Flash blogs are short posts written to a shared prompt during community discussion time -- with a ten minute time limit. This practice helps us get used to blogging, stay in communication with our followers, and challenge ourselves to not overthink how we share with the world. See each YAV's response to this shared prompt below!
For starters, I totally had the idea to write a blog post about this in August or September-ish. Well, I didn’t. But because I had thought about it a bit back then, I already have some ideas and reflections on the Borderlands. Through this limited writing entry, I will see how those reflections have transformed through the last several months.
My first interaction with the Borderlands in my YAV year was that I decided to go to a site that is called “The Tucson Borderlands Site.” Right there in the name! At first, I thought that the borderlands was clearly referring to the U.S.- Mexico border to which we are so close here in Tucson. We’ve traveled to the border a number of times, and I remember in my initial interview with Alison before coming, she said something to the effect of, “The border is felt in all parts of life here in Tucson.”
My understanding of Borderlands changed at national YAV orientation when during our anti-racism training, we were presented with the borderlands framework. (Oh geez, how did I explain this in less than 10 minutes?) We split into groups and wrote sticky notes of all sorts of characteristics that are considered the “norm,” like: insured, Christian, educated, white, heterosexual, home owner, two-parent family. These sticky notes were posted into a square-ish shape on the wall. Then we wrote sticky notes that had traits that were societally perceived as outside of the norm like transgender, atheist, people of color, non-English speaking, immigrant, uninsured. These stickies were assembled around the square center, forming a border. I had never thought of the borderlands this way. The invisible, but far, far from nonexistent, lines in our society. I have returned to this framework of thinking many times throughout the year. Under this framework, any YAV site could have “Borderlands” in its name. Because of the emphasis and format of YAV, my peers all over the country and world are interacting with these invisible lines on a daily basis.
What do “The Borderlands” mean to me? Before becoming a Tucson Borderlands YAV, I had never heard the word “borderlands” before. When I thought of a border, I thought of a hard dividing line. Once you cross it, you are in an entire differently place than you were before. For example, once you cross the US/Mexico you go from being in Mexico to in the United States. It’s a black and white, night and day change. Seems reasonable right?
What I have learned during my YAV year is that while yes, that is the technical definition of a border, it does not really encompass the lived experience of people who make their lives in the lands near the border. The border is a lot less hard of a line than I thought, in fact, it is often very blurry. You may cross the border into the United States, but for the next 100 miles, you may be forced to show your ID or prove your a US citizen at a myriad of Border Patrol Checkpoints. So you are not really past the border once you step into the United States, it follows you, popping its head up and making you prove you belong on this side.
The border continues to follow you throughout Tucson. Every day, the green and white trucks of Border Patrol whiz up and down the city streets, reminding you of the ever present border. In the courtroom downtown, people’s lives are turned upside down on a daily basis as a judge rules they must return to the other side of the border, that they don’t belong on this side. In Southern Arizona, being 25 or 50 or 100 miles from the border is really meaningless. For some the border is always there. To me, that is why we live in the “Borderlands.” Whether we can see it or not, this land is shaped by the border, no matter how far away that border might be.
The borderlands and the myths/ideas surrounding a borderlands whether that is real or perceived is a subject of great importance but also of equally great confusion. A borderlands can exist anywhere where there is a space/gap between the familiar and unfamiliar. Whether this is within the realm of the material world or only within the minds of those living within it; the ramifications for those who exist outside of the familiar can all too often be isolation and unnecessary struggle. This also begs the question of what our role, as people of God, are in the face of this timeless struggle. Throughout many parts of the New Testament there are important reoccurring themes that reverberate throughout it. While they manifest themselves in different ways one of these central themes is simply to:
Live in Adversity
But what does this truly mean? I could spend countless pages; possibly whole books on what this fully entails but one thing is certain. That as believers we are called out of comfort, or the familiar, into the borderlands. Just like how a muscle cannot grow without first being torn or a skill learned without time and energy expended we are called to the borderlands to grow through necessary suffering. This allows us to not only grow stronger physically but also spiritually, and in doing so grow closer to God and our understanding of the work we are called to do.
At Community Home Repair, January and February are referred to as “SOOP Season.” This is in reference to the influx of new volunteers we get during these months through the Mennonite Church’s SOOP* program. Most SOOP volunteers are retired, and spend several months each year away from home, volunteering at a local non-profit. If that sounds a lot like YAV, well, it is! Just this week I went out into the field to make repairs with a SOOP volunteer named Doug. Doug and I are at very different places in our lives. He is now retired, and as we drove to our various jobs, he told me about all the places his career in the medical field took him. Unlike Doug, I am a recent college graduate, have never had a career, and have lived in only a handful of places during my life. Yet here we were, both brought to the desert by our respective churches sharing the common purpose of replacing a water heater and patching a roof.
*SOOP used to be an acronym, but following a controversy over the word “senior” to describe such an active bunch, the acronym was dropped.
This time of year has been busy at CHRPA for more reasons than simply the greater number of volunteers. I have been working with our Development Director, Carrie Nelson, on creating the inaugural CHRPA newsletter, and it should be launched next week! Additionally, CHRPA’s annual meeting is in two weeks, where we will be debuting another edition of CHRPA Tales. As I mentioned in the blog post “CHRPA Tales,” staff and long-term volunteers are required to write stories about their experiences at work. At each annual meeting, a book is presented containing a collection of stories written during the previous year. I have written a handful of stories, and I included one below from September. I hope you enjoy!
As a volunteer who began working at CHRPA in September, it was inevitable that my first month on the job would be filled with cooler repairs. After only several weeks working in the field, cooler repairs were already starting to feel routine. Most followed a similar pattern. You climb up onto the roof, clean or replace a few parts, sweat a lot, and voila, the client has cool air! Yet every once in a while, I come across a client that reminds me there is no such thing as “routine” at CHRPA.
One of the most remarkable client encounters I’ve had was with Diane. Claire and I arrived at her home one morning, and quickly learned that contractors had installed new parts on her cooler several weeks prior. Within minutes of climbing onto her roof and taking off the cooler pads, Claire and I realized the problem. While Diane’s cooler did indeed have new parts, they were installed incorrectly. It took us roughly twenty minutes to reinstall the parts correctly, and immediately, the cooler jumped to life, and Dianne’s home had cool air.
