“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
- Lev. 19:33-24
My pastor at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity often repeats what makes a story true, especially one in scripture, is not that it happened once a long a time ago but that it happens over and over and over again, even today.
I wish that weren’t so true about the migrant narrative of the Christmas story.
On Tuesday night I attended a vigil at the Chicago Temple, which is home to First United Methodist Church and is situated just across from City Hall, the courthouse, and a few blocks away from the federal building. I settled into my seat in the small chapel on the second floor, and then a man shared his story.
A true story.
Charles Bayo was born in the Belgian Congo, now officially called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He moved out of the country of his birth when the nation gained its independence, and hasn’t really stopped moving since. Charles lived in Belgium until the authorities told him to move out because he was a colonial and not a Belgian citizen. Eventually he settled in Chicago where he had his own landscaping business. Then ICE knocked on the door.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is in charge of carrying out the United States’ very flawed immigration laws, and they certainly catch hell from all sides. However, the way that various enforcement agencies treated Charles is inexcusable. He was held in a county prison for a month, and then he was held in a detention center for people caught in the immigration system. He repeated how he wasn’t allowed to go outside for six months. He was treated as a common prisoner, although no one could ever truly land on what it was that he did wrong.
That is a true story, and not just because it happened this past year.
The Hebrew scriptures speak repeatedly of the chosen people of God as strangers and wanderers. Memory of this migrant experience was codified in the Mosaic Law. And later, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, once again the Hebrews, now called Jews, dispersed throughout the known world, from Babylon to various nations of the eastern Mediterranean.
The Christmas story, too, is a migrant’s story. According to the Gospel of Luke, the authorities in far away Rome decided that everyone needed to go their ancestral home for an imperial census. Thus the Prince of Peace was born in a stable, far away from the family and community that would normally care for a birth. The story from Matthew’s perspective is even more troubling: Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus had to flee their home to escape certain death at the hands of Herod the Great, a regional powerbroker known for his construction projects and his Machiavellian power lust.
These are true stories.
Around the country and around the world events similar to the one that I attended on Tuesday occurred in order to express our grief at how our governments and our societies treat the marginalized and displaced folks in our communities. In our contemporary, secular American culture, Christmas at its purest form is a time for family and friends to appreciate and love one another. The manner in which immigrants are treated in our country violates even this watered-down version of Christmas.
However, Christmas, in its deepest sense, is a celebration of incarnation, of Emmanuel, in our very, very messed up world. God in her most transcendent, ineffable form became human and then suffered as we suffered. Jesus was born smelling of manure, and then he couldn’t even stay there. But that is what is means to be human for a staggering number of people in our world.
Due to war. Due to disease. Due to famine. Due to greed. Due to the worship of mammon.
It’s a true story, not only because it happened once a long time ago, but because it happens over and over and over again, even today. Even to your neighbors. Even to you and me.
Join with me and celebrate Truth this Christmas.