Monday, October 10, 2011


“So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being…For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.”  Deuteronomy 10: 12-20

In a little country church, you wear many hats.  Finance chairman, usher, alter guild, trustee, Sunday school teacher, communion grape juice cup filler-upper…at some point in your life, each hat will get passed to you to wear for a turn.  In a bigger church, maybe you go where your calling and talents are: “I’m good at singing, I’ll join the choir…I work at a bank, I’ll be on the budget committee…I love kids, I’ll teach 3rd grade Sunday school…”  But in a small church, you go where there’s a hole to be plugged.  The pianist plays “Hear I am Lord,” the Sunday before committees are announced, and for some mystical reason, we aren’t able to say “no.”   And despite our grumblings and dismay (“You want me to lead what?!”), this is how our body of Christ moves.

So on the Tuesday before our Fall Wednesday night activities began, this little square peg volunteered to man the empty round hole that is our youth group.  Lord knows I owe a cosmic debt for the grief I gave the youth volunteers at my church growing up, so it was the least I could do.  Turns out, not much has changed.  Youth are still working through hormones and cliques, acne and heartbreak, insecurity and revelation.  And I have grown to love this group.  I coached one of them in basketball a few years ago, and now to everyone in the youth group, I’m “Coach.”   

But something is different for this youth group than the one I grew up in.  These are all Hispanic kids.  Dial back the clock a year, and that’s a distinction without a difference.  Kids are kids are kids.  I’ve coached every ethnicity out there, so I know.  But today they are carrying a burden that I cannot know.  My state passed a new law targeting undocumented immigrants.  The law gives police the right to demand paperwork of people they reasonably suspect of being in the country illegally, it makes schools verify the document status of students, and makes it illegal to hire, contract with, or even give a ride to an undocumented person.  It was in the news last week that a local water authority refused to turn on service to a Hispanic family that couldn’t provide immigration documents.

So instead of the traditional “morally navigating the immoral teen landscape” program, can you guess what we’ve been talking about with 4th to 9th grade Christian kids in youth group?  “Why do they hate us?  This is the only home I’ve ever known, so I don’t want to go to Mexico.  Kids in the next town over don’t go to school anymore because the cops will take them to jail if they do.  Coach, can the cops come try to get us if we are just walking down the street?  What did we do wrong?  My mom got laid off & we have to struggle for food (I know this is true because they use our church food bank.)  I was born here, but I may still have to go to Mexico.  Do you want us to go to Mexico, Coach?”  And as of yesterday, the heartbreaking but inevitable, “I’m moving Friday, Coach.  Not sure where, but we’re not staying here.  My mom pulled me out of school last week.” Watch the news or talk to any school administrator and you'll learn that countless parents are now keeping their kids out of school out of fear.

These are good, sweet, normal kids having to struggle with this.  They want nothing more than to just be kids, and this gets handed to them:  “You are no longer kids.  You are ‘Illegals,’ or at best, ‘Anchor Babies.’”  How deeply, deeply sad both for them and for the good people of my state, one of the most professedly Christian places on the planet. 

How does this happen? 

I think we’ve just forgotten.  We’ve forgotten what God has to say about welcoming strangers, and we’ve certainly forgotten one of the reminders he puts behind it – we too were once strangers in a strange land. 

Somewhere along the way the storyline got broken.  Little by little, the last several generations have been distracted and haven’t received what was passed down – we too were strangers.  That narrative is dead.  It has no meaning for white American Christianity in 2011 (and I fear it’s dying in black American Christianity too).

And in forgetting this narrative, we’ve forgotten the context for almost the entire biblical account.  Interrupted by periods of home rule, much of the bible (all of the New Testament) is the story of an occupied people – Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persian, Greeks, Romans – they occupied or enslaved the land and people of Israel.  Our story is unequivocally a story of being the stranger again and again and again.  

The preachers leading the Civil Rights Movement knew this.  The work they did was heroically hard, but the message was easy because the bible already told their story.  And their faith was strong because God had already shown them the outcome.  Grab the whole story and you’ve got a whole lot of time being the stranger and plenty of verses reminding us to remember what that was like, and to remember to be kind when it is another who is the stranger.  And oh yeah, if the strong force God to pick a side, God is going with the weak.

A Frederic Huntington quote from the 1890s came to mind when thinking of this forgetting: "It is not scientific doubt, not atheism, not pantheism, not agnosticism, that in our day and in this land is likely to quench the light of the gospel. It is a proud, sensuous, selfish, luxurious, church-going, hollow-hearted prosperity." 

Isn’t this where we are?  When we forget the backdrop for the gospel story, we also forget our humility, our compassion and our frailty.  And tragically, we also forget our trust in God.  This passage in Deuteronomy is as much about trusting in God and his ways as it is anything else.  And he tells us to trust him and go ahead and welcome the stranger and dare to remember that that was once us as well.  And later Jesus tells us to do right by the least of these (undocumented migrants are most certainly America’s least of these) because how we treat them is how we are treating Jesus himself.  But we are afraid or indignant.  So we’ve put aside our mandate to welcome the stranger already among us because “well, somebody’s got to do something about this.”   And we are not trusting that God can work through us to do something big and wonderful, like come up with a humane and Christian way to deal with people who are in this country illegally and their kids, many of whom have the same citizenship as you and me.  

But citizenship status is beside the point for us, isn’t it?  Because Paul tells us in Christ there is neither “American” nor “Illegal.”   God tells us to be kind to the stranger, Jesus reminds us that he is in the least among us, and then Paul tells us whatever any of us are, we all are the same in Christ. 

So to my beloved state and country, may we have the faith going forward to remember that we too were strangers when dealing with the strangers now among us.