Reading the Bible in Mexico

How a new context led to new insights

As a teacher in south Texas before I joined MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program, I noticed patterns as my students learned to understand and think about the stories we read in class. Life experience, or background knowledge, matters a lot when one reads.

I will always remember a student who thought it was strange that a character in our book wore a “fleece.” She asked me, “Why would he put fleas on himself?!” In the hot climate of south Texas, my young student thought first of “fleas” rather than “fleece.”

Living in Mexico for SALT has given me a lot of new background knowledge. Like my student who heard “fleas” instead of “fleece,” I am finding that I hear and read things differently than I did before. Particularly when I read the Bible, I have found new understanding and clarity in many passages.

Among the many commands that God gives Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, several have to do with how to treat non-Israelites who migrate to and through Israel — in other words, immigrants.

Those rules have an obvious connection to my work as a migration program assistant for an MCC partner organization, Voces Mesoamericanas (MesoAmerican Voices), in Chiapas, Mexico, and my experience of being a “stranger” myself here in Mexico.

Through MCC’s SALT program, Quinn Brenneke lives in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico. He works with migration issues, lives with a host family, worships in a local congregation and often visits his favorite coffee shop, Frontera. MCC photo/Anna Vogt

Reading those verses with new background knowledge makes them evermore clear.

God is straightforward in his instructions to Moses about immigrants: love them. In fact, as I read through the Old Testament, this same instruction is recurring. Very often (more than in Deuteronomy alone) God commands his followers to show love, hospitality and justice to immigrants.

These commands are mixed together with multiple stories of migration. Take for example the biblical stories of Sarah and Abraham, Naomi and Ruth, Joseph and Mary, or the apostle Paul. Even Jesus and his disciples did quite a bit of migrating during their lives. Throughout Scripture, God is clearly present in the lives of these migrants, keeping them safe and using their movement to accomplish God’s plans.

Based on my experiences in Mexico, I now come to these stories with new questions.

Did Sarah and Abraham ever get mixed up speaking a new language? Did Naomi and Ruth ever get lost on their way to the market in Bethlehem? Did Joseph and Mary like Egyptian food? Did Paul have to wait for hours in customs in Rome?

I imagine that immigrants in the U.S. and Canada will come to these stories with other questions based on their particular experiences, too.

Mural at a migrant shelter in San Cristobal de las Casas. MCC photo/Ann Vogt

Perhaps they might ask, did any of these biblical migrants feel unwelcome? Were they ever mistreated? Was migrating their only option to escape violence or poverty?

All of these questions will bring readers into deeper understanding of the text, and for Christians, a deeper understanding of God.

Imagine all of the insight that is missed when Bible readers don’t take time to listen to the migration stories of immigrants in their own communities.

How much more will Christians understand God when they embrace immigrants as their neighbors with love, hospitality and justice!

The Spanish verb esperar means “to wait” and “to hope.”

I’ve been paying attention to these translation details because I sometimes translate documents at work and I help my host sister with her English homework at home.

How does one explain the difference between waiting and hoping?

Words like these present a challenge in translating biblical passages — and an opportunity for understanding them better.

In pondering this, I realized that, for me, waiting for something means I know it will happen.

The text instructing me to, “Wait for the Lord,” also now speaks to me as, “Know that God is going to act and allow time to prove it true.”

This shapes my understanding of how I am called to wait for God. Both in the challenging work in migration I see here in Mexico and in all my life, God will move, no doubt.

Through MCC’s Serving and Learning Together program, Quinn Brenneke is serving in Chiapas, Mexico, from August 2017 through July 2018. Brenneke is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and is a member of Iglesia Menonita Buenas Nuevas in San Juan, Texas.