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Jerusalem is real. I keep having to tell myself that. I am really here. I’ve spent the past several years learning about this place, and I’ve spent my life hearing stories that happened here. If you can say anything about Jerusalem, it is real.
I keep having the experience of reality, stark and undefinable. I wrote to a friend the first couple of days in the country that the experience is “spooky powerful.” I had that sense when I stepped in front of the Holy Sepulcher, the place where Jesus rose from the dead. It was that it happened, here, it was real. I had the experience again today stepping into the church of the nativity. The world stopped making sense, it just was. Even with Nigerian and Russian pilgrims jostling each other in the line to walk into the cave where Jesus was born, even with the hubbub of cameras and Greek Orthodox chant, something was very real.
We followed the monophysite Armenian patriarch’s parade through the streets and ended up at the Wailing Wall last night to watch the gatherings for the beginning of Shabbat. As the Jews were roaring their songs and dancing in circles, the call to prayer sounded from the Al Aqsa Mosque right above them, up on what the Jews regard as the temple mount and signs in the area declare that Israel will one day rebuild the temple. (Muslims revere the place as the site where Muhammed ascended to heaven and brought back holy revelation from God about how to pray, so they aren’t really enthused about the Jews wanting to knock down their shrines to build a temple.)
It was so beautiful, and sooo sad. There is so much tension and power struggle between these traditions, and so much deep faith. It’s moving and maddening. Religion is a mess, and to come to a place that is fought over as the holy site by three religions just hurts and brings profound joy.
Today we went to Bethlehem. In order to do so we had to leave Israel and enter the Palestinian West Bank. The experience was eerily familiar after years of crossing the San Diego border into Tijuana, Mexico. I found it incredibly appropriate that Jesus was born outside the walls and announced to outcasts. The walls only went up a few years ago, and the distinctions they enforce are stark. Palestinians live in rather extreme poverty compared to the wealth of the average Israeli. Many are not allowed to leave the city in which they live because they are cut off by the wall. Without any recourse to trade, and scarce jobs in Bethlehem, the economic situation grows worse. We saw a large settlement camp just inside the Palestinian area, with its own fenced off road only for Jewish settlers.
This is a photo of a mural on the separation wall.
I of course love the Spanish, which translates. ”Viva Free Palestine, even under the fascist wall!”
Jerusalem is very real, the beauty and the conflict, the pain and the joy. I feel incredibly luck to be here, to walk in these spaces, to feel the reality. I also feel overwhelmed and unable to process it all.
Well, the call to prayer I’m hearing out the window means it is close to dinner time. I hope this finds you all well. Feel free to leave me some love on the comments board.
The recent events in Honduras have gotten me re-mincing about my year there.
A late evening in November of 2005 my friends Lyra, Linda, and I drove back to San Pedro Sula from Tela, winding through banana plantations and the aftermath of tropical storm Gamma. The main bridge was out, so the trip took an extra hour. We listened to Maná as we passed by wooden shacks where a single light bulb glowed blue green in that distinctly Latin American way. We’d come to Tela to pass the day as the country voted for the next president. We were upset when we discovered that the elections meant that no beer was for sale, but contented ourselves with some great seafood and an incredible sunset.
The run up to the elections had been loud and fascinating. Every morning around 6:30am the trucks began driving outside my windows at El Hogar orphanage in Tegucigalpa, where I was serving as a year-long volunteer. The trucks were mounted with loudspeakers which played a short jingle and then urged voters to select either Mel or Pepe for president. There seemed to be very few formal debates, but every imaginable surface was covered with political posters, and the air was thick with campaign promises. The choice seemed to be between a corrupt socio-path (Pepe wanted to enforce the death penalty for seemingly any suspected gang member) and a corrupt mafia boss (Mel supposedly had ties to crime rings and covered up murders). Hondurans figured that whichever president was elected, they would embezzle a large portion of the aid that flows to the Western Hemisphere’s second poorest nation.
Honduras is not a left wing country. I remember my surprise at the incredible words of praise that Hondurans spoke about Presidente Bush. The US Military operates a huge military base in the center of the country which was used to manipulate wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1970s and 80s. Before that Honduras had largely been run by US banana companies, giving rise to the terminology “banana republic.” The power of the US military and business influence has made a small portion of the population very wealthy, and meant that many Hondurans uphold a strong capitalist, pro-US political voice.
