There were those words, scrawled in black permanent marker on the bathroom wall.
Words like a blunt fist.
I have never understood the desire to deface a wall with profanity, crude jokes, sexual comments or even a Bible verse. But seeing these words made me wonder what was in the heart of the person who wrote it. Hate? Anger? Racism? Were they emboldened by this current political climate? Or did they just think this was funny? A harmless prank like writing the cell number of a friend underneath the words "For a good time call . . ."
And I wondered what were the thoughts of men who read these words. Agreement? Disgust?
Fear? Fear that they or someone they know will be deported. My younger son attends a title one school, with a large Hispanic presence, so he is very aware of this fear as he's heard kids speak of their parents worrying about deportation. It's not easy explaining this to a very sensitive 12 year old, who also had to be calmed down because he feared, being adopted from Ukraine, that he, too, might not be considered "American" enough and have to leave.
For me, I only felt a sense of sadness that this attitude has become so prevalent and out in the open. That fear, hatred, and discrimination are displayed so brazenly, not only in the United States but in so many other countries around the world.
What bothers me is that by writing the word "illegals" this person has taken others and distanced himself from them by giving them this label. It's what we do when we think of the poor, the homeless, orphans, Muslims, or people of different races, sexuality, or religious or nonreligious beliefs. Yet each of these groups are people. People with lives and stories and hopes and dreams and fears.
It was the summer I discovered Peter Gabriel (his So album had just come out that May) and John Steinbeck. It was the summer before my senior year of high school. I had gotten a job on a ground's crew at a local tourist destination. I would meet with everyone else on the crew at a small trailer. We would then put all the equipment and pine straw onto the flatbed truck, which we would also ride on to the locations we were working that day. It was hard, hot, sweaty, back-breaking work during the hot, Southern summer months. Being the youngest person on the crew, I stood out not only because of my youth, but because of my economic and social background. As a kid who grew up in an upper-middle class, Conservative Christian home, my life experience was far different from the men I was working with. They were made up of different ethnicities (Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic). Some of the men reminded me of characters from Raymond Carver short stories or a Tom Waits' song. I had no real connection to their experiences: divorces, jail, addictions.
We started early in the morning and worked until lunch. Most brought their own lunches and we would find whatever shade we could find under trees to eat. The men would eat, joke and tell stories (often of their latest "lay" the previous night) and smoke cigarettes. I kind of sat off to the edges, so I could listen to them talk or simply read. At the beginning of the summer I had started with Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and I would work my way up to Cannery Row, East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath. The other men would tease me for always having a book with me. They always called me "student" or "college boy," despite my only being in high school. These were men of very little education. Not one had finished high school or gotten their GED. A couple of them couldn't even read. One confided in me that whenever he was ever called on to read in class, he would cause a disruption so he'd get sent to the Principal's office and no one would know he was illiterate. He was always curious about what I was reading and ask me questions. When I offered to teach him to read, he just dismissed my suggestion with a wave, "Hell, I ain't got no time for books. Besides, they give one too many thoughts and too many just make life worse." Still, he would come up to me and say, "So, what's going on with Cal and his whore mama?" He was fascinated by the story of East of Eden.
I was also teasingly referred to as "water boy" because I didn't drink, they did not even consider my only being seventeen a reason not to be drinking. They also speculated that I was a virgin and kept saying they would find me a girl to change all that. If we were working anywhere near the pools, they would point girls out and make overtly sexually explicit comments just to see if I blushed or got embarrassed. I either ignored them or just shrugged off their coarseness understanding that this was their crude form of camaraderie that they were including me in on.
Over the course of that work and that summer, I got to know some of the men better. Because I was quiet, they tended to do most of the talking and I think they liked having someone who would just listen to them. Some of their stories were heartbreaking in their self-destructiveness. The havoc they'd wreaked on marriages or relationships, with girlfriends, wives and children. Of the transitory nature of their lives as they moved on from place to place, finding seasonal jobs before they moved on to somewhere and something else. In fact the crew I began the summer with would not be the ones that I finished with.
