Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother

“You are the answer to our prayers,” Madre Irene said in delighted surprise as we entered the quiet church yard. She had just finished breakfast with her fellow sister in the Order of Mary the Sorrowful Mother, when we came through the gates of Cristo Rey. The two nuns had been discussing the children in the tent city, within just a stone’s throw of their town. They had been struggling to think of what they could do. In this quiet town, on the Mexico side of the border, they could see and hear the children play in the mornings through the slats of the wall, with helicopters flying overhead to watch them. Yet, while they could hear them, and they could see them, still it seemed there was nothing they could do. 

“We had decided that all we could do was pray, and then I walked outside, and here you were!” she informed us. 

For months in Tucson, Free the Children had thought and planned and worked. We raised money, and bailed a father out of detention. We raised awareness, but we wanted to do more. Finally one of the mothers in the room, Carolina, simply insisted, “Why don’t we go there? Why don’t we see what we can do?” Now, here we stood, before the answer to our prayers, only to discover that we were the answer to theirs as well. 

When the tent city had opened at Tornillo in June, as housing for immigrant children separated from their parents, the tents had been set up a short distance from the border wall. They were put together on federal property, exempt from state laws regarding children, at the Tornillo/Guadelupe Port of Entry between – on the Mexico side – the State of Chihuahua, and – on  the United States side – the State of Texas. As the statements that the tent city would close constantly transformed into falsehoods, the cluster of tents itself transformed into a militarized town that dwarfed the population of Caseta, the Mexican town. As the tent city sprawled outward, closer and closer to the border wall, it also came closer and closer to the people on the other side of the wall, making it impossible for them to ignore. Their hearts became deeply grieved by the constant sight and sounds of children imprisoned between fences, guards and the border wall. 

By the time, we walked through the gates of Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Caseta, it had been four months since I had first spotted their spires. Sitting at the gate to the tent city throughout the month of June, I had spotted the distinctive twin steeples of the church and felt comforted by their presence. I hoped the illusion of watchful eyes, that the twin arches of the steeple created, would be comforting to the children as well. I dreamed about what it would be like to be able to send a more direct message, a message that they knew was for them. We had tried, from the US side, to do so with a balloon, and ended up with a vigilante sticking a gun in our faces. At the time, in June, the promises that the tent city would close seemed so certain, that it did not seem worthwhile to risk lives to pursue it any further.

Yet, the tent city did not go away, and neither did the desire amongst all those around it to let the kids know that they were supported and loved. Over the months, the tent city transformed from a temporary crisis intervention space for separated kids, to a long term incarceration facility for all manner of kids who had been classified as unaccompanied minors. As the classification of kids expanded, so did the numbers, from hundreds to thousands, until the sounds of their play vibrated the border wall and echoed over to the town of Caseta. 

The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, standing and watching the children from across the wall, could not have been more aptly named. Where were all the sorrowful mothers of these children scattered? How many were back home in the countries from which they had journeyed? How many of them were waiting somewhere in Topeka or Boston or Durham, unable to claim their children because it would ensure their own deportation? How many of them had been deported and were unable to communicate? 

Where were the many sorrowful mothers in whose place these Sisters now stood? 

Where were the many sorrowful mothers whose grief mirrored the original, Mary, who watched her wandering son arrested, criminalized and bound? 

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After greeting us in the courtyard of Cristo Rey, Mother Irene invited us all into her living room: Mari, Summer, Carolina, Becky, Juan, Marla and I. She sat us down and began by ascertaining which of us was baptized, and more significantly which of us was baptized en la Iglesia Catolica. She was not disappointed to discover a few Catholic saints among us. We talked about the kids, and what we could do to bring hope to them. We told her about the dreams of being able to let them know they were not alone, “No estan solos,” the message that was to have been hung from the original balloon. She ushered us over to the church when the service was to start, and we were able to join the mourners at the morning’s funeral. 

It was hard to leave when the time came to return to Arizona. Mother Irene took Carolina’s head in her hands gently and prayed a blessing over her, and then over all of us. The surreal and sacred time that we had shared with the Sisters was hard to release. Yet, they assured us – and we assured them – that it was only the beginning. We would return with a banner, with a message for the kids. They would hang it from their steeple so that if any kids might be able to see it, they would know that they were not alone – that God, the Church, and the people of Caseta were with them. 

Over the next couple weeks, we communicated with our new friends, this sacred friendship giving birth to a profound mission of hope. The Sisters decided on a message that would be a little more direct. Rather than “No estan solos” – you are not alone – they preferred, “Liberen a los niños” – Free the children. This was not the time for subtlety. People were suffering. Mothers were suffering. Children were suffering. The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother had spent decades inhabiting lives of contemplation upon that sorrow, and service in response to that sorrow. Who better than they to know what to do and what to say, in response to sorrow and injustice? 

As soon as was humanly possible, we returned. Piling into a minivan, we embarked once again in this journey of friendship, across state lines and border walls to Cristo Rey. Arriving, a group of people from the town had joined the Sisters in gathering to greet us and to make it known that Caseta supported this mission of mercy that the Sisters were pursuing. Members of Cristo Rey stood in the shadow of its steeples to make sure that their would be no impediments to the task. They explained that they were fed up, that they were tired of watching the kids imprisoned, that it was the right thing to do and they were the right people to do it. They wanted to send a message of hope and unwavering support. 

