By: Home Missioner Steve Taylor
Psalm 70 – A Prayer of the Immigrant
(1b) Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. O LORD, make haste to help me! (2) Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life. Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire to hurt me. (3) Let those who say, “Aha, Aha!” turn back because of their shame. (4) Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you. Let those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!” (5) But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay!
As we look over the course of these little lives of ours, we recognize it is all a journey of connection, it is all divine communion with God, even when, and maybe especially when, we fail to see the union. This is grace and this is hope.
I’m well practiced at repentance. Probably much more than anyone ought to be. One would think that a person might learn how to live in Christ more fully, but perhaps I’m a slow learner. To be clear, I am a practitioner in and a beneficiary from the primal sin of these United States: Racism.
Even though … I am the biological son of a first-generation Italian father who was forced to leave my mother because my grandfather didn’t want his 16-year-old daughter married to a “dirty Italian.” Even though … I grew up being cared for by the most incredibly kind and loving African-American woman named Mae Howell who was the domestic help in my grandparent’s household. Even though … I grew up with Ms. Howell’s son, Jimmy Howell, as one of my few friends. Even though … I grew up spending much time at Ms. Howell’s house because my mentally and spiritually busted up child-mother couldn’t care for me while my grandmother and grandfather were battling their own alcoholic demons. Even though … without Ms. Howell and Jimmy, I think I might not have survived. Even though … in Macon, Georgia in the 1950s and 60s, I grew up a racist. I was like a fish swimming in water, not even knowing that it was the water that I breathed.
Imagine what it was like when, as a young man in the military, my African-American friend and brother-in-arms, Grady Miller, overheard me laughing at a racist joke. I would never have told it, but I surely participated in it. Grady, who knew my story as I knew his. Grady, who shared table with me as I did with him. Grady, who had my back. Grady never said a word about it, about the betrayal. But from then on, he knew, and I knew. And the violation killed our relationship. Ms. Howell, Jimmy, Grady, people who loved me. And me … Betrayer. Racist. Sadly, there’s really so much more.
It all turned on a dirty street in the Philippines after I have shoved past a little dark-eyed bare-footed girl in a tattered dress who held her hand out and said, “Please G.I.” I suspect all she really wanted was two small copper coins. It was from that space that Jesus looked at me and for the first time, I heard his words, “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked … I was the stranger.” Where did I see you Lord? “On Philippine streets in a dirty dress. In a violated friend. In your grandmama’s kitchen.” “I am.”
My heart broke open, and all the shame and all the violence, and all the brokenness overwhelmed me. In the brokenness that I had brought into the world and in the brokenness of that busted up reality of my own life, I found Christ. Here is where Christ exists, in the suffering of the cross, in the broken realities of the world. Jesus says, I am hungry, I am thirsty, I am sick. I am the downtrodden and the vulnerable and the demeaned. I am those who are violated daily by racism and materialism and militarism, and sexism, and all the many ways dominance and power dehumanizes the other. I am the little broken Jesus that resides inside every beating heart. “There is nothing to fear”, he whispers, “only my love to embrace. Follow me, he says, follow me in this revolution of tenderness, join me in my redemptive suffering”.
For the last 30 years, I have sought to live in this space, in solidarity with the violated, out of the wounds of my own life and into the wounds of the world, which are always the wounds of Christ, there on the cross. It is the only space of real relationship, the only way to move beyond our own screaming egos, the only path to real justice, the only place to be in community. It is the broken bread of the table and the poured-out blood.
Yet, I must warn, this white-privilege, this point of never having to view the world from the perspective of the vulnerable, of thinking I can name the story of those who are violated better than can they name their own story, this formative sin runs deep. So deep that even after 30 years of daily repentance and striving to live a different reality, in the name of keeping peace, and in the face of furious reaction to a perceived offense brought through the voice of one who was on the margins, I once again failed to see the other and I added violation to one who had already been violated. It was not my intent to bring harm, but it was the reality of my action.
For when the voices from the vulnerable are raised, when claims are made that all lives can’t matter until black lives do matter, when proclamations are made that assert compassion for and solidarity with the Muslim refugee and the undocumented immigrant, when truth is raised up that sacred land should not be taken from indigenous peoples in the name of economic desires of the dominant culture, when those voices are raised, I promise, dominant white culture that jealously guards its place of privilege will too often respond with loud offense and will blame the violation on the very one who is violated. In this, we are reminded, when the church isn’t for the suffering and broken, then the church isn’t for Christ.
This is our dilemma: In the face of offense that can sometimes be fury, in the name of trying to keep things calm, in the desire to be a space where we can all just get along, in the longing to seek reconciliation without the hard work of repentance where we white people give up privilege and power, and in the plea to seek peace without engaging the struggle for justice, it is easy to get God-Amnesia and forget where our hope resides.
Because it is especially there where our hope resides, right in that place where the tension builds and the anger grows and the violence is unleashed, for that is the place of the cross. It is the place of the Christ who says, “I was hungry, I was a stranger, I was in prison”, the Christ who hangs on the cross with the pierced and battered body who also says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Our call and our hope is to receive the anger in love while continuing to voice the reality that Jesus stands with the violated, and as we are the Body of Christ, so too shall we stand with the violated. This is the redemptive suffering of Jesus that leads to resurrection and life. For us who claim to follow the Jewish, once-immigrant, dark-skinned Jesus, to receive the anger and to struggle for justice with the violated, it is our call and our hope. This is redemptive suffering.
You see, Jesus doesn’t simply die for our behalf, Jesus teaches us how to die for his. Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.
Sisters and Brothers, in the face of the fury, it is easy to forget that it is at the intersection of the world’s violence and God’s grace where Jesus stays. I am ashamed that I forgot … and God is forgiving … and perhaps, with God’s help, and the help of my sisters and brothers, I will continue to die to my own racist actions, and help others to do the same. And maybe too, we can finally die to the systems of racism that capture us all and continue to crucify black and brown bodies. Pray that we will. Such is hope. Such is resurrection.
Consider: How do I participate in and benefit from systems that advantage one group of peoples over another? What books can I read to learn about racism and how it can be disrupted and dismantled? (Consider White Fragility; Waking Up White; So You Want to Talk about Race; Our God is Undocumented – Biblical Faith and Immigrant Justice; The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege; as a few examples). Connecting with a dismantling racism group in your district — check with your Assistant to the D.S. Participating in an anti-racism training – as one example: Organizing Against Racism – https://www.oaralliance.org/ In what ways do I need to die to myself so that others might live more fully?
Pray: Lord God, give us the faith to be your Body of Christ who always stands with those who have little standing. Give us courage to lift a voice on behalf of those who are too often silenced. Give us wisdom to embrace dying to ourselves as a way to your life. Give us hope to see the reality of redemption when we are too often enveloped in a portrait of despair. Give us the gift of one another, so that when we fail and when we fall, there will always be a sister and brother to lift us up again. In the name of the Once-Immigrant, Dark-Skinned Jesus, Son of God and Resurrected Christ. Amen.