are Christians in Myanmar who would talk of those things, but I’m just sharing my interactions.) Instead, we heard talk of both interfaith dialogue and evangelism as storytelling. To evangelize and to witness meant sharing stories of the ways in which being a follower of Jesus has changed your life, and to engage in interfaith dialogue meant asking your Buddhist or Muslim neighbor to share their stories of the ways in which being a Buddhist or a Muslim has changed their life. At Ywama Baptist Church we saw outreach and mission take the form of providing basic human needs like education, health care, and childcare for all, without an expectation that those benefiting from those services accept Jesus as their personal savior. In the classrooms at MIT we heard talk of “God’s preferential option for the poor” and Gustavo Gutierrez’s liberation theology, which takes on a whole new meaning in one of the poorest South Asian countries.

Students of Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary dressed in traditional ethnic garb

Students of Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary dressed in traditional ethnic garb

Overall, I was inspired and deeply moved by the witness and mission of the Church in Myanmar. And if I’m honest, I can’t help but notice how Christianity in Myanmar is different from Christianity in the United States. It is clear that being a religious minority in a country will change your approach to doing and being the Church in the world. (Here are my Anabaptist, anti-Constantinian, post-Christendom roots shining through…I recommend reading Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith.) Even though the United States does not have an official religion like Myanmar, Christianity is still pervasive and is still the dominant religious framework in our culture. Has our majority status and our privilege affected our ability to be faithful disciples of Christ, healing the sick and feeding the hungry? Have we become more about self-preservation than about turning the world upside-down with the radical and counter-cultural love of Jesus?

I propose the Church in the United States has much to give thanks for and much to learn from the Church in Myanmar. Our sanctuaries may be bigger but their pews are fuller. Our organs may be louder but their songs are sung with fuller hearts. Our churches and theological schools may have more committees about “mission” and “evangelism,” but their churches and seminaries are out there in the trenches, living out their mission. May we be inspired and encouraged by our brothers and sisters in Yangon and in every small Christian village and town. Christ is alive, present, and at work through the busy hands and feet of the Christians in Myanmar.