I have talked some about this before, but back in 2004, I led a group of nine youth and three chaperones on a trip to the US/Mexico border—specifically to Nogales, Mexico. The trip was planned and executed by an organization called Borderlinks, which according to Borderlinks’ website is a “non-profit educational organization based in Tucson, Arizona (pause) that connects people to the realities at the US-Mexico Borderlands.” Again, “it connects people to the realities of the US/Mexico borderlands.” There is a lot of talk always in this country about the border, and even more so today, with the campaigns in full swing. But probably most people don’t know much about the border’s “realities.” So I hope the narration I am about to share with you is relevant, and if I do my job right, I will be able to tie it in with our scripture reading from Luke.
When we arrived by airplane and then by van, to Nogales, Mexico, it had just rained—not a gentle rain, but a downpour. Right away we learned how we sooo take streets for granted in the US--, just simple pavement, curbs and sidewalks. Our driver, a young woman who worked for Borderlinks, drove us through gullies and ravines, across rivulets, and over hill and dale at breakneck speed. We bounced. We swayed this way, that way.
Not soon enough for our frazzled souls, our van pulled into a squatter community. That community would be our living quarters for the next three days and nights.
Who or what are squatters? They are landless farmhands from places south. They had come to the US/Mexican border, to Nogales, which was to them a kind of Promised Land. They came to find work. On farms places south in Mexico, they had tended corn crops, but in recent years their government had done away with a corn subsidy program. That put farms out of business. So landholders stopped farming and farmhands sojourned North--North to the border. The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (you know, NAFTA) had been instituted in the not too distant past. That meant US businesses could and did cross over into Mexico to build factories. They staffed those factories with cheap, Mexican labor. Those out-of-work farmhands, then, were hoping to fill some of those factory jobs. Only in the Promised Land, there weren’t enough jobs for so many Moses and Miriams. With no jobs, no money, tired from their travels and with no place to go back to, they dropped their backpacks, their few sticks of furniture, and their pots and pans and they squatted.
The land they squatted on, was land no one else wanted—and it had no amenities whatsoever--none-zip, nada—nada--that’s Spanish for nothing—nada in the way of roads, definitely. And, as we would find out very soon, nada in the way of wells, which meant nada in the way of running water.
Now here I need to stop in my storytelling, because I want to tell you about a comment made by one of our chaperones. As we climbed out of our van, weak kneed and stomachs churning—from so much bouncing and swaying, we surveyed our new surroundings: The road that wasn’t a road; the hodge-podge pattern of shacks dotting the muddy, treeless landscape. That chaperone, an all in all kind, gentle compassionate person, turned to me and said with real pity in her voice, “Well, they don’t know any different.”
By “they,” she meant the people living in the squatter community perched on the hills and cliffs directly in front of us. I am certain of that; but the rest of what she said, was and still is a question mark for me. Did she mean, “If they were smart, if they knew different (or actually the word is differentLY—right? Different here is being used as an adverb) If they knew differentLY, they would be able to make a better go of their lives?” As in those people don’t have the know-how to build streets and decent houses and all the rest?
And here I should say, that there was actually a part of me that wanted to believe that as I stood by our van. I’d like to believe it’s their fault, because then I feel less, guilt, you know? And because then I would have someone to blame.
But maybe that is not what she meant. Maybe she meant, THEY don’t know different-LY as in they don’t know that there is any other way of living so THEY aren’t bitter about their lives? Honestly, I wanted to believe that, too.
We could actually think of this as a multiple choice question. What does “they don’t know different’LY” mean? Is it A.These squatters deserve their impoverished situation. B.These squatters are ignorant of their poverty. C. Both are true. D. Both are false.
We don’t have to answer that multiple choice question now though. Let’s just keep it in the back of our minds. Back to the narration:.
We were met at our van by a Borderlinks worker who in turn, walked us to the various homes we would be living in. I don’t have time here to tell you about the food, the heat, the noises, the stench. I DO want to share with you, though, something about the home I took meals in, slept in—managed to bathe without running water in, for three days and three nights, in that squatter community.
The couple who lived there, with their two daughters, had built the home themselves from other peoples’ discards. So for instance, the front steps. The steps were old rubber car tires. If you squinted enough, those tires looked like a humongous black slinky stretching from gully to front door. I have no idea what kept them from sliding into the chasm below. For the time I was there, though, they held, as indeed the entire house held. That in itself, is a testament to the home-owners’ ingenuity.
