The Wilderness and the Borderlands: 5th Week of Lent

Eternal hope from the borderlands – Jeremiah 29:1-14

From the start of the Cuban Revolution, thousands upon thousands began fleeing Cuba much in the same way you’d flee a dangerous category 5 hurricane.  In 1971, my family was one of those thousands that fled, making that gut wrenching decision to abandon their native lands, say farewell to family and childhood friends, and the land that brought richness of life to their existence and travel to a foreign land filled with uncertainty but rooted in hope. It was to this community that I was born into: A community torn apart by political ideology, but a community that found hope and strength in their shared experience in a foreign land.

When you attempt to rebuild your story, when you try to make sense of it, you quickly realize the story is complex. When you attempt to put the pieces together you realize it’s not that simple and its connections and roots often come from unexpected places and unexpected experiences. 

I never really gave much thought to my own cultural experience and identity until recently.  You see, I was born in a community where the stories, the experience and the language was pretty much the same everywhere I went.  Therefore, to even think of myself on borderlands, let alone, on the margins, was a far stretch.  All of that changed when my seminary studies engaged the voices of the prophets, with the voices of theologians speaking from the margins, speaking of an experience that sounded awfully familiar to me yet for a while I admit I was unable to make the connection.  Then I realized that the familiarity was in front of me all the time, it was the familiarity of my own story, a story I have recently begun to reconstruct.

When you attempt to rebuild your story, when you try to make sense of it, you quickly realize the story is complex. When you attempt to put the pieces together you realize it’s not that simple and its connections and roots often come from unexpected places and unexpected experiences.  I stumbled upon this realization two years ago when I said farewell to my family as I packed my bags, loaded my little POD and transitioned to Chicago to this community of McCormick Theological Seminary.

Nothing helps you be more in touch with your own story and an intentional desire to connect and make sense of your own life than being in a state of transition.  My own transition up here made me keenly aware of what it was like to live in a foreign place, where the unfamiliar was as common my unease, and where I quickly began to make a connection between my own state of transition, the plight of my parents and furthermore, the plight of my own community, the Cuban community.

Jeremiah 29 was an exhortation to the Jews in exile with a message I’m convinced they didn’t want to hear.  After being driven out of their lands, the last thing they wanted to be told was to settle down, marry, have kids, make this land your own land because you’re going to be there a while.  It’s a reality hard to digest.  I know this to be true because as excited as I was to move up here, once I did move up here my excitement quickly turned to anxiety and despair.  The unfamiliarity of the landscape, the language and the faces drove me to tears, longing instead for familiarity, longing for a flavor of home.  Just a few weeks after relocating, a good friend and pastoral mentor offered some pastoral care which included this passage of Jeremiah and when I read it, I can assure you the last thing I found was comfort.  Instead, Jeremiah 29 gave me a hard reality check:  this is where you’ll be for a while.  Ironically, this was the same reality my parents were given almost a decade into their exiled experience, when my grandparents passed away and neither of my parents were able to be at their bedside during those last moments, nor were they able to go back and bury them.

Cuban-Americans have built communities in Miami that remind them of the home they fled
Cuban-Americans have built communities in Miami that remind them of the home they fled

So what does exile have to do with living in borderlands and living on the margins, moreover what might this have to do with Lent? The short answer is, a whole lot.

Life in exile is not easy.  Similar to Lent, living in exile is a constant wandering in the midst of a wilderness of unfamiliarity, confronting challenges that seem all the more daunting because you’re far from all that served as pillars of strength and support.  I speak not just of the exiled wilderness of my family, but even of my own wilderness at finding my way through and making a life of my own here in Chicago.  Just like Lent, exile drives us into a wilderness where in spite of our wandering, hope never fades, but rather we cling to it like a precious possession.

I really never gave much thought about living in the wilderness or even living in borderlands.  My time in Chicago and my experience with the community of McCormick students however, has made me keenly aware of the fact that for me home is at the borderlands, caught between two cultures, two peoples, and two stories.  I was born and raised in Miami up until I moved here.  Yes you will hear me rave about Miami, especially in the midst of blistering cold and snowy days, yet I realize that my home is not even in Miami as I have always thought.  While living in the borderlands, I’ve uncovered a different way to define home these days.  Home is an island in the midst of the Caribbean Sea, an island that was coined as the “Pearl of the Antilles,” my beloved Cuba.  Yet home is also a constantly growing and evolving city in the southeastern corner of the United States, in a state coined as the “Sunshine State.”  It is between these two geographic locations, caught between the Florida Straits, just a few hundred miles apart, I find home.

This season of Lent reminds us that often times in our wilderness, in places far away from all that is familiar, God does call us to make dwellings, to ground ourselves, to make familiar out of that which often challenges and threatens our own stability.  This Jeremiah text calls us to do just that:  build houses, cultivate gardens, eat what the locals eat, make community in your wilderness for you will be here a while.  But alas, this text also comes with a promise all too familiar in Lent.  It is an Easter promise filled with hope and redemption, but more importantly for those of us living in borderlands, it is a promise of restoration.  A promise that one day, we will all be restored and returned to those lands we call home.  It is this Easter hope that keeps us alive and I know this to be true in my own story.  Even after 40 years of living in exile, my parents still live with hope that their Easter promise will take them back to their native land one day.

In his book titled Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective, Cuban theologian and church historian Justo Gonzalez sums it up best by saying this about Latin@s living in exile:  “We are a people in exile … And while we wait for that day, that day when we will be restored to our native lands, it may be that as exiles, we have some insights into what it means to be a pilgrim people of God (read here as a people wandering through the wilderness on a Lenten journey) followers of One who had nowhere to lay his head.”

As we continue this Lenten journey, inching closer to our Easter story, may embrace the wilderness with confidence that although we may be caught in unfamiliar lands and places, our Easter story is carrying towards a transformation that will restore us to those places we long for in our hearts.

dannyDanny Morales, a Cuban-American Miami native, is a senior at McCormick Theological Seminary.  Upon graduation, Danny is lining up CPE and the final stages of Navy Chaplaincy training.  Danny hopes to return to the community of South Florida where he hopes to work with his local Presbytery to develop stronger ties with the Latin@ community.