Fairhaven Sermon 4-21-24

Fairhaven Sermon 4-21-24
Fairhaven Sermon 4 21 24

In this week's sermon by Rev. Peg Bowman, the focus is on the 23rd Psalm and the theme of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, coinciding with the fourth week of Easter, known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Rev. Bowman shares insights from a recent visit to the southern U.S. border, offering a different perspective from media portrayals and shedding light on the realities faced by migrants, particularly those from Venezuela seeking asylum. The sermon counters the narrative of fear and danger with one of community and divine presence, emphasizing the church’s role in extending care and hospitality.

Rev. Bowman also reflects on America's broader challenges, including a national difficulty with grieving, which she suggests has led to a prolonged response of fear and conflict post-9/11. She draws attention to the healing that needs to occur, including addressing racial oppression and the treatment of Native Americans. The sermon culminates in a call to action for the congregation to recognize their privilege and respond to the needs of migrants with compassion, aligning themselves with the Good Shepherd who cares for all, especially those on the fringes of society. The message is one of hope and duty, urging the community to follow the example of Jesus in welcoming and aiding those who come to the U.S. seeking refuge.


Well, this morning is the first, sorry, first fourth week of Easter, known around the world as Good Shepherd Sunday, which is why we've been singing all these shepherd songs and you hear the shepherd scriptures and so forth. So that everything about today focuses on Jesus as our Good Shepherd, the one who heals our wounds, the one who cares for us tenderly, and the one who lays down his life to save ours. And I'll be focusing today mostly on the 23rd Psalm. I also wanted to share with you, as many of you know, I just returned from an intensive trip to our southern border a few days ago, and I wanted to share with you what we saw and learned there.

And I can start out by saying that our Good Shepherd, Jesus, is very much present at the border, very present with God's people there. I went to the border, as you recall from the last time I was with you, I went saying that I didn't believe what we're hearing from the media and saying I wanted to learn the truth. I think we found the truth as much as it's possible during a three-day visit. I went to the border thinking that I'd be able to discern what's true and what's not by reading between the lines in the news, and boy was I wrong about that.

I went to the border wanting to return home and speak the truth, and that effort begins today, but I hope it won't end today. I went to the border thinking I might find myself scared or in danger. We were not in danger, and I wasn't scared. I went to the border hoping to be fully present to the people we met and hoping to share the love of Jesus.

I came away feeling a bit overwhelmed with new information and experiences and hoping that we succeeded in representing well, but our group leader, Bree, as she pointed out, the reality is we are not bringing God to these places and these people because God is already present. You are with us, Lord. You are our rod and our staff, and they comfort us as we go. I went to the border knowing that this Sunday would be Good Shepherd Sunday and praying that we would see the Good Shepherd in action at the border, and Jesus was there, and Jesus is there.

Our Lord is the Good Shepherd of travelers, no matter where we come from or where we go, and I've experienced God's guidance on other journeys. It's one of the reasons why I love traveling. Our Lord truly does shepherd us when we travel and brings us to people that God wants us to meet, and that works both ways, both for those who travel and those who are visited. So let me tell you what happened.

Do we have that slide show up there? Is it there? There we go. This is where we started. So let me fill this in. First, by way of background, I was traveling with a group of women, 18 of us, from across the country.

We are members of Women of Welcome, which is an interdenominational Christian group that meets mostly on Facebook to study together and to advocate together. Our time at the border was organized by this group called Abara. They have actually locations on both sides of the border. This was the El Paso location, and I particularly love this shot because that blanket over the top of the doors, that's a mural.

That's painted on. Is that cool? I just think you look at that, I think we're here. It's a beautiful place. So Abara provides microenterprise opportunities for women who are migrants.

They provide supplies for shelters that are run by faith-based agencies, and they provide meals. At Abara, we learned first off that in ministry, we need to be aware of the need for self-care. We need to rest. We need to eat.

