Truth

sb4 hearingAbout a month ago I was part of a group of people assaulted by a guy who used the National Anthem as a weapon.

About a hundred of us were standing in line, waiting to offer our testimony before the Texas House of Representatives’ State Affairs’ Committee. We were part of more than a thousand people gathered that day, determined to testify on the multiple ways that Senate Bill 4, the Texas “anti-sanctuary cities” bill, was a curse, a pox, and a bad law. The law would authorize, indeed, would require local police officers to act as immigration agents.

We were chatting easily in the hallway, enjoying the remarkable hospitality of fellow traveller, when an older fellow, an American flag bandana tied around his forehead, swaggered up the hall. His name tag identified him as a member of the Fredericksburg Tea Party. The man stopped about fifteen away, scowled at the group for a long moment, and then launched into the Star-Spangled Banner.

To give him credit, he was brave to attack us with such a clumsy weapon. This is a tune with some impossible high notes—and it goes on forever and ever. It seems to me that it would be just plain hard to express passionate anger for that long a time, but this guy apparently had a lot of bile to fuel his effort.

His intent, however, was interrupted by some of the younger members of our group. They turned toward him and began singing their own songs. The songs were followed by chants, all of which filled the long hallways of the Capitol, attracting news media and others to the scene.

The Tea Party fellow finally finished—not that I could hear him. He gave a fist pump directed to whoever sits on high, looking down on all of this, and then wandered back off down the hall, the American flag, looking a little worn, still sitting on his head.

In the meantime, the testimonies against the bill continued. I was delighted with the energy and patience that my representative, Rene Oliveira from Brownsville, demonstrated as a member of the committee. Over and again he followed up on objections to the law, drawing out the salient points about just how this was bad public policy. Someone spoke about her fear that the community would not call local police as a witness—or a victim—of crime, and how that would ruin good police work. One of the committee members responded, “Well, if they are here legally, they shouldn’t be afraid.” Representative Oliveira responded, “Yes, well there are over a hundred different kinds of visas that allow a lawful presence—which patrol cop is going to have the time to learn all of that?”

Terry Canales, a representative from Edinburg, while not a member of this committee, had also been loud and clear in opposition to this particular bit of legislation. His passion with regard to this attack on our communities appealed to many of those who had come up from the Rio Grande Valley to testify.

SB4 austin 2017IMG_1372One of those liking Canales’ words was a Brownsville neighbor who confided that “I don’t really like this public speaking stuff. This is not my thing. But I just can’t be quiet on this one. It is so wrong. We are not criminals, we are not even criminal suspects…but that is how they will treat us. So I gotta speak my truth.”

Over the past two months there had been loads of speaking truth to power. In the end, however, despite the powerful testimony from other representatives, police chiefs, sheriffs, bishops, physicians, teachers and citizens, the House passed the bill. Not only did the House pass the Senate version of the bill, but they went to the trouble to make it a nastier piece of work, insisting on an amendment that would allow a police officer to ask a child about his or her citizenship.

I believe that speaking truth to power is a moral imperative, but that it also does shape history, in its own way. But the damage done in the meantime by those in power is considerable. Part of this truth that must be spoken must be directed to the nation, to our state, and to the larger community so that these fellow citizens know full and well what is taking place in their names, in our names, in the names of all of us. This said in the hope that they would understand that those who suffer from these decisions have names, too, and have friends and neighbors and allies.

It is clear that the Anti-Sanctuary Cities’ legislation was purely an effort by a majority of the representatives to manipulate their constituents’ fears. There are no sanctuary cities in Texas; the few efforts to push back against cooperation with federal immigration officials was in the name of good police work and had little to do, unfortunately, in my opinion, with a heroic defense of the integrity of those communities which are home to immigrant families.

It is fair to classify the legislators that support this bill as Bible thumpers, for they will bow to the Word of the Lord at the drop of a hat—or at least to those words that happen to suit them and their cause of the moment. If truth be told, and it must be so, especially these days, the Word of the Lord has a lot to say about sanctuary. And while there are long arguments back on forth about just what the Bible means when it speaks about our moral obligations to strangers, it is clear to me that the author of sacred scripture could not countenance the criminalization of entire peoples for the purposes of advancing political careers. To the contrary, there are bushels of blessings and promises of prosperity for those governments that love the orphan, the widow, the hungry, the sick—and the stranger.

Hallowed be Thy Name

0894f-cross02I 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.

 

 

So Much Bigger Than a Tweet

journalist green on thornA friend of mine invited my wife and I over to her home for some wine and conversation with a group of Mexican journalists. The reporters were in town for some workshops on how to avoid being murdered while they did their job. I don’t know of any crazier or more interesting people than Mexican journalists, and we were delighted by the invitation.

