This was also originally posted elsewhere, but has been re-posted here with permission.
Narratives are a powerful tool for communicating, but even more so they can be immensely important in the process of self-reexamination. This is a reflection on a chance encounter that opened my eyes even more the lives lead by some immigrants in the U.S and to my own place of privilege.
While in Amatlan, Mexico, several years ago, I had a conversation with a woman from a neighboring village in which she told me about the vast number of men that had left the village, crossed the U.S.-Mexican border, and sought work in order to help support their families and the village generally. Throughout my stay in that area of Mexico, I heard the same story over and over again. More recently, a gentleman of about forty-five, whom I met at a convenience store, yet again recited a similar account. These narratives tell a completely different story about undocumented immigrants from southern Mexico than that which is generally assumed to be true by many U.S. residents.
Telling and retelling these stories requires a great deal of courage, especially when the tenuous nature of life for an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. is taken into account. To be acknowledged as a person, and as a member of a community, however, seems to be a basic need of humankind – to know and be known, if you will. I have found that, given an atmosphere of trust and respect, people of many walks of life are eager to tell their stories, especially when those narratives include elements of marginalization, oppression and cultural anonymity. Considering the risks involved for the gentleman at the convenience store – possible arrest, holding, deportation and a return to abject poverty – one has to wonder how or why the need to be known overrides the fear of exposure and punishment.
The actual meeting was quite comical, but the details are too long for this post. In short, he helped translate what I needed to the store attendant who spoke very little English. When I realized that the word was pretty much the same in Spanish as in English I laughed, thanked him and told him I felt like an idiot. He laughed and looked at me like he agreed.
I waited outside the store to see if I could engage the gentleman in conversation, mostly because that’s what I do when I wander around. I especially like talking with people from different cultures and countries, despite the conversations being sometimes difficult due to language barriers. I knew this man was at least part indigenous because of his features, but didn’t know from how far South he would have come. When he came outside, I thanked him again and asked him about his home. Guardedly, he responded he was from Mexico. I gave a short rendition of my trip to Amatlan and the people I had met, and asked if he had been anywhere close. Without going into a lot of detail about the conversation, we ended up finding a wall on which to sit while he ate the sandwich he bought. We chatted for about two hours.
Many friends have described me as being a magnet for a talker. Suffice it say, I seem to be blessed with a demeanor that makes some people, especially “edge” people, feel safe and comfortable. It isn’t a technique, but rather an attitude. I am as honest and open with others as I would have them be with me. I assumed quite some time ago that if I really tried to analyze how this process worked, I would mess it up. I believe it is simply a matter of authenticity – I am who and what you see, like it or not. I consider this aspect of my person as a gift of God that occurred when I was released from the self-imposed prison of my former life and healed of the self-judgment that accompanied it. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Initially, I answered more of this man’s questions than I asked and, after talking about my colorful past and current endeavors, he began to open up about his own life and experiences. Amid the sorrow he expressed for being apart from his wife, children and culture, it was easy to hear the pride and sense of dignity he felt for coming north to support his family and village. Also apparent was the underlying anger with governmental and business systems that made this kind of effort necessary for basic survival. I consider all his emotions and actions righteous, despite many of them being illegal. Towards the end of the conversation, he expressed his belief that God means for all people to have dignity, joy and sustenance and that it is an ungodly world that deprives his family and village, and others like them, of these basic necessities. I couldn’t agree more.
I like the idea of ministry as pastoral theology, a phrase a previous professor borrowed from somewhere. In that sense, God is present in any situation in which dignity and respect for others is expressed and elevated in importance. For me, that is the primary function of ministry, whether from the pulpit or the streets. In this encounter, ministry was mutual. Two people from totally different walks of life engaged in listening to each other – delving into and sorting through the debris left by cultural arrogance or oppression, as the case may be, and finding commonality, respect and, in this particular instance, love as if we were family. For me, these moments in time and space are the ones in which God’s presence in this world are tangible.
It strikes me that the deep and, sometimes, very dim knowledge that we are loved by God and, as such, have inherent dignity represents the image of God that is within us all. This Mexican-Indian gentleman, despite a life of abject poverty and oppression, recognized this kernel and was motivated to seek some small measure of basic survival for his family, no matter the risk. I, on the other hand, coming from a privileged and secure culture, reached a place in my life in which that glimmer of hope seemed to be extinguished and, absent the intervention of God through an obedient disciple, would have killed myself years ago. Which of us is better equipped for ministry? Well, I guess, we are both acceptable and loveable in the “eyes” of God, and equally equipped to extend that love to our fellow humans.
Authored by Revs Andy Little & Jenna Zirbel. Written by Andy.