About two months ago, I said goodbye to some of my best friends. I wrote letters, crafted poems, and put together gifts to express how much each of these friends and coworkers meant to me. Then, with a tight jaw and head full of mixed emotions, I stepped on a plane and left Tucson. I said goodbye to a city that opened my eyes to oppression, nurtured and empowered me. I said goodbye to a program that encouraged me to live a deliberate and examined life. I said goodbye to an intentional community full of colorful, diverse, and loving characters. I said goodbye to a set of written agreements that dictated how I should live: simply, spiritually, and with a focus on cross-cultural service.
I got on a plane heading for, what they call, “the real world.” As I sailed through the sky, I thought about all the wonderful experiences I had shared during my year of mission. Grateful for the opportunities to travel to border towns in Mexico, hike in the Grand Canyon, and retreat in the forest of New Mexico, I felt warm inside. I have never been so quickly and strongly welcomed in a community as I was in Tucson. I am so thankful for my Young Adult Volunteer community, my BorderLinks coworkers, and the Tucson social justice community. Many of my peers had moved to Tucson specifically to get involved in immigration work and are deeply passionate about their work. One of the things I miss most about being in Tucson is having a directed sense of purpose. On the border, problems were so explicit and immediate. This was overwhelming at times, but I had a clear sense of my role in raising awareness of border issues.
Now, back in the San Francisco Bay Area, I belong to a community where people have a wider variety of interests ranging from literature to technology to education. Transitioning back into not-so-intentional living has been a positive change, but definitely a challenging adjustment. I feel almost as if my eyes were focused on a 250-piece puzzle. This puzzle of immigration and race issues was complex, all consuming, and important. Many of my friends and coworkers were gathered around me helping put pieces together and pointing out challenges. Moving back home has forced me to zoom out from this 250-piece puzzle and see where it lies within a much larger puzzle. I don't know what puzzle I am working on now. Above me are people working on a segment of the puzzle that is focused on creating new efficient apps. To my side, people are working on improving public education. Below me people are designing new luxury apartments. We are all working on our own puzzles and sometimes we forget that they are all connected, making one huge infinite puzzle.
Even so, I have merely moved out of one bubble or community and into a another one. I stepped out of border-focused activist central into startup technology-mania. Obviously there are many cultures, subcultures and ways of living in Tucson and in the Bay Area, but here are some of the differences I have noticed. Instead of seeing Border Patrol trucks, I see luxury busses filled with Google employees. Instead of thinking, “How can we spend so little?” I think, “How can we spend so much?” Instead of eating expired food, I eat organic food. Instead of hearing “Resist!” I hear “Disrupt!”
Yet many things are the same. Many social issues that were in Tucson are also in my hometown of San Mateo. Being on the border has opened my eyes to things I wouldn’t have noticed before. For example, last summer I read many articles about the wave of unaccompanied minors who crossed the border. Little did I know that many of these migrants came to San Mateo and enrolled in the local high schools. I only learned this recently while speaking to a local principal about potential job opportunities. Sometimes you are most blind to what is happening in your own city.
When I feel disconnected or confused, I sometimes think about my coworker in Tucson, Gabriel.* During our educational trips, we would often cross the border into Mexico to learn more about the culture, economy and community. After crossing, Gabriel would take over guiding the group and teaching us about the local issues of his hometown, Nogales, Mexico. Gabriel and I quickly became friendly, as he invited me to his church and introduced me to his family. Together, we led and organized several trips. One day, while we were driving he asked me where exactly I lived in California. When, I said, “San Mateo,” his eyebrows raised in surprise. “I was there last summer,” he said. “There wasn’t work here so I went to San Mateo to work as a gardener. I lived with my daughter on Tilton and San Mateo Drive.”
Although familiar, his words made me feel uncomfortable. I suddenly realized that while I had been working on building bridges of understanding on the border, I had forgotten about the dynamics of my hometown, San Mateo. Last summer while I had been fundraising and preparing to my year of mission, he had been working as an undocumented laborer cutting grass and blowing leaves. Maybe we had passed each while walking around San Mateo downtown and did not know. Thinking about this saddened me, not because of the missed connection, but because if we had met in San Mateo, I’m not sure we would have developed a friendship. It is unlikely we would have gotten the opportunity to work together as peers.
