church, Seminary

Xela, Guatemala: No more silence

“I got married to be a family together, not to be a single mother,” said the woman.

“I can send you money!” said the woman playing her husband in the play.

“Money isn’t everything,” she replied.

He went anyway, crossing the border after several tries and staying in the United States for too many years.

The story is real and all-too-common in Guatemala, creating the circumstances for many social problems in the country, including hunger, violence, unplanned urbanization and homelessness. Six women of the Presbyterian Church of Guatemala have created a project called Historias de Fe (Faith Stories) in order to share their life experience outside Guatemala and to educate and encourage Guatemalans. On Wednesday, the stories they shared with our seminar were about migration, a topic that touches most Guatemalans.

In one skit, the women re-enacted their experience in attempting to get visas to travel to the United States to visit the theater company Looking for Lilith. One woman was denied a visa, even though she carried the same credentials and reference letters as everyone else. She suspects she was denied because she got flustered when the U.S. Embassy interviewer asked questions about her income. Her answer differed slightly from her paperwork. Other women said it might have been that Spanish is her second language, and she wasn’t as confident. No one is told why a visa is denied; it is the discretion of the interviewer, who might see 100 people a day for three minutes apiece.

“You see people come out, and you know they’ve been denied. Some are crying,” said Marina. “I was almost trembling when I went up. I thought that would happen to me.”

For North Americans to hear this highlights the incredible privilege that comes with a U.S. passport. I have never been detained at customs. As a visitor, I have never had to apply at a consulate for a visa. (My parents did when we traveled to El Salvador in 1993, and someone did my Costa Rican student visa paperwork for me in 2001.) I don’t tremble when I approach a port of entry; I assume they will let me through. If something goes wrong, the most I will have to do is correct my paperwork or pay a fee.

Not true for Guatemalans. They can and often will be harassed and asked the same question over and over, officials “trying to trick” them and betray a desire to overstay their visa, the women said.

Freedom of movement is fundamental to who we are as human beings, and international policies, especially those of the United States, increasingly serves to remove that human right. Migration should not be stopped, but migration forced upon people by economic need or violence, must be stopped, and freedom of movement, exchange of culture and ideas, and trade and commerce must be restored.

I was struck during the women’s skits, which they developed themselves and which are their own true stories, at how similar their project is to The Vagina Monologues and V-Day anti-violence projects. At San Francisco Theological Seminary, women are preparing to produce the Monologues for the fifth year. Participating in the play has been the single most transformative experience of my seminary career. Learning to speak for my body and to recognize and celebrate its sacredness taught me more than anything else what it is to be created in the image of God.

I was telling this to one of the Faith Stories women, and telling her that the play is a bit scandalous but is intended to voice things that women experience but that are kept hidden. “Que callamos,” she said. “That we are silent about. We can suffer internally, and we feel alone. For this reason we need to share.”

That is why the women of Faith Stories do what they do. People who see their stories realize that they are not alone. They can speak.

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church, Seminary

Border and Beyond: A Seminary Journey

Reflecting on Genesis 1:26-27, today the image of God is motherhood. We have heard from a white U.S. pastor and mother who wept as she thought of the fear a Mexican mother felt when she was stopped by police, leading to a deportation order. We have heard from a woman who, at age 6, thought her mother might be dead, killed by a Guatemalan death squad, until her grandmother received a letter sending for her. We have heard a mother housed in the sanctuary of a church, pleading against deportation, describe her treatment by North Americans as amor de Dios, the love of God. She is fighting a lucha bella, a beautiful struggle.

How do mothers behave when their children and families are threatened? That is how God acts, and that is how Christ calls Christians to act toward her children.

My exploration of Central American-U.S. immigration started today. Over the next 10 days I will be spending nights in Douglas, Ariz.; Agua Prieta and Tapachula, Mexico; Quetzaltenango, Xela and other sites in Guatemala; El Limon and San Salvador in El Salvador.

I am traveling with 14 other people as part of a Presbyterian Church-USA seminar called Voices from the Border and Beyond. We are mostly white, mostly from the west coast and southwest U.S. and mostly Presbyterian. We are hearing stories of privilege and power, fear and fighting, social movements and public policy.
Today we prayed to a God “scandalously earthed, poor, unrecognized.” Please pray with us.

(Prayer by Kate Compston in Bread of Tomorrow by Janet Morley)

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church, internship

Let immigration reform roll down like rain

Adapted sermon on Luke 10:1-11 and Amos 5:21-24

I have just completed 10 months of church service in El Paso, Texas. During my last two weeks there, much of my time was spent at an immigrant drop-off site, run by the non-profit agency Annunciation House, to accept and help process Central Americans who have been detained by ICE or Border Patrol on the Mexico-Texas border. El Paso has opened its arms and shown incredible hospitality to thousands of immigrants who are passing through. Churches are accepting donated clothing and toiletries, setting up cots, and cooking meals; volunteers are working all hours of the day and night. El Paso has done what the disciples in Luke 10 hoped for: They have come here like lambs among wolves, and they say “peace on this house,” and El Paso has told them, “peace be with you,” in return.