We need to hydrate. We need to care for ourselves so that we can care for others. And they advised also that we not try to learn everything all at once, but to take pictures and to ask questions. One of the first things we discovered is that the media, as I had guessed, has misrepresented many things, many things, not just the things we thought we knew about, okay? For example, the media has misrepresented us.

The media has told the refugees coming to this country that Americans hate them. They expect to be abused. And one of the best things that you and I can do is to prove the media wrong about that every chance we get. All it takes is a hello and a smile, and our shepherd, our good shepherd, will guide us in the paths of righteousness.

Our group was staying in El Paso, Texas, and on the first day, we crossed over to Mexico and spent the better part of the day in Juarez. And the two cities of El Paso and Juarez, if you have not been there before, they're kind of like the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. They're divided by a river, but it's essentially the same city.

It's just that this particular river also happens to be on an international border. But that wasn't always the case. For literally hundreds of years, El Paso and Juarez were one city with a river running through it. It was only like in the 1850s that the river became an international border.

Before then, the city was one. And the really striking thing, which you see and feel right away when you're there, is a total lack of any feeling of conflict. The people of El Paso and Juarez love each other and get along together. A lot of them are related.

And it's very common for people to cross the river every day for work or to go to school, which helps explain one of the first things we saw when we arrived at a borough. Next slide up there. There we go. The border is joy, love, and community, not your crisis.

And that's exactly the way it was. People there love each other and care for each other. At a borough, we learned even more about the media's misrepresentations. For example, the city of El Paso has been consistently listed in the top 10 safest cities in the United States for decades.

Right now, I think they're number three on the list. And while Juarez has had some problems in the past on the other side of the river, safety there has improved a lot because the people demanded better. And as visitors, our group was able to cross the border both in a car and on foot with no problems at all. So what is the issue then? And where are all these people coming from? And what is causing this mass migration to our southern border? Well, the staff at a borough explained to us that the vast majority of people coming to our country right now wanting to enter the United States are coming from Venezuela, a distance of over 3,000 miles.

If I can see the next one there. Okay. So that big dark green spot there, that's Venezuela. In South America, so to get to our southern border, they have to walk the entire length of Central America.

So that's Panama, Colombia, whatever. So the number, like five different countries through Mexico and, okay, somewhere up in there, like around where the letter N is in North America, that's sort of where we were staying. So about 3,000 miles that these folks are traveling. You may have heard why in the news that there are problems in Venezuela.

Basically the legitimate government has collapsed there. And there have been disappearances, boycotts, drug trafficking, narco-terrorism, corruption. The murder rate in Venezuela is one of the highest in the world. They have runaway inflation, chronic shortages of necessities like water.

And the bottom line, though the sources differ, about 8 million people have left Venezuela in the past decade. Most of those people are not coming to America. Most of those folks stay in South American countries. And the people with money, about half a million or so, have moved to Spain.

But those who decide to try to come to America because of family or because of work or because they want a new start, well, first off, there are no roads that connect that green place to us. There is a place right, that little skinny part near Panama down there at the bottom, where it's basically essentially a jungle. There are no roads. So you're walking through complete wilderness, undeveloped, unsafe, and it's a haven for violent people.

For people who choose to head for America, they risk their lives to do it. Many try to ride on top of trains, which that's a different kind of danger. People pass through rivers that run with sewage. They deal with trees and bushes that have one to two inch long jaggers on them.

I saw some of these things. I was like, you're going to stay away from that thing. And by the time the people get to our border, they have basically lost just about everything but the clothes on their backs. If the people approach our border the legal way, which most of them want to do, they will approach a border official and request asylum or some other form of immigration, such as being a migrant worker, and then they wait.

The US courts are backed up right now. The wait for a court date to have one's case heard can be weeks, oftentimes months, and the waiting has to be done in Mexico. By the time the people get to our border, they have nothing but the clothes they're wearing. Many of them are sick.

