God at the Borders and in the Midst of Diaspora

This is the text of a message I gave at The Upper Room Chapel on 25 May 2016 as part of Discipleship Ministries Chapel Time.

Leaving Home

In February 2011, barely a month after our wedding, I had to leave my bride, Charina, for a meeting in the United States. I was the Philippine Staff person for Young People’s Ministries. While I have been traveling to the US once a year since 2009, this was different.

image credit: Cesar via Flickr
image credit: Cesar via Flickr

By 3:30 am, I dragged my 23-pound luggage on the quiet streets of Quezon City, hailed a cab, and went to the airport. On my way, I got that sinking feeling–the thought that I was leaving behind the woman I have pledged to live my life with.

But I was leaving for only 2 weeks! And I thought, “is this Overseas Filipino Workers” feel when they leave their loved ones behind and work abroad for a few years? They probably felt worse than I did.

There are about 12 million Filipinos scattered to about 200 countries around the world. I’m not sure if anybody is keeping score, but we are probably the most scattered people in the world today. In 2015, when I went to Ndola, Zambia for our Africa Young Leaders Summit, guess what, I met 2 Filipinos at that tiny airport. They were working as miners in Zambia.

When I came out of the immigration section in Kinshasa, DRC last April, the guy checking immunization cards asked “Filipino? Filipino?” when I was still about 20 feet away from him.

I didn’t really think of going out of the Philippines to work and earn money after graduating from College. But for most Filipino young adults, going abroad is a valid career option. We have schools for seafarers and training schools for skilled workers in cosmetology, caregiving, and other types of blue collar jobs. Our nurses want to go to the US, Canada, or Middle East; even licensed doctors would go back to school to take a nursing degree so they could work abroad. A lot of our good Science and Math teachers go to the US and Canada to teach.

Other professionals, too, decide to give up whatever prestige they have in their communities and work abroad: a lot of them work as Domestic Helpers. A lot of them have really low salaries in their communities that mere prestige could not make them keep their jobs. Lucky for the families that employ these domestic helpers, they have an all-around house cleaner, cook, laundry woman, and a private tutor for their young kids.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Filipino mothers are raising the kids of middle class and upper class families all around the world. Oh yeah, those Arab royal princes do have Filipino nannies or cooks.

One day in the future, we just might take over the world.

You’ve been warned.

Of course, this reality is not only for Filipinos. In the 21st century, people are dispersed and the ease of moving from one country to another is facilitating global migration. Different peoples are working, and living as exiles and migrants in different countries.

A New Normal

From the point of view of overseas Filipinos, or any immigrant and foreigner for that matter, it’s interesting to read this passage from Jeremiah (29:4-7):

“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.”

The prophet is telling the Jewish people in exile: make the most out of your situation. “Build homes, plan to stay.” (That sounds like bad news to a certain Presidential frontrunner in the USA.)

“Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce.” Let me just say that since moving from Manila to Nashville almost a year ago, I still miss a lot of Filipino food, especially the simplest meals. It’s always the simplest things that make us miss home.

Jeremiah told the people to plant gardens: that might have meant planting the kinds of vegetables that the Jewish people were accustomed to eating. (Oh, I would have loved to plant the kinds of veggies I enjoyed in the Philippines if my apartment management would allow me. Lettuce, kale, and other salad greens are okay, but they seem way too American for my palate.)

“Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away!”

Jeremiah is also admonishing the Jewish communities in exile to live their lives as if the city they are in is just like their home city. This is the new normal, get used to it. Live in the city where you are exiled. This is for the long term.

Seeking the Welfare of the City of Exile

And here’s an important directive to the exiled Jews:

“And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.”

No talk of disruption; of insisting on their own ways; of seeking only their gain as Jews.

A lot of migrant workers do that. They work, usually at lower costs, so they can provide for themselves and their families back in their home countries.

Recently, I read the story of Emma at the New Yorker Magazine. She is a former civil servant in Southern Philippines who decided to go to New York and work as a nanny. She cared for other people’s children—cleaning them up, looking after them, helping them with school assignments, and loving them as her own.

If you want to read the full article, click the following link: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/04/11/the-sacrifices-of-an-immigrant-caregiver

To quote from the article:

Some two hundred thousand women are employed as domestic workers in New York State, a number that is expected to rise in the next decade, owing to the aging of the population, the entrance of more women into the workforce, and the lack of publicly funded services for the very young and old. A 2012 survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance found that two-thirds of nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides were immigrants, half of whom were undocumented. Through their work, New Yorkers are free to have a public life, while the women working in their homes remain invisible: domestic workers spend long hours in private apartments, and are often paid off the books, with few of the legal protections afforded workers in other fields.

Immigrant workers are making it possible for some people in the host countries to enjoy their lives the way they want to—busy men and women in Hong Kong, the Middle East, and in developed countries.

The Jews were political exiles. The king of Babylon carried them away because of a rebellion. There are still numerous political exiles in the world today—those who had been driven away by wars and conflicts.

Look at refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq fleeing to Europe. A lot of countries have closed their borders. They don’t want to accept these refugees in their midst.

During the General Conference, I had a chance to spoke with Carin, who is the Director of youth and children’s ministry of the Uniting Church of Sweden. She spoke about the difficulty of reaching out to young people who had been separated from their families in the Middle East, and who have now found themselves in Sweden. Most of the time, these are boys and young men who come from a different religion, and a different worldview.

It is not easy to reach out to refugees—their way of life is vastly different; their beliefs and worldviews are different; there is fear and uncertainty among the people in the countries they fled to.

Carin said that there is a kind of right-wing party, gaining ground in Sweden, who does not want anything to do with refugees. This kind of backlash can also be seen in Germany, and other places where there are refugees and migrants.

Jeremiah’s admonition is the voice of an insider—a member of the refugee, immigrant community—telling the Jewish in the diaspora to seek the welfare of the city they are in. The refugee and immigrant communities do need their Jeremiah: a voice for integration instead of radicalization.

I understand that immigration is a convoluted, complicated, and contentious topic. But as the church, we also need to be the community that welcomes the stranger, the foreigner, the sinner, the hypocrite, the Pharisee, and everyone else created in the image of God.

There are many more exiles in our world today. There are economic exiles who leave their homes in search of ‘greener pastures.’ Sometimes, they do succeed, and they are able to support their families that are left in their countries of origin. Every year, billions of dollars in remittances are sent back to China, India, Mexico, the Philippines, and other countries where the immigrants come from.

But their success come at a steep price.

Fathers and mothers leave their kids behind. A lot of families become de facto fatherless or motherless. A lot of migrant workers have relationships outside of marriage in the countries where they work. Last year, during the Young Leaders Summit in the Philippines, a woman led a workshop on HIV & AIDS. She said that she got HIV from her sexual partner (who wasn’t her husband) while she was abroad. Her family has welcomed her back after all that happened. But such relationships is becoming more of the norm, rather than the exception.

These peoples are exiles: away from their home lands, away from the friends they can laugh with in times of merriment, away from family who could console them when they cry; and away from their usual sources of support. Sometimes, they don’t even have basic human rights in the places where they work and stay at.

Emmanuel: The God Who is With Us

I’ve seen lots of young men and women from the Philippines leave the country to work abroad. Yobi, a young nurse from my home province who had been active in the UMYF, went to Oman to work.

On his first month in Oman, he asked me on Facebook if I knew of a United Methodist church or mission in Oman. As far as I knew, there was none. So he asked me again if it was okay to join a mission congregation established by another denomination from the Philippines.

Immigrants, refugees, and foreign workers represent a mission field that is vastly untapped, unserved, underserved in the world.

Sometimes, we don’t even need to send missionaries to those places. Christians, particularly Methodists, naturally come together to sing, to listen to the word of God, and encourage one another in their places of exile: at the borders; in the midst of the diaspora, and often, that is also where other people meet God.

United Methodist faith communities have sprung up in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates; in South Korea, Taiwan, and other places. I’ve also heard of United Methodists from Zimbabwe establishing their own faith communities in England. That’s kind of messy in terms of structure and relationships between the UMC and the British Methodists, but there are some accommodations for them.

Perhaps, this is the embodiment of the “Emmanuel: God with us!” proclaimed by prophet Isaiah. God is no longer confined in the Holy of holies, in the temple in Jerusalem. In Christ Jesus, God is with us, God journeys with us.

As the people of God, wherever we go, God is there in our midst.

Returning Home

The hope of returning home is a strong one. Even for me and my family, we still don’t know if we’re staying in the US for good. We hope to one day return to our country. For exiles and migrants, that hope is strong. In the midst of difficulties and challenges, the thought of going home fuels hope and helps families and communities endure.

Jeremiah assures the exiles in Babylon: “This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.”

For exiles, migrant workers, and immigrants—and the generation that follows them, the understanding of home land changes.

In the Bible, we read about people called by God move from one place to another like Abraham, Jacob, and the people of Israel. There are also those who traveled a lot in their lifetime like the apostle Paul. In human history, there had been peoples who had to flee an oppressive regime and found new homes in new lands. Didn’t the New World offer a new place for oppressed peoples of faith in Europe, which was considered the Old World? Perhaps home can be found in the places that God calls us to.

As the people of God, who believe in the God of the Bible, we have a strong hope in the coming reign of God—where the wars and conflicts and economic systems that drive people to political and economic exile shall be no more, and we can dwell in the house of God and live as the people of God.

This hope calls us to welcome the strangers, the migrants, and the exiles with the love of Christ.

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