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.

 

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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!

Kids Are Still Arriving To Internment Camp

Far in the distance, on the other end of my camera lens, sat a little figure in pink pants and a pink shirt. A little girl. Four, maybe five years old. She reminded me of another child that it would be impossible to forget: little Omran Daqneesh, coveIMG_3232.JPGred in dust and blood, sitting motionless in the back of an ambulance in Aleppo, Syria in the summer of 2016. Like him, she seemed to sit motionless, straight up in her chair. Silent perhaps. Stunned. This is trauma. This is what hell looks like, I thought.

Cheers were erupting throughout the nation as Trump signed an executive order supposedly ending the most current form of child separationthat our nation and administration has manifested. Squinting my eyes in the sun, I could barely see on my phone screen that people were celebrating victory. Just then my attention was distracted as another bus full of children came rumbling past. It looked like a prison bus, bringing little kids to baby jail. A little kid with tousled hair pressed their face against the glass, trying to see out through the dirty, tinted windows. A barrier separated the kids from the officers driving the bus. It reminded me of the prison bus, whose crash released Dr. Richard Kimball in Harrison Ford’s 1993 film, The Fugitive. Only on this bus, there would be no escape. IMG_3216.jpg

As a wave of relief washed over the nation, we were coming up dry in Tornillo. 

Turning my attention back to the little girl, I spotted an even younger child sitting near her. A toddler. Sitting outside. Waiting to be processed. The reporter from NBC remarked that if it was 110 in the shade, it must be 120 in the heat of the sun. At least they were in the shade.

While people were celebrating that this journey of suffering was over, these children had only just arrived.

Prison buses carrying little kids into a tent city that brought to mind housing for captured enemy combatants. Tan tents, surfaces rippling in the wind. I did not know how sturdy they were or how well they would protect the kids from the heat. I longed to see instead those classic thick, sturdy canvas army tents that we have used to protect our own forces.

P1070958

Were these children alone or with people they knew? Why were there little kids out in this heat, when they had clearly tried to create the impression that only teenage boys would be kept at Tornillo? Was this the next step? Was our outrage over family separation only a precursor so that we would accept it if they begin to house whole families in places like this?

“So scary are the consequences of the collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.” –Toni Morrison 

We cannot let this become our normal. It is not too late for us yet. 

Tornillo: The Turning of the Screw

Tornillo. In Spanish it means screw – as in turning the screw – as in taking something bad and making it worse. That is exactly what has happened in this place.

Tonight I stood before the closed gate to the Tornillo-Guadelupe Port of Entry, beyond which sits the newly populated “tent cities” for children separated from their parents. I took it all in and struggled to find words. My colleague from University of Arizona, Juan Ortiz, had brought me there, weaving through the pitch blackness and utter isolation that lies east of El Paso, Texas. We drove as far as they would allow, and then I got out and walked the rest of the way while Juan kept watch. I’m a white woman in a clergy collar: my risk is infinitely less.

It was so dark. It was so isolated. I imagined that must be how the children held beyond this gate must feel. I imagined the tears that wet some of their pillows, like the Rio Grande winding through El Paso.

We are horrified. Finally. Why did it take us so long? Separating children from their parents is not new, but here it is – in Tornillo – that we find the turning of the screw. The point beyond which we cannot tolerate the pain. Dear God, I plead, let us not tolerate the pain. Let us not get used to it. Let us not rationalize and find comfort once again, while others are tortured. Torment us.

Throughout our history, this is what we have done when we have wanted to break the spirit of a people. What are we trying to do now, if not that? We seek to break the Spirit. To break apart families, to break hearts, perhaps in ways that can never be repaired.

Let me take a moment to be clear about what I mean when I say “we.” I mean the powers that be, and all of us that are not on the receiving end of their abuse but are merely mentally tortured by their constantly escalating atrocities. We who will not be the ones whose children are taken. We who cannot imagine a cause for our arrest, rather than dreading it’s arrival constantly. We who do nothing. Let us not be that we.

Let us step away from that “we” and into another. Let us resist. Let us embrace discomfort. Let us refuse to be silent.

The thing that I want us to remember is that while these conditions are horrible for children, there are no conditions into which we can place them that will diminish the horror, trauma, abuse and damage that you inflict upon a child when you separate them from a parent who loves them and is willing to risk their lives for that child. The separation itself is the horror.

Yet, that separation already happens when a family arrives together to seek asylum – a human right – and one parent is taken and held. That separation happens when a parent is deported away from their children.

