I wish this blog post was a little more cheerful than any I’ve really posted lately. Spoiler alert, it’s really not. This year is a journey of discovery and living into the reality that things I take for granted are not guaranteed. Things I enjoy and look forward to may mean harsh times for others. Fall/Winter weather has finally arrived in Tucson. Temperatures that make my friends up North scoff mean we shiver and put on jackets. And while our heat was broken and our maintenance man, Mike, was super concerned, I realized I was whining about how my blankets barely kept me warm enough in my house, where I have a bed, a roof, and food. A chance to take a shower everyday, and wash and dry my clothes whenever I please.
And I go to work everyday to serve women who don’t have those things. Tomorrow I’ll go in and sleep on a cot with a mat with the women we are able to shelter. And there will be many more who sleep on the street, in the cold. Unsafe and unsheltered. We give them what we can, sleeping bags, blankets, warm clothes, and a breakfast and sack lunch. We hope to have enough time for everyone to shower and do laundry, but there is never enough time. Everyday I ask myself, how can anyone who has the ability to make this stop, the ability to make sustainable, long term change sleep at night if they choose not to? I can barely sleep sometimes for knowing I have tried to make all the change I can, for knowing that in the past two years I have realized more about my privilege, my ability to sit in discomfort and allow it to gnaw at me, and that it still isn’t good enough. That until every woman that walked through those doors today and the day before and will walk through them tomorrow and the next and the next and so one is housed, it will never be good enough. I am one small voice. But I will keep speaking. Because at some point those who sleep soundly in their beds writing policies that allow fortunes to pass hand to hand comfortably from generation to generation on the backs of the poor will have to answer to the poor who work for them. I believe it.
Enough listening to my soapboxing, I started writing to tell you a story, not to preach to the choir, because you’re reading this for a reason. Everyday, a mass of human experiences teems through our double doors. Right now, we’re decked for a myriad of holidays, Kwanza, Hannukah, Christmas, you get the idea. It’s light and bright in an attempt to bring joy. And it does help. So two more stories. We’ve had a new guest lately, I do not know her name, because she’s not in everyday and she’s very soft spoken. She wears full Hijab and I was curious how others would respond. She carries her prayer mat with her things. Somehow, amidst being on the street and experiencing homelessness, this remarkable woman still manages to do her prayers five times daily as she is called to do in the Q’uran. Today, I overheard her speaking with another of our ladies who was asking about her practice and how she does it. her first prayer time is at 4am. All of the ladies know her now and make space, allowing her to use the library for her prayers. They have learned not to walk in front of her when praying, that it breaks the direct contact with Allah (God in Arabic, for those who have missed that memo). It was one of those moments where you realize when people share being so very marginalized already, learning about another piece of someone’s marginalized culture is not scary to them. It made my heart feel light.
The other was watching a new woman come to the center who clearly needed much help and interact with our executive director. Hearing someone explain the pain that drove them to alcoholism, to drinking, to staying on the street away from family. This woman’s story of having been incarcerated, of learning of the death of her children while she was in prison, and being unable to do anything but attempt to numb herself. It was gut wrenching. I wanted to rip my heart out for her. To give her something that might be broken, but maybe a little less so. Jean found out what she needed. Not only got her those needs, but knew who would be a good person to help comfort her. And then did something that amazed me. “Promise me you won’t leave without telling me first.” She wanted to make sure to say goodbye. That has stuck with me throughout this day. She wanted to make sure, I think, that this individual was welcomed, and that she would know she was welcomed back. “I’m so tired.” That’s all I remember her saying, over and over.
Tonight, I want to pray, for those who are tired, weary, out in the cold whether it is their first night or their five hundredth night. They all have a story, whether someone has listened, another person experiencing homelessness or an angel on earth like Jean. We have no right to decide if they deserve help. They are human. They are us, with a different set of life circumstances.
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.
Like most people in the United States, I was heartbroken when I learned about the slaying of nine members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I was overwhelmed by this event, especially due to it's significance within a history of violence against Black churches and Black people. Living on the border, I have begun to fully realize, for the first time, the ways in which our society consistently marginalizes and abuses people of color. On the border, this racism is embodied in unjust immigration policies, racial profiling, and the death, detainment, and deportation of mainly Latino migrants. On the border and in our nation, this racism is embodied in the death and incarceration of countless young Black men, hate crimes, and unequal access to education, job opportunities, and healthcare for people of color. Recently, these injustices have felt almost unbearable for me. As a privileged White woman, I am not as aware of these inequities because I do not have to face them everyday. I merely wake up to these injustices, ever time there is a large national events.
As an educated college student, I naively thought I was knowledgable about these issues as I had learned about institutionalized racism, slavery, and various forms of oppression in classes. But it is very different when you are surrounded and immersed by issues of race. These issues affect you differently when your friend tells to you about leaving a job because they were racist towards her. These issues cut more deeply when you tell someone your roommate doesn't like hiking and they assume it's because she's Black. You start to see patterns when your friend is denied a driver's license and a college education because of his immigration status. It startles you when you realize you haven't had to learn about or protest this because you are White. Our society usually caters to you with you having to do anything.
Amidst these daunting, depressing thoughts and realizations, I have found strength in my YAV community, my church, and the Tucson activist circles. The Sunday after the Charleston shooting, my pastor, Rev. Bart Smith of St. Mark's Presbyterian Church, compared the gigantic monster of racism to Goliath from the story of David and Goliath. We are David and we must be brave, patient, and purposeful as we throw little stones at the beast's head. As Bart held up a small river rock, he reminded us that the monster of racism is not only external, it also resides in the deep, dark cavities of our heart. We must work to cleanse ourselves of our own prejudices as well as working in community.