Many are injured. None of them have food or money. And when they arrive at our border, they see basically a desert and a city and canals where the water has a deadly undertow and this huge wall. So where do they go? What do they do? Should they try to find a space at an overcrowded shelter? Do they risk going over the wall, not knowing what will happen next? We talked to some border patrol agents while we were there.

Do I have-- I know that's-- what's our next picture? Let me see. OK, not yet. I'll leave that there. I'll get to that.

OK. So we did talk to some border patrol agents, and they told us that the safest option for people if they decide to try to climb the wall is to do it near civilization, not far away, and to locate border patrol immediately and request asylum. Because away from civilization, the mountains there are dangerous and the desert is deadly. And chances of survival are best if they locate border patrol right away.

Psalm 23 says, He makes me to lie down in green pastures, and he leads me beside still waters. I didn't see any green pastures there, but the region is unimaginably dry. But people on both sides of the border take the time, and they find the water to grow beautiful gardens. And the God-given impulse for life and for beauty are very much present and alive at the border.

Even so, sometimes we felt like we were walking in the valley of the shadow of death. We were literally walking where people have died, where the countries come together at the corner of Texas and New Mexico and Mexico. In the distance on the mountaintop, there is a statue of Jesus, Christ the King, with his arms up over the valley, and it reminds us that our shepherd is there and that justice is at hand. You anoint my head with oil and my cup overflows.

We are, each one of us, anointed with oil. All of us are equally children of God, no matter where we're from or where we are now. We will all dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Jesus said, Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.

There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus is with these individuals and these families as they approach our border. Our good shepherd walks with them, guiding them and keeping them. And the fact that they even survived to make it to our border itself is a witness that God is with them. Jesus said, Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me, not because Jesus has a political agenda, but because Jesus really was in their shoes as he walked this earth.

What gave me great joy was to see that in both El Paso and in Juarez, God's people are stepping up to help. And more people are needed, to be sure, but with Jesus' help, miracles are happening every day. Our first day, we visited this shelter. This was in Juarez.

It's called Casa Judas. It used to be a Catholic girls' school and is now a shelter for women and children. It is run by Roman Catholic nuns and sisters who have the biggest hearts for people. And we spent a few hours here.

And one of the first things that I saw when we visited one of the dorms was this. Next photo. Look at that. It says, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, in Spanish.

In this place, we witnessed joy, especially in the children. And when the children were smiling, of course, the moms were smiling. In this place, each person has their own bed and their own nightstand to put their belongings on. And they have newly remodeled bathrooms with curtains on the showers, which restores the dignity of people who haven't experienced dignity for a long time.

The children have a beautiful playground to play on. They also attend lessons. The women cook for each other. And the place is neat and well-organized, like any Catholic school you've ever seen.

There was a sense that we were standing on holy ground. And we were not told this directly, but it is likely that some of the babies we met were products of rape, because 90% of the women making this journey are raped along the way. But the mothers loved their children, and the sisters there helped us all to get to know each other, using the international languages of Jenga and laughter and ice cream with gummy worms. It was a wonderful afternoon.

And we came away asking, Why is this so hard? Or as our leader Bree put it, How did compassion get so political? And later that day, we drove to the Mexican side of the border and looked at the Rio Grande, in the place where the three states come together, Texas, New Mexico, Mexico. And at this point on the border, the river's not very high. And we saw some of the local people enjoying a swim with their dog in the river. We also saw a lot of high-tech government equipment on the far shore, cameras and motion cameras and recording devices and things like that.

It would be impossible to cross that river without being seen. Border patrol is always nearby. Anybody crossing will be picked up usually in a minute or less, which for the people who want to move to the United States is exactly what should happen, because contact with border control, border patrol, is the very first step that they need to take in becoming residents of the states. Next photo, please.

That is us. That's our group. And right in the center there, you can see the two border patrol agents that we met with. We spoke with them for a while.