That separation happens in our mind when we create a narrative where the child is a victim and the parent is a criminal, when in reality their parent is all too often their savior. We have already separated parent from child mentally, before we separated them physically. We have already placed them in separate categories, before we placed them in separate cages.

To end this, it will not be sufficient to end their physical separation. We must also tear down the walls that we have constructed between parent and child in our minds. Until we do that, we will remain complicit. It is our mental divide that has led to their physical one.

Let us bring them back together in our minds, so that we can bring them back together in the flesh.

Below is a portion of the El Paso mural by Francisco Delgado and Juan Ortiz.

20180618_210051

Wrestling with Peace

“To have peace we must tell the truth; without truth-telling there is no peacemaking.”* (Jean Zaru)

“Only by being truthful about how we got here can we imagine another way.”** (Austin Channing Brown)

The words were like salve to my weary mind. A balm in Gilead. Oil poured out and running over. 

For three weeks, I had been focused on deep listening. You see, three weeks ago, I wrote a blog in deepest sincerity, not seeking to be provocative, but needing to be honest about a book that many leaders in my church were reading. 

The response from some has been to read it again. Not to throw out the baby with the bath water. This may be an option for some. Our deep investment institutionally will make it necessary for some, and I understand that. Due to the calling that I have to amplify “the cry of the needy”, this was not personally an option for me.

That does not mean I had the answers. In truth, it had frightened me how willing I had been to swallow down what I now know to be a mixture of stories, some true and some likely not, under a veneer of heavy handed opinions on one of the most painful and ongoing conflicts in our world. Inviting people to get out of the box with a story taken from a people, many of whom quite literally cannot leave the walls that box them in. I felt deep grief that the pain of an occupied people half a world away was being coopted, not in order to end their pain but in order to end mine. Their trauma domesticated and packaged for my consumption. A placebo of peace. A lesson for better living. 

Over these three weeks, I worked hard. I continued hosting a family of asylum seekers in my home, and I listened to their insightful opinions on the topic of my study. I traveled and I spoke and I prayed.

Most of all, I read. I read voraciously. I read for my life. I read to hear all those voices that  had been stolen. While it is true that I needed to keep reading, in my case it was not the same book again. 

This is what I read:

Throughout the weeks, I both wanted and did not want to continue this conversation. I scribbled notes. I created and scrapped outlines. Many times, I thought I could escape the need to continue. Yet the words of a Palestinian Christian woman, Jean Zaru, would not let me rest, “To have peace we must tell the truth; without truth-telling there is no peacemaking.”

So, because peace must be made and not merely awaited, I’m going to try to share three things that I invite you to bear in mind with me. 

Peace is not an inherent good.

I love my church too much to say it.

I love my church too much not to say it.

Jesus was clear that the peace that we are called to pursue is different from the way that the world uses the word. In John 14:27, he says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

I do not give to you as the world gives. 

The peace of our God is not the peace that the world gives. The peace of the world most often requires that some suffer in silence, so that others may feel comfortable. The peace of Jesus leaves no one out. The peace of Jesus makes room for everyone. A peace that even makes room for the Canaanite woman, when she disrupts worldly peace to cry out, demand, and refuse to be excluded from the table of the Lord (Matthew 15:21-28).

As Dr. Mitri Raheb, the pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, said of his occupied context in Palestine, “The peace model that has been employed to date has been a type of Pax Romana where the empire dictates peace either through endless processes or through facts on the ground (settlements, land confiscation, colonization, and so forth), thus buying time to expand the boundaries of empire. Pax Romana was rejected by the Judeans of the first century, and similar models are understandably rejected by the Palestinians of the twenty-first century. Peace dictated by the empire is not desirable, doable, or durable.”****

What we must seek is Pax Christi, not Pax Romana. The peace of Christ, not the peace of the Emperor. The peace promised in Isaiah 65:25. This is what defines us as people.

This strange and unusual peace of Christ is what would lead him to say, in Matthew 10:34, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

In Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” his sermon on this very text, he wrote,

I had a long talk the other day with a man about this [at the] bus situation. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agreed that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely to absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes it is true that if the Negro accept his place, accepts exploitation, and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be an obnoxious peace. It would be a peace that boiled down to stagnant complicity, deadening passivity and if peace means this, I don’t want peace:

If peace means accepting second class citizen ship I don’t want it.

If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.

If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening staus quo, I don’t want peace.

If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated polically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.

