A Refugee Prays the Psalms of Ascent

A Journey in Prayer, Protest, and Lament

During ancient pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Jewish travelers chanted the fourteen Psalms of Ascent, which derive their name from the literal ascent—a long, arduous climb—that travelers had to traverse to reach the holy festivals. But not all travels—then or now—are voluntary. Jesus himself fled genocide as an infant as he and his family escaped the tyrant Herod to seek refuge in Egypt. Our Savior was a refugee and pilgrim, as am I and many others like me. We refugees generally do not choose our journeys. We flee from threats of poverty or violence. For those of us who hold the Hebrew Scriptures as sacred, the Psalms of Ascent accompany us in our moments of despair and in our pilgrim journeys toward our final destination, the New Jerusalem, even as we seek refuge and a place to call home and flourish in along the way.

What follows is the intertwining of the Psalms of Ascent and stories of refugees from Central America. Read the stories, listen to the songs, read the Scripture texts taken from the NRSV, watch the videos, and listen to what the Holy Spirit may be saying to you through it. The reflections in this article can be adapted to your worship context, and we have provided a possible service outline at the end of the article and a fully scripted service online at tinyurl.com/RW150FullService.

This article contains just a few stories of the 1.1 million refugees and asylum seekers uprooted from Central America in recent years. They in turn make up a small percentage of the 117.2 million people worldwide, including 43.3 million children, who have been forcibly displaced or are stateless.

Lord, have mercy!


Psalm 120:5–7

Woe is me. . . .

Too long have I had my dwelling

among those who hate peace.

I am for peace;

but when I speak,

they are for war.

Recently, at a visit to a Salvadoran church near the Guatemalan border, I prayed Psalm 120 with brethren in Christ whom gangs have extorted and threatened. Each of these worshipers knew of someone murdered for refusing to pay.

This extortion is a part of the standard playbook of gangs throughout El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, or “The Northern Triangle.” Gangs recruit young people and terrorize communities in their attempts to satisfy North American demand for illegal substances. To escape their chokehold, many migrants, both adults and children, flee north to seek asylum in the United States.

But this violence did not emerge overnight. It is the result of decades of transnational interests, including those of the United States and Canada, designed to exploit Central America’s natural and human resources for profit. And in many cases, the architects of those structures are themselves Christians.

When I speak with people like these churchgoers, I am challenged by this question: In my world, who speaks for peace? Who speaks for war? And whose side do I take with my action or inaction?

Song: “Al Señor clamé / I Am Crying Out to God” Colón, SSS 591

See video: carloscoloncomposer.com/2021/07/14/al-senor-clame/


Psalm 121:1–4

I lift up my eyes to the hills—

from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord,

who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;

he who keeps you will not slumber.

He who keeps Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.

On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot as he led Mass at a cancer hospital chapel in San Salvador, El Salvador. Behind the attack was the right-wing government who opposed the archbishop’s stance in favor of the poor and oppressed. And behind the government junta was military training and weapons from the United States. Days later, many civilians were killed at Romero’s funeral.

I was fourteen years old at the time. About a year later, my family and I were forced to leave our native El Salvador because my mother and other relatives had been threatened for their involvement in the teachers’ union and their public support of representative democracy. We left because many friends had been already killed, and we were under imminent threat.

I became a refugee. I escaped to Guatemala, thinking I would stay a few weeks. Instead I stayed five years, separated from my family. Even today I do not live in El Salvador. My own sojourn has lasted more than forty years.

I have prayed Psalm 121 by myself in many different cities on my journey. But I prefer to pray with others because the protection God offers is communal. My help has come from Christ in the company of others who follow him.


Psalm 122:1–2

I was glad when they said to me,

“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

Our feet are standing

within your gates, O Jerusalem.

When I fled El Salvador for Guatemala, Iglesia Bautista Bethania became my Jerusalem, my own miniature city of peace. Even though there was violence in Guatemala too, the church became my family. In this house of the Lord, I was glad, because the love of God reached me through the church members who embraced, protected, and discipled me.

Today, Central American migrants often form large groups—caravans—to travel north together. An untold story of theirs is that many of them pray and sing as they walk or as they rest, either in shelter or in open, unprotected spaces. They support one another, and groups throughout Mexico and the United States alike support them on their journeys.

