Hi everyone! Last Sunday, we were invited up to Holy Way Presbyterian Church in Tucson to speak some more about our experience as YAVs. This is what I had to say for my sermon:
“For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it. He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God…”
-Ephesians 2: 14-19
Thanks to all of you for inviting us to be present and to speak this morning here at Holy Way. I have been watching and reading much, in the past few weeks and months, about the upcoming Presidential elections. It has been strange to live in Mexico- specifically, on the border- during a time in which there has been so much discourse about so-called “border security” in national media. Most people I’ve met here in the borderlands since my arrival on September 5th are dismayed, even scared, by the possibility of seeing further militarization and deeper division along the border. I, for one, don’t know that our southern border policy currently accomplishes much other than to criminalize the poor who attempt to come to the United States and look for work. During my time as a YAV, I have privately struggled to intellectualize the issue and figure out what would be the ideal way to stem the flow of drugs and organized crime into our country, while allowing law-abiding citizens to pass freely between the United States and Mexico. But I haven’t quite figured that one out yet. Bad on me, I guess.
But whatever political opinions we come to on our own, I think it’s important to remember that those who come here are not simply part of a “brown wave,” or looking to “steal jobs from good, hard-working Americans.” They are people, with hopes, aspirations, fears, and dreams, just like you and I. They are people who simply want to escape poverty or violence in their homelands, and feel they have no other choice but to leave. I will tell you now about one of them whom I just met Thursday in the MRC.
His name is Javier. We didn’t exchange many words on this particular day. But after he had already eaten with a group of men from the overnight migrant shelter, I simply asked if he would like some of my juice. He declined, and asked instead (very politely) if he could use our telephone to call his girlfriend in El Paso. “Of course,” I told him. She wouldn’t get off work until at least 4 o’clock, however. So Javier settled into the chair in front of where I sat, at the desk in our office, at the back of the MRC. And he waited, and waited some more. After a few moments, he spoke again, and I realized he was tearing up.
“Es que quiero buscar a Dios, hermano, pero no sé cómo…” he managed, as a tear dripped from his face. “I want to search for God, brother, but I don’t know how…” I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I just sat with him and waited patiently, hoping he would tell me more about himself. Javier and I sat in silence a bit longer, then I asked him where he was from, if he had been to the United States, and where his family was. He told me he was from Chihuahua, that he had family back there as well as in San Diego, El Paso, and Denver. He had spent time with his family in all three cities, but was separated from them now. He helped himself to a Kleenex as he was telling me this, and I asked him what he was planning to do next- re-enter the States, or go back to his aunts’ home in Chihuahua. He wasn’t sure, but underscored that he definitely wanted to leave Agua Prieta as soon as he could. I loaned him the phone now, and he called his girlfriend in El Paso. She must not have gotten home from work right on time; the first two times we called, she wasn’t there. After a few more minutes went by, Javier tried again, and she answered. They spoke briefly, while I tried not to listen in, and respect their privacy. When Javier was finished, he hung up, and seemed visibly reassured. He thanked me, and turned to walk out. “Dios está contigo,” I told him, as he walked out, and he thanked me once again.
Others I’ve spoken with in the MRC the past couple of days have had to hitch rides all along the Mexican border recently- from Monterrey to Matamoros to Naco and back to Agua Prieta- in order to get where they are now. They are, in the most literal sense, sojourners- strangers in a place strange to them. But we are, of course, fellow citizens of the world. And as Christians, we believe that we are all beloved by God. As we go forth, let’s work to make all with whom we share this earth feel a bit more beloved. Let’s remember Javier.
I’m heading home early tomorrow morning, and pretty excited about it. I’ve missed my family and friends from home lately, and I can’t wait to see them again. Christmas, as always, is sure to be a fun time filled with lots of company, good food, and warmth- literally. But over the past couple months, I’ve seen firsthand just how many people struggle to afford such material comforts. Lately, I haven’t been seeing too many people coming in for help at work, because the Border Patrol has been sending deportees back through Nogales. (It’s easier for them, coming straight down south from Tucson.) But in years past, (so I’ve been told by other fellow volunteers and community members) as many as 30, 40, or more people were coming into the Migrant Resource Center every single day for lunch.
I haven’t had nearly that kind of flow since I’ve been here. A couple weeks ago, we had about 6 or 7 middle-aged men who were staying at the local Catholic shelter, and they came for lunch every single day. Therefore, I’ve been able to spend some time with individual people, learn their names and backgrounds, and even develop some friendships. Here I’ll tell you a bit about just one person I met this past Saturday.
