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Last week at a colloquium I attended, a colleague of mine originally from Mexico was describing my seminary’s highly successful certificate program designed to provide needed education and training to Latino/a pastors in our area.   The program has been up and running—and steadily expanding—since about 2011 and represents one of many growing initiatives in urban areas across the country aimed at providing working pastors with more and more tools with which to carry out their ministries of preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. 

But then my colleague described the last 2-3 years as what he called a kind of period of “tribulation.”  Pastor after pastor and congregant after congregant from Latino/a churches in our area—but also across the United States—have reported a significant uptick in fear, harassment, and intimidation.  It doesn’t matter if people living here from Mexico or Central America are legal citizens, have been citizens for many years or decades, are undocumented, or are awaiting the processing of due documentation: just looking like or talking like someone who could be from Mexico has become pretext enough for law enforcement officers, ICE officials, and ordinary folks to pursue a campaign of significant fear against these people.

Then my colleague told of an incident from only about a week ago.   He and some other colleagues and spouses were having dinner at a restaurant that was maybe half full of patrons.   As they dined together, they were speaking together in Spanish.   This seemed to provide a great irritation to a handful of people at a nearby table.   They proceeded verbally to heap abuse—and by innuendo threatened more than just verbal abuse—on my colleague and his family/friends.  Of course, what those hecklers could not know is that my colleague is a world-class scholar, having achieved not one but actually two PhD degrees.   Another person or two at the table were also accomplished professionals and scholars.  But they spoke Spanish and so this was pretext enough for this other table of people to be unkind if not abusive.

Members of the Latino/a community testify that this did not used to happen as often.  But starting on a day when a candidate for President declared Mexicans to be mostly rapists and drug dealers, murders and thieves, things have gotten steadily worse.   Xenophobia now rages more openly in many communities.   And, alas, when a few of us at the colloquium who had heard my colleague’s story were discussing this later, one person observed that statistically at least, you would not be shocked if those hecklers were self-identified evangelical Christians.   One cannot know that, of course, and one can surely hope it is not the case but . . .

Today is the last day before the Season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday tomorrow.  In this season of penitence and of a sustained reflection on what Christ did to forgive our sins, surely the churches of our land can at the very least lament how certain groups are being treated in this country.   And maybe in Lent we’d do well to go further: to repent of our mutual complicity as a church in anything—any rhetoric, any Facebook posts, any public statements we have cheered—that has contributed to a rise in xenophobia and its attendant abuses of our fellow human beings.   This is not the only thing we have to lament or of which we have to repent.  But it ought to make the Lenten list at least.

On a radio program I co-host we recently did an episode on the sometimes unsung New Testament virtue/gift of hospitality.   A main Greek word for this in the Bible is philoxenia, or literally “the love of the stranger.”   Its opposite, of course, is xenophobia, “fear of the stranger,” which often is not far from also a hatred of the stranger.   On the program I quoted a line I picked up years ago from writer Kathleen Norris who noted once that in the monastic tradition, the notion of hospitality is often closely linked to the spiritual practice of repentance.  How so?  Because in order to be open to others in hospitality, one must first repent of two things: first, an arrogant assumption that strangers would never have anything to teach us and, second, any latent fear of strangers that would prevent them from having a chance to teach us new things in the first place.   Such pre-hospitality repentance seems to suit Lent pretty well.

When I heard my friend’s story the other day, I was at once heartbroken and deeply angry.  As Representative Elijah Cummings said last week in a different—or perhaps not so different—context, we can do better than this as Americans.  Yes, and we surely can and must do better than this as Christians.

Kyrie, eleison.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

13 Comments

  • George E says:

    The “different—or perhaps not so different—context” that Congressman Cummings spoke in was in response to a leftist congresswoman accusing a Republican congressman of being racist for being accompanied by a black person. Cummings repudiated her comments. So, yes, Scott, this may be a similar context.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Scott, for a helpful article. I think there is a rise in prejudice against Latinos and even suspicion when such a group of people speak together in their native tongue. But there is also a prejudicial rise in other areas of social interaction. We see such a rise in prejudice amongst whites and blacks. Be very careful of what you say in regard to the races, even if it was many years ago. There is also a rise in prejudice against men in middle class American society. There is a fear by women that men are prone toward sexual abuse, a latent inclination to see women as sex objects. And certainly the Me Too movement, as well as our own Safe Church agency, has fueled such prejudice by women against men.

    This prejudice is fueled in the CRC denomination as our Safe Church agency advocates for a second layer of supervision of our leaders when we already have an adequate supervision mechanism in place, the consistory (elder board). It’s the job of the elders to supervise the life and doctrine of its leaders (ministers). There may be reason to strengthen this mechanism, especially in its supervisory tasks. But to create a new layer of supervision by volunteer church members seems only to fuel the level of superstition that the church has for its leaders.

    So now, in our denomination, leaders have to be doubly careful that there is no sexual innuendo in comments made to the opposite sex. We, as Christians, are called to a higher standard of morality than that of our society. Although created as sexual beings, church leaders are expected to live and interact with others as eunuchs, volunteer eunuchs who have no interest or inclination toward sex. And if there is such an inclination, we now have a Safe Church agency to insure that such inclination will be dealt with swiftly and seriously. Hence a new level of superstition and mistrust, not only in our society, but in our churches as well.

    So Scott, I’m sorry that I veered off in a somewhat different direction than your article had perhaps intended. But it would seem that we are living in a dangerous period of time that calls most people in one way or another to keep watch over one’s shoulder. Thanks, Scott, for the Lenten alert.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    “Yeah, but . . . ” isn’t repentance, is it?

