November 6, 2019
Andover Newton Seminary Convocation Address
October 15, 2019
Rev. Randy J. Mayer, Pastor, The Good Shepherd UCC, Sahuarita, AZ
The following is a transcript of Randy’s convocation address.
It is an odd thing for a kid raised in the back woods of Montana to be invited to come back and give the convocation message at an academic institution like Andover Newton. Especially since I wasn’t a stellar student, it would be hard for any of my professors to remember my name. I very rarely spoke in class, I am an introvert. I was at Andover Newton, because a middler student named, Kent Harrop came to my home church in Helena when I was in high school and planted a seed that I should think about ministry. I spent a number of years doing just that. My denomination the United Church of Christ, became a playground for me as I found volunteer opportunities to work three years in church camps, children’s homes and justice projects around the country and world. In fact I had the opportunity to work at Silver Lake Conference Center here in Connecticut for two summers. When I started thinking about seminary there really was only one choice. There was no seminary within 700 miles of Montana, I was going to have to travel a long distance. If Andover Newton was good enough for Kent Harrop and John Schaffer who was the Conference Minster in Montana at the time, then it was good enough for me.
But I didn’t come to Andover Newton to be a pastor, I wanted to be a Church Camp Director, a community organizer, a Missionary in the field doing radical justice work. You have probably heard that before? I just didn’t see myself as a pastor. Don’t get me wrong I loved classes, Gabe Fackre, Max Stackhouse, Mark Heim, some independent study classes with Dan Novotony and Bob Pazmino. I loved my two years of field education at United Parish of Auburndale. My biggest regret was that I took only one–two credit preaching class from Eddie O’Neal. Trust me, I think about that every week when I am writing my sermon.
One of the biggest experiences for me was my seminary exchange with Seminario Biblico in Costa Rica. It was there that my mind was opened up to liberation theology, the intense look at scripture from the margins and the preferential option for the poor. I began to discover that there were other ways of looking at the church, the Bible, the Christian faith, and an intense critique of the power structures of society. That there were scholars other than Eurocentric men people like Elsa Tamez, and Gustavo Guitierrez, Bonino, Segundo, Dussel, Sobrino. The list went on and on. I was there for 8 months studying with students from all over Latin America—El Salvador, and Argentina, Honduras, Mexico, and Cuba. We lived together, studied together, we broke bread and had fiestas together. It was there in that rich experience of being community that it became clear to me that the last thing Latin America needed was another Gringo taking up space, imposing a tired North American point of view. My dream of becoming a missionary in Latin America was shattered, it was turned on its head. Maybe I could be sent back to the US as truth teller, to challenge the empire, and make a welcome path in the desert.
Interesting things happen when you resist God’s call. At the end of seminary, without really knowing how or why, I ended up taking a call as an Associate Pastor in Rhode Island and somewhere along the way my passion for local church ministry caught fire. In fact it became so ignited, that today I see local church ministry as really the only place to do radical, community centered, justice work. It is the place that the Gospel breathes and gets its feet on the ground.
For the past 21 years I have served as the pastor of the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Arizona. Located 35 miles north of Nogales, Mexico.
My spouse Norma and I wanted to move to the borderlands because of the diversity and culture, the language and the great food. Little did we know that we were stepping into a multi-century long struggle around immigration? One that has grown with the glaring media attention, that turns neighbor on neighbor, one that is filled with suffering, struggle and even death. Chicana Feminist Gloria Anzaldua has said, “The US/Mexico border es una herida abierta—where the Third World grates against the First world and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country a border culture.” The borderlands is a laboratory where globalization, poverty and struggle are put on a trail of life and death. But the borderlands is also a place where grace and mercy, seem to always be in the mix, floating like a feather out of the sky.
Within months of arriving in 1998 we began to hear about a flow of immigration that was moving through our community. Members of the congregation were getting late night knocks on their doors from migrants that were in need of water and help. There were even a few deaths that occurred within a quarter mile of people’s homes. So we started to ask the question. What do people of faith do when people are dying in your neighborhood? That question sends you on a journey of discovery, you learn about root causes.
