As a graduate student in theology, I lived in a large university town near San Francisco. My room was in the basement of the house, where I spent many hours studying some of the best thinkers in the Christian tradition. After getting up one morning, I looked out my window. On the other side of the wall from where I had slept was a homeless man. Physically we were little more than a foot-and-a-half away from each other. Existentially, however, we lived in two different worlds. My reality was a comfortable home, a warm bed and a life of the mind; his was distress and discomfort, a brick mattress and a life of the streets. That experience changed not only the way I thought about theology but also the way I began to do it.
I pondered what the world might look like from his side of the wall: how he thought about life, what he learned about people and, more to the point, if and how he understood God. I had read enough Scripture to know of Christ’s self-identification with the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned and estranged (Mt 25:31-46), but I wondered if my neighbor’s social location gave him a better vantage point than my own from which to understand theological realities.
Gradually I started “migrating” from the comfort of my room, library and ideas about God in search of insight among the vulnerable of the world, the living “texts” of the poor and the challenge of the living God. I began to study theology with “the crucified peoples of today,” as the theologian Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., described them.
For two decades I have been a “border theologian” doing what might be called “theological ethnography,” which studies Christian faith experience among cultural groups. The method for this approach is shaped primarily by Christian spirituality, or following of Jesus, and Christian theology, a reflection on that experience within the social context of a faith that does justice. The method is rooted in an attempt to understand the gift and challenge of Christian faith, beginning with those who live with acute human suffering, like undocumented migrants or victims of human trafficking.
Geographically, my work is rooted in the narratives of those who migrate between Mexico and the United States, Spain and Morocco, Malta and Libya, Slovakia and Ukraine, and Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Theologically, it explores human experience in frontier spaces in light of theological themes like creation and redemption, grace and sin, life and death. I search for revelation in deserts, mountains, canals, detention facilities, border towns and broken highways, as well as in the Scriptures, the early church, the work of contemporary writers, Catholic social teaching, the social sciences and the deep desires of the human heart. The pathways into these worlds are sometimes as circuitous and uncharted as a migrant’s journey, even as they are illuminated by a guiding light on a distant horizon.
A Migration Toward Understanding
Theological ethnography is born of trial and error, in the messiness of human experience. It involves not only horizontal dimensions related to social issues but a migration into several vertical dimensions as well. Growing up, I came across a pamphlet in which a question was posed: Did you know you could miss heaven by 18 inches? (This is the distance between the head and the heart in most people.) The pamphlet explained that God was not a concept to be understood but a person to be encountered in the depth of one’s being. The same could be said about theology.
For me theology is not simply about “faith seeking understanding” (St. Anselm) but also about generating knowledge born of love. Migrants, for the most part, do not care what I know but want to know that I care. Many scholars, conversely, do not care that I care but primarily care about what I know. Theological ethnography emerges from the heart and the head, the pastoral and the academic, rooting its reflection in the life of people.
As theology in general becomes more professionalized, however, we theologians can lose touch with the pastoral life of the church, causing the task of faith seeking understanding to degenerate into a career in which understanding seeks recognition. When this happens theologians can spend much time answering questions that no one is asking and speaking in a language few understand, while ignoring pressing issues that affect the human community and offering little guidance or nourishment for this journey to a better homeland.
As discourse about religion becomes politicized, I worry that people of faith forgo deeper reflection on the Gospel message and take refuge in hollow platitudes, simplistic answers or shallow cultural norms. In doing so they foreclose any serious opening of the religious mind and subject themselves to false certitudes, eclipsing the light of past wisdom that can guide our journey to a better world. Theological reflection is short-circuited when inner walls leave Christians 18 inches short of a life-giving message because of sterile intellectualism, lobotomized fundamentalism, obsessive rubricism, privatized pietism or frenetic activism. What Native American elders said of the pilgrimage of life could also be said of theological understanding: the long journey of human life moves from the head to the heart and back to the head again. It is a journey, I would add, that leads Christians out to serve their neighbor in need.
