When and where we live, when the super-wealthy have robbed the merely wealthy, when the middling classes have lost their savings and the poor their homes, when the issue of immigration is hot and the lives of immigrants are threatened — the issues of poverty and wealth, of immigration and the home-born, mean a great deal. And that is what Ruth is about.
In the biblical story, Ruth was a foreigner from the nation of Moab, which was despised by all patriotic and God-fearing Israelites. Yet when she came to Israel as a widow, companion to her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, she was welcomed onto the fields of Boaz, where she gleaned what the regular harvesters had left behind. Boaz made sure that even this despised foreigner had a decent job at decent pay. When she went one night to the barn where the barley crop was being threshed, he spent the night with her –and decided to marry her.
But if Ruth came to America today, what would happen?
Would she be admitted at the border?
Or would she be detained for months without a lawyer, ripped from Naomi’s arms while Naomi’s protest brought her too under suspicion — detained because she was, after all, a Canaanite who spoke some variety of Arabic, possibly a terrorist, for sure an idolator?
Would she be deported as merely an “economic refugee,” not a worthy candidate for asylum?
Would she have to show a “green card” before she could get a job gleaning at any farm, restaurant, or hospital?
Would she be sent to “workfare” with no protections for her dignity, her freedom, or her health?
When she boldly “uncovers the feet” of Boaz during the night they spend together on the threshing floor, has she violated the “family values” that some religious folk now proclaim? Or has she affirmed that love engages the body as well as the heart, the mind, and the spirit, and that sometimes a loving body comes before a wedding?
Today in America, some of us are outcasts like Ruth; some are prosperous, like Boaz. He affirmed that in a decent society, everyone was entitled to decent work for a decent income. Everyone — yes, everyone! Even, or especially, a despised immigrant from a despised nation. Everyone — not just a certain percentage of the people.
In ancient Israel, everyone had the right simply to walk onto a field and begin to work, begin to use the means of production of that era. And then to eat what they had gathered.
And Boaz could not order his regular workers to be economically “efficient.” They could not harvest everything — not what grew in the corners of the field, not what they missed on the first go-round. Social compassion was more important than efficiency. No downsizing allowed.
Although Boaz was generous-hearted, Ruth’s right to glean did not depend upon his generosity. It was the law.
Ruth was entitled not only to a job, but to respect. No name-calling, no sexual harassment. And she, as well as Boaz, was entitled to Shabbat: time off for rest, reflection, celebration, love. She was entitled to “be” — as well as to “do.”
Because Ruth the outcast and Boaz the solid citizen got together, they could become the ancestors of King David. According to both Jewish and Christian legend, they could thus help bring Messiah into the world — help bring the days of peace and justice.
What do we learn from their story today?
In America today, many of us live in the place of Boaz. Many others live in the place of Ruth. Our society has dismantled many of the legal commitments to the poor that ancient Israelite society affirmed. What are our own religious obligations?
What are our obligations — those of us who still have jobs, who have not lost our retirement funds to the machinations of the banks, or even those who have! What are our obligations to those who are living in cardboard boxes on the streets or parks of our cities? What are our obligations to those who have been evicted from their homes, to those who have no jobs?
Are we obligated only to toss a dollar bill or two into the empty hats of the homeless?
Or are we obligated to write new laws for our own country like the ancient laws that protected Ruth? Are we obligated to create new communities — local credit unions instead of global banks, food coops and neighborhood clinics, groups of caring people who turn an involuntary “furlough” from their jobs into time to learn together, sing together, plan together to make new places of shared work?
Are we obligated to create a society that rubs away the barriers between the rich and poor, between those who speak one language from those who speak another?
What can we do — what must we do — to help bring on the days of peace and justice?
SHARING THE BREAD OF LIFE: When not making biscuits at a local restaurant, Democratic Republic of Congo refugee Benjamin Kisoni pastors a congregation of African immigrants in Tennessee. He awaits asylum in the U.S. and dreams of reuniting with his family. (Photo by Dawn Jewell)
Benjamin Kisoni’s recent life reads like the story of a modern-day Joseph. But instead of donning a fine multicolored robe, he ties apron strings in pre-dawn stillness. His fingers freeze mixing chilled buttermilk and flour. He is preparing the day’s first biscuits at the fast-food restaurant Bojangles’ in Jonesborough, Tennessee.
