Louis was one of my favorite students. No, he was actually my most favorite student. He showed up everyday ready to work, learn, and get on to the next offering of his new and strange American life. Our alternative high school completion program was not designed for Louis; its genesis was intended to address the crisis of violence that targeted Dominican students and drove them from our city’s public high schools. Louis was Mexican, and our Dominican and Mexican communities didn’t invest concern in each other’s fates. Nonetheless, Louis found his way into the Dominican dominated program.
He was among several promising students whose families fled violence and economic crisis in their homelands, only to find a different brand of violence and economic crisis in Camden, New Jersey, USA. For these students, survival involves a series of practices, routines, and procedures only understood by those who have indeed counted the cost of the perilous cavalcade north.
Families such as Louis’ live quietly, work quietly, and even drink quietly. Some weekend mornings I find piles of empty Coronas quietly deposited in the grass near the corner, leaving me to wonder where the laughter was, the loud voices, and the fighting that usually accompanies such volumes of empty bottles.
I worried on the day my favorite student did not show up for class. We had colluded with an official from a local college who was visiting us that day, bringing assurances that he could get undocumented students into his institution. His only condition was that we asked no questions. We gleefully complied. I wanted Louis to meet our co-conspirator, but of all days Louis was absent.
I tried to scold Louis as he showed up early the next morning, but he always carried an unguarded grace which muted my corrective ambitions. Instead, I implored him to explain what could have happened to keep him away from class. He explained that in the early morning hours of the day in question, he had been stopped by the police while driving through a neighboring suburb and was detained there for hours.
I chided Louis, “You’re just a kid, only 16. What are you doing driving a car?” Louis sank his head just enough to reveal the top of his carefully gelled hair, confessing his guilt. He had kept an air freshener hanging from his rear view mirror. This was the crime for which he was pulled over. He never suspected his real crime was simply being in a car full of Mexicans in a New Jersey suburb.
Louis explained that it was his duty to drive his parents and older siblings to the graveyard shift, cleaning at a factory near the town where he was pulled over. “I’m the youngest, so if they arrest and deport me it hurts the family less then if was my mother or father or sisters.” They had counted the cost and decided that hating mom and dad, leaving them, and surrendering himself to the cruel system of deportation was the worthy act of a friend, a disciple, and a son who loved mom and dad so much.
A Spirit of Gracious Surrender
Jesus’ conditions of total surrender are difficult to grasp within my culture of outrageous privilege, privilege attached to my ‘Made in America’ stamp. Even as an African American, born during the Jim Crow era, living among the troubled ghetto landscape, low on the spectrum of American privilege, I have never been called to carry the cross in the way Louis did every early morning on his way back from his family’s low paying under-the-table job.
My encounters with traffic cops result in warnings or fines instead of deportation and family obliteration. Cheap is my cost-counting when compared to Louis and his family, for my stamp has accustomed me to enjoying discipleship plus possessions, uninterrupted relationships, wealth, options, and lawyers when the traffic cops go too far. Louis, on the other hand, was only stamped with a spirit of gracious surrender, the kind of surrender Jesus encouraged in the first century audience who heard the words of today’s text.
For me, the most important risk I took was exposing my southern border to the amazing grace of full surrender found in a 16-year-old kid. Like the would-be disciples gathered near Jesus in our text, Louis was stamped by an oppressive empire as the problem, which meant that one false move toward righteousness could easily cost him everything, including, family, possessions, and life itself.
Is there a more fit disciple than this unsuspecting kid, innocent enough to believe the police would overlook his alien status and just see the air freshener hanging from his rear view mirror, and humble enough to count the cost, embrace the cross, and risk it all?