Guest Blog by Bob Ekblad
I drive across the Skagit River, and head out across the fertile farmland of Fir Island on my way to visit don Feliciano, a Mixtec farmworker who pastors a Mixtec-speaking congregation called Iglesia de Jesucristo. I pass wintering snow geese and recently harvested potato fields, stopping where cars are parked beside three run-down trailers. People look nervous until a man recognizes me and says something in Mixteco.
Don Feliciano meets me at the trailer door, a dark, weather-beaten man in his late 50s, dressed in polyester pants, muddied work boots, and an insulated nylon jacket. He looks worried, tired. He tells me that is has been difficult pasturing the forty-eight families while still working full-time as a crew boss for a local farmer. “Mucho problema, the people don’t understand,” he tells me. “I visit families. Lots of drinking, violence between spouses. It’s difficult.” He tells me of terrible headaches that have kept him in bed. I offer to pray for him.
After I anoint him with oil and pray for him, he tells me how all his people are illegal. “This is the biggest problem we face. Pray that god would help us get papers.” He tells me how U.S. brothers and sisters from other churches he knows have been telling him that it is wrong to break the law.
“This makes me feel bad. What do you think, Roberto? All of us are illegal. I thought at first that maybe you too were coming here to tell me that it is wrong that we are illegal.”
I tell him that I believe that in the Kingdom of God there are no borders and that God views us all as beloved children. If salvation were about obeying the law, then all of us are damned. I tell him that I’ve been seeing Jesus more and more as our Buen Coyote. Jesus crosses us over into the Kingdom against the law, by grace. We cannot save ourselves through observing the laws. Jesus liberates us, Jesus saves us. He doesn’t ever charge, he just wants us to trust him and follow.
Yet even pastor Feliciano is living under the shadow of the dominant theology. This theology views God as a cosmic Customs and Border Protection (Border Patrol) chief and the church as his officers. I lament his correct perception that the mainstream church, much like the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, takes the side of State and the law rather than that of the people and God’s Kingdom.
My view delights Feliciano with joy and encouragement in ways that are more visible than my prayers.
I have always been attracted to coyotes, the wild dogs that wander under cover of darkness through Skagit County. I regularly hear them howling in the woods outside our home. Each time, a chill goes up my spine. Though they have eaten two of our sheep, I cannot help but admire their wily, street-wise nature. They have learned to survive at the edges, much like the outlaws and indigents with whom I minister.
Smugglers who lead people into the United States through the U.S.-Mexican border are named after coyotes. Nearly all immigrants from Mexico and Central America who do not qualify for visas have had to hire coyotes to smuggle them into the United States. Coyotes meet their clients in border towns or barrios of large border cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. They take their cash (down payments in U.S. dollars) and set up the time to begin the perilous journey through the hills or deserts into the United States, “priests” offering a rite of passage into the land where tangible salvation is possible.
Most every immigrant can tell you both good and bad coyote stories, much as they have good and bad pastor stories. A bad coyote may knowingly lead people into a band of robbers, rape women, or abandon their charges in the desert. Some will hold people hostage in safe houses until family members pay their fees. Others are known to lock people into trucks or boxcars and even abandon them to their deaths.
Good coyotes treat people with respect and fulfill their obligations to guide people securely into the country. This includes guiding people to safe houses where they can eat, bathe, and rest. They may carry children, rescue lost immigrants, or provide food and water to stranded immigrants who lack legal immigration documents into the United States against the law—a role that provides a strong contemporary metaphor to Jesus’ role as Savior according to Paul’s theology.
Jesus can be viewed as comparable to a coyote in his embracing—and symbolically crossing—people who cannot fulfill the legal requirements to enter legitimately into the Reign of God. Jesus’ eating with tax collectors and sinners, healing on the Sabbath, touching lepers, and speaking with Samaritans mark him as an alien smuggler. The Pharisees, scribes, and other religious authorities nearly parallel the Border Patrol and other law-enforcement agents, who consider it their job to keep “illegal aliens” out.
Most of the immigrants with whom I work do not have the luxury of legality. They work using counterfeit residency and social security cards and drive without valid drivers’ licenses and insurance. In addition, many struggle with addictions to alcohol or drugs. Consequently they are constantly living in a state of legal and spiritual insecurity.
Inspired by my visit with don Feliciano, I decide to further explore the image of Jesus as Good Coyote with a group of twenty-five Latino, Native American, and Caucasian inmates with whom I study Scripture.
“Do you feel like you are unable to cross from where you are in your life right now to the new way of being that you desire?” Nearly everyone nods. Some talk of difficulties stopping smoking weed, using harder drugs, or drinking. Others talk about failing to meet child support, court-imposed fines, or complying with the Department of Probation.
We read Romans 7:15-24, which describes the experience of failing to live up to the law. “For I know that nothing good dwells within me. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Everyone readily relates to this realistic description. I ask the Mexican men whether there are barriers that keep them from coming to El Norte (North America). They talk feely about his it is virtually impossible to get permission to enter the United States legally unless you are a university student, from a wealthy family, or have a U.S. citizen family member who qualifies to sponsor you; and how it costs $2500 to $5000 to cross the border with a coyote. We talk about how impossible it seems to achieve our dreams or change our lives through our own efforts; how easy it is to give up and assume we must be damned.
“So if we face impossible obstacles to getting out of debt, getting a driver’s license, a job if you are a felon, or acquiring legal immigration status, what hope is there?” I share Paul’s own answer: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus” (Rom. 7:25).
“If this is true,” I ask, “then can we say that Jesus is like a coyote who crosses us into Kingdom of God and brings us into favor with God even through we cannot legally do this ourselves?” I describe how Jesus is such a good coyote that he actually gets caught by the Border Patrol agents of his time while the law breakers run free. His work undoes the legal basis for us-them borders or barriers of any kind, destroying distinctions based on compliance with laws and making everyone children of God.
“He preached peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:17-19). I sit amazed at the power of these words read in the heart of the jail and migrant farmworker communities.
Reading Paul and the Gospel with an ear for “good news” to undocumented immigrants, inmates, and “criminal aliens” brings new life to worn-out texts. I am fully aware of other texts that emphasize the important of being subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13). However, most broken people on the margins of society assume the Scriptures are only about lists of dos and don’ts and calls to compliance. Reading with people whose social standing, family of origin, addictions, criminal history, and other factors makes compliance with civil laws or Scriptural teachings impossible requires a deliberate reading for and acting by grace, and often involves boldness and risk.
We are people of another Kingdom, whose allegiance is to Jesus the Good Coyote. This is a call to live outside the camp, in solidarity with those who truly suffer exclusion, regardless of their circumstances.
The Good News must be seized by faith as having the power to save, heal, deliver, and liberate. My own attempts to follow Jesus through accompanying today’s Samaritans, lepers, tax-collectors, and sinners have shown me the necessity of changing allegiances. Clearly-stated and boldly-lived solidarity brings great hope to people on the margins. Yet it must be announced, practiced, and celebrated, over and over.
Dr. Bob Ekblad is the director of Tierra Nueva and of the People’s Seminary in Burlington, Washington. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he also teaches at Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, WA, and he is the author of Reading the Bible with the Damned (Westminster John Knox, 2005).
This piece is taken from the January 2011 issue of the new CONSPIRE magazine, which is on the theme of walls and borders. CONSPIRE is a magazine which is trying to build community and connect people while tackling some of the most challenging spiritual and faith questions of our times. It is supported by hundreds of Christian communities and individuals across the country.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
If you’re interested in writing a guest blog, send us an email at [email protected].