Sermon: Strangers No More

Strangers No More

by the Rev. David T. Hill
The First Church in Oberlin, United Church of Christ, Oberlin, OH
All-Staff Day Worship, Amistad Chapel, the Church House, Cleveland, OH
April 28, 2009
Text: John 10:11-18

When Mary Kuenning Gross first invited me to preach this morning, she asked what scripture I’d like to use.  Being pretty much a lectionary preacher I looked at the Sundays surrounding this week and when I read the John passage we heard a moment ago I couldn’t help but read back into it the story of so many immigrants today.

I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

We’ve heard the stories of those who take great personal risk to cross the desert at night in order to seek out a better life for themselves and their families – entrusting themselves to “hired hands.” “Hired hands” all too ready to exploit the most vulnerable, abandoning their charges in the desert, raping and abusing women and children.  Even those who make it safely into this country must keep ever vigilant against the “hired hands” – our “hired hands,” supported by the taxes we pay, who are on the lookout for the stranger, the alien, the undocumented or improperly documented person, eager to return them back across the border or perhaps worse, to prison.

When I moved to Oberlin over five years ago, I entered a community with a passion for working for greater justice and peace.  I imagine that almost any justice and witness issue currently being resourced here in the national offices has a secular counter part in some Oberlin community or college activist group.  I was aware of the issues surrounding immigrant rights, but it seemed like something, that while certainly important, wasn’t really a local issue.  It was more a concern for those “border states” – not in Ohio.

Having spent ten years in a prior pastorate on the other side of Cleveland, in Ashtabula County, I certainly suspected that there were likely sizeable migrant worker populations tending to the wine and wholesale gardening industries, but the raids being conducted by I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) were happening elsewhere, not in my backyard. There were plenty of more immediate, local justices issues right in Oberlin to deal with.  And then our local Mexican restaurant was raided by I.C.E. last summer.  Despite a rally on Tappan Square and the customary protest march through town, I.C.E. came back and raided the restaurant again less than six months later.  On both occasions, members of the Oberlin community were spirited away and never heard from again.

It’s an awful thing to happen to anyone or any community but it seemed a particular affront to Oberlin, especially given that between the two raids, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington rescue probably the most central story to Oberlin’s self-understanding.  You can read all about the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue in “The Town that Started the Civil War” by Nat Brandt but here’s the story in a nutshell.  Within in a few years of its founding, Oberlin College made the decision to welcome not only men and women, but both black and white students.  This was in the 1830s and essentially a practice unheard of anywhere else in the country.  This meant that, in Oberlin, blacks and whites were able to live and work together openly as one community.  At the time there was only one church, First Church, where everybody worshipped, and not in segregated sections – there was no “slave gallery” since there were no slaves.

An escaped slave, John Price, had come to Oberlin and made a home there.  A slave catcher from Kentucky, sent to Oberlin to find another escaped slave, recognized John Price and when the slave catcher returned to Kentucky he reported John’s whereabouts to his former master.  A group of slave catchers then returned to Oberlin, and after luring John out to a deserted roadway, grabbed him and headed to Wellington, about 6 miles south of Oberlin where they holed up in the Wellington Inn before heading back to Kentucky.

Word came back to Oberlin of John’s plight and immediately folks from the community rallied together and took off for Wellington.  They surrounded the Wellington Inn, and following an extended standoff, eventually muscled their way up the back staircase, broke into the room where John was being held, and passed him out through an open window into the waiting arms of supporters, who then took John back to Oberlin and then north to Lake Erie where he eventually crossed over to Canada and presumably went on to live a life of freedom and liberty.

The story of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue is one of the first things a new settler in Oberlin learns about – even these days.  It is taught in our public schools during the Oberlin history and heritage unit all elementary school children must take.  After students complete this class they have a day when they go on a field trip and visit the historic sites they’ve been reading about –like First Church –and they sit in the Meeting House and they hear the story of the Oberlin-Wellington rescue again.  To live in Oberlin is to be heir of those rescuers of so long ago.

So you can imagine that following the I.C.E. raids, folks felt something had to be done. One response was to create a resolution for City Council.  It really wasn’t that radical a resolution and merely sought to codify the already prevailing practice in Oberlin of not inquiring about the immigration status of those who sought out public services such as the police and fire departments.  In short, it was “Don’t ask; don’t tell.”  The second part of the resolution declared that Oberlin would not seek to deputize its police force so that it could act as agents for I.C.E. 

