“So where are you really from?” That question landed a former lady-in-waiting to the late Queen Elizabeth and godmother of Prince William in hot water recently, forcing her into early retirement at age 83. It sounds innocent enough. But for those accustomed to hearing the question even if no malice is intended, there is a subtle dig that ranges from a simple “You’re not one of us” all the way to an ugly “Why don’t you go back wherever you came from?” and many levels of cringe in between.
Twice I experienced sharply that feeling of being out of place. It doesn’t have to be a negative experience. But sometimes it is. 38 years ago, I first arrived in this country, knowing no one and having no point of reference. It was equally exciting and terrifying. I didn’t want to stick out, but I felt my discomfort was evident to many. I dragged my whole life in two suitcases through customs in Chicago with no return ticket and no option of turning back. I knew I had to be flexible with every experience if I was going to survive. This new life offered many temptations and promises. I had to rely on the lessons my parents taught me. I arrived at JFK in New York that night in late April, and my predicament dawned on me slowly on the ride from the airport through downtown New Rochelle, as I saw vast expanses of undeveloped land, wide avenues, the glow of streetlamps, as I breathed in the crisp clean air. A new world was opening up before me. I knew I was here to stay. But there was a lot I had yet to learn.
In summer 2004 I traveled to Australia for the first time. I guess I had more confidence and was more aware of my surroundings. I wanted to experience the place and the people firsthand after all I had heard and read. It was a chilly day in July, right in the dead of winter for them. And I was unprepared for the iconic greeting I received. “G’day.” My awkwardness betrayed my lack of confidence. “Good morning.” I couldn’t do it. It didn’t sound right coming out of my mouth. I was just passing through, just a tourist. People were friendly but I didn’t feel a great need to fit in.
When God came among us, it wasn’t just to visit. God took on our human nature, immersed himself in a culture, learned to speak the language, lived in community, and embraced a people’s ways. Jesus son of Joseph the carpenter identified with his people and from there showed us a new way of thinking, a new way of living, and a new way of loving God. Without rejecting our weaknesses, our immaturity, and our selfishness, he gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, wholeness to the lame, life to the dead. He reconciled us with one another and gave up his own life that we might not lose ours. In Jesus we see God’s total and unwavering commitment to the human family. This Christmas day we behold the mystery of God among us, a child, vulnerable, lowly, insignificant, embracing all our hurts and brokenness. Jesus grew up in the home of Mary and Joseph. He was tempted in the desert and baptized by John at the Jordan. He welcomed the poor, the sinner, and the outcast, extending to all reconciliation and the mercy of God. In the child of Bethlehem, God accompanies us on the difficult road of life, lifting us up, nourishing us, shouldering our burdens, healing our wounds.
The wonder of God’s tender love for us challenges our long-held prejudices, our treatment of one another, and how we live what we believe. We cannot persist in selfishness and hardness of heart if God’s love truly transforms us as we claim. We cannot keep claiming to just be passing through, just northerners in the south, or Catholics in the bible belt. It might be difficult to shed a New York or New Jersey accent or acquire a taste for collard greens. And things will continue to pull us apart one from another since we are all from somewhere else. But our attitudes, our convictions, our words, and our actions will truly tell whether we are here to stay or just passing through.
Our God is in our midst to stay and be at home among his people. But are we still strangers and passing visitors in our own community? Are we willing to commit ourselves to one another as God commits himself to us, shouldering one another’s burdens, reaching out to the lonely, the elderly, and the young? Are we willing to struggle with the prejudices and hardness of heart we encounter? Are we willing to address our community’s pressing needs and face our challenges hand in hand? Are we willing to mature in understanding and live our faith convincingly? It is the same wherever it is you call home, whether here in far southwest Virginia or elsewhere. But people are genuinely willing to embrace us when they see our commitment to their welfare. And we need not go far to find them. We see them at the grocery store. They send their kids to our schools. We wave to them when we drive by. They sit with us in church.
“So where are you really from?” The question is a relic of an age when it was acceptable to point out who belongs and who doesn’t. Those who still ask it fail to recognize its power to demean and alienate. But we need not know this evil firsthand to understand the harm it causes. Human nature, selfish and sinful, is inclined to division and brokenness. So, there will always be among us lives disrupted by war and violence, persecution and economic uncertainty, hunger, poverty, ignorance, and strife. The Holy Child lying in a manger is evidence of our God’s commitment to bear our burdens, to nourish our hunger, and to heal our brokenness. Let our hearts be filled with joy and gratitude. Our God comes among us to stay.
Rolo B Castillo © 2022