Lyra and I used to joke that Hondurans were a people in need of a revolution. Compared to our travels in El Salvador, where there was a sense that the poor could rise up from their situation through education and working to change the governmental and social systems, Hondurans were downtrodden. They lacked a sense of drive and commitment to change. “Yes We Can” were not commonly chanted words in a culture that had constantly been subject to someone else’s military business.
This is partly why I find this week’s events so puzzling and sad. It seems that so few Hondurans are in support of President Mel Zelaya’s supposed swing leftward toward empowering the masses. I suspect this is because Hondurans do not trust their elected leadership. They figured the president would rob the people, and it seems from the reports of embezzling that he has been.
Even more puzzling to me is the international response. As we continue to hear calls from the US, UN, Organization of American States, and Chavez to reinstate the democratically elected president I wonder about the sincerity of the desire to help the Honduran people. Realistically the livelihood of the average Honduran took its most drastic downturn when the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements and the subsidized prices of US agricultural products came together in a perfect storm that drove thousands of campesinos away from farming. Over 50% of Hondurans are unemployed and 1 out of every 6 Honduran citizens live in the United States legally or illegally sending money home to their families.
If we really wanted to help the Honduran people we would do more than try to reinstate a questionable leader. We would work to create a market situation in Central America where the family farmers could earn enough to provide housing, food, health care, and education for their families. We would force our companies who employ thousands of Hondurans in maquilas (assembly factories) to pay a living wage.
As Lyra, Linda, and I tumbled down the winding back roads on the way back to San Pedro the night of the election I was amazed by the stark beauty and stark poverty of Honduras. I remember a great feeling of gratitude to have the opportunity to get to know these people and this place. I gave thanks to God for the joys and challenges I was facing. Today my prayer is that the people I got to know in Honduras come forward from these challenging times with a chance to dream for a better future.
The past few days have been the commemoration of the martyrdom of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., here at the seminary. We’ve been talking a lot about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other things that divide us.
We’ve been wondering whether we live in a “post-racial America.”
One of my favorite professors here, Dr. Judy Fentress Williams, said that she hadn’t “gotten the memo” that America had become “post-racial.” It seems what we want to find is the end of racism, sexism, homophobia, all forms of discrimination, but we are not there. To pretend otherwise is folly.
I heartily agree. I’m continually frustrated by the divisions we continue to construct, knowingly and unknowingly. I’m angered that the construction of the border fence (read “border wall”) continues.
I’m frustrated that I am still caught of guard by my own and others’ attitudes, assumptions, and hesitancies. It is so hard to move from “us/them” to “I/thou.”
At the same time I hear in “post-racial” and especially “post-gay” an attitude of hope. While both words could admittedly be used to awful ends, saying that someone has been “cured” of their sexual orientation or that we are “color-blind,” I think there is some value to the conception that we have moved into a new period of identity politics. Is there more room to talk about the DIVERSE experience of African American people, now that we have Barack Obama for President? Is there more room to talk about the diversity of experience for those whose sexual orientation or gender expression differ from the norm, now that even Iowa has approved gay marriage?
Where I worked the past two years, at the University of California San Diego, I became a convert to “queer” terminology. Students at UCSD from the LGBT community often preferred the term “queer” to any label of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or otherwise. They found an inclusiveness in “queer” that the other labels didn’t satisfy. Perhaps they were predominantly attracted to people of the same sex, but not exclusively, and thus didn’t feel lesbian or bisexual fit their experience.
Asserting this identity also means that same sex attraction and gender ambiguity must be viewed as natural, normal, even blessed. Though the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from it’s list of disorders in 1973 (for a fantastic This American Life on that history click here) we still seem to behave in society and the church as if people are deficient. The attitude of tolerance seems to be just that. “Because you are, sadly, oriented ONLY to members of your own gender I guess we will accept you. We’re all sinners.” Could “Post-gay” or “Queer” mean moving past this “tolerance” toward embrace, toward seeing same gender love as a blessing? (It sure surprised Oprah when Ed Bacon said homosexuality was a blessing.) Would this allow us to wonder if more people experience same-gender love than are able to claim this natural and blessed part of their identity? Would this allow more people who are predominantly attracted to members of the same gender to accept that they also experience some attraction to people of the other gender without compromising their sense of identity?
