9/30/2018 - Who is My Neighbor, Again? - Galatians 5:13-23

Galatians 5:13-23

Who is My Neighbor, Again?

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

September 30, 2018

Go back with me to November 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election.  On that day, a pastor in Louisville, Kentucky received three desperate contacts from beyond his immediate congregation.  The Rev. Derek Penwell, is the pastor of Douglas Boulevard Christian Church.  He also serves as adjunct faculty at the University of Louisville.  The first call that day was from a lesbian atheist he had met when they were both graduate students.  She and her partner had planned a destination wedding to Hawaii in 2017, but now they felt that they had to get married before January 20th.  So they called to ask him to perform the ceremony. 

Next he heard from a Syrian man.  This man was the father of a family of refugees that Derek’s church had welcomed and helped to start a new life in America just four months earlier.  The man was worried that his family might be sent back or sent off somewhere else and they were just beginning to settle in.  

The last call was from his doctor, who happens to be Muslim.  The doctor called from work to report his distress that people were high-fiving each other in celebration.  He said that these people know him, they know his children and they did not attempt to hide their glee at electing a president who was clearly anti-Muslim.   

Derek said that he learned something very important that day. He learned that even people with no personal commitment to Jesus have expectations of Jesus’ followers.  They expect Jesus’ followers to protect them from the suffering and injustice and terrorism.[1] 

Imagine the people of God at our best. Imagine that we are protectors, that we advocate for justice and compassion  and mercy. Imagine that our reputation as Jesus’ followers is such that adherents of other faiths and of no faith call on us to practice our faith in these radical ways.  Imagine.

Our reading from Galatians offers two keys to being the people of God.  1)  God’s will is summed up “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And 2) you know the people of God by the fruits they bear – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control.

I don’t have to work hard to imagine the people of God, because I know you and that’s who you are. But in the last eight days, I saw the people of God more vividly and I learned some things with my head, but more importantly with my heart.  So I invite you to come along with me as a sojourner in faith. Bring along a sense of expectancy, a glimpse of future possibility, a working imagination. For God’s creation is not done.

Early last week, we met Yolanda.  She lived in the USA for 18 years.  When her son became a U.S. citizen, she thought there was a path to citizen for her through him. So she applied for citizenship from within the USA. Not only was her request for citizenship denied, she was deported for life.  She lives Tijuana to be near her son who lives in San Diego.  It has been 8 years since she has seen her daughter, who is afraid of deportation herself.  Yolanda says “I will never be the woman I was before.  My motherhood has been truncated, severed.” 

Three years ago she started Dreamers Moms, to support women in similar situations.   They offer counseling, and immigration legal services and a help for immediate needs like food and housing.  She said she discovered more suffering, more injustice that she anticipated.  At first the participants were from Central America and then from Mexico and also Europe, which she says indicates that this is a world-wide problem. 

We met Patricia, who was taken by ICE from her workplace and simply did not ever come home to her children, the youngest who was then a 9-year-old boy.  She was detained for 18 months and then because she did not understand her rights and did not pay a $100 fee for an appeal, she was deported.   Now there are two grandchildren she has never met.  One is 5 years old; the other is 3 months.   She said “Everything gets broken.” 

Monserrat moved to North Carolina with her husband when she was just 17.  He was abusive to her for 12 years.  Domestic violence is a theme that echoes in the lives of most of the women we met.  Her husband told her he would kill her if she did leave.  She believed him and she went back to Mexico.  Later when she attempted to come across the border, she was jailed and then deported.   Some time after that, he was deported, leaving their U.S. citizen daughters in the care of his second wife.  Her daughters, now teenagers, found her through Instagram.  But their relationship is difficult because they believe their father who told them she had willingly abandoned them.  Monserrat suffers from ongoing depression and physical illnesses which she says are a result of the forced separation.  She says that what keeps her going is the struggle to be reunited with them, so that they will know she did not abandon them. 

Ray Schellinger, who was a missionary in Tijuana for 15 years was our guide on this trip. He is now the Global Consultant for Immigrants and Refugees.  Ray has the most compassionate, most broke-open heart I have ever seen.  Many years ago, the Dreamers Moms asked him to be their pastor. So before we left, Ray prayed for them.  It was a long prayer, in Spanish, and I didn’t understand many words, but halfway through,  I was aware that people were weeping.  I sensed that there was profound comfort in this prayer.  So later I asked about the prayer and was told that Ray had quoted the Bible, specifically the prophet Isaiah where there is promise of restoration and hope.  Ray was pleading with God to rain down love and joy and peace and reunification of families, imagining the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. 