So how did we ever get to this raging conflict around immigration? This quagmire along the border. How did we get from that lofty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddle masses yearning to breathe free.” That idealistic perspective of never-ending inclusion at all cost. To this rotting abyss of hatred toward the other. President Trump, takes every opportunity to demonize the migrant, calling them animals, rapist, criminals with calves as big as cantaloupes. Hell bent on building his, “big, beautiful wall,” stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Paint it black, so skin burns! Add 6 rows of razor wire, sharp spikes at the top so children are maimed! Dig a moat and fill it with sewer water, crocodiles and snakes, so people suffer. It fits right into the mentality of caging children, separating families, and criminalizing people that are fleeing for their lives—escaping poverty and violence. We have regressed to a primitive–violent Roman Empiresque reality. Where grace and mercy have been replaced with cruelty and brutality.
As evil as it has become. In the borderlands we have seen this ugly movement coming across the United States for a long time. The truth of the matter is that the wall began to appear as early as 1993, shortly before the NAFTA free trade agreements went into place. The United States government knew the agreements were not fair. They knew that there would be unprecedented immigration. How could a Mexican corn farmer compete against a corn farmer from the United States that was subsidized by the U.S. Government? How would a Chiapas village survive after it had been flooded to create a hydro-electric plant? Desperate people would do desperate things. The United States knew this fact. Once there were walls, more agents were need to guard the walls, and then drones and helicopters to patrol it from the sky, and before long they sent the National Guard and branches of the military. The beautiful borderlands is now a scorched earth, low intensity warzone.
No doubt President Trump has used, hateful, derogatory language to demonize and dehumanize the migrant and has put in place cruel and barbaric policies. But if you have kept your eye on the ball, like we in the borderlands have. You know that you can’t get to the policies of Trump without President Clinton who put in place many of the anti-immigrant strategies, commenced the building of the wall, and put more Border Patrol agents in the field. Clinton used the deadly Sonoran desert as a deterrent saying, “nobody would be that desperate to cross the desert.”
You can’t get to the policies of Trump without President Bush who within months of taking office faced the 911 terrorist attacks and his response was a retaliatory war in the Middle East and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security that accelerated the growth of the Border Patrol and the militarization of the borderlands. Why? It wasn’t because terrorists came from the southern border. It was because of a deep rooted fear of the other and racism.
You can’t get to the policies of Trump without President Obama who came into office with great promise, but spent eight years doing his best to win over conservatives with his tough on immigration policies. In the end Obama built more than 200 miles of border wall, deported more than 800,000 immigrants tearing thousands of families apart, and grew the Border Patrol to more than 23,000 agents. Today along with ICE and custom officers, there are over 50,000 agents with a budget of close to $30 billion. It is now the largest law enforcement agency in the country, and it is completely out of control, with no oversight, no transparency, working with unprecedented powers to stop, frisk and racially profile border residents. Welcome to life in the borderlands.
No doubt, President Trump uses the immigrant and the wall as his central talking points to divide and maim us as a country, but you can’t get to the vile rhetoric and policies of President Trump without the hateful building blocks put in place by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. This nightmare has been going on for a long time.
The truth is that this immigration struggle has taken years, if not hundreds of years to create. And it will take years to resolve. The real answers are much deeper than those conveniently sitting on the surface. They acknowledge our colonial and expansion history. Andover Newton and Yale’s forbearers the Puritans and Pilgrims came as immigrants, but weren’t shy about joining the forces to brutally remove or extinguish first nation people from the land.
By the mid-nineteenth century the Western expansion was called, Manifest Destiny, an evil theology that justified taking land and resources by saying, “They were chosen by God, to claim their promised land and tame the natives.” Settlers flooded into the area called Texas which eventually led to the Mexican American War, fought for the sole purpose of seizing land. At the end of the war the United States made a massive land grab as their bounty. They called it the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that set the Rio Grande as the boundary of Texas and gave New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado—more than 1/3 of the United States today. Land was one thing, but what people might not realize is that this land was some of the most fertile and rich land in the world. It included gold deposits in California, abundant silver in Nevada, massive oil fields in Texas, and all of the natural harbors necessary for commerce. This land is what made the United States wealthy and powerful in the last century and it cut off Mexico’s ability to create wealth. People today talk about borders and the need for rule of law, but Manifest Destiny and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo were obscene, absent of law and decency, it was bold-faced robbery. All these years later it is part of the cause of massive immigration. The Mexican’s didn’t jump the border, the border jumped them.
