It’s about time.
After years, a comprehensive immigration reform bill is set to hit Congress, and it’s rumored that something may actually happen. People have been waiting a long time. For many of the attendees of today’s immigration reform rally in Washington and other rallies nationwide, it’s been too long. Too long.
I started thinking about immigration in 2007, when I actually met some immigrants.
With the support of my church, I traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border with Christian Peacemaker Teams, a group trying to “get in the way” of violence worldwide. We saw the border, and we also saw what was on the other side: decreased job opportunities, high prices for , and thousands of people trying to make ends meet, even if it means a 70-mile walk across the desert to El Norte.
This week, to kick off What I Saw Wednesday, I’ll be posting daily about what I saw on the border. I have no easy answers, not even any political solutions, just stories about Jesus the migrant.
God was there, I was there, and this is what happened. This is what I saw.
The Sonoran desert is an unlikely place for pilgrimage. As I shade my eyes with my hand, I see mesquite, sandy ground, and the odd saguaro or prickly pear cactus. The Santa Ritas rise up on one side of Tucson, two other mountain ranges on two other sides. The landscape, if uninviting, is rugged, dramatic.
A good friend mentioned a few weeks ago in conversation that it’s sad we’ve lost the art of pilgrimage. It feels right to be here during Lent, I think. To travel to the desert, where the Israelites traveled for forty years, where Jesus fasted and was tempted.
My delegation is comprised of super-activists, and me. One travels to Guatemala in the summers to immerse his family, including his Guatemalan adopted son, in the culture and has recently become a stay-at-home dad in order to devote more time to his ministry of hospitality to undocumented immigrants. Another lived in Chile as an exchange student before she was seventeen and later worked in Nicaragua with women’s groups and in D.C. educating children about domestic violence. A pastor worked with MCC in Central America at the Guatemalan Mennonite seminary. Another pastor currently does workers’ rights workshops with the large Hispanic community in Michigan where she lives. The leader of our delegation worked on the border for over twenty years, starting with work with the Central American sanctuary movement in the ‘80s and continuing with leading tours of college students and church groups, to show them the realities of the border.
On the first day we’re together, our leader, Rick, asks us to share about why we are there in the “borderlands,” our hopes and fears for the trip. I blush. I feel like sitting on one of my feet or hugging my knees to my chest like I did in college when I felt like I was sitting and learning from others around me.
“I feel like I’m cheating,” I say. “I honestly don’t know that much about the border or immigration in general. I feel like I’m here just to soak up everybody’s wisdom and learn to see Jesus in the people down here.”
Jesus is always making audacious claims, but maybe this is the most shocking. In one of his last parables, he spins the story of what it will be like when he stands in the center of a crowd of people at the last judgment. He claims he’s met them, all of them, though they don’t recognize him. He tells them all that he has come to them in the guise of beggars, prisoners, and strangers. “Truly I tell you,” he tells the shocked mob, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
When you see the forgettable people—the homeless man in the plaza, the young waitress who has four children and is expecting a fifth, the shabby looking Mexican man hiking seventy miles through the desert—it’s just like you’re looking at Jesus himself.
Maybe the places of pilgrimage are not where Jesus walked: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Samaria. Maybe they are the places where he walks now.
Where Jesus, the Honduran leaves his hometown and sells all he has to jump a train to Mexico, hoping to pass into the U.S. Where Jesus the Guatemalan or Salvadoran walked in the ‘80s, hoping to escape violence and threats and find sanctuary over the border. Where Jesus the father of two in Mexico pays money to a coyote (smuggler) to get him safely to Phoenix or Tucson, from where he can take a bus to California or Georgia and make enough money from tomato or onion picking to send home to his children.
At first glance and even second or third, the border seems a God-forsaken place. Hundreds of miles without water, without green vegetation other than cacti, without a blade of grass. The only traffic is Border Patrol vans and trucks, unmarked vans with government plates that transport the 6,000 National Guard troops from Tennessee and other states stationed in Arizona, and the vehicles carrying the Marines, who are also here.
The only green here is the green of the wall being built at the cost of millions of dollars a year, in the hopes of “securing the border” and “holding the line.”
But perhaps the most forsaken places are also the holiest.
As I stare at the landscape, I see the tiniest bit of color: a small pink shirt lying by a mound of water bottles and electrolyte drinks. And I think that maybe this place is holier than all the churches in the suburbs.
Here is where Jesus hungers, thirsts, and wanders looking for a place to lay his head every day.
This post is part of a series, Jesus the Migrant. I am posting seven blogs about my experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border in 2007. I hope you’ll journey with me to the other side of the border.
Read the other posts in the series here: