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Jesus was a Wetback, Too

 

A Reflection on Mark 1:4-13

 

By Francis Rivers

I recently participated in a “Strangers to Neighbors” dinner at a local congregation. This program, begun by FaithAction International House in Greensboro, brings together over a meal members of predominately Anglo congregations and members of the new immigrant community. So people who don’t often interact get the chance to know one another.

There were about 120 people at the event and I found myself sitting next to a woman named Caterina. As we chatted, I learned that Doña Caterina was 79 years old and from Aguilares, El Salvador. Aguilares is a small town in the northwestern part of the country, about 30 miles from the capital, San Salvador. The town is famous—or infamous, depending on your point of view—because of a program of “pastoral accompaniment” that the Jesuits began in the early 1970s. One of these priests, Rutilio Grande, worked closely with the campesinos in the countryside around Aguilares, helping to organize what we have come to know as base Christian communities. This pastoral work emboldened the campesinos to organize cooperatives and establish organizations through which to advocate for their rights. The base communities were controversial. Many church leaders deemed them too political.

In March 1977, members of what we have come to know as death squads arrived in Aguilares. They killed Fr. Grande and two campesinos, a boy and an old man, as they were returning from a base community meeting. Two months later, the army arrived in Aquilares, expelled the three remaining Jesuits, desecrated the church, and declared a state of emergency. No one could enter or leave the city, and the armed forces took this opportunity to hunt down and kill many members of the campesino organizations.

I wondered how she had survived

In the United States, we know about these events thanks largely to a translation of the writings of Jan Sobrino. It was the turn of events in Agiulares in 1977, Sobrino thinks, that led El Salvador’s new archbishop, Oscar Romero, to begin a prophetic journey during which he repeatedly denounced the repression that was ripping apart his county, a journey that three years later would cost Romero his life.

And so there I sat with Doña Caterina. She had witnessed these events in Aguilares with her own eyes and lost four sons in the ensuing civil war. She seemed stunned that I had even heard the names of Fr. Grande and her beloved “Monsignor Romero.” I wondered how she had survived such an ordeal. To my mind, Doña Caterina was part of what Sobrino came to call the “crucified peoples” of the world.

This conversation with Doña Caterina reminded me of my own much less traumatic story as an immigrant. My parents brought me to the United States when I was three years old. I grew up bouncing back and forth between Rock Hill, SC and Charlotte, NC—a geographical distinction now largely lost to urban sprawl. There were few immigrants in the area during the 1960s and 70s, so it was a big deal when Charlotte’s first Mexican restaurant opened. I still remember the ad that began running on my favorite radio station, “AM 61, Big Ways.”

“But Papa, papa, I don’t want to go to the United States,” says a boy. His father replies sharply: “Shut up, muchacho, and keep swimming.” The reference, of course, is to the practice of wading, stumbling and doggy paddling across the Rio Grande from Reynosa to McAllen or other points along the Mexico-Texas border. People who entered the U.S. in this way came to be known by the derogatory title wetbacks, a term still used today in some parts of the United States when referring to unauthorized immigrants or, at times, to the Mexican-American community in general.

Understood from the inside out

Wetbacks. It struck me while talking with my friend Juan about the beginning of Mark’s Gospel that from the moment of his baptism until the end of his life, Jesus too, was a wetback.

I don’t remember if this insight was mine or Juan’s. He had only recently returned from Alabama. He had driven south to buy a new truck. Since he is undocumented and cannot open a bank account, he had with him $10,000 in cash with which to make the purchase. When the police stopped him, they immediately grew suspicious. They arrested Juan. He spent the next three months in a detention center. Thinking he surely would be deported, some unscrupulous officers did not impound his car nor report the cash, hoping it seems to keep both for themselves. Fortunately for Juan, members of his church learned of his whereabouts and obtained legal help. When he went to trial, the judge was so scandalized by the report of how Juan had been treated that he released him from custody and cleared the way for him to apply for a visa for which immigrant victims of crime are eligible.

I apologize if the notion of Jesus as a wetback offends you. Take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. As Paul reminds us, Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” How after all could people take seriously one who had been subjected to a form of death intended to inflict maximum pain and humiliation on its victim and inspire terror in and demand obedience from all who witnessed the execution? And yet this story is one with which Doña Caterina and Roberto understand from the inside out and with which they identify profoundly.

An immigrant in the land of “the horizontal”

I train chaplains at a hospital. I tell the students, that from the moment you set foot on medical center property for work, you, too, have become an immigrant. You have entered the land of “the horizontal people,” all of whom are frightened, many of whom (maybe most) are very sick or badly injured, a number of whom will die. For the time being, you are not like them. They are strangers.

By and large, these horizontal people are friendly and will welcome you into their lives, I tell them. Often you will have the opportunity to exchange humorous anecdotes and laugh together. I encourage you to imagine these moments as a version of sitting on the front porch with people who often have little but time on their hands as they await procedures and test results. Be attentive, however, to a deeper reality. As you interact with the horizontals, you will see much suffering, as well as great courage and resilience; you will experience tragedy and witness acts of mercy and compassion. You will see anger, frustration and boredom. You will see blood. You will see tears.

I hope that by virtue of standing so close, palpably close, to human frailty and mortality, the chaplains-in-training will come to appreciate in a new way their own humanity, both their gifts and their limitations, for as the Psalmist reminds us, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

My hope for them is that the horizontal people no longer will be strangers but neighbors, many of whose names and stories they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Francis Rivers is a Supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and is the Hispanic/Latino Liaison on the FaithHealthNC team.

 

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