Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
– Hebrews 13:1-3
Some of you might remember an essay I wrote a couple months ago entitled, “Detention Centers and Temples” describing the experience of my first visitation with Leo Pineda at the Stewart Detention Center. It was after I wrote that essay that Brian Kilheffer asked me if I would share that story with this congregation. Now, a couple of months later, there is so much more to the story – so what I’ll do is read some excerpts from what I wrote and then share more of the ongoing drama unfolding in the Pineda Family and how their lives and their church has intersected with our lives and our church.
So, in early January I wrote: “I got a phone call from my mother in West Virginia. She told me that a new family had moved into her little Mormon Church branch in Pennsboro, West Virginia. A mother and two little girls (3 and 4 years old) walked into my parent’s tiny rural church that morning and told a story about how her husband (a Mexican undocumented immigrant) had been caught up in the detention center system and had sat for many months in Georgia’s Stewart County Detention Center. My mother told the woman that her son (me) lives in Georgia and periodically visits detainees at that very place. The lady (who I now know as Shanna) could hardly believe her ears! Shanna wanted to talk to me to see if I could possibly visit her husband. When my mother told me of Shanna’s story, I knew that God was somehow at work in all this, connecting our families and our churches together across hundreds of miles and denominational differences. I made a phone call to Shanna and promised her that I would visit her husband at the next available visitation day.”
Since then, I’ve visited Leo many times and always speak with Shanna over the phone after spending time with Leo. Both Leo & Shanna have poured their hearts out to me and have expressed to me how longingly they miss each other. I’ve also got to know their 2 little girls, “Faith” and “Hope” and how Hope suffers from a heart condition and over-all fragile health. I’ve spoke to the girls over the phone, and they know me as “Daddy’s friend, Sanders.” I’ve learned how much Leo’s incarceration has negatively affected the family. Without Leo’s participation to help provide income and childcare, Shanna had to move to West Virginia to be geographically close to her mother in an area where the cost of living is much cheaper than where they lived in North Carolina. After Leo was taken from his family, his children began to show increasing behavioral problems. It doesn’t take a trained behavioral scientist to observe how taking a parent away from children can cause emotional distress.
So, back to what I wrote about my first visit with Leo:
“So there I was, sitting with my thoughts, in the waiting room of the Detention Center. For some reason, my mind began to wander toward memories of long forgotten years, back when I was a young man, and still a practicing Mormon; the religion I was raised and immersed in from birth. After wrestling with faith for many years to find my place in God’s movement, I eventually gravitated away from Mormonism to continue my walk with Jesus in the Mennonite Church. I do not embrace all the tenants of Mormonism, but I don’t consider myself an anti-Mormon at all. In fact, over the years I have developed an appreciation for all that is life-affirming and beautiful about the religion of my childhood. One of things I have a particular fondness for is the enormous sense of spiritual expectation that Mormons express about visiting their temples. There is a reverence in the way Mormons speak about their temple ceremonies. Stories are often shared about profound experiences, prayerful healings and divine insights revealed in their temples. Mormons will tell you that the temple is a place where the veil between heaven and earth is thin; where the Divine Presence is thick and the love of God is strong. It had been 18 years since I had last entered the hallowed interior of a Mormon temple, where disciples are led through a series of rooms and sacred rituals where each chamber represents deeper levels of mystery and discovery. There is no denying the fact that I myself experienced the Holy Spirit ministering to me within the temple walls so many years ago. And while it is true that I have also felt God’s presence in elaborately decorated Hindu temples, Mosques and Catholic Cathedrals; the Native American Sweat Lodge simplicity of sticks, rocks and mud is more my style, whilst having the same effect as their multi-million dollar sanctuary counter-parts. I have come to experience that whenever and wherever people come to pray and open their hearts to Love – God will show up, no matter how lofty and ornate or how simple and lowly that space might be.
