To listen to God’s word

About 6 weeks ago, I received a summons to jury duty at the circuit court in Lowndes County. It was the second time I had gotten such a summons and I found myself reacting the way I did when I got the first one: I got a big lump in my throat and I started tearing up. I am still moved beyond words by the privilege and responsibility of being part of the vast tapestry of people that the Constitution of this country, and the rule of law, have knit into one.  

I first started hoping I’d be able to come to America as a young girl. I loved my country of origin and still do. It’s funny, how you figure out you love something deeply. I had lived far longer in the US when my mom died than I had in Colombia. Yet the morning after her death, what I wanted more than anything was to be able to sit and look up at the gorgeous Andean mountain range that watched over my family as we were growing up outside of the city of Cali.  As much as I loved my country, neither I nor anyone else could escape the fact that for 3 generations, Colombia had been torn by sectarian violence that fairly regularly broke into de facto civil war.  My family was part of the merchant class of Colombia, privileged enough not to deal with the daily realities of the violence but close enough to it to ask ourselves when the shoe would drop.  

It wasn’t until I had been gone for almost 10 years, on the night before my graduation from seminary, that the worst actually happened.  Late in the night, I was woken up when my younger brother called to tell me that my two cousins, the cousins I grew up with, the cousins who were almost brothers had gone up into the rainforest in the mountains on a foolish camping trip. Alex was 19, Mario Andrés was 21. They and the friend they’d gone out with, were attacked by a group of people from the ELN, the Army of National Liberation guerrilla group. They were pursued all night and by the time dawn broke, Alex and Mario Andrés, and the friend that was with them, were too exhausted to go on. When the guerrilla group caught up with them, they showed no mercy in the way they killed my two cousins. They let the third young man live and told him, go back to Cali and tell those rich people to stay out of our lands. After a two year cease fire, we are watching Colombia once again slip back into the sectarian violence and it is wrenching.

Even back then, as that young girl trying to find her way here, no matter how much I wanted it to be possible, there was only hope and no certainty. I figured out the best path for me involved getting highly educated in this country so I would have a skill of value that would allow me to apply to become a permanent resident, and perhaps one day, a citizen. In those days, the government agency that handled immigration was INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). When I got my letter of acceptance to RMWC, my parents helped me start the process to get a student visa.

At each and every step of the way, the process was intended to be as intimidating and discouraging as possible.  Every time I left the US as a student, I had to have a form called an I-94 that allowed me to board a plane coming to the USA. But it was the immigration officer at the airport in Miami that had absolute and total discretion in deciding whether or not I could come back into the country. At any time, they could have refused entry, revoked my visa and sent me home on the next plane.  An officer could even have said I was forbidden from ever returning to the USA and I would have had no right of appeal.  

As things worked out, I was at Vanderbilt working on my PhD when Sherod and I began to date seriously and then got married.  I got to our interview in Atlanta to get my green card, and started shaking; Sherod couldn’t understand why.  But when the interview as over, it was he shaking, though shaking not with fear like me but in anger.  A highly decorated helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam, in that interview he had been treated as if he was a lowly criminal trying to pull a fast one on his nation. 

My final step of immigration came on December 1, 1994, in the federal courthouse in Memphis, TN. Along with about 95 other people representing 83 nationalities, I stood, raised my right hand and said, “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America…” Would that I hadn’t had to renounce my loyalty to Colombia, the land that birthed and raised me. And how extraordinarily blessed and proud I felt to have become an American.

Through all my time here, I have always, always, found parts of what was happening in our nation that I was fiercely proud of, and policies, decisions and actions that I vehemently and energetically opposed—it’s cut across both political parties.

That began to change a couple of years ago. Probably, it was only immigrants like I who became aware that policies were being changed to make it a lot easier to strip people of their citizenship. I started measuring my words a little more carefully. I now carry the kind of uneasiness that was part of daily living in Colombia—watching us tear and be torn apart into us’s and them’s. I have heard Mexican people called filthy, criminals, the lowest of the low, and how they “aren’t even human, they are animals.” Each time things like that have been said about Mexicans, the name I have heard is Luz María, the face I have seen is the face of my Mexican-born daughter, who is the light of my life, the source of the greatest joy in my life. On Wednesday night, something finally got pushed too hard in me when I heard thousands of people chanting, “send her back, send her back, send her back” and chanting it with real glee. I am filled with fear, I am filled with sorrow and anger, but above all I am convicted as a person of faith and a priest, because those voices, and all voices of hate and fear make it so hard to hear the more quiet voice, to hear the harder words that God speaks to us.

Between now and the beginning of Advent, the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures will all come from the great prophets from on old. Amos is considered the first of the great prophets, who spoke out in a time of relative peace both in the southern Kingdom under King Uzziah and King Jereboam, in the northern kingdom of Israel. After describing the injustices he sees, after building up a sense of impending catastrophe, Amos recounts that God says, “The time is surely coming, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” 

I have not experienced a God who punishes me, or anybody, for our brokenness, for our failures, for our sins and for our hardness of heart.  But I have experienced what it is like when we stop paying attention to, and trying to live by Gods words of mercy, of justice, of peace. Fear and hate tear and pull down and demean and destroy. Would that those who have died at the hands of violence, including Alex, and Mario Andrés, could raise a plea for life but their voices have been silenced.

 Donald Gowan, a person far more articulate than I am has asked a question that goes to the heart of the challenge I believe we face as a people of faith: “If we ignore the word God has set before us, what more can God do for us?” You and I, the Church of the Holy Comforter, are a speck, a little bit of nothing, against the vastness of the cosmos, the complexity of our shared humanity, the brokenness that is in every single one of God’s children. But that does not mean we cannot do anything.  We, just ordinary folks living ordinary lives, can and must listen carefully for God’s word. 

I have a challenge for us this week: whether you listen to MSNBC, Fox or anything in between, during the news hour either in the morning or the evening, turn off your TV, get your smart phone out and go for a walk, doesn’t matter how long. Go for a walk, looking for God.  Wherever you think you might have gotten even a brief glimpse of that God who created, redeemed and continues to want so desperately to sustain us, wherever you think you see something of that God of love, take a picture.  You don’t have to be a professional photographer—you just have to go looking with an eye of faith. Next Sunday, I’d love to hear how it went.  As we find our way through the prophets, we will continue to explore ways of responding to God’s Living Word.

But above all, amidst all the harshness, the stridency, the anger, and despair that colors so many of the voices around us, listen. Listen for the still small voice that nonetheless thunders and says,

“I am your God.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Proclaim the kingdom of God.

Choose me.”