751 Alameda de
las Pulgas
Belmont, CA 94002
(650) 593-4547
E-mail: belmontucc
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Recent Sermons

Welcoming the Stranger ~ Walking in Immigrant Shoes

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
April 1, 2017

Our liturgist, Sarah LaTorra, noticed that I had sent her the same scripture that was used two weeks ago by our visiting conference minister, Rev. Diane Weible. She worried that I had made a mistake, but no. I was so happy she actually noticed I would be focused on the same reading, Mathew 25:31-40. I skipped the second half of the reading about the goats. We had goats in our petting zoo yesterday at Family Fun Day. They were wonderful. I didn’t want to say anything negative about goats today. This reading is hard enough on the positive side! Remembering to care for the hungry and the homeless, to welcome the stranger in our midst, is perhaps the greatest challenge and the most important teaching of Jesus: “to love our neighbor as ourselves!”

During Lent we have heard wonderful speakers from the Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions speak to the importance of welcoming the stranger in each faith. Now we look at the experience of immigrants as they hope to be welcomed into a new land.

I’m a second generation American. My great grandmother left England with two small children to escape an alcoholic husband. She had relatives in Cleveland so that’s where she ended up. My grandmother and great uncle may or may not have become naturalized citizens; but being from Great Brittain and speaking English, the transition was probably fairly easy. My mother was born here, and although her mother died young (at age 36), and her father abandoned the family when she was only 9 months old, she was able to build a solid life for herself her in California after her family moved here.

All of us are immigrants or born of immigrants unless you are Native American or African American and your ancestors arrived on slave ships, which doesn’t count as a choice. Although our children schooled me during our Time with Children that even Native Americans actually immigrated here some twenty thousand years ago!

If your ancestors spoke English they might have had an easier time of it but leaving a homeland and a people behind is never easy. It is almost never done just for fun or even for advancement.

If you are Irish, your ancestors were fleeing famine. You know the shadow side of American culture, how easily in every generation the new arrivals are treated as less than, as unwelcome strangers out to take American jobs. Italians, Germans, French, Ukranian, Russian immigrants have all experienced this lack of welcome in our great nation.

If you are Asian you know the history of anti-Chinese laws, and internment camps for Japanese Americans during WWII.
        
America is unique in being truly a nation of immigrants. We should all be able to walk in each others immigrant shoes, right? Yet we continue to struggle to welcome the stranger in our midst.

Today two groups are being singled out for abuse: Hispanics and Muslims. We are told to fear them, to blame them for job losses or violence. The xenophobia against them expands into anti-semitism and the return to attacks on Jewish synagogues and community centers, and to renewed assaults on the LGBTQ community. Hate is an equal opportunity vice.

Walking in another person’s shoes is a challenge: They don’t fit. They have worn edges and holes in them. The style and size is totally off. But Jesus tells us those other shoes are the ones he wears. When we see a person, and try to imagine the Christ in them, we begin to understand the world through Jesus’ eyes.

When I first went to Mexico with a group to learn about the challenges that country faced it was 1995. In our first evening together one of the sisters told us that we were Christ visiting them. She was so sincere. That moment touched me deeply and has stayed with me always.

We learned how their country’s economy was effected by American power decisions. In the years since, on every visit, we have been shown clearly how things have only gotten worse. NAFTA’s free trade agreement benefited us well. We have economic supports in place for our agriculture that put Mexican farmers out of work. Large corporate manufacturing plants came in but not with enough money or jobs to feed people. People come to American not because they want to so much      as because they need to.

And if they are from Central America chances are it is even worse. Many countries are failed states with no real safety for citizens. Families send children and mothers north to avoid the violence. We can’t fix all their problems but we can’t say they aren’t our sisters and brothers in God’s family. We can’t egnore them!

Did you know that 10% of Californians are undocumented? Did you know that in San Mateo County 34% are undocumented (according to Supervisor Warren Slocum)? Does that mean we are surrounded by dangerous illegals?

