Suffer the Little Children

Leviticus 19:33-34, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Mark 10:13-16

Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth United Church of Christ, 8/17/14


My Dutch forebears came to the U. S. in the first half of the 1700's. Were they escaping crowding, the encroachment of the sea, or were they just restless adventurers? Who knows, maybe they were tired of their relatives and wanted to put a sea between them. At any rate, they became an integral part of the American Revolution, sheltering Washington's troops on the Van Doren farm over a harsh winter and helping him deceive the British into thinking that the Revolutionary Army had a lot more troops than they really had. As the account goes, the troops marched single file through a valley on my forebear's land where they could be seen by the British and around a hill where they could not be seen, then back into the valley again so what was a relatively short line of troops appeared to be nearly endless.

My Irish ancestors came to escape the potato famine in Ireland, and were most likely part of the Irish ghetto in New York until one of them moved west and then some others followed, as is often the case with immigrants, including my great grandmother's family. My English grandmother's family most likely came to seek their fortune in a new land. My German ancestors came just four generations ago and spoke primarily German. What drew them to the U. S. is unclear. Why my Swiss grandfather's family came is also unclear. Why would one emigrate from the beauty of Switzerland to settle in Lima, Ohio!

My wife's Armenian grandfather, Megerdich Godosian, (this is my transliteration from hearing it; whether accurate or not, I do not know) as a teenager, fled the Armenian Massacre in Turkey around 1917. This was during the forced march where he witnessed the death of his father and brother. His future wife fled the Massacre as well after months of smuggling bread that she stole from the Turkish family she worked for and taking it back into what had become an Armenian ghetto. They settled in the Armenian section of a crowded city, Detroit, around 1920 and became citizens. Megerdich, Michael he was called in the U.S., was employed as a sweeper in the Ford plants. Through frugality he managed to provide for his family and put a couple of his children through college. He died a month short of his100th birthday having never learned English. His long-life no doubt due to all that yogurt he made and ate!

The woman who cuts my hair is one of the 750,000 Vietnamese resettled in the U. S., many of them in West Michigan. One family was helped to escape as Saigon was falling by David Moore, a member of Plymouth Church who died a few years ago. He got the family out by lying that the mother of the family was his wife. They came seeking refuge with only the clothes on their back. One of the sons of that family is now a prominent scientific researcher in the U. S.

Virtually all of the members of the Chin Baptist Church, that we sponsor and that meets here every Sunday afternoon, were teenage refugees. They left family, slipping into the jungle, hiding from government officials, and eventually crossing the border to International Red Cross camps. They emigrated to many countries, some to the U.S.

Roberto's family lived in abject poverty in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in an area under control of the MS-13 gang. (I have been to Tegucigalpa, and it was a scary place 25 years ago.) That gang, like the other major gang in Honduras, (M-18), got its start in the U. S. when hundreds of imprisoned gang members were deported to Honduras and replicated their activities there. They grew rapidly and thrived due to a dysfunctional government, often corrupt police force, poverty, and an insatiable U. S. demand for illegal drugs. Roberto's brother was recruited as a drug runner for the gang, and was soon killed. Roberto would either do the same, or flee. His parents, desperate not to lose another son to death, allowed him to go. Having passed through Honduras by foot, hitch hiking, and hopping the back of busses and trains, he finally hopped the Mexican train called "The Beast." He was beaten, robbed of what little he had, and nearly dehydrated to death. He made it to the U.S. border where he turned himself in as do the overwhelming majority of children who make it that far. He is one of the 57,000 who arrived over the last nine months. That, by the way, is 1/14th the number of Vietnamese who came to the U.S. following the fall of Saigon.

Why deal with this in a sermon in the waning days of summer when what we would really like to hear is a reassuring sermon about God's sustaining presence in our lives, complete, of course, with a few entertaining anecdotes and a couple of good one-liners?

It's because this is the elephant in the U. S. living room. It is because our Christian calling, let alone our humanitarian sensitivities, call us to care and to try to get to the truth of what is going on and why. It is because this is about Children and about the message we send our children. It is to seek to discern what individual and national response we ought to advocate.

Clearly there is a part of me that sympathizes with people who are worried about our social service systems being overwhelmed by people from the outside. I can relate to the fear that if we provide safe-haven, we will open the floodgates, just encouraging more refugees. I especially feel for land owners along the border caught in the middle of their own private property rights, illegal trespassing, and confronting sometimes desperate refugees or ruthless traffickers. I can relate to worries about jobs being taken away by illegal immigrants or worries about them taking funds from social programs that should go to citizens.

But are those worries based in reality? Are they the truth? Generally, I think not. One of the principle tenets of our faith is that the truth is not a commodity to be manipulated. Rather, it is a reality to ground us in looking at ourselves and, in this case, our nation under God. The truth sets us free from our prejudices and from following other gods. And the truth is that it is a lot easier to scapegoat and to place the blame on others, especially the most vulnerable, than it is to confront the truth. It is a lot easier to blame immigrants for taking money away from poor and jobless citizens, than it is to blame those who control the budget - our state and national legislators. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts."

Of course, such a situation as the Children on the Border is rife with misunderstanding and ripe to be spun for political gain. What are the facts in relation to some of the things we have been hearing?

1.    From what I understand, there is a need for the work that immigrants, undocumented and otherwise, perform in the U. S. They do jobs that otherwise go unfilled, that U. S. citizens won't do. One close-to-home example is that a few years ago when spring came so early, much of, I believe it was the asparagus crop, in the Grant area was not harvested because the migrant workers (most of whom are immigrants, some of whom, no doubt, are undocumented) had not yet made their way to that area. There were very few locals who had both the will and the ability to do that back-breaking work. Also, from what I understand, the amount of money put into the U.S. economy through taxes and spending by undocumented workers far exceeds the amount spent on them. They are, in fact, among the most exploited people on U.S. soil.

