Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sermon: "Ivan's Story" (Delivered 11-23-08)

Opening Words
On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, we combine several themes in this morning’s worship. In keeping with this late November holiday we call upon the spirit of gratitude, even when we face anxiety. We call forth attitudes of abundance, even as we worry about scarcity.

In this way we resemble, in some small way, the characters of that archetypal American story, the story of those Pilgrims and Puritans who offered thanks to their creator for the fruits of the harvest, even as they knew they would face hard winters, who gave thanks even when gratitude was hard to find.

Another part of this archetypal American story helps us to frame our story this morning. Those Pilgrims and Puritans were among the first immigrants to this country. They came by choice and with the hopes of more freely practicing their own faith. They came rejecting a corrupt and deterministic economic system, in search of rewards for their hard work.

This morning we acknowledge that we are a nation of immigrants, all of whom have come to these shores seeking a better life. The lives they have built here and the society that they have created have been grounded in the ideals of fairness, freedom, and opportunity no matter how imperfectly or hypocritically those ideals have been lived out. But, still we hold on to those ideals. Come, let us worship this morning.

It is easy for me to remember Ivan and Sarah’s anniversary. They were married on August 2nd, 2003, the second day of my ministry with you. The Reverend Paige Getty, who had spent the previous year here serving as your interim minister, performed the ceremony. It was her last act of ministry with this congregation. Paige and I had spoken by phone and decided that it would be easier for her to do the ceremony as she already had a relationship with the couple and it would make more sense for the wedding to be planned face-to-face rather than over the phone.

Sarah married Ivan right out of high school and the couple moved north to Saint Paul, Minnesota where Sarah spent her next four years earning her Bachelor’s Degree at Hamline College. Following her graduation, they returned to the Kansas City area and have attended this church practically every single Sunday for the last year and a half. Ivan and Sarah are practically fixtures in the back row of Fellowship Hall, where they sit in the fragrance free section with Sarah’s parents, brother, and sister, at least when she is home on break from college. They are a family of this church. I should say that Sarah and Ivan are fixtures back there when they are not volunteering downstairs with our religious education program. Ivan has a background in clowning, which in Mexico is a liturgical art and is featured on feast and festival days of the Catholic Church. Last year he wowed the children of this church as our Easter Bunny. Last spring, Ivan and I developed a friendship meeting every other week over coffee and he helped me to improve my skills in conversational Spanish.

It is awkward to stand up here and tell you part of the life story of a member of our community, especially while he is sitting over there. I offer to Ivan my deepest gratitude for the privilege of being trusted with his story and I thank him doubly for his giving me the permission to share it with you.

Ivan was born in Vera Cruz, Mexico and was oldest of three children. He grew up in poverty. His home had a metal roof, dirt floors and lacked indoor plumbing. Ivan graduated from high school and, with the money he had saved from working, was able to afford a semester of college. By that point, his money had run out. He looked around at his environment, considered his options, and decided this was not what he wanted for his life. He hoped for things that were not possible for him in Vera Cruz.

A neighbor of his was planning to immigrate to the United States, and to meet up with people he knew who had gone ahead of him and were living in Overland Park. The neighbor offered to front the money for Ivan to go along with him. They traveled north, two days by bus, to a town along the Arizona border and paid for passage into the United States. The economy of immigrants passing into the United States is fascinating. It is a “package deal” with each person who plays a role in bringing immigrants across getting a part of the fee. First, there is the person who organizes border crossing groups. After spending two days in a hotel near the border, the group was ready to go. Ivan travelled with a group of about fifteen and they walked out into the desert led by a “coyote,” essentially a trail guide familiar with the treacherous terrain. At one point their group saw dancing lights in front of them. It was border patrol agents chasing down another group attempting to cross the border. The “coyote” leading Ivan’s group readjusted their route steering wide from the border patrol agents. It was as if an enormous and potentially lethal game of cat and mouse was being played out there in the desert. By midnight they reached the border. There they waited. Fortunately, someone had taken blankets from the hotel. They sat in small circles, spreading the blanket over and huddling together for warmth. This crossing was accomplished in early March, the best time of the year because the nights do not grow life-threateningly cold and the oppressive heat of the day comes on a bit more slowly in the morning.

The group waited at the border for the 5 AM changing of the guards which provided them with a fifteen minute window. Now inside the United States they crossed a major highway by foot, followed a seemingly abandoned dirt road, until they came to their rendezvous point, which Ivan described as a backpack graveyard. The spot was littered with abandoned backpacks; possessions couldn’t be carried on the next stage of the trip.

