Isaac S. Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship and the president-elect of the North Carolina Council of Churches. He was born and raised in the U.S. borderlands as a child of Latin American parents.
Posts By This Author
When Death in the Desert is Not an Accident
IN DOUGLAS, ARIZ., in the shadow of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, a cemetery stretches across the desert. Between the orderly rows of gravestones, I notice clusters of cement blocks lodged in the sand with the same word etched into their flat surfaces: Unidentified. “Unidentified Female,” “Unidentified Male,” carved into the center of the tablet, along with a date: “Found Aug. 9, 2004.” “Found Dec. 31, 2005.” “Found Jan. 18, 2009.” “Found Feb. 12, 2009.”
A Mennonite activist whispers over my shoulder, explaining that the date marks when the remains were found in the borderland wilderness—a corpse in decomposition, a skeleton bleached in the sun, perhaps only a skull or a set of teeth.
In the beginning was the end
and in the end, silence
and the silence is God.
Jesus Resurrected and 'The Undocumented'
At the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham last week, I saw Marco Williams’ new documentary, The Undocumented, which tracks migrants as they hike into the United States across the border between Mexico and Arizona, trying to escape the detection of border patrol agents, and trying to survive the deadly heat of the Sonoran desert.
The documentary follows a young man, Marcos Hernandez, as he tries to find his father, Francisco, who was last seen in the desert walking for days in the 120-degree summer heat. Francisco left their home in Mexico with a coyote — man he paid $2,000 to lead him across the border — to make enough money to pay for his son’s expensive dialysis treatments. But he never called; he never returned. The coyote reported that he left Francisco in the desert because he was sick and couldn’t keep up with the other migrants in the group. Marcos fears the worst — that his father died of dehydration, of heat exhaustion. But to confirm the death he has to find the body.
The filmmaker focuses on the morgue in Tucson, Ariz., where the medical examiner investigates human remains, looking for clues that would help identify the dead in order to return whatever is left to family members and friends, to provide some kind of closure, to honor the dead with a burial.
In the film, Marcos won’t believe his dad is dead until he can see his dead body, or whatever is left of his body — a skull, teeth, his rib cage. He will not believe unless he can see.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). That’s what Thomas says to the other disciples about the resurrected Jesus; and what Thomas says about needing to see the body reminds me of the story of Marcos, about the need to see in order to believe.
The apostle Paul calls the church in Corinth a body — and that’s political language: “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be … As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (1 Cor. 12:18-20).
As Dale Martin argues in his book The Corinthian Body, Paul gets his language about the social body, the political body, from other Greco-Roman speeches and letters. He uses a style of writing and speaking called a “concord” — homonoia in Greek. Politicians would give speeches or write letters trying to convince the diverse people of the city to unite in a common project, to share the same goals for society, to share a common politics. In these “concord” addresses, politicians would call the society a body, just like Paul does in his letter to the divided church in Corinth. We are one body, politicians would say, so we need to act accordingly. We are one — united, bound together. Of course, politicians only made these speeches when they needed to: that is, when dissatisfied segments of society wanted to revolt (see Martin, Corinthian Body, 38-47).
Drones: Forces of Evil in Heavenly Places
People of Jesus work against demons — against the forces of evil that eat away at the goodness of God, the wonder of creation, the life of God in the world. Demonic forces roam the world, corrupting minds and bodies, cultures and governments, trying to bring ruin upon all that is good and beautiful. They dehumanize, devastate, and destroy life.
Weaponized drones are demons: evil spirits of the air, specters in the heavens, shadowy presences. They are forces of evil in heavenly places, triggering mental anxiety and bodily harm, instigating psychological damage and death, raining down terror and trauma.
Stability vs. Mobility
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Isaac S. Villegas are friends and fellow kingdom-bringers in Durham, North Carolina. Since publishing The Wisdom of Stability in 2010, Jonathan has been calling Christians to put down roots and pay attention to place for the sake of God’s reign. Isaac has gently challenged him to recognize the dangers of stability and the way immigrants or marginalized members of a community are often excluded by those who “own their place.” They offer their conversation as an invitation to discern with them a theology of place for our time.
Isaac S. Villegas: I was working alongside a little girl in our congregation’s community garden at the women’s shelter in Chapel Hill. As we were digging, she looked up at me and said that her mom warned her to beware of lice when playing outside. I reassured her that I hadn’t seen any lice around, but I asked her if she knew what to look out for. “Yes,” she said. “My mom told me to watch out for Mexicans because they bring lice.” I looked down at my hands, wondering if my hue revealed that I’m from lands further south than Mexico. Will this child grow up to think that people like me don’t belong in the South, that we are social contaminants, that our cultures dirty the body politic, that we spread lice?
These are the questions that linger in my mind when I hear my friend Jonathan argue for a recovery of “the wisdom of stability” in the Christian community. In this land where both Jonathan and I live, I’m uneasy when I hear “stability” because I see how such rhetoric belongs to a particular Southern tradition. I am the foreigner, of questionable lineage, that the people who’ve been here longer can reject or accept—reject because they think that I’m a threat to the stability of the community, or accept because they think I will contribute to a sustainable future. In either case, the assumption is that they are the ones entrusted with the land and culture. Arguments about stability have fueled people’s claims to own or steward the land and their assumption that they are the gatekeepers of society, deciding who belongs where.
“I hope to reprogram your default setting,” Jonathan writes in his book. “Our default is to move.” Instead of movement, he points to the witness of trees, which serves as the book’s focal image: “Trees can be transplanted ... But their default is to stay.” I worry that to celebrate stability as the solution to movement renders recent immigrants as defective Christians—wild, unruly, in need of reprogramming.
Movement is my default setting: It’s in my immigrant blood; it’s the story of my family. While the wisdom of stability privileges the parts of the Bible that call us to permanency, I find good news in the biblical stories of wandering, exodus, relocation, and mission. These stories resonate with the lives of migrants—people who are not trees, but birds: always building and abandoning nests as they follow the seasons.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: Every writer needs friends who remind them that words can be dangerous. I’m grateful for Isaac, who keeps me thinking hard about what I’m saying and why.
Shortly after The Wisdom of Stability was published, I got a call from the director of a mission agency who’d read the book. He asked if I’d come and speak to the global gathering of the group’s staff. I’d love to, I told him, but wondered why they thought a word on stability was needed. “Well, we have a problem in missions,” he said. “We keep sending people who’ve never belonged anywhere. They don’t seem to have much capacity to connect with the places where we send them.”
Called to Welcome the Stranger
Many people in our country say that their Christian faith is a significant force in their lives. I am one of those people. As I listen to my sisters and brothers in the church discuss immigration legislation, I wonder why our faith hasn’t lead us into a way of life that defuses this contentious debate.
If, as Christians claims, the story of the Bible is important to us, then we shouldn’t be so worried about foreigners; we shouldn’t be so afraid of immigrants.