Being a reporter is one of the most dangerous legal occupations on the other side of the Texas/Mexico border. This is particularly true if the reporter is covering criminal activities, and especially if an investigation leads the journalist to look at the relationship between organized crime and elected officials. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that more than 100 journalists were murdered or disappeared in Mexico since 2000. Rarely are those murders solved.

This group of journalists was true to form. A mix of veteran reporters and rookies, they were high-energy, engaging people. And of course they wanted to hear what we thought of the changes to American politics since the election.

Mostly, they did not want to talk about themselves, or the risks they faced. I pointedly asked a 24 year old what her parents thought of her career choice. She said, “Well they weren’t that excited about it at first, but then they saw that this was my passion and now they are still nervous, but I think that they understand.”

The most interesting person at the gathering was not a reporter, but the police officer that the group had hired as a security consultant. This big, redheaded man from Mexico City was the first Mexican police officer I had ever had the opportunity to have a conversation with. He had made a career out of challenging the corruption endemic to most of Mexico’s police forces and government entities. I asked him if he had ever gotten threats. He said, “Oh indeed. I published a book basically laying out the corruption amongst the highest ranks of the federal police and had to go into hiding for a year and a half.” I asked him how he knew when it was safe to leave his hiding place. “There was an election and a change of administration. But the new ones were no different than the other ones, so I had to go back into exile. That’s the nature of things now, and that is why I take these kinds of jobs, to be able to earn a little money to support my other project…where some buddies and I go out into the rural areas of Mexico and offer to train (for free) their police officers…they really have no resources, and it is our way to push back against the corruption.”

He ate a flauta and took a long drink from his beer. “You know, the only way things are going to change is for us to attack the corruption on every front. We have to train good police, we need to give citizens reasons to believe that Mexico can be a good place; we need reporters to tell the stories.”

It was a good party filled with good people. No one in the room was going to get rich doing the work that they had decided to do. More likely, some of them would be killed. But, in these times and in this place, this reporting work seems to have become even more important than in the recent past. These correspondents were not interested in simply tracking down stories of corruption, but like the best reporters, they were on the lookout for the connections, for the relationships, for the social threads that have created the tapestry of our lives at this moment in history.

For those of us who live alongside this southern border, this social tapestry is of one piece—the fate of Mexican border communities and Texas border communities are deeply woven together. The plots to create more border walls and to deploy more federal agents to “seal the border” display a disturbing, willful ignorance of this common reality that we share. Any news stories that layout the fantastical, wrong-headed nature of that project are important, now more than ever.

As we took our leave from the party, we ran into one of the reporters outside the house. He was leaning on my car, typing away on his phone. “So sorry, I was editing a story for tomorrow’s paper. We have to keep getting the word out,” he said, as he busily tapped away on the phone’s screen.

Now there is a man in love with his work, I thought, as we drove away. And then I hoped, I prayed, actually, that the policeman’s lessons would somehow help keep him and the others safe.

Ashes in Our Mouths, Fire in Our Hearts

no-arizon-hate-austinAfter the inauguration of the new president, and with the clear signs that he intends to bully immigrants, the children of immigrants woke up afraid. One mother told me that her son came home after school, weeping, claiming that he didn’t want to go to Mexico. His mother, holding him in her arms, told him, “We are not going to be deported. We are United States citizens. You were born here.”

“But mom,” he insisted, “The president is going to deport all Mexicans. I am a Mexican.”

Another woman, an undocumented mother of American citizen children, said that her children refused to go to school. “We are afraid that you won’t be here when we come home.”

It is with this taste of ashes in our collective mouths that the residents of the Rio Grande Valley prepare for Lent.

But, before Lent, there is Mardi Gras! And this coming Tuesday is Mardi Gras, a day in which millions of people across the world will dress in costume, join parades, dance and simply enjoy being alive.

On this same Tuesday, tomorrow, here in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, 150 hardy souls, members of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, will board buses at 2 o’clock in the morning. Members of ARISE and LUPE, Proyecto Azteca and Proyecto Juan Diego, FUERZA del Valle and ACLU, they too will be preparing for a parade—although one quite different from those happening in New Orleans, or Mobile, or Rio de Janeiro.

These good citizens will be headed to Austin, the state capitol, a six to seven hour trip on the bus.

This is a hard trip for working people—the 2am departure means little, if any sleep. Taking a day off from work is a tough thing to manage for the many who are hourly wage-workers. Finding someone else to do all the things that are necessary to keep a family on even keel is yet another ball to juggle in the complicated life that marks the poor person’s lot.