Until three years ago, Benjamin had never tasted a biscuit in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Amidst the region’s ongoing turmoil, he was pastoring a Baptist church and publishing a Christian youth magazine. But in 2009, five times men assailed his house, seeking to kill him. Each time Benjamin evaded them. Desperate, he fled to the U.S., leaving behind his wife and eight children (ages 14 to 30) and effectively shutting down his family’s printing business.
Benjamin was targeted because he pursued a court case for his brother’s assassination. Hired gunmen had murdered his brother, a veterinarian and businessman respected for his humanitarian works. Local influential leaders had feared his brother’s increasing popularity.
“I love my country and wanted to help change it by writing. I never imagined I’d be chased from it,” he says. He and his wife reluctantly agreed that his leaving the DR Congo was the best chance they had for everyone to survive. So in May 2009, the beleaguered pastor arrived with one suitcase in small town America, welcomed by his sister and her husband.
Since then, Benjamin’s faith has been refined. After applying for asylum and while awaiting a work permit, Benjamin penned his story on God and suffering to encourage his fellow countrymen. “The ink which wrote this book is my tears,” he says. The book, “God, Where Are You?” will be released later this year by Zondervan’s Hippo imprint.
Biscuits for Jesus
Five days a week Benjamin rises at 3 a.m. to pray and read Scripture. His eight-hour shift begins at 4:30. He has honed the science of Bojangles’ made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits.
“It’s non-stop work,” he says. But God prepared Benjamin via his Master of Theology thesis on the ethics of work years ago.
Last year Benjamin was promoted to Master Biscuit Maker, training new hires from other restaurants. On their first day, he tells each trainee: “I’m a Christian, I love God…The manager may be present or not, but I know God is there. I’m working to please God.”
God, in turn, has blessed the work of his hands. Business has improved at Benjamin’s Bojangles’ location since he started working there, his boss told him. Three times his manager has nominated him “employee of the month.”
Each month Benjamin wires home a large portion of his meager salary to provide food, medicine and rent for his family. It’s not how he imagined supporting them or rebuilding his nation. But he has accepted God’s plans.
Silent worship carries Benjamin through hours of biscuit-making. As the batter forms a ball, he softly sings in French:
“Here is Good News for all who are disappointed;
He offers better than anything we’ve lost,
Because what we see is not all there is,
His provision never ends…” (English translation)
“I used to think you can go through suffering and then reach victory on the other side. But I’ve learned that when you are in the midst of suffering and have hope in God, that is victory,” he says. Like Joseph, this suffering servant in exile has excelled, trusting in God’s plan.
An African Billy Graham
God keeps confirming the strange twists of Benjamin’s life. Twelve years ago, he dreamed he was helping to build a church, oddly within a bigger church. Today Benjamin is senior pastor to a fledgling congregation of local African immigrants. It meets within the larger American Grace Fellowship Church.
On a recent Sunday, 50 men and women, and more than 25 children from Ghana, Liberia, South Africa, Ivory Coast, the DR Congo and Cameroon filled chairs. The International Christian Fellowship formed in 2009 out of a Bible study to meet cultural needs that American churches couldn’t.
From the pulpit, Pastor Benjamin preaches the Word clearly and simply; Billy Graham is his life-long model. As a pastor’s son, a young Benjamin devoured each new issue of Graham’s Decision magazine. Today he avoids theological debates and exhorts congregants to imitate Jesus. The church is slowly expanding.
Besides discipling fellow Africans, Benjamin has helped Bryan Henderson, a bi-vocational pastor and financial advisor, grasp God more clearly. The two men email, pray and meet regularly as friends and accountability partners. “I’m white, he’s black. I grew up with privilege and he grew up with poverty,” Bryan says. “We had nothing in common, but everything in common. We had the Holy Spirit guiding us.”
BI-VOCATIONAL BROTHERS: Bryan Henderson (left), a pastor and financial advisor, met Benjamin during a time of personal despair. “He helped me see that man does not live on bread alone,” says Bryan. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Henderson)
The two men met shortly after Bryan had lost his job with financial giant Merrill Lynch. Benjamin’s deep faith amidst persecution and trials “really helped me see that man does not live on bread alone,” Bryan says. Now they discuss church leadership issues, American and African culture, and Scripture passages.
A strong daily dose of God’s word sustains Benjamin’s hope. “People here want fast food, fast cars, fast this, fast that. They haven’t learned to wait patiently on the Lord,” he says.