Another historical root cause that has contributed to our current immigration struggle, happened in the early twentieth century when President Theodore Roosevelt introduced the Monroe Doctrine. The policies of, “gun boat diplomacy” and “speaking softly but carrying a big stick.” Policies that laid the foundation for today’s multi-national corporations. Propping up dictators, and protecting United Fruit Company type corporations that raped, pillaged and exploited the people. When anyone objected about the aggressive tactics of these corporations in Latin America, the U.S. would respond militarily proclaiming the need to protect U.S. interests. In the process of protecting these ruthless corporations the United States, overtly and covertly invaded Latin American countries more than seventy times. Often overthrowing democratically elected governments to install brutal dictators.
By the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s the destructive work of these so called, “Banana Republics” had been solidified and poverty, strife, and death took hold. The United States poured millions of dollars and military assistance into the wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. By then they had stretched the rhetoric to include “fighting communism” and “the war on drugs.” However, the truth was that the United States was in the business of coddling corrupt dictators and oligarchs so that U.S. corporations could reap huge profits leaving destruction in its wake. Immigration north became the only answer for many that were trying to escape the violence and despair.
By the end of the twentieth century, First world countries had moved onto free trade agreements. Through the cover of trade ministers and governments openly signing these agreements it appeared as if everything was above board, fair and honest. But vulnerable people had been left out of the conversation and their leaders exploited them. Today, the United States and other First world countries no longer need to physically invade a country to take it over. The free trade agreements allowed them to virtually take over a country’s economy and siphon all the wealth, natural resources, and cheap labor and call it, “business as usual.” How could anyone argue with free-market, laissez faire, neo- con economic?
So you see, if you uncover things just a bit. And it isn’t hard, you begin to see that this immigration and border struggle didn’t start with Trump. It has deep historical roots of injustice, racism and theft of the highest order. Theologian and activist Miguel De La Torre says, “What do you expect, when one country builds roads into another country to extract their raw material and their cheap labor, why should we be surprised that those same people take those same roads following everything that has been stolen from them?”
The bottom line is that millions of good, hard working, family loving, salt of the earth, faith-filled people, have followed those roads. Pushed out of their countries in the south and pulled to the north. The desert borderlands where I call home is inhospitable. It is said that everything in the Sonoran Desert will either poke you, bite you, or sting you. The summer heat is unbearable, reaching temperatures of 120 degrees and in the winters the nights can drop to 20 or 30 degrees. Aware of the deadly conditions of the Sonoran desert, the US Government in 1994, shamefully weaponized the desert. Saying no one would be desperate enough to cross in the desert. They intentionally pushed the flow of migration into the most dangerous places. In fact, Doris Meissner, the INS Commissioner said, “We will push them to the most remote parts of the desert— where we can either track them or they will die. It will be so severe that the numbers crossing will become a trickle.” The trickle never happened. Instead huge numbers began to risk everything and the number of migrant deaths began to skyrocket. Desperate people escaping war, gang violence, and poverty will do desperate things. In our area alone more than 3200 remains have been recovered since 2000. It is the Devils Highway, the Sonoran desert has become a graveyard.
As people of faith we could not stand idly by. Late night knocks at our doors, desperate people asking for water and help. We were in the middle of this bloody, gaping wound that was torturing and killing people running for their lives. What does a church do? What do people of faith do? On Pentecost Sunday 2000 we joined with others people of faith and conscience. We started to connect the dots on why people were coming through our neighborhoods and why they were in such bad shape.
Tucson has a great activist history. It was the home of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980’s and many of those folks, like Rev. John Fife, and Jim Corbett and Father Ricardo were around for that meeting. They had seen this before in the 1980”s when refugees from Central America were fleeing the United States backed wars that were raging in El Salvador and Guatemala. They helped them cross the border and make their way through an underground railroad into Canada.
At this gathering I learned a new concept called, “Civil Initiative” it was a principle that they had developed in the Sanctuary days. Civil Initiative is the legal right and the moral responsibility of society to protect the victims of human rights violations when your government is the violator. In essence individuals have international duties that transcend the national obligation of obedience imposed by the individual state. As people of faith we have obligations to answer to a higher call and when your own government is intentionally pushing vulnerable people to desolate areas where they know they will die, you must rise up and do something to prevent it. You must offer hospitality. Radical Hospitality. So we did!
Our faith ancestors knew how to practice radical hospitality. In fact scripture is full of stories of hospitality of opening your door and welcoming the stranger into your home. Abraham is considered the quintessential host within the Jewish and Christian faith traditions. It all goes back to the retelling of Genesis 18. Abraham, is resting outside his tent, when he looks up to see three mysterious strangers approaching. He doesn’t waste time. He warmly greets them and he and Sarah hurry to provide refreshment and nourishment for the travelers. Take note that the guest are completely unknown to them. And yet they drop everything and offer their very best. In the midst of this hospitality the three strangers tell Abraham that his promised son will arrive. It is in the spirit of hospitality that a space for grace is made. Abraham becomes the model host for all of Israel. It is not optional, it is an expected behavior to offer to food, water and rest to the stranger.
