Have you ever looked at the bottom of one of your electronics gadgets lately? There is a label that tells you where it was made. Many of them are made in Mexico. Few years ago, I got to see where in Mexico the factories which made these goods were located.
Juarez, Mexico is a border city located directly across from El Paso, Texas separated only by Rio Grande river and miles of fences. I was there in winter of 2001 for three days with the Columban Fathers—a missionary order— trying to see what it was like being a missionary priest. Many poor have traveled from the interior of Mexico to this border town hoping that they could make better a living. In most cases, they did not. The minimum wage in this town was $3.40 a day (not per hour). I went to the local grocery looking to buy few things, and I was surprised to find a gallon of milk was still $3. I wondered to myself, how could an average person, let alone a family survive. With the passage of NAFTA, the border between U.S. and Mexico became a commercial zone with low tariff and low wages. American companies rushed to build factories in this no-man’s land where Mexican workers did not have protection of either the U.S. or Mexican labor laws. The workers got paid higher than minimum wage in these American factories. They received $9 dollars a day, instead of $3.40 a day.
One evening, I was taken to a high hill that overlooked the shantytown and the border to El Paso. Looking down at the other side of the border, a U.S. Border Patrol cop flashed his high-beam from his car. It was a warning to us standing on the Mexican side that we should not attempt to cross the border. How surreal it was. Here was a Korean standing inside Mexican border, warned not to cross the U.S. border. What separated me from men, women, and children living in the shantytown, with whom previous night I worshipped and adored Jesus, was a piece of paper—U.S. passport declaring that I was a U.S. citizen. Here we were identically baptized and confirmed by Jesus, and yet we were opposite in the kind of privileges we could enjoy in life. I’m sure most folks on the El Paso side heard about the living conditions on the other side, but really did not experience the kind of life that people on the other side of border lived.
This brings to our Gospel today. A Pharisee asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said, “You shall love God with all your heart and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” We’ve heard these words over and over, and it doesn’t sink in as powerfully as when we heard it the first time. But let me put it this way. Six years ago, the extent of my life revolved around cubicles in a chemical plant in front of Excel spreadsheets, rarely getting any glimpse of the personal lives of others. After ordination to priesthood five months ago, I was given privilege to travel across the borders of hearts of people, young and old, married and single, healthy and sick.
This white collar I’m wearing was my passport to be allowed into people’s well guarded borders of their hearts. Now after traveling five months through the hearts of countless number of people, I have learned one thing. No matter how close two persons are, no matter how many years they lived as siblings or as husband and wife, one cannot understand fully the living condition of the other, just as people of El Paso had only heard about what’s going on the other side of the border. How can we understand the loneliness of the elderly, the widows, and the divorced? How can we know what struggles our teenage sons and daughters are going through? How can we understand the anxiety and fear of those who are stricken with cancer, those who are grappling with decision to enter a nursing home?
What’s our passport to be allowed into the hearts of others? This white collar of mine represents someone whom one can trust, one who is willing to listen, one who is willing to take time and patience to understand the other. Then, one does not need to be a priest. The one who crosses the borders of hearts are those who are willing to be patient and compassionate like Our Lord. That is the meaning of, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”