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“Nosotros trabajamos por ustedes”
We were coached on what to say as we prepared to cross the pedestrian bridge from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, a short, steep walk from one world to another. A literal line on the sidewalk marks the international boundary, a line covered by a metal awning, fences on both sides of the walkway and the words in graffiti on the sides of the concrete drainage basin below, barely visible through the slats of the metal barriers – La frontera vive en nosotros…the border lives in us.
We were told that our very brief journey into Mexico, long enough to gather together, cross the street and walk back into the US, was designed to help us see how a person seeking asylum would walk, and the expectation was that we would see people encamped on the bridge, on the Mexico side, waiting for their turn to “legally” claim asylum, something that is legal for anyone to do anywhere on US soil, but which new policy makes “legal” only at approved ports of entry like the El Paso Bridge, where the main street of El Paso and the main street of Ciudad Juarez literally connect, a physical sign of the ways that these two cities have been connected for centuries. The new policy has been to “cap” entry, a random number each day, and many are choosing to stay on the bridge – to live there rather than risk their chance to get to what they consider safety and hope.
“What should we say to them?”, a person asked our guide. What should we say to these people awaiting their fate, families huddled together on the side of a cold metal bridge, stating clearly that they’d rather wait for years on this bridge than to return to their home and face the fate they know awaits them there?
Nosotros trabajamos por ustedes. We are working for you. Our guide, Diego, born in El Paso, raised in Ciudad Juarez and schooled back in El Paso, gave some of us a quick Spanish lesson, saying that phrase slowly over and over again as the Border Patrol helicopter flew in circles over and over again in this little city park just blocks from the bridge, checking up on the group of interfaith leaders that they had been told were coming.
We are working for you.
We never saw people on the bridge. The Mexican police cleared them out a few days before we arrived, we were told later. The impending arrival of US troops, the escalation expected as the so-called “caravan” arrives was threatening to make a volatile situation explosive. So we paid our 50 cents, walked across the bridge with dozens of others who make this trek everyday, amidst a flow of cars in both directions, as people live their lives that exist somewhere in between this border that is equal parts hard, steel reality and soft, abstract illusion. It’s only 25 cents to come back, another component of a border system that makes no sense, seems pieced together over decades, some parts functional, most parts barely working, held together by duct tape and bailing wire by people who are trying to make things work, not decide large existential questions or fight ideological battles. We stood in line, but a different line, as the privilege that comes with a passport in my hand makes it impossible for me to really experience what an asylum seeker experiences, not to mention that I have come from my safe, comfortable home to this place, not fleeing violence and threat, but instead claiming this well intended but sometimes plastic mantra – nosotros trabajamos por ustedes.
Tornillo is a town about 35 miles east of that bridge, where farm fields give way to another bridge connecting one country to another over an imaginary line that we have drawn, sometimes literally, in the sand. Tornillo has all the prerequisite parts for a “solution” that is being developed in pieces. Those who seek asylum, the “solution” says, are just gaming the system anyway. So we have to discourage them. The overly simplistic approach to that perceived problem has created a different problem – as children are separated from their families, either sent here on their own as the only option ofdesperatepeople, torn apart by the journey itself or, intentionally divided by our own government as a cruel tactic meant to warn others. Tornillo is away from the big city. It is out among the fields, off the highway, the GPS can get you close, but there’s not even an address, just a road. And there, just beyond the fences and the gates, are the tents.
We stood just beyond the main gate on the rocky, dusty soil – clergy, activist, student…the well-meaning, the good- hearted, the outraged and the wounded…singing and praying and denouncing this solution. For many in the crowd, wearing kippah and prayer shawls, the idea of a “solution” for the plight of human beings was all too real…all too traumatic a thought. Is this how it begins? Does a pogrom, an internment, a holocaust begin by declaring that some lives are worth more than others?
At several points in the vigil we stopped and went silent as buses drove by, buses we assumed held immigrants seeking refuge and finding a kind of prison. We stood in silent vigil knowing that we were not there to stand in front of those buses or to lay down our lives for theirs, that is not the solution to this “solution.” The activists on the ground, who had been there long before we arrived and would stay long after we left, told us as much – the local Jewish temple had already begun to receive hostile messages. Thank you for being here they said, but the best thing you can do is witness with respect and courtesy and then go back home and let people know what you have seen.
Nosotros trabajamos por ustedes.
Are we working for them? Sometimes I wonder, because it is easy in the world of social justice activism, to get your own emotions and needs wrapped up in the emotions and needs of people you are trying to help, with very good intentions. Sometimes I wonder if we are trying to help others or trying to assuage our own guilt, or contend with our own outrage? We are all, after all, neck deep in a system that exacerbates this injustice, and others. We eat produce and meat, have roofs and lawns and like to catch a bargain where we can. I was congizant that we drove a big car down to El Paso, a car likely assembled in Mexico before coming across one of those border bridges where we drove it back near it’s birthplace and stayed in a hotel where my bed was made by people who might walk back that night across that same bridge I walked earlier – nosotros trabajamos por ustedes. De veras? Really?
