Sunday, July 18, 2010

A King Who Did not Know Joseph

Abraham and Sarah left all that was familiar and dear to them to follow the promise of a better future. If asked for evidence of the promise, they could have provided no proof other than their faith—they were “undocumented.” This, the Scripture tells us, “the Lord reckoned [to them] as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).

Whether following the “pull” of a promised future or the “push” of conflict, economic distress, or famine, Abraham and Sarah’s descendants also lived lives shaped by migration. Their grandson Joseph was sold by his brothers along the trade lines that went to Egypt, only to be rejoined by his family years later because of a famine. In turn, their own descendants would be forced to escape from slavery in Egypt, embarking on a journey whose powerful imagery remains central to many faith traditions today.

These sacred stories have staying power because they mirror the complexity of our own lives and speak truth to our lack of permanence.

“My brothers sold me,” said Juventino during a discussion on the biblical story of Joseph. An undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, Juventino was one of the 389 people detained in the May 12, 2008, immigration raid in Postville, Iowa. “They didn’t literally sell me,” Juventino continued, responding to the puzzled look on other Bible study participants, “but because most of the land and wealth in my country is controlled by relatively few people, the rest of us who live in dire poverty are practically sold to the traders—the coyotes, the smugglers—who takes us north along the well-worn trade-routes followed by our coffee, bananas, and roses.” On the day of the Postville raid and the criminal prosecution that followed, Juventino further identified with Joseph’s story by sharing in the confusion and grief of going from being a trusted worker—praised for his hard work—to being viewed as a criminal and landing in jail in a foreign land.

Joseph’s story ends with success in his new land and a difficult but powerful reconciliation with his brothers. These basic details are recounted briefly at the beginning of the book of Exodus, which continues the narrative. Within a few verses, however, the narrative takes a sinister turn: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). Following a troubling dream about seven fat cows and seven lean cows, an earlier Pharaoh recognized that he needed Joseph (an immigrant lingering in his jail) to help him both interpret his dream and address the pending national crises it revealed. By contrast, the new Pharaoh (who did not know Joseph) fails to see the immigrants as assets and rather sees them as a threat. Juventino’s identification with the Joseph story makes me wonder whether, in our current public perception and media portrayal of immigrants, we remember their contributions as much as the challenges they may pose to our communities. The increased global nature of our economy has resulted in a much more connected world; a world where, for example, a large portion of the food we eat every day originates in other countries or has been picked, processed, or milked by immigrant laborers in our own country. Further, an immigration system out of touch with this reality means that the vast majority of those doing this work do so without proper documentation. Do our elected officials, our “Pharaohs,” know these immigrants, these José’s who contribute to our economic well-being? Do we “know” José?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Clean Up the Toy Room (and immigration)

Often when I ask my kids to clean they toy room, one of them will sit in the couch, arms crossed, and claimed that she has already cleaned out all "her" toys, and the remaining ones are all her brother's. In the annoying role of a parent, I try to point a few things:
1) the toy room is still a mess
2) who the toys "belong" to doesn't automatically reveal who has been playing with them
3) by the nature of how toys are acquired, property isn't always a clear cut affair (i.e. many toys belong to BOTH brother and sister)

When it comes to immigration, the one thing on which there is nearly universal agreement in the United States that our current system isn't working--"broken" is the most used adjective, no matter the perspective. The toy room is a mess. The disagreement comes in how to clean it up. However we do, we must recognize some of those same annoying details above:
1) the system is still broken--and unlike a messy toy room, its state does threaten the well being and very life of many
2) where people "belong" (i.e. where their citizenship is) doesn't automatically reveal who has been benefiting from their work and labor. when it comes to many of those who work in the United States without proper documentation, both their countries of origin and the United States has and does benefit from their labor.
3) by the nature of being human, "belonging" isn't always a clear cut affair--the vast majority of those who are undocumented are related, fall in love, or are otherwise connected to both documented immigrants and citizens in the United States

We are deeply interconnected and must always remember--as the discussions get heated--that we are talking about human beings, and not toys...

Friday, April 30, 2010

Jon Stewart on Arizona Immigration Law

With his usual over the top style, Jon Stewart of the Daily Show has offered one of the most poignant commentaries on the Arizona immigration law... working my way through biblical texts these days, I have the feeling his commentary may be closer to the style of the original writers of the Bible than the measured statements we are limited to offer as religious and/or political leaders...

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Law & Border
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

The Usual Suspects?


