Category Archives: Global

When We Cannot Say Her Name

On the Sonora, Mexico side of the border wall running through Nogales, I bent over to pick up a white cross from the dust. “Girl, 18, Mexico,” it read. Two words and a number, all that was left of a life cut short by this desert whose dangers we make light of as “a dry heat.” A few yards away musicians played for the crowd assembled on both sides of the wall, a community of people intersected by the rusty metal slats that unnaturally divide our life here in the Sonoran desert. These bars that seek to diminish our humanity on both sides as men in Michigan and Iowa and Washington debate the contours of our lives. Who comes, who goes. Who stays, who leaves. You would not dare to ask a person which of their arms they would like to keep, but here we stand under the daily threat of our communal body being hacked, vital limb from vital limb. They threaten to take from us those people that we cannot live without, and expect that we will accept it heads bowed low.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and felt the weight of it wash over me. For the past two years of my life, I have fought to make the world #SayHerName #SandraBland from the moment that those words left her sisters lips at the pulpit of Hope AME in July of 2015. Thousands of hours, of miles, of images posted from the jail where she died. Relentless, consuming, determination that she would not be silenced. Hundreds of videos covering the progress of the case, and documenting the activity of the police. We said her name and it drew out with it others: Natasha McKenna. Renisha McBride. Yvette Smith. Rekia Boyd. Gynnya McMillen.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized that we could not draw out her name from that wood anymore than we could from the sand and dust that had cradled her. I could not scratch behind the paint to unearth it. I could not cut into the wood. I could not claw the truth out of the sand.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?*

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

As is the tradition of the School of the Americas Watch, the crosses were picked up and the names read one by one. 147 deaths in our Sonoran desert this year alone; 147 that were found at least. Driving through our border lands, it is easy to see how some could disappear without even two words and a number to mark their passing. Each name was read, as the crosses were lifted, and voices raised to answer “Presente.”

The School of the Americas was opened by the U.S. Military in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946 and trained Latin American soldiers in assassination, interrogation, and psychological tactics to control the politics of the region and quell uprisings of the people. It’s graduates include Manuel Noriega, Leopoldo Galtieri, and Hugo Banzer Suarez. In 1980, soldiers trained at the School of the Americas were involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero as he celebrated Mass. Four years later, in 1984, Panama was able to rid themselves of the School, but it re-opened in Fort Benning, Georgia the same year. In 2000, the school ‘closed’ only to reopen the next year and rebrand itself as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. As citizens of the United States engage in uproar over Russian meddling in our elections, we stand in a nation that has indulged in a rich tradition of interference in other nations’ governance.

I looked down at the cross in my hand with the realization of what I held. This tool of execution. This archaic electric chair. This noose. This pyre. This needle. This wall. This cross. The thousands of ways we have killed people by the power of the State. The thousands of ways we have continued to miss the whole point of it all. Adorning our walls and necks with an instrument of death, forgetting it’s implications for those that we kill, embedding it with jewels and filagree and flowers. Compromising the Gospel as it fits our needs, our prejudices, and our economic goals. Slathering the name of Jesus like butter over burnt toast, attempting to cover up the burning.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized how much of Christianity remains unconverted. We seek and speak and vote to banish Jesus from our company. As the arbiters of condemnation, we speak with Paul’s words, challenging people about whether they are ‘saved,’ without lining up our own lives agains the measure of Jesus words and example to discover where we stand.

“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was an immigrant and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in detention and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or an immigrant or naked or sick or in detention, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

We have Christians walking around bold, condemning people to their left and right without taking an honest inventory of the unrelenting cruelty that pervades their life both in word and in deed, stripping them of any claim to the name of Jesus even as they use that name to rain down judgment on their neighbor.

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

Jesus was there when she said the same words that he spoke as he died: I thirst.

Where were we as she lay dying? Where were we as he lay dying?

Girl, 18, Mexico.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?

Still without a name, we can know that the same system of white supremacy that killed Sandra, by one means or another, took down Girl, 18, Mexico as well. This system that teaches us to fear one another. This system that criminalizes and dehumanizes people of color. This system that targets the most vulnerable for elimination by the power of Empire.

What can we give her in death that we did not give her in life? We can tear down the system that took both their lives. We can tear down the system that this cross in my hand represents, this symbol of state violence, this symbol of the powerful intimidating the people into fear. Leaving Jesus on the cross to intimidate those who would rise up against the Romans. Leaving Michael Brown in the streets of Ferguson. Leaving Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in the streets of Nogales. Leaving Sandra Brand unchecked in her cell. Leaving Girl, 18, Mexico to pass from recognition under the heat of the Sonoran sun.

We can educate ourselves to understand that we have caused the very flow of humanity that we seek to impede. We can spend 5 minutes researching our own nation’s abuses of others’ democracies for every 1 minute that we spend outraged over Russia’s abuse of ours.

We can start by tearing down that Wall. We can start by understanding that Jesus is not on our side of it. Like a spear, the wall has pierced his body, separating blood from water, limb from limb.

In this, our desert, he pleads through the rusty slats that pierced his side once more, “I thirst.”

His name? “Girl, 18, Mexico.” Say it.

…just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me… 


*This week, as we honor Transgender Day of Remembrance, it is important to remember as we engage in the movement to Say Her Name it’s roots in the erasure of transgender women of color as media outlets and family members would misgender and misname transgender women of color in death, doing further violence to them and leading to the push to Say Her Name. 



