He was 18 years old when he crawled through the hatch of a tanker truck bound for a new country — a land that coined itself as a place of hope, freedom, and salvation. Having come from abandonment and poverty, he had spent his life trying to survive. His life had become collateral damage in an endless war of poverty, drugs, violence, and power. His life depended on the freedom this truck could give him.
Inside the belly of the tanker, it was despairingly hot as they traveled through the winding mountain roads. Mile after mile, he felt more free, but each mile also meant the rising sun was slowly turning the tanker into an oven. By mid-day, the heat was causing him to fade in and out of consciousness. An elderly man riding behind him gestured to scoot closer. Then the elder invited this 18 year-old, on the verge of death, to rest his head in his lap. The elderly man held his head and used his drinking water to douse his face. This went on for hours. Slowly the young man’s senses returned, as each splash of water sustained him. As they neared the end of their journey, the young man thanked the elder and asked his name. The elder replied, “Jesus.”
This is my dear friend’s story. I have heard countless stories, equally as powerful, over the last nine years of sitting in the homes and at the tables of immigrant and refugee families. Their stories are not political; they aren’t controversial — what they are, is human. Stories of fear, stories of brokenness, stories of desperation, and stories of hope. These folks want what all of us want. They need what all of us need.
Our individualist culture has deceived us, though. It has made us v. them. As long as we avoid finding our common humanity, then we’ve created an environment where compassion can never grow. By our cultural standards, compassion is weakness, unless of course your “compassion” maintains power structures and the status quo. How can we not demonize the other, if we are unwilling to recognize ourselves in others?
Somewhere along the line we have managed to confuse our culture’s demand for individualistic success with the gospel. But the Gospel of Jesus is upside down, outside the lines, and anchored in something much more profound than our world’s cheap version. It is anchored in love.
“For God so loved the world, that he sent his son…” We all know this one, right? But what did this son look like? John 1:14 says, “the Word became flesh.” Literally, everything we need to know about God is enfleshed with skin. But just wearing skin wasn’t enough for God. God made his home, his dwelling, among us. God moved into the neighborhood. But what neighborhood? Was it middle-class? Was it insular, composed of just religious folks? Hell no, it was on the margins, with a prostitute, with an extortionist, with a traitor.
Jesus dwelled in all the places and with all the people that the predominant culture would have expected him to run from. His compassion was rooted in becoming fully human by dwelling in and ultimately identifying with the rawness of humanity.
Where would we find Jesus today? Undocumented, in the tanker truck, offering his lap and pouring water over the head of an 18-year-old kid. That’s where he’d be. That’s where he’s been.
If this is where Jesus is then where should the Church be?
Christians in our country are struggling to understand where they should fall on the “issue” of immigration. The Bible couldn’t give clearer direction: Jesus always sides with the outcast and the oppressed. Also, Jesus always speaks out against oppressive and unjust systems. His words and his actions ultimately are what got him killed by the sociopolitical and religious institutions of his day. The Church’s response to immigration, including undocumented immigration should not be rooted in a social or political framework. Our faith requires that our response can only be rooted in the person of Jesus. This is the good news and the moral challenge of the Gospel.
Christians should not have a moral dilemma about where their allegiance should lie. If the decision for Christians is between obeying the laws of the land in which we temporarily dwell, or the eternal kingdom ethics of Jesus, then we have but one choice. Yes, this is uncomfortable. Yes, Church, this will put you at odds with power and the status quo. Yet, when you chose to follow Jesus, this is one of the moral imperatives that you signed up for. His Kingdom over all others (Matthew 7:13-14).
I am a Mennonite pastor. We have a history of resistance to unjust laws, but I did not always identify as an Anabaptist. In fact, most of my life I had been raised Evangelical. I was raised to believe that not only was the Church expected to be faithful to God, but also to the government. But what do we do when the two conflict? I’m not anti-government, but what I’ve learned on my journey is that the Church should only and always be about what Jesus was about. (With a bit of irony, I say, Jesus should always be our trump card.)
Nearly a year and a half ago, a group of local clergy and activists got together to form the East Central Ohio Sanctuary Network. Our dream has been to see faith communities stand up in the image and name of Jesus, offering solidarity and sanctuary for immigrants. This is resistance work. It is not work without risk, but the incarnational nature of our faith compels us to do it.
We are striving to create a dwelling place. A place of security and hope. A place where our immigrant brothers and sisters can experience the radical welcome and peaceful presence of Jesus. I share this that you might be inspired to take action in your own context. No matter the size of your faith community or the sociopolitical and religious contexts you are in, Jesus calls all of us to create compassionate, incarnational spaces for the oppressed in our midst.