In Your Face

It always amazes me how the smallest interactions can often be the ones that teach us the most. These small things can almost smack you in the face with how real and unexpected they are. If you’re curious as to what privilege is, this is it.

About a month ago I was in our local grocery store buying some snacks before the bus came by (confession, I’m addicted to Mexican cookies). I went through the line like it was any other day that I needed my cookie fix. I went to the cashier and began speaking to her in Spanish, as is the norm here. Then, to my surprise, the cashier responded to me in perfect English. She asked me where I was from and why I was living here in Mexico. I explained a little bit about Frontera de Cristo and the work we do here on the border. After hearing about our work, she shared with me how she had been living in the US for the majority of her life. She shared how her family still lived there and how she had recently been repatriated to Agua Prieta and how much she missed them. Afterwards I shared a little bit about our Migrant Resource Center and told her that if she needed anything or was curious about something, we would be there to try and help.

Fast forward to today. I had seen our friendly cashier (I’m ashamed to admit I still don’t know her name) and few times and always shared some words with her. Today when I saw her, I asked her how she was doing. She shared how there were good days and bad days, and how she missed her family. She didn’t know if she was still unused to living in Mexico and life here, or if she just missed her family an incredible amount, or if it was a combination of both. She shared with me how it was tough for her because she couldn’t escape it. She is unable to leave and take a vacation and see them to rejuvenate. She told me “It’s different for you. You can just leave and say you’re gonna go for a month and then come back. You can do what you want.” And she’s right. Because of where I was born, because of my fancy passport, I can go home whenever I want and see my family. Hell, I can go across into Douglas to spend some time in Wal-mart if life here is getting to be overwhelming. It’s so easy for me. Because I’m lucky enough to have that privilege, I was conveniently born in the US.

There are thousands of people like my friendly cashier. People who are as unused to Mexico as I was when I first moved here, regardless of being born here. And all they want is to see their families and be with those they love. Remember that when you choose a candidate and hear their plan for immigration. Remember that when you see your family and are able to hug them. And remember that when you look down at your passport or birth certificate showing you as an American. Remember that regardless of where we are born or what language we speak, we all have families. And we want to be with them and see them. And be sure to pay attention to the little things. Because you never know when they might teach you a major life lesson.

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Kids say the darnedest things

It’s true. Kids normally say some pretty wild things. Sometimes it’s outlandish. Other times you as a family member wish that your child had learned a little earlier how to be quiet. And sometimes it’s so real and true that it blows you away. Most kids terrify me to some degree, so my interactions with them are limited. The two exceptions to that rule are my two little cousins, Lauren and Jacob. They’re essentially the most adorable and funniest kids ever (yeah I’m biased but whatever). And apparently super wise.

Earlier today my cousin Megan shared something on Facebook and tagged me in it. It was a piece of the schoolwork that Lauren, the oldest at 7, had written at school. Lauren Work

She may be seven years old, but she actually has a great grasp on things here on the U.S.-Mexico border. Yes I do live in Mexico and spend a lot of my time working in the U.S. But I am only one of thousands who does a similar thing every single day. I am also one of the privileged that are able to cross back and forth without any real hassle or questioning. But not everyone is as privileged as I am. Often times people are discriminated against based purely on their last name or their appearance. It’s a shame and it breaks my heart, but it is true. I’ve seen it happen and heard stories of it happening to people I know. Lauren probably doesn’t know this, but there are hundreds of people who want to live in Mexico and work in the U.S.A. No, they do not want to live in here in the US. Their only wish is to be able to go work somewhere they will receive living wages that help them support their families that they love so dearly. And at the end of the day, these hard-working people want only to be able to return home to those families and communities that they love. When you think about it, why would they want to live in a place like the US can often be? A place where people treat them negatively based on the color of their skin or their place of origin? A place where they do not always speak the language and even communicating at work can be a challenge? A place where the fun is incredibly different and the music is odd? A place whose leading candidate is raising an uproar against your countrymen and wants to build a giant wall between the two? I know that I wouldn’t want to live there. These are the feelings of people I have talked to during my time here. Building a wall won’t solve our problems. It won’t keep people out or keep them away. It will just cause more injury and death to people whose only hope is to provide of their family. My wonderful cousin at the age of 7 kind of understands that. She doesn’t want families separated any more than I do. I’m incredibly thankful for that and hope others can learn from her amazing example.

