Last summer, while visiting the States from our home (of seven years) in Guatemala, I was surprised to receive a phone call from Noel Castellanos. He shared with me a gripping vision that had laid hold of his mind and heart.
What if there were a way to combine the powerful experience of pilgrimage (that he and his kids had just experienced on the Camino de Santiago in Spain) with a deep passion for the plight of immigrants and their own long and painful journeys toward the promise of hope? How might such a prophetic act of solidarity help awaken the consciences of those whose leprous disconnect from the stranger-in-our-midst has lulled them into sleepy indifference, or even worse, into hostile dehumanization and criminalization of our own flesh and blood?
My own journey over these past thirty years has been intimately intertwined with the immigrant’s sojourn. The serendipitous friendships God has granted me with those uprooted from their homelands have pried the culture-formed scales from my eyes, and transfigured my life. After graduating from Stanford in 1986, my studies at Fuller were cut short by a powerful encounter with Isaiah 58—“God’s chosen Fast”. Having felt painfully distant from God, I decided to… (of all things) threaten God!
“God, I am not going to sleep tonight until you either change this, or promise you are going to change it!”
Mercifully, that very night, at three-am, I sensed a crystal clear response: “Fast for three days and I’ll change it”. I was desperate, and dutifully fasted and prayed…but at the end of those 3 days, the only things that had changed were my waist size, and my anger level.. I was ticked off!
“God! I kept my part of the bargain, what about you?!”
I went to bed angry, but awoke at four-am the following day. Although I felt in that moment God wanted me to pray and look at scripture, I adamantly refused, because I was indignantly ‘on strike’ from all things Divine! But I could not go back to sleep, and suddenly remembered that I I had a meeting that afternoon to plan a dramatization of a passage from Isaiah, for an Ash Wednesday chapel service.
I thought, I’ll kill two birds with one stone. I’ll read the passage to be ready for my meeting, and I’ll get God off my back! Yet as I turned to the opening salvos of Isaiah 58, I was flabbergasted by what I saw…
“My people say to me, ‘why have we fasted and you have not noticed? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not seen it?.’”
I felt chills run up and down my spine. I couldn’t believe that I was reading my very own sentiment, the precise reflection of my own anger and frustration at God! As I read on, I skipped quickly to the beautiful promises at the end, “You’ll be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your righteousness will go before you like the dawn, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear-guard…” and on and on. YES! Those promises were exactly what I hungered for!
Yet as I looked back, I could not ignore all of the sobering conditional statements in between, “If you break the chains of injustice and the yoke of oppression…set the oppressed free, break every yoke…share your food with the hungry…clothe the naked…bring the poor wanderer (the stranger!the immigrant!) into your home…spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed…and do not turn away from your own flesh and blood… THEN (and only then) all those wonderful promises! I was stunned. I was confused. I said “God I don’t know how to do that.”
…“You’re going to learn,” came the response.
The last 30 years have been all about learning what it means to live out Isaiah 58.
Shortly after this episode, I ran out of money, I finished spring quarter at Fuller extension in Menlo Park while living illegally in friends’ dorm rooms, obtained a busboy job at Hobee’s restaurant, showed up five minutes late one day and was fired! Life was going sour in all areas of my life.
Yet, being back on campus with my friends from Inter-Varsity, I discovered that a small group was moving into an inner-city neighborhood together in San Francisco, for a one-year community experiment. I decided to join them in San Francisco’s Mission District.
My life has never been the same since.
Nine of us moved in and found ourselves immersed in a Latino immigrant barrio.It was totally disorienting and yet unimaginably exhilarating. We called ourselves the “MISFITS” (Missionaries-In-San-Francisco-In-Training)! And we deserved the title. We were clueless. We had no idea what we were doing, but there was a palpable grace present amongst these folks on the margins that (even in the midst of their struggles and suffering) finally began to satiate the thirst that had led me to cry out to God the year before. I began to see that I needed to be connected to Jesus, not in some airy-fairy disincarnated cloud, but in relationship…in friendship with my immigrant sisters and brothers, and those on society’s margins. My very lifeblood was there, where I least expected it.