Monday, April 26, 2010

Growing Split in Arizona Over Immigration

Addressing the recent anti-immigrant law passed by the Arizona legislature and signed by the Arizona governor, an article in today's (4/26/2010) New York Times names the role of fear in the immigration debate. The church's call is to preach good news--Good News that are repeatedly introduced by "Do not fear" ( "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people." Luke 2:10). We must do as we are called, and preach good news into this fear driven conversation...

Quotes from this article follow, and you can see (and participate in ) a fuller discussion of the legislation on the Forum section of at

"Immigration has always polarized residents of Arizona, a major gateway for illegal immigrants. But the new law signed by Gov. Jan Brewer on Friday has widened the chasm in a way few here can remember."

"I also don’t feel it is racial profiling. You are going to look different if you are an alien, and cops know.” --Mr. White

She prays every morning as she steps out the door, “because we go out and we do not know if we are coming back.”--Ms. Miñon

Read the full article here.

Also, I just signed a petition asking President Obama and Congress to pass immigration reform so we won't see the racial profiling law in Arizona spread across America. Click here to join me!


Monday, April 12, 2010

Happy Easter/Felices Pascuas

Blessings to all this Easter season. May God's dream of justice and peace, which we celebrate this season, fill your homes, communities, and our world. We've put together a short "video greeting" in hopes of sharing the powerful experiences of Holy Week in Jerusalem. This year the Easter celebrations of both Eastern and Western Christian traditions coincided on the same week, together also with the Jewish celebration of Passover. You may watch the video above or see it on YouTube at the following link:

Saludos de Jerusalen en esta temporada de resurrección, cuando celebramos la promesa de justicia y paz que Dios trae a nuestras vidas, hogares, comunidades, y el mundo entero. Hemos puesto un video corto con la esperanza de compartir un poco de la experiencia inolvidable que hemos tenido esta Semana Santa aca en Jesuralen. Pueden verlo aca o en YouTube en el enlace siguiente:


David, Karla, Dawit, and Meheret

Something there is that doesn't love a wall

In this simple statement form his poem Mending Wall, modern American poet Robert Frost voices the deep concern with how human fear leads to building walls that separate us from others. "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know," goes on Frost, "What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence."

While the Great Wall of China has been reduced to a tourist attraction and the Berlin Wall stand as symbol of the progress of freedom, reality is that nations around the world are building walls at an unprecedented pace--from the U.S. Mexico border, to Israel/Palestine, and in an article in today's New York Times, to a small village in Eastern Europe (Walls, Real and Imagined, Surround the Roma)

By contrast, Ephesians 2:14 portrays Jesus ministry as one of physically breaking down dividing walls: "For 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."

Share your thoughts about, as Frost says, "what I was walling in or walling out" at Faith on the Move Forum.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Marking Time and Space

Shabbat Shalom! We received--and accepted!--two gracious invitations to Shabbat meals this weekend. We visited with two of Karla's friends and their family/loved ones. Preparing to go to their house we learned a few things, for example: (1) we were planning to rent a car, scheduled to pick up at 1 p.m., but most rental places close by noon, even though the website didn’t indicate that right; (2) there are Shabbat elevators that run on their own throughout the day; (3) folks who observe Shabbat will not answer phones, so you need to be sure to have all your communications worked out ahead of time, especially if you're inviting someone over!
(4) observing Shabbat with small children can be quite fun--one of the families who invited us has four children under 5--kids can turn lights out on you that you need on for the rest of Shabbat!

It was interesting to see the way that people make arrangements to be able to keep the traditions of not working on the Sabbath. Participating in both of these family meals and celebrations made me realize that much of the “protections” about not working on the Sabbath are really more a response to an increasingly encroaching mechanical/electronic life style, than any antiquated, legalistic system. How do we protect our time off from computers, electronics that let things run 24/7, demanding communication, availability expectations, etc. Preparation for a day of rest mean some hectic planning, I am sure, the day before, but then once you begin the Sabbath, there is really only the focus of family and being together. I am sure it is not just ideal and there are all kinds of challenges to overcome, but I these two wonderful experiences have given me a renewed appreciation for a tradition that is so deeply rooted—and that can offer so much to our hectic, driven world.

Marking time has been a significant part of this week, but also how we mark "space." On Thursday I was able to travel with the group here from Tantur, a group of folks on a six week continuing ed program, to go to Jericho. We stopped in the Judean desert on the way out and had a few minutes to walk around. It was really beautiful in a strange/austere way. The intent of the brief stop was just to listen to the silence of the desert—the area where John the Baptist, Jesus, and many early Christians as well as others sought escape, renewal, etc. The abundance of stones in the desert made the temptation of Jesus to turn stones into bread make total sense!!