Due to economic, cultural, and social boundaries, our paths would probably not have crossed in San Mateo, even though we lived just a few blocks from one another. The border wall of El Camino Real separates my wealthy, white neighborhood from his working class, immigrant neighborhood. In many ways, we could have lived parallel lives, on two different tracks that barely cross. I would have missed opportunity to learn from him and become a part of his life.
During my year of service, I though a lot about the borders, visible and invisible, that are present in our everyday lives. I also thought about Jesus’s defiant efforts to break barriers and welcome all to the table. I am still exploring what this means for me, especially in San Mateo, but I think that unity and understanding are built through relationships. Gabriel taught me about his home and, without trying, opened my eyes and taught me about my own home. After spending four years away at college and a year working in Arizona as a YAV, I am now discovering my home again. Thanks to people like Gabriel, I am more aware of border issues both in Tucson and in San Mateo. Although there are new buzzwords, new puzzles and a new community here I am confident that I’ll find my place. Through this transition, I am trying to remain positive, patient, and, well, graceful.
*Name changed for privacy
It was hard to say goodbye to my coworkers at BorderLinks who helped me grow and made me laugh. I wrote the this little poem to express my deep gratitude for them and their work. I'm no poet, but I do like them.
From academia to activism
Y’all shocked me at first
Prison abolition and collective liberation
What do these radicals mean?
Patient explanations, walks downtown
Selena singalongs got me through
Now I’d say, I understand you.
You have pulled the wool off my eyes,
Exposed me to the pain of wage theft, deportations, and for-profit prisons
You have shown me heartbreaking realities
And given me the tools to fix them
Paso a paso
Thanks to you, I have found the comandanta within me
Thank you for blurring the line between co-worker and friend, student and teacher
Thank you for teaching me the difference between equality and equity
Thank you for introducing me to jelly-filled donuts, Café Justo, and tajin
Some call it GordoLinks, I call it home.
My next step is unknown
But I do know I will take forth
The wisdom I’ve gathered from workshop scribbles on parchment paper
The weight for the Operation Streamline shackles
The compassion of a migrant crossing the desert to reunite with her family
The bravery of an undocumented day laborer
And the resolve of a mother in sanctuary
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?
Yesterday, I participated in a Father's Day march for family unity at Southside Presbyterian Church to demand an end to the separation of migrant families due to detention, deportation, and death in the desert. Before I came to Tucson, I did not understand the complex web of immigration policies that tear families apart. After living here for a year, I have heard countless testimonies of people who have been disconnected from their spouses, parents, and children. Many undocumented parents go to work every morning with the fear they may not return in the evening to see their children.
Due to laws like S.B. 1070, police are allowed ask the immigration status of anyone they pull over, arrest, or suspect to be here without papers. If someone cannot prove they are in the U.S. legally, the police call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Border Patrol to process the individual and take them to detention, prison for migrants. In detention, migrants are often abused as they wait behind bars for months, hoping for a court date or bond hearing. If they are lucky and get a bond, they must raise thousands of dollars, which most working class migrants, do not have. For more information, please read this Center for Immigrations Studies report on detention centers.
Most detained migrants do not get access to a lawyer, do not receive a bond, and are deported back to their home countries. There, they must decide whether to create a new life in a country that may be unfamiliar, dangerous, or without jobs, or to take the perilous journey across the desert to reunite with their family in the United States. Many parents hike through the Sonoran desert, risking their lives to be with their children again. In the last 15 years, at least 2,000 migrants have died attempting to crossing the Arizona border alone. For more information on migrants deaths in the desert visit Colibri.
Why do we separate families?
Every person who has died crossing the desert was someone's child.
Every person who has been racially profiled is someone's friend.
Every person who has been sent to detention is someone's mom, dad or supporter.
Every person who has been deported is someone's partner, lover, daddy, papi, mama, mommy, tio, tia, cousin, or sibling.
