On display in the sanctuary at Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, AZ, site of the Border Fair/Common Ground on the Border Fair today and tomorrow, were a series of quilts bearing witness to the thousands of migrant deaths in the Arizona desert each year. The quilts for each two year time span are different design, but each have memorabilia depicting the victims (or from the victims), and the names of those who died. That is, the names of each victim are included if the name is known. Many of the migrant dead are never identified. In some years, like the quilt in the center photo, each “unknown” victim is listed. In some, they are listed by the Spanish term “desconocido,” unknown.
Our presenter in the second set of workshops this afternoon, Shura Wallin, posed a question to us: what can we do? Shura, who is one of the founders and key life forces behind the Samaritans group that provides humanitarian aid to migrants in the desert, also got us thinking by posing the rhetorical question “How many people do you know who really want to leave their country?” So what can be done to change things? Migrants are forced to leave home to find a better life, a safer life, and they fall prey to another sort of persecution — indifference. So what if they die, they were crossing illegally. It is their own fault; stay where you are and you will not die in the desert attempting to cross.
Is this who we really are, that we will allow this to continue? We have another session with Shura tomorrow afternoon, and maybe, just maybe, we will come up with some answers, some action items. This cannot be what we want.
Yesterday we crossed into Nogales, Mexico through the Mariposa Port, simply walking in, no questions, no passports looked at. The view from right inside the Mexica side of the entry way looking west, looks like this:
The rust colored line running west as far as the eye can see? The border wall. Yes, it is there, in long stretches, keeping people apart, stopping animals from migrating as well.
After a visit to El Comedor (a mission for deportees, providing food, and medical and legal help among other aid; more on El Comedor another day), and a visit to a local cemetery (quite colorful!), we made our way to the area of Nogales near the other entry port, the DeConcini port. There, from a pedestrian plaza where most of the shops were either pharmacies or dental offices, offering cheap drugs and vastly cheaper dental care to all who come, including folks from the US, who look for savings from the expensive medical care back home. As you face north in this plaza, you see the following:
The wall separates Nogales Mexico from Nogales Arizona. What is this all saying? Its ok for us to come over to Mexico to get cheap prescriptions and dental care, but we don’t want you to come over to our country? We can use you, but we are off limits to you?
After we got some lunch, we went over to the area near the DeConcini port where there have a holding room for some of the folks seeking legal entry into the US through asylum. It is a small, cramped L-shaped room, maybe 15×10 at the widest spot, and there were about 15 or so folks living there, some for eight days so far, sleeping on mats on the floor, and there were two infants among the group. I did not take photos there, wanting to protect their privacy. What did we see — people who were hopeful. Even though they were waiting and waiting to see if they could reach the US, this safe haven they had been dreaming of for some time, they knew they were closer, and they were finally relatively protected for violence and exploitation. They were still in limbo, but safety and a new life were within sight, and they still had hope. Our hearts reached out to them.
There is more to come. For today (Friday), we gather for the Common Ground on the Border Fair, and workshops on various issues.
Today was travel day, which went relatively well, with the exception of some upset stomachs over a little turbulence between Madison and Denver, our connection point. We arrived here in Sahuarita/Green Valley, Arizona, and I say it this way cognizant of our privilege — our arrival involved some plane flights and a drive from Tucson in comfortable rental vehicles. For those from other countries attempting to escape desperate poverty and violence, arriving here involves treacherous/life-threatening (even life taking) travel, often at the hands of exploitative persons asking for money well beyond people’s means, across difficult desert terrain with wild temperature swings from day to night, usually poorly equipped, long stays in wretched conditions in detention centers if caught or if trying to legally obtain asylum,… Arrival here for these people is a dangerous, complicated trek, and then they are treated as criminals, as less than people. And they are treated as criminals, as less than human, by people who claim to be followers of Jesus. The shame is not on those trying to cross the border, but those who erect a border in their hearts to “protect themselves” against other children of God.
End of sermon, for now… After arriving in Tucson, our group decided to see the Desert Museum, which is mostly an outdoor feast of flora and fauna of the region. After half a day of stale airplane and airport air, the breeze across the desert refreshed us. The photos are from the museum, poor substitutes for the real thing.
We were then blessed to meet up with Leila Pine, a friend of ours from James Reeb Unitarian in Madison, and her husband Craig. Leila is a snowbird who spends her winters in Tucson, doing much humanitarian aid for migrants and refugees. She shared some stories of life here in Tucson: the dreadful condition of migrants trying to cross the desert, the work of local churches and aid organizations to help those granted entry into the US seeking asylum, but who are given no help by our government to help find their sponsor families. She had so much to share about what folks are doing her, that we were late finishing dinner and getting to our hosts for the trip. But we are now all cozily ensconced, and needing sleep for a busy day ahead.
Tomorrow: crossing the border
Tomorrow eight of us from Plymouth UCC, Madison WI will travel to southern Arizona as part of our congregation’s mission work for immigration justice. In part we will be attending the “Common Ground on the Border Fair” (see https://www.gvs-samaritans.org/events/common-ground-on-the-border or https://www.commongroundonthehill.org/cgotb_home.html for more info). This is an event put on by our hosts, Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, AZ, a congregation whose mission work focuses on humanitarian aid and advocacy for migrants. While there we will cross the border and travel to Nogales, Mexico on Thursday, experience the desert that migrants attempt to cross, see the border wall (yes, the wall does exist already in sections), some will witness Operation Streamline (if sessions happening on Friday), and we will also experience some of the local culture.
