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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.