Wednesday, December 25, 2019

"This Is Happening in our Country Today and Is Being Done in All of Our Names": An Advent Sermon by Lisa Koop

I'm happy to be able to share with you this Christmas day an Advent sermon Lisa Koop preached at Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, on 15 December. The sermon asks a question that haunts me as other Americans and I celebrate Christmas: How, in fact, does one or can one celebrate Christmas when this is happening in our country today and is being done in all of our names? How does anyone in the U.S. who claims a connection to Jesus and the gospels cope with the fact that what is happening in our country now — what is being inflicted on fellow human beings who are immigrants and refugees — was set into motion by the votes of more than half of the nation's white Christians in 2016?

Lisa Koop's sermon follows:


Advent week three: the waiting continues as we recall a pregnant mother, a concerned father, and an unborn child who would become a refugee. The lectionary texts for this week are full of imagery of the rewards of waiting: crocuses bursting into bloom, the lame leaping like deer, grass and reeds displacing jackals, the ways of the wicked frustrated. Both splendor and vengeance reward the huddled masses and wretched refuse on the other side of suffering. The Isaiah passage says, “And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it.” Mary’s magnificat celebrates the victory at long last of the poor over the rich: “God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” We are meant to take comfort in these verses; to trust that those who suffer now will prevail later. And not only that, they will be blessed by a God who will cast out the wealthy, the powerful, the haughty, and the merciless. For those who endure suffering now, divine retribution awaits. But what to do about all this suffering in the meanwhile? 

In a sermon delivered in Barcelona in December 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.” I posit that it is the “troubling of the soul” that we must identify in ourselves in order to reconcile the lot of the suffering with our belief in a loving God. And once troubled, we must not passively await “something greater to come,” but actively seek it. The “highway where there was none” on which the vulnerable and the suffering may safely travel will not emerge spontaneously, but rather will come to be only after those with relative privilege and power join the effort to construct it. 

You will not be surprised to discover that my aim today is to discuss these tensions in the context of immigration law. I work for the National Immigrant Justice Center, or NIJC. NIJC’s work is to represent low-income immigrant families as they seek to win protection and avoid separation by laws that are often not just in their creation or application. We work with many immigrant survivors of domestic violence, unaccompanied immigrant children, and young people who are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA protection. We also represent people who have had contact with the criminal justice system, often as a result of racial profiling or other structural injustices. And we represent many asylum seekers; people who have fled violence in their home countries and are in search of safety and a place to call home. 

It is with sadness that I acknowledge this topic is more fraught today than ever before in the 20 years I have been working in this field. Those who would sow discord and division have successfully cast immigration as an untouchable issue. They have made it supremely political and excised it from polite conversation. Myths about immigrants abound and the contributions and richness they bring to communities are diminished or entirely overlooked. But people of faith must not ignore the cries of the suffering and must not fear speaking out for the oppressed. We are called to seek justice and pursue reconciliation. So let us go forth boldly and wade into these tumultuous waters. 

* * * * * 

Who is a refugee? By domestic law and international convention, a refugee is any person who is outside her country . . . and who is unable or unwilling to avail herself of the protection of that country because of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Each component of this definition is a legal term of art and failing to satisfy any of the elements will lead to denial of a claim for protection. Refugees abroad and asylum seekers domestically strive to meet this definition, to be allowed to resettle, avoid deportation, and begin anew in a new land. We are called to help them however we can. We must strive to alleviate suffering, extend compassion, and foster justice to bring about an era where those waiting for relief from harm can receive it, 

Because today is Mary’s Sunday and because much of my work involves representing mothers seeking protection for their families, I offer today three stories of mothers seeking paths to safety for themselves and their families. Bonhoeffer said the words of Mary in the magnificat are “passionate, vehement, almost revolutionary…hard, strong, and uncompromising…in the tones of the prophetic women of the old testament – Deborah, Judith and Miriam coming alive in the mouth of Mary.” It is fitting, comforting, and inspiring to think of Mary in this way. Not as a passive vessel, but as a radical, protective figure. The image aligns with the powerful, smart, strong, asylum-seeking women I see in my work. Fierce mothers pursuing protection; seeking a path where there is none. 


