I’m guessing you’ve already heard this news—what happened this week, over the past several days. Twenty-five people were captured by ICE in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, and Durham—kidnapped by president Trump’s Gestapo-like federal agents who raid peoples neighborhoods, officers who invade homes, who come with guns and handcuffs, arresting our neighbors, without warning, without permission of local cities and towns and law enforcement.
Twenty-five people, maybe more. It’s hard to keep track of ICE, to know what they are up to. They are a secretive organization, able to enforce Trump’s anti-immigrant ideology without public scrutiny. They keep us in the dark. I was talking to a friend who works at the Transgender Law Center in NYC. They have spent the past two years trying to locate one of their clients—ICE and Homeland Security won’t respond to their requests for getting in touch with their client, someone they represent, an undocumented immigrant who the government is hiding somewhere out of sight, transferred from detention center to detention center, in a maze of prisons, a nightmare that they can’t wake up from because they never fall asleep—they are living the nightmare, a sleepless nightmare because it’s so cold in there, in those prisons. Air conditioning has become a form of punishment, of torture, in the facilities. People call the ICE detention centers, “hieleras,” “ice boxes.” They are frozen awake, sleepless days and nights, fitful exhaustion. That’s where our twenty-five neighbors are right now, hieleras—their lives frozen in Trump’s torturous labyrinth of injustice.
Now imagine this: president Trump shows up here, this week, at our church, knocking on the office door in that building over there, where Rosa is now living, where she is in sanctuary, where we are protecting her from ICE, defending her from deportation—and I’m sitting in there, with the door locked, because it’s my turn, my shift as the host, making sure our space is safe.
I walk over to the door, making him talk to me through the glass—he’s disheveled, his body haggard, his face gaunt. He’s so weak that he can’t stand anymore, so he slumps to the ground, and starts mumbling about how he’s sorry, that he has changed his mind about everything, that he apologizes for the bombs in Syria, the bombs in Afghanistan, the bombs everywhere, he repents of his economic violence, his domestic war on the poor, his war on the environment, his sexism, his misogyny, he repents of his racism against refugees and immigrants, he repents of his administration’s anti-black policies, his white supremacy.
And he has come here, to this church, to this place of sanctuary, to that door over there, because he says he wants to change his life, to offer penance, to offer himself to our service, to sign up for our sanctuary efforts, to provide meals for Rosa and do grocery shopping, and to help with overnight stays, as a host—to give his life to the work of our church.
As you can imagine, if that were to happen, if he’d show up here like that, I’d channel all that rage we saw in Jesus when he ran the money-changers out of the temple, with his whip—I’d make sure president Trump would leave and never think of showing his face here again, ever.
That’s the closest thing I can imagine happening in my life right now that would make me feel like Ananias in the story we heard from the book of Acts. He is put face to face with Saul, the devastator-in-chief, the man ravaging Ananias’ people, tearing about families, wrecking lives, destroying communities. Saul is a man who “breathes threats and murder,” it says in the first verse of our story (Acts 9:1). He is going around, persecuting his own people, kidnapping members of synagogues who disagree with him about the messiah—weeding out theological heresy by conducting raids on Jewish communities, snatching away the followers of Jesus.
“That if he found any of them,” it says, “Saul might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2). He plans and executes round ups, capturing people, binding them in chains, handcuffed, and transporting his prisoners to detention centers in Jerusalem.
This is the man, this Saul—he’s the man who is threatening Ananias’s friends. Saul is the enemy of Ananias and his community—a terrorizing enemy. Saul’s reputation is known through the land, from city to city—the mention of his name is enough to make people shiver with fear, to go into hiding, to stay away from their own homes, staying on couches with friends, waiting until it might be safe again, safe to go home, although no will ever be safe with Saul and his officers on the lose.
And now, all of a sudden, God is telling Ananias to welcome Saul into the community, into the movement—God is telling Ananias to open the door to Saul, to let him into the church, to receive him into the same people who Saul is persecuting. That’s what baptism means—to be received into the movement of Jesus, to be welcomed into the church. And that’s what God tells Ananias to do—to baptize Saul, to lay hands on him, to heal him.
Because, while he was on one of his raids, something happened. In Damascus, he was struck down, knocked to the ground by the truth, a confrontation with the harsh reality of his persecutions—the gospel as a blinding light. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4), the voice of Jesus calls out to him from the lightening.
Notice that Jesus is in solidarity with the victims of Saul’s raids. “Why do you persecute me?” Jesus says. Me, he says. His body is their bodies, their lives his life. The identity of Christ is inseparable from the victims. Resurrection means that Jesus returns on behalf of victims of violence, people targeted by the powerful. To persecute his people is to persecute him. To threaten his people is to threaten him.
When Jesus appears in a vision to Ananias and tells him to lay hands on him, to heal his eyes, Ananias responds with caution—which makes sense, given Saul’s violence. How could Ananias be expected to have anything to do with this man, this terrible man. “I have heard from many about this man,” Ananias responds to Jesus, “how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem” (9:13).
Ananias isn’t sure this is a good idea. Better to keep his distance from Saul. Better to let Saul remain blind. Let me stumble around. Let him have to live a life of utter helplessness, of absolute weakness. Let him be forever vulnerable. Let him live at risk for the rest of his life, defenseless, as penance, as retribution, as judgment.
I would have left him blind.
I grew up with border patrol agents stopping us at check points, our family in California, with them holding my dad for what seemed like forever, questioning him while dogs sniffed our van while we were forced to wait on the side of the highway, my mom and sister and me waiting for them to release my dad, all of us not sure what was going on, what was happening to him. When they’d let him go, we’d drive in silence. Never speaking of what happened for those hours of detention.
There are two miracles in this story from Acts, two miracles of the gospel. The first happens to Saul—that Christ sets him free from his violence, that God strikes him with the truth and disarms him, leading him into the community he was persecuting, the people he was killing. He becomes one of them, in solidarity with his victims. That’s the miracle of his conversion—that he relinquishes his violence and joins the side of his victims.
All of that seems impossible to me, such an unimaginable situation—so I can only think about it as a miracle, as contrary to the ways of this world, contrary to the way we do things.
But the second miracle seems even more impossible than this first one. The second miracle happens to Ananias, his open hands toward Saul—that Ananias lays his hands on Saul’s eyes, healing him, and baptizing him into their community, into communion with his victims, with all the people he has been threatening (9:18-19).
That doesn’t seem safe, that doesn’t seem wise. Maybe that’s why they had Saul spend some days with them, making sure he was different, making sure he had changed his ways, that he was no longer “breathing threats and murder” (9:19-22).
A miracle happened here, with Ananias, and his ability to heal his enemy, to restore Saul to health, to risk his inclusion into their community.
Like I said, that’s a miracle. Two miracles. And maybe the order is important too.
First Saul is blinded, he’s struck down—first the one with power is humbled, that he is made weak and vulnerable, needy and dependent on others for his life.
Then the second miracle, that Ananias can welcome his as a member of the community, as a brother, it says. “Ananias laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, The Lord Jesus has sent me” (9:17).
I don’t know if I could have called him brother, considering what he has done, considering what I’ve seen. I would have left him blind. But maybe Ananias felt the same way, and that’s why it’s only by a miracle when the enemy is struck down and the victim offers healing—only by a miracle of grace. Not anything I would want, nothing you would want. Only a miracle.