Members of a migrant caravan walk into the interior of Mexico after crossing the Guatemalan border on October 21, 2018, near Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.
John Moore/Getty Images
Advent and the God of the ‘caravan’
Rev. Corey Fields
December 18, 2018
As the days get short and cold, the lights of Christmas appear in our neighborhoods and shopping malls. Majestic and joy-filled sounds fill the air (unless, of course, you’re one of those weird people who doesn’t like Christmas music). We make lists, print family pictures, gather for parties. We get a new streak of generosity as we pack bags and boxes for the less fortunate. We likely see several charming nativity sets showing that white baby Jesus, born to white parents, safely surrounded by animals, visitors and angels, all with the look of peaceful contentment, that of people who knew all along that everything would be OK.
I am one of those people with a sappy affinity for our modern Christmas traditions, so this is in no way a critique of them on their own merits. However, in today’s world, it is more important than ever to remember that it bears no resemblance to its actual historical context.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth places it in the midst of a census administered by Quirinius in the province of Syria. Luke’s telling is notoriously difficult to reconcile with other historical documents, but we know that the Roman censuses did take place. We know that they were disruptive, especially for the working poor, and only served the interests of the elite and the taxes they sought to impose.
Ancient Roman censuses usually did not require out-of-town travel and were more interested in property ownership than birthplace, but taking Luke at his word, such a census would have seen a massive amount of travel in a short period of time, sometimes through treacherous countryside. There would have been food shortages, illness, and injuries. Bandits would have lain in wait for those who were alone or otherwise vulnerable.
To mitigate these dangers, people of many times and cultures have traveled in “caravans.” There’s safety, security, and community in numbers. When you are poor and vulnerable, and forces beyond your control displace you, staying with the group is the safest way. We’re not really told anything about how Mary and Joseph traveled, but it is highly unlikely they did so alone, as is often depicted. In all probability they traveled in groups that would have looked very similar to the migrant caravans of today.
Some may balk at this comparison; that of Jesus’ family following government orders versus a large group of migrants choosing to come to the U.S. But this “choice” is an illusion of our privilege. If your children’s lives are threatened by gangs or your family’s livelihood impossible to maintain, the “choice” to leave feels like no less of a mandate than a government order; maybe even more so. Of course, Matthew’s Gospel contains the added element of Jesus’ family having to flee to Egypt to avoid the murderous raid of King Herod, circumstances that essentially made them asylum seekers.
American Baptist pastor Ray Schellinger journeyed to Mexico City in November 2018 to meet and minister to this group of migrants in the so-called ‘caravan.’ He shared stories, videos and pictures on his Facebook page. The following is an excerpt from one of his posts:
As I speak with the young men, they have shared the experiences of working in farms, factories and construction, often for less than $4 a day. Quite a few said they earned less than half of that for 10 hour days of hard labor in the fields of the rural towns from where they come. And then they tell me about the gangs who take it all away…
Every single person I spoke with named several close family members and friends killed by the gangs. I asked one young man, Miguel, 17, why he was here. He responded, “I had two choices, to become a criminal or to leave. There is no other way to survive.”
One common retort about the Central American migrant caravan is that international law requires them to seek asylum in Mexico or the first country they reach. This is actually only true if there is a “safe third country” agreement between the United States and Mexico. There is none, and — with notable irony — the current administration’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and their contentious relationship with the Mexican government serve to make such an agreement much less likely.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies released a 2017 study that ranked Mexico as the world’s second most violent country, saying that its drug cartel-fueled violence has reached levels that qualify it as an armed conflict. The drugs and gangs that threaten these families’ existence in Central America have tentacles in Mexico as well. Add to this the government corruption, the lack of jobs, and their even more tortuous asylum bureaucracy, and it quickly becomes clear that Mexico is not an option.
Individual stories and the toll this journey takes on families are underreported. Journalist Michael E. Miller wrote a story that mentioned one 21-year old woman named Roxana Orellana who “stood on a concrete curb, rubbing the small belly that showed through her sleeveless green shirt. [She] was five months pregnant. Her back ached and her feet throbbed from three weeks on the road.”
Kind of reminds you of another woman named Mary, doesn’t it?
Artist Everett Patterson published a drawing in 2014 that depicts Joseph and Mary (José y Maria) as a young Latino couple huddled up next to a convenience store in the rain. Their expressions give a strong impression that they’re in need and trying to figure out where to go. Pregnant Mary (“Maria”) is wearing jeans and a hoodie, and Joseph (“José”) is talking on a pay phone. He has a name badge on his shirt suggesting that he does some kind of blue-collar work.
Besides being a brilliant drawing that includes more than a dozen hidden messages and biblical references, it is an image that can make us realize that we might have passed on Mary and Joseph too; a poor, dirty, even “suspicious” looking couple. The artist himself said it best: “I have a small hope that this Christmas image will come to mind when we see other ‘down and out’ people…reminding us that our Savior’s parents (and indeed, Jesus himself) were at one time similarly troubled.”
During Advent and Christmas, we remember a God who most fully revealed God’s self to humanity in the form of a baby born to a poor family, forced to go somewhere they don’t want to go, unable to find welcome anywhere, ending up giving birth in a lonely and dirty place.
Are you ready to welcome such a God?
The Rev. Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Del.
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