Paula Anema Sohl

29 July 2018

The Heart of a Stranger

Exodus 23:1-9, My Tribe


My Tribe—by Alberto Blanco


Earth is the same

sky another

Sky is the same

earth another.


From lake to lake,

forest to forest:

which tribe is mine?

—I ask myself—

where’s my place?


Perhaps I belong to the tribe

of those who have none;

or to the black sheep tribe;

or to a tribe whose ancestors

come from the future:

a tribe on the horizon.


But if I have to belong to some tribe

—I tell myself—

make it a large tribe;

make it a strong tribe;

one in which nobody

is left out,

in which everybody,

for once and for all

has a God-given place.

I’m not talking about a human tribe.

I’m not talking about a planetary tribe.

I’m not even talking about a universal one.


I am talking about a tribe you can’t talk about.


A tribe that’s always been

but whose existence must yet be proven.

A tribe that’s never been

but whose existence

we can prove right now.


When I arranged with Christina to preach today I had no idea we would be hearing this text from Exodus in a Jewish Synagogue. Here, we are refugees from the smoke receiving welcome from a community whose sacred texts were written while they were living as displaced people. Exodus is thought to have been written in Babylon in the 6th century BCE, and this passage reminds the Israelites of when they were displaced in Egypt.


These guidelines were meant to insure the people would function as a community of liberation and justice. “You shall not oppress a resident immigrant; you know the heart of an immigrant, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.”


The word translated as immigrant here comes from the Hebrew ger—meaning a guest, a foreigner, an alien, a sojourner, a stranger. It comes from the root guwr which has the implication of turning aside to find lodging, or shrinking in fear. So it taps into the discomfort one may feel when one is finding their way in a cross-cultural situation.


This text reminded the Jewish people to remember their experience and be informed by it: you know the heart of an immigrant because you, too, shared the experience of being displaced.


As the fires come close to us and frighten us, and we know people affected, evacuated, even losing their homes, we grow our capacity to share the heart of others throughout the world who have had similar experiences or who live in a chronic state of fear for their safety.


The threats of global warming more and more are putting us all into the same boat. Any of us could end up being refugees even from our homes as we are right now from our church building. It invites us to re-evaluate what is essential and what nurturing our community life means to us, and what level of comfort and safety we should be advocating for for all people.


I saw my 95 year old Aunt Terry last week. I asked if she remembered stories about her mother’s trip from Rotterdam on the ship called the Stattendam, but she didn’t. My grandmother Ebeltje was 9 years old when she arrived at Ellis Island April 4,1903. Just reading the ship manifest tells me a little. She came with her parents and 8 siblings. Her father’s name was misspelled to look like Pete although it was really Ite. Her mom was identified as Mrs. Pete Van Til. And her 6 year old sister Martina was noted to be “crippled”. I know my great-grandmother’s maiden name was DeBoer and one of Ebeltje’s brothers was named Klaas, so I bet 28 year old Klaas DeBoer on the manifest just above the VanTil family was her uncle.


It seems the record keepers in 1903 were fairly careful about their documentation and about keeping families together.


I don’t know what they were fleeing or seeking in leaving their homeland in the Netherlands, but they took a dangerous and uncertain journey. Two years after they arrived, her mother died and Ebeltje was sent to be a domestic worker for a wealthy family at the age of 11.


Unless we are from the indigenous tribes of the Shasta, Takelma, Athabascan, Modoc or Klamath people we all have an immigration story: coming from abroad or at least in our coming to Southern Oregon. I invite you to sit for a moment of silence to call up a bit of your own immigration history…


Please find someone near you to share your story with.


In response to the recent escalation of family separation of immigrants on the southern border, The United Church of Christ issued this statement: “And God hears the cries of God’s people. The plight of black and brown migrant families whose children are ripped from their care cannot be the policy of a civilized land. We’ve been here before. Our nation’s history bears witness to a legacy of lost love. We separated the children of Native people from their families. We separated the children of enslaved people from their families. We separated the children of Japanese people from their families.


Many of these families were never made whole again. This legacy of white supremacist ideology is idolatrous and leaves an indelible mark of evil that can only be redeemed by a conscious act of spiritual repentance and repair.”


Conscious acts of spiritual repentance and repair: feeling our heart connection and doing something meaningful can be part of the redemptive work we do together.


We have young people with us today who will be traveling to Fresno in two weeks to serve and learn from refugee communities there. The Fresno population is 30% white, the rest is mostly latinx, black and asian. We will be working with the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries serving Hmong, Laotian, Slavic, African and Syrian people groups, which represent over 60,000 people in Fresno County.  Their mission is: “Sharing Christ’s love to build communities of hope with New Americans.”


Services include an after-school program, advocacy work, mental health programs, community gardens and more. At the end of the service we will stand to offer a blessing to this group as they prepare for their journey.


I have invited Alessandra de la Torre to join us today to tell about her work with Unite Oregon and about how we can be involved with keeping our own state safe from further persecution of immigrants in Oregon. (The following is not her presentation, just some of the issues re: Measure 105 that she addressed.)


Measure 105 would throw out Oregon’s existing “sanctuary” law, which has been protecting Oregonians from unfair racial profiling for more than 30 years.

  • Every day, we hear more and more stories of long-time residents being sent to a country they don’t even know, immigrant families being torn apart, ICE raids, and children being detained in immigration camps. Throwing out this law could turn local police into another arm of Trump’s “deportation force.”
  • If this ballot measure passed, local police could be asked to use personnel, funds, equipment and facilities to locate, arrest, and jail people suspected only of violating federal immigration law.
  • Immigrants, including those who may be undocumented, shouldn’t have to live in fear of harassment or their families being torn apart when they are simply going to work or school or reporting crime.


All Oregonians, including immigrant Oregonians, care about the safety of our families and communities.


  • Oregon’s sanctuary law doesn’t protect those who commit crimes and harm others. That’s never okay. And any Oregonian who commits a crime can and should be held accountable.
  • This law has been working as intended for more than 30 years. It gives clear guidance to local law enforcement on complicated immigration issues.
  • The current law keeps local police focused on local communities. That’s why local sheriffs and law enforcement officials are urging Oregon voters to keep the law as is.
  • Local police are already stretched too thin, 911 calls in rural communities are going unanswered, and budgets are tight. We shouldn’t divert Oregon taxpayer money to do the job of federal immigration enforcement.
  • This is about striking a balance. We can hold people accountable who commit crimes and harm our neighbors while also providing important civil rights protections. The current law does both.


As we seek to live out our radical welcome, and consider the tribe that Alberto Blanco imagines, “that’s never been but whose existence we can prove right now,” I invite you to consider what needs nurturing in your own life and practice? Do you need to de-clutter so there is time and space for the needs of one who is displaced? Do you need to welcome some part of yourself that has been marginalized? Do you need to know you are fully welcome so you may fully welcome others?


May we practice bringing all that we are, our unique histories and gifts to discovering and proving the tribe, in which nobody is left out, in which everybody, for once and for all has a God-given place.