Archive for February, 2011

The Problem with Immigrants

You might know the story. Once upon a time there was a king who, like kings of that time, had a harem of women to call upon at his pleasure. Among the harem was one woman of particular beauty, a woman who had won a place in his palace by being deemed most beautiful in all the land.
At the same time, the king had an ambitious, petty, power hungry administrator, who had a distaste for one Jew in particular but all Jews, it seems, in general, so much so that he convinced the king to decree their annihilation. The king, apparently, had very little actual knowledge of who the Jews were, what they believed, or what their offense was. He simply trusted his underling and signed the order.
Unbeknownst to the king, the aforementioned woman of his harem, the one of particular beauty, was a Jew. That woman, Esther, learned of the edict and courageously asked for permission to speak with the king. Permission granted, she plead for her people.
It seems to me that the king had a revelation. A law he had haphazardly enacted became clear in its monstrosity. What had once been a mere abstraction, a political category, a stereotype – “Jew” – became flesh and blood, a face, a voice, a story. What had previously been a term of derision and a rallying cry for a bigot became an altogether different reality once he could put a particular name alongside the word “Jew”.
The law was effectively nullified and the Hebrews were spared.
If you’ve not read the book of Esther lately, it is a remarkable story of Providence, of courage, of redemption.

* * * * *

I am well acquainted with a fellow who owns some land in the county where I live. On weekends, there is a Mexican guy who helps him around his place, doing lots of heavy lifting, lots of sweaty, dirty, physically exhausting work. His work ethic, his punctuality, even the enthusiasm which he brings to every job are nothing less than stellar.
He has a social security card, of sorts.
When the Mexican guy started work for the white guy, he didn’t say much but he worked really hard. Over the course of a year, the two have become friends. The Mexican, by means of his broken English and the white guy’s broken Spanish and lots of sign language and drawings on bits of paper, has shared stories of sometimes being cheated and mistreated by employers. He knows that, in the eyes of some, he is unwelcome, persona non grata, pure alien, and easily taken advantage of, despite the fact that he and ones like him were implicitly encouraged, by Americans and ostensible American policy, to come here for work in years past.
The white guy often deliberately overpays the Mexican, has had him share meals with his family and friends, and knows now that his co-worker is a widower with children and grandchildren in Mexico. Each day, at some point in the day, the white guy’s mother will drive her ATV in search of the Mexican to give him something to drink, or freshly-made cookies, a snack or ice cream if it’s summer. He calls the sweet white-headed lady “Mama.” She bought him Christmas presents and work clothes. He brings her homemade tamales. When the white guy’s brother moved overseas to do missions work in a dangerous place, the Mexican cried when he told him goodbye.

Last week, the Mexican told the white guy that he’s heard that the State might enact a tough law against Mexican workers. He’s afraid.

I really do think that the whole illegal alien issue has to be addressed. And it might call for what, to some, will seem harsh, unfair, and inhospitable. The Mexican might have to go home. But in the course of whatever conversations that debate might entail, I hope that we might remember that, on both sides of the argument, there are people, souls, real flesh and blood. And that that remembrance might make us sane and civil and kind, even when we disagree.
The problem with immigrants and aliens is that, like the Jewish girl in the harem, they are not mere abstractions, but faces and voices and stories. The problem with immigrants is that, if you ever get to know one, especially if you get to know them over shared labor, you might grow to love them and want for them every good thing. It is the kind of problem that holds the potential to make us more human, more alive, more loving, more clearly the image bearers of Him “Who watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow.”


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February 20, 2011

I just got home from Longstreet an hour or so ago. …

Several years ago, when I interviewed Deacon Shorty Floyd, then 81 years old, for the “People In My Town” CD, he shared with me that he could not read. (To learn more of him, and to hear him speak and sing, see the blog for July 29, 2010.) All through our conversation, he quoted (sometimes with charming imperfection) passage after passage of scripture.
“So, Deacon Floyd, given that you can’t read, how do you now scripture so well?”
“I been going (gwan) to Longstreet Church since 1943.”
“Where is it?”
“Just ‘round the corner (konah) on 208.”
“The little brick building.”
“Can I visit y’all sometime?”
“The doors (doze) of our church is built on welcome hinges. Whosoever shall, may come.”
A few weeks later, I went to Longstreet for the first time. The building is small, small enough to fit in many of the fellowship hall’s and sanctuaries that I’ve sung in over the years. It is small and simple, but adequate.
This month, if my memory serves me correctly, makes three years since that occasion, and three years that Longstreet has been my church home. On first and third Sundays, we have only Sunday School class, from 9:45 till 11. On second Sundays, we have 8:00 a.m. service, followed by breakfast and then Sunday School. On fourth Sunday, we have Sunday School at 9:45 followed by long service that goes until about 2:00. On first and thirds, there are only about 15 or 20 people in attendance. On second and fourth, there might be 75 or a hundred.
Most of our singing is a capella and the repertoire consists of very old, simple, easy to learn songs (“let it be real, let it be real/ let it be real, Lord, let it be real/ everything I do for the Master, let it be real”. … Longstreet has rendered me woefully ignorant of the popular worship songs that get sung in most churches these days.)

Someone asked me recently why I choose to go to Longstreet. My answer goes something like this:
– In a small town, where it’s hard to do anything ‘cross cultural,’ and where the danger of defaulting to the comfortable, the predictable, and the familiar is extreme (just as it is in big cities), being a white guy in an African-American church stretches me in a healthy way. Longstreet, in some ways, helps to keep me from stagnation.
– I know how ‘white’ church feels, looks, sounds (though there is admittedly a wide divergence of expression in our congregations and denominations), and I want to learn of Jesus from ones who see Him from a somewhat different perspective. Longstreet is a new lens on the Gospel for me, largely because of the life experience of members there (especially the old ones), and much that I witness there is challenging, refreshing, and though-provoking. Don’t get me wrong; it is as flawed as any other fellowship, but it is flawed, and praiseworthy, in ways different than ‘church’ as I’ve known it for most of my life.
– Mine is a community and ours’ are churches (like communities and churches everywhere) in need of racial affection and friendship. Longstreet allows me, in a very, very small way, to be an agent of those ends. And given that black folk in our area caught the blunt end of discrimination in decades past, it just seems to me that there is an obligation and privilege on me and my kind to take steps across the divide.
– The pastor, and now good friend, Wilford Brownlee, is a gifted teacher who honors scripture, loves Christ, loves his wife and obviously cares for our small congregation. His pulpit is not a political platform or personal fiefdom, but a place for declaring the Gospel, and he does that faithfully.
– Not least, by now, the people love me and I love them. Our shared worship and laughter and stories and singing have grown into the sort of neighborliness that, it seems to me, ought always to exist among people who, despite differences, share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father.”

Apostle Paul, who could be so blunt at times in his critique of the church, seemed, nonetheless, to have an abiding gratitude for the believers he served and worked with. He had to cross a ‘dividing wall of hostility’ to reach them, but, at days end, he considered them his “glory and joy”. … Sometimes, today being one of them, I think I get a taste of how he feels.

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