Next photo, please. This is the executive director of Ibarra, our group where we were. He was sort of our tour guide as well. I like this picture because this is, okay, right where he's standing, you can imagine this way is New Mexico, this way is Texas, and this way is Mexico, okay? And he actually literally has one foot in each country right there in that spot.

And I just, I love that shot for that reason. It kind of shows you just sort of the lines between countries can be a little bit arbitrary sometimes. There you are. And that's, by the way, further up that hill, that's where the statue of Jesus is.

All right. So and we spoke to the border patrol agents. We heard the same thing from the agents that we heard from people all over El Paso, and that is we're not what they say we are in the media. Because they keep coming back to that, it's not what you've heard, it's not what you've heard.

Border patrol has been completely overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people arriving. And there are not enough officers to handle everyone. Border patrol needs more people, in case you know anyone who needs a job, they need more people. Members of border patrol are trained to be law enforcement officers, but they're being called on to handle a humanitarian crisis.

And they're not trained or equipped for that. And this is part of the reason why there is such a high suicide rate among border patrol agents. What gets to them most are the migrant children. These women, they said to us, we're moms too, we love kids, we don't want to see them harmed.

What they do have to do is to, they work with the border wall, and they work, they have the border wall, they have the cameras, they have the motion detectors, both above ground and underground. Border patrol's job is to be present in minutes or less, whenever someone shows up on one of these devices. And they said they need more walls in some places, but they do not need walls everywhere. They said we do not need a wall through the entire length of the border.

They're not even looking for that. They said in remote places where there's no wall, it's dangerous to be there. There's a reason there's nobody there. But they watch for footprints, which are basically impossible to hide in the sand.

One of the other major problems for border control is the drug cartels. Domesticized crime today is exceedingly organized. They deal in drugs, human trafficking, the sex trade, extortion. It's also important for us to know, they said, that 80 to 90% of the people smuggling drugs into the United States are American citizens, and they fly in.

They don't come across the border. So one thing I noticed that kept cropping up in the background of all these conversations is that so much of the security and the technology at the border was developed in response to 9/11, September 11th. And I've been sensing this reaction to 9/11 in the background of this whole conversation, this whole national conversation for some time. I mean, as a pastor, our American response to 9/11 reminds me of people I've known who have suffered great loss and have never properly grieved that loss.

And what I mean is this. When an individual fails to grieve, a part of that person sort of shuts down, a positive part of that person. And they may get locked into patterns of behavior and ways of thinking that were appropriate once but are no longer useful. And they may feel very alone in the world, cut off from others and threatened.

But as a nation, we responded to 9/11 with a war overseas and fighting each other here at home. And that hasn't stopped. As a nation, we have never worked our way through that grieving process. At least that's what I think I've been seeing.

But I wanted to get a second opinion on that. So at one point in El Paso, I pulled Sammy aside and I asked him about this. And I said, This is what I'm seeing. Does this make sense to you? Are we still grieving or failing to grieve? What's causing these problems that we see in our country today? What are you thinking about this? And Sammy thought about this for a moment and he said, Americans don't grieve well in general.

He said, It's not the American way. We tough it out. We push through. We keep going.

That's the American way. And we talked about this. We talked about other things that our nation has not grieved yet, like our history of racial oppression and what we've done to the Native Americans. Horrible losses for these people groups, but losses for ourselves as well because there's so much good in these others that we've missed out on.

And I mentioned to him along the same lines that I've shared with you all before, my friend Denise's fear of the medical profession because black people have not been treated the same way as white people by many doctors. And I shared this with Sammy and how my being there with her at her doctor's was, in her words, like night and day. And Sammy said that this was something he also has been just learning recently as he deals with the hospitals in El Paso. He's been seeing some of the same things.

As a nation, we need to confess these things to God, bring them to the cross of our shepherd. That's what the cross was about, was taking care of stuff like this. And then face into the reality, grieve our losses because the loss is ours as well as theirs. And the longer we put it off, the more strident the public voices will become and the more harm we will do to ourselves and others.

