by Rev. Dr. David Vásquez-Levy, President
“On January 19, 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. This event sparked the congregation of what the 1878 Historical Atlas of Alameda County described as ‘the most heterogeneous mass of humanity ever assembled since the confusion of tongues.’ From that moment on, nothing would ever be the same on the east shores of the San Francisco Bay.”
‑Historical marker along the Ohlone Greenway, Berkeley, California
Pacific School of Religion was founded in 1866, just over a decade after California became a state. Those early years were shaped by the aftermath of the Gold Rush, the Civil War, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad that connected east to west across the United States. Conflict and opportunity—the pull and push of migration—brought people to this region from everywhere in the country and around the globe, gathering this “most heterogeneous mass of humanity ever assembled since the confusion of tongues.”
People ended up in California in much the same way that Joseph, whose story is captured in the second half of the book of Genesis, ended up in Egypt: following the trade. The unequal distribution of resources in Joseph’s family—triggered by his father’s ill-advised favoritism—led to conflict in the family and resulted in Joseph being sold by his brothers. They sold him to one of many caravans making its way to Egypt. Later in the story, when the brothers were faced with a famine, they too followed the trade and headed to Egypt. They knew there was food in Egypt, because they had been shipping it there for generations.
Today, as we prepare to celebrate PSR’s Sesquicentennial, we too live at a time of great transition. Our contemporary migrations are shaped by the “push” of conflicts around the globe as much as by the “pull” of opportunities afforded us by an increasingly globalized society. The gold rush that shaped California’s early years has been replaced by what Bazian Hatem, PSR’s 2015 Tolson Scholar, has called the “Silicon rush”—a reference to the impact of technology on migration to our region. The transcontinental railroad has been joined to an unprecedented system of trade that spans the entire globe. Because people follow trade, ours is a time of unprecedented migration. We see evidence of this increased migration in the names of founders of the companies that impact our daily lives—Google, Amazon, Yahoo, etc. According to a study by Vivek Wadhwa of Duke University, 52% of Silicon Valley startups were founded or co-founded by people born outside the United States. But we also see this migration in the stories of tragedy captured in our news headlines—unaccompanied minors from Central America, refugees risking their lives crossing the Southeast Asia Sea or the Mediterranean Sea, and displaced communities escaping from conflict in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. While these migrations are complex and varied, a close study reveals a pattern: people’s movements trace historical trade routes. The movement of people across the Americas correlates to the signing of free trade agreements across North and Central America. Refugees and economically displaced people from various places in Africa and the Middle East follow colonial trade routes as they seek safety and opportunity. People follow trade: they always have, they always will.
While the complexity of our globalized trading systems is reflected in today’s migrations, that complexity is often missing in the responses offered by many of our world leaders, including the narrow and fear-based rhetoric of many current presidential hopefuls.
Theological reflection is desperately needed to imagine alternative ways to engage our increasingly interconnected world. Our sacred stories, most of which speak to experiences of people on the move, offer us wisdom, hope, and imagination as we seek to find faithful ways to respond to those who are on the move. How might the story of Abraham and Sarah’s journey—which they undertook with “no papers,” with nothing but faith to show for their hope—shape the way we see the hopes of those seeking opportunities in new lands? How might the awareness of Jesus’ early displacement in fear of Herod, Ruth and Naomi’s journeys across seemingly insurmountable physical and cultural boundaries, or Esther’s use of a false identity in order to survive shape the way we think about the millions of people on the move all around the world today? Might we hear the Canaanite woman’s challenge to Jesus echoed in the actions of those who migrate out of a conviction that they, too, deserve at least the crumbs that fall from our increasingly globalized table?
These stories do not dictate specific policies we are to enact, but they do challenge us, as the Bible often does, to be guided in our actions by the knowledge that migration is at the core of our own story. Repeatedly throughout the Hebrew Bible, we are given a “hermeneutical key,” a set of lenses by which we are to understand the world: remember that you were strangers in Egypt. Similarly, when speaking about the essence of faith and those who exemplify it, Hebrews 11 tells us that they all “knew themselves to be foreigners and strangers on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). Migration is also at the core of the sacred stories of many other religious traditions. For example, Siddhārtha Gautama, the prince who becomes the Buddha, begins his path to enlightenment by traveling around his kingdom. Also, the prophet Mohamed’s return from exile to Mecca is traced back as one of the pillars of Islam. Given that so many of our sacred stories speak into the reality of migration, what might they say to our world on the move?
California’s ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity points to the way the whole nation is going—therefore doing theology in this context is as important today as it was at the time of PSR’s founding. Perspective matters as we do this work from our campus on Holy Hill. On the Scenic Avenue side of the PSR campus, we have a view of the Port of Oakland—one of the busiest container ports in the United States. On the Arch Street side, we can see the Golden Gate Bridge—a symbol of our connectedness to the world. Our theological reflection takes place in this context of intersections.
This reflection on the mobility and inter-connectedness of the world is not only about how we may respond to those crossing national boundaries following either the pull or push of migration. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, to be human is to be on the move. Mobility frames our lives when we experience a domestic migration for a new job as well as when we “migrate” to a different stage in life—from childhood into adulthood during college years, or from work into retirement. Because of PSR’s history and context, we bring this awareness of our mobility to our renewed mission: the preparation of theologically and spiritually rooted leaders for social transformation. We are committed to preparing leaders to think in complex ways about the issues of the world, and who see what we do in our work and ministry as part of something much larger, part of God’s vision for the world. Leaders who draw from a deep well of spirituality that sustains them for the long haul. And finally, leaders who know that the world is not as it should be, but who follow the call of one who taught his friends to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Read President David Vásquez-Levy’s reflections in the Fall 2015 Bulletin: