Updates from the Team in Tucson, AZ
April 24th, 2016
The Hamilton Union Travel Team is now settled into the Borderlinks dormitory after a long and full day. After a smooth flight through Atlanta where we met up with the eighth member of our group Edie Morris, from the Cincinnati Presbytery. We checked into the “Airport Comfort Suites” and most of us got a pretty good night sleep. Although it was after midnight Eastern Standard time, we gained three hours and were tired enough to take advantage of it. After breakfast this morning, we “commissioned” Edie using the service we used at worship last Sunday and liturgically made her part of our group.
This morning we also attended worship at Southside Presbyterian Church, best known as the first of the Sanctuary churches, in the 1980’s; a mission and identity that they have been true to ever since. It is a vibrant multi-cultural congregation and I think what I found most inspiring (besides wonderful music and an excellent challenging sermon by a guest preacher- Ken Kennon) was that it was so recognizably “Presbyterian”. These were our “peeps”. We began by singing together “Lord Prepare me to be a Sanctuary” something we sing at Hamilton Union all the time but had an added power singing it with the members of Southside. I will never sing it again without thinking of them and saying a prayer for the important work that they are doing both individually and as a congregation. It helped so much to begin this experience by placing it all in God’s hands. And as the week goes on we need to remind ourselves that Jesus did not shy away from suffering and sorrow but entered it fully and so became the hope of the world.
In the afternoon we had a lengthy orientation which included everything from where the towels are stored, to the long tragic and complicated history of US and Mexico border relations. One of the leaders of our group Sabina, masterfully and calmly led us through our very ambitious schedule, responded honestly to all of our initial questions, both big and small. She shared the educational philosophy of Borderlinks, which she called “Popular Education” which has at is core the understanding that education can be an agent of change among those most impacted by suffering and that education is not neutral.
We identified our goals for the week which are:
- To learn constructive engagement in this very difficult issue
- To understand what sustains people who work for change
- And to identify ways to follow up on this experience when we return home
Sabina encouraged us to approach all the situations in which we find ourselves with Manos Vacios y Corazon Abierto, which roughly translates to “Empy hands…open hearts/minds”
Water In the Desert
April 25, 2016
This morning we accompanied two volunteers from Humane Borders as they drove a water truck to check on and refill water tanks that are place out in the desert for migrants to find and use. Not only did this expedition give us a glimpse of this important work, but provided us with time to walk in the stunningly beautiful southwest desert and imagine what it would be like to have to cross it in extreme heat for many miles without a clear destination.
I had the opportunity to drive in the water truck itself and hear the Diane and Joel talk about this twice weekly expedition. Humane Borders actually works with private landowners as well as state and local authorities and the Border Patrol to get permits to place and maintain water tanks. Humane Borders has a working relationship with the Border Patrol to enable volunteers to maintain these water stations and there is an understanding that the Border Patrol will not monitor these locations so that migrants will take advantage of the water. It is an uneasy conversation but a conversation never –the- less. Diane said “Our executive director reminds us often that the Border patrol isn’t the enemy, no one wants migrants to die of thirst”. It was so important to me to hear this. This doesn’t take away from the horror and injustice of our national immigration policy and the consequences of a militarized border. But whenever any group is unilaterally dismissed as “evil” or “the problem” be they undocumented people, or Muslims, Christians, Jews, African Americans, whites, then we are entering dangerous territority and refusing to deal with the true reasons we are so estranged from each other.
There are three organizations , “Humane Borders”, “Tucson Samaritans”, and “No More Deaths “ that have three different approaches to the single goal of preventing migrants from dying of thirst and exposure in the desert. Whereas Humane Borders works with private state and local authorities to get permits, “No more Deaths” sets up medical MASH type units and seeks out migrants who may be in need of medical attention sometimes in ways that are much more confrontational relative to the authorities. The Samaritans walk known migrant trails and bring jugs of water. The “rules” about what kind of support is legal and what is “aiding and abetting” are complex and fluid, and all of these groups walk a difficult line but are guided by the simple truth that “Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime.”
I asked how well these groups work together since their approaches are very different, Diane responded that in the past there had been tension among them but the problem is now so big and so deep and so wide, that they recognize that all of the various approaches , coalitions and relationships are necessary to save people’s lives. In the current political climate where we are so polarized on so many much less important things, the model of the border coalition groups working across ideological and political lines is inspiring. It can be applied to all kinds of much less life threatening situations to make us a more civil community again.
