Boat People (Shaped by Stories)

Photo by Eric Masur on Unsplash

Boat People (Shaped By Stories) – Jennifer Hosler

Scripture: James 2

Telling stories can define and shape who we are and how we act. As a parent, I see how my child absorbs and is shaped by stories. We have read to him since birth, whether or not he could understand what we were saying. His early infancy repertoire included complicated theology, political science, and the Harry Potter series in French. (I’ll let you figure out who read what aloud to the tiny babe). 

Once our child started talking for himself, we saw how the stories began to be absorbed into how he defines himself and how he acts. For instance, we have been reading the Lorax for the past two years. In the Lorax, we see the Once-ler become absorbed by greed and destroy the environment around him, not caring about the brown barbaloots or the swomee swans. After reading that, our tiny person began to have more conversations about taking care of the trees, protecting them from being cut down, and how being greedy can hurt the earth and animals. 

Another example is something I shared in another recent sermon. When we read in our children’s bibles about the good shepherd taking care of sheep, this led us to dramatic play about wolves, sheep, and shepherds, plus conversations about keeping each other safe. Our recent reading of the Good Samaritan in our children’s bible has coincided with preschooler conversations about not passing by our neighbors in need. We reinforce that storytelling with our actions. There are times when we literally stop on our bike, and we make a phone call to get care for a neighbor suffering from heat exhaustion. Other times, someone knocks on our door, and we give food and water to a person asking for help. Our stories and our actions are intertwined—shaping and reinforcing the ethic for our lives. 

Stories can shape and define who we are, as we learn from them and internalize them. 

There are key stories in scripture that focus on liberation, radical hospitality, and sacrificial service. These stories defined the ancient Israelites, the first century Jews and early Christian Jesus-followers, and we are called to continue to internalize and be shaped by these stories today. 

The Biblical authors understood the power of telling stories to shape identity and action. The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are referred to by our Jewish siblings as the Torah. Scholars believe that these were initially told orally and then that oral tradition was eventually written down. 

In the Torah, we see the emphasis on storytelling in many ways. Repeated throughout the Torah is the command for the descendants of Jacob (the Israelites) to remember that they were slaves in Egypt, and they were foreigners in that land. That history and God’s liberation, freedom, deliverance from injustice were key to the Israelite origin story—and are still at the center of Judaism today. 

Time and again in the Torah, the Israelite are instructed to be morally shaped by their history. Exodus 23:9 (NIV) reads, “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” That memory and identity were supposed to influence the community’s ethic and to shape how they treated others in their new nation of Israel. As people who were marginalized and oppressed, they were to be careful not to oppress others. 

Another passage, Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” At the start of Israel as an ancient “nation,” being given its laws, the ethic of God’s people was one of radical welcome and inclusion, where racial, ethnic, and geopolitical differences were bridged with love and hospitality. “Treat them like they are your own, as your native born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” God’s liberation, freedom, and deliverance from injustice were and are key to the Israelite origin story—something reenacted each year during the Pesach or Passover holiday. 

For us in the Christian tradition within the Church of the Brethren, we are shaped by and internalize the story of the Love Feast. Our communion consists of the bread, the cup, and feetwashing. When we hold a Love Feast, we remember, meditate, and reenact Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. This is not just playing dress up in aprons or a chance to check out each other’s footcare—it is a physical reminder of the story that shapes us, the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus said to his disciples, “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). In the retelling and the reenacting, we internalize and identify with the love, service, and sacrifice of Jesus.

What stories shape our lives and the way that we live out our faith today, whether they are from Scripture or church history or your own personal testimony? Some look to the early Brethren and other Anabaptists, who defied the political and religious rulers of their time and baptized each other as adults. You may think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer during Nazi Germany, offering a Christian confession that defied the Third Reich, or Dorothy Day’s ministry of service and hospitality, or perhaps Dan West’s vision of passing of the gift may inspire and shape your faith. Another guiding story may be the nonviolent ministry of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with his vision of the beloved community, and his work against the evils of racism, poverty, and war. What are the stories in Scripture, the stories in Christian or church history, that shape the way you live your faith?

One story I look back to comes from the Miami First Church of the Brethren, which I learned about during my Stories from the Cities research with Miami’s Église des Frères Haïtien, the Haitian congregation. I’ll use some of the words from my Messenger article here. 

“[The story] began with a crisis of international proportions. Fear of political violence, social unrest, and a dictatorial regime forced thousands of Haitians from their homeland in the late 1970s and early 1980s. [Asylum seekers] from Haiti arrived in Florida by boat, risking their lives in perilous journeys, hoping for freedom and a new start for their families. As Wayne Sutton of Miami First Church of the Brethren described the situation: ‘There was a humanitarian crisis unfolding in Miami. Many of those who survived the trip arrived on our beaches with few connections and no means of support.’

At Annual Conference in 1981, the denomination approved a study committee’s response to a query on “diminishing membership”. The paper made several recommendations, one which particularly resonated with Miami First Church’s leadership: “That every congregation be challenged to begin at least one new outpost. This may be a Bible study group, a group of persons geographically distant, or another cultural group” (IV. D. article 7). Faced with a challenge to reach out to another cultural group, First Church immediately had one in mind.

