I’ve prayed for the right words all Advent long to capture this tugging on my heart as we have talked about immigration. My heart broke last week when we heard of a child dying while in government care after being separated from her parent. My gut becomes filled with anxiousness as a go fund me account was set up this week to pay for a border wall between our country and Mexico. That account has raised over 7.7 million dollars in 3 days as of Thursday night.
With this burden, we have to begin to shift our minds to Christmas. This week, we are crossing a border into a life with Jesus, God Immanuel. God in the flesh is here with us, and things will be different. It is hard to put into words what life will be like after this week, and the journey we have been on this Advent season. I want to share with you the story from Liliana Padila, a UMC pastor in Texas. She tells her story as a part of the Border Crossings articles that inspired this series. In her words, she captures what life is like after a border crossing.
In the words of Rev. Liliana Padilla …““The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” — Psalm 24:1. This was the Bible passage written on a little white card that my sister put in the middle of my passport as we walked through the Border Patrol station of El Paso Texas airport, having tried to obtain a permit to travel within the United States. I had tried three times at different international bridges asking for that permit unsuccessfully, but I needed to take the risk to board a plane that would fly me to the city of Dallas. My sister put the white card in the middle of the passport and said, “Let God’s power guide you.”
I arrived in front of the officer and handed him my passport, and the little card of Psalm 24 came out of one of the pages. The officer asked questions and checked my plane ticket, and without opening the passport he put it in my hand and said, “Run, because you might miss the flight.” The door opened, and I crossed to where the boarding doors were.
That was on August 1, 1997. Five years passed before I was able to return to Mexico. I went through an immigration process, paid $1000 as a fine for having entered without permission, and finally on December 30, 2003, I returned to Mexico to hug again my parents and brothers.
During all these years that I have lived in the United States, there is not a day that passes without sighing for my land, for my family, for the life I left behind when I went through that door. When I think of those years, I remember Christmas without my family, my birthday without hugs and the New Years without the sounds of joy resounding through the streets of my city. I remember those years when I lived in fear of listening to a language I did not understand and could not speak, the fear of driving without a driver's license, feeling your heart stop every time you hear a police siren, and feeling a deep hole in your stomach when you see the Border Patrol vehicles. I tried to put on a poker face as if nothing was wrong; you want no one to notice that internally you are terrified. Those feelings almost paralyze you when you bring your children in your arms, you hear stories, you think of possibilities and every night you think yourself to sleep saying, "Tomorrow we will return to Mexico, tomorrow we will return, tomorrow we will return..."
Reflecting on my migration process brings out feelings of death, separation, fear, loneliness, and new birth. You are confronted with a new reality, a new life and a new language. It is as painful as death or as painful as a birth. You are no longer in your land, you are no longer in your home. You are someone new, you must start one more time, you have to rebuild your life, you have to recreate yourself. Being an immigrant is not a tourist trip, like journeying through a beautiful city. To be an immigrant is to leave behind everything you were, what you loved, and to start with nothing.
Before I came to the USA, I had been a pastor in The Methodist Church of Mexico for seven years. I was comfortable serving with my bishop, who had baptized me when I was a baby. Those pastors and their families were my family, and the congregations recognized my work. I had a name, a face, a story.
Arriving in the United States, I felt like I was nobody, without a history, without a name. It didn’t matter who I was. Here, I had to start from scratch. My clergy orders were not recognized, my education had no value for anyone, and who would know my work, or speak in my favor?
My initial jobs included cleaning houses, cooking in a food truck, and flipping burgers at McDonald’s. I didn’t mind the position as long I was working, having money to survive one day at a time. That's as far as my dreams could take me back then. I remember the days and nights crying in depression. I remember a thousand times wondering, “Why am I here? Why couldn’t I have stayed in my country?”
I remember one of my English teachers, who asked me at the end of every class, “What do you like most about the US?” That question helped me keep perspective and reminded me why I stayed here. I remembered that it was worth the sacrifice, that I had to be thankful to God for the opportunities that He offered me in this country—opportunities for a woman whose call to be a pastor went beyond everything and who lost almost everything in order to accomplish the call that burned day and night in her heart.
What this country gave me when it opened its door was the power to preach in front of a pulpit, where it didn’t matter if I was a woman, if I was married, pregnant, with children in my arms, or even divorced and remarried. The United Methodist Church embraced my call, received me, educated me, and gave me the power to raise my voice and help others to fulfill their dreams as well.
Today the United Methodist Church continues to open its doors to immigrant women like me, who, although they carry a void in their hearts, continue to dream of fulfilling their call. What I love about the United States is the United Methodist Church, which not only educated my grandmother in Mexico during the revolution through its missionaries, but also educated me and gave me opportunity to minister and to find my voice. The church continues to empower all those who have arrived after me. The United Methodist Church embraces diversity and the call of everyone who wants to serve God and their neighbor. The church gives the resources, opens the spaces, and reveals the mission of the church to every human being who wishes to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. Most importantly, God can take you to places you’d have thought impossible, moving from a kitchen to a pulpit in a grand church—places an immigrant can’t imagine going, yet places where God shows you that you can make an impact and change that world.” https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9362/border-crossing-my-historymi-historia
This is just one story of one person’s journey to life after a border crossing. It is not quite the same words that Mary’s song of praise was from our Luke passage this morning, but certainly these words capture the spirit of love that is celebrated on this 4th Sunday of Advent. In our Gospel lesson, Mary celebrates with joy that God has turned the values of the rich, the proud and the powerful upside down. Luke’s Gospel is full of stories and words like this. In this, he captures the image of God caring for the lowly, the hungry and the disadvantages. God judges the self-indulgent. The best part of this story is that God’s name is lifted in worship when those who are on the fringes, those who are not living the best life they possibly can are raised up in love. You see, Mary’s words of thanksgiving, are words of life for her, for her baby and for us.
To live life, as we have been given, means to experience it as a means of grace. Rather than dwelling on the fact that Mary was a teenager, or that the family had to become refugees, we celebrate that love came down as baby Jesus. We celebrate that the wall between Heaven and Earth was torn down, and God became real to God’s people. The ways of the world were turned upside down on that first Christmas. God’s name of love is lifted up when we work with the lowly and vulnerable. God’s name is lifted up in love. That love is all that we have to offer, especially when words fail us.
Friends, love knows no boundaries. Love doesn’t know passports, visas, or documentation. Love is moved into action when the cries of the needy are heard. Love is what makes us uncomfortable when we hear of over 7 million dollars being raised in 3 days for a wall that will only serve to divide rather than give hope. Love is what pushes us to give to God our frustrations, anger, fears and worries. Rev. Padilla said, “God can take you to places you’d have thought impossible, moving from a kitchen to a pulpit in a grand church—places an immigrant can’t imagine going, yet places where God shows you that you can make an impact and change that world.” God does all this because God first loved us.
Let us pray. God, words are failing today. We want to be joyful for tomorrow is our tradition of Christmas Eve. This is the night we gather with our friends and family, our community to sing your praises, and celebrate your love in that baby. Yet, we are burdened. We are weighed down with this world that is full of sin, human error, ignorance, and fear. We are weighed down because the loudest voices of hate seem to be winning. God, being human isn’t a contest. Being human is simply about living. We pray God that because of your love, all will be able to live. Help us to be a part of that. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.