Living Into the Mission
A word about living at Borderlinks for the week. When we originally planned this trip I wondered how they could possibly provide us with room, board, transportation and a fully staffed week long immersion program for a 140 dollars per day (the cost of a standard hotel room). Our accommodations are comfortable but very simple. A bed in a dormitory style converted warehouse. They ask us to take short showers and conserve water using one set of sheets and one towel for the week. Meals are vegan and constructed entirely from what they are able to obtain from the local food bank. This means that our fare is different kinds of bean based soups, salad and bread at each meal. It is perfectly nourishing and sustaining, but we have noticed its simplicity and if we don’t happen to “like” what is provided- well- too bad, right? We can’t help but notice how much we take meat, and rich foods, and access to whatever we feel like eating, for granted. This wasn’t something I was expecting to learn, but in its own gentle way, the Borderlinks approach is inviting me to ‘eat with the poor,’ something that is rarely asked of me. And its interesting to see how even this tiny sacrifice shows me what I take for granted.
On to day three.
Today we became volunteer visitors for an organization called Mariposas sin Fronteras which means “Butterflies without Borders”. This is a legal aid organization that seeks out and provides legal guidance and support for migrants in detention- This organization is particularly concerned for gay lesbian and transgender individuals who are the most vulnerable population both in their countries of origin and in detention. We were oriented by a member of this organization who was herself a trans-male in from Mexico and was in detention for three years. She was very tired because she had spent most of the day before waiting for a detainee to be released on bond (something that was scheduled to happen at 9 and didn’t occur until the evening). After the orientation we drove more than an hour to Florence Arizona which is really a town of prisons. I was assigned a man whose name was Elmer. We spent about an hour with him sharing who we were and listening to him tell his story his life in Guatemala as a loan officer for a bank until he was targeted by a criminal gang and told to extort money from friends and clients. His flight through Mexico and across the southern U.S. Border was harrowing and he finally fainted from exposure and was picked up and sent to detention.
While some of our group were asked to write letters of support that could be included in files for upcoming bond hearings, Elmer’s story had reached a more hopeful chapter than most. Through contacts in Los Angeles he had been able to raise bond and expected to be released and provided with a court case date to appear in L.A. Below is my thank you letter to Elmer which will be translated by the staff at Borderlinks and sent to him.
I am writing to thank you very much for meeting with Amy, Karolina and me when we visited you at the Florence Detention Center on April 26th, 2016 I was deeply moved by the story of your flight from Guatemala, and I am very glad that you were found after you fainted in the desert.
I thought about you all day on Wednesday and prayed repeatedly that you were able to post bond as planned and that you have received a court date and can continue the process of seeking safety with help from your friends in Los Angeles.
You were so gracious to invite us into your life and speaking with you and getting to know you a little as a person changed me. I have a much better understanding of the plight of migrants who come to the U.S. I will look for opportunities to tell your story to people back in New York State. I will try to support legislation and groups that are working to make the U.S. a more hospitable country some that people like you can be fully a part of our communities.
I want you to know that I will continue to think of you and wonder how you made out. Please know that if a letter from me would be helpful, describing our conversation and speaking about how kind and gracious you were to us is such a difficult setting, please write to me, and I will send a letter immediately.
The address is: Mary Jo Pattison, 2291 Western Avenue, Guilderland, N.Y. 12084
Mary Jo Pattison
Today we drove to the U.S. Mexican border. The original plan was to cross the border and visit a social service agency run by the Mexican government which serves those who have been recently deported. There they can get food, a shower, clothing and plan their next steps. However, our staff couldn’t find the Van keys and once they did there was no longer time to make the crossing since it can take a long time to cross back into the U.S. However, this change of agendas meant that we had time to make a brief stop at the St. Xavier Mission. This mission, which pre-dates the existence of the U.S. and is on the T’hono O’odham Nation. This is a beautiful, active, intercultural mission with Catholic and Native American Spirituality intermingled in the art, architecture and symbols of the mission. The setting was rugged and beautiful and a reminder that the church can be a positive presence when it listens to and incorporates the culture of the people it has come to serve.
We had lunch at the border on the U.S. side of the town of Nogalas. Sitting by the side of the road, next to a children’s tire swing, we could look across the street of this town only the town was divided in half by the pikes of this iron wall. We were told that on Sundays families meet at the wall to talk through the bars, although the Border patrol discourages this. This is not something that we did not already know about, but there is no way to describe the impact of seeing it with my own eyes and looking through to Mexico and seeing Mexicans go about their daily lives in its shadow. Meanwhile on the U.S. side, there are small private homes that once overlooked a street without houses and stores on the other side, and now wake up every morning to this ugly, iron wall.
