Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 6, 2019
“We Need a Little Criminal Activity Here and There”
Jeremiah 7: 1-7 – Common English Bible
Jeremiah received the Lord’s word: 2 Stand near the gate of the Lord’s temple and proclaim there this message: Listen to the Lord’s word, all you of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 This is what the Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, says: Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place. 4 Don’t trust in lies: “This is the Lord’s temple! The Lord’s temple! The Lord’s temple!” 5 No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly; 6 if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, 7 only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time.
A week ago, Amy Forte and I went to Tucson for a border education and immersion experience, along with Jenny and 7 others from Denver area UCC churches. I expected it to be emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausting and ding, ding, ding, it was. Except that it wasn’t really. Those words, and much worse, must be reserved for those whose home country is so dangerous and desperate they would mortgage their house to pay the cost of a coyote to guide them across the most inhospitable stretch of the border possible. As many times as necessary.
Those words – emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion – must be reserved for Alisha who told us about her life as a volunteer for No More Deaths. No More Deaths is a ministry of First Unitarian Church in Tucson that places water, food, socks, and blankets along trails in the desert used by migrants. These volunteers are criminals for providing such humanitarian aid. Our group walked a few miles on those trails, carrying gallon jugs of water and cans of food with a pop-top, listening to helicopters fly menacingly overhead. My image of walking in the desert is like a dry sandy flat plain. But the Sonoran Desert is mountainous, sending people through winding, narrow canyon washes, past bushes with stickers and thorns an inch long, mostly at night to avoid detection.
The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion must be reserved for people like Lizzy from the Florence Project and other advocates and attorneys who provide free legal services.
The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion must be reserved for Josh, a US citizen and member of the Tohono O’doham tribe; a tribe whose land is a vast stretch of the border – actually, families were divided by the border when it was imposed on them. Josh told us about being stopped at interior roadside checkpoints, not the border, for lengthy and sometimes physically abusive inquiries of his citizenship. This happens to him 50% of the time he travels to and from work or to pick up his children from school. Children who have to watch as men with guns rough up their father.
The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion must be reserved for Manuel who spoke to us on the Mexican side of the border. First, however, we walked along the US side, a tall, see-through steel fence covered with 5 thick roles of razor wire. Surveillance towers high above. I can report that the rolling terrain would not allow for an alligator and snake-filled moat. But unfortunately, Manuel did show the spot on the Mexican side where Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old boy, was indeed shot and killed in 2012; shot 10 times by a border patrol agent for throwing a rock at the wall – an impossible distance for a rock of any size to fly. The agent was not held responsible.
Manuel’s daughter Maria welcomed us into her home in Nogales, fed us a delicious meal, and told us about working 10 hours a day in a NAFTA inspired maquiladora making medical equipment for $9 a day. The cost of living in Nogales is so high that if we lived on an equivalent of her salary, a carton of eggs here would cost us $14. A liter of milk, $29. And a box of 36 diapers, $136. Yet, when migrants are pushed across the border, Manuel is among the first to offer help to a hungry fellow human being.
We listened to Karolina tell her frightening story. She is a transgender woman placed for months in a detention center with men, despite her pleas. I can only describe her life as a series of unspeakable horrors, yet she used them to help others. She started an organization called Mariposas sin Fronterres, Butterflies without Borders, to provide housing to other LGBTQ detainees when they are released.
The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion must be reserved for Eden and Oscar and Guadalupe who shuffled into the courtroom in shackles. We watched more than 70 men and women stand before an Operation Streamline judge for 30 seconds each, in groups of 10, most charged with a misdemeanor – a 1325. But Ramon and Angel and Juan Carlos and a dozen more were charged with a “1326.” A felony for crossing a second time. When we hear about catching a group of felons trying to cross the border, it sounds ominous. They are felons for simply trying twice.
In Iliff professor Miguel de la Torre’s book Trails of Hope and Terror, one young migrant told him, “Please tell the Americans that I am sorry for entering the country like this. Please forgive us, but we are simply desperate.”
We often hear the question, what kind of person would put their family through this. I wonder, what kind of person thinks placing water in the desert to prevent more deaths should be a criminal act? I went to Tucson with the question, “How many should we allow to cross,” realizing, we must first address, “how do we treat those who do?”
Volunteers from End Operation Streamline sit in the courtroom every day to watch the daily docket and note whenever there is an irregularity, or someone asks for asylum. Then they alert a legal defense group like the Florence Project. Someone like Crystal, whose horrific description of her life of abuse should qualify her for asylum. The judge in this court offered genuine sympathy but has no jurisdiction over that. Domestic abuse used to be a factor in asylum cases. It’s just as likely now that she will be put on a bus and never given the opportunity to present her case.
