Sermon: Who is My Neighbor?

Reading: Allende

This is a prayer for the migrants written by Ruben Martinez, who is also the author of the book – Crossing Over – A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail.

Allende means across, and the Spaniards once referred to the New World as “allende la mar” – across the ocean.  Ruben Martinez purposively picks a phrase that is heavy with the symbolism of a colonial power seeking fortune in the Americas to wish blessings for those who continue to cross borders in hopes of flourishing.    (Introduction attributed to Rev. LoriKim Joyner)

   [ I have only included a portion of this poem because of copyright laws. ]

Tonight we cross the Jordan into Canaan

We leave behind this vale of tears

And we’ll be born again, born again.

Who is My Neighbor?

Fred L Hammond © 2005

4 September 2005

Revised for UUCJackson © 18 November 2007

Revised for Our Home 2 March 2008

Driving across the country to begin my internship in San Diego, I read billboard signs requesting, no demanding, that our president honor his campaign promise to close the borders.  Then I was met with some unexpected road blocks.  Across New Mexico, Arizona, and California, the Interstates would come to a halt with men in military garb and rifles searching cars and vans for people seeking to cross the border.  The man in the car ahead of me is waving various papers at the soldier.  His trunk is examined.   He is dismissed.   At first, I thought I had crossed over into some bizarre parallel universe like in that old television show Sliders and my country was now a police state. 

As I witnessed these military personnel, I realized that the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty are no longer American Values.  We no longer want to receive, “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” in America.   

A few summers ago, I had the honor of traveling in Mexico as part of a course on religions and social struggles.  We met with a woman from El Salvador, now living in Mexico City.  Anna-Maria* (* Names have been changed.) told us about her brother, a Lutheran Pastor, who had developed several outreach programs.  Perhaps you will recognize these programs.  His church started a soup kitchen, a food pantry, and sewing classes.    These were much needed services. The El Salvadoran government assassinated her brother because his activities were seen as revolutionary.  The town and church were then bombed by American planes.  A midst the rubble, Anna-Maria continued the soup kitchen for her now homeless neighbors.  She was told if she continued her entire family would be killed.  She fled to Mexico and is now trying to organize help for the refugees from her country. 

Another woman, Rosa*, told us about her family losing their land and seeking to purchase land in Mexico City.  The land they bought had also been sold to three other buyers.  There were four legal owners who had to negotiate how to use this land.  She organized the families to help found a school for their children.  The nearest school was far away and too expensive to attend.  They collectively purchased some land and built a school to provide basic education.  The government seized the land and shut down the school since it was not a sanctioned school in Mexico.  She continues to organize and now has moved into nutritional education.  Her family grows sprouts to try to educate the importance of finding organic sources for vitamins.  She receives death threats from the police for attempting to organize the community. 

We stayed for several days with the people of the small ejido of El Pacayel in Chiapas, Mexico on the Guatemalan border. Ejido’s are small tracts of land given to a group of people, generally indigenous, by the government to farm and to live on.

Here I discovered Children playing, singing, laughing and crying. I am not sure exactly why this should have surprised me so much. Part of it has to do with the propaganda of the international charitable organizations that seek to raise funds by showing third world children.  You know the video clip.  Sally Struthers walks down dirt trodden roads with children cast aside along the way unable to move from hunger or disease pulls at our heart strings to donate money.   The closing clip shows her holding a young girl all gussied up and smiling. 

It was this propaganda that had so steeped my mind that I wasn’t prepared to see so many children doing what children do best-laughing and playing.   I had to remind myself that I was in El Pacayel.

The village is among the poorest of Chiapas.  And Chiapas is one of the poorest states in Mexico.  We were welcomed with open arms.  There was a celebratory dinner in the outdoor basketball court that also served as a community center. As I stood looking around the courtyard, I was in awe of the green lush mountains towering overhead and we were already in the mountains. 

There is a school for the children, where up to an equivalent of an 8th grade education could be received.  Beyond that, the student would have to leave El Pacayel and additional schooling is expensive.   It was not impossible for this to happen but the outcome might not be any different.  One person did leave and furthered his education.  He even was able to go to university and received an engineering degree.  However, with over one million people entering the workforce every year and a continual decrease of jobs in the nation since the passage of NAFTA, no work is available.  The young man came back to El Pacayel to work the coffee fields.

