I went to church today. Even though I was attending the GCORR Open-Space Summit, it wasn’t at this morning’s worship service. As I walked into our worship area at the Albuquerque convention center I saw signs posted with directions to a naturalization service, so I skipped our opening worship.
If you’ve ever been at the Albuquerque convention center it straddles two sides of the street. As I was heading out the door to cross the street to where the naturalization service was to be held I met a man and his son who were on their way to the swearing-in. It was apparent that the older man was being sworn in. I help them locate the place where the event was to be held and planned on observing the process myself.
I found my seat at 8:15 this morning and sat in observed the many people that were there to observe or to become naturalized US citizens. There was great pride, happiness, excitement and exuberance. Even the governmental officials seemed happy and joyous.
There was no fear in the room; there was a sense of peace. I have always heard that piece is the absence of fear and the presence of justice. That is what I felt and it was apparent that all those around me felt the same.
It was announced that 193 children of God were to be sworn in as new American citizens. They came from many countries: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, peoples Republic of China, Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Laos, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Russia, South Korea, Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Taiwan, Tunisia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
Before all the pomp in circumstances began, a young man who was to be sworn in, made the following statement: “I just love our flag, it is so symbolic.” I think sometimes we forget the symbolism of our flag. I may be an exception in that I think about it often mostly because my birthday is on flag day but I can’t say that I’ve ever said those words with the emotion that came from this young man. I didn’t turn to look at him and could not tell you from where he might have come from four he spoke with no accent.
As the young Junior NROTC cadets presented the colors and the nearly 900 people present saying the national anthem a strange feeling came over me. Sure, I love my country, I’m a Navy vet, and I’ve always loved the national anthem, but those were not the things that moved me and stirred my heart. It was the fact that I was in the room in which we were truly welcoming the stranger.
I have read the texts; I have studied the Scripture; I have heard countless times how we are to welcome the stranger, but today I experienced it and participated in the welcoming. But more important than simply hearing and participating, I received a mandate.
Despite all of that the words that kept returning to me were the words of Emma Lazarus in her great poem the new Colossus. Many of us know the final few verses of this sonnet and we rarely hear the complete poem. It reads:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” Cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I am sure that many in that room were Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or some other faith. I’m sure that there are Catholics and Protestants. I’m sure some were devout and some were nominally so. I imagine there were a few that professed no faith whatsoever. But speaking for myself, I felt the presence of God in that room. And the voice of God came to me. I can no longer simply sign letters to senators and representatives about immigration issues. I can no longer simply retweet or share Facebook postings proclaiming my support for immigration reform. I must be an advocate and an activist to embrace scriptural obedience in order to welcome the immigrant, the stranger, the refugee, the outcast, the marginalized, and the despised . I have been commissioned by the highest authority.
But as part of this awakening, I also recognized that all migrants and immigrants are from other countries. Someday soon my wife may get a new appointment to a different church. The itinerant system of the United Methodist Church will create migrants of our family. Will we be welcomed in our new home? Will there be joy and exuberance?
Do our churches build walls that keep out the migrant and the immigrant? Do we refuse to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the outcast, the marginalized and the despised? Are we satisfied with programs to be in ministry for people but not ask them to join us in our pews?
Yes, today I went to church. It was in a makeshift Federal courtroom. There was no cross, there was no altar, there is no pulpit, there were no stained-glass windows. There was only the presence of God in the Church Universal. And for me, I couldn’t ask for anything more.