A minivan arrived, and all fifteen people who had been in the crossing party piled in. They drove non-stop for five hours until they arrived at their destination. The destination was a house with a single bathroom and the fifteen passengers in the minivan joined another 45 immigrants already waiting inside. The house had windows that locked from the outside and the immigrants waited until their accounts were settled. Finally, transportation to Kansas City was arranged and, in March of the year 2000, Ivan was dropped off at the corner of 435 and Metcalf. There, he reconnected with his neighbor and moved into a three bedroom apartment that a dozen people shared.

Shortly thereafter, Ivan went to work as a dishwasher at a restaurant along Metcalf. Then he added a second job. His work day consisted of working from 8:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon at one restaurant, and then from 4:00 in the afternoon until 11:00 at night at another restaurant. In the hour he had between shifts, Ivan would often lock himself in a bathroom stall at one of the restaurants, set his watch, and catch twenty minutes of sleep. By working this excruciating work schedule, Ivan was able to not only repay his neighbor who had fronted the money for him to come to the United States, but he also managed to send money to his family back in Mexico.

You may have noticed that one phrase I have not used in this sermon is the phrase “illegal immigrant.” And there is a reason for this. It is because this term is problematic and, I would argue, un-American. A lawyer who is a former member of our church used an analogy to make this point. The analogy is probably best offered in the form of direct questioning:

I want to ask everyone here: How many of you have broken a traffic law in the past week? Please raise your hand. You should raise your hand if you've exceeded the speed limit by even 1 mile per hour. You should raise your hand if you’ve rolled through a stop sign or have not used your blinker. So, you are all illegal drivers, right? In fact, we should brand you with that term. But actually, under our legal system, it doesn’t work this way. Suppose you leave here today and you exceed the speed limit and you get pulled over and you are given a speeding ticket. You have the right to go to court and contest the ticket and only when the violation for which you are cited is upheld under the due process of the law do you become a so-called “illegal driver.” The same standard holds for immigrants. Under our rule of law, under American legal standards that are enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, you are entitled to your day in court and you are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Part of Ivan’s experience included not only working hours that most of us would find hard to imagine, but doing so under some crummy employment conditions. Working for nationally recognized chain restaurants, Ivan was routinely passed over for pay increases even as he was given greater responsibilities. He walked away from one such job when he was offered the position of store manager at the pay rate of a dishwasher.

An additional risk that Ivan faced was being an easy target for theft and violence. An immigrant who has his wallet stolen or even is assaulted finds it difficult to go the police. In fact, immigrants are actually easy targets for criminals because they are afraid of reporting crimes.

But as much as any external condition that Ivan faced due to his immigration status, there was also an internal toll that it took. Ivan told about avoiding eye-contact, being unable to look people in the eye, conducting himself with extreme deference. He developed an internalized feeling of being different or less than.

Ivan lived in the United States for eight and a half years before making the difficult decision to attempt to alter his immigration status. With the help of an immigration lawyer, Ivan prepared to apply for residency. I want to tell you a little bit about this process. First, Ivan had to prepare extensive paperwork, detailing his entire history in this country, from addresses, to his financial history, and more. Next, Ivan had to build a case for why he should be granted residency. His residency case hinged on proving that his absence would create hardship for his wife. Almost perversely, residency cases for those in Ivan’s situation depend on proving that it would be harmful to a United States citizen for him not to remain in the country. The personal well-being of the non-citizen is not considered. In addition, to prepare for his residency hearing, Ivan needed to present a dozen letters of reference. He collected seventeen including one that I wrote and one by a member of the United States Congress. Finally, since passing a physical is part of application, Ivan committed to a plan of physical fitness and lost forty pounds.

In August of 2008, Ivan boarded a bus for El Paso, Texas and crossed into Mexico. This was probably the most dangerous part of the trip. For his case to be considered, Ivan needed to leave the country under his own power. If he had been apprehended trying to return to Mexico, everything would have been different. Crossing back into Mexico, Ivan felt like a man without a country, not quite American and no longer Mexican either. In Mexico, Ivan went to US immigration officials to make his case. Because he had entered the country without the required documentation in the first place, his case was automatically denied. A hearing to appeal this decision was scheduled for six weeks later.

During these six weeks, Ivan returned to Vera Cruz where he saw his mother, his brother, and his sister for the first time in over eight years. The house he grew up in was now completely different. With the money he had sent home his mother put a real roof on the house, replaced dirt floors with tile floors, and installed indoor plumbing. When Ivan left Mexico his brother was a teenager. When Ivan returned, he was a college graduate and an engineer, his education paid for with the money Ivan sent home. His sister, a pre-teen when Ivan left for the United States, was in college. Her tuition is also paid for with the money Ivan sent home.

