On Monday, January 28th, the students of Belmont Wesley Fellowship gathered to view the documentary, ‘Gospel Without Borders,’ and discuss American immigration. I’m thankful for Morgan Stafford’s leadership to lead that discussion while I was experiencing the reality of rural living in Tlancualpican, Mexico.
In years past, immigration has topped our national conversation especially as racist policies target Hispanic immigrants in Arizona and Alabama. Economic instability since the 2008 market collapse has only fueled prejudicial thinking and legislation aimed at the most recent wave of immigrants to the Untied States.
Even in a rural village of 5000, 150 miles from Mexico City, many community members of Tlancualpican have come to the United States to work: to wash clothes, to cook, to harvest the fields, and to construct buildings. Even the university educated in Puebla and Tlancualpican come to the United States to labor at tasks untouched by the middle and upper classes. And so goes the cry of the unemployed, the disenfranchised, the angry, and the racists that the immigrants are taking the jobs of Americans. Perhaps a creative dislocation in the harvest fields of Tlancualpican can help us see why so many individuals seek to work on the American side of the border.
For one week, I had the privilege, yes it was a privilege and not a burden, to work alongside a Mexican national shaping the landscape of the Give Ye Them to Eat Project in Tlancualpican. Monday through Friday, while I was still sipping my morning coffee, Liborio and several other of the village men arrived at the center to labor in the stables, the fields, and at various construction projects. My first task with Liborio was to drive into town with other male team members to shovel ‘green dirt’ from the mountainside for landscaping. After multiple trips into town loading and unloading this sand-like dirt, I was somewhere between praying the Lord’s Prayer for deliverance, dehydration, and a sunstroke. Liborio was twice my age but whipping my pace as it came to shoveling this dirt.
After work we returned to town to visit Liborio’s home which is built high on the side of the mountain in Tlancualpican. There we were greeted by his children and wife, shown various appropriate technologies in his home like a low fuel wood burning stove, and offered a generous blessing of fresh oranges. As Liborio shared the oranges with us, I was overcome with an embarrassment of being welcomed into a home that was barely more than concrete block and scrap metal. My sense of privilege was bursting at the seams in such a setting that I almost missed partaking in a sacred meal with my fellow team members and Liborio’s family.
As the sun rose on Tuesday morning, I sought out Liborio to work alongside him again. The day entailed toiling under the sun again shoveling dirt and moving several pick up trucks worth of boulders (incapable of being moved by less than three people). Between a crushed finger and strained back muscles, I could hardly imagine surviving another day of this work. Wednesday looked a lot like Tuesday: moving boulders and shoveling dirt and compost. Even in our limited usage of Spanish and English to communicate, there was a fondness shared between me and Liborio as we worked together. Thursday and Friday looked a lot like the rest of the week as far as work was concerned. But I eagerly sought to share the days with Liborio knowing that our shared labor would soon come to an end-I would return home and he would return to the back breaking labor the following week.
The narrative of the work isn’t compelling, it isn’t necessarily life changing-it’s the reality that hundreds of thousands of Mexicans in rural villages work the fields to scrape together a livelihood. Perhaps their labor is only seasonal like harvesting onions for export to the United States. Perhaps an injury or illness prevents a man from laboring or a family’s slim income causes parents to choose between school supplies, medicine, or food. The reality is that the conditions of life in rural Mexico necessitate supplemental income so that members of the family, particularly children, can flourish. And for this, our community leaders and politicians lambast the plight of immigrants…surely, the church knows its own story well enough to remember that God’s covenant people were once foreigners in a strange land.
As the church remembers its heritage of migration, may it be creatively dislocated so that it can see the life conditions of others with clear eyes. May God’s preferential option for the poor and the immigrant continue to direct the church’s ministry in the world.