In a passive non-violent manner we must revolt against this peace.

Jesus says in substance, I will not be content until justice, goodwill, brotherhood, love yes, the kingdom of God are established upon the earth. This is real peace. Peace is the presence of positive good.

As Rev. Dr. King teaches us, the peace we seek must be the peace of Christ. The peace that passes understanding. The peace that the world cannot give to us. The peace that silences no cry of the needy so that it can sleep better at night. 

The challenge for peacemakers, for those who pursue a peace that includes all, has always been to help us to clearly see the difference between the peace of the world and the peace of Christ.

On the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in 1965, the people of Selma tried to cross and many were beaten to the point of death by the police. They did this in order to reveal to the rest of the nation that the peace that existed in their community was no peace at all. It was the world’s version of peace: the silencing of the cry of the needy. It was not the peace of Christ that turns the world upside down. 

It is the work of peacemakers to reveal the difference. Therefore, it is dangerous indeed to create models, that when applied to social issues, would portray the non-violent resister as involved in a collusion to escalate their own abuse. 

Peacemakers disrupt the peace of the world to make way for the peace of Christ, just as Christ did. Just as Bonhoeffer did when he spoke out against the Nazis, while the vast majority of Christians and pastors in his nation were content to be at worldly peace with Hitler.

All anger is not equal.

I love my church too much to say it.

I love my church too much not to say it.

Anger is not equal; neither in its cause, nor in its expression.

In 1965, when armed police were beating Amelia Boynton into bloody unconsciousness on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, there was surely anger on both sides. Yet the anger was not equal in its cause or in its expression. As those of us who have born the pain can attest, there is no desire on the part of peacemakers for a beating, no desire for tear gas. 

The anger, for those that felt it as they fled for their lives back towards Selma, was a just and a righteous reaction to the injustice of their lives both in that moment and in the years preceding. The anger of those that were giving the beating was unjust and unrighteous and arising from their fear of losing the power to oppress those who were marching for their right to vote. 

There is a scene in the 1967 film, “In the Heat of the Night” that always captured this so perfectly for me. A wealthy suspect in the case crumbles into anger and tears because he realizes the world has changed and he cannot just have the Sheriff shoot Mr. Tibbs for being a Black man with confidence. 

We may all feel anger, but it is not equal. Neither in it’s cause nor in it’s expression. For some of us are angry that our humanity is being diminished, and others of us are angry that we cannot control the other’s expression of their humanity. 

Sandra Bland was a Methodist woman pulled over in Texas, who later died in custody. When she was pulled over, both she and the officer were angry, but the anger was equal neither in cause nor expression. She was angry at being unnecessarily pulled over and illegally arrested. He was angry that she did not cater to his ego. His ego cost her life.

Some of us can get away with anger, with explosions and fits. Some of us can yell and scream and curse without lasting consequence. Others live their lives suppressing that anger and it’s expression, knowing that the results can be costly and even deadly. The ability to express anger is a privilege. 

We cannot all explode in anger and get away with it.

Austin Channing Brown writes, “Because I am a Black person, my anger is considered dangerous, explosive, and unwarranted. Because I am a woman, my anger supposedly reveals an emotional problem or gets dismissed as a temporary state that will go away once I choose to be rational. Because I am a Christian, my anger is dismissed as a character flaw, showing just how far I have turned from Jesus. Real Christians are nice, kind, forgiving – and anger is none of these things.”*** She continues to write of finding freedom from this social positioning in the writings of Audre Lorde, “A sense of freedom fell over me as I read her words. Anger is not inherently destructive. My anger can be a force for good. My anger can be creative and imaginative, seeing a better world that doesn’t yet exist. It can fuel a righteous movement toward justice and freedom. I don’t need to fear my own anger. I don’t have to be afraid of myself. “^

Reading her book and Dr. Cleveland’s book made me aware that we value storytelling that leads to self-introspection, but that as a communal body we are more comfortable with the lens of our journey being that of a white man, as was the case in the initial book. The powerful storytelling of Dr. Christena Cleveland and Austin Channing Brown made me wonder could we go on that journey together if it were the lens of a Black woman? Certain ones of us have always had to go on these communal journeys through the lens of another, but others of us have not. Some of us do not see the need to read a book from such a different perspective than our own, how would it be relevant? Yet, others of us have been expected to read from another person’s perspective all their lives.

