Thursday, October 10, 2013

Learning about faith from Mexican immigrants


Today's post is by guest blogger William P. Payne, the Harlan and Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions at Ashland Theological Seminary.

A recent UMCMission.org article entitled “Low-WageWorkers Seek Moral, Livable Wages,” explores the plight of immigrant workers who are abused by an economic system that exploits their labor and does not pay them a fair salary with benefits.The article is written from the perspective of an Anglo US-2 working with Interfaith Worker Justice. The article grows awareness as it argues for a significant increase in the federal minimum wage and immigration reform.

For my part, I have enjoyed close relationships with marginal peoples from various Spanish speaking nations, including working for a local Spanish newspaper while in high school, pastoring a Cuban refugee camp in Panama in 1994 through 1995 (see “Religious Community in a Cuban Refugee Camp: Bringing Order out of Chaos,” in Missiology 25, no 2 [1997]:141-154), and organizing a flourishing ministry with Mexican immigrants while serving a church in the Florida Conference from 1998 through 2001 (see American Methodism, Past and Future Growth. Emeth Press 2013, p. ix-xiv). That ministry included nightly services, Sunday school, evening meals, an evangelism team, and community based ministries. It did not include social advocacy.

I wanted to advocate for my Mexican parishioners. In fact, I shared this concern with a lawyer who worked with our Hispanic Ministry Team. However, when she spoke to the leaders of the Mexican ministry, they told her that they did not want or need our help. I was appalled. Of course they needed our help. I pushed the social justice issue with righteous indignation. After all, most worked in low paying jobs related to agriculture, construction, landscaping, or the service industry. Clearly, they were the victims of an unjust economic system. 

One day, the lay leader for the Mexican ministry met with me to explain how the Mexican immigrants in our church saw it. First, in Mexico, they were really poor. They lived on a few dollars a day and barely eked out a living. Second, a working couple in America could earn $50 a day. From their perspective, that was a lot of money. With that money, they provided for themselves and sent money home to family members. Third, the church family became an extended family. They shared vehicles, lived close to each other, parented each other’s children, networked for jobs, pooled food, took one another to medical appointments, and watched over one another’s soul. Finally, my friend observed that the English speaking families in the church lived in isolation and were so intent on getting and maintaining things that they neglected each other and had little time for church. In his opinion, they completely lacked meaningful community.

At first, my friend’s words shocked me. I wanted to protest and defend my culture. However, as I pondered his observations I realized that he and the people in the Mexican ministry lived closer to the biblical ideal than I.  In my desire to impose my values on the Mexican congregants, I had failed to see the situation through their eyes. In this state of heightened conviction, I realized that I and much of the American church were guilty as charged. The conviction produced a renewed desire to more closely follow the example of the New Testament church by living a simple life while striving for more intentional community.

Much has changed in the Spanish speaking immigrant communities since 2001. They have become more Americanized and they are keenly aware of issues related to economic justice. Many are no longer content with $50 a day. In fact, most would not resonate with the convictions of the above mentioned Mexican lay leader. Yet, I wonder, has the UMC considered the unintentional social and spiritual consequences of climbing the American economic latter? John Wesley and Francis Asbury both lauded simplicity and strongly condemned the acquisition of wealth. Wesley’s famous maxim states, “It is a mere miracle for a Methodist to increase in wealth and not decrease in grace.” Early Methodism maintained a constant battle against “prosperous” religion.

I have additional questions. How much money is enough money? Americans are notorious for wanting more. Greed is a public value and crass materialism is a prime export. Also, by what biblical standard should the UMC measure a fair, living wage? Does a fair wage mean becoming a middle class American with all the accompanying vices and temptations? Furthermore, to what extent does our concern for economic justice reflect an unconscious ethnocentrism that values things over community? Most importantly, what can the immigrant Christians in our midst teach American United Methodism about spirituality, community, and faith?

Many New Testament scriptures point to a “preferential option for the poor.” Truly, God calls the church to join with them in their sufferings and their struggles. Yet, many are so busy trying to fix their condition that we fail to learn from them, be changed by them, or enter into their world. Yes, the admonition of my former Mexican lay leader still rings in my ear.

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