Among the Torah’s strongest impulses is to protect the ger: the stranger. That is why there are no less than 36 instances in the Hebrew Bible of different iterations of the Leviticus 19:34 passage when God commands, “the alien who resides with you shall be to you as a 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.” There is no wiggle room here. Boundaries are necessary, security is essential, but justice cannot be trampled upon, hospitality is the grace that must be offered.
Jesus knew that, as a devout Jew. He made the principles of radical hospitality central to his ministry. He was always either giving or receiving it. He came as a stranger into the world, vulnerable to the welcome and rejection of people. Without a place of his own, he acted as a host to individuals, small groups, and multitudes, making use of places that were available to him. He went out of his way to welcome, to break down barriers and borders to include and offer compassion—risking it all. With Jesus sometimes he was guest and host in the same encounter. His practices of hospitality were always intense, personal, and counter-cultural.
The Greek word that is traditionally translated in English by “hospitality” is Philo-xenia, literally, “love of the strange.” The early Christians were charged to offer hospitality. In fact “hospitality” was the first in the marks of Christian identity. All other Christian virtues flow out of this one practice. It is rather astounding to think that this beleaguered and vulnerable early Christian community takes such a risk to “Love the Stranger.” It would have been so easy to hunker down and protect yourself and family. But hospitality is seen as an obligation, a duty of Christian discipleship in the early church.
So if we read scripture seriously. We begin to see that the Bible is an immigration handbook. It is a guide to hospitality on the margins. If you want to call yourselves Christian, a follower of Jesus’ ways. You must become skilled and seasoned hosts. And that is how we got into the business of hospitality, of loving the stranger in the desert. By reading the Bible and following its instructions.
We noticed that Jesus didn’t always wait for the people to come to him. He would wander to the margins looking for the people in most need. The ones that society had disposed of, that had been pushed to the edge. He would find them and nourish them, treat them with dignity, and in the process they would be healed.
We tried to practice that same spirit of radical hospitality. Driving an hour or more to the desolate parts of the desert to put water on the most active migrant trails. In those early days we couldn’t put out enough water. 50 to 100 gallons and it would be gone in a day or two. We would minister to individuals, small groups of three or four, we never had the multitudes that Jesus had, but sometimes groups as big as 50 to 100 people. We imagined ourselves as the water-boys and water-girls for the soccer team. Waiting for the players to come to the edge of the field so we could take care of them. The migrants were the stars—the heroes of the story. We were servants to them. We would make sure everyone had water, cleans socks, a little bit of food. We would treating them with love and dignity that gave them strength to continue on. We sent them back onto the field, on to the trail with new hope and energy.
Sometimes we found so many migrants on the way to our water drops that we never got to the migrant trails. Which was really disappointing and heartbreaking to us for we knew that water is critical for survival—water is life and without it people die.
So we started another group called the Samaritans. Their role was to roam the back roads and washes looking for migrants in distress, giving food, water and medical care so the other volunteers could get to the trails to put out the water. The Samaritans literally replicated the work and words of their name sake in scripture, who took a risk, broke the cultural norms to give life-saving support to his neighbor on the treacherous road to Jericho.
Our community, like most has an over-abundance of priests and Levite types, pious and holy, overly concerned about themselves and their standing in the community that prevents them from taking a risk, getting their hands dirty helping the migrants. They would rather keep the purity laws than save lives. We actually had a protestor in front of the church for almost three years. He would stand there on Sunday mornings with his Bible and his placard. You couldn’t ask for a more bold and contradictory his sign. It said it all: “Good Samaritan—Bad American.” Try and figure out that guy’s theology? Amazingly my congregation loved that guy. They would go out and talk with him, Bring him coffee. I wanted to put him on the payroll because he brought so many people into the church.