A Little Longer To Serve – An Irish Blessing

Today, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I wanted to have a guest post from my Irish grandmother, Edna Marian Ferguson Bell Bonner. Although Edna passed away in the 1980’s, I have realized more and more as time goes on, that her soul prepared the path for the life I live now. In the 1920’s, while in high school, Edna went on a school trip to Washington, D.C. When she began to board a city bus with other students, the bus driver indicated one of her African American classmates and said, “She can’t get on. We don’t take blacks on this bus.” Edna stepped off the bus, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “Then we will walk.” The two women remained devoted friends for the rest of their lives.

The Irish mother who brought Edna from Banbridge, near Belfast, taught her to treat all people with love and respect. The love that those women shared with their community was returned to me as a young child. Thus, I offer to you below, the story she wrote of the love between a mother and daughter.

My Father came to the United States in the late 1800’s. He returned to Northern Ireland to win his childhood sweetheart.

the Bells

Mother and Father, Sarah Radcliffe and William John Bell, were married on March 16, 1900, in Banbridge and came immediately to the United States. They lived on Daggett Street in Southwest Philadelphia for a short time and later lived on Springfield Road, Darby. Their first children were twins who were born prematurely. William McKinley Bell died shortly after birth and Sarah Wilhelmina lived a short time longer. They were buried in Mt. Zion Cemetery, Darby…

After the death of the twins, Edna Marian Ferguson (myself) was born there on May 25, 1906. In 1907, my Father expressed his desire to return to Northern Ireland…

They apparently remained in Ireland for about five years. Sarah Wilhelmina was born on April 22, 1911. Mina was injured at birth and Mother had surgery the following day. My parents had planned to return to the United States after Mina’s birth, but her need for special care made it necessary to leave her with Aunt Maggie and Uncle Edward who loved her dearly and gave her excellent care. My parents planned to bring Mina to the United States as soon as they were settled and Father’s United States Citizenship was final.

Only a short time after their return to the United States, my Father’s kidney problems developed to a very serious point (he had typhoid fever as a young man and that was named as the cause of the kidney condition). I recall the swelling of his legs and seeing him applying support bandages each morning. Mother knew time was running out. He was taken to Philadelphia, and he died there on January 4, 1919. Mother was devoted to him during the entire period of his illness. Her loving patience with never a cross word was beautiful to witness. Father was buried in Mt. Zion Cemetery in Darby, beside his brother, Ferguson. Mother joined him there in August, 1944…

A beautiful relationship of love and devotion existed between my parents in their short marriage, March 1900 to January 1919. Father was so proud of her. They both had a strong faith in God and were able to meet life together…

After my Father’s death, Mother went to the Delaware Country Court House in Media to inquire as to the possibility of obtaining her American Citizenship on my Father’s original application. He had received notice to be present for his final swearing in as an American Citizen, but he was too ill to appear. In answer to Mother’s request, Mr. Daltry at the Court House said he was sorry, but he had waited the full period of time before returning the papers to Washington and there was nothing he could do about it at that time. Mother then showed him a card which had been sent to Father. Mr Datry was delighted, that was all he needed to have the papers returned to Media. Sometime later Mother was one of the first women in Delaware County, if not the first, to receive her own American Citizenship. A proud day for her.

Plans were in her mind now to return to Ireland and bring Mina back here with her when a letter came from Uncle Edward that Mina had died from appendicitis. On our visit to Ireland in 1961, we placed flowers on her grave. Thus, I was the only one of the four children born to my parents left.

I recall the long winter evenings during my childhood when Mother, Father and I sat by the open fire reading or singing the old hymns they loved so much. “Nearer My God to Thee” seemed to be a favorite. I remember thinking that hymn made them recall their acquaintances who had been lost when the Titanic sank. The passengers had joined in singing that hymn as they clustered together on the deck of their sinking ship.

There were many occasions when I was aware of the respect in which my parents were held. You never knew when Mother would return home from her trip “down town.” Everyone stopped to talk with her. Two black people, Priscilla and William, “Aunt May Baker,” Mrs. Baker, and certainly Charley Wade had always been devoted to her.

Mother’s heart was full of love for everyone, so when her grandchildren arrived, it was love overflowing. I recall when she first saw Marian and she said, “ Now you are a mother and your life will never be the same again.”

How proud she was to take Marian and Hugh for a walk! I am grateful she lived to see Billy. Her last act was to hold him in her arms. That night she went into a coma. One of her few statements during her terminal illness was “Little darlings” as Marian and Hugh came to her bedside.

I recall passing her bedroom door at our South Avenue home and hearing her say as she prayed, “Give me a little longer to serve.” I truly believe that was the foundation of her life – service to others.

Dr. Benjamin of the Methodist Church of Media said at her funeral service, “to enter her presence was to receive a blessing.”

She never forgot a kindness extended to her by anyone. She became ill shortly after Bill’s birth. On an occasion as I did some little thing for her comfort, she said, “You’re wonderful, I don’t know how you do it.” That will always live in my memory.

Her benediction.


Your People Will Be My People

“You must be tired,” the fifty-something woman in front of me said compassionately. “Not as tired as she is,” I replied, turning my eyes to the third woman in our circle. In her early twenties, and journeying with two children under the age of five, she was the picture of dignity – regardless of circumstances that would strain anyone’s composure. Just that morning, she and her children had been released from detention and informed that their family would not move forward intact – her young husband would be held and deported. He had promised, as they said goodbye, that he would find them; someday, somehow, he would find them.

Our journey had begun early that day with a chance meeting, although not an unintentional one. I was receiving a tour of the bus station a few blocks from St. John’s Downtown, as the manager and I dialogued about how we could collaborate to support people traveling through our country. The manager had pointed the young mother out to me as we walked by, telling me that she was someone who had been released from detention that day and these were the people he was interested in helping.

