Milton Gilder is the Director of the Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation
On Friday, November 23rd, a Mexican immigrant named Samuel Oliver-Bruno who had been living in sanctuary at City Well United Methodist Church in Durham, NC was detained by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agents at a routine biometric appointment as part of his deportation appeal application. Anticipating the potential presence of ICE agents at this appointment, his church and community accompanied him to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Office. Once in the building, he was ambushed by ICE agents in plain clothes. The chaos of the moment would result in a standoff of protestors blocking an unmarked ICE vehicle containing Samuel and the eventual arrest of 29 protestors including clergy. Witnessing this scene of civil disobedience, were a number of young people ranging from toddler to college students. These young people were participants and witnesses who prayed, sung, videoed the drama and witnessed some of their parents being arrested. These youth people witnessed evil as ICE agents mocked protestors and the traumatic seizure of a dear friend. I am a member of City Well United Methodist Church. I was not present that Friday morning but heard numerous accounts from eyewitnesses – only a few days have past yet the heaviness remains over our congregation and our community. A concoction of emotions – anger, sadness, frustration, hope – have catalyzed into action with a series of vigils, Eucharistic celebration steps from the detention center where Samuel was detained, and numerous calls and emails to government officials.
This, Sunday, December 2, another story and season of hope and tribulation begins – the season of Advent and the story of Jesus’ birth. In the season of Advent, Christians for centuries celebrate and wait for the coming of Jesus. The story of Jesus’ birth is often depicted as a tranquil nativity scene: Joseph, Mary, visitors from foreign lands, animals and an angel looking on the Christ child laid in a manger.
No matter how beautiful these nativity scenes are they give us a false depiction of the hopeful, yet troubled biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth. Jesus is born, a wanted criminal and enemy of the state. His crime is a prophetic claim, attested by wise men from foreign lands, that says he is the “King of the Jews.” Being warned by an angel of the threat to Jesus’ life, the Holy family flees Roman-Occupied Palestine to sanctuary in a neighboring land, Egypt. While Jesus evades capture, in a nefarious exercise of power, the Roman state massacres all of the male young children in a frantic attempt to kill the Christ child. Matthew remarks that a wailing and loud lamentation filled the city, as mothers bitterly wept for their children.
A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.
\\\ Matthew 2:18
I invite you to sit with these two stories: the story of Samuel and the story of Jesus’ birth. Let these narratives fill your body in silent reflection.
I wonder which story of Jesus should we tell our young people – the story of a Jesus surrounded by a host of pastoral characters or the story of Jesus born a wanted criminal fleeing death to a neighboring land.
I wonder should we tell the story of Samuel to our young people.
The author of the gospel of Matthew wrote this text to a primary Jewish Christian audience who was living in a tense climate of revolt and civil war. In the chaos of this moment, the author of Matthew recounts the story of the birth of a wanted criminal baby Jesus who would frustrate and subvert the Roman and Jewish power elites with his message of the Kingdom of God and works of mercy. The story of Jesus’ birth invited the 1st century church into a story that would become their own and animate their worship and speak to their circumstance. Likewise, the not-so-happy-but-hopeful story of Jesus’ birth and the story of Samuel are ours too – stories for CityWell, for the church universal and for our young people.
This advent we eagerly wait for the birth of Jesus, a wanted criminal and stranger in his own land who brings salvation to all of creation. This is a story for us, the people of God. May it be.
More Advent and youth ministry resources
Hope Takes Hard Work from Alaina Kleinbeck, Director of Thriving Ministry Coordination Program
Alaina Kleinbeck in this article asks, “why do we expect young people to be naturally hopeful? Looking honestly at a broken world and resolving to live in hope anyway requires experience”
Hope: The First Candle of Advent from Rachel Dodd, Director of Youth Discipleship, Kent UMC
Rachel Dodds’s advent devotional challenges youth workers to create space for reflection in a busy season of advent.
Home for Christmas Youth Study (Excerpt) from Justin Coleman, Senior Pastor University UMC
Justin Coleman’s advent study brings inspiring stories of hope and second chances. Coleman matches real life stories of struggle and triumph to the Advent themes of hope, love, joy, and peace to show how the light of Christmas shines brightly even in hard times. The complete study can be purchased from Abington Press and similar retailers: here