During the march, we gathered at a shrine for migrants who have passed away in the desert and read this beautiful prayer:
Father's Day Prayer
God our creator, daily we call upon you and remember you as our father who art in heaven. You have known the joy of watching your child grow, of witnessing Mary, Joseph, and Jesus develop as a family or prophets who endured and challenged the oppression of their government. You Father, journeyed with them through the darkness and the light, and in the darkest of moments when your own Son was apprehended, detained, and eventually murdered, you were there in the mercy and compassion of those who worked and continue to work tirelessly to keep alive his memory and message.
As we remember fathers and all those who have embodied such responsibility, we particularly pray for migrant fathers who journeyed thousands of miles with the dream of providing for their children, but who never reached their dream. Many of them remain in our deserts simply as bones clamoring to you and us all for justice. We remember these deceased migrants fathers, we pray for the livelihood of their children and family, and we ask that you continue to make of us instruments of life and not death.
We especially pray for all those crossing the desert as we speak, those dying of thirst, those who have lost their way in the wilderness, those who are enduring brutalities, those who are locked up and treated as though they were not human. We pray for these your people, your holy ones whom you continue to send and whom we continue to reject at the border. Bless them with perseverance, light their path, direct their way, shelter them from the burning heat, and comfort them in their despair. On this father's day, may we remember that we are all brothers and sisters to each other, that I am in fact my brother and my sister's keeper, that you are Father to us all, and that ultimately, we are all migrant families journeying home. May the courage of migrant fathers be also our courage in the struggle for justice and peace. Amen.
Alison Harrington, the pastor of Southside Church, ended the march with a great rallying cry to help us recommit ourselves to welcoming our neighbors and fighting with our migrant brothers and sisters for justice. I am thankful for the active community members of Tucson who come together, time and time again, to advocate for the just treatment of God's people.
Now that I have led several delegations, I'd like to explain what I actually do at BorderLinks. As many of you know, I lead college, graduate school, and church groups on immersive trips to the border to learn about immigration issues, history, and policy. I have worked with diverse groups from Wisconsin, California, Washington and Colorado. Each group has provided their own challenges and joys. I am grateful to all my delegation participants as each of them has help me grow this year.
BorderLinks envisions a world in which people, within and across social borders, respect and care for each other, value and celebrate differences, and build healthy and just communities where everyone has equal opportunity for a full and dignified life.
At BorderLinks, we try to do so amplify the voices of individually who are directly affected by immigration. We meet with undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, day laborers, church leaders, community organizers, and many more to hear their stories, perspectives and learn what is happening in the borderlands.
The easiest way is to explain what I do is with photos so here goes!
On BorderLinks delegations...
We walk migrant trails in the desert in order to get a small sense of what undocumented migrants feel when crossing the border. We learn about the enforcement strategies that have funneled peoples into these harsh terrains and their deadly consequences.
We go to Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson to learn about the Sanctuary movement and attend vigils to show our support for Rosa (middle in black jacket) who is currently in sanctuary there.
We talk to Border Patrol or Immigration Customs Control about their work and policies surrounding migration, smuggling, and border security.
We meet with migrant-led grassroots groups that are organizing for a variety of goals including decreasing border militarization, ending racial profiling, ending detention of LGBTQ migrants, ending of separate of families, and providing more educational opportunities for undocumented students.
We go to border towns like Nogales or Agua Prieta, Mexico where we meet with different organizations who work with migrants in food kitchens, shelters, and churches. We also meet with groups like the cooperative coffee company Cafe Justo or the community organization HEPAC who are trying to improve their communities in order to decrease out-migration.
We discuss internal migration and urbanization in Mexico due to an increase in maquilas (factories), free trade policies like NAFTA, and organized crime. Below is a neighborhood of people who moved to Nogales to work at the factories. Much of this land was first occupied by squatters who lived without utilities or much infrastructure.
We share meals and conversation with local families in Nogales, Mexico.
I lead workshops and reflections to help my delegation participants process what they are seeing and learning. We also discuss how to integrate their experiences on the border with their life at home and devise plans for getting more involved.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope it helps explain what I have been focussing on this year. Delegations can be emotionally, intellectually, and physically exhausting but also extremely rewarding. I enjoy learning and teaching through experiences and hands-on workshops. It has been an honor to facilitate discussions and reflections where my participants open up about their backgrounds and assumptions. The act of being present with people as they reflect on their religion, government, and privilege has been truly eye opening gift.
