This week felt a bit like a car crash of faith and politics. That was obviously true on the national level. But for me, this week it was a little closer to home. You may have read in the Post Dispatch about a panel Holy Communion had a small part in sponsoring around the election and immigration.
In the days that followed the online panel, a group of very vocal Catholics commented on the recording, claiming it amounted to an endorsement for the wrong presidential candidate, in their estimation. They made a fuss. They also spent some time making fun of our bishop, who gave the opening prayer. He was disparaged for being an immigrant and for being a gay man married to another immigrant. He’s doing fine. We’ve talked.
The controversy also may have cost a good friend her job with the Roman Catholic archdiocese. Marie Kenyon, a prominent attorney and human rights advocate has been put on indefinite administrative leave by the new archbishop. Until this week she served as director of the Peace and Justice Commission. The archdiocese released a statement that read essentially, “we shouldn’t mix faith and politics.”
I needed to get that story off my chest before I could turn to scripture this morning. I’ve been feeling like the Israelites, grumbly frustrated, tired. I told you last week, I think these stories we have from Exodus tell us about the state of the people Israel. They don’t know how to hope. They spent so long under the whip and the lash, they don’t know how to trust. God gives water not just to keep them hydrated, but to heal their traumatized souls.
I have to confess to you, as your pastor: I am afraid I have fallen short. You know I disagree with the sentiment behind the Archdiocese’s statement. You know I believe politics and faith sometimes belong together. As our presiding bishop recently said in his “Word to the Church” :
“partisan neutrality does not mean moral neutrality.”
I believe there are times when people of faith must get involved in politics. But I confess to you, I have fallen short. I haven’t gotten the mix of faith and politics quite right.
I attended live. Nothing in the panel gave me pause. I heard no violations of any election laws. Panelists explicitly said we were not there to endorse a candidate. Immigration policies of the current AND the previous administration were critiqued. The panel was bipartisan, in the sense that they judged both parties as coming up short for immigrants.
Jesus on faith and politics: You’ve got to give them hope
But in the response that followed the panel I have come to the conclusion, that when I have mixed faith and politics, I haven’t leaned enough enough into hope. The panel made me sad. The response made me angry. For someone who claims to follow Jesus, this is problematic. Jesus didn’t just walk around saying “woe to you.” Jesus is best known for saying “blessed are you.” Jesus helped people to hope.
In today’s Gospel Jesus may have been talking with pharisees and temple police, but he was speaking for the tax collectors and prostitutes. He was making sure they knew, they were blessed. They were going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of the religious authorities. In God’s kingdom, no one is expendable. Everyone has hope.
So today, I want to spend the balance of this sermon talking about hope. I want to tell you two stories, related to immigration that give me hope.
Two Stories on Immigration
I probably focus on questions of faith and politics in part because of where I started my ordained ministry. I know I tell a number of stories about St. John’s in Washington. Honestly, though, the best stories aren’t about the president walking across the street to pray.
Many of the best stories from St. John’s, the stories that still give me hope, are the stories that start at 1pm, the Spanish language service. For four and a half years I had the privilege of serving the immigrant congregation at St. John’s. It meant that I was often still at church around 4pm, because the Misa en Español was followed by a long leisurely almuerzo. We sat around eating lunch, talking, playing guitars, and laughing at the antics of the little kids.
One story lasted for about a month and a half on those Sunday afternoons. A group from the congregation huddled together at one end of the lunch tables around an elder of the congregation, a delightful Chilean woman named Maria. After years of petitioning, she had received word she’d been accepted to take the citizenship exam. And Sunday lunch, for six weeks, turned into an ongoing civics quiz. Maria always struck me as the kind of person who just didn’t have a mind for details. But she loved all of the attention she commanded those weeks at church. The Sunday before the test, we were all worried. She still consistently answered about half the practice questions wrong.
But the following week, she came to church with a printout. She had passed the test. Some of the women in the congregation moved quickly, sneaking out of church right after the Eucharist. They ran to the grocery store, and by hand in the church kitchen, they redecorated a birthday cake with a Chilean and an American flag. The lunch that Sunday became an instant party. Maria was going to be a citizen.
Another family had to keep the celebration quiet. Another of our matriarchs was a woman named Esther from El Salvador. She made me laugh with her quiet humor, the way she rolled her eyes whenever something went wrong and then smiled. She had a granddaughter Ana who lived with her, a woman in her early twenties, just a few years younger than I was at the time. Esther had a green card, which she received not long after escaping the war in El Salvador through an official channel for refugees. Esther was often unable to work. Her diabetes and other health challenges meant she couldn’t stay on her feet. Ana had come to the United States with her mother, who also fled the war but who came after the official channels had closed. Ana was left with grandma, to grow up in the United States. It was safer, even without papers.
Ana finished high school, got an associates degree and qualified as a medical technician, but couldn’t hold steady work because she didn’t have a visa. At one point she found a family, she helped care for an elderly patient at home for a few months. They agreed to pay cash but they kept “forgetting.” When Ana asked for the umpteenth time, the family turned on her, “and what are you going to do about it? You can’t sue. They’ll deport you.” Ana had two little boys of her own at home, in Esther’s care. The church often had to help this family make rent, or pay a utility bill. The family was always embarrassed to ask.
In late 2012, Esther and Ana came to me with tears in their eyes. Ana had received DACA status. She had a work permit, and two interviews for jobs that paid $19 or $20 an hour. “Dreamer” status still felt tenuous, and they didn’t want a party at church. They didn’t want to be that public. I’ve changed their names in telling their story to protect their privacy. Still within a few months, the four of them had upgraded out of their moldy one bedroom basement. We had dinner together and blessed their new home.
God doesn’t respect Human Boundaries
In today’s Gospel, Jesus looks at representatives of the religious establishment and says, “those prostitutes and tax-collectors, those people you revile so much, those people you preach against, they’re going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” I have to believe, it is because Jesus spent so much time with folks who were left out by society. Jesus spent time, Jesus broke bread, with people who were considered unworthy. Because he spent all that time with those society counted out, Jesus knew, the Spirit of God wasn’t partisan. God doesn’t respect the divisions we humans create. Jesus was naming the blessing he saw.
I don’t even know how many generations my family has been in this country. I know I have 4x and 5x great grandparents who were born here. But I’ve never known folks more committed to the idea of America, I’ve never known better citizens than the immigrants along whom I have had the privilege to serve.
Faith and Hope for a better Politics
My faith teaches me to hope for a politics that can recognize the blessing immigrants are to our country. My faith teaches me to listen, to eat with, to laugh with those whose great hope is to make a better life, yes for themselves, yes for their families, but also for the wider community to which they have immigrated.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis may have pulled the plug on their own participation in these immigration forums. They have that right. But the archbishop can’t cancel them entirely. I’ve spoken to my colleague Rori Picker-Neiss at the Jewish Community Relations Council, another sponsor, and I’ve spoken to our bishop. We are going to continue the series. It may take us a few days to pivot, so stay tuned for a new schedule. I hope you’ll participate.
The question I hope these panels seek to answer is this: what words of faith, what political policies, would treat immigrants not as a problem, but as a blessing? If we believe that all people are created in God’s image. If we believe, as the scripture tells us, that God takes a special interest in immigrant communities. If we remember, as God asks us to, that our spiritual ancestors were once strangers in a strange land, how do we preach in our pulpits, how do we legislate, how do we show up to our workplaces so that the immigrants among us know their worth? Can we mix our faith and politics in ways that give people hope?