So often our identities are constructed for us. The other, is defined by those who “other” them: Sambo and the Poof, Aunt Jemima and drag queens. At the same time communities can gather to determine and claim their own identity. Last night the Howard Gospel Choir performed at Virginia Seminary, and we had some church. There is no doubting the presence of God in the culturally rooted, liberative, expressive, identifying music of Gospel. The music AFFIRMS the goodness, the createdness, the beauty of the people who sing it and of the culture that birthed such exquisite praise.
All identity is construct. The trick seems to be learning to develop identies which we value for their distinction and beauty, in which we glimpse the diverse character of the face of God while following the Christ who breaks down the walls that divide us. Moving to a place where our identities are no longer political, a truly post-racial and post-gay place because racism and homophobia are not the determining factors for the identity of black and queer Americans. A place where culture and relationship are expressed robustly. I think this is what Paul had in mind when he said, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Woman nor Man but all are one in Christ.” Not that our distinction would disappear, but that we would learn the value of our difference for drawing us more fully together in the diversity of God.
A group of us gathered at Border Field State Park on Sunday June 1 to protest the construction of a triple fence.
A few weeks ago, in the run up to a discussion about the Border, I started kicking around an idea that I haven’t seen anywhere else. My friend Jason Evans has started prodding me to spit it out, so this is a first attempt, to which I hope comments and discussion will flush out a forming discussion about Jesus, the immigrant.
I see at least two specific references to Jesus as an immigrant. The first practical, the second theological.
First the practical, Jesus is a Galilean and is referred to as such throughout the Gospels. Our modern conception of nation states did not exist at the time of Jesus, so neither our modern conception of “immigrants.” However, Jesus and his followers are remarked upon throughout the Gospels as “Galileans” and have an outsider status in Jerusalem because they are from client kingdom in the North. This was not a positive association for the residents of Jerusalem. Jesus was thought of in Jerusalem similarly to how Mexican and other Latin American immigrants are thought of in the U.S. based upon “outsider” geo-political status.
Now to the Theological, we learn in the prologue to John’s Gospel that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Trinitarian’s “Son’s” experience is that of coming to dwell among humanity. This “dwelling among” might be faithfully rendered “immigrated to.” We hear in the prologue that ” He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him.” Jesus’ outsider or immigrant status is confirmed in that his people do not recognize him. God’s identity in Jesus is as a stranger, an identity thrust upon him by those who do not recognize who he is. The divine is identified as an outsider, as an immigrant.
Seeing Jesus Christ as an immigrant gives us a lens through which we see his action in scripture.
We see Jesus consistently including outsiders in his ministry. He reveals himself to a Samaritan Woman as the Messiah. He includes Matthew the Roman tax collector, and Simon the Zealot among his apostles. He ministers with women, children, lepers, and gentiles. Understanding Jesus as an immigrant outsider helps to articulate the Christological reasoning behind the need for the inclusion of the outsider. Jesus himself was treated as, had the cultural identity of, the outsider.
Beyond that Jesus calls his followers toward an immigrant identity. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God” tends to be heard figuratively, but the connotation is that the follower of Jesus is constantly seeking a homeland that is not her own. Christians are all united in their common identity as immigrants to the Kingdom of God, the promised future country in which the poor are uplifted, the hungry fed, the sinful forgiven, the outsiders included. As followers of Christ we are called to be immigrants seeking the Kingdom of God.
This issue is particularly salient in San Diego today because the Federal Government is planning to extend the double border fence and close off Border Field State park, the site of an annual Border Posada Pilgrimage. This park is one of the few places along the border that could be considered “proportional and humane,” the official wording of the Episcopal Church’s policy towards border enforcement. Family members can see one another through the fence, sit and have conversations. Every year hundreds of people gather on both sides for the Border Posada. The new fencing is being constructed without environmental impact study and with the Secretary of Homeland Security having voided all national laws pertaining to protecting the land including the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act and others.
Jesus would not have stood idly by in the face of this militant exclusion of immigrants. Indeed Christians cannot identify with the governmental and cultural powers that seek to exclude. St. Benedict taught that “All are to be welcomed as Christ.” If Judea had militantly walled out Galileans in the first century, Jesus’ ministry could not have happened. We are called to welcome the immigrants as Christ welcomed all, to see Jesus in the outsiders, and to follow the immigrant Jesus in search of a place where all are free, all are saved, all are loved; we are called to seek the Kingdom of God.
(Icon from Society of Saint John the Evangelist)
Tenebrae, the service of shadows, traditionally occurs on Wednesday in Holy week. We enter into the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah. Lamentations 2:19 reads
Arise, cry out in the night,
at the beginning of the watches!
Pour out your heart like water
before the presence of the Lord!
Lift your hands to him
for the lives of your children,
who faint for hunger
at the head of every street.
(Miguel and Becca)
Reading this line from Lamentations, I can’t help but think of the two kids we met at Dorcas House this past weekend, Miguel and Jasmin. Miguel was 5, Jasmin 3. They both speak English much better than Spanish, and so having the English speaking group around this weekend was a great comfort. They were found on the streets of Tijuana being beaten by an unknown man and were brought by Mexican Social Services to Dorcas House. We discovered a couple of days ago that the children are US Citizens and are missing from a foster home in San Diego. A woman identified as their mother was arrested Friday as she tried to enter the United States (undocumented). Their older brother, who was with the mom at the time, has been returned to the foster home. As we are invited to repent this week, we must examine our indifference to a border system that last week left 5 year old caring for his 3 year old sister on the streets of Tijuana where they were abused. We must lift up our hands to God for the lives of these children, and children everywhere.
Holy week invites us into the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. For Christians, the three days ahead represent the central answer by God to the great question of suffering in our world: Where is God when we suffer? God suffers with us, because God suffers humanly on the cross. But suffering is not the end of the story. The ultimate vindication of God’s reign, the triumph of the good news of LIFE over the powers of death in this world, THE RESURRECTION is the last word.
Pray for resurrection in the lives of Miguel and Jasmine, in the lives of children throughout the world, and in our own lives.
Immigration continues to be present for me. My buddy Casey wrote a song for my other buddy Chris based around the ideas in his graduate thesis exploring immigration. I’ve been in continuing conversations about immigration lately, some of them framing immigration as the new civil rights question for our time. Could San Diego be the next Montgomery?
I don’t know, but I do know that my community continues to spiritually process immigration. As Christians we are called to cross our borders. We are called beyond the boundaries we set up by the Christ who breaks down all walls.
A week ago now, “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” failed in the Senate. 12 million people live and work in the United States without documents. We have a broken immigration system that cannot manage or deal with our labor needs, the people already here, and those on their way. People blamed the failure on the massive gap between those who called, wrote, emailed, or yelled at senators calling the bill “amnesty” over those of us who want desperately to see the system overhauled. I called, wrote, and lobbied, but I understand why the support was unbalanced. While it was easy to use the buzzword “amnesty” to shoot down this bill which was “too liberal for conservatives,” the bill represented such a weak reform that many of us had a hard time fully supporting it.
The Episcopal Church identified five priorities as the Church Policy on Immigration Reform at General Convention last summer. They are:
Undocumented aliens should have reasonable opportunity to pursue permanent residency.
Legal workers should be allowed to enter the United States to respond to recognized labor force needs.
Close family members should be allowed to reunite without undue delay with individuals lawfully present in the United States.
Fundamental U.S. principles of legal due process should be granted all persons.
Enforcement of national borders and immigration policies should be proportional and humane.
The immigration reform bill before the Senate arguably addressed none of these concerns, so it was hard to support. The difficulty has become that the situation is so bad currently, that ANY change seems like a good one. Any attempt to deal with the brokenness of the system is received with open arms. The proposed bill would have required a “touchback,” (the worker would have to return to their home country and wait in line as part of the application for residency), and a $5000 fee. The point system was a complicated mess which did not ensure that workers would respond to labor needs in a way that ensured their dignity. There were no measures dealing with family reunification. The bill did not address the current mistreatment of immigrants rights by U.S. agents, and the enforcement of the border was militaristic. We can do better. We have to do better.
Friday last week, the same day I read that the version of C.I.R. failed, I received an email from Honduras. One of my boys from the year I spent as a chaplain in Tegucigalpa (not pictured above because I don’t want him identified) wrote to say he wouldn’t see me when I visit later this summer because he’s heading north. In his words, “You can’t imagine where I am. I know that the journey ahead is arduous, but I believe it could change my life and the life of my family if I find work in the U.S.” These words come from a young man I came to consider a close friend, from someone I finish writing saying “love you brother.” Why can our country not see that the people arriving here each day are human beings, persons capable of love and being loved? I am scared for my friend who has a tough journey past criminals in Chiapas, border agents in Mexico and then the U.S. ICE.
The Bible calls us to “welcome the stranger among us.” (See Exodus 21:22 and Leviticus 19:34) When I arrived in Honduras I didn’t speak the language well, had no friends, and was isolated from all I knew. The welcome I received from a group of boys astounded me. They taught me that I am worthwhile not because of who I know, or what I can do, but because I am a person created by God. They taught me this by loving me and including me though I had little or nothing to offer them. Most of the boys dream of taking the skills they are learning to make a new life for their family by working in the U.S. I can do no less than seek to welcome them, and dream for a world where all are welcome.
San Diego has launched a “One Book, One San Diego” campaign with the book “Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario. I joined with “all of San Diego” and picked up this short non-fiction telling of a Honduran boy’s journey from Tegucigalpa to the U.S. in search of his mother who immigrated before him. The tale left me chilled, upset, and with more than a little hope.
Much of the story takes place in Tegucigalpa, a city I left behind just short of a year ago. Nazario’s rendering of “Teguc” sat oppressively on my chest, filling me with homesickness for a place I had only begun to know. Her telling of the commonplace daily life in abject poverty coupled with descriptions of places and sights I knew well made Tegucigalpa live in my present. I could almost smell the acrid smoke of burning trash, feel the burn of the tropical sun, hear the chatter of rapid slurred Spanish mixed with honking horns.
As Enrique journeys north to find the mother who left him when he was five, the one he is sure will fill the aching whole he feels in his life, he encounters unimaginable horror. He is repeatedly assaulted, robbed, stripped naked, and deported back to his Guatemalan starting point. Once he is beaten nearly to death by members of a mara, a Central American gang. These dangers all compound the already life-threatening journey atop freight trains that maim and kill thousands of migrants each year as they make the illegal trek.
So many of “my boys” at El Hogar wanted to come north. Most asked for my phone number repeatedly. I didn’t sleep well last night. “Enrique’s Journey” left me more anxious than I can remember being in a very long time. I don’t know if I fear directly for my boys, or if Enrique reminded me about the fragility of human life and the presence of those who work exceedingly hard and who still live in the bleakest of poverty.
The Church ends up the real hero of Enrique’s journey. In two places, Veracruz and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, we hear of communities who are reaching out to their migrant neighbors. Leaders in the Church set an example by throwing food and clothing to passing trains, or by sheltering those who are held up in making the final push to the United States. Their communities followed, and Enrique’s journey is a testament to the Gospel LIVED OUT by Christian communities making the option for the migrant poor.
Am I doing enough? I think part of my lack of sleep came from feeling so detached from these communities, from a sense of guilt because of my wealth. Last year I lived among so many who were planning or had made the trek north. Enrique’s Journey gave me new insight into what this via crucis actually entails. I feel so disconnected from those who suffer so much here in the affluence of San Diego. I am lucky that I will spend part of this summer in El Salvador and back in Honduras, that I can visit the children at Dorcas House in Mexico whenever I want, but I don’t go enough. My privilege isolates me from the poor, among whom Christ dwells. I must continually ask God to surmount my fears, excuses, and misgivings. I must repent of all that isolates me from the reality of so many people’s lives if I am to hope to have a glimpse of God’s dream for the world.