We take selfies.
Some people spend Valentine's Day kissing their boyfriends. Some spend the day bingeing on chocolates with their gal pals. I spent the day speaking about migrant justice at University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, Arizona. This church graciously invited the Tucson YAVs to be their weekend guests during Mission Month. We led a workshop on Solidarity, Charity and Advocacy, preached, spoke during Adult Education and went on a short hike with the youth group. I'm thankful for the opportunity to share my reflections on my year service.
The four Tucson YAVs, Allie, Emily, Hanbyeol, and I preached a sermon together. First, we read a poem called Passover Remember, which we first heard during YAV Orientation in August. Then, we used different verses to individually reflect on the our experiences during the first half of our YAV year.
Below is my part of the sermon. Click here to hear a recording of our sermon.
Do not hesitate to leave
Your old ways behind –
Fear, silence, submission
… Then begin quickly,
before you have time to sink back
into the old slavery
Why do we feel the need to create borders? How do we build equal and respectful relationships with people who are unlike us? How can I work as an ally with those who are oppressed? What does modern day slavery look like? These are some of the questions I’ve grappled with during my year of service with Young Adult Volunteers.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve at BorderLinks, where I organize and lead educational trips about the border. During the last six months, I have spent time with a wide variety of people who have taught me more than I could have imagined.
While observing the 25-foot border wall that separates Mexico and the United States, I have prayed with seminarians, reflected with teenagers, and taken pictures with retirees. I have led workshops for squirmy middle schoolers where we explore what the words “immigrant,” “border”, or “family” mean to them. Brave migrants have told me their harrowing testimonies at shelters in border towns like Nogales and Agua Prieta, Sonora. I’ve wept as a woman recounted her experience of crossing the desert, getting detained by Border Patrol, and separated from her husband. I have visited migrants at Florence Detention Center who migrated north to escape cartel violence in Honduras and Guatemala. I have felt the panic that constricts your chest when you learn that your friend’s undocumented husband was just detained. In the last few months, the border has come a part of me. It is present in my thoughts, my tears, my worries, and my prayers.
In addition to learning about the challenges on the border, I had the chance to meet people who are bringing human dignity back to this region. Raul, one of my friends and coworkers, spent last Christmas in a cold detention center, visiting detainees who have no one else to support them. My friend, Josue, grew up undocumented, and is now organizing with other young migrants to get more access to higher education. My local Presbyterian church, Southside, has opened its door to provide sanctuary to an undocumented mother so she can stay with her two boys and husband.
Amidst the darkness, I have also witnessed a powerful display of God’s love in the borderlands. We are lucky to be part of a community of students, pastors, church members, atheists, migrants, and allies who have bonded together to turn barriers into bridges and make our earth look more like God’s kingdom. As the Bible says in Ephesians 2: 13-15, “But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.”
During the last six months, my eyes have opened, my heart has ached, and my resolve has been strengthened. With the support of my fellow volunteers and coworkers, I have begun to acknowledge my privilege, my citizenship and the effects of my country’s policies.
My work here has encouraged me not to “sink back into the old slavery” of injustice, prejudice, and ignorance. I truly believe that the most radical act of love is to introduce people to each other. If be build relationships, we realize we are linked. Their struggle is our struggle. Our society’s borders affect us all by perpetuating division, fear, and even hatred. If we leave behind our fear, silence and submission we can reach a state of collective liberation where we are all free.
Because I'm Happy
Getting to Know Tucson: Recently, I feel like I have turned a corner. I feel more happy and comfortable in Tucson. Between my work schedule, YAV activities, and Christmas vacation I was out of town almost every weekend in November and December. During January, I actually got a chance to get to know Tucson and it's been great!
Community of Volunteers: I am so thankful for my housemates and my Tucson community. There are several other service corps in the area such as the Mennonite Voluntary Service, Food Corps, AmeriCorps, and Jesuit Volunteer Corps. This means I've gotten to connect with other 20-somethings who are doing similar work and also want to explore Tucson.