And as a wise old man once told us, “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.” Let’s not forget that. Thanks Lauren.

Voice in the Wilderness

This is a sermon I shared with Holy Way Presbyterian Church in Tucson a couple of weeks ago. I’ve gonna remove some of it (mainly the intro cuz y’all already know what I am).

The two passages we were preaching from were Mark 2:1-15 and Ephesians 2:11-22.

I was born and raised in South Carolina, which is just a tad bit different from the U.S.-Mexico border. For me, our verse in Ephesians is perfect for the work Frontera de Cristo does. I can easily see why it was chosen for the Presbyterian Border Ministries and how it is still so relevant today. I could probably speak for hours about this passage in regards to border ministry. I’m sure I could find metaphors and connections to life on the border in every verse and discuss how our border wall is un-Christlike. But I’m not going to do that, mainly because I don’t have that kind of time. But also because I like the wilderness, and our Mark passage speaks a lot about the wilderness. Back home in South Carolina, going out into the woods was a type of meditation for me. If I was stressed out or needed time to figure things out, I would head out into the wilderness. I would spend hours walking, listening to wind in the trees and getting lost in my thoughts. It was good for me. Then, when I came to Arizona/Sonora, I arrived in a completely different kind of wilderness. Gone were the expansive forests and babbling brooks. Gone were the Appalachian Mountains I knew so well.  All of that had been replaced by thorny scrub brush, wide open deserts, and jagged mountains that seem to come out of nowhere.

Not only was the natural wilderness so different, but so was the society I had come to. I had come to a place where society had decided to build a wall to keep people away. A society that treated people differently due to their place of birth. A society that purposefully pushed people further and further away from civilization in hopes of using the risk of death as a deterrent. This place was just as foreign and wild to me as the new wilderness I saw out my window.

When Mark tells us of John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness, I imagine him coming into a situation like this. I can see him being sent into the wilderness of Judea, where there is fear, hate, discrimination, and unnecessary death. With his voice, John is calling out to the people, trying to educate them and show that there is something better for them. He is there to make straight paths for the Lord. John literally wants to straighten the people out!

I like to think of Frontera de Cristo like the messenger being sent ahead. We are calling out to our brothers and sisters, trying to prepare them for a new way that is coming. Thankfully we do not wear clothes made of camel’s hair or eat locusts and wild honey. But like John the Baptist, we are in the wilderness calling out to our people. We are trying to prepare them for what is to come and show them that we have done wrong. Our hope is to prepare our communities so that they may follow us in our work and help to make something better.

I also find it interesting that Jesus himself was sent out into the wilderness by the spirit. It helps me feel a new level of connection to Jesus, because I too feel that the spirit sent me out into the wilderness. Granted, our types of wilderness are different. I, thankfully, have had limited interactions with wild animals. However, I believe our time in the wilderness has some similarities. Like Jesus, I have been tested during my time as a YAV. I have been pushed to my limits and challenged on many things I think and believe. LIke Jesus, I had the chance to throw in the towel, to give up and take the easy way out. But He did not and neither have I. If anything, these challenges have only strengthened my resolve and given me clarity in God’s call for me. Like I have been in the wilderness calling to others, God has been calling out to me. I know that God has been working in me and preparing me for what comes next. I am still unsure as to what will happen after my YAV year. Who knows what type of wilderness the Spirit might send me to next. While this unknown frightens me a bit, two things help me through it. One is knowing that God has a plan for me and will be with me every step of the way. The other is that Jesus is coming after me, and He is more powerful than I. Because of him, the kingdom of God has come near to us. And that is very good news.