When we told Diane the good news, she teared up. With her voice shaking, she explained to us that the temperatures in her home had reached 95 to 100 degrees every afternoon for the past four weeks. One of my greatest joys each day is when I walk into my home after a long sweaty day in the field, and am greeted by a blast of cool air. Diane was deprived of that simple pleasure for almost a month. As I looked around her home, I only saw one small fan. I struggled to imagine a month where your only relief from triple digit heat is a fan the size of a textbook. But now, that was no longer Diane’s reality, she could be comfortable in her own home again. Later that afternoon, when Claire and I arrived back at the office, Kat informed us that Diane had left a voicemail soon after we left. We listened to the message where Diane described how a tall woman and a baby-faced young man (yes, that was me) had brought cool air back to her home and had treated her with kindness and dignity.
Some days at CHRPA can be a tiring slog. There are times when you’ve already been up on three roofs during a hot summer day, and the last thing you want is to climb up on another roof to repair another cooler. On those days, repairs can seem routine, or something to get through and move on to the next one. But it is during those moments when I think of Diane, and remind myself that what is our routine job is another person’s miracle.
A major part of the Young Adult Volunteer program is the placement of a volunteer with a community partner. That is, in each city, the YAV program has community partners, usually nonprofit organizations or churches, that are doing important work in the community that aligns with the YAV values. Although volunteers cycle in and out each year, the aim is to maintain strong partnerships between the local organizations and the YAV program for ages. This practice demonstrates the concept of volunteering or practicing mission where invited, alongside locals.
The Tucson Borderlands YAV site has a number of local partners doing exiting, challenging work in the Southern Arizona community. (Check them out on our local website!) This year, I am partnered with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. We call it the Florence Project, or FIRRP, for short. The Florence Project is the only nonprofit organization that provides free legal and social services to the 5,000 immigrants who are detained on any given day in Arizona. The Florence Project began in a small town called Florence, Arizona, but now has offices in Florence, Phoenix, and Tucson, with over 80 employees.
My specific placement with FIRRP is with the Children’s Program based out of the Tucson office. We service a 300 children facility that is located within the city of Tucson, a 50 children facility that is located about 1.5 hours away from Tucson, hidden away on the side of a mountain, and a 30 children long term foster care program in Tucson. Our team consists of three attorneys, four legal assistants, a social worker, and an administrative assistant. I essentially work in the capacity of a legal assistant. To best demonstrate the work that I do, I will describe a typical week in my life at the Florence Project.
Mondays are my least favorite days. No, not just because they are Mondays, but because they are office days. A typical Monday for me is spent solely in the office, not at shelters interacting with kids, which I have come to learn is my favorite part of this job. However, I recognize that the office work is also important as it is when I work on casework for clients, such as writing declarations, drafting dependency petitions, and completing asylum applications. On Monday afternoons, we have our weekly team meetings, at which all of the above-named people (attorneys, admin, and legal assistants) gather to discuss surfacing issues, protocol changes, and upcoming events. Immediately after team meeting, we launch into what is called Joint Case Review (JCR).
JCR is an opportunity to bring up any challenging cases so that all attorneys and legal assistants can strategize together and offer each other suggestions and support. JCR is also when legal assistants bring up new, pressing cases that they have identified at the shelters and try to convince an attorney to represent the child.** Because we have only three attorneys and we service 380 children, of course, not all of the children who need an attorney can have one. Sometimes I leave team meeting and JCR feeling encouraged, sensing strong teamwork. Sometimes I leave these meetings feeling defeated by the system and all of the barriers that it presents.
**An important parenthesis: immigrants in removal (read: deportation) proceedings are not guaranteed an attorney, like defendants are in criminal proceedings. This means that most migrants, including children, must defend themselves in a court of law in front of immigration judges, against government prosecutors. A study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, found that “only 37% of all immigrants, and a mere 14% of detained immigrants, secured representation” in asylum hearing.
On a typical Tuesday, one legal assistant heads to the detention facility within Tucson to deliver a Know Your Rights presentation at 8:30am. We alternate giving these presentations, and I am a regular in the rotation. By law, children must receive a Know Your Rights presentation within 10 days of arriving at the facility. This presentation is conducted in Spanish, and delivered in a kid-friendly way with colorful graphics, interaction, and role-play. Following the approximately 1.5 hour-long presentation, the other legal assistants arrive at the shelter to assist with intakes. Intakes are a basic legal screening that all children who arrive at the facility receive. They are conducted in a private room, where we (ideally) cannot be overheard, but can be observed by shelter staff through a window or camera. As legal assistants, we explain confidentiality, and assure the kids that anything they tell us will not be shared with facility staff, ICE, or even their parents, without their consent. We then ask a series of questions designed to determine what type of legal relief the child may be eligible for, and to screen for abuse by Border Patrol. Intakes usually last from 10 am to about noon.
If all goes well for a child, we will not meet with them again. The best case, and most common, scenario is that within weeks (but it is usually several months) of their arrival to the shelter, they will be reunified with a sponsor already living in the U.S., usually a relative or close friend. When they arrive to their destination, we contact them to assist in finding an attorney to represent them in their legal case, which generally endures for years and years after being released from detention. If a child does not have a sponsor, or if their sponsor is rejected by the government, then we meet with child again to discuss other options. They can opt for a voluntary departure, in which they ask the immigration judge permission to return to their home country. Or, if they have a strong enough legal case (read: traumatic enough life), and are under age 17.5, we can assist them in applying for placement in a Long Term Foster Care program.
After a lunch break, we return to the facility at 1 pm to conduct follow-ups. Follow-ups are a second, third, fourth, or umpteenth meeting with a child because they are our client or they need specific assistance with their case, like applying for Long Term Foster Care or have an upcoming court hearing. After follow ups, I return to the office and complete office work for the remainder of the afternoon.