Recently he resonated with the three women who carried spices to Jesus’ tomb, despite awareness they couldn’t budge the boulder at the entrance (Mark 16). “The women could’ve stayed home, but they didn’t,” he says. “So I said, ‘God, I have many stones in my way. I believe you will remove them.’”
A Place to Call Home?
The biggest stone in Benjamin’s life is his asylum case. Last year the U.S. granted asylum to about 25,000 people seeking sanctuary, although three times as many applied here. Like refugees, asylum seekers flee their home countries because of persecution or well-grounded fears thereof, based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
Back home, Benjamin is sure he would be killed. His family is scattered across the eastern DR Congo, too afraid to return to their house but tired of living in limbo. Recently his daughter texted him, “Dad, I want to go back home. If they will kill me, let them kill me.”
This May an immigration judge denied Benjamin asylum, claiming inadequate grounds. His lawyer is appealing, but the process could last years.
Massive backlogs of asylum cases sit in the vastly under-resourced U.S. court system, says Lisa Koop, managing attorney of the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), a Chicago non-profit. Anxiety for family members still facing danger back home is a huge stressor for asylum seekers, Koop says.
In recent months, fighting between marauding militia and the army has increased in the lush green hills of eastern DR Congo, near Benjamin’s hometown. Despite peace accords signed in 2003, 5 million people have died since 1998 in the world’s deadliest conflict. The current battle for power, the region’s mineral wealth, or security originates in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the subsequent flight of Hutu civilians and militia into the DR Congo.
Meanwhile, Benjamin looks beyond the American dream, “longing for a better country, a heavenly one,” he says (Hebrews 11:14).
“I trust God because He’s sovereign. I’m not asking the ‘why’ questions,” he told Bryan after his case was denied.
The final pages of Benjamin’s story are unwritten. Meanwhile, reads his book’s epilogue: “I thank God for my suffering. He made himself known to me, and through them he has allowed me to comfort others.”
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Should death row inmates have access to one-on-one pastoral visits? This the question a Kentucky judge is being asked to decide in a class action suit filed by death row inmates against the state prison system. The prisoners claim that pastors have been “illegally and arbitrarily restricted from visiting them” since early summer 2010, the Associated Press reported yesterday.
A couple states down in Alabama, a judge overturned the life sentence imposed by a jury in the murder trial of 26-year-old African American Iraq war veteran Courtney Lockhart, and instead sentenced him to death, even though the defense argued that Lockhart, like 12 other members of his platoon who have been arrested for murder or attempted murder, had suffered psychological damage during his 16-month combat tour in Iraq, the Huffington Post reported yesterday.
In his decision, Judge Jacob Walker wrote that Lockhart deserved death based on evidence of other crimes not presented by prosecutors during his trial, the article said, noting a troubling trend in the state.
Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty after a four-year ban, Alabama judges have held the power to overturn the sentencing recommendations of juries in capital cases. Since then, state judges have overturned 107 jury decisions in capital cases, and in 92 percent of those cases, jury recommendations of life imprisonment were rejected in favor of death sentences, according to a new report by the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit law firm based in Montgomery.
Meanwhile, Rais Bhuiyan, a victim of post 9/11 racism, is arguing for the life of his would-be killer. While working at a Dallas, Texas, gas station in 2001, Bhuiyan was shot in the face at close range by Mark Ströman. The assault left Bhuiyan blind in one eye and in need of extensive plastic surgery. Ströman had murdered a Pakistani immigrant five days earlier and would go on to kill an Indian immigrant a few weeks later. Each of Ströman’s victims worked at Dallas-area convenience stores. Ströman, who claims he was avenging the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is scheduled to be executed July 20.
According to the Death Penalty News website, Bhuiyan found peace during his long and painful recovery by relying on his Muslim faith, which also led him to forgive Ströman. “I decided that his is a human life, like anyone else’s,” Bhuiyan said. “I decided I wanted to do something about this.”
Zechariah 7:9 instructs us to “administer true justice” and “show mercy and compassion to one another.”
What do you think?
• Should death row inmates have access to one-on-one pastoral care?
• Should they have the right to sue for it?
• Is it just for a judge to overturn a jury verdict in favor of death, especially in light of evidence that the murderer was mentally damaged in service to his country?
• Does a murderer’s humanity require that society show him the mercy he failed to show his victims?
• Where do justice and mercy meet when it comes to the death penalty? What do you think?