by Liza Neal
“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:34)
Scripture is very clear on our responsibility to the immigrant and the refugee. God’s command is straightforward: treat the alien as a citizen. “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut 10:19) Not only to those without documentation or legal status, but to each and every stranger God commands us to love them as ourselves.
Scripture, again and again, points out our commonality. Most Americans have ancestors who came from somewhere else. Whole industries exist to test our DNA so we can search for them. Only indigenous peoples can lay legitimate claim to this land; Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island is the land of the Nipmunk, Pequot, Pocumtuc, Narragansett, Patuxet, Agawam, Mohegan, Niantic, the Wappinger Confederacy, and the Wampanoag peoples. Yet so often we do not see our commonality, and we do not appreciate our differences. We do not love the stranger. We fear the stranger.
But Jesus calls us to be in the world, not of it. Jesus calls us to love those we fear, to love our enemies, love that is neither affectional nor comfortable, but agape love – love that is unconditional, love that lives justice and resides in grace, love that leads us to our cross.
In January I went to Tijuana to accompany asylum seekers. I gathered at 6:30 every morning at El Chaparral, the port of entry into the United States. It’s an open white cement plaza. Children run about playing while adults wait to get assigned numbers or to hear if their numbers are called. One day two numbers, another day five. No one ever knows how many, or why. People are there with backpacks, suitcases, nothing, whatever they have managed to hold onto from their thousand-mile journey. If they go to hear if their number is called they can’t come back to the shelter. So if their number isn’t called, they will have to find another place to stay. There’s no information about where to go, or what to do. An argument breaks out about how many people who have missed their numbers will be allowed to go. Since it’s not an official system they all take a vote, and the rules change. And fewer people will go today.
I met people from Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, Cameroon - toddlers, teenagers, people in their sixties, people from different classes, gender expressions and sexual orientations. I played with children less than two who have already walked farther than I’ve flown, prayed with parents, held the hands of weeping men, witnessed scars. We tried to explain the asylum process, to make sure they knew to ask for a credible fear interview, to make sure they knew they would be taken into detention, that they would be separated from their families, put in hieleras, iceboxes, make sure they memorized phone numbers since their things would be taken, tell them that we could promise them nothing but we believe them, we believe they deserve to live.
We came back in the afternoon to see our companeras, our friends, whose numbers had been called. We waved as they left in a white van with metal bars across the windows. Despite all they knew, they always had so much hope in their eyes. They had already faced so much terror. What was a little more if it held even a slim chance at life.
Right now the people who are most at risk of violence in detention centers are trans women. Often, they are put into male detention facilities and placed into solitary confinement when others harass them. When the ACLU won a legal case in New Mexico that allowed them to get a number of trans women out of detention, ICE moved them to Texas where they have been holding people in open air cages under bridges. Directly under the executive branch, ICE answers to no one. The detention center that is considered the best one, because unlike many places people are actually being released, is the same one where Roxsana Hernandez, a trans woman, was beaten to death. Private companies are making a lot of money, it is getting harder and harder to get people out of detention.
On my last day in Tijuana I met a volunteer on her first day. She was sponsoring a trans asylum seeker. That trans companera had a friend who had been in detention for three months, so one woman turned into two. When she was released in Texas, we texted each other as she boarded a bus to people she had never met, to a place she had never heard of. People from different churches met her at stops along the way. After three countries of violence, including from our government, she has found a refuge here. Still her friends call from detention every day. Trans women are often running not only from state violence, but the violence of neighbors and family. They have no one else to call. They are desperate to get sponsors, to have a place to go, to escape the torture they are experiencing, before they die in custody like Roxsanna Hernandez.
Still, we are God’s people, and we are not without hope. A new ministry is arising in the Hampshire and Hampden Associations, a vision to create a Casa de Refugio, a House of Refuge, for trans asylum seekers to live in community in Western Massachusetts. Initially I had met with Rev. Michael McSherry and Deb Moore of Edwards Church about the possibility of becoming sponsors for trans asylum seekers. In that meeting this new ministry was envisioned: a community of sponsors, beginning with churches in the Hampshire and Hampden associations of the United Church of Christ, expanding across the churches of the new Conference, and eventually generating an interfaith network across Western Massachusetts, to provide sponsors and a physical home for transgender people seeking asylum. We need your help to make this home a reality.
Every time our friend passes a rainbow flag hanging outside a church she cries, “Mira! Arcoiris! Arcoiris! Una iglesia acogedora!” Look, a rainbow, a welcoming church. Rainbows have become symbols of welcome for queer folx. For people of Abrahamic faiths, rainbows are also symbols of God’s covenant, a covenant with every living creature on the earth. Transphobic violence is rising across the globe, and organizations like the Santa Fe Dreamers Project expect hundreds of trans folx to flee here in the next few years. Let us embody God’s covenant, let us live out the promise not to bring more destruction, let us live out the command to love strangers as ourselves. As our children and our children’s children look back on this moment in our history, let it be said that the people and churches of this new Conference did everything we could to fight evil, that the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, and we have come to bind up the brokenhearted and release the captive.
Rev. Liza Neal is an ordained UCC minister and manager of Seala ag Canadh: Beyond Binaries & Borders
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