I was recently sitting in a Tijuana shelter that houses men for 12 days after they have been deported from the United States. I was guiding a group of pastors and leaders from around California and Arizona who wanted to learn the human story of immigration first hand. With that goal in mind, we simply sat with Gilberto, the director of the shelter, and asked him to tell some of his story and the story of those he has given his life to over the past 30 years.
Unimpressed by our glowing resumes, large church attendance or broad vocabulary, Gilberto humbly shared about the path Jesus led him on toward caring for society’s leftovers. With a glowing resume of his own, Gilberto intentionally chose to step off the path of comfort and “success” to step deeper into the reality of his brothers who needed his support.
He shared about the man who had been deported at 51 years old after living in the US for 50 years. Because this man’s parents came to the US when he was 6 months old, he knew no other home than that of the US. When he landed in Tijuana, it not only felt like a foreign land, but he didn’t even know Spanish.
He shared about the US military veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan but after serving his time in war zones, was deported to Mexico.
He shared about the man who had recently been deported and was now desperately trying to return to his wife and young children in the US.
With each story, the layers of isolation, dehumanization and misunderstanding began to be peeled back. We had all heard the stories of deportation in the headlines, but none of us had come face to face with the humans behind the story.
Mesmerized by this sage who cast such a strong aroma of Jesus, we asked, “What would you encourage us to say to our congregations regarding the plight of the immigrant?”
He quickly responded with words I’ll never forget:
“Tell them to read their Bibles. Jesus told us to care for three types of people; the orphan, the widow and the stranger. It’s been 2000 years and we’re still doing a pretty bad job.”
We were frozen in our seats.
How could a group of pastors who have given their lives to following Jesus and to the work of encouraging others to do the same argue such a profound statement?
It was one of those strange, other-worldly moments when conviction and inspiration seem to collide.
Now, we could argue this politically and enter into the endless rhetoric, partisan mud slinging and various interpretations of United States immigration history, but that’s not the point. The point is taking seriously Jesus’ mandate to care for the orphans, the widows and the strangers (“refugee” in some translations) among us.
In his 30 years, Gilberto has cared for 220, 000 “strangers” who have come to his door. They aren’t a problem to fix, but a blessing to receive.
Maybe, just maybe, after we begin to care for and love the people Jesus asked us to, we will discover that we need their love as much as they need ours.
Maybe, just maybe, after we begin to care for and love the people Jesus asked us to, we will have the relational credibility to legislate their well being.
We might not care for 220, 000, but we can start with one.