A few weeks ago, a couple Mennonite friends invited me to watch a play about sexuality in the church called Listening for Grace. It was hilarious, poignant, and beautiful. Ted Swartz, the writer and main actor, uses comedy to spark conversation about controversial topics like homosexuality. His goal is to get church communities to discuss uncomfortable topics. After watching the play, members of the Mennonite church stayed to share their reactions. Although there was a variety of opinions, the audience was noticeable affected.
I am thankful to be a part of a community of young Christians who are willing and excited to tackle contentious issues like sexuality, immigration, and racism.
YAV Support: There are several YAV alumni and board members who have reached out to help us with our transition. Various board members have taken the my fellow YAVs and I to different places and events this month. It feels a little silly to go on "field trips" to museums or concerts, but it has really helped me get to know the city. We went to a natural museum called the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a gem show, and an Avett Brothers concert. Sometimes simple living doesn't feel so simple :)
We also have Vocational Discernment classes every other week that provide a space to reflect on our work and ruminate on what we should do after our year of service. These classes include activities such as reading poems, collaging, doing the Examine, following a guided meditation, and walking a labyrinth. Allie Wood, a former Tucson YAV, leads the classes and also meets with us individually for coffee dates every other month. These meetings have become a sacred time when I can confide in someone who is familiar with my work placement and intentional community. Her compassionate listening and questioning have helped me process some of my most intense YAV experiences. I am so grateful for her friendship and mentorship.
Finding My Space at Work: I feel more confident at work now that I have led two BorderLinks delegations (educational trips) with Santa Clara University and Carroll University. I enjoy facilitating discussions, leading workshops, and supporting my participants as they come to terms with some harsh realities. January was a busy month at work, but the staff bonded together as a team, encouraging one another when we were tired or overwhelmed. I'm glad to work with such smart, motivated, and compassionate people.
Tucson feels more and more like home. Several days this week, I have been overwhelmed with happiness. I feel so fortunate to live in a beautiful, multicultural space surrounded by coworkers and community members who care about me. Leaving school has been difficult as I am far from my friends and family, have no idea what I want to do with my life, am fumbling my way through a new job, have to deal with real world responsibilities like paying bills, cooking myself dinner every night, etc. Even so, like all my graduated friends, I have been working through these post-grad challenges. Nevertheless, I feel supported my community as they are doing similar work and asking similar questions. My housemates sit with me as I try to figure out how my small stipend will cover my utilities and my food expenses. My housemates help me patch my tire when my bike gets a flat. My housemates make me watch "Friends" when I have spent too much time discussing heavy topics like institutionalized poverty and prison systems. Living in an intentional community with people who are quite different from me can be demanding, but it can also be incredibly fun and supportive. I get to come home to friends who will ask how my day was, listen to my answer, and make sure I laugh a little.
Thank you to everyone in Tucson and beyond who has supported me with this move.
A Week in the Life of a Young Adult Volunteer
I wrote most of this blog a few months ago, but never finished it until now. Here is a depiction of one of my many full, challenging, and joyful weeks during my YAV year.
Sunday, Oct. 26th, 2014
I start the day by visiting my coworker's Spanish-speaking Pentecostal church. Unsurprisingly an hour service turns into three hours of singing, laughing, praying, and eating. My coworker, Nancy, sings beautifully and also stars in a biblical skit about David. Apparently, Apostle David was blonde...
Next, I come home to discover that we have spontaneously decided to host a barbecue for 15 people so I start chopping and marinating. A beautiful mixture of coworkers, volunteers, and refugees show up with an array of foods and drinks. We sit outside and enjoy the balmy late-October weather Arizona has gifted us. The evening morphs into a time of sharing musical talents. Hanbyeol plays the flute and sings a high-pitched, airy Korean song. (Listen here.) Emily chimes in with a deep, soulful tune. Jean Marie, a Burundi refugee, sings "He Raised Me up." I sit back and marvel at the rich culture and talent that surround me.
