A couple of weeks ago I took an early lunch break and went to El Mercado, the famous Mexican market in downtown San Antonio. I was looking for a traditional embroidered dress from Oaxaca and it didn’t take long to find exactly what I wanted. Since I hadn’t been there in a while and the shops weren’t crowded, I took a little extra time to browse. I picked up a large bottle of vanilla and took it to the register to pay.
As I waited for the proprietor, an older Hispanic man, to run my debit card, I noticed he had posted the following quote next to the counter: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
I smiled and nodded with approval. I’ve used passages like this one for years when talking with groups of cultural insiders. I assumed the man posted this scripture for the benefit of a similar audience. Surely, many of his customers, both tourists and locals, needed to be reminded to show hospitality to newcomers.
Then, in a flash, it occurred to me that maybe the shopkeeper and my fellow customers were actually the insiders. Maybe some of them were descendants of the Canary Islanders who settled in this part of New Spain in 1731. Perhaps others had ancestors who were among the Native American groups who lived in this part of North America long before my ancestors showed up in the 1800s.
When I read passages of scripture like the one above, I’m used to being the one in control. I study and interpret the verses, deciding if the words apply to me in my context today. If I’m satisfied that they’re relevant, I make the choice to do what they say. But what if I were not the cultural insider? What if I were the newcomer to the city and came across those words in Leviticus? I wouldn’t be in a position of power, deciding to welcome the stranger. I would be the one praying that others might welcome me and my family. I might be the one, who, after years of hostility, had given up hope that those words had any real meaning.
There’s an icon by Brother Robert Lentz called Christ of Maryknoll. It shows Jesus standing and looking through a barbed wire fence, his hands resting on the wires. At first glance one might assume that He’s a prisoner being held behind the fence, but it’s equally plausible that He’s on the other side of the barrier looking with compassion on the captives.
Today on World Refugee Day I want to make the choice to stand with the Christ who is on both sides of our borders, welcoming and waiting to be welcomed.