The Sojourner Who Is Within Your Gates


(system) #1

My first job as a denominational employee was as Pastor of the Spanish Broadway Church in Manhattan. We had our services in the second floor of a commercial building with an antique store in the first floor and a social club in the third. It fronted on the famous thoroughfare a bit more than fifty blocks north of Times Square. The Puerto Rican members, of course, were American citizens, but most of the Dominicans, Colombians, Ecuadorians and citizens from other Latin American countries had entered this country with a tourist visa and stayed. I understand that many Irish and Eastern Europeans still do this.

Most of the ladies worked in the garment district just south of Times Square. The men worked as dish washers in restaurants or as janitors in office or apartment buildings. Those who had been able to save some money had sought the services of a lawyer who was helping them to gain resident status. This was not easy because they were earning from 45 to 50 dollars a week and they had to pay 75 dollars a month to rent an apartment in a dilapidated building from the XIX century with eight floors and no elevator. Almost all of them were already Adventists when they arrived to New York City. A few had Adventist relatives in New York and had been baptized since arriving. The picture was more or less the same in the 13 Spanish churches of the Greater New York Conference in the years 1962-65 when I was Pastor at Broadway.

A few years later, when I lived in Berrien Springs, Michigan, under the leadership of Pastor Elías Gómez, Dr. Humberto Rasi and Brother Ismael Olivares, The Berrien Springs Spanish Church was organized, and my wife, Aida, and I were among the charter members. We still are. At the beginning, the membership consisted of a few families who lived in the area and some students from Latin America who had come to study at Andrews University for four or five years. The church tried to attract the migrant laborers who came to Michigan every summer to pick strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, apricots, peaches and apples. Toward the end of winter local farmers went to Mexico and contracted a “trucker” who would bring a stipulated number of workers on a certain date. The trucker then secured the workers and brought them packed like hay bales under a canvas. The farmer would give them unwanted mobile homes with broken utilities in which to live. The worker’s camps would be hidden in a corner of the field with a couple of latrines and a water pump to serve the eight or ten families living in a camp.

The trucker charged the workers for transporting them and received payment for their work from the farmer. He would then pay the workers what he wished. Since he had possession of the papers obtained when they crossed the frontier, and was the only one who knew where they were and could take them back to Mexico once the harvest was over, he had full control over his workers. Few of them were able to free themselves from the iron fist of the trucker who carried them from here to there to work. In Mexico the workers had been promised sixteen weeks of work. Once here they many times spend weeks on end without work. At the end of the summer they had earned maybe less than half of what they had been told. When one saw those workers picking vegetables in the fields it was normal to see many boys and girls who were no more than six or eight years old working with their parents.

Toward the end of the 70s, the Labor Department and the Social Welfare Department began to enforce the laws already in the books which condemned the unhealthy housing provided by farmers and prohibited child labor. The farmers responded by ceasing to contract their labor force with truckers and to provide housing. The farmers, however, still needed workers who would harvest their crops, and the American migrant workers who spent the winters picking oranges in Florida and came to Michigan in the summer were not enough. Immigrant workers now arrived with their own cars and looked for housing on their own. The new system allowed them to begin to seek year-round employment in restaurants, garden centers, fruit and vegetable packing houses, cheese factories, etc.

The Berrien Springs Spanish Church now has many members of families who have settled in the area and occasionally baptizes immigrants who have arrived recently. No one asks for their immigration papers. If these immigrants are here is because they have work. The one without work has left. In New Mexico and Arizona, where the majority of the membership of the church is Hispanic, it is estimated that more than half lack immigration papers. The passage of the Arizona Law SB 1070, has caused many to leave, and the tithes of the Arizona Conference were reduced by 140,000 dollars in April. Money speaks loud, and the Hispanic pastors are getting the message straight.

The voice heard in the public media is that of those who point out the reigning illegality. It speaks of “law and order”. More than “law and order”, however, the issue is justice. Christ’s church should not be guided by popular criers.

If three drivers are driving their cars at twenty miles over the speed limit and a policeman stops one of them and issues him a ticket, no one thinks that justice was done. He who thinks the laws should be enforced must be consistent. As Paul said, “He who desires to be justified by the law must fulfill the whole law.” Paul, no doubt, had in mind the 612 commandments found in the Old Testament. He who insists that the laws must be enforced, was silent when the truckers and the farmers were flagrantly breaking the laws, and have nothing to say about the enforcement of the law on those who hire undocumented workers. Those who wish that the laws regulating immigration be enforced do not have the same zeal for the enforcement of the laws regulating the extraction of coal and oil. Those who are not consistent in their clamor for the enforcement of the laws loose their credibility. The church that does not condemn the sin most condemned by Jesus, hypocrisy, also does. The God of the Bible is a God of laws, but even more is a God of justice, and no one should confuse these two things.

During the last six thousand years human beings have been a migrating species. What began at the four rivers of Eden (the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Nile and the Pison) soon spread out over the face of the earth by migrant people. There has always been the stranger, the sojourner and the foreigner in the land. The God of the Bible never tires to remind his children that they too were strangers, sojourners and foreigners.

If I look at my own case, my great-great-great-grandfather emigrated from Germany to Russia in the XVIII century. My great-grandfather traveled from Russia to Brazil, from Brazil to Argentina, from Argentina to the United States and back to Argentina in the XIX century. My grandfather was born, like his father, in Russia but lived most of his life in Argentina. I was born in Uruguay to Argentine parents, and when I was nineteen came to the United States. My two sons were born here. Why this chain of migrations? Because, as it was at the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, there was hunger in the land.

Morals are tested by dilemmas. The Old Testament makes clear that when there is scarcity of bread and great need to work hard, the sojourner who is within your gates must have bread and must rest on the Sabbath. Paul makes clear that when truth and love find themselves in tension, love is to be given preference. When today the church tells Hispanic pastors not to baptize, nor to have as members, undocumented people it is acting against one of the dearest Bible principles. Confronted by the dilemma of the law and the hospitality due the stranger, the church does not do justice giving preference to law rather than love.

One of the most important rules for parents and legislators is to never issue laws one lacks the means or the will to enforce. In the United States the laws regulating immigration have not been enforced. It is difficult to decide if the reason is the lack of means or the lack of will. The majority of the citizens think that it is necessary to pass new laws that are enforceable. The politicians who opposed the passage of laws to regulate medical insurance coverage, and who are now opposed to the passage of laws to regulate the activities of markets on Wall Street, also oppose even considering the passage of new laws to regulate immigration. Since the infiltration of immigrants, as the infiltration of illegal drugs, is provoked by the employers who seek cheap labor and the drug addicts who seek drugs no matter what the price, it is not difficult to see why the immigration laws were not enforced when their neglect benefitted the capitalists who have an interest in cheap labor and in consumers with money in their pockets. That the presence of between twelve and twenty million undocumented immigrants has become a hot potato of national politics is due to the unemployment crisis in the nation. But, precisely at times like these is when the Church must preach God’s Word to the Mighty of the Land. When the Church becomes scared, adjusts herself to the political pressures of the moment, and refuses hospitality to the sojourner who is within her gates without papers, she ceased to be the body of the Risen Christ that testifies to the vivifying power of God on earth. The Church that declares herself open only to documented foreigners has forgotten that rather than a system of doctrines and laws, Jesus taught her a way of life.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2423