Members of the Border Immersion Team
January 13, 2018
In 2018, the Board of RUCC voted to become an “Immigrant Welcoming Congregation.” After adopting that resolution, we wondered what are the next steps for us as a congregation? When Jules Rattray came to Wider Ministries and shared that Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, Arizona leaders Border Immersion experiences, we knew that was the next step for us as a congregation. On January 2nd, ten of us left for the Arizona / Mexico border. We returned on January 6th. Those four days would be life-changing for us. This morning, members of the team will share their experiences, first outlining the border challenges and then sharing the good news of where borders were transcended.
Today there are borders in place by society and the present day empire that we simply do not see. There is a visible construction of that fear at our southern border. And this morning we are reminded by the Good Samaritan, (an oxymoron of their day as how could it be possible that any Samaritan be good as they were seen as the lowliest of the low) we are reminded by that Good Samaritan, that everyone we cross paths with is our neighbor and is to be an object of love and compassion. This Samaritan shows us the way to resist and transcend the borders of our fears.
I ask that we not be like the priest or the Levite, that we not just pass by on the other side. Passing by just speaks of indifference and numbness, their worldly coping mechanism of avoidance developed by the empire of their day. They haven’t stepped from fear into kinship, into the kindom of compassion. But let us be like the Samaritan!
As I’ve come to believe, the parables of Jesus are subversive stories that invite us to gain the Kindom’s perspective. The Samaritan expresses a new way that displaces the old ways of the empire. The replacing of numbness with compassion, that is, the end of cynical indifference and the beginning of noticed pain, which signals a human revolution.
May we resist the social fears and numbness of our day. May we embrace our neighbors, all of them, the migrant and the border patrol officer, the migrant defendant and the prosecutor, the bridge builder and the wall builder, May we embrace all our neighbors with compassion and love.
Walter Brueggeman says, “Jesus has the capacity to give voice to the very hurt that has been muted, and therefore newness could break through. Newness comes precisely from expressed pain, the history of Jesus is the history of entering into the pain and giving it voice.”
We only hope this morning to give voice to the pain we witnessed.
Why do we see so many people migrating to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America? To understand this pressing question, we need to consider the role of U.S. economic and military policy. It has created conditions that push migrants to seek opportunities to work, and sometimes to flee for their lives.
Economically, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994. Developed by U.S. presidents from Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, it promoted “free trade.” This meant freedom for corporations to move across borders. Big U.S. agricultural companies expanded investments in the Mexican market. Small Mexican farmers couldn’t compete with the low prices offered by these firms, making it hard to support themselves. Many left small villages to migrate in search of work. Firms from the U.S. and other countries also invested in assembly plants at the U.S.-Mexico border, drawn by the low wages and lack of environmental regulations that meant higher profits. They hired predominantly women workers. Workers at these plants were exposed to toxic chemicals, leading to many illnesses, birth defects, and pollution of the environment. Men often migrated to the U.S., hoping to find more ways to make a living.
Over many decades, the U.S. government has given extensive military aid and engaged in military intervention in Central American governments in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. We trained their military in torture techniques at the School of the Americas in Georgia. We supported military coups against democratic governments in Guatemala in 1954 and in Honduras in 2009. We sought to protect the interests of U.S. corporations, undermining Central American movements for democracy and social justice.
There are connections between mass incarceration of Latinix people and gang violence in Central America. Gangs like the MS13 started in Los Angeles. They spread to El Salvador when gang members were imprisoned in the U.S. and then deported to El Salvador. Gangs threaten the lives of many migrant youth and their families, causing them to flee seeking safety and asylum in our country.
Migration from Central America and Mexico is thus largely due to our government’s economic and military policies. We need to stop criminalizing migrants. They are human beings, often driven to leave their homes to find work or safety from government repression or gang violence. Instead of understanding these root causes of migration and seeking viable solutions, we built a wall to “protect” ourselves from them. We militarized our border with guns, border patrol, and surveillance technology.
With that background in mind, I offer this Meditation on the Wall:
The wall towers
as I approach
brown metal layers
wrapped with coils of barbed wire
high as the crosses
the Roman empire used to kill criminals
who hung til their blood pooled.
Did they get what they deserved?
People resist this harsh border.
On the Mexican side,
street artists offer prayers and protests,
graffiti, paintings and sculptures:
“before you go
someone waits for you
and thinks of you”
painted large, with a face and a weeping eye
A memorial to 16 year old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez
at the place he was shot from atop the wall
killed by U.S. border patrol
we honor the presence of his spirit,
offer prayers for his people
who fought for justice
but got two hung juries
On the U.S. side,
small white crosses on the ground
symbols of resistance
to this Crucifixion technology
with its barbed wire crown of thorns
aimed at the global poor
We pray for the courage to escalate our risk
as the light from the surveillance tower fixes on us
gathering our data
recognizing our faces
yet blinking off when our cell phone video captures it
in its eye
Each moment, each new travesty of justice and inhumanity we witnessed raised questions in our minds and troubled our hearts. It was difficult to process what we were seeing and learning, and difficult at times to see any light ahead.