Wednesdays are my favorite day of the week! Although it is an early morning for me, arriving at the office at 7:30 am, compared to the usual 8:30, it is the day with the most direct interaction, which I have come to find very life-giving. At 7:30 am, I meet one other legal assistant at the office and we begin the 1.5 hour trek to the shelter located on the other side of Mt. Lemmon. The four legal assistants each rotate who goes to this facility each week because it is a big time-commitment. My “pet-project”, that was envisioned prior to my arrival at the Florence Project and assigned to me by my supervisor on my first day, is overseeing this facility by being a “regular” there. The goal was to have a more consistent presence for the kids there and to improve the rapport between FIRRP and the facility staff. So, while the full-time legal assistants only go to this shelter once a month, I go every week.
Beginning around 9 am when we arrive, the colleague accompanying me that day gives a KYR presentation while I conduct follow-ups. My consistent presence at the shelter has been very beneficial for follow-ups. The kids know me; I know them. I know exactly where I am in their case and what needs to be discussed each week. Some highlights of these relationships have included a child who loves to practice a bit of English with me each week and sings me Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” a child making me a thread bracelet that has my full name in the design, and children genuinely thanking me for just saying hi and asking how they’re doing.
After KYR and follow-ups, the other legal assistant and I conduct intakes with each new kid. We usually do not leave the shelter until 1 or 2 pm, so by the time we return to the office, I am almost at an 8 hour day, so a little bit of office work, and then I bike home. Though Wednesdays can be long and draining, I love the opportunity to work with the kids who are at such an isolated facility, showing them as best that I can, that they are not forgotten.
My Thursdays have a structure identical to Tuesdays. As the end of my work week, though, I tend to get a surge of energy to tie up loose ends, followed by excitement for the weekend. (The Tucson YAV model is a four-day work week at our site placements, committing to 32 – 36 hours per week. Friday is a designated community day featuring community discussions, work related to vocational discernment, local educational and activism events, and fellowship with housemates.)
You can see that my weeks are very busy, filled with work that requires much background information (which is why this post was so long!) I am very grateful for all of the opportunities that the Florence Project has afforded me over the last five months, and I am grateful to the YAV program for providing me the opportunity to work with FIRRP. I have learned about the system and its flaws through my work. I have learned about my strengths and my flaws through my work. This experience has, so far, solidified my passion for working with children, migrants, and survivors of trauma. It has also caused me to realize that channeling those passions through the legal field may not be the best fit. But, more to come on that later! For now, I hope that this post has increased your awareness of what I do with 32 – 36 hours of my life each week! There is so much more to be said, so I welcome any questions.
I hope you all enjoy and learn something useful from this carefully crafted analysis of some of our shared values relating to my personal thoughts on the Border Immersion experience.
As a result of that week, I have been struggling with this idea of what is responsibility and what is my role in that? The word “responsibility” is built off the framework of the word response, or as an action verb, to respond. Now when you add the suffix -ibility (or ability) to the end the word literally translates to “the ability to respond or take action”. As I continue to perceive and bear witness to many events unfolding around me, I am left with one simple question. What is my personal and/or moral responsibility to respond and to what extent? Yet this opens even more avenues of exploration with even more questions to accompany it. This includes everything from the abstract and theoretical to the contextual and circumstantial. Then there is the question of where does my moral, ethical and personal values intersect in the face of all this???
In my struggles to try to perceive this issue from an open-minded angle I am again confronted with many contradictory facts and ideas that just seem to further compound the situation. I believe as part of our core being, we all struggle with this to some extent and fear where it may ultimately take us. This is often due to the answers lying outside our comfort zones in the realms of the unfamiliar. We are all, to some extent, quick to make assumptions on things at face value because it offers us an easy and simplified solution to difficult and often complex problems. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. In some cases, it can allow us to sort through large volumes of information so that we can get to the heart or core of the issue faster with less energy exerted in doing so. Unfortunately, this can also have far-reaching and often unintended consequences. In certain instances, we can quickly glance through information that may seem trivial to us in the moment but may contain important components that allow us to perceive and understand a problem in its entirety.
In some instances, we can neglect to take responsibility and instead scapegoat the problem somewhere else. By doing so we are not only removing ourselves from the equation, but we are also essentially saying that the solutions are beyond us in a way that completely negates our ability to do something about it. One way we let go of our responsibility (and our ability to act) is through letting go of it in a way that places it somewhere else. This can be done through the act of blame which is defined in the dictionary as assigning responsibility for a fault or wrong. The word blame has many origins but in the Latin sense it comes from a word known as “blastemare” which translates roughly to “to accuse or place responsibility upon”. Blame and its historical origins may also have connections to the origins of another word we know of today as “blasphemy”. I personally found this to be very intriguing because of how this understanding of the blame could affect our ability to have free will over a given situation? In many instances, are we voluntarily limiting ourselves and our own ability to act? And, more importantly, are we exercising this in situations where we need this the most?
In the face of all these questions I seemingly have no choice but to look to other sources. Perhaps at stories of when and where others have been confronted with this same dilemma. What were the conclusions in these situations? What about biblical narratives of people who were confronted with similar dilemmas? Two stories immediately come to mind. The first, the story of Adam and Eve. This narrative seems to have philosophical undertones relating to the initial roles of responsibility and blame in the context of the formation of later humans’ value systems. Now we must consider that, to a certain extent, these were individuals within a complex system and power hierarchy that was not fully understandable to them. We must then realize that many of us are in similar situation today, but… that still does not relieve them or us of our shared responsibilities in these situations. In this story let’s look at what happens after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. God, almost immediately, shows up and asks them to explain what has happened and where they have gone. After a bit of confusion Adam not only admits but blames his wife Eve for making them eat the forbidden fruit. Then, the next direct action is that Eve does the exact same thing to the snake. Would things have turned out differently if they had merely taken responsibility for their own personal role in the events that had just transpired? Possibly, but unfortunately those events never unfolded, and we are only left to guess.