After deciding to extend my stay beyond that first year, I sold my motorcycle and bought a ticket to Guatemala to study Spanish, and later returned to San Francisco to work at a homeless shelter for Central American refugees. There I lay on a mat, night after night, next to those men listening to their heart-wrenching stories of the horrors of civil war (El Salvador, Guatemala, etc). I heard of forced inscriptions, “disappearances,”rape, torture, death squads, of heads on one side of the road, and bodies on the other, and entire villages being massacred. It turned my stomach, but it did more than that, it brought a revolution in my theology and even in my politics: ‘So…wait a second…my government is supporting all of that dehumanizing death and destruction?….Let me just check my Bible on it…yup, that’s absolutely wrong!’ Clearly my country (which I had always been told was the greatest in the world) had much to repent of and blood on its hands.
As I listened more, studied more, made new Latino friends, married my amazing Guatemalan wife Jenny, and traveled more to Central America, it became obvious to me that, in many instances, the US and other wealthy nations had created the precise conditions which (implicitly or explicitly) forced people to migrate in order to survive.
As the years went by, the forces of globalization gained power through such mechanisms as the free-trade agreements (NAFTA and DR-CAFTA). I heard stories from friends in Honduras who had come up on freight train to sell crack cocaine in San Francisco when there was a literal gold mine in their own backyard (owned by a North American company), producing tens of millions of dollars in gold every year. But that same company was tricking people out of their land, creating vast deforestation zones, drying up the water supplies, poisoning the little water available, which led to birth defects in newborns, sudden hair loss in school age children, and numerous adverse health effects. Under these new rules, companies such as GoldCorp and WalMart can waltz across borders from North to South without a care in the world to establish themselves on Central American soil. Yet when a poor family is threatened or can no longer survive, and tries to make the dangerous journey Northward to the States for the sake of their very life, they are meet with innumerable barriers and walls, increasing criminalization, and even placement in for-profit prisons. The title of my cousin David Bacon’s book spells it out: Illegal People: how globalization creates migration, and criminalizes immigrants.
Yet (as if from the other edge of the moral universe), Scripture calls us to “love the immigrant as ourselves!” And true love cannot ignore inequalities and injustices. Isaiah 58, along with all the prophets, calls us to break the chains of injustice and the yoke of oppression.
To be silent is to be complicit.
We are called to raise prophetic voices, as ones who pledge allegiance to a Kingdom that includes all nations, and excludes no one. This is why I am so grateful that Noel responded to the Spirit’s prompting. I am honored and overjoyed to journey from Guatemala to Mexico City, from Mexico City to Tijuana, across the border to San Diego, to join all these beautiful sisters and brothers from CCDA and beyond, in a prophetic pilgrimage of love towards Los Angeles.
I literally owe my spiritual life to my border-crossing friends, including the homeboys and homegirls from San Francisco gangs. You have taught me so much about what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be human. To participate in this pilgrimage of solidarity is but a small gift of love to you, in overwhelming gratitude for the immeasurable outpouring of grace I have received from God through you. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel said (who marched with Dr. King), when we walk together over these coming days “Our legs will be praying.”
May God in His goodness use us as His instruments to sing a new song of welcome and hospitality, and like the People of God who marched around Jericho, may we help to bring down every dividing wall of hostility. I pray that together we can call forth the better angels of this great country, and clamor for a reform which reflects our Biblical call. The sentiment so eloquently expressed by Emma Lazarus in her poetic inscription on the Statue of Liberty.
“…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!”
We have moved so far from this beacon of light to the world. We have used our power, privilege, desire for safety and our contentment with the status quo to keep up from the welcoming people we were and are still called to be.
I invite you to share in my journey over the 11 days walking from Friendship Park at the border of Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, CA, into Los Angeles at the entrance to the Los Angeles Detention Center; where people from all over the world wait to see where they will begin to live out their dreams.
Nate Bacon is a missionary with Innerchange (a Christian order among the poor and marginalized) in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. After over 20 years serving in San Francisco among Latino immigrants and young people in gangs, they moved to Jenny’s native Guatemala in 2009 to help establish new INNERCHANGE teams in slums and barrios throughout Central America. Nate is an ordained Deacon in the Catholic Church. The Bacons have 3 kids.