2.    The truth is that this is not an invasion, contrary to Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert's comparison of it to the D-Day invasion. But as one of our more astute social prophets and oft times theologians, Jon Stewart, put it, "...generally, an enemy invasion force is not particularly dangerous until it can reach and open its own cereal."

3.    The truth is that this is not a lapse in U. S. security. While 57,000 children arriving in 9 months is certainly more than usual, overall border crossings are down dramatically. In 2000 some 1.6 million people were apprehended and returned or deported by the Border Patrol. In the late 2,000's that number was just a quarter of that. And, it is important to note that these children are turning themselves in at the border.

4.    The truth is that these kids are not spreading disease, contrary to Congressman Phil Gingrey's letter to the Center for Disease Control suggesting that these children may carry, among other things, the Ebola virus. Of course, this has been thoroughly debunked, but that doesn't prevent it from being used and spoken of as "fact." Whereas in truth, the Ebola virus has not been reported outside of Africa, the only two people admitted into the U.S. contracted the disease in Africa, and they are white, adult, U.S. citizens! Also, the first step after these children turn themselves in at the border is health screening. Any children with contagious diseases are quarantined and treated.

5.    The truth is that these Children are not from Mexico. While some 23% of children showing up at the border are Mexican, they are not taken in by the Border Patrol unless they can either claim asylum or pass a trafficking inspection. Otherwise they are sent back using expedited removal or other means. These kids are seeking refuge like many from other parts of the world before them. They come from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, known as "The Northern Triangle." Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, El Salvador 4th, and Guatemala 5th. A contributing factor to those countries problems (but clearly far from the only one) is a U.S. foreign policy that used them as chess pieces in a game of international supremacy. Also, they have been exploited by U.S. corporations and the gangs are responding to an insatiable U.S. demand for illegal drugs. I have read about some recent U.S. efforts seeking to deal with the root of the problem in those countries that seem to be having some success. The United Church of Christ, through our Common Global Ministries Board, has missionaries there seeking to deal with those root problems and to provide education and alternatives to the gangs for young people. They are missionaries like Don and Maryjane Westra who risk their lives serving with the Christian Commission of Development based in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

6.    You have also heard claims that by taking these children, the law is being broken and the constitution subverted. The truth is that the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which passed the U. S. House and Senate unanimously and was signed into law by President George W. Bush, is the law of the land. It mandates that these children cannot be immediately deported. They must be afforded due process, have their basic needs met, and be held humanely by the department of Health and Human Services until the courts release them to a suitable family member or the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program. Department of Homeland Security sources say that more than 80% of these children will find homes in the U.S., either with family or foster homes. Many are willing to foster them, maybe some right here.

Trying to discern and stand by the truth is basic to our Christian tradition and so is our understanding of God's call through the law and prophets of our Jewish forebears and Lord Jesus Christ.

No, this Christian stuff isn't easy.

It isn't easy because it means that our faith perspective is the primary lens through which we see the world. Our faith perspective is the lens by which we seek to discern what we are to do. That is, what God would have us do. Yes, we need to use historical data and social analysis to seek the way ahead. And I will, grudgingly, admit that there is room for different perspectives than mine. But there is not room for perspectives driven by prejudice, scape-goating, or deliberate falsehood.

Our Hebrew forebears had, as a matter of law, the principle of welcoming the alien. That is stated in many places in the Hebrew Scripture including this morning's text from Leviticus. Now admittedly, we don't use a lot of Leviticus because it contains the Holiness Code - all those picky detailed laws basically about not eating shellfish, mixing meat and dairy, as well as a couple passages that purport to be against same-sex sexual relations. But I take my lead from Jesus in what to take from Leviticus. The only passage that Jesus quotes in the Christian Scriptures from Leviticus has much the same sentiment as our text this morning. It is, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself." Welcome and protection of the alien is seen as a central tenet of the prophets as well. The alien was included among the most vulnerable ones, along with the widow and the orphan. This morning's text from Jeremiah echoes this. In fact, for the prophets, the society faithful to God is the one that does not oppress the alien, the orphan or the widow. It seems to me, by that standard, the children at the border are doubly included. They are not only aliens, but also actually, or effectively, orphans.

When Jesus said, "Suffer the little children come unto me," he certainly did not mean that in the modern use of the word "suffer!" However, that seems to be how many are taking it in relation to these and so many children! What Jesus really meant, of course, as reflected in more modern translations, is quite the opposite. He means to welcome, to protect, and to include them in the just and peaceable realm. You would think that those who seek to follow Christ, and especially those who want to claim this as a "Christian Nation" would do what Jesus did.

It is not only in our Judeo Christian DNA, but in our U.S. DNA, to accept the refugee. That has been the case from our religious forebears - both the Separatist Congregationalists and the German Evangelicals and the German Reformed, to victims of the Irish famine, to the children of Jewish parents who made the gut-wrenching decision to send them to the U. S. and other countries in the desperate hope that they might survive. It has been the case for Dutch immigrants to Grand Rapids just two generations ago and to the Vietnamese boat people.

I am eternally grateful that my forebears were not turned away at the border but, rather, were able to contribute to this country. I am exceedingly grateful that my wife's grandparents, fleeing for their lives, were not turned away at the border. And that yours weren't either. And that these children won't be either. Praise and thanks be to God.


(Resources for this sermon include "Top Ten Things to Know about the Situation of Children on the Border, distributed by Action of Greater Lansing, MI UNITED and fully footnoted, and "Children on the Run" written by Maryjane Westra, who serves, as does her husband, Don, with the Christian Commission for Development in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Don's appointment is supported in part by Our Church's Wider Mission.)