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Rend your hearts and not your garments

Yesterday I traveled to Elizabeth, NJ to celebrate Ash Wednesday.
This vigil was unique in that it took place outside the Correction
Corporation of America detention center. This purposefully inconspicuous
building is tucked in an industrial zone outside the city. It houses
300 undocumented persons. They live in chains and prison uniforms even
though many have never committed a crime. Their prison is kept out of
the way so we will forget about them.

Rend your hearts and not your garments, thunders the prophet
Joel. Each Lent when I hear this passage I am reminded that my life
makes it so difficult to rend my heart. Each Lent I want to know how to
do this better but I never know quite how.

This year when the opportunity to go to Elizabeth came up I thought
it might be a step forward. The vigil was a reminder to me that Lent is a
time to more fervently mirror the compassion and mercy of God.
Beginning with those who find themselves imprisoned strangers in a
strange land is a good place to start.

At the vigil we heard the story of Kofi who came from Ghana seeking
asylum. As soon as he reached Newark airport he was put in chains and
placed in the Elizabeth detention center. It too five months for his
paperwork to come through.

Rend your hearts and not your garments. This Lent I’m combating sloth. Will Willimon says in Sinning Like a Christian that
Christians are lead astray by sloth, limiting it to excessive laziness.
In reality, sloth is much closer to the negation of passion, the sense
that all of this is nothingness and there’s nothing we can do about it.
It results in lack of concern for our neighbors that lets others keep
them out of sight.

You can’t see inside the walls of the Elizabeth detention center.
Concrete blocks have been stacked on the inside, blocking out sun and
friends. It is a place of forgetting and the forgotten.

I want to confront my own sloth this Lent. I want to cultivate ways
of seeing even when this requires the hard work of seeking out. Hanging
in my heart is a favored and terrifying verse of Scripture from
Proverbs: “If you faint in the day of adversity; your strength being
small; if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those
who go staggering to the slaughter; if you say, ‘Look, we did not know
this –’ does not he who weighs your heart perceive it? Does not he who
keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according
to his deeds?”

Rend your hearts and not your garments.

Originally posted at Sign on the Window.

Melissa Florer-Bixler

Melissa Florer-Bixler is pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina and author of How to Have an Enemy and Fire by Night.

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