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Unfurling the banner, the Sisters smiled in approval and fetched a smaller matching banner that they had printed as well. We would take it to Joshua, who was their watchful mirror, keep vigilant watch on the US side of the wall. 

Climbing the steeples on ladders, the men of the town hoisted the banner into place, suspended between the two towers that pointed skyward. The Sisters stood proudly looking up at the banner, watching as their prayer took the shape of action, and their compassion took the shape of courage. 

Driving away from Caseta was even harder the second time than it had been the first. We had broken bread together, and heard more of one another’s stories. The Sisters had sung happy birthday to me as we walked through the streets of the town where Madre Irene had lived since before I was born. There was a sort of peace in knowing that the kids in this tent city were cradled gently in loving watchfulness between Joshua on the US side, and Madre Irene on the Mexico side. And now, thanks to their banner, we could pray that they would know it too.

 

 

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Knit Together in Love

The knit rainbow stole lay warm and heavy across my black clergy robe as I stood in the pulpit of my aunt’s Presbyterian church in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  I looked out into the congregation from the pulpit, and down into the eyes of my young cousins, nieces, and nephews.  I told them that the rainbow stole my aunt had knit was – at the same time – both the heaviest and the lightest weight that had ever been placed upon my shoulders.

Days earlier, I was in the air somewhere between Houston and Philadelphia when my aunt passed away. Rushing to be at her side, I had gotten there too late. I landed in the arms of her son, my cousin Jeff, who took me from the airport back to her house. Now, he and I, the two ordained pastors of the family, shared the pulpit and this momentous task of sacred remembering.

Touching the yarn of my stole as I stood in that pulpit, I remembered watching my aunt’s slender fingers move nimbly as she knit it together two years earlier. Jackie was still in chemo sessions, and it was the last time that she and I had time together to talk – just the two of us – without all the noise and beautiful chaos of our family gatherings that makes quiet, private moments hard to come by.

I always remember the last sacred conversation that I share with someone – the blessing.  The moment is not always the same as the last time I see someone, although there may be some awareness of finality. For my younger Aunt Amy and I, it had been that evening in her garden, where we laughed and talked. When she insisted, despite her frail condition, on walking up the street to the point where Mount Washington overlooks the city of Pittsburgh. We watched as the street lights overcame the falling darkness, and she shared with me her happy memories, her plans, and her dreams. A few years later, with Aunt Jackie, that conversation happened in the side room of her house in West Chester. I kept her company while she knit rainbow stoles for the Presbyterian General Assembly that convened in 2014 to discuss marriage equality.

Jackie sat in the rocking chair, and I sat on the couch, watching and chatting. She explained that knitting these stoles for the General Assembly was her way of making sure that LGBTQ+ folxs had full equality in the church. She told me that she wanted LGBTQ+ folxs to know they are loved and accepted in the church. She had witnessed so much pain, and she wanted it to stop. She believed they should have the ability to both stand in the pulpit as preachers, and to sit in the pew together as spouses.

I had always been able to tell Aunt Jackie my secrets, ever since I brought my first boyfriend over in high school. She had told me not to elope with that boy, and I had told her there was no chance of that happening. Yet that evening, all those years later, words failed me. A silent question hung heavy in the air between us.  An unspoken wondering. I looked at my feet, and somehow we reached an understanding. I did not say a word, but my face was so hot and my heart beat so fast – I could hear the blood pounding in my ears and I felt sure she must be able to hear it as well. She, in turn, told me everything I needed to hear, the relentless clicking of her knitting needles telegraphing love out with each and every stitch.

When Christmas came, my mother arrived to my sister’s house with the usual packages from Aunt Jackie. For as long as we could remember, all five of us kids had received five identical boxes from Aunt Jackie. One year it would be five sets of slippers in five different colors in five different boxes. Another year it would be five sets of gloves in five different colors in five different boxes.

This year was different.

The wrapped Macy’s box that my mother handed me was shaped the same as everyone else’s, but there was an unmistakable heaviness to my gift. When I opened the box, the rainbow spilled out. Aunt Jackie had sent me one of her protest stoles; perhaps the very same one that I had watched her knit. My breath caught in my throat. I wondered if I had turned pink, or worse red. I wondered if my family guessed at the meaning of her gift, a meaning that would have felt treasonous to my conservative Christian parents. If they did, no one spoke of it. My mother admired the colorful “scarf” that had – for the first time in our family’s history – broken the predictable rhythm of five different colored gloves or slippers for the five Bonner children.

I never thanked Aunt Jackie. As the days after Christmas turned into weeks and then months, I thought about what I should say to her. I had plans to call. I wanted to write. Yet, I never spoke to her of the stole that she had knit with so much love and given with so much meaning.

I was not ready to acknowledge what I believed she wanted to affirm. I had been brought up in a world that daily shamed and condemned this part of me. I needed more time, but it was time that Aunt Jackie simply did not have. She would not be able to be there when I was ready. She would not be able to put her arms around my shoulders when I needed to find my courage, so she sent me something else to lay across them instead.

