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Salena Witmer's Sermon from April 15, 2018

From Salena Witmer.

I was born in El Paso, TX, a city that is on the border of Mexico with the city of Juarez on the other side. I identify with both sides of that border because my birth father was mexican and my birth mother was caucasian. My family has been back to El Paso to visit several times and on one of these visits we met our birth sister, Cynthia. But it wasn’t until last year when we visited El Paso that my view of it changed. It wasn’t until last year that I noticed the wall separating El Paso from Juarez. The wall looked like a prison- it stood tall and was lined on top with barbed wire, like pictures I have seen of the Berlin Wall. Police cars were on the other side patrolling the area. I remember thinking: it is unfair that Americans can move freely between different countries but Mexicans can’t. The wall represented to me the fear and mistrust that our country has for people that are not like us, especially people of different religions, poor people and brown people. Looking at the border, I couldn't help but think of all the people wandering, trying to find a place that they could call their home. And I felt so fortunate to have a solid sense of a safe home for myself. We can help each other feel at home by welcoming people into our land warmly instead of shutting them out. Home is a place of safety and acceptance. And so many people spend their entire lives searching for this place.

When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of them. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love them like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt. Today I’d like to reflect on my experiences with two people who lived as foreigners and who’s stories I carry with me.   

Nora and Luis were both foreigners in their own land and our land. Their stories taught me what it was like to be a foreigner.

My uncle Luis lived with my mom’s family for many years.  Luis immigrated from Guatemala because there was a war there. He fled into Mexico when he was about 12 years old and lived on his own by working on farms and selling things on the street.  We always teased Luis about how he didn’t like chocolate and he would tell us the story about when he sold chocolate ice cream and ate so much chocolate that he made himself sick. Eventually Luis crossed the border into Arizona by walking across the desert. That wall made me think about Luis and how he was in danger crossing into the US.  Luis must have felt scared crossing the border because he didn’t know if he was safe or where he was going. He also didn’t speak English or even Spanish very well because he spoke a Mayan language. Before I was born Luis moved from Indiana to Philadelphia to live closer to my mom, dad, uncle Dan and aunt Karla. When I was little he would often take me to the park to swing, or to the cafe for a snack. My brothers and I and my cousins Emilia and Dahlia have a lot of happy memories of Luis spending time with us when we were little. Having Luis as a part of our family was like having your best friend for a sibling, except that best friend was a little less annoying than your siblings.

Luis changed my perspective on how I see the world.  Luis had a very different life from me he didn’t always have the things I have growing up, I never had to worry about getting deported because I wasn’t an immigrant but Luis had to worry for many years about getting deported back to Guatemala. Luis worked on getting a US citizenship for many years but it was a long process. In 2014, when we were in Michigan, my mom walked in with a very serious look on her face. She told me that Luis had died. After the funeral, we returned to Philadelphia and found out that Luis’s citizenship papers had arrived while we were away. It arrived too late for Luis. I took one look at it and cried. The government never made Luis feel at home, but my family did.

Another person that has been important to me and who was an immigrant was my friend Nora. I met Nora in first grade when she was in my class at school. Nora was from Qatar and had a kidney disease so was here in Philadelphia to get treatment at CHOP.  Nora was absent from school a lot and some days when she was in school she was too weak to do all of her work. Sometimes she would rest her head on the desk at the end of the day. I remember helping her with a short story and telling her how to spell the words “The End”.  Nora was the first close friend that I had who was Muslim. From Nora I learned the Muslim custom of giving gifts. On the last day of first grade her mom arrived to pick her up and had three bags of gifts for me and my brothers. It was like my birthday! When I would visit her at her house she would give me more gifts every time I was there! Nora was not able to continue to attend school but I would visit her in the hospital. We lost touch with Nora’s family but I always wondered about her. Last year we found out from Ruben’s friend Amar’s mother that Nora died. Hearing this made me remember all the fun times I had with her, and left me with a great sense of loss.  

Even though both Luis and Nora died, they still live on in my heart. Their deaths helped me be more open to meeting new people and people who are different than me. When I meet new people, I am willing to listen to their stories and to give advice because I’ve experienced Luis and Nora’s stories. I know that people can experience really hard things that make them feel excluded, and I’m open to hearing those stories and supporting them.

Because of my mixed race I have developed a sensitivity towards the idea of the foreigner. Sometimes I imagine people want me to be on the other side of that wall in El Paso. I tell my story of adoption to other people, and I tell them how sometimes I feel excluded. I’m growing up in a rough time, where immigration issues and exclusion have become more intense.

Valarie Kaur is an American Civil Rights activist and lawyer her TED Talk on the “3 Lessons of Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage,” talked about how we need to love people who don’t look like us.  She says, “Stories can create that wonder that turns strangers into sisters and brothers.” Valerie's talk made me think about Luis and Nora striving for their place of home in the world. My hope for our community is that we will listen to what others have to say and understand them better by hearing their stories. We’re all similar, even if we are different race or religions. We all have something in common. And through other people’s stories, we can learn how they felt in the moment and how they have made that a part of who they are. Through hearing and understanding others’ stories, we can live out the words of Leviticus: “Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love them like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt. I am God your God.”


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