by Louise Westfall
The baby was crying again. The most ordinary sound in the world, meaning he was hungry, wet, or just needing some calm reassurance. In normal times, his mother would have known what to do. But these were not normal times.
They’d had to leave in the dead of night. Violence surged, the consequence of a ruler’s troubled ambition and insecure hold on the country. She hadn’t believed it at first. They could wait it out. They had a home, her husband had a job. How could their child be a threat to anyone?! But the rumors. Whispered in shadows, she’d heard the news. A mass round up. Death and destruction. The baby’s cry might as well have been a public announcement of their location. She knew then they’d have to leave their home and native land. As quickly as they could.
They packed a few possessions, but just what they could carry. The journey was far and perilous. They had no relatives to greet them in the strange new land to which they fled. Didn’t speak the language. Didn’t know the culture. Couldn’t imagine what life might be like there.
But they would be safe. She heaved a sigh. Her precious child would be safe.
This is a sermon about immigrants. Their story is as old as history itself and our human tendency to designate borders, build walls, and draw lines in the sand. “Their” story? Who among us can say it is not ours too? Our ancestors traveled to a new country, a new city, a new land in search of freedom, opportunity, a new start, or all of the above.
Perhaps that’s why one of the earliest commandments God gave the people was to care for the immigrant and sojourner—because once you were immigrants too. In this season of joy at the arrival of God in human flesh, we cannot—we must not–forget that he and his parents had to flee their native home and go to Egypt when he was only a few months old.
You may have guessed that the opening story imagined what this might have been like for Mary and Joseph and their newborn son. Here’s how it’s described in Scripture. A reading from Matthew, in the second chapter, verses thirteen to sixteen. Not exactly the makings of a holly, jolly Christmas, but one that speaks to this time and the migrants among us…including—perhaps surprisingly–ourselves. Listen for God’s Word. [Matthew 2:13-16]
Over two millennia later, Jesus’ immigrant story sounds a whole lot like the present-day one of Darixela and Jose and their children. Darixela was a single mother of two from Honduras when her family’s home became targeted by gangs in the shadow of a drug cartel. After a terrifying night of gunfire, Darixela moved to Mexico with her sons. She met her husband there, but jobs were scarce. The extended family’s resources could not cover the extra mouths to feed a growing family. Darixela says they sometimes had enough to feed the children tortilla with salt, but sometimes they didn’t even have tortillas. Here’s how she described their decision to migrate: We decided to come to the United States because we no longer wanted to see our children endure [threats of violence and extreme poverty]. With God’s help we managed to cross the Rio Grande…on a raft we made with an inflatable baby pool and floaties for my children. La Migra [Immigration officials] grabbed us and from there we were sent to court to apply for political asylum. [Eventually, the family was bused to Denver, part of a government program to relocate migrant families away from the border as they await outcome of their asylum application process]. Darixela continues: We have no money for a lawyer. Covid-19 has complicated our ability to find work, and the jobs my husband has found aren’t full-time.
Today there are 26 million refugees worldwide. Fully one-half of them are children under the age of 18. Like Jesus and his parents, they have been forced to leave their homes because of war and threats of violence, economic oppression including human trafficking, and political upheaval. Then and now, the migrant journey is not easy. Over 200 men, women, and children have died crossing the US/Mexico borderlands this year. While Mary and Joseph were able to return to Nazareth after three years, following the death of murderous King Herod, many of today’s refugees and migrants are not so fortunate because of unending civil wars, unstable governments, and entrenched poverty.
During 2020, Central has become directly involved in outreach and support to some of these migrant families, including Darixela and Jose and their children (who gave me permission to tell their story in this setting). We have worked with Casa de Paz (House of Peace), a Denver-based nonprofit providing direct services and emotional support to refugees released from detention centers in the transition period until they reach a final destination. The local portion of the annual Peacemaking Offering was contributed to the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Assistance Network which provides legal support and advocacy to refugees. Under the leadership of Celeste and Rob Habiger, Director of Mission Molly Brown, and a couple other congregations, a new presbytery mission partnership was formed to come alongside migrant families with hospitality, financial aid, and friendship. There are plenty of opportunities for you to engage with these efforts in a variety of ways too; just let us know of your interest. The motivation behind the formation of Journey with Migrants, as the new partnership is called, reflects the observation by Jesus himself: I was a stranger and you welcomed me… [because] when you do it to the least of these who are members of my family, you do it to me. [Matthew 25:31-46] I wonder if it was also the sight of a newborn, dear little Joel Enrique, son of Darixela and Jose (pictured on the cover of the bulletin today). A sign of hope, this bundle of boy, so trusting on the care of others.
Like the mother who cannot abandon her nursing child, or the father who runs to welcome the prodigal, God will welcome us with open arms.
Once again, Jesus makes it abundantly clear where we can find him: among the most vulnerable, the babies, the ones in need, those who are far from home; strangers in a strange land.
…which, when you think about it, describes a lot of us this year. Sure, we’ll be home for Christmas. But without a lot of the family and friends with whom we’d usually gather. Still distanced from worship. Wondering what’s ahead; how soon the vaccine will be distributed and what life will look like on the other side of pandemic. Feeling estranged from about one-half of the population of the country, no matter who you voted for. Friends, when you get right down to it, from the moment of our birth to the end of our days, we are on a migrant journey; launched from the heart of God into unknown territory. Navigating the ages and stages of life, overcoming adversity, learning different languages, figuring out unfamiliar landscapes, making new families, and always, always, looking homeward. Not so much toward a location. But a reality. A sense of belonging. A people. A history. A place, as the poet Robert Frost put it tellingly, that when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
Yes, fellow migrants, when we have tried the spiraling heights of affluence and power and popularity and mastery and found them wanting, the longing for home will become irresistible. And, like the mother who cannot abandon her nursing child, or the father who runs to welcome the prodigal, God will welcome us with open arms.
In the meantime, pray that we, too, will find companions on the way to guide us, but even more, ones with whom we can defy the loneliness, the myth that we are self-sufficient, and the heresy that the “other” is to be feared and kept out. Pray that we will be those companions too. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has closed many a sermon the way I’m going to now, with an imaginary scene from the gates of heaven. The question God will put to us, Tutu says, is not “What good things did you do?” No. The question will be, “And where are the others?”
The journey with migrants, my friends, will bring us home.
May it be so.