“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace. . . .” —Ephesians 2:14-15
A week ago I stepped out onto our front porch, looking for a change of scenery with our baby, Leo. My neighbor Armando across the street was stirring a kettle over a makeshift grill built of broken concrete blocks and found stones. The aroma of grilled meat signaled a possible and very welcome invitation. He spotted me on the porch, “Kuuurt! Vente para acá!” Confirmation.
Leo and I went over while Leo’s brothers ran circles with the neighbor kids. As I sat among old friends eating tacos laden with meat worthy of a Levitical sacrifice and my baby in the arms of eager Mexican mothers, I took deep pleasure in watching Armando at his craft. Through smoke and burned fingers, it was as if he were conjuring up memories of the old country. He had this look of derangement and delight, this rudimentary fire, an exile’s protest to stainless steel and liquid propane. He looked at home in his new home for the first time in a long time, and it gave me great satisfaction.
A little while later, Alejandro from next door showed up and I overheard their conversation. Armando told him, “You know Kurt and Emily, they’re from a different class, but you wouldn’t know it. They’re educated. They’ve got some money. But they’re here with us, you know? They’re not like other güeros. They could be living in other places among different people, but they’re here with us. That’s why I like them. They’re one of us.” It was a moment that validated our efforts of downward mobility.
The immigrant experience is often marked by feelings of being unwanted, second-class, perpetually catering to someone else’s desires. It’s a lonely life—alienating, isolating, and anti-shalom. But Armando was seeing the temporary rules of the world suspended as in our neighborhood we put aside what divides us. Together we preach peace to one another and taste a new kind of humanity.
The week after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, I was fixated on social media. The protests and marches had become about so much more than taking sides on Mike Brown’s presumed innocence or his guilt. It became the epicenter of racial pain in the United States. On social media the pain and the raw emotion poured out, unedited, from people of color in a way that I had never experienced before.
Some of the most recurring, frustrated cries were the ones that asked why their white brothers and sisters were so silent, echoing Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail a generation before. One reporter asked someone how he felt about Mike Brown’s death, being a young black man himself. His response cut right to the very alienation that was embedded and invisible within the question. “I don’t know, how do you feel about it as a human?” At their core, the marches and protests were about people of color looking for validation, emotional bids burdened by a desire to know they’re not alone. They wanted someone to acknowledge that their pain is real; to tell them they’re not crazy and that their frustration is not unwarranted.
The Sunday after Mike Brown was shot, I called up a few friends and we went to Ferguson, not to take sides but to walk with people and tell them they weren’t alone. When we walked up Florissant Avenue for the first time, we were the ones who felt alone. It seemed the only other white people were either police officers or the media. Soon we stopped to talk to a few people—friends of the Brown family, as it happened. They welcomed us in and shared some of their stories. They found out we were from Kansas City and they thanked us for coming down and joining them. They took away our anxiety and displacement and, from their response, it seemed that their sense of alienation subsided as well by our standing with them. If only for a moment, and if only among a handful of people, the usual dividing wall of hostility was set aside, and we experienced the new humanity that Jesus came to bring.
A few months ago, Sarah Bessey, a Christian writer and blogger, wrote a brave piece about how the world traffics in fear of the other and the unknown and how evil and hatred is propagated by fear:
Be afraid, the world tells us. And now, sadly, it seems many of our [Christian] media outlets and leaders are telling us the same thing.
Be afraid. Be afraid of money, be afraid of losing “the fire,” be afraid of education, be afraid of theology, be afraid of growth and change . . . be afraid of the news, be afraid of Islam, be afraid of the President, be afraid of the UN, be afraid of immigrant children, be afraid of other churches, be afraid of the Pope, be afraid of socialism, be afraid of the government, be afraid of the world, be afraid be afraid be afraid.
Yet we know that there is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear. Throughout Scripture, it seems that every angelic or divine encounter is prefaced by one message—don’t be afraid. When Israel lived in terror in Egypt, they cried out and God listened. When they were scared and helpless during the period of the judges, God didn’t abandon them. When they were living in fear under Roman occupation, God did not remain distant. Instead God took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood.
When the world ran from lepers, Jesus ran toward them. When the Jews flanked Samaria, Jesus cut through it. When the temple cordoned off the Gentiles, Jesus invited them for dinner. Do not be anxious about tomorrow and do not be afraid, says Jesus, for there is not one square inch of creation that is not mine.
God has given some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Sometimes I’m not sure if I fit any one of those categories as cleanly as I, or others, might like. But one constant message that God keeps surprising us with is that the world is not such a scary place after all. Preaching peace, both to those whose life is very different from mine and to those who are like me, is one thing I can’t keep silent about. For it is Jesus who cast off fear like he cast off demons, showing the world for the first time what it truly means to be human, what it really means to live, what it really means to love. Without fear, one new humanity.
About the Author
Kurt Rietema and his wife, Emily, and sons Luke, Perkins, and Leo live in Argentine, a diverse, under-resourced neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, where Kurt leads Christian community development efforts for the CRCNA and also leads Youthfront, an organization dedicated to bringing youth into a growing relationship with Christ.