The home was a flat-roofed, patchwork wonder--built of pieces of plastic, metal, and wood. One night while I was waiting for sleep, stretched out on a real mattress, thank you Lord! in a makeshift room, with a dirt floor and a curtain for a door, I studied my bedroom ceiling. Nails poked through the wood. I remember wondering— “What keeps the rain from coming in through those nail holes?” And then, “If it rains, WILL the rain come in through those nail holes?!”
I also studied one of the room’s corners which was also one of the house’s corners—you know where two walls and ceiling meet—they came together perfectly. “That’s impressive,” I thought to myself. I mean really, could I make that happen? Could YOU make that happen? A perfect corner?
As I already mentioned, there was no running water in that house, but it did have electricity. Several naked light bulbs hung from the ceiling. A two electric-burner-unit provided heat for burrito-making, and a television set graced the main living area- on top of a chest of drawers. I underline the fact of the television set. It gave that family access to life outside squatter-dom. We ate our breakfast –burritos, in fact, while watching TV. The show we watched looked curiously similar to Wheel of Fortune, only with a Mexican game show host. There was even a long gowned, elegantly coiffed, Spanish-speaking version of Vanna White!
One other thing about the family that lived in that home. I don’t know what the father/husband did for a living, or if in fact, he worked at all, but his wife worked days as a maid—in a house outside the squatter community.
So, back to our multiple choice question—two things we can conclude from my very limited experience in Mexico, at the border, and the brief rundown that I just shared with you: One, the folks in that community had smarts enough. I am 100 percent confident that if I was crafty, or savvy enough to acquire old tires, some wood pallets, and random sheets of metal and plastic, whatever dwelling I created would be a sorry contender in any squatter-architect contest. They knew plenty.
And two, because they watched television, because the woman of the home worked outside the squatter community, the family members I lived with, anyway, knew they were poor. They DID know different-LY. So the answer to our multiple choice question is both are false!
And now on to Luke 14. Jesus tells us a parable about a wedding banquet. Some people at that banquet get to sit at places of honor, others don’t. But of course, this parable isn’t really about wedding banquets, is it? That’s Jesus’ wink, wink. It’s really about this strange world we call home. In this strange world, some people lead privileged lives; they live in fine houses; they are invited to sit at head tables; other people do not live privileged lives; they live in shacks, and at wedding banquets, they sit at inferior tables; and these latter, some of them at least, not because they don’t know different-LY whatever that may mean, and maybe not because of anything anyone has done to them, either; and not necessarily because of poor life choices--but simply because of circumstances.
Jesus says by way of his parable, that it is good for people of privilege, that is, people like us, to humble ourselves occasionally by standing at the end of the cafeteria line of life; by sleeping in a room with a dirt floor, or at a wedding banquet, sitting at a table reserved for the hired help. When we do that, we will be exalted. Exalted? Really? How is that exactly?
The Greek word translated into English as exalted is oopso. Not to be confused with over-the-top exalted, which is hooperoopso. Isn’t that a fun word? Hooperoopso!
In Nogales, we humbled ourselves by communing with, living with squatters. But were we in any sense at all, exalted? Maybe?
When the youth, chaperones and I returned home and then went to church, we stood up in the chancel area during a worship service. We told bits and pieces of our story and congregation members marveled; they clapped for us, even— For maybe ten minutes we stood at a place of honor; I guess you could say we were oopsod, exalted.
But I think that by exalted, the author Luke, actually means exalted in the eyes of God. Whoa! That really makes me stand up tall, chin up, shoulders back-- I am exalted in the eyes of God just for humbling myself a little, and for a brief period of time. How do I live my life knowing that I am exalted in the eyes of God?
Whether or not I am exalted in the eyes of God, though, having experienced life at the border, I know in a way I didn’t know before, that I have been richly blessed. I am blessed for all the amenities I enjoy here in this county. I know, too, I have more compassion for people who don’t. And having compassion is itself a blessing, don’t you think?
And now that I have shared this story with you, I hope that you feel blessed, too, in ways, too numerous to count, because you are! Believe it. It is true. Amen