Four nights before I left El Paso, I was waking up two young mothers and their toddlers at 3:30 a.m. to take their first airplane ride at 6 a.m. They got themselves ready, and as I explained airport security, and who would be helping them through, their eyes got wider and wider and wider. Their eyes filled with tears as they left, and we hugged each other and told each other, God be with you. And their faces told me, “The kingdom of God has come near.” The kingdom of God has come to us. We are looking at the face of Christ in the women and children who are entering our cities with nothing but hope for a life free of violence. And by our actions, we demonstrate Christ’s love to them.

But this is not the end of our obligation. The rest of the nation is watching. When I read the rest of Luke 10, I can’t help but wonder whether many many cities across this country, with its broken immigration system, will be judged. Woe to you cities who have turned away planeloads and busloads of migrants. Woe to you cities who have passed laws inhibiting children from going to school. Woe to you cities who reject the poor and lost.

Christ sends the 70 in this Gospel lesson, into a nation divided by loyalties to the ancient ways of worship and loyalties to the new potential prosperity of close ties with Rome. When Jesus says “the kingdom of God has come near to you” it is not a politically benign statement. He is claiming kingship among priests, elders and governors who will recognize this statement as treasonous, and threatening to the status quo power. Similarly, the prophet Amos, who also announces woe to cities, speaks to the ancient kingdom of Israel during a time of relative prosperity, and during a time of increasing disparity between rich and poor, and a time, he says, of false piety. What good is your pious worship, he says, if there is injustice in your land? God doesn’t care if you didn’t cause the injustice; God cares that the injustice exists. God cares if we have done nothing to point to the injustice or to change it. We are not to view our prosperity as blessing from God in return for our piety; we are to view our prosperity as a tool to bring justice to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner.

Many congregations and volunteers have shown extraordinary compassion and recognized the face of Christ in the face of the emissaries of God who have arrived on our nation’s doorstep. We have shown them the compassion that Christ calls us to. But our job is not over. Our job is to take the role of prophet, to witness to the nation.

“Faith calls us to love, not to fear. Crossing a border to protect and love your family is not a crime. Undocumented immigrants should not be treated as criminals.” ~ The Rev. Susan Frederick, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Phoenix

We must recognize that while compassion is good, injustice still reigns in our nation. It is our job to point out those who reject the migrant. It is our job as witnesses to lobby for swift and just immigration reform and fair trade and labor practices. It is our job as witnesses tell our elected officials, our neighboring cities, our friends, our nation what is happening on our border.
We are offering compassion, kindness, Christian love. Our compassion will be counted as false piety if we do not marry it with a sincere effort to reform our country’s system.

I heard an interview recently with John Fife, former pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. Fife was indicted by the federal government in the 1980s for publicly offering sanctuary to Salvadoran and Guatemalan migrants fleeing civil wars in their countries. Because the United States was participating in the wars in those countries, it wasn’t willing to declare those seeking asylum refugees. The first time breaking the law was a hard decision for him, Fife said. “Am I willing to go to jail for a year or two, in order to save this family from deportation to death?” Fife compared the current situation in Honduras and Guatemala to the situation in the 1980s and 90s. The source of the violence may have shifted to drug cartels and gangs rather than superpower proxy wars but the result is the same: desperation and fear for life. Eventually, in the 1990s, the United States changed its stance on refugees from the Central American conflicts. But only after a decade of advocacy, counter-lawsuits, and civil disobedience by churches and Christians.

John Fife’s story serves to show me that churches and faith communities can make real change if they stand up and speak out for justice and righteousness in our nation. We Christians can make real change happen by acting and speaking out of our faith and not out of our fear.

We must start to view the arrival of a migrant on our doorstep not as a threat to our prosperity, but as a Christ-like addition to our community. Deportations have hit record rates, 32,886 per month, and immigration reform is stalled in Congress. If nothing changes in the next few months, very many of the people aided in this effort of compassion will be deported in a few years, after a court hearing to determine their credibility for asylum. And that determination, frankly, might not be based on the immigrants’ credible fear of returning to their country. It could be based on the arbitrariness of the political climate at the time of their hearing. Is that justice? No.

If all those women and children are deported, what good will our compassion and charity of this summer have been? Christ has blessed us, richly, with friendship and peace. May Christ bless us also with justice, and the will to strive for it.