Whose voice do we listen to? Whose voice tells us who we are, or who we should be? In our gospel reading today from Luke, we hear about Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by “the devil,” just as we are plagued by devilish voices who try to convince us we are other than God’s beloved (all of us!). See today’s sermon for more, including some Lenten practices to lighten your load.
Below is a reflection on our recent border mission trip by one of the participants, Katarina Klafka.
On the last night of the mission trip, all eight of us gathered together to share images and scenes that had spoken to us. There was a lot to process. We had heard several accounts of what crossing the border—and life across the border—are like; we had crossed the border for ourselves. From priests, lawyers, Samaritans, and hosts, we had heard stories of desperation, of love, of shattering horror. A woman had fled alone after her husband and child were brutally killed before her eyes. A man, skin blackened with dehydration, close to death, had asked for a Coke. Families had been separated; seven women, arriving from a caravan, had tested positive for pregnancy; Mexican migrants had taught a fellow Honduran traveler their national anthem in the hopes that, if caught by ICE, he would be deported to Nogales, Sonora instead of to Honduras, so that he might try again to seek a better life.
All of this—all of what we saw, what we heard—was incredibly powerful. Yet what has stayed with me the most was—is—the laughter. Gleeful shouts from children out on a sunny, bare playground, contained by an imposing fence, not fifty feet from the Wall; giggles, at once buoyant and poignant, of other children, who awaited asylum in a tiny, dark room; belly laughs from classmates in our workshops, sharing artistic faux pas; the awkward yet unifying chuckles at the border checkpoint, when a stray dog—tail wagging—made his way inside the building twice, his joyful determination at once ridiculing and calling into painful relief the industrial concrete, the dour faces behind the desks, and the omnipresence of the Wall itself.
The Wall is shameful. Of that, I have no doubt. Fear hammered its panels and ignorance rivets it. Miles of razor wire have come to crown it with a sharp sneer at those who behold it. Its whole is a towering, ugly, monumental rejection—and a testament to the fear, ignorance, misinformation, and racist beliefs that characterize and color American life for millions of its citizens and residents alike.
On that last night in Arizona, one of the workshop teachers performed “The New Colossus” to music. The song was haunting, and Emma Lazarus’s words of welcome, refuge, and community felt intensely relevant—all the more so because the Wall’s existence, its policing, its physicality, its everything, mock both Lazarus’s verses and the Statue of Liberty with which they have been inextricably linked. “The New Colossus” illuminated the way for those “yearning to breathe free”: the Wall stands as a denunciation of the very people most in need of that poetic light.
As we come back and share our stories with you, we are also inviting you to join the continuation of this mission trip by loving greatly, serving compassionately, and helping those most in need. You might donate to groups who help migrants directly at the border, like Cruzando Fronteras or the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans; you might call your legislators to talk about the wall and immigration on local, state, and national scales; you might try to overcome the fear of embarrassment and speak up when you see harassment; you might strive to be more informed, open, and aware in your day to day life.
We all learned to laugh before we could speak; we all love; and I truly believe that, in those two languages—those of joy and of the heart—we are, and always will be, able to connect to, help, and unite with one another.
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.