A few weeks ago YAVs from Albuquerque and Austin came with us to the U.S/Mexico border on a delegation. The purpose of the delegation was for us to bear witness to the lived realities on the border and to find a faithful response as people of God. The week was transformative for me, while I am still processing all that I experienced I wanted to highlight an experience that stuck with me.
During our time in Mexico we were hosted by Frontera de Cristo, a binational ministry of the Presbyterian church. On our first night we participated in a vigil for people who have died trying to cross the border. We lined the streets of Douglas holding crosses of peoples names who have died. After each name was read we responded with “Presente!”
As we were reading the names I thought about my countries policies, and how death on the border is systemic. On our delegation we learned that in order to have fewer people cross the border, the United States created barriers so that people had to cross through the most dangerous terrain. This policy did not deter people from crossing as the United States hoped; but it did increase the death rate along the border dramatically. With each name that is read I know that my country is directly responsible for their death.
At the end of the vigil our leader ends with “Jesucristo.” We respond “Presente.”
Jesus is present on the border. He is with those who are crossing. I am reminded of the verse Matthew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,”
As we put the crosses away and walk back to our car I thought about how I can be present in the border communities, and how I can respond faithfully.
At the end of the delegation a few of us participated in the School of the Americas watch. My fellow YAVs and I stood in front of Eloy detention center, one of the most deadly detention centers, and chanted no están solos (you are not alone). As we stood across the detention center and chanted I saw lights flicker and people move inside. I turned to my fellow YAV and asked “do you think they can hear us?” She responded “I hope so.” After a week of heart break, to bear witness and to chant in the streets, “No están solos” is to respond with the love of God.
Every person I encountered on the border whether ministry partners, someone getting ready to cross, or people getting sober from addiction I am reminded that Jesus calls us to encounter and to be present. To bear witness to the oppression on the border and the communities that are resisting is to see the face of God.
As I was preparing to embark on my YAV year, a spiritual mentor emailed me the following questions:
Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?
Do you believe in the resurrection?
I told him we should talk.
Quakerism, though officially a Christian denomination, is pretty light on Jesus. I always appreciated this fact, preferring to worship, at various points:
These things brought me joy and awe, all the things I imagined real Christians derived from stained glass depictions of a dead hairy white dude.
We grow and change, though, right? I have to say, I now feel more passionately about the color blue than I do about the color orange. I also think that stained glass white dudes have little to do with Christianity as I conceive of it, as I am experiencing it.
I am convicted by the story of Jesus of Nazareth, a young, innocent man humiliated and killed by the authority charged with keeping the peace. Do I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior? It’s complicated. Do I believe in the resurrection? Yes.
In the first three weeks of my YAV year, I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of listening. I’ve heard some very radical sermons. I’ve heard the stories of DACA recipients shouted in protest before city hall. I’ve heard the stories of women chased out of their home countries, told in the visitation room of a detention center.
I’ve also had the opportunity to ask questions. Over cinnamon coffee, I asked local church leader Brad Munroe how I, how anyone, can be expected to believe in God when witnessing or experiencing the kind of injustice that abounds in these borderlands. In our government. I find myself reverting to the belief that Christianity is a tool for oppression, a story to pacify the masses.
Brad reminded me of a passage from the book “Night” by holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel. Wiesel recalls standing in a crowd, forced by SS officers to watch the execution of two men and a child. “Where is God?” a man behind him was lamenting. Wiesel writes:
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows.
So, the resurrection? I find it everywhere.
At a DACA rally, during a moment of silence honoring people of color killed by our current justice system, decaying in the desert or bleeding in the street.
Inside the walls detention center, watching asylum seekers in jump suits realize they will be indefinitely imprisoned for trying to survive.
I don’t find awe or joy in Jesus. I find deep dismay and a call to action, which feels equally powerful.
For the record though, I still love trees, and I’m dating a blonde. Some things never change.
I am 24 years-old and I come fleeing from Guatemala. The reason why is because gang members in my neighborhood tried forcing me to deliver drugs for them. I refused. Within a few days, I found out that they killed a transgender friend of mine for refusing as well. So I decided to leave my country so that I wouldn't end up the same way. Now I'm in the Florence Detention Center (FDC) and I need your help to get out and meet my goals and dreams to continue studying here in the US."
- Estrella, transgender person currently in detention
"According to a November 2013 report from the Center for American Progress, LGBT detainees are 15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than heterosexual and cisgender detainees."
Read more here: http://www.advocate.com/commentary/2014/10/14/op-ed-why-you-should-help-me-get-lgbt-people-out-detention
Detention is a horrible place for most detainees, but it can be an especially hostile place for LGBTQ individuals. Transgender or gender queer people like Estrella often face verbal and sexual harassment from guards and other detainees. Detention centers or prisons for undocumented people are divided by sex, leaving little room for people who identity outside of strict gender and sex binaries. Homophobia is rampant in these environments which creates a physically and emotionally unsafe place for LGBTQ people.
In addition many individuals like Estrella have experienced rejection, prejudice, and violent threats in their home country. When I visited Estrella at the all-male Florence Detention Center, she told me part of her story.
Estrella grew up in a large family in rural Guatemala. Accustomed to traditional gender roles, his family did not react well when he started to experiment with his gender expression and cut ties with him. Estrella moved to the city to find more economic and social opportunities. Unfortunately, Guatemala City was not a tolerant or accepting place. Powerful cartel members asked her to transport drugs for them. When she refused, they threatened her life. She fled Guatemala and migrated to the United States in search of safety and acceptance. After crossing the border, he was apprehended for Border Patrol and sent to detention. Estrella has been in detention since May 2014, seeking asylum.
Even though Estrella has faced unprecedented tribulations he remains positive and actively engaged in his community. He takes great pride in his work as a kitchen aid at the detention center, volunteering to work extra hours. As her name indicates, she truly has a powerful glow that surrounds her. Somehow, she has managed to maintain a sense of humor and generosity throughout this time. When I met with Estrella, we laughed about silly things, as he read my palm and predicted how many children is have. We daydreamed about delicious foods that are not available in detention. We cried about the abuses he has experienced. After talking for about two hours, we ended our experience by both praying for one another.
As I drove home from the detention center, part of me stayed back with Estrella. I imagined her walking back to her cell, escorted by a guard who probably inspires more fear than security. I imagined her serving food to the very detainees who had abused her earlier that week. I did not want to imagine her spending Christmas alone in a cold cell. More importantly I did not want to imagine him going back to Guatemala, where his life is endangered.
Please help us raised funds to pay the bond to get Estrella out of detention before Christmas. Give her the opportunity to fight her asylum case from a safe and loving place.
I will match every donation up to $100. Please let me know if you have questions or are interested in getting involved.
*Estrella uses masculine and feminine pronouns interchangeably.