Feeling that our gaze had been drawn to her little family unit, the young woman began to panic, certain that she would be locked up again. That she would be mocked again. That she would be stripped of all she owned again. That she would be told again that her children carried diseases and that people needed to be protected from her little ones.

Big tears began to well up in eyes that beheld us with terror and despair. “Oh Lord,” I thought, “We have so much to learn. Help us.”

Gliding across the room, from where I do not know, came our fifty-something angel of mercy, bringing a mothering embrace and words to sooth. “I speak Spanish,” had been her first words, as her gaze of compassion swallowed the family up into her heart. “I will stay with her. I will stay here and sit with her,” she promised, binding herself into the family unit. With her gray-streaked auburn hair pulled back into a loose braid, and her strong Texas accent, she was the picture of compassionate strength. In that moment, she became Naomi to this Ruth, torn from her husband to journey alone into a foreign land. And as the first one had, this Naomi opened her heart to offer generous hospitality to the land where her family had lived since a time long before there even was a Texas.

Knowing it was best to leave them together, I walked outside with the manager. The gray-haired leader of the Greyhound staff was in need of some fresh air as he fought back tears of his own. “It’s the kids,” he explained, “They get to me. I don’t care about what anyone thinks about politics, we’ve got to do something for these kids!”

While the point he was making had to do with the network we were building to support children coming through the station, I knew that it was those two confused children who had said goodbye to their father that day, perhaps forever, that were getting to him.

“I know we can’t do anything for those kids today, you know, but for others,” he concluded regretfully.

“We can do something. We will do something. For these children. Today.” I said softly, as he turned with gratitude to reveal that was exactly what he had hoped I would say. His excitement was palatable as he began to taste the reality of exactly what he had been dreaming to do for months. A way to help all the children that were weighing on his heart daily.

I promised him I would be back, and within minutes I was in my car, on the phone and our beautiful, connectional church was at work. Pastor Mireya pulled together some clothes and a Santa Biblia, while another Mireya scouted out Salvadorian restaurants to get some comfort food. Morgan and Ashley jumped in the car to meet me for a little necessity shopping, while DJ and Abigail made contact with support services and churches in the city where the family was headed.

The result of all this activity from all these people was tears. Tears of relief and joy – and not from where I would have expected them to come. It was the little daughter, only a few years old, who wept. Overjoyed to see her mother’s anxiety diminish and to see a little pink backpack, packed with the food and supplies that every little girl needs for such a journey – familiar foods and favorite colors.

As the night wore on, I sat beside Naomi, who had taken Ruth under her wing, and we three women became kinfolk – or rather, we recognized that we were. We talked about religion – one of us Methodista, one Evangelica, one Catolica. We talked about food – Naomi comparing the papusas I had brought for Ruth to the quesadillas her Mexican relatives make. We talked about family – the fact that one of my favorite men, the father of my niece and nephew, had come into the country himself when he was just the age of the little daughter; and the reality that lay ahead for these little children’s own father as he fulfilled his promise to see them and be with them again.

Finally, the compassionate and gentle Naomi turned to me and said, “I want to tell you why I am here tonight. I just got out of prison this morning.” I had noticed the locator bracelet strapped to her ankle, but had not thought much of it. “I missed the bus I was supposed to be on, and I had to wait all day for the next chance to get home,” she continued, “And I was sitting here planning to pout and gripe all day long when you walked in and I became a part of this. Not everyone speaks Spanish and could help, even those of us whose families are from Mexico way back. Not everyone here could do what I am doing.” A realization was washing over her that she had a gift and that she was needed.

“Thank God for you! I can’t imagine what we would have done without you today,” I said to her. “You were our angel. You were her mother when she needed a mother. Thank God you were here!”

It was then that I noticed, for the first time, how little Naomi had. A little grocery bag with a bible and a book and some papers in it. I realized that was all she had; it was all she had carried out of prison with her. All day long she had been helping us to serve this young mother, and watching us bring her supplies and food – never once revealing that she had nothing herself. She served with all her compassion, all her generosity, all her heart. Having nothing, she gave everything. Like the widow with two mites, no amount was so small that she could not share.

My mind was reeling a bit at the gift that we were all being given of spending the day together. None of it had been planned. Both of them had missed earlier buses and should not have even been there when I walked into the station, on what I planned to be a brief ten minute tour.

We talked some more. About some very big and very important things. And about some very small and very mundane things. We talked about how the family had walked for ten days -through deserts, rivers, mountains – to escape gang violence in their hometown that threatened to conscript young men like Ruth’s husband. While we talked, the children wrestled and pestered us for quarters to play the arcade game.

A former convict, a searching pastor, and a courageous mother. Sitting for a little while together and remembering that what we have in common is a whole lot bigger and stronger than the differences that lie between us.

The time finally came for them to board and depart, and we said goodbye about a dozen times; with kisses on the cheeks and promises to pray for one another, and promises to act – not just for ourselves but for all the mothering figures journeying on this road.

When the last glimpse of them had disappeared from sight, I walked down the street to my car in the deep darkness of late night Houston; completely in another world; incapable of responding to the men who catcalled, or the ones who asked for a dollar. My heart twisting and wrenching inside of me. I slumped into the driver’s seat exhausted. The thought of Ruth, the mother and her children – who by this time I loved – driving in the opposite direction from their father; having to journey on without him. The thought of Naomi, the woman who had become their protector; all the pain she had suffered without becoming hardened; all the light that shone out of her generous and gentle heart. The strength. The courage. The pain. The beauty.

My jaw clenched, and my throat tightened as silent tears slid down my face in mourning and celebration and exhaustion. I felt nothing and I felt everything, all at the same time.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring; but I know that today love drove out fear, and within one little circle, we acted like family. That is a start.