Monday, Oct. 27th, 2014
After work, I go to my first Academia Liderazgo (Leadership Academy) meeting, the first of an eight-week course on community organizing and social justice issues. As I sit and eat my Domino's pizza I note what it feels like to be one of the two White people in the room. We go around the room to introduce ourselves, where we are from, and what organization we represent. The room is full of people involved in diverse political and social groups that serve the Latin American immigrant community in Tucson. We go through the syllabus, which includes topics such as systems of oppression, machismo, and Zapatismo. I am excited to be learning about these issues and am especially grateful to be learning side-by-side with Spanish-speaking individuals who have experienced the negative effects of immigration policy and have decided to get involved to educate and uplift their communities. I feel privileged to be in this space.
Tuesday, Oct. 28th, 2014
I get to work at 7:30 AM and jump in the van. We drive for an hour before arriving at Florence Detention Center. I check to make sure I am prepared: close-toed shoes, no revealing clothing, and an ID. I've been briefed on what to say and do, but I am still nervous.
As I wait for the guards to escort me into the visiting room, Norlan, a local day laborer, and activist, walks out of detention. Just by coincidence, I was there at the exact moment he was released. Finally outside the prison walls, he walks swiftly up to his beaming partner Marbel, gives her a hug and kisses his baby girl. I feel so happy to see him reunited with his family. I met Marbel and her baby, Genesis, on my first day of work at BorderLinks. They were the first family I had ever met that had experienced detention. I feel grateful that I have been able to witness this part of their story and congratulate them on Norlan's release.
Read my blog about meeting Marbel.
I walk into the detention visiting room and meet Estrella, a trans-gender person from Guatemala. We sit down, introduce ourselves, and exchange awkward smiles. First, we chat about Guatemala and then she tells me her story. She migrated north to escape cartel and anti-trans violence. Read my blog entry about Estrella. Although, she has experienced much trauma, she keeps a positive disposition. We laugh, draw pictures, and she even predicts my future through palm reading.
***Estrella was released from detention in December and is now fighting her asylum case from a safe place. I was thrilled to learn she'd been released!
Wednesday, Oct. 29th, 2014
After work, I walk home and cook dinner for my housemates. We have a community dinner once a week where we eat together and go over any house business.
Thursday, Oct. 30th, 2014
I have no recollection of Thursday. Ooops.
Friday, Oct. 31st, 2014
On Fridays, we have a Community Day. This means that instead of going to work, my roommates, my site coordinator Brandon, and I spend time together as a community. We do many things such as discuss books, worship, explore vocational discernment, go to events in Mexico and Cascabel, or go hiking.
On Halloween, we went on a beautiful hike through Pima Canyon. We crossed many streams and admired the cacti.
After Community Day, we went downtown to celebrate Halloween!
I work at BorderLinks leading educational trips or delegations that introduce people to the border and immigration issues. Groups come from colleges, graduate schools, seminaries, and churches across the country. During a delegation, participants meet with different immigration stakeholders such as immigrant-led political organizing groups, border patrol, and pastors involved in the sanctuary movement. In addition, participants learn about topics like NAFTA, Popular Education, border history, and the prison system in interactive workshops led by BorderLinks staff. Delegations are an intense whirlwind of complex ideas, personal stories, and strong emotions. Days are often long, challenging, and eye-opening. Participants leave broken-hearted, inspired, and determined to change our broken immigration system.
I got back from winter vacation ready to lead my second delegation. I was excited, but nervous as it was the first delegation I would plan completely on my own. Reading my participants' applications, I felt uneasy. These students were very different from most people who I know and have grown up around. Most were from the midwest, studying criminal justice, and hoping to go into law enforcement. One of the male participants was planning on joining the Border Patrol after graduation. About half the group had never been outside of the country and most had not lived in multicultural settings. How would this group react to BorderLinks' liberal ideology? Would they feel comfortable in this immersive cultural environment?
After meeting the group at the airport, I breathed a sign of relief. They were great. When I asked them to help put luggage on the roof rack they immediately organized as a team, volunteering to help. Driving back to the office, several of the group members talked about football and hunting. I chuckled, thinking about how different this was from my San Francisco upbringing. When we got into the office, one of the men asked me if there was something to drink. I responded, "There's only milk in the fridge." His face lit up as he said, "I love milk. I'm from Wisconsin." I smiled and thought, this'll be fun.
