Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sheep and Gatekeepers

Rev. Shalom R. Agtarap is pastor of Ellensburg First United Methodist Church, a growing faith community in central Washington State. She and her congregation continue to provide support for Latino families arrested and detained by the ICE raid in January of this year.

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
John 10:2-3

I rarely “get” agricultural images and passages within Scripture. They are difficult to understand without some lived experience. My mother grew up in a small farming community in the Philippines, but I did not. I can try and imagine what that first century agricultural community experienced when they heard these words, but I’m sure I’d miss the point.

So it is with some uncertainty that I talk about sheep and shepherd, the gate and the gatekeeper. How do 21st century readers experience the power of Christ’s words when many of us do not read with first century, agricultural-based knowledge?
How do we make sense of these statements? Are these images relevant?

Still, I know some of the most popular and diverse cultural expressions of Jesus Christ are as the Good Shepherd…whether you are a Southeast Asian, Central American, or African herder, shepherds all over the globe relate best to these images. But Jesus isn’t simply the shepherd whose leadership we follow; Jesus is also the way, the truth and the life. Jesus does not simply point to life, Jesus himself is life.

The words that trip me up when reading the John 10 passage are "gate," "gatekeeper," “thief,” and “bandit.” It would be mean-spirited and cynical (but easy) to believe that those who come to this country without proper papers are ‘thieves’ and ‘bandits’ who choose to break the law by not going through the right processes, who refuse to be checked by the ‘gatekeepers’. All this would be true if we believed that we were the only sheep that belonged to the Good Shepherd. But we most certainly are not. Read a little further and we are provided the perfect reminder for those who believe they are the only ones important to Christ. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)

Our nation’s current immigration policy criminalizes those who come to this country in search of better living conditions. We punish those who seek pasture, those who seek life, simply because they did not go through the “gate.” Would Jesus, the Good Shepherd, reject sheep that are hungry, wandering in the desert, in search of food? Would the Good Shepherd, who knows the names of every creature, deny them the opportunities and nurture all living beings require?

Interpret these words from John however one may like, scripture is very clear in what the Shepherd stands for. The Shepherd has come for one reason: that the sheep “may have life, and have it abundantly.”

As we advocate and work for immigration reform, may we stand up to those who function as gatekeepers who restrict and deny life and model with our lives the invitation issued to experience abundant life. With Christ as our center and our guide, we are sure to never be led astray.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sharing the Passion of Our Immigrant Sisters and Brothers

This blog post is written by Jim Perdue. Jim is the Missionary for Immigration and Border Concerns for Desert Southwest Conference and the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry

A few years back, film director Mel Gibson managed to stun the sensibilities of polite society, including many religious communities, with his interpretation of the “Passion of Christ.” No one ever asked if it would have been possible not to offend polite sensibilities by portraying the suffering of Jesus of Nazareth in his final days. It is not, nor should it ever be so.

Much of the confusion surrounding the movie came from a modern definition of the word passion. Today, passion more commonly refers to strong inner feeling and emotion, whether of love or of hate. We call people passionate who get out in the street to demonstrate, or who yell at a town hall meeting.

But passion has a much older and richer religious meaning, which we must recover. It comes from the Latin as both suffering and putting up with or enduring something unpleasant but unavoidable.

Passions as feelings are fleeting and contextual. Passion as a process or a work is inexorable and focused. We can experience and express our passions, but we must commit to the work of our passion. The challenge facing us now is that the religious community is not called just to have strong feelings about the world. It is also called to commit to suffer with that world and put up with that suffering until they are transformed.

This irreconcilable distinction between passions and passion is highlighted in the language and experiential divides between today’s U.S. undocumented Latino immigrant community and the U.S. citizen religious community, particularly their actions relative to immigration policy impasse.

The Spanish language of the undocumented Latino immigrant community is the same as the original Latin. In Spanish, when the word passion is used, if often refers to Jesus’ suffering. These Spanish speakers don’t often describe strong emotion as passion. Because of their lack of legal status and the increasing probability of their being caught and deported, this community lives in an ongoing, unavoidable process of passion. Most of them are committed to risking whatever might happen, not for themselves but for their children here or their family back home. They suffer constant fear, but they count their suffering as “worth it” in the long run. In fact, their passion runs so deeply that most undocumented people don’t even describe it as suffering. It is what it is, a life that they must endure as best they can. This community’s situation can give the citizen religious community a new window on what the scriptural account for this Sunday portrays as Jesus’ passion.

