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Confronting the walls that divide us

People celebrate communion at border fence

With racial tension building across the U.S. and the world, the Rev. Brittney Stephan says that it’s time for people of faith to confront walls of hatred, injustice, and fear.

Associate Director for Multicultural Vibrancy, Michigan Conference

There is a popular quote that states, “When you have more than you need, build a longer table not a higher fence.” Similarly, in the hymn, Walls Mark Our Bound’ries, Dr. Ruth C. Duck exclaims, “Tables are round making room for one more, welcoming friends we had not known before. So, build us a table and tear down the wall! Christ is our host, there is room for us all!”

There are a multitude of ways in which the Church should be leading the movement on the spirit of hospitality and welcoming the different. Sadly, we find that the opposite is often true for many of us. We must understand that being the Body of Christ in true Christian fellowship with one another is fundamentally contradictory to the fear of those who are different than ourselves.

If you have watched, read, or listened to any news outlets at all these last few days, you will know that ICE agents started conducting raids all over the country, people are continuing to be separated from their families and kept in cages at the border, and governmental leaders are engaging in hate-filled rhetoric and chanting things like “go back where you came from.” There is a humanitarian crisis happening within our nation with blatant racism at its very core.

People share the sacrament at the US-Mexico border
The Revs. Joel Hortiales (second from left), a United Methodist missionary, offers the cup during a service of Holy Communion at the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. at El Faro Park in Tijuana, Mexico. Serving with him are the Rev. David Farley (center) and Guillermo Navarrete, a lay leader with the Methodist Church of Mexico. ~ umns photo/Mike DuBose

We as the Church cannot continue to offer our “thoughts and prayers” to these individuals and pray for peace when we continue to invest in oppression and violence. Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” and that’s exactly what we are witnessing in the world today. Inaction and silence always help the oppressor, never the oppressed.

According to the anti-defamation league, the number of reported hate crimes in the US surged 57% in 2017, the largest rise in a single year since 1979. This is something that cannot be ignored. Much like an article I read in the USA Today that explained how there were seven border walls or fences in the world after World War II. In 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were 15. Today, as our administration pushes to build a wall along our southern border, there are at least 77 walls or fences around the world. Many of which were erected after September 11, 2001.

Which means that not only have the fears of the United State affected the way we live and created even more oppressive systems in our society, we have projected that fear onto dozens of other countries around the world. Border walls are used to perpetuate racism, segregation, and discrimination. This fear of those who don’t act like us, talk like us, or look like us has a way of changing us for the worse like nothing else can. One of the most repeated phrases in Scripture is, “Do not fear,” yet it is only through fear that these egregious acts are justified and carried out.

Ephesians 2:14-22, it states,

14 For [Jesus Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body[c] through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.[d] 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.[e] 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually[f] into a dwelling place for God.

The most common definition of peace is “the absence of war or conflict,” but I think it’s so much deeper in that. The biblical definition of the word “peace” denotes a sense of wholeness and well-being that describes the vertical relationship between humankind and God and the horizontal relationships among us as human beings. There are walls that separate us from God, just as there are walls that separate us from one another. Sometimes, they represent one in the same.

With all that is happening in our denomination and in our world today, we are in desperate need of the Holy Spirit to remind us of the beauty that is found in Pentecost. The beauty that is ALL of God’s children coming together to worship or, in other words, do “the work of the people.” When we deny people’s humanity and betray the greatest commandment, we are negating a significant part of God that is revealed to us by choosing to ignore what makes us uncomfortable.

What would it look like if we allowed ourselves to move beyond “the temple of our own familiar?” More often than not, that’s when true transformation takes place. Doing what we know is easy but doing something new is necessary. What would happen if we knocked down the walls we have built within ourselves and our churches? Perhaps we would feel less of a need for border walls that only offer a falsified sense of security at best. We as the Church are called to live beyond the boundaries that humanity continues to draw as all of these things compromise the mandate that has been placed on our lives by Jesus Christ, a refugee from Nazareth.

Looking for some next steps? Below are some links to information that will help you navigate resources and action items for starting the conversation in your own context to address racism and the crisis at the southern border.

People blessed during protest at the border.
United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño (right)anoints the Rev. Jill Zundel of Central United Methodist Church in Detroit during a march in support of justice for migrants at Border Field State Park In San Diego. ~ umns photo/Mike DuBose

Justice and Advocacy Resources:

Learn together: Study the resources together. Give together: Donate personally or host a fundraiser for UMCOR Global Migration or Justice For Our Neighbors Michigan (JFON MI).  Act together: assemble hygiene kits, contact elected officials, and attend a rally or public witness event together. Invite others to join you.

Cultural Vibrancy Resources:

Our baptismal vows ask us if we “accept the freedom and power God gives [us] to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” A Cultural Vibrancy Plan is in line with the mission and vision of our denomination and conference and our vows in baptism and membership. Most importantly, such a plan expresses our call to uphold and serve as a living witness to the Gospel!

View the Cultural Vibrancy Infographic PDF here.

The tools used in Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) not only help identify particular growth points within an individual/team, but they help move people toward an anti-biased/anti-racist identity that seeks to diversify worship experiences and leadership as a collective whole.

Access an IDI Infographic PDF here.

Anti-Bias/Anti-Racist Workshop:

Attend the introduction to Systemic Racism Workshop that is contextualized for Christian communities. Workshop is November 16, 2019 from 8:30 am-5:00 pm in Kalamazoo, MI. Click for more.

GCORR (Small Group, Leadership, and Worship) Resources:

Understanding diversity can be challenging, so this exercise encourages you to be courageous and to listen to people. Often what gets in the way are our reliance on and belief in stereotypes.

How can we model our invitations to the table – both literally and metaphorically – in ways that honor Jesus’ model and hopes for the world? Here are 5 ways of diversifying the table in your ministry setting.

Two sermon starters from the biblical texts highlighted in the “Learning from Strangers” small-group sessions. Framed around the text in the Gospel of Luke, it features the topics of “Strangers Bearing Gifts” and “Our Stories, God’s Story.”

We must be intentional about the ways we learn about other cultures. So how can people of God learn about other cultures in honorable ways? Here are 10 ways to begin.

Dr. King’s beloved community exhibits agape love, which, as the love of God operating in the human heart, seeks to “preserve and create community.” This love does not consider injustice or evil as acceptable. Rather, it loves by way of justice, which ensures equity in access, participation, and flourishing for everyone. The beloved community is expressed in these 25 traits.

The Michigan Conference