“We saw the star…”

00lights for xmasLast week while I sat in a chair at my dentist’s office, a very kind young woman stuck sharp things in my mouth and talked about her upcoming marriage. She was excited, somehow able to bounce on her feet and yet not poke holes in my mouth. “Ah, love,” I thought, and then, before she began spraying ice water on my poor teeth, I managed to ask her where the new couple was planning to go for their honeymoon.

“Paris,” she said.

Followed by silence. She turned off the machine, put down her instruments, crossed her arms, and looked down at the floor. She seemed at once defensive and thoughtful.

I myself have been thinking about what happened this past November 13th in Paris, and the over 130 folks who died while celebrating music, a soccer game, or a cup of tea in a corner café. The latest analysis of the event was that the terrorists intended to attack the very romance of Paris itself.

The soon-to-be-wed woman then said, “Yeah, well my family thinks that we are crazy, but I love that city, and, you know, we are all just going to have to learn how to live in this new world. I am not going to let them take my life away,” she concluded, and then she picked up her poking tools.

I thought for a while about who the “they” might be whom she felt were trying to take her life away. Surely the terrorists, but maybe, also the politicians who see Paris and the San Bernadino violence less as tragedies and more as opportunities to fly their particular hate and fear banners.  Or maybe the “they” are the folks in her life who love her and fear for her. Or maybe she is just in love and being stubborn about traveling to Paris with the man who captured her heart.

I carried these thoughts with me throughout the rest of the day. The news continues to be filled with reactions to the horrors in Paris, and San Bernadino, then came the calls to ban all Syrians—even five year olds— from seeking safety in our land. The irony of a nation refusing refuge to families from the Middle East at the behest of self-proclaimed Christian politicians—in the midst of preparations to celebrate the birth of a family seeking refuge—was ignored. I was saddened, not for the first time, by how Christians so easily accommodate their faith to be shaped by fear.

Evening fell, and the homeowners who managed to save a little money switched on their holiday lights. Christmas, with its themes of wandering royalty, homeless mothers, hospitality and revelation, seems to begin earlier and earlier each year. Our community does this bit of festive work quite well. It is hard to find a block in our neighborhood without multiple houses lit up with those bright lights that celebrate joy and hope to reflect  that once-upon-a-time a star coming to a standstill over a manger, a posada, an inn with some room (albeit in the back) for these middle-eastern refugees.

The celebration of human hope is ancient. It was surely part of the thoughts of those ancestors who long ago gathered around a fire both to warm themselves and to keep out the dark. Terror is nothing new, even if today it is more efficient, it still remains present—as it is our terror.

What can be different is our response to these forces of darkness. I, for one, do not think that all of us will surrender to fear.  I do worry, though, that there are many of us who continue to give into the spiral of violence. Those who stand to profit from the brutality of this violence are many, and, if shutting off the light of hope puts coins in their pockets, or lifts their cause to new heights, then they will dedicate themselves to frightening us.

That, too, is a form of terrorism.

Keep This Religion in Our Politics

CV-nJ4sVAAAM8AJIt was like any other gathering of church people, any other place on earth.  On the evening before an important feast day, mostly a middle-aged and older group of people, nearly all of them women, organized a prayer.

In this very Catholic part of the religious world, some of the women carried rosaries, and two of them had decorated an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the icon of the Mexican church, and whose feast day we were preparing to celebrate.

What was different about this particular religious gathering was the place and the timing. 

The place: we conducted our procession in the shadow of the wall the US had put up between the United States and Mexico. A wall the United States pierced through this land, scarcely 100 feet away, is a looming reminder of where we were.

And the timing—we were just weeks after the violence of Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernadino. The timing is important to note, for those who made this protest were domestic workers who live and work in the shadows of this American bordered community, some of the most vulnerable people in our area. They are indigenous people of color, who migrate only to become the undocumented scapegoats for a load of politicians taking advantage of people’s ignorance and fear.

These women, unprotected and exposed, are not naive. They are very aware of how politicians stoke American paranoia. They are wise women. Women who grapple with the quality of life that the more than 11 million immigrants in this country suffer, and this group of organizers decided to speak out. For them, the worst thing that could happen in these times is to remain silent in the face of the devastating aggression rolling across America’s unbalanced media.

The women are organized and created a community of domestic  workers across our region (Domesticas del Valle, a project with Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center).

They are also women of faith, who on the eve of this significant feast day, needed to share the message of the Guadalupana: Be strong. Be unafraid. Be organized.

We waited a bit more for the local parish priest to show up, but after a while, our leader took the initiative and organized the procession. Those carrying the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe were placed in front, the rest of us walked three abreast, careful to stay on the shoulder of the roadway as we moved down the old Military Highway toward the parish church.

The organizer of the action had asked the sheriff’s department to send a patrol car, given the dangers of walking down the Military Highway. As we lined up for the procession, the deputy, eying one of the banners (“Stop the Deportations”), weCV_Xf_DUwAAHM9Int up to the organizer and said, “I thought that this was a religious event.” She very calmly (and correctly) assured him that it was. The deputy was confused—for there was in fact a lovely image of the Virgin, and the women were singing religious songs and carrying rosaries.

He thought for a moment, and then returned to his patrol care, having decided to offer his bit of sanctuary for this community.

The women were carrying much more than banners and images of the Virgin. They were bringing to public prayer their own experiences of deep suffering and pain. One woman was left with no recourse but to sleep in a family’s bathtub, another woman was subjected to bizarre and continual sexual exploitation, many have been separated from their own children and families for years, working in a strange land to feed and clothe their little ones.

They carried a powerful sense of solidarity. For all of the challenges facing them, however deep the shadows in which they lived out their lives, they are increasingly aware that there is much that connects them.

Two of the women, just a few months before, had joined hundreds of women who walked 100 miles to celebrate the arrival of Pope Francis to the United States, and to draw attention to the Pope’s message of dignity and respect for the immigrant.

In order to keep that experience alive, communities who face undocumentation from across the nation gather the 11th day of each month (in recognition of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States) and to walk, together, offering hope and the strength of solidarity to their fellow migrants. The action is intended to be sacrificial in nature, for the message is a serious one. The message is also beneficial in effect, standing in counterpoint to the hateful rhetoric searing the nation.

We arrived at the church, just as the sun was setting. There was some prayer, and some photos, and then, one by one, the marchers made their way back to their places of work, or, if they were lucky, to their families. 

The evening shadows lengthened, but somehow, on this evening, they did not seem as dark, or as threatening, an effect, I think, of the sense of not being out there, all alone.