The Journey to Welcome

Sept. 8, 2019

Rev. James deBoer

 

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So, he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So, he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything…So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

Ex. 23:9 You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

Prophet’s flight from Mecca to Medina; earlier escape of believes from Mecca to Christian Abyssinia, present-day Ethiopia, where they were not only warmly received by the king, but protected from emissaries of Mecca who attempted to take them back.

Interpretation of the Qur’an, Surat Al-Anfal 8:74: “Those who give asylum and aid are in very truth the believers; for them is the forgiveness of sins and a provision most generous.”

You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. Amen.

I’ve been a member here for almost a year, and, before that, by way of personal background, I was ordained in 2014 and served as Pastor of the Federated Church of Livingston for four years. When I was there, I became increasingly involved with the New Jersey UCC Social Justice Task Force, and at length felt a strong interest in attending law school to learn more about how to create positive change. I am now starting year two, at NYU. I can tell you that going to law school in one’s mid-30’s is not a walk in the park. One of my good friends is only 23; and she has this fun game, where she asks me about life events, such as, how long have Marian and you been married, and I say, 10 years, and then she claps her hands and says, “oh my God, that’s when I got bat mitzvah’d!”

On the whole, I’m very glad to have made the decision to go to law school. This past summer, I worked with immigrants with the American Friends Service Committee. When Pastor Chuck learned about what I was doing, he invited me to preach here this morning on the theme of welcome. I saw my work as, in many ways, a form of offering welcome to people who needed it, and I believe there is a spiritual dimension to the opening up of welcome, which we celebrate today on our first Sunday back from the summer.

I’d like to begin with a very quick overview of my summer internship. The first thing to know, is that anyone seeking asylum in the United States, who did not receive it in advance, is placed immediately upon arriving in immigration detention. So, if Mikhail Gorbachev, architect of Glasnost and Perestroika and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, were to flee political persecution in Russia to seek asylum in the United States – which it is his right to do under international law – after getting off the plane at Newark Airport, he would be sent right to Elizabeth Detention Center. And there he would sit, along with all the other people seeking refuge in America, which right now includes a great number of poor Central American migrants fleeing from gang violence. He would remain there for several months, until a judge could rule on his asylum case. So, I suggest setting aside the notion that people in immigration detention must have done something wrong.

Now, there is a possibility that people waiting for their asylum cases could get out of Elizabeth Detention Center if they receive parole, which is at ICE’s discretion. But in general, you need a family member who will vouch for you, agree to put you up, take financial responsibility for you, and ensure that you appear at all future court dates. You could imagine then, that I did not have high hopes when, in the 3rd week of my internship, I met Renaldo, a young man from Honduras. Although he had a partner and two toddlers back home, Renaldo decided to flee Honduras because the gangs there were demanding regular payments that he couldn’t afford, and the police were powerless to protect him. He then spent over two months on the Mexico side of the U.S. border, waiting for his turn to enter legally. While he was there, he was only able to feed himself thanks to a border assistance organization that came every day.

I was supposed to prepare a parole request for him, but he has no family here so we were not optimistic. Yet someone at the border organization knew a priest in New York City, willing to sponsor Renaldo. I worked with the attorneys to prepare a parole request. I sent it in, and we waited. As the weeks ticked by, we assumed that the parole had been denied. Then, over a month later, our office received a phone call that Renaldo was being granted parole, and could leave immigration detention while his asylum case was being heard. What a relief!

I then had what might have been my most, weirdest moment in 2019; meeting Renaldo at the back door of Elizabeth Detention and taking a Lyft to Newark Penn Station, where I rode with him on the Path to World Trade Center. Now, this train ride was my daily commute to work. Yet how different to make the same journey, this time with an asylum seeker, three months in immigration detention, from rural Honduras, who knew nothing of the U.S. or even of the developed world! At Harrison he was astounded by the wide expanse of tracks. I pointed out New York City through the window and he couldn’t believe it. Then we arrived at World Trade Center, in the Oculus, one of New York City’s epicenters of business, commerce, and skyscrapers – and of course the place where the twin towers stood. He was speechless.

I could only imagine what it must have been like for Renaldo; riding alongside of him, it was dizzying and disorienting for me to glimpse such familiar sights through such a rather different lens. Later in the summer, Marian and I did some backpacking and at night I was looking at our map with my red headlight lamp, to reduce light pollution. And I found myself super confused because I couldn’t find our trail. Then I switched to a green light and the trails appeared on the map like magic, but the rivers faded out of sight. Back to a white light – which of course, includes red and green light – and the paths and rivers both appear on the map at the same time. I wondered if perhaps my version of reality that I take for granted every day is really only just the green light version of things – and I suppose there are benefits of also being able to perceive the same vista under a different color, if I want to really achieve the full picture…

I would suggest that the experience of walking in a stranger’s shoes is not only informative, but even spiritual. The theologian Karl Barth saw the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a reminder to practice extravagant welcome, and also as a metaphor for Jesus Christ himself: “It was God who went into the far country, and it is humanity who returns home. Both took place in the one Jesus Christ.” Going out into the far country, into the unknown, is an act that, whether we mean for it to or not, parallels the act of Christ in becoming human, born in a manger, and living a life of a transient, driven from one place to the next with nowhere to lay his head; and he transforms the basic human experience of wandering and wondering and questioning into the glorious homecoming back towards God. When we are strangers, we are vulnerable. In the Muslim tradition, strangers have been understood to be in special need of protection, and so the word “iwa” or shelter is used to express the granting of asylum, implying far more than the simple right to be present in the land. And “deoraid” [pronunciation: DJEORY] was the most common word of Irish Gaelic used to describe emigrants, a word which also meant a person with no property, family, or place in society.

And not always, but perhaps sometimes, that stripping away of external supports – reliance on the protection of our possessions, our certainty, our understandings of ourselves, our identity, our knowledge – sometimes this can open us to the movement of God’s Holy Spirit. Recall the Prophet Elijah, who was driven out of the Northern Kingdom with the Queen’s armies close behind, an exile in the wilderness, who stayed in the cave as a great wind passed by, so strong that it split mountains and broke rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind; and it was only after the wind and the earthquake and the fire, that Elijah heard God’s still small voice calling his name.

So the two things I would leave us with this morning are, first, not to shy away from opportunities to walk alongside strangers in our own journeys of pilgrimage. But second, let us welcome. Let us embody God’s words of comfort and hospitality. Let us join our own voices in harmony with God’s still small voice, singing out you are welcome and you belong, in all that we do, for the people who need it most – for those who are strangers, for those who are lonely, for those who are confused, for those who are lost, for those who are worn down – in short, for us ourselves – and for our neighbors – and for the world. We are welcome. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Notes:

Wikipedia: Migration to Abyssinia

UNHCR Welcoming the Stranger: Affirmations for Faith Leaders

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. iv, part 2, p. 21 Bromily and Torrance, Eds.

Meaning of “Iwa”, https://www.unhcr.org/4a9645646.pdf

Kirby Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Irish Cultures and Irish Emigration to North America, 1790-1922 Irish Historical Studies Vol. 22, No. 86 (Sep., 1980) pp. 97-125, p. 104.

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