The place we stopped overlooked Nabi Musa, a shrine that marks the place Muslims believe to be the place of Moses’ death and burial. Moses is viewed in Islam as one of the prophets, and this site was identified in tradition as Moses’ burial place based on a dream/vision Salah Eddin had. More significant than the actual location of Moses’ burial site (which in the biblical text is said to be unknown Deut 34), is the fact that the place marks his life and death for many faithful people. In general, Sister Bridget—the vice-director here at Tantur and the person who was leading our group that day—shared what she called her own “theology of place.” That while it is impossible to verify the claims of most of the places one may visit in the Holy Land, what is significant is to be present in the places that have been associated with important events in the stories that are core to the faith of millions around the world and throughout centuries. Being able to take a picture of the very sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed, however, on a category all its own!!

We then traveled to Jericho. It is an incredibly green area—given its context surrounded by desert landscape. Jericho owes its lush greenery and abundant agricultural production to springs throughout the area. It is believed to be the oldest city in the world, with excavations dating back to 8,000 BCE (so 10,000 years ago).

Above the city is Monastery of Temptation or St. George's Monastery built on the mount of temptation—the place where Jesus was tempted by the devil. The monastery also has a small chapel in a cave that commemorates the place where prophet Elijah’s stopped and was fed by ravens as he ran from King Ahab and Jezebel. There’s a cable car that takes you up most of the way to the monastery (alternatively, you can walk up the zig-zag path which would take just under an hour). The place is literally built into the rock on the face of the mount. It is incredible. The views from above are breath taking. In each of the monasteries we visited, there is usually only one, two, or a few monks or nuns. From what I could tell, there was only one there at the monastery, which is a Greek Orthodox monastery.

We spent about an hour in Jericho proper, walking around the markets and shops and grabbing lunch. We then went out to two more stops. One was an incredible palace from the early years of Islam. Hisham’s Palace was a retreat for one of the early Caliphs. A huge bath area in the complex has incredible, extensive mosaics, one of them—referred to in the guide book as “one of the most beautiful and elaborately decorated mosaic floor in the world”--depicts the “Tree of Life.”

Finally, we stopped at this beautiful monastery just outside Jericho. St. Gerassimos Monastery has a history that dates back to the fourth century and the colorful story of its founder (which includes a tamed lion that is very prominent in the iconography of the saint). The site of the monastery, among other things, is believed to mark one of the stops the Holy Family made during their flight to Egypt. There are birds and other animals everywhere in the monastery and surrounding areas, and it too like Jericho is an oasis because of a natural spring beneath it. They have many preserved mosaics and are currently renovating and making new ones. The monastery grounds include what amount to beautiful pic-nic areas open to the public. One of my favorite images—of the many beautiful painting on walls and frames throughout—was a set of angels in the ceiling of one of the small chapels.

This week has been marked by the idea of marking both time (Shabbat) and space (sacred sites that mark important events in the life of the faithful). In a world marked by demands of both time and space, these practices becomes both more peculiar and more significant. As the psalmist says, “teach us to count our days,” and I would say also claim/mark our sacred space, “that we may grow a wise heart” (Psalm 90:12).

Monday, February 22, 2010

The logic of the Empire

"I haven't been across that wall in 12 years," said the owner of a small Palestinian restaurant in Bethlehem where we had lunch.
"I will come over to visit you in Jerusalem. I have a permit for this week," said a retired Palestinian teacher I spoke with on the phone to make arrangements for us to meet.

"My family (husband, originally from Austria, and two kids born in Austria) are visiting the Dead Sea, but I couldn't go with them as I have not been given a permit. We are scheduled to leave for Austria in a couple of weeks, and if I don't get my permit I will need to go through Jordan, which will cost 800 Euros more... I have an Austrian passport, but that doesn't matter. To the occupying forces, I am a Palestinian and nothing else matters" said a woman during coffee hour after church at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.

I can see "the wall" from the back porch of the apartment where we are staying at Tantur Ecumenical Institute. The institute is just a block form the Bethlehem "gate" or "check point." References to the wall and the way it shapes peoples' lives are inescapable in just about every conversation with people from Palestine.

The graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall connects it to atrocities of the past--the Berlin wall, walls that hemmed Jews into ghettos. On the Israeli side, a large picture of the fortress wall around the Old City of Jerusalem (posted right by the Bethlehem gate)wordlessly connects the wall to a history of protection, even to the biblical references picked up by Luther's "A Mighty Fortress."