On the way home my major conspirators and I talked, a Muslim woman born and raised here in Oklahoma who knows something of the hierarchy of human value and who counts and who doesn’t according to our system, and a Christian woman, herself a bridge between two theological worlds, one in which she grew up and would never be allowed to preach, and the one now, a UCC world like this one that has very good intentions, not always great impact. We talked about injustice and fear, about intolerance and hatred and how very, very dark the world seems. In fact, we told those stories only with one another because I think if we told them in some other setting we’d lack the strength to keep going. So we helped one another, just as we had done the day before, delivering freshly laundered towels to grateful shelters where we saw more faces of migrant children than our own government wanted us to see at Tornillo. Because you can’t…YOU CAN’T…see the faces of children and fear. So we hide those faces away. Because fear is what fuels this solution machine.
We talked of many things, of desparation and sorrow for a world that feels like it’s crumbling, though the stories of people on the border would tell you that it’s been crumbling for a long time, maybe always. We spoke of our traditions, of the great Jewish dream of tikkun olam, the healing of the world in which we participate with God to bring peace, hope and justice. We spoke of al-amin the Islamic phrase that is attached to so many prayers that speaks of Allah’s love for ALL people, and the ultimate embrace of the divine arms for everyone at some point in our futures. We talked of the kin-dom, the beloved community, that is here and not yet here, as tikkun olam and al-amin are dreams, realized and not, present and not, reality and completely absent, seemingly at the same time. Our hope, such as it is, is a fragile thing.
When Mark wrote down these words in the 13thchapter of his gospel, I wonder if we was feeling much the same of what we were on our trip home? You have to read the stories around this part of his gospel, a part often called the “little apocalypse” because it is so foreboding. It is full of judgment set in an ominous tone as Jesus predicts that this building, the temple, will be destroyed. It’s not so much amazing prophecy for Jesus as it is embellishment by Mark, writing after the destruction of the temple by Rome, decades after Jesus would have set on her steps. But maybe it’s not even meant to be prophecy. Maybe it’s meant, like all apocalyptic literature, to be a voice of hope in the darkest of times. It lays out the brutality of the moment in stark detail, the earthquakes and wars, nations against nations, and then offers a promise that this is the birth pangs…and anyone who has given birth can tell you, those can be excrutiating and seem to go on forever. It is the clarion call of our own involvement in a world of injustice as we seek a world of justice, and our scriptures are full of stories about how difficult it is to be in this world but not of it, how much an act of faith it is to long for something that you get only brief glimpses of, if that.
We rode back with no answers, save one. We can’t treat each other this way. We can talk of sovereigntyand national security all day long, but it really is this simple to me – ethically, morally, theologically it all boils down to what you heard sung at the start of this sermon, we are how we treat each other and nothing more. That is why we will continue to care for the people who somehow make it up here from the border and find themselves incarcerated in our jail, in our county, in our city – often without a single charge against them for they have committed no crime by seeking asylum in our country. Still we hold them. We hold men, women, children, entire families – and often not together. It is a sign of great darkness in our land, perhaps every bit as dark as the times that pushed Mark to write these difficult words about the shaking of the foundations. And that great tikkun olam/al-amin/kin-dom that we seek means that we must look for the ways that we can bend the moral arc a little towards justice. I’m very clear after this journey that I cannot fix a broken immigration system, nor can I make life right for the thousands who are caught up in it. But I might be able to make it better for one, or two, or even five. I may not be able to help anyone on the border of Juarez and El Paso, or Tijuana and San Diego, but I can help someone here in Tulsa. I can give money to organizations that are helping on the front lines, I can advocate for people here in our own jail, I can work to end the programs that keep them here, dismantling the system one piece at a time, I can send in my comments on “Public Charge” as your bulletin indicates, I can write or call my representatives, I can use my voice.
So, this morning, I think I hear God calling me through these dark, apocalyptic stories and the witness of a week. I think that I can understand how we might need grand visions of God’s perfect justice in unjust times, the unsettling visions helping us refuel when everything feels settled and set. I think that now I can hear God’s still small voice saying to me – try. Just try, where you are with what you have, with heaven on your mind.
Nosotros trabajamos por ustedes – we are working for you, and the “you” in that statement has to be everyone, every single other. For the border really does live in each of us, and as we have said so many times in this sanctuary, on street corners, at the halls of power, in planning meetings, with our voices, our hearts, with our hands and our feet – either all of us matter or none of us do.