I have been searching for the noun that describes a parent whose child has been taken from him or her.
What name is given to an African woman whose little girl was swept away by a Boko Haram raid, or a Mexican father whose sixteen year was shot to death, or a Washington DC couple whose thirteen year old went missing? There seems to be no noun, at least in English, which would distinguish these parents from those who do have a child to hug in the morning, a little boy who needs a shirttail tucked in, or a little girl wanting her hair to be braided.
The lack of this term occurred to me this past Sunday afternoon while I was out for a walk. Passing through a local park, I watched a young woman playing catch with her just-past-toddling-aged little girl. Their peels of laughter rolled out through the golden afternoon sun, an affirmation of life.
This was Palm Sunday evening, the beginning of the celebration of Holy Week, and the solemn remembering of Passover, that time when the angel bringing death to the Egyptians “passed over” the Hebrew families, protecting them, and then, subsequently, giving the Jews the final impetus to flee their slavery under Pharaoh, to pass over into a new existence as a free people.
Someone once told me that Passover, means “being protected while being made new.” I liked that, and I remembered it as the little girl’s complete, total happiness in the presence of her mother sang out “I am protected.” I allowed myself to imagine that, just a short time ago, when she had born this daughter, this little girl’s mother was being made new. Altogether, while a completely, happily normal event, nonetheless, a holy one—something of God.
This experience was in complete contrast to those of previous weeks, when so much that, in my mind, can only be called “unholiness,” was set to come into play. There were the threats to parents of Central American refugees by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. The United States, he said, would consider separating Central American children from their parents should they dare to trust the United States with an asylum plea. While the menace of this action was whitewashed with a questionable invocation of national security, and while Kelly has since backed off of this intent to do harm, it seems evil to me that a man with that much power would entertain kidnapping as a viable method of law enforcement.
Others in the national security business, however, seemed unbothered by ethical considerations, and continued to search for ways to exploit the Central Americans. The GEO group, a private prison company that seems hell-bent on making money on immigrants in detention, went before the Texas House State Affairs Committee last week, arguing for the passage of a bill that would allow them to be a licensed “baby jail” (as the CARA pro-bono project calls them). GEO needs the licensing so that they can hold the children long past the maximum time allowed, as the company earns more profit each day longer the families are jailed.
The testimony from those against this idea was dismayingly on target; GEO’s testimony was disturbing in its deceit. The prison’s warden presented herself as the “program director,” and spoke of the lovely “salad bar with two entrees” that the jail offered the inmates. Another lobbyist spoke of the 200 jobs that would be lost if the baby jail was forced to comply with the minimum standards for holding children. The contrast between the concern for the well-being of the families, and the welfare of GEO’s shareholders went by unremarked.
The testimony went on for hours; from all that I watched, I don’t remember a single question or expressed concern from committee members about the condition of the families or the children in these places. The questions were about how much money the facility made, how many facilities were operating, and what were we (Texas? The USA? The Community of Believers?) supposed to “do with these people” if we couldn’t lock them up?
If it were the GEO group’s children, or the legislators’ families who were being locked up, or separated, this would have been an entirely different process, an inconceivable one. The failure of our social imagination or the collective shrinking of our hearts makes such a suggestion (that “those” children could be “our” children) difficult, if not impossible.
Holy Week, for Christians, ends with the celebration of Easter, a liturgical celebration of the impossible, of God’s decision to gift God’s criminal alien son with eternal life. The resurrection, considered an historical fact by an enormous community of persons, should be socially transformative, a God-given guarantee, as it is, of the inherent divinity of each and every human being. The world, especially the world’s poor and bereft, continue to await this transformation of hearts and minds and politics. There have always been signs that such a process is taking root in our world, but there always seem to be other undertakings that want to deny that hope. There are Holy Weeks, and there remain far more unholy weeks.
Those of us who live alongside the border are gifted with encounters unknown in the rest of the country. We get to meet people of great courage who have packed up their belongings and fled ancestral homes in order to save the lives of their children. We may get to pray with people who live with the horrific anguish of being away from their children. We may meet, in this special place, someone whose circumstance has no name—a parent whose child has been taken from her, perhaps by a drug cartel, perhaps by the violence in their home country, perhaps by the vagaries of flight through Mexico, perhaps by ICE agents or the Border Patrol. The angel of the Lord did not protect those families from that particular, tragic sadness.
As this Holy Week turns toward the celebrations of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, I believe it appropriate to recognize the holiness of those who have suffered the damning theft of a child by the state. In their own, specific way, they are God-like, having suffered what God knew on Good Friday—the theft of one’s own flesh, the kidnapping of the most-loved one, the loss of a reason to live.
Some of us hope for that day when there is no need for a term for parents who have lost their children. We wait for the day when such an unthinkable moment no longer occurs, when this impossible idea begging for wings to take flight, to pass over and protect so many who yet remain at risk for this tragedy in need of a name.