From a Small Town on the Border
November 15, 2018
by Andy Littleton
This is a portion of the writing I’ve been doing on my sabbatical, which may end up in my book about my dad and folks like him called The Little Man. It’s also interesting in light of current events in my opinion. I hope you find it to be be good food for thought, and that you enjoy meeting my friend Jesse through it as well. – Andy
Within a chapter entitled “Faith” (un-edited)
When back to Bisbee for the second time I got to go to church in the small town of Naco, right on the border of the U.S. and Mexico. My friend Jesse, who I was staying with, is the pastor of one of the two churches stateside as well as a church across the border in Naco, Sonora. When I’d met him, I was immediately intrigued by his role as a pastor in the small town because my dad’s family would host family reunions in Naco. Naco is about five to ten minutes south of Bisbee, and most Arizonans have never heard of it. The one family reunion I remember included us gathering at a hotel right next to the port of entry. I was running around with some of the other kids and we wondered across the border and had to be shooed back across by the man on watch. My only other memory is that of being downwind from a foul smelling cigar that gave me a stomach ache. Thanks to my family’s influence that day, I never desired to smoke anything ever again.
Naco the town is very small, especially in the states. So by nature, Jesse’s churches were small too. Jesse was not only the pastor, but the song leader, and he’d commented that his percussionist was likely not going to be there. When it comes to music percussion is about all I can boast (and I’d be a fool to boast about it), but it is something I used to do to help out at church. I hadn’t played in church in eight years or so, and it kind of sounded like fun, so I offered that I’d be willing to step in. Jesse kindly accepted the invitation of a guy he’d never heard play before. I played at the stateside church in the morning, but there were several kids at the church in Sonora that liked to play, so I happily stepped aside so they could be involved that afternoon.
As we were getting things set up for the stateside service in the morning, Jesse was entering lyrics into a computer to project so people could sing along. He was humming the tunes of the songs as he entered the lyrics, and a memory flashed into my mind. Jesse was humming a tune I knew…What a Friend We Have in Jesus. The tune immediately transported me to my childhood in which my dad would pull out his old Martin acoustic and finger pick the same tune. It was one of his go-to’s. Before my lifetime especially, my dad was a regular in the Lebanon church bands. He even played in a local band that played at other churches. He wasn’t one to lead with his words, but he loved to serve the church using the talent that he had…and his talent was playing guitar or bass in the back of the band.
I hadn’t foreseen that jumping in on percussion would remind me of my dad, but I immediately knew that his willingness to serve his church and his Lord was something that he’d instilled in me. To this day it’s something I love to do. I didn’t play flawlessly that morning. An eight year break had left me a little rusty, but I tried to put my soul into the rhythm as I sat behind Jesse and the other singer. Most of the songs we sang were newer, one’s my dad had never known, but my favorite was What a Friend We Have in Jesus. The small congregation raised their voices together in simple faith:
What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer
Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer
The incredible thing that can happen in a community of faith, committed to a standard outside of itself and to one another, is that diverse people can be brought together to be affirmed and corrected in love. Jesse was leading the people of his church through the book of Exodus step by step (not the easiest piece of ancient literature to trudge through). Though his church met at two different times and in two different countries, Jesse sought to maintain unity between them. They prayed for one another, shared their resources with one another, and listened to the same words from the same Scriptures.
This week was a particularly unique time in Naco. The midterm election had just occurred, and border issues were a major talking point. Bisbee had been abuzz with political conversation, especially since an Arizona senate seat was too close to call. In Old Bisbee folks gathered around tables in the coffee shop were bemoaning the president and hoping things would turn the direction of tolerance and acceptance. In the rural surrounding areas folks who felt that law and order were in jeopardy praised the administration and hoped that someone would finally get tough and get some things straightened out.
On top of that, the town of Naco was on alert. In the news they’d heard that the US military was being sent to the border. Thus far they hadn’t seen much, but all of a sudden that weekend humvees full of soldiers had driven in to town and parked along the border fence near the port of entry. Mexico’s army was present on the other side of the border as well, in greater number than folks were used to. A migrant caravan had been being watched, coming up from South America, and folks on both sides of the border were torn as to how to feel about it. Some Americans feared the type of people that might be in the caravan and the trouble they could bring if allowed into the states while others asserted that we’d all once been migrants and that our values of human rights had to upheld in offering asylum. In Mexico folks worried what would happen if the caravan was blocked at the border and they had to absorb the thousands of strangers in their midst, while others related to the migrants and hoped they’d be able to come and find safe passage.
Jesse’s text that Sunday was one he’d come to in his natural progression through the book of Exodus. He taught his folks on both sides of the border Exodus 22:16-27. The text included what Jesse’s Bible titled as “sundry laws”. It began with a law prohibiting seduction of a woman by any man not her husband, which had application within the community and in the broader national conversation in which the #metoo movement was trying to define the sin of sexual harassment. It went on to prohibit sorcery, beastiality, and sacrifices to false gods which didn’t seem to phase many of the folks. The consensus among them was that these things were off limits. The final law had to do with exacting unfair or un-gracious interest upon those in need of a loan. This bore more application, as many had been victims of some form of predatory lending, or had struggled with being generous to those they didn’t know if they could trust.
The portion in the middle though, required the most comment. Exodus 22:21-24 felt particularly pertinent. Jesse preached through it carefully, but with conviction on both sides of the border.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”
Exodus 22:21-24 ESV
Of course Jesse had before him folks who this text impacted in numerous ways. His church being south of Bisbee, he had some of the rural folks who tended to the right of the political spectrum. He also though, had folks who’d come to Naco from Old Bisbee and were dismayed by the current administration. He had folks who had been immigrants, and others who felt as if they were treated with prejudice as they crossed the border on a regular basis legally. In Mexico he had a crowd of orphans sitting under his teaching, who would take the bus to the church every week. He had widows gathered on both sides of the border, with varying experiences of widowhood. He also had, as does any room with people in it, people who were somehow guilty or complicit in the guilt of breaking the laws God had given in the Bible.
Jesse applied the Scripture to all who sat under him with loving care. None were told they were innocent. None were considered to be too far gone. All were given hope that by faith in a sacrificial savior, who bore upon himself the curses of the law…who bore the anger of God kindled by all the sundry sins of sinful people…who was killed by the sword bearers, that they could be given a second chance to sing “what a friend we have in Jesus” and live a life that was honoring to God and loving to others. All were encouraged to consider what God’s words might mean, and how they could love both law and order and have deep compassion on the strangers among them. I think Jesse’s humble leadership and his churches’ collective submission to the God and Father over all of them, made it possible for such a diverse group of people to gather together in unity though an iron fence and military vehicles stood between them.
Leroy (my dad) was always inclined to foster relationships with people different than him. I would credit his time in the mills, his churches, and his time in the military with teaching him to do this. He had friends on all sides of the political debates, and they felt comfortable talking to him. He had friends of all races, first evidenced by the photos of he and his closest friends in the military. When he worked in the lumber yard in Tucson, he always got along with African American and Hispanic guys he worked with. In fact, some of them were his biggest fans. I’m not sure what exactly he heard from his pastors over the years, but he sure was committed to reading his Bible. I’d assume he’d read Exodus 22 dozens, if not hundreds, of times throughout his life. His life influenced me not only to avoid being polarized by politics, but to rely on laws outside of myself that could both affirm and correct any who’d sit under their teaching.