Planting a Haitian Church of the Brethren was a way to address Miami First Church’s own challenges while also being faithful to a call to bear new fruit. At the time, according to brother Wayne Sutton, Miami First was ‘A small and struggling intercultural urban congregation in a changing neighborhood.’ He said, ‘We were on the dole from the district to help us pay our pastor’s part-time salary, so we didn’t have a lot in the way of financial resources. And we didn’t know any Haitians.’ Despite these hurdles, Miami First church stepped out in faith to care for and meet the needs of newly arrived Haitians, building new relationships.” 

Miami First Church’s pastor at the time, Bill Bosler, began working with newly arrived Haitian Christians who had pastoral leadership training, trying to recruit them as planters for a Brethren Haitian church. In a Holy Spirit inspired moment, Pastor Bill Bosler connected the Haitian migrant experience with that of the early Brethren, describing how the Brethren came to the United States as “boat people” too. It clicked. The Brethren former boat people showed love and compassion to newly arrived boat people from Haiti, and modeled Christ’s love through their service and the love feast. One Haitian leader was particularly moved by the feetwashing. 

The witness of Miami First Church bore fruit in many ways. First, they modeled compassionate care for people relegated to the margins or to a news sound bite. Second, beyond the important witness in caring for the needs of asylum seekers, Miami First Church’s work bore much fruit for the broader Church of the Brethren. A Haitian-American Brethren congregation eventually led to several Florida-based Haitian-American church plants and church plants in Haiti that created a sister denomination there, Église des Frères.

The Miami Brethren acted out in faith to welcome the “boat people”, knowing that they themselves had been boat people, and shaped by the servant ethic of Jesus, the washer of feet. For me, this story resonates for many reasons, particularly in light of the circumstances and opportunities we have as a church. 

On Monday, I got a phone call from a long-time contact I have had with Hill Havurah, the Jewish congregation on Capitol Hill. For privacy reasons, since we post sermons online, I’ll call him Ezra. Ezra had been an instrumental contact during the days when I was trying to get our church’s Brethren Nutrition Program back up on its feet in 2012. I met Ezra by happenstance through another older adult gentleman named Gerry who knew I needed volunteers and had put out an ad in a newsletter that went to older adults on Capitol Hill. Only one person responded to the ad to come and volunteer with Gerry one morning—Ezra. While Gerry was disappointed only one person responded, the impact was greater than he initially thought. Ezra quickly saw the Brethren Nutrition Program as a service opportunity for his congregation’s older adults. Very quickly, the group from Hill Havurah committed to sending volunteers one day per week, which felt like a miracle during a volunteer shortage. When I think of Ezra, I think of this serendipitous provision of volunteers, the Holy Spirit making things happen to help our ministry survive. 

So, back to the phone call, I see my phone ringing on Monday morning, and I pick up the call from Ezra. Ezra tells me he is at a church in Northwest DC which is acting as the Monday respite center for migrants bused by Texas and Arizona. Ezra proceeded to detail the grassroots mutual aid operations that have come together to support the asylum seekers who are being used as a political stunt by Texas and Arizona (see this DCist article). As mentioned earlier, people who have already been on weeks-long journeys to the U.S. are then bused for over 30 hours to DC. Texas Governor Abbott wants to use real people and families as a publicity stunt, to bring the influx of migrants visibly to DC. 

Unfortunately, apart from the bus ticket by Texas and now Arizona, no resources or support systems have been offered by the sending states, the federal government, or the District of Columbia. This has left the activist and faith communities to organize intakes, food, lodging, and transportation for what has amounted to almost 3000 people over the past two months. Faith communities have opened their houses of worship as intake sites while volunteers help run an intake process and hospitality for the 20-30 people who arrive on each bus (there are 2-3 buses per day). On the phone, Ezra asks me, “Is there any way that Washington City Church of the Brethren can help support this effort?”

Ezra said, “Maybe this is a crazy question.” I replied, “Well, in my faith community, we try to honor the crazy questions as potential times when the divine is nudging us into action.” Ezra said, “I think we have commonality there.” I think back to recent conversations I have had with people in this community, as we discern what is next for our church—a visioning process that Chibuzo, our interim pastor, is helping to facilitate. Since the laying down of our Brethren Nutrition Program soup kitchen, our congregation has not had a way to do service, to meet the tangible needs in our community. This could be an opportunity that the Holy Spirit is dropping into our laps – via an unexpected Monday morning phone call. Are we, the spiritual descendants of boat people, being called to welcome other newcomers in search of safety, hope, freedom, and peace?

Sisters and brothers, siblings in Christ, I do not know if this is something that we are called to do or if the logistics can even pan out. Yet I see in Scripture the call to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the foreigner, even treat them like they are your own people, caring for them and their needs. I see witness of Jesus, bending and serving his disciples, sacrificing out of great love. I see the words of James 2, the scripture read by Chibuzo, which calls us to live out our faith through action. I want to continue to live out these stories and scriptures, to have them shape me and my faith. I want to ask crazy questions like, ‘What if we can help?’ and to say, ‘well, we can try.’ I want to put into practice the radical hospitality of the gospel, of the New Testament. What does that look like? I’m not sure. But we have the opportunity to continue to write new stories together, as a church. Siblings in Christ, let’s explore together. AMEN. 

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