As Dr. Brittney Cooper writes, “Before we fully learn to love ourselves, all people of color in the United States learn that we are supporting characters and spectators in the collective story of white people’s lives. The stories we watch and read ask us to put aside their whiteness and relate to their very universal human struggles around conflict with the world, the self, and others. The problem is that only the experiences of white people are treated as universal. Meanwhile, Black movies, shows and books are typically seen as limited and particular.”^^

If after centuries of taking a man born in Palestine, like Jesus Christ, and clothing him throughout centuries with whiteness, seeing and hearing him through a lens whiteness, portraying God the the Father as a white man with a white beard on a cloud, is it then any wonder that we could so easily accept other thefts of the voices of Palestine. What have we lost by not seeing the world through the eyes of a God born in Palestine? What have we lost by failing to look at our faith through the eyes of Palestinian Christians, those that call themselves the Living Stones, the descendants of the earliest Christians? Has our discomfort with the turmoil of the region left us so divided from them that we would not recognize their voice if we heard it? This is a point where I feel personally convicted, which has grieved me deeply.

Peace requires change from all of us.

I love my church too much to say it.

I love my church too much not to say it.

The book that challenged me the most was Dr. Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. She pushed me to see the ways that I could change, without committing the error of oversimplifying. 

That we all must change may seem like a simple and easy thing that we can all agree upon, yet historically this has not been true. In fact, all too often the change has mostly been expected on one side – the side of the one who is most moveable, with the least power, because they have always had to be the ones to move. We have even created elaborate reconciliation paradigms where we bring people together to have the impression that we have all moved; yet, when we go home, we find that often nothing has changed and that it has been an exercise in catharsis if nothing else. 

History has always cast some in the position of being the ones who must move, and offered others the illusion of moving. In this paradigm, we have sought peace without the world having to change, without the church having to change. A peace in which systems of injustice remain in place is not the peace of Christ. 

For example, what if, for one person, peace meant the dismantling of patriarchal systems that oppressed women. And for another person, peace meant people no longer talking about dismantling patriarchal systems that oppress women. A semblance of peace may be achieved if one person would be quiet, and the other would be content because their definition of peace would have been achieved. This is the kind of peace that we experience the most of in our lifetimes. This would not be the peace of Christ, however, because it would be the silencing of the cry, rather than the opening of the table. 

A model where people become suspect if they criticize or make demands, where the oppressed must always consider where they have failed to support their oppressor, is a model that coddles the one with power who is reticent to relinquish or share it. This is a model that may create personal progress for all individuals, but when applied on a communal level works much better for the powerful than the powerless.

In her 2016 sermon on ‘Faith, Justice, and Race,’ Austin Channing Brown reminds us of how dangerous it is to allow those with power and privilege to paint the picture of how things are, without the true and authentic input of others. She reminds us that Pharaoh set out to slaughter the children of Abraham because he assumed that he knew how the Hebrews would act in a conflict without including them in the conversation. He decided that he knew their hearts and minds, and that they would turn against him. He controlled their narrative, stole their voices, and punished them for what he assumed they would do in the future. 

Instead of saying, ‘There were some very fine people on both sides,’ perhaps we would do well to heed Austin Channing Brown’s advice when she writes, “Dialogue is productive toward reconciliation only when it leads to action – when it inverts power and pursues justice for those who are most marginalized.”^^^

Instead of permitting our views of the situations of Palestinian Christians to be shaped without their input, perhaps we would do well to heed Mitri Raheb’s words, “Christians in Palestine are forced to ask themselves what God’s justice means to a people whose members suffer under systematic political, social, and economic injustice. What does “freedom in Christ” mean to people living under occupation and denied basic rights? What does the cross mean to a people constantly crucified and marked by suffering? And what does love for even an enemy mean to a people facing a heavily armed enemy?”^^^^

The Bible is the only book that has the answers to these questions for me, the book which I have committed my life to teaching. And trust me, I get enough of a workout wrestling with it.

“When I hope for peace, I have to work for peace.” -Jean Zaru

 

 

 

*Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks, Jean Zaru, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008, Kindle loc 1076.

**I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown, New York: Convergent Books, p. 118.

***Ibid, p. 122

****Faith in the Face of Empire: the Bible Through Palestinian Eyes, Mitri Raheb, Marynoll: Orbis Books, 2014, Kindle loc 1962.

^I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown, New York: Convergent Books, p. 125.

^^Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper, p. 53.

^^^I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown, New York: Convergent Books, p. 169

^^^^I am a Palestinian Christian, Mitri Raheb, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995, p. 230.

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