Connecting or drawing parallels between the situation here and situations elsewhere and at other times in history is fraught with complexities and pitfalls. Yet, in the morning when I go running and see men who have crossed the wall and are standing in the corner right outside Tantur waiting to be picked up by someone who will hire them for the day, I can't help but think of Hispanic laborers standing in the corners of cities throughout the U.S. I can't help but wonder about the similarities and connections of those around the world and throughout history who have designed, funded, and built dividing walls.

Dealing for months with the consequences on individuals of an immigration policy visually represented by the U.S./Mexico wall, I can't help but wonder about "the logic of empire." What is the logic that destroys a small town in Northeast Iowa or threatens the future of a community in rural Washington State; the logic that assigns a permit for a week to a retiree to cross a border, but denies it the following...

Today I went on a guided study tour of the Old City. Layer after layer of rock and debris attest to one empire after another, making a claim on this land--a claim that in time would prove to be tenuous. Each empire has seen its own logic and advocated its own well being. Each has claimed its own right and divine revelation... how might we speak today to the walls that surround us? Are they our "mighty fortresses"? Are they the walls against which Jesus, as the writer of Ephesians puts it, throws his own body (Eph 2:14)?

40 days and 40 nights

The devastation of the May 12, 2008 immigration raid in the small rural town of Postville in Northeast Iowa was followed by unprecedented large scale criminal prosecution of many of those detained. Aptly termed a lottery of justice by federal interpreter Erik Camayd Frexias, the prosecution "processed" people through an assembly line of "justice" that reflected the rush, pressure, and dehumanization that the workers lived through within Agriprocessors (their former employer). A little known part of the ensuing mess, was the fate of about 40 individuals in that prosecution. After serving about 5 months sentences--to which they agreed under pressure that this would be their "quickest way home"--about 40 individuals were held back as material witnesses in the criminal prosecution against their former employer. For close to a year and a half, these individuals have lived in uncertainty--passed on from one federal and state case to another, told at various times to pack up and get ready to go, just to be told again that they had to stay longer. Repeatedly they have had to call their families and tell them to prepare for their arrival, only to have to call them again and tell their children that it will be a while yet. I myself have been to their house a half a dozen times to inform them of their impending departure, only to return two days later to let them know that the latest word from one agency or another is that they are to stay...

The latest permutation of this--which does seem to come with some finality, but so have other statements--is that they have 40 days to prepare to be sent back to their countries of origin. One of the people from our area faith coalition commented on the irony of the journey these folks will go through as we journey for 40 days and 40 nights of lent. Their wilderness, of uncertainty, of joy at the prospect of seeing family again, of fear of the future, of economic uncertainty, is a journey that clearly points to the integration of both our spiritual and our physical lives. There is wisdom in the church's liturgy and memory, to recognize that what our bodies do--when we move, when we journey, when we hunger--has a direct bearing on our spiritual journey.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Way God Sees the World

I remember the night the Iraq war began. As tensions had been building up, we had engaged in prayer, conversation, and discussion on campus. We had planned an interfaith service to take place during our regular Wednesday night Eucharist service. Half an hour before we were scheduled to begin the service. then President George W. Bush came on national television to inform the country that we were going to war... as we finalized preparation for the service, we stood in front of televisions or by radios listening to the news in disbelief, never imagining how long the conflict would last. Two "generations" of students (four years is a generation in a college campus) have now spent their entire college career with the country at war.

We went ahead with the service as scheduled, and it turned out to be particularly powerful. We had structured the service in two parts. The first part was focused around "word," and included readings from various religious traditions. The community was together for this part as we heard each others' sacred Scriptures. The second part included rituals from the various traditions, and we marked the space in the hall so that each person could participate in a ritual of their own tradition. Christian students received communion while Muslim students offered prayers right next to them and Hindu students engaged in meditation.

Doing the service in that way was not without controversy for some on campus. Yet, I realized that this is the way God sees the world all the time. In that space, as the sounds of our various rituals mingled together, this experience that was new--and perhaps even uncomfortable for some--was really a reflection of how God sees the world each and every "weekend" when various faith communities offer their worship. We do so in our own enclosed spaces, but God sees and hears them all at once.