Over the weekend, our YAV site coordinator Alison was visiting with the folks who comprise our Steering Committee, and we had agreed to meet at the Migrant Resource Center, my workplace. A young man came in. Melissa attended to him, warming up some burritos in the microwave so he could have something to eat, and I didn’t pay him much attention at first, since the group of us was getting ready to tour the town and find somewhere to have lunch. But after a couple of minutes, I left our office area to go over and grab some supplies from the storage area. As I walked by the young man, I asked him if he had eaten enough- I expected him, like most other migrants who I’d seen up until this point, to say, “Yes, thank you!” or “Yes, of course!” or something to that effect. But he answered no, that he was still very hungry. And so I went back to the refrigerator and got some more burritos ready for him.
I knew that the group was getting ready to leave, and figured this would probably take a little while, so I told Alison to have the group go on without me to their first stop, and then come back for me in a little bit. As the group made its way outside, the young man asked me for a change of pants, socks, and shoes. I told him he was welcome to come back into the office space and choose from among the clothing we had available. He said he had been walking too much, and as he picked out what he needed, he removed his footwear. While I didn’t look too closely, I could tell his feet were not in good shape- he had some patches of skin between his toes that looked black, and an unpleasant smell reached me from the other side of the room. I wasn’t sure what to offer him for blisters other than some Neosporin and Band-aids; he gladly accepted them.
By this point, the guy had already had two servings of burritos, but I could tell he was still hungry. So while I prepared him some Ramen noodles, I finally got around to asking his name. Santiago, he told me. And then he went on to tell me why he had been walking so much. He hadn’t been deported, but he had tried to cross the border somewhere over to the east, by Chihuahua. He said the Border Patrol had found him, but that he had managed to escape and cross back into Mexico closer to the Douglas/Agua Prieta area. Why was he trying to cross?, I wanted to know. He said he was trying to get to Tucson to see his mother. His brother lived there as well, and had just recently had a baby boy. But the baby had died unexpectedly, and the funeral was planned for sometime in the next couple days (meaning today or tomorrow, at this point). It seems tragic to think that anyone should have to break or flee the law simply trying to reunite with family for such a tender, heart-breaking occasion.
People cross the border undocumented for a variety of reasons- this case is probably the most unique I’ve encountered to date. I didn’t think to ask his age yesterday, but Santiago seemed around my own age. As I sit here typing, counting down the minutes until my shuttle leaves to take me up to Tucson on my way home, I’m haunted by what Santiago told me about his own experience. I would hate to have to go through what he did just to try and reunite with my family. No one deserves that.
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I have been mulling over this blog for a long time now. I can’t even remember the last time I blogged to be honest. So forgive me if this one is a bit long and preachy (or radical).
The thoughts all began at a local coffee shop in Douglas, AZ. This place is great: delicious food, a really interesting owner, and a very solid artsy vibe going on the whole place. It’s really a unique business for Douglas. Around the coffee shop, they have different pieces of art from local artists. It was one of these pieces that really caught my eye. This painting had three people on it, all of who were darker skinned (possibly Middle Eastern). And with those people was the phrase “Pray for ISIS”. At first I was taken aback. What? Pray for ISIS? Those horrible people? Why would someone be praying for them?! However, as I began thinking about it, I realized that we SHOULD pray for ISIS. Not because we support them or believe in what they’re doing. Nor because we want them to instantly become Christians. We should pray for ISIS because that’s what God calls us to do. In Matthew 5, verses 44 and 45, it clearly says “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those for persecute you, so you may be sons (and daughters) of your Father in heaven”. Even horrible people we completely disagree with deserve our prayer.
Then, over the past two days, we have had discussions here in Douglas over the topic of being a Welcoming City. These talks involved the mayor of Douglas, Pastor Brad, a pastor from a presbytery in Arizona, and Pastor George, a Syrian pastor who lived in Syria then Lebanon before finally coming to the US as a refugee. The three of them discussed what it meant to be welcoming from their point of view, and how we as Christians and Americans could be more welcoming to our brothers and sisters from around the world. One thing that really stuck out for me came from Pastor Brad. He said, “Binary conversation cannot help us find a third way”. For those of you who don’t know, binary is a system representing numbers, letters, images, commands and sounds that uses ONLY 0 and 1. It is essentially a two-sided issue. Us vs. them, Republican vs. Democrat, conservative vs. liberal, Christian vs. Muslim, white vs. people of color, Border Patrol vs. migrants, the haves vs. the have-nots. Having these constant two forces fighting each other will never allow us to come together to create a third way, a way to truly help our fellow brothers and sisters throughout the world. Only by doing something radical and different are we able to break the norm and create a new conversation.