Maybe there is more to this story. First, some context clues. I believe that we can all come to an understandable conclusion that the God of the Bible is a God of order and not chaos. When God first comes to the garden who does he call first? God calls for the person in charge which was… Adam. This seems (from my perspective) like a logical and orderly way of getting to the heart of the situation (verse 9). Yet, Adam’s response was to cast blame on Eve, who then cast blame on the snake, but the snake said or did nothing in its defense. It is the very fact that the snake said nothing in response to these accusations that I found somewhat confusing. Maybe we can logically assume this is due to the snake having nothing to say or because there is an omitted piece of information that is understood. Maybe, but not likely. This information in question is that while Adam and Eve both cast responsibility of the situation onto the snake it did not return the favor or even attempt to defend itself. Perhaps, by placing blame onto the snake they unknowingly also cast away their responsibility as well. If this is true, then this also implies that the snake is the only entity going forwards (other than God of course) who has all the responsibility. God is a God of order, so I believe we can go forward logically if just like before; God will respond in a way that acknowledges that hierarchy. In the very next verse (verse 14) God responds to who first? God responds next by condemning the snake, then condemning the woman and reversing what she did by saying “Your desire will be your husband, and he will rule over you”, and finally by condemning Adam. Reversing the order of the previous interaction between them. Maybe I’m reading too much into nothing but if I haven’t this has far-reaching importance. This leaves me with one thought: “If there is truth to this, then did they unknowingly hand over control of the world to the serpent?”
Let’s not forget about another biblical narrative. What about Jesus, the person who came according to the Biblical narrative to set it all straight? Time and time again we see Jesus taking responsibility and welcoming all of God’s creations into community with him regardless of their social, material, geographic, or physical standing in life. Jesus had every right to condemn and cast blame upon the unjust systems that would inevitably lead to his untimely demise. While he challenged many of the corrupt systems in place at the time, he also had this to say: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgement on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy you. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James Ch. 4 v. 11 and 12). This sentiment is again echoed in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus bravely professes to those who will listen by asking them how they can judge the speck of dust in their brothers and sisters’ eyes when they have not even begun to remove the plank from their own? A very hard-hitting question to say the least. Yet, despite seeing firsthand the ways humankind had corrupted a once pure world; Jesus still went forward and died as a “blameless” sacrifice for all regardless of this obvious fact. The fact that we were unworthy from every angle yet despite all this Jesus made us worthy by paying the ultimate sacrifice. God not only loved us before we learned to love, but God loved us even when we hated God. Now that is powerful.
Yet, what about the people themselves who are affected today? Many of whom are fleeing failing states, extreme violence, inescapable poverty, and inner cities ruled by gangs. Those who hear of the American dream and hear the stories that America is a very charitable, wealthy country made up of a melting pot of immigrants from across the globe can’t help but want some of that for themselves. In their hour of darkness many of them cling to this as their only candle of hope to guide them through this void they are surrounded by. So, the question then becomes, “Why don’t they just immigrate here legally if things are so horrendous?” Well… many of them try… and fail. This is because our system of application and visa processing is prehistorically outdated and cannot handle the sheer volume of possible applicants for starters. To give you an idea the current process is so inefficient that it can take up to an estimated 30 YEARS to be accepted for even a legal residency position (otherwise known as a green card). All the while, waiting outside a port of entry having to fees associated with the review process during this ordeal without even a guarantee of acceptance. This is no opinion either; this is what is currently being expressed to us by many who work in this field including lawyers who work in the courts, advocacy groups, and those we spoke with in the border towns of Aqua Prieta and Douglas. And just when it couldn’t get any more complicated… we haven’t even discussed asylum seekers, or those who are fleeing extreme persecution in their home countries or are under the threat of death/torture if they ever return.
I just want to finish by saying how thankful I am for all of you who take the time to read these entries and stay updated about this journey. I look forward in the new year to continuing to inform you all with updates about my time here.
Until then, Happy New Year!
On Friday the 30th we concluded with our border delegation/immersion experience with the Austin and Albuquerque YAV houses. Throughout the week we participated in many activities along the U.S. Mexico border to immerse ourselves within a variety of different perspectives and cultures based around those whose lives are affected by this situation on a continual basis. We spent time in and around the Douglas/Aqua Prieta port of entry. As part of this immersion experience, we visited many different facets of life along border communities. We spoke with the mayor of Douglas about the unique relationships border communities have with each other. We explored topics such as economic policies, education, and community structure as well as looking into how these concepts put in practice transcend traditional barriers. On the Mexican side we visited and spoke with families who have attempted to obtain a temporary visa and the issues they faced. There were also many types of community wealth we took part in observing. One such group is known as “Cafe Justo” and they are a fair-trade coffee cooperative working to help foster wealth for those in more distressed parts on the country. Another unintended side effect of increased border security is the costs to the black-market drug industry. While higher quantities of drugs are being stopped at the border due to increased security this also means that many of these illicit substances intended for US customers are now getting trapped along the border in border communities instead. This has resulted in a new epidemic along the southern border with treatment facilities on the rise to help remediate this issue. One such facility, the CRREDA, takes part in helping the community with substance abuse. The facility functions under a family structure model that focuses on the 12 steps and the beatitudes as the foundation of healing. Those who enter usually spend a minimum of 90 days.
On the last stop of our journey that week we witnessed the legal proceeding (known as Operation Streamline) taking place in Tucson’s court systems. These proceedings are a drastic step forward in combating illegal immigration by pushing as many as 70-90 people a day through Tucson’s courts in an effort to quickly combat illegal immigration while also minimizing the time/costs related with detention. Throughout these proceedings many of the defendants spoke Spanish but a few spoke different dialects and their level of comprehension at times was questionable at best. Usually 10 to 12 people were brought into the courtroom at a time. Then they would go down a line with the defendants being asked to yes or no questions about the nature of their detention. There was a translator and many of the lawyers spoke Spanish but I still at times questioned the overall level of comprehension among them. The law and your individual rights can at times be a complex and confusing animal even to someone raised in this country…
It’s about 9 pm on a Tuesday night. I’m in the back seat of our YAV car, the 1998 small Saturn that my housemates and I share. Alison is driving. Ryan and Tanner are fast asleep. We are on our way home from Agua Prieta/Douglas where we attended a binational Posada along the border wall, led by Frontera de Cristo. During and after the Posada, I chatted with new and old friends. As I sit in the backseat, look at the other people in this car, remember my evening, and reflect on my last four months, I feel a deep happiness bubbling inside of me. I love my life. It has been years since I have experienced this level of joy and contentment.