As I reflected on these things, an idea flooded into my thoughts. This place, this Detention Center, is in so many ways unlike a temple – where a temple brings families together, the Detention Center rips them apart. Where a temple brings light and hope, a Detention Center brings darkness and despair. And yet, as I sat there waiting for the guard to call my name and usher me through the metal detector and the gates beyond, I began to take notice of a familiar feeling growing inside of me. Great spiritual expectation! This was the same kind of feeling I’ve had at the beginning phase of the Mormon temple experience; the same kind of experience I’ve had while preparing to enter the sweat/prayer lodge, being wafted with sage smoke, clearing my mind, knowing that I was about to have a meeting with God. “Sanders Thornburgh” the guard called. And I heard my wife’s name called, who was there by my side, and the names of others who too were waiting to visit friends, loved ones and in some cases, strangers. I was told to empty my person of all possessions – I had done this many times before, but this time it was different, symbolic, and meaningful; in order to go to the place where God is, I had to empty myself of all that must be left behind. I closed my eyes and walked through the detector – the threshold, the veil. I was led through a series of doors, hallways and chambers. After passing through a locked doorway, there was a short meditative pause before our group was given final entrance into the visitation room; the Holy of Holies. There, on the other side of a thick glass window, Leo was sitting, waiting to be visited by an unexpected stranger. I sat down and we looked into each other’s eyes through the window. I also saw my own reflection there and realized how easily Leo and I could have been sitting on reversed sides of the window, had life’s circumstances been different for each of us. Was I visiting Leo or was Leo visiting me? Yes and Yes! As I reached for the phone on my end, Leo simultaneously reached for the phone on his end. It was like I was looking into a mirror. The only word that can come close to describing that moment is the word “Namaste”; the presence of God within me greets the presence of God within you. It was at that moment that I knew for sure that what was happening to us was far deeper than what was happening on the surface – as we were in the company of one another; we were in the company of God. I was overcome with a sense of the divine and my heart automatically entered into a state of worship. During our time together, the prison had been transformed into a temple!”
Now, whenever I go to the Stewart Detention Center, I try to envision it as a sacred experience. I try to bring with me that state of spiritual anticipation – it doesn’t always work. In fact, on my second time visiting Leo, I must have forgotten to put on my ethereal glasses which make terrestrial things appear celestial. The guards were cranky with me & I got cranky with them and I lost that consciousness which reminds me that the guards too are God’s children and can and do at times reflect the Divine Image. What is a temple anyway, except for the place where God is…and is there any place where God is not? The real question is not where we are, but whether we have eyes to see Him where He is and ears to hear Him where He calls. Temples or Detention Centers, it makes no difference. God is there.
During this time of walking alongside the Pineda Family, Sandy and I have been in training, as apprentices, to become House Leaders of the El Refugio Hospitality ministry. We’ve been given a set of keys to the house; “Keys to the Kingdom” it feels like. This new chapter in our lives is teaching us what it means to entertain strangers who come through El Refugio. The people we have met thus far, who have passed through the house, have been a great blessing to us. This is why I chose Hebrews 13:1-3 as the scripture passage for today. This sermon is as much a message for me as it is for anyone else, and matches perfectly with what El Refugio is all about. I need to learn this message so that I can live it. I’ll read the first part of it again:
“Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”
I have to admit that I have not always been open to the uninvited guest. I remember one time when I climbed up on the top of our dome house to try and patch some leaky areas. I had just gotten myself and all the supplies I needed up on top of the Dome. Not an easy task – I lassoed the chimney with a rope and ascended the boulder shaped building with a bucket of tools strapped to my belt. It’s like mountain climbing every time I do it, and my wife will tell you how clumsy I am and how terrible a mountain climber I am – it’s hard for me to walk to the bathroom without smashing my pinky toe – something I just did on Friday. So, I climbed up on the dome cap (& this was all before I fell and broke my leg)! I had just got started with the patchwork when I saw this old dude called Whistler walking down the street toward my house. He was staggering a bit from the usual afternoon onslaught of Colt 45, 24-ounce Tall-boy high gravity style, if you know what I mean. As Whistler made his way toward my door-step, I