Mostly what we will do on this short 5-day trip is to observe, listen, and learn. What is the truth about what is happening on the border? How do people living there feel about US immigration policy, especially as it has been practiced over the last few years? What is the experience of migrants? What causes them to migrate? What are their hopes and dreams? How are the church and other non-GMOs responding? And how should we (way up in the great el norte) respond?
We will explore these and other questions on this trip, and will try to share as much as we can (given a full agenda and not knowing beforehand what sort of online connections we will have) in this space during the trip and afterward. More photos and quick reflections will also be posted on our Facebook page and on Twitter (@plymouthmadison).
Tomorrow: Why this trip? That is, what does this trip have to do with being a Christian? Spoiler alert – a lot!
I will take a brief hiatus from this blog until January 6th, when the story of the magi will lead into the story of another journey, a journey a group of us from Plymouth will be taking to the southern border in mid-January.
Thank you for coming along with me on the Mindful Advent meditation journey. I hope it was a blessing for you.
It is still Christmas Eve where I live, but we have had our church service already this evening, we have heard the story and celebrated by singing “joy to the World,” so I figure I could do my Christmas posting of my Mindful Advent series. The focus word to meditate on for Christmas day is “birth.”
Something happened at tonight’s service that was unplanned, unintended, but, as these things can turn out, a most beautiful blessing. We were reading from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, interspersed by Christmas carols. We had just heard the part where Jesus was born, and laid in the manger and wrapped in bands of cloth. Then we sang a couple of verses of “Away in a Manger.” As all those gathered sang together, I could hear rising a bit above the rest of us the voices of the children, almost imperceptibly quietly like they do when they stand at the front of the church as a children’s choir, but singing with us and so very brightly and sweetly, and angelic choir — it pierced my heart. I had to pull myself together to finish the service, which had so many more blessings, including us all in a circle singing “Silent Night” a cappella by candlelight, but I will hold the sound memory of that moment of the children’s voices rising above us into this night and into Christmas and I’m sure well beyond. They are our today and our tomorrow.
May the light of God’s love be born anew in you this Christmas. Blessed and Merry Christmas!
On this Christmas Eve, with our thoughts turning to the stable, let us turn our focus in our Mindful Advent meditation practice to the word: stillness. It is as if the whole world is waiting, waiting for…possibilities? hope? peace? love? In the stillness the shepherds heard the angels share the good news. In the stillness the magi saw the star. If we can shut out the noise of the world, for just a moment or two, what can we find in the stillness?
Many years ago I was in Denver in May for a week-long work seminar. We had one afternoon off, so a group of us went on a drive west out of the city and up into the Rockies. We wanted to see the mountains, get a bit of fresh air, and relax. After a while we got to a point where there was a place to stop the car and enjoy a lookout, about the time when we got hit by a sudden burst of snow (and our driver, from somewhere in the south, was getting a little panicky because he was not used to driving in the snow and he wanted to switch drivers). We got out of the car, and the lookout space was wide enough that we could spread out a bit to enjoy the view. I was grateful to my traveling companions that day, for they were comfortable not talking all the time, and for a few minutes no one said a word. It was perfectly quiet — no talking, no road noise, no sound at all. Looking out on the scene — the mountains, the trees, the gently falling snow — one could feel alone with all creation, part of all creation, with the snow flakes offering a sort of blessing or anointing. It was a brief still encounter that made one feel as if all that is good is possible.
May this Christmas Eve bring you a moment or two of still wonder,
Today’s Mindful Advent focus word is Love.
It’s a traditional focus word for the fourth Sunday of Advent, and it is a reminder of what Christmas is all about: God’s love for us, all of us, made known in Emmanuel (“God with us”). Jesus showed us, in word and deed throughout his ministry, that God’s love was indeed for all of us, no exceptions. Through his death, Jesus showed us that he loved God and God’s ways so much that he wouldn’t back down, even when threatened by death, from God’s love and God’s ways, thus reminding us that God would never back away from us, that God’s love for us would be eternal and steadfast. Now that, I think, is something wonderful to meditate on.
Today’s Mindful Advent focus word is: room (or hospitality or welcome — multiple choice today!). Meditate on this sense of room or hospitality or welcome — what does it mean to offer it, what does it feel like, when have you offered it or has it been offered to you?
In our Children’s Christmas program the last few years, they have depicted Mary and Joseph being rejected by two innkeepers before finding a place to rest in Bethlehem. This year one of the innkeepers was mean — we don’t want the likes of you here — and one was sorry but there just wasn’t room. Finally one who had no room at the inn offered them the stable — second best, but out of the elements and comfortable enough. One could imagine, as the pageant Mary and Joseph encountered each innkeeper, how those innkeepers must have felt – lots of strangers in Bethlehem, and only limited resources, what’s a person to do? Scarcity, and even perceived scarcity, brings out the worst or the best in people — there is not enough, so I’m just going to worry about myself and who cares about others, or, there is not enough, but somehow we can all make it through if we work together and help one another.
Is there room in our hearts, in our neighborhoods, and yes, in our churches, for all? And let’s not take the metaphor too far, and offer only the “stable” to others, begrudgingly saying, for instance, that yes you can come to our churches but don’t expect us to be friendly to those different from us (gay/lesbian/trans, old, young, different race, with dementia, on the spectrum,…); let’s offer the best of ourselves, in true hospitality.