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Since we are speaking anecdotally (besides, statistically, Trump’s approval ratings among Hispanics keeps going up):

    Last week I had a visit with a customer of mine names Moises. He’s originally from Jalisco, but has lived in the States for decades. A bricklayer by trade, he also now builds homes and, I assume, will eventually become a developer (that’s the progression among entrepreneurial immigrants, whether Irish, Mexican, Eastern European, whatever). He has multiple crews, good equipment, and a great reputation. He often pre-pays for material from me. A great customer.

    His biggest challenge, he tells me, is finding young guys who are willing to work hard. The workers coming from Mexico aren’t what they used to be. In fact, he says, they are no better than young American males, with their aversion to effort and sense of entitlement (he made them sound like they were college-ready). So, he tries to keep his older workers happy and well-paid.

    He also told me about his trip last month to his hometown. It was his first trip back in over twenty years. I asked him what life was like back in Jalisco. He said he was tempted to stay there. His friends who stayed behind in Mexico were now prosperous farmers, growing avacados and agave for the area tequila producers. They had new equipment and solid growth records. Like is good.

    Not only that, life in Jalisco is easier. It’s more laidback and less hectic. There’s nothing there like the regulations we have (OSHA, IRS, EPA, worker’s compensation, multiple levels of governments, unions, insurance, to name a few). It is much easier to be a producer in Mexico, according to him. He was not thrilled to be back working in Chicago.

    Hopefully, when he retires back in Mexico someday, he will welcome a stranger like me, at least for a visit. I just hope The Wall won’t prevent me from getting there.

    Increasingly, our battles in our country are not between people of good will versus racist, xeno-homo-trans-phobic, fascist deplorables (or, in other words, Evangelicals). The real battle is between those who seek to control an ever-expanding State, and those who want liberty and freedom.

  • Dick Stravers says:

    Scott, a huge, loud AMEN and AMEN to your comments! May our Lenten liturgies and sermons be full of lament for the fact that anyone, including evangelicals, who have no excuse for not knowing better, shame the name of Jesus every time our thoughts, words and gestures are out of sync with His strong, strong love for us and for every person, whatever their color.

  • JoAnne Zoller Wagner says:

    Thank you. This needed to be said.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Scott, thank you for this posting, especially the part about being willing to learn. As a university professor, I interact almost daily with students, post-docs, research staff, administrative and maintenance staff, and faculty colleagues from other countries. Some are living here temporarily and some have moved here permanently. Some are internationally recognized scholars and some are refugees. The common denominator is that all these people have something to teach us. My wife and I worship in a small community in the university district and a significant fraction (30%, maybe more) of the worship participants are foreign born or children of immigrants, mainly from countries along the Pacific rim and Africa. Our worship is enriched and and graced by their presence and contributions. Daily, I am saddened by the shocking degeneration of discourse on immigration policies and immigrants in our country. Immigration and border security are complex issues that require thoughtful discussion and nuanced solutions, neither of which is happening within our political system. The Christian community in this country is by and large not helping this situation. “.., we can and must do better than this.” And if I needed confirmation of this. all I need to do is read some of the comments here.

  • Jason says:

    Many issues with Donald Trump but claiming he “declared Mexicans to be mostly rapists and drug dealers…” is an embellishment to say the least. And “one person observed that statistically at least, you would not be shocked if those hecklers were self-identified evangelical Christians. ”

    I am sorry that your colleague encountered prejudice against people who speak languages other than English. I am also sorry that this type of political and class prejudice is expressed so freely in the faculty lounge of Calvin Seminary.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      From Trump’s announcement of his candidacy: “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me . . . When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people.” When you BEGIN your run for office this way–and when you repeat this at rally after rally–and then later also as President when you repeatedly instill fear by hyping a “caravan” as consisting of very bad people, of “strong Mexican men” and “bad hombres” who are a danger to our country . . . I don’t see how it’s an embellishment to call Trump out on this or how anyone could fail to connect the dots that in the ears of many people in this country, this is a broadside condemnation of–and a reason therefore to be suspicious of if not abusive toward–all people who seem possibly to be from Mexico. And if you think that my or my colleagues’ rallying around a colleague who received this kind of abuse and who has firsthand experience of the atmosphere in this country right now in regards to Latino/a people–if you find that to be a sad “political and class prejudice” at Calvin Seminary, then I honestly don’t know what more to say.

      • Jason says:

        First, no argument Trump has engaged in race baiting, but he did not “declared Mexicans to be mostly rapists and drug dealers, murders and thieves,…” What he said and did was troubling, but as he was talking about a criminal element in the undocumented population it is simply not honest to quote him as declaring Mexican people in general to be mostly anything.

        As far as pointing out that you wouldn’t be shocked statistically if the jerk at the restaurant was an evangelical Christian-if you told me that a gas station in town was robbed and I felt the need to chime in “statistically, there’s a good chance a black male did it” would that not be offensive? (This is putting aside the fact that many studies have shown Christians who attend church regularly are among the most lukewarm of Trump’s supporters)

        There is a fine line between voicing opposition to Trump, some of which I agree with, and voicing contempt for the people who voted for him.

  • Ann says:

    At least no one ever said following Christ would be easy. I wonder if the reason we all keep talking past each other is that we don’t have a common understanding of what racism is (and we aren’t having that conversation in our churches). Perhaps that would be a place to start. Repentance can only come after acceptance of what is and we aren’t there yet.

    For anyone interested, Dr. Janet Helms’ White Racial Identity Model is a great place to begin.

  • David Stravers says:

    Thanks Scott. In my opinion, what has happened is that the current anti-immigrant public statements have emboldened people to say aloud what before they were only thinking. We need to repent of our thoughts and not only our words and actions. And I need to repent whenever I hear others speak racist statements and don’t confront them immediately. Here in the Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico), there is a dramatic increase of fear among Latinos, including those who are here legally, wondering what is coming next….

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