Two Backpacks

This is a story written by a past Migrant Resource Center Coordinator and Intern at Frontera de Cristo. It’s beautiful and quite powerful.

He walked into the Center with two muddy backpacks, one hanging loosely on his slumped, tired back and one clenched in his hand, straps dragging on the floor. He lowered himself into a chair next to the others and said nothing-just stared off into the distance with glassy eyes and set his backpacks gently on the ground next to him.

We rushed right past him, responding to questions and helping everyone settle in around the Center, offering them coffee, food and the information they craved to calm their uneasiness. Where are we? Can we sleep here? Have you seen my brother?

But he said nothing.

Things settled around him, and for hours he remained still with the exception of a few cell phone calls which he took with his face buried in his hand, rubbing his eyes and his forehead as if to bring himself back to the present, to wake up.

Hours passed before he said anything. He dragged himself to the back of the Migrant Center, stood in front of me at the desk, and mumbled something unintelligible.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to speak a little louder”, I urged, wondering if he was in fact a migrant or someone who’d wandered in and who’d had a little too much to drink that morning.

“What’s your name?”

“Silvestre.”

“OK, Silvestre. How can I help you?”

“I..I…” he rasped, not meeting my eyes, “I need…I’m supposed to call. About my wife. I need to call the consulate. I’m supposed to call the consulate…my wife…”

“Ok Silvestre. Don’t worry. I’m sure she’ll be released soon,” putting on my best nobody-panic-you’ll-be-fine voice, “but because it’s Sunday, we can’t call the consulate today. Where did you last see her?”

“No,” he said,tears springing to his already puffy eyes, “she’s dead. My wife died in Naco last night.”

The words hit us both with equal weight, as if speaking them dragged him back to the present, to the inescapable tragedy of having left home with his partner, destined for a dangerous and somewhat humiliating “criminal” passage towards a promising future. The tragedy of watching his wife die, then being detained and processed like a criminal and spit out-penniless-into a city far from home. The tragedy of knowing that “home” is no longer the same, because she was his home, and now her absence defines every place, every conversation, everything.

He landed in the present. Awareness washed over him with his own words. He cried, I cried. As strangers, we cried together-accepting the unchangeable loss, sorrow, the painful process of waking up.

I don’t know how many minutes passed before he finally stood up from the chair into which he’d collapsed. He excused himself and stepped outside, continuing to grieve in private.

For several hours I checked on him, bringing a chair, more water, more tissues, and finally a burrito-the first thing he’d eaten since losing her. Silvestre shared little by little what had happened.

He shared how he and Elsa had come from the state of Mexico to the border, looking for passage into the U.S. to earn better wages and support their aging parents back home. They also had older children from previous relationships who needed more financial support for school.

He shared how they jumped over the high border fence in Naco, Sonora to Naco, Arizona with the help of information being fed to them through a cell phone from their guide. In climbing the fence, Elsa fell very far, but seemed to be fine.

It was raining and dark as they moved quickly from the fence in the direction they’d been told by their guide. But in a matter of minutes, Elsa began to feel week. She told Silvestre her shoes were too heavy, her pants too tight, that she couldn’t continue. She began to try to undress herself, freeing herself from the weight of her clothing.

Silvestre could tell something was very wrong. He called the guide, who told him that if Elsa was really sick, they should turn themselves in to the Border Patrol.

Silvestre helped his wife lie down on the ground, placing her backpack under her head, and ran for help.

By the time he returned with the Border Patrol, Elsa was unconscious and medical help was slow to arrive. When they did, they pronounced her dead, cause of death undetermined.

Was it the fall? Was she already sick? Would they have been able to help her if we were closer to a hospital? If someone responded sooner?

Of all the questions Silvestre worried about that first day after her death, none was as haunting as one:

Was this my fault? I knew I shouldn’t have brought her. 

Silvestre passed the day in private mourning. When night fell, I asked him if he wanted me to call for a ride to the shelter.