The Light that Hurts and Heals

“Es muy triste,” Gloria said to me, her arms elbow deep in dishes in the backyard. Returning from Xela, I had been greeted at the door by her young son and then it was straight up the stairs to the kitchen and out to the back yard to announce my return. Finishing the dishes from lunch, Gloria had asked me about my trip, and I had told her that my head was full. I explained that I had talked to a lot of people at Cafe R.E.D. and learned a lot about coffee, immigration, deportation, and history.

“You learned the history of coffee or the history of Guatemala?” she had asked, and I had explained that it was the history of Guatemala. Then I told her about the book, Bitter Fruit, that Cesár had me read, and that it had explained to me how the United States had been involved in instigating and later funding the civil war in Guatemala. There was something special about that book, for it had opened the conversation up first for Cesár and I, and now for Gloria.

“Es muy triste,” she said. And then it all came pouring out, the book acting as a key to unlock what people were carrying. It was as if people wanted to talk about it with me, but without knowing that I understood at least the foundation, it was too big and too painful to explain to a novice who would only ask insensitive questions in stuttering Spanish and still be incapable of fully understanding. Knowing that I had now read over 300 pages of in-depth research on the topic, however, Gloria felt like she could talk about it… finally.

She told me that it had been a time of great sadness, and I felt in her words that this was the cause behind the sadness that always seemed to linger in the back of her eyes. She told me that it was a big part of the story both of her family and of Jose Felix’s family, that there were many, many stories that would take a lifetime to tell. She had grown up and raised her oldest children during the years when soldiers, funded with US military aid, patrolled the lake region, searching for indigenous guerrillas; from time to time raping women; assassinating or kidnapping community leaders; and, on occasion, massacring civilians in ethnically targeted actions.

She said that her mother used to cry and cry and plead with God for the safety of her three daughters. With all that the soldiers were doing to women in the area, it was her mother’s greatest fear that something would happen to her girls. Gloria did not say exactly what her mother was worried about, but a significant look exchanged between us and we understood one another. There are some things in life that women do not need words to communicate. Thanks be to God, they were protected.

The family lived in a rural part of the mountains, far away from others, and their father had died, leaving them without the protection of a man in the house. So they were always listening, always listening. Often they would hear the sound of gunfire at night. They would spend the night in darkness, only occasionally using the dim light of candles; trying not to be seen or to attract any notice. Learning to live life in silence, hoping to be invisible. It sounded like a terribly traumatic way to grow up.

After she and Jose Felix married, he experienced many terrifying things she said, while he was teaching in another region. Soldiers came and put guns to the heads of teachers where he was. It was a very dangerous time, and many teachers died throughout the decades. Teachers, along with priests, were people who empowered others, and thus were targets for assassination. She said she was not with him at the time. That they were living apart while she stayed in a safer area with their baby girls. It made sense now why the couple was such a serious pair. Why it seemed that everyone of their generation around here, with the exception of the jovial Vincente, was so serious.

She told me that Jose Felix had lost 3 cousins to the massacres and disappearances, and that she had lost 2 of her cousins. The loss of one cousin seemed to impact her in particularly. She kept saying that he was so intelligent and so full of promise. He sounded like he had been quite the “golden child” of the family. She said they never knew where he went, his body could be in the mountains or at the bottom of the lake. It reminded me of the stories Vincente had told me. She said that his father refused to give up looking for his brilliant son. From sun up to sun down he thought about him and searched for him. Once, she said, he heard that a corpse had been found and he rushed to the scene certain that it was his son. But it was not his son. His son was never to be found. Finally, one day, the father was found sitting in the street, appearing to be asleep with his arms folded. But he was not asleep, he had finally died there of a broken heart.

Just then Gloria’s son came running in, a toy motorcycle in each hand – one red and one black. He had waited until his little niece was not around to show them to me because he knew that nice toys did not fare well around the baby. Then he fetched his toy trucks and we ran them across the floor.

I finally understood what this ultimo hijo meant to this family. This last child, this unexpected child, this child born late in life, who might as easily be mistaken for a grandchild. This was a child that she had given birth to in freedom. This was a child that had come into her world during a time of peace. This peace-time child was an unexpected blessing. A child for whose safety she would not have to cry and plead with God for, as her mother had for hers.

This child was joy. This child was hope. This child was the fresh beginning that her husband sang about in his songs. It was possible, after all, for someone to exist who was completely untouched by the violence that had dominated their lives.

As we finished playing, I stood up and looking at Gloria said only “Gracias…. gracias.” And she understood.

I wandered around the streets of San Pedro for the rest of the day, feeling like a time bomb had gone off in my heart. Everything was so beautiful and so painful; so tragic and so hopeful; so sad and so joyful. I was reeling, like someone walking into the bright light of day after weeks in the dark – the light proving to be both beautiful and illuminating while also being a bit painful and difficult to adjust to.

I had let these people into my heart without knowing what they carried. And now I had to deal with processing what they had gone through.

I could feel that something about me was different. I had left the door to my heart wide open to them, and they had carried memories of such pain and such sorrow and such fear in with them; but they had also carried in all the healing and all the hope and all the strength that had helped them survive.

C.S. Lewis says that “to love is to be vulnerable….” I had been vulnerable with them and they had been vulnerable with me, and we would each carry a piece of each other on our journey forward.

It has been a year of feeling new things for the first time. That was the way it all started, and I feel sure that will be how it will all end. My heart is in training; for what, I do not yet know.


