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Divinity Online Edition - Spring 2006

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A Faithful Response to the Stranger?

By Joseph Shelton D’97

Joseph Shelton
Joseph Shelton

The book of Genesis tells a story of migration and angst. Joseph’s brothers were desperate. They migrated from famished Canaan into Egypt, a land of plenty, in search of sustenance for their family.

Another book, Matthew, tells a story of migration and angst. Joseph, husband of Mary, hurriedly migrated with his wife and his young son Jesus across the border of a politically volatile Judea into Egypt, a land of sanctuary.

Today, a vast migration into our land of plenty has created complex challenges involving everything from worker justice to evangelism. Millions of people from countries that span the western hemisphere are seeking sustenance and sanctuary among us. The group listed by the U.S. census as “persons of Hispanic or Latino origin” now constitutes the largest minority in this country, numerically exceeding African Americans.

Many of the members of this group live and work here without sanctioned status, which has earned them the title of “illegals” in the media and government.

As a country of immigrants in a land occupied by less than 1 percent of its native population, as human people, and as brothers and sisters in Christ with many of these people—93 percent of whom self-identify as Christian—how are we faithfully to respond to those in search of sustenance and sanctuary?

In Mississippi, I served an urban congregation whose sanctuary was in desperate need of repairs. A foreman and two-man crew hired from the membership did most of the labor. It was as much a labor of love for the foreman and the two recovering addicts as it was a job. Every day was a blessing to see the three interact and work at restoring a building that had literally acted as a place of refuge for the construction team of three.

One day the foreman needed additional laborers to remove the pews from the sanctuary. I'm not sure how he found the additional help, but several Latino/Hispanic men worked hard all day moving the heavy pews.

The foreman asked the men to return the next day to do more work, and to bring their Social Security numbers and identification so that they could be paid.

The men never returned. In this case, there was no malicious intent on anyone’s part toward these men, yet there was injustice. The work was done but there was no pay. We can argue the legal point from many sides, but that is not my interest in telling the story. If this small unintentional bit of economic injustice took place in a sacred space of refuge, literally in a sanctuary, how much more intentional exploitation is taking place all around us? How much fear and distrust defines the daily life of people in search of a better life?

Depending on the decisions of our lawmakers, ministry with and to an unsanctioned person may be defined as “aiding a felon.” The current climate demands that the church be an active participant with all of the parties in the conversation. We have much to learn.

Learning often crystallizes when one enters into a context. Field Education at Duke Divinity School exists so that students may enter arenas of contextual learning. This summer, three of our Master of Divinity students will be immersed in the language, customs and culture of The Evangelical Methodist Church of El Salvador. When they return, perhaps they will give us insight into why many people risk life and limb, subject themselves to exploitation, and migrate into this unfamiliar land.

Our hope is that our students will begin a process from which we here at Duke Divinity School will learn. This hope is built upon the stories that tell us who we are. The Joseph of Genesis made the necessary political arrangements so that the very people who stripped him of status and sent him into a strange land were allowed to migrate, given sustenance, sanctuary and jobs.

Egypt was a place of sanctuary for Joseph and Mary and their young son Jesus as they sought refuge. The only status we know that Jesus carried when he crossed the border was that of “Messiah.” We stake our whole identity on the One who was no stranger to crossing borders.

Joseph Shelton D’97 co-directs Duke Divinity School’s Office of Field Education and Church Relations with his wife, Connie, also D’97. He was formerly senior pastor at Court St. United Methodist Church in Hattiesburg, Miss.


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