Nearly ten years ago, I went to the border between the U.S. and Mexico. I saw Nogales, a town divided by a wall erected by the U.S. government. For years the people in Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona moved freely back and forth, going to work, to church, to visit with family, for social events. Then the wall went up. It divided the land, the town, and the people.
I went to the border with students from Memphis Theological Seminary to learn about immigration. Our class was called, “Faith at the Borders.” In addition to going to Nogales, we went to other towns near the border. And we went to Tucson, Arizona, where a number of groups sought to respond to the humanitarian crisis caused by closed borders and a wall.
We talked with people on both sides of that wall who were active in issues related to immigration. We saw the poverty on the Mexican side of the wall, and the factories run by U.S. companies that profited from cheap Mexican labor with attempts at unionization blocked by law and by violent force. We learned about how the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) destroyed local economies in Mexico and caused people to head north in search of work.
We went further into Mexico, away from the wall. We walked in the desert. We followed the path of those who sought a place beyond the wall to cross the border into the United States. We saw the “coyotes” who take people across the border for a price. We saw their weapons and learned of their connection to the drug trade. We spoke with border guards and immigration officials both in Mexico and in the U.S.
In Tucson, we saw the mass deportation of undocumented people. They had made it into the United States, and lived here for years. But now they were bound in chains, pushed through a perfunctory hearing, and then transported to the border. There they were tossed out on the Mexican side with no resources. I spoke with one man wearing a New York Yankees ball cap. He had been brought to the U.S. when he was a child, four years old. Now he was dumped into Mexico with no family, no connections, no place to go, and not even able to speak Spanish.
On both sides of the wall we saw people of faith offering hospitality. On the Mexican side of the wall, this hospitality welcomed the people thrown out of the United States. On the U.S. side of the wall, this hospitality welcomed people who survived the desert and the “coyotes” and made it across the border.
At the time of this class, I was just a few years into the work of hospitality at Manna House. But, then as now, I saw the connections between my experiences on the border and my experiences with our guests from the streets.
Both our guests, and the undocumented who come to this country from other lands, are refugees. Both are pushed from their homes by economic and political powers beyond their control. Both are on the move in search of jobs, and safe places to stay. Both are vulnerable to powerful people who will exploit them in their poverty and desperation. Both are hounded by policies enforced by the police or other government agents that focus on the “crime” of being poor. Both thus suffer from a presumed criminality that makes their lives legally tenuous and culturally suspect.
I thought about these connections as I shared the Word of the Day with our guests at Manna House over the past few days. “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism” (James 4:1).
The refugees from the streets drew direct conclusions from this passage.
“God don’t play favorites.”
“If you believe in Jesus, you can’t favor some people over other people.”
“Ain’t nobody better than anyone else.”
“There’s something of God in everyone; you gotta respect that.”
But they also drew contrasts between this Word of the Day and their experienced realities.
“Trump, our commander in grief, doesn’t believe that.”
“That ain’t the way the world works.”
“People see me as homeless and say, ‘You’re not legit.’”
“Must not be very many believers in that glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”
I see our guests at Manna House as faith-filled realists. As people of faith, they know the meaning of this biblical passage is clear. If we are followers of Christ, then we must not play favorites. We must treat everyone with dignity. We must welcome the stranger. But as realists they see this nation for what it is. The rich are favored over the poor. The white are favored over the black and the brown. People without homes or shelter are “not legit,” they are condemned as “illegals.”
The contrast between faith and reality is where the work of discipleship takes place. Like Jesus, disciples must be agitators, unsatisfied with the way things are, inspired by a vision of the way things ought to be. At Manna House, we first try to live the vision by practicing hospitality. We welcome and affirm the dignity of those pushed around and judged as “not legit.”
But we are also called to live this vision in a second way. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ has eliminated the dividing wall between us (Ephesians 2:14). If we are in Christ, then we cannot practice favoritism. We have to fearlessly advocate for those persons displaced by greed and fear and walls. So we agitate for public policy that tears down the walls that separate us in the name of playing favorites. We agitate for a society that builds up every one as persons made in the image of God. God don’t play favorites.