“No, gracias. I will walk. I need to walk a little. But just one thing first…”

He walked back to the entrance of the center and returned with his two backpacks, placing the muddy black one on the desk.

“You should keep her things.”

I opened the bag ceremoniously, slowly removing each item and placing it on the desk. Her jeans, her jacket, her bag of makeup, her hair barrettes-all still damp from the last night’s rain. I searched the pockets, and took in the size and style of each item, recreating Elsa in my mind. I found a damp, ripped picture of the Virgin de Guadalupe in the side pocket of her bag and gently handed it to Silvestre.

“Thank you,” he whispered. Silvestre had finished crying for the day. He picked up his own backpack and slid it over his shoulders, placed the picture in his pocket, and left everything else behind.

“Silvestre, you can come back tomorrow,” I offered, not sure what else to say. He accepted with a weak smile and left.

Silvestre did come back. For one week he passed his days in the Migrant Resource Center and his nights in the men’s shelter. We spread the word throughout our volunteer community so that each person received him with extra gentleness and walked beside him during this difficult time as he waited for news from the coroner’s office in Tucson.

On Tuesday afternoon, I brought one blank wooden cross to the center.

“Silvestre, we hold this weekly vigil in Douglas,” I explained to him, gently handing him the cross, “we remember and honor all those who’ve died around here in the desert. If it’s alright with you, I would like to make a cross for Elsa.”

He looked at me, eyes brimming with tears and watched my hands as I pulled a marker out of the drawer.

“Gracias,” he said emphatically, placing his hand on my hand, looking into my eyes with conviction, “gracias.”

He grasped the marker and carefully etched her name in all capital letters. We added her birthday. Her death day. The words, “Mother, Sister, Daughter, Wife, Friend.” I wrapped her carefully in my arms and carried her out of the center.

I crossed through the port of entry on foot, handing over my passport without saying a single word or being asked a single question, all the while clutching her to my chest.

We crossed to the U.S. in less than thirty seconds. A journey she died making in less that thirty seconds.

Carrying her with me, I couldn’t shake the one haunting question.

Was this my fault?

Did I do this? Did we do this? Are we responsible for what happened to Elsa?

We can’t take complete responsibility-just like I told Silvestre, there are choices and factors here that are beyond us.

But I for one can’t claim complete innocence. I can’t deny that my country’s policies add to the pain and suffering of women like Elsa, their families, and their communities. I can’t claim that their choices to migrate are independent of me and what I buy, who I vote for and what I do or don’t say to my legislators about immigration reform.

I’m involved. And when I work for positive reform, it will be for Elsa and the countless others who experience the same suffering. It will be remembering the families who receive no news or bad news about their loved ones.

It will be remembering the image of Silvestre with two backpacks. Silvestre etching Elsa’s name on a cross.

I dutifully carried her to the vigil that day and placed her alongside the hundreds of others. One more cross, one more name, one more life ending a little too early in the desert. That Tuesday we prayed for Elsa and her family, just like I’d told Silvestre we’d do. And we’ll continue working for countless Tuesdays to come.

Please pray with us. Please work for justice for Elsa. For everyone.

The Frustration of Silence

To have some tunes while reading, check out this great song by Kendrick Lamar. Warning, it does have explicit language, but it’s also solid so I encourage you to listen to it.

Part of my job here is to lead groups of people who come to learn more about immigration and life on the border. We go to many different places in Agua Prieta, and we always end up at the wall at least two or three times. Something I have noticed about these groups, whether they are religious or school based, filled with older people or young, is the silence that surrounds us at the wall. And it bothers me.

