Fellowship Southwest / immigration / refugees

Lower the harps that hang in the willows

By Rubén Ortiz

Jeremiah 29: 1-14 is written for exiles, for those in captivity. The vast majority of the Jews were uprooted from their birthplace, a land they dominated for centuries until 587 B.C. They were forced to travel roughly 700 miles through the Middle East desert. On their journey, these Jews left behind the provisions that sustained them. 

The Babylonian customs were foreign to them. Their language was incomprehensible. The scenery was dull. The weather, the routines and the culture were different. These changes shocked them. 

Psalm 137 describe the enormity of their crisis when it says: “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept, remembering Zion. On the willows in the middle of him we hung our harps.” There was nothing to celebrate. They could only think of their misfortune. They were living in the onslaught of forced exile.

But the word of God—that does not forsake its own—provides the Jews with an opportunity. Suddenly, they realize that along with their captivity is the opportunity of becoming a diaspora. The diaspora emerged as those scattered from the homeland began building (v.5), planting (v.5), raising children (v. 6), prospering in and blessing (v. 7) the cities they arrived in. Jews began to allow God’s word to transform them on their new land, instead of living in complaint and pain.

This Biblical story should inform us, Christians in the diaspora, that we can be witnesses of God’s abundant life in a strange place and in the midst of so much suffering. We  can see this reality in Abraham, the father of nations, when he moved toward a new land. We can see it in Ruth, who chooses a place to live with her mother-in-law. We can see it in Joseph, who was able to transcend the broken relationships in his family to position himself, by act of mercy, at the center of the Egyptian Empire and to thrive.

We can see it in the New Testament, too. Mary and Joseph carried the hope of the world in their arms as they fled a genocide. The Syrophoenician woman through her faith, the Samaritan woman with her conversation and the many who comprised the multi-ethnic Antioch church through their faithfulness demonstrated how God can use displaced people to accomplish far-reaching purposes for their own good and for God’s glory. 

All of them foreigners, sojourners and migrants. They all were blessed by a God who prospers those who walk on the road and live in faith through his missional plan. God’s mission of reconciliation through Christ has no borders. In fact, it is presented as a challenge to the borders, a risk to the human boundaries and an uncomfortable presence in the migrant flow. And the church must become that, a crossroads. As Gloria Anzaldúa says in her book Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza, “to survive borders, you must live without borders and become a crossroads.”

I wonder if this reflects similar truth during our times. Could this be what is happening in Spain, where thousands of Latin Americans are arriving and lighting the fire for God on the ancient streets? Should churches review Jeremiah 29 at a time when Africans are arriving in England and worshiping God in Gothic Anglican cathedrals? 

Should we revisit Jeremiah 29 when we are sheltering thousands of Central American immigrants, especially when 80 percent of them confess to being born-again Christians? If we are to welcome the stranger, who will we welcome? Those who knock on the door of our borders to live in exile? Or only those we want?

As Richard Beck Jr. says in Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise: “We don’t show hospitality to be like Jesus. We show hospitality to welcome Jesus.” 

When you lower the harps that hang from the willows, you will find that God is creating a FIESTA. 

Rubén Ortiz is field coordinator of the CBF Latino Fellowship, Familia. This blog was originally published by Fellowship Southwest in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. You can learn about FSW and read more on their blog at www.fellowshipsouthwest.org.

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