While it shares much with other theological approaches, my method involves the study of the written word (printed texts), attentiveness to the spoken word (living texts), engagement with the marginal word (crucified texts), and understanding of the contemporary word (cultural texts), expressed at times through multiple media or the visual word (symbolic texts). All of these texts are an integral part of the task of theology, serving the evangelizing mission of the church in its proclamation of the incarnate Word (the revealed text).
In brief, my theological method is based on the Incarnation—the belief that God migrated to humanity so all of us in turn could migrate back to God. Broadly considered, these elements are woven together in a process that involves 1) immersion in the world, especially into the life of the poor; 2) “interfluence,” or the ways in which the lived experience of Christian faith and the deposit of Christian tradition mutually influence each other; and 3) an interpretation of life that seeks to deepen our relationship with God and each other. This method is not just about retrieval and application, nor the gathering of new information for human formation. Rather it is a vision of life that leads to transformation and the construction of a new imagination.
A Migrant God for a Migrant People
Not long ago on the coast of Morocco, one of the global hotspots of international migration, I spoke with three refugees on their way to Europe. One had come from Sudan, another from Somalia and the third from Uganda. They had made their way through Africa over many months, enduring unimaginable hardship. They talked about eating insects and drinking urine to stay alive, going a year without a shower and hiding in mountains, stowing away on buses and undergoing human rights violations, losing a sister to the harsh elements of the Sahara Desert and struggling to find work. After they chronicled these abuses and degradations, I wondered how they could speak about God in this kind of hell.
I asked the refugee named Emmanuel, “Have you ever wondered how all this can happen to you if God is love?” Quickly and emphatically he responded: “The problem is not with God; it is with human beings. God does not want us to go through all this or live this way.” Though not the first person to articulate this insight, Emmanuel’s marginal social setting gave his words particular clarity and authority. I listened attentively for three days. In time I realized that the refugees’ experiential data and initial theological insights were only part of the equation and that sometimes one’s understanding of God must undergo a total course correction.
When Emmanuel discovered that I did research on migration and theology, he said: “Some people say the reason we are suffering so much here in Africa is because we are descendants of Judas; because of what he did to Jesus we are paying the consequences. What do you think of that?” This was a theological statement, a debilitating one. His words caused me to look for a critical correlation between his experience and the liberating message of the Gospel.
I began to share with these refugees a theology of migration, based on the truth that God in Jesus Christ so loved the world that he left his homeland and migrated into the far distant territory of humanity’s sinful and broken existence. There he laid down his life on a cross so that we could be reconciled with God and migrate back to our homeland, where there is peace, harmony, justice and life. I went on to explain how God’s love in Jesus is so boundless that it cannot be walled in or contained by human attempts to constrict it. God always crosses over the divisions we create in order to help us find a right relationship with God and each other.
First, a theology of migration crosses over the nonhuman-human divide and so brings out the dignity of the human person, especially those who, like migrants, are treated like insects, dogs or slaves. Second, it crosses the divine-human divide, and thus helps us see the utter gratuity of God, who moved from his homeland with a love that could not be limited by legal or political policies and reached out to those whose lives are most threatened—the sinner, the tax collector, the prostitute, the outsider and the poor. Third, it crosses the human-human divide, as is revealed in Jesus’ ability to cross racial, religious, political, economic and social barriers to foster a vision of human solidarity that highlights our interconnection as one family of God. Fourth, it crosses the country-kingdom divide, where we begin to see beyond national identities in recognition that the Christian’s true citizenship is in heaven; our true calling is to cross borders as agents of God’s reconciliation. As pilgrims of faith, Christians are spiritual migrants searching for a true homeland, an identity that should make us more sympathetic to all people on the move today. I said that the word alien describes not those who lack political papers but those who have so disconnected themselves from their neighbor in need that they cannot see in the stranger an image of themselves, a reflection of Christ and a challenge to human solidarity.
After I finished speaking, Emmanuel suddenly jumped up from the table, raised his eyes to heaven and shouted in a loud voice, “Yeah God! I can’t believe you would be that good to me!” My own life and words became invisible to him; what remained was not theology but doxology, not words but praise. More than factual retrieval, brilliant concepts or propositional truths, theology is about an engagement of faith with life that heals and empowers as it seeks to discern the fingerprint of God in a common sojourn from creation to new creation.
Listen to an interview with Daniel Groody.