For me, silence occurs for various reasons. People are silent out of respect. They are silent because of fear they have. They are silent out of sadness or reverence. People are also silent due to pressure from others to keep quiet and not interrupt the peace, like at a library. And for me, the dirty, heartbreaking we Americans have made is not deserving of this silence. The wall does not deserve any reverence. Sadness I understand because of the countless lives that have been terribly affected by a piece of metal; but reverence no. I see why people fear the wall, because it represents danger, violence, and a militarized police force that is constantly watching you. But there is no way in hell this wall deserves any form of respect. As for the silence due to pressure…we can no longer do that. We as Americans have been silent for too long due to peer pressure and fear of changing the status quo. We have been silent about the suffering of people of color by police officers. We have been silent about the stealing of lands and destroying of culture of native peoples. We have been silent on the treatment and abuse of women, and on how they do not receive fair wages for their work. We are silent about Japanese internment camps and the systematic oppression and segregation of people of other races. We are silent about vicious governments and paramilitaries that have been installed and supported by our government that have dissolved into countries run by gangs that rape, steal and murder indiscriminately. I understand. I have been there. I have been overwhelmed by white guilt and that fact that I have helped feed these systems because I was scared to speak up and break the silence of fear and pressure. I still am scared at times and still am challenged everyday to be in solidarity with those who are oppressed and live their lives in fear. But we must try to change our world and create systems that are fair and loving world for everyone.

Tonight I ate dinner with a Salvadorian man at our local migrant shelter. While there he shared a little of his story with us. He told us about how he left because he fear for his life in El Salvador. Of how the gangs take whatever they want, no matter who owns it. He told us how he was able to get out but how all of his family was killed by these gangs. He is now alone in a country that is not his own without anyone he knows or loves around him. He told us about he wants to right a letter to Obama to tell him of the dangers in Salvador and ask Obama to create an easier way for those being persecuted to come to the US. Yet while he was telling us this, you could hear the fear in his voice. You could tell in the way he constantly looked to see was around, and how he lowered his voice when mentioning kill squads. He was terrified and for good reason. Yet he still wanted to share his story with us and with Obama. He was terrified yet still wanting to be a voice to create change. And he wanted our help. We can do so much. We as Americans, and especially us Anglos, have so much privilege that we don’t often use. It’s because we’re scared into silence.

And it bothers me. But as Kendrick says ‘if God got us then we going be alright.’

Desert Journey

Sorry I’ve been out of action for so long! For me, blogging can be very tough and exhausting at times. So after full days of work, I often find it hard to motivate myself to work and write more. We’ve been quite busy round here so I’ve been out of the blogosphere.

 

Last week, we Tucson/Douglas/Agua Prieta YAVs had our Lenten Sojourn Retreat. For this we went out to Cascabel, a beautiful area near Benson AZ. We were there to camp, enjoy each other’s company, and the wonderful nature out there.

 

For the first day and night at least.

 

For the next two nights and one day after that, we would be out on ‘solos’. This meant that each of us would be taken to individual sites away from each other to spend our time meditating, reflecting, getting away from the busyness of our lives, and hopefully hear a little bit of God’s whisperings to us. While I was stoked to go camping, I was a nervous to be alone for 36ish hours.

 

I would like to say that while I was out there I spent countless hours meditating and listening to God. That I prayed ceaselessly and saw visions of my future. But I didn’t. I got bored. I pace around. Yes I did pray at times. I read my Bible. But I also stared at the grass. I looked at this one saguaro cactus for way too long (it had like 12 arms which meant it was outrageously old, but other than that it wasn’t too fascinating). And I actually learned some things. I learned that being alone doesn’t bother me at all. However, having nothing to do kind of destroys my soul. I learned that man could in fact live on PB&J alone. I was reinforced in some of the callings I feel in life and got completely turned around in others. I also learned that God could speak to us in boredom and in prayer. Two things I learned really stuck out to me though.