The first story is that of my maternal great-grandmother, Susanna Dück. I became acquainted with her history through my Uncle Frank Koop who undertook to read and translate her letters, many of which she wrote from the Soviet Union to my grandparents in Canada. My Oma and Opa Koop escaped the Soviet Union in 1925, but my great-grandmother’s family was unable to get exit visas. My Uncle Frank recounts: 

In 1929 in one last desperate attempt to leave Russia, they along with thousands of  other German speaking Russians converged on Moscow hoping that they would be able to persuade the authorities to issue them exit visas. Their attempts were in vain and instead of leaving Russia, they were forcibly either sent back to the villages that they had left or into exile. On December 1, 1929 this headline appeared in the New York Times, “Mennonites refused admission to Canada … shipped back to Siberia.” 

In March of 1930, Susanna, my great-grandmother, wrote to my grandmother: 

Dear Children, 

Oh how difficult it is for me to write at this time. Soon we were to have been with you but how things have changed. We are now almost without courage and yet we trust in God and have not given up hope. Even though we were forcibly sent back home from Moscow we still continue to hope that we will travel to Canada. Everything was in place. The visas had been paid for with 220 Rubles but the money is gone and they will not let us go. Oh how fortunate are those who had the good fortune to get over the border…. We are now without a home …. We were in Moscow for five weeks and along with us many, many others gathered from the four directions of the wind. Having observed this, we said to ourselves this is not happening by chance. No one called all these people but all had their eye on one goal – just to get out of here. The first group left then it appeared to us that in five days we would all be on our way. 

[Then] it appeared that Canada would not receive us. Germany as well. When all this happened we were not allowed to leave. 

Oh how many thousands are now without a home, without bread, everything has been taken, no cow, no horse, no chair, no nothing. And then as well, how many of ours are imprisoned. Our son Hans…is in jail in Moscow. Sadly we do not know why, and so the innocent languish behind lock and key… 

For an entire week we travelled from Moscow… We travelled like cattle in a freight car and now our children are all ill with the measles. 

Yesterday we buried Hans’ daughter Irma, she was also ill with pneumonia. For one week she was very ill. For Neta, her mother, this is extremely difficult. The children are ill and die and their father is not present and she does not know where he is. 

The letter ends there. 

Over the next few years, their conditions increasingly worsened and Susana witnessed as her four sons were arrested in the early hours of the morning and sent into the Russian Gulag. They were never heard from again. Sometime later, Susana, her husband, her daughter, daughters–in-law and grandchildren were all sent into exile. 

My grandparents were the lucky ones. They made it to Canada and built a life for themselves there. They learned English, bought a fruit farm, had 13 children. What anguish that no path ever emerged for Susana and she never made it is to the promised land of Canada. Like so many mothers before her and to follow, she lived to see one of her children – my grandmother – reach safety but could not herself partake. 

What do we do with the waiting and hoping that does not end in joy? Our Isaiah text exhorts: “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, God will come with vengeance; with divine retribution God will come to save you.” But again and again the waiting resolves in a way we would not view as victory. Perhaps the “saving” in these situations is the heavenly reward. But that feels inadequate – incomplete – it leaves us disquieted when justice on earth does not reveal itself in a form recognizable to us. 


Fast forward 90 years. Beginning in late 2017, the treatment of asylum seekers arriving in the U.S. took a sharp and alarming turn when the government implemented a policy of separating parents from their children at the border. We represent a young mother from El Salvador who fled severe gender and gang violence with her young son, who we’ll call David, only to experience this sort of separation. At that time they were separated, David was three. The mother, in her words, explained it this way: 