As the week went on I got to know the participants better. Over meals, we cracked jokes and talked about our personal lives. Many of my participants work at least one job in addition to going to school full time. One of the women goes to school, works as a waitress, and works the night shift at a gas station (10 PM - 6 AM). She only sleeps a few hours from Sunday to Tuesday. I was amazed by my participants' work ethic and persistence. Many of them are first-generation college students, forging their own path.
About halfway through the week, the participants stayed with host families in Tucson. These families are made of immigrants who are active in their community. BorderLinks routinely organizes home stays so participants can meet people who are directly affected by immigration issues. As I dropped off the participants, I noticed several were anxious as they had never done a home stay and they did not speak much Spanish. I assured them that all our home stay families are friendly, welcoming, and have hosted many students before.
The next morning, I got up early to pick up students from home stay houses. While driving, I got call from the group leader notifying me of "a situation." The college president had found a student's Tweet (from Twitter) that said they had been "kicked out of their lodging, forced to live with illegals, and not allowed to call Homeland." My heart sank. Who wrote this? Did someone actually want to call Homeland Security on these immigrant families? Was someone going to call ICE?
Comments like this on social media can be vague, unintentional and extremely hurtful. To me, this Tweet was a threat. My jaw clenched as I thought about the families who had generously and bravely opened their houses to these students. Where they now in danger? Had I put these people in harm's way?
Hurt and panicked, I began to doubt the trust I had put in these students. After reconvening, I immediately sat the group down and explained the severity of inflammatory comments on social media. Also, I described what it would look like if someone called ICE on one of these families. Imagine flashing lights, crying children, not being able to contact your family for days, detention, an expensive bond, and a chance of being deported, separated from your home and family. Disappointed and perplexed, I looked out at the group for reactions. Most participants were shocked and apologetic as this Tweet did not reflect the majority's opinions or home stay experiences. In fact, the Tweet was not written by someone in the delegation, but by their friend who did not fully understand the context.
Although I still felt violated, I breathed deeply, knowing that the Tweet should not be taken seriously. Yet, I reflected on why this may have happened. Many of my participants grew up in environments that have a high respect for cops and believe you should do your best to enforce the law whenever possible. As many are going into policing, they maybe experienced an internal conflict or cognitive dissonance when living with a person had immigrated illegally. Using this logic helped me understand my participants' perspectives, but did not shift my opinion that this Tweet was a callous, disrespectful display of entitlement and power.
Although I dutifully follow most laws myself, I try to think critically about the law. I do not think that government-dictated rules necessarily have higher moral authority than personal or religious values. Even though laws are powerful, foundational structures that control our lives, they can be changed quickly with a politician's signature. In the last couple years, huge cultural concepts such as our legislative definition of marriage has changed. Laws are a flexible, impermanent cultural constructs.
Mike Wilson, a member of the Tohono O'odham tribe in Arizona, is known for his controversial work distributing drinking water for passing migrants on the Tohono O'odham nation. Although, this is against his tribe's laws, he continues to do it because he believes the God's law is greater than any man-made law. If we truly loved our neighbor as ourselves, we would give them water. If we truly loved our neighbor as ourselves, we would help them through deadly terrain. If we truly loved our neighbor as ourselves, we would let them live in peace with their families.
Acts 5:29: "But Peter and the apostles answered, 'We must obey God rather than men.'"
Despite this negative moment during my delegation, the rest of the trip went well. The participants expressed a greater, more complex understanding of immigration policy, undocumented immigrants, and minority-police relations. One participant wrote, "The most impactful part for me was the home stay...being able to talk one-on-one with them really opened my eyes... This will inform my decisions in my career in law enforcement for my whole life."
I thank this delegation for opening my eyes. They taught me more about police work, the military, and what it is like to live in a different part of the United States. I think we both shocked, challenged, and comforted one another. Most of all, we reminded each other to meet people where they are in their life journey without making hurtful comments or assumptions.
Recently, I was at a Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta, Mexico sharing a meal with a migrant family. I was there as a part of an intense study of border issues and ministries on the Douglas, Arizona/ Agua Prieta, Sonora area. Although, I had spent the whole week with a large group of Young Adult Volunteers from the Tucson and Denver, this moment was all about the family sitting across from me.