In the afternoon we drove to a tiny desert town called Arivacas. There we met with a volunteer with “People helping People” a humanitarian aid organization. Arivacas is a town of about 700 people consisting of free range ranchers and “back to the land movement” subscribers who moved there in the late 80’s and 90’s. They share the desire to live a deeply rural, off the grid desert lifestyle but find themselves suddenly thrust into the center of the Migrant Crisis. Because the fortifying of the wall and increased electronic surveillance, has pushed the migrant trails to the much more dangerous desert areas, many have had migrants come to their doors very sick from exposure and thirst. Contrary to general assumptions, it is both legal and a requirement of international law to provide assistance to any human being who is sick and suffering – but the people who live in Arivacas are not medically trained, so people helping people provides medical advice and support. The town has also organized a petition to remove an inland checkpoint that they must drive through whenever the leave the town to get groceries or run errands. Through a program of checkpoint observation, they have been able to document that the checkpoint does not “catch migrants” but instead engages in racial profiling of citizens who appear Hispanic. After hearing these stories, Stewart asked “What sustains you in your work?” Her face brightened as she replied, “It is the community here, we work so well together, and I have had to face my assumptions. For example, I see someone in a ten gallon hat with two gun holsters on his hip and I make assumptions, and then he calls me and says he has been bathing a migrants feet for two days and it doesn’t seem to get better, and I say to myself “You’re washing feet?” That’s what sustains me.
Could you not watch with me ….
This morning we met with Brendan, a former border patrol officer. Brendan, graduating from college without a clear plan, responded to an ad that promised a good salary and adventure. He moved to Tucson to join the border patrol and served for five years, after leaving the border patrol in 2013 he finished a masters degree in Latin American Studies and is now in Law School.
The first two years he was a regular line officer but for the final three years he was part of a special SWAT team that sought out bandits and criminals who were robbing migrants in the desert or holding them hostage to extort money from their families. Brendan communicated the complexity of being a Border patrol agent. He made the point repeatedly, that most of the officers he knew were people like him. While in all organizations there are “bad apples,” most of his friends and colleagues came to the border patrol with the same motivations he had. He confirmed the narrative that border patrol agents do not want people to die in the desert.
“We have all carried bodies out of the desert or had people die in our arms and it’s a terrible thing.”
Brendan said that Immigration reform cannot wait until security is absolute because he believe that can never happen. He emphasized that no wall will be high enough so that people don’t tunnel under it, throw drugs over it, or risk dying in the desert to go around it. Reform needs to occur while we are working on security and focusing on illegal activity rather than everyone who is crossing.
Brendan also helped us understand and have compassion for how difficult it is to be a border patrol agent. Brendan has many friends and colleagues who still serve and most are people like him. It is an enormously difficult job, different from serving as a police officer or part of the U.S. Military. On the one hand Brendan felt good about his work because as a member of the SWAT team because they went after truly bad actors, but the downside is that it was really hard to have a “win”- the desert was so big and what happened more often is that migrants suffering from thirst and extreme exposure would flag him down and surrender. And again, he felt good about being able to save people’s lives by bringing them into to safety and providing medical care, but at the same time he also had to arrest them for illegal entry and knew they would be deported. Many had families and children and have been living all across the U.S. for many years, or were fleeing for their lives and felt they had no choice but risk crossing and being captured again. He said,
“When the police arrest people, usually it’s because they have done something that you wouldn’t do and that is a bad thing to do, but when I arrested migrants I can’t help but think that if I were in their shoes I would be doing the same thing. So you could never feel like a hero.”
Brendan’s honesty and compassion reminded me that not only is every migrant story different but the same is true of the Border Patrol – these men and women also all have their own stories. It important to understand them not as a faceless “They” but as individuals, with their own motivations for joining the Border Patrol, and their own struggles with what we ask them to do on our behalf, through immigration laws that we ask them to enforce. The Border patrol reminds me of Pharaoh’s Army- The Israelites in the exodus story are the heroes and good guys who walk through the parted Red Sea, because of God’s miraculous power, and the Pharaoh has the power as the absolute ruler who orders his army to chase the Israelites. And what role does Pharaoh’s army play? They are simply drowned in the sea.
In the afternoon, we went to federal court to observe “Operation Streamline”. There, in the space of an 90 minutes, 54 men and 2 women all of whom had crossed and been arrested at least twice were sentenced to the plea bargained charge of “illegal entry” in order to avoid the more serious felony charge of repeated illegal entry. This happens over and over again, because our government really doesn’t want to have thousands of migrants whose only crime is illegal entry to be in jail for 10-20 years, on a felony conviction. The process was chilling to watch in its efficiency. The goal of sentencing people to jail is part of the “prevention by deterrence” strategy, but it clearly doesn’t work since these men and women have repeatedly experience this procedure and still return. We attended court with a representative from “Stop Operation Streamline”. Volunteers from this organization come to court to witness and document the proceedings, and is actively working to end the practice, through legislative action and resistance.