Six weeks later, Ivan returned for his appeal hearing. His chances of winning were about fifty-fifty. If he won, he would be granted a permission to re-enter the United States for two years. If he lost he would be banned from entering the United States for ten years. Fortunately, Ivan won his appeal.

Upon re-entering the country, Ivan presented his papers and his passport to the customs agent. He was asked where he was headed and Ivan answered, “Home.” The customs agent asked Ivan how he could be heading home if his papers said he had never entered the United States previously. Ivan explained that this was his first time entering the country with papers. And he crossed the border with his head up, smiling.

Inside of me, something angry and fierce welled up during that time of deepest uncertainty when Ivan was back in Mexico awaiting a decision on whether he would be allowed to come home. From my own pastoral work with the family, I saw first hand how agonizing this was for Sarah. For me, my own sense of rage went beyond pastoral empathy. Ivan was my friend and my Spanish conversation buddy. For me, it also touched something personal. I grew up in a multi-racial household with an adopted sister from Ecuador. I’ve always known that family is something that goes beyond the borders of nations. I’ve always had a sense that where we are born is something completely arbitrary.

While Ivan was in Mexico, I got turned on to an organization here in Kansas City called IJAM, the Immigrant Justice Advocacy Movement, an interfaith organization working to advocate for immigrants and immigration reform. I found myself wanting to be a part of what this organization is doing. This organization is working on four major projects. The first project involves working with the Kansas City, Kansas police department to improve their relationship with the Latino community and to end police harassment of Latinos. The second project involves advocating for immigrants with ICE. ICE stands for “Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” IJAM is negotiating to allow pastors to visit those who are being held at ICE detention facilities. When ICE arrests someone and wants to question their immigration status, they may be held at any of seven detention centers, most of which are several hours outside of the Kansas City area. These detentions rip a hole in the fabric of families and communities. By establishing visiting rights for pastors at these detention centers, IJAM helps to keep the fabric of families strong.

Third, IJAM sponsors a sanctuary family who they are working to support as they go through the hoops of the immigration system. Finally, IJAM is working with other organizations to develop a team of rapid responders in the case of an immigration raid. If you want to learn about immigration raids, consider the small town of Postville, Iowa where immigration officials swooped in and arrested hundreds of workers at a meat-packing plant. The community of this small town was destroyed. Some children in homes waited for parents who never returned. Family members of those arrested experienced psychological trauma; many feared leaving their homes. The town’s economy was in shambles. The kosher meat-packing plant, which had employed almost 1,000 people, filed for bankruptcy and closed. What do you think happens to the economy of a town with a population of 2,300 when 1,000 lose their jobs?

As a minister, my role is to ask questions of our society and our country: Is this moral? Is this humane? Is this compassionate? Is this holy? I get to ask questions about human dignity. I get to be in touch with my own feelings of moral outrage and what Dr. King called “divine discontent.”

It is absolutely clear to me that our immigration policies and enforcement in the United States are profoundly broken. They are destructive to communities, offensive to human dignity, and entirely lacking of a moral compass. Our immigration system hurts families, hurts the lives and livelihoods of immigrants and US citizens alike, and does not reflect the best of what our nation aspires to be.

Ivan had a flip of the coin chance of being allowed to rejoin his wife here in Johnson County. He won his case but it could have been otherwise with the result of him being barred from entering the country for ten years, separated from rejoining his wife and their child on the way. If Ivan had been Filipino rather than Mexican, he would have had a 5% chance instead of a 50% chance. It is a deep joy to have Ivan back here, with us. Our church is better for it. I am better for it. Their entire family is much, much, much better for it.

And yet I cannot shake the thought of how it might have been otherwise. If the coin flip had gone the other way, Sarah would have been forced to make a painful decision: to lose her husband for the next ten years and deprive their child of the presence of a father, or to leave her career, her home, and her extended family in order to try to build a life for the next ten years in Mexico. All around our country, there are hundreds, even thousands, of people like Sarah forced to make that horrible and unthinkable choice.

Ivan’s story isn’t unique. His story happens all around us. It is a story of courage and determination, hope in something better than the hand that life has dealt to him. It is a story that is amazing and, at the same time, common. Far too common. Let us rejoice that this story, while it is still being written, appears headed for many good chapters ahead. Let us also be humbled and chastened by the knowledge that it could have otherwise, that it is so often, too often, otherwise. And, may we be grateful for Ivan’s presence in our church community.