The Kingdom of God is Like a Chicken Bus…

“This bus leaves at 10:30 am, and this one at 11:30 am,” the huddle of drivers explained to me in Spanish as I picked the 10:30 chicken bus and climbed on board. Drat, I had thought to myself, I was sure there was one that left at 10:00 am. Now I would have to spend an additional 45 minutes on this beautiful beast of a bus.

Chicken buses in Guatemala are cultural art forms. They look as if a group of street artists from California, got together with a bunch of chrome-addicts from the fifties, and a group of 80’s chicks gone crazy with their Bedazzlers. They are gorgeous and colorful and cheerful and imposing.

From the outside that is. Once you climb the stairs and find your seat, you discover what you knew all along – that this really is just an American school bus given a new lease on life. It is both an expression of the artistic soul, and the ultimate in reduce-reuse-recycle.

If I had any doubts on the subject, a school bus that was new to the crowd rolled up. It had not had time to become baptized and “born again” as a Guatemalan chicken bus, and so it still had “Shelby County Schools” painted in black block print on its marigold yellow side. I was pretty sure I had seen that bus before.

For that matter, I may very well have seen the bus I was sitting in before. For all I knew this was “West Chester 108,” the bus I had ridden throughout middle school and the beginning of high school.

I considered the fact that I was actually choosing to ride a school bus – a vehicle that had once been a terror to me.

When I was in high school, I was stuck riding the bus long after the rest of the kids in my class had cars of their own. It seemed like everyone but me had a car, whether it was decrepit cast off from a grandparent or a sparkling new Sweet 16 present. Sure, anyone could get a car, and if your parents did not buy you one, surely you could work and afford your own. That is if you did not also have to use that money to buy your school clothes while maintaining a high enough average to ensure the scholarships you not only wanted, but realistically needed to attend college.

So I rode that bus, West Chester 108… until that is, I was rescued. Her name was Lauren, and she was an old friend from church who had come to my school several years after I had started there in first grade. We led different lives, and ran in different crowds to some extent. But regardless of what may happen when I was out of her sight, nobody was going to bully me when she could do anything about it.

After hearing that some kids on the bus were picking on me, she declared that she was going to drive me to school. I was “on her way” broadly speaking… but not exactly. I am sure I added a good fifteen minutes to her commute. But every day, she would coming driving up my bumpy old driveway, and every day she would bring me back to my source. After classes, and after track practice, and after hockey games, home we would go together. I knew that with all that I went through as a “scholarship kid”, there was someone pretty cool who thought I was pretty special and who always had my back. When she knew I was having a hard week missing my boyfriend, who had graduated and gone to Georgia for college, she left some flowers at my locker like he would have done. She even got all her friends to vote me in for a Senior Superlative – “Best Eyes” – an assessment that the people of San Pedro seem to affirm at a fairly constant rate.

A good fifteen years after she started driving me, and just six months ago in our current story, I had heard of another friend who was tired of riding the bus. I was on Eleuthera at the time, and was seeing pretty persistent posts online from one of my close friends about the trials and tribulations of using public transportation to get to work. I knew that I would not have much use for my car this year, being out of the country so much. So, I thought about what Lauren would have done: I sent her a message telling her to go and get my car from my sister in DC.

You see, I finally had a car, a beautiful red one too. Very sacramental. Although, I had been told by other pastors, not ideal for funerals. Being somewhat concerned that they made their automobile choices based on what looks good in a cemetery, I responded that I did not plan to spend much of my life there. I bought the car during a brief period of years in my life when I thought that I would be “normal.” This was the same period of time in which – with illusions of normality – I had bought a beautiful dining room table, a big heavy slab of environmentally conscious mango wood; with the dream that someday my grandchildren would make crafts upon its old worn wood surface.

So now, while I live and learn in Guatemala, my friend drives my beautiful red Esperanza to work instead of taking the bus. Why? Because once upon a time someone very kind and loving taught me that if you have got an empty seat, you should fill it with someone who needs it.

Lauren taught me that love does not just “say,” love also “does.”

She is a beautiful example of God’s abundance.

Fifteen years later, in Guatemala, the vibrantly colorful buses feel different than the ones I used to avoid. Part endurance test, and part carnival, they are the most popular way to get around the country. Which is why I actually choose to ride the bus here, much to my friend Delia’s chagrin.

Today, enroute from Xela to San Pedro, I was learning a whole new meaning to the word “abundance,” and a whole new definition to “empty seats” as we packed into them. First it was one person to a seat; then it was two; then it was three full grown adults; then a child on a lap, or perhaps an actual chicken, would bring the count to four. The aisles would fill until it felt the bus could hold no more, and then more would squeeze into it.

It began to feel as if the bus was a living thing. When we stopped at a town, you could feel it breath a deep sigh of relief and relax for a moment as a torrent of people poured out. But almost as quickly you could feel it draw its breath back in sharply as it saw the incoming hordes, and loosen its belt in preparation to contain them all.

For, you see, just as in Lauren’s car, there was always room for more. No matter how many people were squeezed into the bus, there was not a chance that someone was going to be told that it was full. There is no such thing as a full chicken bus. If you beg to differ, then you can get off and find another way to get to where you are going.

And a chicken bus is packed to the brim with people of every kind and color and background. Extraños (foreign aliens) looking for a cheap way to get around the country. City dwelling Ladinos in designer jeans headed to the lake for the weekend. Mayan women in ropa typica, heading home from the market and traveling with babies strapped to their backs. Old men grumbling about the seating arrangements, and small children staring wide eyed at all the different people surrounding them. Everyone mixed together – crammed together in one big noisy, laughing, pushing, shifting heap; talking to each other, helping each other, even enduring each other.