I think of this now because the experience of that night is in some ways the daily experience in this place--here in Jerusalem. A city that makes its claim on so many around the world, and that so many seek to claim. Here Christians of many traditions worship in the context of one another. On Sunday morning I went to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City. I went to the English service, which is a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lebanon and the Holy Land, and a ministry of the ELCA. There is also an Arabic, a German, and a Danish congregation that gathers in that space. The Arabic service was taking place at the same time in the main chapel, while the English service took place in a smaller chapel on the second floor. As we worshiped, we could hear the organ and singing from the Arabic congregation next door. I must say it was somewhat funny to hear them singing lots of 19th century pietistic songs, like “How Great Thou Art,” while we were singing Marty Haugen! Our singing was also punctuated by the sounds of a Muslim call to prayer, and on my way to church that morning, I walked by the Western Wall where Jews were at prayer.

On a regular Sunday, my worship experience takes place in rather "hermetically" sealed space. Down the street--literally--a variety of Christians gather at the same time for worship. I hear their bells ring and see them walking to their respective congregations. But once inside the church, it is easier to imagine that this is all there is. Yet God sees the world differently, hearing the songs and prayers of people throughout the world, in various languages and traditions, all at once. Are the "boundaries" as clear from God's point of view as they can be from ours?

Saturday, February 13, 2010


We arrived safely in Jerusalem last night at about 8 p.m. local time. We will be here for the next two months--all of Lent through Passover and Easter. We are staying at Tantur Ecumenical Institute, a center dedicated to interfaith understanding that is run by the University of Notre Dame. My wife, Karla, who teaches in the Religion Department at Luther College is a scholar in residence here for these two months. Tantur is located in Jerusalem, right next to Bethlehem--in fact, the dividing wall is right across the street from the institute...

Today the weather has been just beautiful--sunny and 70. I went out for an early morning run, and as the reality of where I am started to sink in, I kept "hearing" the words of many psalms in my head...

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy. (Psalm 137:6)

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come? (Psalm 121:1)

It is hard to write much on this first day, as everything I come up with seems like a stereotype, and I know any comments I would make would be naive. We spent the morning in the Old City and walking around the markets by the Damascus Gate. As we walked around we came across the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, went in to say a prayer--it's a beautiful, simple space; we then went up the bell tower (all 178 steps!) for an incredible view of the city. Today is the sabbath day. It seems odd, but we walked around and shopped for shoes (we needed some sandals for us and for the kids) and groceries. I have thought about coming to Israel as long as I can remember. Now that I am here, how should my days be spent?!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Descended into Hell

Travel and postponed travel (we're waiting to go to Israel and are already two days delayed because of weather) have meant no postings lately, but we'll keep trying!

The last couple of weeks have been full, as I completed my time in Florida, where I visited several communities: Indiantown, Jupiter, Homestead, and Immokalee. In the next couple of weeks I hope to "process" through the many incredible experiences and great conversations I was able to have. I have been overwhelmed by people's openness and willingness to share their story, and amazed by the incredible stories that each individual carries. The challenge to find ways to translate these experiences and insights into ways that others can share in at least a part of my own experience is growing tougher!

I started reading Border of Death, Valley of Life, by Daniel G. Groody. He is a Catholic priest who is now the director of the Latin American Spirituality Center at Notre Dame University. He produced one of the videos we discussed at Holden in December, and also wrote an excellent article that Sister Mary had sent to me. In the article, he manages in just a few pages to capture the reality of global migration and its huge significance to the work of the church. I have just read the preface (by Virgilio Elizondo), introduction, and first chapter. In the Introduction, Groody has this great quote about a ministry—in Coachella, California of all places, a community where I've had connections to through our work at Luther—that truly lived out the mission of the church:

These immigrants were not simply playing around in their own self-actualization sandbox (in contrast to some spirituality currents in U.S. American society), but they were living out a central value that profoundly transformed their lives and led them to commit themselves to the needs of their neighbors. P. 3

The first chapter of the book provides an introduction to the very difficult reality that forces people to migrate, and particularly to the dangerous and life changing experience of the border crossing for undocumented immigrants. The focus of his work is on Mexican immigrants, but as he states, the insights and connections are universal in many ways. What I found particularly important in this introduction is the way that Father Groody outlines and acknowledges the psychological and spiritual devastation that the migration experience has on many immigrants. By te end of the chapter he parallels this experience to the crucifixion, seeing in peoples’ journey through a “hellish” desert as Jesus’ own descend into hell. The hope is one of redemption, sacrificial love, the hope of resurrection. This parallel not only illuminates our own understanding of Scripture and of Jesus’ suffering—not as unique, but rather as in partnership with those who suffer—but also frames the immigrants’ own experience in a new way.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Prayers in for Haiti's Earthquake

I am in Guatelinda, one of the local Guatemalan restaurants here in Indiantown. Images of the devastation wrought by the earthquake yesterday in Haiti fill the screens. It is so horrifying and painful. From the moment I heard about the earthquake yesterday, i was transported back to Guatemala and the devastation of the 1976 earthquake. The images on the screen show that same level of despair and desctruction...