On Friday, three days from now, I will fly home to see family for Christmas. While I am excited to be with my loved ones, going home also means confronting family conflict and being in my small home town. I greatly appreciate the community I grew up in, but in some ways, I am very different than I was in high school. So although I am going home for the holidays, I am leaving the home and life that I have established in Tucson.
I did not instantly call Tucson home upon arrival. It took a while (a couple of months) to appreciate the city. In fact, during my first week here, I detested it. I told myself that it was only a year-long commitment, and I could return to Texas- or go anywhere- upon completion of my YAV year. Now, I am considering staying in Tucson, or in another part of Arizona, after the program concludes. I love the people here. I love the culture here. I don’t love the cacti yet, but they are growing on me.
My perception of the physical space in which I live has also transformed over the last four months. It was difficult to leave the cute one-bedroom apartment in San Antonio that was mine and Tanner’s first place together. Over the year and a half that we lived there, I meticulously decorated and organized every inch of that apartment. Moving into a new house with others meant relinquishing some of that control and perfectionism. I was overwhelmed when we first moved into our house. I did not expect the physical space adjustment to be as difficult as it was. The house that I moved into four months ago with two strangers, 50 dinner plates, and four mismatching couches, has become a cozy home.
My life in Tucson has come to feel like home. It has come to mean comfort, adjustment, learning, growing, challenging myself, developing relationships, and speaking up. I am nervous to leave all of that. As I prepare to “leave home” for the holidays, I hope to take with me my newfound confidence and joy. And the best part is, I get to come back in January!
As always, thank you for reading my blog. Part of gaining confidence and using my voice this year has come via my blog, so your readership means a lot to me! Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone!
When I first contemplated how I would format my blog post about the Border Delegation, I thought that I would title it, “Hurt and Hope,” and describe the ways in which I observed and experienced both throughout the week. I quickly realized, though, that sorting my experiences that way was too binary. Most of what I saw and learned encompassed hints of both hope and hurt. At church the Sunday after our Border Delegation concluded, Pastor Bart Smith spoke in his sermon about Emmanuel: God with us. He said that emmanuel is forever and ongoing. With it being the beginning of advent, he posed the question, “When is a good time for love to be born?” In my mind, I considered, “When is a good time to migrate?” Inspired by the sermon, I arrived at this title and framework: Emmanuel in the Borderlands.
Emmanuel at Café Justo
Café Justo (translated: fair or just coffee) is a coffee cooperative owned and operated by farmers in Chiapas, Mexico. The coffee is grown in Chiapas and roasted in Agua Prieta. It is sold in Mexico, the U.S., Canada, and France, mostly at churches. During our time in Agua Prieta, we were given a tour of the roasting facility and learned about their operations from Café Justo employees, Daniel and Adrián. Café Justo began in 2002 with a microloan from Frontera de Cristo. Many farmers from Chiapas were migrating to Northern Mexico or to the United States because the price of coffee fell so dramatically in the 1990s that they could no longer support themselves or their families. Community and family unity suffered greatly. In response to the economic and social crisis, Café Justo was formed as a way to cut out the middle man in the coffee growing and selling process so that the farmers in Chiapas could receive a fair price for their beans. In addition to being paid a fair price for the fruit of their labor, farmers who are part of the cooperative receive benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans. Now, some of the original farmers are retiring, and their children are working as part of the co-op. The same families that would have been separated by migration as a result of environmental and economic factors out of their control, are now living and working intergenerationally and have the resources to invest in their community.
When is a good time to migrate?
Emmanuel in a Family’s Home
One evening during our time in DouglaPrieta, we were welcomed into the home of a young family: Flor, Miguel, and their daughter, Aleyda. We were a group of 13 people, but our hosts were very hospitable and generous. Flor prepared a lentil soup that we garnished with cilantro, onions, and lime. She served us pitchers full of agua fresca- piña, my favorite! Most of the time we were there, Aleyda, who is five, was in a side room watching cartoons and coloring with her dad. She wore shiny bows in her hair, and produced a shy smile when we asked her questions.
After enjoying la cena, Flor and Miguel spoke to us candidly about life on the border. Flor grew up in Agua Prieta; Miguel in Chiapas. Due to a lack of job opportunities over a decade ago, Miguel migrated to the U.S. He explained that during his time in the United States, he only left his home to go to work. He lived in constant fear of any interaction with law enforcement. One day, while on his way to work, the vehicle he was in was pulled over, I think for mechanical issues. Miguel was the only individual in the vehicle who did not have authorization to work, so he was taken to the immigrant detention facility in Florence, Arizona. (Some of my colleagues at the Florence Project provide legal services to individuals detained there). Miguel described his six months imprisoned there as difficult and ugly. I could see in his facial expressions and hear in his words that he had many painful memories of Florence. After six months of trying to obtain a work permit, but with no avail, Miguel decided to sign an order of deportation and return to Mexico. He ended up in Agua Prieta and applied for a job at a maquiladora, or factory. Flor was a new hire at the same maquiladora at that time. Also limited by economic opportunity, many Agua Prieta folks work at factories run by multinational cooperations that are located near the border due to lax labor and tax laws. Although Miguel annoyed Flor at first because he asked many questions during work orientation, they eventually became friends and are now married with a child.
As a United Statesian, I often have had the perception that people in Mexico are miserable. Especially people who live near the border, I thought, must have terrible lives filled with violence and despair. That is the opposite of what I experienced in the home of Flor, Miguel, and Aleyda. They were hopeful. They were hospitable. They were healthy. They were happy. Miguel said, “We have problems, like all families do, but we are very content to live in this community.”
When is a good time to migrate?
When is a good time for a child to be born?