1. When we arrived at the border, we waited in an abandoned house until nightfall. Then we ran to the river and I struggled to carry David. When we reached the river, David and I were loaded onto a plastic raft along with five other adults and three other children.  
2. Because there were so many of us in the raft, water started to leak in and the raft started to deflate. I was so scared David would fall in, so I held him close to my chest and near my head to try to keep him above the water.  
3. We walked until we reached a street where there were some immigration officials. We turned ourselves in.  
4. We were taken to a small cell that was overcrowded. There were a lot of children in the cells. There were no mattresses or blankets. I wrapped David up in an aluminum  sheet and tried to find a place to lay him down. The only space available was between the toilet and the trashcan.  
5. David did not like the food at the jail and he started vomiting and had diarrhea. The vomit got on David’s clothing. I asked for a change of clothing for him, but they wouldn’t give me anything, even though I could see they had stacks of clean clothing. I took David’s vomit-stained clothes off, but the officials said he couldn’t be naked. Even though David didn’t wear diapers anymore, I found a clean diaper and put it on him.
6. The next day, an official came to ask me questions. They gave me a paper and told me to sign it. It was in English and I couldn’t understand it. They said they were going to take my son away.  
7. I refused to sign the paper, so the officials got mad at me. I worried they would take David from me at any moment. I started crying because I was so worried and scared. David saw I was crying and he tried to wipe my tears. He looked like he was going to cry too, so I told him not to worry. I tried to hide the fact that I was crying so David wouldn’t be upset. 
8. The next morning, the officials called me and told me to bring David with me. They  told me we were leaving together, but I knew they were going to take him away.  
9. They took us to a different part of the building. One of the officials told me to give David to a woman. I asked them not to take him and they said, “Don’t force us to take him.” David was asleep and I hugged him tightly. The officials took him from my arms and forced him to stand. He woke up and said “mama,” as the officials took me away.  
10. A short time later, the officials handcuffed me and put me in a row with people who were also handcuffed. On my way out, I saw David sitting alone in the wire cage. He was looking around and it looked like he was trying to find me. I looked away to hide my face, so he wouldn’t see me being taken away. I thought I was being deported, but instead they took me to the detention center in Laredo, Texas.  
11. I didn’t speak to David or hear any news about him until I was in Laredo for about a month and I finally got to talk to him on the phone. I learned he was at a shelter for children in Chicago. I sang to him and then we sang together.  
12. In our most recent phone calls, David has stopped wanting to talk to me. When I tell him that I’m his mom, he just yells “no!” The workers with him also tell me that he’s been aggressive with some of the other kids and is having bathroom accidents. He was never like that when he was with me. I’m afraid that all that he is going through will be irreversible. All I want is to be reunited with him. 

During her separation from David, this mother began experiencing anxiety attacks and considered abandoning her asylum claim and requesting deportation because she thought that was the only way she could get her son back. She ended up persevering, and after eight months of separation, a federal court judge ordered that she and David be reunified. At the end of November 2018, David was flown from Chicago to Laredo and he and his mother were at long last returned to each other. Now, a year later, they still have a long way to go in their case, but they are together, they are free, and they have lawyers fighting for them. Their waiting was fraught, it left them damaged, and victory – in this case true and permanent safety – is still unsure. Is this Isaiah’s Way of Holiness? 

* * * * * 

Asylum allows people to salvage some semblance of the lives they lost when they had to flee their homes. It is not an indulgence the United States can offer and withdraw on a whim, but rather a moral and legal obligation we are bound to administer properly. And yet, over the course of the last three years, our government has gone to absurd lengths to limit asylum; to not only turn away those in need, but to vilify and mistreat them. The latest iteration of this cruelty is a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols or MPP. It is sometimes referred to as “Remain in Mexico” because this is precisely what the program does: asylum seekers who arrive at the border are apprehended by border patrol, placed in deportation proceedings, assigned a date to appear in immigration court, and then returned to Mexico; a place where asylum seekers have no support, no place to live, and are vulnerable to harm by drug cartels. Laredo, Texas, is one of the places where the MPP program has been implemented. The Laredo tent court, where MPP cases are heard, was erected on the northern banks of the Rio Grande, across from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The facility is a series of tents and shipping-container sized trailers, where asylum seekers are processed and have court. It is surrounded by barbwire and protected by government guards. There is a covered tunnel that connects the tent court directly to the U.S. side of the bridge between the U.S. and Mexico, so migrants walk directly from the bridge to the secure facility. 

