“Immigrants have been a reality in California for thousands of years, long before it became a divisive political issue,” said the Rev. Isaac J. Canales at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “Even the president’s wife is an immigrant, but most of ours do not come from Eastern Europe, but Central and South America and the Asia-Pacific areas.”
His sermon title was “A Ride With Carmen,” and the Scripture readings were Zechariah 7:8-12 and Deuteronomy 10:17-19.
Canales shared some of his family’s history. Both his parents came to the United States from Mexico. His mother was kidnapped by her own father to get her away from an alcoholic grandmother. He took her to Bakersfield, California, and supported her by picking fruit and cotton, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen.
Canales’ father was an orphan who walked across the Rio Grande at age 10. He lived a nomadic existence until he was age 27, when he had a conversion experience and attended the Latin American Bible Institute.
“He got a call from Tio Samuel (Uncle Sam) who said ‘You have a choice: Serve or go back to Mexico,’ ” Canales said. “He served in North Africa, Normandy, the Ardennes Forest, the Battle of the Bulge and the Rhineland and received three Bronze Stars. His honorable discharge papers say he was a telephone operator, but he did not speak English. He must have been a Mexican ghost whisperer like the Navajo Code Talkers.”
He received his naturalization papers in a 10-minute ceremony on the battlefield.
Canales’ father carried his books from the LABI through the war and one day, when a bomb landed near his bunker, he made a deal with God.
“You have all made deals with God,” Canales said. “You know, ‘God get me out of this and I will do whatever.’ My father said he would become a pastor, and God kept his promise and my father kept his.”
Canales’ parents founded Mission Ebenezer Family Church in Carson, California, as a Spanish-speaking church with about 15 members. Canales and his wife joined them in the ministry and “I thought I would be the Mexican Robert Schuller,” he said. It was not until the church began to hold services in English that it really grew and became multicultural with Samoans, Filipinos, Nigerians and others joining the congregation.
“It is what heaven will be like,” Canales said. “Our hearts have been warmed by the stories people have shared of walking, swimming, riding on truck chassis, risking death in the desert for a better life for their families. These immigrants all come with a prayer for God’s good grace.”
In Zechariah 7:10, God tells the Israelites “Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” At Mission Ebenezer Family Church, “we are not defying the president, we are helping people and that is true religion,” Canales said.
He told the story of “Sister Carmen,” who starting in 1983 would disappear to perform good deeds. She did not tell anybody, but she was going to Mexico to help reunite families by bringing babies and young children back with her.
“The coyotes, the guides, charge as much as $6,000 per person to get people past ICE. She never charged a thing to reunite families,” Canales said. “She was a very large woman, weighing about 380 pounds and standing about 4 feet, 11 inches. She always wore large, colorful Hawaiian muumuus and the border agents never noticed the babies underneath between her legs.”
One time, Carmen borrowed a baby outfit with a Dodger baseball design and a small Dodger baseball cap to bring a baby back to a family living in the Canales’ garage.
“We woke up our kids in the middle of the night to see the reunion,” Canales said. “You can’t buy the joy of the hugging and kissing we witnessed.”
After years of loving the poor, the immigrant, all those who are unlovely, “are we criminals to help the immigrants?” he asked. “Is it the right thing? What does the Bible say? God says we need compassion framed by a theology of welcome.”
In Deuteronomy 10:17, Moses tells the people of Israel that “God is the God of gods, Lord of lords” and does not take bribes. Moses tells them that God executes justice for the orphan and widow and loves strangers. Canales said in Romans, Paul wrote that Israel forgot to embrace foreign cultures with God’s love.
“We have to accept others as God accepts us,” he said. “Not tolerate one another, not just put up with someone, but love and accept each other. We must embrace each other. This is not a recommendation or suggestion; this is a demand.”
When you were not lovely, Jesus died for you, therefore you are to execute mercy and compassion.
“I believe love is subversive,” Canales said.
However unsettling it may be, there is an American mandate for the theology of welcome, to not judge, but love. America welcomes people with the arms of Jesus, not agents of terror. That is America’s prophetic duty today.
“I still believe America is a fiesta with a piñata where the whole neighborhood is welcome to come and take a hit,” Canales said.
The world sees our separation, our paranoia and fear of the other. We are being smug if we fail to see what God requires in Micah 6:8 to simply be just, love compassion and be humble.
If we separate from God and the Bible and become smugly self-sufficient, “then God help our country.” We can choose to separate from the world or embrace God’s love.
“We need a social tapestry, like the colors of a Persian carpet, that includes all,” Canales said. “We need to be agents of fairness, mercy for others and humbleness.”
The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. presided. The Rev. John Morgan, senior pastor of the Williamsburg, Virginia, Presbyterian Church, read the Scripture. The Motet Choir, under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, sang “I Sing Because I’m Happy,” by Rollo Dilworth. The Robert D. Campbell Memorial Chaplaincy and the Lois Raynow Department of Religion Fund provide support for this week’s services.