If I was invited to hang out with any of them after work, it was certainly not to go hang out at the Pterodactyl Club where they played The Cure, The Smiths, Talking Heads and where I saw bands like R.E.M., The GoGos and The Ramones. Since I couldn't drink they typically invited me to play pool. The music tended to be either country or classic rock. To this day, I can't hear George Jones without thinking of one of them, as he loved belting out loudly and out-of-tune, "Bartender's Blues," but would go deathly silent whenever "She Thinks I Still Cares" came on the jukebox.
Though the Hispanic men spoke little English. They liked showing me photos. Pictures of their families back in Mexico that they were sending a large portion of their paychecks back to. These were men, some who had their wives and kids here, who wanted a better life for themselves and their families. They were hard workers. I saw the small homes they shared with others. Instead of the normal kitchen table, they had one of those wooden picnic tables one eats at in a park in their rented house. None of the men I worked with owned a house, but often rented them or a trailer or one of those cheap, pay-by-the-night motel rooms.
The more I got to know all of these men, the more I understood the privilege I had grown up in and easily took for granted. I saw lives that were broken in a way that I had not previously understood or had any experience with in my own life (though I did see relatives whose lives were damaged by alcoholism). These were men who went through life unseen and unwanted (unless it was for child support payments). They were looked down on as menial laborers, especially if they came into any kind of contact with tourists. These tourists also took this attitude towards me, assuming that if I was doing this kind of work then I, too, was uneducated and poor. Often I would dispel them of this notion by engaging them in a discussion of literature, history and art. This delighted my coworkers, who laughed whenever the tourist walked off in a huff at being embarrassed in front of their friends and, especially, in front of these laborers. I would later think of this when I saw the film Good Will Hunting and Matt Damon's character shows up some arrogant college guys in a bar.
I found myself invited to the quinceañera for one man's fifteen year old daughter. He was both surprised and welcoming when I showed up. He also made sure I danced with his daughter, in her puffy pink prom dress, while he played on the accordion "El Coco Rayado." I was very aware that I could not dance and that I put on too much Polo Cologne. Still, the music was incredible and I ate the most amazing Mexican dishes I have ever tasted. It was a glorious celebration and I felt honored to be a part of it. When I went to leave, he thanked me and, proudly smiling, he confided, "She's why we came here. We wanted a better life for her." Later that summer, I would also get invited to another man's son's confirmation. Both were so happy and "honored" that I came, but it was me who felt honored that they even invited me in the first place to events that were so important in the lives of their precious families.
These men were outsiders, but outsiders have always been my tribe. I have only felt a belonging among those who are outcasts, marginalized and on the fringe. Maybe that's why I have always responded to those who Christ surrounded himself with. Spending time with these men, mostly during work hours though I did sometimes go with them to shoot pool, I found myself opened to a part of life that I normally wouldn't have been exposed to. It wasn't pretty and was often painful. To see wounded men who would be unable to move beyond their unseen scars and inflicting scars on many of the people who were in their lives.
I thought of them as I was reading East of Eden and came to this passage:
"I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one . . . Humans are caught - in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too - in a net of good and evil . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean question: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well - or ill?"
Those are questions I ask myself daily in how I interact with others. Working with these men taught me that I am not better or worse than anyone. I cannot judge them with my preconceptions and misconceptions. Their lives are real ones with hardships and hopes. loves and loneliness, despair and dreams. Because of my time working on this grounds crew, I never look down on or attempt to judge someone else because I don't really and truly understand what they are going through, have gone through or suffered.
They are humans. Frail and flawed and gloriously and fearfully and wonderfully made, though most of them would never believe that or in a God that would create someone like them and still love them, as they seldom even could tolerate themselves. They were longing for acceptance, love and understanding. They all wanted a chance for something more, something better though they often sabotaged their own pursuits through the abuses they consisted on.