Today’s American English used in the religious community must struggle to touch this theological bedrock of passion as suffering and enduring. More often, its passions get caught up in cultural arguments that surround those life situations that someone else must endure until a clearer sense of the problem emerges. Those in the church who feel that national law must be maintained above all else fight passionately, just as do those who feel that the law itself must be changed because it fails to establish just treatment of all involved in the situa-tion. But does either commit to engage the passion of the people being ground up in the middle of the argument?

The passion to which God now leads the religious community involves extricating itself from passions and engaging that passion of an undocumented immigrant people who suffer in the midst of confusion that, at the end of the day, injures mainly them. The church must compadecerse in the Spanish, suffer with undocumented people in their struggle for a better life, come what may legally in the interim. It must have compassion.

We may be at a point when any “reform” of immigration policy will do more harm than good, simply because we refuse to touch base with this suffering of honest, hard-working people, which will continue and intensify until we find the political will as a whole people to solve the problems. Gone is the time to just react with the passions. Being at this point, then, we are called to embrace the passion that entails suffering along with those who suffer and put up with life, even as together we endeavor to struggle to organize and change that situation.

Undocumented immigrants have broken immigration law. They are also our Christian brothers and sisters. They live in an untenable situation that has become reality for them. We do not affirm the breaking of laws. Neither do we accept the survival of laws that use a people’s hope and then try to crush it. All of these are true. We cannot desert this call to the passion of Jesus. Let us choose to suffer and endure together in hope.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Church for All People from the Beginning

This blog post is written by Jim Perdue. Jim is the Missionary for Immigration and Border Concerns for Desert Southwest Conference and the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry

Within the very first “Christian” message there was the commitment to include all who would answer the call and come. (Act. 2:39) All who received the presence and counsel of the Holy Spirit became part of something that would never be bordered in – the loving reign of God.

The church was not only for the children of its members, but for those against whom circumstance often built walls of exclusion. The promise first given to Abram and Sarai in Syria was now extended to “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” A truly global religion was born.

The stranger, long championed by the psalmist and the prophetic community because of the natural tendency of many people to marginalize those who were different, suddenly became the focus of the church. Its focus shifted there because God’s promise was understood to reside there. Not many in the new church would
be “citizens” of the Roman Empire, the governing authority of that time. Instead, the church anxiously sought out and included “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), so that a vast group that “were not a people” (2:10) became God’s people.

As a result, it quickly became unlawful to be a Christian, because they were erasing all the lines in the civil society of the empire. It would not be until around 160 C.E. that a Christian would be officially allowed to serve in the army. Fortunately for many, this had become a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy early on.

Recognizing the sacredness of the life of every potential heir to God’s promise, the church would have remembered the words of the psalmist in a new context: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.” (Ps. 116:15) This would have referred to the suffering masses the church desperately tried to reach, as well as to those Christians giving up their lives to the legal weapons of a persecutor state.

We tend to forget how far the love of God has been willing to go to erase the lines of separation that the world feels comfortable with, and uncomfortable with their elimination.

Undocumented immigrants, including the many Christian ones, are being increasingly, lawfully singled out for “removal” from our land. Each week, the Secure Communities program of our federal government adds thousands of new local law enforcement and governmental hands to the process of tracking down and removing them. What this has come to mean is that silence on the part of those who believe that some sort of immigration reform is needed is increasingly becoming tacit support of those for whom the ultimate solution is the removal of them all.

But lest we loose sight of the texts for this week, we ask the question “How should we (the church) treat people who are under constant threat of deportation?” Is there a place for them in the church? They have broken a law. But, is there a place for them in the church? They may be gone tomorrow. Which of us could that not be said? If tomorrow I’m discovered to suffer from a terminal illness, will the church choose to “not get involved”? And yet, undocumented immigrants suffer daily from a terminal status.

Later in his life, Peter would continue to grow in the universality of God’s promise and love; and he would increasingly counsel the church to live by that kind of love. The good news in the texts for this week promises to all within the church, citizen and immigrant, a quality of life that is eternal – that makes whatever suffering that befalls us bearable because we bear it together.

“Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth, so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22) Regardless of debates, political strategies, or fears, this is something we can grow into together. It’s what we are all meant to be.