Why are so many living in our midst without papers? It’s complicated! Most immigrants apply for legal status immediately upon arrival. They register with the government, get drivers licenses, follow the necessary steps. The government has a huge backlog of processing paperwork. I have met individuals who have been trying for 23 years to complete the process. I have a friend who has lived here for 30 years. She came with her son when she was 30 years old. She is now 60 years old and still cleans houses and lives month to month barely making enough for rent and food.

Everyone agrees that our Immigration laws need fixing. They were mostly put in place out of fear of the other. They do not serve our communities. Too many people are living in the shadows and in fear.

The only ones who seem to really benefit from this broken system are the corporations who can hire cheap labor and refuse them the ability to do collective bargaining. My nextdoor neighbor works for a large food chain and tells me their recent contract negotiations were a sham because so many workers are undocumented and afraid to stand up for a living wage.

Most of you know I have been helping to organize Rapid Response Teams to support our undocumented neighbors when Immigration Control and Enforcement comes calling. On Thursday morning I got my first text message from the dispatcher. “Location: Happy Donuts on El Camino in Redwood City. Unconfirmed siting, can someone go to confirm?” I was out the door in three minutes and there in 10. One other Belmont responder arrived shortly after me. I circled the area for 10 minutes but found no evidence, took pictures of a parked white van that had cleaning          equipment inside. The dispatcher and I decided that must have scared the neighbors into making the call. I rewarded myself for my efforts with a donut and drove home.

Another call came in just after I got home. This time a black van with three plain clothes burly white guys where photographed near the Redwood City Safeway. I drove back to the scene but again found nothing. They probably just stopped there to get coffee.
The dispatcher apologized for the inconvenience but I had prayed that these would be false alarms. Can you imagine living in constant fear that your family will be torn apart after living here most of your life?

Our Domestic Violence Council of San Mateo County held an all day retreat two weeks ago. Representatives from law enforcement, legal defence, support services, the coroners office (including Assistant Coroner, Emily Tauscher), and community leaders met to look at how the county is doing in handling the terrible problem of Domestic Violence. The biggest concern we focused on was the reality that our undocumented neighbors now feel afraid to contact the police when they are threatened in their homes for fear their families will be torn apart.

Our police departments do not cooperate with ICE because to do so would interfere with their ability to do their jobs to protect and serve in our communities. As a Belmont Police Chaplain I have done many ride alongs with the police over the years. I know how dangerous their jobs are. I know they have good hearts and care for all our citizens, documented or undocumented. But our poor and disenfranchised undocumented neighbors don’t know that.

A few weeks back during one of our Welcome the Stranger services a Hispanic man with two young children came to our door during services and asked for help. Paul Anderson talked with him and offered him money for food but what he needed was money to get his brakes fixed so he could drive his children to southern California. Paul checked in with our Home and Hope Social Worker who told him the police will provide vouchers for hotels for families in an emergency, as will Child Protective Services, but this man was terrified of the idea of reaching out to the government because of the         climate of these times.

One of our own members is undocumented and raising two children alone who are American citizens. Jesse is an amazing father to his severely autistic son Anthony and his vivacious dauther Stella. If he is deported Tony will end up in an institution and Stella will be in foster care.

We are one human family. Every faith tradition, every world religion, asks us to honor our common humanity, to welcome the stranger in our midst as if he or she was our brother or sister, mother or father, related to us, not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is simply the truth.

When we forget our common humanity we forget our own humanity. We lose touch with what it means to be human and become enmeshed in our fears.

National boundaries are artificial. Their purpose is to allow us to build common cause within a geographical area. They allow us to define ourselves by our values, to make laws that serve those values, and to provide dignity and compassion to our communities.

I hope you will stand with me in the shoes of our undocumented neighbors against current immigration laws that have long needed revising. Whatever shoes we wear, may we stand for justice with compassion because we are human beings who know our own humanity depends on it.

Can I get an Amen?