Jesus embraced the outsiders. As a follower of Christ, if I am truly to align myself with him, then, so, too, must I. So, too must his Church. We must learn to view issues like immigration and refugees and illegals through the lens of compassion, mercy and tenderness.
The men I worked with were the same kind Jesus would have shared meals with. Christ would have loved and laughed with them. He would have been questioned by our Churches on why he would associate with such sorts, with the drunkards and sinners. Jesus was not a social-networker but a lover of all who needed healing in all its forms.
The Church needs to examine itself and how it approaches immigrants, refugees, and migrant workers. Do we see them as Christ sees them? Christ who had nowhere to lay his head. Do we strive to love and pray for "illegal immigrants" or do we complain because they "refuse" to learn our language or that our tax dollars go to providing services for "those" people? Do we stop to consider where our fruits and vegetables come from and who picks them? There is a reason for big box stores having "lower" prices but we do not stop to consider why we pay less and who is really paying the real cost of low prices.
Scriptures repeatedly tell us to take care of the refugee, the sojourner, the stranger. God has commanded us to do this, but He also gave us a choice. Returning to Steinbeck's East of Eden, he writes, ". . . the Hebrew word timshel - 'Thou mayest' - that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on man. For if 'Thou mayest' - it is also true that 'Thou mayest not'."
How then do we respond?
Are the choices we are making or the attitudes we are taking toward illegal immigrants and refugees ones that reflect our Savior? Or are we looking only after our own privilege and self-interests? Walter Brueggemann writes about how Christians too often feel the "tension and slippage between the deep truth of our faith and the easier settlements of our society." He goes on to call us to pray for God to, "Give us ease in the presence of those unlike us; give us generosity amid demands of those in need" so that we may "conform" to His "vision of a new world" and let go our ideology of nativism.
There are no easy or simple answers to the solutions of immigration, but, as followers of Christ, we must approach this issue prayerfully, lovingly and with an open heart. We cannot close ourselves off from the world because Christ has us in it to reflect, not our own nationalism, but his kingdom. We are to pray and live out "on earth as it is in heaven."
During my forty days in the "desert," I studied what life was like in the deserts of Judea and the Middle East. What I found interesting was that the deserts were a habitat for not only wild animals but, typically, thieves, refugees and outcasts. Among those who often resided in the wilderness were shepherds. Anyone who came across a shepherd's tent, no matter that person's background or motives, were welcomed by the shepherds and received as a "guest of God." Once invited in, the shepherd then took responsibility for the life of that person so long as they were among them. Is it any wonder that Christ is referred to as the "good shepherd?" Or that the angels first appeared to shepherds to proclaim the good news of the birth of Jesus? Reading about the generosity of spirit among the shepherds to welcome in whomever appeared at their tents, I wondered why the Church doesn't do likewise?
This notion brought to mind a song from my favorite Bob Dylan album Blood on the Tracks. In "Shelter from the Storm," he sang:
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
Come in, she said
I'll give ya' shelter from the storm.
How much would the world be changed if the we, like our Christ, offered the sojourners of the world shelter from the storm that rages in their countries of poverty and war? I fear we are less likely to offer shelter from the storm and are, more likely to say, as Dylan snarled in one of his later songs, "I used to care, but things have changed."
But we cannot love those we do not know. We must be among the poorer communities involving ourselves in their lives and their needs. There is nothing Christ-like in an us or them attitude. We must move beyond this to love and love alone. Agape love takes an "other" and transforms them into a brother and a sister. This requires us to get out of our comforts and our churches into the communities around us. It means we have to let go of our condemnations and replace it with compassion. It means we have to ask ourselves how we are going to respond to Cain's question of, "Am I my brother's keeper?" If we chose not to be, then we are abandoning Christ's reminder that our answer must be an unequivocal "Yes," because everyone is our brother, is our neighbor.
As I daily strive to live out the very teachings of Christ in my own life, I know that I will fumble and fail. I know that I will err, but a prayer I often pray is, "Lord,if I err, may I always err on the side of grace, love and mercy."