My Ministry Way Back Then

Someone asked me recently to talk about my work in Western Washington, where I spent 1990 through 2001 teaching English and ministering among largely undocumented Mexican workers in Snohomish County. I will, but only if you promise to remember what an ass I can be, how impatient and selfish I can be, and how any noble thing I’ve ever done is only because of the grace of the One nobler — and kinder, and braver, and more loving — than I.

Got it? OK, then . . .

I was blessed, then as now, to not have to work when my boys were children. My oldest was one when I started; my youngest came along about four years later, and both have had as many people in their lives call them “Antonio” and “Jonas (ho-NAS)” as have called them Anthony and Jonah. They went with me everywhere. I worked on my own, supported generously by my husband — I wouldn’t take any donations, because I wouldn’t discuss the legal status of those I helped, and I knew that if would-be donors knew they were not here legally, they wouldn’t give. I wouldn’t ever deceive them or imperil my friends.

I taught English, in Spanish, to more than 250 people, using material I developed. Everyone got a bilingual New Testament (the NIV and its Spanish counterpart, the NVI) and my own study notes, drawn up for use by people who generally were not able to go to school for more than a few years and who were thus sub-literate in their native language. I’m all for immersion when learning a language, but we met only two hours a week, in the basement of First Covenant Church of Monroe; that’s not enough to “immerse,” and teaching in English would’ve been not only pointless, but cruel. I speak Spanish, and I went with what worked.

I called my ministry “Vecinos,” which means “neighbors,” and when I joined in 1999 with a woman who had been a missionary in Mexico, I brought my ministry under the encouragement of the Duvall Evangelical Methodist Church. We began “Iglesia Vecinos de Duvall” in 1999 and it continued until 2002, when I moved to Moscow with my family. Ferol and I both preached; she did more of the pastoral visits in the Duvall-Carnation area and I focused on my classes and pastoral work in Snohomish County. Most of our people were terribly poor, working double shifts at dairies, factories, and farms. Most were utterly determined to make a decent life for their families, and virtually all showed a strength of character that I’ve never been called to, working harder physically than I’ve ever had to. My ministry motto was SERA’, Spanish for “will be” and an acronym for Service, Empowerment, Relationship and Advocacy.

I spent sometimes 15 or 20 hours a week working with people — sharing meals, counseling, teaching from the Bible, providing transportation and translation, and helping with doctors’ appointments, traffic court, and kids’ school. I’ve tried to convince a man that his impotence was likely due more to his diabetes than a curse from a local witch, and I’ve prayed with women who self-aborted out of desperation over another unplanned pregnancy. I lived as much in community as possible with those I worked among. We babysat each others’ kids, I ate better food in their homes than they did in mine, and while I was with 10 or so women when they had their babies, I was also with a couple who lost theirs. My faith was shaken, strengthened, tried, tested, and ultimately found to be more profound than it would have been. I had dear friends die suddenly; I lost others to deportation or moves, and I saw mothers, especially, deal courageously with childrens’ medical problems that would’ve been fatal in Mexico but could be treated here. No one I know — none of the hundreds of people I met and worked with — came to scam the system, flout our laws, or take your jobs.

I’m not someone to whom you’d enjoy telling Mexican jokes. I’m not likely to smile tolerantly if you share with me your theology of national boundaries and “God’s natural order” of things, nor will I shrug my shoulders if, as has happened to me here in Moscow, you remind me, speaking of poverty, that “Jesus said ‘the poor you’ll always have with you,’ so obviously that’s what He intends.” And if you show contempt and complacency when you play the law-and-order ticket by condemning those who would cross over without papers, I’ll ask you, as kindly as I can, how much poverty, disease, hunger, and crime you would keep your babies in if you knew you could take them somewhere safer. If you’re like most, you’ll lie, telling me you would simply “trust in the Lord,” and you’d remind me that they should, too. You can say that, as a head of household or someone protected by one in a safe, relatively affluent, place in the U.S. Your role as head will be questioned, threatened, and mocked only by feminist bloggers and mean secular neighbors, not by the hunger in your childrens’ eyes, not by your fear for their lives, and not by your inability to do an effing thing about either.

I’m glad for you. But when the gunshots and the crackheads and the gangs and the kidnappers descend on your house, and when your kids don’t get enough to eat — even of cheap starches and fillers — and you can’t afford a doctor’s visit when they’re sick, much less the immunizations that might keep them well, and when there’s hope elsewhere and only a man-made boundary makes it illegal to go to it, I’ll help you pack. When you cry out in the crisis — not one that’s struck suddenly, not a problem or two that’s repairable, but a crisis that has consumed you from your first minutes of life, like a hurricane that never stops or weakens — and your family’s very lives are at stake, you’ll have my prayers. And you’ll forget that you ever sneered at a Mexican dad who crossed over to work, or mocked a Mexican mom who carries her baby on her back to join him. Moreover, you’ll thank God for any hope that doesn’t involve denying him, and you’ll come to see that crossing a national border without papers is an act of faith, not an act of rebellion, not a portrait of contempt.

May it never happen to you like that, and may all of us cultivate the gentle places in our hearts, the places that keep us in our Lord’s will.

5 Responses to “My Ministry Way Back Then”

  1. Ashwin says:

    Very lovely article. This is what strikes at men’s hearts!

    This is how you should write.

    God bless you!

  2. Thank you, Ashwin.

  3. Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I’d like to remind any nay-sayers to your blog, that many of us who have lighter skin, European backgrounds, and are “born” here, that all of our ancestors weren’t. Our ancestors came here under many of the same circumstances, and who are we to judge?
    Thank you for your care!
    Love, Bev

  4. As for that last post, under my name but obviously from Bev . . . she had intended it for this article but accidentally posted it to the single-payer post. This was my technologically inept way of trying to import it here. I promise that Bev exists and is not my better twin.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Yes, I do exist. And I am blogging-challenged!


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