As we ate our pasta and sipped our sugar-infused juice, we began to talk about where we came from and why we were here in the dusty border town of Agua Prieta. The father of the family, Ronald*, was charismatic and friendly. His big green eyes glittered as he excitedly told me that he and his family of four were going to cross the border in the upcoming week. His glee was uncontainable. Ronald and his wife, Maria*, animatedly walked me through the details of their itinerary.
When their coyote (human smuggler or guide depending on your perspective) contacted them, they would drive out into the desert where they would climb over the border wall using a ladder. Then, they would walk through the harsh terrain, in the dark to the closest American town, Bisbee. When they assured me it was only a ten-hour hike, I began to get uncomfortable. This would be a fast-paced hike. Ronald described how they would have to follow the exact footsteps of their guide to avoid alerting Border Patrol motion detectors or heat sensors. After arriving in Bisbee, they planned on taking a van to Phoenix, then Las Vegas, and finally Indianapolis to meet his sister. I wondered how they would do this, as there are Border Patrol checkpoints on the only road out of Bisbee where the guards check for identification. Maybe they’ll take a dirt road. Maybe they’ll hide in the trunk or under the floorboards of the car as some migrants do…
By now my heart was racing. I was worried for their safety and worried that their coyote had mislead them so I asked, “Is it worth it for you to endure this dangerous trip?” Ronald replied with an absolute, “Yes.” Even though he is leaving a good job as a nuclear electrician and his eldest son is leaving college, he believes he can have a better life in the United States. This family lived in Veracruz, one of the most violent states in Mexico. Ronald and Maria said they live in constant fear of the cartels. Ronald confidently said, “I would rather be captured by Border Patrol than the cartels any day.” Having a good job in Veracruz actually makes him a liability, as the cartels are most likely to extort money from him. It is a paradoxical situation with little hope of changing any time soon.
After we finished dinner, I thanked Ronald and his family for their honest conversation and wished them the best on their journey. But saying, “Safe travels” did not suffice. I kept thinking about them, worrying about them, and praying for them.
Please let Ronald, Maria, and their two sons find a peaceful, dignified life. Please help them find their way through the desert. May they be protected from abuse from their guide or Border Patrol. God, everyone deserves a dignified life and an opportunity to raise their family without fearing for their lives. Please protect this family and help them safely reach their destination.”
And what happens if they make it to their final destination? If they find jobs they will forever work in the shadow class, afraid of deportation. Will the son who was in University in Mexico, be able to get an American education or will he be resigned to minimum wage labor for the rest of his life?
Even if this family fears deportation and works hard for low wages, this is probably better than living under the reign of a violent cartel. Due to my privileged and limited perspective, I did not realize that what may seem horrible to me may be a relief to another person who has suffered far greater challenges than I have.
This is blind privilege is one of the many reasons why we do not know how to “secure” our border. In the 90s, Operation Gatekeeper and other similar policies were enacted to reduce illegal immigration. The Border Patrol focused its resources on securing metropolitan areas, while leaving the unpopulated desert areas less patrolled. The official plan was “attrition through deterrence” as Homeland Security thought that the desert would be a natural and obvious boundary for migrants. This thought process makes sense when coming from a privileged American who is unaware of the conditions of poverty and violence in parts of Mexico. Yes, desperate hardworking people who cannot find jobs or fear their lives will cross, even if it means risking their lives. In fact, many people like Ronald see the cacti-laden desert to be a small challenge compared to their daily lives back home.
We will not be able to create just, holistic immigration reform until American politicians are aware of the root causes of immigration to the US, the current socio-political climate in Mexico and Central America, and what people are willing to give up. Ronald sacrificed his job, home, and son’s college education to climb a wall, walk in the dark, and work minimum wage jobs in hopes of a safer, more dignified future.
Ephesians 2: 11-22
Jew and Gentile Reconciled Through Christ
“Therefore, remember that formerly you are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (which is done in the body by human hands)- remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostle and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him, you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God live by his Spirit.
*For the privacy of these individuals, I have changed their names.