The following reflection was delivered at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana on February 28, 2017.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath[a] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath[b] in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
At the U.S.-Mexico border there is a group of faithful people called Samaritans—some religious and some not—who daily journey into the Sonoran desert which has become a valley of dry bones. There you find bones of children, of women, of elderly men. About ten years ago, a group of students and I came across bones that were later identified as belonging to a teenager. Sometimes you only find a few bones, for coyotes—the animal kind—and other wild beasts have already been at the scene of death.
Last year, in May of 2016, I was on the Mexico side of the border at a daytime shelter run by Grupos Beta, which is a government sponsored humanitarian organization. There I met Pedro who is from Southern Mexico. A few days prior, he had attempted to cross into the U.S., but unfortunately he was apprehended and deported. Pedro is a little younger than I am, and we spoke about the violence in Mexico and about his reasons for trying to enter the U.S. When I asked him about his experience crossing the desert, he told me the following story:
As he was walking alone through the desert—alone because he had made this trip before and because he couldn’t afford a coyote—the human kind—he saw a young man lying under a Mesquite tree where it was a little shady. Pedro went over, tired and thirsty, and sat there for a few minutes to rest. As he sat, he said “hola,” to the younger man, but since he didn’t respond, Pedro sat there silently. After a few minutes had passed, Pedro told him that they should probably get going, and nudged him to wake him up, only to realize that the young man was already dead. Terrorized, he got up quickly and kept walking. Later that day he came across a second body, it was a man, bloated from the heat, decomposing, with a stench that filled the air. Not far from there he encountered a third person who was only bones, already past decomposition. As Pedro and I sat quietly, now surrounded by the presence of these three desconocidos—unknown bodies—Pedro added, “being so close to death—it does something to you…”
In 1980 the communities of Tucson Arizona began to encounter large numbers of persons fleeing death—and it did something to these communities. Perhaps the first major encounter was when a group of 26 Salvadorans became lost in the desert and half of them died of thirst around Independence Day, July 4, 1980. The survivors who were found were put in prison for having entered the U.S. “illegally” and if it were not for concerned citizens, they would have been deported back to the war in El Salvador where death roamed the streets. I was born in El Salvador in 1981 during the war and lived there until 1991, a year before the peace accords were signed. Although my mother and I were able to survive those ten years, and survive our month-long trip north to the United States, I can tell you first-hand that death indeed roamed the streets of El Salvador.
Tucson’s collective encounter with displaced persons fleeing death in the early 1980s set in motion a series of events and discernment processes in local communities of faith and by March 1982–thirty-five years ago this March—they had decided that it was necessary to develop a network of protective churches. This became known as the sanctuary movement.
Let me read you a paragraph from their 1982 declaration of sanctuary:
“As the people of God, this is not the first time we have been called to bear witness to our faith in providing sanctuary to refugees who have been branded “illegal” in their flight from persecution. The slaves who fled north in our own country, and the Jews who fled Nazi Germany are but two examples from history. Now, the alien who flees persecution and terror is on our doorstep. We believe the church is being called in conscience and action to be obedient to the love and mercy of the Kingdom of God.”
These words were true in 1982 and are true now. In Latin America and Mexico there are thousands upon thousands of killed and disappeared persons every year, some by gangs, some by Narcos, others by government forces. A year ago, for example, El Salvador was the country with the highest homicide rate in the world. Although an official war is not taking place, war-like conditions are forcing people to flee for their lives. Thus, when we discern the possibility of churches serving as a place of refuge, as a protective community of faithful people who will not allow our neighbors to be deported, we must not forget that deportation is not simply a matter of forced displacement back to the place from where they were initially displaced, but that it is a matter of life and death. Those who are deported from our midst become those who also risk their lives in our deserts trying to reunite with their families here in the United States. Pedro was trying to make it back to Oakland, California, where his one year old child and spouse live.
When contextualized against a valley of dry bones, we can begin to understand that sanctuary, at its core, is about worshipping the God of life who does not will the death of those who must flee violence and who have been forced into cycles of deportation that make of them “criminals.”
In our opening scripture reading, God asks Ezekiel, and God asks us who are called to be prophets of our time: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Like Ezekiel, perhaps it is better to avoid a direct answer and to simply say, “O Lord God, you know.” Yes, God indeed knows, even when we cannot understand or believe.
Ezekiel’s prophetic vision also invites us to consider a different reality—that we the living people of God entrusted with God’s covenant have become a valley of dry bones.
We the church, in the broadest and deepest sense of the word, are a politically divided people, a religiously divided people, we worship at the altars of nationalism and xenophobia, and idolize a narrative of restoration that promises the greatness of “America.” We are tempted to abandon those who are already neighbors, and afraid to encounter those we call strangers.
Are we as church, in the estranged reality in which we already live, capable of hearing the Word of God that says, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.” Are we capable of allowing the Spirit of God to lay sinews between the dry bones of our divided churches, flesh on our sterile institutions, skin on our ecclesial body, and the vivifying breath of God upon each of us who is called to be holy? To return to God’s question to Ezekiel and to us: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Can the bones of our churches come back together, bone to bone, and live? Can they? Can we?
I want to suggest to you that the practice of sanctuary—of protecting life that is threatened, is a means for we the church to live. In the preservation of their life, we find the restoration of our life. Through the practice of sanctuary we partake of the vivifying presence of God, of the Spirit of God that makes of us a holy people. Thus, in providing refuge we enact holiness in our communities. Although sanctuary today does not find a direct model in early church practices of sanctuary or even in the cities of refuge mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, in both of these traditions we find that a holy place is a place of refuge, and that where refuge is provided, there the living Spirit of God dwells for God’s will is done. In the desert wilderness of the bible, the protection of the stranger was a matter of life and death—and it still is. But it’s not simply a matter of life and death for the stranger, but also for us.
Let me share a paragraph from Jim Corbett, a Quaker and one of the sanctuary leaders in the 1980s who wrestled deeply with this concept and practice. In 1981 he wrote:
Actively asserting the right to aid fugitives from terror means doing it—not just preaching at a government that is capturing then deporting them, not just urging legislation that might help future refugees. With people in our midst being hunted down and shipped back, denouncing the terror while ignoring the victims simply teaches the public how to live with atrocity.
He continues: Much more than the fate of the undocumented refugees depends on the religious community’s participation and leadership in helping them avoid capture. If the right to aid fugitives from government-sponsored terror is not upheld in action by churches— regardless of the cost in terms of imprisoned clergy, punitive fines, and exclusion from government-financed programs—the loss of many other basic rights of conscience will certainly follow. No one who lives in this century can have missed that lesson.
May we be open to the Spirit of God who seeks to enter our communities and dwell with us, who seeks to aid us in the protection of life, who seeks to make of us a holy people, and who seeks to rattle, profoundly rattle our ecclesial bones so that we may all have life.
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