Her Name is Edna

edna and kenneth

Edna and Kenneth in 2011.

Her name is Edna. She came to Canada under the Live-In Caregiver program from the Philippines, dreaming of snow and a better life for her only son, Kenneth.  This was not the first foreign country she worked in as a migrant. She left the Philippines for the first time when Kenneth was only 5 years old.  Five countries later, she saw Canada as her final destination, a place where she could reunite with her son.  In the 15 years she worked as a migrant labourer, she and her son were never together more than 5 months. Throughout this time, she supported Kenneth, her extended family, and her country, through remittances.

Her name is Edna. In some ways she considers herself to be one of the lucky ones. She is finally in a country that, after 24 months of live-in employment as a Nanny, gives her the opportunity to become a permanent resident and to bring her family to Canada. For other migrants in Canada, such as seasonal agricultural workers, no such opportunity exists; so Edna worked and worked, satisfying the requirements of the program so that she and Kenneth could be reunited. Kenneth is a man now, 19 years of age. She has kept in constant touch with him through phone calls and online chats, but longs to have him near.

Her name is Edna.  She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, but despite chemotherapy treatments she continued to work, to satisfy the program’s requirements and to support her family.  Ultimately, with a terminal diagnosis, nothing was left of the dream except to bring Kenneth to Canada to see her in person one last time.  Thanks to the kindness of strangers—charity really—he was able to come, and she lived a week in his presence before she died.

Her name was Edna.

In the settled churches of the Global North, if we think of them at all, we tend to think of migrants as “other.”  However, unless we are Indigenous peoples, there are few of us whose ancestry is not intertwined with migration.  My family came to North America in the early 1600s to work and to build a new life. The only difference between Edna and me is a few centuries.  Other members of my family who came later may well have been forced to do so by the Irish potato famine.  How different is that from the factors that force migration now—poverty, economic injustice, ecological devastation, disaster?

In the settled churches of the Global North, if we think of them at all, we tend to think of migrants as “other.”  A typical response is one of charity, consistent with the scriptural call for care of the poor, widow or orphan.  Perhaps we offer English classes, provide pastoral care, hold special services, or raise money to help bring a child to visit a dying mother. We are endeavouring to be “inclusive,” but I worry that this is still based on a notion that we own the church and are graciously including people into a community that we define. I fear that our welcome is conditional.  We are the host, with all the power this expresses.

If these underlying ideas are there, then we are acting in ways that are similar to our nations, nations that periodically extend the hand of welcome to “our” country to a precious few “deserving” migrants, including those within borders still rigorously defined.  Our nation’s welcome is conditional. We hold all the power to accept, and to turn away; to leave “undeserving” migrants to die at sea, to accept, even depend on, the labour of others, but not their dreams of settlement.  We are countries with borders, and we decide who comes in and who stays out.

It is my firm belief that the theological task, the prophetic task, is to turn this system upside down and inside out. We must work towards a vision of churches and countries without borders; churches and countries that seek not only to provide radical hospitality, but to be ourselves welcomed by those who image our God in our time.

Affirming the work of Ched Myers and Matthew Colwell[1], I would assert that our God is a migrant, our God is undocumented.  Early appearances of Yahweh in the scriptures portray God as a stranger in need of hospitality.  In Genesis 18, God appears to Abraham and Sarah in the guise of three mysterious guests in need of sustenance, which, when offered leads to the birth of a people.  As the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures unfolds, God is portrayed as “stateless,” a God of the tent who sojourns with the people, in contrast with the settled gods of the surrounding empires.  This Exodus God flees Egypt’s tyranny with the people and wanders in the wilderness.

Later attempts to capture and domesticate Yahweh, the one who has migrated with the people of Israel, to contain Yahweh within the borders of the Israelite monarchy, result in catastrophes from which the prophets continually call the people back.  Our God is a migrant.

Jesus, our Saviour, himself enters into the world as a child, in the midst of his parents’ journey—a journey to satisfy imperial demands.  At the youngest of ages, he is forced to flee his country to be safe from political violence.  “The adult Jesus not only characterizes himself as homeless (‘the Human One has no nowhere to lay his head,’ Lk 9:58), but stateless. ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’”[2](Jn 18:36).  He constantly appears, even within the resurrection narratives, as one needing hospitality at the same time as he offers it in true abundance.  As Christine Pohl asserts: “Jesus welcomes and needs welcome; Jesus requires that followers depend on and provide hospitality.” [3]

Our God is a migrant. Our Saviour is a refugee. It is not those of privilege in the established, settled churches of the Global North, but the migrants and refugees knocking at our door who more clearly image God in our time.  As true disciples, we are to extend, but also to receive hospitality, from those whose welcome images the profound love and justice of God, the radical reciprocity of God.[4]  We are called to transform structures that define centre and margin, that make welcome conditional, into communities of mutuality and interdependence.

Her name was Edna.  Economic policies that structurally impoverish the countries of the Global South forced her migration.  Nations that serve the god of the market commodified her labour, her very self.  Systems of structured inequity threatened to endanger the most sacred of bond–that between a mother and a child.  If we, from our charity, seek to help, to include, conditionally or partially,  we must know that the God of justice, the Holy parent, holds Edna fully and whollly in her very heart—a heart that broke as Edna’s own heart was breaking to be away from her child.

May we as churches, and as Christians, respond in justice to the migrant God who journeys with people, forced out by oppression and inequity. May we respond in mutuality to our refugee Saviour who knocks at our doors, seeking to receive but also to offer prophetic hospitality.  May we recognize common vulnerability and include each other in communities of radical reciprocity.[5]  And may we strive to be both guest and host in churches where doors swing open and borders fall away, where a new thing is created from the God who lives in between us.

Her name was Edna. May she rest in God’s peace.

[1] This biblical description of God as a migrant or as undocumented is drawn from Myers, Ched and Matthew Colwell. Our God is Undocumented. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2012, pp. 55-61.

[2] Myers and Colwell, p.58.

[3] As quoted in Reynolds, Thomas E. Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008, p.244.

[4] See Reynolds for more discussion of reciprocity and mutuality, p.239-250.

[5] Reynolds, 247.

Filed in: Migrant Justice

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