The people of Pacayel do not receive much from the sales of their Coffee.  They receive less than 10 cents of the five dollar cost for a can of coffee here.  The minimum wage set by the government is 45 pesos for an eight hour day or about $4.50.  Just like it is here where people cannot live on minimum wage, the daily financial need for basic survival is a lot more per day.   The minimum wage law is not enforced.   There is a need for additional cooperatives to be formed like the Fair Trade Coffee Company which seeks to fairly compensate the coffee growers.  

The people of Pacayel are seeking funds to help them build a clinic in their village.  The nearest clinic is 3 hours away by truck.  Most people from this village walk there and many have died on the way.  When you hear the people talk about their clinic, they are filled with hope and pride.  There are no doubts in their mind that the clinic will be built it is only a question of when.  Architectural plans have been drawn up.  The foundation has been poured. They are waiting for their funds to reach $ 20 thousand so they can finish the construction.  There isn’t much talk about how they hope to keep the clinic stocked with supplies. They do have medical volunteers from Switzerland who have been helping them.

All of their resources are going towards making the clinic a reality. None of the money they earn is going to make their present lives easier. The homes we visited were simple; dirt floors, drapes for doors, small table with two plastic lawn chairs for a family of 5 or more.  In the corner a wood burning stove made from stones with a flat iron plate over the flames for making tortillas.   Some of the homes had evidence of basic electricity. A bare light bulb hanging from a wire was seen in some homes. However, the electricity was knocked out by a storm two weeks before our arrival.  There was no information as to when electricity would be restored. 

We were invited to eat meals in their homes and sometimes the meals were served in the dark because a package of candles cost 30 pesos which is almost a full day’s wage.  The meals were plentiful which humbled us because we knew they had so little to spare. 

One young man I met was Miguel.* He was 16 and the oldest of 5 siblings.  He wants to become a Pentecostal minister to give his people hope. He spoke of his father who left several years ago to find better wages to support his family working in the factories in Mexicali, several thousand miles away.  They have not heard from him in many years.  Miguel was not aware of how dangerous a trip to Mexicali is for people of little resources. 

So we did not share with Miguel the stories of people traveling up the coast on the infamous Death Train.  An American owned railway with no tangible cargo other than the stowaways of would be immigrants searching for work, searching for hope.  Many die on the train from lack of water and food; others are killed by the gangs that prey on the train along its route.   I worried that this might have been his father’s fate.

I hear the fear that many Americans express when they complain that illegals or the term I prefer, undocumented immigrants, are taking their jobs.  But the fear is not backed up by the reality. In fact undocumented immigrants in the United States have benefited us in many ways.  Those that have found work contribute 7 to 8 Billion dollars annually in uncollectible FICA and Medicaid payments[1]. They have been keeping the social security system solvent for decades.  And closer to home, the Jackson Free Press recently published that despite claims that immigrants are costing Mississippi millions of dollars. The immigrant workforce, both documented and undocumented have actually increased Mississippi’s economy by billions of dollars.   

A PBS show on population and economic trends in the world, stated that unlike other developed countries whose economies are expected to bottom out and collapse in the next fifty years due to zero or below zero population growth such as Japan, the US will remain a viable economy only because of its current influx of undocumented and documented immigrants. The very people we want to keep out will be the salvation in preserving the American way of life.   

NAFTA has wrecked havoc on Mexico.  NAFTA has served American Corporation’s interests well but it has not produced the boon to the Mexican worker as promised.  American corporations being the savvier, the better politically organized, and having more disposable capital; have steamrolled over Mexican industry.  Influencing Mexican legislators to re-write laws to favor American businesses and eliminating their Mexican competitors.   This has caused great pain in the Mexican people.  Thousands of industrial jobs vanished because the Mexican businessman cannot compete with American corporations.

Mexico’s resources do not belong to the Mexican people; they belong to Exxon and GM.   They belong to Coca-cola, Pepsi, Del Monte and the British owned company, Jose Cuervo.   Foreign Corporations such as these are getting rich on the backs of Mexican labor.  Because Mexico does not have the environmental and labor laws that we do, the work conditions in these facilities are hazardous.  Not breaking the laws of a country does not mean ones business practices are ethical or doing no harm to people and environment.

The people of Mexico have no means to create their own wealth from their own resources because the government has sold it out from under them.  When people do own land, they do not own the mineral rights to that land.  So when their land is found to be filled with resources they are forced to leave without proper compensation.

