The first weekend in December, my friend Sarah and I travelled to Brownsville with a small group of others to witness and help address – in a small way – the humanitarian crisis along our border with Mexico.
The people we went to serve are asylum seekers – families who are escaping violence and persecution, who are following the rules, and who are waiting across the border for a hearing to determine if their asylum claims are accepted so they can enter the US.
We spent a lot of time preparing for the work. Preparing for the trip itself. Planning and practicing school lessons. Preparing food for Saturday’s dinner. Getting advice from seasoned volunteers.
We spent hours preparing.
Then we drove to the Brownsville bus station,
loaded all our dinner provisions into folding carts
and walked it all through the bus station, down the street, around the corner, and across the international bridge to Matamoros.
And there it was. An impromptu camp with hundreds of tents. With hundreds of people. Almost all of them are young, because the journey they took to be at this camp was long and grueling and took almost all their strength. All of them are poor because they had to leave everything they had escaping death threats.
The preparation on most of Saturday was purposeful and joyful. We were a group who knew why we were there and knew we were privileged to be there. For those of us who hadn’t been across the bridge before, we knew we were doing what we had promised in our baptism – to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
If I can make a stretch of a comparison – we were just a little bit like John the Baptist, about whom we read during Advent – a season of waiting. He is preparing. He urges others to prepare. But can anything really prepare you for a mystery? John has his doubts. We have our doubts.
The camp was both larger and smaller than I expected. It was crowded and dirty and just within sight of safety and freedom. But not close enough.
Sarah and I got to do important work and then leave. Those in the camp do not. They stay indefinitely.
It is disappointing enough that you could almost hear all of us – the helpers and the asylum seekers – asking like John when his doubts set in, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
In other words, “We thought God was with us, but this doesn’t feel right.”
To which Jesus replies – paraphrasing – Look around you. the blind can see, the lame walk, the poor have good news brought to them…
The hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the homeless are sheltered, the children are taught…
In the same instant we saw the poverty and dehumanizing conditions of the camp, we also saw love.
Older children crossed the street to help us carry our loads. Smaller children hugged us in welcome.
We told ourselves that on our venture into the camp we would be the face of Christ to the refugees there – and perhaps we were.
But more certainly, they were the face of Christ to us. Jesus lives in that camp. With ten ports potties and no shower. With two meals a day and an hour of school a week.
Jesus lives in that camp.
We are in a season of waiting, that is what Advent is all about. In some ways, the waiting is how we remember that God came to us as a child. We wait for family celebrations and gift-giving, and foods that both extravagant and comforting.
In some ways we are waiting even longer for the coming of Christ again. So Advent includes reminders that our wait can include troubling times and uncertainty.
I thought about this season of waiting when Sarah and I were with people who do nothing but wait all day, every day. They wait in uncertainty, in fear.
God made us to be with each other – to be with other people, to be with God. And we know God best when we are truly with others, especially others who can reveal a little about love and about being human that we don’t know from our own lives.
They complete the picture of what it means that Christ is with us.
They need us to be Christ to them – and even more we need them to be Christ to us as we wait together. And that’s the point, isn’t it? We never wait alone. God always waits with us.