Over half of the Haitian community that has migrated to the United States live here in Florida. There are many Haitians here in Indiantown. As I spent the day at Holy Cross, I saw a number of them stopping by the church for prayer... There they joined a number of Guatemalans who come in and out of the church throughout the day and light candles, kneel before the altar, find some space for respite.

Gracious God, hear the prayers of your people.

I started the day attending morning mass at Holy Cross. Mass is offered daily in the community, four times in Spanish. Today's mass was in English. There was a small group there this morning, mostly elderly anglos, but there were also a few Hispanics. Father Andrade presided again. I had a chance to visit with him afterwards, and hear some more about his own story. In further evidence of how small the world is, we connected on the fact that for many years he served in the Kitchener-Waterloo area in Canada (outside of Toronto), where my wife and I lived for a year when I worked with the Lutheran Refugee Committee and did my internship at St. Stephen's Lutheran Church. We talked about the challenges and opportunities of the church. How the church's text and message are so important and powerful, the official statement of the church often so visionary and thoughtful--and yet how often the church falls very short of its own rethoric. How instead we reduce the message of the gospel to ideology, to empty piety, void of challenge and good news. He spoke of his own experience with liberation theology in Brazil--and the disappointment with how it has often been misunderstood and then undermined by the church's structures. The church, he said, can often be what Mark accused it of, and become the opium of the people, numbing us or distracting us from the realities we are called to challenge and shape.

Yet signs of the church's promise and possibilities are all around that place--in the people whose faith brings them daily to gather, the promise of the building of a new sanctuary, the ministry of Hope Rural--a K-8th grade school sponsored by the church, in the "small communities" of the church, etc.

I interviewed Cristobal, a young man from Guatemala who was at the church praying. We spent over an hour talking about Scripture, about his journey here. There was much that he shared, but what most stuck with me was his powerful insight that his coming here--like many other immigrants--is a fulfilment of God's command to the first humans: to work the land. He spoke of the faith of the "ancestors" in Guatemala, who with reverence asked permission to work the land, to cut a tree, to consume any of the resources of the earth. While they were not specifically Christian, he said, they certainly had a deep wisdom and a knowledge of God. He said it is that sense of reverence for the land, and the recognition that the earth is the Lord's, that guides his sense about why he has had to travel so far form his home. With a wry smile on his face he said, like my ancestors, I asked God for permission before I came. It is God who granted me passage--a visa--when I was unable to obtain one. I asked him about his very first day here in the U.S. The first thing he did, he said, was come to the church. He came to say thanks to God for a safe journey, and to commit himself to the dreams that drove him here. "Es la pobreza," poverty, that makes us come. Like many others, his hope is to be here only temporarily, only as long as it takes to get some money together to build a home and have a future. He knows he has lost much by being here, and longs for the day he will be back home.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Global Breakfast

Sunday morning I took my brother, Eduardo, to work early in the morning. I am staying with him these couple of weeks. He is a chef at a country club here in West Palm Beach. He was preparing breakfast for some of the staff in the club house, and asked me to stay and have breakfast with them. Our breakfast in the “snack bar” in the club house at this very exclusive country club was a tableau of globalization and immigration. Around the table were the golf pro—originally from Pennsylvania—and his assistant—who moved to FL a year ago from Buffalo, NY—one of the waitresses—from Connecticut—and my brother and I both from Guatemala. Elsewhere in the building was a woman who the dish washer who helps with other aspects of the kitchen and shares custodial work with another woman, both of them from Haiti. Our breakfast was a great egg sandwich with fruit. My brother jokingly pointed out that the cantaloupe was from a small town in Guatemala near where my father grew up, the pineapple from Costa Rica, and the blue berries from Argentina. We weren’t sure where the eggs, bacon, bread, olive oil, and other parts of the sandwich may have come from… all this before any of the members—most of them from “up north” showed up to play on the manicured greens kept up by a crew of workers mostly from Guatemala…

Going to Church in Indiantown

I flew to Florida on Saturday (1/9/2010) and plan to be here for about three weeks.

