Saying Yes to the Stranger?

Rev. Seth Patterson

with guests

Emilia Seay Allen, Zinnia Jonson, & MC Sheehan Hulse

February 25, 2024

Second Sunday in Lent and Immigration Sunday

Readings: Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 27:19; Zechariah 7:9–10; Matthew 25:35 & 40; Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:1–2; and selections from I Come From Arizona, by Carlos Murillo, Commissioned by The Children’s Theatre Company

Seth

Have you ever said yes to something that required a sacrifice yet also had the potential for new and unexpected gifts? Said yes because something bigger than your immediate comfort compelled you? Have you ever had the courage to say yes to the stranger?

Emilia Seay Allen, a friend and neighbor of this congregation, a core member of the now-former Theater 45°, a recent confirmation companion said yes.

Emilia

I said yes.

Seth

She said yes!

MC

She said yes to the stranger, to the unknown, to the holiness found in all people, especially the stranger.

Zinnia

Leviticus 19 says: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…”

Emilia

I’d never planned on Owning Property and, as a lifelong theatre artist, I’d never planned on having enough money. But in 2021, with my theatre career on ice indefinitely, a letter of agreement quoting me a comfortable salary, I started shopping for condos.

My new job was as the director of communications for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. The Right Reverend Craig W. Loya sends his greetings. In my work, we define justice—a core call of followers of Jesus, in this way: justice means building community with the poor and marginalized.

If I was going to surprise myself and join the ranks of the propertied, I was going to make sure that this wild leap into the American dream at least left me the room—the literal second bedroom—to say yes to a stranger who needed a bed.

That’s how Lorena, Fernando, and Rosalie came to live with me.

Seth

So often when a church holds sacred space for something like Immigration Sunday, we focus on the stories and trials of those who are experiencing forced migration. This is absolutely important and necessary and there are so many ways to access those stories right now. Please do not ignore them.

Our Biblical tradition calls for us to welcome the stranger. The Bible is talking to us! There will always be strangers and migrants in our midst and we are called (commanded!) to welcome them.

MC

“Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Deuteronomy 27

Zinnia

“God says: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” Zechariah 7

Seth

I heard a Biblical scholar once say that the Bible doesn’t uniformly say any ONE thing, but if it did it would say to welcome the stranger. That is one of the few consistent throughlines from all the Bible’s constituent pieces. Welcome the stranger, see God in the other.

Emilia

Lorena, Fernando, and Rosalie are from Ecuador. They left because of threats to Fernando’s family from the mafiosos. They walked through seven countries. They walked through the Darién Gap – or “the jungle” as the translation app calls it – and every time they talk about the jungle, an oppressive cloud settles over the conversation. While they waited to cross the border, they slept on the streets in Mexico, which they say were very scary, very dangerous. Many mafiosos.

All three of them live in my second bedroom. There are three new people in my life, in my home, in my family. When you love someone, they have no ceiling or floor—they are a universe. Three universes sleep in my second bedroom.

Seth

Jesus says in the book of Matthew: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my siblings you did it to me. (Matthew 25:35 & 40)

Emilia

Fernando is a 23 year-old boy, and I never wanted to live with a 23 year old boy. He is eager, friendly, competitive, nerdy. He likes to tinker. His love for Lorena and Rosalie is real, but he doesn’t always know how to share that love in ways they appreciate. But his devotion to his family is real, absolute, and tenacious. When the gangs began threatening him and anyone else associated with his father—because his father had done something to displease them—he took those threats seriously. And he had to—they’d already murdered his brother, and the photos and videos they sent, of his brother suffering and broken, haunt him still, and will haunt him forever. So he took his family and he took the only road he knew to safety. He came here, to the US. To us.

Lorena is 21, but you’d never guess it. She is the phrase “still waters run deep” personified. She’s rarely emotive. Fernando, Rosalie, and I are all given to moods. Lorena is solid. She’s incredibly smart. She left behind her father and six siblings, including her twin sister. I think she carries the ache of their absence with her everywhere, but she only rarely mentions it. She’s creative and canny. She’s a great cook, and someday wants to open a restaurant. She’s started a side hustle, making authentic Ecuadorian cuisine for a suggested donation, out of my kitchen. Just trust me – she’s remarkable.

Rosalie is four. She is smart, funny, and dramatic. She’s a genuinely great dancer and I’m jealous of her moves. She’s got big feelings. She’s obsessed with me. I’m obsessed with her.

Seth

Emilia heard the call to build community with the poor and marginalized. She says that the first time she began to understand Jesus was by reading Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. She began to understand that Jesus is of, by, and for the poor and marginalized. To be able to hear and understand Jesus, Thurman says we must recognize and join those whose backs are already against the wall.

Emilia

One reason I struggle to call myself Christian is that I’m not sure I am ready to do that. I take that call seriously and I am just not sure I’m ready to be that disempowered in this cruel world.

Seth

And still you said yes!

