We walked across the border. The first thing I noticed as we cut through the lines of cars was a man weaving among them. He carried a basket of churros and a three-foot crucifix. It was gory; Jesus had blood pouring down his face. It looked heavy.
This story feels impossible to recount, perhaps because it is so fresh and so complex. It will take months, perhaps years, before I know what it means.
I will start again at the beginning.
Last weekend Dave and I joined a group from Open Door and two other communities on a Learning Lab put on by The Global Immersion Project. The hope of the trip was that we would immerse ourselves in the lives and stories of those living at or moving across the border. That we would seek to understand, not to be understood. That we would listen longer than felt comfortable. And then that we would go home and contend for peace in our own neighborhoods.
We were met at the border by Alejandra and Samuel. Alejandra works with students, Samuel with those living in the makeshift towns along the river in Tijuana. Both live their lives for the flourishing of other people. “Everything I have is by God’s grace,” Ale told us,” and I have to share it with others.”
As we stood above the river, looking down on the concrete channel, Samuel told us of the people who used to live there. It was a place of desperation. Most of those living at the river were addicts. Yet there was hope – Samuel built ten raised beds and taught ten of the residents to garden. Afterward, half of them were able to get off drugs, hold down jobs, and reintegrate into society, but the project ended. Mexican authorities cleared out those living there for the sake of appearances– it might be a turnoff to US American tourists. Samuel had not yet been able to find out where the people were taken. Ale spoke of the inextricable links between US and Mexican histories: “You can’t understand the story of one without the other. Here, you can’t ignore it, because you are living the consequences. There, maybe you can ignore it, because you are living the benefits.”
That afternoon we went to Casa del Migrante, a temporary home for those on the move that provides shelter, clothing, food, medical care, counseling, and legal assistance. They do all this with no agenda, other than the flourishing of each person. “The human need is always changing, so what we care about is that they are emotionally healthy,” Casa’s counselor told us. “Our job is to help them see the opportunity they have in the situation they’re in, so that they can live the best they can.”
We ate dinner there that night, sharing the table with those staying at the house. The man across from Dave and I had lived in the US for fourteen years and had been deported four days prior. His wife and children were still on the other side of the border. We discovered in our conversation that we had lived within five blocks of each other in our neighborhood in Los Angeles. We had walked the same hiking trails in Griffith Park. We lived in the same place, but not in the same reality; Dave and I lived without fear.
The next morning we met Oscar, who worked with the YMCA for many years. Oscar has seen great tragedy and suffering in his decades of work with unaccompanied minors, and yet he smiles with his whole self, radiating joy. In 1986, the US passed a law that gave amnesty to many undocumented immigrants in the US, but the law didn’t account for families. Wives and kids were being smuggled across the border to join their now-documented husbands and fathers by the thousands. Children were often abandoned by smugglers and apprehended; sometimes they were deported in the middle of the night, into the hands of anyone who happened to be on the Mexican side of the border. Child prostitution skyrocketed. Oscar saw all of this happening and began to bring children into his home in the name of his employer, the YMCA. In 1991, now officially supported by the YMCA, he created a home for thirty children. By the time he retired in 2008, there were four homes along the border. Each is still managed by a family who cares for the kids as their own and helps them to reunite with their families. Between 1991 and 2008, these homes served more than 50,000 children.
Then we went to Friendship Park – a beautiful little park on the coast with a massive wall cutting it in half. The US half was open that day, and so families waited there to glimpse their loved ones. I walked along the wall, peering through the fencing, and I cried. What a reality we have created.
The next morning, we went to the US side of the park, but the road was closed because of rain. We spoke there with two border agents and Enrique Morones, founder of the Border Angels. What struck me most about the conversation was the remarkable collaborative relationship the agents and Enrique have developed. The border agents apprehend the people for whom Enrique leaves water, and yet they worked together so that the gate at Friendship Park was opened once this year – only the second time since it was built in 1971 – so that families could embrace.
Where does all of this leave me? These faces and stories surface and resurface in my mind. How do I respond?
The words that came to me again and again throughout the weekend were compassion and surrender. So, for now, I will allow my compassion to grow. And each day I will ask, what am I to do? Each day, I will listen and each day, I will obey. At least, I hope I will.
At the Tijuana side of Friendship Park, Shaun, one of our guides, encouraged us to look at our own neighborhoods, to think about what walls exist where we live, and to consider where we might become bridges. I will end with the poem that I wrote that day.
I stand in a circle of concrete and there is the wall.
Who can cross?
The waves can and the wind and the birds that perch along the line. Even the ants – I watch as they scurry back and forth, and back and forth, one long living line.
Who can cross?
Not the people here, waiting. Not the ones who come with babies to huddle together on both sides, wall dividing. Not her – she can squeeze just the tip of one finger through the iron to where he stands on the other side.
Who can cross?
I lay my body down across the line and the rain falls on both sides.