But while the enormity and complexity of what is happening at the border threatened to overwhelm and paralyze us, there were many wonderful experiences that filled us with inspiration and hope. In the face of injustice, we met people who were fighting back, taking risks, refusing to give in. Jules and Ken will share some of their thoughts about the people and groups who were resisting and transcending the walls put between us.
During our time at the border, we met with people from different organizations, all of whom were working to alleviate the suffering of migrant people attempting to cross the border. Although each of them told us harrowing stories about their work, what was clear to us all was the love and compassion that was driving them forward. I want to tell you about two about two great people we met and the inspiration and hope they gave us.
The first is Randy Mayer, Pastor of The Good Shepherd UCC. The plight of the migrants led Randy to start several humanitarian organizations. In 2000, he helped found an organization called Humane Borders, their mission: to “save desperate people from death by dehydration and sun exposure” by providing water stations in the desert.
Then in 2005, as the number of migrant deaths in the desert was rising, Randy, along with Shura Wallin, founded Green Valley – Sahuarita Samaritans. The Samaritans go out into the desert loaded up with food, clothing, water, and medical supplies and they offer help to anyone in need. Their mission statement reads “Samaritans believe in respect for human rights, the rendering of humanitarian aid, and one’s ethical responsibility to assist those who are suffering.”
We visited with Shura in her home and she is an amazing woman. Her willingness and enthusiasm to help others know no bounds. She goes on water drops and walks in the desert looking for people who might need her help. She regularly takes trips to Nogales and helps out in the shelters there offering support to people who are making their way to the US to seek asylum and she also helps and comforts those who were deported or did not get granted asylum.
In a video about her work, Shura says…
“I think people need to understand the desperation these people are faced with. We fail to see that these are our brothers and sisters, they are no different to you or I…It is not necessary to speak Spanish, but to speak the language of the heart, to sit with someone, to take their hand, to put your arm around them and comfort them.”
In meeting Shura and Randy we learned so much, not only about the work the humanitarian charities in the area are doing but also about what can be achieved when a group of people come together to resist injustice and commit to loving their neighbors whoever they may be. I am reminded that we must extend our love to those who are not safe or able to thrive in their own lands, remembering that while they have no comfort zone, we must also step outside of ours and meet them in their discomfort with open hearts and minds.
Good morning I am here to tell
you about the Sahuarita Food Bank, operated at the Good Shepard Church. An
outreach project to bring love, hope and caring to the poor in their
community. This project offered these families a better way of life,
through a array of nutritious foods.
The food bank operates three days a week: Wednesday is a farmers market for unlimited produce, Thursday and Saturday is a more structured shopping day for all food items.
Much of the fruits and vegetables come from about twenty produce warehouses located in Nogales, Arizona, where tons and tons of fresh produce arrive every day in semi trucks from Mexico.
The families register to shop twice a month, they are greeted by a shopper like myself, my job is to push their cart and load their basket as they shop
in the church hall.
I want you all to come inside with me as I shopped with a family. My eyes were immediately over whelmed by the amount and the size of this operation. Each family received one to three large grocery bags loaded with canned goods from the government depending on their family size. Next they received breads, milk, eggs, meats and desserts. Next the tables were filled with can goods and pet food. We continued to tables filled with a complete array of fresh fruits and vegetables. Lastly they received packaged foods and potatoes. I could not believe the amount of food and love each family received.
Prior to that morning my first impression was just another food bank handing out bags of can goods to the less fortunate. Wow were my eyes and heart opened by the amount of love, caring, and kindness rendered by this food bank. Carts filled with good nutritious food and lots of love and hope for better way of life and fuller stomachs. What an incredible mission to their community.
I immediately thought is this possible in Redlands? What can I do? What can our church do? What can a group of churches do to further support our needy and assist Family Service with more fresher foods? It is possible my friends I saw it. I worked it. The Sahuarita Food Bank changing lives for the better in their community.
The food bank volunteers and Samaritans are shining examples of a perspective Nathan, our guide and facilitator during our visit, offered us in our final reflections.. He said that in this work, it is important to think about the head, heart and hands. The head is the information that we need to understand the problem. When we talked with Nathan, Randy and Shura, we were all impressed by the deep, comprehensive and sophisticated knowledge of the situation, some of which Jon and Sara offered. The heart refers to those feelings that invariably arise in the face of great challenge. We must work to make sure that feelings of discouragement, fear, indifference, anger and hopelessness do not sap our spirits. At the same time, we must seek ways to foster empathy, joy, excitement, love and possibility. If we have sound knowledge in our heads, and good spirits in our hearts, then we think more clearly about what we can do with our hands, what actions we can take to make a difference.
All of the people we met, forged a commitment to help migrants that brought together their heads, hearts and hands. As we move forward as a congregation, we too can seek to combine our heads and hearts to guide what we will do with our hands. But we will also need one other element that we saw on our trip – as we witnessed the good work being done, we saw that all the people we met also had the courage to take risks. They did not let daunting and scary circumstances keep them from acting. They were willing to put themselves out there to do the right thing. As we move forward, we’ll also have to harness that courage to take risks.