Emilia

I cannot give away my privilege. I could only buy the condo because of a car accident settlement, because I got a good lawyer who gave me a discount because we were introduced by a family friend. This privilege now brings me home to a child hugging me around the knees before I even get my coat off, to two amazing people who ask me, via translation app, about my day, to tell me that Fernando’s mom is sick, to offer me beautiful meals they made from the groceries from Groveland food shelf.

I now love three people whose backs are against the wall, whose blameless, beautiful faces are in the crosshairs. When we hear about 10 million people being deported, there is no question that would include Fernando, Lorena, and Rosalie. Occasionally I imagine this vivacious and loving child in a cage separated from her parents. The thought makes me nauseous. When Rosalie is in the bathroom with her mom, getting ready for the day, I hear her chattering away, her happy, demanding voice magnified by the tile. How could she be separated from Lorena? Imagining it keeps me awake at night.

Seth

The land that we sit upon today is Dakota land. It is the living earth that was stolen from our Indigenous siblings and given to strangers like us who arrived here from far away. What is your family’s story? Who welcomed or did not welcome them? Who said yes to them? Who put their backs against the wall to make space for your ancestors?

In the beautiful play, I Come From Arizona, these experiences are made explicit with two young women in the same Chicago high school class. The assignment is to examine your own history. Fiona goes first:

MC/Fiona

As you can see, I can trace my origins to the early days of Chicago. In 1848, my great great great grandfather moved from Hamburg, Germany, fleeing the revolutions. My German ancestors faced discrimination during WWI. The government put them on a list of “aliens” and prevented them from joining the Red Cross fearing they’d partake in sabotage. My Irish ancestors also were treated like second-class citizens. This poster I found on Google shows the Irish depicted as stereotypes – that they were violent, alcoholic, lazy. My ancestors came here with very little and faced discrimination. But through hard work we are where we are today. I can say proudly, my family helped build the city we live in today. Thank you.

Seth

Gabi is in the same high-achieving school and has been raised with the story that her family ‘came from Arizona.’ She now knows there is more to this story and her family may be in more danger than her parents tell her. Unable to give a prepared presentation, she instead says:

Zinnia/Gabi

On the internet you read about people that hate us, that don’t want us here – not just on the internet – kids in my own class. Saying we’re criminals, terrorists, that we take people’s jobs, that they should send us all back.

After school, I have to take two buses then the train.

It takes me an hour and a half to get where I live.

Before I go home, I have to pick up my little brother

from his after-school program, cause my mom’s working –

Wanna know where she works, Fiona?

She cleans office buildings in the Loop – who knows?

Maybe she cleans your father’s office?

At night? She babysits other people’s kids.

My Dad is away so she has to make enough money so we can eat.

When my brother and I get home? Before I can even start my homework?

I have to help him with his homework.

He needs me to cook dinner for him, play with him,

Get him ready for bed, tell him a story, make sure he stays in bed –

He gets up every five minutes “when is Mami coming home?”

Only when he’s asleep do I even start the ton of homework they give us

Which I can barely get done

cause I can’t keep my eyes open –

I sit there and worry –

What time will my mom come home?

What if she doesn’t come home?

Where’s my dad?

Is he coming back?

How can I get my little brother to stop needing everything from me?

Why do I feel like coming to this school, which is supposed to be so special –

Why does it feel like I made a big mistake?

Why didn’t I just go to the neighborhood school?

What makes me think I’m so special?

Seth

Who has welcomed you? When your family was a stranger, who took you in?

How are you now welcoming the stranger?

Zinnia

In the letter to the Romans, Paul says: Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

MC

The letter to the Hebrews says: Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Emilia

Building community with the poor and marginalized is way harder than giving money, or serving, or even agitating for changes to marginalizing systems. I think this is because our society is intentionally segregated along all the lines of difference that Jesus calls us to cross in love. One can have all the good intentions in the world and still not know how to build real relationships with those whose backs our society is built upon and against.

Seth

How can you say yes? Do you have an extra bedroom? An extra house? Extra income to help pay for rent or food? Extra time to volunteer with our Immigrant Justice group and their partners? How can you make a sacrifice to stand with those whose backs are against the wall and in return gain life and love in new ways? To move to a new land, often under incredibly dangerous circumstances, is an act of love – how can we welcome and love them back?

Emilia

It’s been three and a half months, and they’re moving into their own place soon. I’m already aching missing them, even while I’m excited for them to take this next step. I can’t imagine my life without these three. My overwhelming feeling is gratitude for these beautiful people and the gift of knowing and loving them—and of being loved by them. My heart, like God’s heart, is against the wall.

Zinnia

In this season of Lent, in this time of repair and renewal, we invite you to say yes to the stranger.

MC

You are invited to embrace an ethic of care and remember our call to welcome the stranger.

Emilia

You are invited to say yes and love the strangers whose backs are against the wall. For God’s love is abundant and we can share it.

Seth

May it be so.

9 a.m. service

11 a.m. service

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