predicted from past experience a very long-winded and rambling conversation which would inevitably lead toward a slurred request for a ride to the closest store which sold the beloved Colt 45. Now, don’t get me wrong, Whistler was a charming old fella with good tales to swap, lots of laughter and enjoyable entertainment. When Whistler came to your house, it was impossible to forget to “entertain the strange”. But not today, I thought, from the top of the Dome. “I’ve got too much to do and certainly no time for this guy.” So, as Whistler knocked on my door, I crouched as low as I possibly could to the dome surface and shuffled backwards like a salamander, like a Gecko clinging against gravity just out of Whistler’s site, in the event that he might look up toward the dome-cap roof where I was hiding & clinging. I’m lucky I didn’t break my leg that day while trying to avoid Whistler. So, he left & I successfully avoided him but unfortunately I was not successful in fixing my leaky roof. Now, here’s where the mood changes – that was the last time I saw Whistler. Three days after knocking on my door he died unexpectedly. When I heard the news of his death, the Lord convicted me of what I had failed to do. I felt remorse and shame for trying to avoid my neighbor. I did not show him love like a brother and I’ll never know for sure what he had to say to me that day. He walked away and I hid from his presence. Now, Whistler was no saint, but he just may have been an angel. If an angel is a messenger of God, then God gave me a message through Whistler – the message to open my attention to the one who shows up at my door. One thing we know from multiple scripture accounts is that angels sometimes show up in very human forms – without the halos, shining light and wings.
This bit in Hebrews about entertaining strangers who end up being angels is an allusion to the story in Genesis about the time Abraham was hanging out in the afternoon heat at the entrance to his tent, just chillin’ – trying to keep cool when 3 strangers just showed up unexpectedly. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story but I’ll read it for your reflection:
READ GENESIS 18:2-15 (The Jerusalem Bible)
So, here we have Abraham offering abundant hospitality to these 3 men who show up unexpectedly to Abraham’s pad. Fresh water to quench the desert heat, the finest food Abraham could gather, shade, relaxation, fellowship and then … a strange proclamation which made Sarah giggle as she was eavesdropping from outside the tent… “Your old wife will bear a son”. At this point in the midst of these social pleasantries, the text reveals one of these guests as none other than “Yahweh” Himself. Later on in the story, when we get to Lot’s hospitality toward the men, the other 2 visitors are identified as “angels.” So you see what I mean about no wings, no halos or effulgent light – these sweaty, smelly, dust-covered men from the desert turn out to be Yahweh and His angels! God and his messengers can be tricksters, showing up in unpredicted forms, making barren women fertile and what not. There are a couple of other stories in Judges where hospitality is shown to people who turn out to be angels. [Jdg 6:18-18: 13:15-16] And who can forget the story of Jacob wrestling all night with a man who turns out to be an angel who turns out to be God. With that kind of all night wrestling, I’m sure there was a lot of sweat, spit and blood lubricating those two flailing, tumbling bodies. Jacob ends up with a bum hip and a blessing. I guess even a wrestling match can end hospitably.
Some of you will remember about the time we were together in Atlanta feeding the homeless this past year and we met that couple underneath the bridge who sang to us. Does anyone remember that? From physical appearance, they seemed like an unlikely pairing. He was a short African American man much older than she was. She was a white woman much taller than him. They were amongst the many sleeping on cardboard boxes under the bridge. Pastor Dan played guitar & sang a couple of tunes as the homeless gathered around. After Daniel was done, this couple asked if they could sing a song for us. Dan said, “Yes, please do” and they began to sing. This is hard to describe if you weren’t there. As they started to sing, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end – they were so good, I get goose-pimples just remembering it! They sang these original praise and worship songs and we couldn’t get enough of it. Pastor Dan asked them for another song…and another one…and another one. I couldn’t believe that this talent was stuck underneath a bridge sleeping on cardboard. If the world new of their harmonizing voices, they’d be filling stadiums. Now, I don’t know if they were angels in disguise, but they sure sounded like angels. So, I ask the question, just who was being ministered to that night? Remember, in the Kingdom of God, everything is upside down. Hospitality was being shown to us as we visited them in their place of residence. Maybe they thought they were entertaining angels that night. I don’t know, but I thought I was being entertained by angels. Or maybe that’s just what the Kingdom of God is like – everyone treating each other as if they were angels.