Finally, at 5 p.m. we went to a local park were we were introduced to R. and heard the story of one family devastated by operation streamline. R.’s husband was on his way to work one morning, when he was picked up in a traffic stop arrested and deported. R. and her husband have lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, and have three children all of whom were born in the U.S. Their oldest, a 16 year old, is autistic, and was very close to his father. R’s husband has tried three times to return to his family and children and has been arrested each time. He is appealing his most recent sentence because he feels that he was not provided with all the information the first time he was arrested, and the fact that he had a disabled son, might have bolstered his case for remaining in the U.S. He is currently being held in a prison in Texas. He has not seen his family for more than two years. R. lives with the awareness that the same thing could happen to her, leaving her children without parents, and forced into the child protective system. While R’s story is heartbreaking, her courage faith and hope is deeply inspiring and helps us put names and faces to this enormous problem.
Today was a day when we saw and heard how truly complex the immigration problem is, how many human beings are damaged by it, and how difficult it will be to reform it. But we watched and listened to people all of whom, in their own way have begun the work of reform despite the complexity and have hope in the future and faith in God despite heartbreak and on going suffering. We were struck by the fact that everyone thanked us for simply coming and listening and seeing. Jesus said “Could you not watch with me one hour…” it is not nothing to stay awake and to commit to telling the story.
I am adding a poem by Stewart- reflecting on our time at Borderlinks, shared with an additional member of our group from Cincinnati, along with a youth group that was here most of the week from Plymouth, New Hampshire.
“But I am not describing some particular thing that appears as an object of awareness, as some sort of visual or sensible experience—something you see happening to you. I am trying to point to where no word has ever gone, but one out of which the Word emerges. And so this Silence washes onto the shores of awareness, making it stretch to receive metaphors of light, union and spaciousness.”
–Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land, p.66.
Who knew that the Silent Land abides here?
That the silence of the detained, the shackled and their families
Is not that of abandonment—that is my emptiness and fear, my projection.
Who knew that the Silent Land
abides among the officers of the Border Patrol
and prison guards,
the activists, the water droppers, the desert medical staff,
the binders of blistered feet
as silent and beautiful as the desert?
Who knew that the Silent Land
can be found in teenagers from New Hampshire
seeking to learn and “see?”
And among us from Guilderland and Cincinnati,
in our desire to discover where Jesus is staying—abiding silently—
Yet like a spring deep within the rocky earth
bubbling to the surface with living water
It’s about 5:45 a.m. We will be meeting today for a wrap up and some action planning. The hope is that we will have some strategies for carrying the stories we have heard back to churches, groups, students and friends in New York State. It won’t be easy. Having seen the borderlands up close, we are aware of how much fear and misinformation colors our nations response- particularly when we are geographically so far removed.
But before heading home I want to write a short final installment to this daily record of our Borderlinks Mission Immersion.
On Friday morning, many in our group got up very early in order to help with a breakfast and shower program for Tucson’s homeless, this occurs every Monday and Friday and by 9:30 when Stew and I arrived to join them, they had served more than 150 people breakfast. There were also showers and haircuts available. We gathered briefly to hear about that experience. For some of our group, I think this was a particularly good experience in that it connected back to volunteer work they were already doing and familiar with through a relationship with Schenectady City Mission. As has been true throughout our trip the opportunity to sit down and talk to people, hear their stories and receive their hospitality has been the most valuable aspect of the experience.
After this we met with Allison Harrington, the current pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church. She described the “new sanctuary movement.” After the activism of the 1980’s several decades had passed since the church had physically provided sanctuary, but over the past year the church protected Rosa, an undocumented wife and mother of 2 from deportation while her case was appealed. The sanctuary ended up lasting more than 400 days and involved the whole community. Although Rosa left sanctuary in November, the signs which say “we stand with Rosa” are still everywhere in businesses and private homes in Tucson. Sometimes these efforts, when they are over, are described as great success stories. But Allison was honest that on about day 300 when the process seemed permanently stalled, and the daily prayer vigil had dwindled from 30 to 3, that it was very difficult to continue on, but sometimes there is no choice but to finish what has been started. Rosa’s story is in the end, a story of the triumph of hope and of the power of community.
