Special -- Flight to Egypt, An Immigrant's Testimony

My parents migrated from Puerto Rico to Connecticut in the early 60's, seeking a place of refuge and economic opportunity for our family. It was a hard but a necessary journey. Once enrolled in my new school I discovered that no one could pronounce my name properly in Spanish (Pear-see-da), so I learned to respond to an anglicized pronunciation (Pur-see-da). This drastic change in my name caused me to feel even more like an alien in this new land that I was to call home. My name in Spanish was beautiful; it was filled with the sounds of my heritage and even of scriptural possibilities, for my parents had taken the name from a text in the Bible: Romans 16:12. There the Apostle Paul says, "Saludad a la amada Pérsida, la cual ha trabajado mucho en le Señor." (Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord). I thought that I had to let go of this beautiful name in order to accept my new identity as a sojourner in Connecticut.

I did not realize the impact this change had on me emotionally and spiritually until many years later. In the early 90's I attended my first meeting of the World Board Ministries of the UCC (the previous instrumentality for Wider Church Ministries). As we gathered I looked at the names of the board members listed, seeking to connect with any other Hispanics/Latinos/as that were there. I came across the name of Gladys Hernandez, whom I had never met. Gladys also came from Connecticut, where she had dedicated her life to teaching children in the Hartford School system. When we met she asked me to spell my name and instantly said, "You're not pronouncing your name properly!" A bit embarrassed, I answered, "No one can pronounce my name correctly; it is too hard." She insisted that from that day forward I was to reclaim my name and teach people how to pronounce it properly. This was a transforming experience for me. There was a new sense of liberation and comfort, as I could at last claim my name in all its beauty and scriptural challenge. I felt like it was the first time since my arrival in Connecticut that I could claim Connecticut as home, for now I felt completely whole and my spirit was rejoicing in this new revelation: I am a beloved child of God whose name is Pérsida.

In the passage in Mathew 2:13-23, we encounter the flight of Joseph and his family into Egypt. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph to warn him to leave Jerusalem because of the danger to the Child. During the night Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus fled to Egypt seeking safety. For years, until the death of Herod, they had to sojourn far from home, in other lands, with different customs and ways of life. I wonder, did they struggle with language; did they long to hear their names pronounced properly, full of the promise of their heritage and identity? Did they find on their journey someone like Gladys Hernandez, who could provide for them not only a sanctuary safe from Herod, but also a sanctuary in which to remember and celebrate their heritage and identity? How did God use those alien places as sanctuaries for Joseph and his holy family? I would dare to ask the question of us, how do our churches serve as safe sanctuaries for those who feel like aliens in this land?

Today our nation is in the middle of immigration disputes that will have impact on the safety of many people, both legal and undocumented. We need laws that are fair and just. The immigration laws need to be comprehensive so all areas are addressed and the situations of all people are considered. I believe God is calling the church to provide refuge, safe sanctuaries to people who have been displaced and oppressed by the Herods of this world. We need to work together for a comprehensive immigration reform that addresses all the needs and provides justice for all.

Our churches need also to become places of radical hospitality where everyone feels comfortable, free and has a sense of belonging. The displacement I felt as a child was heightened by the loss of my real name. I felt I had no choices, that I was not even worthy to be called by my given name. I thank God for a committed servant by the name of Gladys Hernandez whose faithful witness inspired me to become whole and be the person God created me to be. Can our churches become places where we cross boundaries of language to learn one another's true names? Can we create safe spaces where our identities may flourish in all our diversity, where we can foster wholeness in all our members and guests so that the full beauty of God's image may be revealed in each one?

My sojourn in the United States has continued. I believe I am where God wants me to be right now. I am open to where God will lead me next, understanding and accepting that Christ is the Lord and Savior of my life. Where God sends me I will follow because of my love for the One who has liberated me and made me whole. God knows what is best for me. May we seek to be faithful followers of Jesus and become passionate for justice so that all God's people will find sanctuary in the church, and our communities and the world will know that we are Christians by our love! Amen.

Litany

O God of the Poor and Endangered Ones
Whose children are the prey of the Herods of this world

Be our Emmanuel, God-with-us, a Spirit of Courage
For those who must flee to safety and opportunity for life.

O God of the Poor and Endangered Ones
Whose children are the prey of the Herods of this world

Be our Jesus, Savior from the power of sin, a Spirit of Peace
For those who work for Justice, and an end to the violence.

Whose children are the prey of the Herods of this world

Be our Wonderful Counselor, a Spirit of Hospitality
For all who welcome the stranger and offer a sanctuary of Hope.

All this we pray in the Name of the One who loves us, calls us each by a precious name
and sends us forth to spread the Good News.

Flight to Egypt – An Immigrant's Testimony was written by the Rev. Pérsida Rivera-Méndez, Minister for Local Church Ministries and Renewal, Evangelism Team — Local Church Ministries

©2007 Local Church Ministries, Worship and Education Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115-1100. Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education. All publishing rights reserved.

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. Susan A. Blain
Minister for Worship, Liturgy and Spiritual Formation
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3869
blains@ucc.org

Rev. Scott A. Ressman
Minister for Worship, Music and Liturgical Arts
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3870
ressmans@ucc.org