My crisscrossing of nations these last 25 years have yielded more than one story of interesting border crossings, but, one night on a foreign border holds a traumatic place of precedence. In my mind’s eye, I am highlighted by bright lights, spread-eagle against a van while a female guard roughly pats down my body. She is yelling at me at in her language, which in my mental state of disarray, I cannot fully comprehend. My friend and colleague, Z, holds my crying 8 month old – my baby girl’s inconsolable wails perhaps an echo of the deteriorating emotions inside my own skin. There is a rare sort of terror and vulnerability that slice through the body as you feel your control ebbing away. I had wandered into a precarious situation that inky night.
In the 90’s, a US led multi-nation coalition began bombing the country in which I now found myself. I made the decision to drive with the international team through this country into western Europe for a Christian conference. Baby Lydia and I were the only Americans in the van. In retrospect, perhaps we should have flown, but it was much more expensive to do so, and we have always traveled alongside the community with whom we serve. With the war nearly 3 years behind us, we reasoned it safe to route directly through the country of earlier conflict rather than skirting its borders. The route saved significant hours to that jarring journey. As an extra precaution, I spoke no English when we stopped to refuel, kept my head down, and blended in with my international coworkers, but at the border, my American passport became the object of the guard’s fury.
To this day, I have no idea of her story, but for reasons known only to her, I was the representative of an entire country that she viscerally hated. It is quite probable that the bombs dropped had ended the life of someone she loved. It is quite probable that the political persuasions of the US were in direct collision with her own political affirmations. On that night, I learned a significant lesson about the depths of cultural stereotyping.
On that night, on that border, I was no longer a person with a history and a family and ideas and hopes and potential, but rather, I was a country. I was the country that bombed, that killed, and that attacked her land, her people, and her future. She didn’t know my heart. She didn’t know me. She didn’t know my history. She didn’t know my thoughts on the war. Most probably, neither did she share a compassion for the neighboring countries who the US and its coalition had defended in the conflict.
There’s a certain kind of terror when you realize that the folds of your skin now represent all that the world believes to be true of your ethnicity.
If you have known the guttural grinding that stretches and tears as you will your exhausted core to push life into being, if you know the heartbreaking, unfulfilled longing to hear the sweet first cry, if you know the empty contours that never hold a child of your own, if you’ve planted yourself at the brow of the one you love and begged her to breath through the next contraction, ‘just one more push,’ you fibbed – then you know something about the umbilical cord of love that links parent to child. You know something of the fear that coursed through my body that night on the border.
What if the guard had reached to take my baby girl? What if she had wrapped her hands around that sweet scented body, pulled her gently yet firmly from the grasp of Z and then walked away? What if?
But of course, the guard didn’t touch my baby because the passport I held wielded a great kind of power. My passport protected my baby and it protected me. And, I am grateful for that passport and for my country.
I am grateful and I am aware that being grateful is not enough. In equal measure, the power that I have is both privilege and responsibility. The honest yet harsh reality of our world is that not all passports are created equal. This side of heaven, we will always live with the imbalance of power and the injustice that this reality bears. There will always be winners and losers, haves and have nots, the strong and the poor. This side of heaven, there will be borders where babies are taken from mothers and fathers.
My dear Church, my Christian family – our very name, the core of our identity is umbilically linked to the God who wielded his power as a servant, who fell into step beside our wandering humanity, who stands at the border between life and death and guarantees us safe passage. To carry his name, to identify as his Body assumes that we move and breath in tune with him.
If our laws are unfair, if they lack compassion, then we, as the Christian community, must be diligent in working with lawmakers to write laws that are compassionate. If legal and illegal are terms that we brandish to divide who is in and who is out, then we have a responsibility to understand the very complicated nuances between those terms and work tirelessly to ensure that innocent people do not become victims because of our ignorance or our apathy. And we have a responsibility to do that now not later. It is neither enough nor is it Christian to derive our opinions about issues of justice solely through listening to the news and participating in arguments on social media. God calls us to become involved, to become present, to listen, to know, to understand, to discern, and to pray for the wanderer. That does not happen from the comfort of our homes. It happens on the streets, in our neighborhoods, on the borders, and on the journey with those who are experiencing vulnerability.
From a missional perspective, which is my particular calling, experience, and academic background, the issue of displacement, refugee-ism, and immigration must be addressed through the lens of God’s call and commission to the Church. We are called to the margins – to serve by being present with people. We are commanded to wield our influence and power for the purposes of justice. The Church must understand this as an opportunity for the unimaginable power of God’s grace to be tangibly present. We are the Body of Christ on this side of the border.
As I pen this post, I’m on the road with that very same baby girl who has now graduated to the wizened age of 18. She and her 16 year old sister are my companions on a journey that has taken us far from our home. As missionaries, we are on a 3 month furlough and our family of 6 is spread over 2 continents and 4 cities. Years of furlough have familiarized us to the stress of un-rootedness, to the disorientation of strange beds, to the exhaustion of constant travel. It takes its toll. Even now, I frantically tap out this post in a strange and unfamiliar hotel lobby feeling the pressure of 7 hours of travel that lie ahead, but I do so knowing that I have a bounty of resources at my disposal. All across our vast globe, many mothers today will settle a child on their hips to continue a desperate journey across borders that bring unimaginable levels of vulnerability and danger.
May the Church rise up and move into step with the heart of God for these wanderers. May the Church be the Church today.