Recently, I listened to President Obama's eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the pastors of Emanuel A.M.E. Church. It gave me much hope, clarity, and peace. I strongly recommend listening to his wise words. I'd like to reflect of some of things he said.
"Clem was often asked why he chose to be a pastor and a public servant. But the person who asked probably didn’t know the history of AME Church. As our brothers and sisters in the AME Church, we don’t make those distinctions. “Our calling,” Clem once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation but the life and community in which our congregation resides.”
I deeply respect the AME Church for the longstanding commitment to fight for justice for all people. During my YAV year, I have had the opportunity to worship in churches like Southside Presbyterian Church and St. Mark's Presbyterian Church who try to live out the gospel every day of the week, not just on Sunday morning. They live out their faith by providing sanctuary for migrants, putting water out in the desert, visiting migrants in detention, and advocating for humane policies.
"We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history, but he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act. It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress, an act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion, an act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.
Oh, but God works in mysterious ways.
God has different ideas.
He didn’t know he was being used by God.
Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer would not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group, the light of love that shown as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.
The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. [Video below] He couldn’t imagine that."
When I learned about the shooting, the first thing I thought was, "Why? Why would God let this happen this to His people?" Although I do not believe that Dylan Roof's actions were part of a divine plan or necessary for people to come together, I do believe God works in mysterious ways. I was blown away when I heard the victim's families forgiving Roof, just days after he had murdered their loved ones. God's grace and love are boundless and impossible to predict or define.
According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God.... By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.
This has helped me understand my name, Grace, as an action. We can embody God's grace through racial reconciliation, by loving our neighbors, advocating for our neighbors and fighting for a Kingdom-like world alongside our neighbors.
Below are some questions I am still pondering. If you have any ideas or answers please let me know.
Why would God create a world where such horrible things happen?
How can we forgive people while still holding them accountable for their hurtful actions?
How can I, as an ally, express God's grace?
This happened one year ago. June 1st, 2014….a day that will go down in infamy. Well, to me it will. For many other Facebook countless friends of mine, they will also have (or have had) a similar day. However, this is not the reality for millions upon billions more people around the world. On my news feed, I am not a minority. In the world’s population, I am a minority. I have been to college. It’s one of the things I admitted more feebly and timidly this past week when I was in Mexico teaching English. (I was subbing for the week while my fellow YAV, James was on the Migrant Trail walk. This is a 75-mile walk done in order to simulate – even the slightest bit – the trek that millions of migrants have taken across the Sonoran desert).
As I sat with my host father after dinner one night, he asked me what I had studied in college. I told him Adolescent Education and Adolescent English and that I was trying to decide this year and discern further if teaching is the career I wish to pursue. I told him that I had experienced how education seemed to be more respected in other countries besides America. Therefore – I also told him – it is not as respected and as a paid-well job in the United States as other jobs (i.e. optometrist, pediatrician, lawyer, etc). These are the complaints I have often heard from my teaching mentors and other family friends back home (New England society) and therefore, find myself repeating these same truths that I have found consistent with my own experience.
Next, my host father asked me how much I would make as a teacher in this new teaching job. (I am staying in Tucson after my YAV year and teaching at a local high school). I told him but I was afraid to admit a number that would be a little more than his wage. When he told me that he made $50 a week. My jaw dropped. “But you have this huge home!” I stated immediately, trying to find something to cover up my inaccurate, naive, and privileged comment about how teaching jobs don’t pay as well as other careers in the States. Well, this might be “true” in America but that would be “rolling in the dough” here in Mexico. Mi padre went on to explain more about how he had built this house and how he did all the foundation, cement, tiling, plumbing, roofing. All of it. Todo. My eyes kind of glazed over as I stayed fixated on his previous comment. But it didn’t even make sense. His house’s appearance did not match his income. How can someone who looks so happy and his house that seems to have so much come from an income that is so low? But that is the reality in Mexico, he told me.
Our conversation died down for the evening. I retreated to my departamento – the apartment off the side that the family rents out to bring in more income. They had let me stay in this whole room to myself. I felt selfish when I realized they could have rented it out this week to someone else other than me. I wish that they had so I would not be monopolizing the space. This reality check came after this conversation – when they moved the previous tenant’s furniture out of the room – so they could make space for me. I mean, that was not the only reason. She was moving out anyways. But they could have used that room. Instead, they wanted me to have it. Their hospitality was unreal. An American would never do that! I wish I was not occupying the room. I wish a paying tenant was there.
All this talk of recognizing one’s privilege – that is often found throughout the YAV year – has been summed up in two occasions:
1) My college graduation. See picture of myself and my three best friends above. Here is the Facebook status I wrote upon the 1st year anniversary of my college graduation:
2) A flashback to my high school opinion’s:
When I was in high school, I used to say to my family and friends, “I love airports! You see all sorts of people in airports! People from all walks of life!”
“Yes, you do,” my present self would reply. “However, you see ‘all sorts of people’ who can afford an airplane ticket of $250 and above. You see ‘all sorts of people’ who can all afford expensive designer or at least luggage that looks presentable. There are not going to be people here who are food-insecure. There are not going to be people here who are homeless. Yet surprisingly, they may be a man who is an orphan because his two parents died in the war.”
I am privileged. I am white. I am from a middle/upper-class family who has access to higher education. Of course I’m going to be walking through the airport….However, millions of people do not even know what the inside of a plane or a lecture hall look like.
I guess there are a few things my professors left out of the syllabus…