As it says in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 13, “The kingdom of God is like a chicken bus…”

Okay, maybe it does not say that… but don’t you think it should?

My first excited encounter with a chicken bus!
My first excited encounter with a chicken bus!
Kids climb all over in a chicken bus
Kids climb all over in a chicken bus
Abuelas happy to finally get a seat to themselves as the bus empties out
Abuelas happy to finally get a seat to themselves as the bus empties out

This land is my land?

“It has been a really hard week,” he said. I had met Giovanni “Phenomenon” Lopez, a multi-talented boxer and rapper, in Xela, on the fourth anniversary of his deportation. He had been brought to the United States at the age of two; then at the age of twenty four, after spending his whole life as an American, his “country” had thrown him out. And that is exactly how it had felt at first, like his family had dumped him out on the street and locked the door behind him. He had to say goodbye to California and to the only life he had ever known.

Deportation can feel like death at first. That is exactly what drives Willy and the people of DESGUA as they strive to help their countrymen see that deportation is not death, but rather, a whole new opportunity to live life free and without fear. Young men like Giovanni were exactly the type of people that Cafe R.E.D. and DESGUA had in mind when they had opened their doors. People who felt like their life had been taken from them – and therefore feeling like they were dead, or like they might as well be. Instead DESGUA wanted to offer them the message – welcome home; we need you here; we are glad you are back; there is so much we can do together.

Their work in Guatemala to welcome back deportees is the beautiful mirror of the work that Welcoming Congregations do in the States to welcome immigrants. A welcome sign hung on both sides of the border, to let people know that it is not where they are but who they are that is important. And who they are will always be a person worthy of respect and love.

Willy and Cafe R.E.D. had done a lot to give Giovanni a place of belonging, to teach him to be proud of his ancestry and to empower him to be an inspiration to others. But there are still hard weeks, and this was one of them. Realizing that it was now four years since his life in the States had been interrupted was bringing his spirits low. Missing a few days at the gym and a rap performance near the lake had been the casualties of the emotions weighing on him that week as he contemplated all he had lost. As much of a fighter as he was, it was hard not to think of all the ways that his deportation had changed his life and altered his opportunities. It was hard to see guys he had sparred with getting scheduled for big fights, and not to think “That could have been me.”

Looking at him, I knew it really could have been him; I couldn’t help but mourn all that he had lost and all that we had lost in losing him.

But it isn’t easy victories that form champions, it is struggle. And Giovanni is a champion.

“I just don’t feel like I am supposed to be one of those guys, standing on the corner, with his arms crossed. Giving up.” Giovanni knew that he had a mission and a calling to inspire others and to overcome. That is why he had named his latest album “Underestimated” and rapped songs with titles like “Heart of a Champion” and “Niños de la calle.”

If he was going to inspire others by overcoming, however, he had to live it out. And some days were harder than others.

“We all have hard weeks,” I said, “that does not mean that this is what your life is going to be like now. You missed some appointments, it was a hard week. You got to go easy on yourself and get back in the ring. It is just like in boxing, you have got to keep moving. The bell rings, you sit down and take a break, but then you have got to get back in there and keep moving.”

“Yes,” he laughed, “Otherwise I am going to get a big punch to the face.”

There was not a doubt in my mind that this young man had what it took to get back in the ring and win. There was not a doubt in my mind that he would inspire others and was capable of being a profoundly positive example. And there was also no doubt in my mind that he would be a benefit to any country that he called home. And, however painful the method of bringing him here had been, Guatemala needed him.

Sitting in Cafe R.E.D. I could not help but think of another conversation in another coffee shop in Guatemala. I had sat in a Cafe in San Pedro a couple weeks before with a young man named James from Great Britain. He updated me on the situation of the Anglican Church in England and I shared with him some of our struggles in the States.

“You can say, for better or for worse, that all Caucasians are immigrants,” he said in response to my comments about the overlap between racism and immigration in the United States. “And you can say Caucasians don’t have the right to call it their land,” he continued, “but they did create that world and the culture that they are trying to protect. It did not exist before they got there. They made it; therefore, it is theirs.” Listening to the young British man in the coffee shop in San Pedro, I had never heard the white supremacy argument stated so innocently. It was like a slow curve ball floating down towards home plate, and then twisting off at the last minute.

I was in no way convinced. Even more so, talking to Giovanni now at Cafe R.E.D., I knew that there is something very wrong with a system that prioritizes privilege and leaves young women and men feeling cast out and rejected.

There is a bigger issue here than how to diminish deportations. The bigger question, the one that Willy and Giovanni and Cesár are working to answer, is: how do we create a world that is more holistically just?

How do we create a world where neither immigration on the one hand, nor deportation on the other, seems like the only option to people on either side?

Here’s the way the world works now. Americans believe in equal pay for equal work and a living wage. American businesses, on the other hand, believe in profit. In order to pay our “Made In America” wages, businesses incur a higher cost of production and, thus, a lower level of profit. Therefore, in pursuit of profit, they leave America; they close down factories in Scranton or Detroit or Fort Smith (Arkansas). They outsource their customer service and they build new factories in countries where the wages are less. Meanwhile, those new countries see local industry and production impacted, as well as rapidly depleting mineral and human resources. Locals see that the best coffee, the best bananas, the best of everything does not stay in their country, but gets sent to America. They drink the inferior coffee and eat the smaller bananas, while producing superior versions of both for the magical land of America, or Japan, or France.

In addition to that, we seem to invite the immigrant to feel like they belong in that world through our actions of cultural colonization. We have made everyone feel like they are, or should be, an American – by selling them American clothes and American movies.