The next couple years were grueling for both of us. As she went through chemo and radiation, getting weaker and weaker, I began my vigil at the Waller County Jail. Our lives were both under threat, mine from the social cancer of racism and hers from the ravages of the physical one. Like the rest of my family, she worried about me but never tried to talk me out of it. Those that know me best know how futile it is to try to dissuade me once I have set my mind to something.

In January of 2017, I placed my body between a white nationalist and a group of Muslim women. I ended up with a knife close to my back. It shook me like no other close call in my life had been able to do. It plunged me into a space of deep withdrawal and reflection about the value of my own life. It was a couple months into this period, in April of 2017, that Aunt Jackie passed away.

I spent that week with my cousins preparing for her funeral. I discussed her life with her daughter, Beth, and liturgy with her son, the Rev. Jeffrey Nagorney. I contemplated what I would say and what I would wear to her funeral. I had put the rainbow stole that she had knit for me into my suitcase, as I usually took it to stressful places for comfort. I felt it’s bulky, chunky weight in my hands, and I decided that I would wear it over my black academic robe.

Stepping into the pulpit that day, I was finally able to thank her properly. In that moment, I realized that the best way to honor my aunt’s life was to live mine; not just to stay alive as I had been struggling to do in Texas, but to truly live. I knew the joy it would have given my aunt to see me go from survival to thriving. That, I decided, was how I would thank her.

The night before, I had received a phone call about a position in Tucson, Arizona. As a coast-hugging water-lover, I had always said I could never live in the desert. Yet, for some reason, I had told them I would call them back after the funeral.

I dialed the number. When they picked up, I told them I would come to Arizona and interview.

My soul and body longed for rest. Longed for distance. Longed to be close to the earth. To the dirt.

Landing in Arizona, I fell in love – with the desert – with the heat – with the wind that swept away all the whispers of what others said I should be.

The strength of the saguaros called out to my soul. I sat and watched the sun set. I woke up in the morning and had tea with an old friend. I knew in that moment that this was a place where I could live. Not just stay alive, but live. Maybe for the first time in my life.

I began building a home again for the first time in many years. I felt safe enough to see the parts of me that I had spent a lifetime hiding from myself. I was surprised to find that the shame that I had expected to feel was not there, nor was the fear. I felt only joy, relief, and celebration. Freedom. Acceptance. Wholeness. Health.

My queerness did not treat me like a stranger, even though I had spent a lifetime turning away from it. It simply settled comfortably and quietly on my shoulders. Familiar, like the gentle weight and warmth of Aunt Jackie’s stole. Comforting, as if it had always been there – because it had been.

At first, I held it close to my heart, knowing that eventually I would have to let it out into the sunlight. I knew I could not spend a lifetime fighting for liberation and wholeness for others, and not be willing to give the same gift to myself. My life had been too defined by transparency and authenticity to make it possible for me to keep for long this treasure to myself.

So, in the words of Darnell Moore, I now invite you in…  into this beautiful knowledge of myself as a Queer woman. I invite you into this celebration of life and wholeness and healing. I invite you to embrace with me this confidence that every part of me is beloved, is beautiful, and belongs. 

I write this now, with Aunt Jackie’s stole laying across my shoulders, her love and acceptance knit into every stitch.

I know that Aunt Jackie did not need a thank you. What she needed was for me to have the warmth of her love with me when I finally saw myself. When I finally loved myself. When I finally accepted myself.

Thank you Aunt Jackie, for loving all of me before I could love all of myself. Consider this your long-delayed phone call. Your stole welcomed me, comforted me, emboldened me. It did exactly what you created it to do. You can trust that I will continue doing exactly what I was created to do, for I too was knit together in love. 

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well. (Psalm 139:13-14)

Tents, Kids, Money & God

After the weeks I spent sitting at the gate of the tent city for kids in Tornillo, Texas, I realized I was having a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. I texted friends asking them to give me the big picture. Accustomed to trench work, to being close to the ground, I often see the things no one else sees, while at the same time missing the things everyone else is seeing.  

One of the biggest things that was weighing on me was that while offering continual observations from the ground, and listening to firsthand accounts from inside, I had done little to look into the faith-based organization that was running the tent city, Baptist Child and Family Services. That is why I was so grateful when University of Arizona professor, Dr. Elizabeth Jaeger, offered to begin the research into BCFS. Using her research as a starting point, I have attempted to reflect upon what is a faithful response to what we are seeing.

My mind has been particularly ill at ease, because time and again we have been given a date that Baptist Children and Family Services planned to end their involvement in Tornillo and shut down the tent city they were running for the United States Government. Yet, whenever the date drew close, it was extended, and it felt that promises were broken. It began to feel familiar; delay tactics in Texas are one thing I know well. Yet, why did BCFS stay involved? They were supposed to be crisis responders, making a temporary response to a momentary crisis created by family separations. 

It is now four months later and the kids are still there. Permanent structures have been constructed in addition to the tents. The timeline is now dragging on through the end of 2018. 