Now I’ll return to the second half of the scripture passage from Hebrews, which reads:
“Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” (Heb 13:3)
I ask myself the question, how can I possibly reach this level of empathy – to remember Leo as if I were his fellow prisoner? After my one hour of allotted time together with him, I get to walk out of that prison. I don’t know what it feels like to be caged up like that, separated from my wife and kids. But if I listen carefully enough to the anguished yearning that Leo and Shanna have for one another, and if I really hear the excitement in the voices of little Faith and Hope when they talk over the phone with me and ask me about their daddy who I just visited, I can begin to feel a little bit of the love and the loss and the suffering and the yearning that this family has for one another. And I think, wow, what if I could yearn for God to the degree that this family yearns to be reunited with one another? As I deepened my relationship with the Pineda family, I began to feel their pain – but I also began to feel their love and their joy. This business of vicarious suffering for one another is part of discipleship and it was demonstrated for us first in so many ways by our Master, Jesus. The paradox of vicarious suffering, though, is that its flip-side is vicarious joy. Through deepening my relationship with the Pineda family, I’ve been able to experience the love they have for each other. I visit Leo on behalf of his wife and children and I communicate with Shanna and the kids on behalf of Leo. The reason it is such a blessing for me, is that I have the privilege of becoming a channel or a bridge for their love to cross, back and forth between them. I looked up the definition of vicarious in the dictionary and it says: (1) Felt or undergone as if one were taking part in the experience or feelings of another. (2) Endured or done by one person substituting for another. (3) Acting or serving in place of someone else.
In the Jerusalem Bible, this verse from Hebrews is translated a bit differently. It reads like this:
“Keep in mind those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; and those who are being badly treated, since you too are in the one body.”
The one body. If any part of the body is in pain, it affects the whole body. If any part of the body is being badly treated, the whole body suffers. But the reverse is also true, is it not? When any part of the body is experiencing loving-kindness and forgiveness and happiness and delight, the whole body is rewarded! An amazing thing happened this week that relates to all this. As I was writing this sermon a couple of days ago, I got a phone call from my mother who told me that my father was rushed to the emergency room. He had fallen down a flight of steps and was having internal bleeding. Daily my dad takes a blood-thinning medication called “Effient” and it was because of that medication that the doctors were having difficulty controlling his internal bleeding. When I got the call, my dad was in the Urgent Care unit of the hospital in Parkersburg, WV. When I heard the news, I wanted so badly to be there with him. My youngest sibling, Molly, just happened to be in that same hospital, in labor, giving birth to her second baby. My mom was so busy with the doctors and going back and forth between hospital rooms that it was difficult for her to keep in phone contact with her 11 children. I nervously kept checking cell-phone voice-mail for a word on my dad’s condition. When I finally got one – the cell-phone read: “1 new Message.” … I listened to it and it said, “Hi Sanders, this is Shanna. I’m here in the hospital with your daddy. He’s asleep right now, but he’s doing much better.” That message brought me a lot of relief. I thought about just how good our God is. While I’ve been able to be a proxy for Shanna when visiting Leo in prison, now Shanna is able to be a proxy for me when visiting my dad in hospital. Vicarious suffering, vicarious joy – and the greatest blessing of all is that Jesus tells us that’s how we get to know Him better, by visiting the sick and those in prison, feeding the hungry, etc.
It dawned on me as I was preparing this sermon that when I go to Stewart Detention Center, I am the visitor, and hospitality is being shown to me. Remember when I told you about that second visit I had with Leo, when the guards were cranky and I was in a bad mood? Well, my negativity that day was immediately lifted when I saw Leo’s face. He was grinning ear to ear, and his smile was radiant. I thought, here I am the free man all gloomy & down-trodden and Leo the prisoner walks in smiling like he’s in ecstasy. I was visiting him at his residence and he had no meal for me; no bread, milk and a tender calf like Abraham had to offer to his visitors. But what he did have he gave to me with lavish hospitality – that smile, that smile which becomes a window to the divine presence. That was all it took for that despicable cage of steel and barbed wire to transform again into the temple that exists just underneath the surface of my ordinary vision.
