Today I flew from El Salvador to Houston. I handed a man my passport and he stamped it, “Admitted”. He smiled and showed me the way in. I was welcomed.
Last week in El Salvador I listened to people share the reasons they immigrated to the US. They told stories of fleeing conscription by guerrilas during civil war. Others left their children with grandparents, desperate to find work that would provide more than a life sustained by corn tortillas. Parents’ eyes glazed over as they recounted sending their adolescent children north, their only chance to avoid recruitment into the global narco-trafficking trade.
I thought of these individuals as I was received by efficient customs agents and giant signs declaring me welcome. I thought about Isaias, who walked 36 hours through a desert, arrived at an aunt’s house in the early morning, and went to work the next day. I thought of Juan who’s welcome to Houston was stumbling out of the back of a semi into the Texas sun. I remembered these men as I walked under the third “Welcome to Houston, Texas” sign, it’s images displaying a city of music, leisure and recreation.
Who welcomed them? What did their first glimpses of Houston promise them?
These questions were on my mind when the cashier attending me said she liked my t-shirt, El Salvador, printed across the chest. It seemed fitting that the first person I would speak to here was Salvadoreña. Who welcomed her here? What had motivated her to migrate? Our exchange was short although I longed to sit and hear her story the way I had earlier in the week with the others.
Listening to the stories of brothers and sisters in El Salvador certainly hadn’t unraveled the complicated issue of global migration. Rather their stories revealed that the issues we are facing in our neighborhoods are connected to much deeper geo-political, socio-economic, and spiritual forces than a simple understanding of what is legal or illegal. The moral choices my brothers and sisters were making went way past, should I break the law or not. Their choices included: should I kill someone or flee? Should I feed my children or not? Should I participate in narco-trafficking or risk death? Of course, posed in this way, these questions assume a kind of personal agency that Americans take for granted. We are not well versed in being forced to do things we don’t choose.
It’s true, people did make personal choices, its just that their choices weren’t always between a good choice and bad choice. People chose between hard and dangerous, humiliating and less humiliating, risky with potential and no future in sight. The choice was rarely, if ever, between legal and illegal. This was glaringly obvious as we sat in their humble homes listening to them recount their experiences.
Listening to their stories was more than an attempt to connect with sisters and brothers in the faith. It was more than a nice way to honor a couple people who labored hard in our country under less than ideal circumstances. Listening was a way to shape our own hearts. It stripped us of our need for simple solutions. Each story led us deeper to the realization that we do not know the answers.
In some weird way, arriving to the place of not knowing what to do next, motivated us to actually do something. The familiar solutions of, “It’s illegal, period. Build a wall.” and “Let them all in” no longer fit in our framework. The stories we heard called for something else. They called for faithfulness to the principles of Scripture: loving our neighbor, biblical hospitality of welcoming the stranger, remembering our own journeys as aliens in this world, treating workers fairly, and discerning the move of the Holy Spirit. It became clear that faithfulness to these principles has little to do with policy or nationality and everything to do with who we choose to follow.
Listening to the stories of immigrants at once stripped us and clothed us with truth. As I was welcomed to Houston, I entered carrying the burden of so many who instead of welcome received strife and the truth that we are more than what our passport tells us.