The initial crisis that BCFS was responding to, the zero-tolerance policy and consequent large numbers of children separated from their parents, has been expanded. Rather than working to reunify the families and children and then shut down, the vision of the tent city has grown to include unaccompanied minors of other forms. The facility has constantly expanded rather than contracted, leading up to the event that returned it to the public eye: the mass movement of kids, during the darkness of night, from shelters around the country to Tornillo. Capacity has been expanded to house close to 4,000 kids from the original 200. Bodies will have to be conscripted to fill those spots. An industry is  being created.

As projected date of closure after projected date of closure has passed, one begins to wonder whether the situation that Baptist Child and Family Services find themselves in is similar to the quandary that Maria Hinojosa exposed in her two part interview with Juan Sanchez, the CEO of Southwest Key. In their conversation, Hinojosa draws out the economic and financial considerations that Juan Sanchez feels he must consider when lining up what may be best for the kids against the financial survival of an institution he has built.

Sometimes we start out with the best of intentions… but then there are salaries to be paid. 

Finances

The CEO of Baptist Children and Family Services, Kevin Dunnin, for example, received a salary of $450,000 in 2013 (while the average salary for non-profit CEOs is closer to $285,000).

According to CNN, in June, a week after Tornillo opened, BCFS was expected to receive $127,000,000 from the US Government during the fiscal year. Since that first week, the number appears to have skyrocketed to between $428,569,971 and $441,234,738 (depending on whether you go by Issue Date Fiscal Year or Funding Fiscal Year respectively) according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. That is a lot of money, a lot of salaries. All relying on the continued imprisonment of children. All relying on the Administration’s policy of creating consequences in order to discourage sponsors from claiming children.

Beware the creation of an industry.

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(Grants made to BCFS by US Gov. Source: Department of Health and Human Services)

Transparency and Accountability

This leads us to some very important questions. First, the question of transparency and accountability. According to a 2014 article, concerns have been raised in the past to the Department of Health and Human Services about the lack of transparency exhibited by BCFS. If you were to look at their website, perhaps as a potential donor, you will not see any mention of the unaccompanied minor facilities, that presumably make up a good percentage of their income. While we can assume that running a tent city has not always been the history of BCFS, which began as an orphanage in Texas, that is the history that it is writing right now.

With each day that passes, and each child that spends another week or month in the desolation of Tornillo, we are normalizing the imprisonment of innocent children. With each person that signs a non-disclosure agreement to enter, and exits carrying the warm impression intentionally created for them and compassion for those that work there, normalization is carried back to the communities they inhabit.

How soon we forget our original horror.

When you open the website for BCFS, it opens with an image of a young blonde woman, and the words “Empowering Youth Through Education.” However, until a new press release was issued this week saying that children at Tornillo would be receiving instruction from teachers, they have only been provided with optional workbooks to work on if they choose. Establishing educational opportunities is surely a necessary and welcome change from the past 4 months. One would presume that the requirements to abide by State regulations, stipulated by the grants BCFS receives, should already have been being respected and that education should already have been being offered. However, Tornillo, being on Federal property, is not subject to State inspections or enforcement.

It has been difficult at times for advocates all along the border in Texas and Arizona to know how to respond. Most of the responses that have taken place have been directed towards the more profitable Southwest Key. Over the past few months, many advocates have restrained themselves from bringing attention to situations, fearing that children will be moved to even worse locations. To many, Tornillo seems like the worst-case scenario, but others fear that moving the kids out of sight to military bases would be even worse. It is hard to know what to do.

One thing I do know: we must fight normalizing this, and we must fight against the creation of one more mass incarceration institution reliant on bodies for income.

Part of me wonders if we are too late… has all of this already been happening, and already been established for years under our very noses? At the same time, looking at the numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services, I can see that income for both Southwest Key and BCFS has skyrocketed, doubling the amount of money they were receiving from the government last year. One can hope, that with the right amount of attention and pressure, we can prevent these and other organizations from being willing accomplices to the administration. One can hope, that we can discourage them from making this a normal part of their expected budget. One can hope, that we can prevent this from becoming business as usual.

Religious Responsibility

I have been struggling with what is our religious responsibility in this from the start. Throughout time when cruelty was enacted upon the vulnerable, there were religious leaders who collaborated and benefitted, and religious leaders who resisted in both public and private ways. When does the time come when we must choose? Where is the line that cannot be crossed? When does the moment come when we must risk it all?

These are questions that many of us have the luxury of asking, because we are not amongst the directly impacted community. Yet, I have heard the voice of a mother who expressed her shock that we were not jumping in our cars and storming the gates of Tornillo.

I have struggled with trying to be professional, trying to be collegial, trying to be respectful. I have held my tongue while watching different religious leaders make different choices.

That mother’s outrage at our complacency strips my soul bare.

Reading representatives from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention defending BCFS from critique, I know that Baptist Children and Family Services is not merely Baptist in name. They are claimed by the Southern Baptists, connected to the Southern Baptists. I wonder what my Baptists friends can do.