Friends,  God’s people are suffering.  It is deep and real and goes on and on.   It’s not religious persecution.  It’s racist persecution  They are not suffering because they are God’s people, but because they are God’s people they suffer together. 

Yolanda has been deported for life.  There is no way to appeal that injustice.    But there are possibilities for other deported Moms and she works with them and encourages them and cheers them on.  At the end of her speaking time, she looked around at the other women and she called them warriors, women with internal strength and capacity for hope unknown even to themselves until they had to draw upon it.  She said unequivocally that their lives and the lives of their children matter. She was loving herself and loving her neighbor in the same way and it was a powerful Spirit-filled moment. 

To  those of us from the USA, she said “you who are sensitive and have compassion for others, we ask your help.  Respect the migrants who are in your midst.  You have the power to elect leaders who will create a better system.  Maybe in the next election you can elect someone who is compassionate.”

Imagine the people of God at our best. Imagine that we are protectors, that we advocate for justice and compassion  and mercy. Imagine that our reputation as Jesus’ followers is such that adherents of other faiths and of no faith and our sisters in Christ call on us to practice our faith in these radical ways.  Imagine.

On our last day, we were told we were going to a working class neighborhood. As I got off the bus, I immediately took in the stench of rotting garbage strewn along the road and the buzzing flies and I quickly sidestepped a pile of nastiness directly in front of the bus door.  Then I saw a line, like a fence, of assorted pieces of cast-off lumber, intermittently secured with padlocks.  Slowly, I realized that these were the homes in this neighborhood. I was seeing the front doors or the front gates, locked because everyone was at work.

This neighborhood is home to people who work in maquiladoras, foreign factories in Tijuana, Mexico.  They might make $8 per day for a 12-hour shift on an assembly line where they have to ask permission to use the bathroom. In this neighborhood, as in another one-third of Tijuana, there is no water or sewer system.  It costs $10 per week to have water delivered via truck.  In more wealthy Tijuana neighborhoods, it costs $10 per month. The poor pay four times as much for the same product.  This particular neighborhood runs alongside the freeway which means car exhaust and traffic noise, but also easier access to transportation.  Workers who live in other areas may face a 2-hour daily commute plus more hours spent waiting for the bus. It costs time and money to be poor.

I heard a dog barking and noticed a small sign on this door. I stepped closer to read the sign, expecting it to say “No trespassing” or “Beware of dog.”  Instead, to my surprise,  it read “Paz de Cristo”  The Peace of Christ

We walked to the end of the neighborhood and turned around.  Coming back, I noticed more personal touches, including this beautified entrance. There was a hard-to-read, hand-lettered sign in Spanish. 

My companion at that moment was Nasteho, a 22-year-old, Somali-American Muslim woman who happens to also know Spanish.  I asked her what the sign said.  On her first attempt, she translated the sign as “I am always here, at the end of the world.”  My heavy heart sank further in recognition of the despair that might lead someone to post such a message on their door.  Nasteho found this Spanish different from Spanish she had encountered elsewhere.  Unsure that her translation was accurate, she consulted a third member of group, Luz a Columbian theologian whose first language is Spanish.  Nasteho came back to me with Luz’s translation, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”

Then I recognized the words of Jesus, the One who moved into the human neighborhood, the One whose words have been passed from generation to generation, in hundreds of languages, to provide comfort and hope.  In this Tijuana neighborhood, they were passed from a Mexican factory worker to a Somali-American Muslim, to a South American professor, back to the Somali-American, and then to me, a white American Christian who has never endured poverty and is illiterate in Spanish.  They brought tears to my eyes and a lift to my heart.  And I realized again, what I knew, but kept forgetting.  God’s people were already in this place.  God’s people in Mexico do not need me to bring God to them.  God is there.  God’s people do not need me to rescue them.  They simply need me to love them as I love myself, even unto the end of the world. 

Remember Monserrat?  She was the Dreamer’s Mom we met at the beginning.  At the end of our time together, she said to us, “Now you know the truth and it remains with you.   You are responsible for many things. You can’t remain silent.” 

That was a strong statement.  It set up echoes in my head of Jesus’ words “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” 

That, in turn, resonates with today’s text.  Galatians 5:1 which we did not read says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”  And then verse 13 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love serve one another. 

You know the truth and it remains with you.  You can’t be silent.  The truth shall set you free, but don’t squander it, instead through love serve one another. 

Imagine the people of God at our best. Imagine that we are protectors, that we advocate for justice and compassion  and mercy. Imagine that our reputation as Jesus’ followers is such that adherents of other faiths and of no faith and our own brothers and sisters in Christ call on us to practice our faith in these radical ways.  Imagine.


[1] This experience was shared in a presentation by Rev. Penwell at the Wild Goose Festival 2018.