On the Other Side

Let us go across to the other side.

Trust Jesus to keep followers on the move. Even though he worshiped regularly in the synagogue and had a rich personal prayer life, most of his ministry was conducted outside the sanctuary walls into the community. There he met people:  all kinds of people. His fellow Palestinians, living under the thumb of their Roman captors; religious and civic leaders who had capitalized on the oppressive tax system and grown wealthy through collecting the exorbitant fees; children; soldiers; people with chronic illnesses; rulebreakers and people of questionable moral character. Jesus’ sense of mission drove him towards people, and frequently beyond the bounds of convention and comfort.

Let us go across to the other side.

The morning text begins with this invitation. It might have been a mere transition line to the next scene. . . . except that “the other side” meant Gentile territory. Inhabited by “those” people. . . who were not part of the covenant; not simply “other” but considered dirty and impure. There were even laws forbidding contact with these aliens because they were not part of the family. Yet Jesus’ directive was intentional.  He meant to go there and invited followers to accompany him.

Perhaps there was something of this invitation behind Denver Presbytery’s sponsorship of another trip to the US/Mexico Border this past March: an opportunity for us literally and figuratively to “go across” that border to the “other side.” To learn about immigration on the ground and hear the witness of migrants and asylum-seekers themselves. We were hosted by Frontera de Cristo, a bi-national ministry of the Presbyterian Church (USA) designed to build relationships and understanding. This sermon is my reflection on the experience, through the lens of Jesus’ ministry that brought down walls and obliterated the notion of “the other side.” I’m delighted to welcome others from our delegation, who will share their perspectives and experiences and engage in conversation following worship.

A reading from the good news according to Mark in the fourth chapter, verses 35-41. Listen for God’s Word to the Church on the move.

[Mark 4:35-41]

O the irony of following Jesus to the other side and running smack dab into a tempest of wind and rain that threatens to sink their tiny boat! Yet, truly, friends, faith offers no insulation from life’s storms. On our journey we encountered a climate of both hostility and hospitality, clashing values and contradictory truths. We found both despair and hope amid complexities of failed policies, fear of “the other,” and economic need and uncertainties.

Mostly, we found people.  Our hosts in the Lily of the Valley Church in Agua Prieta (where we stayed), who cooked delectable breakfasts and brought needlework (like the parament on the baptism font) for sale from a woman’s sewing cooperative; Robb, an elder from First Presbyterian Church in Douglas who spoke of the costs and the benefits of ministry to the neighborhood including immigrants and undocumented; Alex, a former border patrol agent who spoke plainly about incidents he had witnessed of both cruelty and compassion.  He asked us to pray for the border patrol, for the military and law enforcement on both sides. Joca, who works for Frontera de Cristo, denied ordination because she is a woman who nonetheless led us in prayer and Bible Study and a meal that felt like Communion. Over dinner one evening in the Frontera de Cristo shelter, I enjoyed conversation with Audi and Daniel and their children:  daughter Joya, who is 12 (I wondered what her piercing dark eyes had witnessed in her young life), son Sander, and three-year-old Serina (the same age as my grandson Ever and equally fond of the Skittles I found in my bag and shared). They had made the dangerous trek north after the children’s school was shot up by drug lords out for revenge. This family hardly fit the description of immigrants “invading” and “attacking” so that no American is safe, as some news outlets warn. A recent poll shows that many Americans including evangelical Protestants believe the statement that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.” [reported in the Christian Century, May 2023]  This dehumanizing perspective plays into an “othering” narrative that normalizes the wall and other defensive measures. Daniel told me they’d been waiting in Agua Prieta for 7 months to get an appointment to see if they meet the qualifications for asylum, and to start that lengthy and complicated process. They are like many other migrants fleeing a culture of violence and social unrest. Others come looking for economic opportunity, and some who are trying to reunite with family members north of the border. Over and over my expectations and stereotypes were blown away by the stories.  These are not “illegal aliens.” They are beloved members of God’s family and our siblings—the neighbor we are commanded to love and care for.

The faces of these new friends were on my mind as we experienced a walk through the desert on a trail toward the wall, regularly used by migrants.  We were led by a former “coyote”–a person who is paid to make arrangements for safe passage across the border. He told us of the dangers, expense, and risks with no guarantee or arrival in the US. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Drone cameras make regular sweeps of the area. Even in late March the desert is hot and dry.  Last year 890 persons —including elderly abuelas (grandmas) and little children —died making the crossing.

We came to the wall itself and its sheer size—steel girders 32 feet high in many places, extending hundreds of miles in either direction. Razor wire is laced throughout, and in some places concrete has been added to prevent entry by digging under the structure. Yet as the poet Robert Frost observed, something there is that doesn’t love a wall and wants it down.  Our hosts easily shimmied up the steel girders. I saw a pair of heavy gloves hidden among some stones that could easily have been worn to protect the hands that tore away the razor wire. And so help me God, as much as a country may need immigration control and border protection, the wall is an ugly, ugly symbol of the fear, racism, and nationalism that insists on separation. We gathered in its shadow with our hosts to pray that the day come swiftly when the wall will come down and we might be reconciled.

When Jesus and his friends came through the storm and out on the other side, Jesus’ power brought healing and wholeness to the deep suffering of a man they found there. On the other side of the border we too found evidence of hope in economic development. Cafe Justo is a coffee grower cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico that grows, roasts, packages, and ships its own coffee. The operation is self-contained, and environmentally sustainable and the farmer-members receive three times what growers are typically paid by standard commercial operations. In business for over 20 years, Cafe Justo households are able to thrive with no need to immigrate. We’re exploring with our Purple Door folks about possible collaboration through the purchase Cafe Justo beans. Who knows? We also visited a women’s cooperative engaged in farming, carpentry, and sewing as keys to economic stability and strengthening community. Trini, creator of this potholder and many other items, shyly but with evident pride, showed me her name displayed on the back. She is “seen.” These women are empowered through self-agency and are changing their economic prospects for the well-being of their families and community.

And since returning home I’ve learned more about the presbytery’s Journey with Migrants initiatives.  Rob and Celeste Habiger have spoken about “accompaniment”—support of refugees and immigrants arriving in Denver from a variety of countries (including Ukraine, Afghanistan, Ghana, as well as Latin America) to help with living accommodations, household basics, food, childcare, legal questions and more. Journey with Migrants also provides educational resources and experiences (like the Border trip), and collaborates with the Interfaith Immigration Network of Colorado to advocate for more humane policies and practices. During the pandemic, as a public health precaution, asylum-seekers were immediately expelled from the country and sent to Mexico where they have been living in tent encampments and shelters. With the lifting of Title 42 next week, the landscape may change dramatically, though nothing is certain. We’ll hear more about ways to engage at the class following worship.

Let us go across to the other side.

There’s plenty still I don’t understand and much of the learning continues to discomfort and perplex. The human suffering is real and compelling.  We cannot “unsee” what we saw. And here’s the thing, friends: Jesus doesn’t send us off to tilt at windmills alone. Let’s go, he said.  His invitation was to join him, to travel together to the places and the people who—-just like us—stand in need of God’s love and grace. Saying “yes” can take us to the border, but also to the boardroom; across the seas and across the street; to a tent encampment around the corner on 16th Avenue or a refugee shelter in Agua Prieta. Today it will gather us at a Table where broken bread and poured out cup reveal the Love that unites us with God and everyone. Here we will come to see “the other side” as a human construct, a mirage and falsehood cooked up by fear. There’s just one side, with a road that will surely lead us—-all of us—-home. Thanks be to God.