A Special Sermon by Chinyere Okoro

Chinyere Okoro
June 5, 2016

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, Lord.

I was born and raised at St. Paul’s; and I truly mean I was born here and raised here. I was baptized here, went to the nursery, attended Sunday School, acted in the Christmas pageant, and sang in the children’s choir. In middle school, I began to acolyte and lector, but I certainly never thought I would be preaching at a service. This church is my home and there is no way I can describe this congregation other than my family.

When Father Steve said there was a baptism this morning, I was thinking about how he always says to the child, “This is your new family now”. I’m sure someone said that at my baptism 20 years ago and it has certainly been true. This community has consistently supported me throughout my entire life. So, when I left to attend college at the University of Virginia, I was looking to find a similar community in Charlottesville. At the University, I am double majoring in Communication Disorders and Youth & Social Innovation and am interested in doing work related to education and health with children and youth, especially those from immigrant and refugee populations. Therefore, when I learned the Episcopal Student Fellowship at my church in Charlottesville would be taking a trip to the US/Mexico Border, I was very interested in going.

I’ll be honest; nowadays I am skeptical when I hear the words “Mission Trip”. I am skeptical and instantly curious about where people are going, what they will be doing, and what their relationship with the local people look like. Pippa Bundle, an online blogger, writes about a trip to Tanzania she took in high school with some of her classmates from a private American boarding school. The group was comprised of 14 white girls and 1 black girl (who was called white by almost everyone in Tanzania) and for $3000 each they traveled to an orphanage where they helped build a library and play with children for a week followed by a weeklong safari.

This type of trip, known as “voluntourism” is a combination of exotic vacation travel and volunteer work. Not only do visitors leave with a unique experience in a new country, but also feeling like they really made a difference, feeling like a savior. In such programs, Rafia Zakira a political philosopher and columnist for Dawn, a Pakistan English-language newspaper, says, “Wealthy Westerners can do a little good, experience something that their affluent lives do not offer, and…have a story to tell that places them in the ranks of the kindhearted and worldly wise”. After completing their work, the volunteer tourist returns feeling virtuous and has a wealth of new stories. Voluntourism promotes the “white savior” complex by attracting wealthy tourists to programs that are often more interested in the experience of the tourists than actually helping the local community.

Unbeknownst to Pippa Bundle at the time, each night local men had to come in and take down the structurally unsound bricks they had laid and rebuild the library structure. Each day the high school girls with no basic construction knowledge would spend 6+ hours mixing cement and laying bricks, the local men would come in and re-do the work at night, and in the morning it was as if nothing happened and the students would continue the cycle.

So now you know why I am initially skeptical of people going on mission trips and why I have tried to use the word “pilgrimage” when talking about my recent journey to the US/Mexico Border. Before going on this trip I thought I was doing all the right things. I was praying for the people who I would meet, I was telling others about this journey in hopes that they would consider Border issues, and I thought that I was actively addressing my privilege. I thought I was exempt from the whole “white savior” complex issue because well look at me. But the truth is there are other ways that I was constructing myself as a savior. What about the “college educated savior” complex or the “US citizen savior” complex?

On Wednesday, five days into our trip, our group had dinner at the CAME Hospitality Center in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico and I met a man who I will never forget. Alejandro had traveled from Tabsco state in southern Mexico to Sonora (a state in northern Mexico) and had faced incredible hardships in his life and on his journey. He didn’t know how to read or write and was migrating in hopes of going to school and finding work. He shared one night of his journey when he had travelled a long ways and was caught in a storm. In the midst of the storm he cried out to the Lord, “Lord save me. I don’t want to die.” The storm ceased and a rainbow appeared. Along his journey he met people who welcomed him into their homes and churches and he knew that the Lord was with him every step of the way. I was surprised by how strong his faith was in the midst of such pain and suffering. He truly had placed his whole life in the hands of the Lord and his hope and trust was in God alone. I was further surprised when he started to pray for me and bless me.

I thought it was supposed to be the other way around. I thought I was supposed to pray for him and reassure him that God still loved him in the midst of this pain and suffering. I thought I was supposed to share the hope I had in Christ with him a person who had experienced incredible hardships in life. And yet he was sharing the truth of God’s hope and love for this world with me. He said God loves us all as children. Why was I surprised by his overflowing love for God and his trust in the Lord? Why was I surprised that he was doing for me what I thought I would be doing for him?

In God’s kingdom it does not matter that I am a US citizen, college educated and financially stable because in God’s kingdom that is not how we are defined. We are defined by one thing- God’s love for us. When Alejandro spoke of the love of God he said, “We are all children of God”. God doesn’t love me any more or any less than Alejandro. And I can’t do anything to make God love me any more or any less. The Word of God tells us, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27-28).” Alejandro is my brother in Christ and his witness of God has challenged me, changed me, inspired me, and been a real blessing to my life.

In 2nd Corinthians, Paul says, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ… we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.” I want to be like Alejandro. I want to be the aroma of Christ. I want to be so overflowing with love for God that when I speak I spread the knowledge of Him everywhere. I want to repent of any ways I create a savior complex for myself and make room for my savior Jesus to work in me and through me. Like scripture says, I am not competent in myself to claim anything for myself, but my competence comes from God. Through Christ, God has made me competent.

As we finished up dinner and continued chatting, Alejandro shared his hopes and dreams and asked me and the other students about our own. Although he could not read or write, he wanted to go to school to become a doctor. He was very interested in natural medicine and had learned about what plants were good for the body from his grandfather who lived to be 108 years old. He wants to teach others about plants that are good for the body and gave one of the men who came on the trip with us some natural remedies for his balding head. When I told him that I hope to someday start a community center that serves immigrant and refugee youth he told me that I was an angel sent from God. It’s funny because I was thinking the same thing about him.

My prayer for us this morning is that the Lord would reveal our privilege and any ways we have constructed a savior complex for ourselves. I pray that God would work in us and through us so we can share the love and hope of our savior Jesus Christ with the world. I pray that the Lord would use us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere and that we would be reminded that our competence is not in ourselves, but that our competence comes from God.

Let us pray.

Lord, thank you for the love and hope that is freely given to all your children. In your kingdom there are no borders. Please help us cross borders that have been constructed in this world and to share in faith and hope with our brothers and sisters in Mexico. I pray that you bless all your children as we continue to seek your truth and hope for this world and help us to love others in the same way you love us.