When Mario was 10-years old, and living in Mexico, he went to a Christian camp. By that time in his life, Mario smoked regularly and had begun drinking. He was physically abused and lived in an impoverished village. At the camp, he learned about Jesus, and about how he loves children like Mario. The camp leaders told Mario and the other children that when they got home from camp, it would be difficult to resist the pressures from their friends and elders to continue in their old ways of smoking and drinking. The camp leaders tried to give the campers strategies about how to resist, respond to the pressure, and remain connected to the other kids they had met at camp so they could be surrounded with uplifting community.
The camp leaders were right. When Mario returned home, his friends pushed him to keep smoking and drinking. But Mario, at just 10-years old, told his friends about Jesus. He told them he did not want anything else controlling him and so he would not smoke or drink anymore. His friends balked and made fun of him, but Mario continued to resist. He lost some friends and his previously well-earned reputation as a “cool” kid. However, eventually Mario lost touch with those he had met at the camp and no longer had a community in place that could help him keep his eyes fixed on Christ. So he began smoking and drinking and getting into more trouble just to cope with life in his village.
A few years later, while still a child, Mario came to the United States with one of his brothers. They came illegally, although Mario did not know what that meant at the time. They came to escape the poverty and abusive environment in which they lived at home. In fact, Mario and his brother discovered that God had blessed them with the ability to cook. And this sparked a dream in Mario of becoming a chef. He began working in restaurants and was told he was a natural. His confidence soared and he started to believe that his past would not define his future.
Several years later, as he began to feel increasing pressure associated with working and paying bills, Mario decided to go to church. He wanted to be reconnected with the Jesus so alive to him after his camp experience as a boy in Mexico. He wanted to feel the love of Christ he had felt then. He wanted to feel encouraged and strengthened to resist the worldly pulls in his life, his temptations and the demons he carried with him from his childhood. He was spiritually thirsty and hoped he could find love and encouragement in the church.
But what he found was not what he had remembered. What he found was that going to church made him feel shamed and unloved. The people in the church did not embrace him as the camp leaders had. Instead, they made it clear that his broken, Spanish-influenced English revealed an unforgivable, irredeemable black mark – his undocumented status. The pastor preached a similar message Mario had heard at camp about Jesus who died to cover our sins, past, present, future; a Jesus who loves unendingly; a Jesus who taught us to love each other the same way. As he walked around the church, though, he overheard conversations about “illegal immigrants” and how they needed to be “sent back,” “kept out,” and “put into prison.” The words were spoken with such vitriol and anger that Mario wanted to retreat and isolate himself. Then he heard these same things on television from pastors of churches and people in the United States government who said they were Christians. Over time, he began to believe that the Jesus he learned about in Mexico was just a figment of his imagination. And so, Mario left the church and he left Jesus.
I came to know Mario recently when I helped him with a legal dispute he had at work after being injured on the job. I spent half a day with him, and after listening to his story, told him about the Jesus I know. The same one he met when he was 10 in Mexico. The one who loves. The one whose grace covers all manner of sin. The one in whom there is no room for shame. The one who strengthens. The one who promises eternal citizenship for those who trust in him. When we parted after our time together, Mario said he might give church another try and that he wanted to learn more about Jesus.
I am a supporter of immigration reform. And immigration reform will solve all kinds of problems. But I realized in getting to know Mario that there is something much bigger at stake. We need more than immigration reform. The people of the church, people who call themselves Christians, drove Mario away from Jesus. How many more stories like this are out there and how many undocumented immigrants have a distorted view of Jesus and choose a different path because of the way we represent him? How this must break God’s heart. I pray that our Lord Jesus would enable us to love when we do not know how, cannot quite relate, or just do not understand. I pray that our reflection of him is not distorted and that what the undocumented immigrant sees when he sees us is Jesus as he really is. And I pray that Mario will find his way back to the Jesus he knew when he was 10-years old.
Kellye Fabian is a mother and an attorney in Chicago, Illinois. She attends Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, where she began and leads the church’s Legal Aid Ministry, and writes a blog called Just Hanging on to Grace.
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