Emmanuel at Operation Streamline
The part of our week in which it was the most difficult to believe Emmanuel: God with us was when we observed Operation Streamline in Tucson. Operation Streamline is a two hour-long, mass federal prosecutorial hearing that occurs every afternoon. Each day 70 to 80 individuals are prosecuted for a misdemeanor or a felony, solely related to entering the country not at a port of entry. If an individual has only entered once, and has not been deported, they generally plead guilty to a misdemeanor and are then turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) where they will be detained for months before being deported or, if they are statistically lucky, released to live in the U.S. If an individual has a prior deportation on their record, they are prosecuted for a felony and a misdemeanor, but will usually plead guilty to the misdemeanor so the felony is dropped. They are sentenced to 30 to 180 days in federal prison, after which they will be turned over to ICE and spend several months in detention until being deported, or if EXTRA statistically lucky, released.
Our group of 13 and another group of folks on a church/border education trip entered a massive federal court room and were seated in the back. Many attorneys sat in the jury box. All of the usual court personnel was there: a judge, a secretary, an interpreter, and many federal marshals. When the judge was ready to begin, a group of seven people wearing street clothes, handcuffs, ankle shackles, and chains around their waists came out from a side door, had headphones were placed on their ears (they could not do it themselves because of the handcuffs), and stood in front of the judge. Seven of the attorneys stepped down from the jury box and stood behind each defendant. The judge went down the line of people asking them to verify their names, read them their rights, asked if they wanted to waive their right to a trial, read them their charges, and asked for their plea. She would usually read the full text (for an example, the rights) to the first or second person in line. She would say, “Do you understand your rights as I just explained?” By the third, fourth, fifth, person in the order, she would just say, “Same question.” It was apparent that efficiency, not comprehension or justice, was the name of the game. After each defendant pleaded guilty to their charges, whether they really understood them or not, the group of seven would be escorted out, and another group of seven would be escorted in. This process was repeated about ten times. It was uncomfortable, sad, and shameful to watch people being treated like this, especially in a U.S. court room. It was very difficult to feel the presence of God in that room.
Among the approximately 70 humans who we saw in chains standing in front of a judge who spoke to them in complex legal terminology in a foreign language, were a pregnant woman, indigenous language speakers whom the judge coerced into using the Spanish interpreter even if comprehension was limited, and boys who appeared and sounded to be 14 or 15 years old, but told the judge they were 18.
One defendant broke out of the mechanical saying “Sí” to all of the judge’s questions, and decided to speak up when given the opportunity. I have contemplated his story several times over the last few weeks. Jorge was one of the individuals who had a prior deportation on his record, so he was being charged with a felony and sentenced to time in a federal prison. When the judge asked, “Do any of the defendants want to say anything?” Jorge bravely said yes. He approached the microphone and asked the judge if his sentence could be reduced. He explained that he is a single father, and his United States citizen daughter is in Mexico. The longer his prison sentence, the longer he would be separated from his daughter. It seemed like what he wanted was to quickly be deported so that he could return to caring and providing for her. The judge said, “I’m sorry to hear that, but I have no control over sentencing. It’s between your attorney and the government.” Jorge was sentenced to 180 days, six months, in a U.S. federal prison.
When is a good time to migrate?
Emmanuel at the Port of Entry
During our time in Agua Prieta, we had the pleasure of sharing a meal with migrants who were temporarily living at a shelter on the Mexican side of the border. There was a variety of identities present at the shelter, called C.A.M.E. There were a couple of Honduran and Guatemalan families. There were three Mexican men who had spent the majority of their lives in the U.S. There was a group of Honduran transgender women. The C.A.M.E. volunteers and the migrants collaborated to prepare a delicious dinner, do dishes, and clean. We tried to wash our own dishes and sweep, but as their guests, they generously cleaned up after us. While we ate, we had the honor of hearing their stories, sharing in their pain, joking and laughing.
Migrants are at this shelter, usually, waiting to cross into the United States. There is a small port of entry between Agua Prieta and Douglas. If a migrant sets foot on U.S. soil and expresses a desire to apply for asylum to a government official, U.S. and international law dictates that the person has the right to stay in the United States (often in detention) while fighting for asylum in immigration court. Entering the U.S. at a port of entry is the best way to do this because it is safer than crossing the desert or the Río Grande. It also carries less potential legal backlash than does entering not at a port of entry (see Operation Streamline, above). However, the number of people who can approach a port of entry and request asylum is limited. And, the number has been decreasing in recent months. (I discussed this phenomena in my post about El Paso.) The Agua Prieta/Douglas port of entry is small, but it has the capacity to process eight asylum seekers per day. In recent weeks, it has been processing maybe one or two people per day. So, some of the folks we met at C.A.M.E. were waiting to go to the port of entry and request asylum, but they had been turned away day after day.
During our dinner at C.A.M.E., we met María. She wore her hair in a pony tail, and had a beautiful smile. María was traveling with her 13 year-old daughter, Julisa, who was wearing a blue shirt with white buttons when I met her. The morning following our shared dinner, María and Julisa were planning to go to the port of entry, bright and early, accompanied by C.A.M.E. volunteers. Before leaving that night, we wished them luck and safe travels. The next day we were busy with our scheduled programming. We spent most of the day in Agua Prieta, but around 4 pm, we were crossing the border to participate in a prayer vigil in Douglas. As we approached the port of entry, we saw María and Julisa. Sitting on the concrete. Waiting. They told us that they had been there since 7 a.m., but had not yet been allowed to set foot on U.S. soil to request asylum. We were in a hurry to get to the prayer vigil, so we did not talk for long. We pulled our U.S. passports out of our pockets and were in the U.S. within minutes. After the prayer vigil, some members of our group returned to the port of entry with food, coats, and sleeping bags for María and Julisa. Although they could have returned to C.A.M.E. for the night, they decided to sleep on the concrete in the cold because they didn’t want to “lose their place in line.”
María was eight months pregnant, with bronchitis.
When is a good time for a baby to be born?
When is a good time to migrate?
Where is Emmanuel?
As we are now in advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus, I am trying to identify Emmanuel in my life. I am trying to consider where God is with me. I experienced God in the faces and in the lives of Daniel, Adrián, Flor, Miguel, Aleyda, Jorge, María and Julisa. I experienced God in the many life-changing ministries of Frontera de Cristo. I experienced God in the DouglaPrieta community. I experienced God in the hope and in the hurt. As Pastor Bart said, Emmanuel is forever and ongoing.
When is a good time to migrate?
When is a good time for a baby to be born?