That's the deep thought for the day. Our final visit was a migrant shelter, was to a migrant shelter in El Paso. And this shelter is a very short-term shelter. The people here are usually there just for a day or two, maybe three.

Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church feeds and houses about 100 to 150 people every night in their gymnasium. And the shelter is run by a guy named Mike, who has retired from 26 years of service in the Border Patrol and is now running this shelter in his retirement. Next photo, please. There he is.

No, sorry, previous. That's him. That's Mike down there in the lower left corner. And what you're looking at here is the clothing bank, which is sort of in a room off the gymnasium there.

Mike tells us that being able to choose what they're wearing is a major way to restore a sense of dignity to these folks. And so he invites them into this room and gives whatever he can. Sacred Heart also provides a clothing, a diaper bank, first aid supplies, and chargers for cell phones, because the cell phones are essential, because that's how the interviews with government officials are set up. Next photo.

Meanwhile, outside the shelter, the mural on the wall, this one over on the right, tells the story of Jesus and the priests and the people who built this place and who come to this place, and then the people pray at the Sacred Heart here on the left. The Shepherd's Psalm says, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. As God's children, we can claim this promise for ourselves. There is no reason to be afraid to get close to people who are coming to this country for help.

There are people in this country who want us to fear the people who come to our borders, but that's not God's way. God is very present in El Paso and Juarez. The people coming to the States have to cross a river to come to us, but we also, as God's people, need to cross a river, the river of doubt and fear, to welcome them and to give them shelter, knowing that Jesus will lead us beside the still waters. So where is our Shepherd leading us? We don't know that exactly just yet, but we know that it has something to do with home.

Our Shepherd leads us to a forever place for all of God's people. And one thing seems clear, though. We will find the Good Shepherd on the margins of society with the Samaritan woman at the well, with the poor and the hungry and the sick, with the migrants crossing the border. One of our fellow travelers, Brittany, a young woman in her, I think she's early 30s, who helped organize the trip, wrote this on the way home.

She said, The border is not just one thing. It's teenage Rayana and her five-year-old son playing Jenga while they wait. It's Sister Krista and Mother Sophia living with and serving vulnerable women and children. It's Mike, the border patrol agents, trained for one thing, struggling to do another.

It's Fernando from Venezuela in the plane seat next to me. And she adds, There's no reason it's not me and our girls in that shelter. I was just born here. Brittany also, on the way home, figured out how to spot immigrants who have just been released into the US to live here.

This is something we read about in our book club book, The House That Love Built. It was mentioned, the author of the book said that she learned how to spot people who had just been released by the government into the country. And Brittany, who speaks Spanish very well, found this young man from Venezuela sitting next to her on the plane home and struck up a conversation. And he was 23, traveling alone, and spent three days on the top of a train getting to the United States.

Brittany then texted all of us. She had left a little bit earlier than the rest of us. Text us, told us all what to look for. This is how you spot the other travelers, she said.

This is what you look for. And so on one plane, Claire and Jane, and then myself and Eva on another, spotted more. And Claire and Jane helped families from Venezuela and Ecuador find their way home. And Eve, who I was with, and thank God she speaks Spanish, explained to her that when we landed in Chicago, that I would help her find her gate for her next flight.

I mean, can you imagine being in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, can't read the signs, and all you have is a few possessions and a plane ticket to a place you've never been before? Can you imagine doing that? A savior like a shepherd lead us, right? Let this be our prayer. I think one of the biggest takeaways from this journey for so many of us is really just the incredible amount of privilege that we are born into just by being American, and how very much as Christians we have an obligation to use that privilege in the service of others. So the question in my mind and on my heart right now is, how can we join Jesus in caring for the people who look to America for help? What small part can we play? And I'm going to be focusing a lot of my attention on answering those questions over the next few months. I will be actively looking for ideas and opportunities, and if this resonates with you, let me know, because I'm sure our good shepherd will be leading us all the way.