However, this is a community of believers. They are people who share the conviction that all of us are called to live as fully human, truly alive beings who reflect the divine. Most all of these 150 travelers believe all people carry within them this spark of God. These good people share the conviction that many of the proposals that Texas legislators are considering regarding immigrants are laws that, if enacted, would demean, dehumanize, and terrorize many Texas communities and Texas residents. An insult, in other words, to God.

The bills target, specifically, immigrant communities, places like the towns and cities of the Rio Grande Valley. Senate Bill 4, for instance, would force towns and counties to lend their police to the federal government’s effort to enforce immigration law.

austin-arise-01SB4, wrong in so many ways, would fracture the necessary trust between a peace officer and the community he or she serves. The smaller towns in our region, for instance, will find it hard to weather the denial of state grants and the fines that will be levied should the police refuse to become immigration agents. SB4 places the people responsible for the protection and the defense of the community—the police–between a rock and a hard place. If the sheriff takes federal dollars, people with families of mixed-immigration status will be reluctant to cooperate with his deputies. If the sheriff refuses this new job description, he stands to lose a bundle of money. Not that this is an impossible decision to make—Harris County’s sheriff opted to build bridges and not walls when he decided that his department would not cooperate in immigration enforcement). But “being tough on immigrants” is presently a sweet tune for most Texas elected officials. Whether the bill ultimately helps or hurts the well-being of the community seems to be beside the point for those legislators who wrote the bill, who support its passage and who obstinately ignore the harm these bills bring to Texans.

The 150 pilgrims from the Valley, and the hundreds of others making their way to the Capitol, are part of a collaborative effort called Texas Together. Coming from all corners of the state, they will form a chorus of voices insisting upon the rejection of the irresponsible voices of those who mess with Texas’ values of neighborliness, hospitality, and optimism.

This Mardi Gras parade, marching through Austin, will not feature floats or costumes. It will, instead, feature people who carry in their hearts a deep sense of rabia and coraje—rage and guts–and the power of a people whose children will suffer the most when their families and communities are attacked.

Beware the power of those whose children have been threatened.

 

 

 

“Today the Headlines Clot in My Blood”*

todos-bienvenidos

Brownsville graffiti, pre-election: “All Are Welcome”

This past Saturday, while on a quick run to the local grocery store, I ran into Sara.  She had her two youngest girls with her—one a tenth grader, and the other in the middle of her second year at the university. They are her seventh and eighth children, and, like their mom, bright-eyed and delightful to be with.

Sara been married “for forever,” as she put it, to an abusive fellow who was an American citizen. He held her in check with the threat of being able to have her deported “any time he wanted.” Fourteen years ago, however, Sara gathered up her courage, and her eight children, and walked away from the abuse, and headed down the street to our parish office. We helped set her up with housing and counseling. She, for her part, on her own, with eight children and no useful immigration status, created a new life.

not-anymore

Same wall, post election. No more welcomes.

Her older children have grown up and established lives that any parent would be proud of. One is a much sought after computer scientist, another is an engineer, another a registered nurse working in an emergency room, and another a social worker.

As we chatted about her children and how they were doing, I asked her about her immigration status, had she managed to fix any of that. She said, “No, no, I am undocumented forever, I think.”

I asked her if she was nervous, what with this new president and his promise to deport people.

“Of course I am,” she said, “Especially here on the border. You know, the border patrol is everywhere, always watching. But God gave me this family to raise, and that is what I am doing.”

Later on, on that same morning, several hundred people gathered in front of the federal courthouse in Brownsville, within a short distance of the border wall, to join the million and more people from around the world walking in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. The marchers were loud, and in plain sight. Many of them were undocumented, and perhaps, like Sara, nervous, but fearless.

One of the speakers, herself an American citizen, addressed the new president’s threat. “He wants to put up a wall? Well, we have our own wall—a wall of strong, courageous women!”

On this first Monday of a new administration in Washington, the school buses are running throughout the neighborhood, picking up kids for school. Mothers, documented and undocumented, are busily doing all the things that they daily do. I watch two border patrol trucks, one after another, rumble down my street, patrolling the neighborhood. While it is a beautiful, bright sunny morning, I know that there is dark fear inside many of my neighbors’ homes. I imagine that the parents of those school kids are nervously making plans as to how best to raise the family that God gave them.

I like their courage.

But when I read today’s newspaper, my heart hurts and my blood races.

I worry for them.

*(“Today the headlines clot in my blood” from Naomi Shihab Nye’s Blood)

 

Convivencia

cameron-park-posadaA typical conversation along the southern border moves fluidly from Spanish to English, and then back to Spanish again, inserting the word or the phrase that best suits the moment. This is a gift, as there are some things that just do not do well in translation.

