I met Jesus in jail today. Actually, there have been many wrongly and unjustly incarcerated men named Jesús. Yet, somehow on this day in a cold and unwelcoming room of concrete, harsh incandescent lighting, and a permeating smell resembling a combination of bleach and burnt hair, I encountered Jesus Christ, el Salvador.
Following Christ’s simple call to show hospitality to the stranger while sharing life with the marginalized led me week after week into the jail to lead a Spanish-language study of the Scripture’s with the undocumented immigrants in detention. Almost every individual was there not for a criminal offense, but for the simple act of driving without a license. Whether it was a minor infraction of having a tail-light out, or passing through a roadblock intentionally set up by local police outside of where they lived and worked, each and every hermano felt the crippling despair of being locked away from their loved ones. For simply driving to work or the store to provide for their family, each was subject to astronomical fines and potential deportation. It goes without saying that, week by week, our time of prayer consisted of a fair amount of response to the despair, darkness, and fear they have endured while incarcerated.
As we were conversing and studying the Scriptures, a quiet tidal wave of the Holy Spirit began to wash over me. Jesus’ words literally leapt off of the page: “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20 NIV). I slowly turned my head to my left to see the only empty chair in the room. My heart raced as I realized: Jesus is here! Beyond that, a little further in the text, in Matthew 25, Jesus says: “I was a stranger and you invited me in… I was in prison and you came to visit me.” I began contemplating the notion of removing my shoes. I am on holy ground, I thought. In a place of darkness, despair, and death, Christ’s presence brought light, hope, and life.
Yet, the imperative question that begs to be asked is: if Jesus can welcome the immigrant, regardless of their documentation status, why can’t His followers? I suspect for many it is fear… the same fear that fueled the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the injustices of the Jim Crow era. But for others, I think it is a lack of knowledge. The complexities of immigration are overwhelming. Many fail to see that our insatiable consumerism dictates a foreign policy that has decimated much of Latin America. We fail to acknowledge that the militarization of Latin America that led to the slaughter and genocide of untold numbers and forced displaced families to flee to “el Norte,” while others were shackled to the hell-hound of poverty. We fail to see that there is no “line” to get in to migrate legally. We casually overlook that our affluence is propped up by the backs of the poor working in the jobs we refuse to do because of our perceived entitlement. We simply do not know that the masses detained and awaiting deportation which we vehemently prescribe endure unspeakable horrors behind the confines of for-profit private detention centers. But perhaps the biggest tragedy is that we fail to see them as Jesus sees them. We fail to see Jesus in the Jesús, the Maria, the Juan, the Norma, and ultimately, ourselves.
Dustin White is the Associate Pastor of Dueber Church in Canton, Ohio. He and his wife Jamie have partnered and worked with Mission Year, Alterna, the Inter-Religious Task Force on Central America, and as the Immigrant Worker Project. They share life with the marginalized, practice hospitality to the stranger, and are active in advocating for the rights of immigrants.
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