“The U.S. way of life is introduced to all the people as the way of life. Commercial enterprises quickly sell the trimmings of this way of life to the local people, thus enticing them to become “American,” although simple economics makes this next to impossible and U.S. immigration laws generally prevent it. Thus the love-hate relationship continues to develop and local cultures continue to be threatened. Their people are not allowed to migrate to the US, but the exterior trimmings of the U.S. way of life are sold to them and replace their own products” (Elizondo, The Future is Mestizo,97).

So what do the people in other nations do? Well of course they want to go there – to America – where people eat the best produce and wear clothes first-hand and receive a fair living wage; where maybe they will be able to save enough money to return home and build a little house.

And what do immigrants from Central America find when they get there? They find that James from Great Britain was right. That this world of equal pay and living wages is not for them. They finds that the white people who “built this country” want to protect it from people “like them.” They find that people who have lost their jobs due to US outsourcing, somehow blame them for “taking their jobs.” They find that they are forced to do menial labor that no one else wants to do, in sometimes hazardous conditions, and that people still blame them for taking “their job.”

So why do they keep coming? As Father Virgil Elizondo says in The Future is Mestizo, “The quest for survival is much strong than any human law against migration” (98).

That is exactly what makes people like Giovanni and the powerful music he creates as Phenomenon so incredibly important; because it makes youth in Guatemala hold their heads up high with pride. That is exactly what makes Cesár and his dreams of creating fair trade production for differently-abled deportees so important; because he tells people who think their life is over that instead it has just begun. That is exactly what makes Willy’s determination to educate deportees and immigrants to understand and be proud of their country so vital; because it tells them that they are people of incredible worth and heritage already, and do not need to go anywhere else to “become somebody” because they already are somebody.

The work being done at Cafe R.E.D. is so important because it contradicts British James’ superiority mindset and sends people the message: We can survive right where we are. We can thrive right where we are. We are enough.

In order to create a just world, we have to begin by contradicting the myth that the American life is superior and to be desired by all. People in Guatemala need examples like Phenomenon to look up to; people who have overcome hardship and gotten back in the ring.

As we finished our coffee, I told Giovanni that I needed to go in search of some items for a friend back in San Juan. He walked me out of Cafe R.E.D. and down the block towards the Parque Central. When we reached the park, he gave me a hug as we parted ways and said, “I’m going this way… I’ve got to get back in the ring today.”

Yes, Giovanni, I thought, watching him walk away, thousands of kids around Guatemala need you to get back in the ring today. They are counting on you. They need you to help them build their Guatemalan Dream.

Esta tierra es tu tierra, esta tierra es mi tierra
Desde California a la isla Nueva York
Desde el bosque de secuoyas rojas, hasta las aguas corrientes del golfo
Esta tierra fue creada para tí y para mí.

…Desde las calles de Xela a las playas de California
Desde los pueblos de la Laguna Atitlan a la Cataratas del Niágara
Esta tierra fue creada para tí y para mí….

*Featured photo courtesy of, video courtesy of Look out for Phenomenon’s new album Underestimated, coming soon!

An Education in Grace

“Pero el pueblo de los Estados Unidos no sabían, era que el gobierno (But the people of the United States did not know, it was the government),” Cesár said quizzically, in what I can only describe as one of the most natural acts of grace I have ever experienced. It was as if absolution of national inequities was something that the jefe of Cafe R.E.D. offered on a daily basis. In a way, he did; at least insofar as he worked each day to create opportunities that would restore hope, humanity, and dignity to those who had felt stripped of those things through deportation.

It was not deportation we were discussing, however. I need to start a little further back in the story for you to understand.

The day before, Miercoles (Wednesday), I had taken two different chicken buses, weaving their tortuous way up and down the mountains of Guatemala, in order to get to Xela for the Board Meeting of DESGUA at Cafe R.E.D. I had met Cesár, the Manager of Cafe R.E.D., and the other board members and then shared lunch with them.

After the meeting dispersed, Cesár and I sat in red chairs at the back of Cafe R.E.D. while I peppered him with questions. I tried hard to be understood in my still developing Español, and he tried equally hard to get me to understand his quite eloquent Español.

The final question that I had asked was what in the history of his nation had given him hope and joy. He had answered that it was what had happened in 1945. He told me that before that women had no rights and after that, women had rights.

Ah, yes, I had agreed. It was the same in the United States. Before the World Wars, we had not worked in factories etc., but after that we had jobs and some women desired to stay in them. I explained to him that I understood how war can change culture and open the way for women.

He tried again. Again I failed to understand.

Finally he raised a finger to indicate that he would be right back and returned with a 300 page, dense historical piece called Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, a piece written by Americans and published through Harvard University Center on Latin American Studies. He smiled warmly, confident that now I would understand what he was talking about.

…all I had to do was read a 300 page historical investigation…

*Ahem* – 30 hours later, after I had read the book, written and posted 2 blogs on other topics, and engaged in some delicate vocational communications – our conversation could continue.

I understood now why he had given me the book. He had given me the book because I had asked him what had given him hope for his country, and I had not been able to understand his answer.

I had not been able to understand because I knew about the war in Guatemala, but I was not schooled in the reforms that had preceded the instigation of the war. I was not familiar with the reforms that had been inspired by the United States’ Franklin D. Roosevelt; the reforms that had given the people hope, but that had given American businesses operating in Guatemala fear that they would have less profits. I was not familiar with the fact that they had decided that their right to profit was greater than the Guatemalans right to independence, self determination, and – in the end – life. It was worth a few deaths, or what turned out in the end to be a few hundred thousand deaths, in order to protect the ability of American businesses to profit on foreign soil.

