I noticed this Christmas season, for the first time, that not only were Mary and Joseph forced to migrate under Rome’s census; not only was the Incarnate God born into a humiliating space — but, as they fled to Egypt, they never registered in Bethlehem with the census. A dream, an angel, told the migrant father to gather his family and run from the authorities. Unaccounted for in the empire, baby Jesus’ first movement in this world was a government-evading trek through the desert by night.
I think about this as, right now, my friend Estuardo is probably crouching in the dark somewhere in the desert along the Mexican border. At the same time my wife and I hang electric Christmas lights on our tree, get out our nativity sets, and read familiar illustrated books about the stars in the sky above the shepherds. Estuardo has told me, from previous voyages across the border by night, how clear the stars are when hiding from the border patrol lights.
When I first met Estuardo, he was a problem. He drank. He was making life worse for the other hardworking, undocumented families from Oaxaca, Mexico who lived in the berry-picking camps here in Washington’s Skagit Valley, who spoke Triqui and Mixteco and daily endured being misunderstood. He was making them look bad. The camp manager called me, a young migrant chaplain who visited the camps regularly back then, to do something about this guy.
Over the next three years many people in our ministry at Tierra Nueva came around him and his family. But the real turning point happened when Estuardo had a vision. A man in shining white — robes, no less — appeared to him. Maybe in a dream. The radiant figure told him to stop driving his life into a ditch and to follow him. This sounded pretty contrived to me as he tried to explain it all in broken Spanish in my apartment. But then I remembered he did not know the New Testament stories, did not go to church, nor own a Bible, nor was he able to read at all. This vision was not cliché, but strange and disturbing to him. Was this an angel? he asked me with serious eyes. Was it…the Jesus he has heard we worship?
Why do I, and most of the people I know, never see visions like this? Why didn’t the angels of the Christmas story appear to those in Herod’s court? Why only to a young, pregnant peasant girl and her husband? Why make a celestial announcement only for the nightshift workers out in the fields, trying to stay warm under the stars?
Whatever the reason, this is the effect: what they saw and heard — if we believe it — is the source of our scriptures and hymns. We have no Christmas without the testimony of these marginal folks who moved in the darkness at the fringes of the Roman Empire.
Whatever radiant being appeared to Estuardo, it had a transformative effect: within months, he was bringing his entire extended family to our bilingual services. He was later baptized in the salmon-cold Skagit River by an all-Mixteco-speaking church that normally meets outside of town in a converted barn. They are all undocumented migrant workers. Even the pastor was deported this year when immigration officials stormed his house in the woods.
Now Estuardo, too, is back in the desert. He was seized by agents waiting outside his small home in the waking hours. He was on his way to work. I was upset this week to hear that he was trying to cross yet again, to be with his family; he is risking many years in a federal prison.
And yet I hear the narratives of Jesus’ birth read aloud through this Advent season at church and most holiday movies. And I remember that wherever Estuardo is right now—running under the stars, laying still and terrified in the wilderness — his eyes now behold what the fugitive Christ-child may have first seen of our world: the cold stars above him, the dark landscape ahead. And the sound of Estuardo’s nervous breaths as he looks over his shoulder tonight may be exactly what Jesus heard in his migrant parents’ arms on the first nights of Christmas.
Chris Hoke is on sabbatical from his work in Skagit County as part of Tierra Nueva (www.tierra-nueva.org). “Estuardo’s” name has been changed to protect his identity.