Isaac S. Villegas (pictured), pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship and board member of the North Carolina Council of Churches, shared the following reflection at the “Loving Our Neighbor: Embodying Sanctuary” conference at Duke Divinity School on January 28, 2017.
— Genesis 41:56-42:2 —
When the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world.
When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘Why do you keep looking at one another? I have heard,’ he said, ‘that there is grain in Egypt; go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.’
A lifetime ago, on the edge of San Jose, Costa Rica, my grandfather—a teenager at the time—held his sister, an infant, as she cried her last breath. My grandfather could do nothing, month after month, as his baby sister withered away, her tiny body weakening, starving, dying of malnutrition. She was the second of his siblings to die while cradled in my grandfather’s arms, the second child to die while snuggled into his twelve-year-old chest.
A decade later, he and his wife, my grandmother, had five children of their own, and there wasn’t enough to eat at home. They didn’t have the means to feed them—not enough work, not enough money, not enough help. So my grandfather made his way to New York City, then Miami, then Los Angeles, working in restaurants, scrubbing dirty dishes.
Every payday he would send half of the money back to his wife, to feed their children, and the other half of the paycheck he would hide under his mattress, in an envelope, saving enough to bring his family to the United States, to economic stability.
This is my family’s story—my mother, as a girl, brought across border after border, so she wouldn’t hunger. Her family joined the multitudes of their generation, all of them suffering from the economic warfare of U.S. corporations—United Fruit Company, Standard Fruit, Dole, Chiquita—companies that turned Central American countries into banana republics, buying local elections and laying waste to sustainable economies, stretching the reach of U.S. dominance further and further south.
In Genesis, when Jacob hears about food in Egypt, he tells his sons to go. “Why do you keep staring at each other?” he says, “Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” With these words, the sons of Jacob cross into a foreign land, because they won’t let their people die from the famine. They won’t let their children starve. They can’t bear the thought of children, cradled in their arms, crying their last breath.
Hunger is powerful, a force of nature. Hunger is a burning in the stomach, flaring us to mobilization, igniting our migration, kindling our desire to live, to struggle for life. Jacob and his family are fueled by hunger for life. But Egypt doesn’t care about their lives. Egypt isn’t a benevolent empire. Egypt only cares about its economy, its ability to use foreigners to fill the national treasury. Egypt opens up the storehouses for the sake of economic gain, for the sake of Egyptian nationalism, for the sake of the prosperity of their own peoplehood. Egypt first.
“All the world came to Egypt to buy grain,” it says, “because the famine became severe throughout the world.” Capitalism extracts money from bodies, resources from land, capital from labor. The lifeblood of capitalism is the ability to free currency from lives, to liberate money, to let it travel, to migrate, to cross borders, while restricting the flow of people, managing populations. Global capitalism has always been about controlling the flow of peoples across borders, regulating labor forces, governing the circulation of money from territory to territory, region to region, people to people.
The connection between Jacob’s family and Egypt, Central America and the United States, my body and yours—the connections that make us who we are, this city, this state, this country—has everything to do with who has the power to manage the flow of people and money across borders.
We—as a people, as a community, as a church—can be only who we are allowed to be by governments, by kings and presidents who regulate our borders and economies. I have been created by migration policies and trade agreements. Who you are has been determined by the management of border patrol agents and racialized economic forces. Your theology, your church body, has everything to do with refugee bans, with undocumented immigration, with forced migration, with the regulation of the flow of peoples from region to region.
The American theological and ecclesial landscape, the varieties of our religious identities, what we believe about God and how we organize our worship, cannot be separated from who has been allowed to be your neighbor—whether by racist city planning or presidential executive orders.
Who you are, who you love, how you worship, who you worship has everything to do with global migration patterns, with famines and wars, with hunger, with Jacob sending his sons to Egypt, and with my grandfather holding his dying sister as his country was converted into a banana republic.
— Exodus 1:8-13 —
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.
By 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, white people will not longer be the majority racial group in the United States. Latinx peoples will be nearly 30% of the population. By 2040, Muslims will makeup the second largest religious community in the United States. In that same decade, Islam will become the largest religion in the world.
