A month ago I traveled to the US/Mexico border with a group of students from Western Theological Seminary. Among the countless memories from our experience, two stand out the most: seeing the physical border wall for the first time and sitting in the unique pain of LGBTQ people in a detention center. When we arrived at the border barrier for the first time all I could think was, “Why?” Why is this wall here? Why has our country militarized our border? Why are we so worried about keeping people out?
After our day at the wall, we partnered with Mariposas Sin Fronteras and visited with detained migrants, many who happen to be LGBTQ. Having already heard a number of heartbreaking stories about migrants trying to seek refuge, I couldn’t believe the additional hurt, injustice, and dehumanization these people were experiencing. Many of these LGBTQ migrants left unsafe countries, communities, and families only to be criminalized and then further discriminated again based on the very thing that caused them to flee in the first place.
I felt a lot of emotions during my time in the borderlands, one of the most prominent being a deep, numbing sadness. I was sad to see how a place of meeting has become militarized. I was sad for Cristobal who never got to say goodbye to his children when he was detained five months ago, for Sulma who is trying to raise $10,000 to free her husband, for the hundreds of migrants who die in the desert every year trying to make the journey to a better life. My tears not only streamed for those whose stories tore my heart open but also for those who are causing the pain, the division, and the hate. With certain voices in the current presidential campaign it feels like xenophobia is on the rise and love of neighbor only applies if your neighbor looks, thinks, talks, and acts like you. We live in a world where hospitality is feared, but what exactly are we afraid of?
It has almost been a month since I’ve returned from the borderlands to Michigan. In that time, I have been invited to be part of a ten-week pilot of the Colossian Way. During our first evening we were invited to share our fears around human sexuality and the church. The wise Yoda once said, “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Named must your fear be before banish it you can.” The Colossian Way invited us to name our fear, because only then can we begin to explore the love hidden under the fear. What loves do you see underneath the fears in the church today?
While they certainly have their differences, I can’t help but notice the parallels between discussions surrounding immigration and LGBTQ inclusion in the church. Although arguably two of the most heated points of contention today, it is our history that makes the ties between them so poignant. The political and religious campaign referred to as the Sanctuary Movement began in the early 1980’s as a response to federal immigration policies that made obtaining asylum for Central Americans prohibitively difficult. “Sanctuaries” provided refuge for migrants fleeing from violence, economic hardship, civil conflict, etc. For over 30 years churches have opened their doors to people our country has called “illegal” and in doing so have openly defied federal law. They’re willing to risk imprisonment to keep others from being imprisoned.
How different it is when it comes to churches providing refuge for LGBTQ people. The one place that should be most welcoming toward the LGBTQ community is too often the most unwelcoming. The place that should be the safest is too often the most unsafe. The place that should be the most loving is too often the most unloving. If LGBTQ people can’t find welcome, safety, and love in the church, where will they go to find it? Congregations who declare themselves sanctuaries for migrants risk arrest for practicing hospitality. What are we willing to risk for hospitality today? What happens if we don’t take the risk? Who are we imprisoning with our exclusion?
After spending almost a week on the U.S. side of the border, we crossed into Mexico and spent a few days in Agua Prieta. While there, we heard stories different from the ones we heard in the desert and in U.S detention centers. We heard stories of hope. The ugly, steel, prison-like wall we had come to despise was painted with bright butterflies and flowers contrasted against a soft, sky blue background. In fact, from the corner of your eye, it was as if the wall wasn’t even there. On our last day in Mexico we stood at the painted wall with our hope-filled friends, and they prayed that rather than a place of division, the wall would be seen as a place of encounter. What if we saw the border walls our churches have built between “us” and “them” as places of encounter rather than places of division. What if we looked at these walls from corner of our eye?
There’s a saying in the borderlands that if the U.S. keeps building 30-foot walls, migrants will continue building 31-foot ladders. When it comes to border walls in churches, I think the Holy Spirit is building 31-foot ladders. The good news of the gospel is that God refuses to abide by the laws of our walls. The good news of the gospel is that the embrace of Christ reaches beyond borders. The good news is that you belong, and there isn’t a wall big enough to keep God’s love from you. Louder than the narrative of fear, God is spinning a narrative of love. Which story will you live?
Jeremy Bork, Iowa native, is a 2013 graduate of Northwestern College where he studied Christian Education and Religion. He is currently working on his M.Div. at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, under care of Schenectady Classis in Upstate New York, and will be seeking ordination in the RCA next year.