This devastating experience for Crystal and dozens more shuffling through the court every day is so “normal” that we could watch one attorney play Candy Crush on his phone between groups of ten. And a court interpreter read a novel on the side while the other interpreter worked. I can’t blame them for trying to “normalize” their work; after all it must be emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausting for them too. But it was disturbing to watch the effects first hand. The criminalization of desperation. The militarization of the border. Agents are sometimes caught in the middle too. For example, they used to be able to call people from No More Deaths to help them with an injured migrant. They are not allowed anymore.
We learned a lot about the factors that contributed to this humanitarian crisis and much of it was anticipated as a result of NAFTA. Because the government knew that local economies would be devastated, they created a strategy known as Prevention Through Deterrence that pushed desperate migrants further into dangerous territory. A policy designed to make migration “more treacherous, more criminalized, more cartel-driven, and more politically fraught.”
de la Torre told of Ignacio who said he knew the danger. He said that’s why migrants sometimes pin their names and pictures to their clothes in the event their bodies would have to be identified. He described it being so hot, it felt like his brain was boiling. If they didn’t die from the heat, or from an untended injury or infected blisters, they could die in the desert from drowning during the monsoon season. The description of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion is not mine to make.
As much as I wanted to blame the current administration, to assign it the status of villain, our country through both parties has a long history of cruel abuses against immigrants, much of it driven by racism, through such explicit measures as the Chinese Exclusion Act. Or the law in the 1920s that required immigrants to know English. The law exempted Mexicans, however, because we needed their labor. Until we didn’t need them anymore and new laws were passed to target them.
Ranchers are tired of finding bodies on their land. Some resent them. Others like Joseph, who still referred to migrants as illegals, said he’s a patriot, veteran, and a proud American, but the Bible is clear. Therefore, he’s always welcomed whoever knocked on his door looking for food and water. His house is very close to the border. When the lights are on, it stands like a lighthouse. But, he said, the law now says I cannot bring them into my house because I could be charged with harboring illegals.
That was a dilemma faced by Rev. Daniel Groody. He passed a man on the side of the road waving empty water jugs in his hand, obviously in need of help. The good Reverend did not stop. If Border Patrol pulled him over, he reasoned, he could be charged with aiding and abetting illegal entry into the US and face 1 to 10 years in prison. As he kept driving, the story of the Good Samaritan came to mind. And then he remembered Jesus told his followers that when you don’t help someone who is hungry, thirsty, in prison, sick and in need, you are not helping Jesus himself. Rev. Groody didn’t turn the car back around, however, until he remembered an elderly priest who told him that he saw Christ in the immigrants – the crucified peoples of today.
He asked, in the form of Matthew 25, what is our response to Jesus who is
There are many texts in scripture that speak about how one should treat immigrants and strangers. The prophet Jeremiah said, “If you truly reform your ways and your actions; it you treat each other justly; if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, only then will I dwell with you in the place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time.”
I can’t read this text without thinking of the blood of innocent migrants shed on the deserts of our borderlands. Or the gods of free trade and stockholder shares that have ruined local communities and turned children into orphans and women into widows.
When Jeremiah stands at the gate mocking, “This is God’s temple, this is God’s temple, this is God’s temple,” he is talking about a false security. We’re OK. God is with us no matter what if we’re in God’s temple.
But Jeremiah said, true worship is not about being in the right place. It is loving God through acts of kindness and generosity to others. True worship is a changed life and love for one’s neighbor, particularly, as Jeremiah makes clear, the immigrant. For those who claim that the temple is the dwelling place of God, Jeremiah sets the record straight. God will not dwell in the hearts of believers if the hearts of believers do not change.
Jeremiah can be a very harsh critic. But that is also the way he speaks of hope. If we change our ways, God will dwell among us. Nothing is hopeless. It is not a sentence of death. It is an invitation to life. Simply live a life of justice and compassion.
Like Alisha, Lizzy, Josh, Karolina, Manuel, Maria, Joseph, and Rev. Groody. They may not describe the presence of God in their lives as that which keeps them from succumbing to emotional, spiritual, or physical exhaustion, but it can be the way we keep ourselves going when it all seems too much and we want to give up caring.
The opportunity to actually see Christ with our own eyes in Eden and Guadalupe, in Ramon and Juan Carlos, in Crystal and Ignacio is a blessing we may not fully appreciate. To see Christ with our own eyes. But that is not an excuse to keep them on the cross or crucifying others so that we may benefit from their sacrifice. To glorify their sacrifices, oh they’re so brave, is a perversion of the gospel of good news for the poor, liberation for the captive, and freedom for the prisoner.
And yet, even so, it is hopeful. The antidote to a life of emotional, spiritual, and physical exhaustion is to experience the indwelling of God. And how? A little criminal activity here and there, such as providing water in the desert, so that there are no more deaths. That, and a changed life that stops taking advantage of the immigrant. Then God will dwell within. Only then. And that’s good news.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world