In seeking to examine our own practice, I have discussed with other pastors in Tucson how what we do with shelters here is different, and how to keep it that way. Most importantly, we do not hold children in confinement. We offer hospitality, welcome, food, clothing, and the freedom to leave at any time. There are not armed guards or fences, military helicopters or snipers on the roof as I saw on at least one occasion during my time at Tornillo. We work hard to communicate about consent and let guests know they are free to do as they choose and go where they choose. We are not funded by the government, we are supported by the church and you. We do not sign non-disclosure agreements, and as you see, have no problem using any knowledge we have to publicly critique the system. I believe those are important distinctions to maintain.

We must remain vigilant. The way things begin may not be how they end. You may start out setting up a few tents as a temporary shelter for separated kids, and end up running a tent city for thousands of unaccompanied minors.

How closely can the church cooperate with the government in serving immigrants before we have gone too far and become an accomplice to abuse? Where is the line? How much can we tolerate in order to maintain access to the vulnerable, without becoming desensitized to their suffering?

We must examine ourselves. Constantly. We must fight complacency.

 

Two Cities-One Heart: An Appeal to Listen to El Paso (with Juan Ortiz)

They say that El Paso/Juarez are two cities with one heart. While the rest of the nation views Juarez only through the eyes of the media, folks here look across the wall with affection towards the homes of people they love. Here in Southern Arizona, where people who grew up on the border call it Ambos Nogales, we can understand that. As dialogue and debate rages throughout the nation about what should be done along the border, those who actually live here have continued quietly and tirelessly laboring to make things better. This is how they have always lived. Knowing and living the cruelty of a people occupied by the Federal Government. Seeing and loving their family on both sides of the border. Being forgotten and overlooked by those that see this as a line on a map rather than a community.

Even now, as the home of their heart is suddenly a trending topic of trauma and dialogue and debate, they still find themselves often forgotten, ignored, and left out of the conversations that they should have been invited into decades ago. The reality of la Frontera is that there are people who have been living here and have been working for justice here all their lives, and they cannot be ignored any longer by those of us who say they want to make things better. We should know that the solutions to a community’s biggest dilemmas come from within that community. We must listen. It is those who have had boots on the ground for a lifetime, whose blood and sweat and tears have watered this land, some whose ancestors were here long before there was a border, who know what to do.

The time I spent in Tortilla was hot and difficult and dangerous, but what I did not share with you was the time I spent in the evenings. Time listening to and learning from some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. Time learning from women to give birth to a new day. My wish would be that every person who cast their eye towards the border, with a thought to help, would first pause and listen and learn from those doing the work and then summon all their strength and resources to lift up those who are so tired and have been laboring for so very long in these trenches.

The following is an initial attempt to further that conversation. To profile some of the amazing local people and organizations that had such a huge impact on me during my time in El Paso/Juarez and Tornillo.

The majority of what follows, as well as the conclusion to this blog, was written by the my colleague, artist, scholar, activist and University of Arizona doctoral candidate, Juan Ortiz. A Pasean (person from El Paso) whose love for his community runs as strong as the Rio Grande that runs through it and as high as the mountains that rise above the two cities with one heart. 

The Annunciation House in El Paso, whose stated mission is to serve in the Gospel spirit of service and solidarity, and to accompany the migrant, homeless, and economically vulnerable peoples of the border region through hospitality, advocacy, and education. “We place ourselves among these poor so as to live our faith and transform our understanding of what constitutes more just relationships between peoples, countries, and economies.” It houses and provides refuge for refugees, immigrant and the homeless alike through the spirit of service and advocacy. It is deeply rooted in the community and housed in one of our most historical neighborhoods.  https://annunciationhouse.org

The Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee works hand in hand with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and the Annunciation house. The partnership allows local organizations to be able to aide immigrants from release to housing and desperately needed legal services. https://dmscelpaso.wixsite.com/dmscelpaso https://www.facebook.com/DMSCElPaso/

They also do the work of a community bail fund, to raise much needed money to bail the most vulnerable of our neighbors out of immigrant detention: https://www.fianzafund.org

Paola Fernandez is a member of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee. The DMSC is a citizen-led gathering of people dedicated to raising community funds to then use to release detained mothers in the surrounding Ice detention facilities. Including families and mothers who have been separated from their children. Paola also works in other capacities in the community including with the Catholic Dioceses, El Paso del Sur and Movimiento Cosecha. Paola is one of the many young leaders in El Paso changing the face of activism and advocacy in our town, as well as one of the people bringing her community organizing skills and strength and positive energy to the movement!

Edith Tapia is a native to the El Paso/Juarez region and also a member of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee. In addition to her support of detained migrants through their efforts, she also works as a Policy Research Analyst with the Hope Border Institute. In a short amount of time, she has packed in a profound amount of experience supporting, learning from, and advocating for the vulnerable on both sides of the border and throughout the United States. To learn more about the work of the Hope Border Institute: https://www.hopeborder.org

Las Americas is a 25-year-old non-profit on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, dedicated to serving the legal needs of the most vulnerable among immigrants: Asylum seekers, battered women and abandoned children. The El Paso port-of-entry sees the second highest number of people crossing into the United States by land, second only to San Diego. El Paso also has three major migrant detention centers in the surrounding areas. Las Americas being one of the most important service providers in the entire borderlands. http://las-americas.org 

Christina Garcia Christi is an El Paso native and has lived here most of her life. She has worked with Las Americas for the past 5 years. Besides her work at Las Americas, Christi is a first generation U.S. citizen, college/university graduate, and professional who is deeply invested in El Paso and in the immigrant rights/human rights community. She is a deeply caring and devoted person who always does her best to accommodate the many requests made of her and the agency during these times of crisis.