When is a good time for love to be born?
Flash blogs are short posts written to a shared prompt during community discussion time -- with a ten minute time limit. This practice helps us get used to blogging, stay in communication with our followers, and challenge ourselves to not overthink how we share with the world. Please excuse any typos or errors. See each YAV's response to this shared prompt below!
Oh man, Alison gave us a tough prompt for this flash blog. As soon as she said it, my mind began to race through the past three months trying to come up with an answer. The answer I will settle on is cleanliness. I have lived in a clean environment all my life. My parents kept my childhood home well maintained, I always cleaned my dorm room in college, and (for the most part) my housemates and I work hard to maintain a clean space in our YAV house. What I have learned from working at CHRPA is that cleanliness is a luxury that many do not have.
As part of my job, I walk into many people’s homes, and the reality is that most are not clean. I have seen varying levels of disorganization, clutter, and hoarding during my three months on the job. I will admit, my gut reaction is to make a snap judgement. Why would someone live this way? I often think. Yet when you talk to homeowners, there are so many layers behind their living situations. Elderly or disabled clients lack the physical mobility to move about their house or do chores. Other clients juggle multiple jobs while raising a family, so there is no time left in their day to tend to household matters. Still, others may have lived their whole lives in poverty, so it may be hard for them to throw things away.
The point is, anytime that voice pops into my head asking me to make a snap judgement, I try to step back and see the big picture. The virtue of maintaining a clean home is ingrained in us all our lives. Afterall, the saying goes “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” But the more I see, the more I realize this attitude is just another way to shame those who lack the privilege of having extra time and resources that they can use to take care of their home. I am grateful that I have the ability to live in a home that is “clean”, but I am actively trying to separate the morality and judgement that can so often by tied into the arbitrary definition of what makes a home clean.
Things are currently going well for us in Tucson. I am currently very thankful for my home community. We have our differences, but I am so happy to see how much progress we have made towards creating a well balanced intentional community. My fellow house mates (Tanner, Dakota, and Miranda) are all great people and I feel as though in such a short time we have gotten to know each other very well and I am equally excited to see where this journey will take us next. Though this year has already had many unexpected surprises and challenges I feel confident that I can look to my community for guidance in my time of need and feel reassured with their responses. I feel so grateful to be here and experiencing all of this alongside those who felt called to support me through your prayers and interest in our work. I encourage you to also look at the current YAV page on the Presbyterian website and read some my other housemates blogs so that you can get a better picture of our journey/challenges/passions and whatever else we are currently going through.
Thank you all and I am so excited to see where this journey will take all of us next!
During our community discussion time on Friday, November 16, we were given 10 minutes to write on the prompt: What is something you are grateful for that you used to not be grateful for?
Due to luck of birth, being born in the United States to a middle class family, I have almost always had hot showers and baths, with the exception of a sibling using up all of the hot water before I showered. I remember as a child I would stay in the bath tub playing, singing, enjoying the water, for hours! My mom would say, “Why are you still in there? The water is cold now!”
As a teenager, a hot shower was one of the places I could go to escape from the stress of high school academia, scholarship applications, and social anxieties. I was in the habit of taking showers first thing before bed, which was often in the wee hours of the morning. Especially during the winter months in Wyoming, I would take a hot shower, then run into my room where I turned my furnace on full-blast and laid in front of it until I was lulled to sleep.
All of this to say, I have regularly enjoyed hot showers in my life, but I usually took them for granted. I didn’t stop to think, “Wow, I am thankful for that steamy shower!” There have been two periods in my life in which I distinctly remember not having access to hot showers. First, was when I was studying abroad in Ecuador. According to the study abroad program I went through, our host families were supposed to provide us with hot water. My host family said that my shower should have been hot, but it was only about 5% of the time. (I thuuuuuuroughly enjoyed those 5% days). I became used to the cold or, if lucky, lukewarm temperatures, and adapted. I executed my shower routine in record time, and then quickly went into my bedroom and crawled under the covers to warm up.
The second period of time in which I did not have hot showers, was when I moved into our YAV house in August. During the summer months, the cool showers didn’t feel too bad. As October approached, though, the cold showers were uncomfortable. I talked about it with my housemates, and it seemed that we were all experiencing the same shivery showers. At first, we accepted the cold water as part of our house, and jokingly chalked it up to be part of simple living. After a while (as outside temperatures dropped) we decided to ask our landlord/maintenance guy about it. He came over the same day we called, and with one twist of a knob, solved our problem! Apparently our water heater was set to “cool,” likely because of the summer months, and because the house was vacant for about six weeks before we arrived. We now have the luxury of hot showers!
This small example of shower temperatures reminds me of a few of the larger ideas that underlie the YAV program. First, it caused me to recognize my privilege. I have had the privilege to access hot water throughout my life. I had the privilege to call a maintenance person who came and fixed our problem for free. Second, I was reminded that I, nor my housemates, knew everything. It was a simple fix, but we were clueless. I was reminded that as a YAV, I should try not to come into a community or to a setting assuming that I know everything. I should try to rely on the expertise of the locals and those who were here before me, and may be here long after I leave.
The staff members at Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona (CHRPA), the organization I am serving with during my YAV year, are required to write two stories a month about their experiences providing home repair services to low-income clients. The motivation behind this requirement is CHRPA’s belief that the best way to convey their work and impact to the general public is through the art of storytelling. Each February, our Development Director compiles stories written during the past twelve months into a book called “CHRPA Tales.” As a volunteer, I am not exempt from the two stories a month rule. Therefore, I thought this blog would be a great place to merge my writing for YAV and writing for CHRPA. Periodically, I will publish a story I wrote for CHRPA to give you a better sense of my ongoing work with this organization. Below you will find a story I wrote about a client I visited in September, during my second week as a volunteer. Enjoy!
Note: All names in this story have been changed for sake of privacy.
How do you respond when someone you have known for merely six hours shows you overwhelming gratitude, especially when you feel that gratitude is unwarranted? That is a question I wrestled with during my second week at CHRPA.