Song: “Me alegré con los que me decián / I Was Glad When They Said to Me” Colón, SSS 397

See video: carloscoloncomposer.com/2021/07/14/al-senor-clame/


Psalm 123:1, 3

To you I lift up my eyes,

O you who are enthroned in the heavens! . . .

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,

for we have had more than enough of contempt.

The Israelites in Babylonian exile and the Jews under Roman occupation knew what it was to be treated with contempt. And though refugees today may encounter compassion, they are equally as likely to be met by people and systems who treat them as less than human.

A woman I know, who I will call Rosa, belongs to an Indigenous people group from Central America whose lands are located near the ocean. When powerful people decided to build a resort on their land, the people of her community were forced from their homes. Her husband and others dared to protest the injustice.

One day, while Rosa’s family ate together, hired assassins broke in and killed her husband. With no other choice, Rosa and her children fled north with only the clothes they were wearing, a Bible, and their church songbook.

Song: “A Ti, Señor, Yo Alzo los Ojos / I Lift My Eyes” Colón



Sheet music can be purchased at:



Psalm 124:1–5

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side

—let Israel now say—

if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,

when our enemies attacked us,

then they would have swallowed us up alive,

when their anger was kindled against us;

then the flood would have swept us away,

the torrent would have gone over us;

then over us would have gone

the raging waters.

After a journey of over a year, Rosa arrived at the Mexico-US border. To get to the muddy waters of the Río Grande, she and her children had walked and rode in buses, trains, and trucks. A priest on the Mexico side said they had a good chance of being received as refugees in the United States.

Rosa waded the river with her children, carrying their papers, their Bible, and their hymnbook in a backpack. An unknown man carried her youngest child. She never saw the kind stranger again.

Once in the United States, immigration agents quickly apprehended them. The next day, the agents sent them by bus to a faraway city, saying maybe a church or another institution would help them. No one received them at the bus station.

For two days, Rosa and her family stayed in a local park as Rosa asked strangers for help. One day, a woman told them her church had a refugee shelter in a converted garage. This woman was Pastor Jane, who asked them to come with her. At the shelter, Rosa and her family received shoes and food. It was the safest they had been in months.


Psalm 125:1–2

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,

which cannot be moved, but abides forever.

As the mountains surround Jerusalem,

so the Lord surrounds his people,

from this time on and forevermore.

Rosa’s cousin Isabel reached the States months later with another caravan. On her journey, she encountered many compassionate people, but also hostile police. She never slept away from her group because it was dangerous. When she arrived at the shelter where Rosa and her children were, her shoes were in pieces. Isabel collapsed and could not get up for a month.

Pastor Jane said the doctor said Isabel suffered from knee damage, dehydration, and malnourishment. It would take months before Isabel felt like herself again. Isabel, Rosa, and Rosa’s children are currently receiving trauma counseling.


Psalm 126:4–6

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,

like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears

reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping,

bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy,

carrying their sheaves.

When I first arrived at Iglesia Bethania Bautista in Guatemala, I met seventeen-year-old Guido. When Guido found out that I needed a place to stay, he invited me to live with him. He lived in a run-down neighborhood in a house that had barely survived an earthquake a few years earlier. Guido had been on his own since he was 13. He too had found a family at Bethania Baptist.

Next door to Guido’s place was a bakery, where I met Manuel and José, the night shift bakers. They often shared their midnight meals with me. The first time they handed me a bread roll, I devoured it, and they gave me a terrified look. José, the younger one, said gently: “You didn’t break the roll.” Seeing my puzzled look, he continued: “Remember, our Lord Jesus Christ taught us to break bread.”

I was astonished at their level of reverence at meals. I’d watched them carefully handling the food they prepared, and noticed they uncovered their heads every time they made the sign of the cross to give thanks to God. It was a sacred moment.


Psalm 127:1–3

Unless the Lord builds the house,

those who build it labor in vain.

Unless the Lord guards the city,

the guard keeps watch in vain.

It is in vain that you rise up early

and go late to rest,

eating the bread of anxious toil;

for he gives sleep to his beloved.

Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,

the fruit of the womb a reward.

Emilia grew up on a ranch in northern Mexico. She came to the United States fifteen years ago to escape violent crime. She works in custodial care at a university. Every May, the university lays her off, and she lives on food stamps and odd jobs here and there until she is hired again in August.

Recently, a professor who is also a pastor asked if she had health insurance. She said no. He asked what she does when she gets sick. Emilia told him that she seeks public assistance. He was upset and said a Christian institution should do better. She was astonished: after ten years, she had no idea her workplace was a Christian institution.


