Border trip - Days 1 & 2. Remember how I said at one point I was most concerned about my flights with the shutdown? So it took 2 days instead of one. My original flight was delayed several hours due to maintenance (thank GOODNESS there are still enough staff to actually do that!), but it cost me my connecting flight in Dallas. American Airlines blessed me with lovely shelter at a hotel for the night. So, instead of sleeping in this morning to get a good start for the week (which starts with training all day tomorrow), I was up at 4:30 AM to catch an early flight to San Diego! Pilots are all flying without pay, so I tried to thank each one on my flights. TSA folks also. They are ordered to, with the consequence of losing their jobs altogether if they refuse. It didn't take much to break through the "typical" TSA sternness, and get a few of them to smile or even laugh. I decided that was my ministry in transit to the border! As we so often say when faced with annoyances: if this is the worst thing I have to deal with, my life is pretty darn easy. I'm eager to see what tomorrow brings!
Border Trip - Days 3 & 4. Training yesterday with roughly 20 other volunteers spanning races, genders, ages, denominations/religions. This is the last week of the 40 day, 40 night Sanctuary Caravan effort. So, SO encouraging to see/meet younger adults -- bright, strong in faith and love of the teachings of Jesus, full of energy and commitment to serving our Friends as they would Jesus, who was, himself, a refugee as Mary and Joseph took flight from governmental violence directed against him. Learned a lot about how U.S. immigration laws have been so convoluted, or even ignored, as to make entering the country so incredibly confusing and difficult (particularly if you are of brown skin) that the process itself is traumatizing.
Many of our Friends are being actively hunted down by the gangs which virtually run entire communities based on extortion, burning down homes and businesses, and death or threats of death to those who do not cooperate -- gangs which oftentimes include police/government officials. To that end, we are not allowed to take ANY pictures of, or name the people, the shelters, border agents and military personnel because it increases the danger many of our Friends are in.
The people doing the on-the-ground work here, whom we are assisting, are amazing. You can imagine
the logistical and administrative nightmare this can all be, coordinating with other similar groups, managing so many people coming and going daily (Friends, volunteers), doing all the legal paperwork, and keeping everything organized. The place I'm working at today picks up people who have been approved to apply for citizenship and/or released from detention. So ICE sometimes delivers Friends to this shelter or the shelter picks them up, brings them to the shelter where they are first looked over (and treated, if necessary) by volunteer docs and nurses, legal paperwork is done, showers are taken (oh the luxury!), phone calls to loved ones (in home country or here) are provided (very emotional), meals are served and cots are provided. Children have an indoor playroom and play area outside in a limited space. The idea is to get them on their way to their final destination asap/within 24 hours, because there is always another large group coming in the next day. 92 men, women, and children came in today alone. 80+ yesterday. This is all absolutely legal.
They still live with a lot of fear; and, even though they are here now, they have learned to be afraid even here. Seeing moms today in ankle monitors, which are otherwise used in the U.S. only for criminals, as they read to or played with their beautiful and very innocent children, crushed my heart. Since the monitors are a symbol of criminality, that is easily what people assume about them – even though
migration/immigration is both an international and national right, by law; NOT a criminal act.
I got to play with some of the children for a couple of hours and y‘know what? Kids are kids, no matter where they were born and what language they speak. And what did some of the grade-school aged children want to do for play (because that’s what it was for them)? Practice saying and writing the alphabet and numbers up to 100 in English. They are bright, these young ones, and will very likely be helping to teach their parents English, and many social customs they will pick up from other children.
The littler ones were happy coloring, playing restaurant and serving up intriguing “meals,” etc.
These Friends were expecting "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." That's not what they and so many other immigrant groups throughout our history experienced upon arrival. I, and so many others, so strongly believe it is our privilege to put skin on Jesus’ powerful teaching: "As you have done/not done it for the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you have done/not done it for me."
Border trip - Day 5.
Spent the afternoon and evening at the shelter again. Packing family backpacks with clean clothing for each member (according to their sizes), toiletries (including diapers for babies), and clean underwear; playing with children (five 3-6 year old girls and I "choo-choo trained" around the front yard stopping wherever there was a person or persons sitting or standing and asking if they wanted a Coke Cola ( they insisted I be the engine!), watching a DVD of Winnie the Pooh in Spanish; escorting families to the showers (imagine the looks of delight, even joy, on their faces -- a SHOWER!) and to dinner... whatever needed to be done. All the volunteers are initially assigned certain jobs, but often you end up doing whatever is needed if your particular job finishes up early.
I have found that a good-sized smile and "Bienvenidos!" ("Welcome!") greatly brightens the faces of even the most anxious-looking people (which is most of them, of course). One young girl -- 10 or 12 years old? -- came out the tent where docs and nurses were treating those with head lice. They rub and massage it in so tenderly... This young girl came out with the stinky stuff on her hair and a poorly fitting clear shower cap on over it, looking just miserable. I touched her shoulder, looked her in the eye, and with a twinkle in my own said, "Que bonita!" (How pretty!). She just stared at me for a few seconds like "Whaaaat?" and then we both giggled. A simple gesture, just to take a little shame away, brings such joy in both the giver and the receiver (who by her response gave joy abundantly back to me!).
It is important to recognize that our guests not only have a lot of needs, they have so many gifts, so much to give and teach us as well. They have been terribly victimized by the immigration process -- remember these are people who are trying to LEGALLY enter the country -- but they are so much, much more than victims. It doesn't take much effort to see the image of Christ in each one of them and to relate to them accordingly. And, as always, the littlest ones are just soooo precious!
That means none of the volunteers are "heroes" coming to the rescue of "victims." I say again: as Christians (both ourselves and them, who are coming from overwhelmingly Christian countries), these folks are not "aliens," "illegals," certainly not "invaders." They are even more than our "friends." As
fellow-Christians, they are FAMILY, brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. We welcome them to the U.S. as we welcome our own families into our homes.
Border Trip - Days 6 & 7. Friday I spent most of the time working with people who were in charge of clothing donations and distribution. I don’t know how many weeks many of them had been there, but they were some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met, and a hoot to boot! As with the other aspects, this work is also a sizeable organizational challenge and, while sometimes one or the other would get cranky (who could blame them?!), they were “push forward, no matter what” type of folks, fun and inspiring to work with.
My last day was unforgettable. In the playroom with a bunch of kids (ages 4-12 or so), several of the boys (ages 5, 7, and 12) and a tiny little girl wanted to practice writing and pronouncing English letters and numbers. So as I wrote them on a small white board propped up on the floor against a wall, this little girl popped up and stepped over to me and asked me a question – her face maybe 12” from mine. I didn’t understand (my limited Spanish!), so she asked again – and she looked at me like “How can you NOT know what I’m saying??” Then, she seemed to freeze. She kept staring at me, no blinking, no movement whatsoever, her face totally blank. I asked “Está bien?” (are you ok?). Nothing. I asked again, “Está bien?”. Nothing. The boys looked a little concerned, but just shrugged their shoulders, and remained very patient and quiet. Then she turned her face away from mine a bit, and stared off into space. Suddenly, her eyes opened up like saucers and a look of absolute terror came across her face. I don’t know what she was “seeing” or remembering, but again she didn’t move and just remained standing there looking terrified. I stretched my arms out toward her and quietly said, “Ven aca?” (Come here?). Nothing. I moved my arms a bit closer. “Ven aca?” Nothing. I gently placed my hands under her tiny arms and, saying “Ven aca?” again, pulled her gently towards me and lifted her onto my lap. She curled up like a little ball and buried her face into my neck, as I nuzzled her head with my cheek and kissed her, whispering, “Está bien. Está bien.” (It’s ok. It’s ok). The boys remained quiet and patient. After a few moments, she raised her head, looked at me again, got down off my lap, and walked as if sleep-walking to the room across the hall (dormitory) where her mother was. She is 4 years old. That’s the last I saw her.
Border Trip: Day 7 After the very moving/disturbing experience with the little 4-year old seeming to have a vivid flashback to something which frightened her terribly, the boys and I continues practicing English letters and numbers. After just a few minutes, I realized that some of the dads who had stepped in to check on their kids, had fully entered the playroom and were standing behind their kids, participating in what we were doing! After a few more minutes, a mother entered and joined in. Only problem was that the little room was now packed so tight it was getting hard for the other kids to play. So one of the shelter staff people came to the door, saw the neat thing that was spontaneously going on, and said “Vámanos!” (Let’s go!) He led us to an actual classroom, empty for the moment, with a huge white board mounted on the wall. Dads, kids, mom all found a place to sit, and we kept going, now with words and phrases. I tried to think of words/phrases that might be particularly useful to them (like “abogado” – lawyer). Then a few began to ask how to say words like “Dios” in English (God), “orar” (to pray), “Iglesia” (church), “En el nombre del padre, y del hijo, y del Espíritu Santo” (in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”). Thankfully, I had the Google Translator app on my phone so I could check out words/phrases I couldn’t remember from waaaay back in college! They stayed for at least a half-hour. We laughed a good bit between them trying to speak English and me trying to speak Spanish. By then, lunch was being served. I left printed on the white board, top/center: "For I know the plans I have for you." declares the Lord, "Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Biblia, Jeremia 29:11.
An hour or so later, many of them were out in front playing outside – again with a few parents supervising. My shift was over, and as I walked out the door and along the front of the building where they were playing, I heard, “Adiós Joan!” (That hard “J” is a bit difficult for them to say). I, of course, got all choked up but called back, “Adios, amigos! Buena suerte!” (Good luck!) So hard to leave, knowing I could just go back to a comfy hotel, then hop on a plane the next day to return to a comfy and safe home.
These friends are my extended family in Christ; not by anything I or they did, but by what Jesus did/does -- "For he is our peace; in his flesh he has joined [us] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us." Ephesians 2:14.
They are your family, too.
They are your family, too.