Faith at the Border
We had just celebrated the second Sunday of Advent, lighting that second candle to signify our longing for the Prince of Peace in our hearts and in our world. The very next day I stood with nearly 400 other faith leaders at our southern border with Mexico. There was little peace to be found.
Three helicopters hovered overhead, monitoring our 2-mile sojourn and the expanse of desert we navigated on foot as we made our way to the San Diego/Tijuana border. A drone followed our progress, and we noted law enforcement personnel posted on ridges high above. As we reached our destination at the border itself, the layers of security were daunting: barbed wire, chain link fencing, and a slatted wall rising 21 feet high and jutting out into the Pacific Ocean’s waves. Between the barbed wire and the wall, standing across a strip of beach considered a “protected area”, were San Diego police and border patrol agents wearing riot gear and fully armed.
Did a crowd of faith leaders singing hymns and kneeling in prayer really warrant riot gear, I wondered? What about us caused such fear and concern? Why is it that border security and immigration have become such lightning rods for our nation’s fears, hatred, and ugly vitriol?
In the days following our protest and leading up to Christmas, Felipe Gomez Alonzo and Jakelin Caal died while in custody at the border, two Guatemalan children who had traveled with their families seeking safety and a better life. Some were quick to blame their parents for exposing them to such arduous travels and dangerous circumstances. I could only imagine the parents’ grief, and the desperation they must have felt to have undertaken the journey in the first place.
I carried these images and stories with me through Advent and on into Christmas, perhaps strange companions on the face of it for a journey toward Christmas. Yet they are in fact exactly on point with the Christmas story. The Gospels remind us that the story of Christmas is not simply an idyllic one of harmonic angels and a holy family cloistered from the troubles of the world, but is also a story of threats and danger that forced them to flee in search of safety.
The baby Jesus was a threat to Herod, and Herod was bent on his destruction. When the wise men he’d commissioned to find Jesus failed to report back to him, he looked for another way to locate Jesus and destroy him. Faced with such danger, Mary and Joseph took Jesus and fled by night to another land to secure the safety of their family and the child so treasured. (Matthew 2:13-15)
Today families flee their own nations for similar desperate reasons. They escape the violence and poverty that threatens their own lives and that of their children. They dare to grab hold of hope, to pursue a better future. They risk everything to seek asylum and refuge.
Our border security and immigration policy are complex political issues. They are also issues with deep theological importance for us in Christ’s Church, enormously relevant matters of faith. As a Conference that declared itself to be an “Immigrant Welcoming” Conference in 2016 (see the details here) , and invited the whole United Church of Christ to do the same at General Synod in 2017, the Minnesota Conference has covenanted to see the image of God in those who migrate and to advocate for immigration policy that is just and humane.
2019 begins with a government shut-down in Washington, D.C. predicated on political arguments over building a wall at our southern border and how to fund it. The year will no doubt progress with bitter wrangling on all sides about immigration. In the midst of it all, I’m calling on every member and congregation of the Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ to:
- Pray for our elected leaders who will determine the future of immigration policy and argue the questions of border security. Pray for families fleeing their own countries and seeking safety and opportunity in our own. Pray for border patrol agents and other law enforcement personnel at the border, charged with carrying out others’ policies. Pray for our nation, that ugly and heartless rhetoric might lessen and that a strong moral compass might lead us.
- Study and invite dialogue. Make space for a different kind of conversation in your congregations on this complex issue, one seeking deeper understanding and marked by true listening. Invite immigrant voices from your own communities into the dialogue. Make use of our Conference’s Immigration Team as a resource (contact Team leader Diane Haines (at her email account). Model the character and quality of dialogue you long for in the halls of Congress.
- If you can, make a trip to the border to see with your own eyes the challenges on display there. Or invite someone who has been to the border to tell you about their experience. Call or write your legislators. Protest in the streets. Do whatever you can do to lift a voice of faith amid all the noise this issue prompts, and to advocate for just and humane policies that align with our faith.
As the season of Christmas concludes and Epiphany begins, let us remember the whole of the Christmas story and its reminder to us that God was revealed amid that day’s own oppression and violence. And let us reveal something of God in this new day, daring to counter hatred with love and despair with hope.
With you on the journey,
Reverend Shari Prestemon