(Photo above came from NBC News)
On October 19, 2018, a group of approximately 3,000 Central American migrants arrived at the Mexico-Guatemalan border in a large caravan with the intent of crossing the border into Mexico and heading north to the United States. (Read more about this story here). Many broke through the border fencing and were met with the Mexican authorities in riot gear and forced to turn back while others jumped in a river in an attempt to flee capture. While a great number of them have been stopped, I know that there’s a good chance that in a matter of time, some of them may be arriving at the shelter where I work.
Every day, they arrive at my shelter. Not necessarily from this specific caravan, but from Central America. Typically, these migrants come from Honduras and El Salvador, but others hail from Guatemala and Nicaragua. I’ve mentioned before how during the registration process I am told about how they had to escape their home due to violence from gangs or an economic situation so bleak that they could not feed their families. I am often reminded that I will most likely never have to understand this kind of desperation because of where I was born and the color of my skin.
As I watched a video online of the migrants breaking through the border, I felt a sense of relief for them. They were one step closer to safety. To freedom. But then I could see the comments coming through on the video about how these people were no good criminals and unwelcome in the US. There were comments praising Trump for threatening to close the US-Mexico border and to send military troops there to protect it. And that’s when I thought, “But what about the Israelites who fled Egypt?”
In the book of Exodus, the Israelites were living under extreme oppression in Egypt. Moses tried to free his people from the Pharaoh. God commands him to tell the Pharaoh that God says “Let my people go” (Exodus 9:1). And when that fails, God tells him to lead his people to Canaan, the Promised Land. This story is a familiar one; many of us have heard about how God sent 10 plagues to Egypt and gave Moses the power to part the Red Sea. We have heard about the Israelites living in the wilderness and fearing that they’d die from no food or water, and how God heard their cries and sent them manna. And when I heard about these migrants at the border, fleeing in large numbers, I thought of the Israelites. I thought about how often we praise this story, a story of migration and survival, and yet foster so much hostility towards those fleeing their countries now. Are they not also God’s chosen people?
For the entirety of history, we see these battles rage on against bondage and oppression. The Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt, Jesus fled from Herod, our Black brothers and sisters fought slavery in the US, then they had to fight for their civil rights and against systematic racism and prejudice (a fight which continues on today). And every day, migrants come to borders, fighting against their own bonds of oppression. These people—the Israelites, Jesus, People of Color, migrants—these are God’s people.
God stands on the side of the oppressed. We get this message throughout the Bible in a variety of forms, through the story of the Exodus, Jesus’s time spent with the poor and unclean, the popularly quoted “the last shall be first” verse from Matthew 20:16. We get it when God asks Moses to tell the Pharaoh that God says, “Let my people go.” So if God stands with the oppressed, then who stands against them? As humans and as Christians, there seems to be an attempt to take on the role of judge and jury and even God. Our government, those who are on the “right side” of the border, those with privilege, decide who gets grace and who is worthy of freedom from bondage, but this isn’t a God-given right. A current rhetoric that has taken hold of the US is one of fear and anger towards “illegal aliens,” yet how often do we ask about their stories? How often do we meet them at the border with the bread of life? God gave God’s son for the whole world. God led Israelites out of Egypt and into the land of milk and honey. We, as humans, don’t have the authority to play God. All we can do is live out our baptismal promises to the best of our abilities.
Matthew 22: 34-40 tells us to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and minds. This is the greatest commandment. But the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves. I find myself asking, “How do you love someone the way that God wants you to love if you’ve let a wall keep you separate?” I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know about the struggles of migrants in the intimate way that I am experiencing this year. I had an idea that there was a struggle and that injustice was occurring, but I didn’t understand just how much that injustice was in direct conflict with my faith or the extent to which my elected officials played a role in exasperating the divide. A physical wall separates our countries, but a metaphorical wall is the one that kept me from understanding the oppressed, that kept me from confronting the hypocrisy of my faith. How am I to love my neighbor and yet forget about or ignore the realities of their existence?
God stands with the oppressed and asks us to do the same, which sometimes is in conflict with our sociopolitical views of the world. So, what do we do? How do we wrestle with the fact that over 3,000 people are trying to escape their modern version of slavery in Egypt? How do I live in Mexico for a year as a Christian missionary and American citizen, while the President threatens to send military troops against God’s people? There is no clear-cut answer for me or for any of us because the Bible isn’t an instruction manual. But we cannot stop having these conversations. We cannot stop reminding each other of the borderless and limitless extent of God’s love and grace. We cannot stop standing with the oppressed. We must let God’s people go.