Rev. Michael Swartz
December 29th, 2019
Matthew 2:13-23 | Bulletin

There are a number of ways to read and hear the Gospel account in Matthew read today of Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing a genocide in Judea and fleeing to Egypt for safety.

  • It cam be read in terms of prophesy fulfilled.
  • It can be read in terms of recurring themes of political dynamics and despots.
  • It can be read in terms of dramatic intervention of God to save.

A key way that Christians sometimes read and hear the stories of Jesus is to personalize them.  They see the accounts in terms of persons struggling for survival.  And ask, “How would I feel?”  and, “How would we would respond if we saw Jesus in this situation?”

At a later point in Matthew (25:25) Jesus preaching seems to take this personalized perspective:  I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.  I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. As you did this to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.

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Religious traditions have dramatized the Holy Family in need of hospitality.  Las Posadas, popular in Mexico and Latin America, re-enacts in December the journey that Joseph and Mary made from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a safe refuge where Mary could give birth to the baby Jesus.   When they were unable to find lodging in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary were forced to seek shelter in a stable, where the Christ Child was born.

Each evening during the festival, a small child dressed as an angel leads a procession through the streets of the town. The procession is primarily made up of children dressed in silver and gold robes carrying lit candles and images of Mary and Joseph riding a donkey. Adults, including musicians, follow the procession, which visits selected homes and asks for lodging for Joseph and Mary. Traditionally, the procession is always refused lodging, though the hosts often provide refreshments. At each stop, passages of scripture are read and Christmas carols are sung[1].

Las Posadas asks, “How would we receive Jesus?”

In many Christian circles in the United States folks are asked to make a personal decision to “accept Jesus into their hearts and lives.”

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Here are two first hand accounts of people seeking refuge that I have heard personally in my travels with Illinois Maya Ministries in Guatemala.

Thurs. Jan.  11, 2018: Up in Huehuetenango, at the Hotel Zaculeu.  I am able to Facetime with my wife.  I see on Facebook that our friends Sonya and Dave have had their second child, baby Jack.  Great to be able to be in touch.  Send them “congratulations!” 

We travel to Chaculá, and ride with Vicente in his small Toyota SUV, of which he is proud.  We have one of those “in the car” (rearview mirror) recollections when we are passing near municipality of Nenton, and a village where his family had lived.  Was it Limonar? Vicente recalls walking with his family in the middle of the night to flee from the violence and go to Mexico; they were burning houses in his village that night, and they could see the glow on the clouds.  It is a low area and he remembers flooding and walking in water.  He was about five years of age and with his two older sisters and a girl who had been taken in by his family because her parents had been killed by the military.  His sister carried him part of the way when the water got too deep.  The family had only what they could carry with them. This was in 1981.  He was in refuge in Mexico for twelve years.  The family returned to Guatemala in January 1994. 

At first they were welcomed by a Mexican family who let them camp on their land.  Later some 40 families organized and made a camp together.  Vicente expresses his gratitude to Mexico, the diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas, and COMAR[2] – the refugee organization of the Mexican government.  At first it was individuals who offered generosity and let them stay on their land, later it was the Mexican government who concentrated the refugees in camps as time went on and offered education, among other things. 

Back in Guatemala Vicente graduated from college as a teacher, and later went to law school in Huehuetenango, commuting on weekends on a motorcycle, and is now an attorney.  He is doing well.

In contrast, here is a first-had account we heard in May 2019 that gave us a particularly challenging insight: 

Josefina is a Guatemalan mother of five.  Three of her children live in the US, which most of the people in her small hamlet know.  So when she one day received a threatening extortion letter, she was terrified, but not surprised.  There had been rumors of this sort of thing happening to others who have family members earning relatively good incomes abroad. 

Tearfully, she shared the letter with us.  Written in a crude, semi-literate hand, the obscene wording advised Josefina to pay an exorbitant sum to “certain parties”, without which “things would go very badly for you”, and, more frighteningly, for her 18-year-old daughter.  She was only too aware of what that meant.

A local judge quickly advised Josefina to leave Guatemala as soon as possible.  Her children sent funds for the journey.  “Things can be quickly arranged”, she shared, and within days, she and her daughter were in the hands of a local “coyote”, or human trafficker, bound for the US border. 

They travelled for ten days in dark vans and trucks, “all squeezed in” with dozens of others.  They slept in abandoned warehouses and sometimes in open fields.  They believed that the perils of the journey were better than the risk of the likely consequences in their homeland.

Josefina and her daughter were apprehended at the US border.  They were immediately separated and had no contact again until they were both deported months later.  The awful reality for us, as US citizens, was to understand that Josefina was clearly more traumatized by her experience in detention than she had been at any other time in the journey.

In three border detention centers, Josefina relates a story of seemingly intentional psychological breakdown.  Guards shouted at them in vile and abusive language.  Prisoners were forced to run, shackled to other prisoners, for 10-minute mealtimes, with breakfast starting at 3:00 and 4:00 am.  Insufficient food was provided and water was drunk from the toilets.  Josefina, who is illiterate, was forced to sign form after form, with no oral or written translation provided.  Cavity searches occurred with no explanation.  (As she related this she choked up and cried.)  Legal representation was an impossible hope.  Perhaps worst of all, she had no idea how long she would be in this desperate situation.

The humiliation worked. Increasingly traumatized, Josefina gave up hope of greater safety, and welcomed deportation:  “just anything to get out of there”.  Even the deportation process was delayed, and she was transferred yet again.  The final humiliation was the guard’s sudden change in behavior upon arrival at the Guatemala City airport.  Finally unshackled, as government officials and the public looked on, guards demonstrated solicitous care for the migrants’ well being.


Kindness is an act of rebellion – (Pink)

My understanding has changed as I have heard personal accounts of fleeing from one country to another.  I have come to think of refugees as individual persons and their narratives challenge me to ask, “What I would do?” 

The Hebrew scripture repeats often, “Remember that you were once enslaved in Egypt.” 

Jesus preaches, “what you did to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did unto me.”

Amen and amen.

[1] from Online Britannica.

[2] (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados – COMAR), is responsible for the recognition of refugee status. In addition COMAR, is in charge of the promotion and coordination of public actions, strategies, and programs, directed towards the protection and assistance of refugees.