2018-06-14

Fifteen Years Ago, Out West

Immigration, part 1

It’s been great to have Cindy with us as a ministerial intern for the last two years. Fifteen years ago, I was a ministerial intern. My experience was a little bit different from Cindy’s.

LoraKim and I lived in El Paso then and my internship was with First Unitarian in Albuquerque. El Paso's population was 700,000 people -- three-fourths of them, by Census Bureau estimate, spoke a language other than English at home. From the roof of our house, we could look out over Juarez, Mexico, a city of 1.4 million.

For the internship, I took a bus back to Albuquerque, where I had a bicycle and a city bus system for getting around. In the pre-dawn dark on Wednesday mornings, I’d depart on the five-hour ride to Albuquerque, and after dark Sunday night I’d get back to El Paso for a couple days home.

Every week going up, the bus pulled into a Border Patrol checkpoint. An agent boarded the bus and went through checking papers. Sometimes some of the passengers were taken away. I never had to show any papers – never even had to show an ID. Week after week, month after month, I got this reminder about my privilege. Each week it made me a little sadder.

It was in the 7th month of the internship, when this had been going on every week for more than half a year, when, after one such episode, I fished my journal out of my bag. This is what I wrote:
80 miles north of El Paso
on I-25 headed for Albuquerque
my bus pulls into a Border Patrol checkpoint.
Weekly, I participate in this ritual.
The green clad agent steps aboard.
"If you are a US citizen, state the city and state of your birth
If you are not, show your documentation."
As far as I can see, the green agent and I
are the only Anglos on this full bus.
Border Patrol makes her way down the aisle,
frowning at papers of varying size, shape, color,
sometimes also asking for separate ID, sometimes not.
My head bows under the world's weight upon this spot.
This posture cues me to whispered prayer.
"May there be an end to invidious distinctions
including those based on whether our mothers,
when we first peaked out from them into the world,
were north or south
of a line
a few politicians and generals drew
more than 150 years ago.
May I find ways to help bring
justice from my unjust privilege.
And blessed be all of us on this bus, including the Border Patrol agent,
as we all struggle to realize the fullness of our humanity."
She gets finally to me on the backmost seat.
This week no one has been hauled off.
I look up from clasped hands in lap
For a flicker our eyes meet.
My voice says, "Richmond, Virginia."
This only is asked of me, no papers, no ID.
Pale skin and the right sort of accent clinch it,
if I will but utter the name of a holy city.
Virginia is much farther away than Mexico.
Of Richmond, I know nothing.
We moved from there when I was two.
Doesn’t matter.
What I'm saying with those two words is:
I am on your team, Agent Green Jump Suit.
Never mind Yahweh's call for a preferential option for the poor.
Never mind Buddha's call to live compassion rather than fear.
Never mind the unitarian commitment to the unity of us all or the universalist commitment to universal community.
"Richmond, Virginia," I say, like Peter saying, “I don’t know him.”
Peter denied his teacher, then saw in one dizzy flash what he had done, saw
What I also now see:
We who long to be merely good,
Are revealed, rotten with complicity with the empire.
The world’s brokenness and mine are one.
That’s what I wrote. Looking back, the weekly bus ride on the way to my internship was one of the important lessons of that internship. It showed me my unfair privilege over and over until I began to see it.

A year later, I was at a detention facility for immigrant minors and met Yency. (For that story, SEE HERE.) When the final accounting of my life is to be offered, and the question asked, “Did you answer the call of love?” all I will have for an answer is, “sometimes.” That was one of those times. Something “other” landed at my shores – tired and poor and yearning to breathe free, homeless and tempest-tossed – and LoraKim and I were graced to find within ourselves the capacity to say, “send us this one.”

There was a fear and a hatred in the land. Fifteen years ago it had already been growing for some time, and since then it has gotten worse. As people of faith we are called to oppose it, to answer the call of love, to know our unjust privilege, and to seek ways to exchange it for the much greater rewards of connection and solidarity and siblinghood.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Immigration"
See also
Part 2: Immigration: The Theology, The Facts
Part 3: Immigration, Hospitality, and the Foundation of Liberty

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