I don’t deserve this. That’s all I could manage to think. I don’t deserve this at all.
But deserve it or not, my hair was being lovingly, painstakingly set into dozens of curls by a woman I had only just met hours before. She was curling my hair so that I would be prepared for a wedding that night. A wedding for two people I had not yet met at all. Why, you ask, was I going to a wedding for two strangers? To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure why. But this is what I do know:
I know that this story began when my friend Emily and I decided to do some research in a rural town called Mangulile in Olancho, Honduras. As part of a semester-long study abroad program, we were given two weeks to explore something that interested us. So we set off for Mangulile to learn about the impacts of immigration to the United States on a community in Honduras. We hoped to catch a glimpse of immigration through the eyes of Central Americans. So we hopped from bus to bus until we arrived at the home of the family who offered to house us for two weeks. And, having only been there a couple of days, we found ourselves being warmly invited to a number of church services, futbal games, and community events. Like the wedding of two locals who were cousins of our hosts.
But we weren’t just invited to this wedding. Oh, no. We were given dresses to wear—beautiful dresses. And shoes. Our hair and nails and make-up were done with the utmost care by cousins and friends of the bride. We were properly fussed over until we were prepared to honor the occasion with the most red-carpet-ready versions of ourselves. Once every stiletto was fastened and every curl hair-sprayed, we made our way across town to the church.
When we walked through the doors my breath caught in my throat a little. They were so beautiful. The congregation of people from Mangulile would have taken your breath away too. You would never have guessed that only hours before the electricity had gone out. Again. Or that the town was going through a water shortage. No one talked about the unemployment crisis, or living on less that two dollars a day, or school kids going hungry, or the young men who sell drugs by the river, or the lack of access to healthcare, or the disease that killed the coffee trees. You could not possibly have looked at this room full of people and thought of underdevelopment or inequality or poverty or injustice. No, in that moment they were simply beautiful. The care they took in preparing for the occasion—the honor bestowed on wedding guests—made their human dignity self-evident. What better way to carry out a ceremony in which two individuals vow to honor each other forever.
After a ceremony full of joyful singing, wise words, and heart-felt vows, the entire congregation of people rushed to hug and congratulate bride and groom. We were warmly embraced, then ushered outside to the reception feast. The best cow had been slaughtered and there were three kinds of meat arranged on heaping plates of food.
Again, I thought, I don’t deserve this.
But the hospitality we were shown in Mangulile did not have requirements or qualifications. It was not kind of hospitality born out of obligation, or selfish motives, or even abundance. It wasn’t the kind of hospitality that begrudgingly makes room for you on the public bus, or the kind that hopes to be noticed and promoted at work, or the kind that drops off worn-out clothes at the local Goodwill as an afterthought. This was give-up-my-seat-for-you, give-up-my-job-for-you, give-you-the-brand-new-shirt-off-my-back kind of hospitality. And it didn’t end with the wedding either—that’s just one example. We were invited into countless homes where the people of Mangulile shared their food, their stories, their beliefs, and their unfiltered reality with us.
Then again, there’s a part of my heart that’s getting rather accustomed to receiving what I do not deserve. Though it’s never a comfortable experience. It’s the part of my heart that can somehow conceive of Jesus giving up a life better than I can imagine and to be cold, and miserable, and hated, and hurting, and dead, and fighting, and scared, and changed. Just so we could be together.
At a wedding feast, no less.
This is why when I think about sitting across from my brother Miguel as he poured out his heart to us I can still hear his words as clearly as if I were still there on his porch in Mangulile interviewing him. “Soy Christiano,” he said. I’m Christian. Those two words still echo in the chills running down my spine. He paused and said, “soy cristiano” as if it were the only explanation I could possibly need for his life. He said it like it meant something. The scars on his hands and face tell of a multiple attempts to enter a country that turned him away twice, after wrestling with God for months over the decision to go in the first place. His reputation in town tells of someone willing to overcome deportation and live as if hope were reality. He was known among fellow immigrants as the “pastor of the illegal” who led a church service every day for his companions as they waited for over a month in a crowded, dismal border house. And now he pastors the young people in town, hosting classes about domestic violence and other messy problems. Well-known and loved, Miguel is humble and kind, always ready with a joke or a listening ear. And my point in telling you all of this is to prepare your ears, and your hearts, to hear his side of the story.
Because we have only just begun to listen.
Every single one of the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States right now has a story too, and so do those in transit, and so do all of their families back home. And those stories are not a comprehensive reform policy, or a solution to poverty and violence, or a roadmap for the future. But stories change the attitude of our hearts. They make space in us to begin to consider the complexity and humanity of immigration. We begin to ask better questions and journey to the root causes of reasons that people leave home. We begin to see people, not as numbers, or jobs, or problems, but as guests at a wedding.
With that in mind, I wish to share with you the gift of just a few of the stories we were honored with during our stay. Let us begin to listen together.
[Image: Flickr user Chris Hunkeler]