My main interest in coming here for these couple of weeks—in addition to visiting my brothers who live here!—is to connect to the community at Indiantown. This is a small agricultural town that had a large influx of Guatemalan immigrants starting, I think, in the early 80s. I am not sure what the numbers look like by now, but it is in the several thousands (the 2000 census lists a town population of 5,600, with half being Hispanic/Latino, and that‘s grown significantly since).. My interest is of course in this community that is rural, whose future—because of agriculture—is tied to immigration like many other places around the country. But also because the Guatemalan community has been here for quite some time, so I wonder what things look like twenty, thirty years down the road.

The compare and contrast effect between Postville and Indiantown ended up being much more striking than I ever imagined...

I drove to Indiantown on Sunday morning after googling churches in town and more or less determining when some of the services were held. In addition to the Catholic church holding mass in Spanish, I found references here and there to a couple of other Pentecostal and non-denominational churches, but they were difficult to contact—the phone number listed no longer worked, and in one case, I got the information from the English speaking person who answered the phone at the church that hosts the Spanish service. In a simple way this highlights the difficulty of measuring the impact of immigrants on the faith communities of particular town, as was the case in Postville where the impact of the raid on the emerging protestant churches cannot be accounted for.

Both a Baptist church and the Catholic church had services listed at 11 a.m. I drove to both of the hoping to try to determine which I would go to. I was thinking I really should go to a less “established” church, so thought I would go for the Baptist one, but in the end decided for the Catholic one. When I drove by the Baptist church the parking lot was almost totally empty, and there was no indication of any activity. I really did not want to be too “noticed” if I attended a service with only a handful of people. By contrast, as I approached the Catholic church I saw lots of people walking and driving towards it. Even the numbers outside—it was a cold day and people were scurrying quickly—did not reflect how crowded the church was on the inside. It was still a few minutes before 11, when the service was to start, and the place was already packed. The first thing that I noticed was that the architecture of the church was very similar to that of St. Bridget’s in Postville. It was almost eerie. The sat in one of the only spaces left in the packed pews, where people were sitting shoulder to shoulder. It was all people from Guatemala and Mexico, several of the Guatemalan women were wearing their “corte” (traditional dress). There were lots of children, but in spite of the fact that the church was so full—and that people came coming until all the folding chairs available had been set up and filled, and people just stood in the aisles—it was rather quiet and reflective. I felt a sense of urgency in the place. A sense that people were glad to be there and expectant, a sense that what people had gathered to do mattered.

Before mass began a guy got up to do announcements. I thought he may be the priest, but wondered because he didn’t have a collar on. He was jovial and engaged. It turned out to be Juan Carlos, who is the director for educational ministries. His announcements began with an impassioned—and somewhat extensive—invitation and encouragement for people to attend a city council meeting scheduled for Wednesday night. The intent of the meeting was for the community—specifically the Hispanic community—to address the council on their specific needs as a community. He emphasized particularly the need, as an example, for parks and other entertainment options for the growing population of kids in the community. He talked about the numbers of kids in first communion—about 125—and confirmation—close to 80, and said that is only out of this one congregation. Yet the city only has one basketball court. Kids used to gathered to play futbol on the church grounds, but they have just started construction on a new church building, so that space is no longer available.

I was impacted by various things at once: (1) the fact that the church saw itself as a place of community organizing, where the reality of immigration was addressed, where the fact that the new immigrants had little access to political power—and that often because of their own lack of sense of permanence—did not use the power that they do have. (2) the fact that this church, architecturally similar to St. Bridget’s, is breaking ground on a new building, rather than wondering about their future. If this town is a reflection of where a place like Postville could have been 20 years down the road, the devastating impact of the raid is made painfully clear in disrupting that community’s future. (3) the sense of ownership and belonging—of claiming space—within the fall walls of that little church. This is perhaps an aspect that is reflective of the experience of Postville, where the church is the alternative vision to the experience of people outside of its walls. That the church is a place where they belong, where they are not “tresspassers” or “illegals”…

The announcements also included a note about a group of high school students, who are in the country undocumented, who on January 1, 2010, started a march across the country to call attention to the need for comprehensive immigration reform, particularly for legislation like the Dream Act, that would allow undocumented students better access to higher education and the possibility of a path to legalization. The group had evidently been through the community just over the week, and are making their way north with the hope of reaching Washington, DC by May 1 of this year. Along the way they are collecting petitions, stories, etc, about immigrants in the communities that they are visiting. Their journey and hopes are being tracked on a website called I will have to figure out a way to see if I could connect with this group of kids while I am here.

A number of other announcements were related to educational opportunities in the Parish, which ran the gamut from First Communion and confirmation to Diocesan training and preparation of communion servers.

