Monday, May 07, 2007

Jesus, the Mexican Boy

Walking into the nondescript and unassuming building on the north side of Chicago that houses the Kovler Center, I was immediately struck by the quiet of the place. In the midst of Chicago, a city where I have rarely experienced a total absence of noise, this truly felt like an oasis. It is here, near the Catholic Loyola University, in a renovated convent, where victims of human rights abuses from outside the United States are housed, given treatment, medical care, and, basically, given a home.

It was an appropriate trip to take as we end our class on spirituality, ministry, and victims of human rights abuse. We have listened to actual survivors of human rights abuse – real people who have experienced real torture at the hands of unjust systems of justice – and have been challenged as a class to create a safe space in which to have these speakers. To be willing to speak to a group of complete strangers about an experience so personal and torturous takes such extraordinary courage, and gives us as the audience such an extraordinary opportunity to listen, and – when appropriate – to engage.

The people at the Kovler Center are engaged in similar conversations with victims and survivors who come to the United States with few options left. I am reminded of a wonderful postcard hanging in my college theology professor’s office with a map of the United States and its familiar creed on it: “Land of the free.”* The * is referred to at the bottom in small print: “Some restrictions apply. Void where prohibited.” I will never know what it is like to be a refugee in the United States of America, but I know what it should be like – if we take our Statue of Liberty seriously: “Give me your tired, your weak, your huddled masses, yearning to be free…”

We walked through the rooms, going to the top of the building where one resident keeps bees and makes honey for the community; to the kitchen, where community members take turns cooking meals from their respective countries and cultures; to numerous offices, where people volunteer, work, and dedicate their lives for the mission of the center. Care is taken to ensure not only peace and quiet, but also privacy and protection: Many people come as political refugees, and some have been in real danger as elements from their home have come to Chicago looking for them.

Amidst all of this, I kept thinking of the popular slogan: “What Would Jesus Do?” It seems to be used primarily on bumper stickers and window clings, but I have a feeling that the question is rarely given much consideration. Surely Jesus would know something about being a refugee, since by law he was born a non-citizen (otherwise known, in many ways, as a ‘non-human’) under occupation in a Roman territory about 2,000 years ago. I realize, however, that some people cringe when the life of Jesus is described in political terms. He is above mere politics, some say. He would not “do” anything in light of today’s intense political situations – Jesus simply “is” Lord and Savior, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Okay, then. Maybe the slogan should say, “Who Is Jesus?” It is a little bit less catchy and a little bit more vague.

But I would venture a guess: Jesus is the face of the refugee who flees her country in search of peace and dignity. Jesus came to give life – and life abundantly. What is more life-giving? Murderous policies and legalized torture? The insistence on referring to people who are in this country without proper documentation as “illegals” or, simply, “aliens”? It is not a giant leap from “alien” to “cockroach” – a name given to many on the eve of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Who is Jesus? He is not an alien, or a cockroach. Jesus defeated death. Jesus gives life. And Jesus would feel right at home in the Kovler Center.