Linda Y. Rivas (pictured speaking in banner photo) was born in Mexico and raised in El Paso from the age of 4. Linda attended The University of Texas at El Paso and received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a minor in legal reasoning. She received a Juris Doctor from Loyola College of Law in New Orleans and was a legal intern with the Department of Justice. Linda is a lifelong advocate of human human rights. Linda’s first job as an attorney was as the West Texas VAWA Legal Supervisor at the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project where she worked in immigration law under the VAWA and U-VISA programs and engaged in domestic violence advocacy. She is currently the managing Attorney at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center where she is focused on serving detained asylum seekers, a crucial role in what Las Americas does. She is also a new mother and a lead organizer for the El Paso Women’s March.

Melanie Gleason Melanie Gleason is the “Attorney on the Move”, investing her life fully in offering pro-bono support to immigrants along our Southern border. Having worked in southern Arizona for the past year, Melanie has recently moved to El Paso to support immigrants there and to collaborate with Las Americas. A true lawyer for the people, Melanie fit everything she owns into her tiny SmartCar and took the trip from Tucson to El Paso to dive even deeper into the places of greatest need. She is an incredible inspiration and someone who is willing to selfless give everything that she can for others. The daughter of an inner city Clevelander and a Thai immigrant, Melanie brings to all the work that she does her depth and breadth of experience and her sense of urgency and compassion. She is currently almost to her goal to cover the expenses of her work through November. To support her, give here: https://www.mightycause.com/story/Elpasoattorneyonthemove http://www.attorneyonthemove.com

In closing:

El Paso has had a long and proud tradition of immigrant advocacy and social justice practice since the Mexican Revolution up to the Chicano Movement of the 1960’s. As marginalized people living in oppressed conditions, people across the borderlands have come to understand and to demand the recognition of both their people and their city. The tragic events that have unfolded in our community that led to the internment and separation of families has had profound effects on our community. Yet, the community in response has learned come together in solidarity to decide next steps. We as a community are asking folks to consider actions that build the existing community groups, organizations, people and institutions that have and are doing the work and that will be here, far after the national spotlight has subsided.

The organization I belong to Movimiento Cosecha decided instead of committing to a short term direct action, instead to commit to long term relationships within the community and to give the funds raised directly to the community bail fund. A fund that has released many mothers in ICE detention facilities. Movimiento Cosecha is national organization led by directly impacted people fighting for the dignity, respect and permanent protection of all undocumented people in the United States. http://www.lahuelga.com

At the end of the day that is what should take precedence and guide the actions of anyone wanting to ally in this struggle. Potential “Allies” should ask themselves some very important and germane questions: Are the funds we are raising (in the name of the oppressed) directly helping those suffering from those oppressions? What are going to be the lasting consequences of our actions, what will they build? Will they be additive and constructive? Or will they be temporal, reductive, intrusive or destructive?

If you haven’t asked yourself these questions, please do so before you decide to come to a site of great trauma and dehumanization.

 

Not All Is Lost.

The news today felt like a tidal wave. Like that time I stepped on a yellow-jacket nest and they swarmed me from all sides. Yet, despair could not seem to find a good spot to land on me. I just kept hearing her words: “Not all is lost.”

Driving from El Paso to Tornillo with a woman directly impacted by our cruelty towards immigrants from Central America, she looked around at my car full of white folx and her response was, “Now I know that not all is lost.” 

This week, of all weeks, when it feels like the whole world is crashing down around us, this is the week she decided that not all is lost?

“After the election,” she explained, “everyone was saying such hateful things about us. It felt like nobody loved us. It felt like everyone wanted to get rid of us. But now I see you are all here willing to risk everything with us. Now I know that not all is lost.”

Not all is lost. If she can believe that, then so can I.

Not all is lost, because all it takes to change this is enough of us to get up and actively refuse to let it happen. All it takes is a Rahab living at the wall and shielding the servants of God from the wall patrol that was searching for them. All it takes is a Ruth binding herself in solidarity to a Naomi of another land, refusing to let her walk through struggle and uncertainty alone. All it takes is an Esther, saying, “I will go to the king, though it be against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

All it takes is one person to say, “You are not alone.”

All it takes is you. You, creating a ripple in your neighborhood, that joins with all the others making ripples in their own, that turns into “justice running down like a river, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That is what can push back this tide that feels like it will crush us all: you. 

Not all is lost, because we are not alone. If she can believe that, then so can I.

When we arrived at Tornillo, we planned to send up a balloon into the air, with a banner hanging down from it that read, “No estan solos” (You are not alone). We wanted the kids imprisoned in tents at Tornillo to know that there were people that cared about them, and that were fighting for them on the outside. It was simple, it would not have changed the world, but it would have given them hope. It would have reminded them that not all is lost. For us, that was worth the risk. 

Unfortunately the balloon never got up high enough for them to read. A local rancher, who had been encouraged to feel free to engage in vigilantism by CBP, interrupted and eventually pulled a revolver out, waving it around and threatening to shoot down the balloon. 

