This past Monday, on Christmas Eve, about fifteen of us gathered under a tree at the foot of the Gateway International Bridge. We were on the Mexican side of the border, at the edge of Matamoros, the sister city to Brownsville, Texas. We were standing just outside a makeshift camp that had been set up for refugees who had been waiting weeks for their right to cross the international bridge, to enter the United States, and to apply for asylum.
It is one of the most “in between spaces” I have ever been in, where humans beings are “ni de aquí ni de allá” – neither here nor there. It is a terrifying, lawless place in which one’s hopes become reduced to expecting the one meal a day that volunteers are trusted to deliver, and entertaining the insane hope that organized crime will stay away, for at least one more day.
One of the many good people from Texas who had been supporting these refugees had suggested that a Christmas Eve prayer service might be a nice thing to offer the people living in that in in-between space. And so it was that we had ended up forming a circle around a small table that served as an altar. Amongst us were a man from Ghana and a woman from Cameroon who both spoke English, as well as some families from Honduras and El Salvador.
We began by singing in Spanish—a complicated tune that everyone seemed to know how to sing badly, and then we sang Silent Night, which we did well. After a bit, people were invited to write down on a small slip of paper whatever might be their prayer for this time in their lives. The refugees paused and thought about this quite a bit, and then began to write. The African man wrote on both sides of the paper slip and looked like he would have filled a notebook. A man from El Salvador wrote his words slowly, almost as if they pained him. A pregnant woman wrote on her paper, and I think all of us could guess what her prayers were.
Then, one by one, the immigrants came forward and placed their hopes and dreams and fears on a small fire. A gentle breeze dispersed the smoke; a couple of birds perched above us sang quietly.
We were quiet for a bit and then our prayer was over. The travelers came up and wished the Americans well. They asked us some of the many questions that they had—when did we think that they would be allowed to cross, what was the place called “Maryland” like, would the United States keep them in jail for long.
And then we shook hands and bid them well, sharing that smile that comes from recognizing a moment of shared grace.
Alongside our border there have been many moments of shared grace over these past six months. This grace is daily made manifest in the hundreds of hot meals that are cooked and then walked across the border bridges, in the thousands of “travel bags” that are prepared for those refugees facing long bus trips, and in the countless shared confidences and tears. Time after time, regular working people show up in the middle of the night to rescue young women left at a closed bus station by ICE, or make the hour and a half trek to the detention center to pay a bond or collect someone who needs a ride. The volunteers are a cross section of our community—lawyers, teachers, counselors, clergy, entrepreneurs, the very wealthy and the very poor, some younger and some older,
It is all a delight and yet, really, not unexpected. There are good people all around who do extraordinarily good work and who have been doing this sort of thing all of their lives.
Sadly, what is also not unexpected, is the sinfulness that calls forth these gracious responses. While the calculated abuse of immigrants at our nation’s southern border is decades old, the Trump administration’s actions has deepened the darkness of that evil. The separation of children from their parents (more than 250 remain separated) was perhaps the lowest point of his abuse of immigrants, but the steady onslaught of lies about the Central American immigrants created a space in which the planned humiliation of these people became acceptable to this self-declared Christian nation. That particular moral bankruptcy became clear after the Secretary of Homeland Security blamed the recent deaths of the seven and eight year old Guatemalan children on their parents, shortly after the man responsible for the children who were in Border Patrol custody covered up the first death.
Many Americans, most of whom have never been to the southern border, insist that people who wish to exercise their right to apply for asylum cross into the United States “the right way.” Since the beginning of June, this “right way” was illegally blocked by the Trump administration, which planted armed guards on the bridges to turn back anyone who would petition the United States for asylum. With the bridges effectively shut down, desperate people like the father of the seven-year-old Jakelin Caal, opt to attempt to enter the US by crossing the desert, or, in Texas taking their chances with human smugglers to cross the Rio Grande.
It is worth noting, over and again, that upon crossing the international boundary, the very first thing that these Central American families do is surrender to the Border Patrol. They are not interested in being illegal, they tired of hiding from evil doers back in their home countries, and they are seeking to be recognized as human beings deserving of the protection of the law.
The Christmas story is one of promise and hope, but the context of birth of the Christ child was a midwinter season in a lawless territory occupied by a ruthless army. What is noteworthy is that anyone would discover meaning and hope in the birth of a child in such a time and place.
During this Christmas season of 2018, I take, if not hope, then at least the powerful reminder that each and every human life is precious, whether this human being was born in a stable, or whether she is being carried in her father’s arms across the desert into the United States. Owning up to the responsibility for those lives requires just a bit of attention, just a bit of grace. We close out 2018 having, in many, many ways, failed to honor that responsibility. I look forward to 2019, with a hardheaded hope that we will have the courage, as a nation, to be graceful and generous. Or, at the least, to be decent enough to care for all those who trust us with their lives.