Leo asked me if it was possible that I could find members of his LDS (Mormon) Church who would also be able to visit him. So, at his request, I’ve been able to get a couple of young Mormon missionaries to minister to him. Either I visit Leo together with these missionaries or I alternate visits with them. I’ll never forget the first time I took these two well-dressed, suit and tie, 19 year old missionaries into the prison with me. Elder Moore and Elder Wilding had never been in a prison before. In the LDS Church, 19 year old missionaries get the title, Elder. So these two young guys are filling out the paper-work to visit Leo for their first time, and they write in the name slots, “Elder Moore and Elder Wilding”. When they turned in their paper-work, the lady guard at the front desk says to them, “Now, I know both your first names can’t be ‘Elder’.” To which one of them respond, “Well, on our 2-year missions, we call each other Elder.” To which she says, “Honey, I don’t care what you call each other, I want you to write down the names that are on your birth-certificates.” So they did and it was funny – I got a laugh out of that. So, we go to visit Leo and before we went in we decided that Elder Moore was going to end our visit with a prayer. We had a great visit and Leo was so grateful to have members of his Church in there and before we knew it, a guard comes in and says “time’s up.” Elder Moore says “Let’s bow our heads in prayer”, and I thought he was going to give a very short little condensed prayer with the guard hovering over us like that, but no – he gives this long, thoughtful spiritual prayer which touched so many areas of Leo’s situation. It was beautiful and the Holy Spirit was undeniable. I kept thinking that the guard was going to cut us off, but no. The prayer was delivered in full. I told Leo as we were leaving, I said: “Although I no longer belong to the same Church as these guys, they are my brothers in Christ.” After we left the prison, I was able to turn these missionaries on to the work of El Refugio and they have expressed a desire to help out on one of the work projects there. They get one day a week which is supposed to be designated to a service project, and they said they’d love to put El Refugio on their list for one or more of their weeks. So, we’ll see – I think it will happen. Meanwhile, Shanna’s little LDS church in West Virginia has been able to reach out to her in many ways. In addition to fellowship and spiritual encouragement, they helped her to furnish her apartment and agreed to fix her van. Things have been falling into place for Shanna and the kids to have the opportunity to visit Leo for the two days before his court hearing on April 16th. She plans to drive to GA on April 13th and stay at El Refugio until after Leo’s court appearance on the 16th. She’ll get to visit Leo on Saturday and Sunday and then be there for him at the hearing on Monday. Sandy and I will host her stay in Lumpkin at El Refugio that extended weekend and babysit the kids during the hearing. The generosity of this AMF congregation is helping Shanna with the transportation costs to get here. Without ever meeting each other, this Mennonite Church in Georgia and Shanna’s Mormon Church in West Virginia are partnering with God and one another to help provide some relief and joy to this family. I am so excited to have the opportunity to witness Leo and Shanna’s reunion visit at the Detention Center. Shanna asked me if I could come in to the visitation room with her to help out with the children while we’re in there. I can already anticipate the elation which will be in that place on that day! It will be like Christmas and Easter morning fused together. That day will also have its share of pain. With the thick glass wall that will separate Leo from his family, there will be the throbbing ache to touch and hold and cuddle and that will all be denied. But even if Leo’s long stay at Stewart Detention Center ends with his deportation, his love for his family will not end. He will have that memory of his children just a few feet out of reach to propel him forward to do whatever he has to do to be fully, completely reunited with them. And it will happen, because there are no walls big enough to keep out love.
In closing, I’ll read and affirm these relevant words from the Apostle Paul:
“In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:37-39)
Hospitality is an expression of divine worship.”
Also check out Joshua Lazo’s Amazing Grace – War Prayer
The lyric text in this recording comes from ‘War Prayer’ by Mark Twain. My first introduction to this prophetic piece of prose…