Psalm 128:1–2

Happy is everyone who fears the Lord,

who walks in his ways.

You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;

you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.

Consistently, the Jewish and Christian Scriptures teach that we should help “the foreigners” to flourish. Non-refugees, or the economically stable, can easily develop a paternalistic view that as long as refugees are not starving, they are not owed anything. But “not starving” is not the same as flourishing, and every person deserves to flourish.

Employers are responsible for paying adequate wages and making sure their employees have access to leisure and healthcare. And we should advocate for policies that protect newcomers from exploitation in their vulnerable situations.


Psalm 129:1–2

“Often have they attacked me from my youth”

—let Israel now say—

“often have they attacked me from my youth,

yet they have not prevailed against me.”

Like the Israelites in Babylon, many of us have been oppressed our whole lives for the crime of being “other.” Yet Christians are called to love their enemies and to forgive.

Still, it’s not loving at all to allow injustice to continue to exist in the name of “forgiveness.”

Defending the oppressed does not contradict the pursuit of justice. As persistent as our enemies are, God is more persistent in God’s lovingkindness. And God’s representatives are those who show active love.

In 2014 and 2015, I witnessed how God works through our actions as I co-produced a documentary at the Texas-Mexico border. Even though the policies of the United States and the dangers of the desert create a perilous situation for asylum seekers, I witnessed Catholics and Protestants uniting to provide the migrants with aid.

Video: “Lament with Wings,” vimeo.com/118193318

“Lamento con Alas” (“Lament with Wings”) is a short documentary about good Samaritans Lavoyger Durham and Lori Baker, who attempt to make a difference during the immigration surge in the summer of 2014. Durham breaks stereotypes as a Texan rancher who sets up water stations that keep immigrants alive even as they illegally cross his land. And Baker, an associate professor of anthropology at Baylor University, exhumes deceased immigrants from unmarked graves and works to return the dead to their families in Latin America.

—Film producer Pilar Timpane.


Psalm 130:1, 7

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. . . .

O Israel, hope in the Lord!

For with the Lord there is steadfast love,

and with him is great power to redeem.

The documentary I co-produced with Pilar Timpane honors those who have died in border crossings and those who seek to prevent future deaths and identify the dead. After public showings of the film, I often read Psalm 130 to the audience.

I have rarely felt more as if I cried from the depths than I did after filming on location in Texas in temperatures above 100 degrees. I despaired, looking for a prayer for all the people who die alone and away from home. All I could pray was: “Lord, today, please receive them in paradise.” The only thing I know how to do is cling to my hope in Jesus Christ, who suffers with us as he redeems us.


Psalm 131:1–3

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,

my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things

too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

like a weaned child with its mother;

my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord

from this time on and forevermore.

After losing everything, a refugee might gain new perspectives on what matters. I don’t mean to suggest that this perspective excuses the unjust circumstances that cause someone to flee their home; I don’t wish anyone to go through what I did. But there is a kind of clarity that comes in moments of crisis, and in my own case, I’ve found myself losing that clarity with time. Living now in a system that rewards egoism and consumerism, I’m tempted to spend my time pursuing material goods and status instead of the love and community I craved in my first days of exile.

In this psalm, the “weaned child with its mother” is an image of what it feels like to be embraced in the arms of God and in communal care. When a child is cared for, she does not worry about pursuing status, wealth, or any of the things materialism tells us are valuable, so she has room for contentment.

As beloved children of God, we are always cradled in God’s parental love. And as Christians, we are called to show that love especially to those people who—like refugees—the world has overlooked.


Psalm 132:15

I will abundantly bless her provisions;

I will satisfy her poor with bread.

Psalm 132 summarizes moments in Israel’s history, including reflections of David building a temple for God and messianic visions of the Lord’s Anointed, and the beautiful verse above.

Any time bread is mentioned in the Scriptures, it can be easy to jump to a typological reading and apply a eucharistic lens to the passage. But we cannot afford to skip the literal meaning to fully understand the psalmist’s message. What would the world look like if even the poor have their basic needs taken care of? There are enough resources in the world for everyone to be “abundantly bless[ed].” Do our churches share their abundance, or do they build bigger barns to stockpile their grain? Can we imagine a just world where we refuse to take part in oppression?

The early church father John Chrysostom said: “If you do not find Christ in the beggar at the church door, neither will you find him in the [communion] chalice.”


