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The man wore a blazing-yellow shirt open at his chest. With thumbs hooked into the pockets of his black pants, he addressed a group of teachers from seminaries in the United States and Canada.
He was born somewhere north of Mexico City. Finding no employment in his village, he had come to harvest grapes in the fields outside the squatter’s town of Poblado Miguel Aleman. He had hoped to make a living here, but his hopes were dashed.
The workers were trapped, he explained. There were no roads leading out of Poblado Miguel Aleman: no schools—the children worked the fields to feed their families as soon as they were able; no unions—the land owners had paid off the so-called labor leaders; no law enforcement—the police in fact had tried to evict them because they were squatting on government land.
The workers had organized to defend themselves. They had won the right to stay in their tiny homes with mud-brick walls and tin roofs and had even pressed the government to pipe water to their town. Yet the underground aquifer that gave what life there was to the region was nearly consumed. The grape vines and the town would soon shrivel up and blow away.
The man in the yellow shirt smiled fiercely and confronted our group. “Are you comfortable?” he said. “Are you all comfortable? Do you all live in nice houses?”
Yes, yes,” we mumbled and nodded, our eyes avoiding the man but lighting instead on the squalor of the mud homes and makeshift outhouses. “Yes, we are comfortable.”
“Good! Good!” the man said. “We do it all for you, you know. We do it all for you. You get the best grapes, the very best we have to offer. We get the leftovers.” At that point a young girl who had been passing out grapes made her way to me. I took some, but only pretended to eat them because I had been warned that I could get dysentery from their water.
The man in the yellow shirt had given this speech before to people like us, church-goers from comfortable homes vaguely aware of the grinding poverty south of the border. We could hear in his tone that he was growing tired of trying break through the shell of our indifference and touch our hearts. He told us that he had tried to enter the States three times and had been sent back each time. He vowed that he was going to try again and again until he succeeded, and his eyes blazed as brightly as his yellow shirt.
After our brief tour of Poblado Miguel Aleman, we climbed into our van to leave. We were silent for a while, and then one of our group from a seminary down South said, “It’s a form of slavery you know, a modern form of slavery on a very big plantation. They cultivate the land, and their labor brings us wealth and comfort. They get little or nothing in return, and when they try to escape we track them down with dogs and send these ‘economic refugees’ back to where they belong.
“On second thought,” he said, “it’s worse than slavery. The plantation owners in the South at least saw their slaves and knew they depended on them. We are not even aware our slaves exist.”
In the light of the growing hostility of Christians in the United States toward immigrants, the image of the man in the yellow shirt keeps rising to my consciousness. Who is he and what is my responsibility to him and all the others like him? Is he an invader as so many in our government tell us? Is he a slave as one in our group said?
Our Bible suggests that these labels do not get to the heart of matter or to the heart of the man in the yellow shirt. In one of the hardest biblical passages to both understand and appropriate, our savior tells us that when we reach out to the hungry and thirsty ones, the homeless and vulnerable ones, the infirm and imprisoned ones, we have reached out and touched him.
The man in the yellow shirt is Jesus Christ in the flesh. It would seem to me that as Christians and citizens of the Kingdom of God our current debate over the identity and status of immigrants begins here.