The hundred or so men and a dozen or so women filed into the “dining room” at the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. They were tired. Faces drawn and downcast, they came in as so many do each day. What looked to me like a dining hall in a rescue mission type environment was quickly transformed into a portal to heaven. The men sat down at long tables, were served a meal of beans, tortillas, and other dishes, and they began to eat.
Most of the men had just been deported from the United States, dropped off in the town square in Nogales possibly the night before. Many others were migrants who had made the difficult journey up from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. They came to “El Comedor,” or “The Aid Center for Migrants,” with very little on them and dim prospects for what was next for them. “El Comedor” means “the dining room,” and it is here that a sense of dignity is restored.
When I visited The Kino Initiative in August 2018, I witnessed something that deeply impacted me. The center is run by Jesuits who operate from the perspective that the migrants have worth, value, and dignity already as human beings made in God’s image. What they have gone through either in being deported from the United States or through leaving their home countries as refugees and migrants can often be a dehumanizing process. Here in El Comedor, dignity would be restored.
After the migrants were assessed for their immediate needs and provided with lunch, a nun stood up and began to address the gathered crowd at the tables. She told them that they were given food because they had a right to eat and be nourished. That right came from God. She said that they had access to phones to call home because they had a right to speech and communication and to be reconnected with their families. She said clothes were available for them because they had a right to clothing and to be warm, and medical care was available for them because they had a right to life and health. As she went through every service provided, she did not couch any of it in the posture of charity or mercy. Instead, she said this was all for them because of who they were, who God made them to be, and because of the inherent worth and dignity that they had as those loved by God.
Then, the Jesuit priest stood over the migrants and led them all in prayer. Every head bowed and every eye closed as he prayed a prayer of blessing over them. My translator shared with me the words, and tears came to my eyes as I observed this scene of blessing and love, of open doors and an open table for those that God would invite and uplift. And I thought about how different of an approach this was from much of the ministry that I had witnessed in my life.
In much of the ministry that I have participated in, we call for gratefulness and a focus on sin and need. Though we offer things, it is not always because the person being given the gift has inherent worth or a right to such things. Instead, these things are given as a display of the love and generosity of the giver. We push the recipient into a lower position, and we exalt the giver as the one who controls the resources and as the one who gives. This creates dependency as “the lesser” is taught to look to “the greater” to meet their needs. The very process of giving and hospitality becomes dehumanizing for the one receiving as they can only receive if their posture becomes subservient. And all of this is considered good.
The scene that played out before me that day in Nogales put all of that to death. The givers took the lower position and lifted up those receiving by telling them – no, demanding that they see themselves as those that had a right to these things begin offered because they were children of God, dearly loved. It was all grace, but it was grace meant to uplift and restore human worth and dignity to those who had been cast out. The very thought of it to this day brings tears to my eyes.
No thought was expressed about whether or not the migrants would become entitled or spoiled. These people were castoffs, rejected, alone and with nothing, yet they were loved and welcomed and restored to the land of the living. The ministers at the Kino Border Initiative told me they do it this way because the journey to come for these people is very hard. They wanted to lift the migrants’ heads and give them strength for what they would face next. And that strength comes from God.
This all made me think of the biblical view of hospitality, which is the Greek word philoxenia, which means, “love of the stranger.” 1 Peter 4:8-10 says,
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality [philoxenoi – love of the stranger] to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace:
Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Biblical hospitality, or philoxenia, is a welcoming of strangers and sharing with them of your gifts in a way that honors and encourages. To “encourage” someone means we walk alongside them in close proximity and summon, exhort, and call forth what God has already placed within them. It is a way of refreshing people with food, drink, rest, welcome, healing, and hope. It is the ministry of open doors and tables that takes people from a place of emptiness and fills them with love and mercy and restores their dignity.
I cannot help but wonder what would happen if our churches and homes and neighborhoods reflected this ministry of the open door and table? I saw this exhibited beautifully in a Jesuit mission in Nogales, and I was challenged, humbled, and convicted by what I saw and experienced. People were not seen as threats to be rejected nor as objects to be ministered to, but as human beings made in God’s image who already had worth, value, and dignity. The volunteers and workers in that mission had the honor of reminding the migrants who they really were, and that identity was not something that could be taken from them by a brutal migration and an immigration process built to grind them down.
Wherever we are and whatever setting we find ourselves in, there are people around us who need open doors and tables where they are reminded that they are dearly loved and that they have the God-given right to live and be and thrive. Let us be people who give that to them.