A few minutes of restles silence followed the announcements, and then, rather suddenly, people stood up and the music group took off with a processional “Bautizame Señor con tu Espiritu” (Baptize me Lord with your Spirit) to a great salsa rhythm. I had shivers go down my back, both because of the power of the beginning of the rite that was marked clearly as the procession of eight kids (4 girls and 4 boys) in acolyte robes entered followed by the priest and by the fact that as I was driving around town trying to decide which church to go to, I found myself humming the very song that was being used for the processional!

The priest, I found out later, was Father Sebastian Andrade, originally form Brazil, who has served parishes in Europe and primarily in Canada. He is now retired in Port St. Lucy and assists with masses from time to time here in the Parish. He has been helping especially this week while Father Nestor, the regular priest, is out sick.

The music group was good, and they were right on cue moving the service right along. Two lay people—one male, one female—did the readings, and then Father Andrade gave his homily. It was short, but actually quite thoughtful. I can’t say he made any specific references to immigration—I kept seeing lots of options in the readings, which for the Baptism of Our Lord included Peter’s visit to Cornelius in Acts, a reference to the salvation of all nations in Isaiah, and the moving/thundering voice of God in the Psalms, plus of course, the baptism of Jesus by John. Still, the sermon was connected to the reality of people’s lives. He basically addressed the idea that baptism highlights our common humanity—our self definition as children of God. And that the task of the church is ultimately to preach the good news that there is—as Peter says in Acts, although the priest didn’t directly tie it to the text—that God makes no distinction. That we all have worth, regardless of our position and our resources. He countered a sense that the church is there to make us feel bad about ourselves, inadequate about who we are. Rather, the church’s role is to bring about this “new society” that God envisions, where all have a place and all are treated truly as children of God.

The liturgy itself—from the music, offering, holding of hands for the Lord’s prayer, and the specific references to immigration and health reform in the prayers, that felt very “earthy,” very connected. Again, that sense that this gathering really mattered, that this sacred time was indeed a foretaste of the feast to come.

Mass at Holy Cross/Santa Cruz was very redemptive for me. The piece I have been missing in my experiences has been the direct and meaningful connection of worship life and conversation about immigration. This was a place where I just walked into—not one where I “brought” the conversation. This is their reality, and they are engaging it. I know there are many other communities that are doing that as well, that are seeking to integrate faith and reality, rather than try to preach about the separation of the “spiritual” and the “physical” or whatever world. That was the predominant message I heard repeatedly in the radio as I drove out to Indiantown and tuned to a couple of “Christian” radio stations. So it was a true gift. Is there anything I can offer here? There is much I certainly can learn. I look forward to hearing more about this community, and particularly about what they call the “pequeñas comunidades,” which are kid of small group ministries. From what I understand from the announcement—as well as from a brief conversation with Juan Carlos, the Director of Religious Education, they are important support groups, many of which are built around the language groups from Guatemala. I am hoping to be able to connect with some of them in my two weeks here.

Indiantown, Florida

The focus of my sabbatical interest is in exploring Biblical migration narratives and connecting them with individual and communities' own story of migration. I have chosen to focus primarily on rural areas that have large immigrant populations. The majority of rural communities that are bucking the trend towards consolidation of all of their business and services (due to aging and/or shrinking population) are doing so because of immigration. In fact, the number of immigrants moving to rural areas has in the last ten years began to rival the number of those moving to more "traditional" urban settings (for an extensive treatment of this see New Faces in New Places: The Changing Geography of American Immigration). Meanwhile, however, most of our immigration policy decision are dictated by the needs/challenges of large urban areas.

In the summer, at the beginning of my sabbatical, I traveled to the Yakima Valley region in Western Washington, where the labor needs of a huge and growing agricultural industry have resulted in large migrations to the area (the make up of some of the communities along the valley run from 20-90% Hispanic).

My work has also focused on the impact of the May 2008 immigration raid in the town of Postville, Iowa, where I have both served as part of the response team immediately following the raid, and sought to understand individual stories and the larger implications of both immigration in general and the raid in particular.

This month, January 2010, I will be focusing on the small community of Indiantown, Florida. When I first came to the United States in 1986, I came to the neighboring community of Jupiter, Florida. Quickly, I became aware of the very large community of people from Guatemala that had come and settled in Indiantown. Many of them came during the height of the civil war conflict in Guatemala, escaping violence and historical exploitation because of their indigenous background. The community has since grown and established in this town. I will try to post regularly my experiences and reflections on my time here.

Teh story of the town and its history are explored in detail in the book Maya in Exile by Allan Burns.