I believe that is what Jesus has called us to do. He wants us to do something completely unheard of. He wishes us to reach out to those different from us, those across the political aisle, and those who are considered “lesser”. I believe that Jesus didn’t come necessarily to create a new religion, but to help us cross the gap and work with those different from us so that “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on EARTH as it is in Heaven”. Jesus calls us to do something different. So please, join me in doing something radical and different. Something possibly unheard of.
Pray for ISIS. Pray for Trump. Pray for our brothers and sisters who are discriminated and killed purely for their skin color. Pray for the police officers that discriminate and kill them. Pray for refugees around the world and for those who oppose or support them. Pray for Border Patrol and for the migrants who are crossing our borders without papers. And pray that we may learn, day by day, how to break out of this binary conversation and move into a third way. A way that lets’ us work together to bring God’s kingdom of justice and love here to Earth for everyone.
This past weekend, Jake, Brenda, Melissa and I went to Tucson to help out with a fundraising event Friday night at St. Mark’s Presbyterian, to benefit both Cafe Justo (the coffee co-operative here in Agua Prieta) and a local family-run pottery business. We were also invited to give a sermon in front of the congregation Sunday morning, taking turns speaking about our experience so far working here. The following is a copy of what I wrote in preparation for my turn; since it turned out to be longer than I realized, what I actually said in church was shorter than this. So if you like, you get to read the whole thing!
So! Everything is still going quite well here in Agua Prieta. However, I would like to share a couple of things that have happened and the insight they gave me into this crazy thing called a YAV year.
Earlier in the week, Chris and I were transporting some blankets across the border to distribute to various organizations in Agua Prieta. These blankets have been in the Frontera De Cristo garage for a while now, so we wanted to go ahead a cross them over to clear some space for organizing. Plus, with the cold nights of winter coming, there is a greater need to have them now. Our plan was to start off crossing enough blankets for CRREDA, the drug and alcohol addiction center in AP. Our first time crossing a batch over went perfectly; we loaded up the car and went right across, got the green light and were good to go! So, for the second run, we thought to ourselves “we can totally carry over more blankets!” since we’d also heard that crossing used blankets over was no biggie whatsoever! (Mexico apparently has super weird rules on what you can or cannot cross over-they’re random and super inconsistent).
However, on the second time crossing, Chris and I got a red light. Still no big deal right? A Customs agent had told us that crossing used blankets in fine and there’s no need to worry. Wrong. The man who checked out our vehicle asked us the standard questions-where are you from, what are you crossing over, where do you live, blah blah blah. When he noticed the blankets he began asking questions about them. We explained that they were used blankets that were donated to us so that we could give them to CRREDA. We explained who we were and what we do, and mentioned again how they were used and we paid nothing for them and we going to make ZERO PROFIT WHATSOEVER. Our kind agent friend promptly told us to park the car and go pay a tax on bringing in goods to Mexico. The fine isn’t the problem. The problem is that a government is punishing people who are trying to help their vulnerable citizens. Their citizens who receive zero government funding, and are forced to work random jobs in the community for money so they can buy food for their center. How is this just? How is it just that a government won’t allow the crossing of blankets, clothes, health kits and more to aid the least of us, the migrants and addicts of their own country. This encounter highlighted just how incredibly broken our systems of power are and how foolish those who lead us can be.
Luckily, my second learning experience required no payment and no uncomfortable interaction with government officials. In fact, I volunteered for it! I went out with some of the men from CRREDA to do some work in the community. Our job was to clean up the trash from the recent Dia de los Muertes celebration. This is a day where people remember and celebrate their loved ones by decorating their gravesites with flowers, gifts, and favorite foods. Basically we had a looooot of trash to pick up. And we had to fight against a lot of wind. It was very frustrating. Each time we would scrape up some trash or attempt to throw it in the dumpster, the wind would pick some up and carry it right back out. No matter how hard we tried, we could not move all of the trash. There were forces out of our control at work. This taught me a lot about our work here at the border, and also the work of God’s kingdom here on Earth. While there are things we cannot control, such as wind, governments, broken systems, and broken hearts, we cannot stop working and doing our best. While we may not have been able to get all of the trash, little by little we are able to make a difference. We must work to slowly but surely change our piece of this Earth that God has given us. While we cannot control everything, we can still do our best, knowing that God is stronger than any other outside force.
Who know picking up trash could be so enlightening?