The resolution went through the standard three readings required before adoption.  I tried to attend the first reading but discovered that the Council chamber was already filled to capacity and ended up watching the proceedings at home on the local cable channel.  I attended the second meeting in person.  From what I witnessed of the first two meetings I elected not attend or view the third.  During the time for public comments well-reasoned rational arguments for passing the resolution were presented by the usual mix of informed college professors, students and community members.  Far and away the most strident remarks, however, came from those, largely from outside the Oberlin community, who came to speak in opposition to the resolution.  Folks came from as far a field as North Canton and Painesville.  It was some of the most vitriolic, hate-filled speech I’ve ever heard.  Their arguments all consisted of variations on the theme of “If you pass this resolution, drug lords from Mexico will overrun your city.  They will rape your women, take jobs away from your men and infect your children with tuberculosis.”  It was not a rational or reasonable argument.

I thought about speaking up at the meeting, and in hindsight wish I had, but I couldn’t figure out what to say that would help matters.  My gut response was to go to the microphone and simply say, “shame on you” but I stayed seated and silent.  As I reflected on what was being expressed by those opposed to the resolution the questions that ran through my mind were, “How does one arrive at such a worldview that is so in fear of the stranger, the other, the alien?”  “What must it be like to wake up each day and enter the world thinking that everyone who doesn’t look like you, who isn’t known by you, is out to get you?”  “What are you hearing in your church?”  Or, perhaps more significantly, “What aren’t you hearing in church?”

Kate Huey’s “Weekly Seeds” for this week remind us that also contained within this morning’s reading from John is Jesus’ reminder that there are other sheep who belong to his fold and that as follows of the Good Shepherd we need to welcome them in – that at the heart of being members of this fold is hospitality.  Kate also notes that the etymology of the Greek behind the word hospitality is “love of stranger.” Now, that’s a very different worldview from what was being expressed in the city council meetings I attended, but it’s a worldview that’s at the root of our theological self-understanding as God’s people.  Although the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” in no fewer than 36 places it commands us to “love the stranger.”  And why?  Because as told and retold by prophets and generations of God’s people, we were once strangers.

Now you might say, “I get that, but I’m not really a stranger in this country; I was born here.”  But that’s not the point.  Just as the Oberlin-Wellington rescue continues to shape the self-understanding of those who live in Oberlin, none of whom had anything to do with the rescue all those years ago, so too, our theological self-understanding is shaped by the experience of our ancestors in the faith who were once strangers in a strange land. It’s a story that we need to be reminded of again and again; a story we need tell and retell.

So, this morning I give thanks for the creation of Immigrant Rights Sunday, for it gets to the very heart of who God calls us to be: those who bear love for the stranger.  It’s a local issue.  It’s not just an issue that plays out in somebody else’s backyard but is playing out in towns and cities all across this country.  It’s an issue for all of us.

As a local church pastor, I also want to take a moment to thank you for all the work you do, for the resources you provide to the wider church, for the many ways that you have assisted me, the congregations I’ve served, as well as so many other churches within the United Church of Christ.  As I was reflecting on the text for today I was feeling some tugs at my heart to preach another message but knowing that I had been invited to preach one sermon, not two, I resigned myself to saving that other message for another day.  I do, though, want to mention a couple aspects of that message this morning.  As we hear these words from John about the Good Shepherd and approach this Sunday, which for many will also be Good Shepherd Sunday – a Sunday during which we will also hear the 23rd Psalm, I hope that you all are finding ways to open yourselves to the care of the Good Shepherd, that you’re finding the green pastures and still waters that you need to restore your soul, and to be renewed and recreated for the important work you do for the church.

As one who lives in a community similarly devoted to the cause of greater justice and peace, I also hope that you're being gentle, kind and gracious with one another.  Sometimes those most passionate for addressing the injustices of the world get so caught up in their work that they fail to notice how they are mistreating those laboring by their sides.  Remember, we are all part of the same sheepfold.

I well remember the General Synod that was held in Oakland, California.  It was the first synod I’d ever attended as a delegate and particularly special because it was being held just over the hill from where I grew up in Orinda.  Several members of my extended family at Orinda Community Church were on the local events planning committee.  Does anyone here remember the theme of that synod?  It was, I believe: In Christ Strangers No More.  There was a song that was used repeatedly throughout that gathering the chorus of which was: “In Christ, strangers no more.  In Christ, strangers no more.  There are no more strangers, only the friends we never knew.”

As followers of the Good Shepherd, may that be the theological worldview we bear within us.  Amen.