I began to understand why people want to come into America by any means they can to find work, to find ways of supporting their families, to find ways of having a better life… all the basics that you and I want to have.  Yet, many here in America are feeling that their social identity is no longer clear when they hear multiple languages spoken on the street.  They feel their values are under attack when the family down the street has a different set of family values.  

These individuals begin to talk about only recognizing citizenship to those that are born here to legally documented citizens.  They begin advocating denying education to children of undocumented families.  They begin talking about denying health care to people who are unable to speak proficient English.  They begin talking about creating felons out of those educators and health care providers who provide these services.

There are bills such as these proposed in this year’s state legislature’s session in Mississippi.   These bills go against our Abrahamic faith teachings of Leviticus 19:34 “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you…..”

In this process of defining narrowly what it means to be American, the other, the undocumented immigrant becomes an enemy of the nation. So any event that can be conflated together to enhance the purported reality of the undocumented as the enemy is touted in media controlled by those believing our social identity is under siege. 

Last fall, a murder occurred in a trailer park outside of Jackson and in investigating the scene, the police discover that the eyewitnesses and neighbors were undocumented immigrants.  The local news conflates these two events with videoing the undocumented being arrested and deported as a result of this murder committed by American citizens. This conflation solidifies the notion that undocumented folk are part of an evil and dangerous plot to destroy all that is good and needs to be scourged from this country.    This thinking, this form of xenophobia gaining strength here in America is one factor of many used to develop a fascist nation according to novelist and essayist Umberto Eco.[2]    

This past month in Jackson, The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents entered the La Cotorra Mexican Restaurant brandishing guns at customers and threatening the manager.  This was captured on the restaurant’s surveillance cameras.    The agents have been rounding up Hispanic looking individuals across the state regardless of their documented status in the hopes of finding those without proper documentation.   

The use of fear is a powerful weapon.  However, these tactics are more akin to repressive regimes than to free democracies.  We will not succeed in democratizing the world if we insist on using the tools of repression at home. 

At our General Assembly last year in Portland, Oregon our denomination passed a resolution of immediate witness calling for the end of such raids and for our congregations to seek ways to offer support and solidarity with these families seeking “recognition and dignity in United States.” [4] 

Listening to the stories of Anna-Maria, Rosa, and Miguel within the NAFTA context, it became clear to me that we need to help ensure human rights for all people.   It became clear to me that our corporations need to realize that an educated and empowered employee force will translate into higher quality production.  It became clear to me that “loving my neighbor as myself” is not some nice phrase a holy man said 2,000 years ago but is in reality the means to express LOVE to me. 

What does all this mean?  It boils down to this.  How we treat our neighbors in Mexico and Central America would be how we treat our own citizens if laws were changed to mirror Mexico’s and Central America’s.  We need to rise to a higher code of ethics, one that benefits all mutually and equitably.   When I love my neighbor, I am expressing love to me.  When I seek to help you have human rights and freedoms it is in my best interest.  When I seek to create jobs in Mexico, it is in my own best interest.  Working to help others thrive and prosper is a key to ensuring my prosperity. When I contribute to the well-being of another, I am contributing to the well-being of me. 

Does all this ‘in my best self interest’ talk sound selfish?  The truth of the matter is all we do, hear, see, and think is filtered through our own viewpoint.  In this regard, we really are the center of our own universe.  From this standpoint, we are either contributing to our well-being or we are not. 

Who is my neighbor?  The people in Mexico are my neighbors and I will seek ways to help them thrive in their country.  Who is my neighbor?  Anna-Maria, Rosa, and Miguel are my neighbors and their lives interconnect with my well-being.  Who is my neighbor?  You are my neighbor and I shall seek ways to hold you in the positive light of well-being that surrounds each of us daily.   With my neighbors we will ‘leave behind this vale of tears and we’ll be born again, born again’[5]


[1] Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security With Billions , By EDUARDO PORTER, Published: April 5, 2005 New York Times

 [2] Eco, Umberto, Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt in American Fascists by Chris Hedges 2006

[3] MIRA en ACCION!  February 2008  Ethnic Cleansing in Mississippi?

 [4] http://www.uua.org/socialjustice/socialjustice/statements/31603.shtml

 [5] From the poem “Allende” by Ruben Martinez

Published on April 15, 2008 at 6:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

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