Despite the fact that he oversaw the alfalfa field next to where the kids were held in tents, where the crop duster had passed over the day before, he believed that all of this was fake news. The control of those who seek to undermine the truth was so strong upon him, that he believed what he heard from the administration on Fox News rather than what he saw with his very own eyes. The pressure from CBP was so great on him that he was waving a revolver around a bunch of people simply holding a big balloon. 

As she stood in front of his gun, her previous words echoed in my mindp1080645.jpg, “You are all here willing to risk everything with us. Now I know that not all is lost.”

Eventually through peaceful dialogue, he was deescalated, and perhaps began to realize how foolish he was being. He put his revolver in his front pocket. But that did not stop him from saying, “Well, I’ll let you do it if you pay me $5,000.” I wondered how much, if anything, CBP was paying him to outsource their intimidation. 

Eventually the balloon was deflated, as were our spirits, and we all went our separate ways. 

Still, not all was lost.

Not all is lost because she is not alone, because we are not alone, because you are not alone. 

As we wanted to tell the kids, “No estan solos.”

We will stand together, and we will stare directly into whatever threats come our way, and we will endure them as a people united. Like Ruth chose Naomi over her country. Like Rahab shielded the spies that climbed over the wall. Like Esther broke the law for a people threatened with obliteration. 

We will love one another and we will tell the truth, no matter how many lies and how much hate come our way. In order to stop atrocity, there just has to be enough people to say no – you are one of those people. We need your “No.”

Today I called my mother, and I told her that for the third time since the election of Donald Trump, I had stood within range of the weapon of a white man who was willing to do harm in his name.

And I do not stand here alone. The truth is that there are already so many people who already stand in the range of harm, regardless of what they do or say, but simply because of who they are. Simply because of the religion they practice. Simply because of the language they speak. Simply because of the country where they were born. Simply because of the color of their skin. Simply because they came desperate for help, and trusting we would aid them rather than kidnap their children. 

I’m not asking you if you will stand with me in the way of harm, I’m asking you if you will join me in standing with those who have no choice in the matter. Those who do not have the privilege of walking away. 

There is someone in your community who is tempted today to believe that all is lost. They cannot avoid the danger and fears they face by simply refusing to “talk politics” or trying not to “make people uncomfortable.” Their reality is discomfort, and there is no escape. They need to see that they are not alone. They need to see that you will stand with them. They need to trust that you will stay. 

Not all is lost. If she can believe that, then so can I. 

“Do not press me to leave you

    or to turn back from following you!

Where you go, I will go;

    where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

    and your God my God.

Where you die, I will die—

    there will I be buried.

May the Lord do thus and so to me,

    and more as well,

if even death parts me from you!”

Ruth 1:16-17

*Conversation quoted with consent.

Seven Sisters

Throughout time, the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, have roamed the heavens, offering to each people over whom they passed a gift. People have used their appearance in the sky to tell them when to plant and grow, and have used their location to help them navigate and find their way. They have been revered and treasured, even seen as relatives by those indigenous to Austrailia. They were named Subaru, meaning unite, by the Japanese. The Pawnee also, seeing them as symbols of unity, sought to learn from them how to be unified. 

On the night of June 22, however, when a van drove into the Tornillo internment camp carrying seven teenage girls, the Seven Sisters were nowhere to be seen. Here, where the Wall splits the earth open like a wound, seven girls became prisoners under the light of a different set of stars.

According to Senator Udall of New Mexico, by the time the sun rose on June 23, there were 250 teenage boys, and a newly arrived 7 teenage girls imprisoned in the cluster of tents at the Tornillo-Guadelupe Port of Entry on the US-Mexico Border. 

I want to be clear about my use of the term ‘Internment Camp.’ The government and media has preferred to label these ‘tent cities’; however, that deeply fails to capture what is happening. Regardless of denotation, the connotation within most of our culture of ‘tent city’ is something that individuals have had agency in creating. Outside of Arizona, we most often use this term in the United States when referring to communities created by our homeless neighbors. There is no agency, or choice on the part of the children being held in these cruel conditions, however. They are prisoners, sent outside to play soccer and look happy when politicians come; they are not children at a summer camp. Therefore, I avoid the use of the language of tent city, because I believe it is intentionally misleading and intended to calm the outrage that the general public ought to be feeling. 

I want you to feel the truth of what this is.

While the Pleiades had been guiding humankind’s navigation and migration for thousands of years, they were nowhere to be seen this night. In their absence, was also absent the unity, family and power that they had come to represent to peoples throughout all time and place. 

I can tell you much more about those stars, those Seven Sisters, than I can tell you about the young girls who entered this space that night. I know nothing, no names, no countries of origin. Yet, we know something of them nonetheless. We have been them, or taken care of them, or taught them, or loved them in all the ways that they reflect those closest to us. At least one of those girls is the same age my eldest niece will turn in October, the same month the Seven Sisters will return to our sky. 

These young women are our nieces, our daughters, our cousins, our sisters. They walk across a hard packed dirt with dust flying in the wind to get their meals. They sleep in a tent with only a layer of plastic between them and the beating sun. They drink water that comes from a huge plastic tub on the back of a truck that says, potable water, driven into the camp as the water sloshes back and forth under the beating sun. 