Psalm 133:1–2

How very good and pleasant it is

when kindred live together in unity!

It is like the precious oil on the head,

running down upon the beard,

on the beard of Aaron,

running down over the collar of his robes.

In the New Jerusalem spoken of in the last chapters of Revelation, we will live in the blessing and unity the psalmist speaks of. But for now we live in the already-but-not-yet of the kingdom of God. We must work here and now to realize that New Jerusalem. Each church, each city must become a city of peace—a peace that is not the absence of conflict, but the courage to challenge the oppressor and dignify the oppressed.


Psalm 124:1–3

Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,

who stand by night in the house of the Lord!

Lift up your hands to the holy place,

and bless the Lord.

May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth,

bless you from Zion.

As pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem exhausted from their journey, they sang Psalm 134, blessing  those who served God at the temple in praise. What if today, as pilgrims in this life, we considered every person as a temple of God?

God loved our physical world enough to become part of it, to redeem it for our sakes. What would it look like to show even a fraction of that love to refugees, asylum seekers, and other fellow pilgrims? Wherever you live, there is likely an organization already dedicated to assisting and resettling refugees. They need your advocacy, your financial help, and your encouragement. The group might not be in your own denomination, or even any Christian one, but if they serve their neighbors and learn from them, they are workers in God’s temple.

Non-refugees have much to learn from refugees—people like Emilia, Rosa, and Isabel. Those who flee to preserve themselves or their families in a world that devalues them are courageous protectors of the temples of their bodies.


A Prayer for Pilgrims

God, help us journey with you toward the city of eternal joy and peace:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, where the night will not hurt us,

because night will not exist

and because we will behold Christ, the Eternal Light, the Sun of Righteousness.

We will dwell with you, in whose presence every knee will bow,

every tongue will confess that Christ is Lord,

for the glory of God the Father, in the company of the Holy Spirit.

One triune God, ours forevermore.


Song: “Come, All You Servants of the Lord / Vengan acudan al Señor” Duba, LUYH 924, SSS 706

Service Outline

This service outline is provided as an example of how you might use these reflections in a worship context. The full text of the service can be found here: tinyurl.com/RW150FullService

Opening of Worship

Call to Worship

Song: “Yo me alegré / My Heart Was Glad” Anon., trans. Scheer, SSS 402

Greeting: Isaiah 41:9–10

Opening Hymn: “God of Grace and God of Glory / Dios de gracia, Dios de gloria” Fosdick, SSS 250, GtG 307

Confession and Lament

Reading of Psalm 120:5–7 and Reflection

Song: “Al Señor clamé / I Am Crying Out to God” Colón, SSS 591

Prayers of Confession

Cries of Faith in the Face of Despair

Reading of Psalm 121:1–4 and Reflection

Reading of Psalm 122:1–2 and Reflection

Song: “Me alegré con los que me decián / I Was Glad When They Said to Me” Colón, SSS 397

Reading of Psalm 123:1, 3 and Reflection

Song: “A Ti, Señor, Yo Alzo los Ojos / I Lift My Eyes” Colón

The Lord Sees

Reading of Psalm 124:1–5 and Reflection

Reading of Psalm 125:1–2 and Reflection

Reading of Psalm 126:4–6 and Reflection

Do We See?

Reading of Psalm 127:1–3 and Reflection

Reading of Psalm 128:1–2 and Reflection

Reading of Psalm 129:1–2 and Reflection

Video: “Lament with Wings”

Reading of Psalm 130:1, 7 and Reflection

Living into a New Vision

Reading of Psalm 131:1–3 and Reflection

Reading of Psalm 132:15 and Reflection

Reading of Psalm 133:1–2 and Reflection

Song: “Miren qué bueno / Oh, Look and Wonder” Sosa, LUYH 260, SSS 230

Reading of Psalm 124:1–3 and Reflection

A Prayer for Pilgrims

Song: “Come, All You Servants of the Lord / Vengan acudan al Señor” Duba, LUYH 924, SSS 706

Sending and Blessing

Doxology: “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow / Al Dios de toda bendición” Weatherbogg, SSS 697

Carlos Colón is a composer, liturgist, and native of El Salvador; Assistant Director for Worship and Chapel at Baylor University and resident scholar at Baylor Institute for the Studies of Religion, Waco, Texas.

Reformed Worship 150 © December 2023, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.