I’m in El Paso because there is a crisis of humanity here. I am here to pay witness to the clashing of human values-both divine and evil. I’m here because I have longed to come here since seeing and reading about and hearing about children in squalid conditions in our detention centers. Then the invitation came to Rev. Dr. William Barber. And he shared the invitation with clergy and moral leaders around the country. It validated my instinct. And so I am here.
We had church tonight in preparation for our action tomorrow. It was stunning. And it made me understand when Dr. Barber talks about “moral fusion direct action”. I had gotten most of that before. But “fusion”? Yes. Because the church we had tonight was godly without being specifically Christian. It was Christian AND Unitarian AND Jewish AND Muslim. We fused our most common and central teachings discovering a unified chorus of righteous indignation at the crisis at the border.
There are great Muslim friends of our family. They were present for our first-born’s baptism. In describing them to others, I got into the habit of saying “we may not be of the same religion, but we are definitely of the same spirit”. That’s what tonight was like: people of various backgrounds gathering in common concern. So we began by singing “This little light of mine”. We heard first hand accounts of people who had experienced various injustices at the border. Two fellows fled Guatemala only to be detained for extended periods in the US. A woman watched her dad deteriorate in an ICE detention center. We heard from a Rabbi, a Unitarian minister and Imam Suleiman, who initiated the call to Rev. Barber. What was great was the sharing of our traditions, not the shirking of them for some polite veneer of politeness. Turns out when you share what is most deep in your spirit, others will do the same.
There was also some great missional theology. These concepts that we had talked about in the US-2 program and at the GBGM 20 years ago were lived-out today. One of those tenets is to look for the power within the local people. It’s clear that we are here to add witness to the work being done daily by locals on the border. The local activists are doing amazing work. Another tenet is that to receive the giftedness of the locals is an act of grace and service in itself. Too often mission theology begins with the material blessedness of the missionaries. To receive the blessedness of the locals is to acknowledge their agency and their inherent dignity. And so, Dr. Barber and others went across to Juarez to a refugee camp there. They met a mother and her 3 year old son. The son is an American citizen; she is not. She has been denied asylum. Her choices are to give her child to Americans or to stay in a refugee camp. She has decided to stay. So her child, a fellow-citizen is denied the blessings of this abundant land because of our countries heartlessness toward his mother. In traditional, colonial mission relationships Dr. Barber would be the one to pray for her…to not only be the one with stuff she needs, but the one God is listening to. Perhaps as evidence that God “lifts up the lowly,” the mother arose at the end, laid her hands on Rev. Barber and the entourage and prayed for God’s blessing upon them. Which brings me to the last two items.
A common theme throughout the evening was the call to soften our hearts. We had a Jewish cantor come and share a chant. She shared Psalm 130: “Out of the depths, I call to you Lord. O hear my voice. Hear my voice.” She taught that once we hear the stories of others calling out of the depths, these stories become a part of us. We have a moral obligation to carry these voices with us. Imam Suleiman was more blunt. “I’m sick of seeing children who have forgotten how to smile!” We cannot become hardened to the stories of atrocious conditions. One of my abundant privileges is the ability to rationalize my cold-heartedness. I chalk it up to introversion, pastoral professionalism, compassion-fatigue, etc. But more than once we were asked to cry for the broken-ones around us.
The last item is the most provocative. But we must remain provoked to fight complacency within. So the moral was made very clear that the treatment of immigrants at the border is an indictment of us. Rev. Barber started in on this seemingly ridiculous aside story about his dogs. He was kind of joking with Bishop Carlton Pearson who was present. Then the point became clear: Dr. Barber brushes his dogs’ teeth. He brushes their hair. He provides them good food and a luxurious place to sleep. He cleans up their feces. How can it be that we are treating children worse than a man treats his dogs? Any claims about the criminality of immigrants, aside from being untrue, would pale in comparison to the systematic dehumanization of children being done in our name with our money. The Unitarian Minister Rev. Dr. Robin Tanner asked, channeling Langston Hughes “Who will America be?”
El Paso feels like the arena. It’s taken me a long time to understand my desire for being there. It’s about doing the tangible, the incarnational. It’s about putting into practice my baptismal vow to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves”. We are prayed up. And Moral Monday begins early in the morning.