Our Samaritan group was a raggedy band at first, but we kept at it and people started to come to our meetings and learn about desert hospitality and civil initiative. Today we have 5 desert vehicles and over 300 volunteers that practice radical biblical hospitality all across the Sonoran Desert. For nearly 20 years we have been offering hospitality and humanitarian aid in the desert. And we have had thousands and thousands of encounters with migrant brothers and sisters. We have found mothers and fathers with young children that have been in the desert for three or four days. Two weeks ago, deep in the desert on a migrant trail our Samaritans found this child’s shoe. What kind of world do we live in? We have found pregnant women, exhausted, nearly unconscious ready to give birth. Last winter we helped a group of five cousins from Honduras that crossed a mountain pass during the middle of a snow storm only wearing t-shirts, they almost froze to death. We have been stopped on the road by Border Patrol Blackhawk helicopters wanting to check our vehicles, and we have had more than our share of encounters with fully armed, anti-immigrant militia groups actively harassing border crossers and humanitarians. Occasionally we find these bordados on the migrant trails—Mexican tortilla cloths. We have one hanging in the church that says, El Buen Pastor and has Jesus shepherding a flock of sheep. When we found that one we thought for sure it was a sign that we were doing the right thing.
One of our eldest Samaritans was a woman named Velma. Every morning she would walk her dogs in her neighborhood close to the desert. Probably two or three times a month she would end up bringing a migrant home from her walk. Her husband Al would always smile when she arrived at the door. He never knew who she would bring home. She would say, I brought a couple friends home for breakfast. And Al would get busy making the eggs and toast, the gift of grace and hospitality would begin to fill the room.
Many of our Samaritans say they have met Jesus in the desert. Yeah, literally we have sometimes found migrants named Jesus. But I think it is a little more profound than that. Matthew 25 gives a feel of what Jesus was implying when he said, “When I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me water, when I was a stranger you invited me in.” We all get that one, when we care for the least of these, we care for Jesus himself. But I kind of like this passage from Hebrews 13 a little better that says, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” It has a little more mystery and love of the stranger to it. Rep Juan Vargas who represents the counties close to the border in California studied to be a Jesuit priest. His first question to people that visit his office in Washington DC is, “what is your favorite immigration passage in the Bible?” Wouldn’t it be great to have more politicians that want to go to scripture over politics? We lobby a lot in DC for border communities and immigration justice issues. My first meeting with him, he hit me with that question. My response was Hebrews 13, “Don’t forget to entertain strangers: for some have entertained angels unaware.” I told him about some of the angels we have met in the desert. His eyes teared, if you live in the borderlands you have seen plenty of angels.
I love this passage because it has hints of the hospitality story of Abraham and the three strangers, but it also mixes in a little bit of Matthew 25, seeing Jesus in the face of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger.
To be honest, I didn’t believe in angels before I moved to Arizona. But I do now. I have seen them with my own two eyes. Their soft wings. The breeze that blows with and through them like a feather in the wind. Sometimes the angel is the stranger in the form of the migrant. Their strength, their pure commitment to family and loved ones, willing to risk it all for life and love. That is the kind of family values that I can believe in. I want to be in a community with people like that. Not just a community but a world filled with deeply committed, loving people, devoted to faith and family. I will risk everything to help them find their way. But sometimes the angel is in the form of a Samaritan volunteer, a humanitarian worker, a lover of the stranger. Being present in the right time and the right place, providing basic needs in hazardous circumstances. But more than that it is the meeting of the stranger and treating them like a long lost friend, like a child of God, like they matter and you will go to the ends of the earth to make sure that their needs are taken care of and they are treated well.
Jesus had that great ability of being guest and host in the same encounter—somehow flipping the roles. That happens a lot in the Sonoran desert. Our Samaritans go out to literally save lives in the desert. But more often than not it is their own lives that are saved, transformed, never to be the same again. If you have a heart, how could you. And sometimes the migrant in their place of such fear and need, receivers of emergency care. Just by their presence, unable to give anything are overwhelmed by the love and care they receive. They had feared the worst. They had seen the hatred on TV and that is what they were expecting to receive and instead they were embraced and blessed with compassion.
In the desert, on the margins, everything gets mixed up and turned upside down. Who is the stranger? Who is the Angel? Who is saving who? And does it really matter? The only thing I know is that it is holy and sacred. It is filled with mercy and grace.
Isn’t that how God’s world has always worked. It is turned upside down, counter-cultural, twisted and turned, extravagant and generous. Grace appears miraculously when you least expect it.
It should be a clue for us to as we seek to resolve our immigration struggle. It won’t be found in the Halls of Congress or from whoever sits in the Whitehouse. The solutions are with the people who look into the eyes of the other and instead of seeing a strange, they see a sister or brother, a child of God, an Angel unaware. May it be so. Amen