 

One was about what our coordinator Alison wisely called ‘the Tyranny of the Should’. I don’t know about y’all, but I often find myself telling myself that I SHOULD do things. I should do this or that, or I should study more of this or read more of that. So many shoulds! It can be overwhelming. But then our friendly neighborhood pastor Bart flipped that on it’s head for me. We were sitting around after lunch, waiting to be taken to our sites. I was telling about something I felt like I SHOULD be doing better. And he very calmly said ‘Ya know, maybe you don’t. That might just not be how you operate.’ It was so simple yet struck me. I felt like I constantly made myself do things that I didn’t really want to do but felt like I should do. That simple sentence of Bart’s made me feel more secure in myself and helped me realize that should can be really destructive.

 

I also learned that things don’t always meet our expectations, and that’s totally okay. I went into this desert sojourn thinking my world would be rocked and I would learn so many things about my life. That God would tell me everything I needed to know and show me visions of my future. But I didn’t. Those things didn’t happen and it was okay. Oftentimes we put unreal expectations on things and are crushed when they don’t happy. At first, I was upset that it didn’t meet my expectations. However, once I thought about it, I realized that it was totally okay that it didn’t meet all my expectations. Things can still be beneficial and help us learn even when they aren’t what we expected. And I am very thankful for that.

That’s Some Binary Bologna

I have been mulling over this blog for a long time now. I can’t even remember the last time I blogged to be honest. So forgive me if this one is a bit long and preachy (or radical).

 

The thoughts all began at a local coffee shop in Douglas, AZ. This place is great: delicious food, a really interesting owner, and a very solid artsy vibe going on the whole place. It’s really a unique business for Douglas. Around the coffee shop, they have different pieces of art from local artists. It was one of these pieces that really caught my eye. This painting had three people on it, all of who were darker skinned (possibly Middle Eastern). And with those people was the phrase “Pray for ISIS”. At first I was taken aback. What? Pray for ISIS? Those horrible people? Why would someone be praying for them?! However, as I began thinking about it, I realized that we SHOULD pray for ISIS. Not because we support them or believe in what they’re doing. Nor because we want them to instantly become Christians. We should pray for ISIS because that’s what God calls us to do. In Matthew 5, verses 44 and 45, it clearly says “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those for persecute you, so you may be sons (and daughters) of your Father in heaven”. Even horrible people we completely disagree with deserve our prayer.

 

Then, over the past two days, we have had discussions here in Douglas over the topic of being a Welcoming City. These talks involved the mayor of Douglas, Pastor Brad, a pastor from a presbytery in Arizona, and Pastor George, a Syrian pastor who lived in Syria then Lebanon before finally coming to the US as a refugee. The three of them discussed what it meant to be welcoming from their point of view, and how we as Christians and Americans could be more welcoming to our brothers and sisters from around the world. One thing that really stuck out for me came from Pastor Brad. He said, “Binary conversation cannot help us find a third way”. For those of you who don’t know, binary is a system representing numbers, letters, images, commands and sounds that uses ONLY 0 and 1. It is essentially a two-sided issue. Us vs. them, Republican vs. Democrat, conservative vs. liberal, Christian vs. Muslim, white vs. people of color, Border Patrol vs. migrants, the haves vs. the have-nots. Having these constant two forces fighting each other will never allow us to come together to create a third way, a way to truly help our fellow brothers and sisters throughout the world. Only by doing something radical and different are we able to break the norm and create a new conversation.
I believe that is what Jesus has called us to do. He wants us to do something completely unheard of. He wishes us to reach out to those different from us, those across the political aisle, and those who are considered “lesser”. I believe that Jesus didn’t come necessarily to create a new religion, but to help us cross the gap and work with those different from us so that “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on EARTH as it is in Heaven”. Jesus calls us to do something different. So please, join me in doing something radical and different. Something possibly unheard of.
Pray for ISIS. Pray for Trump. Pray for our brothers and sisters who are discriminated and killed purely for their skin color. Pray for the police officers that discriminate and kill them. Pray for refugees around the world and for those who oppose or support them. Pray for Border Patrol and for the migrants who are crossing our borders without papers. And pray that we may learn, day by day, how to break out of this binary conversation and move into a third way. A way that lets’ us work together to bring God’s kingdom of justice and love here to Earth for everyone.