The Maori and Arapaho peoples have a different explanation for Pleiades. The Maori tell of Matariki and the Arapaho of Turtle Island tell of Alcyone. In both cases, Matariki and Alcyone burst apart, one star shattering into many (The Seven Sisters of the Pleiades: Stories From Around the World, by Munya Andrews, p. 25-26). 

One star shattering into seven pieces like the seven hearts of seven mothers whose seven daughters now bake in the West Texas sun. 

Like the 250 hearts of 250 mothers whose 250 sons now bake in the West Texas sun.

Like the 4,000 hearts of 4,000 mothers whose greatest treasures are expected to be held here before our cruel work is done.

Free the mothers. Free the fathers. Long for their children to be in their arms, not ours. Donate to bond funds to release them. Fight alongside them to get their children back. Play no part in the termination of family rights and forced adoptions that may come. Play no part in the criminalization of parents that takes place when we build a wall in our hearts and minds between their children and them. 

They say that November is the best time to see the Seven Sisters in all their glory. This November, may their return to our skies mark the changing of this cruel tide that has swept so many families away in its current. May we be guided back to smoother seas. May we be guided back to unity.

Amen.

There Is Something We Can Do

They are all I can see when I close my eyes. Little faces pressed up against the grated windows of prison buses. In the silence between us, I feel them plead for help, and there is nothing I can do. I realize where they are going, and I finally feel myself start to crack apart inside. 

I watch the bus disappear into the distance, driving away from the tent city where they have been holding kids separated from their parents here at the Tornillo-Guadelupe Port of Entry, and a lump rises in my throat. 

What could be worse than Tornillo? What could be worse than this piercing heat that roasts my skin, and this blinding brightness that makes it hard to see? What could be worse than watching preschool age children sit in rows of chairs under an awning waiting to be processed, knowing that it is 110 degrees in the shade?

What could be worse is two words: Indefinite and military.

First, Military because whatever happens there can be hidden. When the children and families are in some sense in our communities, even if behind bars, we have the possibility that visitation and support will some day be open to us. Once they are on military bases, there are different rules than in civilian land. There is less opportunity for transparency and accountability and support.

Second, Indefinite because the executive order that was signed to end family separation included the capacity to hold those reunited families indefinitely. The toll that takes on the psyche is astronomical. The toll that takes on the soul of our nation could be deadly. Indefinite is the kind of word used by dictators, used by tyrannies, used in places where rights have disappeared. 

This should concern you greatly, because as my father the lawyer once told me, if any of our rights are violated all of our rights are violated. Rights only exist if they exist for everyone. If they exist selectively, they are privileges not rights. If you allow your neighbors rights to be violated, you have signed the death sentence on your own rights. We stand together, or we fall together. Privilege is not something you want to stake the safety of your family upon. 

There is a bigger plan at work than we can see, although we can guess at it. Horrified at the cries of children torn from their mothers’ arms, will we once more permit entire families to be held in militarized internment camps. Will the outrage we felt in one moment tire us out enough that we will be docile and complacent in the next? Is this how they planned it all along? 

We must stop crying out that this is not who we are, and face that it is who we have been, so that we can face the future declaring that it is who we will no longer be. 

I close my eyes, and they are all I see. Little heads. Little faces. Pleading with me. 

I want to be with someone who understands. I find myself sitting with Mary, at the feet of la Virgen, at Saint Mark’s Catholic Church in El Paso. I know she understands. We took her son away as well. I sit there all night in silence with her, until total darkness covers us like a blanket. I know it’s time to go. I get up and walk closer to her and raise my face so that the water from her fountain can splash on my dirty, sunbu55133229648__07068729-219d-45a2-9c3f-de3823d2a91a.jpgrnt face. I leave the water there as I walk away, a welcome respite from the tears.

“Remember your baptism, and be thankful.” As the water drips down my face, I remember the words so often spoken in the church. 

We remember the grace that we do not deserve and cannot earn. We remember the tenets of our faith, and the covenant we have made. We remember the commitment we have made to love and support one another.

This is what we have committed to:

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,

reject the evil powers of this world,

and repent of your sin?

I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you

to resist evil, injustice, and oppression

in whatever forms they present themselves?

I do.

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,

put your whole trust in his grace,

and promise to serve him as your Lord,

in union with the Church which Christ has opened

to people of all ages, nations, and races?

I do.

I reject the evil powers of this world. I commit to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. I promise to serve in the company of people of all ages, nations, and races.

I close my eyes, and they are all I see. Little faces. Little heads. Pleading for help.

And there is most certainly something that we can do.

There are many things that we can do.

Please read my friend Melanie’s suggestions for action, and add your own in the comments. I will be moderating comments. 

To support folks here in El Paso:

Give to the Detained Immigrant Solidarity Committee here in El Paso, to bond people out so that they can fight for their families on the outside: https://www.fianzafund.org/donate.html

Help fund legal assistance locally to these families by donating to: https://www.facebook.com/lasamericasIAC/

Add your suggestions in the comments below!

"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)