To be clear, United Fruit lobbied, propagandized and finally offered the initial funding, in order to get the United States military to help plan and stage a coup that destabilized the fledgling Guatemalan democracy and led to a 30 year civil war; which led to the massacres of indigenous people in the Mayan communities around Lake Atitlan, where I have been living, as well as the assassination of priests and Bishops that supported the indigenous guerrillas.

This action on the part of the United States took a great deal from the Guatemalan people; as I knew from hearing about the people that had been killed or “disappeared” from the community where I had been living for the past month.

But in that moment as I told Cesár that I had finished the book and handed it back to him, what was really affecting me was the fact that we had taken something from him. I had asked Cesár what gave him the most pride and joy about his country’s history, and his answer – which I now understood to be the Constitution of 1945 – had been something that my country had taken away from the people of Guatemala.

The Constitution, lost in the negotiations of the US instigated coup, had given the people of Guatemala term limits for elected officials, guaranteed freedom of the speech and of the press, equal pay for men and women, and the criminalization of racial discrimination. The part that had caused US intervention was land reforms that would allow unused, fallow land to be farmed by the people of Guatemala, thereby interrupting the United Fruit banana monopoly.

It was like the parable that the prophet Nathaniel told to King David; the story of the rich man who has many flocks of his own, but who instead takes the one small lamb that is the most precious and beloved thing that the poor man has. That is how I felt in that moment; like we had taken Cesár’s lamb.

Why? Because the businesses of the United States believe they have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And our big businesses are willing to pursue happiness at the cost of the life, liberty and happiness of others. We feel we have the need, and sometimes the divine right, to enter other countries and take what we want, and leave them with nothing. But if people from other countries come into our country and try to take home a few hundred dollars through hard labor, we arrest them and send them home in poverty.

Why? Because what we do to them is legal, and what they do to us is not legal. Why? Because we wrote the laws. We wrote the laws both in their countries and in our country. We bought the law.

With all that feeling welling up in me, and filling me with shame, all Cesár could do was look at me with confusion and say – “But the people of the United States did not know, it was the government.”

Oh. So that is what grace is. I am not sure if I ever really understood before.

It was not the first time, nor I am sure will it be the last, that I have been absolutely brought to my knees by the amazing capacity of the Guatemalan people to forgive. To forgive one another. To forgive us. To return greed with generosity, and to offer compassion when they have experienced cruelty.  I am simply not familiar with what it is like to live in a nation that does not feel the need to avenge every wrong or perceived wrong committed against it.

When I was in seminary they taught me something called exegesis. An exegetical method of learning, and then preaching, that tries to listen to the spirit and to the scriptures and to hear what the text is trying to say, rather than approaching it with an agenda and telling it what to say. Dr. Ellen Davis, in particular, changed my approach when she taught me first to pray, then to read the scriptures, then to read them again, and again, before finally going to the text books and the interpretations.

Here in Guatemala, I have received an exegesis from the people of this country. I have learned their history backwards. I have come in with little knowledge, and loved the people. I have heard their stories, and their experiences. I have cried with them until we laughed, and laughed with them until we cried. I have heard what it was like for one to flee for their life, for another to fight for his. Then, finally, I have heard the more academic version; I have read the history, searching for where the people I love fit in it; letting them be a part of my learning and partners in the conversation.

I learned a long time ago that you cannot listen if you already have all the answers.

Well, for a student of history, I had even less answers than I thought I did before Cesár took up the task of educating me.

And for a woman of the cloth, I had less understanding of the grace that my church is built upon than I realized; because I had not been offered enough grace by the church, I needed to encounter Cesár to know what it felt like.

Something in me almost wanted Cesár to harbor anger against me, as if that would lessen the pain of my own internal conviction.

But it just was not in him. He just wanted me to understand. He just wanted me to know.

“…el pueblo de los Estados Unidos no sabían…” he had said to me.

Well, now we do know. What are we going to do about it?

Will we have more compassion towards people from Central America who are living in the United States, when we take the time to think about the political and financial reasons that may have brought them there – and what our nation has done to contribute to those situations. Will we have the courage and the motivation to take action to speak to our nation and communities about how we treat others, and push our government to give Central Americans the justice and mercy in immigration that we have failed to show them in foreign policy?

Or perhaps you are interested in what is being done on this side of the border? Well Cesár has a dream. He has heard that some Guatemalans who have been deported are trapped in Mexico because they became disabled during their immigration or deportation and have no way to support themselves if they come home. He wants there to be a place in Guatemala where disabled deportees can work and live in dignity; he wants to be able to tell them there is a place for them and that they should come home. Maybe there is some way you can help him. Maybe your business can buy whatever products this crazy dream of his produces.

Or maybe when you hear of a person who is being deported – even though they were brought to the United States when they were only two, have lived there for more than twenty years, and know no other life – you can say with the same grace that Cesár said to us – but they did not even know.

As we meditate on these questions, here are some of the faces of those who have forgiven us.

Women in ropa typica sing behind the Semana Santa processionals around Lake Atitlan
Women in ropa typica sing behind the Semana Santa processionals around Lake Atitlan
Watching the Semana Santa processions at Lake Atitlan with my friends Esther and Faustina
Watching the Semana Santa processions at Lake Atitlan with my friends Esther and Faustina
An elderly Mayan woman is helped down the street by her grandson
An elderly Mayan woman is helped down the street by her grandson


A woman walks alone through the Semana Santa celebrations around Lake Atitlan
A woman walks alone through the Semana Santa celebrations around Lake Atitlan
A Mayan man leads the Semana Santa procession as he has for many years
A Mayan man leads the Semana Santa procession as he has for many years