I have never, for instance, found a good English equivalent for convivencia, a term which I understand captures the exquisite sense of a deeply  hospitable way of being.Those who have shared bread, drink, or  kindness with someone different than them has known how such an experience enriches life (the stories in Jennifer Harbury’s Bridge of Courage captures the heart and soul of this experience).

Convivencia is at the heart of the border  Christmas celebrations—even in our resource-stretched communities, entire city blocks are lit up as families string lights along their rooflines and in the trees that grace their yards, consciously or not, recalling the star that stood stock-still over the famous Bethlehem inn.

Sometimes convivencia can be a pile of hay and a place out of the cold wind.

This past Friday, families across the Rio Grande Valley here in south Texas began a series of celebrations known as “las posadas”, a ritualized party repeated for the nine days before Christmas. “Posada” means “inn” or “guest room” and recalls the Holy Family’s search for hospitality on that first Christmas.  Typically, two children are dressed up as Mary and Joseph, and, accompanied by a crowd of cheery folks, knock on the host families’ front door. In stylized song verses, the young families’ request for a place to stay is rejected, including threats to beat the couple if they continue to pester the homeowners’ peace and quiet.

In the end, the hosts realize that they had been engaging in a bit of racial profiling, and, as a matter of fact, were not dealing with regular old poor people, but with the Queen of Heaven. Then, of course, the doors to the home are thrown open, and the young couple, followed by neighbors and friends, line up for hot chocolate and tamales, and fill the house with song and laughter. O sea, a bit of convivencia.

00arise-posada-muniz1216_184359On this Friday past, I celebrated my first night of posadas in Colonia Muñiz, an unincorporated community in Hidalgo County. ARISE, a legacy community-based organization, had organized this posada. ARISE leaders saw it as a way of reassuring the community that while the threats from Washington and Austin to immigrant communities are real enough, the families in the local neighborhoods would not be abandoned. To the contrary, solidarity had now acquired a new urgency.

Many of the ninety-odd participants that night had already had first-hand experience that these were not idle threats. The State of Texas has spent more than $800 million to send State Troopers to our region to “secure the border.” In practice, this has meant unrelenting harassment. The state troopers have created a five-fold increase in traffic stops without tickets being issued–fishing expeditions that have made poor people realize that they are being targeted. The presence of border patrol agents parked at the entrances to the communities do not make the neighborhood feel safer. To the contrary, the residents knew that if the intention was to make families feel safer, that there would be, as a matter of natural law, far more agents parked outside the neighborhoods of the very wealthy, and next to none in the neighborhoods of the poor.

I mentioned that observation to one woman, and she told me, “They come after us because we are poor and brown,” and then she chortled, “Just like Joseph and Mary!”

Speakers at the posada reminded the crowd that this racial profiling by federal and state police in our border communities did not take place in any other regions in the USA, that it was something that could and should be changed. But for that kind of change to take place, everyone had to step up and be strong for the community. “A letter to your congressional representative, a phone call to an elected official, your presence at a community meeting—it all matters now. We are in this together; together we will live this out.” O sea, convivencia.

Amongst the seventy or so people that showed up for the posada, there was no royalty, political or otherwise, and neither was anyone there claiming divine status. But there was joy and energy, and that sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves that, down here, we call convivencia.

Anguish

anguishLast week I was helping clean up the small room that serves as a clinic at the Sacred Heart Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. Looking for a broom, I noticed a woman seated in a chair in the corner of the hallway, her ankle monitor plugged into a wall socket. She looked nervous and sad, and so I introduced myself. Our conversation was halting—she was from the Quiche region of Guatemala and Spanish was her second language, as she had grown up speaking her mother tongue.

I managed to ask her how often she had to charge the ankle device, and she looked at me, stricken, and said, “I really don’t know. They explained this part very fast, but the man told me that very bad things would happen if I didn’t keep it charged.”

After a moment she added, “I think that this (ankle device) is for bad people. I am not a bad person. I am an afraid person.”

We spoke for a while, longer, until her anguish seemed to overcome her, and she wanted to be left alone. I excused myself, leaving her attached to the device, and plugged into the wall, and short of breath.

I went outside, myself in need of a deep breath. I was anxious, not because I had an ankle monitor marking me as some sort of criminal, but because I did not have words of comfort for this human being who was clearly in need of consolation.

I did get my breath—a cool front had swept into the area during the afternoon and the air was sweet. I went back inside to find a broom, and get back to work. I noticed that the woman was intently studying her hands as she complied with the directives of Homeland Security to have her tracking device well-charged. As I passed her by, she smiled, wanly, and said, “Que tengas una buena noche.”

I thanked her, wondering at her civility, even in the midst of her own anguish.