By Valerie Miller-Coleman
A couple weeks ago, seven of us arrived in southern Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca, to spend some time learning to love our neighbors there. I think of immersion experiences like this as a kind of boot camp for discipleship. We experienced the costs and joys of loving our neighbors in rapid and dense succession. The first day was all travel. The second day was a cram packed seminar on the Mexican economy, political history, cultural particularities, and the philosophy of relationship we’d be engaging over the next several days. The core of that philosophy was this: we are engaged in complex relationships determined by power and privilege and other social forces beyond our control even before we meet our Mexican neighbors. In order to engage in meaningful relationship with them, we need to pay attention to how these social forces shape our assumptions and our choices. That’s a big philosophy. And an ambitious one. We broke it down that day by talking about privilege and power.
What the marvelous leaders from Witness for Peace taught us to do in Mexico was to see our privilege and our power as active parts of our relationships with our Mexican neighbors. They taught us to see how power and privilege actively influence how we choose to relate to our neighbors. Our privilege insulates us sufficiently that we can choose to ignore them if we like. But they can never choose to ignore us. Our economic and political power influence their lives every day. We spent the next several days listening carefully to hear how they see the world and how our government and corporations affect their lives.
I sat up around a family dinner table in a small village talking with Petrona and Juan and their fifteen year old son David one night. Petrona’s brother migrated to the US several years ago. The cheap American corn for sale in their market meant he couldn’t earn enough to cover the costs of raising a crop anymore. So he left to find work. They haven’t heard from him in years. Petrona worries about him a lot and would like to come here to look for him but it costs too much and the paperwork is intimidating. She wonders if he’s still alive.
Petrona took me to a birthday party for her niece Yolanda. There was copious barbacoa and mountains of family and lots of sheet cake and kids and Yolanda was radiant in her floral apron. She was turning thirty three. We talked for a while that night and she told me her story. Yolanda moved to Anaheim, California with her parents when she was a teenager. She’d lived there until four months ago. Her husband, five year old daughter and seven year old son are back in California. She overstayed her visa and came back to the village to work on a legally re-immigrating but the process is slow and she’s not sure when she’ll be able to see her family again. The children call every night crying. Her sister says they’re falling behind in school, even though they’re both on the gifted and talented track.
Petrona tells me Yolanda is her favorite niece and she’s glad she’s home but she worries about the children too. She’d like it if they could come live closer but the reality is there’s no work for their parents. Petrona and Juan get by on his income from day labor, selling their handmade rugs and growing their own food. They’ve managed to buy David a laptop computer and he’s doing very well in school, but they wonder how long he’ll stay once he graduates.
These are the stories we heard, a few among many, and we heard them because we chose to listen carefully. To set aside the power to purchase a posh hotel room for a night and stay over with Petrona and Juan and David instead. And I’ll tell you what, it was uncomfortable. Yolanda cried when she told me how she felt thinking about me going home to see Lucy when she has no idea when she’ll see her own little girl again. She asked me to help her and not to forget her. I wanted to pretend she wasn’t like me. I wanted to put some context between us. I wanted to discount the claim she has on me because I don’t control the immigration laws and I’m not responsible for how long her children stay up at night crying but you know what? I am. I vote in this country and I am responsible for our immigration laws. I am responsible for those children’s tears. I am responsible for Petrona’s brother. I am responsible for David’s career prospects. I am responsible for these people because they are my brothers and sisters as children of God and because my life directly impacts theirs. Even if I choose to ignore them, they cannot choose to ignore me.
We say at Plymouth Church that we are dedicated to growing in love of God and neighbor. And that is our aspiration. But as in any relationship, growing means change. It means letting go of some things and opening up to others. Jesus invites us into the covenant of discipleship. Like the covenant of marriage, the covenant of discipleship must be chosen freely and with regularity. And discipleship, like marriage, costs us something even as it molds us into more than ourselves. Jesus never hedges on that point. If it seems unclear, it’s because we choose not to see it clearly. Just a minute ago he said, ‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’ He says, you won’t have a comfortable bed. He says, you’ll have to give up some important social obligations. He says, you’ll have a hard time maintaining some of your relationships. He says, this decision is important. It will change your life. And I believe he’s talking to us.
If we choose discipleship, if we choose to grow in love, it will cost us our certainty, our comfortable half truths, some of our relationships, our insulation and our illusions. The love of neighbor boot camp we just undertook in Mexico cost us all of those things. We didn’t build a single latrine. We didn’t bask in the gratitude of poor people receiving our precious gifts. We sat down to dinner together and we listened. We celebrated the hard work, wisdom and courage of women left to support their communities while their sons and brothers and husbands seek work thousands of miles away. And our souls grew. Life became more abundant as we shared it. We know ourselves better now. And we love our neighbors a little better because their stories have become part of ours.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Thanks be to God. Amen.