For context, I started at CHRPA with no prior experience in home repair. Before this year, the only tools I had ever used were a screwdriver, a hammer, and occasionally, a drill. During my first weeks as a volunteer, I was constantly learning about new tools and new methods of repair, and my head was spinning trying to keep it all straight. The people I worked with were excellent teachers, taking the time to answer my questions and exhibiting patience when I made inevitable mistakes. Still, my lack of prior knowledge meant the amount of help I could actually offer my coworkers on jobs was minimal. I knew this would change and I would eventually find my stride, but at first, I was constantly humbled by how little I knew.
Shortly after I began volunteering, I was assigned to assist Kelly with replacing major portions of an air duct in a client’s home. Air ducts were something I admittedly knew little about. I was fairly sure that air travelled through them, and they also seemed to be great places to crawl through buildings undetected in spy movies, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Kelly, on the other hand, has decades of experience in electrical work and a myriad of other fields, so I felt confident that the client and I were in good hands.
When we arrived at the home of Leticia and her husband, Diego, she gave us a large, warm smile and immediately offered us coffee and water. Kelly and I got to work and the project took us the entire day. We had to cut out the old ducts, retrofit and trim the new ducts to fit the space, install them, cut out parts of the wall, add new support beams, and clean up the mess we made. Kelly led the way, while I held what needed to be held, cut what needed to be cut, and swept what needed to be swept. I also listened and watched as Kelly explained each step of the process to me. Sure, I helped, but I was not an integral component in bringing back cool air to Leticia and Diego’s home.
This fact would not have been evident if you went by Leticia’s reaction. She praised and thanked both Kelly and I throughout the day, telling us how impressed she was by “our” work, and how helpful and smart we were. She went on to explain that this used to be the type of job Diego, who worked in construction for decades, could have done, but age had slowed them both down. She beamed with pride when she recounted how they had both worked hard their entire life to raise a family and maintain their home. Leticia thanked us again as we were leaving, and gave us a bag of homemade tamales, salsa, and candy for the rod.
I will admit, Letica’s gratitude made me uncomfortable at several points throughout the day, mainly because I felt it was unearned. Why should she be thanking me? She and her husband were the ones who had worked so hard to provide for their family for so long, and Kelly was the one who had the skills and knowledge to complete the job. There were times during the day when all I was doing was watching and listening. In the moments Leticia thanked me, I would smile and nod, but inside I couldn’t shake this feeling that it was somehow wrong for me to accept her thanks.
As Kelly and I were driving back, she told me something that shifted my perspective. She explained that it was fairly common for clients to offer us food or gratitude. She went on on to explain how clients often don’t want to feel like they’re being given a “handout”, and by thanking us or giving us a small token of appreciation, they feel like they’re part of an exchange of goods, not just simply being given something. I can see how this exchange creates dignity on both sides. Leticia felt grateful for our work, and she wanted to share her gratitude with us. By accepting her food and hospitality, we are validating her as a person, and acknowledging that we are not the only ones giving something to her, she is giving something to us as well.
Each week I continue to come across clients that display extravagant generosity. While I have developed more confidence in my abilities and knowledge, there is still much I do not know, and I constantly have to rely on the wisdom and experience of the volunteers and staff around me to complete jobs. One thing I do know now is how to respond when a client shows gratitude towards me, whether it was earned or unearned: a smile and a “you’re welcome”.
It’s October, which means playoff baseball! I started following the sport when I was eight, and it has been a huge part of my life ever since. A remarkable trait of baseball is its consistency. The game has been played in essentially the same form for over a century. This consistency can be a great comfort in a world that is changing rapidly on a micro and macro level. Whether I am watching a baseball game on the TV of my childhood home, in a dorm room with friends, or on my laptop in the YAV house in Tucson, it is the same game.
Occasionally during a baseball game, the players will toss the ball around the horn. This is when the infielders toss the ball amongst themselves after a strikeout occurred with no men on base. The primary purpose of the exercise is to keep the fielders loose during the inning. In honor of playoff baseball, I thought I would use this blog post to go around the horn, and do a brief check in with three components of my life as a Tucson Borderlands Young Adult Volunteer: Faith, Work, and Community.
This Sunday, we completed our Southern Arizona church tour! Our site coordinator, Alison, arranged for us to visit various churches across the Tucson area during our first month and a half as YAVs. Our house visited Trinity, Southside, St. Mark’s, Holy Way, St. John on the Desert, and Mountain Shadows Presbyterian Church. The purpose of these visits were to introduce us to the various Presbyterian worshipping communities in the Tucson area, connecting us with the wider faith community we are a part of in this city. Each church was unique, but the one thing they all shared was radical hospitality. We introduced ourselves to the congregations, and they responded with warmth, curiosity, and joy. Now that we are done visiting churches as a group, each YAV will choose their own worshipping community to be a part of. While I have not made up my mind where I will worship, I know I will be fully welcomed wherever I choose.
I am now a month into my work at Community Home Repair Projects of Southern Arizona. As the seasons change, we have less and less cooler repairs, but our work of fixing roofs, plumbing, flooring, electricity, and everything in between continues. The cooler weather has transformed my morning commute by bike. What used to be a hot and sweaty slog is now a cool and breezy ride. I have also started to split my time between working in the field and in the office. Two days of the week I am out making repairs, and the other two days I am in the office helping CHRPA’s Development Director, Carrie, with various tasks ranging from grant writing to data entry. This past thursday, I worked on and submitted my first grant for CHRPA to Wells Fargo!
One realization I have recently come upon is that being a YAV is not merely being a part of one community, it is being a part of many communities. Over the past month, I have began to form communities with my housemates, co-workers, church congregants, and Tucson residents. The community that I have the most interactions with is our YAV house. We have known each other for over two months now. This means we have a degree of comfort with each other, and can laugh together, dive into deep topics together, and, sometimes, disagree together. It has been a rewarding experience to get to know Ryan, Miranda, and Dakota, and to hear their fears, realize their strengths, and appreciate their senses of humor. And yes, I realize I included my wife in that list. Despite having known her before YAV, this experience has taught me even more about her, mainly just how much strength, resilience and compassion she has within her.
Thank you for going around the horn with me. As the year goes on, I will try to occasionally do this exercise to continue to give you a sense of the life of a Tucson YAV.