John 1:14-16 & Luke 19:1-10
The hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees that we met at the Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, had just swum the Rio Grande the day or two before. They were tired and many were sick (not covid). Most had only the clothes on their back. As they waded ashore on the US side of the border, if they were not apprehended immediately, many tried to find a border patrol officer to whom they could turn themselves in. In this recent period, instead of everyone being automatically and immediately sent back, about half were being randomly processed and given a date for an asylum hearing. The Methodist Student Network’s May service-learning trip to the US/Mexico border put names and faces and flesh and blood on the immigration drama that gets hyped and spun in the media. It made plain the complexity of the situation, but also the fact that the way we live our lives in this country is directly related to the conditions and fortunes of many people in places like El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Our Christian faith had already answered the question “Who is my neighbor?” and “How are we to treat the foreigner among us?”, but there is ambivalence contextualized by fear in actually taking positive action, even if the solution is not perfect.
Each day 200-600 people came to the Respite Center and we performed various services – preparing meals, serving food, fitting and giving out clothing, testing eyesight, driving sick refugees to the doctor, giving out medicine and toiletries and packing lunch/snack bags for the asylum seekers’ onward journey. But perhaps the most important action was making eye contact and smiling and offering simple words of greeting and encouragement (and asking their name) in halting Spanish to these frightened, hopeful and resilient fellow children of God.
“Who is my neighbor?” “How do we treat the foreigner among us?” If we do know the answer to these questions and are afraid to answer with action, then why is that so? Perhaps it is because we have not bothered to meet our neighbor or become a friend to the stranger. If we were to stop, listen deeply and look upon the face of our neighbor and the stranger, we might discover their pains and fragilities that their hopes and dreams are not so different from ours. Instead of finding one to be feared and inconvenienced by, we discover that they are not unlike the people who are our friends though they might be labeled differently. It is a true principle that proximity leads to compassion. Proximity builds bridges of understanding. Coming alongside the stranger leads to conversation-communication and therefore is the first step towards communion.
The issue has a face. The crisis is an evolving story. The problem has a beating heart. It’s not fixing a situation. It’s a matter of being a good neighbor (and we all know what that means). It’s about re-membering how we have been befriended in our own challenging moments and how that coming-along-side made all the difference in ways we had not foreseen.
In theological terms, we call that practicing incarnation. As God comes in the flesh alongside us so we practice incarnation and come in close proximity to our neighbor who then can experience Grace. Before salvation, there is incarnation- nearness and coming alongside.