In my short time here on the U.S.-Mexico border, I have observed many of the problems which afflict the rest of our country, such as widespread homelessness and poverty, as well as unique problems such as the arrival of refugees and immigrants from all around the world hoping for a better life within our borders. The needs these people have are often very basic, including things that we take for granted. It is often easy – even for those of us who live in proximity to the situation – to forget how little many of our neighbors have. I recall during this winter a friend from the migrant encampment who would often help me distribute supplies requested I bring him a jacket and pants, because it was very cold and the only clothes he could obtain were the shorts and T-shirt he was wearing. In many ways, the situation of these people is close to much of the original audience of the Scriptures. Indeed, in the Scriptures we find teachings regarding these sorts of basic needs, as it says in Luke 3:11 “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none.” In considering the need on the border, then, I think we must turn first of all to our faith to look for the way that Jesus teaches us to consider human need.
This, then, is the question I want us to consider: how are we specifically as followers and disciples of Jesus to think about this issue? This is the question that has hung over my ministry here for the past several months as a missionary with a vocation aimed at human need, as well as a minister of the gospel. Even for someone like myself who lives in proximity to the issue and whose work touches strongly on it, the complexity of the border situation can be difficult to fully grasp. Indeed, striving to understand the global political situation regarding the collapse and chaos in many Latin American countries, combined with following the many interlocking realties of the legal and social position on the U.S. side of border, is certainly no easy task. Attempting to parse this reality, however, is not the primary focus of what I want to do here, but rather to explore the relevance of the gospel in this context. It is not that these realities are irrelevant for the Christian, so much as it is that the gospel cuts through them and calls us to consider the people themselves, created in the image of God, who exist at the center of the controversy.
A good place to begin thinking about this issue is found in the sixth century A.D. Rule of St. Benedict. In the Rule, Benedict instructs his monks that “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Before any other thought is given, we are first called upon to consider the call of Christ to love the stranger as if he were the Lord himself. Here is the precept that, for the Christian, cuts through all the complexity and indeterminacy of the border crisis with the immediacy of our call to love the person before us. We must love others just as Christ has loved the church and given himself for it. In all likelihood it is not within our capacity to solve the problems with the complex legal and global systems impacting immigration on our border, nor is it likely that we will be called upon to give answer for them in the end. It is not on the macro-level of our global society that we must give a personal account, but in response to our confrontation with the immediacy of human need within our own sphere of contact that we hear the words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” As Benedict goes on to explain in his Rule, it is in fact a guest’s need, which places us under special obligation. As he says, “Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received.” The first thought which presents itself to the mind of a disciple of Jesus, well before the question of public policy is considered, must therefore be “what can I do to serve this person as if they were Jesus Christ himself?” Thought about in this way, it is not so much that the questions of policy and administration are irrelevant per se. They, like all things that impact human lives, are surely of import in the eyes of God. Such questions are, however, reoriented and replaced with the urgency of the call to discipleship. For a Christian, the primary weight must be placed not on the policy question but on the call to discipleship that we encounter in need.
The priority of the Christian must be to be a disciple of Jesus within the context and social position in which they find themselves. As such, the issue of first import for us becomes no longer, “What immigration policy ought I to support in the abstract,” but rather it is replaced with the question, “What can I do to feed, clothe, welcome and love those in need on the border as if they were Jesus?” Indeed, this is a general principle that should guide Christian engagement with poverty and the underprivileged. There are always a host of political, economic and social concerns when dealing with such issues, but the thing we must keep in mind is the shocking truth that Christ is made present to us in the poor. This must be the controlling principle that guides our consideration regarding how we must approach them. Those of us who live far from the border or other places of great need can certainly look for and find opportunities to show Christ’s love to those far away. But we must remember that the poor are with us in our own communities, as well. There are needy in North Carolina, no less than in south Texas.
This principle of love for the needy is illustrated powerfully in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In the familiar story, the question is posed to Jesus as to who we should consider to be our neighbor. In answering this, Christ tells the story of a man on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho who is ambushed, beaten, robbed and left for dead by bandits. Finding him in great need, both a priest and a Levite pass by on the other side. Finally, a Samaritan, the traditional enemy of the Jews, finds the man. Being moved by compassion the Samaritan cares for the man, takes him to an inn and there he pays for the man’s lodging, promising to return to pay for whatever else the man needs. Over the question “Who is my neighbor?” then, hangs the actions of this Samaritan. The question is answered by Jesus, not through an abstract discussion of the meaning of neighborliness and our duties to one another, but with the realization of human need with which we are confronted. Through this confrontation the importance of the political, religious and racial tensions dividing Jews and Samaritans were diminished in import and replaced with Christlike compassion. We are called out of the world’s normative modes of thinking and into the perspective of the kingdom of God which transcends the values and concerns of this world. In the kingdom of God, we understand that the call of discipleship from Jesus requires a new perspective on what it means to be a neighbor.
The tremendous challenge contained in this parable is something that Martin Luther King realized. Commenting on this passage, King observed, “it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking…so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” It would not have been wrong for Jews at the time to ask what the best policy for maintaining safety on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho would be, or what types of policies would be best for road upkeep or structures to regulate travelers. It is not wrong for Christians to genuinely ask what policies best impact the situation on the southern border. The point of the good Samaritan, however, is that the call of Christian discipleship transcends and places itself before these discussions. For the church, then, in being confronted with the suffering and human need on our border, the question which proceeds the political one is, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” It is likely the case that caring for the concerns of the entire world are beyond us as a group, just as fixing the situation on the border is beyond us as individuals. The question that Jesus confronts us with, however, is this question of the person or persons before us. “If we do not stop to help the people on the border, then what will happen to them?”
Elijah Luikham, Missionary Curate with Trinity on the Border
— CONTINUE – PART TWO —
About Elijah Luikham
Elijah joined Trinity on the Border in 2020 as the second Missionary Curate. Trinity on the Border is a chapel and outreach ministry serving primarily among the vulnerable. Elijah’s work includes working with immigrants from around the world and the poor by leading worship services, working pastorally and in chaplain capacities, teaching classes for the migrants and refugees, and reaching out and visiting the poor on both sides of the border, as well as being flexible and adaptive to the changing situation on the border. The goal of this ministry is to bring the love of Christ to the poor and suffering at the border, many of whom are refugees or else extremely impoverished. Trinity on the Border is a Holy Trinity global ministry partner. Learn more at https://thebordermission.org/.