Years ago when I was involved with Hispanic ministry in our conference, I went to San Jose, Costa Rica for a Spanish immersion experience. I am far from a world traveler. I grew up in south central PA, referenced as either “God’s Country” (for its beautiful mountains and scenery that a native will never cease to pine for) or Pennsyltucky (since it is geographically located within Appalachia). My family didn’t have much money so an exotic vacation was camping on the Jersey shore! I was in my 20’s before I took my first plane ride and well into my 30’s when I traveled outside the U.S. for the first time on a mission trip to Honduras. (Traveling abroad with a church group provides a very helpful sense of security.) My Costa Rica trip was my first time to travel alone. Before my departure, Verizon assured me my cell phone would function there. They were wrong. I spent my first night lying awake worrying that my husband would be laying awake back in Indiana worrying and wondering why he still hadn’t heard from me. It was the next morning until I was able to phone home and also discovered that I would be taking the bus to my Spanish classes every day. I’ve spent most of my adult life in urban settings but, somehow, have managed to avoid (for the most part) navigating the mass transit system. For whatever odd reason, mass transit intimidates me… and even more so in a city where I can’t speak the language of the bus driver.
On my first day after class I boarded the bus. My stop was near the end of the line. I watched nervously as all my classmates disembarked and darkness fell over the city. My anxiety reached panic levels when I realized that people were pulling a chord at the front of the bus to request the driver make a stop. I was too short to ever reach that chord! I saw my host’s home through the window. As we drew closer to it, I realized (from the bus’ speed) that it was not a regular stop. Jumping to my feet, I ran down the aisle of the bus yelling “alta, alta” (which is NOT what you are supposed to say), perhaps causing my driver to panic that he had missed a stop sign. He slammed on the brakes and opened the bus door. I was wearing a backpack. When he hit the brakes, the weight of my backpack turned my little frame into a projectile; I rolled forward, hurtling down the aisle toward the door. Scrambling unsuccessfully to right myself, I ultimately rolled down the stairs and through the open bus door, sprawling in the street. (In hindsight, it probably looked pretty funny.) I’d torn one of my favorite blouses and my hands and elbows were bloodied. A neighbor had witnessed this production and came out of his home to help me. He spoke some menacing words to the bus driver which I could not – and, I suspect, should not – translate as the driver sped away. In tears, I limped to my host’s home where the woman cleaned and bandaged my wounds while the neighbor explained my mishap with a great deal of passion. I ate a little dinner and went to bed. Lying there in the dark, I began to berate myself for my foolishness and my reflections ended with this “prayer” (a prayer more fitting for a five year old than a seminary graduate): “God, please get me home safely and I promise I’ll never leave the U.S. again.” Looking back on that experience, I realize how silly I was. But, that night lying in the dark, I felt terribly insecure, lonely, lost and afraid.
Today’s blog is a departure from my usual writing because today I want to introduce you to my friend, Neetu. She came to this country with her husband when he was a visiting professor at the university in my town. He was abusive. The police were called and he moved on. Neetu did not move with him. But her brave decision was not supported by family in her native country where women who leave their husbands for any reason bring dishonor to their family. She has been shunned by her family. A local ecumenical ministry includes an immigration clinic. They have been working with Neetu for more than a year. She is an intelligent woman. She would like nothing more than to work and support herself. But the delay time for processing work permits is extremely lengthy. Neetu is caught in a situation with no good options. Her only option (while the wheels of immigration grind along slowly) is to rely on others in order to keep a roof over her head. She finds herself in a very vulnerable position in a strange land. She bears a double burden as a victim of domestic violence and our confusing and excruciatingly slow immigration process.
Some of you followed my Facebook postings over several weeks in February and March that shared scriptures of God’s commands to care for the foreigner or the stranger among us. Within the gospel of Matthew, the final parable Jesus tells (before his passion) is often referred to as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It is a parable that explains how we will be judged at the end of time and – in a way that is frankly quite unsettling – it makes no mention of what we believe. It lists no requirements of faith or adherence to any particular creed. According to the parable, our “final judgment” will be determined by how we have chosen to respond to the most vulnerable strangers/aliens/foreigners* among us… because the steadfast love and mercy of God doesn’t stop at the threshold of our homes; nor is it restricted to our family tree, our town, or even our nation. The steadfast love and mercy of God knows no boundaries or borders.
If you would like to help my friend Neetu, here is a link to the YouCaring page that has been set up for her: https://www.youcaring.com/neetu-814666. I hope that you will pray for her and I hope that you’ll share her story with others. Most of all, I hope (and pray) that, as disciples of Jesus here in a land of freedom and opportunities, we will want to share – not fearfully hoard – the abundant mercy and goodness God has shown us with others. (See Matthew 25:31-46 and Luke 10:25-37)
*the Greek word in our bible is xenos; the origin of our English word xenophobia, a fear of strangers.