With a smoggy sunset over the Pacific Ocean in the distance, 30 migrants and refugees gather in sanctuary of a small church on a hill in Tijuana, Mexico. They are convicted criminals, loving fathers, ex-gang members, pious Catholics, mariachi musicians, and executive chefs. Some come to this hour of prayer because their lives depend on a God who is with them despite suffering. Others come because they are angry, weary, or hopeless. Still others come because they simply need an hour of relative quiet after a long day’s work at the construction site.
The men sit scattered throughout the pews as they listen to my instructions for tonight’s time of prayer. Through broken Spanish that I hope doesn’t completely detract from the holiness of the hour, I lead them through a series of ancient prayer methods. We pray over Christian icons, we meditate on Scripture, and at the end, we write prayer petitions that we lay at the foot of a wooden cross. Then, we take the prayer request of someone else, committing to carry their petition with us throughout the upcoming week — both in pocket and in prayer.
Last week, after everyone else had left, I noticed one man lingering. Fernando approached me with another blank prayer request card in hand. It didn’t surprise me he needed an extra prayer. This deportee’s life is filled with adversity I couldn’t fathom. As a seminarian and pastor-to-be, I quickly prepped myself, ready to offer an additional prayer. But to my surprise, Fernando — heavily tattooed, in dire need of a shower, and wearing clothes three sizes too big — told me he wanted to make sure that someone was praying for me. He handed me the blank card and asked me to write down my name and the names of my family members. Touched by his offer, I went to hand him the names of my loved ones. But instead of taking the card, he pointed to the cross, gesturing for me to put my prayer at the foot of the cross, just as everyone else had done moments before. So I laid it on the cross, Fernando picked it up, nodded, and walked out of the sanctuary.
I live and work at La Casa del Migrante, a shelter for Mexican migrants and deportees — and more recently, an influx of international refugees seeking asylum at the Tijuana-U.S. border. As part of a summer internship through my seminary, I came with the goal of creating a partnership — a partnership between Duke Divinity School and La Casa del Migrante, and a partnership between myself and the migrants passing through.
This goal was not born in a vacuum. I hear language and theology of partnership in church staff meetings, coffee shop conversations with Christian friends, and academic lectures by leading theologians within the walls of my divinity school. Christians today are seeking inter-religious partnerships with Jews and Muslims; suburban churches are entering partnerships with urban counterparts and vice versa; and given the church’s history of (usually? sometimes?) well-intentioned mission work often resulting in philanthropic-style paternalism, congregations are adapting their concept of what it means to be in relationship with others — and rightly so.
Partnership, as opposed to many models of mission or philanthropy, strives for mutuality and equality. It recognizes both participants as equal and valued “players,” both with something to give and with room to receive.
While the transition from paternalistic “helping” models to more mutual partnership models is in many ways a helpful and important move for the modern church, it is also misguided, theologically shaky, and ultimately incomplete. The church, especially amidst a religious and political climate that spews venomous rhetoric about “the other,” must offer a thoughtful and radical counter-narrative of what it means to live with and for one another.
And partnership simply does not go far enough.
Partnership, while better than its predecessor, ultimately proves problematic. To be “partners” — whether as individuals, congregations, or communities — suggests two distinct entities separately operating to satisfy their own interests. Though guised in theological language, partnership inevitably resembles a contractual arrangement, a quid pro quo, where something is given on the condition that something is returned. It is mutual and equal insofar as goods or interests are mutually and equally exchanged. This consumerist model acknowledges the value of “the other,” yet still for reasons that ultimately benefit the “self” (i.e., it helps me learn about new cultures, it allows us to gain important and new perspectives, or perhaps less charitably, it makes us feel good, or it makes our congregation look better).
It is no surprise that this is how we as Christians operate. Because this is how the world we live in operates. This ethos permeates so many of our interactions as consumers of information, entertainment, and material goods. Thus as Christians, we have the complicated and challenging — yet crucial — call of transcending the consumerist influences that almost subconsciously define our every exchange.
Therefore, if the church truly seeks mutuality and equally, we must go beyond our exchange-based model of partnership and move toward a more robust theological model of a shared life together. That is, we must understand ourselves not as “partners with,” but rather as “part of” — a subtle but significant shift.
Paul speaks to this shared life together using the metaphor of a body. “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ … But God has put the body together…so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other … If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Thus the distinction is clear: We are not partners in Christ, but rather part of the body of Christ.
When I run, I don’t say my arms and legs function as partners, or when I reach to pick up a glass of water, that my thumb and other fingers work in tandem. Rather, they are intimately part of one body—inextricably bound, necessarily united, messily wrapped up in one.
So too are we with one another. You with me, I with Fernando, and Fernando with you. That night at the migrant shelter, Fernando understood that we were more than partners. He understood that it was not about what he could give or get. Nor was it about what he could learn from me, or what I could learn from him (which is a lot). Rather, Fernando understood that we are all on a journey together, that (whether we like it or not) we are wrapped up in one another’s fate, that we are all hungry and looking to be fed — just like any other body. He was simply caring for a fellow member of this body, acting out of a neighborly love, living out what it means to be “part of” the body of Christ.
This was not only demonstrated through Fernando’s offer to pray for me (touching as that was). It was what he did first. It was his insistence that before making this “exchange,” I had to lay my prayer at the foot of the cross. It was his pointing to a symbol that bore a body, one that reminds us of the body to which we belong. And paradoxically, when we lean into and live into being part of this body, we ultimately achieve and far transcend that which partnership was after all along.