Asylum seekers endure months of waiting in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico before they are allowed into the U.S. to see a judge. The aid group Doctors Without Borders reports criminal groups target migrants and asylum seekers as soon as they arrive in Nuevo Laredo. “They are kidnapped at bus terminals…There are abducted and held in safe houses where they are detained for extortion, beaten and assaulted. Some endure death threats, they are detained for long periods for forced labor, they are sexually exploited or forcibly recruited by criminal organizations.” 

We know this is true because it has happened our clients. Recently, a pair of cousins travelled by bus from another part of Mexico to Nuevo Laredo for a court hearing. As one cousin disembarked, he was forced into a vehicle by waiting cartels and taken away. The other cousin managed to escape. At court the next day in Texas, despite the remaining cousin’s eyewitness testimony that her cousin had been taken, the U.S. government attorney argued strenuously that the missing cousin should be ordered deported for failing to appear. 

This is happening in our country today and is being done in all of our names. Traumatized, desperate, beleaguered families are required to line up at the bridge in Nuevo Laredo at 4:30 in the morning in order to be let into the United States for court. Most sleep on the bridge the night before because travelling through Laredo Nuevo at that hour is too dangerous. They cross the bridge and are escorted into the tent court. The families then wait in a freezing cold room for hours until court at 8:30 in the morning. As attorneys, we have asked repeatedly for opportunity to meet with these asylum seekers. To do “Know Your Rights” presentations and legal consultations. But our requests have been refused.  Instead, the only clients we are able to represent are the few who manage to call a telephone hotline attorneys have set up to reach clients. Not surprisingly, less than 2% of people in MPP have lawyers. 

Those we do represent out of Nuevo Laredo, we do not meet in person until the day of court. Attorneys are allowed into the tent facility at 7:00 in the morning. It takes about a half hour to get through security as guards take our cell phones and laptops, repeatedly check our IDs, and review the lists of clients we aim to see. Only then are we allowed to briefly meet with our clients and ask them – in their exhausted and confused state – to make decisions about their cases that will impact that rest of their lives. We then go to court with them into the tent courtroom, where an immigration judge in San Antonio is beamed in by video teleconference. 

In the courtroom, there are typically about 25 more people waiting to see the judge, none of whom have lawyers. They sit on the opposite side of the courtroom and we are not allowed to talk to them. Their belts and shoelaces have been taken from them. Their eyes are bloodshot from exhaustion and, to a person, they look confused and afraid. Their children – and there are many children – sleep in their arms. On the few occasions when we have been permitted to remain in the courtroom during the hearings of unrepresented people, we have seen the asylum seekers try to explain to the judges why they need protection and why they cannot return to Mexico to await the resolution of their proceedings. The judges either get agitated and hurry along the proceedings or shrug in defeat, reporting they have no power to order people out of MPP. 


My third story is that of a mother and child in MPP who I never met. The first day I was in the Laredo tent court in September of this year, I was representing four Cubans and Venezuelans, all of whom presented very strong asylum cases. It was the first full week of the Laredo tent court and many journalists and other advocates had converged on Laredo, trying to access the facility to observe court. They were all denied entry. As a lawyer representing clients, I was allowed to enter. We were escorted into the courtroom about a half hour before proceedings began and were seated on one side of the room. On the other side, sitting in rows, were the asylum seekers waiting to speak with the judge. I noticed a young mother with a sleeping child; a girl I later learned was named Natalie and was four years old. While we waited for court to begin, Natalie woke up. Her mother tenderly fixed her hair. A while later, the guards allowed the mother to take Natalie to the bathrooms – which were a row of portable toilets set up outside the court tent. I watched the mother guide her child, trying her best to parent under terrible conditions. They came back and soon after, and court began. Our cases were heard first and we were quickly escorted out of the courtroom after our clients’ cases were finished. I was left wondering what happened to Natalie and her mom. 

