We Just Want to be Together

Most people had no way of knowing that something was amiss.  Last week our West Michigan Conference staff Christmas party was hosted by the pastoral family at La Nueva Esperanza UMC.  Jorge Rodriguez, the pastor of our only Hispanic-Latino church in the conference, and his 24 year old son Joel provided musical entertainment while his wife Rosy and  18 year old daughter Keren cooked and served a typical Honduran meal with delicious foods that we had never eaten before.   

Most of those present knew that this past year the Rodriguez family lived through the fear of having to return to Honduras because Jorge’s R-1 religious visa was coming to an end.  Attorney Liz Balck of Justice for Our Neighbors, a free United Methodist legal immigration ministry in West Michigan, has provided outstanding and persistent assistance.  However, arbitrary immigration rules and bureaucratic mistakes contributed to Jorge’s application for permanent residency (also called a green card) not being processed until the day before Jorge’s R-1 expired.  This would have forced the family to leave the country. 

Because his R-1 had expired and his green card had not yet been approved, Jorge was not allowed to receive compensation from the church until a temporary work permit was received 3 months later.  During the fall many churches and individuals provided food and financial support for the Rodriguez family until Jorge could formally resume his ministry.  Jorge’s immigration status will not be resolved until his green card case is finally approved.

In Matthew 2 we read that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were forced to flee from Bethlehem to Egypt, where they lived as refugees.  Warned by an angel in a dream that King Herod was out to kill Jesus, they left family, home, and country in order to live in a strange land where they did not speak the language, understand local customs, or have a job to support themselves. 

I wonder what uncertainty and fears filled their hearts and minds.  Would robbers attack them?  Would they need identification?  Would they be turned away at the border?  Would Joseph be able to find work as a carpenter?  Would anyone show hospitality to them?  Would they experience discrimination?  Would they be hunted down and forced to return to Israel before it was safe? 

Yesterday, December 18, was International Migrant’s Day, a day when we remember and pray for the 200 million people in our world who are living and working in a strange country, often without legal protection.  December 18 commemorates the day that the United Nations Migrant Rights Convention was passed in 1990.   The 44 nations who have ratified the Migrant Rights Convention agree to specific human rights standards and make their laws and policies conform to the convention.  The United States Senate has not ratified this convention and continues to violate international human rights standards in the treatment of migrants, who are so vulnerable to exploitation and capricious government action.   

After our Honduran meal last week, Jorge thanked us for supporting his ministry, mentioned offhand that it had been a difficult year for his family, and led us in a joyful and spirited “Feliz Navidad.”  Most of the 25 conference staff assumed that Jorge was referring to the painful ordeal leading up to the receiving of their work permits.  Nudged by the Holy Spirit, I stood up and said, “I would be remiss if I did not share with you the story behind the story.  There is someone missing from the Rodriguez family.” 

I made the mistake of looking at Rosy and Keren, who immediately started to weep.  “There is another daughter in this family, Cesia, age 22, who had to return to Honduras because she is over 21 years of age and cannot stay in the United States unless she has permission to be here separately from her family, like a student visa.  And she cannot get a student visa unless she finds a financial sponsor to guarantee $10,000 in college expenses, which she could not do.  Cesia has been gone a year and lives in a country which is unsafe and offers few opportunities.   Furthermore, Cesia married a young man from this church last year, Samuel, and they are now separated by thousands of miles.  ‘Difficult’ is an immense understatement.  None of us here today will ever experience the pain and heartache of this dear family.”

Joel then shared his story.  Joel had a financial backer during the time that he studied at Grand Rapids Community college and therefore had a student visa.  Joel wanted to move on to a 4 year university but discovered that tuition and expenses were way beyond the capacity of his family to pay, even with a financial backer.  Because Joel is not a citizen, he is not allowed to receive federal loans, scholarships, or grants.  Nor is he permitted to find a job to earn money to pay his tuition except part-time employment on campus. 

Joel desperately wants to study in Grand Rapids and stay with his family but realizes that by February 15 he will need to leave the country that he has come to know and love over the past 6 years.  He will likely move to Costa Rica, where he holds dual citizenship along with Honduras, but Joel knows no one in the land of his birth.  Joel hopes to study at the same Bible institute his father did and eventually return to the US to be a United Methodist pastor.  The cost for his education in Costa Rica is much cheaper, but Joel still has no financial resources to support himself.  He will live by faith.  “I want to be a pastor,” Joel said to us, with tears of sadness welling up in his eyes.  “God is calling me.  Is this the price I have to pay for what is to come?”

I wonder how long the Holy Family stayed in Egypt.  Did Jesus carry with him any memories of that time?  As he grew up, did his parents regale him with stories of their adventures, did they simply want to leave that chapter behind and move on, or did they remind Jesus from time to time that he, too, was once a migrant?  Could the sojourn in Egypt have helped to form Jesus’ sensitivity to the poor, the outcast, the stranger, and the very least of God’s children?  Knowing that Jesus himself was a migrant, how does that affect the way we treat the migrants in our midst, whether documented or undocumented?   

Most migrants from Mexico and Central America travel to the U.S. to find work and send money to loved ones back home where hardships and suffering are widespread.  There is a great demand for undocumented migrants because they are willing to work in menial jobs that most Americans won’t touch.  At the same time complex immigration laws and lack of money for attorneys prevent most undocumented migrants from acquiring necessary documents.

A few months ago Justice for Our Neighbors brought Margaret Regan to Grand Rapids to speak about her new book, The Death of Josseline; Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands.  A powerful and haunting book, which is on the reading list of the United Methodist Women, The Death of Josseline relates the tragedy and horror of the continual flow of undocumented migrants from Mexico into a state that has one of the strictest anti-immigration laws in the nation.  Billions of government dollars spent to secure the border still cannot prevent determined migrants like 14 year old Josseline from entering the country to be reunited with family or find employment that will enable them to support family back home.  Left alone to die in the harsh Arizona desert, Josseline simply wanted to live with her mother in California. 

Thousands of migrants in West Michigan, many seasonal, are performing necessary work.  Some are documented, others are not.  Many live in constant fear of being stopped by police.  Right here in our local communities people who have been our friends, neighbors, and schoolmates for years are being deported.  Undocumented men and women are arrested in workplace raids, moved from one detention center to another, and are separated from spouses, parents, and children.  

Joel testified to our conference leaders, “God is good.  God calls us to trust.  Our family has hope.  We love you. We simply want to be together.  Thank you so much for your support.”  Then Joel and Jorge led us in “Lord, I lift Your name on high; Lord, I love to sing Your praises; I’m so glad You’re in my life; I’m so glad You came to save us. You came from heaven to earth to show the way; From the earth to the cross my debt to pay; From the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky, Lord, I lift Your name on high.”  Praise in the midst of despair.  There were few dry eyes.

God’s beloved ones migrate to other countries in our world because of human suffering and threats to their security, just like Jesus.  How does God call us to treat the strangers in our midst?  “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

Who will show hospitality to the stranger this week?  Who will extend their vision beyond family preparations to identify the migrants in our midst and extend love?  Who will step forward to support Joel Rodriguez?  Who will pray for our President and Congress to work together to fix our complex and broken immigration system and make it a priority to keep families together?  Who will dare to speak out against discriminatory and unjust practices and advocate for respectful and compassionate treatment of all people? 

Whose hearts will be open to those who won’t be shopping this week, don’t have money for extras, and live in continual terror of being arrested?  Who will help those who ask for only one gift this Christmas, “We just want to be together.”  Is there a more humane way?


P.S. The next Leading from the Heart will be sent on January 3, 2012.  Have a blessed Christmas!

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