The election of Donald Trump as president is white America’s fighting effort, their last chance, to keep a hold on American power, to socially engineer a future that isn’t so brown. The advisors in president Trump’s administration know our demographics; they know the population trends. And their response is a wide-ranging detention and deportation strategy and refugee protocols set up to turn away Muslims, all as attempts to manufacture our population, to keep America as white and as Christian for as long as possible.
In the passage we heard from the book of Exodus, a new king takes office, and he’s overwhelmed with fear of all the foreigners. “Look,” he says, “the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we,” so the king’s administration oppresses them. But, the text says, “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread them.”
The Israelites increased and multiplied, becoming a large minority in the land, and the majority population becomes nervous about their future, worried about the status of their peoplehood, their identity, their power.
The Egyptians fear what might happen in the decades to come, the changing demographics, an alien Israelite people growing numerous and powerful, foreigners worshiping a foreign God within the borders of Egypt. These immigrants become a feared minority, a foreign presence within Egyptian society, a contaminant to Egyptian identity.
Gloria Anzaldúa, the Chicana poet, once commented on what it means to live as a Latina in this country, to refuse to give up her identity, her sense of who she is, her peoplehood. “The overwhelming oppression is the collective fact that we do not fit,” she wrote, “and because we do not fit we are a threat.”
When the Egyptians noticed the Israelite population boom, the Pharaoh identified them as a danger to their way of life, a plague on their society, a threat to national security.
Nationalism lives by fear, fear of strangers, fear of foreigners. Nationalist identities survive by categorizing unwanted populations as alien, as dangerous, as threat.
Your identity, as a people, is being constructed by political fear, by legislating fear. Your struggle against deportation and discrimination has everything to do with who you will become, everything to do with the borders of your identity—of who you are and who you are not, of who you will let into your life and who you will refuse, of how you will let yourself be transformed by someone else, by a people foreign to your story, alien to your family line.
Are you willing to let your identity, your values, your dreams become undone, unraveled, so that we may become something new together? Will you construct your life, your church, in such a way that you no longer know who you are without your foreign neighbor, that you would be lost in this world without her, that your identity would be undone without him?
Deportation is about who are your people, about who you are, about who you are willing to become. Our struggle together here, this morning, this year, this decade, is about the faces, the accents, of people who you have let become part of you, and the wounds in your body if they were taken from you.
— Joshua 2:1-6 —
So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, ‘Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.’ Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, ‘Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.’ But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, ‘True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know…’ She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the road.
Rahab betrays her people. She betrays the security of her nation. She helps two people cross the walls of the city of Jericho. She welcomes two foreigners, even though her people call them enemies, threats to her society. She extends hospitality to strangers who sneak through the night, who climb a wall and hide from Jericho’s patrol units.
They find her, she finds them. Rahab welcomes them as her new people, foreigners who inviter her into a new belonging, a new life. She harbors these two illegal visitors, undocumented aliens. She offers her home as their sanctuary. Rahab doesn’t obey the king’s orders. She breaks the law. And she lies to the authorities to protect the foreigners who have found sanctuary with her. She hides them on her roof and says to the king’s agents: “The men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. Where the men went I do not know.” Their safety depends on Rahab—her risk, her hospitality against the law.
The question for us today, in this moment of U.S. history, is this: Are you a Rahab? Are you willing to let her life become your life, to turn your home into a sanctuary for people who your rulers have identified as enemies, as threats to our national identity, to our peoplehood?
Because if you are, you should know that you will be known as traitors, your character will be called into question, unfaithful people, like Rahab. And you will be traitors, in a way, because you will be betraying the legacy of white supremacy in this country, the legacy of the founders, the fathers—their genocide, their slavery, their patriarchy, a heritage handed on from generation to generation, the lifeblood of U.S. political power.
Rahab, the one who offered sanctuary. “So the two of them entered the house of a sex worker whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there.”
If you are a Rahab, you can’t help but extend your hands in a gesture of hospitality, in a gesture of protest against this president’s administration, reaching for the people held at airports, held in detention centers, refused entry into our communities—because these policies make you who you are, by decided for you who will be your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers. And without them, you would no longer know who you are, your life undone.