Dear friends in my supporting churches:
Today is Epiphany, when the church remembers the encounter of the infant Jesus with the Magi, the inquisitive foreigners who came seeking God made incarnate in Bethlehem. It’s the feast day of globalization, of faith overcoming borders, a reminder to those who seek to follow Jesus that our paths of discipleship will lead us to some strange places.
Because your financial support makes possible my work as a United Methodist missionary, I have the privilege of frequently crossing borders in order to bring back words and images of how people struggle to live the fullness of life promised in the Gospels. While the Magi crossed borders bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, I take a camera and a notepad. Just as the Magi took home an amazing story of what they had encountered, so I return with narratives of empowerment, whether it’s of the church combating human trafficking in Hawaii or welcoming Syrian refugees in the Middle East.
The Magi also dealt with political systems that feared the truth and thus threatened those who challenged their control with death. Often the people whose lives I document face similar threats, and several times I’ve received heartbreaking word that someone I interviewed was killed shortly after my visit. Personally, I face few real risks in my work beyond jet lag and amoebas, but on November 27 I was beaten by the Egyptian National Police at the edge of Tahrir Square. Two Egyptian photographers were similarly beaten the same day; one of them had to be hospitalized. It was a harsh reminder of the precarious nature of truth-telling in many parts of the world. No wonder the Magi snuck out of town.
Yet the Magi also, I suspect, encountered incredible hospitality when they met the holy family. That’s a universal characteristic of the poor, to welcome the stranger. I encounter this constantly, whether in displaced Roma communities in Serbia, where I went twice this past year, or in a village in Mindanao following Typhoon Bopha where Filipino families were busy untwisting the rubble that was once their homes. In response to my nosy questions they stopped, found a chair in the rubble to offer me, and sent their child off to buy the stranger a bottle of water. Such hospitality is a gift the poor offer to us. They have no gold or frankincense, but they have a chair and a bottle of water. Moreover, they have hope, something we in our communities have often misplaced amid our abundance and cynicism.
The Magi doubtless saw their adventure as a blessing, just as I consider my work as a missionary an incredible privilege. As always, I write with appreciation for making this possible, and to thank you for making the connections–spiritual, economic, political–that link your own community with Bethlehem, both the occupied Palestinian town and countless other villages and towns where ordinary people are plagued by poverty and repression. The Magi stepped out of their comfort zone and crossed borders to find what awaited them in Bethlehem, and so we are called to take new risks as we engage in mission. The Magi then returned home to report on what they had found, just as all of us called to proclaim the earthshaking implications of this day of Epiphany.