In the afternoon we visited Casa Alitas; Casa Alitas (House of little Wings) is a short term shelter for women, children, individuals who are ill and unaccompanied minors who cross the border, surrender to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ask for Asylum. The guests come from Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Although it does not always happen, when a person surrenders and asks for Asylum (as opposed to being picked up in the dessert) they are supposed to be processed as asylum seekers and the provided a chance to argue their case. In most cases these individuals have the name of a family member or friend somewhere in the U.S. These contacts, arrange for bus transportation and after receiving a meal clothing, supplies and a packet of information including instructions on how to appear for an appointment in their destination and begin the asylum process, they are taken to the bus station and sent all over the country. Although it is very difficult to get asylum, this process is a little more hopeful than Operation Streamline in that there is at least the opportunity to tell one’s story to a judge, and it takes time, and there is always hope that in time we will create a reasonable path to safe residency if not citizenship for many of these folks. We visited Casa Alitas because our former members from Southside church suggested it as a worthy agency to receive a collection of socks, underwear, toothbrushes and soap that we had gathered during a Lenten drive to build interest among our congregation in the trip. Also really interesting was the fact that the Americorps volunteer who spoke with us, was a lifelong resident of Tuscon and yet was only vaguely aware of Operation Streamline as another, much sadder path that undocumented people travel. When we asked our Borderlinks staff person about this, she said that it is not unusual for organizations to be so focused on the particular need that they are filling that they don’t really have an awareness of the bigger picture. But all in all Casa Alitas was a hopeful place where undocumented migrants received hospitality and compassion on our behalf.
We concluded our stay in Arizona with a drive to Gates Pass to witness a spectacular sunset and then we had dinner together in Old Town, where the Tuscon Folk festival was in full swing.
Later today we fly back to Albany…changed in ways that we are only just now beginning to perceive.
Meditation on John 1: 35-39
May 1, 2016
Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church
I wrote this meditation on the evening following our visit with detainees in custody at a federal prison in Florence, Arizona who were seeking asylum. We met in pairs with four different men. At each table was an interpreter. Each of them was fleeing from threats of violence from either government or gangs. Interestingly, none of the men was from Mexico. They came from Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras. This meditation attempts to express what happened to me when an “illegal alien” or “undocumented immigrant” became a human being with a name and a story.
The next day, (John the Baptist) was there (by the river) with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi (which means teacher) “Where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see. “So they went and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.
We have been told that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire; the one of whom our teacher said he was not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.
But this is not enough. We must follow and discover for ourselves who this man is. Jesus must never become a right answer to a theological question. He must never become a “what”: a Lamb, a Savior, a Messiah. He must always be a “who” who expands and extends into us and in whom we become to ourselves and to others a “who.”
So we follow.
“What do you want?” he asks. To ask, “We want to know if you really are what John says you are” he will never become a “who”—nor will we.
And so, tripping over our words, we ask, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” By this we mean: your location in relation to where we are—Mordecai’s house, Simon’s Inn, around the corner and a mile down the road from where we stand. With no hint of irony or hesitation he says, “Come and see.”
So we go and see.
It turns out that the location could not have been less important. To be with Jesus anywhere—whether sitting or walking is to be where he is staying. He was actually staying with us as we walked with him.
We have also learned some other things:
- That when Jesus says, “Come and see” he means that seeing is much more than the image we receive when we look at something. To “see” as he means it is to behold that to which mere sight is blind: the love which created and creates the universe, the soulfulness of all creation, the deep preciousness of all humanity—their “who-ness” which is hidden by the way we turn God’s “whos” into “whats” and “its.”
- We learned that Jesus “stays” with and in the very people we consider to be “whats”: problems to be dealt with, those who, if they didn’t exist would make life more peaceful and uncomplicated.
- We learned that love is the short road to transforming “whats” into “whos.”
But we also learned this: To see we must come; we must follow this Teacher—for we can never learn to “see” from the safety of our protected lives. Following him will take us where would never go on our own. Yet with him we discover what true seeing is. We see, find and embrace not “whats” but “whos”
In prisons for immigrant detainees seeking asylums who have names: Edwin, Elmer, Juan, Jason.
And in so doing we become “whos”—those with whom Jesus stays. Amen.
You can learn more about this trip through previous blog posts:
Immigration Crisis – An Opportunity to Learn More and Make a Difference by M.J. Pattison
Why I am going to Tuscon by Stewart Pattison
M.J. is a teaching elder in the Albany Presbytery, but currently makes her living at the Department of Health as a program evaluator. Hamilton Union is her church and she is married to the pastor, Stewart Pattison. For the past eight years this warm and lovely congregation has allowed her to live out her call to ministry as their parish associate.