A reporter from the L.A. Times later posted pictures of them on her twitter feed. She had met them on the bridge back to Mexico as they left court and were returned to Nuevo Laredo. The reporter learned Natalie and her mom had been waiting in Nuevo Laredo for four months before their hearing that day. The mother had come to court expecting an opportunity to tell the judge that she had experienced serious gender violence in her home country. She thought she might be granted asylum. She had brought with her a paper bag that contained all her earthy belongs. She had $5, and no cell phone. Instead of having her case resolved, she was told the hearing was just a preliminary proceeding; that she and her daughter would have to return to Mexico and come back to court a month later. The woman told the reporter that she had endured all she could and she had nothing left. She was returning to Honduras, to face whatever harm awaited her there. I read the reporter’s feed with great dismay. This woman had been less than ten yards away from me in the courtroom. She seemed to have the sort of asylum case that we would take. We would have represented her if we had had opportunity to meet her. Instead, she was defeated by a system in which she never had a fighting chance; a system created to deter asylum seekers rather than protect them. 

At the end of my most recent week in Laredo, I paid a visit to the Webb County Jail, a CoreCivic-run private prison where asylum seekers who arrived in the United States before MPP was launched remain detained. We have a number of clients there who are mothers separated from their children at the border. I met with one mother whose nursing daughter was taken from her arms by U.S. immigration officials in March of this year. A judge denied this mother asylum and she languishes in jail while we appeal his deeply flawed legal ruling. When I visited her at the jail on that Friday evening, I apologized for not having more time to spend with her. I explained I had spent the week in the tent courts trying to help the people stuck in MPP. With no hesitation she said to me, “Of course that is where you needed to be, with those poor people. At least here in jail we are safe.” When a separated mother who has been in jail for nine months recognizes her plight is less horrible than that  of the refugees stuck at the border, it is telling. But that is the reality of this moment. 

So what do we do while we wait for a new era, a new administration, a new legal system? Allow me to offer a few suggestions derived from a list I shared at the Lights of Liberty rally in Goshen last summer: 

1. Stay informed. Know that there is nothing inevitable about the humanitarian crisis on the border. It was fabricated by a government that wants us to fear immigrants and to believe we are incapable of humanely processing refugees.  
2. Know that the border is everywhere. Here in northern Indiana, 1300 miles from the Rio Grande Valley, the challenges faced by noncitizens are every bit as critical. Reports of possible ICE raids terrify residents of our community. We know ICE avoids prepared communities, places where immigrants know their rights and where allies will stand up for their neighbors. We must continue to educate and support our community.  
3. Be sanctuary citizens. Join Safety Networks, the volunteer group that has been quietly providing transportation, housing, accompaniment, application fee scholarships, language support, mentoring, counseling, and access to medical services to immigrants in our community.  
4. Be a walking billboard for immigrants’ rights. Wear a t-shirt or a pin, carry a tote bag, plant a sign in your yard, or bumper sticker on your car with a pro-immigrant slogan. It feels small, but you are sending a message to immigrants who need the show of support and inviting conversation with people who may still need convincing.  
5. When you have those conversations, stop conceding there are two equally valid sides to every issue. Don’t let racist or ignorant assertions go unanswered.  
6. Support our public schools. Our parent liaisons, school social workers, bi-lingual and EL teachers, and compassionate administrators are lifelines for immigrant families. Make sure they have the resources they need to do their important work.  
7. Support access to legal services for immigrants. There is no appointed counsel in immigration court but immigrants need lawyers and accredited representatives to prevail.  
8. And finally, hold our lawmakers accountable. As we head into election season, make sure the only people who earn your votes are those whose policies and principles foster justice for immigrants. 


The stories of refugees play out across the ages, around the world. From Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape King Herod, to Mennonites fleeing the Ukraine, to Syrian, Iraqi, Congolese, and Central American refugees today. Let us raise our voices to the leaders of our day. Despite politicians who speak of building walls and excluding refugees and laws designed to keep people out and to narrow legal protections, our voices can be stronger, our actions more visible. 

The task before us is this: to hope and to wait in the season of advent, as our troubled souls contend with the dissonance of promises of divine intervention against realities of intransigent injustice. We must persist in the belief that the people of God can bring about a path where there currently is none and take the actions necessary to bring about a new era. We must carry forth Mary’s radical love and her awesome faith and prepare the way for a new reality. AMEN. 

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